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Last Updated: Friday, 16 September 2005, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Lost in translation

By Harold Evans

In his weekly opinion column, A Point of View, Harold Evans reflects on how Katrina has rescued the word "poor" from the American enthusiasm for euphemism.

Evacuees in Texas shelter
Lining up for donated clothing
I spoke last week of the political consequences of the New Orleans hurricane. Today I want to draw attention to a somewhat happier fall-out - its effect on the English language.

With 250 million Americans speaking English, the centre of gravity has clearly shifted from Britain to America, so a change for the better in American usage, produced by Katrina, is a benevolence affecting us all.

When I first came to live in America I was struck by how "the poor" had vanished - vanished from the American lexicon. I discovered they were constantly being rescued by euphemism.

First they became needy, then deprived, then underprivileged or disadvantaged. In the politically correct 90s they were economically challenged, or referred to as though they had just been admitted to some exclusive club: They were now members of a differentiated income group.

A character in a Jules Feiffer cartoon once remarked that while he still didn't have a dime, he sure had acquired a fine vocabulary.

Well, all that's changed in the wake of the New Orleans hurricane. It is now permissible to speak and write of poverty and poor people; not only permissible but mandatory since the sights at the Superdome were too shocking to tolerate evasive gloss.

This week's Newsweek magazine cover story indeed features the words poverty and poor people under the banner "a matter of national shame".

Protest with posters reading SHAME
Protest in support of evacuees
It is a relief when a commonplace English word like "poor" comes back. It has been around for centuries so we know what it means, but it became an awkward, intrusive presence when we thought we had solved the problem of poverty in the 60s and found we hadn't at all.

The political left considered it would at least confer some dignity on the poor to give them a new suit of nouns and adjectives every few years, and the right never liked talking about the poor anyway. Bureaucrats went along, inventing new ways of putting a shiny gloss on the unpalatable.

Of course, the military had this down to a T. Wounded soldiers denied any increase in compensation received a letter which said: "The non-compensable evaluation heretofore assigned certain veterans for their service-connected disability is hereby confirmed and continued." In short, a negative sugar-coated as a positive.

The Americans don't have a monopoly of circumlocution. I remember the British civil servant who asked a government department for a book, and was told he was "authorised to acquire the work in question by purchase through the ordinary trade channels" - ie: buy it. But Americans have a genius for mass production, so there's more of it to wade through here.

Rich pickings

Some television news people here like to refer to "precipitation situations" when they mean it is raining. I sometimes wonder if they speak like this off-screen, whether they actually go home and say they had just been caught without an umbrella in a heavy precipitation situation. The same people never tell us about bad weather, only adverse weather conditions.

Of course America has had to cope with millions of non-English speaking immigrants importing their own variations into American English. Mark Twain once complained: "Whenever a literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of the Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."

Or rather, Mr Twain, with the verb in his mouth emerges.

The multitudes of industrious German and Yiddish speaking immigrants enriched English - where would we be without schmooze, angst, zeitgeist, noodle? But I also suspect that the influence of German has had something to with the American habit of never being able to leave a good verb alone.

Prepositional verbs grow like toadstools. Once Americans got credit for facing a problem. Now problems have to be faced up to. So it is with win out, consult with, check up on, divide up, test out. No-one is allowed to continue. They have to continue on. Honesty doesn't pay. It has to pay off.

Such parasites are excess baggage for a people always in a hurry. They are at odds with the vivid immediacy of the words the American people are relentlessly inventing.

Once Americans got credit for facing a problem; now problems have to be faced up to
I was told that BBC Radio 4 listeners have particularly acute antennae for new Americanisms, so I spoke with the guardians of the sacred flame of our language at the Oxford English dictionary.

The editor in chief, Erin McKean, wants you to know that only one in 10 new words make it through the filter, but lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower says that the flow of new words, especially from film and television, is so strong and so vivid they can't suppress American inventiveness. Indeed, they've opened a special North American office to scour and sift. They already have included such made in the USA terms as teenager, superpower, yuppie, weight watcher and unisex.

The brilliant linguistic curmudgeon HL Mencken was right in the 20s to taunt the prudish who objected to ornery, yesman, gabfest, doghouse, handout, slush fund, kickback, killjoy. Who would have wanted to lose the word "rubberneck", which so perfectly describes the celebrity gawker?

Of course some of the new words which Mencken loved have faded as life changes. The pin-up girl has been replaced by the centerfold, the bargain hunter by the discount tire kicker. The couch potato slumped in front of the box is more of a feature of our time than the barfly and the lounge lizard.

Sheidlower tells me the next edition of the OED will have "perp walk" to describe the procedure the cops have developed for parading a perpetrator, a suspect in front of the station house cameras and the odd-sounding "videot" for a habitual user of video games.

Quite or very?

All this to my mind is good, but a multiplicity of misunderstandings arise from assuming that words survive transatlantic crossings with their meanings intact.

Shakespeare in Love
How good?
The most subtle are the misunderstandings we never realise are misunderstandings. It took me nearly 10 years to work out the American purport of the word quite. I brooded long when I was told that an article I had written was "quite good". To me, it meant that it wasn't really good enough, only approximately good, lacking in something or other.

I had the same reaction when someone, loftily I thought, wrote that the movie Shakespeare in Love was quite good. The penny only dropped when he continued that it therefore deserved an Oscar. Quite was not a modifier, it was a superlative. It meant it was very, very good.

Now here's the curiosity. When I went to the bible of American English, Mencken's famous 1921 book The American Language, and looked up "quite", the master had written the very opposite definition.

"In England, quite means to the fullest extent, fullest sense, positively, absolutely," he said, in contrast with the American quite which is conditional and "means only nearly, or approximately". So over the intervening years the meanings have switched.

I can only think that the nascent English taste for reticence and understatement flowered in years of adversity - stiff upper lip and all that - while expansive America has always been in search of superlatives to express its boundless optimism whatever the facts may suggest.

So "quite" was expunged as a qualifier and got co-opted to mean very, and very, you understand, is the least approbation you can give and has to be tacked on to the chorus of terrific, splendid, awesome, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious by which everyday achievements are greeted.

As to achieving the end of poverty, one day the Americans really will succeed - and then you can be sure they will mint a word quite terrific for the occasion.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Our own media are equally guilty for the way they vandalise the English language. How about the use of the word 'enormity' incorrectly used to describe size or quantity? Or the common mispronunciation of the word 'burglary' which so often has become 'burgulry" ? Or take the continuous practice of using 'in' words such as 'encapsulate' (not in my O.E./D.) etc to excess?
Michael Pressland, Beckenham, Kent. UK

I think the meaning of the word "quite" is in part determined the word it precedes. For example: "quite good" ("quite" meaning "approximately") compared to "quite extraordinary" ("Quite" meaning "very").
Dan, Oxford

While I detest the language made popular by corporations (skill set, utilize, winningest etc.) I have never heard of most of the examples you provide! Where are you getting these? There are lots of bad Americanisms, but you didn't seem to find the real ones.
Sophie, New York, NY

One aspect of Americanisation of our language that really drives me mad is to take a verb, derive a noun from it, then use that as a verb as well. As an example, take the verb 'to lever'. The product of levring something is 'leverage'. Use this as a verb and you end up with 'leveraging technology'. What's wrong with 'using technology'?
Keith L, Chelmsford, UK

Quite the best article I've read on the subject. Another word which differs across the Atlantic is momentarily. In the unlikely event that I should use it I would mean "for a moment". Americans mean "In a moment"
Billy Hagan, uk

Harold Evans' piece, though quite good, has missed a point about the British use of a word he discusses, which is really quite extraordinary! In the UK quite is used both as a modifier and as a superlative. The usage as a superlative is probably associated more with "upper" class speech, and often announced by the inclusion of "really" as I have done above. Evans notes the taste for English reticence and understatement, but misses the point; a superlative which is otherwise used as a modifier is perfect for people who think that showing too much enthusiasm for anything is really quite repulsive!
Karen, London

What a shame that the English don't look after their language in a similar manner to the French. I am quite convinced that if I use a Spanish word in England I will be told that I can't because it is not English, Yet if I were to use an American word of Spanish origin, it would be adopted or accepted because it's American: why don't we stand-up any more to correct English? And why does the BBC allow its presenters to use American words in place of correct English words?
Peter Goddard,

I think that Harold Evans is misinterpreting Mencken. The American linguist, in his book 'The American Language', was referring to the British use of the word 'quite' as a term of agreement, when he described it as meaning "to the fullest extent, fullest sense, positively, absolutely,". In order words, for "quite", read "I absolutely agree". But, of course, the British also use the word 'quite' as a modifier as well; 'quite good' being less positive a term as 'very good'.
Martin C, St. Albans

I work for an American company, and some of the language they use is quite bizarre. Very often, they will use a noun instead of a verb (eg. "will the change impact you?") or corrupt the verb (eg. were you impacted by the change?"). Each week, we wait with bated breath for the next thrilling concoction from the high-ups. Last week's work was wonderful : "de-verticalization". We still haven't worked out what it means.
Steve Wehrle, Southampton, UK

The worst Americanism I have come across out here is "the winningest", sports commentators on TV often comment on the team with the "winningest" record. Having said that the instruction to "deplane" given out by cabin crew also rather grates.
Dr Paul, Tempe AZ

Good points! I've been cringing at some of the assaults upon the language resulting from Katrina. Last week, I heard an engineer being interviewed on the radio. He stated that it would take several weeks to "de-water" New Orleans. Whatever happened to simply draining it?
Cindy, Ontario, Canada

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