Thursday, 16 March 2017

No Problem

'At last Elphinstone replied. "I have no problem." He said the word "problem" with sardonic emphasis to make clear he knew it for an Americanism.'
[Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus]
 Oh dear, not another Americanism - they're everywhere, and people were probably noticing them rather more in the postwar period in which The Transit of Venus is set. (Elphinstone, by the way, is an unattractive incidental character - just the kind of prig to shudder at an Americanism.)
 The other day I had an email from my friend Susan in snowy New York, remarking on my recent use of the phrase 'meet up with' - undoubtedly some kind of Americanism (building on 'met with') - and asking if I knew when it crossed the Atlantic. I guessed it has probably been in general use here since the 70s or thereabouts, and it does seem to me to be marginally useful in suggesting a meeting that has been prearranged. Oddly, however, to Susan's American ears it suggests the opposite, whereas a plain 'met' suggests something arranged. No doubt we would be better off all round if we just stuck to 'met'.
 While I was at it, I thought I'd update Susan on a few recent developments in English English which I don't think we can blame our American cousins for.
 The drift from 'different from' to the incorrect 'different to' and the frankly appalling 'different than' has recently accelerated to the point where the battle has been decisively lost, at least in spoken English (though some of us are still prone to shout 'from' at the radio).
 I'm not sure where the habit of beginning answers to questions with the word 'So' came from - perhaps it is an Americanism? - but it has spread very fast and is to be heard with depressing frequency on any radio or TV programme involving the asking of questions. Perhaps it is no worse than the equally meaningless 'Well', but it has the annoying implication that the answer being given is somehow self-evident and need only be spelt out to the dimwit questioner.
 Another recent development tends to pass unremarked, even though it results in people saying the exact opposite of what they mean. In its classic form this kind of misspeaking (?Americanism) results in statements such as 'His contribution to the arts cannot be understated'. No one seems to notice.
 Perhaps the most bizarre recent development, though, is the double 'is', which I've noted before, back when (?Americanism) I thought it was a fleeting phenomenon that would soon disappear. Alas it hasn't and all the time one hears usages such as 'the reason is is' or 'the point is is'. I guess it buys the speaker another tiny beat of thinking time, having already no doubt made use of 'So', or perhaps it's a curious way of emphasising the little word 'is'.
 So, the answer is is that American English is different than English English to an extent that cannot be understated.
 Please feel free to add your own linguistic bugbears to this short list.
 Meanwhile, I'm off to the midlands for a few days, with some fine church monuments in my sights.


  1. ... diverse and vibrant ... robust and transparent ... going forward ...

  2. 'So' answers are usually made by those who consider themselves to be scientific experts (American scientists always use it). This confers on them the right to address the rest of us as dimwits. It speaks of the authority that science is now considered to have to give us the last word on everything.

  3. "So", I think, came out of the speech of teenage girls, as so many habits seem to--forty years, the way of ending a sentence on a rising inflection identified one as having grown up in western Pennsylvania, but then the girls took it up, and it infected the rest of us. I don't hear doubled the "is" at all. For that matter, I don't hear "meet up with" much. That seems to me to collapse "meet" and "catch up with". "Different than" probably is an Americanism, and I fear that it is invincible now.

    "It was, of course, some inane misunderstanding, and sprang from my unfamiliarity with the language. For although two nations use the same words and read the same books, intercourse is not conducted by the dictionary. The business of life is not carried on by words, but in set phrases, each with a special and almost a slang signification."

    (Robert Louis Stevenson has just been talking to a hotel clerk in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the late 1880s.)

  4. As for 'I have no problem', why have problems - or rather their explicit absence - become so insistent in the tea and sandwich trade these days?:

    'Can I have an Americano, please?'
    'Not a problem.'
    'Thank you.'
    'No problem.'
    'Can I have hot milk?'
    'Not a problem.'

    Why, why, why?

    1. No problem--"no problem" is rapidly yielding to "No worries." "Not a problem" I don't hear in the US, though I get around only so far.