Americanisms and Briticisms (Snippets 4)

MatthewsIn 1892 James Brander Matthews was appointed a professor of literature at Columbia University.  The same year, with six books already under his belt, he wrote Americanisms and Briticisms (Harper and Brothers, New York).  Although some of his books had some degree of lasting popularity, this was not one of them, and he was better known for his work examining American literature and drama.  He was one of the pioneers of the study of drama, which had previously escaped the interest of academia in general.  He also wrote his own works of fiction, none of which have stood the test of time.

Americanisms and Briticisms is an entertaining study of the differences between spoken and written language between the two nations, covering differences in vocabulary, usage and spelling.  It is a useful snapshot, not just of the words themselves, but of concerns at the time regarding the differences and, some may say (including Matthews) prejudices.

Here is an extract from his book (it’s a bit verbose to start with, but stick with it):

I am informed and believe, for in matters of language I prefer to testify on information and belief only, and not to make affidavit of my own knowledge, necessarily circumscribed by individual experience, I am informed and believe that an Englishman says lift where we say elevator, and that he calls that man an agricultural laborer whom an American would term a farm hand. In the one case the Briticism is the shorter, and in the other the Americanism. I am told that an Englishman calls for a tin of condensed milk, when an American would ask for a can, and that an Englishman even ventures to taste tinned meat, which we Americans would suspect to be tainted by the metal, although we have no prejudice against canned meats. I understand that an Englishman stops at a hotel at which an American would stay. I have been led to believe that an Englishwoman of fashion will go to a swagger function, at which she will expect to meet no end of smart people, meaning thereby not clever folks, but swells. I have heard that an Englishman speaks of a wire, meaning a telegram; and I know that an English friend of mine in New York received a letter from his sister in London, bidding him hold himself in readiness to cross the Atlantic at a day’s notice, and informing him that he might “have to come over on a wire!” To an American, going over the ocean “on a wire” seems an unusual mode of travelling, and too Blondin-like to be attempted by less expert acrobats

The point half-way between us and our adversary seems nearer to him; but this is an optical delusion, just as the jet of water in the centre of a fountain appears closer to the other side than to ours. So it is not easy for any one on either shore of the Atlantic to be absolutely impartial in considering the speech of those on the
other.

Matthews goes on to denounce pedantry in language usage, an issue which is still debated today, over 100 years later, and will almost certainly be debated for the next century as well:

It cannot be said too often that there is no basis for the belief that somewhere there exists a sublimated English language, perfect and impeccable. This is the flawless ideal to which all artists in style strive vainly to attain, whether they are Englishmen or Americans, Australians or Canadians, Irish or Scotch. But nowhere is this speech without stain spoken by man in his daily life not in London, where cockneyisms abound, not in Oxford, where university slang is luxuriant and where pedantry flourishes. Nowhere has this pure and undefiled language ever been spoken by any community.

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One Response to Americanisms and Briticisms (Snippets 4)

  1. Pingback: Blog News | Windows into History (Reblogs and News)

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