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Anatopism: Words Out of Place

When an American character unintentionally uses British words or phrases, that's an anatopism.

By
Ben Yagoda, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #853

The English writer David Mitchell’s latest novel, "Utopia Avenue," is about a (fictional) late-’60s British rock band who, at various points, encounter (real-life) rock and roll figures. One scene takes place on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where Janis Joplin gives an impromptu performance. After one song, she takes her leave because, she says, "I’ve a session tomorrow."

Chalk and Cheese

I found that piece of dialogue surprising, but at the same time not surprising. Surprising that Joplin, a native of Texas, would actually have said, "I’ve got a session" or maybe "I have a session"; the "I've a" construction is a Britishism. But not surprising because I’d already encountered a half-dozen examples in the novel of American characters using British words or phrases (and would come upon at least eight more in the remainder of the book). For example:

  • Gene Clark, on quitting The Byrds: "Now it's gone, I want it back." (American English: "Now that it’s gone.")
  • Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane: "Chalk and cheese." (A very British expression indicating two things very different in quality or value.)
  • Frank Zappa: "Accidents are often art's best bits." (Americans would say "best parts" or "best features.")

Hey Presto

It's not only rock stars who talk this way. Other American characters in the book use the British terms "spot on," "hey presto" (all of a sudden), "chop chop" (hurry up), "the chop" (getting fired), "reckons" (figures), "eyehole" (keyhole), "carry on" (keep going), and "the till" (the cash register).

Since 2011 I've conducted a blog, Not One-Off Britishisms, dealing with British words and expressions that have been adopted by Americans, so I'm admittedly more sensitive than most to this kind of thing. But the "Utopia Avenue" examples aren't a product of that phenomenon: a half a century ago, when the book takes place, it hadn't even started yet.

Anatopism

It’s an example, rather, of a different trend: lexical anatopism in British novels with American characters. Anatopism is the equivalent of anachronism, except referring to words out of place rather than words out of time. Fiction writers should be aware of both phenomena, as they are potential pitfalls that will make observant readers cross.

The first instance I encountered of the American-characters-speaking-British-English phenomenon was Emma Donoghue's novel "Room." Donoghue was born in Ireland and lives in Canada, but the book, which is narrated by a boy named Jack, is set (one comes to learn) in the United States. However, Jack uses the "that"-less construction, "Now I'm five, I have to choose," and the very British "proper," as in "if I put on my proper shoes" and "I'm not doing proper pictures, just splotches and stripes and spirals." Meanwhile, his mother tells him. "I have … a big brother called Paul." (An American would say "named Paul.")

Bits

Probably the most common Britishism in the book is "bits," used to mean "pieces" or "parts."

The word appears 62 times in "Room" (having a book on a Kindle is great for this kind of investigation), and most are pure British, including: "She doesn't have many soft bits but they're super soft," "she's putting the hem back up on her brown dress with pink bits," and "For dessert we have a tub of mandarins between us, I get the big bits because she prefers the little ones." "Tub" is a Britishism (for bowl or container) as well.

Different To

Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, "Klara and the Sun," presents a similar case: English author, unconventional narrator, setting gradually revealed to be the United States, and the narrator and other ostensibly American characters uttering abundant Britishisms.

There are eighteen of them, by my count, including: "clever" (which Americans use to mean "ingenious or crafty" and the British, more generally, as “intelligent”); "en suite " (instead of “bathroom," which is likely being used more often in the U.S. lately thanks to house-hunting shows on HGTV, but is still much more common in British English); "different to" (as opposed to "different from" or "different than"); and a machine that operates "the way it had always done" (Americans would say "the way it always had").

Meant To

A final example, from William Boyd's latest, "Trio," is an American actress in whose mouth Boyd puts two Britishisms in one sentence.

She's describing her role in her current project: "I'm meant to be a famous film star who's making a film in Brighton." "Meant to" for this particular connotation of "supposed to" is pure British. And an American would likely say "movie star" instead of "film star."

How Anatopism Happens

It's not hard to imagine how this sort of thing happens. For both British authors and British copyeditors, lexical anatopism (like lexical anachronism) is a potential blind spot, a Donald Rumsfeldesque "unknown-unknown" situation. That is, they are aware that Americans would say "elevator" instead of "lift," or would never say "telly," but there are thousands of other expressions they probably don't even realize are exclusively British. They just sound normal. Hence they don't flag or query them when they come out of the mouth of an American character. 

American copyeditors would indeed sense something off, and I'm sure make many changes along these lines. But generally speaking, British books have already gone through the full editorial process before they cross the pond, and therefore often don't get the fullest level of scrutiny over here. Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House (which published "Utopia Avenue") and the author of "Dreyer's English," says, "When we publish a British book, we don't do a thorough copyedit, unless that's been prearranged. We do what I call a 'vigorous proofread.' Our editors pick up U.K. terms so obscure that even a reasonably Anglophilic U.S. reader wouldn't understand them, like 'ginger group' [a 'formal or informal group within an organization seeking to influence its direction and activity'—Wikipedia] or 'Sat Nav' [for GPS].'"

But "eyehole" for keyhole and "till" for cash register go through.

One might imagine the same thing happening the other way around—that is, British characters in American novels talking in Americanisms. I haven’t noticed it, possibly because I don't recall reading that many American novels with British characters, possibly because of my own Rumsfeldian blind spot, or possibly because of a point raised by (American) romance novelist and linguistics professor Julie Tetel Andreson: "The influence of American movies and television has brought American usages into English speech—or, at least, this influence has made those usages not as foreign as they once might have been."

But Andreson says both anatopism and anachronism are problems in Regency romances set in the early 19th century. She reports a couple of pieces of dialogue that are guilty of both sins: "It seemed like a good idea at the time," and "I'll bet."

There are, of course, worse sins against literature than this sort of misstep, but they are nevertheless a bad business. As they accumulate in a novel, disbelief gets harder to suspend, credibility is strained, and the author's spell, such as it is, begins to be broken. If you're now editing that novel you worked on during National Novel Writing Month, it's something to check, and I also humbly request a bit more effort by copy desks on both sides of the pond to ensure that dialogue is, well, spot on.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Ben Yagoda, Writing for Grammar Girl

Ben Yagoda is the author of How to Not Write BadAbout Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, and many other books. You can find out more about him at benyagoda.com and on Twitter.