Americanism in Language

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"When the American people get through with the English language," said American humorist Finley Peter Dunne, "it will look as if it had been run over by a musical comedy" (quoted by H.L. Mencken in The American Language, 1921).

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An Americanism is a word or phrase (or, less commonly, a feature of grammar, spelling, or pronunciation) that (supposedly) originated in the United States or is used primarily by Americans.

Americanism is often used as a term of disapproval, especially by non-American language mavens with little knowledge of historical linguistics. "Many so-called Americanisms come from the English," Mark Twain accurately observed more than a century ago. "[M]ost people suppose that everyone who 'guesses' is a Yankee; the people who guess do so because their ancestors guessed in Yorkshire." 

The term Americanism was introduced by the Reverend John Witherspoon in the late-18th century.

Americanisms in Academics

Academicians, linguists, and grammarians have attempted to explain just what is meant by "Americacanisms," and specifically, how Americanisms came to be. Take a look at these examples from the likes of Robert McCrum and Kingsley Amis.

Robert McCrum et al.

  • As pioneers, the first Americans had to make up many new words, some of which now seem absurdly commonplace. Lengthy, which dates back to 1689, is an early Americanism. So are calculate, seaboard, bookstore and presidential. . . . Antagonize and placate were both hated by British Victorians. As members of a multiracial society, the first Americans also adopted words like wigwam, pretzel, spook, depot and canyon, borrowing from the Indians, Germans, Dutch, French and Spanish."
    (The Story of English. Viking, 1986)

Kingsley Amis

  • - "A list of fully assimilated English words and expressions that started life as American coinages or revivals would include antagonise, anyway, back-number (adjectival phrase), back yard (as in nimby), bath-robe, bumper (car), editorial (noun), fix up, just (=quite, very, exactly), nervous (=timid), peanut, placate, realise (=see, understand), reckon, soft drink, transpire, washstand.
    "In some cases, Americanisms have driven out a native equivalent or are in the process of doing so. For instance, in no particular order, ad has pretty well replaced advert as an abbreviation for advertisement, a press clipping is driving out cutting as a piece taken from a newspaper, a whole new ballgame, that is a metaphorical game of baseball, is what meets the harried circumspect eye where once a different kettle of fish or a horse of another color furnished the challenge, and someone quit his job where not so long ago he quitted it.
    "Such matters probably indicate nothing more than minor, harmless linguistic interchange, with a bias towards American modes of expression as likely to seem the livelier and (to adopt an Americanism) smarter alternative."
    (The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage. HarperCollins, 1997)

Americanisms vs. British English

Others have commented on the impact of Americanisms on British English, as these examples from academic books on the subject as well as from the popular press demonstrate.

Gunnel Tottie

  • "In American English, the first noun [in a compound] is generally in the singular, as in drug problem, trade union, road policy, chemical plant. In British English, the first element is sometimes a plural noun, as in drugs problem, trades union, roads policy, chemicals plant. Some noun-noun compounds that entered American English at a very early stage are words for indigenous animals, like bullfrog 'a large American frog,' groundhog 'a small rodent' (also called woodchuck); for trees and plants, e.g. cottonwood (an American poplar tree); and for phenomena like log cabin, the kind of simple structure many early immigrants lived in. Sunup is also an early American coinage, parallel to the Americanism sundown, which is a synonym for the universal sunset."
    (An Introduction to American English. Wiley-Blackwell, 2002)

John Algeo

  • "[F]ew of the grammatical differences between British and American are great enough to produce confusion, and most are not stable because the two varieties are constantly influencing each other, with borrowing both ways across the Atlantic and nowadays via the Internet."
    (British or American English? Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Bob Nicholson

  • - "Most 'Americanisms' coined [during the 19th century] haven't stood the test of time. When a woman disposes of an unwanted admirer we no longer say that she has 'given him the mitten.' We still call experienced travellers 'globetrotters,' but tend to say they've 'bought the T-shirt' rather than 'seen the elephant.' We prefer more elegant metaphors for a cemetery than a 'bone-pit.' Our dentists might object if we called them 'tooth carpenters.' And if a teenager today told you they'd been 'shot in the neck' you might ring for an ambulance rather than ask what they'd had to drink the previous night.
    "Lots, however, have become part of our everyday speech. 'I guess,' 'I reckon,' 'keep your eyes peeled,' 'it was a real eye-opener,' 'easy as falling off a log,' 'to go the whole hog,' 'to get the hang of,' 'struck oil,' 'lame duck,' 'face the music,' 'high falutin,' 'cocktail,' and 'to pull the wool over one's eyes'―all made the leap into British usage during the Victorian period. And they've stayed there ever since."
    ("Racy Yankee Slang Has Long Invaded Our Language." The Guardian [UK], Oct. 18, 2010)

Richard W. Bailey

  • "Documenting the sustained prejudice against American English over the past century and a half is not difficult since the only alteration in the complaint involves the particular expressions that have come to the attention of the reviewers. So we will leap ahead to 21st century examples parallel to most of the complaints of the past.
    "In 2010, the expressions targeted for criticism included ahead of for 'before,' face up 'confront,' and fess up for confess (Kahn 2010). A counterargument has often been that these expressions are historically English, but the truths of historical linguistics are seldom persuasive or even seen as germane to the dispute. 'Americanisms' are simply bad English in one way or another: slovenly, careless, or sloppy. . . . Reports like these seethe with disapproval.
    "The same metaphors are used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. In Australia, new forms of language believed to derive from America are seen as a contagion: 'suffering the creeping American disease' is a way to describe a situation the critic deplores (Money 2010). . . .
    "The expressions that give rise to such complaints are not such ordinary Americanisms as blood type, laser, or minibus. And some are not Americanisms at all. They share the quality of being racy, informal, and perhaps a little subversive. They are usages that poke fun at pretense and gibe at gentility."
    ("American English." English Historical Linguistics, ed. by Alexander Bergs. Walter de Gruyter, 2012)

Steven Poole

  • "The playwright Mark Ravenhill recently tweeted irritably: 'Dear Guardian sub please don't allow passing. Here in Europe we die. Keep the horrible euphemism over the Atlantic.' . . .
    "Ravenhill's . . . complaint about passing is that it is an Americanism, one that should be kept 'over the Atlantic' by the verbal equivalent of a ballistic-missile shield, so as to preserve the saintly purity of our island tongue. The trouble with this is that it's not actually an Americanism. In Chaucer's Squire's Tale, the falcon says to the princess: 'Myn harm I wol confessen er I pace,' meaning before it dies. In Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 2, Salisbury says of the dying Cardinal: 'Disturbe him not, let him passe peaceably.' In other words, the origin of this use of passing is firmly on this side of the Atlantic. It's as English as the word soccer―at first spelled 'socca' or 'socker,' as an abbreviation of association football.
    "A lot of other supposed Americanisms aren't Americanisms either. It's sometimes thought that transportation instead of the good old transport is an example of that annoying US habit of bolting on needless extra syllables to perfectly good words, but transportation is used in British English from 1540. Gotten as the past tense of got? English from 1380. Oftentimes? It's in the King James Bible."
    ("Americanisms Are Often Closer to Home Than We Imagine." The Guardian [UK], May 13, 2013)

Simon Heffer

  • "Some Americanisms keep slipping in, usually when we are given agency copy to re-write and do an inadequate job on it. There is no such verb as 'impacted,' and other American-style usages of nouns as verbs should be avoided (authored, gifted etc). Maneuver is not spelt that way in Britain. We do not have lawmakers: we might just about have legislators, but better still we have parliament. People do not live in their hometown; they live in their home town, or even better the place where they were born."
    ("Style Notes." The Telegraph, Aug. 2, 2010)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Americanism in Language." ThoughtCo, Jun. 27, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 27). Americanism in Language. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Americanism in Language." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).