In which The Author uses The Chambers Dictionary and not Webster’s

Εν αρχη ητο ο λογος
(In the beginning was the Word)
(John, 1, i.)
When I was in my first year the second time round, one member of our Creative Writing group was an American ERASMUS student. Samantha J. was very pretty, extremely quiet, rather shy, and (somewhat oddly for the daughter of a pastor) obsessed with vampires and werewolves. She was a great reader and keen writer, but regularly fell victim to one minor issue. She used American spellings in all her submissions.
‘Well, why wouldn’t she?’ I hear you ask. After all, Sam was born in North Carolina. It was what she was used to.
That would be a fair enough question. However, she was studying English at a UK institution. Catherine Merriman, our tutor, warned us that our Creative Writing assignments could be penalised for using US English. I don’t know how Sam got on with our in-class test – a proofreading exercise. I didn’t like to ask. I cleaned up on the day, but I’m a proofreader on the side, after all. During the dry run, I not only found all twenty deliberate mistakes, but a twenty-first which had gone unnoticed by tutor and students alike for at least three years. Oh yes – I really am that good!
At the end of term, I wrote limericks for the rest of the gang. One of them went like this:
An American student named Sam
Looked over her work and cried,’Damn!
I hope Webster’s in Hell
It’s his fault I can’t spell
And now I’ll fail this freakin’ exam!’
I won’t dwell on the historical, political, social and cultural issues which gave rise to what were once described as ‘two nations divided by a common language.’ (Usually attributed to G.B. Shaw, but disputed.) We can certainly lay much of the responsibility at the door of Noah Webster (1758–1843), the American lexicographer, advocate of spelling reform, and first compiler of the eponymous Dictionary which still bears his name.
The fact is that American spellings are pretty much the default spellings on the Internet. The British English spellings of words such as ‘paediatrics’ are seen as quaint at best, and hopelessly antiquated at worst. They used to cause endless problems in the shop, when you’d be looking in the catalogue (or maybe the catalog) for (say) Nelson’s Pediatrics and automatically using the UK spelling.
In a generation or so, the orthography of ‘paediatrics’, ‘gynaecology,’ ‘orthopaedics’, and other good old words derived from Greek or Latin roots will be as outmoded as the letter x in the word ‘connexion’. Dad’s edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary actually gives this spelling, rather than ‘connection’, which we’re all used to seeing. The last time I came across ‘connexion’ was in one of Joe Orton’s plays from the early 1960s. One of my English lecturers had never come across it until I mentioned it. Other outmoded usages which modern readers might find odd are ‘to-day’ and ‘to-morrow’, which you can still find in older editions of Enid Blyton’s books.
Classic kids’ books are a linguistic minefield anyway. When he was reading Swallows and Amazons, Helen R.’s son Thomas thought that a character named ‘Titty’ was screamingly hilarious. We had to explain that it was short for ‘Felicity’. It’s a good thing he didn’t start reading the Famous Five books first – Dick and Aunt Fanny might have finished him off altogether.
Goddess only knows what would have happened if he’d picked up an old edition of Richmal Crompton. Her dialogue would have led to an awful lot of awkward questions. In the William books, William Brown and the rest of the Outlaws used what linguists term the schwa instead of the conventional α sound (as did John Major, amongst others). That’s all very well – until Crompton comes to write William’s inability to do something as ‘I cun’t do that!’ I can only hope that any recent reprints have been slightly amended.
Older readers might remember ‘Moslem’, ‘Hindoo’, and a whole host of other approximately transliterated borrowings which enriched English as the lingua franca of a global empire. I remember when Mao Tse-Tung was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party in Peking. As far as the 21st Century is concerned, Mao Zedong ran the show from Beijing. Names have been changed to protect cultural sensitivities. The books I read as a child were written almost entirely in British English. It wasn’t until I dipped my toes into sf, in my early teens, that I came across US English on a regular basis, in the work of Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein and Robert Silverberg.
[A digression: I’m currently typing this on WordPress via Google Chrome running on Windows 7. It’s not my choice. I’d much rather be using my Netbook with Firefox (British English enabled) via the latest release of Ubuntu Linux. However, since Lynne decided to deliberately pour a double vodka and Coke into it just over a week ago, it hasn’t been its usual bouncy self. I don’t even know whether it’s reparable. Rhian’s loaned me her laptop in the meantime. And I’ve discovered that Chrome uses US English as default. Every so often, a supposed ‘mistake’ is highlighted as I’m typing, and I have to ignore it. My typing isn’t great, but I know how to spell things. Still, at least (unlike Firefox) it recognises the words Internet and blog. That’s a decent start.]
Thomas’s brother Evan is at the age where he’s starting to read and write properly. I had a set of Magnetic Poetry (Kids’ Edition) at home, which I’d originally bought for my niece before she moved away. I found it last year when I was clearing out my cupboard, and decided to give it to Evan. He could play with the lexemes on the side of the fridge and come up with some random sentences. His first effort was great, total Dadaist poetry – I wish one of us had written it down. But I had to explain to Helen that the kit was manufactured in the US, and therefore Evan would be encountering words like color and neighbor while playing with it.
As we said, there was nothing we could do about it anyway. I reckon that seventy per cent (a conservative estimate) of the texts he’ll encounter throughout his childhood and teenage years – comics, TV shows, computer games, websites, magazines, books – will use US spellings. By the time he gets to university, it’ll probably have topped eighty per cent. We decided we might as well bite the bullet and let him get on with it.
What alarms me, though, is not the increased frequency of US spellings which our children are encountering. It’s the seemingly unchecked influx of American words into a perfectly decent vocabulary. One of the undisputed beauties of the English language is its ability to absorb influences from across the world, through the centuries, and grow ever richer as a result. There are very few exact synonyms in English, mainly because its palette allows so many subtle shades of meaning. As a crossword enthusiast, I come up against this flexibility and subtlety every day. But, like the red squirrel, this linguistic diversity is being threatened by a wave of invaders from North America.
Along with most of my contemporaries, I was taken out by my parents in a pram until I was old enough to move on to a pushchair. Pram is a contraction of the great word perambulator, and people who know some etymology can piece its meaning together from its constituent elements. However, today’s children have ‘buggies.’ When I was young, a buggy was a converted VW Beetle (or ‘Bug’ in the US) which people used for driving around on beaches. Now, a buggy seems to be unofficially defined as ‘an infant conveyance’. Mind you, I’m tempted to adapt Lewis Carroll’s idea. Does anyone else support my proposal for using the portmanteau word ‘inconvenience’ as a neat shorthand for these bloody things?
‘Biscuit’ also seems to have fallen from favour these days, replaced by the seemingly ubiquitous ‘cookie’. We used to have chocolate chip cookies when I was younger, of course, but the rest of the biscuits (Digestive, Marie, Lincoln, Bourbon, Rich Tea, Garibaldi, Ginger Nuts, to name but a few) were ‘twice-baked’ – which is what the word originally meant. Once again, by losing the word, we lose the etymology, and along with that, the history. ‘Cookie’ is nearer to the German word Kuchen, meaning ‘cake’. Are they really the same?
There was a dispute in the courts some years ago, over whether Jaffa Cakes were biscuits (and therefore zero-rated for VAT) or cakes (and therefore VATable). Jasper Fforde makes great play of the distinction between cakes and biscuits in his extremely clever and funny novel The Fourth Bear. The general consensus seems to be that biscuits go soft when they’re stale, but cakes go hard. I wonder what cookies do when they’re stale. I couldn’t possibly comment. No chocolate chip cookie ever stayed under my roof enough for me to conduct the experiment. Maybe one of my American readers can let me know …
My cousin Matthew E. smashed straight into the language barrier some years ago, drinking with some American lads he’d met. Towards the end of a heavy session, he started feeling a bit tired and emotional. One of his mates decided to ask him what was wrong, and the fun started.
‘I’m pissed,’ Matt slurred.
‘Hey, man, who’s pissed you? We’ll sort it out!’
‘No, I’m not pissed off – I’m pissed!’
This apparently went on for some time until the confusion was resolved. I only wish I’d been there to take notes.
In the second year of our Creative Writing group, one of the girls decided to write a short story set somewhere in the States. As we read through it, I realised that she’d got the idiom totally wrong. She’d referred to ‘the DIY shop’ instead of ‘the hardware store’; her character noticed a box of ’12mm screws’ instead of ‘½” woodscrews’; she spoke to the ‘assistant’ instead of the ‘clerk’; they ‘joined the queue’ rather than ‘stood in line’ – and so forth. She’d obviously taken Catherine’s injunction too far to the other extreme, and written a narrative with an American setting in pure UK English.
When I submitted my story ’47 Minutes’ (see Dark Side of the Moon), I made sure that all Britishisms had been expunged and replaced with Americanisms. It was fairly easy for me. I’m pretty much bilingual, after all. I’m probably amongst the last generation who’ll be able to ‘code-switch’ (to use the technical term) between the two.
Many teenagers and people in their twenties I encounter these days speak almost fluent US English. They’ve learned it from films and TV since they started acquiring language. Their friends aren’t ‘pals’, ‘chums’, ‘mates’, ‘or ‘muckers’. They’re ‘buddies’ or ‘dudes’. The police aren’t ‘the Old Bill’, or ‘the Plod’, or ‘the rozzers’ (or even ‘the filth’) any more. They’re ‘the Feds’. Gay men aren’t ‘poofs’, ‘queers’, ‘bum-boys’ or ‘shirt-lifters’. They’re ‘faggots’. Women aren’t ‘birds’ or ‘totty’ or ‘crumpet’. They’re ‘pieces of ass’ (or something much worse!) On top of that, we have to add the massive influence of rap music. On the US English foundation they’ve acquired from the visual media, they add layers of slang from African-American Vernacular English, the argot of Hispanic street gangs, words from drug, gun and prison cultures, and assorted misogynisms.
[A digression: I don’t know whether Misogynisms is a real word. If it isn’t already, I lay claim to it here and now. I should have done the same with Granotechnology, when the only place a Google search for that word would have taken you was to my original blog. Now it’s been appropriated by a whole host of companies producing biofuels. Imagine how different my life would be if I’d registered it as a trademark five years ago, when I first coined it. I’d be slightly less poor than I am now.]
Anyway, that’s the language that young people speak. It’s nothing new. Ever since the first wave of teenagers started using phrases such as ‘Straight from the fridge, Dad,’ they’ve sought to distance themselves linguistically from their parents. Now, though, it’s approaching the Event Horizon where mutual understanding starts to break down, giving rise to two generations divided by a common language.
In the South Wales Valleys, at least, that’s just about as far as it goes – just about! Television is entirely responsible for the totally fictitious word ‘reem’ which seems to have invaded the language recently. (It was invented by a programme called The Only Way Is Essex.) I’ve heard some of my younger friends using this word. Personally, I hope it goes away as quickly as it arrived. A friend of mine queried its meaning on Facebook towards the end of last year. I told her it was an acronym for ‘Retarded Educationally, Emotionally and Mentally’. That comment got about a dozen ‘likes’.
In the inner cities, where there’s a far more diverse population, many young people speak a language which seems to be entirely foreign. As well as the Extended US English I’ve just outlined, there are elements from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, all parts of Africa, South Asia, South-East Asia, the Middle East … Their native speakers have all been thrown together and are trying to make themselves understood in an environment where English is a second language at best. Noel Clarke’s remarkable and disturbing film KiDULTHOOD (2006) is set in contemporary West London, but I would really have appreciated English subtitles throughout.
Now here’s an interesting question: Is the language spoken by young Londoners just ‘slang’ – a variety of non-standard English confined largely to a particular geographical area or social group? Or could it possibly be a pidgin – a basic, functional language formed from different elements to allow communication between people with no shared language? In a generation or two, could Urban London English even be recognised as a creole, a language in its own right? I leave that to the experts to debate.
I’m more concerned with the disappearance of the written word. That’s why I’ve given this entry the title I have. As you’ll see from the epigram, the Greek word for ‘word’ is λογος – or ‘logos’, in its usual transliteration. Yet what are proliferating in the early 21st century are not words, but logos. Or maybe (semiologically speaking) icons. Go to any large railway station and you’ll see what I mean:

This veritable sea of signs eliminates any need for the written word. Each of them accomplishes its purpose – transmitting information – simply, elegantly, economically, and eye-catchingly. Most importantly, they all do it entirely without any need for written text, apart from the letters WC on one of them. The message reaches the receiver without ambiguity. It doesn’t matter whether your first language is Welsh, French, German, Polish, Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, Hausa, Xhosa, Swahili, Bengali, Urdu, Tagalog, Vietnamese, or even Urban London English – the signs work every time.
A number of years ago, I read somewhere that some US fast food restaurants use pictures on the tills, to make it easier for non-English speakers to work there. After all, it must be much easier for someone from Colombia, or Greece, or Afghanistan, or Kosovo, or South Korea, to simply key in:

than to go to the trouble of learning the language.
I’ve noticed a similar thing happening on the streets of the UK over the past decade or so. Large companies have always employed some sort of easily recognisable branding, of course. Now, though, the textual content of the branding is being gradually reduced and the visual aspect is beginning to predominate. Take one company as an example. When I first encountered it, in London back in 1984-5, one well-known US fast food franchise used the following logo:

Less than three decades on, it’s been reduced to this:

The words have been discarded in favour of three easily remembered letters. In another two decades (or maybe less), as the tentacles of multinational capitalism tighten ever more strongly around the world, I can envision the logo being reduced simply to the image of the Colonel himself. All textual content will be stripped out, so as not to inconvenience people who know only the Cyrillic alphabet, or Arabic script, or kana, or some other non-Western writing system.
To some extent we’re getting there already. Many recent corporate rebrands have concentrated (with varying degrees of success) on making a strong visual impact. After all, the Golden Arches is already synonymous with the word ‘food’ for a fair percentage of Americans, and an increasing number of British people.
I strongly suspect that in a few generations a substantial proportion of our ‘civilisation’ will have turned the clock back five thousand years and be using the Third Millennium equivalent of hieroglyphics in order to communicate over distances. Whether their spoken language will resemble anything like the English we learned in school is debatable. ‘Standard English’ might well fragment into a hundred mutually unintelligible languages, with only a faint resemblance left to indicate their common ancestry, as Latin did after the collapse of the Roman Empire (or Proto-Indo-European is thought to have done, back in the mists of prehistory).
Meanwhile, those who are still capable of processing actual texts will become the new priesthood. They’ll be responsible for preserving and transmitting the accumulated knowledge of humanity to those privileged members of the next generation, who still value education for its own sake.

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