by Liz Walter
When Barack Obama visited the UK recently, he told us that should we choose to exit the European Union in June, we would be ‘at the back of the queue’ when it came to trade negotiations with the US. Commentators were quick to jump on his use of the British word ‘queue’ rather than its US equivalent, ‘line’, some accusing him of trying to ingratiate himself with Brits, or even implying that he was parroting words written for him by supporters of a ‘remain’ vote in Britain’s upcoming EU referendum.*
If it was indeed a deliberate choice, it was an unnecessary one. Firstly because Brits would have no trouble understanding ‘at the back of the line’, and secondly because many Brits under 40 would probably use ‘line’ themselves. ‘Line’ is just one of the words that seem to be moving inexorably across the Atlantic and becoming the default choice here, especially with younger people. Similarly, most young British people go to see a ‘movie’, not a ‘film’. My own teenage children would never talk, as I still do, about ‘going to the pictures’. They ‘go to the cinema’ or ‘go to a movie’. And to my horror, their favourite meal is now ‘mac’n’cheese’ rather than ‘macaroni cheese’.
Other changes are more subtle but no less widespread. Love it or hate it, you will frequently hear people in a British café saying ‘Can I get a coffee?’ rather than ‘Can I have a coffee?’, while ‘on the weekend’ rather than ‘at the weekend’ is heard increasingly often.
Another common US/UK distinction is in stress patterns of compound words such as ‘ice cream’ and ‘broad bean’. My impression is that these differences are much less fixed than they once were, on the British side, at least. Where older Brits would always say ‘ice cream’, the young could easily say ‘ice cream’, and may even waver between the two.
Another American habit that is gaining traction here (probably because it is simpler), is the use of the simple past where we would traditionally use the present perfect. So where older Brits would say ‘Have you spoken to Tom yet?’, younger people are just as likely to say ‘Did you speak to Tom yet?’.
Interestingly, it turns out that President Obama has actually used the word ‘queue’ a number of times over the last few years, and not in British contexts, so it’s possible that there was less significance to his choice of words than may have been imagined. In any case, the US to UK drift seems to continue. If any readers know of words going in the other direction, I’d be very interested to hear them!
* There will be a post next month on the language of the British EU referendum.