Why do Americans change English words? [changed title]

Ok, I want to know - WHY do Americans change perfectly acceptable English words? Why do you make tap into faucet, wardrobe into closet and pavement into sidewalk? I can think of a great many sarcastic answers, but I’d quite like to know the real one.

There are regional variations of English throughout the world (and even throughout England).

Besides, what makes you so certain the English version came first?

I don’t know that there is a ‘real’ answer to this. It’s not like a conspiracy where all Americans get together and vote on a list of words to change.

Languages…all languages (except dead ones like latin) evolve over time. For various reasons new words pop-up…some fall into disuse, others gain new definitions and some are co-opted from entirely different languages.

Ok, how about the examples I quoted? Does anyone know why they evolved?

A tap is what we call a valve that is not under pressure. A faucet is under pressure

A wardrobe is a free standing piece of furniture whereas a closet is a part of the architecture.

Pavement is anything that has paving material over it. This would include a street, parking lot (car park), airport, etc. A side walk is a paved walk at the side of the road.

We didn’t change the words. Where there was a need to differentiate between two things then we left one thing named with the old term and come up with a different term for the other.

Many of the differences between American and British usage refer to items or inventions that only came into common use after the Colonies were founded and especially after U.S. independence.

Americans happened to chose one word to describe these innovations, and the British another. Nobody necessarily “changed.”

This is particularly notable in the case of something like the automobile, where many aspects have different names: hood/bonnet, trunk/boot, windshield/windscreen, etc.


Welcome to the SDMB. It helps to have descriptive titles for threads. I’ve changed the title of this thread. Please try to use more descriptive titles in the future.

DrMatrix - GQ Moderator

The modern elevator was invented 150 years ago in New York City by American inventor Elisha Graves Otis, founder of the Otis Elevator Company.

Now, Smiffy why do you take the perfectly acceptable American English word “elevator” and make it “lift”? :slight_smile:

And here I thought this was going to be a rant about our refusal to add a syllable to “aluminum”…

Why do the English take perfectly good French words like lieutenant, garage, and fillet, and pronounce them lef-tenant, gayr-age and fill-it?

Since the American version is now the accepted international standard (a view I will defend below), one should turn the question around and ask why the British change perfectly good words. Of course, in most cases, the usages (although in most cases not the words) entered the language during the last 200 years and there was no incentive to make the usages the same.

Twenty seven years ago, I gave a course in Belgium, in a French university (Louvain-la-Neuve) and I offerred them the choice of good (American) English or bad French. They chose the latter. The reason was that there were several older members of the faculty who wanted to attend and, although they did speak English, it was British English that they had learned and had a great deal of trouble understanding American English. That was then and this is now and even in Europe it is American English that is usually taught. And outside of Europe that is invariable. I know Brits resent this fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. Just as the French resent, but cannot change the fact that, although in some sense French is the language of international diplomacy, that’s a crock.

In significant respects, American English is more conservative than the Queen’s English. To wit:

The subjunctive mood. It shows a useful distinction of meaning which tends to be lost in modern Britain. American English is keeping the subjunctive alive.

The word fall in the sense of ‘autumn’. It was used in Britain centuries ago; it survives in America.

Pronunciation. Historical linguists have revealed that Shakespeare’s pronunciation was more like the modern Bostonian accent than any accent of modern England.

Punctuation Need I say more In America we still punctuate Smiffy

I f****g love the irony of that [new] thread title!

Jomo - That’s a good point. It’s occassionally mentioned in various books that certain people in the Appalachians speak English in the way it was spoken in Elizabethan times. While this is not really true, an awful lot of Elizabethan words still survive in modern American English. “Fall,” as you mentioned, is one of them. Others include “gotten,” “sick,” mad" (as in “angry”), “deck (of cards),” “hog,” “mayhem,” “magnetic,” “chore,” “skillet,” “homespun,” and the expression “I guess.” (source: Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue)

Continuing from the same source:

In many cases, and perhaps not for the specific ones you mention, since I don’t know and I’m not in front of an Oxford English Dictionary, a lot of the Americanisms that Brits bitch about are actually historically British words that have simply died in the usage. But a more general answer is the American variety of English evolved thousands of miles removed from the British source. Why would you expect the language to stay the same?


Folks in Britain don’t use the word “sick”? What is used, then-- ill? Unwell?

You know, if y’all had gotten it right the first time, we wouldn’t have to fix it.

When they say sick, they mean ‘nauseated’ or ‘vomiting’; as a noun, sick can mean ‘vomitus’. “Gorblimey, ‘owd all this sick ge’ on the bleedin’ floor?” They use ill to mean ‘unwell’.

Thanks, guys, you’ve all been very informative. And as for the word “sick”, we DO use it to mean unwell, but in a more specific sense, i.e. “I feel sick” usually means “I feel ill” but more specifically referring to a stomach problem. Stupid, yea, but that’s language for you, as I have learned from this thread.

I didn’t expect language to have stayed the same, and I wasn’t criticising Americans for changing things, I just wanted to know a few reasons. And now I do.

Whether Bill Bryson is an expert or not, I have to say that growing up in the UK only “gotten” and “homespun” from that list are words/phrases that were not in common usage. There are alternatives (for example “pack” instead of “deck” of cards), but that’s the beaty of English. There are so many alternatives for words, we don’t just stick with one and go with it.

What are we Brits supposed to say instead of “magnetic”?

“Skillet” is a bizarre one to have on that list. Hell, just look at dictionary.com where one of the definitions is listed as “Chiefly British”. A skillet is used for stewing, I’d argue that using “frying pan” for something to use for frying makes sense and is a modern word and frying itself is a modern addition to British cooking. Baking and stewing is where it (was) at.

But calling someone “sick” can mean mental problems and we have “sick leave”, not “ill leave”, to denote leave from work when you are ill for any reason.