American English - gone missing or just disappeared?

The British are used to absorbing American words and phrases - but something's changed. As the empire strikes back, not even 'The New York Times' is safe
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The Independent Online

One of the late American writer Peter De Vries's comic novels has a character who accumulates Briticisms. As I recall, he orders "prawn" cocktail as a "starter," refers to a friend "called" James and fills his car with "petrol" for the ride home. Eventually, he "winds up" in hospital. In the American argot, it would be a shrimp cocktail appetiser, a guy named James, gas in the car and a stay in the hospital.

Lately, the American press has become that poseur. As a US journalism professor who regularly teaches study-abroad classes in London, I have been in a position to observe its progressive succumbing to temptation, and it has been remarkably rapid.

What set the ball rolling, I believe, was use of the verb phrase "to go missing," commonly used in Britain to mean "disappear". This was traditionally unknown in America, which had to make do with "disappear" and the slightly more melodramatic "vanish", both of which have too much of a Siegfried and Roy, presto-chango connotation.

"Go missing" and its variants "went missing" and "gone missing" appeared in The New York Times not at all in 1983, and only twice in 1993. In 2001, however, they were employed 24 times. The reason was a major national story about a person who went missing: Chandra Levy, the still-missing former intern of a congressman. And that year was the tipping point. In 2003, the Times had precisely 50 "go missings".

A slightly different process was at work in the case of "sell-by date." That is the exact equivalent for what Americans call "expiration date", only with better rhythm, two fewer syllables, and a strong British feel. From 1980 through 1994, New York Times writers used it only four times, always in reference to spoilt food. But starting in 1995, "sell-by" began to be used metaphorically, to refer to a person or idea past its prime. For example, Elaine Showalter wrote in the Times last December, "Intellectuals and professors who write for a general audience are always valuable, but the idea of the 'public intellectual' as a specific role is now well past its sell-by date." That was one of eight metaphorical uses in the paper in 2003, compared with only two referring to foodstuffs. I would say that qualifies it as a cliché, and a fairly pretentious one at that.

Another notorious metaphorical phrase imported from Britain is "at the end of the day." In America, fortunately, a couple of years of overuse sucked all the life out of it, and now no self-respecting writer would perpetrate it. The British have not been so lucky, "Go missing," "sell-by date," and "end of the day" paved the way for the Briticisms of the moment - "run-up" or "lead-up," meaning the period of time preceding a particular event. The length and awkwardness of my definition proves the utility of the compound nouns. But as with "go missing," their widespread adoption in the United States had to wait for a news story that needed them. Such an entry point has come in the last few months, with a batch of stories investigating happenings in Britain and the US in the run-up to the Iraq war.

I have noticed ever more recondite (from an American perspective) terms in the press. In his review of Jayson Blair's recent book in the The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann refers to "the bits we've all been waiting for". What a Yank would traditionally say is "the parts we've all been waiting for". Several weeks ago on National Public Radio, a correspondent described Roy Disney's assessment of the Walt Disney Corporation's profitable year: "... not a renewable resource, just kind of a one-off based on some box-office hits". I would wager that only a handful of her listeners knew what "one-off" meant. A writer in The New York Times Book Review said the author of a Somerset Maugham biography "should get full marks, by the way, for never using the obvious word, 'bitchy'". (The Briticism being "full marks", not "bitchy".) Performances are now regularly referred to as "spot-on" and "over the top".

I'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint the cause of this British invasion. Anglophilia hardly seems to be rampant at the moment. Perhaps the success of BBC America is a factor, or maybe the importation of British editors such as Tina Brown and Anna Wintour a decade ago is trickling down.

What makes this trend especially notable is that for decades and probably centuries, the linguistic tide flowed west to east across the Atlantic, much to the understandable annoyance of many British people, who wish they weren't subject to "gimme a break," "hey, you guys," and a panoply of other terms, slogans and expressions. One acquaintance is apoplectic about commentators referring to a "round-up" - since when, he wonders, have there been cattle ranches in the UK? So the best explanation of all may be karmic - we in the US were due for a dose of poetic justice. And so, after a lengthy run-up, a number of our home-grown idioms have gone missing.

Ben Yagoda directs the journalism program at the University of Delaware and is the author of 'The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing'