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English - The influence of American culture upon language usage in modern Britain.

By Richard Gardner


"Me fail English? That's unpossible!"
- Bart Simpson

In turn of the century Britain, it was quite commonplace for folks to don their most costly top hats, buy an astounding new parasol and filly themselves away to Ramsgate for the week. This was recreation and to a nation approaching to the end of an era it was their one annual jaunt away from the drudgery of working class Victorian life. Crowds of tourists flocked to places such as Blackpool, Eastbourne and Skegness. Grand piers were erected, fairgrounds built, hordes of bathing machines lined the seaside and in 1894 Blackpool's famous tower was opened, symbolising the pinnacle of the Great British holiday.

These were high times; to the sun-soaked Briton perching proudly on his deckchair it was simply the definitive recreational experience. With tweed waistcoat slightly loosened and smoking pipe at hand the golden era had well and truly dawned. His children playing happily building castles in the sand, to his left the black and white minstrel band played, Punch and Judy drew in the crowds and should it take his inclination later he might take the hand of his good lady, brace the sea air and take in an iced lollipop by the promenade. The Empire was at its glorious peak, and he was obliging its rewards with open arms. By Jupiter, this was the life!

But something was changing, three thousand miles away a storm was brewing; the conception of a new form of recreation had begun. The unassuming Victorian marvelling at the wonders of the Ferris wheel didn't quite realise it and Queen Victoria would have most likely got her knickerbockers into a twist. Hollywood and a thousand stars were coming to town and British life would be changed forever…

A Whirlwind Tour of American English

A Brand New World
In 1620 a cluster of weather-beaten English pilgrims arrived, amidst a bitter-cold New England winter, on the Western side of Cape Cod Bay. Here they founded a small colony they decided to name Plymouth - after the English port from which 65 days and a gruelling voyage earlier, they departed. This wasn't the first occasion that Europeans had tried to colonise the Americas. It was however the first community which managed to survive amid starvation and attacks by Native Americans; the success at Plymouth would be the catalyst for countless other would-be colonists to make the voyage West. In 1629, the English Crown chartered the Massachusetts Bay Company, a stock-trading organisation, and a year later a colony was established at Boston Bay. By the close of 1630 some two thousand immigrants had settled and as little as five years later Americas first university, the famous Harvard College, had been founded.

These early colonists were for the most part, "farmers, poorly educated and of low social status", (Axelrod, 2000, p34). The language they took with them to the New World would have being working class English with many of these terms having a region specific slant as to where they were from. Words such as drool, teeter, skedaddle and skulduggery have survived in America as much as they have in Britain. Other words that originated over here, and long since being forgotten, have seemed to come into existence over there; fall (for Autumn), bug (insect), hog and junk being a few examples.

Early settlements, although made up mainly of British colonists, were surprisingly multinational in composition. A strong European contingent (mainly of British, French, Dutch and Spanish origin), mixed with the Native American inhabitants to develop a global interpretation of the English language. Moose, racoon and moccasin were originally Native American terms whilst patio, stampede, tobacco are of Spanish origin. The colonists also made a habit of attributing names to the wrong species of animal, hence the common rabbit becoming a hare in the transition (badgers, swans and hedgehogs amongst numerous others to receive a change of identity).

The New World continued to expand rapidly. By 1640, colonies had appeared in New York (renamed from New Netherland), Virginia and even as far afield as Barbados and St Kitts (the Caribbean influence broadening American English further with words such as barbecue). The flow of immigrants continued and by the turn of the eighteenth century Massachusetts alone had a population in excess of 80,000. By the 1770s though strong discontent for the British rule had surfaced, after various trade wars and embargos between Britain and the New World, Britain imposed import duties on tea - which at the time was a highly valued trade commodity. The reaction from Boston was to dump 342 chests of tea into the harbour, at a huge cost of around nine thousand pounds (although the Boston Tea Party wasn't named as such until some fifty years later). Various further confrontations transpired until on the 4th of July 1776, congress adopted Thomas Jefferson's formal declaration of Independence.

The American Revolution lasted until January 14th 1784, after which Britain finally acknowledged America's right to independence. After the war, the famous United States seal was conceived with the motif, e pluri-bus unum; a Latin phrase 'from many, one' signifying the formation of the new United States.

Gold, the War and the West
On the 24th of January 1848, a German immigrant named Johann Augustus Sutter discovered something shiny on his ranch in Mexican California. Constantly running away from debt he literally had struck gold - although ironically Sutter died bankrupt in 1880 when his claims to the surrounding land were deemed false. The gold rush of 1849 lasted through to the eve of the Civil War and in that time the population of California swelled from 20,000 to nearly 225,000. The term forty-niner was given to anyone caught up in the gold rush - hence the naming of the US football team the San Francisco 49'ers. Another common term from San Francisco in the 1850's appeared when a certain Levis Strauss began trading heavy-duty trousers to the prospective gold hunters. Other phrases that appeared at the time of the gold rush include; stake a claim, rich pickings, strike it rich and strike it lucky.

On April the 12th, 1861 civil war erupted between Northern and Southern states. "America was primarily a rural country in the 1860s and the farmers and labourers who enlisted in the army brought with them a language of their own", (West, Online, 2001). The conflict contributed the following military terms that have transcended to common usage today; AWOL (absent without Leave), bellyache (to complain), currency (money), fluke (lucky), grapevine (as in rumours), mugging (robbery), red tape (as red tape was always used to bind government documents) and shoddy (meaning poor quality, generally applied to military uniforms). Another common term originated in the Civil War came about from General Ambrose Burnside's plentiful facial hair or sideburns.

In the mid-nineteenth century, much of the Western states lay as uncharted territory. Mass immigration from Europe and the gold rush itself gave birth to many new frontier towns, as fortune seekers made their way to the gold coast. A great percentage of these towns were deserted soon after hence the term ghost town. The classic western town as glamorised countless times in Hollywood productions came into existence mainly between the 1860s and 1880s. With the country riddled with war, there was an enormous demand for beef with which to feed soldiers. The cattle trade expanded rapidly into the vast open plains, bringing with it a new American icon. With the emergence of the cowboys came a wholly original vocabulary; terms such as gunplay, crook, crony, firewater (whisky), haywire, joint (meeting place), missy (when addressing a young female), lasso, rodeo, aces high, shin-dig (a dance), hold-up, sombrero, plaza, outlaw and most-wanted all seem to have originated in the Old or Wild West. Subsequently other terms associated with cowboy era, "bounty hunter, gunslinger and to have an itchy trigger finger were all the inventions of Hollywood scriptwriters", (Bryson, 1994, p158).

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Americans also developed a habit of forming compounds from two existing words; dogfight, eyewash, eggplant, rattlesnake, timberland, backtrack, backwater, outwit and hillside being prime examples of to what extent this practice influenced modern language usage.

The Movies
On the 23rd of April 1896, the inventor Thomas Edison publicly displayed his new invention, the Vitascope on Broadway. It was the first time feature-length, moving pictures had been projected onto a wall. The fuse wire had been ignited, people from everywhere clamoured to see the new wonder. By 1906 there were a thousand nickelodeons in America - a compound of the words nickel and odeon, where people paid a nickel to see a show. By 1907 the number had increased to five thousand, by 1908 New York's daily admissions were 200,000. The craze was unstoppable.

Up until 1913 movies (this became the common idiom for moving pictures by the early 1900s), were filmed almost exclusively in New York and New Jersey. But a ruthless patents organization; the MPPC (Motion Pictures Patents Company) were trying to gain control of the movie business, not infrequently through demonstrations of brute force. This persuaded a former stage manager named Cecil B De Mille to relocate two thousand miles to California. He was the first of many, aspiring directors fled New York and by 1915 Hollywood had become the film mecca.

As the film industry grew it brought with it an entire vocabulary of new terms and phrases. Launched in 1905 and peerless throughout, Variety newspaper has always used its own terminology (which it calls 'slanguage') to report the news and gossip from Hollywood. Many of these terms remain in everyday use. Corny (meaning sentimental), baddie, biopic, deejay (disk jockey), sex appeal, soap opera, cliffhanger, belly laugh and bombshell are all terms originally coined by Variety.

Up until 1909 actors remained virtually nameless in any promotional material for the movies, given instead titles like 'The Man with the Sad Eyes'. It wasn't till the film producer Carl Laemmle successfully promoted Flo Lawrence in one of his features. In a complete turnaround the industry started billing movie stars higher than the main title, giving birth to the star system - though the term movie star did not come into existence until 1919. With this system in place, it became compulsory for the studios to rename actors and actresses a more showbiz feel, a practice that still exists in Hollywood today. For this intent, Bernard Schwarz became better known as Tony Curtis, Virginia McMath as Ginger Rogers, Dino Crocetti as Dean Martin and William Pratt as Boris Karloff. The Hollywood star was born and as a consequence how many little girls would have been named Joan or Rita if it weren't for Lucille Le Sueur (Joan Crawford) and Margarita Carmen Cansino (Rita Hayworth). In retrospect to this how likely are we ourselves, in twenty years time or so, to be served by a Brad or a Britney when ordering a Big Mac, cola and large fries?

Divided by a Common Language?
The everyday language expressed in modern day Britain could be contrasted closer to that uttered on the streets of Queens, New York than traditional Queens English. In the modern era as British, we appear to be influenced more by William Shatner than by William Shakespeare. The reason for this could well be that in the twentieth century we appear to have developed a compelling devotion to do as little hard work as is possible. Why spend hours trying to decipher Shakespeare's plays when we can spend half an hour's pure escapism watching The Simpsons or Friends?

The Briton entering the twenty-first century finds themselves infiltrated by images, music, sports, films, books, television programmes, advertisements and internet sites offering American English and American slang. Lines from television programmes that have transcended broadly into everyday English include; Oh my god! (Friends), The truth is out there (The X Files), Beam me up Scotty (Star-Trek) and D'oh (The Simpsons). A multitude of famous one-liners have come out of Hollywood over the years; Here's looking at you kid (Casablanca), Hasta la vista and I'll be back (The Terminator), May the force be with you (Star Wars), Just when you thought it was safe (Jaws) Make my day (Dirty Harry), and Made him an offer he couldn't refuse (The Godfather) to name but a few. Music too has provided some interesting phrases; Viva Las Vegas (Elvis Presley), Walk Like an Egyptian (The Bangles), Welcome to the Jungle (Guns N Roses) and Light my Fire (The Doors) may not be mentioned as often but have transcended the boundary into popular culture nonetheless.

Some prime examples of advertising slogans influencing British dialect are Budweiser's 'What's up?' and 'Genuine Article' commercials, The Real Thing (Coca-Cola), The Original and Best (Kellogs Corn Flakes) and The best a Man can Get (Gillette). Certain American brands have become more recognised than the actual product that they represent. Denim Jeans are often referred to as a pair of Levis, cola is nearly always a Coke or Pepsi, it is common nowadays to go for a McDonalds, buy a pair of Nike instead of a pair of training shoes, it is quite common also to drink a Budweiser though rarely a Carling or a Becks.

The influx of American culture upon British lifestyle is probably best demonstrated by reading the latest sales and viewing figures for various forms of entertainment. At the time of writing, out of the top ten United Kingdom box office chart, only two non-American films appear (both British made comedies). Likewise out of the top ten television programmes viewed via satellite, only one program had not come out of the US (although the British made Stars Behaving Badly does still have a distinct American flavour). If this trend continues will the British public largely be viewing American imports in the near future? Especially when terrestrial television is discontinued and everybody will have to view digital television channels flooded with US productions. On the day of writing, every single film on Sky television's two main film channels were American and all but one programme on Sky One (the exception being Pokemon which I believe is of Japanese origin). Need I say more? Music fared little better; six out of the top ten selling artists, in the albums chart, were American females - I have no idea where Blue, Nicklebag, Darren Hayes and Badly Drawn Boy respectively hail from. Even more unsurprisingly, each and every entry from the top ten all time highest grossing movies list were American (Harry Potter, although distinctly British was still produced by Warner Brothers).

Another area where American terminology has undoubtedly revolutionised the way we speak is computing. Internet, WWW, email, junk mail, ISP, word processor, keyboard, mouse, the list is endless - the words Apple and Microsoft themselves have entered common dialogue, especially in the business sector. With America holding a huge monopoly on software production, this trend of American terms becoming industry standard is likely to continue for many years to come.

With this heavy influence on our society, is it really surprising we have adopted many Americanisms? Is it uncommon to hear a British teenager describe their fave movie as cool or awesome? Should the occasion merit, it may seem right to hook up with a few pals and get hammered, but if you got too trashed and tried hitting on a foxy girl she would probably think you were a jerk or sleazebag and tell you to get a life or go to hell!

That may all seem a bit extreme but the results of a questionnaire conducted on the usage of American Slang in Britain would appear to say otherwise. Ten people aged between sixteen and thirty-two took part in the survey. Of the twenty slang terms on the questionnaire, nine terms were used 'often' or 'always' by fifty percent or great of those questioned. This is increased to twelve terms in common usage by forty percent or higher. Each of the terms had at least a minimum of two people saying it would be used 'sometimes', whilst thirteen out of the twenty had at least one person stating it was 'always' the term they used. Words such as babe, six-pack and cool appear to be in common usage with seven people each classing it as a term they would use 'often' or 'always'. The words gridlock, straight and freebie fared even better with both receiving eight out of ten votes in the same categories.

So where does all this lead, in what direction is the British language heading? Will we be hooking up by way of our cell phones in the near future? When we go on vacation, will we be hanging at the beach to soak up the sun, eat a cookout. Maybe getting together with some homies later and boom boom shaking the goddamn room down man, it will be da bomb!. We already have griddles, bagels and people-carriers who is to say where this influence will end?

In conclusion, I think that the American influence on British language usage today is quite undeniable. Throughout the twentieth century we have gradually become accustomed to and adopted many new American terms and words. The focal point for this gathering of US phrases was always Hollywood, bringing with it not only fashionable new expressions but also the big screen ice cool icons to deliver them. This trend was intensified in the fifties with the advent of home television, revolutionised throughout the sixties drug and music cultures and truly globalised by way of hard sell modern advertising. The clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the films we watch and even the food we eat in the bulk comes out of the United States (despite rumours surrounding Indian food, McDonalds for better or worse remains the nations favourite restaurant). We speak more American words than ever, name our children after Hollywood stars, we borrow money from American creditors and work for American companies.

The fact is that whether we like it or not as a nation we are becoming more and more Americanised.

(Word count for Essay, 2,711)


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IMDb. Movie Charts. [Online]. (URL Accessed 28th April 2002.
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