31 JANUARY 2004, Page 13

Mind your language

The Australian language is being subverted by Americanisms, I hear from Mr Peter Bell, of Brookvale, NSW. One which bugs him is a small word that he has also noticed in The Spectator on, instead of in, a street. Apparently even the dignity of Collins Street, Melbourne, was recently sullied by a hotel sign reading 'The Hyatt on Collins'.

The difference clearly is a national one. But the American variant is easily caught by those indulging in transatlantic intercourse, and is then unthinkingly passed on. Do any Americans unconsciously say 'a house in Main Street' after a spell in English or Australian company?

Mr Bell says in his letter that Gore Vidal dismisses the on usage as little more than a fabrication by the 'Sage of Baltimore' H.L. Mencken. I don't know where Mencken might have done the fabricating, apart from in The American Language, second supplement (1945). There he quotes someone called Herbert B. Grimsditch, writing in the Wilson Bulletin, May 1936, page 576: 'On the street pulls the Englishman up a little queerly, for he thinks of a street (not a road) as a canyon, and says in, only using on the street for daughters of joy.'

Daughters of joy, forsooth! But it is quite true that in British English one can say 'a house on the Portsmouth road'. However if there is a street merely called Portsmouth Road, then usage demands in. It gets tricky with ambivalent roads such as King's Road, Chelsea, which is sometimes called the King's Road.

Mr Bell notes a supposed explanation for the variation between Britain and America. This suggests that in America houses were built on pre-existing roadways, whereas in Britain you once found streets of houses with no paved roadway. I can't see that this gets us very far. In French, if my preparatory school mistress told me the truth, they say clans la me. In Spanish en can mean 'in' or 'on', but if you were a daughter of joy you would be busy por Ia calle.

In a way, Mencken, who stood for an American language differentiated from English English, was on the side of Mr Bell and those non-Americans who defend separate development. If we are annoyed by usages such as Shaftesbury, for Shaftesbury Avenue, or train station, for railway station or just station, then we should remember that 150 years ago words such as railroad and sidewalk were commonly heard in England. Next year the Automobile Association celebrates its centenary. Should it change its name to the Car Club?

Dot Wordsworth