It’s amazing to see my husband, a classic coffee-snob, not only drinking tea, but showing signs of tea-snobbery as well. I probably ought to warn him to be careful about that because tea-snobbery is uncommon in the US; it is seen as affected, and much more so than coffee-snobbery. In fact, it often seems to be viewed in the same light as affected American poseurs who use Briticisms to seem more … something…
Whatever the reasons, Americans who use Briticisms are often considered noxious, as this old quote by Ben Yagoda in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 18, 2004 ) suggests:
“It's hard to pinpoint the cause of the use of all these Briticisms. Anglophilia hardly seems to be rampant at the moment. Perhaps the success of BBC America is a factor, or maybe the importation of British editors like Tina Brown and Anna Wintour a decade ago is finally trickling down. But I wouldn't underestimate the eternal appeal of sounding classy without seeming pretentious. The gathering storm of Briticisms would seem to provide a perfect opportunity.”
Mr. Yagoda’s point may be valid; Briticisms have become more popular in the US. I’m uncomfortable with his conclusions of pretension, however, because it hits too close to home. I don’t just mean that metaphorically; I mean some things that are considered Briticisms, I learned at home, and some others at school. In Arkansas. No kidding.
[Note: Blogger very helpfully kept me from accidental pretentiousness just now, by pointing out the error in my natural inclination to use "learnt" instead of "learned."]
My best friend is Australian, and I don’t deny that I’ve picked up the odd expression from her – “twee” being a notable example. But I wouldn’t normally say things like “in hospital” instead of “the hospital” or “on holiday” instead of “a holiday.” And no one would ever think I sound British when I speak; I don’t have a strong accent, but what’s left is Bill Clinton-variety southern. In fact, I like to listen to Clinton because his accent is so similar to my dad’s. Still, I can’t deny that I do use some apparent Briticisms. Dang! (That isn’t one of them.)
Of course, what stings is that one who is trying to “sound classy,” is one who is obviously failing to do so. I used to be quite self-conscious about this, but not so much now that I have a better understanding of where I come from. For one thing, although I’m from Arkansas, I’m from a place that’s exceptionally “Anglo,” as my Aussie friend noted when I took her to visit my family. In fact, some branches of my family have been in the general vicinity of this same area for nearly 200 years (before Arkansas was even a state); over a period of 100 years or so, different groups of English (and Scottish and Irish) ancestors following one of two routes (the National Road or the Natchez Trace) converged there. A concentrated Anglo community resulted -- for example, different branches of my family hail from places named Tull (for the English agriculture writer, not the band), Merry Green, and Old Belfast. These are not new affectations; they’ve been around for close to 150 years.
Although I spent my first few years in Tull, I didn’t live there for any great length of time. But I was raised by people who did (and do still) live there, and I go back whenever I can because I’m fascinated by the ways in which I was influenced by absorbing an older culture as I was growing up. Of course I had no idea I was doing this; I thought Tull and its environs were typical of the rural south. For example, I had no idea that “shaped note singing” wasn’t as common as ticks on a dog (how’s that for a southern-fried expression?). It was only a few years ago that I learned (thanks again, blogger) it wasn’t common; it was endangered at one time, but seems to be experiencing a resurgence. (Maybe Anna Wintour...?)
In case you haven’t heard of it, shaped-note singing (also called sacred harp, or fa-so-la) refers to music in which the notes are indicated by different shapes. There is a whole history to this, which I’ll spare you, but suffice to say that each year, on the third Sunday in May, far-flung branches of my family gather in the Ebenezer Church in Tull, Arkansas to sing from tattered photocopies of tattered photocopies of the “new” music books (purchased in the late 1800s to replace the old books that burned along with the old church). Though I haven’t gone recently, it happens every year like clockwork; once, DH and I, along with my mother and her sister, my cousin, and my grandmother even took a turn at leading a song up at the front of the church. Lest you think I’m kidding, well, have a look at these (the handwriting is my grandmother’s):
OK; enough with the nostalgia. My point is that many of my Briticisms (which, incidentally, used to delight a former boss who had a PhD in Linquistics) seem to have originated from my pretentious, tea-drinking, pseudo-Anglophile, redneck family. Making me what? A pretentious redneck?
As we say in the south -- go figure.
By the way, if you're interested in shaped-note singing, "Awake My Soul" is a documentary about it. The website includes more detailed history and some clips of what it sounds like. I also had the recent good fortune to get my hands on a recording someone made of the 1979 Tull Singing. It's poor quality -- obviously done on a portable cassette player, but I'm pleased to have it since it's the real thing, as opposed to stuff by one of the new groups that have formed in order to teach others how to do it.