Over the years, folks in the U.K. have lamented the American influence on British English. Paul McCartney’s father famously reacted to the lyrics “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” by asking his son, “Couldn’t you sing, ‘She loves you, yes, yes, yes?’ There’s enough of these Americanisms around.”
But what many Brits don’t seem to realize is that the opposite trend may be even more profound. It’s a phenomenon called “Anglocreep” ― the subtle flow of Britishisms into American English. Since 2011, Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad, has been tracking Anglocreep on his blog, Not One-Off Britishisms.
Yagoda’s blog focuses on Britishisms appearing in American media, an occurrence he chalks up to the fact that writers tend to be voracious readers who are exposed to many different sorts of expressions. “There’s also a premium on expressing things in a fresh, clever or funny way,” he told HuffPost, adding that these “fresh” words or turns of phrase can come from sources like sports, rap music, finance, technology and of course ... British English.
“Sometimes there’s an exact American equivalent, like saying ‘lift’ instead of ‘elevator’ or ‘flat’ instead of ‘apartment’ ― that just sounds weirdly pretentious,” Yagoda explained. “But there are others where there’s no exact equivalent.”
Lynne Murphy, a linguistics professor and author of The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, coined the term “American Verbal Inferiority Complex” to describe the belief among many Americans that British English is superior to their own way of communicating.
“[U]sing British words, even slang, can make Americans feel or sound more sophisticated or cosmopolitan, because they’re marking themselves as people who see or know the world beyond the U.S.” Murphy told The New York Times in April.
But you don’t have to be an Anglophile or member of the chattering classes to use Britishisms. In fact, many Americans are unaware that certain phrases and words they regularly say are of British origin.
Here are 13 Britishisms that experts have observed “creeping” into American speech and writing. While some have caught on so much that they seem like an ordinary part of American English, others are just making their way into U.S. vernacular.
“Bespoke is one that has really gone nuts,” Yagoda told HuffPost, noting that the British term has gained popularity in the U.S. “In the original British, it was referring specifically to tailor-made clothes like a bespoke overcoat or bespoke suit.” Though the word still often appears in the context of clothing, it can refer to other custom-made items.
“I see ‘dodgy’ quite a bit where you might once have seen ‘fishy’ or ‘sketchy,’” Murphy told The New York Times.
“Gobsmacked is very poetic and sounds kind of funny and nice,” said Yagoda. “There are other ways to just say you were really surprised, but gobsmacked serves a purpose.” Linguist Ben Zimmer credited Susan Boyle with introducing gobsmacked to a broader American audience after she used the word to describe how she felt when her “Britain’s Got Talent” audition went viral.
Although the traditionally American version of the word wonky or wonk refers to someone who is extra studious or knowledgeable about the mundane details of a specialized field (à la “policy wonk”), the British version is taking hold in the U.S. as well. In the latter case, wonky means awry, unsteady or off-kilter.
“Many of my students used amongst in their writing, and I don’t think they even realized it’s a British thing,” said Yagoda, who previously worked as a professor at the University of Delaware. Other British forms of similar words show up in American English as well ― like amidst or whilst.
“‘Easy peasy’ is a really common one in the U.S., and people say it came from a British ad for dish soap,” Yagoda explained. Indeed, many experts trace “easy peasy” back to Sqezy brand dish soap’s catchphrase, “Easy Peasy Lemon Sqezy.” Though the slogan may have popularized the shortened form “easy peasy,” the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it predates the ad and first appeared as a British colloquialism or children’s slang. Regardless, the phrase “easy peasy” has clearly taken hold in the U.S. (This reporter’s roommate from Long Island, New York, is notably fond of saying this.)
“‘[T]wee’ is a useful term, because there really is no direct American equivalent,” lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower told The New York Times in 2012. “It describes things that are often associated with Britishness, like Laura Ashley dresses or Park Slope baby names like Primrose or Harmony. But the word itself doesn’t scream of Britishness.”
While “redhead” is arguably the more common word Americans use to describe those with red hair, Yagoda and Murphy have observed a rise in the use of the more traditionally British word “ginger.” Both credit the Weasley family from the Harry Potter universe ― as well as the famous “Ginger Kids” episode of “South Park” ― with helping the term gain traction in the U.S.
“The one that people are really gobsmacked to hear is a British thing is “go missing,” said Yagoda, who observed a spike in the use of “went missing” in American media in the early 2000s, decades after the phrase had taken hold in the U.K.
“We used to say disappeared but that sounds like a magician’s trick,” he continued, noting that the rise in “went missing” seems to coincide with the disappearance of Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy. “My hypothesis was just that journalists got tired of saying ‘disappeared’ and ‘vanished.’ One of the first times it was used was in the New York Daily News, and it turns out that writer was in fact British.”
Chris Taylor, a British journalist based in California, wrote in Mashable that he almost never encountered the British word “kerfuffle” ― meaning “a commotion, a hubbub, a vague dispute” ― when he moved to the U.S. two decades ago.
“I remember confusing an editor or two when I started at Time magazine by inserting it in my copy,” he noted. “But now, decades later, kerfuffle seems to be useful enough to Americans — who can never get enough words to describe kinds of conflict — that it can be heard in NBA press conferences.”
To vet, in the sense of thoroughly evaluating someone like a political candidate, was originally more of a British term. According to Yagoda, the word started taking off in the U.S. around 1990 and came to be roughly equally popular in both countries.
In her book, Murphy cited “gutted” in the sense of “emotionally devastated” as a newer U.K.-to-U.S. import, though she has noted that this can lead to some confusion, given the more literal American interpretation. Yagoda pointed to a tweet by American writer Ben Greenman following the 2016 presidential election as a “harbinger of a U.S. boom.”
“Bestie is one that sounds American, but it’s actually British,” Yagoda explained. According to his blog, the OED describes the word as “originally and chiefly British” and cites a 1991 quote from The Observer about Princess Diana’s friends from school.