You say tomato and I say tomato

TomatoesMy dining companion was fulminating against the use of American English.

The particular document that was causing him so much distress contained no American spelling.  There was no sign of color in place of colour.  And there was no suggestion of analyze in place of analyse.

No, what had triggered his fulmination was the use of parking lot, sidewalk, and railroad (and a few other Americanisms) where British and Commonwealth English would have used car park, pavement (or footpath), and railway.

At first, I thought: fair enough.  Just because American writers (and American readers) have a penchant for pants rather than trousers and airplanes rather than aeroplanes, that doesn’t make it correct to use these words throughout the English-speaking world.

But on further reflection, I wasn’t so sure.

A handful of English English words had their origins in England – or at least in one of the several proto-states and regions that eventually became England.  But many more words were adapted from German and Latin.  Later, Norman French contributed a large number of words relating to governance and public administration.  And then, during the second half of the second millennium, many more words were ‘borrowed’ from the languages of India and Malaya and China and … well, you see what I mean.

I suppose there must have been a time when the purists thought that veranda was just plain wrong.  ‘Veranda?  Surely you mean portico!’  (Or perhaps gallery?)  But today both veranda and portico are perfectly acceptable in English English.  And dinghy didn’t exactly condemn rowing boat to the scrapheap, so I’m not sure that rowboat will either.

English is packed to the gunwales with clumps of words that are almost interchangeable.  If big means big, why do we need large, huge, enormous, vast, massive, and immense?

I think that I shall continue to call a pavement a pavement.  But if you want to call it a sidewalk, and you’re happy that your reader will know exactly what you mean, that’s perfectly OK with me.

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