The Americanisation of the English language: a frightfully subtle affair

Brits can get rather sniffy about the English language – after all, they originated it. But a Google search of the word “Americanisms” turns up claims that they are swamping, killing and absorbing British English. If the British are not careful, so the argument goes, the homeland will soon be the 51st State as workers tell customers to “have a nice day” while “colour” will be spelt without a “u” and “pavements” will become “sidewalks”. The two versions of English are intelligible but have long had enough differences to inspire Oscar Wilde to claim:

We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language.

My research examined how both varieties of the language have been changing between the 1930s and the 2000s and the extent to which they are growing closer together or further apart. So do Brits have cause for concern?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, most of the easily noticeable features of British language are holding up. Take spelling, for example – towards the 1960s it looked like the UK was going in the direction of abandoning the “u” in “colour” and writing “centre” as “center”. But since then, the British have become more confident in some of their own spellings. In the 2000s, the UK used an American spelling choice about 11% of the time while Americans use a British one about 10% of the time, so it kind of evens out. Automatic spell-checkers which can be set to different national varieties are likely to play a part in keeping the two varieties fairly distinct.

Oscar Wilde posing for an 1882 studio portrait by Napoleon Sarony. 

There is also no need to worry too much about American words, such as “vacation”, “liquor” and “law-maker” creeping into British English. There are a few cases of this kind of vocabulary change but they mostly tend to be relatively rare words and they are not likely to alter British English too much.

The British are still using “mum” rather than “mom”, “folk” rather than “folks”, “transport” rather than “transportation”, “petrol” rather than “gas”, “railway” rather than “railroad” and “motorway” rather than “highway”. Words to keep an eye on, however, are lawyer, jail, cop, guy and movie – all of which are creeping into the lexicon more and more.

But when we start thinking of language more in terms of style than vocabulary or spelling, a different picture emerges. Some of the bigger trends in American English are moving towards a more compact and informal use of language. American sentences are on average one word shorter in 2006 than they were in 1931.

Americans also use a lot more apostrophes in their writing than they used to, which has the effect of turning the two words “do not” into the single “don’t”. They’re getting rid of certain possessive structures, too – so “the hand of the king” becomes the shorter “the king’s hand”. Another trend is to avoid passive structures such as “a paper was written”, instead using the more active form, “I wrote a paper”.

I’m rather fond of gradable adverbs

And some words are starting to be drastically eroded from English – especially a grammatical class called gradable adverbs which consists of boosters like “frightfully” and “awfully” and downtoners (words or phrases which reduce the force of another word or phrase) like “quite” and “rather”.

If anything marks out the British linguistically, it’s their baroque way of using adverbs, especially as a form of polite sangfroid or poise – so “the worst day ever” is “things perhaps aren’t quite as wonderful as they could be”. As the American critic Alexander Woollcott once said: “The English have an extraordinary ability for flying into a great calm.”

Classic films such as Brief Encounter are absolutely packed with gradable adverbs. Americans, on the other hand, tend to communicate in a more straightforward manner, telling it “as it is”. However, and here’s the thing, in all these aspects Brits are changing too – and in exactly the same way as Americans. They’re just about 30 years behind the trend that Americans seem to be leading.

So this raises a question, is British English actively following American English – copying its more economical, direct use of language – or is this something that is simply a global trend in language use? Perhaps we’re all just on the same path and the British would have gone in that direction, even if America had never been discovered? I’d like to think the latter but due to the large amount of American language that British people encounter through different forms of media, I suspect the former is more accurate.

These stylistic changes generally make for a more user-friendly version of the language which is accessible and easy to follow so they’re hard to resist. Except for the loss of those gradable adverbs, though – I’m slightly annoyed about that and would like to advocate that we keep hold of them. They’re a linguistic passport and also a marker of national character, so it would be rather lovely if we could hold on to them.


11 words that are much older than you think

A page from the manuscript of Great Expectations
 Charles Dickens’ manuscript of Great Expectations. The verb ‘to hang out’ appears in the novelist’s work.

Sometimes it feels like we must be the snarkiest, slangiest, least-formal generation in human history. What other age could have coined the word chugger, invented ROFL and its many permutations, or seen vocal fryripple out from Kim Kardashian in an unstoppable wave?

This idea fits snugly next to that familiar prejudice about language: that it’s gradually deteriorating. And it is part of a broader cognitive bias that leads us to extrapolate from our own experience in order to make theories about the world. The linguist Arnold Zwicky has labelled it the “recency illusion” – “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent” (my italics).

Thankfully, there’s a big chunk of actual data on the history of English to check our assumptions against: it’s called literature. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the way people spoke, but it sheds light on the lexicon of the literate classes. The lack of a word doesn’t tell us it was never used, but the occurrence of one strongly suggests it was. In any case, hidden amongst the mass of written records of English are some real surprises. (Some of the examples that follow are taken from this Metafilter thread.)


As in intoxicated by drugs. It must be from the 1960s – the era of psychedelia, right? In fact, being “high – under the influence of a narcotic” appears in an edition of the Baltimore Evening Sun from 1932. And when we confine ourselves to booze, we find the usage goes back much further. In 1627 Thomas May wrote “He’s high with wine”.


Speaking of which, booze meant “potable liquid” at least as far back as the 1730s, as in the phrase “peck and booz” for meat and drink. In terms of alcohol, the earliest reference found by lexicographers working on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is Hotten’s 1859 compendium of slang. And a Daily Telegraph court report from 1895 goes as follows: “Mr Willis: ‘She heard some men shout that they wanted some more booze.’ Mr Justice Wright: ‘What?’ Mr Willis: ‘Booze my lord, drink.’ Mr Justice Wright: ‘Ah!'”


Stick this at the end of a statement to negate everything that went before it. “I’m really looking forward to spending time with my great aunt Iris. Not!”. Ask anyone who was a teenager during the 1990s how this caught on and they’ll probably refer you to the film Wayne’s World. But in the 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss there’s a very similar construction. “She would make a sweet, strange, troublesome, adorable wife to some man or other, but he would never have chosen her himself. Did she feel as he did? He hoped she did—not.” The OED records several further instances.

Hang out

The verb hang out, meaning to spend time or live, is attested in this 1811 “dictionary of Buckish Slang“. “The traps scavey where we hang out” means “The officers know where we live”. In Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, from 1836, a character asks: “I say old boy, where do you hang out?”.


The use of this word to denote a dwelling place – linked in many people’s minds with African-American slang, particularly hip-hop subculture – has a long pedigree. The OED describes it as meaning “a small habitation, cabin, hovel; a narrow room.” In this last sense, Shakespeare has King Henry IV ask “Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs, Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee … Than in the perfumed chambers of the great?”


The OED has found babe – as in sexually attractive female – back in 1915. The American Dialect Society’s journal of that year records the phrase “She’s some babe”.


To me, at least, this sounds like office speak. “Is this doable before close of play today?” an email might demand. But it’s a surprisingly ancient coinage. Bishop Reginald Pecock writes in 1449 of “a lawe … which is doable and not oonli knoweable”. Cotgrave’s 1611 French-English dictionary translates faisable as “doeable, effectable”.


The abbreviation of legitimate has a modern ring to it. Ex-cons in TV crime dramas struggle to go “legit” after they’ve served their time. But precisely this use is attested as far back as 1897, in the US National Police Gazette: “Bob is envious of Corbett’s success as a ‘legit’,” it tells us.


The use of this phrase, which has a very recent flavour because of the saga of the September dossier, published in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, has plenty of precedents in printed material more than 70 years old.


OK, it’s not a word, exactly. But a joke in a letter to Winston Churchill may well have given the world its first taste of OMG – an exclamation so ubiquitous on the internet, and now even in speech, that it must be about to fall out of fashion. Given its practical, space-saving nature, who’s to say there aren’t thousands more private instances of early OMG out there?


This may be cheating. Unfriend, as used by Thomas Fuller in 1659 (He wrote: “I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us”) clearly does not refer to the act of removing someone from one’s list of Facebook acquaintances. It does, however, mean the severing of a friendship – so maps quite closely onto Mark Zuckerberg’s word. It’s hardly a coincidence that they both chose the same construction, given the flexibility of the “un-” prefix. Just goes to show, there’s nothing new under the sun.

So why do we always fall for the idea that there is – and why does the recency illusion (a form of inductive reasoning) hold such sway, in language as elsewhere in life? This is probably down to the fact that it was very useful, from an evolutionary point of view, to be able to construct models of the world based on our individual experience of it. For example, not hunting on the side of the mountain where you were once bitten by a hyena could save your life. But what if the hyena attack was a freak occurrence, and the odds of it happening again extremely small? Personal encounters aren’t always the best guide.

Now we have data, historical accounts, advice from the past and from our peers. We don’t need to rely on gut feeling to tell us whether something’s true about the world. When we do so, we’re often wrong.

So, what’s the problem with ‘so’?

The opening of Beowulf, including the word ‘Hwæt’, which can be translated as ‘So’.
 A manuscript of Beowulf, including the word ‘Hwæt’, which can be translated as ‘So’.

Another day, another linguistic bugbear held up for ridicule. This time, it’s the harmless, modest, blink-and-you-miss-it word “so”. What has this innocent syllable done to offend the British public? If you have been struggling to get through to the BBC recently it’s because their switchboard has been jammed with complaints about it.

Here’s Robert from Wakefield: “I have been increasingly irritated over the last couple of years by the increasing use of the word ‘so’ when prefacing a sentence.” (I know how you feel Robert, I’ve been increasingly irritated by the increasing use of the word increasing). And Kay from Belfast: “I don’t think ‘so’ is an appropriate word with which to begin a sentence.”

As for Fergus from Glasgow, it’s practically ruining his life: “Every time I hear it, the hair on my neck rises and my teeth bare in a grimace”. They have a champion in Today presenter John Humphrys, who believes that “The misplaced ‘so’ has invaded everyday speech like some noxious weed in an untended garden.”

I think I may have a cure for this allergic reaction, which has now reached the leader page of The Times. But first, let’s look at the causes. Prime among them is what linguist Arnold Zwicky has called “the recency illusion”, a tendency to assume that things you have noticed recently are in fact innovations. Very often, they’ve been around much longer than you think, as this list of new-sounding old words shows.

Listeners are upset about a particular use of “so” as a discourse marker – a way to introduce a sentence, or link parts of a narrative. I doubt they’d complain about “so” used to mean “as a result of” – as in the sentence: “He hit me, so I called the police”. (It’s worth noting at this point that discourse markers are perfectly respectable grammatical widgets found in virtually all languages.)

The idea that the discourse marker form of “so” represents any kind of “invasion” can be swiftly dispatched. As linguist John McWhorter points outin an episode of the podcast Lexicon Valley, it’s mostly used in casual speech. Casual speech isn’t often written down, so it’s easier to fall for the idea that this is a contemporary phenomenon – it doesn’t appear much in the historical record. But it does appear.

There’s a 1929 recording of a comedian Jack Osterman routine, for example, in which he says “So I said alright, we’ll go to the Ritz – so we walked in the Ritz, and we sat down.” That’s 88 years ago.

One place you can find casual speech written down is in passages of dialogue in novels. And, in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, published 117 years ago, one of Carrie’s suitors asks, “So you lost your place because you got sick, eh?”

But the real clincher? How about a poem from the 10th century? Beowulf, the Old English epic, starts with the words Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum. This has been translated as “What! We of the Spear-Danes in days-of-yore” – but, as McWhorter points out, “What”, although it is cognate with (etymologically linked to) Hwæt, makes no sense to modern English ears, and is therefore a poor translation. A better one, used by Seamus Heaney and others, is “so”– “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by”.

If it’s good enough for one of the greatest works of English literature, why isn’t it good enough for John Humphrys, Kay from Belfast, and poor Fergus?

Part of the reason is that we tend to feel alienated from linguistic and cultural changes that occur after our young adulthood. Although “so” isn’t new, it’s possible there’s been an uptick in its use as a discourse marker (it would be very difficult to know for sure, since research on usage is often done by analysing large amounts of written material). A simpler explanation is that it has begun to appear in contexts – like BBC Radio – where, for cultural reasons, delivery used to be more formal.

It’s probably this that sticks out to John, Kay and Fergus. However they might try to justify their dislike of so linguistically – it’s inappropriate, ungrammatical, a “misuse” of the word – what they are really expressing is upset at a cultural change, one they are powerless to influence, and one future generations will not care about.

They trouble is, now they’ve noticed it, they’ll be hearing it everywhere. Spare a thought.

Where Did the English Language Come From?

If you’ve ever deliberately studied the English language — or, even worse, taught it — you know that bottomless aggravation awaits anyone foolish enough to try to explain its “rules.” What makes English so apparently strange and different from other languages, and how could such a language go on to get so much traction all over the world? Whether you speak English natively (and thus haven’t had much occasion to give the matter thought) or learned it as a second language, the five-minute TED-Ed lesson above, written by Yale linguistics professor Claire Bowernand animated by Patrick Smith, will give you a solid start on understanding the answer to those questions and others.

Should France embrace gender-neutral words? Bien sur!

The French Academy is railing against moves towards a gender-neutral style, but language always blends and changes without any loss of expressive power

The French Academy, Paris: charged with the mission to keep the language ‘pure’.
 The French Academy, Paris: charged with the mission to keep the language ‘pure’.

Forget Brexit. Europe is facing an even more fundamental crisis: one of its major languages is en péril mortel (“in mortal danger”). If you take the French Academy at its word, within a few years 70 million EU citizens will be communicating using only grunts – or grognements, as they will no longer be able to say.

The cause? Political correctness gone mad, as usual. The academy, which is charged with the Canute-like task of preventing the French language from changing very much, is furious at the use of “inclusive language”, which attempts to get around the assumption of male superiority baked into French grammar. Because French, like many other languages, requires nouns referring to people to have masculine or feminine endings, if you’re describing a mixed-gender group, you’re forced to pick one. By convention, it’s the masculine. So a group of, say, six MPs – one man and five women – would be called députés, not députées. One way to deal with this is to have an alternative form that covers everyone: député-e-s.

That’s what the academy is railing against. But the idea that it places French in “mortal danger”, as its statement argues? Have these people gone complètement fou? It’s an optional shorthand, used only in print. It may be relevant at this point to raise the fact that, of the 34 academicians, 30 are male.

Apart from the gender imbalance, there’s the academy’s mission according to its 17th-century statutes: to make the language “pure”. Talk about setting yourself up to fail – or at least to get angry about things that you can’t change. Languages are always impure: they borrow, blend and innovate, without any loss of expressive power.

One radical solution, of course, is for members of the academy to become reformers rather than reactionaries, and eliminate masculine and feminine forms altogether. Plenty of languages, including English, Turkish or Thai, get along perfectly well without them. And the French have done radical things with language before, such as scrapping the names of days of the week during the revolution. People of France, you have nothing to lose but your gender markings!

Resistance to changes in grammar is futile, say researchers

Linguists say that random chance plays a bigger role than previously thought in the evolution of language – but also that ‘English is weird’

The manuscripts pictured show changes from Old English (Beowulf) through Middle English (Trinity Homilies, Chaucer) to Early Modern English (Shakespeare’s First Folio).
 The manuscripts pictured show changes from Old English (Beowulf) through Middle English (Trinity Homilies, Chaucer) to Early Modern English (Shakespeare’s First Folio).

When it comes to changes in language, there’s no point crying over spilt milk: researchers charting fluctuations in English grammar say the rise of certain words, such as spilled, is probably down to chance, and that resistance is futile.

Comparisons have long been drawn between evolution and changes in language, with experts noting that preferences such as a desire for emphasis can act as a type of “natural selection”, affecting which words or forms of grammar are passed on between generations.

But a new study shows that another evolutionary mechanism might play a key role : random chance.

The authors of the study say that the work adds to our understanding of how language changes over centuries.

“Whether it is by random chance or selection, one of the things that is true about English – and indeed other languages – is that the language changes,” said Joshua Plotkin, co-author of the research from the University of Pennsylvania. “The grammarians might [win the battle] for a decade, but certainly over a century they are going to be on the losing side.”

Writing in the journal Nature, Plotkin and colleagues describe how they tracked different types of grammatical changes across the ages.

Among them, the team looked at changes in American English across more than one hundred thousand texts from 1810 onwards, focusing on the use of “ed” in the past tense of verbs compared with irregular forms – for example, “spilled” versus “spilt”.

The hunt threw up 36 verbs which had at least two different forms of past tense, including quit/quitted and leaped/leapt. However for the majority, including spilled v spilt, the team said that which form was waxing or waning was not clearly down to selection – meaning it is probably down to chance over which word individuals heard and copied.

“Chance can play an important role even in language evolution – as we know it does in biological evolution,” said Plotkin, adding that the impact of random chance on language had not been fully appreciated before.

The grammar of negating a sentence has changed from “Ic ne secge” (Beowulf, c. 900) to “Ic ne sege noht” (the Ormulum, c. 1100) to “I seye not” (Chaucer, c. 1400) to “I doe not say” (Shakespeare, c. 1600) before returning to the familiar “I don’t say” (Virginia Woolf, c. 1900).
 The grammar of negating a sentence has changed from “Ic ne secge” (Beowulf, c. 900) to “Ic ne sege noht” (the Ormulum, c. 1100) to “I seye not” (Chaucer, c. 1400) to “I doe not say” (Shakespeare, c. 1600) before returning to the familiar “I don’t say” (Virginia Woolf, c. 1900). Photograph: Cherissa Dukelow

For just six of the 36 verbs, the rise of one form over another was clearly not only down to chance, but was largely a result of active preference – akin to natural selection.

The study also revealed that a flower today is more likely to be “smelled” rather than “smelt” and that the neighbour’s cat probably “dove” behind the sofa – although, as Plotkin notes, British felines remain more likely to have dived.

But there was a puzzle. “The prevailing view is that if language is changing it should in general change towards the regular form, because the regular form is easier to remember,” said Plotkin. However, four of the six verbs show a rise in the irregular form of the past tense.

That, the team note, might at least in part be down to whether the word sounds similar to other commonly used words of the age. For example the increasing popularity of “dove” rather than “dived” in American English coincides with the development of cars, and hence the rise of soundalike “drive” and past tense “drove” in describing journeys. The team add that they suspect similar effects might be at work in a number of the verbs that currently look like they might be changing by chance alone.

The authors add that the research suggests rare words are more likely to vary over time and be subject to random chance.

The study also explores the use of negation in sentences, such as “I say not”, across English texts dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries, revealing that the placement of the negative word has changed more than once due to selection, possibly because of a desire for emphasis.

“There a was period of time where double negation … was the way to negate things, just as it is in French today,” said Plotkin.

Dr Christine Cuskley, from the Centre for Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, agreed that similarities to commonly used irregular verbs could affect which form of past tense is on the rise.

But she said that it was likely that there were other pressures affecting which form of a past tense is favoured. What’s more, Cuskley added, it is not clear if the conclusions from the latest research could be applied to other languages.

“English is weird,” she said.

Jean Aitcheson (Language Change: Progress or Decay? 1981) & Guy Deutscher (The Unfolding of Language, 2005)


Spreading the Word – Jean Aitcheson

  • The origin and spread of language change was as obscure to the majority of linguists as the source of disease.
  • [Language change] is for the most part below the level of consciousness.
  • Simply staring to exaggerate a tendency which was already there
  • A change tends to sneak into the language like a seed, which enters the soil and germinates unseen
  • Changes… around the time of the Second World War, perhaps because of a growing awareness as Americans.
  • People may only become socially aware of a change when it reaches a certain crucial point.
  • A new group starts to model itself on the group which has now adopted a linguistic initiative as the norm.
  • New York apparently followed the lead of… fashionable cities


The Forces of Creation – Guy Deutscher

  • Without what you write off as so much delay, we wouldn’t have gone much beyond grunts and groans.
  • We distinguish between ‘content’ and ‘grammar’ when we talk about a language, but when you stop to think about it, the only valid reason for drawing the distinction in the first place is meaning: we call some words ‘content words’ because they have an independent meaning, and we call other words ‘grammatical words’ because they don’t.
  • In real life, the actual meaning of what you say is often more than the literal sense of the words. What you say may not be exactly what you imply. How the hearer interprets what you said may not be exactly what you think you implied.
  • There are two common motives that are always behind the scene: the desire to enhance our expressive range on the other hand and laziness on the other.
  • When two words appear together extremely frequently, the border between them can lose its relevance, so that when the phrase is worn down, the two words fuse into one.
  • Erosion keeps pounding at words, making them shorter and shorter. But shortened words are piled up into longer expressions, and the same forces of erosion then hack away at the pile, fuse the words and condenses them into a more compact word once more.
  • Erosion is also a regenerative force that constantly creates new and leaner structure from over-weight multi-word phrases.
  • Erosion is a highly useful compacting mechanism which allows us to convey ideas faster and more efficiently. Erosion checks the excesses of expressiveness, just as expressiveness repairs the excess of erosion.


The Forces of Destruction – Guy Deutscher


  • “What looks messy and irregular at one point in time can appear perfectly logical when traced through history.”


There are many words in the English language which don’t fit our patterns and we label them as “irregular”. However, these words are not errors; they were created in the same logical way as all others, but may not make sense to us nowadays because some of our grammatical rules have changed over time.


  • “The English of today is not what it used to be, but then again, it never was.”


Language change isn’t something that recently began; it has been occurring since the beginning of communication. Prescriptivists who act like language change is going to ruin English are hypocritical, because their “Golden Age” of language wouldn’t exist if we didn’t embrace change decades ago.


  • So, like any other living organism, languages have an early period of growth, followed by a period of decay.”


Language isn’t “decaying” for no reason, and the change which are happening to English are not entirely destructive. After language has expanded for some time, it needs to change in order to keep the balance and stay up to date with society.


  • “The image of a flawless language spoken some time in prehistory turns out to have been mainly a mirage. In reality, there never was a Golden Age of perfection.”


There was never a period where the English language was perfect, or even close to it. It has been changing since the day English came about and linguists simply decide when they think it was “golden” based on their own subjective beliefs and opinions.


  • “The forces of destruction almost seem to leap out of the pages of practically any language’s history, but the contrary processes, the productive forces of renewal and creation, are much more difficult to spot.”


Creation occurs in English just as much as destruction, but people don’t take as much notice of the subtle changes as they do to the decay because it is more obvious to us.


  • “If the changes only mess things up, then how did languages ever reach their Golden Age in the first place?”


Language change can’t possibly be bad, because it led to every good feature of English that prescriptivists care about preserving. If English had never passed the initial creation stage, then all of the grammar rules and pronunciations that prescriptivists are trying to preserve wouldn’t exist.


A Reef of Dead Metaphors – Guy Deutscher

Deutscher’s central contention is that metaphors are essential components of our language, and that all language is built on metaphor.

Metaphor is an essential component of language because it is the only way that we can describe and discuss abstract concepts (by making them/linking them to concrete concepts):

  • ‘Metaphor is an indispensable element in the thought-processes of every one of us’
  • ‘the chief mechanism through which we can describe and even grasp abstraction’
  • ‘metaphor is endemic in the structure of language’
  • ‘the mind cannot just manufacture words for abstract concepts out of thin air – all it can do is adapt what is already available … the only way we have of expanding our expressive range to encompass abstract ideas is to draw on concrete terms’

EXAMPLE: ‘understand’ originally ‘meant … ‘step under’, ’comprehend’ comes from Latin ‘seize’

EXAMPLE: ‘we consistently think of more complex or abstract notions (such as self-esteem or the economy) in terms of simpler spatial directions, up and down’

  • ‘If apples are piled up in the larder, the more apples, the higher the pile’
  • But the image ‘has gone far beyond this original basis’

EXAMPLE: ‘to have’ is an abstract concept, which is expressed through different metaphors for possession in all languages

  • Russian, Turkish and Irish use ‘physical proximity as a metaphor for … possession’
  • Breton and Tamil use the idea that ‘if something is intended for you, it is yours’
  • Spanish and English use the idea of ‘what one holds or carries or siezes’


Process begins with a concrete term being applied to abstract concept:

  • ‘[Words are] transported out of [their] original environment in the physical world of materials, and carried across to the abstract domain of ideas’
  • ‘all the metaphors flow in once direction, from the concrete to the abstract’

EXAMPLE: ‘’tough’ is really an attribute of materials like fabrics, metals or meat’


The figurative sense may overtake the literal one:

  • ‘What was once a vibrant metaphor has thus asserted itself as the usual meaning of [a word], and the literal sense is hardly remembered’

EXAMPLE: ‘curb’ was used for ‘curbing the movement of a horse’ but is now much more frequently applied to ‘curbing … power’


These metaphors inevitably lose their force and become dead metaphors:

  • ‘’Tough’ may once have been a glamourous newcomer in the domain of ideas
  • ‘all semblance of former vitality has been lost’
  • They become ‘the stock-in-trade of ordinary language’
  • ‘we trample on the relic of metaphors all the time [without] a moment’s thought’
  • ‘the death of metaphors in no way detracts from their usefulness, as they simple add more means to our vocabulary’


ALL of our language has gone through this process: (see page 125 for more examples)

EXAMPLE: Old English ‘thyrlian’ meant ‘pierce’ so ‘’I’m thrilled to bits (literally ‘I’m pierced to bits’) must have been a graphic equivalent of today’s ‘it’s killing’ or ‘smashing’’

EXAMPLE: ‘’Sarcastic’ comes from Greek ‘flesh-tearing’’


The concepts and associations based on which we create metaphors may be common across languages which share no roots:

  • ‘Similar metaphors are found in languages all over the world’

EXAMPLE: English ‘decide’ comes from Latin ‘cut off’

  • ‘[physically] cutting or separating seem to be the source of the concept of ‘deciding’’
  • This image is seen in the German, Ancient Greek, Swahili, Chinese (and others) ‘decide’


Metaphor ‘categories’, too, become dead, even if the individual term is original:

  • ‘a well-established link in our mind between … two domains … conceptual metaphors

EXAMPLE: ‘souffle of promises’ isn’t especially striking because it ‘belongs to a larger context which is familiar…food terms to describe abstract ideas’


Even functional grammatical elements were originally metaphors:

  • ‘there is no known language where spatial terms are not also used to describe temporal [time] relations … prepositions … originally denoted spatial terms, and … were metaphorically extended into the domain of time’
  • ‘there is hardly any part of the body which has not been enlisted as a metaphor for spatial and more abstract concepts’





Language Myths


  1. “Children Can’t Speak or Write Properly Any More” James Milroy

40% of brides and bride-grooms couldn’t write their own names – Children are now taught to read and write from a very early age and have basic linguistic abilities that many adults didn’t have in the 19th Century.

Difficult words like supersede and dilapidateMost people struggle with spellings regardless of how literate they are, so children not being able to spell difficult words that aren’t used in everyday language doesn’t reflect their literacy level

 She come to my house – The use of present tense come is grammatically incorrect for this clause, but when spoken it isn’t a big enough mistake to alter the meaning

 I threw it out the window – Although the Standard English form of this would include the word of, it is still very obvious what the speaker means

The government think they can do what they like – This is an example of a Standard English clause which prescriptivists still take issue with when used by young people due to discrepancies between whether government is singular or plural

 We was… – In the past this was commonly used by the upper-middle class so it was deemed as grammatically correct but now it is unacceptable in writing


2. The Meanings of Words Should Not be allowed to Vary or Change – Peter Trudgill

All English speakers used to pronounce the k in ‘knee’ but they don’t anymore

Language changes all the time inc grammar, pronunciation and spellings, language change cannot be halted but languages themselves are self-regulating systems as their speakers want to be understood and be able to understand others.

The gradual changing of the meaning of ‘nice’ over the past 6,000 years in the order ‘not cutting,’ ‘shy,’ ‘modest,’ ‘delicate,’ ‘considerate,’ ‘pleasant,’ and now ‘agreeable.’

Trudgill argues that how can we say language change shouldn’t happen yet people don’t go about arguing that ‘real’ meaning of ‘nice’ is ‘not cutting.’

Emotive words tend to change more rapidly by using some of their force e.g. ‘awful’ used to mean ‘inspiring awe,‘ yet now means ‘very bad.’ Or in expressions like ‘awfully good’ it just means ‘very.’

In both cases the semantic shift has caused all connections with ‘awe’ to be lost, yet no one argues using these words in those ways is wrong because the speech community is used to it.

Misuse of the words ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’ has led to them now being both used in very similar ways. ‘Disinterested’ used to be equivalent to ‘neutral/ impartial’ and ‘uninterested’ was equivalent to ‘bored, feeling no curiosity.’

Because the English prefix dis- is commonly employed to turn positive adjectives into negative ones, it is unsurprising that speakers started following this pattern of using dis- to make a negative for ‘interested.’

Instead of ‘lack of interest’ we now have the possibility of using single-word nouns such as ‘uninterestedness’ or ‘disinterest.’

This possibility is highly useful, giving a wider language choice without causing confusion (linked to last example).

There is a number of pairs of words that dictionaries distinguish between e.g ‘imply’ and ‘infer.’ ‘Imply’ being that someone has suggested something themselves and ‘infer’ meaning that the listener has deduced something from the speakers words.

Not everyone knows these converse terms have different meanings so use them in the same way, yet it is unlikely there will be any actual confusion of meaning. Therefore it cannot be argued by prescriptivists that this could be potentially confusing so shouldn’t be permitted, because even if situational context doesn’t make it clear, grammatical context will.

 2. The Meanings of Words Should Not be Allowed to Vary or Change – Peter Trudgill


Peter Trudgill is a sociolinguist and well-known authority on dialects.

What is the central contention of the essay?

Trudgill argues that it is perfectly natural and potentially beneficial for the meanings of words to change over time, and that the efforts of those wishing to ‘protect’ their original meanings are both fruitless and unnecessary.

‘All languages change all the time…it is a universal characteristic of human languages.’

‘Language change cannot be halted.’

‘The English language is full of words which have changed their meanings slightly or even dramatically over the centuries.’

  • It is impossible to stop language change
  • Language change is a natural and necessary part its development

‘there do not seem to be any problems of comprehension’

  • Mutual intelligibility is not (at all) infringed on when ‘precious’ distinctions are lost

‘The fact is that none of us can unilaterally decide what a word means’

‘Words do not mean what we as individuals would like them to mean, but what speakers of the language in general want them to mean.’

  • ‘Meanings of words are shared between people’
  • The purpose of language is communication
  • We all must agree to the same ‘social contract’ of language for effective communication
  • That means accepting words whose meanings have changed if everyone else does

‘[Some people – purists] believe that change in language is inherently undesirable’

‘If, in 200 years’ time, all English speakers use disinterested in the new way … the language will perhaps have lost something, but it will also have gained something’

‘Nor should worriers feel obliged to try to halt [language change].’

  • Aspects of every language feature can be interpreted as advantages and disadvantages
  • Embracing change does not mean the loss of all valuable language features

 What examples does the author use to support his argument?

History of ‘nice’

  • Meaning has changed from ‘ignorant’, to ‘silly’, to ‘foolish, shy’, to ‘modest’, to ‘delicate’, to ‘considerate’, to ‘pleasant’

‘Uninterested’ vs. ‘disinterested’

  • Increasing use of ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’ disliked by purists
  • No problem with distinction between two meanings of ‘interested’
  • 1) More linguistic potential (single-word corresponding noun) with change
  • 2) Useful distinction (to determine level of antipathy) gained with change

Verbs such as German ‘liehen’ (when discussing the distinction between ‘imply’ and ‘infer’)

  • Means both ‘to borrow’ and ‘to lend’
  • The distinctions which English makes are not essential for good communication
  • There is no inherently valuable language feature which ought to be preserved at all costs

 3. Some Languages are Just Not Good Enough – Ray Harlow


“Latin was restricted to certain uses within the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the conduct of services and formal communication internationally. Now it is even more restricted and it is really only now used by a few people to read the literature originally written in the language.”


“English is the language of international air traffic, business communication, scientific publication and lingua franca of tourism.”

New Zealand

“English is the first language of some 95 percent if the New Zealand population and the only       language of around 90 percent.”

“People who identify as Maori make up around 12 percent of the population.”

“Although the Maori language is seen as very important for national identity only around 30000 speak it fluently.”

“Social changes in New Zealand within the past decades , Maori has seen its uses restricted till in many places it is now only used at formal institutionalized events.”

“In the last twenty years there has been a number of initiatives in politics, education and broadcasting to try and reverse the change.”

“It is possible to notice… Maori is not good enough to be an official language beyond basic education.”

Cicero – Roman orator, politician, philosopher in first century BC

“Composed works in Latin partly to make Greek philosophy available to a Latin speakers , but to show it could be done. This is because some of his Greek contemporaries were skeptical about the possibility of Latin being able to express the ideas and trains of thought of the Greeks.”

“Latin was just not good enough! However, this was the language that went on to be the language of scholarship, science and literature for well over a millennium!”

Middle Ages  

At this time languages like French, English and Italian were too unpolished, immature and lacking resources to be able to convey abstract thought and breadth of knowledge usually expressed in ancient languages such as Greek and Latin.”

Switzerland & Romansh

A language descended from Latin.”

“It is still an everyday language in a number of villages and regions, though German has been making inroads in the area for centuries.”

“Push in recent decades to increase the areas in which Romansh is used.”

“German is able to construct clearly defined single words for technical ideas, Romansh is not. This ignore that French and Italian are in exactly the same boat as Romansh.”

“A language of Alpine agriculture.”

“It is the argument that X is not good enough because you can’t discuss nuclear physics in it.”

Old English and Modern English

“This argument cannot be maintained. Computers were not discussed in Old English ; Modern English is the same language, only later; it should follow that Modern English cannot be used to discuss computers.”

“What has happened to English is that through time English has developed the resources necessary to the discussion of computers.”

“Not all languages have the same vocabulary though.  It is true that some languages have developed vocabularies to deal with topics which are just not discussed in other languages. And developed is the crucial word.”


All languages do this to some extent, though English is perhaps the language which has the highest level of borrowed vocabulary.”

 4. Jean Aitchison: “The media are ruining English”?

Jean Aitchison – Professor of Language and Communication in the faculty of English language and literature at the University of Oxford. Main areas of interest include socio-historical linguistics, and language and the media.

Central point – “the media did not initiate [language change]; they were reflecting current usage.” Whilst the media (namely radio, television and news press) have been increasingly held accountable for the “sickening” of the English language, Aitchison puts this to a “delusion”. She stresses that the media simply picks up on new words early on and spreads their usage.

Complaints about the supposed effect of the press on English go back almost 150 years. “Among writers, those who do the most mischief are… the men generally who write for the newspapers” (from Popular errors in language 1880).

The emergence of TV and radio in the late 20th century as the main outlets of media over newspapers gives rise to concerns about the effect on spoken language as well as written.

David Crystal 1982 cited. ‘Top twenty’ complaints about broadcast language. 9 relate to grammar, 6 to pronunciation and 5 to vocabulary.

Example cited from Crystal’s ‘top twenty’ – “you and I” after a preposition versus “you and me” (the ‘correct’ version). The supposedly ‘incorrect’ version used as far back as Shakespeare in ‘the Merchant of Venice’ and, more recently, by Thatcher in the 1980s, demonstrating that it cannot have been caused by the media.

Dirty Fingernails fallacy

The idea that journalists use language sloppily.

‘Tadpole-to-frog’ analogy has been replaced by William Labov’s ‘young cuckoo’ analogy. ‘Young cuckoo’ takeovers (new words replacing older ones with the same meaning). Begin slowly then have a sudden upsurge, often nurtured by the media.

Example – “wimp”, long used to mean “feeble male” in California becomes quickly widespread, gradually ousting other terms such as “nebbish” and “nerd”.

Example – mini- prefix. Vogue magazine first noted the “mini-skirt” in 1965, assisting the explosion of the prefix which came in the 1960s.

“The media are therefore linguistic mirrors: they reflect current language usage and extend it.”

Coexistence of different pronunciations for the same word (e.g. CONtroversy and conTROVersy) worries some prescriptivists, although meaning is not obscured and the use of each variation is well-balanced (44% and 56%, respectively).

Garbage Heap fallacy

“False belief that ‘journalism is junk language’”

Aitchison asserts that “writing for the press is a demanding skill.” Newspapers need to be written in a way which “attracts attention and sustains it”. Journalists therefore have a need to avoid perhaps outdated or overly-florid language to remain concise and to-the-point.

This ‘hard news formula’ must remain clear and informative. Aitchison cites George Orwell, who points out the importance of keeping one’s meaning clear:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Avoid foreign or technical words.
  6. Break any of these to avoid saying anything outlandish.


4. Jean Aitcheson – The Media is Ruining Language

Findings: Media is not ruining language, it is based upon prescriptivists attitudes on language change. It is merely the media picked up on new words/ forms and spreads such usage.
Dirty Fingernail Fallacy:
This is where journalists are ‘sloppy’ and do not pay attention to the details of language; they don’t bother to scrub their linguistic fingernails clean. Yet this isn’t true, the fallacy is because of the ignorance of language change. Such change only becoming clear over 30 years ago.
In the 1950s change occurred when speakers drifted away from the true meaning of a word, therefore, one word turned into another over time- reflecting a tadpole transforming into a frog.
Young Cuckoo:
This view replaced the fallacy, pioneering from sociolinguistic William Labov that competition rather than metamorphosis is the root of language change. This was demonstrated and so that newer forms expand and gradually outburst the others and this is like a young cuckoo pushing a previous occupant out of the nest. This is usually a slow beginning and the a sudden upsurge.
Garage heap:
Is the ‘false’ belief that ‘journalism is junk writing’ although writing for the press/ newsagents is a demanding skill needed. This is due to the text attracting attention and sustains such attention from the viewers. Six guidelines that journalists are taught to follow are:
1. If it’s possible to cut a word out, cut it out
2. Never use a long word where a short will do
3. Never use passive if you can use an active
4. Avoid foreign and technical words
5. Never use a metaphor you’ve seen in print
6. Break these rules to avoid something outlandish