Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 14 May 2023

Divided by a Common Language

“For my part, I prefer aliens that look alien. Then when they ritually eat their first-born or turn arthropod halfway through their life-cycle, it isn’t so much of a shock.” (Mary Gentle: ‘Golden Witchbreed’)

Citizens of the United States frequently present us with a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale. They look and dress like us, they speak our language (more or less) and their customs and manners aren’t so far away from ours, and then they suddenly turn round and serve you a cup of lukewarm water with a tea-bag on the side.

Just how far removed we are, at least as far as their media are concerned, was recently shown by the New York Times’ confident assertion that, on the day of the coronation, Royalist Britons had ‘dined on scones, scotch eggs and breakfast pie’ and ‘sipped tea or drinks like Buck’s Fizzes, a non-alcoholic version of a mimosa’. The NYT has form in this area; it’s not so long since it claimed that we were living ‘in swamps’ on porridge and mutton, an assertion so preposterous that it could only be the result of a bizarre folie à deux on the part of the publication and its readership.

There’s misinformation on both sides of the Atlantic, of course, and, for all we think we know about them, some of their habits seem downright baffling - take, for instance, the mystery of curtains. I hate to say it, but it’s become something of an obsession; I find myself repeatedly distracted during a film or television drama by curtains left wide open at night even when the characters are engaged in amatory or nefarious activities in brightly-lit rooms, heedless of curious passers-by (or assassins, depending on the plot).

Of course, in general we know far more about them than they do about us thanks to the magic of television and film (as well as the American novelists widely read in the UK). Some of this is due to the relative scale of output but there is also an element of wilful parochialism which finds its way into the most trivial of settings; one of the funniest things about Roland Emmerich’s ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ was the contrast between the well-groomed American meteorologists striding through shiny hi-tech offices and their sepia-tinted British counterparts huddled round outdated computers in a cramped and scruffy bunker.

A comment on a recent post reminded me that this pro-USA depiction extends into more solemn settings, citing the film ‘U-571’, which shamelessly rewrote history to credit the Americans with the capture of an Enigma cipher machine. The comment led me to the words of the film’s screenwriter, who, years afterwards, admitted that he had ‘distorted history’ and ‘would not do it again’:

"It was a distortion...a mercenary decision...to create this parallel history in order to drive the film for an American audience.” 

It’s a telling quote, an explicit admission that, while the USA is home to many rational and objective souls, a significant proportion of supposed adults of voting age need to have past events rewritten and tailored to their own interests in order to capture their attention, and it lends a worrying aspect to Biden’s evident anti-British bias; a powerful but childishly self-centered nation so beset with misinformation about us, both past and present, is a dangerous beast to have loose in the world.


  1. And they say "gotten" and eat scones and white sauce while calling it "biscuits and gravy".

    1. Indeed; there is a huge potential minefield around food, bedding and other domestic areas - and that’s before you get to the whole pants/trousers business.

      ‘Gotten’ I’m willing to tolerate as either a throwback to the Pilgrim Fathers or a derivation from German settlers, but I suspect the USA is also to blame for the recent journalistic abomination of describing things happening ‘while x watches on’.

      (Thank you, by the way, for inspiring this ramble with your comment on ‘U-571’)

  2. Can people stop using the word 'got', or any of it's derivatives, such as "getting", "gotten", or "got". There are so many words or phrases in this beautiful English language that could be used instead. The use of this word really gets on my nerves.

    1. I share your pain; sadly our language, beautiful as it is, seems to be fighting a rearguard action these days.

      At lest we don’t yet have my particular American bugbear: “Have you got the chips?” “Yes, I do”.

  3. Penseivat: "There are so many words or phrases in this beautiful English language that could be used instead." Got it.
    I just couldn't resist . . .


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