From verbing to izing, via sidewalks and burglars. Here’s the nitty-gritty…

Words or design

Early last year, I had to write copy for an American client. 

A doddle, I thought. I’ll just change my dictionary in Word to US English, and off I go. The mere fact that I’d mentally used the word doddle should have set alarm bells ringing, but it didn’t.

When the time came to review the draft copy, it wasn’t so much the spelling (we all know the honour/honor, centre/center differences)  as the turns of phrase that occasionally raised a quizzical eyebrow. 

Even then, the Americans on the conference call couldn’t agree among themselves whether certain things were British or American English. But with a little effort and a lot of laughter, we reached a compromise (or should that be compromize? – no, it shouldn’t, in either version of English) and ended up with copy we were all happy with. 

The experience set me thinking that we assume we know the differences between the two varieties of English. But how much do we really know, and how much is just lazy assumption?

Divided by a common language

I decided to find out, and that led me to one of  the best books on language I’ve read in a very long time: The Prodigal Tongue: The Love–Hate Relationship Between British and American English by American expat university lecturer Lynne Murphy. 

It’s packed full of insights based on rigorous research and an expert knowledge in a subject area that has lots of popular myths.

Here are just some of them, with the myth-busting reality that might surprise you – as it did me:

  • Sidewalk was first used in Britain, not America. 
  • The bee’s knees sounds like an archetypal Britishism, but it was actually coined in the US in the Jazz Age. Nitty-gritty sounds similarly at home on this side of the Atlantic, but it was originally an African-American colloquialism – first found in print in 1940.
  • If you’ve ever got yourself in a tizz about ise/ize (as I did when I was writing that copy last year) then you’re in for a surprise. Because for decades, ize was the preferred variant in the UK. It was only in the 1990s that The Times (of London, that is) and Cambridge University Press switched to ise.  What’s more, Americans don’t spell all such words ize: just look at advertise, merchandise and surprise – plus compromise, which I mentioned earlier.
  • Though ‘verbing’ (as Murphy ironically calls it) raises many a British hackle, it’s actually not the exclusive preserve of Americans. Far from it. The first recorded occurrence of action as a verb (i.e. to take action) was actually in The Times in 1960. And Marks & Spencer, a quintessentially British brand, pushed the boundaries of verbing with the following line in a company report: “better-balanced autumn ranges should allow M&S to anniversary tougher comparison”. I anniversary, he anniversaries, we all anniversary?
  • On a related note, Murphy mentions burgle/burglarize and the British lament that Americans have verbed (I still can’t quite say that without a smile) when they didn’t have to. Except that it’s precisely the opposite: burgle is a ‘back-formation’ from the noun burglar, which predates it. It was originally used humorously (no u in the middle of humorously even in British English – did you ever wonder why?) but then took root. Murphy says that saying a burglar burgles is like saying that a vicar vics, or that caterpillars caterpill. 
  • It isn’t American prudery that makes them say tidbit instead of titbit. The original term is tyd bit, later tid bit. ‘Tid’ is an old dialect word meaning choice, dainty, or nice, so a tid bit was a tasty morsel that you savoured. It was only later that it became titbit in Britain, in what Murphy says is proof that Brits are ‘obsessed with breasts’. 
  • Despite what you may think, having watched endless transatlantic cop shows, homicide isn’t an American term for murder. The Metropolitan Police in London have a Homicide and Major Crimes Unit, and people are prosecuted under the Homicide Act of 1957. And the UK government releases its homicide statistics annually. 
  • Though Americans do call autumn fall, it actually started out its life in Britain. It’s there for all to see in Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, published in 1755, and has a supporting quote from English poet John Dryden. Americans also refer to autumn leaves three times more than they do to fall leaves so it’s not nearly as clear cut as we might think.
  • If you’ve ever chuckled when you’ve been offered an erbal tea in the US, you should wipe that smile off your face. That’s exactly how it was pronounced in Britain for centuries, its h as silent as in honour and hour. Because they’d come from French, the h wasn’t pronounced – as it wasn’t either in hotel. But then came the 19th century British mania for inserting an h sound even where it didn’t belong, which was a lesser sin than dropping one’s aitches (as in I’ll be ‘ome in ‘alf an hour).  So erb became herb, and otel became hotel (somehow, hour and honour survived the wholesale change). 

The Prodigal Tongue: The Love–Hate Relationship Between British and American English is an excellent read if you’re fascinated by language. You’ll finally find out why entrée means a main course in the US, and why that’s not a mistake. And the the real story behind aluminum/aluminium (both British words, believe it or not) and how we actually came very close to calling it alumium.

Murphy delves into the subject with much gusto and good humour. As a longtime resident of Britain (she’s been teaching at the University of Sussex since 2000) she’s got a foot in both camps, and has both the expertise and experience to negotiate the minefield that is language.

If reading the book isn’t your cup of tea (how British is that? actually, I’m not so sure as I once was) you can always catch Murphy’s TEDx talk on American and British Politeness

Whichever option you choose, I hope y’all enjoy it.