Monday, November 09, 2015

Words of the Year nominations?

It's that time of year again. Dictionary publishers are already starting to announce their words of 2015, ignoring anything interesting that might happen in November and December. Poor November and December.
The twist on Words of the Year on this blog is that I choose the most 'of the year' borrowings from US-to-UK and from UK-to-US. For past WotYs, see this old post. (And from that post you can click further to read the reasons for various WotY choices.)

I go into this WotY season with no favo(u)rites. What do you think? Are there any US-to-UK or UK-to-US borrowings that are particularly 2015-ish? They don't have to have first come to the other country this year, but they should have had particular attention or relevance in the other country this year. Please nominate them in the comments below (not by email or Twitter, please--it makes more work for me to keep track of many different streams).

I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on the matter!

Miscellaneous news and shameless self-promotion

I'm giving two talks this month:
  • Wed 25 November (13.00), University of Sussex campus: 'Separated by a Common Politeness formula: please in American and British English' Click here for more details. All welcome!
  • Fri 27 November, Thanksgiving lunch, English-Speaking Union, West Sussex chapter, Chichester: 'Separated by a Common Language'. Click here for more details
I have also started a new blog, and have quickly populated it with some posts. When I started this here blog, I was working on antonyms in the day job and blogging about British and American English as a hobby. Now I'm writing about British and American English as part of my day job, so I've made myself a little outlet for antonym thoughts. That blog is not intended to work like this one--I won't be taking requests for posts, for example, and I'll mostly be using it to keep track of things that amuse or intrigue me, rather than to try to educate people about lexicology. But if it's of any interest to you, it's called Who Shall Remain Antonymous.

And it occurs to me that (BrE-ish) I've not said anything on this blog (at least I don't think I have) about my good news. For 2016, I will be one of the inaugural recipients of the National Endowment for the Humanities' Public Scholar award. What this means is that I will finally have the time to write the book that this blog has threatened to spawn for some time. (The book is actually a closer relation to the How America Saved the English Language talk that I've given many times in England. That is to say, it's more the grandspawn of the blog than the spawn.) I've also been fortunate enough to receive a small grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust to do some work in dictionary archives, which will continue the train of thought I started with this blog post, and contribute research for part of the book.

The blog has also spawned a series of four articles for English Today, to be published starting with the first issue of 2016.

So, that's the bloggy blog spawn for the moment. And as soon as I finish marking these essays (which this very post was a procrastination measure against), I'll have another proper post for you here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Untranslatables Month 2015: the summary

One thing that was particularly rewarding about Untranslatable October this year was that fans started discussing my tweeted offerings in the comments of the blog post that introduced the month.  They've made it clear that at least one of the 'untranslatables' is fairly translatable. Here they are, in the order they were posted on Twitter, with some commentary:

1. BrE marmite: something that people either love or hate, as in ‘Big Brother is television marmite’. After a famous yeast extract spread.

2. AmE redeye: a long-distance overnight airline flight, as in 'I flew to NY on the redeye'. Not all UK dictionaries still mark this as 'North American'. (There's a bit more discussion at the earlier post, where commenters question whether this only applies where there is choice of other times for the flight.)

3. BrE blag: to obtain by trickery/guile, as in 'He blagged a 1st-class ticket'. AmE score is similar, but seems less underhanded. Suggested by @laurelspeth.

4. AmE your mileage may vary: = 'you may have a different experience/opinion'. The abbreviated form YMMV is now known more widely on the internet, but I don't hear it offline and have had to explain it in UK. It comes from the way in which American car manufacturers had to qualify their miles-per-gallon claims in advertisements.

5. BrE plonk: inexpensive (but generally drinkable) wine (i.e. not rotgut). For example, 'you order the pizza and I'll bring the plonk'. Suggested by @AuditorsEditor.

6. AmE to bus (a table): to clear dirty dishes (etc.) from a table at a restaurant. For example, 'please bus your own table'. Also busboy, busgirl: person employed to clear tables at a restaurant/cafe. This is different from 'clear the table' because it can't be used of a table at home. Suggested by @tjathurman

7. BrE horses for courses: means something like 'everyone has different skills, so choose right one for job'.

8. AmE columbusing: explained here. This one may have been premature, since it's a pretty new term, but it is used in circles I belong to.

9. BrE to faff: 'to act unproductively, with elements of dithering and procrastinating'. I find dictionary definitions of this wholly inadequate, and the indecisive element makes it for me rather different from fart around. But there's further discussion at the comments here.

10. AmE leaf-peeping: tourism for the purpose of looking at autumn foliage, done by leaf-peepers.  Suggested by @mwnciod.

11. BrE assessment: collective term (but also sometimes a count noun) for any and all work that contributes to the final mark for a course. That is, exams and/or coursework, considered together.

12. AmE to put in face time: I defined it as 'to make an appearance at social/family event for *just* long enough to meet obligation', but others say they use it for business/networking. The face time is the same, but in my experience the verbs are different--I want to get some face time with people I network with, but I have to put in some face time at a grandnephew's christening. Suggested by @Word_chucker.

13. AmE squirrelly: having a kind of nervous dementedness, hence untrustworthy (pronounced 'skwirly'). Suggested by @tonythorne007.

14. BrE throw a wobbly: This is a bit of a cheat, as it's originally Australian--but it is used liberally in the UK. Means something like 'to lose self-control (in anger or panic)'. I suggested freak out as a close AmE relative, but commenter @niblick_iii felt that 'throwing a wobbly has more connotations of being unnecessary or unreasonable than freaking out' (I'd agree). Also suggested by @tonythorne007.

15. AmE weekend warrior: someone who does an activity (especially a strenuous one) only on the weekend (originally used in relation to weekend military training). Suggested by Simon C.
16. BrE sticky wicket: Simon C (suggester) defines it: ‘tricky situation we can get out of if we really concentrate’. Closest AmE is probably in a pickle, but doesn't have that 'we can get out of it' connotation.

17.  AmE -grader: e.g. '5th grader'. For child of certain school year. In the BrE English and Welsh school system of the moment, there's no word that is different from the word for the year: e.g. the year 5s are going on a field trip. But perhaps not-so-different is -former, still heard in sixth-former, but previously heard with a broader range of 'forms'. See this old post for more on how school years work in the two countries. Suggested by @libraryjamie.

18. AmE klatch or klatsch, particularly coffee klat(s)ch: from German kaffeeklatsch: a group that meets informally for coffee and cake in someone's home. There is a long discussion of whether this is equivalent to BrE coffee morning in the comments at the previously mentioned post. The upshot is: it probably was equivalent in certain settings at one point, but these days coffee morning has a strong whiff of 'charity fundraiser' and may apply to larger events outside the home.  Suggested by @SamAreRandom.

19. BrE boffin: essentially egghead with positive connotations. (See this for more discussion.) Suggested by @n0aaa For copious use of it, see the Mitchell and Webb 'Big Talk' sketches.

20. AmE kibitz: (from Yiddish) 'to give unwanted advice (especially to players of a card game)

21. BrE santa’s grotto: a place where kids visit someone dressed as Santa (usually receiving a small gift). Of course, Americans have Santas in shopping malls, and such, but there you 'go see Santa', there's not a universal name for the nook where Santa sits. As a Twitter commenter noted, Americans (of a certain age) are more likely to associate grotto with Hugh Hefner.

22. BrE gubbins: Its individual senses may be translatable, but taken as a whole, it has so many that no one word will do. Here's Merriam-Webster's Unabridged entry for it:

And that is it! The fifth Untranslatable month finished. I'm collecting as if there will be a sixth, but we'll see...

Sunday, October 25, 2015

All right?

I've been meaning to blog about the British greeting All right?* or You all right? in part because I wanted to get feedback on whether I'm responding correctly, since it is something that flummoxes Americans (and New Zealanders too, it seems). Then this happened in my Intercultural Communication class on Friday:

I was talking about the different parts of a conversation, starting with the opening, and mentioning along the way some of the ways in which the rituals differ in different cultures. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Like the British greeting All right? That confuses Americans--we don't know how to respond.

American Exchange Student: Wait, how do you respond?

Me: Let's try.  (addressing a group of English students in one corner)  All right?

English students (as one):  All right.

English student 1:  You know, it's like if Americans said You okay?

AmExSt: No, it's not. If you say You okay? to me, it means you think I look lost or upset and you're offering to help. So all these people have been saying You all right? to me and I've been thinking "What am I doing wrong? Why do they think I'm lost?"

[sound of a number of pennies dropping (variation on a BrE expression)]

So, it turns out that my strategy of replying All right or All right, and you? is acceptable. Phew.

A difference related to these different interpretations of you all right/okay? is that if you look lost in public in the US, someone will almost certainly come up to you and offer their help/directions (possibly with You okay?). In my experience, all you have to do in New York is open a map, and some local will ask to help.  (I recall this happening on a subway platform and Better Half exclaiming that that would never happen in London.)

In the south of England, if you're lost and want help, you generally have to (get up the courage and pick the right stranger and) ask for help. Or stay lost, which may be preferable. An exception to this generalization would be if the stranger had some official role that makes it acceptable to address someone and offer help. It's not that help is never offered, but you certainly can't count on it. I would not be surprised to hear that this is less true in other parts of the UK, since one thing the southerners have a reputation for is not talking to strangers.

It feels to me like All right? as a greeting is getting more and more common--though the OED has examples of it going back to 1868. (Maybe I was just oblivious to it for a while.) It also feels somewhat masculine to me. I think far more men greet me this way than women, and it is often  followed by the mostly masculine address term mateAll right, mate?  There may be generational things going on here too--perhaps younger people of both sexes use it more? (Let me know.)

*A lot of people on the internet are writing this as Alright? Not how the dictionaries spell it--and, of course, a frequent misspelling in a lot of contexts.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Here comes the 5th Untranslatable October!

On Twitter, I usually post a 'Difference of the Day' between British and American English every weekday. But for the past four Octobers, I've done something different: the Untranslatable of the Day. Each year I've wondered: can I really keep this up for (another) month? Are there that many concepts that are put into words or idioms in Britain or the U.S., but not the other country? Well, we've come up with more than 80 so far, and this year, I kept a file of UotD suggestions all through the year and can say with confidence that there are enough for a fifth go-round and possibly a sixth! 

The moment I start tweeting about 'untranslatables' I expect to receive tweets and emails complaining about the concept, particularly that 'nothing is untranslatable'. That's true in some senses, of course. What I mean by 'untranslatable' here is not that you can't express the same meaning in the other language/dialect, but that it hasn't been packaged as a lexical item--i.e. a word or an idiom. Comparing which concepts warrant actual expressions in a language can be interesting from a cultural perspective. They tell us things about working conditions, social relations, and other good stuff. Sometimes they make us think "yeah, I need a word for that!" and there the word is to borrow.
So, I repeat again the clarifications about Untranslatable October that I've given before:
  • I'm only talking about the relationship between British and American English here (as is my theme). These expressions may well have equivalents in other languages or dialects.  
  • By Untranslatable I mean that there is no lexicali{z/s}ed equivalent in the other dialect. And by lexicali{z/s}ed I mean that the expression is a word or an idiom--something that language users learn through hearing others say it, rather than something that has been made up anew.
    One can translate things by making up new sentences or phrases that describe the same thing, sure. But it's special when a language has lexicali{z/s}ed an  expression for something--it tells us something about the culture that invented and uses that expression.
  • Many of these have started to be borrowed between the dialects--and that's natural. If it's a useful expression and the other dialect doesn't have it, it's a prime candidate for international migration.
  • If you have not heard of the word before (even though I've said it comes from your country), then I hope that you might celebrate that you've learned a new expression, rather than complain to me that it's not 'really' American or British. Please know that I'm not posting them without some research, and none of us has a complete vocabulary. That said, if you can improve on my definitions, challenge the 'untranslatability' or give other insight into the untranslatables, please let me know!
  • I'm grateful for suggestions of additional untranslatables (though they may not make UotD status until next year), but I won't repeat any expressions that have been used in previous Octobers. The lists for each October are accessible by clicking on the 'untranslatable' label in the right margin, the bottom of this post, or, conveniently, here: untranslatable.
    There are also search boxes at the top and in the right margin of this blog. (The one in the margin works much better.) So please have a quick search before making suggestions, in order to cut down on the time that I spend responding to suggestions. (This is all voluntary on my part, please remember!)
Untranslatables (like Differences of the Day) will appear at 3pm British time (10am US east coast) each weekday on Twitter till the 30th. If you don't use Twitter, you can see them in the Twitter feed to the right here, or wait for the summary at the end of the month. In any case, I hope you enjoy them! 

P.S. (6 October 2015): I forgot to mention another of the 'rules'.  I don't include names for objects, activities or institutions that don't exist in the other country. For instance, there is no American equivalent of the expression Eccles cake, but that's not because Americans hadn't thought to lexicali{z/s}e it, but because they've probably never seen such a thing. This can get a bit tricky to determine when it's not an object we're talking about or when the expression has also taken on figurative meanings--see last year's example three-line whip.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

playing (the) musical instruments

John Wells wrote to ask:
Have you discussed BrE playing the piano/violin vs. AmE playing piano/violin?
Not really, John, and it turns out that it's one of those things that's (all together now!) more complicated than you might think! 

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has 689 play* the piano to 309 play* piano. (The * there used as a wildcard in corpus searches; so play* gets us play, playing, played, etc.) That's more than two arthrous (fancy word for having a the) cases for every anarthrous (fancy word for not having a the) one--in American English.

But those numbers need a bit more checking because any dialect would have playing piano music without a the. To get a better comparison, I looked at cases where piano is followed by an adverb (e.g. play [the] piano beautifully/well/loudly/tonight...) so that we can be sure that piano is a noun on its own and not a noun modifying another noun. Doing that, there are 53 arthrous cases and 23 anarthrous ones in COCA. So, pretty much like it was when I didn't take those sane, linguisticky precautions. The British National Corpus, in comparison, has 14 arthrous cases and 1 anarthrous. (But keep in mind that the data from BNC is 20 years older than that in COCA.)

The moral of that part of the story: it would not be right to say that  play piano is AmE for BrE play the piano. Instead, play piano is a lesser-used AmE variant of General English play the piano. The image here, from, illustrates both variants living happily together.

Personally, I could say either, but prefer it with the the.  A bit more rooting around in the Corpus of Historical American English shows a bit of anarthrous piano-playing throughout the 20th century, but it really gets going in the 1970s, when the proportions are like those in COCA.

But hold your horses. If we look at other instruments, it gets more complicated.  (I'm rounding the numbers, unless they're <2 .="" comment-2--="">
  • Violin: In COCA, the is favo(u)red 3:1.  In BNC, 5:1.
  • Harp: In COCA, the 4:1. BNC 8:0.
  • Guitar: Ziggy played guitar. Maybe the Spiders from Mars made him do it without the the, but in 1990s UK, the British were following suit and, like 2010s Americans, using play guitar twice as much as play the guitar. 
  • Bass: Looks like a reversal! COCA 2:1.  BNC: 1:5.
    I tried discounting cases like playing (the) bass line/notes, but taking them out made no real difference.
  • Trumpet: COCA1.4:1. BNC 5:2. 
  • Flute: COCA 4:1. BNC 8:1.
  • Drums: Play drums outnumbers play the drums in both dialects. Is it because it's plural? But what about...
  • Spoons: Tiny numbers, but more the in AmE and equal numbers of both in BrE.
I could go on looking for more instruments, but I won't. (Report your findings in the comments if you wish.) It looks like BrE eschews the more often for stereotypical rock instruments than for others -- guitar, bass, drums (Bowie's fault? American rock'n'roll's fault?). I don't see a clear pattern to the US preferences--but in general it's not completely unusual to have anarthrous ones. Bass is the interesting one for its anarthrousness in BrE.

Is it just with play, though? No. Going back to sticking with piano, COCA has half as many practic(e*) piano as practic(e*) the piano. BNC has four practis(e*) with the and one without.

On piano is also common in COCA (about 1/3 as many as on the piano). BNC has 20 on piano to 73 on the piano--very much the same. In this case, some of the on the pianos will have been about particular, physical pianos, as in I stubbed my toe on the piano. There's no possibility of I stubbed my toe on piano. But if a singer were giving credit to her band, she could say ...and Lynne Murphy on piano! or ...and Lynne Murphy on the piano!  (Not me, of course, I only had a year of lessons.) I'm waiting for one of you to go out and listen to dozens of concerts with British and American singers to tell me if they all say on drums! on bass! 

Finally, the why questions.

Why do we put a the before instruments? It's a funny thing. If I lie and say I play the piano, it's not a particular piano that I am playing. It's that I have the potential to play any piano. (Whereas if I say I've draped myself over the piano, it is a particular piano.) It's kind of like the bus in I ride the bus to work. In that case, it's not the particular physical bus we're talking about--that can vary. It's the whole package that goes with bus-riding. I ride a bus that travels along the route between my street/road and my workplace. There's a package that goes along with pianos too. I'm not just playing the instrument, I'm playing music on the instrument. The music that I know how to play on any "the piano" is kind of like the routes that I travel on any "the bus".

In spite of all that, there's no pressing semantic reason for the the. We don't play the cards or play the dominoes even though similarly, if I say I know how to play dominoes, I'm saying that I know the rules for playing on any instrument of that type (any set of dominoes). [Yes, dominoes are the instrument, not the game--though people who only know one domino game tend to call it 'dominoes'. I am particularly fond of Mexican Train.] So why do we usually have a the with musical instruments, but not with game equipment? (The answer: because that's what we learned to do.)

The arthrous version is unhelpfully ambiguous, so maybe that is a contributor to the rise of the anarthrous alternative. If I say I play the piano I could be trying to point out that I know how to play a piano (so invite me to play at your wedding), or it could be saying that I play a particular piano habitually (so don't get rid of it). I play piano doesn't seem to have that ambiguity, so could be seen as more communicatively efficient. The play + bare-noun construction is familiar, since we say things like I play tennis, I play jazz, I play goalie.

If you want to carry the conversation toward(s) other cases of (an)arthrous variation in AmE and BrE, have a look at the past posts with the 'determiners' label. I've written about some of the famous ones already, and your comments on them would be most welcome at those old posts (which are still regularly read). And you're most welcome to carry on the conversation about musical instruments (and games) on this post, of course!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Jane Setter recently asked me about noodles. Her take on them was that Americans can call spaghetti noodles and the British can't. My take, as ever, is: it's complicated.

Let's start with the British. In my experience (and, I think, Jane's) noodle in the UK is associated with Asian food. This is indeed what my English (and American, she would tell you) 7-year-old means when she says that her favo(u)rite food is noodles (various types and dishes but especially pad see ew and yaki soba. I've come to reali{z/s}e that on some days I eat nothing that I ate as a child).

Noodle is used for Asian types of noodles and noodle dishes in the US too. But I would suspect that the default understood ethnicity of noodle will vary by the speaker's age, location and ethnicity in the US.

Let's start with me, because that's easy (for me). If someone in my family asked me to go to Wegman's and buy some noodles, I would pick up a bag of these:
And once I got them home they would be used in a dish like this (but less fancy):
...most probably made with a can of Campbell's condensed cream-of-mushroom soup, like our household's other main noodle dish, that perennial Lenten horror, tuna noodle casserole (UK's drier version: tuna pasta bake).

(You don't get condensed soups in the UK, so you don't get condensed soup recipes.) [see comments for more on this]

Now, in my childhood, I would not have called those noodles pasta. I'm grown up now and I've come to tolerate much, so maybe I could bear to now. But to me, as a child, pasta was what you had in Italian food, noodles were what you had in the "less ethnic" dishes. But, of course, the other foods were ethnic too, and I suspect that my default understanding of the word noodle may be more common in the parts of the US that had more northern-European settlement. (I come from a rather Dutch part of New York state, and my parents from the more westerly more German part. The word noodle comes from German Nudel. My hometown also has a lot of Italian-Americans, so maybe that helped the pasta/noodle distinction become meaningful in my mind.)

Now, the OED defines noodle as:
A long stringlike piece of pasta or similar flour paste cooked in liquid and served either in a soup or as an accompaniment to another dish; (more generally in U.S.) any style of pasta. [...]
For me, that's not quite right. In my mind, a noodle is prototypically ribbon-like, rather than string-like. Once I started to get my head (a)round Italian pasta being noodles, I could admit that fettuccine and linguini were noodles, but spaghetti was a more borderline case. I'd not use noodle for macaroni or shells (which in the UK are harder to come by and are often called by the Italian name, conchiglioni).  (By the way, there's discussion of the BrE/AmE difference in the pronunciation of pasta back here.)

My childhood understanding of a pasta/noodle divide seems to be in tune with the National Pasta Association:
According to the standards published by the National Pasta Association, noodles must contain at least 5.5% egg solids by weight. Noodles can be added to soups and casseroles while pasta can be made a complete meal with addition of a few vegetables. Pasta is much lighter and, under Italian law, can only be made with durum wheat. []
Still, I am betting that (a) younger Americans (maybe especially in certain areas) are more likely to have 'Asian'  as the default ethnicity of 'noodle', and (b) ethnicity/region might make a difference for older people. Unfortunately, I can't find any dialect maps for noodle meanings--so what do you say/mean? Would any of you mean 'spaghetti' if you said "We're having noodles for dinner"? Please give an approximation of age and where you're from with your answer.

And then there is spaghetti noodle (the lead character in a series of Hyperbole-and-a-Half cartoons--which has macaroni noodle too). For me, this is a way of getting around the problem of spaghetti having become a mass noun when it was borrowed into English. Actually, I wrote about this in my textbook, so I might as well quote myself at length (with a little extra explanation in red). This is part of an explanation of Anna Wierzbicka's argument that the 'countable' or 'uncountable' grammatical status of a word is not arbitrary:

[...] cultures may differ in how they interact with, and thus conceptualize, the denotata [i.e. things that words refer to].  For example, although people rarely bother to count it, in Italian spaghetti is a plural count noun (1 spaghetto, 2 spaghetti).  In English spaghetti is treated as a mass noun. This is not just because English speakers do not know that spaghetti is a plural; we could very easily add our own plural marking to it to make it a count noun (two spaghettis), but we don’t.  It also is not because spaghetti is too small to be counted in English, since noodle, which denotes practically the same thing as spaghetti, is a count noun. Wierzbicka (in a lecture given in the early 1990s) has pointed out that English speakers have a very different relationship to spaghetti than Italians do. First, Italians are more connected to how spaghetti is made — historically it was made at home, where the individual strands would have to be handled. On the other hand, spaghetti generally entered English speakers’ consciousness as something that gets poured out of a box into boiling water — with no need to handle individual pieces.  Second, pasta is eaten differently in Italy and English-speaking countries. Spaghetti in English often refers to a whole dish, which is presented as a mass of pasta beneath an opaque tomato sauce.  In Italy, pasta is traditionally a first course or side dish, where it may be eaten with just a bit of oil and garlic.  In this case, the strands are more perceptible as individuals. Furthermore, some English speakers cut their spaghetti, destroying the integrity of the individual strings, whereas Italians instead wrap the strings around a fork or slurp them up without cutting them.
The way I understand spaghetti noodle is that it's an AmE way of making spaghetti countable. I'd say a piece of spaghetti or three strands of spaghetti. BrE seems to prefer counting spaghetti in strings.  In those cases, we're the counting with a noun that indicates a 'unit of', but spaghetti noodle (and macaroni noodle, if you're so inclined) does the job too, with noodle being a unit of spaghetti. Looking it up in Google Books, there are only spaghetti noodle(s) after the 1960s, and most of the hits are false--having a punctuation mark between spaghetti and noodle(s). This is the earliest instance I found, from 1964, where the emphasis is on the forming of the pasta:
After 1980, there are more examples in recipes. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English (from the 2000s), there are only 8 instances, 5 of them singular as in "Sure enough, a long spaghetti noodle had entangled itself in my reddish-brown hair." 

I'm adding this bit (between the lines) the day after the original post, because I forgot to say these things:

"German"-style noodle dishes are much less common in the UK than they are in the US (which is to say: I've never seen one!), but I also get the feeling that pasta felt 'foreign' more recently in the UK than in the US. Here are some thoughts related to that. 

  1. My English sister-in-law (in about 2003?) made a pasta dinner of some sort for her future (English) mother-in-law, who was in her early 70s. The woman had never had pasta before in her life (and was rather unimpressed). I cannot imagine meeting her American counterpart (i.e. 70s, non-immigrant, suburban) who had never eaten pasta. I tell this story to other English people and they say 'unusual, but certainly not unimaginable'. On a slightly related note, the perceived 'foreignness' of garlic bread seems to sustain Peter Kay's career.
  2. As discussed in the comments, many British people of middle age think of their childhood spaghetti as coming out of a (BrE) tin (and then often served on toast--I try not to judge. I try very hard.). But the other way that people ate spaghetti in the UK in the 70s (and continue to) was spag bol--i.e. spaghetti bolognese--i.e. spaghetti with meat sauce. (In my experience, you can barely see the spaghetti.) Americans in the 70s were probably not a lot less rigid in their spaghetti habits, but our thing was spaghetti with meatballs. But at least we didn't make an ugly name for it. (Oops. Judgy again.) 
  3. Americans, of course, had mass Italian immigration in the 19th century, and there are Italian restaurants there that were started in the 1800s that are still running now. The oldest Italian restaurant in the UK (the internet tells me) was founded in 1922 in Aberdeen--and it might be the first--this market-research history of Italian restaurants has nothing earlier. It might be interesting to know if the Scottish experience of pasta is different from the (southern-)English one, since there's been a good deal of Italian immigration to Scotland.
  4. Even before mass Italian immigration, pasta was not unknown in the US. Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of macaroni (which was treated then as a cover-term for pasta) and had macaroni-making equipment imported from Naples. The dandies of England may have too--the word macaroni was used to make fun of them (thus the macaroni line in Yankee Doodle).
Just in case you want to get even by judging me for failing to not-judge spaghetti on toast, know this: my family eats Kraft macaroni (AmE: and) cheese with (Dad's homemade) strawberry jam on top.  And I'm not going to apologi{z/s}e for that. It's great. (I've no idea how this started. Could there be any link to having a German grandma--sweet noodle dishes? Dan Jurafsky's The Language of Food says that macaroni was originally a sweet almond pasta--but I can't imagine that a 14th century Italian dish affected my family's eating habits.)

Now I'm going to try to leave this post alone and not add any more! 


I suppose I should say something about the other noodle. This is older than the food word and unrelated to it, coming from an old word noddle for 'the back of the head'. This has two meanings that have taken root in different ways in the UK and US:

The first meaning is 'a stupid or silly person'. I don't think I hear that in the US, but I do hear in the UK. (I know a couple of parents who affix noodle to the ends of their children's N-starting names, which seems kind of like calling a William Silly Billy.) 

The second meaning is 'head', as in use your noodle or got hit in the noodle. Cambridge Dictionary lists this meaning as 'US old-fashioned informal', but it has a history in the UK. The first use in the OED is from Tristram Shandy: "
What can have got into that precious noodle of thine?"

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

please find attached...

I've been to two conferences in the past two weeks, presenting studies on British and American use of the word please. It was a blog post here that inspired this new research direction: three years ago I posted about whether one says please when ordering in restaurants (click that link for lots of discussion!). If you read the comments at that post, you'll see Americans saying things like 
Please winds up feeling impolite with people that you don't have the right to order around, ie anyone other than your children.
and British commenters saying things like 
not saying please makes it sound like a lord giving an order to his butler
--that is, Americans saying please sounds bossy and Brits saying 'you have to say please, or else you'll sound bossy'. The conference papers will turn into one or two journal articles (eventually!). In the meantime, the two studies brought up so many little factoids about please that I could do at least a half a dozen blog posts on them. Let's start with one and see how I go.

This one comes from the work I'm doing with Rachele De Felice of the Survey of English Usage at University College London and that we presented at the Corpus Linguistics 2015 conference. We're looking at requests (1,350 of them in total) in two corpora of corporate emails, one from a British company that will remain anonymous, and the other from an American company you might have heard of. We found, as others have in other data, that twice as many British requests as American ones include please. What's more, in British English please is particularly often used in requests that do not involve much of an imposition--things like please don't hesitate to call if you need assistance, please note that tomorrow is a holiday or please accept our congratulations. They have the form of an imperative sentence (do this!), but the recipient is not actually asked to do much of anything; instead, they're offered something (help, information, congratulations).

This brings us to one of the types of please-imperatives found in the email data: please find attached and its relatives please find enclosed and please find below. There were 20 of these in the British data and two in the American data — all of them with please. So, not only do we have far fewer American please find attached's, we don't have any please-less find attached's. Surely British corporate emailers don't attach documents 10 times more often as American ones do?

The mystery of the missing find attached's is solved when we consider that this is another case where the "command" isn't really much of a command at all. There's no need to boss around the other person to go about finding things, since the sentence is just communicating "I have attached a document for you". In fact, it would be just plain weird to put this into another request form like Could you please find the document attached? or I would be very grateful if you would find the document attached. This underscores that please find attached is not much of a request at all. It is instead a set phrase in imperative form that does a not-very-requesty job.

We found that American business people are actively discouraged from using this set phrase. Here is what the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style by Bryan A. Garner has to say (highlighting added):

enclosed please find; please find enclosed; enclosed herewith; enclosed herein. 

These phrases—common in commercial and legal correspondence—are archaic deadwood for here are, enclosed is, I've enclosed, I am enclosing, or the like. 

Garner goes on to cite sources from the 19th century onward (all of them American) that agree that please find enclosed is a horrible business-ism that should be avoided. My small forays into (the possibly smaller genre of) British business writing advice has not turned up anything at all about this phrase. (Let me know if you know of any advice in either direction.)

Whatever you think of please find attached, it creates problems for our comparative speech-act research. If we look at British imperatives in our email data and say "84% have please, while only 43% of American imperatives do", it looks like maybe the Americans are bossier--ordering people around without saying please. But that might not be the best way to look at it.

Another way to look at it is: British emailers often only say please because they've put messages into command form that American emailers might put into a declarative sentence. The imperative could be seen as more imperious (or at least officious) than putting the same message into a declarative sentence.

And with that, I'll leave you with a British please sign that Peter Austin posted in the week of our presentation:

Postscript, 10 Sept 2015: I've just had a please crisis while writing an email to ask the person who runs our webpage. I needed to ask her to put up a different document than the one she'd put up for me earlier in the day. I wrote:
So...could the online version be updated to this? 
Since I'm in England, I thought 'Maybe I should add a please...' But look at what happens when I do:
 So...could the online version be updated to this please? 
The problem here is that my way of being polite was to make the request indirect. It's passive so doesn't say 'would you update it' and it has a pretty weak modal verb--not would or could but can. The impersonalisation makes the request easier to reject: No, it can't be done because... rather than I can't/won't do it...
It also makes the request less bossy, in that I'm not asking someone to do something, I'm asking about the possibility of something being done--giving her the (probably fictional) option of outsourcing it.

It doesn't work with please because please says 'here's a request', and I've phrased this as not-a-request, but as a question of possibility.

All this is just to again make the point that just because Americans say please less, it doesn't mean they're (we're!) doing less politeness work.  And sometimes Americans are more indirect than they're (we're!)  given credit for!