Since When Should We Not Borrow from the Brits?

Something Borrowed, Something British

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Alex Williams of The New York Times thinks America Is on a slippery slope to sounding like the Brits.

Though my daughter loves the language spouted by her mentor at UCLA and I have been amused  by some idioms and colloquialisms I've run into over the decades (like "ladder" for a "run" in one's nylons), I can't say I've much noticed.

As proof of this dangerous tendency to copy language that's not understood by any but Americans immersed in our language from the Brits (or worse!, language that shouldn't be adopted), Alex cites:

·        Daniel Gross, an American journalist, who calls Mitt Romney a "bumbling toff."

·        American sci-fi author John Calzi who calls the iPad "a lovely piece of kit.

·        And the use of "fortnight," which I never consider British other than that almost all of the "American" language came from those islands over there near the English Channel.

Williams, in fact, blames New Yorkers for most of these Britishisms and then proceeds to use a whole lot of them—tongue-in-cheek in the British fashion, I'm supposing. They include relatively obnoxious ones like "crikey." But words like "flat" for apartment and "mobile" for cell phone and "holiday" for vacation are hardly new. A "flat" was a "flat" when I lived in New York in something like…oh, forget it. You don't need to know. And though rarely used these ways, we have used "mobile" for "cell phone" and "holiday" for a little vacation for at least a few decades. There are some advantages to being old. It's easy for us to place things in their appropriate decade.

Williams quotes one American editor of the Oxford Dictionary as saying using Britishisms are only "suitable" when there is no American English equivalent, like the word "'twee" for stuff that smacks of Britishness like Laura Ashley dresses. He cautions against using it on the way to the "loo," because he thinks that is "just being pretentious."

Crikey, I'm thinking. Does one have to use a word that most Americans couldn't interpret before being considered "pretentious?" And isn't it awfully British to consider one darn fun word "suitable" when another is just plain "annoying."

I've been speaking English so long I can't be anything but grateful that we "borrowed" it or that they "lent" it to us back in the early days of Plymouth and Jamestown. Besides,I think "'twee" sounds very Alice-in-Wonderlandish. And I'm wondering where we'd be—how much poorer Disney would be—if we hadn't borrowed that masterpiece along with Peter Pan and Alice's literary cousins.
I think most Americans would say, "the cat has been out of the bag for some time and it's way too late to coax it back in."

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the multi award-winning author of The Frugal Editor ( and Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips for Writers: The Ultimate Frugal Booklet for Avoiding Word Trippers and Crafting Gatekeeper-Perfect Copy ( Learn more about her fiction, poetry, and HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers and retailers at


Heidiwriter said...

There certainly are some interesting terms and I think we're becoming more aware of them with the popularity of several British mystery writers as well as TV shows such as "Elementary."

widdershins said...

Those terms aren't only used in England. A lot of 'em occur in Australia too

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, interesting topic. I hadn't realized there were those who bother paying attention to terms we use. Why should it be important enough to matter, since America is made up of lots of different people and languages.

If something should be criticized, how about "my bad." It's crazy how this term is everywhere, even TV. I've heard newscasters use it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. For a Dutch person who writes in English, do you know how difficult it sometimes is to distinguish American from British? I always try to keep my posts either American or British, but I just know I end up mixing things up.

Like "flat and apartment". I struggled with that. (Thanks for clearing it up though.) Or "holiday" and "vacation". Difficult, too.


Can't you all just learn Dutch?

Magdalena Ball said...

What a fun post, Carolyn. Of course being "bi-lingual" I'm always being reminded (sometimes by my children when I correct their English) that language is forever changing. Of course in England, people tend to complain about the "Americanisation" of the language, but there really is no "the language" as such - today's British colloquialism is tomorrow's high culture. As far as I'm concerned it's all good. If there's a word or phrase that expresses something that couldn't be expressed as well without it, I'll be using it faster than you can say "Jack Robinson" regardless of its origin.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Blimey..what a fun post it is. I think flat is becoming as American as is apartment, especially depending on where you live.

Margaret Fieland said...

I spent a summer during college co-oping in the Netherlands, and I did learn a couple of phrases in Dutch. Dutch is *hard*. Plus all the people my age spoke English. Even my friend's twelve-year-old brother managed, with his sister's help, to make dinner table conversation.

Linguistically, we Americans (citizens of the USA) are provincial.

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