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. “


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.

“Have a go”; “Give it a go”

In a previous post about the “Peppa Pig Effect” — the phenomenon of American toddlers picking up British terminology and accent from a television cartoon — I mentioned a Guardian article on the subject whose title starts “Having a Go.”

“Have a go” is indeed a Not One-Off Britishism, of the historical variety (meaning that its U.S. adoption wasn’t recent). Its original meaning, says the OED, was “To aim a blow or shot at someone or something; to make an attack or onslaught upon someone or something.” The first citation is from Lady’s Magazine in 1792: “I felt such a flow of spirits and courage, that I hid myself behind a tree, determined to have a go at him—the moment he passed me, I fired my pistol.”

Fairly quickly it took on a broader sense of attacking verbally or criticizing, and the still broader sense (with which I associate the phrase) of “To make an attempt at something; to have a spell or turn of doing something.” An 1863 citation is from Charles Reade’s novel Hard Cash: “You have stumbled on a passage you can’t construe… Here, let me have a go at it.”

It and (at first glance) all the other citations for all three senses are from British sources. However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang, interestingly, has African-American sources for the attacking meaning, including John Ridley’s 2002 book A Conversation with the Mann: “He was fixing to have a go at these boys like he was Charlie Bad-Brother.”

And I can attest that the meaning of having a try or a turn has been widely used in the U.S. for some time. For example, a New York Times review of the 1961 film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea has the line, “There’s no earthly or oceanic reason why [director Irwin] Allen shouldn’t have had a go at such a subject on a frank entertainment level.” And in a 2020 Times article about the television program Dispatches from Elsewhere, the (American) reporter writes of an actor, “He had a go at defining the show.”

The Guardian article (as opposed to the headline) says American Peppa Pig watchers have adopted a rather different phrase, “give it a go.” To my ears this means basically the same thing as “have a go.” Neither the OED not Green’s has an entry for it, but it shows up in two OED citations in a definition for “go” (as try or attempt). The second is a recent quote from an English newspaper but the first, surprisingly is from The Boston Daily Globe in 1892: “There was an air of diffidence about the different drug stores that were opened yesterday, which plainly said, ‘We are not sure of this matter, but we’ll give it a go and see how it comes out.’”

That would appear to be an outlier both linguistically and geographically. Searching the vast Google Books database, I don’t find “give it a go” showing up till 1915 or ’16, with the early uses all being from Commonwealth sources, especially Australia and New Zealand, as in this screen shot:

And Ngram Viewer, which is based on Google Books, shows that both phrases began in Britain (the blue and red lines), then gained popularity in the U.S. (orange and green) in the 2000s — which is, of course, the era of NOOBs.

Ngram Viewer also confirms my guess that “give it a shot” is the American version of the synonymous “give it a go.”

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.

“Lay the Table”

I was reading an article in The New Yorker in which the (American) author, Alice Gregory, refers to someone “learning the vocabulary for kitchen utensils while laying the table.” I assumed the last three words meant what I had always called “setting the table” — putting dishes, utensils (cutlery in BrE) and napkins (serviettes) on it. And I had a hunch it was a Britishism.

Sure enough, Lynne Murphy wrote about the phrase back in 2006 as a straight-up Britishism — that is, no reference to use by Americans. There was, however, this anonymous comment on Lynne’s post, presumably written by an American: “In Code to Zero British author Ken Follett has his American character in 1958 America ‘lay’ the table…..I had to look it up!”

I don’t have any record of any American other than Gregory using the phrase, so will label it as “Outlier” for the time being. If I learn of any more, I’ll upgrade to “On the Radar.”

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:


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.