Idioms: differences and Usage in American English and British English

Idioms: differences and Usage in American English and British English

IDIOMS:

Differences
and Usage in American English and British English

If
you look up the word idiom in Webster, you will be given the following
definition: Idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the
usual meanings of its constituent element as kick the bucket, hang one’s head
etc., or from the general grammatical rules of language, as the table round for
the round table, and which is not a constituent of a larger expression of like
characteristics. This definition seems a bit dry and doesn’t really tell
anything about the function of idioms in English language.

English
is a language particularly rich in idioms — those modes of expression peculiar
to a language (or dialect) which frequently defy logical and grammatical rules.
Without idioms English would lose much of its variety and humor both in speech
an writing.

The
background and etymological origins of most idioms is at best obscure. This is
the reason why a study of differences between the idioms of American and
British English is somewhat difficult. But it also makes the cases, where
background, etymology and history are known, even more interesting. Some idioms
of the "worldwide English" have first been seen in the works of
writers like Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Lewis Carroll or even in the
paperbacks of contemporary novelists. An example of Shakespearian quotation can
be found in the following sentence:"As a social worker, you certainly see
the seamy side of life." Biblical references are also the source of many
idioms. Sports terms, technical terms, legal terms, military slang and even
nautical expressions have found their way to the everyday use of English
language. Following are some examples of these, some used in either American or
British English and some used in both:

"Having
won the first two Tests, Australia is now almost certain to retain the
Ashes." (Ashes is a British English idiom that is nowadays a
well-established cricket term.)

"In
his case the exception proves the rule." (A legal maxim — in
full:"the exception proves the rule in cases not excepted". Widely
used in both AmE and BrE.)

"To
have the edge on/over someone." (This is originally American English
idiom, now established in almost every other form of English, including BrE.)

"A
happy hunting ground." (Place where one often goes to obtain something or
to make money. Originally American English idiom from the Red Indians’
Paradise.)

In
the old days English idioms rarely originated from any other form of English
than British English. (French was also a popular source of idioms.) Nowadays
American English is in this position. It is hard to find an AmE idiom that has
not established itself in "worldwide English" (usually BrE). This is
not the case with British English idioms which are not as widespread. It has to
be remembered that it is hard to say which idioms are actively used in English
and which are dying out or have already died. Idioms are constantly dying and
new-ones are born.

Some
idioms may have gone through radical changes in meaning. The phrase — There is
no love lost between them — nowadays means that some people dislike one
another. Originally, when there was only the British English form, it meant
exactly the opposite. The shift in meaning is yet unexplained. All dialects of
English have different sets of idioms and situations where a given idiom can be
used. American English and British English may not, in this respect, be the
best possible pair to compare because they both have been developing into the
same direction, at least where written language is concerned, since the Second
World War. The reason that there is so much American influence in British
English is the result of the following:

Magnitude
of publishing industry in the U.S.

Magnitude
of mass media influence on a worldwide scale

Appeal
of American popular culture on language and habits worldwide

International
political and economic position of the U.S.

All
these facts lead to the conclusion that new idioms usually originate in the
U.S. and then become popular in so-called "worldwide English". This
new situation is completely different from the birth of American English as a
"variant" of British English. When America was still under the rule
of the Crown, most idioms originated from British English sources. Of course
there were American English expressions and idioms too, before American English
could be defined as dialect of English. Some examples of these early American
English idioms follow:

"To
bark up the wrong tree." (Originally from raccoon-hunting in which dogs
were used to locate raccoons up in trees.)

"Paddle
one’s own canoe." (This is an American English idiom of the late 18th
Century and early 19th Century.)

Some
of these early American idioms and expressions were derived from the speech of
the American natives like the phrase that "someone speaks with a forked
tongue" and the "happy hunting ground" above. These idioms have
filtered to British English through centuries through books, newspapers and
most recently through powerful mediums like radio, TV and movies.

Where
was the turning point? When did American culture take the leading role and
start shaping the English language and especially idiomatic expressions? There
is a lot of argument on this subject. Most claim that the real turning point
was the Second World War. This could be the case. During the War
English-speaking nations were united against a common enemy and the U.S. took
the leading role. In these few years and a decade after the War American
popular culture first established itself in British English. Again new idioms
were created and old ones faded away. The Second World War was the turning
point in many areas in life. This may also be the case in the development of
the English language.

The
influence of American English can even be seen in other European languages. In
Finland, we are adopting and translating AmE proverbs, idioms and expressions.
It can be said that the spoken language has taken the leading role over the
written and the only reason for this is TV and radio. Most proverbs and idioms
that have been adopted to British English from American English are of spoken
origin. This is a definite shift from the days before WWII. What will this
development do to the English language? Will it decrease its value? This could
be argued, but the answer would still be no. Languages develop and change. So
is the case with English language and idioms.

How
then does American English differ from British English in the use of idioms?
There are no radical differences in actual use. The main differences are in the
situations where idiomatic expressions are used. There have been many studies
recently on this subject. American English adopts and creates new idioms at a
much faster rate compared to British English. Also the idioms of AmE origin
tend to spread faster and further. After it has first been established in the
U.S., an American idiom may soon be found in other "variants" and
dialects of English. Nowadays new British idioms tend to stay on the British
Isles and are rarely encountered in the U.S. British idioms are actually more
familiar to other Europeans or to the people of the British Commonwealth than
to Americans, even though the language is same. The reason for all these facts
is that Britain is not the world power it used to be and it must be said that
the U.S. has taken the role of the leading nation in the development of
language, media and popular culture. Britain just doesn’t have the magnitude of
media influence that the United States controls.

The
future of idiomatic expressions in the English language seems certain. They are
more and more based on American English. This development will continue through
new mediums like the Internet and interactive mediums. It is hard to say what
this will do to idioms and what kind of new idioms are created. This will be an
interesting development to follow, and by no means does it lessen the humor,
variety and color of English language.

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