George Orwell’s America


DURING THE PAST forty years, and especially the past dozen years, English has borrowed largely from American while American has shown no tendency to borrow from English. … American has gained a footing in England partly because of the vivid, almost poetic quality of its slang, partly because certain American usages (for instance, the formation of verbs by adding ise to a noun) save time, and most of all because one can adopt an American word without crossing a class barrier. From the English point of view American words have no class label. This applies even to thieves’ slang. Words like stooge and stool-pigeon are considered much less vulgar than words like nark and split . Even a very snobbish English person would probably not mind calling a policeman a cop , which is American, but he would object to calling him a copper, which is working-class English. To the working classes, on the other hand, the use of Americanisms is a way of escaping from cockney without adopting the BBC dialect, which they instinctively dislike and cannot easily master. Hence, especially in the big towns, working-class children now use American slang from the moment that they learn to talk. And there is a noticeable tendency to use American words even when they are not slang and when an English equivalent already exists: for instance, car for tram , escalator for moving staircase, automobile for motor car.

This process will probably continue for some time. One cannot check it simply by protesting against it, and in any case many American words and expressions are well worth adopting. Some are necessary neologisms, others (for instance, fall for autumn) are old words which we ought never to have dropped. But it ought to be realised that on the whole American is a bad influence and has already had a debasing effect.

To begin with, American has some of the vices of English in an exaggerated form. The interchangeability of different parts of speech has been carried further, the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs tends to break down, and many words are used which have no meaning whatever. For example, whereas English alters the meaning of a verb by tacking a preposition on to it, the American tendency is to burden every verb with a preposition that adds nothing to its meaning ( win out, lose out, face up to, etc). On the other hand, American has broken more completely than English with the past and with literary traditions. It not only produces words like beautician, moronic, and sexualise, but often replaces strong primary words by feeble euphemisms. For instance, many Americans seem to regard the word death and various words that go with it (corpse, coffin, shroud) as almost unmentionable. But above all, to adopt the American language wholeheartedly would probably mean a huge loss of vocabulary. For though American produces vivid and witty turns of speech, it is terribly poor in names for natural objects and localities. Even the streets in American cities are usually known by numbers instead of names. If we really intended to model our language upon American we should have, for instance, to lump the lady-bird, the daddy-long-legs, the saw-fly, the water-boatman, the cockchafer, the cricket, the death-watch beetle and scores of other insects all together under the inexpressive name of bug . We should lose the poetic names of our wild flowers, and also, probably, our habit of giving individual names to every street, pub, field, lane, and hillock. In so far as American is adopted, that is the tendency. Those who take their language from the films, or from papers such as Life and Time, always prefer the slick time-saving word to the one with a history behind it. As to accent it is doubtful whether the American accent has the superiority which it is now fashionable to claim for it. The “educated” English accent, a product of the last thirty years, is undoubtedly very bad and is likely to be abandoned, but the average English person probably speaks as clearly as the average American. Most English people blur their vowel sounds, but most Americans swallow their consonants. Many Americans pronounce, for instance, water as though it had no T in it, or even as though it had no consonant in it at all, except the W. On the whole we are justified in regarding the American language with suspicion. We ought to be ready to borrow its best words, but we ought not to let it modify the actual structure of our language.

—May 1944

English has borrowed largely from American while American has shown no tendency to borrow from English.

American Soldiers