English Grammar and Usage, Letter from London, United Kingdom / Great Britain

Letter from London: Going Forward, We’re Screwed

As Europeans from the sun-dappled Mediterranean to the icy North Sea brace themselves for doomsday, I thought I’d ignore the wildfire-like turmoil sweeping my continent to write you a sweet little piece about the difference between British and American English.

The hook, as we say in the U.K. media, is the Economist’s recent ‘British Americanisation’ survey. As with most things produced by the Economist, it’s pretty dull, revealing, amongst other things, that some British people have started saying ‘vacation’ instead of ‘holiday’. Others have begun traitorously moving the stress on the word ‘controversy’ from the second to the first syllable. Crazy, eh?! But I know marginally more about linguistics than economics, so I’ll plough on.

Actually, I’m underselling this column. I’ve been wanting to write something ‘you say tomato, I say tomato’ for ages, because British people’s use of Americanisms is highly revealing — about them, about the U.K.’s relationship with America, about the continuing popularity of U.S. T.V. series on these shores….

In London, speaking a bit like an American is regarded as cool, as long as you don’ t speak too much like an American. Changing ‘t’s in the middle of words like ‘water’ to ‘d’s every now and again, for example, or beginning emails with ‘hey’ rather than ‘hi’, implies a certain transatlantic worldliness. It’s as if the speaker is saying: “I’ve been to America, you know, twice if you count the stop-over I made in Denver, plus I’ve got a Curb Your Enthusiasm box set.”

Referring to the ‘pavement’ as the ‘sidewalk’, on the other hand, or wearing a baseball cap (I know that’s not strictly a linguistic act), is taking it too far. Such behaviour suggests that the speaker is childishly in thrall to a distant imperialistic power that it misunderstands. “I’m stupid,” the baseball cap wearing Englishman silently communicates. “When I went to Disney World last year I didn’t leave its fun-packed confines! :-)”

Getting the right balance of American-ness isn’t easy for us. I’ve been labelled as overly attached to traditional British linguistic orthodoxies for railing against idiotic U.S. expressions like ‘going forward’. On other occasions, I’ve drawn criticism for being too American in employing terms like ‘right now’ (rather than ‘at the moment’) and ‘disconnect’ (rather than the traditional ‘disconnection’). However, I have never — in print, or in real life — ever asked for ‘the check’ at the end of a meal (rather than ‘the bill’), as one English lawyer I have dined with on several occasions, in London restaurants, insists on doing.

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure. But must everything have a point? Posters of comments on my ATL articles regularly berate me for not imbuing them with more business-actionable meaning. Just so you know, every time I read one of those comments I seek out the nearest American child and throw them into a ditch.

One of the reasons the weekly cries for purpose and original insight fill me with such hatred is that they’re clearly made with no awareness of the pittance I’m paid for writing this column. Another is that the earnest sentiment behind the said calls is so 2006. Don’t you know that nothing means anything any more?

Dragging this thing tenuously back to the European debt crisis, what’s happening in my beloved continent right now is chaotic and unpredictable; the precise opposite, in fact, of the boring, linear narrative of steadily growing prosperity of the last decade. The only way out of the mess we’re in isn’t fair or even that logical. Why should responsible, thrifty Germans bail out reckless, live-for-the-moment South Europeans? And why, having been bailed out, wouldn’t the Greeks/Italians/Spanish just rack up more debts “going forward”? (Note to readers: do you see how ridiculous that expression is, with its cheesy implication that the future is an inherently benign place, somehow controllable from the present?)

This sense of unfairness explains why some German politicians want to fly the flags of the highly-indebted southern E.U. nations at half mast outside the European Commission building. Unless they drop the morality play, though, we’re all, of course, f**ked — including British law firms, a large proportion of whose international revenue comes from Western Europe. The moral of this story? Stop complaining about my articles.

Alex Aldridge is Above the Law’s U.K. correspondent. He also writes a weekly column for The Guardian and is the Editor of Legal Cheek. Previously Alex was Associate Editor of Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at alex@legalcheek.com.

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