The Blog

Leave My Pants Alone: An Expat Fights the Creep of British Slang

Language evolves. I get that. But it was jarring to arrive in London from New York and hear the degree to which so many American expatriates allow the slang of our host country to colonize their speech.

I woke up in London not so long ago to find that right now, somewhere in Manhattan, there are Americans who think it's okay to invite someone back to their flat for a shag, to ring a friend on his mobile, to say "cheers" when toasting nothing more than the successful purchase of a sandwich.

British slang in the US is a thing now, says the New York Times - and the BCC, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Without complaint or resistance, Americans are allowing Britishisms like "ginger" and "brilliant" and "rubbish" to plant their Union Jacks across the broad flat plains of our freedom-loving vernacular.

I don't know who you self-hating Anglophiles are, but now might be a good time to quietly pull you aside and say kindly what your friends and family have been thinking ever since you started going "on holiday": You sound like a bloody tosser. Please stop.

Britain has been complaining about America's encroachment on the Queen's English since the Revolution. In 1781, language historian Dennis Baron notes, Scotsman John Witherspoon complained in the Pennsylvania Journal of the "chief improprieties" of his native tongue's use in his adopted country, including phrases like "fellow countryman" - a tautology! - and "mad" for angry.

Last summer, the BBC's website compiled a top-50 list of readers' most hated Americanisms, although the Economist and others pointed out that decent people everywhere, regardless of nationality, are troubled by "could care less" and "oftentimes."

Language evolves. I get that. But it was jarring to arrive in London from New York and hear the degree to which so many American expatriates allow the slang of our host country to colonize their speech. There is the South Carolinian who lightly tosses off phrases like "bits and bobs" in a Southern drawl, the Brooklyn designer who confesses to saying "shez-jul" for schedule.

Is this assimilation? Or is it linguistic Stockholm syndrome, where phrases that seemed absurd upon arrival now season your speech like HP Sauce? When are you simply blending in to your new surroundings, and when are you the kid who comes back from a semester abroad with a fake Aussie accent?

The Times quotes a New York restaurateur who confesses to regularly lapsing into Cockney rhyming slang, a language system as intuitive to a native American English speaker as the click-based !Kung. "I don't do it consciously," he said by way of defense. "Five of my best friends are Londoners."

That's crazy! How can you not be aware you're speaking gibberish? I can spend days on end with my grandparents and still not call TV shows "programs." Stand your ground, man.

On an entirely different plane of offence - Madonna-level, if you will - are Americans who adopt the cadence of an English accent, like no one can tell they sound like Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves. When I overhear an American telling an English colleague about their trip to "HONG Kong," or asking "Shall I ring you?" I want to leap from a corner and shout J'accuse!

But I don't, because people who use gratuitous French phrases are even worse.

I had dinner a few weeks ago in London with friends hailing from Canada, South Africa, England and the States. We discussed the degree to which we'd gone linguistically native. There was some allowance for regional differences - the Canadian and South African already called their mother "mum" - but most agreed that it's easier than not to accept the local vocabulary, and to try desperately to clean up your speech on trips back home so no one makes fun of you.

I can't do it. They can make me drive on the other side of the road and go to work on Thanksgiving and I am exceptionally grateful for all the extra vacation time, but leave me my American dictionary. I will assimilate in all other ways required of an immigrant, but I will keep "diaper" and "cell phone" and "apartment" like talismans from the old country.

But every day I stay here, it gets harder.

I mean, "a bit crap" denotes dissatisfaction with just the perfect light touch. And if I don't say "trousers" instead of "pants," people will think I'm talking about my underwear. And this list of Americans' favorite Britishisms - "no worries" is English? And "run-up"? I say those all the time.

All I can say to my countrymen back home: we're surrounded here. You have no excuse.