Butt out, America! When Matthew Engel Launched a Campaign to Stop Americanisms Invading Our Language, He Came under Ferocious Attack from the United States. Here, in a Stirring Call to Arms, He Replies

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), August 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Butt out, America! When Matthew Engel Launched a Campaign to Stop Americanisms Invading Our Language, He Came under Ferocious Attack from the United States. Here, in a Stirring Call to Arms, He Replies


Byline: Matthew Engel

Hey, you guys! Listen up! Remember the Say No to the Get-Go campaign that started in The Mail on Sunday a year ago to try to curb the use of American vocabulary in British English? It has suddenly got a bit more serious.

Last month I was invited to give a talk on the Radio 4 series Four Thought. I said I wanted to bang on about Americanisms. The BBC managers involved had their doubts about whether the subject would engage their audience, but eventually gave way.

Well, in terms of audience reach, this 15-minute programme - in the middle of a warm midsummer evening - will not go down in radio history as a rival to Neville Chamberlain's declaration of war on Germany or the Terry Wogan Show. But a version of what I said appeared on the BBC website, and got more than three million page impressions, which apparently is every bit as impressive as it sounds. And from there things went a little crazy.

My views certainly received the large and supportive response from Middle Britain I have come to expect every time I touch on this subject. And the BBC turned the replies into a list of 50 of the most hated: Wait on, 24/7, touch base, leverage (to rhyme with beverage), transportation, going forward, oftentimes, do the math, period (instead of full stop), heads up, can I get a? normalcy...

Not all their hate-words were American. And some have not yet crept off the assault beaches, pushed inland and infiltrated our entire national conversation. ('Do the maths' has certainly turned into a dreary cliche but most of the time I hear it, I only half-cringe because it still retains its British 's'.) But many of the others are everywhere.

And I know from the heady days of Say No to the Get-Go how much support there is for trying to get rid of them. (I'm still sorry I couldn't reply to every email I received, but I read every one, I promise.) If we put up candidates for Parliament, we might not sweep the country but I bet we would supplant the Lib Dems and get the balance of power.

There are dangers in poking sticks into wasps' nests. And what flew out to try to sting me were people calling themselves 'lexicographers', who I had always pictured as polite, old-fashioned chaps patiently working through the alphabet in dusty back rooms.

Not in the US, they're not. They seem to have mutated into a breed of vituperative loudmouths yelling into the blogosphere. What I thought was a discussion about the future of British English and the need to preserve its distinctiveness was turned into some Anglo-American row manufactured in their own imaginations.

One character was Grant Barrett, a talk-show host from San Diego, who wrote a riposte on the BBC website headed 'American English is getting on well, thanks'. I didn't say it wasn't. The problem is that it's getting on so well that it's swamping every other version.

We were pitted against each other on three radio discussions.

Once he had stopped trying to shout me down, he told me I had no right to any opinion because I was a 'non-expert' and not 'scholarly'. Barrett's expert credentials are not clear, especially as he has visited Britain only briefly.

I was, apparently, typical. Most of the public conversation about language, he said, had been ceded to the 'carpers, whiners and peevers'. On his radio show: 'We treat the complainers with tenderness and some concern ... "I hate this word" is not productive but "Why do I hate this word?" is extraordinarily so.'

Oh, butt out! (As my teenage daughter insists on saying. …

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