Tag Archives: British English

The play Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated was both British and American

Photo courtesy of Finborough Theatre

Photo courtesy of Finborough Theatre

Get ready to hear this tired joke a few times: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

April marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The president who won the American Civil War and abolished slavery has rarely left public discourse since then, but the play he was watching when he was killed has largely vanished. You could say it died, along with the famous guy who was watching it.

But this year, “Our American Cousin” is back.

There are several current revivals of the play, including one in Britain — the first production there in more than a century. And that’s significant because it’s a British play. Sort of.

“It was originally written to have the English laughing at Americanisms,” says Lydia Parker, director of the new production of “Our American Cousin” at the Finborough Theatre in London. “Then it became very popular in America.”

Solomon Mousley,  Kelly Burke and Timothy Allsop in the Finborough Theatre's production of  "Our American Cousin," by Tom Taylor.

Solomon Mousley, Kelly Burke and Timothy Allsop in the Finborough Theatre’s production of “Our American Cousin,” by Tom Taylor.

Parker told the BBC that the play started life as a melodrama with a few laughs, mainly at the expense of a naïve but earnest American character. But later, as Broadway beckoned, the play was rewritten as a comedy in which Brits became the objects of mockery.

The play’s 1858 run in New York lasted five months, which was almost unprecedented at the time. It was still going strong in other cities, including Washington, DC. That’s where Lincoln saw it in 1865, just days after the end of the Civil War.

The plot, such as it is, deals with an English family living in the countryside. They receive a visit from a long-lost American relative by the name of Asa Trenchard, who doesn’t shower and uses words like “skedaddle” and “sockdologizing.” British audiences viewed him as coarse; American audiences warmed to his honesty.

“It’s a silly play, entirely predictable,” says Adam Smith, a Lincoln historian at University College, London. Nonetheless, he found the London revival “really fun.”

For one thing, audiences get the chance to witness what made people laugh 150 years ago. One especially pompous English character tickled the American funny bone: Lord Dundreary. Smith says Dundreary is a “ridiculously stupid” caricature of a man, “with a lisp … and great big sideburns.”

All the additional laughs contained in the American version became helpful props for John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. As an actor, he was familiar with the play and knew when the audience would be laughing the most — and that’s when he pulled the trigger. The laughter covered up the cries of Mrs Lincoln.

“It’s that wrench from hilarity to astonished agony that’s incredible,” Smith says. “Has there ever been a leader assassinated while 1,500 of his fans were in fits of hysterical laughter?”

That’s also the biggest problem confronting today’s producers of the play. Most audiences know the scene, and anticipate its arrival with a mix of curiosity and dread. It’s difficult to focus on the comedy.

Smith applauds the Finborough Theatre’s approach to the scene: A female character lets out a farcical scream, just at the moment when Mrs Lincoln was said to have screamed after her husband was shot.

But however you play it, it’s awkward.

The London production of “Our American Cousin” is now sold out through its last performance on April 14. That’s the anniversary of the play’s most famous performance.


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UK English Blown to US Shores, ‘Like Some Exotic Seed’

Hypothetical flag quartering the British and American flags (Lunar Dragon via Wikimedia Commons)

Hypothetical flag quartering the British and American flags (Lunar Dragon via Wikimedia Commons)


For decades, Brits have complained about American contamination of British English. More recently, the reverse has been taking place: British expressions are elbowing their way into American speech. So far, Americans don’t seem to mind.

Listen above for a conversation with two people who closely follow these lexical exchanges: Lynne Murphy at the University of Sussex and author of the Separated by a Common Language blog; and Ben Yagoda at the University of Delaware and author of the Not One-Off Britishisms blog.

Other posts:



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Does Banning Bilingual Education Change Anything?

Nine years after bilingual education was banned in Massachusetts, educators are still arguing over the effect on students’ language abilities.  Massachusetts is among of several states, including California and Arizona, to ban bilingual education. The fear seems to be that non-English speaking kids won’t learn English fast enough if they receive much of their instruction in their native tongue (which in the US is usually Spanish). The solution has been “total immersion” in English.

There’s no shortage of studies related to bilingual education. Here are the cases for and against . Also, the National Association for Bilingual Education, and some other links.

Reporter Andrea Smardon of WGBH-Boston has been looking at why the ban came into being, and its effects– whether  non-English speakers are now picking English faster, or whether they’re dropping out of school. There’s more on her series here.

Also in the pod, more conversation with UK-based American, Lynne Murphy. Murphy teaches linguistics at the University of Sussex. She also writes the clever and droll blog,  Separated by a Common Language. In the last podcast, we talked about twangy accents, pronunciation of the world water, and the declining status of British English in the United States. This time, we consider politeness, and why neither Yanks nor Brits live up to each others’ expectations. One word encapsulates this: toilet. Misuse this word at your peril. But there are others: excuse me and sorry have subtle differences in usage, which if you don’t get them right, may result in the locals thinking you arrogant.

Murphy has an entertaining theory about British people and the word sorry. If you’ve spent any time in the UK, you’ll know that the word comes up all the time, especially in official announcements (“We are sorry to announce that the 9:16 train to Chingford is delayed due to a staff shortage.”). But when Brits bump into people– which they do a lot on their crowded island–  they don’t always apologize. Murphy suspects this is because they are in denial about having made any physical contact.

We round off the pod with some girl pop from the 1960s, en español.

Back then, Francisco Franco was still running Spain with an iron fist, and his government resisted anything that smacked of  youthful rebellion.  But there were mini skirts (not quite so mini in Spain). And there were carefree female singers.

Spain’s best known singer was Marisel.

Marisel is one of many artists featured in a new CD called Chicas: Spanish Female Singers 1962 to 1974.

Most of the tunes on the CD were released as original singles, composed by Spanish song writers.

They had been influenced by British rock, American soul and dance crazes like the twist. The lyrics are Spanish, but the musical language is very much imported.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Twanging with Lynne Murphy aka Lynneguist

A conversation with University of Sussex linguist Lynne Murphy. An American in Britain, Murphy maintains the Separated by a Common Language blog, where she goes by the moniker Lynneguist.

Murphy’s accent is soft, but that doesn’t stop Brits from mocking it and labeling it twangy. If she has a twang, then the guitarist in the painting is Dolly Parton.

Among the many observations noted in her blog, Murphy has seen British English lose some of its status among Americans. We talk about that, along with the changing accent patterns in Britain surrounding social class, and pronunciation of the word water.

Listen via iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons


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Punjabi immersion, Nigerian pidgin radio, and Annoying “Americanisms”

In the pod this week, Carol Hills and I pick our top five language stories of the past month.

5.The first Punjabi language public school in the US.  The Sacramento Valley Charter School is about to open. It will teach kindergarten through 6th grade in English and Punjabi. The school is aimed at the local Sikh population, which is largely overlooked in the United States (there are an estimated 200,000, compared to 278,000 in Canada and 389,000 in the UK. See here for more country populations).  In Canada, by the way, NHL games are broadcast with Punjabi commentary.

4. Bad translations with bad results. Hardly a week goes by without a business article or blog post extolling the virtues of global niche marketing. And that often means marketing in local languages to local tastes. Of course you have to make sure you don’t mess up the translations.  Many companies do — sometimes amusingly, sometimes tragically. This list, compiled by translation company Lingo 24, has examples of both.

3. Nigerian Pidgin radio is a hit.  Lagos-based radio station Wazobia FM broadcasts exclusively in low-status Nigerian Pidgin. After four years on the air, it is exapanding to other Nigerian cities. Nigerian Pidgin isn’t an official language of multilingual Nigeria, but it’s one of the more popular street vernaculars. On the pod, we hear some of it as broadcast by Wazobia FM, and as taught in an online language lesson.

2. The rise and decline of French as an international language. A new book, When the World Spoke French, traces the growth of the French language. Author Marc Fumaroli is a member of that protector of  the language, the Académie française. His book is a sort of intellectual love letter to French.

The spread of French was unintentional, according to Fumaroli. The language rose to prominence in the 17th century (along with France itself). After Louis XIV revoked a ban on persecuting Protestants, French Huguenots fled the country. These free-thinking refugees flooded the capitals of Europe with their ideas, and their mother tongue. And so French became one of the leading languages of the Enlightenment.

Fumaroli spends less time on the decline of French. And he is optimistic that what made French popular 400 years ago — that it was a precise and poetic conveyer of Big Ideas — will serve it well in the future, albeit among fewer people. Reviews of the book are here and here.

1. Annoying “Americanisms”

British journalist Matthew Engel has railed against the invasion of what he calls Americanisms into British English. His BBC article was hugely popular, and largely inaccurate according to Language Log. That didn’t stop hordes of BBC users posting their own irritating “Americanisms”.  It also, thankfully, didn’t stop fellow podcaster Grant Barrett from penning a riposte on the BBC site.

On public radio show The Takeaway, host John Hockenberry called up Matthew Engel (who was at a cricket match, of all things). The two of them jabbed and parried, mainly entertainingly.  And Language Log continued posting (here and here). Still,  as a Brit who has lived in the United States most of my adult life,  I am now confused and a little disheartened. Let’s call the whole thing off.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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