Americanisms I Can Do Without

By Farooq A. Kperogi

There is no doubt that, over the past few years, my expressions have become more Americanized than I ever thought they would be. It's inevitable that when you live in a place for a long time you will eventually come to adopt, reflect, and even inflect the place's linguistic idiosyncrasies. Plus, I actually genuinely think American English is admirably colorful and rich. However, there are certain Americanisms I simply can't bring myself to embrace, however hard I try. I identify them below:

1. "Shower" or "shower bath." American (men) don't bathe or have baths; they just "shower" or have a "shower." A bath in American English involves cleaning of the body by elaborate immersion into a relatively large open container of water or into a bathtub. So only women and babies have baths. When I told my friends in Louisiana many years ago that I was going to "have my bath," they all looked at me quizzically. "A bath? Are you a woman?" one of them asked.

The exchange that ensued in response to his question taught me that in America "shower" is the usual word for what we call a "bath" in British and Nigerian English. I am uncomfortable with the word "shower" because it's not all the time that I use the plumbing fixture that prays water all over one's body when I go to the bathroom. What if I just manually spray water all over my body from a pail of water? Is that still a shower? In American English, the answer is yes.

In America, you have a "bath" only when you fill up the bathtub with water and add something to foam and scent the bath water. This is also called a bubble bath. Men hardly do this. But my own understanding of the difference between a shower and a bath, which I am reluctant to give up even at the expense of being misunderstood here, is that a shower is a quick cleaning of the body, usually without soap and sponge, with or without water sprayed from a nozzle, while a bath is the cleaning of the body with soap and sponge. It is immaterial if you use a bucket or a projecting spout to discharge water to the body.

I should point out that "shower" has another meaning in American English: It can mean a party of friends or colleagues gathered to present gifts (usually to celebrate a wedding or the birth of a baby) to a person. A "bridal shower" is a gathering of friends to give gifts to a friend who has just wedded, and a "baby shower" is organized to give gifts to a friend or a colleague who is expecting a baby.

2. "Proctor an exam." This is the American English expression for "invigilate an exam," that is, to watch over students taking an exam. A proctor is also an invigilator. When a colleague of mine in graduate school sent me an email requesting that I help him "proctor an exam" because he would be away from school, I shot back a request for clarification: "By ‘proctor an exam' do you by any chance mean ‘invigilate an exam'?" He was as clueless about the meaning of "invigilate" as I was about "proctor." That day we both learned something new. Seven years after, my teeth still itch when I say "proctor an exam."

3. "We are pregnant." American husbands say "we are pregnant" when their wives are pregnant. I don't think I can ever bring myself to say that. First, it's a biological impossibility for a husband to be pregnant. But I understand the sociological basis for the expression. The modern American husband is often deeply involved in the pregnancy of his wife. But while it is socially defensible for a husband to claim to be "pregnant," the expression is biologically absurd. I also think it's an extreme dramatization of the famed feminization of the American husband. I can be involved with my wife's pregnancy without being "pregnant"!

4. "Pants." Almost everyone who speaks English knows that Americans call trousers pants. Because I grew up referring to the undergarment that covers the body from the waist to no further than the thighs "pants," I have a hard time giving up the name "trousers." But the American "pants" is actually the short form of pantaloon, which is an archaic word for trousers. In American English, undergarments (i.e., "pants" in British English) for adults are called "underpants" or "undershorts." Undergarments specifically for women or children are called "panties."

5. "Gas," "gas station." I can't get used to calling petrol "gas" and petrol station "gas station," especially because I have been brought up to think of gas as a state of matter that is different from liquid or solid matter. In fairness to Americans, however, gas is only the short form of gasoline, an older name for petrol.

6. "Uh-huh." Increasingly, in American English, the default response to the expression "thank you" is an irritating grunt that sounds like "uh-huh." Conventional responses like "you are welcome," "not a problem," "you bet," "sure" are declining in currency. Of course, older forms like "don't mention it" and "think nothing of it" have been dead long ago. I am often reluctant to say "thank you" to people who respond to my expression of gratitude with the rude grunt "uh-huh."

7. "I could have went." The past participle is dying in American English. But I have vowed never to participate in its burial. Clearly grammatically inaccurate expressions like "she should have saw [seen] him," "they could have went [gone] there," "he was beat [beaten] to death," etc are commonplace in modern American English. They grate on my nerves to no end.

8. "Wait on somebody or something." In British English (and American English until the last few years), it is customary to differentiate between "wait on" and "wait for." To "wait on" somebody or something is to work for or be a servant to that person or thing, and to "wait for" somebody or something is to stay in one place and anticipate or expect somebody or something. That distinction still makes sense to me. That is why I will never be caught saying "wait on" when I mean "wait for."

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