Although I’m renowned among my friends as a language pedant, I know that pedantry has its limits, and can be taken too far. For example, I fully accept the following facts about language:
1. Languages have different dialects, which are each as valid for their own speakers as any other
2. Language changes over time
So I hope it’s not too shocking to reveal that I’m perfectly comfortable with the existence of a dialect called “American English” with different pronunciations and vocabulary.
I’m even comfortable with some influence and exchange between American and British. It was absolutely right, for example, that we British standardised to the short scale and accepted that a “billion” is a thousand million – though it would be nice if the Americans, in return, would stop being idiots and convert to an internally consistent date notation system.
However, I think it will probably surprise many people to learn that there are a few Americanisms which I actually think are better than their British equivalents, and which I’d be happy to see adopted as standard British English.
Where British English has one ambiguous term which means both “time off work or school” and “a several-day trip away from home”, American English has a separate term for each: a holiday is time off work (whether you go away or not), and a vacation is a trip away (which would normally be during a holiday, although I suppose you could be unemployed and go on vacation without technically having a holiday).
They even make etymological sense: “holiday” is “holy day”, a traditional day off work for religious observance; “vacation” is when you vacate your house.
This is another case of Americans having a useful distinction where the British have to muddle through with unnecessary explanations. To get across the idea of a stick with fire at one end, used as a primitive light source, a British person would have to say “a burning torch” at the very least, and possibly add “you know, like Indiana Jones uses when he goes into a tombs”. An American nails it in one syllable: “torch”. He is able to do this because he has another word reserved for a modern hand-held electric-powered directional illumination device: “flashlight”.
And not only is this a very useful word, it’s also, in my opinion, quite a beautiful one. No pretentious Latin etymology here: it combines the solidly Germanic “light” with the deliciously onomatopeoic “flash” to get a vividly literal descriptor of what a flashlight is and does.
Wittegenstein said the purpose of philosophy was to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. In other words, to untangle clarity and truth from the messy knot of language. In this case, the American dialect is a less messy knot than the British one.
In the UK, we use a word which looks like it’s saying something about the type of construction of a surface – paving slabs – but actually refers to its location and use – a pedestrian strip on the side of a road. So a pavement is a pavement regardless of material. A “tarmac pavement” should be a self-contradiction, but it isn’t.
Americans are much more sensible: a pavement is a paved area, and a sidewalk is about as perfect a term as you could get for the bit on the side where you walk (which may or may not be covered in pavement).
4. Public school
It’s a well-known insanity of British terminology that, for historical legacy reasons, “public school” is the most exclusive, expensive, private type of school there is. The sooner we get rid of this bit of linguistic nonsense (and revoke those schools’ tax-free charitable statuses) the better.
This is a no-brainer. Its defining purpose is to erase pencil marks. It’s not made of rubber, and “thing which rubs” isn’t specific enough to identify it well. Finally, “rubber” has another slang meaning which makes it impossible to use, especially among children. Let’s just accept that it’s an eraser.
OK, so this is where I’ll probably lose any last few readers who are still with me at this point. “Fall” is one of those uber-distinctive Americanisms which seem to have no traction here at all, and no-one is tempted to adopt.
But why not? Aesthetically, “fall” beats “autumn” in every way. It’s simple, unpretentious and Anglo-Saxon. In one short syllable it vividly recalls the distinctive feature of the season, foliage falling from trees, perfectly mirroring its counterpart “spring”.
“Autumn” is a fussy, hypercorrective French-Latinism, which I’m beginning to find almost as tedious and ugly as “serviette” and “pardon”. Also, “fall” is originally British: it was in common use in British English up until the nineteenth century.
Finally, “fall” offers far more poetic potential: a migrating bird’s call, a bare tree standing tall, the start of the season of football. The only word which rhymes with “autumn” is “postmortem”.