American invasion is hard to resist, innit?
That’s the Way it Crumbles by Matthew Engel Profile, 288pp
OK, here’s the thing. Maybe you like to think that you are a reliable user of the Queen’s English. You give slang a wide berth and never refer to anyone as a “guy” unless it happens to be the fifth of November. You don’t “do the math”, not least because back in your day it was called “maths”. Receiving an email that begins “Hi” makes you squirm, and whenever you attempt to “kick ass” you worry about getting a call from the RSPCA.
Well done, you. Not. For as Matthew Engel shows in this jaunty book, even the most pedantic Britons use Americanisms – words, phrases, pronunciations and spellings, but also that indefinable thing called cadence – 24/7. We can’t help it. Our ears are exposed to an American version of our mother tongue all day, every day – at work, at play and even in the deep cave of domesticity where we binge on Netflix.
Engel is keen to make the point that this isn’t an anti-American book. For two years he was the Guardian’s correspondent in Washington and clearly loves the place and the people, not to mention baseball, Breaking Bad and the work of Philip Roth. It was a love seeded during his 1950s Northampton childhood, a time when America was still a faraway land of slick talk and material plenty, sampled only at the movies or on a neighbour’s Louis Armstrong LP. But what Engel wants now is a return to that state of innocence when it was possible to feel a flutter of excitement at rolling “apartment”, “elevator” or “garāāāge” around on your tongue.
Linguistic purity, he insists, is not what he’s after: it’s difference that interests him, a resistance to the creeping monoculture that means that English now sounds the same, which is to say sounds American, wherever you go in the world.
Like many a nostalgist, Engel is determined to make his demands sound nuanced and reasonable. There was a time, he concedes, when it made sense for Britons to adopt words from the group of people known archly as “our American cousins”. By the beginning of the 19th century, British English had been reduced to a feeble, feudal wheeze that had long lost the knockabout vigour of Chaucer. The Americans, by contrast, were busy minting expressions full of energy and colour to match their pioneering circumstances. So into British English, like an adrenaline shot, came “enthuse”, “greased lightning”, “go the whole hog”, “jackpot”, “pile it on” and, best of all, “vim”.
Naturally, there was pushback in a form that still gets used today whenever someone points to a word they don’t like and accuses it of being a blowin. Even worse, as far as Engel is concerned, is the more general Americanisation of British culture: the narcissism of school proms, the sugar rush of trick or treating, the ugly wastefulness of Black Friday.
But just when he is in danger of conflating too many things, he finds a reason to be cheerful. In the autumn of 2013, the headteacher of a secondary school in south London insisted that her students could no longer use a list of banned words including “basically”, “bare” and “extra”– apparently all part of “multicultural London English”, or MLE.
The headteacher was worried that her students were spoiling their chances at job and college interviews. Unless they could learn to talk proper – talk in Americanised English, in other words – they risked exiling themselves from the modern world. But to Engel’s jaded ears MLE is glorious evidence of a youthful resistance to imported language in favour of something authentic and home-brewed. Never has “innit” sounded quite so close to poetry.