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Fighting Words: ‘Reliable,’ ‘Talented’ And Other Americanisms

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
July 13, 2011

In this free-wheeling era, when the English language is often applied with little supervision, it’s common for purists to complain about the abuse of words.

For instance, I dislike it when things are indicated instead of said. And impact gets rough treatment, as it’s transmogrified into a Franken-adjective (impactful) and is too often made to serve as a substitute for affect — probably by people who are unsure whether to use that word or effect.

And there should be a petition to remove the word literally from use, for at least a lengthy rehabilitation and perhaps a permanent retirement.

But I was surprised to learn that in 19th-century Britain, readers viewed words like lengthy and reliable as signs of the coming apocalypse. It turns out that those words, along with talented and tremendous, were imports from America.

As Matthew Engel writes at the BBC, “The poet Coleridge denounced ‘talented’ as a barbarous word in 1832, though a few years later it was being used by William Gladstone. A letter-writer to the Times, in 1857, described ‘reliable’ as vile.”

In the modern era, Brits have grown used to the phenomenon of America exporting its language along with its movies and music. But that doesn’t excuse hospitalize, “which really is a vile word,” according to Engel.

Don’t misunderstand: Engel isn’t suggesting that English should be governed by a body like the French academy that passes judgment on each foreign word that tries to squeeze its way into France.

In fact, he praises the English language’s flexibility and anarchic power, as it adopts new words to describe a changing world. Like others, he refers to this phenomenon as Globish — which is also the title of Robert McCrum’s book on the subject.

But Engel cringes at “such horrors” as ouster and outage.

Still, he credits Americans for their willingness to import words from other languages. As an example, he cites a business meeting in California where a woman assured the attendees that they could be candid — by certifying the gathering as “open kimono.”

Engel’s article lays out other gains made by adopting “Americanisms” in British discourse, such as using freight train instead of goods train. But it’s interesting to see what other Yankee words bug him — and he promises to share his audience’s least-favorite words, as well.

If you have a new or rediscovered word that you find very useful, please share. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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