Americanisms: the good, the bad and the ugly


The good ones are indispensable, the bad ones are unloved and the unnecessary are just plain ugly.


What did we ever do without them?  I find myself taking rain checks sometimes.  Years ago I greeted this expression with bewilderment when it was used by an American friend from Chicago.  I had suggested that we might do something together and was confused when he started going on about rain and checques.  His explanation of the metaphor was that a rain check was originally a kind of voucher or credit note that they gave you at baseball matches if rain stopped play.  You could use the check to go to another match at another time.  Until then I suppose I must have said something flat and literal like, ‘we can always put it off for some other time’.  Every language has its unique words and expressions to capture the subtleties of lived experience in a wonderful way.  So, as Robert Macfarlane tells us, in Scots Gaelic there is an expression to describe the phenomenon of the ‘shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day’ rionnach maoim. [i]


Why do I find myself saying that I need to ‘touch base’?  I have only the vaguest notion of what this sporting metaphor might mean.  Other unloved ones are those that have gone into the bank of global English.  For some reason, Russian and Polish people are particularly fond of ‘no problem’.  Sometimes  I hear myself uneasily saying ‘you’re welcome’ and wondering what I used to say before.  I think that when someone thanked me for something I would say ‘you’re grand’ or ‘it’s no bother’ or ‘it’s fine’.  There is something a  bit cold about ‘you’re welcome’ because it draws attention to its own generosity when it shouldn’t be doing so. The person thanks you for a favour or a kindness or a generous act that you have done and by replying ‘you’re welcome’ you are implying, ‘you owe me one’.  Il n’y a pas de quoi, as the French say.  The kindness is an ‘acte gratuit’.  You are not counting the cost.  I catch myself messaging friends and telling them  that I will call them later.  In a pre-Globish age I used to ‘ring’ or ‘phone’ people because ‘calling’ them meant hailing them by name, in the room or the street and not on the telephone.


A personal bugbear of mine is, ‘Can I get a latte/cappuccino?’  To my ears the crudeness of the verb get sounds plain ignorant.  It’s telling the person who is serving you to give you the coffee.  Why not, as we used to say, ‘Could I have a latte/cappuccino please?’  Talking of coffee, who can stand those stupid aggrandizing names for sizes, ‘regular’, ‘tall’ and ‘grande’?  The signifier starts to blur into the signified to such an extent that my aversion to basins of weak dishwater drives me to request a ‘small’ Americano, or increasingly nowadays, to ask for a one shot espresso.  The flat white seems to have been invented by Australians to get around this problem.  It’s a lovely small cup of white coffee, the kind you got in Bewley’s cafe long ago.  Victor Segalen talks of the ‘extermination of words’ going hand in hand with the decline of Maori culture in the early twentieth century.  The ‘new way of speaking’ introduced by the ‘pale people’ means that the islanders cannot express themselves the way they used to do. [ii]


We cannot control the great sea of language.  However, we can choose how and where we swim in it.  People talk of ‘sleep hygiene’.  Similarly we can practice linguistic hygiene; we can seek out beautiful species of expressions and avoid dreck and dross because we are free to mould and shape and add our bit to expression in English.  Awesome was never a very active part of my vocabulary, ossum even less so…  The ugly blandness of ossum is like a big dull watery Americano grande that blanks out so many gradations and distinctions of meaning between brilliant, great, fantastic, outstanding,  terrific, wild, bad, cool, wicked, legend, fab, groovy, amazing. The list goes on.

[i] See also Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words .

[ii] Victor Segalen, ‘Le nouveau parler’ in Les Immémoriaux, p. 27.


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