The Godfather: Peter Corris on Americanisation
I’ve written on this subject before but something I heard on radio and a recent experience of mine have brought it back to my attention and prompted some historical reflections.
When you come to think of it, the process of Americanisation started very early. When the Commonwealth of Australia was being established and a bicameral parliament being discussed, it was hardly likely that the English terms would be adopted. Conservative though most of the framers were, they were too imbued with the myth of stout colonial egalitarianism to contemplate a House of Lords where hereditary peers sat with bishops. Although much earlier William Wentworth had proposed creating an hereditary aristocracy here, this was properly derided as a ‘bunyip’ version and gained no traction. Unfortunately, however, the founding fathers did not follow the Americans in having no knights and ladies, lords or dames. Still less were would-be parliamentarians willing to be styled ‘Commons’. The American model was the obvious choice.*
Over the years certain American expressions have out-distanced the local varieties. ‘Between a rock and a hard place’ has virtually replaced ‘Between the devil and the deep blue sea’. We no longer believe in the devil and instead of trusting ourselves to the bosom of the ocean we mostly fly over it. The American expression has an appropriate solid reality to it.
‘Fish or cut bait’, however, has not replaced ‘Make up your mind’, which has a useful cerebral quality. But I have recently heard a reporter on the ABC using ‘regular’ instead of ‘ordinary’ – as in, ‘He’s a regular guy’.
As a kid I remember an uncle of mine coming back from a trip to the US. He smoked king-size Chesterfield plain cigarettes that came in a soft pack inside a light metal container. The top could be flipped open and the cigarette obtruded an inch – fascinating to watch. He used the words ‘rain check’ to describe a postponement. I dimly grasped his meaning (one didn’t ask adults to explain themselves in those days), but thought of it as a ‘rein check’ – to do with controlling a horse. Apparently it’s a term used in baseball where a ticket for a washed-out game can be reused for a later game. The expression and the practice never caught on here.
To return to my recent experience – I heard Fran Kelly on ABC Breakfast documenting, with excerpts from interviews, the meetings between Trump supporters and Russians prior to the US election. One individual ‘took’ a meeting, another ‘took’ several meetings and so on. When Fran began her analysis she slipped into using ‘took’ instead of ‘had’. American usage is insidious. Let’s hope it was a momentary lapse.
I recently had to inform someone about the state of one of my several disabilities. ‘It hasn’t got worse,’ I began. ‘But it hasn’t …’ I just saved myself from saying ‘gotten any better’ and said ‘become any better.’**
* The term commonwealth dates back to the 17th-century revolutionaries in the English Civil War and was in some measure a radical adoption. In a secularised, albeit sectarian, Australia, there was never any chance of Anglican bishops being given places in the legislature.
** A friend commenting on my previous column pointed out that the only survival of ‘gotten’ in standard English is in ‘misbegotten’ – interesting!