Not long after I moved to London, I found myself in a supermarket aisle engaged in a frustrating one-sided conversation with a shop employee over where to find the clear plastic stuff used to wrap sandwiches. It ended with me barking, "Saran Wrap! Where's the Saran Wrap?'' while she looked at me blankly. It was like a two-person play called Helen Keller Meets the Insane Shouty Woman, and the intermission (sorry, that should be "interval'') came when a kindly English lady whispered to the shop girl, "I think she's looking for the cling film, dear.''
The same thing happened when, after cutting a finger, I yelped for a Band-Aid and was confronted by a sea of puzzled stares. Finally someone said, "Oh, you want a plaster.'' I refrained from saying, "Yes - was the spouting arterial blood your first clue?''
How can you hope to tame English? Isn't it the Ellis Island of languages, absorbing new arrivals without fear or favour? Move over, zeitgeist and schadenfreude; make room for the Bengali newcomer, nang.
Of course, plaster is much more refined than Band-Aid. It was a potent reminder that we share a language, but the subtleties of its use divide us as much as unite us, and that those differences are as powerful identifiers as the shibboleths of old. The British are defiantly from the land of Pope and Keats, and we should remember that we're from the land of indiscriminately capitalized brand names.
Now the originators of our mother tongue have circled the wagons (perhaps that should be "carriages'') to fight for English, against the stealth approach of Americanisms, text speak, regional dialect, slang and sloth. One group, the Queen's English Society, has even suggested emulating those stuffed-chemise defenders of the French language, the Académie Française, and establishing an Academy of English.
This has caused great hoots of derision from some word-watchers: How can you hope to tame English? Isn't it the Ellis Island of languages, absorbing new arrivals without fear or favour? Move over, zeitgeist and schadenfreude; make room for the Bengali newcomer, nang. (Old people alert: " nang'' is how the young people of urban Britain say "excellent.'')
But for Rhea Williams, acting chair of the Queen's English Society, the aim isn't to freeze the language. "We know it's a living language,'' the former English teacher tells me over the phone from her home in Ipswich. "We take many words from other languages, for example. But that doesn't mean you should be able to mangle English. We're saying that if you're going to write a formal letter, you should be able to express yourself properly.''
The proposed Academy of English wouldn't police the language, so much as act as its bodyguard: pushing stray apostrophes back into line, reminding students that "innit'' may be a suitable sentence-ender on the bus, but is probably not something you want to say during a job interview, unless you don't actually want the job. In other words, idiomatic speech is fine, but formal English still has its place, and its rules should be respected.
Being branded a bunch of language killjoys "is quite distressing,'' Williams says. It's not like the Queen's English Society is fighting arcane fights, such as having "enormity'' used correctly for a change. No, they'd be happy if job applications were correctly spelled, and not written in red pen, and if there was little more love for basic rules of grammar: "You hear this all the time now: 'Could you send that to myself.' What's wrong with saying 'me?' People think it sounds more posh, but it just sounds ridiculous.''
Oddly, the transatlantic creep of Americanisms doesn't bother the Queen's English Society as much as it does some other guardians of Britishness. The Daily Mail has started a campaign to maintain linguistic purity, defending crisps against potato chips, flat against apartment, and preferring the James Bond elegance of boot and bonnet to the Detroit pragmatism of trunk and hood. The Mail's readers are, let's just say, a conservative lot, and joined in from the get-go. That's an Americanism they loathe, I should point out, along with "step up to the plate,'' "guys'' in reference to mixed company and that Canadian classic of ambiguity, "I'm good,'' when what is actually meant is: No thank you.
The Mail columnist Matthew Engel, who started the whole thing, writes: "People have no idea where American ends and English begins and that's a disaster for our national self-esteem.''
Well, that's a bit bonkers, if you ask me. Mad, in the English sense of the word, though perhaps not deserving of the great British insult, "mad as a box of frogs.'' In fact, the English are quite bolshie when it comes to defending their cultural identity, and language is the primary way of shaping that. They live on a tiny frozen island in the north Atlantic with only their language - and a time-hardened shield of irony - to protect them from a global onslaught.
If anything, the British maintain a stubborn refusal to move an inch (excuse me, "budge over'') where language is concerned. Ask where the garbage is and they'll look at you like you're speaking Swahili. For an outsider, their conversations are often equally impenetrable, until after years of study: pathetic people are "saddoes,'' unattractive ones are "mingers,'' bars aren't crowded, they're "heaving,'' and an astonishing number of people who are not Enid Blyton still refer to the evening meal as "tea.''
That's not even taking into account the linguistic richness of Brick Lane teenagers, Yorkshire grannies and Glaswegian taxi drivers. English a threatened language? That's just a load of pants.