A recent article on the BBC America website features ’10 Things Americans Say… and What They Really Mean’. It begins with an unpromising generalisation and a gratuitous sideswipe:
When it comes to the spoken word, Americans are a truly baffling bunch. So we’ve decoded their most irritating idioms.
Here’s an example of said ‘decoding’ which, though it may have been intended as humour, seems to me sour and condescending:
When an American shop assistant says, ‘Have a nice day!’ Translation: ‘Honestly, I don’t care what kind of day you have. But please tell my manager I was friendly so I get extra commission.’ Definitely doesn’t mean: ‘I will sob myself to sleep if I subsequently learn that you had a less than adequate day.’
‘Have a nice day’ isn’t always said with perfect sincerity and literal intent, but that’s trivially true of many ritualised expressions. It doesn’t make them unfriendly or hypocritical. Here’s another ‘translation’:
When an annoying American says, ‘Your shirt is so cute!’ Translation: ‘That’s one good looking upper body garment, be it a vest top, a t-shirt or an actual bona fide shirt – with cuffs and a collar.’ Definitely doesn’t mean: ‘I’m sexually attracted to your blouse.’
Each item repeats this unedifying formula: everyday expressions given sarcastic, mean-spirited misreadings. Many rely on what Lane Greene succinctly calls ‘selective hyper-literalism: refusal to understand idioms as such’. Most wilfully ignore context – which, when you’re having a conversation, tends to be pretty central to proceedings. The article finishes by asking: ‘What Americanisms bother you?’*
The BBC has form with this type of cynical provocation. Last year it published an edited talk by Matthew Engel in which he grouches about ‘ugly and pointless new usages’ that he believes entered BrE through ‘American cultural imperialism’. (It had so many errors – e.g. hospitalize is not new, or American, or ‘vile’, necessarily – that Language Log gave him a score of 20% for history. See also Gabe Doyle’s considered post on the implications for journalistic standards.)
I say cynical because this fostering of antipathy towards American culture is a reliable way to generate huge web traffic. Language-inspired feelings are seldom so strong as those evoked by a detested phrase, hence comment sections swell with torrents of transatlantic peeving. The BBC duly followed up with 50 of the ‘most e-mailed’ Americanisms, many of which (to my great lack of surprise) were not Americanisms at all.
I refer the anti-Americanism brigade to this passage from David Crystal’s 1968 book What is Linguistics?:
Very often – much more often than one might think – people make statements about their own speech which are utterly wrong. . . . And a similar ignorance is usually at the basis of an Englishman’s criticism of ‘Americanisms’ in others’ speech, where what is being attacked is normally any usage which does not conform to his own feeling about what is ‘proper’ English, whether it stems from America or not. Few people know exactly which parts of the language have been directly influenced by American usage, and unfortunately they tend to use the label ‘Americanism’ as a general term of abuse.
Briefly addressing the furore, at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I said the purist point of view seems misguided because languages and dialects in contact gradually and incessantly blend and blur into one another. AmE may currently be the most influential English dialect(s), but the influence is not one-way. I’m all for preserving and celebrating dialectal distinctness, but the history of English is fundamentally characterised by constant commingling.
Peeving is psychologically fascinating, if dispiriting. We enjoy it because it lets us blow off steam and maybe sublimate other annoyances and frustrations. Our latent misanthropy is exercised. It’s very natural to take language usage personally, so tangled is it with our sense of identity. Leonore Rodrigues, at As a Linguist…, says language is an emotional matter because it’s ‘largely responsible for representing our thoughts and personalities, our values and beliefs’.
So what to make of geographically motivated word rage? Why do regional idioms and variants so easily provoke all this unreflective hostility? If public peeve-fests suggest to you a kind of tribal bonding based on out-group rejection, you may be on to something. At Language Log a few years ago, Mark Liberman wrote about the mutually reinforcing cycle of ‘social annoyance and public griping’:
Linguistic sins, real or imaginary, are not really what’s driving this process. And the original emotion of irritation, though sometimes expressed in colorful displays of (mock?) disgust and anger, is also secondary, I think. The real key is the public ritual that Christopher Howse called ‘naming and shaming’, which helps the group to converge on a set of norms.
What’s most interesting is often what we tend to overlook, or are reluctant to inspect, such as why we react the way we do to particular sounds and idioms. Most of us have pet peeves, but we can treat them as objects of dispassionate interest instead of poking them perversely like a sore tooth. Or maybe that’s just the scientist in me.
Grant Barrett put it well, on the BBC website, no less: ‘“I hate this word” is not productive but “Why do I hate this word?” is extraordinarily so.’ Your thoughts would be welcome. And do have a nice day.
[image from Black Narcissus (1947) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger]
Update: Lane Greene at the Economist is similarly irritated by the 10 Things… list, and suspects there’s just ‘no one in charge of language coverage’ at the BBC. But he rightly praises a more recent piece there, by Cordelia Hebblethwaite, which is linked just before the image above.
* The following week had a reversal of sorts, titled ’10 Things Brits Say…and What Americans Think We Mean’.