• The American Influence

    I gather from some recent television advertising that something called “Black Friday” is the occasion for one-day sales in a number of stores.

    I am unfamiliar with any date that we call Black Friday – still less, why it should be regarded as an opportunity to offer cut-price purchases to the public – but I suspect that it is a date that features in the American calendar and is exploited by American retailers, and is then enthusiastically borrowed by their New Zealand counterparts.

    My curiosity about Black Friday prompted a train of thought in which I tallied up the various ways in which we are gradually (or not so gradually) being absorbed, as a kind of satellite or colony, into the American sphere of influence, both economically, of course, and – increasingly – culturally as well.

    I register, for example, the annual excitement that now attends something called Halloween. When I grew up in New Zealand, Halloween was almost entirely unknown as something to be celebrated or acknowledged in any way. Today, however, the whole paraphernalia of dressing up in frightening costumes and make-up, and knocking on doors with the question “trick or treat”, is commonplace.

    New Zealand might as well have been transplanted to the American Mid-West at Halloween time; yet it has no roots in New Zealand culture.

    We are of course familiar with the extent to which our current popular culture – film, television shows, popular music – is derived directly from American sources. But these days, it is not just our entertainment that is, to all intents and purposes, American; we seem to be witnessing the beginnings of a similar takeover of our sporting activities.

    We now see a great deal of basketball on our screens – a sport that only a tiny proportion of our population is physically equipped to play at the highest level – and we now have a domestic baseball competition, despite our superb international record in the rival sport of softball.

    And we should also register the attempts to generate local interest in American football, and the increasing flow of Kiwi rugby players – both union and league – to American football, despite our worldwide pre-eminence in both forms of rugby.

    A catalogue of American cultural takeover would not, of course, be complete without some reference to the increasing Americanisation of our language. The American accent is often used to give the impression that a given product is ‘in the swim” or “the latest thing”, with the result that it is often adopted by the impressionable in an attempt to impress.

    And I was surprised very recently to hear a TVOne newsreader use the American pronunciation of the word “advertisement”, with its emphasis on the third syllable.

    American spellings are increasingly adopted – for words such as “colour” or “through”- despite the fact that their traditional spellings have a perfectly sound etymological basis.

    And our language is increasingly confused by the American insistence on misusing some perfectly useful words – to “lay” (down) instead of to “lie” (down), for example, and “alternate” instead of “alternative”, which manages to deprive both words of their proper meaning.

    I am well aware that these observations will be regarded by many readers, particularly younger ones, as unduly curmudgeonly – to which I would answer that I offer them, not as an expression of disapproval or regret at what is happening, but simply to register that it is, so that we have the chance to decide whether it is what we want.

    It may be that further, and eventually complete, absorption into the American sphere of influence is inevitable, given the American dominance of so many aspects of our national life. But it would surely be preferable that such a development should be the consequence of choice rather than drift or takeover.

    The riposte might be made that I make no objection to our long-time indebtedness to British influence – but that at least is a legitimate part of our own history and development.

    I have some hope that a proper awareness of, and pride in, who we are, and of what makes us distinctive, will help us to maintain a concept of our national identity. That, surely, is worth both preserving and developing further.

    Bryan Gould
    27 November 2019