There are many clear differences between American and British English, particularly in terms of spelling and vocabulary. It’s natural enough, and I’m loath to say that one is better than the other. They both work for the people who use them, and that’s what matters. Recently though, I’ve been thinking about one area in which British and American English are very different: sport.
Even that word itself shows the beginning of the division: if you’re American you probably use sports when referring to the general concept of sport(s) (when I hear the word I always hear Homer Simpson’s final line from this clip:)
If you speak British English, (or one of its variants spread across the globe), you probably use sport. Another difference, which confuses me greatly, is the way in British English, the home team in a given match is usually mentioned first, and shown on the left of the screen in any promotional graphics, or on the onscreen score counter. American TV, on the other hand, will usually say something like Tonight, it’s the Green Bay Packers at the New England Patriots, meaning the Green Bay Packers are playing away from home. My brain likes to move from left to right, like most English speakers’, and to me the home team are the more important one, and should be mentioned first.
But there are more fundamental differences, suggesting completely different approaches to how people look at sport. The first time I looked at a sports report in an American newspaper, back in the summer of 2003, I was taken aback. It looked like maths homework! (or math homework, but we’ll leave that for another day) There were so many statistics, and even diagrams and tables. I couldn’t get my head round it at first. It took me a while and some close reading to really parse what I was reading. It was a big contrast to sports reports in Irish and British newspapers, particularly football (or socc…, ah you get the picture!) reports, which generally take up most of the sport section, outside the summer at least. They usually feature the score at the top, the players’ names and a rating out of 5 at the bottom, and a lot of words in between. There might also be a little box with important statistics like possession, passes/shots made, but it’s usually separated from the main body of the text, for those apparently nerdy obsessives interested in that sort of thing.
Yet in American reports, the statistics are much more integrated into the main text, and focussed on: batting averages, distances of passes, shot percentages and so on. It’s quite daunting if you’re not used to it.
Just look at the difference between this ESPN report of a basketball game (which is tucked among many stat-heavy ways of looking at the game), and a BBC football report:
The basketball report is chock-full of statistics, while the BBC reporter seems to be aiming for poetry. Just look at all those lovely content words: threatened, command, menace, assured, perfect, cruelly. And then a perfunctory statistics box at the bottom of the page. This isn’t just a journalistic thing either. You can hear this in how ordinary people speak. Compare:
They’re oh for two – American English
They’ve lost both of their games so far – British English
See how American English foregrounds the statistics so much more?
What’s the reason for this difference then? I used to think it was a sign of the greater emphasis on capitalism and business in American culture. You crunch the numbers when you’re talking about sports, just as you would if you were talking about the stock market. Whereas in Europe, we like to think that sport is too pure, too beautiful, to be so crassly associated with the vulgarities of commerce. Football is The Beautiful Game, after all. But reality seems to contradict this. English football is completely dominated by money, with teams being bought by shady billionaires and becoming successful overnight by buying in lots of new players, no salary caps, and massive bonuses for being in the top tier, making it harder and harder for small teams to succeed. Unless they’re bought by the former Prime Minister of Thailand.
In contrast, American sport is much more democratic, and even, well… socialist. Take the idea of a draft, common to many sporting organisations. The concept that unsuccessful teams can have the chance to get a great player through a lottery is something I still find strange, as I do the overall goal of the system to create a level playing field. It’s great in a lot of ways, but to be honest, just doesn’t feel very American!
To be honest, I’m not really sure why we have these different viewpoints. Maybe American sports just lend themselves to more statistical analysis. Football, after all, is pretty simple so there aren’t many relevant statistics. Cricket though, is more involved, and just look at this BBC cricket report:
I think there’s something to that, but then why would stat-heavy sports be more popular in the United States? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
But I’ll leave you with the strangest thing American sport has given the world: the adjective winningest. As in, They’re the winningest team in the division (because they’ve won more matches than anyone else). I first heard the word on a TV programme and assumed it was a joke. And then, in that summer in New York, I read it in a newspaper. My God, they were serious…, I thought. Obviously it strikes the ear as being wrong as it violates the fundamental rule of creating superlatives: add -(e)st to the end of monosyllabic adjectives, add the most before multi-syllabic adjectives. But even forgetting that, it just sounds so crudely slapped together. Why not just say the most successful? I know it’s not so widespread, and somewhat informal (I did encounter it in the New York Post, *sniff*), but still, come on America: how could you let this abomination be?
And of course you can’t say winninger, because that would just sound stupid, wouldn’t it?