Over the last ten years or so, I’ve been noticing changes in the words that speakers of British English use. Some of those changes are due to the adoption of American English words, others are simply through misunderstanding. Here is an utterly subjective and unscientific survey of some of the changes that I have noticed. Before I am accused of being a curmudgeon, I accept that language is always evolving, so to complain about all of them is pointless. One or two of the changes, however, do seem to me excessively PC or depressingly indicative of lowered educational standards.
Will all these words still be in common British English usage ten years from now?
- problem “Problem” has a problem. It is just too negative for our upbeat, spin-obsessed age. It suggests that something is actually, er, wrong. Oh dear. Instead we have the blander issue. Consider a parent tutting about one of her children’s more badly-behaved friends: would she say “Kevin’s got problems” or would she be more tempted to say “Kevin’s got issues“? In the workplace, problems have been almost entirely banished. Great news! Now we are left with only issues and challenges which are not so bad at all, are they?
- invitation How often do you receive an invitation to a party these days? You’re more likely to receive an invite. This change of use of the word “invite” from a verb to a noun is, I believe, a result of the adoption of “invite” from American English. American software applications allow you to send your colleagues invites to meetings. In my workplace in the UK, I have not heard the word invitation used in conversation – in any context – for three years.
- take-away Take-out or takeout seems to replacing “take-away” as both noun and verb when referring to food that is bought to be consumed off the premises. In my local fish and chip shop, that most British of institutions, customers* can eat at tables instead of taking their battered cod and chips away. They are therefore asked “Is that to take out?” *Formerly known as patrons.
- insect This is now becoming only a scientific term, now replaced in everyday English by bug. I have to give bug its due: it is a short and child-friendly word.
- exploit The verb exploit is probably too resonant of those non-PC times when exploitation was the norm, by men of women, by adults of children, by the first world of the third, by the haves of the have-nots. So it appears to have been substituted by the noun leverage. Thus, where previously one would have exploited a resource, it is now leveraged. It’s probably largely used in business but it crops up elsewhere.
- sex Yes, sex will have disappeared in a few years time. But only in the sense of gender, which is now replacing it. Those with a schoolboy sense of humour will no longer have the innocent pleasure of writing “Yes, seven times a week” next to the parts of forms enquiring whether you are male or female.
- the No, we aren’t dropping the definite article entirely. Only in one particular context: in dates. These days “Friday thirteenth” is becoming more prevalent than the more old-fashioned “Friday the thirteenth”. Similarly “on”, as in “She went shopping on Wednesday” is beginning to be dropped too.
- shop No more shops. Only stores. One type of shop, the chemist’s has been replaced by the pharmacy.
- criterion The decline of the teaching of classics has resulted in a generation who don’t know that borrowed Greek words ending in “-on” take the ending “-a” in the plural. “a criteria” and “a phenomena” crop up everywhere.
- fussy If I didn’t eat my greens when I was little, mum might have told me not to be fussy. Today, in the same situation, a child is picky.