As every loyal British subject knows, American English is bad and wrong and stupid and a threat to our way of life. So I guess that makes me a traitor. I find it hard to worry about a few new imported words and phrases every year, especially as we exported our entire language across the Atlantic.
Yes, some of these newcomers grate – new words often do – and many of those ones don’t survive long. But others have become so well-established that most Brits don’t even realise they were made in America. Here are a few of the terms we’ve gained from the US: bandwagon, bedrock, blizzard, boss, cereal, close-up, comeback, cocktail, crook (criminal), ditch (get rid of), electrocute, fan (devotee), footwear, gobbledygook, graveyard, joyride, know-how, maverick, radio…*
The US has been a wonderful way of enriching British English, even if some of those riches seemed vulgar at first.
How gotten works
One noteworthy word is gotten: standard in the US but not in the UK.
In both countries, the past tense of get is got. In British English, the past participle is also got. But in American English, it’s more complex. Roughly: when talking about a static situation (possessing or needing) the past participle is got; when talking about a dynamic situation (acquiring or becoming) the past participle is gotten. So:
- Yesterday I got a new guitar
- I’ve got a great guitar
- I’ve gotten a new guitar
- You’ve got to see my new guitar
- I got into playing the guitar last year
- I’d gotten into playing the guitar the previous year
Any Brit who reads American books or watches American TV and films will have come across gotten. And, in fact, more people in Britain are coming to use it themselves – although it’s still often seen as an Americanism.
For a snapshot of recent usage, I looked at the Glowbe corpus of text from 1.8 million web pages in 2012. I compared different countries’ uses of has gotten, have gotten and had gotten with has got, have got and had got. The results don’t account for differences between static and dynamic situations, but they give us a rough relative picture.
On US websites, has/have/had gotten outnumbers has/have/had got by almost two to one. So that’s what a fully operational got–gotten distinction looks like. On Canadian sites, gotten is only slightly ahead of got, which suggests usage may be a bit more mixed. In Australia and Ireland, got is ahead by about three to one; gotten is common, but not fully accepted. And on British sites, has/have/had got outnumbers has/have/had gotten by seven to one.
(In a more formal context – Hansard’s record of proceedings in Parliament since 2010 – the ratio is about 1,500 to one.)
So, gotten is still far from mainstream in the UK, but it has built a firm presence. And, whether or not it catches on to become standard, it’s another example of British English using an Americanism.
Except that it isn’t.
This is how British English used to work – or rather, how English English used to work before Britain even existed.
The English decline of gotten
The huge list of example sentences in the OED suggests that gotten reigned supreme until the late 1500s, when got increasingly appeared in its place. Shakespeare and Hobbes used both. Got seems to have overtaken gotten around 1700.
Geoffrey Chaucer (Legend of Good Women, c1386): Ffor he woste wel she wolde nat ben geten
John Paston (letter, 1477): The Frenshe Kynge hathe gothen many off the townys off the Dukys off Borgoyne
Myles Coverdale (Bible translation, 1535): Treasures that are wickedly gotten, profit nothinge
William Shakespeare (Henry VI pt 2, c1591): Jack Cade hath gotten London Bridge
Shakespeare (Henry VI pt 3, c1591): The Army of the Queene hath got the field
Walter Raleigh (letter, 1618): I had gotten my libertye
Richard Whitlock (Zootomia, 1654): they should have got a whipping
John Evelyn (letter, 1690): I have now gotten me a pair of new horses
George Berkeley (Alciphron, 1732): Some old Ideas may be lost, and some new ones got
John Stepple (testimony at the Old Bailey, 1742): I would go and fetch a Constable, for he had got the Thief
Usage commentators eventually noticed the change, but too late to do anything about it. Robert Lowth’s popular Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) complained about “a very great Corruption, by which the Form of the Past Time is confounded with that of the Participle” – including the use of got instead of gotten. Lowth said: “This confusion prevails greatly in common discourse, and is too much authorised by the example of some of our best Writers.”
Maybe Lowth was thinking of Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary, seven years earlier, had uncritically listed both got and gotten as options for the past participle of get. Neither Johnson nor Lowth commented on the difference between static and dynamic situations.
And then in 1795, Lindley Murray’s blockbuster English Grammar declared that gotten was “obsolete”. That’s an overstatement, but by then it was uncommon, at least in standard usage. It partly survived in some nonstandard dialects (such as in Scotland and Ireland), as well as in the fossilised phrase ill-gotten gains. And there British English stayed for the best part of two centuries.
The American rebirth of gotten
In the US, got also dominated, but gotten survived on the fringes.
Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828 said that gotten was “nearly obsolete in common parlance”. But it also said the same of forgotten and swollen. A generation later, Richard Meade Bache’s Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech (1869) said that gotten was still only “nearly obsolete”.
But Richard Grant White in Words and Their Uses (1870) saw the issue as a live dispute, and he picked a side: “I am asked, for instance, whether gotten… belongs to the list of ‘words that are not words.’ Certainly not.” Alfred Ayres in The Verbalist (1881) agreed: “If we say eaten, written, striven, forgotten, why not say gotten, where this form of the participle is more euphonious – as it often is – than got?”
The American revival of gotten seems to have started at the end of the 19th century.
Data from Google Books shows the end of gotten’s decline in British and American English (as with the Glowbe data, I’m looking at the ratio of has/have/had gotten to has/have/had got). And then – in the US – there’s the start of its recovery:
Some Americans continued to resist it, such as Dana Jensen (Modern Composition and Rhetoric, 1935), who said, with a whiff of wishful thinking, that “gotten… has been supplanted by got in formal usage”. The mention of formal usage suggests that the rearguard action had narrowed its focus to style, but still it was doomed.
In 1942, Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage accepted the return of gotten: it was “obsolete in Great Britain… but in the U.S.A., gotten (past participle) is preferred to got”.
And Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer (1965) agreed, noting the value of the got–gotten distinction. He quoted the linguist Albert Marckwardt: “In fact, most Americans regularly make a very precise distinction between got and gotten. ‘We’ve got ten thousand dollars for laboratory equipment,’ means that the funds in question are in our possession – we have them. ‘We have gotten ten thousand dollars for laboratory equipment,’ means that we have obtained or acquired this particular sum of money.”
I don’t think any British usage guide has yet endorsed gotten, and for the moment that seems fair – although the reason has changed. A century ago, the word would have seemed affectedly archaic (Henry Fowler’s judgement in 1926); today, the risk is that it comes across as affectedly American. How easily we forget our history.
Jeremy Butterfield’s 2015 edition of Fowler notes that gotten is on the increase in the UK. And I’ve been noticing it more and more in British conversation over the last few years – mostly from younger people. So I’d guess this shift is generational rather than because individuals are changing their usage. While it’s easy to pick up new words at any age, the grammar of a common verb like get may be a more fundamental thing to relearn. I’d expect gotten to keep growing – but slowly, and mostly in casual contexts.
And why shouldn’t we Brits use it? As Marckwardt and Bernstein said, and as millions of Americans have found, it’s useful. And it’s a part of our heritage that the US is helping us to recover. But I may be too set in my ways to start using it myself.