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  Mike Todd


Just seeing the word is enough to set the hair of some British English speakers on end. Yet, despite the many claims that it is an Americanism, it is most definitely of British origin and the Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to the 4th century.

Since then, it has been used by many notable British English writers, including Shakespeare, Bacon and Pope and it was one of a number of words that were transported across the Atlantic with the settlers. But then it slipped out of use in British English, along with such words as fall for "autumn" (British English having opted to adopt the French word) and guess in the sense of "think".

This has led to the less-informed criticising it as a "heinous Americanism", despite its British origin - yet I'm sure such people quite happily use words and phrases like belittle, cold snap, bark up the wrong tree and lengthy, despite these being true Americanisms.

The problem, as I see it, is that British English has failed to come to terms with the verb "get". Pedagogues have, for the past century or so, treated its derivative, got with some disdain, largely because it was heavily overused. And once gotten was eschewed, the only choice for the past participle was got, which just made matters worse.

The Americans seem to have tamed the verb, sometimes missing it out altogether (which is in stark contrast to their making sure that that is included in sentences such as "this is the book that I bought", whereas British English would more commonly say "this is the book I bought"). Mark Twain pointed out to an Englishman once:

You say, "I haven't got any stockings on", "I haven't got any memory", "I haven't got any money in my purse"; we usually say "I haven't any stockings on", "I haven't any memory", "I haven't any money in my purse".

Yet Americans do generally maintain the past and preterite participles, and in so doing have helped ease the discomfort of got and allowed it to resume its place in the various meanings of acquired, received or become.

Curiously, one of the reasons why gotten got (!) such a bad press in British English was John Galsworthy's failure to actually understand how it was used in America, believing (and writing) that all Americans used gotten instead of got on all occasions, which is simply not correct.

In "Maid In Waiting", for instance, Galsworthy puts the words "I fear you've gotten a grouch against me, Miss Cherrell" into the mouth of Professor Hallorsen, yet no educated American would ever have used it in this way, unless they specifically meant that they had "acquired" a grouch (which is not the case here). And this abuse of the word must have rankled even more, and reinforced the prejudice against the word.

But don't think for one minute that Americans are universally comfortable with gotten, for even on the other side of the Atlantic it is, these days, seen as somewhat vulgar and not to be used in proper speech or formal writing.

Despite our hatred of the word, British English does preserve it in aspic ... in ill-gotten. And then there are the parallel constructions of forgotten and the rather archaic begotten.

Personally, I would be quite happy to see the word reappear in British English. It would help take the strain off the over-worked "got", and allow some flexibility in construction. However, the fact that some British English speakers go apoplectic when gotten is used, I don't see it happening any day soon.