Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Language imports and exports

It is a perpetual complaint that Americanisms are intruding too much into the English used in its native land. It is a feeling I share, especially when they replace good English terms and also lose their original sense.

For instance, "goose-bumps" has completely replaced the "goose-pimples" of my youth. We have lost the connection between the appearance of a newly-plucked goose and that of the human skin as a result of cold or fright. Take also "tad", which derives from "tadpole", an insignificant thing, but an abbreviation we have not used in Britain for a long time. I still prefer "a touch" (not now, madam, later!). How many people know that a "shoo-in" is an exact equivalent of our "walk-over"? Followers of racing will know this metaphor.

Some near-equivalents are not that bad. "Step up to the plate" from baseball conveys rather more immediacy and sense of responsibility than "come to the crease" (cricket). "Come up to scratch" (prizefighting) has diverged in meaning over the years.

It is not all one-way, either. Alistair Cooke pointed out in a Letter from America on the subject that North America adopted "strike" in the sense of withdrawal of labour from the British. I also note (on the basis of watching too many US TV drama imports) that "back to square one" is part of American English. The exact origin of this phrase is disputed (my hunch is that it results from a conflation of the explanations listed here) but there is little doubt that we used it before it crossed the Atlantic.

English terms, of UK or American flavour, have been exported all over the world, as one might expect from a language of dominance. Their appearance in foreign-language TV (I know, I watch too much) can still surprise, though. In the Belgian Rough Justice (based on the Inspecteur Liese Meerhout series of books by Toni Coppers) phrases such as "stop and search" pop up. And Liese Meerhout prefers the Californian "whatever" to a Gallic shrug.

I will wager that French speakers in Belgium do not regularly use Dutch/Flemish terms in everyday speech. The French whether at home or abroad are even more sensitive to imported words, especially of the dreaded Anglo-Saxon variety - though it seems that younger people are more objective. One notes that president Macron recently gave an interview in English in the US, something his predecessors did at their peril. We could, however, benefit from introducing a French usage. Sondage is a more accurate description of the type of opinion survey which infests our media and is too loosely described as a "poll". We have almost lost the meaning of "poll" as a real head-count at an election and it would be good to see "opinion soundings" rather than "opinion polls".

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