The Magazine

Owzat, you say?

Or, How a cockney might misunderstand a Staten Islander.

Apr 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 30 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Divided by a Common Language

A Guide to British and American English

by Christopher Davies

Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp., $14.95

CHRISTOPHER DAVIES COVERS well-trodden territory here. In an age of cheap air travel and ubiquitous American and British television and film, it is unlikely that readers will need to be told that what the British call a jumper Americans call a sweater or that American cookies are British biscuits or that the British railway is the American railroad.

Nevertheless, Davies does cover differences between the two that are not so obvious. In both countries, for example, a dumbwaiter--dumb waiter in Britain--is a device for transporting food between floors, but on British dining tables a dumb waiter can also mean a revolving food server, which in America is known as a Lazy Susan. (It is interesting to note that Dim Sum restaurants in New York's Chinatown also refer to these food servers as dumb waiters.) Could the expression have been introduced to the Chinese by the Irish diplomat Lord Macartney, the first ambassador to the court of Peking in 1792-94? Possibly. The Oxford English Dictionary states that dumb waiter, in the sense of "an upright pole with revolving trays or shelves for holding dishes, cruets, etc.," entered the language in 1755.

Although born and raised in England and now a resident of Florida, Davies appears to have acquired his interest in amateur philology while living in New Zealand, which produced two of the greatest lexicographers: Eric Partridge, whose Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English still holds the field, and Robert Burchfield, chief editor of the OED, who made a point of making room in the mammoth 20-volume second edition for words in Maori, the Oceanic language spoken by the indigenous people of New Zealand.

The brief section Davies includes covering New Zealand, Canadian, Australian, and South African English shows that, of all the varieties of British English, 'Stralian or Strine remains the liveliest. He cites a number of amusing examples: bushwacker (country bumpkin); bludger (parasite); larrikin (hooligan); home and hosed (safely completed); stickybeak (nosy person); screw (prison guard); over the fence (unreasonable); ear bash (harangue).

The down-to-earth realism of Australian English, its jaunty acknowledgment of the villainy of man, and its contempt for the abstract and pretentious, might have something to do with how Australians differ from pommies (Britishers) in their approach to Islamic terrorism. Where the British tend to see abstract problems of assimilation, the Australians see only homicidal larrikins, who need to be stopped, not regarded as fodder for the debates of multiculturalists.

What the reader will not get from Davies is any analysis of how British and American English have changed in recent years. There is no mention of the predominance in current American English of like, you know, and I mean, those inescapable nonsense utterances that have turned the American young, and indeed many of their elders, into such inarticulate bores. Nor is there any mention of the sea change that has occurred in the social perceptions governing British English. Davies quotes Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1956)--"An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him"--to suggest that, in Britain, this age-old classification still obtains. But does it?

In a brilliant piece called "Uncouth Chic" (1998), Theodore Dalrymple agrees that "Diction in Britain has always been an important marker . . . even a determinant, of a person's place in the social hierarchy." In the past, most Britons associated received English with high intelligence, good education, and a cultured way of life. But now, the very people in Britain who would be most inclined to use received English, by dint of background and upbringing, go out of their way to avoid it. They don't want to appear elitist. So where once the socially ambitious aped the speech of their social superiors, now the upper classes ape the speech of their inferiors.

The career of Rex Harrison and the theater that succeeded him confirm this. Harrison came from a working-class background in Lancashire, but by the time he was given the nod to play Henry Higgins, he had entirely reinvented himself as an urbane patrician. In this sense, in real life he was very much less a Henry Higgins than an Eliza Doolittle. Now, no working-class British actor would dream of exchanging his working-class for a posh accent: It would be professional suicide. Yobs are in, like never before, and their English has significantly changed the character of British English as a whole.