Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

Show Hide image

Robin Ince: Stephen Hawking made science relatable – why is it still so misunderstood?

We need more science and scientists in popular culture, so that children don’t give up on it as only for “boffins”.

I was 18 when A Brief History of Time was published. I had grown uninterested in science during the latter half of my secondary education, but I bought it anyway. I had fallen into the trap that Schopenhauer warned of, the failure to recognise that buying a book is not the same as reading it or indeed understanding it.

I read a little, then it went on a shelf. I read more of it than the surprise publishing hit of the previous year, Spycatcher. That book remains pristine in the shed, unlike A Brief History of Time, which is now pencil-marked, question-marked and annotated, if not fully understood.

The chuckled aside of “but no one’s actually read it” is really just another version of “what are those boffins on about, eh?”

The problem with popular physics books is that they are unlikely to be easy, especially if the last time you thought about physics was when you were using a bunsen burner as a weapon while distracted from discovering the energy of a peanut in class 3B.

Contemporary physics is counter-instinctual and eager to refute common sense. It takes time. If time exists, obviously.

As thrilling as it can be, you cannot read it at the speed of a thriller because it’s introducing you to a reality that appears so different to your reality.

It is easier to understand the actions of international spies in a Robert Ludlum novel than it is to understand the behaviour of particles and the curvature of space-time because we observe human fear and desire every day, even if we are not a rogue CIA agent.

Good physics books require frequent rest breaks – after all, they may well be turning your universe upside down, inside out or surrounding it with infinite other universes. There is no shame in being flummoxed by quantum indeterminacy and spending a while in a cool, dark room as you contemplate.

Carl Sagan, who wrote the original introduction to A Brief History of Time, wrote that children were born scientists, but they had it beaten out of them.

We are all curious, but with adulthood, our fear of embarrassment grows, and we temper our curiosity. Some close it down all together and embrace dogma and tribalism. At the time of birth, we all have potential to be scientists. Then culture, encouragement or lack of it, and expectations shape what we become. We do not have to give up on it; we just have to find the way in.

The connection with Stephen Hawking for many began with the peculiarity of his story. Here was a man who was physically immobile while his mind traversed the universe. Before you even tried to approach his science, there was a story.

People need stories to engage, facts are not enough.

Visiting schools during Science Week, I hear the frustration from teachers that they do not have time to tell the stories of science, just the information that came from them. They have to deliver the facts at a speed that reaches the target required for the next assessment. The lessons that show the passions and drives  and intrigue, the stories that can inspire, are a rare possibility. The curriculum needs space to enthuse.

Despite living in a world powered by scientific and technological innovation and in a civilisation whose future will be secured and enhanced by these innovations, mass media still treats the subject of “how the universe and everything in it from tadpoles to supermassive black holes came to be and where it is all going” as a niche subject.

We need more science and scientists in popular culture, more daily coverage so it does not become some otherness created by strange people who are not like us.

Let’s have more scientists with cameos on The Simpsons and Star Trek. Let’s not just have Benedict Cumberbatch on the chat show couch because he’s playing a scientist in a movie – let’s have the scientists on there, too.

It seems a pity to ignore the universe when there is so much of it.

It seems a pity to have a brain that has evolved to be curious, but not feed it questions – even if it does make it hurt sometimes.

Guinness World Records: Science & Stuff is out now.

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. With Brian Cox, he guest edited the 2012 Christmas double issue of the New Statesman. He's on Twitter as @RobinInce.