Queen's English Vs. Yadda Yadda

Slang Vs. Proper Speech

For decades, folks on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that for all their similarities, the British and Americans belong to two distinct cultures that are separated by a common language.

But now, thanks to the subversive influence of a 32-year-old lexicographer named Jesse Sheidlower, that language is destined to become more common than ever.

Sheidlower, who is featured in a story this week on 60 Minutes II, has the honor of being the first American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, long regarded as the Bible of dictionaries, and the stern guardian of what is quaintly known as the queen's English.

Having an American as one of the top editors of the OED is about as absurd as casting a young English actress in the role of America's favorite Southern belle, Scarlett O'Hara. Or as preposterous as making a movie in which Mike Wallace, of all people, is played by an elegant Canadian who is primarily celebrated for being a great Shakespearean actor.

But there you have it.

My own view is that Sheidlower's presence on the august editorial staff of the OED is our revenge for a rude putdown uttered on British television by John Cleese, the former Monty Python prankster who went on to star in A Fish Called Wanda and other screwball comedies.

Cleese had just returned to his native land from an extended stay in the United States and after some routine observations on life in the former colonies, he was asked if there are any major differences between British subjects and American citizens.

"Well," he replied, "I've given that question a great deal of thought, and I've come to the conclusion that there are three basic differences.

"First and foremost, we speak English. Second, when we call a sporting event a world championship or World Series, we have the grace and courtesy to invite at least one other nation to participate."


Then, after a pause for breath and perhaps emphasis, "And third, when we pay homage to our Head of State, we kneel down on only one knee."

I'm willing to disregard that last slur because the interview in question took place just a few months after President Clinton's impeachment, when the world media was still caught up its obsession with all the steamy details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. So I'll cut Cleese some slack on that one.

Nor do I have any serious quarrel with his jab at the inflated importance we bestow on such merely national championships as the World Series and the Super Bowl.

It's the first assertion – that haughty "first and foremost, we speak English" – that ranks as the verbal equivalent of a kick in the groin.

But now that our man Sheidlower is on the job, busily insinuating into the Oxford English Dictionary such glorious American slang terms as "yo" and "scudsbucket" and "yadda yadda yadda," the time is fast approaching when the language will no longer bear any resemblance to what Cleese nd his countrymen regard as proper English.

Or as Correspondent Bob Simon pointedly observed in his report on 60 Minutes II: "The English most people want to speak ain't the Queen's English anymore."

Talk about having the last laugh – hah!

The triumph of American jargon in Oxford reminds me of another trend that is clearly flying in the face of tradition and convention.

Not long ago the wry columnist Calvin Trillin began to notice the emergence of a strange pattern among young mothers in the rural South. Many of them had fallen into the habit of giving their sons the kind of fancy first names we normally associate with the British upper class.

As if this turn of events were not bizarre enough, Trillin's research further revealed that a suspiciously high number of English mothers were naming their sons after characters from the American South that they had heard about on their favorite country music stations.

To his credit, Trillin made no attempt to offer a rational explanation for such an eerie coincidence. He did, however, alert us to the likelihood that in 20 years or so, we'll all be cheering on NFL linebackers named Nigel and Clive, while our British cousins are electing to Parliament such Right Honorable Gentlemen as Rufus and LeRoy.

But whether trash-talking on the gridiron or debating in the House of Commons, you can be sure that the recurring refrain will be "yadda yadda yadda" and that affirmative responses will be sturdy shouts of "Yo!"



By Gary Gates; © MMI Viacom Internet Services Inc. All Rights Reserved
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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