ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT INSIDE.COM (8/15/01)
Goodbye, pudding … hello, Jell-O. That’s what millions of children recited as the battle over packaging Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for the American market flared a few years back. In the stateside edition, gelatin prevailed, while “crooked” morphed into “wonky,” school “holidays” became “vacations,” and “bobbles” were no match for “puff balls.” Blasted for its heavy hand, Scholastic went easier on the subsequent Potter books.
Though Americans are still airbrushing the nipples out of illustrated U.K. children’s trade titles — and though many editors still disrespect “Mum,” putting “Mom” in her place — the days of loutish Americanization seem to be waning. As British books invade our best-seller lists and Web-savvy American kids hit U.K. book-selling sites, U.S. houses are printing locutions formerly deemed outré.
“The early ’90s heralded a politically correct era, in which editors strong-armed racist or loaded terms,” says Susan Van Metre, senior editor at Penguin Putnam. “The trend now is toward Americanizing the spelling and punctuation, and changing only those words that lead to potential misunderstanding.” So although U.S. youngsters may have seen the last of “hooter,” when a British usage is authentic and intelligible in context, Van Metre leaves it in.
That’s a good thing, because if the wildfire sales of Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging are any indication, teens (or even tweens, as the sub-teen market is known) are coping just fine. No matter that most Americans don’t know a snog from a snivel, Louise Rennison‘s novel has stormed U.S. young adult best-seller lists, suggesting a teenage Bridget Jones’ Diary. Teeming with references to spots, blokes and breastiness, the book is an unabridged lexicon of British slang: words like “swiz,” “wally” and “prat” are thick on the page. “Snogging,” of course, means kissing, and that’s what American teens want most of all.
“Competition to sound more British than their friends is so fierce that thousands of teenagers in the U.S. are writing to Ms. Rennison demanding more Brit slang,” reports the London newspaper Express. As Rennison tells the paper, “American teenagers just cannot get enough of these old-fashioned English expressions, and I think it’s probably because they are a bit rude.”
Yet teens aren’t the only ones catching the craze. In the adult trade market, even the Americanizing of spellings is no longer obligatory. “Most readers here are sophisticated enough,” says Robin Straus of the Robin Straus Literary Agency, which represents Andrew Nurnberg & Associates in the U.S. “Look at the success of Zadie Smith or Nick Hornby. Sometimes an editor will say a book’s ‘too English,’ but that has more to do with its setting and sensibility than the language.”
Foreign markets vary in their preferred version of the language. British English naturally monopolizes former Commonwealth domains such as the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. American English is meanwhile dominant in Northern Asia (particularly Japan, Korea and Taiwan), the Philippines, Central and Latin America, and any other locale conveniently located near a U.S. military base. “Getting the right English into the right market is determined by a combination of tradition, history, and current demand,” says Cyrus Kheradi, VP and Group Sales Director of the US, UK and Australia, for Simon & Schuster, “which in turn are affected by other factors, such as the rising dollar and the more stable pound.”
In parallel import markets such as continental Europe, packaging and genre also play significant roles, Kheradi notes. “A tie-in book for a Hollywood movie will be in much higher demand in American English than in British English,” he says, “as will a product linked to American holidays and Hallmark marketing, such as Halloween.” However, because buyers often base purchasing decisions on the aesthetics of packaging, U.S. and U.K. editions of the same title can be found side by side on the shelves. “Ten years ago, British publishers had a monopoly on sophisticated packaging, and American covers were more garish and text-heavy,” Kheradi adds. “We are now moving towards a blending of best practices in packaging books, particularly for those with world rights.”
Nonetheless, American English may be capturing a larger piece of the global pie. Last year a Dutch study found that one-third of the commercials on Dutch television contained English words and phrases based on American English. And in Taiwan, language students will tell you they’re not studying English — they’re learning American. In the good old U.S.A, however, things aren’t so simple anymore. The proof, as any Harry Potter fan knows, is in the pudding.