This morning on one of American Public Media’s radio news shows I heard a commentator say the following: “It’s somewhat of an exaggeration.” Would I ever hear those words said on BBC Radio 4, I thought? Probably not. But why not?
Something of and somewhat have similar meanings in different forms of speech: somewhat is an adverb used to qualify an adjective (“he is somewhat rude”) and something of qualifies a noun instead (“he is something of a jerk”) – although I’m not entirely sure what grammatical form something of is. (If you know, please let us know in the comments section: is it a prenominal adjective, or perhaps a prenominal noun, or simply a noun and pronoun?) Many would argue that somewhat of is an error, in which the two uses are wrongly confused and combined. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, somewhat used as a noun/pronoun instead of something is archaic. But I believe this usage has become standard – if still somewhat colloquial – in American English, more or less supplanting something of in everyday speech, if not in writing. However, I think it’s jarring to most British ears.
And this isn’t to say that there aren’t BrE colloquialisms involving the word something that strain the American ear. “My back hurts something awful!”: You would be unlikely to hear that in an American gym. But now let’s take a look at British regional dialects and accents, and we might get closer to understanding why something and somewhat have become somewhat interchangeable, at least on American shores. In Yorkshire, and perhaps in the West country (or in Hardy’s Wessex), you’d be likely to hear that sentence pronounced somewhat differently: “Me back ‘urts summat awful!” Summat is the northern dialect version of the word something, and of course it sounds much closer to somewhat (and some would argue that it’s actually derived from somewhat, rather than something). Perhaps it lingers from the Old English use of somewhat in place of something – and it’s not unusual to find American words and pronunciations more closely resembling Old English rather than modern English.
Now let’s take somewhat, which in BrE is now considered rather formal, stuffy, or archaic. Unless they’re in the House of Lords, Brits tend to work with other words and expressions when they want to downplay or ‘de-emphasize’ the adjective that follows: “She’s a little shocked by the discovery,” or “he was relatively new to the industry”. Rather and quite are other modifying adverbs that can take the sting out of an extreme adjective, but rather confusingly, they are both often used to add rather than take away emphasis. See this earlier post on Glossophilia: http://www.glossophilia.org/?p=77
Fowler was forthright (and somewhat scathing) in his derision of the word somewhat and other ‘shock-absorbers’ like it: “Somewhat has for the inferior journalist what he would be likely to describe as ‘a somewhat amazing fascination’. …What first moves people to experiment in the somewhat style is partly timidity – they are frightened by the coming strong word and would fain take precautions against shock – and partly the notion that an air of studious understatement is superior and impressive; and so in our newspapers ‘the intemperate orgy of moderation is renewed every morning’. Cf. the similar use of comparatively and relatively as shock-absorbers.”
I wonder if Fowler’s description is more about the English mind-set than its lingo: “timidity”, “studious understatement” and “intemperate orgies of moderation” sound somewhat British to me …