An English academic has claimed that English adverbs are falling out of common usage. The classic understatement of English speakers means our language has always been peppered with phrases such as ‘rather difficult’, ‘quite likely’, ‘awfully expensive’ and ‘terribly sad’. These trademark English expressions are under threat as we are doing away with gradable adverbs. Not only this, many traditional English words are being eroded by an influx of Americanisms. So does this mean the end for gradable adverbs and classic British understatement?
Famous British Understatements
Gradable adverbs were always incredibly popular, especially in the ‘stiff upper lip’ English classic way of using understatements. For example, the words ‘awfully’, ‘quite’ and ‘rather’ have often been used to tone down the emotion of a word.
The insouciant attitude of the British has been exploited a lot in comedy. For example, in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, the character of Death gatecrashes a party carrying a scythe and one guest comments: “that’s cast rather a gloom over the evening, hasn’t it?”
In another scene in the same Monty Python film, a character wakes up to find he has “rather a nasty mosquito bite” (actually his leg has been bitten off by a tiger). He comments that it “stings a bit”.
The Monty Python sketch is supposed to have been inspired by a polite exchange between the Earl of Uxbridge and the Duke of Wellington during the Battle of Waterloo.
As the Earl’s leg was blown off by canon fire, he reportedly said: ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!’ The Duke was said to have responded: ‘By God, sir, so you have!’
Another famous real life understatement came from the Antarctic explorer Captain Oates. He sacrificed his life so his companions could have a better chance of survival. Before walking out into the blizzard, Oates famously said: “I am just going outside and may be some time”.
The History of British Understatement
This type of understatement has always been a part of the English language. It can be traced back to early literature and can be seen in the Old English poem Beowulf.
The stylistic mannerism of understatement can also be found in Old Norse poetry and is thought to be Germanic in origin.
This ‘tempering’ of an emotion is classically British because stereotypical English behaviour is centred around never wanting to make a fuss about anything. So even the most important events get ‘played down’.
‘Stiff Upper Lip’ Behaviour
You can see this behaviour in television progammes with typical ‘English gentlemen’. For example, Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’s Poirot often uses typical British understatement when he speaks. Some of his favourite words are ‘rather’ and ‘quite’.
This character epitomises the ‘stiff upper lip’, mild-mannered, polite and insouciant English way of speaking and acting.
‘Keeping a stiff upper lip’ is an English expression that means not crying. When you cry your lip trembles, so if you keep a stiff upper lip, this means you don’t cry!
Americanisms Challenging British English
Professor Paul Baker, professor of linguistics and English language at Lancaster University, has also said that British English is being challenged by the increasing use of Americanisms.
Gradable Adverbs Falling Out of Favour
The biggest casualty of British English is the decline in ‘gradable’ adverbs. These adverbs are used to change the force of other words in the sentence. They are used to great effect in classic British understatement.
Professor Baker comments: “If anything marks out the British linguistically, it’s their baroque way of using adverbs, especially as a form of polite sangfroid or poise”. “So ‘the worst day ever’ is ‘things perhaps aren’t quite as wonderful as they could be’.”
Although British understatement can be amusing and characterful, it can cause problems with understanding if a British person is speaking with a non-British person.
Americans often underestimate the severity of a feeling or situation if an English speaker understates it or ‘plays it down’ in this insouciant way.
This is a major difference in the ways that American and British English speakers express themselves. The English tend to use more irony, sarcasm and understatement in their comments, while Americans are more likely to speak directly.
This difference in communication styles can cause big problems. This was highlighted in the famous misunderstanding in 1951 between the British Brigadier Thomas Brodie and the American General Robert H Soule during the Korean War.
The American asked for a progress report during the Battle of Imjin River. As 10,000 Chinese troops advanced on 650 British soldiers from the Gloucestershire Regiment, the Englishman said: “A bit sticky. Things are pretty sticky down there”.
This classic British understatement was supposed to convey the desperation of the situation. (‘Sticky’ means difficult in this context).
Unfortunately, to American ears the situation didn’t sound too bad. General Soule held off sending support with inevitably disastrous consequences for the British.
‘A Rather Serious Evening’
Another famous real life British understatement was issued by Cosmo Duff-Gordon, when giving testimony to the Titanic inquiry. Commenting on perhaps the most famous shipping disaster in history, he said: “We had rather a serious evening, you know.”
Cosmo Duff-Gordon here uses the word ‘rather’ to tone down the emotional intensity of the statement further. The sinking of the Titanic was obviously much more than ‘rather a serious evening’!
A Distinctive Trait of British English
Despite the long history of its use, Professor Baker’s research suggests that the trademark British understatement might be on the way out of the language.
Although this could be good news for enhancing the clarity of communication, many English speakers will be sorry to lose all British insouciance.
Our laid-back way of talking is quite a trait of the language and gives British English a distinctive character.
We hope some of the British English language traits can survive in the modern world. It would be rather a shame to lose this terribly famous part of British speech, culture and history and its potential comedic value.
Share your thoughts
Do you ever get confused by British understatement?
Do you remember any funny incident where understatement was used to good effect?
Should we try to keep gradable adverbs – or do they make communication too difficult?
What are your favourite adverbial expressions?
Do you know any other famous insouciant comments using gradable adverbs? Do you have a favourite?