Just because I’m tired of all the virus chatter, yesterday I shared an old article by the BBC about Britishisms that have snuck into the American lexicon. I was prompted to take this action when I noticed a post by someone whom I know is an American using the cringeworthy term “whilst”. Yes, I know, technically it’s English and most Americans speak English, but “whilst” is not really something one hears in American English. It’s a Britishism, and when Americans use it, it comes off to me as kind of false and silly.
I don’t know why– I guess it’s one of my many quirks– but it’s annoying to me when an obvious southerner uses words like “whilst”, “bloody”, or “learnt”. When an American uses a typically British construction by saying something like, “I was not meant to go to the store today to take a dump on aisle six.”, I want to shriek, and not just because it’s not proper to take a dump on aisle six. I get especially angsty when they say something like, “I was eating spotted dick whilst scrubbing my ass with Old Dutch Cleanser.” If you’re from Kentucky, why would you use a word like “whilst”, unless you’re an actor putting on a British role?
I shared that post on Facebook, and not surprisingly, it got lots of responses. Many came from apologists who explain they they married Brits or lived there for a time. Actually, I get that. I lived in Britain for three years myself when I was a very young child– from age 3 to age 6. I went to a British kindergarten. I came away from England with some Britishisms and, at least at that time, the ability to put on a convincingly British accent. Consequently, I don’t get too wound up over words like “loo”, “proper”, “twit”, “queue”, “brilliant”, or even “wonky”. A lot of those words, while distinctly British, are also used by Americans somewhat, if not in the same way Brits use them, then in another way. Maybe we Americans don’t go ’round calling something especially intelligent “brilliant”, but I do remember my Crayola packages with the word “brilliant” written on them to describe the colors. And what’s more American than Crayola? Actually, probably a lot of things.
When I say I get annoyed by Britishisms by Americans, I’m talking about the especially British words and constructions that one has to work hard at adopting. For some reason, it comes off as fake and pretentious to me when Americans purposely use them. I have a feeling this quirk comes from way back in the early 80s, when I was friends with a girl whose father was an American Air Force officer. Her “mum” was British. She had two sisters, one of whom spoke with an American accent like she did, and the other who spoke like a Brit. My friend used to complain about her sister who spoke with a British accent. She said it was annoying and fake, although in the sisters’ situation, it seems understandable that one of the three would use a British accent. They had lived in England and Germany when they were little kids and half their family is British. It seems only fair that one of the three sisters would speak like their “mum”. But if you were born and raised in Connecticut by American parents, why would you adopt a British flair? Unless maybe you have a head injury of some sort?
I also don’t understand why some Americans insist on spelling words the British way. A lot of times, they have to use an extra letter. If you write “flavour” instead of “flavor”, “humour” instead of “humor”, or “colour” instead of “color”, you have to take an extra millisecond to add that extraneous “u”. Even as I write today’s post with the British spellings of certain words, WordPress gives me the red underlining signifying that the British spelled versions of those words are wrong. Why do it if you’re not from the United Kingdom? Especially if you’re writing something to another American? It’s more understandable if you’re writing something to someone who legitimately uses British English because he or she is not American. But among Americans? I don’t get it. We know you’re not British. You know you’re not British. And simply spelling and speaking like a Brit is not going to make you British, as much as maybe you’d like to be.
I suspect some of these people think that we Americans should be writing like the Brits do. Perhaps they even look at other Americans with disdain for writing in the American style. It looks like some Brits think we should come back to the Queen’s English fold. I suppose that’s one reason why it’s irritating to me when Americans write like Brits. It kind of smacks of snobbery. But, in fairness, maybe people think I’m being a snob when I say that Americans affecting a British accent or writing style is fake and irritating. And really, I probably should have been British myself, but for the many people in my ancestry who decided to cross the pond and breed.
More than once, I’ve realized that if my ancestors hadn’t journeyed to America hundreds of years ago– we’re talking the early 1700s– I would probably be a Brit. 23andMe says that in terms of my DNA I’m about three quarters British and Irish. And although I know that 23andMe isn’t the most reliable proof of a person’s heritage, I know enough about my family to realize that most everyone was from sturdy British stock. Until very recently, most of them on both sides mostly lived in or close to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, although I did notice that they kind of streamed down there via Pennsylvania (a few ancestors were from there). That means that my people came to the United States and mostly fucked among themselves. I don’t even have that much German heritage. I mean, I have some, but it’s relatively recent not nearly as much as I would have expected. Sometimes Germans can be kind of cranky, too. Maybe that’s where I get mine. I only have a dash of Native American ancestry, though judging by my dad’s family’s dark coloring, maybe that was also recent.
Here’s another thought… at what point does a person cease to be what they are? I have an Italian friend who became a naturalized American citizen. He lived there for years, and finally became disgusted by what he termed “American weird-o-rama” culture. He married a German and moved to Germany, which as far as I know, is where he still is now. He also got disgusted with Facebook and deleted his account, so I haven’t conversed with him lately. But anyway, he was busting my chops last year because I posted about 23andMe, laughing about how Americans care so much about their ancestry. I then asked him if he still considered himself Italian. After all, he was born there of Italian parents, even though he had become an American citizen. He said yes, of course he’s Italian. He was even offended when I referred to him as an Italian-American, even though he’s a naturalized American citizen, because in his mind, Italian-Americans are tacky and unrefined. But… he’s giving me shit because I’m curious about my heritage and have found that technically I’m mostly a Brit? At what point does heritage cease to matter? I mean, I was born to southern parents from Virginia, but if you listend to them speak in their native Virginian accents, you can hear Scotland loud and clear. When I’ve been in Scotland, I’ve been reminded of Virginia mountain accents, even though the Virginia accents have been southernized. And I realize that I could have just as easily been born to people in Scotland or England and wound up with the same DNA.
If my people had stayed British, maybe, like my British friend, Christine, I’d be annoyed by Americans who spell “traveling” with one “l” instead of two. Seriously, Christine took me to task once, because she was a teacher in England and she saw my travel blog. I spelled “traveling” like an American, and she wanted to break out her red pen. It kind of makes one wonder why Americans and Brits spell things differently, anyway. I’m sure I could find the answer if I looked it up.
Yes… in fact, here’s an explanation by Oxford International Schools, and just three sentences into the article, there’s that word “whilst”. But it bothers me less to read it there, because Oxford International Schools is clearly a British organization and the person who wrote this article is not from the United States. I do find it interesting at the end of the article, when the author points out that in British English, words like catalog and dialog are spelled with a -ogue suffix in British English. But, for some reason, when I see “dialogue” or “catalogue” in American English, it doesn’t faze me at all the way “practice” and “practise” do. That’s because for some reason, the shorter version of -ogue was never fully Americanized.
I fully admit that I’m cranky, though, and a lot of things bug me that probably shouldn’t. I wish I were more of a laid back person. It would make my life a lot easier. I don’t know why I’m so particular about some things. I also dislike some of the expressions my husband uses. He was born in Missouri, but considers himself an Arkansan and Texan. He was only born in Missouri because there was no hospital in the Arkansas town where his parents were living in 1964. They had to go to Poplar Bluff, which is where the nearest hospital was. Bill spent more time in Texas than Arkansas, but when I listen to him speak, he sounds like someone from the Mid South. He says things like “Here in a few minutes, I’m gonna put on my underwear.” I notice that his mom also says stuff like that. Not about underwear, mind you, but she uses some of the same expressions. But at least neither of them say “whilst”, which is really a relief to me, because if they did, I would laugh at how ridiculous it sounds.
According to this article by The Guardian, Brits get annoyed when Americans fake a British accent. I’ve noticed it happens a lot, too. I met an American woman on our last cruise who married a Brit and has sort of a weird hybrid American/British accent. But so many American people do it that maybe it’s just a hazard of living among British people. Madonna did it when she was with Guy Ritchie. All of a sudden, an American starts using the word “quite” and “indeed” much more often than they used to… and why is that? Does it somehow make them feel smarter or more cultured? As one British writer points out, plenty of people with British accents are uncultured and uneducated, and affected accents can be very grating. But I can concede that if one spends a long time in a place, habits can form.
In all seriousness… I do kind of like some British words. Some of them are just plain better at expressing a thought than the American equivalent. I like some of the biting British wit, too. I am proud of my British heritage, even though I don’t write words like “whilst” and, sorry, I do cringe when fellow Americans do. I hope that those of you who have taken the time to read this aren’t too irritated at me for expressing myself today. If you want to say “whilst” and you’re from Oklahoma, knock yourself out… Americans still have the right to be fake and pretentious if they want to be. But I don’t have to be impressed by it.