Americanisms in JAFF + Giveaway

Americanisms in JAFF + Giveaway

After I had published One Thread Pulled, I had the opportunity to meet a reader from Norway who was visiting Salt Lake City. We spent a delightful hour or so together, and one of the many topics we touched on was my book. She had enjoyed it – but mentioned somewhat off-handedly that it did contain some “Americanisms”. I made a note to self: Look up “Americanism” when I get home.

The meaning I was familiar with, which is a patriotic love of America, is found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson as early as 1797. The other meaning, which is certainly what my friend meant, is a reference to words and phrases that are distinctly American, differing from British English. John Witherspoon first used the term in 1781. He was president of Princeton College, which means that the word “Americanism” is an Americanism itself.

While the initial meaning was language-specific, the meaning of the word has expanded to include customs, traits, behaviors and attitudes peculiar to the USA and their citizens. The discovery that OTP contained these things was initially a surprise. I had run many words I’d used through the Austen Thesarus, verified the origin and date of origin of any words I questioned through Etymology Online. Despite countless hours of research on the Regency era in England, reading Austen and other English authors, and being as diligent as I knew how to be, my American perspective had nonetheless shone through.

This revelation prompted me to keep a list of Americanisms, and also to better educate myself and apply what I’ve learned about the differences in American English and British English.  When I’m writing my book, I even set the language preference to English (U.K.) which at the very least colours my text with British spelling. I also learned that if the abbreviation of a word starts and ends with the same letters as the actual word, they don’t use a period (known in the UK as a “full stop.”) Mr. becomes Mr and the same goes for Mrs.

I had of course, known for nearly my whole life that there were many of differences in American vs British English. Elevators are lifts, gas is petrol, an apartment is a flat and so on. None of these words were in use, however, during the Georgian / Regency period, so my list doesn’t include these. There are some obvious ones, of course, like having a biscuit instead of a cookie, but I soon discovered that there are many that would simply slip past me if I don’t look them up.

Here’s an example: Elizabeth Bennet likes to walk. For the sake of variety, we may also say she likes to ramble, wander and stroll. She may even like to hike, and when doing so, if she is to keep the mud off her dress, she’ll be obliged to raise her skirts. She would, however, never “hike” those skirts to avoid the mud, because that usage—to pull something up—is an Americanism.

I was reading an Austen variation not long ago, and the word “belittle” was used by an author to characterize Lady Catherine’s behaviour toward Elizabeth. Here we have another classic Americanism, one which seems perfectly natural to my American sensibilities, although it’s first documented usage is credited to Thomas Jefferson. The entry for “belittle” in Etymology Online contains a quote from one of the magazines of the day, leaving us in no doubt as to how it was perceived:

Belittle! What an expression! It may be an elegant one in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is to guess at its meaning. For shame, Mr. Jefferson! [“European Magazine and London Review,” 1787, reporting on “Notes on the State of Virginia”; to guess was considered another barbarous Yankeeism.]

Did you catch that last phrase? Although the word “guess” has been around since 1300, it’s the butchery of usage by Americans that is objectionable:

The legitimate, English sense of this word is to conjecture; but with us, and especially in New England, it is constantly used in common conversation instead of to believe, to suppose, to think, to imagine, to fancy. [Bartlett, “Dictionary of Americanisms,” 1848]

The more I read about Americanisms, the more I realize that these language idiosyncrasies are often so nuanced that self-detection is truly difficult. Let’s say Mrs Bennet is letting her family know when the next meal will be served. An American author such as myself may give her a bit of dialogue like this: “Be ready in a half hour.” A British author’s dialogue would differ slightly: “Be ready in half an hour.” These differences in phrasing would not be noticed by a typical American, yet my British friends spot such things a mile away.

It isn’t difficult to find lists of Americanisms that British readers will notice. Some common ones:

  • Bangs (for a fringe of hair that hangs on the forehead)
  • Scotch (as a reference to Scottish people, instead of Scot(s))
  • Strawberry Blond (for red-gold or rose-gold hair)
  • “I don’t have” (British phrase is “I haven’t got.)
  • Sidewalk (instead of pavement)

Ironically, there are even a few words and phrases cited as Americanisms but are actually attributable to such English luminaries as Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Are there any Americanisms you’re aware of you’d like to share? Please do so below, which will both delight your fellow readers, and enter you in today’s giveaway. One lucky winner will receive a set of Darcy and Elizabeth Salt and Pepper Shakers. Drawing closes Friday, October 2, at Midnight, Eastern Time. Also, note that you don’t have to mention an Americanism in your comment to be entered in the giveaway. Also, this giveaway is not restricted to US commenters. I’ll ship internationally if the winner is out of the USA.






97 Responses to Americanisms in JAFF + Giveaway

  1. I think “Scotch” and/or “Scot(s)” have long been problematic and/or controversial on both sides of the Atlantic for a long time, so I’m not sure there is a single, correct answer in either place. –It’s hard to think of a better word than “belittle” to express that specific meaning! “Slight” could also be used, perhaps?

  2. At one time I was hanging around with a lot of French people (don’t ask) and they frequently used the expression “un point c’est tout.” One day in American company I found myself about to use this expression and realized my company would not understand it, so on the fly I translated it to “full stop” (as a former French teacher, who apparently learned English in Britain, told me was the translation). One of the company started yelling at me about how appallingly rude I was to use such an expression! Which taught me to learn to swear in other languages so most people would not know what I said, altho’ I certainly would. I recently learned that “pissed” means something very different in American and British English! Who was it who first said that Americans and Brits are separated by a common language? A very charming and informative posting.

    • Out of curiosity, I put “un point c’est tout.” into an online translator and it came back with “and that’s all.” which is pretty close to “full stop.” Perhaps it’s rude in the same context as “shut up” or “you’re done” is in America, although it doesn’t seem particularly harsh compared with some of the other phrases I’ve heard of. (My brother lived in France for a few years and spoke fluent French – oh, the stories he told!) I have to confess that I never learned to swear in other languages and I hold those who can do it convincingly in some degree of awe! Thanks for your fun comment!

    • It’s so true, Janis, and quite odd that swearing should be different. We have many shows on TV from the US, and it highlights the differences because there are words on some shows that make me change the channel if my kids are in the room but presumably they are not so bad in the US! Conversely I am sure there are words that we might not see as so bad that you would be shocked at 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing an interesting article. As I have read over 400 P & P variations, I am getting used to the wording and their meanings. However, I still talk like an American. Also, I give all the authors credit for writing in the period style in their plots. I often share the exchange of the words with my daughter when I find the meanings fascinating. I was reading an article and had to look up the word by an Englishman of “shagging” and was surprised by the meaning. Well I guess it was a better word to use than the American slang word for it.
    Thanks again Diane for sharing. “One Thread Pulled” was one of the very first P & P novels I read! (FYI)

    • I only start talking like a 200 year-old British person when I’ve been writing. It’s a sure tip-off that my brain is in Regency mode. I looked “shagging” up once, thinking it must have come from the 1960’s or so and was surprised to learn that it dates to the late 1700’s, although it wasn’t a word that was considered appropriate in the upper classes. That “American” slang word you’re probably thinking of, is also British and dates back at least to the 1500’s although it’s a hard date to pin down, apparently, since it wasn’t allowed in print as a general rule. LOL. They actually had some pretty fantastic euphemisms for the activity back in the day.

  4. I had to read the dinner phrase a few times… It’s definitely so minor for an American to notice the difference without really looking for it.

    • I agree. The difference is so subtle to an American ear that we wouldn’t generally even notice it. I think it’s particularly true for those of us who have one foot in both worlds due to reading a lot of English Literature. It does make it difficult for an American to invoke an authentic British “voice” for a character. Still, lots of us try. 🙂

  5. I often come across this British word, “rug”…as used in a carriage. How is this different from a blanket? Is it an afghan, a quilt, a lap-blanket, or something made of layers as to be warmer?

    • A rug is usually smaller than a blanket and quite often patterned ie tartan rug, but there is also a floor rug. We aim to confuse lol

    • Hi Sheila, I am not 100% sure about historical travel rugs, but these days people might keep a travel rug in the boot of their car. It’s usually a fairly small blanket, about 4 or 5 feet each way, quite thick, and you can use it to keep your legs warm (in the back obviously, not the driver, unless they get stranded in a snowstorm!) or as a picnic blanket. Often they are woollen, and patterned in tartan. I had a quick look on google and seems that these days they are making them in microfibre fleece, it seems all wrong!

      • That sounds like the fleece blankets airlines used to give out on longer or overnight flights. I still have several in my possession but we also have some woolen crocheted smaller afghans my husband’s aunt made for us that we kept in the car for many, many years. Also my sorority gave smaller woolen blankets out with the sorority crest as favors for a dance in college. I kept mine in the car trunk/boot for many years and still do when colder weather hits…in case of being stranded in a snow storm. Thanks for the info.

    • What a fascinating one. Historically, they would often take the still-furry hide from some animal and use it as a rug in carriages. In many cases, it was lined with a soft fabric. The wealthy (or fearless) may even have something exotic like lion or bear. I had some ancestors who were using a buffalo-hide rug for warmth as they travelled west. As I understand it, they were heavier than a typical blanket. Thanks for the comment, and thanks to those who responded to your question.

      As a side-note, I was just shopping online to buy one about a week ago. I’ve added the one I liked to my wish list on Amazon, but I think I’ll call it a “rug” when I buy it. They are listed there as “motor robe throw”. “Rug” is certainly a more efficient name!

      • Yes, thank you to all who helped educate me on the meaning of “rug”. Now i have learned my something new for today.

  6. It’s really a reverse americanism but the brits use boot for trunk and quid for the slang for money. I used to watch BBC shows and was very confused by the whole thing.

    • Love it! Those are great examples of “Britishisms”, but I’m not sure when that term came into use. I had forgotten about the boot for trunk usage. I’ve also run into a number of instances where “boot” was used as an equivalent for “shoe”. I’m not sure if that’s typical British English or not though. Great comment!

      • I thought we used the word boot the same as you, i.e. a shoe that has sides ankle length or higher. You can say you gave someone or something ‘the boot’ if you got rid of them/it, e.g. ‘She gave him the boot’ means ‘She broke up with him’ or ‘she threw him out’.

        Do you guys have Wellington boots? Named after the Duke of Wellington I think, though I doubt his were plastic or rubbery like ours. Knee length boots for jumping in puddles, affectionately known to most as ‘wellies’.

        • You are probably right about “boot” – I may have misunderstood the intended meaning in the instances I’ve encountered it when I thought they meant “shoe”. I think your “Wellington boots” are what I would call rubber boots or rain boots. Living in what is essentially a desert, I’ve never owned a pair. The closest thing to “wellies” that I’ve ever worn are rubber galoshes that went over my shoes.

  7. I adored ‘0ne Thread Pulled’ and didn’t notice the Americanisms, even though in Australia we use the British English 🙂 Thank you for an interesting passage.

    • Thank you, Vee. I appreciate you letting me know. I’m guessing that some people are going to be more prone to catching them than others, based on their exposure to American language and culture. There are a number of British English words and phrases that used to catch my attention but don’t as much anymore simply because I’ve heard them so much in recent years. “Ginger” and “snogging” are two of my favorites. 🙂

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