Friday, 29 June 2007

Can I get?

No, you bl**dy well can't!

"Can I get" sounds so dreadful coming from a British person. Certainly, if you are American then fine, please carry on. Over there it's standard usage - great, fair enough and jolly good: I have no argument with that.

Over here, however, it just sounds downright rude. We just don't say it: or rather, we did not. Now, however, we have been taught by American television to speak like this. Clearly we are easily influenced and believe that Americans are better people than we are, and cooler, and they have more fun and the cafe in Friends is nicer than your local cr*ppy Greasy Spoon. But, gosh. You can have some of that glamour, be sprinkled with lifestyle stardust, just by adapting your language. "Can I get" makes you sound so vigorous, so thrusting, so Chandler...

... Except it doesn't, not over here, not to me anyway. I'm not sure how to explain this because if you can't hear it you just can't. But to me it comes over as far too direct and demanding: it seems to carry with it the implication of untrustworthiness - can you get one? Gosh, I'm not sure, the coffee machines are a fair distance from the counter and the staff here look a bit flaky, so maybe not. Or maybe it's a request or threat that the speaker might just go and get their own - can I get it, that is, go and get it, because I'm not so sure you ever will?

At the root of this is perhaps some quite subtle difference in what is meant by ''get" in this context - to me, it has a distinct flavour of physically going off and fetching it, whereas the Central Perk meaning seems to have more to do with simply possessing or acquiring it. This is pretty much what you'd expect and doesn't really do much to frighten the horses: it's only a problem because the different uses clash.

So, if "can I get' makes me cringe so much then what am I advocating? Dunno really - what did you say previously, before Can I Get came along? How about:

  • Could I have ...
  • Can I have ...
  • May I have ...
  • I'd like ...

- or even just:

  • A/some [name of thing] ...

(The use of ''please" is assumed in all the above!) Like I said, I don't really know: there must have been a few dozen ways of asking for things before Can I Get made its pushy debut on the right-hand side of the Atlantic. Why not try some of them? Please?

2 comments:

Strawberryyog said...

I feel I almost need a standard disclaimer for a piece like that, or maybe a set of disclaimers and some boxes to tick. Now I'm not sure I have the energy to do that, but for the sake of somethingorother here are a few vague thingummyjigs:

I'm not anti-American. The piece isn't about how Americans speak: I have no problem at all with American English spoken by American people.

As with any rant-type piece, you might wonder why this particular thing gets my goat so badly. It just does.

Yes, I probably do use quite a lot of Americanisms myself. Guilty as charged. Please see point above.

Yup, language is fluid and flexible and has to develop and we do not now speak English exactly how we did in 1964. Fine. It's just that this particular usage stinks! (Yes, to me, Colin, I know. To you, Tamsin, it may indeed be music in the ears, lovely lovely. Live and let live, an ting,)

Yep, maybe it's just me.

This whole thing is based on the idea that it's a TV import. I look forward to someone writing to point out that it's been standard usage in Todmorden or wherever since 1894. I will apologize to the inhabitants of that lovely town, and possibly revise my view if I can understand how it became so prevalent in, say, London.

Indeed, the whole thing may be driven by at least 46 wrong assumptions, maybe (dramatic chord) as many as 93. It is not a publishable piece of research: it is based on increases in my blood pressure inflicted in coffee shops, is all. No ethics committee has seen it and there are no references at the end. If you know about all my wrong assumptions, though, please write and tell me.

I think some of my irritation is driven by my suspicion that some of the people adopting this usage know perfectly well that it's rude and are quite happy to have it legitimized to speak to people like that. Sure, a good many are doing it out of imitative ignorance, but I see and hear people in the coffee shop and think, oh dear, you're just a rude and snotty person anyway and now you've been given permission to sound even ruder and snottier.

Gosh. I am getting old, cynical and curmudgeonly...

Strawberryyog said...

I am delighted to see that I am not alone in feeling some sort of concern about this (worldshatteringly important) topic. I particularly liked Lynneguist's piece "can I get a latte grande?" which deals with it rather nicely. Her angle is not the same as mine insofar as I'm really arguing only against its use by British English speakers whereas she's discussing its use in more general terms, and rather more thoroughly. But at least it confirms that others have noticed this usage. Indeed if you Google on something like "can i get" language british american you'll find a few others. Yes. Indeed. Ahem. Carry on.