Friday 14 December 2018

Mary Kenny: No kidding!

If Ireland represents English speakers in the EU, are we closer to Boston or Bath?

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

'How are you?" "I'm good." To which the correct answer is: "I was enquiring about your health, rather than your moral character." But the Americanism "I'm good" - instead of "I'm well" (or "fine", or the nice Hibernicism, "I'm grand") - is already so engrained that there is no hope of erasing it. It is probably derived from German "Ich bin gut": it's certainly not old English practice.

But is traditional English practice - the language originating in England - now gone for a Burton (1940s RAF slang for annihilation)? We used to say "the railway station": now it's "the train station". Until recently, we said "in the future": now it's "going forward". We used to say "enjoy it" - speaking, say, of a food dish. Now waiters exclaim "enjoy!", like New Yorkers.

People were sometimes "denounced": now they are "called out". We "hang out" with friends, and go "partying". And when we die, we favour a phrase coined by Evangelical Christians: "we pass away", or even, we just "pass". It's not a departure from life: just a transition.

There have been concerns about the invasion of English English by American English ever since "OK" appeared, which is sometimes dated from 1839, according to the etymologist Allen Walker Read. Nobody really knows what "OK" (or "okay") stands for: possibly the reversal of the boxing termed KO (knockout), possibly from the Choctaw word "okeh". Maybe it's from an eccentric spelling of "Oll Korrect", ascribed to the seventh US President Andrew Jackson. Anyway, as Matthew Engel points out in his study of Americanism, That's the Way it Crumbles, "OK" has conquered the world, and is universally understood - a symbol of the global triumph of what is in effect the American language.

There are lots of likeable Americanisms, and many that are invigorating. Maybe they are a linguistic "wake-up call". "You guys" is a useful term for a language like English which effectively has no "you" plural, ever since it dropped the "you" singular - thou, and thee. "No kidding!" is a nice ironic riposte. And there are many swear-words more offensive than "get lost!"

The words and phrases brought to English-American by the poker-players of the Mississippi are punchy, even romantic: "No deal." "Big deal." "You bet!" "Up the ante." "Play your cards right." I am less keen on baseball jargon - "left field" and "step up to the plate".

"Step on the gas" was a favourite of my mother's - meaning "hurry up". It entered the lingo in the 1920s, an image of Hollywood gangsters pushing the accelerator ("gas") pedal in a getaway car. Yet car language has resisted Americanisation: we understand "gas", for petrol, "trunk" for boot and "hood" for bonnet, but we don't use them this side of the Atlantic. Nor do we use, thankfully, one of the least attractive Yankee verbs - "to deplane". We still get off an aircraft.

The 10 Commandments forbid "adultery", but more often, now, it's called "cheating", which seems rather more judgemental. An adulterer might be a Don Juan, but no one likes a cheat. In the area of sexual politics, there are many lexical minefields. "A ride" in American just means a lift, or a part of a journey: chez nous it can be decidedly more suggestive. The Irish have always been fond of the dear little ass which served the turfcutter so diligently: but Shakespeare's line "each actor on his ass" prompts uneasy hilarity in the States. And if we now rather carefully speak about the need for "an eraser" when we're using a pencil, it's probably because "a rubber" means, in American, a condom.

Since the movie (Americanism) Knocked Up, people understand that it means being made pregnant, not requesting a morning alarm call. The farmyard "cock" of English has been more decorously replaced by a "rooster" in many children's books, I notice. Some words which seem American are old English. Chaucer uses "I guess", and Shakespeare invokes "gotten". "Hiring and firing" is perceived as American, but "hiring fairs" were common in Britain and Ireland for centuries. "Mugging" is actually English. "Quit" is not American, but French.

"Fall", for "autumn" is, according to the Oxford dictionary of etymology, a 12th century English word. But we still prefer the more Frenchified "autumn", which only arrived into 16th century English. "Queue" is holding its own against "line". When Barack Obama told the British they'd be "at the back of the queue" for trade deals with the US, they suspected he'd been coached.

While on the subject, when Britain quits the EU, Ireland will represent English as an official EU language - ironic, considering the history. But we must now own it. And, where Americanisms are apt, or have gained currency ("stag night", "feisty", "glass ceiling") use them, even when they can be jargon-ish ("blue sky thinking"). American expresses enthusiasm with more vitality: ("wow!")

In truth, English is so widespread it's sometimes called "Globish", infecting many languages - "Franglais", or "Swenglish" (what the Nordics speak together). Maybe I shouldn't be too pedantic about "I'm good". In Irish, "maith" can be either. "Tá mé go maith" can allude to health, but also to virtue. On the rare occasions when I was a well-behaved child, I was told "Maith an cailín!" With that, I'm good!

@MaryKenny4

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