Still More Anatopism!

The English writer David Mitchell’s latest novel, Utopia Avenue, is about a (fictional) late-’60s British rock band who, at various points, encounter (real-life) rock and roll figures. One scene takes place on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where Janis Joplin gives an impromptu performance. After one song, she takes her leave because, she says, “I’ve a session tomorrow.”

I found that piece of dialogue surprising, but at the same time not surprising. Surprising that Joplin, a native of Texas, would actually have said, “I’ve got a session” or maybe “I have a session”; the “I’ve a” construction is a Britishism. But not surprising because I’d already encountered a half-dozen examples in the novel of American characters using British words or phrases (and would come upon at least eight more in the remainder of the book). For example:

  • Gene Clark, on quitting The Byrds: “Now it’s gone, I want it back.” (American English: “Now that it’s gone.”)
  • Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane: “Chalk and cheese.” (A very British expression indicating two things very different in quality or value.)
  • Frank Zappa: “Accidents are often art’s best bits.” (Americans would say “best parts” or “best features.”)

It’s not only rock stars who talk this way. Other American characters in the book use the British terms “spot on,” “hey presto” (all of a sudden), “chop chop” (hurry up), “the chop” (getting fired), “reckons” (figures), “eyehole” (keyhole peephole), “carry on” (keep going), and “the till” (the cash register).

I’ve written about this phenomenon — British novels with American characters who use Britishisms — before, most recently here. But now I have a name for it: lexical anatopism. Anatopism is the equivalent of anachronism, except referring to words out of place rather than words out of time.

It’s not hard to imagine how this sort of thing happens. For both British authors and British copyeditors, lexical anatopism (like lexical anachronism) is a potential blind spot, a Donald Rumsfeldesque “unknown-unknown” situation. That is, they are aware that Americans would say “elevator” instead of “lift,” or would never say “telly,” but there are thousands of other expressions they probably don’t even realize are exclusively British. They just sound normal. Hence they don’t flag or query them when they come out of the mouth of an American character. 

American copyeditors would indeed sense something off, and I’m sure make many changes along these lines. But generally speaking, British books have already gone through the full editorial process before they cross the pond, and therefore often don’t get the fullest level of scrutiny over here. Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House (which published Utopia Avenue) and the author of Dreyer’s English, says, “When we publish a British book, we don’t do a thorough copyedit, unless that’s been prearranged. We do what I call a ‘vigorous proofread.’ Our editors pick up U.K. terms so obscure that even a reasonably Anglophilic U.S. reader wouldn’t understand them, like ‘ginger group’ [a ‘formal or informal group within an organization seeking to influence its direction and activity’—Wikipedia] or ‘Sat Nav’ [for GPS].'”

But “eyehole” for keyhole and “till” for cash register go through.

One might imagine the same thing happening the other way around—that is, British characters in American novels talking in Americanisms. I haven’t noticed it, possibly because I don’t recall reading that many American novels with British characters, possibly because of my own Rumsfeldian blind spot, or possibly because of a point raised by (American) romance novelist and linguistics professor Julie Tetel Andreson: “The influence of American movies and television has brought American usages into English speech—or, at least, this influence has made those usages not as foreign as they once might have been.”

But Andreson says both anatopism and anachronism are problems in Regency romances set in the early 19th century. She reports a couple of pieces of dialogue that are guilty of both sins: “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” and “I’ll bet.”

There are, of course, worse sins against literature than this sort of misstep, but they are nevertheless a bad business. As they accumulate in a novel, disbelief gets harder to suspend, credibility is strained, and the author’s spell, such as it is, begins to be broken. I humbly request a bit more effort by copy desks on both sides of the pond to ensure that dialogue is, well, spot on.

33 thoughts on “Still More Anatopism!

  1. Do we say eyehole for keyhole in the UK? That’s new to me! Could become relevant if you’re going in to have your appendix out and you opt for eyehole surgery…

    1. Good question, the short answer to which is no. The OED defines “eyehole” as any kind of hole that one can look through. Americans would probably use it in reference to a hood or mask but not in these cases that the OED cites:

      1771 W. Ludlam Direct. Use of Hadley’s Quadrant 10 This telescope is..furnished with smoaked glasses in a brass frame which slides across the eye hole.
      1823 New Monthly Mag. 7 270 As if I had been looking at some gorgeous spectacle through the eye-hole of a rareeshow-box.
      1856 E. K. Kane Arctic Explor. I. xxx. 406 A small eye-hole..enabled the in-dwellers to peep out.

      The American equivalent of the way it’s used in “Utopia Avenue,” is not keyhole but peephole. Someone is knocking at the door and an (American) character says, ““Answer, then, but look through the eyehole first…” I’m going to change the post accordingly.

  2. I have a theory about “I’ve a…” instead of “I’ve got a…/I have a…”.
    I first began to hear it in radio and TV adverts of the 1980s or ’90s and I think advertisers used it to squeeze an extra quarter of a second or so of meaning into a brief ad. slot.
    “We’ve some great deals…”
    Although I was aware of it being held up as technically correct elocution, it always struck me as odd and not a part of most people’s usage. I seldom hear anyone in the UK using it except in ad. voiceovers.

    Ben, I don’t understand your reference of ‘eyehole’ as a Britishism for the American ‘keyhole’. In the UK, a keyhole is a hole to put a key in, say, for a lock. An eyehole might be in a ski mask perhaps, but otherwise I have not heard of it.

  3. It sounds even worse when these phrasings are placed in in mouths of real people. It seems almost comical for Janis Joplin to say “I’ve a session.”

    “Now it’s gone, I want it back” is particularly infelicitous, as to American eyes it looks as if the copywriters permitted a comma splice to go through.

    Is till completely unknown in the U.S.? I don’t know if I would use it spontaneously in my own idiolect, but it doesn’t sound as foreign as most of the others. Has NOOB ever investigated this?

      1. Maybe it is specifically the expression “hand in the till” referring to theft/embezzlement. I don’t know if it has genuinely penetrated the U.S. or if I have picked it up from British mystery novels and TV (when such activity would often be mentioned as a potential motive), but it seems less alien to me than most of the other anatopisms. I agree that for an American cashier to casually refer to his register as a till would be unusual.

      2. I think of “till” as an old-fashioned American word, like “parlor.” But maybe it’s not.

      3. I think of “till” as an old-fashioned American word, like “parlor.” But maybe not.

      4. I’ve heard of Americans using “till”, but not quite in the sense you’re using it. When I was working at McDonald’s in the MidWest in the early 1990s, we’d use the word to reference the actual money in the drawer, not the cash register itself. I don’t remember the actual phrases, but they were something like “counting the till” (counting all the money and referring to the transactions to make sure the opening balance and ending balance matched) and “sweeping the till” (“sweeping” is not the right word, but it meant taking a certain amount of cash so that the drawer wasn’t so full). There were others, but they always referred directly to the money drawer; the point-of-sale itself was called the register or the window.

        (Also, as an American hobbyist British fanfiction writer who tries to get things right, I just found your blog and am loving it. This is so helpful! Thank you!)

  4. I agree that editors should work harder on eliminating such problematic expressions but I have to take issue with chop chop being characterized as a Britishism. My grandmother, who was born (in 1913) and lived her whole life in California and never left North America, used that term all the time. I find myself doing so sometimes also, although a bit facetiously.

  5. Re Eyehole, I’m a Scot, and I’m fairly sure I would say “peephole”. An eyehole is (maybe) a hole in a ski mask. I do have a peephole, i’m just not absolutley sure what I call it 🙂

  6. In the USA, a “till” refers specifically to a cash drawer, not a cash register. Pretty much everyone I have worked with in customer service the US “balances the till” at the end of a shift or a work week or such. It is standard accounting language, and has been at least since 1992 (when I got my first customer service job).

    1. This quote from wikipedia is more specific about the till, and corresponds to American usage as I have experienced it: “A cash drawer is usually a compartment underneath a cash register in which the cash from transactions is kept. The drawer typically contains a removable till. The till is usually a plastic or wooden tray divided into compartments used to store each denomination of bank notes and coins separately in order to make counting easier. The removable till allows money to be removed from the sales floor to a more secure location for counting and creating bank deposits”

      1. Indeed. I had a haircut last week and the barber didn’t take cards! The previous week I bought cheese from a street market trader, and he took cards.

        I had a meal with my sister back in the summer and she paid using her phone, which is linked to her cards. This fascinated me so I investigated and this doesn’t work on my phone,

  7. “‘Sat Nav’ [for GPS].” — well, not precisely. GPS is the name of one particular satellite navigation system, while ‘sat nav’ is a general term that could also refer to Galileo, or GLONASS, or BDS, or any other such system.

    This is of course one more example of what seems to me like a much bigger difference: the US love of brand names, and of using them in a generic sense, where the UK tends to prefer generic terms. (For example: ‘Kleenex’ vs ‘tissue’, ‘Sharpie’ vs ‘marker (pen)’, ‘Baggie’ vs ‘(plastic) bag’, ‘Hoover’ vs ‘vacuum (cleaner)’, and so on.) Have you looked at this before?

    (From the east side of the Atlantic, it sometimes seems almost as if Americans consider it their patriotic duty to promote their big corporations and give them free advertising whenever possible…)

    1. GPS isn’t a brand; it’s a US government system.

      And Americans don’t use “Hoover” as a generic term for a vacuum cleaner — but the British do, and even turned it into a verb.

  8. As someone for whom English is not the first language, I’ve a different take on this than seeing it as a misstep. If an Italian, or French, or Japanese novelist, or even essayist or biographer, tells about American characters, he’ll have them speak in Italian, French or Japanese. So while shouldn’t a British writer have them speak in British English?

  9. Are you sure “chop chop” is a Britishism? I just checked the Google ngram viewer and I didn’t see any particular difference in the British and American corpuses for “chop chop” and “chop-chop”.

  10. Even worse is when UK or Australian novels are ‘edited’ to Americanise them, despite not being set in the US or with any American characters. The most famous example is Harry Potter. At least we got to read the original version in Australia; often there is only one version – edited to American English – because apparently Americans can cope with elves and magic, but not English or Australian phrases.

    1. Of course, sometimes it is expedient to change it when the British version has entirely the wrong connotations in the US. A children’s book talking about someone “having a fag” springs to mind.

      I heard a story about the British children’s author Diana Wynne Jones. She was on the phone to her American publishers talking about changes to be made in the US edition of one of her books. They wanted to remove a reference to muesli. “You can’t get it in America,” she was told.

      “Go out of your office,” she replied. “Turn left and enter the second shop you pass and ask for muesli. They sell it.” She had noticed this on an earlier visit.

      1. You are correct to point out the possible confusion over “having a fag”. My school did not have flagging so I was fortunate to neither perform this task as a junior pupil nor have a fag when a senior.

      2. Flagging?

        I always think of fagging as something in Victorian schoolboy stories. Might even have made it into Billy Bunter but I’ve never read any. Always a more upper class sort of thing. Certainly wouldn’t be something at my grammar school in the sixties.

        Having a fag was, however, very common. My mother was a heavy smoker – can’t remember if she ever called them fags.

      3. Assuming you’re talking about smoking, no kids book these days would include smoking, and honestly, in an adult book the context would make it clear. Why on earth would anyone want to only read fiction where there is nothing new at all? I’m expected to understand all random Americanisms, but Americans can’t cope with a few unusual terms and word usage?

        Good on Diana Wynne Jones for pointing out that America has a lot more variety that appears to be understood by a book publisher!

      4. The “having a fag” story I heard many years ago when smoking was a lot more common.

        The Diana Wynne Jones story I heard from a friend who knew her. I had been trying to learn German on Duolingo and one of the exercises was translating “Das Müsli” into English and the discussion about that word was along the lines of we don’t have muesli in the US. When I visited San Francisco a year or two later, I went into a branch of Trader Joe’s and they did stock muesli, although not as many varieties as you would get in a UK supermarket.

      5. re: Fagging – it seems it was banned in Eton only in 1980, three years after the UK’s current Prime Minister first went there, according to this TIME article:
        http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,951513-1,00.html

        The 1968 movie If… by Lindsay Anderson, starring Malcolm McDowell, about a rebellion in a public school has fagging and caning in it. The Wikipedia article on it says “The junior boys are made to act as personal servants for the Whips [upper-Sixth formers], who discuss them as sex objects”, but “act as personal servants” is a link to the Wikipedia article on Fagging.

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