Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Photo by Alex Leith
When did my kids stop having bums? I can date it precisely to when ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ became the literary touchstone in our house. (For those of you not familiar with this oeuvre, think Harry Potter meets George from Seinfeld). No longer do the nippers sit on their bottoms or give each other a kick up the backside. Now it’s all falling on your butt, getting your butt over here, or (close your eyes) showing your butt as a hilarious joke. Occasionally they may refer to wiping their ass but what happened to their arses?

Before you get the idea that this column is simply going to bemoan the mangling of the Queen’s English by upstart Americans, I’ll quickly identify myself as an admirer of H. L Mencken. Mencken’s analysis of the American language ninety years ago should have been more than enough to stop whingeing about those colonial barbarians. Incredibly though people still rant about the perversion of the mother tongue. To them I say that the Empire is gone and that we haven’t had any pretensions to being cultural top-dog since the Beatles. The divergence of languages has been around since communication began, as when ancient peoples moved to new territory their speech would eventually change into something different. If this didn’t happen we’d all still grunt instead of talk and take umbrage every time someone came up with a new word for axe.

More recently though we've had trains and planes, radio and TV and lots of other features of the modern world to mix up this process. This has led to a new thing to get steamed up about: namely that the distinctiveness of British language is under attack from Americanisms arriving on these shores by the gigabyte. It’s worth noting that the opposite view holds in some quarters and Britishisms also permeate or, depending on your point of view, pollute the American idiom.

So are our very glutes threatened by linguistic uniformity? For an answer I turned to Google’s Ngrams application which allows tracking of the frequency of word usage across a wide range of sources. From a look at the “British English” corpus 1980-2008 it’s clear that backsides are sagging, bottoms and bums are looking wobbly, but arses seem to be holding firm. Butts are steady, asses less so. Worryingly, both butts and asses are considerably more frequent in occurrence than their British counterparts. It’s hard to draw firm conclusions from that though as it might be the result of an attachment to fag butts (that’s British fags), nostalgia for water butts and a hitherto unsuspected persistence of synonyms for donkey. It also seems implausible that we will stick out our tushes any time soon and are even less likely to start using fanny-packs.

Still, it’s doubtful that these consolations will be truly enough for those who care about the British posterior. It’s clear we need more radical action to preserve our rear-ends. Perhaps threats are in order for those who continue to import transatlantic trash. It may also be time to bring out the big guns of Glaswegian slang from my youth. I hope then my kids realise that I’m making a stand for cultural distinctiveness when I say that, if they don’t shut up about butts, I’ll give them a boot in the bahookie. Sometimes that’s the only language they understand.

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