By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

‘There is room for a very interesting work,’ Gibbon observed in a footnote, ‘which should lay open the connection between the languages and manners of nations.’ The manners of the peoples of the United Kingdom and of the United States are very different, although not always in the way that received prejudices have it: any English visitor to America must be struck by how much politer most Americans are than the average run of his compatriots.

But The American Language, as H.L. Mencken called his great book, has developed in a way that isn’t always dainty. It has a vigor and color of its own, and a rich vocabulary which has combined with the central advantages English already possessed. Apart from its flexible syntax and rudimentary grammar, it has long had, to a degree quite unmatched by other European languages, two vocabularies, as Jacques Barzun observed, nearly parallel — formal and vernacular — which make it ideally suited to be the global lingua franca.

Andrew O’Hagan talks about his new book The Secret Life – a funny, alarming and disturbing picture of what happens when digital fantasy meets analogue reality. Plus, he reveals the truth about Julian Assange’s appalling table-manners:

Here in our damp little island we have mixed feelings about this. English is our language, the gift to the world by which, along with football, cricket and some other sports, we may well be remembered when otherwise we’re one with Nineveh and Tyre. And yet it’s American English that has conquered the world — and us. As Matthew Engel says in his highly entertaining That’s the Way it Crumbles, we are often uneasy or plain resentful about this Americanisation, and have been for the best part of 200 years.

Andrew O’Hagan talks about his new book The Secret Life – a funny, alarming and disturbing picture of what happens when digital fantasy meets analogue reality. Plus, he reveals the truth about Julian Assange’s appalling table-manners:

Few of us now think of ‘belittle’ or ‘reliable’ as Americanisms. But when Jefferson used the former in 1785, the European Magazine was derisive: ‘Belittle! What an expression! For shame, Mr Jefferson!’ And in 1864 the Dean of Canterbury snorted that ‘Reliable is hardly legitimate … Trustworthy does all the work required’. But that was always a losing battle — more so than ever with 20th-century popular culture, above all the movies once they became talkies.

Not all English writers were linguistic nationalists. Orwell pointed out long ago how P.G. Wodehouse, supposedly a paragon of Englishry (though his books are really set in a magical never-never land), used numerous Americanisms. Engel expands this into a considerable list of PGW’s borrowings, all before 1930: ‘call it a day’, ‘easy money’, ‘hookey’ (as in ‘playing’, rather than the English ‘truant’),’ on the level’, ‘wise guy’.

This is one of several diverting lists. Plenty of Americanisms which we no longer even know are immigrants arrived in Edwardian times or during the Great War (‘cakewalk’, ‘give the game away’, ‘railroad’ as a verb, ‘sex appeal’). In the 1920s, there was ‘gangster’, ‘down and out’ (which Orwell, another symbol of Englishry, used as the title of Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933), and ‘give a hoot’ (which Neville Chamberlain used in a letter in 1938). In the 1960s we got ‘back off’, ‘spin-off’ and ‘blue collar’ (100 years ago we called office workers ‘black coat’ rather than ‘white collar’ — which are both now meaningless, to look around an office).

Such lists can’t be comprehensive — when did ‘cool’ and ‘laid-back’ arrive? — and in any case Engel takes an ironical view of this. He knows and loves America and many things American, as do I, from Philip Roth to Doonesbury to baseball, even though he is a former editor of Wisden and vice president of Northamptonshire County Cricket Club. But although he also loves the American language, he rightly bridles at completely superfluous imports. On election night I heard one pundit talk about ‘ballpark figures’, when we don’t have ballparks here, and another say that someone or other would have to ‘step up to the plate’, which is as ubiquitous as it is ridiculous. Almost no one in this country who uses it is even aware of its original meaning: the baseball batter who goes to the plate to try and hit a pitch. Why not ‘time to go to the crease’?

But this book is also a caution against linguistic fogeyism, which can become foolish and poignant at once. Brian Jones, the dissipated and doomed Rolling Stones guitarist, came from Cheltenham, where his father was a church organist (I’d forgotten that if I ever knew). That’s enough of these Americanisms, father complained to son: Couldn’t you just sing ‘I Can’t Get Any Satisfaction’?

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

There’s a tendency to fill writing with needless words. this can bog a reader down in details, distracting from the message. Mastering the art of decluttering words frees you to effectively capture readers’ attention, sparking intrigue and affirming expertise in what you are writing about.



abrogate: abolish by formal means

agony aunt

ambivert: balance of extrovert and introvert

athriskos: irreligious

Augean stables

bail-in: robbing depositors and bond holders

bait-and-switch scheme

bezzle: plunder


constructive noncompliance

crimson: deep purplish-red

cuntry club: feminist organization

déjà vu



dirty words: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits

distrust is often based on experience or reliable information, while mistrust is often a general sense of unease toward someone or something


dustbin of history


exodus and eisodus

fomo: fear of missing out

For the umpteenth time, I

fuck: fornication under the consent of the king!



gibberish: nonsense talk


hocus-pocus: trickery

id: the same as previously given or mentioned

insalubrious: not clean or healthy

interview the president



kicking the can down the road

jurist: a person versed in the law, as a judge, lawyer, or scholar







nattering nabobs of negativism

nattering neo-con nabobs of nihilism




paraphrase: restatement giving the meaning in another form

patch writing: small changes to language that mask theft of larger ideas, often a failed attempt at paraphrasing

persona non grata

PEST analysis: Political, Economic, Social and Technological analysis

Peter Pan Syndrome



pomegranate juice



quandary: a state of perplexity or uncertainty over what to do in a difficult situation


reword: to put into other words

sanctimonious: making a hypocritical show of religious devotion, piety, righteousness, etc.: They resented his sanctimonious comments on immorality in America.

scalability: ability to adapt to increased demand

sciolist: an amateur who engages in an activity without serious intentions and who pretends to have knowledge




trippy: cool, amazing

trump: surpass

unique visitors: users

Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.


wog: nonwhite


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