A funny thing happened the first time we went to the supermarket this year. "We'll need some sacks," we said to the checkout clerk, consciously choosing the local term as we had trained ourselves to do in the 90's when we lived in Devon for two years. Passing us some, the clerk said, "You're not from around here, are you?" No, we acknowledged, we're American. "I could tell," he said, "when you asked for sacks. We call them bags."
We're continually astonished by the gradual narrowing of the gap between English and American vocabularies over a decade. Even where "sacks" haven't given way to common "bags," American terms that used to cause the conversational equivalents of traffic jams now flow easily, like two-way traffic.
Take sneakers. If we referred to sneakers or running shoes in southwest England in the mid to late 90's, we ran the risk of being misunderstood. Canvas Keds-types were called "plimsolls" (required of schoolchildren for gym classes), and the serious-soled Nike-types were "trainers," used strictly for athletic pursuits. To wear "trainers" when you were not engaged in sport was equivalent to wearing a sign identifying yourself as an American tourist. (Not, as Seinfeld would say, that there's anything wrong with that ...)
But when we got back to England this fall, after ten years away, I saw a sign in an Exeter store window advertising a sale on "sneakers." Perhaps more surprisingly, I occasionally see people wearing sneakers just to walk around town. They're not cool, and they're not universally worn, but sneakers have certainly made inroads this side of the Atlantic.
It's a small thing, but by small things do we measure cultural change. And sneakers turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. A decade ago, that sign wouldn't have been seen in a "store" window, it would have been in a "shop." But "store" has caught on here, just at the moment when so many of them are closing, thanks to the credit crunch—another American import.
I attribute this great vocabulary shift to the influence of American television that now floods the airwaves here. You can watch six hours of Friends or Scrubs any evening, not to mention whole seasons of Mad Men, House, and Grey's Anatomy.
American television was held at arm's length before the turn of the millennium, rather than embraced wholesale as it is today. I remember the British debut of the sitcom Caroline in the City in the mid-90's. An English newspaper critic the next day got hung up on a detail that wouldn't even have been noticed in the States: the central character, a single woman living alone, had a big double-door refrigerator in her kitchen. This set off a rant on American overconsumption, and consumerism, and our desire to be seen as feeding the world with our endless abundance. At the time, Sergei and I had a rented English kitchen with a refrigerator the size of a dishwasher. We knew only one family in Topsham with an American-style refrigerator, and they were half American themselves. Now, ten years later, all of our friends here have American-style refrigerators, and dishwashers too for that matter. I don't see any TV critics noticing the furniture in imported American TV shows these days.
Ten years ago, if someone in a store or a pub asked us where we were from, our standard answer was "the States." But that's too general an answer now, as we learned our first week back. The Morris dancer we'd met in the pub around the corner was clearly insulted. "Well I know that," he said. "But where are you from?" These days the proper answer is Ohio, and what's more, the people we meet are quite likely to have an idea where in the U.S. that is, in part because of our state's determinative role in the 2004 election. The degree of knowledge here about American political life strikes us as wider and more acute now, too. But that shouldn't be so surprising. After all, and sadly, we have the terms "recession," "foreclosure," and "business going bust" in common, too.
Fortnightly editor Amy Blumenthal and her husband, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, are living in England directing Kenyon's Exeter Program.