Wednesday, 26th February 2014

by Joshua Gaskell

Avoiding Americanisms is a fine British tradition, but it’s worth being able to distinguish between the real McCoy, and those words and phrases which originated in Britain and only became unacceptable by association. Examples from the latter group include fall to refer to autumn, which is first recorded in 1545 and was common in British English, especially in the phrase fall of the leaf; and inflammable, which is not an illogical, contronymous alternative to flammable, because the in- prefix is not as in inefficient – ‘to express negation or privation’ (OED) – but from the verb to inflame: inflammable is (ironically) first recorded from 1605, flammable from 1813.

The Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage has further examples. The suffixes -ize and -ise:

The primary rule is that all words of the type authorize/authorise, civilize/civilise, legalize/legalise, where there is a choice of ending, may be legitimately spelt with either -ize or -ise throughout the English-speaking world (except in America, where -ize is always used). Oxford University Press and other publishing houses (including The Times until recently) prefer -ize; Cambridge University Press and others prefer -ise.
The reason there is a choice is that the -ize ending, which corresponds to the Greek verbal ending -izo (whether or not the particular verb existed in Greek in the same form), has come to English in many cases via Latin and French sources, and in French the spelling has been adapted to -ise. A key word showing the line of descent is baptize, which answers to Gk βαπτίζω and Latin baptizo; the French have opted for baptiser, and a large proportion of English writers and publishers have followed suit by writing the word as baptise. People are generally aware of the choice, but often mistakenly regard the -ize ending as an Americanism; and they find it especially hard to countenance in words which do not have corresponding nouns in -ation but other forms in which the letter s features, such as criticize (criticism), hypnotize (hypnosis), and emphasize (emphasis).
It is important to note that there are some words in which there is no choice: they have to be spelt with -ise because they come from words in which the relevant elements are -cise, -mise, -prise, -vise, or other forms unconnected with -izo/-iso.

Fetus and foetus:

Medical usage in Britain and the US favours fetus, following the word’s origin in Latin fetus ‘offspring’. In AmE this spelling is preferred generally, but foetus is still common in non-medical use in BrE, largely because of the misconception that the -e- spelling is some kind of Americanism; but fetus is gradually taking over.

Visit with:

To visit with someone, i.e. pay them a brief call, is now regarded as an Americanism although it was current in Britain in the 19c, occurring for example in writings of Ruskin and George Eliot.

Doubt that:

Many people have [an objection] to the increasing use of doubt, in the affirmative followed by a that-clause or by an object clause without a conjunction. This is commonly regarded as an Americanism, but it is attested in BrE use at the end of the 19c.

Not that I would use any of those perversions myself. As the old saying goes, marketise a foetus in þe spring, and ’twill be flammable by autumn.

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