Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The steady march of American vernacular

On a scale of atrocities running from one to 10, misuse of the language usually warrants no more than a 2. Yet New Zealand English is a defining aspect of our unique culture and one I believe the media should try to honour and preserve.

One linguistic irritant that I see with increasing frequency is the American term “lawmaker”. Even when referring to the British House of Commons, New Zealand media now routinely refer to “lawmakers” as opposed to Members of Parliament.

It’s lazy form of journalistic shorthand that has gained currency because of the all-pervasive reach of American media. There are no MPs in the United States, so for the benefit of their domestic audience, American journalists writing about politics in other countries use the same term that they apply to senators and members of the House of Representatives. The word then finds it way into our news columns and bulletins via American news services.

There was a time when conscientious New Zealand sub-editors coming across “lawmaker” as a synonym for MP in overseas news stories would have changed it to conform to local usage, but media outlets no longer bother with such niceties. It’s probably only a matter of time before our own press gallery reporters, eager to appear ahead of the curve, start using the same terminology to describe our elected representatives (that is, if it hasn’t happened already).

The march of American vernacular is as relentless as that of American fast-food brands. Thus yachts become sail boats, walking and cycling tracks become trails, swimming tournaments become swim meets, biscuits become cookies, mates become buddies and trampers (a term that Microsoft Word doesn't recognise) become hikers. I’ve even heard the folksy “oftentimes” used as a synonym for “often”.

As I wrote in a column in 2013, New Zealand has developed its own rich, colourful and often highly inventive vocabulary – a variant of the English language that’s uniquely ours. We should do all we can to repel intruders.


LNF said...

Too late. Ask anyone at your local Campus

R Singers said...

Zygocatus/Chain Cactus has become Easter and Christmas Cactus. Terms that make no sense as they don't flower at those times in the southern hemisphere.

boudicca said...

God forbid we will be travelling on the RAILROAD! Oftentimes is genuine US English. There are many differences

David George said...

We're developing our "own rich, colourful and often highly inventive vocabulary" alright.

Delightful expressions like "trans whanau". What's not to like?

Neil Keating said...

Speaking as a sailor, I prefer 'sailboat' to 'yacht'. It's more accurate and descriptive. A yacht may be a grand affair with no sails. Or it may be a boat that gets along chiefly by means of sails.
As for your other grumbles -- yes, ok.
And now speaking as an ex-journalist, most recently a sub-editor, my knees go weak as I survey the landscape: 'talking/discussing' has become 'having a conversation'; 'significant' has come to mean anything and everything. And so on. It's just too tedious to think about.
I'd rather go outside and work on my sailboat. Yes, I think I will. And I'll hold a loud conversation with myself and any significant clouds that happen to float over.

David McLoughlin said...

I think we still wear jandals and go to the dairy... though not many of the latter remain, with petrol stations taking over their role. Ah yes. Petrol. We still seem to put that in our tanks, too. For now. And my car still has a bonnet and a boot, I think.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thanks for reaching out.

Mark Wahlberg said...

Karl, I grew up in Petone during the nineteen fifties and sixties in a household where Americanisms were the norm.

My Father was an old time builder who had a love affair with American architecture such as the Empire State Building, V8 motorcars, Gasoline and Lucky Strike cigarettes.

The American Saturday Evening Post, Life magazine, National Geographic and Popular Mechanics littered the house and while I couldn't read, my imagination was awash with images from far off lands. .

Those influences set the stage for my own tastes in art and style and have haunted me throughout my life. My Father always wanted to stand at the top of the Empire State Building. He never did, but I did it for him.

One of my most treasured possessions is my Fathers 1964 American Funk & Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary chocka with Americanisms which bring back memories of my childhood and a quirky father who enriched my life.

Andy Espersen said...

Alas, all we can (and should) do to "repel intruders" (as you put it) is to keep using the words we prefer in all our our own writing. Do you perhaps envisage government regulations to fix the problem!

A living, rich language finds its own way to develop - leaving all us biased oldies behind. Thank goodness, we soon disappear from life's stage.

Imagine, for example, how quaint and delightful it would have been if the railway station sign at Paekakariki eventually would read Piecack. Living languages are eternally young - but only if we leave them alone.

hughvane said...

Did you mean 'inventive' (last para) or 'invective'? There's a lot of the latter about, much of it American in origin.

pdm said...

Karl the one that has always irked me has been news media calling New Zealand Police - Cops.

Sure we do (well used to) as slang in pub discussions call them `the cops' but, in carrying out their duties they are Police Men and Police Women.

Even under the resent Police Minister and Police Commissioner the Police on the front lines deserve that respect.

Mark Wahlberg said...

Whenever the media report arson against property, they describe it as being "TORCHED."

Are they shinning a light or fanning the flames?

Neil Keating said...

'Reaching out'???!!! (retching out, surely?). And just when I thought it couldn't get worse.

Terry Morrissey said...

Good English is fast being destroyed by pidgin which is replacing it. I can imagine Phillip Sherry, Dougall Stevenson, Richard Long and Angela D'Audney retching if they listen to TV news.

Johno said...

As an older salty sailor I am on the opposite side of the "yacht" chasm. To me a yacht is and always has been a vessel primarily propelled by sails. A "launch" is a powered vessel.

It is American to call a luxurious powered vessel a yacht.

What is "yachting" in NZ? Not power boating IMHO.

Gabriel said... 25 October 2019.

Johno said...

pdm - agree re "cops". It is lazy and typical of the low standards in journalism these days. Another irritant is the use of "chopper" instead of "helicopter".

Sigh. It's tough being a grumpy old white man these days.

Neil - ha! very good. Better "out" than "around" I suppose.

Terry - quite so. Nothing is more pidgin than the mish-mash of English, te reo Māori and loan-words the media relentlessly subject is to.

I do enjoy this blog.

Karl du Fresne said...

That link didn't work for me, but googling "Brian Rudman lawmakers" did. However a quick scan shows the word was used only in the headline, not in Rudman's column. "MPs" or "Politicians" would have served just as well.

Ron Palenski said...

Some gallery journalists already write, ridiculously, about the Wellington Beltway

hughvane said...

I hope readers realise that current circumstances are, in their manifold cloaks, a remake of the famous Tower of Babel story. Babble it most certainly is, a form of language spoken by sheeples, understood largely by them alone. "Sure thing pal, no worries."

Neil Keating said...

Royal Yacht Britannia. On which mast did she bend sails?

Rob said...

Its good that English is free to develop but two I dislike are the increasing use of "math" and "White".

Eamon Sloan said...

At least much of the American vernacular being absorbed here can be regarded as actual understandable English language. And, it is not all slang. The issue is one of an exchange of usage, American vs New Zealand usage. The osmosis process has been progressing for generations via travel, commerce, literature, music, news media, cinema art etc. Don’t forget the increased absorption over recent generations of modern UK and Australian expressions. Though I choke a little over some of the more infantile Australian expressions.

I would be much more concerned with the march of another language now invading New Zealand English. It is a basic spoken story-telling language beginning with the letter M. Now being pursued at a breakneck pace by the language zealots and fanatics. Emphasise the word spoken. The spoken M language does not migrate easily to a written form and struggles to translate meaningfully to standard English.

Chris Morris said...

Taking a contrary view; it can sometimes be very worthwhile labelling MPs, particularly government ones, as lawmakers. This helps sheet home responsibilities. If they don't like something, they should change the law. If they don't, then they have the consequences of their inactions. If there are things they didn't think about or ignored warnings about that manifest themselves on new rules (think the finance regulations) then they are responsible for that stuffup. Allowing them to designate themselves as just parliamentarians give them another excuse, as if it is others who change the rules.

Tom Hunter said...

On a cruder level there's the use of the term "pissed" by people under the age of 30.

When I first moved to the US it took a while to get used to the term "pissed" meaning "angry", especially when it was used in the same sentences as here in NZ, such as, "That guy was so pissed".

So it's been a bit of a surprise to me to find that word now being used that way in NZ, courtesy of two decades of US cartoons and YA shows, while our slang for being drunk is confined to the older folk.

Oh, and as a result of a decade plus in America I do use the terms "diaper", "sidewalk","trunk" and "hood" - but still fill up the car with petrol not gasoline or "gas".

Odysseus said...

Well at least I can understand American vernacular. But I cannot comprehend much at all of the te reo vernacular that is now randomly scattered amidst English by the state broadcasting system. I think this apparent effort to create a new pidgin dialect does far more to undermine New Zealand's authentic form of English than calling someone "buddy" or summoning a "fire truck".

Gabriel said...

In North America the term used to be "pissed off" for angry. I'm not sure if that was ever in use in New Zealand but since moving here decades ago I've gotten used to "pissed" in that context as the short form I guess. In NA then "pissed" was reserved for drunk. I think "on the piss" is strictly an antipodean phrase.

Andy Espersen said...

You are right, Eamon Sloan. The forced "learning" of Maori is a real imposition on our beautiful, living English language.

It can also be argued that, as in what they call total immersion in te reo, experimenting on a NZ child citizen by forcing him/her to not to grow up with, never to be exposed to, a proper living mother-tongue is quite unethical. What lasting psychological harm will that turn out to cause the child?

Should parents be allowed to experiment on their children to that extent? I think not.

Doug Longmire said...

American vernacular ??
I'm like, Wow !!

homepaddock said...

Gotten instead of got as the past tense of get is the one that grates with me. But a lot of the journalists and subs will have grown up TV, films and other media from the USA and probably don't know what they're doing wrong. Ele Ludemann