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.