I’ll happily lose cheerio, but no fortnight? Absolutely impossible!

The English language is a preposterous uninflected pidgin of immense richness. Let’s keep it changing.

Click to follow
The Independent Online

To the barricades! Burn the White House! The Americans are invading our language again. Awesome, essentially and treadmill are taking over, while cheerio, marmalade and fortnight are in decline. Early findings of a project called the Spoken British National Corpus 2014, run by Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press, have caused another flurry in the dovecot of linguistic nationalism.

However, I don’t think “essentially” or “treadmill” are particularly American. People talk about treadmills more these days because they go to gyms. That is not a trend of which I approve, and no doubt America led the way with it, but the word itself was used in Britain before Christopher Columbus. As for “essentially”, this is part of a fashion for meaningless intensifiers that has been through various permutations since Chaucer. Starting a sentence with “basically” is a bugbear of mine, but essentially, literally, totally and absolutely wash inoffensively by.

Awesome can cause problems in the American teenage pronunciation. I thought Otham might be a New York suburb (like Gotham) when I once heard it. Like much teenspeak it is a little demeaning for older people to use it in speech or in articles trying to sound hip. But the word itself? Who can object? Who cannot observe with fascination that awful once meant the same - something inspiring awe - and has over time swung round to meaning almost the opposite?

As for the declining words, who doesn’t stifle a cheer at the imminent disappearance of “cheerio”? After all, no one, unless they are very camp, says, “Coo-ee,” any more. And the decline of marmalade, like the rise of gyms, is a social trend very much to be deprecated, not a language change to be whined about. Fortnight is the puzzling one. That is a useful word that should be used more. A lovely contraction of “fourteen nights” with so much more poetry to it than the flat “two weeks”. I shall add it to my list of words, including “thrice”, “gobbledygook” and “penury”, for which I shall campaign, to try to get them higher up the rankings in the Spoken British National Corpus 2015.

Mind you, gobbledygook may be American in origin. I recently cited it in a list of “invented words” – I know, all words are “invented”; I meant words invented by known individuals. I quoted Paul Dickson (Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers), as saying it was first used by Maury Maverick, a Democratic Congressman from Texas, in a memo in 1944. He certainly used it, but the word was obviously already familiar to readers of The Pittsburgh Press, which reported it. Digging deeper, I found that, according to Google Ngram, which searches a database of digitised books, it was first used in 1931, but I still don’t know whether that was in America or here.

And that’s the point. It doesn’t matter. Some words are expressive or evocative or ticklish, and some of them are new, some of them originated in America. Some of them were used here in the 17th century, taken across the Atlantic by the early colonists and are now looked down upon here as “Americanisms”. Gotten, fall, trash and guess (to mean suppose) all went that way and back.

The English language is a preposterous uninflected pidgin of immense richness and adaptability. Let’s keep it changing, saying cheerio to fusty English words we don’t like and hi to totally awesome American imports we do.