Iworked for a few years in my 20s at the literary quarterly Granta. The magazine had been a very English institution, based in Cambridge, until it was successfully hijacked by a bullish and bearded American graduate student, Bill Buford, who had arrived at the university via Louisiana and California to help edit Shakespeare, and was looking for an excuse to stay on. I became his deputy. As a former linebacker in American college football, Buford was not always the easiest man to argue with, but when it came to questions of written style the British contingent in the office attempted to mount occasional rearguard actions.
Mostly, we followed English linguistic conventions and spelling in the magazine, but on a few issues Buford was entirely intransigent. One of these, our Rorke’s Drift, was the word “aeroplane”. Every time it cropped up in a story – which was quite often since Granta became famous for reinventing “travel writing” – Buford would score it out fiercely, and replace it with the American “airplane” in blunt pencil. Debates over this stubborn incongruity in the mouths of English writers were long and heated, and often carried on into the pub next to the office. Buford’s argument was that the ancient Greek prefix cast a typical British snobbery over what was essentially a thrusting American invention. He scoffed at our effete defences and, as editor, always prevailed.
I was reminded of those failed crusades reading Matthew Engel’s typically erudite history of the battle between American English and its quaint English forebear in the ongoing war of common usage. “It’s time to tell the whole story of this long campaign,” Engel suggests, “from the get-go.”
That story begins in 1533. The first word to enter the lexicon from the New World, was “guaiacum” which, appropriately enough, as it went viral, was the bark of a Haitian tree that was believed to be a cure for syphilis. “Tobacco” followed, literally and linguistically, along with the Spanish bowdlerisms, tomato, potato, chocolate, mosquito and cockroach. These imports were just the beginning, but it wasn’t until independence that the real schisms began.
The prime mover of this split was the mischief-making grammarian Noah Webster, who, asked by Benjamin Franklin to prevent the spread of “Americanisms” in America, and keep close to the mother tongue, did precisely the opposite. Webster argued that if independence were to make sense politically, it should be enshrined in language. Webster believed, Engel suggests, that “American and English would drift apart to become as different as Dutch and German” and he stepped up to the plate to accelerate that process. Webster’s dictionary of the “English language” in 1806 transposed the endings of “theater” and “center”, insisting this was a purer form, untainted by French influence. He did a similar trick with “color”, “honor”, “labor” and “flavor”, not to mention “defense” and “offense”.
Technology of various kinds accelerated the trend. The inventors of that tech were themselves linguistic pariahs: the word “scientist” was resisted until the first world war and beyond as “an ignoble Americanism”. TH Huxley argued that “to anyone who respects the English language, I think ‘scientist’ is about as pleasing a word as ‘electrocution’”. Scientists were only the first movers and shakers however. Movies, comic books, ads, jazz, rock’n’roll, cellphones, email – and of course airplanes bringing tourists and GIs – made American English unstoppable in its reverse colonisation.
Throughout his entertaining history, Engel argues for a stout forward defence against this onslaught of “cool” and “fun” and “you guys”. He believes Brits must dig in against the curveballs of slang that come thick and fast from left field and adopt a stiff upper lip even to apparent no-brainers such as “yeah” and “hi”. He suggests that as we exit Europe and moor ourselves in mid-Atlantic, the linguistic garbage will only pile up. Almost half in earnest, he proposes a Mary Whitehouse-style campaign as first redoubt: “If there were enough Twitter-shamings every time a BBC correspondent said ‘specialty stores’ or ‘life vests’ or ‘appealing the decision’ the number of incidents would decline dramatically,” he suggests. To which the only response seems to fall somewhere between “tell me about it” and “don’t even go there”.