"Coffee" or "a coffee"?
I heard a character on an American television show talk about having “a coffee” and thought, aha, more British infiltration.
Americans talk about having “coffee” or “some coffee” or “a cup of coffee.” Having “a coffee” is a British locution, obviously being insinuated into American usage by all those imports from perfidious Albion on public broadcasting.
Not that we’ll all be taking lifts to the upper floors and buying any suspiciously cheap merchandise that fell off the back of a lorry, but there is a continual seepage of British vocabulary into the reservoir of American English. When men’s suspenders came back into vogue in the 1980s, for example, many people started calling them “braces,” after British practice. And now and again voices are raised in pointless fury about the phrase “go missing,” which Americans have found too useful to give up.
Across the water, there is periodic sniffing about American vulgarisms corrupting the purity of the only true and pure English. One of the notable recent exponents of this view is Matthew Engel, whose shrill and ill-informed tantrum for the BBC was roundly thumped by Mark Liberman at Language Log.
Perhaps I was corrupted in my youth by studying British literature in graduate school, but I switch back and forth, Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope, Rex Stout and P.D. James, without tremor or qualm. I follow with delight Lynne Murphy, who writes the Separated by a Common Language blog under the name Lynneguist, exploring the differences in vocabulary between British and American English. (The post on women’s shoes is illustrated.) It seems to me to be foolishly limiting to think that the one should exclude the other, denying the possibility of cross-pollination.
Besides—familiar warning coming here—British English is no more pure than American English or any of the other Englishes. English is, and always has been, an entirely mongrel language. It is like a crow (American) or jackdaw (British) always picking up shiny things. And being the language of freedom-loving and upstanding peoples, it will never tolerate some self-anointed bureaucracy like the French Academy to pronounce on its “purity,” which is largely imaginary anyhow.