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Britlish

"Would you have a look at this?"

"At what?"

"This expression in this story."

"Which one?"

"Sussed out."

"Ah. It’s British. We shouldn’t use it."

After years of complaints in Britain that the language was being hopelessly corrupted by American slang carried over the water by soldiers and movies, there is now some return traffic.

The expression sussed out means that one has surmised or figured out something. It might not turn up in the stately and formal periods of P.D. James, but the demotic dialogue of Ian Rankin’s urban Scots or the robust Yorkshire idiom of Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel could have made it familiar to fanciers of British murder mysteries. And, of course, the Harry Potter phenomenon in books and films has gone a great way to make British slang and idiom familiar on these shores.

An editor at this paper once objected to the expression went missing — another import from British mysteries. Its increasing frequency may be accounted for by the lack of an apt equivalent in American English. Found to be missing and discovered to be missing, in addition to being wordy, look self-contradictory. Is missing describes a current situation but is not much help in narrating past events. Further, went missing is handy because it can be understood to mean abduction, flight or mere wandering off. I suspect that it is here to stay.

Other imports appear to be gaining a foothold. Roundabout for traffic circle is preferred, with attached language unsuitable for a daily newspaper, by motorists in Towson and elsewhere in Maryland. At the end of the day for finally or most importantly has become monotonously familiar in political discourse. An acquaintance typically talks about having a coffee rather than going out for some coffee. Now that a cup of coffee can cost as much as a fast-food meal, the British version makes the occasion look a little more substantial.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many Britishisms are convenient and succinct. The series Queer as Folk took its title from the proverbial expression There’s nowt as queer as folk. "Nothing (or nobody) is as odd as people" lacks the same punch. Give it a miss for pass up or forgo has a nice casualness of tone. Barking mad is vivid enough that it would be pleasant to encounter it in American discourse.

But my favorite, as a manager/administrator/bureaucrat is bumf. It is a wonderfully eloquent monosyllable with which to refer to official forms and all manner of paperwork. Its currency dates from at least the Second World War. And its origin? From bum-fodder — toilet paper.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:19 PM | | Comments (8)
        

Comments

Count me among the irritated by "went missing." It's just too English. It's like "centre" or "theatre." In American English, it comes off affected.

Mr. McIntyre writes "Is missing describes a current situation but is not much help in narrating past events." How about "was missing"?

There are zillions of British expressions that I love. But on this side of the Atlantic, they should remain expressions. Otherwise, we'll soon be finishing our alphabets with a "zed."

I wish "roundabout" were unnecessary, because the traffic pattern was confined to Britain. Failing that, I'm happy to import any idea that works. What are the chances of adopting the British practice of referring to corporations and teams as "they" -- seeing as how as in spoken English, we already talk that way?

It seems that a couple of reasonable substitutes for "went missing" have gone missing. Whatever happened to "vanished" and "disappeared"? "Went missing" is a stilted, and dare I say un-American, construction.

Oh, I kind of sort of like "turned up missing" myself.

But seriously, John, you do roundabouts a disservice. Just drove through a million of 'em in Ireland. They beat the heck out of traffic lights and stop signs.

"There's nowt as queer as folk" is no more succinct than the American "There's nothing stranger than people." It's advantage is purely musical--six single-syllable words in iambic trimeter provide the punch.

My favorites are "barmpot" (a harmlessly nutty person) and "you lot" -- a great second-person plural form of address, especially for those averse to "y'all."

As a Brit I was interested to see this. The problem with "was missing" is that it implies that whatever may have gone missing has now been found.

I still think we get more of your idiom, though. The one that particularly pains me is "can I get a coffee?", to which the only proper response is "No, sir; you may have a coffee, but I will get it."

Part-timer, That one pains many Americans, as well. Me, I think, Yes, you can get coffee, but you'll have to ask for it.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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