Yes, there is such a term as “Americanism”. It refers to a word in the English language that originated in America and not Britain. Most, if not all, Brits look down on Americanisms as though these words were vulgarisms. Indeed, the BBC News Magazine asked readers to provide the most horrid examples of defilement to the Queens English, and then listed the fifty most common Americanisms, ranked by unpopularity.
The problem? Many of their examples are not Americanisms at all, but examples of British English. Even though the common perception is that British English is more conservative than American English, and resists change, nothing can be further from the truth. While in grammar and vocabulary in many ways American English has stood still, British English continues to evolve.
To cite some examples, in American English the subjunctive mood is still commonly used, while in Britain it is considered old-fashioned. The current jihad against commas (and punctuation in general) has also been led by the Brits–some Americans have foolishly decided to tag along in this ill-begotten adventure.
With vocabulary, the common pattern is for words to have been invented in Britain, brought over to America, forgotten by the British, and then considered vulgarities because they are “Americanisms”. This does not mean that Americanisms do not exist, only that some of the most prized examples of “Americanisms” are actually of British origin.
A search of the Oxford English Dictionary–the undisputed authority on the English language–blows holes in the BBC list. Not all of the examples of “Americanisms” from the BBC’s list can be found in the OED, but here are the ones that are listed, along with their origins:
4. 24/7–American, first used in sports
5. deplane–First used in British magazines
8. fanny pack–American, sadly
9. touch base–Another Americanism, dating from WW I
10. physicality–A British word from 1592
11. transportation (“transport”)–Another old British word, from 1540
12. leverage–As a noun, British; as a verb, American
13. turn (an age, i.e., have a birthday)–Certainly British
14. shopping cart (“shopping trolley”)–American
15. gotten (“got”)–As British as any word can ever be. It dates from at least 1380, and is one of many examples of how British English has grown and innovated while American English is actually more conservative.
17. bangs (“fringe”)–Old and American
18. take-out food (“take-away”)–Canadian origin
19. ridiculosity–British, from 1645
20. half hour (“half an hour”)–British, from 1420
21. heads up–American
22. train station–American
23. alphabetize–First used by Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s father. He was Scottish, by the way.
24. my bad–An idiom first used by American jocks. This begs the question, however: Do jocks really speak English?
25. normalcy–Warren Harding did not invent this word, as it usually claimed–another American did. However, Harding, by popularizing it, made his one and only contribution to the American culture. A sad legacy, to be sure.
27. oftentimes–Good enough for the King James Bible, it should still be good enough for those sniveling Brits. Another word that fell out of use in its home country.
30. alternate (n. and adj.)–Both noun and adjectival usages are of British origin. Alexander Pope even used it.
31. hike (meaning “raise”)–American
35. reach (someone)–American
36. math (“maths”)–American
37. regular (i.e., size)–British
38. expiration (as in “expiration date”)–Good enough for Shakespeare, but looked down upon by modern Brits.
39. Scotch-Irish–British, believe it or not, and of very old origin. In modern English, scotch is a kind of whiskey. “Scots” is preferred when speaking of the people of Scotland.
40. learn (meaning “teach”)–This has been used in British English since at least the 1300s. It may be a vulgarism, but it is not an Americanism.
42. period (“full stop”)–Long ago, everyone know that the dot at the end of a sentence was a period–this was the first term for it in the English language. (It was used by Ælfric of Eynsham in the 10th century when he wrote his grammar.) The Brits have simply forgotten that fact. “Full stop” is of comparatively recent vintage, being first used by Shakespeare.
45. issue (meaning “problem” or “point of contention”)–This barely predates Shakespeare, so he cannot claim to have invented it. He used it nonetheless.
46. “zee” for the letter “z” (“zed”)–British
47. medal (v.)–First used by Lord Byron, later used by Thackeray. We can claim these two men as Americans, if the Brits would like.
48. for free–American
49. already (used at the end of a sentence to denote exasperation)–From a Yiddish word that has been translated into English, an Americanism only because there are so few Jews in Britain.
50. “I could care less”–A truly American creation. Makes me feel proud.
I shudder when some of the above words are used. However, let’s not assume that they are all examples of American vulgarity–there is enough British vulgarity to make any wordsmith sad.
(H/t Anne Althouse)
- Grant Barrett on American English (virtuallinguist.typepad.com)
- God bless Americanisms (bbc.co.uk)
- American words sneaking into the Queen’s English (geneveith.com)
- The British Dislike ‘Americanisms,’ But Unfazed Yankees Could Care Less (newsfeed.time.com)