American Character(s), British Lingo, II

Not long ago, I described some examples of an American character in a novel by British author William Boyd who uses Britishisms. The same problem, writ larger, occurs in the new novel Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved to England at the age of five and is strongly identified as a British author. Klara and the Sun is a science-fiction novel set in what’s strongly implied, if not outright stated, as the United States. And in a recent interview, the author confirmed that the U.S. was the setting. I enjoyed the book (though not quite as much as Ishiguro’s somewhat similar Never Let Me Go), and I don’t want to give away anything of the plot, so I’ll just say that the narrator is presented as an American.

I’ve learned after all these years that the differences between American and British language are very many and often very subtle, and thus it’s extremely difficult for an American to provide 100% convincing dialogue for a Brit, and vice versa. Klara and the Sun proves the point. Even after Ishiguro’s own efforts, and those of the book’s editors, I found all these Britishisms emanating from American characters:

  • “It’s not enough just being clever” (instead of “smart”).
  • “… smart-looking” (as opposed to “cool-looking” or “good-looking”).
  • “the animal carried on making its noise” (as opposed to “continued” or “went on”).
  • “Josie always visited her en suite before retiring to bed” (as opposed to “bathroom.” I’m not sure about “retiring.”)
  • “… foldaway chair …” (I assume this is what we would call a “folding chair.”)
  • “… these were slightly different to the ones outside our store”( as opposed to “different from” or “different than”).
  • “There it was, throwing out Pollution from three funnels the way it had always done.” (Americans would say “the way it always had.”)
  • “I want to take Josie out for a coffee and cake” (as opposed to “coffee and cake”).
  • “For a while she was keen on a German car…” (as opposed to “had her eye on” or “had her heart set on”).
  • We’ve time to kill” (as opposed to “we have” or “we’ve got”).
  • “This turning” (as opposed to “Turn here”).
  • If I’m honest…”
  • “Chrissie will come and collect you in half an hour” (as opposed to “pick you up”).
  • “… the plastic mineral water bottle” (as opposed to “the plastic water bottle”).
  • ” … on the day …”
  • “Atlas Brookings [a school] –now Rick no longer wished to go there — was rarely mentioned.” (Americans would insert the word “that” between “now” and “Rick.” This also showed up in the Boyd novel.)
  • hire driver.” (I think that’s the same as “taxi driver” but in any case we don’t say it.)
  • Give that a go, Klara.”

Now, you’ll notice that there are links to NOOBs posts on a number of examples. But except for “give it a go” or (maybe) “a coffee” I don’t think they are common enough in the U.S. for the characters in the book to use them.

Clearly, British novelists need someone to vet the dialogue of their American characters. I am available.

“Gobsmacked,” Revisited

Back when this blog began, in the very early days of 2011, the entries were short: a definition, a couple of citations from American sources, and a poll asking readers if they thought the term in question, in an American context, was “Perfectly Fine,” “Borderline,” or “Over the Top.”

Naturally, I started with the low-hanging fruit: British expressions that had firmly and unquestionably taken home in the U.S. And one of them was “gobsmacked,” a slangish term meaning (the OED says), “Flabbergasted, astounded; speechless or incoherent with amazement.” The etymology is “gob”=mouth and “smack”=smack, that is, something so surprising that you strike yourself in the mouth. And by the way, the poll results were 46 percent perfectly fine, 19 percent borderline, and 35 percent over the top.

Filling in the picture a little bit, the word comes from Yorkshire. The OED has a citation from 1935 but in 1980, politician Roy Hattersley, a native of Sheffield, wrote this sentence, which suggests it still hadn’t achieved wide currency: “It was his dazzling display of simultaneous social and intellectual sophistication that left me, in the patois of the place whence I came, ‘gob-smacked’.”

Neatly, Google Books Ngram Viewer shows sharply increasing popularity in Britain starting precisely in 1980.

As the blue line shows, American use started going up in the 1990s and is still quite robust. The New York Times has used the term fourteen times in 2021, most recently in a review of a play about Henry James and Edith Wharton, where they are depicted “as giggling, snarking, gobsmacked adolescents.”

This all comes up because I recently got an email from a reader named John Hicks:

“In Rebecca Donner’s (excellent) book ‘All The Frequent Troubles Of Our Days’ — a factual historical account of German resistance groups in Nazi German — she tells us on page 278 that:

“[US Secretary to the Treasury] Henry Morgenthau had long ago concluded that the reports the diplomats and attaches in Berlin dispatched to Washington were nearly useless. He didn’t want summaries of newspaper articles or street gossip. He wanted numbers. He wanted facts. He wanted feet-on-the-ground intelligence, and he was gobsmacked that he couldn’t get it.”

“I was quite gobsmacked myself to learn that US government officials were getting gobsmacked in 1937. “

Indeed.

The Taliban Are Plural

This is a (rare) timely post for the blog, and I wish it weren’t keyed to a somber occurrence, the Taliban’s taking control of Afghanistan. But it is, and that turn of events has been accompanied by headlines such as this.

Note the verb” “control” rather than “controls.” Wes Davis wondered if this was an example of American adoption of the British style of singular plural verb for collective noun, such as “Parliament have adjourned” or “Chelsea are expected to win today.” [Note: As commenters have pointed out, I was apparently wrong in saying that “Parliament” frequently, or maybe ever, takes a plural verb. A better example would be “the government are,” which I wrote about here. That post also contains links to previous discussions of this issue.]

The answer to Wes’s question is, in a word, no. Or mostly no. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary describes “Taliban” as a plural noun and explains: “Pashto & Persian ṭālibān, plural of ṭālib student, seeker, from Arabic.”

Recognizing this, the Associated Press and National Public Radio treat the word as plural. I don’t have access to the New York Times style guide but judging by this headline and other examples, that paper appears to follow suit.

Google Books Ngram Viewer, working from a broad database of printed sources, shows that in America, the plural and singular were roughly equal until about the year 2000, when the plural form began to gain some separation.

Now, is that increased popularity a result of the NOOBs phenomenon? It’s impossible at this point to say, but it’s nice to think so.

American Character, British Lingo

I’ve noted in the past examples of British writers (unwittingly?) putting Britishisms in the mouths of American characters. Actually, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often, as well as the opposite case of American writers having British characters utter Americanisms. There are so many big and small differences in the dialects: how can we possibly be aware of every case where our friends across the pond say it differently? An example that comes to mind is British “driving license”/American “driver’s license.” If I were writing a novel and didn’t happen to be obsessively attuned to such things, I would certainly have a British character say “driver’s license.” A copyeditor (subeditor in BrE) might catch it, but he or she might not.

My latest examples come from a very good novel (in my opinion) called Trio, by the very good English writer William Boyd. There’s an American actress in whose mouth Boyd — I am sure unwittingly — puts two Britishisms in one sentence. He has her describing her role in her current project: “I’m meant to be a famous film star who’s making a film in Brighton.”

Meant to” for this particular connotation of “supposed to” is pure British. And an American would say “movie star” instead of “film star.” Of course, it’s possible that Anny, as a when-in-Rome sort of thing, has adopted these expressions, but that’s pretty subtle (and there aren’t any other ones).

I was at first going to accuse Boyd of another slip. At one point, this character, Anny, says, “Now I have the money. Everything’s fine.” I initially read that as one sentence: “Now I have the money, everything’s fine.” Americans would say “Now that I have the money…” but a British locution (which Boyd’s British characters all use) leaves out the “that.” However, Anny’s dialogue, in two sentences, is two separate thoughts, and perfectly American. So we’re good.

And full marks to Boyd for having Anny say “cookies” instead of “biscuits“!

Note: As a commenter pointed out, I was not strictly correct in describing William Boyd’s nationality. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

“Boyd was born in Accra, Gold Coast, (present-day Ghana),to Scottish parents… His father Alexander, a doctor specialising in tropical medicine, and Boyd’s mother, who was a teacher, moved to the Gold Coast in 1950 to run the health clinic at the University College of the Gold Coast… In the early 1960s the family moved to western Nigeria… At the age of nine, [Boyd] went to a preparatory school and then to Gordonstoun school in Scotland, and, after that, to the University of Nice in France, followed by the University of Glasgow,…and finally Jesus College, Oxford.”

He currently divides his time between London and a farmhouse in southwest France.

The “Peppa Pig” Effect

I have never gotten more NOOBs-related emails and messages than the ones generated by an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on July 18. I believe you need a subscription to read the whole thing, but here’s a recap that appeared in The Guardian the next day.

The upshot is that an animated British kids’ TV show, Peppa Pig, has become so popular in the U.S. that many little kids are uttering Britishisms in plummy accents. A California father reports that his “daughter calls the gas station the ‘petrol station’ and cookies ‘biscuits,’ and when he’s holding a cup of coffee, Dani asks him, ‘Are you having tea now?’”

A Seattle mother attracted more than 10 million views with a TikTok video of her Peppa-obsessed daughter, who, she reported, “speaks in a fully British accent at all times.”

One thing I found interesting about the article and phenomenon is that only one of the examples are actually NOOBs. That is, adult Americans have not adopted “biscuits,” “petrol,” “telly,” “water closet,” or “power cut.” The exception is a word the little girl uses in the TikTok clip: “How clever!”

The Guardian article has in its headline a real live NOOB: “Having a go: US parents say Peppa Pig is giving their kids British accents.”

Americans do indeed use “have a go,” and I never realized it was of British origin, though I probably should have (done). Watch this space for a further investigation.

A Double Dose of NOOBs from Garner

New York Times book critic Dwight Garner is always worth reading. He has excellent judgment, he’s widely read, he’s always ready with an apt and toothsome quotation (in fact, he’s published a book of his favorite quotes), he comes up with great metaphors and similes, and, not least, he’s fond of somewhat obscure Not One-Off Britishisms.

His column in today’s paper has two of them. He quotes the author of the book he’s reviewing (Songbooks: The Literature of Popular Music) as describing novelist Jonathan Lethem as “the greatest used bookstore clerk of all time.” Garner: “Lethem’s eventual biographer should nick that title.”

Later he (kind of fondly) calls the book “an omnishambles.”

That’s what I call going beyond the usual “gobsmacked” and “spot-on.”

“Can’t be bothered”

I sometimes think fondly of the lively discussion engendered by my post on “can’t be arsed,” especially concerning the way the way the expression has sometimes been (mis)heard by Americans as “can’t be asked.”

In researching that post, I encountered “can’t be bothered” as an expression meaning roughly the same thing, that is, being unwilling to do something because it would take too much effort or you are too lazy. The Macmillan Dictionary identifies it as “British informal” and gives these examples: “

“I said I’d go out with them tonight, but I can’t be bothered.”

“She couldn’t even be bothered to say hello.”

Google Books Ngram Viewer confirms the British predominance:

The ascending blue line post-1990 suggests NOOB status. Another piece of data is a 2005 song by country music’s Miranda Lambert:

And just a few weeks ago, this headline, referring to an obnoxious corporate executive who kept a list of employees who he felt were not up to the task, appeared in the New York Times:

N

Now all that said, I don’t believe Americans have as yet picked up on a related expression, “I’m not bothered,” meaning I don’t care one way or another. (“Would you like to go to a Chinese restaurant or a gastropub?” “I’m not bothered.”) Much less inverted and pronounced with th-fronting, a la the comedian Catherine Tate’s catchphrase:

The Case of the Misplaced Britishisms

I’m a big fan of the British author Anthony Horowitz’s mysteries. They’re old-fashioned, in the Agatha Christie vein, but also very clever and also frequently with the self-conscious meta aspect I’m partial to. Like in The Word Is Murder, there’s a character named “Anthony Horowitz” who’s a mystery writer. And a key part of Magpie Murders is a (fictional) mystery novel, the entirety of which is included in the text.

The same thing happens in his most recent book to be released in the U.S., Moonflower Murders. The novel-within-the-novel is called Atticus Pünd Takes the Case, Pünd being the detective main character. Horowitz does a delicate dance with this this text: it has to be good enough to hold our interest, but it’s also meant to be bit hokey — and certainly not as good as his own book that surrounds it.

One particular flaw in the embedded text has to do with a character named Charles Pargeter, who we’re told “had the look of a Harvard professor” and “spoke with an American accent.” He does have a home in Knightsbridge as well as New York. Yet I don’t think that can explain the number of Britishisms Pargeter uses. He says:

“The combination was sent to me by post.” (Americans would say “in the mail.”)

“We were actually at college together.” (Americans do indeed say “college” instead of “university,” but would phrase it as either “in college” or “went to college.”)

“He also got Harris out of bed and asked him if he’d heard anything, but there was no joy there.”

“That horse has bolted, as the saying goes.” (The American version of that British saying is “the horse has left the barn.”)

We’re not told the nationality of Pargeter’s wife, Elaine, but she talks British, too:

“They went upstairs and they also looked round the side of the house, where the window had been broken…. The next morning we had a whole crowd of people from Scotland Yard: forensics, photographers, the lot!”

“Looked round” and “the lot” are Britishisms.

As I say, Atticus Pünd Takes the Case is intentionally not great, but I don’t think the Parmenters’ misplaced language is intentional on Horowitz’s part. I can’t tell you why. In fact, I may have already said too much.

“End in tears”

Today’s New York Times has an article about FInland, for the fourth year in a row, being named the happiest country in the world. The article notes that this is somewhat ironic:

Finns embrace depictions of themselves as melancholic and reserved — a people who mastered social distancing long before the pandemic. A popular local saying goes, “Happiness will always end in tears.”

If you follow the link at the end, it will lead you to an article about Finnish idioms which gives the Finnish version of that one: “itku pitkästä ilosta.”

It reminded me that someone reader Tim Orr had not long ago suggested a post on “end in tears.” The phrase was used now and again in the nineteenth century, for example by a character in George Eliot’s 1868 narrative poem The Spanish Gypsy: “But soon that thought, struggling to be a hope, would end in tears.”

Google Books Ngram Viewer indicates it was used with roughly the same frequency in Britain and the U.S. until about 1920, when British use began gaining. Then, in the late ’70s, it took off as a “catch phrase” in the U.K., often with an ironic cast, and kept rising till 2010.

Toward the end of that span, in 2005, Ruth Rendell used the phrase as the title of one of her Inspector Wexford mysteries.

The chart shows a modest U.S. uptick in the ’90s and 2000s, suggesting NOOB-itude. A New York Times search confirms it, yielding three uses (not including the Finnish one) in the past nine months.

  • “A lot of us have tried to move on, and when we saw the news, it wasn’t a huge surprise. The people who have served on the ground are the last people you need to tell that the war is going to end in tears.”–an American veteran of the Afghanistan war, on the news that the U.S. is pulling out all its troops.
  • “’Why pay a lot for a wedding, and more for the divorce, for something that might end in tears?’ said Ms. Pfefferkorn, 38, a native of the Bay Area.”
  • “I humbly note that naming your smart light bulb ‘Vestibule Hue light two’ will always end in tears.” — article by tech writer Jon Chase.

I’m not sure if it will really take off here. Americans may not have quite enough irony in their DNA.

“From [a point in time],” “works a treat” and “bit” (once again)

Sometimes, this blog writes itself. The most recent falling-in-lap bounty comes via the Wall Street Journal. And before I get into it, I’ll say that this past weekend, the Journal‘s language columnist, the redoubtable Ben Zimmer, has written a piece about the incursion into America of British “jab,” crediting NOOBs with the first noticing of the trend back in December.

Around the same time, Caitlin Ostroff, a Journal staffer, noted on Twitter that the paper’s in-house style memos are now online. She shared this excerpt from one of them:

First of all, on the first word in the heading. There are two terms that indicate a particularly British word or phrase: “Briticism” (first OED cite 1868) and “Britishism” (1879). According to Google Books Ngram Viewer, “Briticism” was more commonly used till the decade of the 2010s, when it was surpassed by “Britishism.” And that’s the one I prefer, hence the name of this blog.

As for “from next month,” I confess I had no idea it existed, but yes, I agree with the author of the memo that it’s not idiomatic in American English. In addition to the alternatives he or she suggests, I’ll add “from next month on.”

The day after Ostroff’s tweet, the always observant Jan Freeman had a tweet of her own:

Again, “works a treat” was a new one on me. The OED has an entry for “a treat,” defined as “so as to gratify highly; extremely well; also (gen. or ironically) extremely, excessively. colloquial.” All the citations are British, including one from Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1954): “The sports ground looked a treat: with big tea-tents all round and flags flying.” The most recent quotation is from the American magazine The New Yorker in 1984, but it was written by the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn: “I knew this floor had life left in it… It’s come up a treat.”

In any case, I bet the Journal style desk is on Dan Neil’s case even as we speak.

As for Jan Freeman’s final question, my answer is, Yes! That is, the British say “bit” where Americans would traditionally say “thing,” “part,” “aspect,” or “dimension,” and I believe I’ve covered it more than any other word, most recently here.

Two days later, yet another American used another British word in the Wall Street Journal–although, to the relief of the style desk, the American was a source, not a Journal writer. Dennis McNally, former publicist for the Grateful Dead, described seeing the band’s wall of amplifiers and speakers for the first time: ““It looked like a spaceship, a giant alchemical sculpture. I was gobsmacked.”