Tuesday, August 29, 2006

bank holidays

Yesterday was August Bank Holiday in England. This is a fine holiday with many well-loved traditions, such as inching along on the motorway (AmE = highway, expressway, and various regional things like thruway and turnpike) while colo(u)rfully cursing, getting rained on at the beach, withstanding your in-laws, and standing in a long queue (AmE = line) at a DIY superstore then going home to decorate (which usually means painting).

The term Bank Holiday is pretty much equivalent to AmE legal holiday or public holiday. The US and UK have a couple of holidays in common--Christmas and New Year's Day. In the US, public holidays celebrate famous figures (Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents' Day), events (Thanksgiving) or issues/groups of people (Labor Day, Memorial Day, Veterans' Day). Which holidays are public holidays varies by state. For example, Massachusetts has an extra one called Patriots' Day--which, I might add, is to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord in the (AmE) Revolutionary War/ (BrE) American War of Independence, not the New England Patriots (American) football team. Click here for a site that tells you when US federal holidays and traditional secular observances take place.

In the UK, holidays generally allow for days off around Christian feasts (Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Boxing Day--which I've now discussed here) or celebrate the fact that the banks are closed (May Bank Holiday, Spring Bank Holiday [also in May], and August (aka Summer) Bank Holiday). August Bank Holiday is timed to co-occur with the dampening of the weather as hurricane season gets started in the Atlantic. Dates of holidays in the four nations of the UK can be found here,

England has the fewest public holidays in Europe, fewer than Scotland and fewer than the US as well. I practice my own "go-slow" on Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Day, and get downright rude at work on Thanksgiving. I don't do this because I'm patriotic--I just feel I'm owed a few more holidays. Only the May bank holidays fall during the university term, but they fall during exam time, and they don't close the university as there are too many exams to fit into the exam period.

So, I'm absolutely in favo(u)r of more bank holidays, but I would like to campaign to give them better and more diverse names. If the British can't think of things to celebrate, then at least the holidays could be named after other holiday traditions besides the closing of the banks. How about Trains on a Reduced Schedule Monday or Don't even think about driving on the M6 Day?

What British holidays would you like added to the roster?

Sunday, August 27, 2006


A quick dispatch from the British Matchplay Scrabble Championships in Staffordshire. (Don't ask me how I'm faring.)

In the pub last night, it was said of someone "Oh, she's a really jammy player." I've heard jammy used in this way before, but this time I just had to swallow my pride and ask Just what does jammy mean, anyway? Turns out it means 'lucky', or as the OED puts it: 'very lucky or profitable'. General consensus was that the word is used a lot more in the Scrabble world than in everyday life (but of course we have a lot of reason to talk about luck in the Scrabble world), and that it might be a little old-fashioned.

It puts a new spin for me on the biscuit name Jammie Dodgers, which I had not heretofore reali{s/z}ed could be a pun. The alternative spelling of jammy could be for trademarking reasons. One also sees the spelling jammy dodger for ones that are not made by Burton's Foods. There is a far-fetched etymology here (search down the page for 'name' to get to it). The writer claims the name goes back to the 1500s [from French jamais de guerre]. But (a) the name works as a literal name--it has jam and dodger is a dialectal word (now used in Australian military, apparently) for sandwich--and this is what we'd call in the US a sandwich cookie, and (b) Burton's Foods has only been making them since 1960. While the biscuit could go back a lot further than that, the story has the hallmarks of folk etymology. Does anyone out there know more about the history of jammie/jammy dodgers? (I've written to Burton's and will update if there's any news.)

See the etymology link if you want to see a photo of a Jammie Dodger--and reviews of Jammie Dodgers. The computer I'm at won't allow me to upload one.

Friday, August 25, 2006


Today I used the AmE expression (treated like) a red-headed stepchild, meaning someone or something that isn't treated on a par with others in their group--through no fault of their own. The person I said it to could figure out what it meant, although he hadn't known it before. But the result is that it got me thinking about redheads.

In these parts, red hair, or more particularly light red hair, is called ginger. This isn't unknown in America, but it's not at all as common as it is in the UK, home of Ginger Spice. It can also refer to reddish-colo(u)red fur on an animal, especially a cat. Referring to people or animals, it can be used in various ways:
as an adjective, referring to the colo(u)r:
Her hair is ginger
as an adjective meaning 'having red hair/fur':
He is ginger
or as a noun, meaning 'a person/animal with red hair':
That Chris Evans is a ginger – nuff said! --BKAW

As you can probably tell from the last example, calling someone a ginger is not the most polite way to describe a person's hair colo(u)r. This follows from the general principle that refering to people using adjectives-turned-into-nouns is a bit rude as it reduces them to a single property. Compare, for example He is gay and He is a gay.

It's my impression that it's tougher to be a redhead, especially a redheaded man, in the UK than in the US (armies of women who henna over their gr{a/e}y notwithstanding). The first Chris Evans quote is indicative, but here's another, followed by a charmingly clueless query from a non-British commenter on a Dr Who forum:
3twelve: ... Chris Evans is a ginger tosser - whose only real fame was due to the Big Breakfast - a uk tv show that he was one of the first presenters on.
wpbinder: What the heck is a ginger tosser?I'm having great fun imagining wpbinder imagining that the worst thing in BrE is to accuse someone of throwing Asian root-based spices around. But no, 3twelve is accusing Evans of being a red-headed onanist. Now, it's one thing to call Evans a tosser (AmE equivalent might be prick--Americans don't use onanistic insults quite as much, and jerk isn't strong enough), but no one seems to call him one without making reference to his hair colo(u)r. Then again, it's hard to think of Americans to compare him to. Ron Howard is more likely to be mocked for not having any hair these days, and Carrot Top, well, mocks himself. Danny Bonaduce, anyone?

You could throw red-headed stepchild back at me as proof that Americans are tough on redheads but (a) it's a pretty old-fashioned-sounding saying that refers to an old-fashioned attitude, and (b) there have been recent reports (on the American Dialect Society e-mail list) of people saying left-handed stepchild instead--presumably because it's easier to understand lefties as more neglected than redheads.

Redheaded people (or those who are attracted to them) are also called ginger-nuts in BrE. A ginger-nut is a hard ginger biscuit. Strangely, these have no nuts. They are fairly comparable to American ginger snaps (I've not seen a British ginger snap, so I can't say what those are like, though the OED seems to feel that they're different from ginger-nuts). Ginger snap can be used in AmE to refer to (as the OED puts it): "a hot-tempered person, esp. one with carroty hair". Now, that has me imagining a screeching baby in a highchair with vegetable puree everywhere. Perhaps I'm just too literal-minded.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

badly and poorly

Regular commenter Rebecca asked me recently about Americans saying I feel badly. I wasn't so sure it was American, and the OED isn't so sure it is either, as they have it as 'dialectal' (which, for the OED, means 'British dialectal'). On the other hand, I was under the impression that saying I feel poorly was a British dialectal thing, yet I find in the American Heritage Dictionary that it's used in America too. But, looking beyond the dictionary dialect labels, there are arguably some differences here. I'll get to those in a bit. First, some probably unnecessary reflections on the adjectival status of badly and poorly, just to amuse myself.

What is funny about both of these words is that they are -ly forms being used unusually as adjectives, rather than adverbs. Funnier still is the very limited way in which we use them. Typical adjectives can modify nouns in two ways:

Attributively -- that is, within the noun phrase:
the sick parrot

Predicatively -- after a linking verb
The parrot is/seems/feels/smells sick

Poorly only goes in predicative position:
The parrot is/seems/feels poorly.

*the poorly parrot
(* always indicates ungrammatical/unnatural phrasings)
That's not so odd, since there are some other adjectives, like glad, that only like to be in predicative position.

But badly is funnier still. It doesn't like to be in attributive position, and seems only to go in predicative position after the verb feel:
I feel badly

?The parrot is/seems badly

*the badly parrot
Using badly as an adjective after feel creates an ambiguity between the adjectival interpretation and the adverbial interpretation:
The parrot feels badly
adjective reading: 'The parrot doesn't feel good.'

adverb reading: 'The parrot isn't good at feeling.' (perhaps because parrots don't have hands!)
Now, why would people go out of their way to add an -ly to the familiar adjective bad when (a) they don't need to, and (b) it introduces an unhelpful ambiguity?

I have two hypotheses. First, maybe people use badly after feel because they're trying to say the opposite of I feel well. Well is an adjective in that case, but it's also an adverb (as in The parrot sings well), and the opposite of the adverb well is badly. So, if you want to say the opposite of I feel well, then it might seem like you should say I feel badly. This could be considered to be a case of hypercorrection (see sense 2 in the linked Wikipedia definition).

My problem with this hypothesis is that I can imagine myself saying I feel badly, but not I am badly. It's hard to search for such things on the web (since you get lots of examples like I am badly dressed or badly in need of a haircut), but the two examples I've found of of I am badly meaning 'I am unwell' are both by French speakers using English--an interference error from French. If we're just using badly to match well, then it would stand to reason that one could say I AM badly, since one can say I AM well. But I can't find much evidence of native English speakers doing that.

My other hypothesis relates more to how I would use I feel badly--which may not be how everyone else uses it, so let me know if you're different. If I'm feeling unwell, I'd say I feel bad (or, if I'm trying to be misguidedly Britishy, I feel poorly). But if I'm regretting something, I might say I feel badly about killing your parrot. (Just an example--no parrots were harmed in the writing of this blog.) I feel badly is limited in this case to emotional states, rather than physical ones. It turns out it's not just my hypothesis, as I've just found this, which makes the same conjecture. Hm, should've done that bit of the research before writing all this.

Now this is NOT the sense of badly that the OED lists as dialectal in Britain. That one means 'unwell, indisposed'. They don't have a lot of examples of it, and the last one is from 1966. So, it looks like badly='regretful, hurt, otherwise emotionally unwell' IS an Americanism.

According to a 1993 addition to the OED, poorly has come to be euphemistically used to mean 'seriously ill'. I believe that this is specifically BrE. They give these examples:
1979 Guardian 31 Jan. 4/4 Last night Adrian was said to be ‘poorly’ in the burns unit of a hospital. 1988 Times 8 Jan. 2/7 Yesterday he was on oxygen and I was up with him all night. He hasn't needed oxygen today but he is still quite poorly. Ibid. 15 Nov. 3/6 Nine children were..still receiving hospital treatment... Two were in a ‘poorly condition’.
I nevertheless maintain that I was justified in using poorly to describe my post-Pimms hangover last weekend. I was verily hospitali{s/z}able.

So: Americans do you use poorly? If so, how sick is a person who is poorly?
And: BrE speakers, do you use badly? If so, is it an emotional or physical state?

Friday, August 18, 2006

meet with

A problem in writing about the differences between American and British English is that it can be hard to notice the Americanisms if you're an American. As long as people understand you, you go along happily saying American things until the time that someone doesn't understand them and a metalinguistic conversation ensues. One of the first times this happened to me was when I made a brilliant Scrabble move that involved hooking an s on the front of nit. I couldn't believe it when my opponent challenged snit, and could believe it less when it wasn't in the official word list. (This was back in the days before British Scrabblers used the international word list.) A snit is a little fit of bad temper, and I got in a snit when I had to take the word off the board. (But not as much of a snit as when I played drywalls for 230 points and it was disallowed. It is now allowed in the international word list. BrE for drywall is plasterboard, which at 12 letters is much more difficult to play in Scrabble.)

My sometime inability to recogni{s/z}e my own dialectal differences came up when Foundational Friend (whom you met last time) listed some of the Americanisms that she's found herself using recently. These included meet with to mean 'have a meeting with'. (The 'experience' sense of meet with, as in meet with disaster or meet with an opportunity, is common to both dialects.)

The OED (2004 draft revision) lists the 'have a meeting' sense of meet with as Now chiefly N. Amer., meaning that it has been used in BrE in the past, but isn't so much now. Their quotations include meet withs from Caxton, Defoe and Walter Scott, but the two 20th-century quotations are American.

However, considering the frequency of meet with in UK newspapers and government documents, I think I can be forgiven for not noticing that meet with is "chiefly N. Amer.", and I wonder whether that geographical label will be suitable for much longer.
Rice Meets With Top Israeli Officials --Headline, The Guardian, 30 July 2006
Sheikh Qaradawi meets with Ken Livingstone during his 2004 visit --photo caption, The Telegraph, 14 September 2005
'Dead baby' mum to meet with hospital chiefs --headline, The Scotsman, 10 August 2006
While the first of these may have come from an American wire service, the following two definitely originated in the UK. Google reported over two million hits for meet with on .gov.uk sites, and while some of these involve other senses of meet with, 48 of the first 50 hits used the 'have a meeting with' sense, and none of those should be due to American wire services.

Still, transitive meet is used in 'have a meeting with' contexts in BrE. For instance, the Scotsman article whose headline is quoted above goes on to use meet rather than meet with, which is curious considering that headlines are typically more sparing with their words than full articles.
THE mother who underwent an operation to remove her "dead" unborn baby only to find she was still pregnant weeks later is to meet hospital bosses. --The Scotsman, ibid.
The Royal Mail will this week meet hundreds of senior managers and their union representatives as the state-controlled postal giant seeks to prevent a walkout over pay. --The Independent, 25 June 2006
It's probably a signal of the relative strength of meet with in AmE that I want to put withs in these contexts. Without the with, meet so-and-so is ambiguous in three ways. As well as meaning 'have a meeting with', it can mean 'make the acquaintance of' or 'happen to encounter' (as in I met Grover on the way here). In my American way of thinking, if the woman in The Scotsman hadn't made the acquaintance of the hospital bosses, then saying meet is fine, but if it's not their first meeting, I'd want to say meet with in order to avoid the other possible interpretations.

Thus, British English speakers often let the context do the work toward disambiguating meet, while Americans spell it out. You could use that fact to try to form or reinforce some broad cultural stereotypes, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Foundational Friend (I'll call her that because it was through her that I met much of my English social circle--including Better Half) stayed over last night and had the misfortune of seeing me this morning. Never a pretty sight--but particularly nasty today as I was horribly sneezy and snotty. I nodded toward a bouquet on the dresser and said, "I'm allergic to mums." FF followed my nod and it clicked. "Oh," she said, "you mean chrysanthemums." Yes, I did, and that must've been the fifth time I've had that exact exchange with an Englishperson. Will I never learn?

(I may learn to say chrysanthemum in full, but I won't learn to bin them when they're given to me. I believe in suffering a little for beauty and kindness.)

Mum for chrysanthemum is another case of American word-clipping that isn't shared by most speakers of British English. Americans also say chrysanthemum, but if you were raised in the funeral business as I was, it's handy to have a quicker way to say the names of common funeral flowers--so I say mums and glads (= gladioli). I notice that most of the examples of glads in the OED (1989) come from outside Britain--Ireland and Australia.

I think UK florists are missing a great opportunity in not clipping their chrysanthemums. Imagine the ads running up to Mothering Sunday: Mums for Mum! (= AmE Mom). Yes, that's Mothering Sunday. While these days it's often called Mother's Day, many Brits consider that to be a crass American name for the day. It's also a different day. Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday during Lent, which means it's generally in March. American Mother's Day is the second Sunday in May. (The first Mother's Day was on the anniversary of the death of Ana Jarvis' mother, which happened to fall on a Sunday that year. Who is Ana Jarvis? She's the inventor of Mother's Day.)

What this all means is that if you're an American expat in a Mothering Sunday country, you buy a card for your mother in March, with the intention of sending it in May. But then since no one's advertising Mother's Day in May, you forget all about it until you find the card in July. Or until your mother phones with stories of all the lovely things your brothers did for her on Mother's Day. Still, it must be worse to be a British expat trying to remember Mothering Sunday ten months after anyone's mentioned Mother's Day.

Monday, August 14, 2006

arse, ass and other bottoms

Howard at the UK/US forum e-mailed to request discussion of BrE arse and AmE ass. It seems Howard has come across at least one American wondering why the British "put an /r/ in ass", when, of course, the real question is why Americans have taken the /r/ OUT of arse. There are many useful discussions of arse/ass available, so I'll lazily quote Wikipedia:
Until the late eighteenth century, "ass" presumably had no profane meaning and simply referred to the animal now mostly called donkey. Because of the increasingly non-rhotic nature of standard British English, "arse" was often rendered "ass". However indirect evidence of the change from arse to ass traces back to 1785 (in euphemistic avoidance of ass "donkey" by polite speakers) and perhaps to Shakespeare, if Nick Bottom transformed into a donkey in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1594) is such a word-play. This usage was also adopted in America, which is why the word "arse" is not usually used in the United States. The age of Victorian propriety resulted in the rechristening of the horse-like animal, changing the name to "donkey" (not recorded in English before 1785, slang, perhaps from dun "dull grey-brown," the form perhaps influenced by monkey, or possibly from a familiar form of Duncan, cf. dobbin) to avoid any improper inferences. Some people in Britain have adopted the American version in writing. Although before World War I they were similar, the British pronunciations of "ass" /æs/ and "arse" /ɑːs/ are now quite different. While arse is commonly used in Atlantic Canada, west of the Ottawa river, ass is more idiomatic.
So, the /r/ in arse used to be pronounced, but now it's not pronounced as an /r/ in many (particularly southern English) British dialects, including Received Pronunciation. Nevertheless, it's spel{led/t} with an r no matter which British dialect one speaks. So why do some Americans think that the /r/ has been added in, rather than taken out?

My hypothesis is that it's because most Americans are familiar with dialects that add /r/s after certain vowels, even though the r is not present in the spelling. They're used to seeing the written form without an /r/, and so figure/reckon that any other form is a corruption, just as they consider it a corruption when people pronounce idea as idear and washing as warshing. Some British dialects have an intrusive r, so it's not unreasonable to guess that the word that is familiar as ass is the victim of /r/-adding.

Adding or dropping /r/s is a definite marker of geography and social class. In the US, people often consider added /r/s to be a mark of a hick or "white trash". (It's done in many parts of the country, including rural Pennsylvania and the Ozarks.) Thus in one on-line discussion one participant said "English people are cute. They say 'arse' instead of 'ass'", to which another American hotly replied:
"Arse" is not cute. "Arse" just makes me think of welfare moms living in low-rental housing and wearing sweatpants, running babysitting operations out of their ghetto apartments and threatening the kids into behaving themselves by shrieking "I'll tan yer arse!" with a Virginia Slim hanging out the side of their mouth.

Arse. So not cute.
So, here we have an American judging BrE arse in much the same way that many Britons judge the American pronunciation of herb. Even though it's the older pronunciation and the one that is natural to the dialect, it's judged on the basis of class-based assumptions that don't translate over international borders.

In BrE, arse can also a verb. Can't be arsed to means 'can't be bothered to'. I see that another blogger (Troubled Diva) is promoting an acronym to be used when you want to admit you're too lazy to back up the claims you're making on your blog: CBATG, or 'Can't Be Arsed To Google'. Another verbal use of arse, to arse about is vaguely equivalent to AmE goof off. The OED includes some examples of ass being used as a verb in ass about, but this just isn't a common usage in the US. I actually could be arsed to Google that, but the results were contaminated with lots of examples of give a rat's ass about, and I couldn't be arsed to sort those out.

And while we're on our rear-ends, a few other sources of international confusion over the gluteus maximus:

Perhaps I just had a poor vocabulary in my pre-passport days, but it was only after leaving the States that I learn{ed/t} that pratfall literally means 'falling onto the rear-end'. In BrE, prat is known to mean 'buttocks', but is mostly used as an epithet for a dolt or a jerk--much as ass is used in AmE.

Americans should be warned strongly against referring to one's fanny while in proximity to British persons. In the UK (and other parts of the English-speaking world), fanny means a woman's genitals. Either hilarity or deep embarassment (depending on the company) ensues when American tourists refer to their fanny packs. In the UK, these items are known as bum bags. Bum is, of course, another BrE word for the buttocks, which is a bit less crude than AmE butt. Thank goodness that Americans gave up on naming babies Fanny in the 1940s, but the Swedish still love it (though they pronounce the 'y' as a fronted 'u'; see Think Baby Names).

Bottom only means 'buttocks' in AmE, and while it can be used in the same way in BrE, a distinction can be made between the front bottom (i.e. the [female] genitals) and the back bottom.

Since I've just hit bottom, I'll make this the end (ha-ha) of this instal(l)ment.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

telling (the) time and dates

The time-telling construction exemplified by quarter of four was among the first Americanisms to be beaten out of me (metaphorically, of course) ex patria. People challenged me to explain why I'd said of when I'd meant 'before', and since I couldn't explain it, I gave up saying it. This is the most opaque of the differing time expressions in AmE and BrE, but there are others. In the table below, the ones that are in bold are particular to one dialect. If they're not in bold, they're used in the other dialect too:

10:15quarter after 10quarter past 10
9:45quarter of 10quarter to 10

In either dialect, one could say half past 10, but Americans generally call it ten-thirty. The BrE half-ten is informal, but common in speech. What's very confusing, if you're someone who is learning both BrE and Swedish at the same time (ok, so maybe it won't bother you), is that in Swedish halv-tio ('half-ten') means 'half an hour until ten', i.e. 9:30.

Some Americans say quarter till ten, which Michael Swan on the BBC Worldservice reports is due to old Scottish English. Hence its effect in the US is strongest in Appalachia.

The other main time-telling difference between the UK and the US is the relative prevalence of the 24-hour clock. In the US, 24-hour time-telling is associated with the military, and with spoken expressions like 'oh-four-hundred hours' or 'twenty-three hundred hours'. Since everyone else only counts up to 12 in telling time, we have to append a.m. and p.m. on everything.

Until recently, Britain did the same, but increasingly the British are following the Continent in using the twenty-four hour clock in writing, for example on invitations, bus and train timetables (AmE=schedules) and digital clocks. In speech, twenty-four-hour time-telling is still a bit artificial. Say you were asked when the next train is. You look at the timetable/schedule, and it says: 18:42, 19:00. It'd be fairly natural to say that the next train is at eighteen-forty-two (or six-forty-two), but for the one after, one would be more likely to say seven o'clock than nineteen hundred. Saying *nineteen o'clock is definitely out.

(Better Half chips in that in the a.m. meaning 'in the morning' is very American.)

Dates, of course, are written differently on either side of the North Atlantic, with North Americans (most strongly US Americans) putting the month before the day and the rest of the world putting the day before the month. I used to be confident that international communication via computer would force a regulari{s/z}ation of date formats, but this doesn't seem to be happening. I assume that underlying mail programs there is a universal way of dating mail, but in the interface it is translated into the format that is local to the recipient. So, emails from my computer have shown up on others' computers in the following formats:
Skickat: den 11 augusti 2006 07:26 [Sweden]
Date: Thursday, August 10, 2006 9:29 pm [Sweden via a US e-mail program]
Sent: 26 July 2006 14:35 [UK]
Sent: Mon 24/07/2006 17:51 [UK]
Sent: Mon 4/24/2006 8:59 AM [US]

There go my hopes for world peace through shared date formatting.

It has been interesting, however, to witness the evolution of the name of that horrible day in September 2001. It didn't take the US media long to settle on Nine-Eleven (usually written 9/11) as the way to refer to that day and its events. In Britain, it was referred to as September 11th for some time after this, but nine-eleven is creeping in. Better Half points out that some Brits have started to refer to the day of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot as five-eleven. This stands for the 5th of November, not the eleventh of May, of course, so it's both an homage to and a corruption of the 9/11 formula. Two such-named plays about the plot were produced for its 400th anniversary last year: 5/11 and Five Eleven.

Myself, I avoid saying 9-11, and become a bit sad when I hear it with a British accent. Perhaps because I was not living in America during and since the events, the term didn't grab hold of me, and I can't help but perceive it as jingoistic and, well, disrespectful. I found the following bit of blogging (from By Neddie Jingo) on this phrasing:
I guess I'm bothered by the idea that "Nine-Eleven" has become a shorthand for a bottomless reservoir of symbolism and automatic, reflexive emotional associations, a thing that's so fraught with meaning that "the terrorists were responsible for 9-11" is used as a justification for the most idiotically disastrous war my country has ever embarked on. It's become, in short, a brand name, a thing used to sell the Iraq War to the people paying for it, and I (and, I imagine, a lot of you) would like to see it subverted.

And that's where you, my international friends, can make a difference.

My suggestion: Insist on calling it "Eleven-Nine," just as your own national conventions dictate. Boy, that'd confound a lot of people who desperately need some confounding. Imagine -- just by gently insisting on the rightness of your own nomenclatural convention, you remove at one blow "Nine-Eleven's" mystical associations. You'd also strike a major blow against the notion of American Exceptionalism, of linguistic hegemony, of cultural imperialism. Strike a blow for Relativism.

I think the notion of 9/11 as a brand name is what strikes me here, and explains to me a little while I've felt so uncomfortable with the term.

Let's hope no other dates need names like this.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

chatting up and pulling

This week's The K Chronicles comic has Keith of the Chronicles listing the great things about his experience at a comics convention, including:

This American use of chat up, meaning 'chat with' is new to me, but Jonathan Lighter, author of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, says that it's been in AmE slang for a few years.

I can think of two possible routes by which this might have come into AmE. One is that it's just another case of putting up after a verb, as in eat up, drink up, call up, smarten up, etc. This up usually has a 'completive' effect--e.g. drink up involves and focus(s)es on the finishing of the drink. It seems unlikely that up has this effect in AmE chat up, since there's no clear point at which chat can be completed--one can always move on to another topic and chat some more. (Incidentally, my students claim that Americans use VERB+up constructions like eat up more than the British do. I think they may just be reacting to the artificiality of the example sentences I use in class, but maybe they're right.)

The other possibility is that this chat up came in some convoluted way from BrE. Here's the scenario I imagine. Some Americans hear British people saying chat up. They think it sounds cool (as British things often sound cool to Americans), so they start saying chat up too. The only problem is that they didn't appreciate what chat up meant in its original context, so they start using it just to mean 'chat with'. This kind of thing happens often when words are borrowed from one language/dialect to another. If you don't know the meaning of a word, there are usually several things in the context that it could mean--so you go for the one that makes most sense to you. If you then start using the word with that misapprehended meaning to people who don' t know that it means something else in the source language, then the word comes to have the new meaning in the target language. In the case of chat up this would be easily done. Here's the scene. Some friends are in a nightclub. One friend rejoins the group and a British friend teases him with:
I saw you chatting up that girl
The meaning 'chatting with' makes perfect sense in this context, but the British friend would have really meant 'I saw you hitting on (or flirting with) that girl.' Hence BrE chat-up line = AmE pick-up line.

Sounds like a good story to me, at least. But very difficult to prove.

I can't mention chat up without mentioning a related piece of BrE, pull, i.e. to get the desired effect of one's chat-up line. The verb pull can be used transitively or intransitively, and it can also be used as a definite noun, especially in the phrase on the pull:

Cilla's not best pleased that she didn't pull a fella when she was away on honeymoon with Yana. She reckons she's got 'married woman' written all over her and that's what's scaring them off. --Corrie Blog
Kareena implores Tariq to come clean about their relationship. She won't let Ash dictate who she can see. He's not keen, so suggests that they keep it quiet for now. She has no idea that he's planning to pull at the party. --Eastenders episode guide
And over in Mike’s apartment, Mike is confused at Leanne being in his home. She is dressed in just a towel and is on her way to have a shower, when Mike calls a friend and asks if he was out on the pull last night. Mike believes that he has had a one night stand with Leanne and makes a move on her. She recoils in horror and tries to explain that she is his son’s girlfriend, but poor Mike is left more confused than ever. --Corrie Blog

In BrE, one can also pull a pint (= 'fill a pint glass with beer/ale from a tap') or pull a face (=AmE make a face). There are a lot of pull phrasal verbs that were originally American--for example pull out, as in Should we pull out of Iraq?. Most of these are used in the UK now, so not so interesting to us here. Have any readers noticed AmE uses of pull that are more mysterious to non-AmE speakers?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

clever and smart

The Professional Association of Teachers has voted that bright British school children should not be label(l)ed clever, but instead should be deemed successful--because among children it's not cool to be clever.

In AmE, clever is not as often used to refer to people. You might make a clever chess move or write a clever limerick, but that would prove that you were smart. In the UK these days, smart is more often used to refer to how someone dresses, rather than their intelligence.

A related BrE term is smart casual, meaning 'dressed informally, yet neatly and stylishly'. When my mother visited me in South Africa in the mid-1990s, a hotel's notice that the dining room had a smart casual dress code nearly sent her into crisis. She kept saying, "What does that mean? Can I wear slacks? What does that mean?"

The OED has a draft entry (now a full entry) for smart casual, which goes:
Chiefly Brit. Designating or characteristic of (a style of) dress which is informal yet smart, esp. smart enough to conform to a particular dress code.
I really doubt that definition would've helped my mother. Interestingly, the first use of smart casual that they've found, from 1945, comes from the New York Times, but the term, as evidenced by my mother's confusion, hasn't enjoyed the currency in the US that it has in the UK and other areas where smart is more likely to refer to dress style. Wikipedia has business casual as an equivalent for smart casual, but it isn't quite the same. You might see smart casual on a wedding or party invitation in the UK, but I can't imagine being invited to a business casual wedding.

Some clever BrE idioms are:
  • clever dick, clever clogs = someone who is cleverDads have come out on top of a new survey which asked children who they thought was the cleverest person in the world. One in four (27%) children felt that their Dad was the smartest of all, with Mum's [sic] just behind with one in five (19%) of the votes.
    However, the gloss may have been taken off the victory for Mums and Dads, with some of the other results confirming that children say the funniest things. David Beckham was perceived to be a clever clogs by one in six (17%)

  • to box clever = to be shrewd, to use your wits (hence the adjective boxing clever, which may be familiar to US fans of Elvis Costello and/or Placebo) Emma is finally goaded into action and realises that she must box clever to force Nadia out of her life for good. --UK TV Guide
  • [That's/It's] not big or clever = It's unappealing and stupid.Yeah, so I know it's not big or clever to like Oasis, but I always did and I guess I still do. --Paste Magazine

Trying to think of smart/clever idioms that are found in general American English, but not British, is tougher--as most have made their way over. The OED lists to be/get smart (with someone), meaning 'to be impudent' as US, and it's true that one would usually hear don't be/get clever in the UK, but the American version is understandable. Similarly the [originally AmE] term street smart(s) is generally understood in the UK. There are some US regional uses of smart and clever that go back to other regional BrE uses, but those are foreign enough to me (and one expects rather old-fashioned), that I can't pretend to be an expert on them, so I'll let the American Heritage Dictionary do the talking:
In the 17th and 18th centuries, in addition to its basic sense of “able to use the brain readily and effectively,” the word clever acquired a constellation of imprecise but generally positive senses in regional British speech: “clean-limbed and handsome,” “neat and convenient to use,” and “of an agreeable disposition.” Some of these British regional senses, brought over when America was colonized, are still found in American regional speech, as in the South, where clever can mean “good-natured, amiable” in old-fashioned speech. The speech of New England extends the meaning “good-natured” to animals in the specific sense of “easily managed, docile.” Perhaps it was the association with animals that gave rise to another meaning, “affable but not especially smart,” applicable to people when used in old-fashioned New England dialects.

Smart is a word that has diverged considerably from its original meaning of “stinging, sharp,” as in a smart blow. The standard meaning of “clever, intelligent,” probably picks up on the original semantic element of vigor or quick movement. Smart has taken on other senses as a regionalism. In New England and in the South smart can mean “accomplished, talented.” The phrase right smart can even be used as a noun meaning “a considerable number or amount”: “We have read right smart of that book” (Catherine C. Hopley).
These days, on both sides of the Atlantic, smart is used more and more for technology that can apply itself in apt ways--hence smart bomb, smart card, etc. That this is used in BrE is a testament (not that we need it) to the force of American English in the world.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

which vs that

David in Dublin emailed about the relative pronouns which and that, saying:
In American English there seems to be a strong distinction, particularly among educated speakers/writers. I'm fairly sure this distinction doesn't exist in the dialect that I speak. However, as the American standard usage is a subset of the local standard usage, it seems that the American version is used by most writers addressing both audiences (say academic publications, software documentation, ...) because American readers will assume you to be uneducated if you misuse them!

I have tried to determine if I am really uneducated or if this is a real Am/Br distinction by looking up "which" and "that" in the OED. My reading of the ODE seems to support it being a distinction, but I may be deceiving myself!

You're right, David, non-American Englishes have mostly lost the distinction between which and that in restrictive relative clauses. But, as you've noticed, its persistence in American English is limited to certain types of people/discourses. The distinction is far more likely to be observed in writing, especially academic and copy-edited publications. I must admit that I have the distinction, even usually in speech, but it's something that (which!) I acquired as a doctoral student. If you have acquired the distinction, it can interfere with your ability to process writing that doesn't have the distinction--I'll explain why after explaining the distinction in a bit more detail.

A relative clause (RC) is a clause (i.e. a sentence within another sentence/phrase) that's used to modify a noun. Relative clauses usually start with a relative pronoun: that, which or who/whom (and sometimes some others that aren't relevant here). There are two types of relative clause. Restrictive RCs reduce the range of things that the modified noun refers to. So, in sentence (1), I use who lives upstairs to indicate that living upstairs is the property that distinguishes this man from other men I could have talked about.
(1) The man who lives upstairs has a new piano.
In contrast, non-restrictive RCs aren't used to identify who/what the noun refers to, but to give more information about the referent of the noun, as in (2). Notice that using a non-restrictive RC is a way to fit more information about one noun's referent into a single sentence.
(2) [pointing to man] That man, who lives upstairs, has a new piano.
(= That man has a new piano. He lives upstairs.)
As these examples show, who can introduce either type of clause. In speech we can tell the difference between them because restrictive and nonrestrictive RCs are spoken with different prosody (=speech melody, intonation). In writing, the non-restrictive type is correctly set off by commas.

In any English dialect, that can only introduce restrictive relative clauses. In other words, non-restrictive RCs must start with which or who/whom. So all English speakers have a distinction between which and that to that extent. BrE and most other Englishes don't have a strong distinction in the restrictive RC:
(* marks grammatical impossibilities, £ marks stylistic variation common in BrE.)

(3) That dress, which [*that] changed my life, is red.

(4) The dress that [£ which] changed my life is red.

Anyone who has used Microsoft Word's grammar checker will know that if you use a restrictive which, as in (4), it highlights it. That's because it seeks out which relative clauses without commas around them in order to query whether you should have commas. Since that depends on your meaning, the grammar checker has to ask you--it can't tell from the grammar. However, if you use that, it knows that your lack of commas was purposeful.

Although I learned the that/which distinction late, I have it very strongly now--probably because I've worked as a copy editor. I frequently misread relative clauses that have which where a that could be--thinking that they are non-restrictive, even though the comma rule for restrictive/non-restrictive RCs should prevent misreading. I then must go back to re-read and re-evaluate my interpretation when I reali{s/z}e that the non-restrictive interpretation doesn't make sense. This confusion almost always happens when I'm reading student writing, so it could be that I've learned to ignore punctuation since it's often fairly random. At any rate, I do appreciate it when people use the distinction in writing--and I do wonder why my BrE colleagues don't seem to have the same disambiguation problem when it comes to reading restrictive whiches.

When I first started reading student work in the UK, I was also struck by some students' apparent comfort in writing the man that lives upstairs, rather than the man who lives upstairs. It seemed like I was 'correcting' that far more often here than I had in the US. However, I've not seen anyone else note it as a dialectal distinction and I've noticed it less and less, so perhaps I just had some odd students my first year here.

What do the style authorities say about all this?

On restrictive that/which, the 3rd edition of Fowler's Modern Usage, a British guide (though the current editor is a New Zealander), quotes the 1926 edition in saying: "Some there are who follow this [distinguishing] principle now; but it would be idle to pretend tht it is the practice either of most or of the best writers."

Larry Trask (an American acting as an authority to a British audience!) in Mind the Gaffe doesn't mind whether or not you distinguish that/which in restrictive RCs.

For American audiences, the Modern Language Association Handbook (5th edn), the style book for many American academics, simply says, "Note that some writers prefer to use which to introduce nonrestrictive clauses and that to introduce restrictive clauses."

The Chicago Manual of Style (14th edn--my AmE books are a little out of date) warns that "Although the distinction is often disregarded in contemporary writing, the careful writer and editor should bear in mind that such indifference may result in misreading or uncertainty. [...] When the commas intended to set off a nonrestrictive clause are omitted, perhaps with the intention of using which restrictively, the reader may well ponder whether the omission was inadvertent" (exactly my problem).

All of the guides recommend that you use who instead of that when referring to people.

A last point to make is that the American prescriptivist preference for that in restrictive RCs is undone by the other prescriptivist rule that clauses shouldn't end in a preposition. If you want your preposition at the front of the RC with the relative pronoun, then that pronoun cannot be that:
(5) the building that/which I ran into
(6) the building into which I ran
(7) *the building into that I ran

The that/which distinction and the preservation of the subjunctive are two examples of (standard) American English being more conservative than (standard) British English. (I'll write about the subjunctive some other time.) I keep threatening to write a book on this topic called How the Americans Saved the English Language, an homage to the title How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

tarp or tarpaulin?

On the erroneously (or is it aptly?) named Yahoo Answers, a yahoo recently asked:
Why do Americans shorten our language - is it because they only have half a brain?
I've heard this one before, and it came to mind when Grant Barrett sent me the following quotation from The Observer (a UK Sunday newspaper; emphasis added):
Barbaro became even more agitated when the vets brought the tarpaulin onto the track. Tarpaulin is used to shield a stricken horse from the crowd.The 'tarp', as it is called in racing, is like the screeching violins in ahorror film: a prelude to a kill. This was the first time, jockey EdgarPrado said later, that he thought that Barbaro might not survive.
Now, you wouldn't have to explain to an American what a tarp is, but you might have to explain what a tarpaulin is. We tend to call it by the shortened name. We, or at least my family, also seem to use tarp(aulin)s for a greater range of purposes. For instance, Better Half was confused when I suggested we needed to get a tarp before painting a wall. He eventually figured out that I meant a dust sheet.

I have three words for the BrE speakers who ask why Americans shorten EVERYTHING: caff, cardie, Beeb.

(translation: cafe, cardigan, BBC)

I'm sure others can think of many more words in reply to the yahoo's question. Leave them in the comments box, if you please!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

new and improved: e-mail

I've set up a dedicated e-mail account for this blog, which you can mail to through my profile page. Please use that to request coverage of particular BrE/AmE differences or to make other suggestions for improvement. I'll either respond in the blog, or, if that doesn't seem appropriate, then by e-mail. (Or use it to tell me how to get an 'e-mail me' link in my sidebar...I'm pretty simple-minded when it comes to html. [postscript: Ask and ye shall receive--it's done! Thanks, Gwyn!])

Please continue (or start!) to comment on particular blog entries by using the comments function. (Click the 'comments' link at the bottom of the entry.) For some reason, people who know me seem really shy about doing this and give their comments off-line. I'm sure other readers would really enjoy your comments...so please share!

I seem to have written an entry with no obvious dialectal differences. Um....mollusc/mollusk! (But which is which?)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

parentheses and brackets

I've noticed that the readability of recent posts is significantly undermined by my fondness for parenthetical comments. This is not a new thing for me. Here's an excerpt from an anonymous review of a book proposal I submitted some time ago:
The tone is nicely academic. However, (like many academics (including me)), the author is given to parenthetical remarks, which tend to interrupt the flow of the sentence or paragraph, and often seem to me to convey non-critical information. At first I thought, hmmm, well, I suppose this being a textbook she wanted to avoid using footnotes... but then I discovered that footnotes were indeed in use. I would recommend eliminating many parentheticals, and replacing some of those that shouldn’t be eliminated with footnotes.
Happily the proposal was accepted and I'm merrily writing drafts full of parentheticals, then editing them out at a later stage. It's just the way my brain works. But reflecting on my parenthetical life/style/lifestyle led me to think a bit about the terms for the things that go on either side of a parenthetical comment. You could call them parentheses--I certainly would, but BrE prefers brackets--so much so that a second-year, native-English-speaking university student listed parentheses as a word she didn't understand in an assigned reading last term.

These brackety things come up a lot in my work, since in semantics one is wont to write or read things like:
[Event GO ([Thing ], [Path IN ([Thing ])])]
(= a Conceptual Semantics way of representing the meaning of enter)
Here the ( )s and the [ ]s represent different kinds of things, so it's important for me to be able to distinguish them when I talk to students. In Montague grammar, one uses a lot of these things: < >. And in formal logic, I was taught to use these things as well: { }. AmE uses different names for all these things, but in BrE, they tend to be referred to generally as brackets, with different modifiers:

( )parentheses(round) brackets
[ ](square) brackets square brackets
{ }bracescurly brackets
< >angle brackets angle brackets

Now, I'm not actually claiming that the words listed as "AmE" here are dialect-specific. They are the correct printing terms in BrE as well. The difference is that people don't tend to use these words in general BrE, which is particularly noticeable in the everyday reference to parentheses as brackets.

I believe I've just written a blog entry that is free of parenthetical comments! Do I get a prize?