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We're Gobsmacked by Another British Invasion

Commentary

March 22, 2005|Timothy Kenny | Timothy Kenny, a former newsman and Fulbright scholar, is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut.

Oh those posh Brits. Those accents. That wit.

"We've always had a cultural inferiority complex with regard to the Brits," Stanford University linguist Geoffrey Nunberg says, "that they speak correctly and we don't. We even say we 'use the queen's English.' And why should that matter to us?"

Just such intellectual Anglophilia may be what's behind a virus that's infecting American media these days: Britspeak. We have become a nation of journalistic copycats, betraying perfectly good American idioms along the way.

Adding British expressions to your vocabulary, Nunberg says, "makes you sound pragmatic, a little cynical." Smart, in other words. And it's a cottage industry in some quarters.

In major newspapers and in broadcast media, we "send up" instead of "parody"; our thoughts reach a "full stop" instead of merely ending. A correct answer is "spot on" rather than "dead on." And corporate heads get "sacked" instead of "fired."

More widely used are "went missing" and its close relative, "gone missing." Over the last 10 years, the elite American news media have begun to use the phrases willy-nilly, avoiding the perfectly good American "has disappeared" or "is lost."

The Lexis/Nexis database says the Washington Post didn't use "went missing," in the sense of someone or something disappearing, in any stories in 1994. The New York Times used the expression just once that year. By 2004, however, Post writers used "went missing" 31 times; the Times did so 23 times. When you consider quotes, as opposed to the reporters' words, "went missing" and "gone missing" appeared a total of 91 times last year, compared with just eight times in 1994.

Neither National Public Radio nor NBC used "went missing" or "gone missing" in 1994. By 2004, however, NPR used one or the other 31 times; NBC, 38 times.

Britspeak is less common, at least in print, outside the Northeast, but it's there. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, used "went missing" not at all in 1994 and 17 times in 2004; same trend with "gone missing."

Harold Evans, a Brit who's lived on both sides of the Atlantic, edited the Sunday Times of London and ran Random House in New York. He says wider distribution of British media has brought more vivid, concise and precise expressions to the U.S.: "Good words drive out bad." "Gone missing," he says, is "more active" than disappeared.

Well, maybe, but that's not the way we talk in this country, or at least it didn't use to be. We "lined up" or, if we lived in New York, we got "on line" -- "queue up" was for London bus stops. But in about 2001, visitors to a museum where I worked were suddenly "queuing up" in staff discussions. "Doesn't that mean getting in line?" asked one of our number, obviously not fluent in Britspeak.

Perhaps the most popular bit of Britspeak can be found "at the end of the day." New York Times reporters used that phrase instead of our own "in the end" 14 times in 1994 and 33 times last year; in quotes, it showed up 159 times in 2004. If we aren't careful, the sturdy, straightforward "in the end" could once and for all ... go missing.

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