"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Two nations separated by a common language

In respect of the word hutch - see yesterday's post - I was reminded of the quotation about England and America - ‘Two nations separated by a common language.’

Often quoted by GB, I was not sure whether the originator of this phrase was Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw. The answer appears to be both. In The Canterville Ghost (1887), Wilde wrote: ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’. However, the 1951 Treasury of Humorous Quotations (Esar & Bentley) quoted Shaw as saying: ‘England and America are two countries separated by the same language’, but without giving a source. The quote had earlier been attributed to Shaw in the Reader’s Digest (November 1942).

Much the same idea occurred to Bertrand Russell (Saturday Evening Post, 3 June 1944): ‘It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language’, and in a radio talk prepared by Dylan Thomas shortly before his death (and published after it in The Listener, April 1954) - European writers and scholars in America were, he said, ‘up against the barrier of a common language’.

Inevitably this sort of dubious and almost certainly erroneous attribution has also been seen: ‘Winston Churchill said our two countries were divided by a common language’ (The Times, 26 January 1987; The European, 22 November 1991.)


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