Thursday, August 25, 2005

Fowler's revenge

Emilio Largo
It came right out of the blue, like a Spitfire firing all eight barrels at a lumbering Junkers bomber. It was like the lead sentence of today's blog, designed to grab your attention like the aggressive display of an angry polecat defending her young. So imagine my surprise when I read the following in a New York Times book review:

"[H]e wears a black patch to cover an eye that went missing in a childhood hockey accident...."

"Wot the bloody 'ell?" I exclaimed. "Have I gone completely spare?"

But there it was, and not merely a slip allowed by a lazy editor. A quick search revealed hundreds of uses in the Times of this intolerable Briticism ... the first as early as 1988. By the time Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson went missing, it was virtually standard usage. Now it pops up everywhere: in USA Today, People, your local newspaper. The Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald used it a few hours ago: "The fire occurred just days after almost $1,000 went missing from the store's cash register." And, just to prove this is no blue-state aberration, so did a paper in Utah.

Ben Yagoda in The Chronicle of Higher Education notices a trend to gussy up American English with Briticisms that would have been considered quirky affectations not so long ago. "Run-up" (as in the "run-up" to the election), "ring up," "chat up," "spot-on," "at university," "on holiday" and "booking" are showing up in daily discourse. Do you want a cup of coffee? Oh no, let's "chat up" over "a coffee."

The cause? Yagoda speculates that the influence of British editors and writers who have set up shop in the U.S. may have something to do with the trend. (He mentions Tina Brown, but my candidates are Andrew Sullivan and the odious Christopher Hitchens.) He suspects the root cause is "the eternal appeal of sounding classy without seeming pretentious."

My rule is that every American should limit herself to two Briticisms: exceed that quota and you'll come across as an upper-class twit, and then all of your friends will go missing. Choose one that's useful because it fills a gap in American English, and the other as a sort of trans-Atlantic pet. My choices are "run-up" (no obvious American equivalent) and "brainwave" (which I much prefer to "brainstorm").

Isn't this blog brilliant? Yes, it is: the Brits use the adjective promiscuously to mean anything that's nice: that was a "brilliant" (or "brill") supper, tie or haircut. So if a Brit says your brainwave was brilliant, that's not necessarily a run-up to a Nobel prize.

What can be done, dear reader? Probably nothing. The fad must seem very chic and Euro to its retrologizing victims, or at least brilliant and spot-on. And perhaps it's only payback for the decades of American colonization of British linguistic space—a trend noted after World War II by the second edition of Fowler's "Modern English Usage":
It was a favourite theme of Mencken that England, now displaced by the United States as the most powerful and populous English-speaking country, is no longer entitled to pose as arbiter of English usage. "When two-thirds of the people who use a certain language decide to call it a freight train instead of a goods train, they are 'right'; then the first is correct usage and the second is dialect." We are still far from admitting this claim, but in fact are showing signs of yielding to it in spite of ourselves.
So it might be time to dust off your copies of Fowler's classic or, if you didn't acquire one at university, buy a copy now. If we're going to affect Briticisms, we might as well be correct about it: creatures with legs, fins, gastropods or pseudopods may indeed "go missing," but not an eye or the contents of a cash register. And stop saying "Briticism." Fowler hated the word: it's either "Britishism" or "Britannicism."

Call it Fowler's revenge.


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