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The Word

A whole nother language

Embrace your inner American!

By Jan Freeman
December 5, 2010

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Lauren Collins, the New Yorker writer who profiled Benjamin Creme in the Nov. 29 issue, described the London-based spiritual leader as — among other things — “ruddy-complected.” I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the occasional typo, as well as the occasional F-word, in the magazine, but complected — that was a bit of a shock. Wasn’t that a word to avoid in polite company, hardly better bred than irregardless and ain’t?

Complected, our teachers told us, was a misbegotten monster. It seems to have been derived from complection, a once-familiar variant spelling of complexion, but the language didn’t need it; we already have complexioned, in use since the 17th century. And despite its appearance, it’s not related to the verb complect, which means “to interweave.”

Still, if complected had been a favorite of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, it might be the standard form today. But in fact, the earliest citations of the word come from Lewis and Clark, who both use it in the journals of their transcontinental trek. In 1805, Clark recorded having “smoked in the pipes of peace” with the Flathead Indians, who were “Stout & light complected.” A few months later, in January 1806, Lewis described another tribe as “lighter complected...than the Indians of the Missouri.” An upstart American usage, and one that displaces the traditional complexioned: No wonder complected was labeled nonstandard and dialectal.

Does its New Yorker debut mean complected is finally getting some respect? Not necessarily. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, ranks the word at stage 3 (out of 5) on his language-change index, the same level of acceptability as “a couple things,” “grow the economy,” and the spelling straightjacket. But he notes that complexioned outnumbers complected in print sources by 3 to 1, and he urges editors to hold the line.

The mavens at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage are (as usual) more tolerant. Complected, they say, is “not an error, not a dialectal term, nor an illiteracy,” but simply an Americanism, one used by some of our best literary authors. “There seems to be no very substantial objection to the term, other than the considerable diffidence American usage writers feel about Americanisms.”

But much as I admire Merriam-Webster’s usage research, this seems to oversimplify. It’s true that American usagists and literati of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were defensive about Americanisms, fearful of sounding like hayseeds to their British counterparts. They repudiated native coinages like editorial, locate, lengthy, enthused, dirt (for “earth”), and donate (“Good American, but not good English,” grumbled Ambrose Bierce).

But the label “Americanism” no longer embarrasses American writers. The anxiety flows in the other direction these days; it’s British readers who complain about Americanisms, British stylebooks that publish lists of American expressions to be avoided. Just last month, the Guardian’s David Marsh devoted his Mind Your Language blog to readers’ complaints about “ugly Americanisms.” “Recent examples include pony up, mojo, sledding, duke it out, brownstones and suck,” said one correspondent.

And in June, Matthew Engel of the Daily Mail surveyed hundreds of readers’ American-import peeves, including “autopsy for post-mortem; burglarized instead of burgled; filling out forms instead of filling them in; fries for chips; chips for crisps; and food to go as opposed to take away.”

At the Telegraph, the stylebook doesn’t rave about Americanisms, but it quietly reminds writers that an axe “is an implement used for chopping wood...not a verb,” that “people live ‘in’ not ‘on’ a street,” and that movie is only allowed for American films.

BBC News, on the other hand, has an entire stylebook section on Americanisms. “Head up, check out, free up, consult with, win out, check up on, divide up and outside of are not yet standard English,” it declares. Yes, we’ve adopted commuter and baby sitter, but “euthanise is not a verb you will find in any dictionary and it has no place in our output.”

Some Americans, it’s true, dislike some Britishisms — go missing and gobsmacked leap to mind — but few complainers, in my experience, object to (or even recognize) these terms as British. It’s their novelty or illogic or “ugliness,” not their origin, that annoys.

I don’t know if the New Yorker’s endorsement of complected is the start of something big. But if a new era is dawning — one in which Americans proudly embrace our linguistic inventiveness — I have some other nominees for a reputation rescue. “A whole nother” is a wonderfully useful expression, and surely good enough for journalism. There are good reasons for “it’s a ways away,” and for “way back” too (either in time or in a station wagon). Americans are apparently replacing the verb career with careen; I say, right on.

I’m not yet loving the AP’s newly approved drive-thru, I admit, and complected still leaves me cool. But maybe we can finally agree that the answer to Edwin Newman’s 1974 question — “Will America be the death of English?” — is a resounding no.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).

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