How to Speak American

Found in the 1919 volume of the British literary miscellany Today is a beetle3bfascinating disquisition on the American use of English by the journalist J.M.C. Hampson, himself an American Anglophile. He begins his piece with a fragment of American dialogue followed by its translation:

“ Well, Dana, how do you stack- up this morning? “

“ Oh, sickabed.”

“Is that so? What’s on your system?”

“Oh, had a row with the Vrow; and look at that.” He pointed to the calendar on the wall in front of him, on which appeared in bold figures “Friday, 23.”

“Good Lord! 23—-skiddoo! Ugh! No wonder. Well, so long, I must be on my way. See you later.”

This being translated into English means that I called in at the office of my friend Dana Howard, said “Good morning “ , asked him how he felt, was informed that everything was all wrong, and that the proper place for him was in bed, that he had started the morning by an argument with his wife, and that he had just realised that it was Friday the 23rd. Be it understood that to an American 23 is the zero mark, and when it crops up all one can say is “skidoo”, meaning “get out of here”, or “away with it “; and if Friday falls on the 23rd it is even worse than Friday the 13th.All good Americans of the cities, at any rate, walk very warily before the Lord that day and pray that nothing untoward will happen . “So long “ as a substitute for au revoir is, of course, frequently used in England.

Hampson goes on to reveals that the American vocabulary is composed of many English words that have lost their original meaning. For instance, although all insects in America are bugs, to be ‘bugs-on’ something means to be keen on it, and consequently, by some sort of semantic logic, to be ‘ bugs ‘ or ‘bug-house ‘ means you are crazy. Such American terms have never caught on here in the UK, but many have been successfully transplanted. We have seen some in the above dialogue, but another may be the word ‘knocker‘, which Hampson defines as being the opposite of sanguine. The SOED states that it dates back to 1911 and means ‘a captious critic’. What it doesn’t tell us is whether the word, as Hampson suggests, was imported from America.

Another example of a change of meaning is the word ‘clever’. According to Hampson, in America it connotes ‘good-natured and affable ‘. I’ve never seen or heard it used in this way, but perhaps it has fallen out of favour. Of course, ‘smart‘ is the word all Americans use for clever /intelligent. One of the more inexplicable changes of meaning involves the American word ‘ homely ‘. Quite rightly Hampson claims that it is used to describe something or someone plain or ordinary. Quite why the word ‘home’ should be associated with plainness is not explained. But who says that there is any logic in language?  [R.M.Healey]



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