A Clash of Words: Keeping My Vocabulary Pure

What does it take to keep my American vocabulary pristine here in the U.K.? Well, let me tell you a tale.

I was working on a post about those thingies people keep in their cars to tell them how to get where they want to go.

You’ll notice that I’m using technical language here: thingies. They’re called sat-navs here, and since I’m hell bent to maintain the purity of my American vocabulary, I wanted to know what they’re called in the U.S. so I could slip the word casually into my post.

Now, I admit that in the Wasting Your Time Sweepstakes, keeping a language or culture pure runs neck and neck with keeping white jeans clean. And for the record, I also admit that the belief that you can keep dirt off white jeans has done a lot less damage in the world than the notion of cultural purity. But I’m not claiming that any one set of words is better than any other, it’s just that I’m a writer and I need a matching set of words.

Irrelevant Photo: Stannon Stone Circle, by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo: Stannon Stone Circle, by Ida Swearingen

But we were talking about directional thingies. I seemed to remember that they’re called GPSes in the States, but I didn’t own one when I lived there, so I never called them anything. Who needed to? When you don’t talk about something, you don’t need a word for it.

But as I’m sure I need to remind you, we live in the age of the Internet, so I googled a bunch of terms that seemed vaguely relevant, and Google, in its wisdom, sent me to U.K. sites, even when I added U.S. to my search terms.

It’s great to have a browser that knows what I want better than I do. I remember reading an essay arguing that this is one reason the U.S. is so politically and culturally polarized: You can go online and never encounter a single opinion that you don’t already hold, because search engines only show you what they think you want to know. I won’t go as far as calling that a cause, but I doubt it’s helping much.

After getting diverted one too many times, I gave up and emailed T.—a virtual colleague from my days as a freelance copy editor—because only a fellow copy editor would understand why I cared.

She wrote back, “I usually refer to it as a GPS unit–but I’m low-tech when it comes to finding addresses and will often use a paper map in the car as our portable GPS is usually collecting dust in my husband’s office.”

I sympathized.

She also went online and checked the Best Buy website, which, just to be helpful used both names, but what I really trust is what she instinctively calls it: a GPS unit.

And with that, I can pretend my vocabulary hasn’t budged one inch in the eight plus years that I’ve lived here, when in fact it’s floating in the New York harbor and drifting west.

24 thoughts on “A Clash of Words: Keeping My Vocabulary Pure

  1. I believe it’s inevitable your language will alter at least a bit. Your American English must draw stares from the locals I bet. British English is proper English and the GPS is correct! :)

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  2. Ha ha – so funny to read of someone experiencing a struggle so like mine! When I moved to the US from South Africa, I decided I would KEEP my accent (which is kinda BBC, because my mother was an accent snob back in the day and I am her firstborn), but would yield to the inevitable in terms of word use, because blank stares get SO OLD, and – sorry, don’t mean to be rude – but “cosmopolitan American” is an inescapable contradiction in terms here in the good old Pacific Northwest. There is only one right way to do / say / think, and failure to do / say / think that way is unAmerican, aka rotten, bad and deserving of contumely.

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    • We get some of that here–the occasional comment, delivered in a pitying tone, usually when we don’t think something’s funny, that, well, of course we don’t, we’re not English. But that’s mixed with a fair sprinkling of people saying, “I love your accent.” Which always strikes me as a bit bizarre, since to me it’s as common as mud. Strange old world, isn’t it?

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      • The ONLY acceptable answer to “I love your accent” is “I don’t have an accent, you do.” At which point the complimenter becomes very flustered and embarrassed about having an accent, since that suddenly turns out to be a bad thing.

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        • !!
          I have tried saying, “Thanks. It’s the only one I have,” which I thought was clever and funny and all that stuff, but Wild Thing told me it sounded vaguely insulting (okay, I added the “vaguely”), so I now limit myself to “Thanks.”

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  3. As long as you remember that American English is the language of Shakespeare. In the eighteenth century, and also in the nineteenth, when we had our German kings, including the American colonies initially, of course, but not, thankfully, for long, the English language in England reverted to preferring the Anglo-Saxon over the French portion of our language. I suppose it was to make the Germans feel at home! We moved to having a forward in our books when you retained preface, for example. English speakers in England used to say aluminum once, before scientists in Europe chose Latin taxonomy. I could go on, but, to avoid boring everyone, will desist.

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    • Interesting. It makes it a bit ironic that many writers in the U.S. (including me) talk about leaning toward the Anglo-Saxon parts of the vocabulary list on the theory (probably correct, but you do call it into question) that we’re closer to the spoken American language that way.

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  4. First of all, I cannot believe that I actually wrote “forward” instead of “foreword”! I apologise for my carelessness.

    Standard American English descends from the 17th- and 18th-century English spoken by the first settlers. Many of the words and usages now thought of by Brits as being typically American are relics of these older forms of English that have since disappeared from British English. Although, some, of course, have now returned to us from popular US culture.

    Right from early colonisation English settlers began coining new words, mainly indigenous native American words and usages, as well as from other immigrant languages later. I would readily agree that American English has continued to be a fertile source of new words and usages and that the growing importance of the US in world affairs during the 20th century has therefore seen an increasing flow of American neologisms into British and world English. The English language has, on the whole, been enriched by this evolutionary process.

    Of course, additionally, since Noah Webster couldn’t spell, his simplifications were readily adopted in the US examples of linguistic nationalism in an emerging nationhood. We all benefit, long live evolution.

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  5. It’s intriguing to read about your US vocabulary as a protected rare breed in the wilds of Cornwall.
    Isn’t British English an addition to your vocabulary, rather than a substitution? Does it have to happen on a one in, one out basis, as if your brain were a very popular nightclub?

    I’d have thought you’d use whichever bits of local vocabulary make your life easier while you’re here and then switch to whatever’s most useful when you’re back in the US, either literally or when you’re writing in your US voice. And some words will pop up in the wrong voice, and you’ll have to shoo them back into submission. But that’s the fun of travelling. I would guess that there are British English words that you’ll smuggle back to the US in your mental luggage. The words you pick up when you live abroad are like souvenirs.

    When I lived in the US, I picked up the habit of asking ‘Do you have …?’ rather than the British English ‘Have you got …?’ The construction sneaked into my head through some kind of mental back door. And I’ve had to suffer the pedantic attention of untravelled Britishers who will respond to the question ‘Do you have a cat?’ with a smirking ‘Yes, I do have got a cat’. At which point I shoot them. And keep their cat. My house is now overrun with cats.

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    • I’m relieved to know you keep the cats, and I’m sure they’re happier with you.

      You raise an interesting question. I think of it this way (and I doubt this is scientifically accurate, so think of it as an extended metaphor): Different languages live in different parts of our brains. No matter how extensive my vocabulary becomes in, say Russian (where it’s not extensive at all, but never mind), it won’t spill over into my English vocabulary. But the variations on English live in more or less the same place, and they spill all each other, and before you know it you have all those cats in your house. Not to mention dead bodies. And–I’m making assumptions here–legal problems.

      Why do I care? Because I’m a fiction writer, and being able to hear the ways that people really say things (as opposed to what I think they say them) is important. If I’m going to write dialogue, I can’t write in mid-Atlantic. If I knew I could track the differences and be aware of the changes as they happened, so that I could hop accurately back and forth, I’d have no problem with letting my grammar and vocabulary drift. But I’m not sure I could.

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      • I agree – when you’re living in two versions of one language, there are no edges. Words bleed between them. I can understand your wish not to be an Alistair Cooke when you write – I remember hearing him when I lived in California and he sounded British, but here in the UK, with his Letters from America, he sounded American. Some strange trompe l’oreille effect.

        How do you do it? How do you keep your American characters in America when you’re giving them voice? Do you have to surround yourself with the right music and the right food to get your mind in American English mode?

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  6. It is frightening to think that the internet is providing the residents of each country only that kind of information that someone “somewhere” deems relevant to that country! I dread to think of all the things I will never know about the world despite Google simply because I do not have access to what I believe is called the “World Wide Web.”

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  7. How much more has your vocabulary changed in the 12 months since you first wrote this? Mine has shifted dramatically in the 30+ years I’ve lived in Australia. The change was helped along by the fact that I specialised in writing plain English for Australian federal government departments.

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    • Not a hell of a lot, I think. I’ve lived here for over 9 years now, so the last year? (Largish) drop in a (smallish) bucket. But I do catch myself hesitating sometimes at spots where the languages branch out, asking myself just how stubborn I really am and just how much I want to be understood.

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          • You might like this story. My accent/vocabulary has changed enough (not that any Australian would agree) to have this happen.
            I stopped by the office of my US brother-in-law. He invited me in (while he was seeing a client) and we had a quick chat over a health issue regarding my mum (his mum-in-law).
            I saw the client’s eyes glaze over. Will never be exactly sure what I said, but my brother-in-law, who rarely missed a beat, saw it too and said ‘it’s okay, she’s from South Omaha’, which was where many of Omaha’s ethnics resided.
            The client shrugged and smiled. That was more than enough explanation for him.

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            • He’s lucky the client took it that way. I know some folks who’d have thrown things.

              The thing about adopting new vocabulary is that I hear people adopting but using the phrases wrong. Ouch. It’s enough to make me very, very cautious.

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