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Monoglot America just gets monoglotter

The traditional British belief that foreigners can understand English if you simply speak loudly enough to them has been seamlessly grafted onto American exceptionalism. We speak American, and that should be good enough for anybody.

I recall a comment on this blog objecting to the use of whinge. Now to my mind, whinge (rhymes with hinge) is a splendid word, taking mere whining to a higher pitch of irritating peevishness. It has more juice in it than whine. But the commenter objected to it because it is primarily British.

And now it strikes me: The good people of this country not only refuse to learn a little useful Spanish, not only allow foreign languages to drop from the school curriculum, but are also resistant to other variants of English.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:07 PM | | Comments (22)


... and you're surpised? Where have you been for the last half-century?

Another manifestation of American ethnocentrism

Sad but true. I've always been irked by editors who change grey to gray or towards to toward because the former are supposedly British, and we can't have any of that over here in the States. But why, if they're really British, do so many American writers use them?

I remember returning to the States a few years ago after almost 7 years teaching at a university abroad. Many of my colleagues at that international uni were from various countries of the British Commonwealth. At a workshop shortly after my return to the US, I had written contributions on several flip chart pages -- it turns out that I used several British spellings. No biggie to me. One of my American colleagues from the English department though actually went through and edited the spelling -- on the bloody flip chart pages! It so annoyed me that now I rather aggressively use variant spellings. World English is a whole lot bigger than just American usage -- and the non-American variants are just as correct. We live in the world, not just a single country.

Hmmm.......... back in the U.K. one doesn't necessarily WEAR a "bonnet', but one might lift up the bonnet of their Rolyse Royce Silver Cloud to check out the engine-works. Oh, and the word "lift" in olde Britannia doesn't always have to be a verb, but over there, as a noun, can be a common term for an elevator.

Over-the Pond, to refuse to take out the refuse, might sound a bit odd to the American ear, yet it merely means to balk at putting out the trash, mate.

My next-door neighbour, a snooty Brit expat named Mrs. Muriel MaCaddahue (w/ an attitude), believe-it or-not, drives a vintage Aston Martin which manages to gobble up the olde petrol like a bloomin' sponge. She's a real gas......... bag.

Somehow excising the letter "u" in order to un-Anglicize (or Americanize) a whole bevy of familiar words, like flavor, neighbor, color et al, IMO, isn't unlike adding the letter "s" to Anglicize certain ancient words of French origin, like "bête" which has morphed into our "beast", or "forêt", becoming "forest", as in Sherwood, or Black.

I leave you w/ these immortal lines of arcane poesy penned w/ feathered quill & ink, no less, by the brilliant Geoffry Chaucer back in 14th century England from his "General Prologue":

"So priketh him Nature in hir corages,
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrymages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes kouthe in sondry londes.


I think my Spellcheck 'app' just self-imploded........ a grand total of some thirteen misspelled Chaucerian words in just that single stanza. Yikes!

We've, indeed, cum a lange whey, wee bairn. (Translated into American--We've, indeed, come a long way, baby.)

But folks, admit it. There's something strangely endearing, (but not necessarily always comprehendible), about ye olde English. The word "quaint" comes to mind.

Alas, I kideth ye naught. HA!


P.S.: I'm a longtime expat having resided for decades in L.A., so dropping my written "u"s from sundry words has been a constant struggle............ yet being totally bilingual, i.e., speaking fluent Canadian and American-English can have its distinct advantages, eh?

And no, they don't speak a whole lot of French in Toronto, my old home town. C'est vrai.

Here in the UK, we generally assume that "whinge" is Australian - being best-known in the phrase "whingeing Poms [complaining English people]", alluding to the way that Pommie emigrants to Oz allegedly spend all their time complaining about their new home.

Q: How do you know that a plane has come from England?

A: Even after the engines have stopped, the whining goes on.

Somewhere in middle or high school, during one of my (many) obnoxious phases, I spelled everything possible with that extra "u" in order to demonstrate my above-it-all Englishness.

Logocally, I'm sure that those who, as adults, throw in that "u" are not obnoxious, but in my soul, I'm pretty sure that they are.

Sorry to be crass here, but to those American monoglotists I say: bollocks.

Monoglotism ('zat a word?) probably depends a lot on where you live. Small-towners are probably a lot less flexible than city folks -- when I lived in NYC, you heard a bunch of languages on the street -- Russian, Spanish, Yiddish, various brands of Chinese, etc. etc. Being able to say "Hello" and "Thanks" (at the very least) to people you see every day is a pretty basic bit of social smarts. Even in a little town on the Eastern Shore, it still comes in handy every now and then.

Jonathon and others, please don't assume anti-British sentiment is rampant when someone changes your spelling. A part of the copy editor's job is to standardize spelling according to house style--it simply doesn't make sense to have multiple spellings of a word within a given document. And if that document is being produced in the United States for American readers, then it stands to reason that the "American" spelling is the one that's going to win out. When I edit for my day job, I generally use the American spellings of words; but sometimes I do editing work for our UK office, in which case I make sure to leave alone colour, centre, towards, recognise, and the like. But if that same document is also to be used in the States, then I'll make a version with color, center, toward, and recognize. It's simply a matter of standardization for the intended audience.

But don't get me started on those who think calling a mall a "towne centre" somehow makes it more fancy.

We Dutch often speak mid-Atlantic, as I once heard an english professor explain on the radio.

I'm often only aware that I'm using a British word when my American friends all of a sudden don't understand a certain word that I'm using.

If I'm "resistant to other variants of English," including "whinge," it's because I want my fellow Americans to understand what I'm saying. I shouldn't be labeled a snob because I don't say "whinge," or use "scheme" synonymously with "innocuous plan," or "pissed" for "drunk." When in Rome, speak as the Romans do.

Hey Cliff,

I must say I'm thoroughly gobsmacked by your self-admitted crass use of the testicularly-derived exclamation--"bollocks"--- referring to "those American monoglotists." HA! Crudity accepted.

Frankly i hadn't heard the word "gobsmacked" used in a sentence for an age, until the "Britain's Got Talent" 'tele-show' runner-up from a few season's back, singer Susan Boyle used it on-air in response to being asked about all the world-wide attention she had gotten, largely from her TV talent show performance going totally viral on the internet.

Cliff, my dearly long-departed grandma McCrae, on my dad's side of the clan, a proud Glasgow-born Canadian,who never lost her thick Scottish brogue, would often use another anatomically-related oddity in a similar vein to your "bollocks", namely the word 'auksters' (sp. ?), which apparently was a slang term for one's armpits. Who knew?

These British slang words just seem to exude nastiness, no?

Well blogger Sarah, I'm off to my local LA "towne centre" to get in some last minute Xmas shopping. HA!

Why they even have one of those swank, state-of-the-art theatres..........Oops.......... theaters there.
Current double-bill....... "The Remains of the Day", and "The English Patient". How retro can you get?

Ta! Ta!


oxter [ˈɒkstə]
n Scot, Irish, and northern English dialect
the armpit
[from Old English oxta; related to Old High German Ahsala, Latin axilla]

BTW, John, judging by stuff on the web, you might be right about whinge being chiefly British.

Hi Sid Smith,

Thanks for the clarification on the correct spelling and derivation of "oxter", meaning the armpit in the Scottish, irish, and northern English dialects.

By-the-by, I don't know if you are aware of another noted Sid Smith who gained a modicum of sports notoriety as a pretty fair left-winger for the Toronto Maple Leafs of the original six-team National Hockey League, in a twelve season career from 1946 to his retirement as an active player in 1958.

As a young kid growing up in Toronto during that era, and a huge Leafs fan, I still vaguely recall watching Sid Smith on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada B&W broadcasts most Saturday nights, w/ the incomparable dean of hockey TV and radio play-by-play hockey announcers, Foster Hewitt, calling the action. Hewitt coined the now almost de rigueur exclamatory phrase, "He shoots....... he scores!", when a player blasted a shot into the opposition's goal.

Smith played on three Stanley Cup winning Toronto Maple Leafs championship teams, and captained the squad for a couple of seasons in the fifties, before the great George Armstrong assumed that role for many seasons throughout the sixties. Armstrong was the first First Nations/ Native-Canadian player to make it into the NHL. As team captain he got nicknamed "The Chief", which in today's politically correct climate might be considered in bad taste, or even out-right racist. Back then it seemed to be taken in stride.

Born in Toronto in 1925, Sid Smith passed away in 2004, leaving a storied hockey legacy.

Thanks again, Sid.


Ahaaa, 'oxter'...Old English words are often more similar to Dutch than modern English ones: in Dutch armpit is 'oksel'


" adding the letter "s" to Anglicize certain ancient words of French origin, like "bête" which has morphed into our "beast", or "forêt", becoming "forest", as in Sherwood, or Black."

Not quite: the words were absorbed into English from Old French, before the 's' was lost.

Resistance to foreign words - including variants of English like British, Australian and Canadian - seems to be an affliction of the non-literary set.

Broad readers are always on the lookout for new words and increasing their vocabularies by any means possible. And of course the editorial set has no choice in the matter: Acquire language or die.

An entire generation of Americans are more literate in "Brit-speak" thanks to the Monte Python collective, who taught us the meaning of terms like "bollocks" and "git" while making us laugh all the way.


So you're telling me that in the "Old French" (Norman French ?), the letter "s" still hadn't been dropped when the English first adopted these particular words? Hmmm.... you learn somethin' every day. Thanks for THAT, Steve.

Blogger Laurent, speaking of possible Dutch word derivations, I imagine you knew that most historians of 'arcane' sport believe that what the Scots claim, today and for centuries, to be their almost universally recognized national pastime/ sport, and birthright---- the game of golf------may actually have its earliest origins in a similarly-played, once very popular Dutch club-and-ball game going as far back in time as the Middle Ages, called "colf"

Colf, originally an exclusively outdoor, play-it (the ball)-where-it-lay type game of some requisite skill involving a wood-and-metal "kliek" (club) and some form of standard ball, generally played on largely improvized 'courses' in many a northern Dutch town, (often causing minor havoc and collateral property damage in its wake), then morphed, over the centuries, into "kolf" (w/ a "k"), a more confined, regulated, exclusively indoor contest associated, geographically, w/ local drinking establishments and guild halls.

Some historians speculate that early Dutch sailors, and their shipmates importing sundry goods from their native Holland, (tulip bulbs, giant rings of Gouda and Edam, loose tea and whole-bean Sumatran coffee, wooden clogs, etc.,), to Perthshire, Scotland, back in the day (around circa 1600AD), may have brought along, as well, their various klieks (colf clubs), and sundry balls. In their 'down time' these visiting sailors likely played some rousing colf matches before setting sail, back to their home ports, ships laden w/ fresh haggis, Edinburgh rock candy, first edition tomes of Robbie Burns, Hebridean sweaters, and massive bolts of Highland wool plaids. HA!

In time, a notable group of enthusiastic St. Andrews sporting townsmen took a growing fancy to the Dutch game of colf, and modified it to fit their barren, almost treeless, seaside native pastoral terrain (the links-land), fashioning their own unique sets of specialized clubs, altering the colf 'feathery ball' (basically a hand-sewn, spherical leather casing containing goose feathers), which eventually gave way to the gutta percha, or natural solid rubber ball, which then became the prototype for today's modern dimpled, mass-produced golf ball. As they say, the rest is history........ and a storied and glorious one at that.

Sadly, the Dutch never really produced many (if any) notable professional golfers (or colfers, for that matter. HA!), into the modern era of the sport, yet few countries on the planet have given us such a stellar group of both champion Olympic swimmers, and winning speed skaters. It's gotta be the milk and cheese. HA!

Well that's our little history lesson for today, folks.


Following up on my earlier golf/ colf-related posting, it should be duly noted that the word "golf" spelled in reverse, reads "flog'.

Frankly, the backwards spelling might be the more apt descriptive term for this confounded, most challenging, often exasperating game for the vast majority of amateur hackers and duffers out there, who more typically, than not, flog their way around a golf course, choice expletives and grassy divots flying, giving credence to that famous disparaging Mark Twain quotation that a round of golf....."is a good walk spoiled."

As an avid, half-decent golfer I respectively would tend to take umbrage w/ master Twain's put-down, yet for the lion's share of Sunday 'floggers' out there trying so desperately to even break that magical 100-stroke barrier, his terse dissing of the game might truly have some validity.

(On a parenthetical note, I can't wait to get my hands on Twain's recently-released autobiography-- one of my few 'requested' Xmas gifts. Just think, this hefty tome is merely the first of two more future installments. Can't quite get enough of the unofficial Bard of the Mississippi.)


It is not only sad, but this attitude clearly lowers our intelligence - the more languages you speak the more your logical thinking is developed, not mentioning the fact that you cannot really understand a culture without realising the way people think through the usage of language. Kids from bilingual families are naturally much smarter than other kids, that is just a fact.

@Alex McCrae: well, I'll be damned, is that that a fact, about golf? I never heard that before, how interesting!

Now I grew up in the very south of the Netherlands, and still live in the South, that may be why I never heard of it.

By the way, I was taught in high school that indeed the ^ in French words like bête and forêt indicates that there used to be an s after the letter with the circonflexe.

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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
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