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Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions: Making Sense of Transatlantic English.

(305 pp. 2003. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195157044. $27.50)

Long before the spot of unpleasantness known as the Boston Tea Party, American English was busily diverging from its British parent. The current differences are not such that a New Yorker is likely to identify the Queen's English as the language spoken by cross-dressers at a Wigstock festival, but they still amount to material for a good book.

Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions is that book. Orin Hargraves shows that, apart from their slang, Americans are more euphemistic than the British, more politically correct, less ridden with class and other inherited distinctions and, as befits their country's global reach, more effective in distributing their coinages. Each country has matching prejudices: British English can seem snobbish to Americans, American English philistine to Britons. In fact, Hargraves' book in some ways is less about language than it is about culture.

As an American lexicographer who has lived extensively in England, Hargraves is well-qualified to deal with culture shock. A less generously reciprocal and informative author might have spun out some of the more colorful words and expressions into a few wryly humorous chapters. Not so Hargraves, whose book is crammed with data, including, by my count, 116 tables. Some of the tables are encyclopedic, not lexical, but either way they're so useful that they could ably serve a native speaker who couldn't care less about what's said or done across the pond. Among several appendices are credible overviews of Australian, Canadian, Indian, Irish, and South African English. Another appendix lists idioms and expressions which take the cake (or take the British biscuit), and gives enough material to make the reader roll in the aisles (or fall about laughing.)

"About" points to Hargraves's excellent discussion not only of that word, but of parts of speech, including countability of nouns and inflections of verbs. He advises that "Americanizing editors can usually do no wrong in systematically changing which to that in defining clauses of British English, judiciously avoiding the transformation when euphony would dictate the use of which." His coverage of words is frequency-based, and he does not include archaic, obsolete, and dated terms, and most slang and informal usage. Fair enough, but one important topic has gone AWOL. He does not discuss pronunciation, "which is, in the end, a technical subject, and for the most part has little bearing on comprehension of the written word." Not so fast. Most people hear and speak many more words than they read and write, and it would have been rewarding to have the author's acute ear and dry wit applied, for example, to the speech habits of ABC versus BBC anchors.

Reading Hargraves' book, one can amuse oneself by imagining a surreal alternative planet in which the lexicon would entirely consist of the most cryptic, ambiguous, or hilarious names and terms in American and British English. A diner orders Buffalo wings followed by spotted click, a homemaker washes dishes with a J-cloth and Fairy liquid, a letter-writer addresses envelopes to ME, IN, and MO as well as to Beds, Bucks, and Wilts, a driver in a semi hits a sleeping policeman, a batter grounds out mad then is out Leg before wicket, in each case resuming a fielding position as a backstop or just silly, and a stage-door Johnny decides to knock up an old friend.

These are mainly words for country-specific things, but there are also lots of different words for the same thing: an American pharmacist is a British chemist, a British shopwalker is an American floor-walker Yet for all the differences it's arguably true that, thanks to television satellites and the Internet, American and British English are closer than they've ever been. One thinks of the language reforms that Noah Webster is famous for-- -or and -er spellings rather than -our than -re ones, for example--and how they commend themselves on the grounds of concision and sensible phonetics. Yet there is something to be said for the quirks and vagaries of British English as a corrective to an oppressively rationalized and homogenized world.

Full disclosure: Hargraves consulted me on points of Canadian English, and thanks me in his book. As a Canadian and hence suffering with DPLS (Dual Personality Language Syndrome), I can attest that his is a mighty smashing book to have on a nearby shelf.

[Even more disclosure: the Editor was responsible for acquiring this book for OUP.]
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Bibliographia
Author:Sutherland, Fraser
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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