Nicki Minaj, apologi(s)ing and ‘the britishism’

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Once again, I apologize for the delay,” 15-year-old me wrote to conclude an email to my English teacher back in my high school in the U.K. I was handing in an assignment four days late.

The teacher to whom I had sent the email was notoriously strict regarding deadlines, so I spent the following hours anxiously watching the blue circle rotate as I repeatedly refreshed my inbox.

This essay was important for my final grade, and I was expecting perhaps a grade deduction or, worse, a refusal to accept the assignment. However, a reply never came — and this felt like the worst response of all.

I slipped quietly into English the next day. I kept my eyes to the linoleum floor, using my classmates’ shoes and the legs of tables to guide me to my usual seat. Everyone’s bags were still unopened under the desks; in the corner of my eye, I noticed the same piece of paper atop of every desk. This was unusual.

Was this a surprise test? Maybe a handout before the class had begun? My mind jumped to conclusions — had my teacher circled my assignment’s errors and photocopied it for the scrutiny of the class as punishment for my tardiness?

I found my place and lowered my body into my desk. Hesitantly, I turned the piece of paper to face me.

I had been right. I must have irritated my teacher immensely. 

The differences between American and British English headlined the document.

Today’s class was not punishment for my late submission but a sin much, much worse. I had committed the heinous crime of spelling “apologise” with a “z.”

Growing up in the U.K., we were taught by our elders that we were being linguistically “coloni(s)ed” by American English. And we, as schoolchildren, were indoctrinated into defending our Britishisms — that our honor depended upon the “u” in our ‘honour.”

Given this context, you can imagine my surprise when, after arriving in Berkeley, I was asked why my cover letter was in British English as opposed to English. I found myself in a gr(e)y area. What I had prioriti(s)ed as the cent(re) of my literate life from kindergarten (nursery) was now circled in red ink.

The way I wrote and spoke was now “a thing.” It was “funny,” it was “quaint.” And surprisingly, this was refreshing.

Think of Nicki Minaj’s voice note to Boris Johnson where she purports to be an Oxford alumna with an English accent, or a Californian jokingly remarking “see you on chewsday,” or a Bostonian chuckling at a TikTok feed filled with Sophie Aspin. It is self-evident that “Britishness” holds a firmly unpretentious place in Gen-Z American comedy.

However, this creep of “Britishisms” into American comedy is the surface of a linguistic shift. Linguist Lynne Murphy notes that Americans are beginning to adopt British words both consciously and unconsciously, and I have noticed similar swaps myself.

Our local Berkeley alleyway is now “dodgy,” not sketchy; I’ve seen a few elevators labeled as “lifts;” my American friends substitute “bloody” and “bum” in place of ruder options. 

Dua Lipa, Downton Abbey and The Daily Mail cannot be the sole reasons for this appetite for Britishisms. After having to defend against America’s linguistic crusade for so long, why have I encountered my homely British inflections in Berkeley, seemingly on their own crusade? 

Among many, the most simple reason for this is that Britishisms are simply not met with the same backlash here as Americanisms are met with by boomers in the U.K. I agree with another linguist, Ben Yagoda. He says that hearing Britishisms uttered by an American makes him feel like a “birdwatcher” — it “makes his day.”

But I’d like to clarify that this linguistic exchange is not without side effects. A notorious Britishism that Americans have begun to take under their wing is the term “chav.” It raises its ugly head often enough in Berkeley; I have seen and heard it slipped casually into group chats, seminar discussions and Instagram captions. There is even a whole “side” of TikTok named after it. And every single time I encounter it, I physically cringe.

In the U.K., it’s an offensive, classist slur that has become increasingly derogatory over the last decade. Standing for Council House And Violent, its use is enough to get you into very hot water at the workplace or dinner table. Yet in the U.S., I’ve been shocked at how candidly it’s thrown around.

Intercultural misunderstanding arises not only when we relocate vocabulary, but when relocation alters a word’s ammunition. This is something that we, as English speakers, must be wary of. Similar instances will likely become more frequent.

Nevertheless, this slow march of Britishisms into the American conscience tells us a lot about how differences in the English language spread.

As long as media is exchanged across borders and conversations are had between cultures, there will never be a single direction of linguistic dissemination.

Yes, the scales will always tilt one way; currently, there is still more American influence on the British than the opposite, which explains why my teacher felt the need to so ardently rush to the defensive.

But I wish I could tell my high school teacher that as long as linguistic diversity exists, it will be impossible to prevent osmosis in the opposite direction. I’m sure that would put him at ease.

Language will always fluctuate. It is a natural, breathing and changing thing; we need to treat it as such in the classroom. The constant ebb of what we say, and how we spell, is never something we should apologise for.

Stanley Stott-Hall writes about finding his Berkeley bearings as a Brit. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.