What do Louise Mensch, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Piers Morgan have in common?

They’re all British grifters, notable incompetents in their own country who came to America to exploit the cachet of an otherwise useless accent. These are people so stupid and obnoxious that people were mocking them ceaselessly at home, so they came to a country where gullible people think a British accent makes you sound intelligent. It’s a really familiar con, too.

So prevalent is the British mountebank in America that it has long been a literary trope. Perhaps the earliest specimens of the genre were the King and Duke from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Claiming to be disinherited British royalty, these two “rapscallions” swindle their way across the Midwest, conning gullible, small-town Americans with their schemes. A century later, F. Scott Fitzgerald described the type in The Great Gatsby. “I was immediately struck by the number of young Englishmen dotted about,” Nick Carraway observes while in attendance at one of Jay Gatsby’s magnificent parties. “All well-dressed, all looking a little hungry, and all talking in low, earnest voices to solid and prosperous Americans. I was sure that they were selling something…They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.”

It’s too bad it doesn’t also work the other way. I think the impression an American accent leaves in the UK is that one is crass and loud and vulgar, which doesn’t help leave a good impression at all. If you’re going to try and dump Piers Morgan on us, it would only be fair if we could send you a Bill Maher, you know.


  1. opposablethumbs says

    And Wakefield. The UK owes the whole world an apology for Andrew Wakefield (even though he was struck off, and there is a BBC documentary ripping him to shreds. Too late for some of his victims, though).

  2. Dunc says

    Good lord – it seems that Mensch has got even worse since I last paid any attention to her, which is really saying something.

  3. says

    “…came to America to exploit the cachet of an otherwise useless accent….”

    You say that as if it were a bad thing. I can assure you, young man, that I have lived off my RP quite comfortably for nigh-on thirty-five years.

    Oh! and it DOES work the other way round as my American accented offspring can attest from occasional periods in UK schools.

  4. ccwright says

    But remember the British definition of countryside:

    The killing of Piers Morgan.

    I have a few others i’d like to export, starting with Nigel Farage.

  5. says

    Let’s not forget the 3rd Viscount of Brenchley. Monckton’s schtick played heavily on British stereotypes, right down to using an odd version of the emblem of the parliament.

  6. Derek Vandivere says

    It is one of the world’s great injustices that the American accent isn’t seen as particularly sexy anywhere in Europe, at least as far as I’ve been able to tell. Except for a deep Southern drawl – much swooning was swun over Ryan from Arkansas (who was also an absolute sweetheart of a guy).

  7. Dunc says

    It is one of the world’s great injustices that the American accent isn’t seen as particularly sexy anywhere in Europe, at least as far as I’ve been able to tell.

    There was a time, not so very long ago, when it most certainly was, thanks to Hollywood. Then you came here in sufficient numbers to ruin the illusion…

  8. jacksprocket says

    We don’t expect a cute accent- American means go- getting financial wizard fixer over this side. So many firms here have got in American consultants, whose main contribution has been to accelerate the sacking of experienced staff in favour of the cheap but useless, introducing cults like Agile whose main purpose is to keep the workforce wrong- footed, outsourcing facilities to East Europe or the Far East, and then pissing off to another contract when the waste impinges upon the ventilation.

  9. Derek Vandivere says

    Well, not since 1994, at least.

    I am of course completely ignoring the possibility that it wasn’t my accent that wasn’t working for me… (;

  10. Ed Seedhouse says

    Well, on the other hand there’s John Oliver, though his accent isn’t “upper class”. Not all accents work well – Cockney (which my maternal grandfather spoke) doesn’t get you very far in America as far as I know.

    Australians seem to have an accent that works very well for standup comedians in America. The moment a speaker of ‘strine speaks on T.V. the audiences seem to fall over laughing regardless of what they say, and so, I must confess, do I – which does not say anything good about me.

  11. The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge says

    F. Scott Fitzgerald was guilty of a pretentious affectation used by many Americans–writers especially–abbreviating their name British style (Initial-middle name).

    H. L. Mencken said in The American Language that when a British playwright introduces an oafish American millionaire named “Theophilus K. Hunks”, the first name-middle initial abbreviation was supposed to create just as much of an nekulturniy impression as the rest of it.

    I don’t know if “D. John Trump” sounds any more cultured than “Donald J.”, but then I’m not British….

  12. Rich Woods says

    @Rev #12:

    I don’t know if “D. John Trump” sounds any more cultured than “Donald J.”, but then I’m not British….

    It doesn’t. It really doesn’t.

    The thing which works best is to leave out any middle name or initial, along with any suffix of Snr or Jnr or worse, and to not be an arsehole.

  13. madtom1999 says

    Accents are strange things. I first spoka da english on San Juan island and on return to the UK amused my parents colleagues enormously when wandering over a bridge on the river Cam in Cambridge and declaring it ‘A cute little crick”. We lived near Birmingham after that and I developed a full black country accent (probably the same as Shakespeare) and at other times have moved around the UK and picked up accents there.
    Now, many years later, I can identify someone from the black country even if they seem to have no accent left – my throat moves upwards where it is needed to make the accent. I often surprise people who think they have completely lost their accents by asking them where near Birmingham they are from.
    My favourite is my american accent which seems good enough so when asked ‘Where are you from?’ and I respond ‘England’ I am asked ‘Which part of New England?’ – I have spent summers in Cape Code but it obviously has some ‘english’ tone to it as I am frequently involved in conversations about how shit the (real) english are.

  14. cartomancer says

    Perhaps I ought to move out there and take up the con-man profession. My own ridiculous faux-RP cadences certainly haven’t done me any favours over here, and I’m depressed after failing to get yet another classics teaching job today. On the other hand I’d probably be even more awful as a grifter, and since America fell for Donald Trump last year it would hardly be a challenge.

    On the other hand, it might be nice to have people think my accent is sexy. It is not a sexy accent at all as far as my fellow Englishmen are concerned. If I try to talk dirty I sound like C3-PO doing audio descriptions of porn for the blind.

  15. opposablethumbs says

    Sorry about the job, cartomancer.
    Don’t know what your voice sounds like, of course, but you certainly write like a bloody good teacher – erudite and (as in your last sentence above) laugh-out-loud funny.

  16. The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge says

    You should come over here, cartomancer. I’m constantly amazed that most Americans don’t seem to be able to distinguish the thickest Cockney or ‘Scouse from the most hemorrhoidal RP. They all count as prestige dialects here.

  17. cartomancer says

    Also, the article PZ links to draws quite heavily on the writings of AA Gill. While the late, unlamented, Gill never tried to make it big in America he was very much the kind of sensationalist tabloid hack arsehole who usually makes the trip. The list of his most awful excrescences on his wikipedia page is longer than the rest of the article combined. Weirdly enough he was also married to our current Home Secretary for a while in the 90s.

  18. cartomancer says

    Thanks people. I’ve never been very good in interviews. People tend to go off me once they’ve met me. In fact I’ve never actually succeeded at an interview when there has been another candidate present – only when it’s me or nothing. Still, I’m used to rejections in all spheres of life by now. I can cope. It’s not like I have all the systemic problems some people have to deal with working against me, after all.

  19. pigdowndog says

    @11 I can assure you the Cockney accent goes down very well in the Deep South. It’s the first time I’ve heard it described as “priddy”! Mind you I did have problems with the word “water” in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

  20. says

    Frank Zappa recounted how, at the height of Beatlemania, one didn’t even have to be able to play or sing at all; if one could convincingly fake a British accent, one could have wall-to-wall girls at any time.

  21. Moggie says

    What’s all this about “the American accent”? Even as a Brit, I can recognise that a Bostonian drawl is very different from a New Jersey one, and both are unlike Georgian.

  22. Matt says

    #24 General American is a thing, though not uncontroversially. I refer to it as the “Hollywood” accent because I suspect that the silver screen and its smaller cousins are primarily responsible for its geographical diaspora. Side note: Wikipedia articles on accents are always fascinating rabbit-holes.

  23. Muz says

    I’ve often thought there was something to this phenomenon. The putative ‘rationalist’ community of youtube seems to have an over representation of English accents. Some of it I have thought was a sort of back wash from Hitchens and Dawkins love, but I’m not sure. You look at how guys like Lord Monckton can dine out on hogwash the world over. Then at the lower level there’s your Pat Condells, Stephan Moleneuxs, Sargon and I dare say he of the great unpleasantness, with the foots of thunder gets a bump from the accent.

    Wouldn’t want to state it too strongly, but it does seem like seeming smart, authoritative and straightforward wants an English accent.

  24. blbt5 says

    There are some interesting counter-examples to the English accent stereotype. Listen to the British actor Hugh Laurie on “House” and then in a talk show using his native accent. The latter sounds distinctly less impressive than the former, not so smart and not so sexy as his character. The British accent still has mercenary value, but it also tends to sound a bit moldy.