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Last update:
  24-Mar-00
1996-2004
  Mike Todd

Inside the American language

American and British English have a common root back in the days of the Pilgrim Fathers. At the time, American was very much the same as that spoken back in Britain, but from that point on the two languages started to diverge. This has led to a accusations of some words and grammar being Americanisms, when in fact they're far from it - they are true to their origins, and it is British English which has been changed, sometimes under foreign influence.

A selection of words with different meanings is included in the Lexicon.

A Common Language
There is a well-known saying: Two nations separated by a common language. However, this phrase doesn't seem to have been positively recorded in this form by anyone.

In The Canterville Ghost Oscar Wilde wrote:

We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language

In a 1951 book of quotations, and without attributing a source, George Bernard Shaw was credited with saying:

England and America are two countries separated by the same language

Even Dylan Thomas had his say in a radio talk in the early 50s:

[European writers and scholars in America are] up against the barrier of a common language

But where the original phrase came from, nobody knows, and it is probably simply incorrectly quoted.

Origins of American English
The first colonists had a deep need to invent new words to describe the things they were seeing for the first time, but they also took with them the British English of the day, and it wasn't long before the English language was starting its inevitable separation into two streams.

Since that day, the desire to keep British English "pure" has often led purists and pedants to point the finger at what they deem to be imports from America. Yet many of these so-called Americanisms are of pure British descent, and such criticism often shows up the ignorance of the commentators.

Of course, some of these words have long been considered unacceptable in British English. Gotten is a good example. Americans continue to use it (although it isn't always considered good grammar), but it has long been out of use on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet the gotten and getten are both words from early British English. Shakespeare uses the word, as does Henry Fielding, Oscar Wilde and Walter Scott, and it is retained in the expression ill-gotten.

Despite the criticisms of the influence of American English on British English, a hobby that has been consuming pedants and purists since the early 18th century, some "Americanisms" are in full and common currency in British English. Clearly, there are words for things which did not exist in Britain until they were imported from the American continent. This includes animals and plants, and many native American items.

Canoe, for instance, was picked up by Columbus's sailors from the West Indies. And moccasin is clearly of Indian (in fact, New England Indian) origin. Boss is also an American word, but it came from the New York Dutch in the mid 17th century and was passed back across the Atlantic (as was cookie, a word deriving from the Dutch koekje.

But it isn't just words that have been introduced; meanings have been changed too. A creek in BrE means a tidal inlet of the ocean, or a large river, but AmE uses it in the sense of any small stream.

To guess, to loan and mad (angry) are frequently denounced as "American barbarisms", yet they all appeared in British English a long time ago (in the case of to loan, it exists in 1200!).

The range of such "barbarisms", and the development and divergence of the American language is a fascinating area, and no reference is better than H.L. Mencken's The American Language. Published originally in 1919, it has been republished in abridged form, and is a most fascinating exposition of the subject.