Dot Wordsworth


Sometimes American words for American things are welcome

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Susie Dent has been trying to make us love Americanisms on Radio 4. Now Miss Dent knows far more about language than she has had much chance to express during her 25 years in Dictionary Corner on Countdown. She is quite aware that there is no such thing as an Americanism tout court (or perhaps one should say ‘an Americanism period’).

It is true that British speakers of English are annoyed by hearing their compatriots use an American word for something already covered by a perfectly good British word. A Briton would have to be cracked to use hood for bonnet; sidewalk for pavement; mad for angry; diaper for nappy.

But American words for American things are welcome: big business (1905); jazz (1909); commercials (on the radio or television, 1935). For slang words, which rely so much on style, American origins could be a positive merit: cool (as in Cool Kind Daddy Blues, recorded in 1924), or hep (1908). And who put this in the mouth of a hero (or anti-hero): ‘In a word, I am hep’? Why, P. G. Wodehouse, in Piccadilly Jim (1918).

We might think Wodehouse penned the best prose since the Authorised Version, but he lived in America, loved it and played with its language. Take goof. Bingo Little was in a London club when found ‘with his mouth open and a sort of goofy expression in his eyes’. But he might have been in New York. In The Heart of a Goof (1926), the Oldest Member explains that a golfing goof is one morbidly affected by the game until his ‘goofery unfits him for the battles of life’.

Is goof an Americanism? It was first found in the Saturday Evening Post (1916). Historically it probably derived from French goffe, which the editor of Manipulus vocabulorum (1570) defined as ‘foole’. By the late 18th century, Francis Grose, the lexicographer, categorised goff as ‘Northern’. But without its transplantation into the New World, we should never have had the Walt Disney dog Goofy (1932), nor goof ball meaning a tablet of some kind of drug (1938). Nor would we have had the goofus, a kind of saxophone with 25 fingerholes (1928). That was one American invention that never caught on.