English, by George

In a previous post I noted the tendency of American publishers to Americanize the English of British mystery writers, specifically Ian Rankin. Oddly enough, this isn’t done with the English of Elizabeth George. Only the punctuation is American: double quotes where a British press would have single ones (‘inverted commas’), and periods and commas inside the quotes regardless of logic. But the spelling (kerb, neighbour, gaol) and vocabulary (torch, lorry, mobile) remain consistently British, and the many turns of phrase that distinguish British from North American English bear witness to Elizabeth George’s mastery of her chosen idiom.

For it is chosen: Elizabeth George is American, and the American editions of her books are in fact the original editions. Reading her is, then, like listening to a virtuoso performance. But any virtuoso will hit an occasional wrong note, and every so often one finds a lapse that will make one wince.

The most common  is her fondness for the verb phrase (to) run interference for (someone); I’ve found in at least three of her books, in the sense of providing support or cover. I wonder if Elizabeth George knows that this is a blatant Americanism (the OED labels it as orig. and chiefly U.S.), originating in American football; nowadays it’s mainly used metaphorically, while the literal sense is covered by blocking. According to the prominent British linguist Geoff Pullum (in a private communication to me), this phrase has not yet entered British English.

In her novel A Traitor to Memory, a violinist muses about the fact that his teacher never became a concertmaster. But the use of concertmaster to designate the leading violinist of an orchestra in the United Kingdom is very recent; the traditional, and still predominant, term, is Leader. In a post dated 1999 in a BBC online forum on the subject, a British musician writes, “Every orchestra I’ve played in the first violinist has been billed as the Leader.” It is only from a post dated 2006 that we learn, “Leader is a British term, Concertmaster is international but is gradually catching on here.” According to a recent posting by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, “The SCO is seeking a new Leader (Concertmaster).” Butl A Traitor to Memory was published in 2001, and it seems unlikely that an English musician at the time covered by the novel would have thought of a concertmaster rather than a leader.

And then there is a curious typo in With No One as Witness: “undo reverence” instead of “undue reverence.” A typo, yes, but a distinctly North American one. In all the varieties of British English that I know of, do and due are not homophones, and such a typo would be highly improbable for someone whose native pronunciation has the distinction.

Elizabeth George is very gracious in extending profuse thanks to the “various individuals both in the United States and in England” who have helped produce her wonderful books. But none of them seem to have the linguistic skill needed to prevent shibboleths.



4 Responses to “English, by George”

  1. Spanish, by George « Coby Lubliner’s Blog Says:

    […] year I published a post, titled English, by George, about some lapses in Elizabeth George’s otherwise highly successful endeavor (endeavour, as […]

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  4. Italian, by George? | Coby Lubliner's Blog Says:

    […] series, following the linguistic misadventures of the novelist Elizabeth George. In the first installment I detailed her lapses in reproducing British English, while in the second I discussed the mess she […]

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