Out of Left Field: Exploring the Differences Between British English and American English
By John Bostwick, Technical Writer, Higher Education and Nonprofits
George Bernard Shaw remarked that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” The divide between British and American English has, perhaps, narrowed since Shaw’s day, but related anxieties remain. A 2012 article in The New York Times entitled “Americans Are Barmy Over Britishisms” notes: “Crikey, Britishisms are everywhere. Call it Anglocreep. Call it annoying. Snippets of British vernacular — ‘cheers’ as a thank you, ‘brilliant’ as an affirmative, ‘loo’ as a bathroom — that were until recently as rare as steak and kidney pie on these shores are cropping up in the daily speech of Americans.”
Speakers of British English have noticed a similar creeping of Americanisms into their own version of the language, and some of those speakers are just as ambivalent about adopting unfamiliar terms. A 2011 piece in the BBC News Magazine, “Why Do Some Americanisms Irritate People?” notes that “American culture is ubiquitous in Britain” and some UK speakers use Americanisms like stepping up to the plate and out of left field “without the foggiest idea what these phrases mean.” The writer strongly cautions against this kind of thoughtless use of Americanisms: “Britain is a very distinct country from the US. Not better, not worse, different. And long live that difference. That means maintaining the integrity of our own gloriously nuanced, subtle and supple version - the original version - of the English language.”
Curious to explore the differences between British and American English? Check out these resources:
Separated by a Common Language: This blog has been around since 2006 and is subtitled: “Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK.” The author is M. Lynne Murphy, a Reader in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Sussex who has lived most of her life in the US and moved to the UK in 2000. The blog is authoritative without being drily academic. Her “anti-Americanismism, part 1” post responds to the 2011 BBC website piece “Americanisms: 50 of your most noted examples.”
English to English: Bridging the US-UK Cultural Divide: This Guardian Tumblr project “attempts to track and catologue our cultural similarities and differences.” Read the “About This Project” page, which includes a tongue-in-cheek “Anglo-EU Translation Guide” that lists phrases used by the British and what British speakers really mean when they use them.
Not One-Off Britishisms:
This regularly updated blog “offers a growing list of Britishisms that have been widely adopted in the US.” Here’s the site’s Index of Entries.
The Economist Style Guide:
This entry on Americanisms in The Economist’s online style guide helps writers of British English use Americanisms judiciously. Writers of American English may benefit. Here’s an example: “Do not write meet with or outside of: outside America, nowadays, you just meet people.”
Radius in the UK:
The differences between British and American English are often subtle and don’t pose a significant barrier when engaging in conversation or doing business. British tax and employment laws, however, can differ dramatically from their US counterparts and may cause serious headaches for US businesses and nonprofits operating in the UK. At Radius, we specialize in keeping our US-based customers compliant with UK laws — and the laws of other countries around the world — so they can concentrate on their core businesses or nonprofit or academic missions.
Radius has all the back-office support services and technical expertise your organization needs to operate efficiently and compliantly in the United Kingdom.