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CROSSING THE ATLANTIC

By the time you read this, I shall be in America. At least, provided Britain’s snoopers haven’t read my email first and warned their American pals that a wrong-headed 80-year-old is on his way, and I find myself sent home on the same plane.

The longer I’ve lived in an American protectorate, that is for most of my life, the more I feel for those Indians who lived under us British. It’s very nice to be protected, if you’re four minutes by rocket from Russia, but...

I’ll say at once that any comparison favours the Americans. Protected we are, not dragged into world wars. They don’t deride our culture, nor think of, let alone talk of, us natives as “wogs”. Nay, if some Beatlemaniac American tourists want to ask the way to Abbey Road, old or young, they call me “Sir”, a word now rare on British lips except from shop assistants.

And yes, they let us elect our own governments, and have a truly British, if unbrilliant, civil service, no kin to the one-time “Indian” Civil Service. And indeed, as our rulers love to proclaim, we have a “special relationship” with America. But what’s special is mainly these true Britons’ zeal to kowtow to America, be it in some military folly, in applying US rules to worldwide finance, or in a grossly unequal extradition treaty negotiated under Tony “Poodle” Blair.

I’ve read of an American lawyer praising his country’s justice system as “the envy of the world”. Oh yeah? To any Briton caught by the treaty and summarily extradited, as he will be, that system offers Hobson’s choice: plea-bargaining, guilty or not, or bankruptcy to avoid — slim chance — being condemned as a foreigner to years in some hell-hole jail.

Yet one thing I can do little but welcome, though many Britons don’t: America’s readiness to adapt, enrich, at times contort, the language we share, and its spelling.

Face it

Spelling is the obvious difference: as in words like color, fiber, defense, traveled, catalog, leukemia or analyze, or one-offs such as tire (for tyre) and bank check. Americans spell all verbs that can end in –ize that way. Britons mostly used to, but increasingly prefer –ise; the London Times switched in the 1990s. Many American spellings go back to Noah Webster’s great dictionary of 1828 — indeed much further: he didn’t invent them, simply choosing between existing versions, and keen to distinguish America from Britain.

Britons have adopted a few American spellings for specific uses: we buy “programmes” at a theatre, but have “programs” on our computers. Most of Britain’s ex-empire spells as it does. But odd Americanisms have crept in: Canadians use tire; Australia has labour, yet a Labor Party.

The many differences of meaning are confusing but seldom controversial. My vest is an American’s undershirt; his vest is my waistcoat. So be it. But many Americanisms have crossed the Atlantic. And at that controversy starts.

British media use bullet-proof vest, and love rock-throwing demonstrators; to anyone my age, a rock is far too big to be thrown. I’ve never been “tasked” to do anything, and wouldn’t “action” or even “trial” actioning it. Yet by now I cheerfully “access” websites. And given that countless nouns have long doubled as verbs, why not join America in adding to them?

Fewer verbs have become nouns. But the originally American I’m in a fix, “in trouble”, is 180 years old in Britain, though the election was a fix is far younger. I’d never say a disconnect or that’s a big ask, but by now some Britons would. And it would be quite an ask to demand why I disagree. We oldies from a west European island must face it: our days of linguistic empire are past.