Friday, September 29, 2006

pants and trousers; bobbles and pills

I want to write about one thing, and can do so while writing about something someone's asked me to write about, but:
I will not get sidetracked into writing about every kind of clothing.
I will not get sidetracked into writing about every kind of clothing.
I will not get sidetracked into writing about every kind of clothing.
....
OK, here we go. Kate e-mailed to request some coverage of pants, trousers and slacks. In BrE, pants refers to underpants, which sometimes leads to sub-hilarity when an American says something like I look good in pants. Pants is a generic term--those for women can also be called knickers or panties. Pants has another life as a term of derogatory evaluation. Better Half has obliged us with an example:
Superman Returns was completely pants--and he even wears them on the outside.
(For those interested in Greek terms for odd turns of phrase, that's a zeugma, though some would prefer you to call it a syllepsis.)

The BrE word for the bottom half of a suit is trousers--indeed British women wear trouser suits, while their American counterparts wear pantsuits. Trousers is understood, but not much used, in AmE. I'd certainly never apply the word to womenswear in AmE, but do so easily in my approximation of BrE. In AmE, trousers is an old-fashioned, kind of funny word.

What about slacks? BH and I were just saying the other day that we thought we'd only use slacks as an AmE word for certain types of women's trousers. The very same evening, we were watching an episode from the first (BrE) series/(AmE) season of the very clever BBC comedy The Smoking Room, in which a male character's trousers are referred to as slacks. So it looks like BH and I don't know nuffin. (On the positive side, I can start to cite watching comedy DVDs as an important research activity.) Nevertheless, we both think of slacks as a word that's more at home in our mothers' or grandmothers' vocabularies.

But all of this talk just gets me further from what I wanted to talk about. I mean, we're entering the glorious season of Lynneukah (the festival of Lynne), so I should get the space for my big rant here: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH WOMEN'S TROUSERS/PANTS? I've worn skirts through several years of the low-waisted fashion, because no one makes a woman-shaped trouser anymore. They make trouser legs with something to hold them together. Even the ones that call themselves natural waist (I'm talking to YOU, Boden!) reach nowhere near that narrower part of me between my hips and my ribs. So this year (after some rumblings in this direction last year), the fashion mags proclaimed that high-waisted trousers are back! In fact, they seem to believe they are ubiquitous:
And for anyone tired of the smock, and the baby doll, and the high-waist trouser, and sick to death of wearing nothing but grey, or black, or shell (fashion speak for off-white), then I am afraid that next summer you will be disappointed. --The Daily Mail, 18 September 2006
Where on earth are all these high-waisted trousers? This summer I've returned five so-called items to mail order houses, and found just one pair in the High Street (AmE = 'on Main Street', but since there are no (AmE) stores/BrE shops on Main Street, USA anymore, the translation doesn't really work). Which brings me to the heart of my rant. I found another pair of trousers-that-fit-women-with-hips-and-waist in the US in March and both of these pairs of trousers/pants are made of (it makes my skin crawl even typing this) p-o-l-y-e-s-t-e-r. Reader, I am so desperate that I bought them. And by the second wearing, each of them was covered with (here comes the big BrE/AmE distinction that I wanted to get to!) (AmE) PILLS/(BrE) BOBBLES.

BH tells me that I need to get a Remington Fuzz-Away. But then again he is also the man who just said "If I had a band I'd call it Victor Kiam's Love Child."

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

acclimate and acclimati{s/z}e: another extra syllable

So I gave my induction lecture today, in which I said to the students that something or other about university-level study can be difficult to acclimate to. Afterwards, my colleague the Syntactician queried my use of the verb acclimate (stress on the first syllable), since she'd say acclimatise in the same situation. And so would most BrE speakers. Either is acceptable in AmE, but to me, acclimati{s/z}e sounds better with physical rather than figurative climates. A quick look at Google suggests that there's something to that intuition. Counting the first 20 (I did say it was quick!) different hits for acclimate-to and acclimatize-to, I found:

PHYSICALFIGURATIVEOTHER
acclimate to6122
acclimatize to        1811


(The items counted as 'other' were dictionary definitions or indices.)

Interestingly, most of the acclimatizes were about adjusting to high altitudes, and many of the acclimates were about adjusting to life at an American university. No wonder it leapt into mind today, as I was almost in the word's natural environment. (But haven't acclimated to saying acclimatised.)

Acclimate was originally used in Britain, but, like many other things we've discussed, it faded out of use here while hanging around in the US. The OED records acclimate as slightly older (1792 vs. 1836).

In discussing orientate and pressuri{s/z}e, I wondered whether we could find any verbs that usually contain more syllables in AmE than in BrE. Haven't heard of any yet, but here's another example of BrE being a bit more long-winded in its verbage.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Daddy long-legs

After saying recently that I'd be reducing the frequency of my posting, I find that I have a lot more to post about. Having finished my sabbatical, I'm back in the land of the listening and the talking, and so my list of things to write about gets longer and longer and their topicality gets staler and staler. I noted about a dozen experiences yesterday that I could have blogged about. How frustrating to have to ration my blog time...

So, before this one becomes untopical:

Britain is having a 'plague' of crane flies, or as the Daily Telegraph (their photo, right) and everyone else around me puts it, daddy long-legs. In AmE, daddy long-legs refers only to certain types of spiders that have very long, thin legs and a small body. In BrE, it can refer to spiders (although then it's usually called the daddy long-legs spider), but also to just about any insect that has similar legs.

I first heard the term used thusly a few months ago, when I went to eradicate a bug in my kitchen and Better Half and his sister protested. BH'sS said, "Don't kill it! It's a daddy long-legs!" I'm not sure that it really mattered to her that it was a daddy long-legs; she is a friend of all creatures great and small. I protested, "No, it's not. It's only got six legs." BH and sister replied that that's how many legs a daddy long-legs has.

The insect in question looked like a daddy-long legs spider, except for being two legs short of spiderhood. It looked kind of like this picture (via Google Images from a website that no longer exists, so I don't know what the insect is). But the plague of crane flies has inspired an epidemic of using daddy long-legs in a more specific sense, to refer to these flying things--usuallly in the expression Ugh, get it out of here! I hate those daddy long-legs! The OED lists the crane fly meaning first, with examples of the term going back to the early 19th century.

I was going to write this and wait a day to post it, but (AmE) what the heck...

Saturday, September 23, 2006

inducting, orient(at)ing and pressur(is)ing

The new students arrive this weekend, and will have a week's induction. In the US, the same activities would be called orientation week. Better Half was saying that orientation is a very American word to him, which is interesting, considering that the verb orientate is more common in the UK.

Orientate is a back-formation--instead of being built out of a simpler word (orient) plus a suffix, it was built from a more complex word (orientation), and a perceived suffix was removed. The English Plus website takes a hard line on this:
At best, orientate is a back-formation used humorously to make the speaker sound pompous. The correct word is the verb orient.
Incorrect: Melanie is helping me get orientated to the new job.
Correct: Melanie is helping me get oriented to the new job.
Orientate is more widely accepted in the U.K. than in the U.S.A., but it should be avoided in any formal or standard writing.
I was reminded of this when Patty, an American in Surrey, e-mailed about the British using pressurise where Americans would use the verb pressure, as in:
Have you felt pressurised by a doorstep trader within the last 12 months? --Lincolnshire County Council poll
versus
Some teachers claim they felt pressured to change grades --ABC-7 News Chicago
However, there are examples of felt pressured to in UK sources--for example the following from the BBC:
[about a Radio 1 survey of teens] Alarmingly the results also showed that 24% of respondents felt pressured to have sex for the first time, and that just over a quarter of all the people asked lost their virginity without using any contraception. --Slink, BBC online magazine for 13- to 16-year-olds
The OED lists the verb pressure as orig. U.S.. Their first quoted usage is from Raymond Chandler in 1939, but there is self-conscious (i.e. used in inverted commas/quotation marks) British usage noted from 1960. Pressuri{s/z}e is only used in the figurative sense from the mid-1950s. I should note that while I generally treat -ise forms as BrE and -ize as AmE, either is correct in British English, though people and publications have their preferences. I find that my students believe that -ize is not acceptable in British English. The British examples of this word in the OED have a (AmE) zee/(BrE) zed until the 1970s.

This pressure vs. pressuri{s/z}e dialectal difference only applies to the figurative sense of the verb, of course. Both Americans and British people pressuri{s/z}e vehicles' (AmE) tires/(BrE) tyres and other such things.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

push-vehicles

An old American friend, Lord Affectation (I've got other less flattering names for him too), has moved to Kent and informed me that "The British call bicycles push irons!" I said, "Your English friends are pushing your leg." Most English people call them bicycles, just like the rest of the English-speaking world. But as the photo (taken near a bike rack on campus) shows, he's partly right. Some people do call them push bikes, including The Gardener (Better Half's Sister's Better Half--BH just called him a young fogey). It's a little old-fashioned, but it succeeds in distinguishing them from motorbikes. AmE sometimes uses pedal bike for this purpose, but bicycle would be more usual. Or just a sign saying No M/C.

The OED has push bicycle and push cycle as well as push bike, which they label as 'informal.' Myself, I've only heard push bike, but push bicycle is around on the web, as well as push tricycle and push unicycle. The OED does not have push iron, but the web holds a small number of examples, some of them in lists of Wigan dialect words. Wigan, it should be noted, is nowhere near Kent.

Of course, BrE has another push-vehicle, the push-chair, known in AmE as a stroller. Related is the pram, short for perambulator, known in AmE as a baby carriage.

Monday, September 18, 2006

the exam was sat

Previously, there's been some discussion on this site of the BrE use of sit and stand in the passive, as in:
It was only four months ago that I was sat in a pub at lunch time with my head in my hands. —Nichola at Looking Glass Society
She called back to me, from where she was stood up at the front of the queue, she said, 'Where was it that Morrissey lost his bag?'The Wrong Boy by Willy Russell
To Americans, this passive use of the verbs sit and stand sounds strange. Interestingly, you don't get the same passive usage for lie so much, with either the (usually intransitive form) lain or the (usually—or at least prescriptively—transitive) form laid. Better Half (who's ok with passive sat) says he wouldn't say this at all--but some (like Rebecca in the comments!) would. Here are some web examples:
Anoron sat in a plush chair within Legolas' room. He was lain on the bed; sheets slewn about him, his bare beautiful body showing as he lay on his side fast asleep. —from what appears to be Middle Earth slash fiction by Anorista
His nose was bleeding and he was laid on the bed face down. —The Daily Mail

Today I was struck by another use of passive sat in the documentation for an examination board, which said something like:
The exam was sat on the 29th.
In AmE, one takes exams rather than sitting exams, as they do in BrE. Since sit in this instance is transitive, with exam as its direct object, it's perfectly grammatical in the passive in BrE.

Students sit exams or write them in BrE, and examiners set exam papers. But in my first teaching job outside the US, I frequently said I have to go write my exams, confusing my colleagues who thought I already had the requisite degrees. I now set papers with the best of 'em. Unfortunately, this means that I have to (BrE) mark/(AmE) grade them too.

Outside the US, I also had to learn to invigilate exams. The first time I heard this term, I said to my South African colleague "Oooh, that sound painful." He said, "Well what do you call it then?" "Proctoring", I said. You can imagine his response.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

rock, paper, scissors and scissors, paper, stone

Keeping with the game theme I started last time...

Over on the American Dialect Society e-mail list, a conversation has come up about that hand-shape game in which a fist beats a 'V' sign, a flat hand beats a fist, and a 'V' sign beats a flat hand. You, of course, know what I mean (having read the title), but it's called a lot of different things. The original query on the ADS list wondered about American variations on the name. Most Americans call it Rock, Paper, Scissors, but some call it Rock, Scissors, Paper. (We also discovered that it's also called Roshambo or Rochambeau and one Missourian grew up calling it by its Japanese name, Jan Ken Pon. Apparently, in China and Japan it involves cloth, rather than paper.)

The most common BrE name for this game is Paper, Scissors, Stone. An Australian on the web says that (s)he's always known it as Paper, Scissors, Rock.

As with almost any game, there is a world association and world championships. I note that it's called the World RPS Society--using the American order. They say:
One of the mandates of the World RPS Society is name harmonization, so we would encourage all players to use the term Rock Paper Scissors or its short form RPS. We feel that this is the best way of helping the sport to grow in the future.
North American linguistic imperialism at work? Here's the (apparently fictional--see comments) story from their website:
The Paper Scissors Stone Club was founded in London, England in 1842 immediately following the issuance of the1842 law declaring “any decision reached by the use of the process known as Paper Scissors Stone between two gentleman acting in good faith shall constitute a binding contract. Agreements reached in this manner are subject to all relevant contract and tort law.” The law was seen as a slap in the face to the growing number of enthusiasts who played it strictly as a recreational activity, since for many constables it was taken to mean that the game could not be played simply for sport. The club was founded and officially registered to provide an environment free from the long arm of the law where enthusiasts could come together and play for honour.
[...] In 1918, the name was changed to World RPS Club in to reflect the growing International representation. At roughly the same time the Club moved its headquarters from London to its present location at Trinity Plaza in Toronto, Canada. Despite the allied victory, the official reason for the move was “England is far too dangerous a place to make a suitable home country for a game of conflict resolution.” Canada was seen as an excellent choice since it was seen as a “safe, hospitable and utterly inoffensive nation, a part of the commonwealth, yet not inhabited by the descendants of criminals.”
In 1925 when the club briefly reached over 10,000 members, the name was changed again to The World RPS Society. The Steering Committee felt that since the membership had reached a new order of magnitude the term club was seen to be “inappropriate, misleading, and mocking.”
These are people who feel strongly about words, as well as about their game!

According to the website (very nice photos!), Norway is in the midst of its national championship, and there it's called Stein, Saks, Papir ('stone, scissors, paper'). Apparently, they've not been bullied into calling it Stein, Papir, Saks.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

die and dice

While I read every newspaper that comes into my house from cover to cover (with the exception of the sport(s) section, which I hie to the recycling while wrinkling my nose), I'm not particularly careful about reading them when they are actually news. So I was just reading the 'Comment' section of the Guardian from 26 August 2006 when I came across this line by Johnjoe McFadden (Irish born, but raised in "the UK" according to his bio):
In Luke Rhinehart's novel The Dice Man, the eponymous hero makes all his decisions by rolling a dice.
I can hear any one of my schoolteachers responding to that sentence with "You mean a die. Dice is the plural of die."

Not necessarily, dear teachers.

Die is certainly the preferred singular in AmE, but in BrE one is likely to see dice as both the singular and the plural, even in edited texts like newspapers. A90Six comments on the forum at wordreference.com:
Many people in the UK would not even be aware that die is the singular of dice. Some even believe that when die is written in games instructions it is a typo with a missing c....
The only time die is really heard is in the expression, "The die is cast," meaning - something has been done or a decision has been made that will now have to run its course and fate will decide the outcome.
Better Half disagrees, and says that in his English mind it should be a die and not a dice in the newspaper, but some of my linguistic colleagues have in the past chided me for using die. More evidence that BH spends too much time with Americans? What do you say?

The history is a bit convoluted--but both forms have been used in the singular since the 14th century.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Asian

An Australian man living in the UK said to me recently: "Isn't it so weird how they use Asian?"

The "they", of course, are the British. My own discovery of the difference was linked to several occasions in which I said I was in the mood for Asian food and then found myself steered toward(s) a curry house. In BrE, when Asian is used to refer to a person, culture or cuisine, it is most usually referring to someone or something South Asian (i.e. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka). In the US and, it turns out, Australia, Asian typically refers to people/things from East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.).

This, of course, raises the question of what BrE speakers call people from East Asia and what AmE speakers call people from South Asia. For East Asian people in Britain, most people attempt to specify a nationality--Chinese, Japanese and so forth. This can involve some guessing. I have also heard the word Oriental as a noun or adjective referring to people more often in this country than I have in the US (mostly from over-60s), leading me to wonder if (a) it's perceived as less politically incorrect here than in the States, (b) I just hang out with more older, white people in the UK (who might not have caught up with the fact that Oriental is not preferred) than I do in the US (though I don't think that's true, if we take my parents' friends into account), or (c) [white] British people are just desperate for a collective term for East Asian peoples and so give in and use this one.

In AmE, people from South Asia are usually labelled by nationality, which probably results in the mistaken assignment of Indian to some Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. In AmE, one often hears He's Indian--from India or some other clarification to make clear that the 'he' in question is not Native American. In the UK, one does hear Red Indian to refer to Native Americans (again, mostly from older people), and it never ceases to shock me when I hear it.

Not surprisingly, not everyone who's called Asian likes it. See this Guardian (AmE) editorial/(BrE)leader* for some discussion and history of the term in the UK.
*Note that leader or leading article is one of those words that was invented in the US, but went on to become more common in the UK.

And now, under the 'Any Other Business' heading of tonight's agenda:
  • As I'm taking on some new responsibilities at work, expect my posts to become a little less frequent. I may get to two a week, but certainly not the three I've been doing. (That's all for this week, folks.)
  • I've been interviewed on the site Expat Interviews. I tell you this to advertise them, not me!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

purses and bags

Kate, a Canadian attached to a South African, wonders about handbags, having noticed that Britishoid Englishes use that term where North Americans would say purse. What's more confusing is that the word purse is used in BrE, but for a different kind of object than in AmE.

The thing to the right (from phulbari.com) is called a handbag in BrE, and a purse in AmE. One can say handbag in AmE, but it sounds rather old-fashioned. In keeping with that feeling, I'd tend to reserve the term for vintage items (when speaking in American environs). Handbag can be used to refer to most handled women's accessories for carrying around life's essentials—money, lipstick (lippy: BrE informal, orig. AusE), (BrE) mobile/ (AmE) cell phone, Syndol--which itself is a major reason to emigrate to Britain. Longer-handled ones might also be called shoulder bags (as they could be in AmE as well). But in everyday BrE life they all tend to be called just bags--as in I have some Syndol in my bag--want some?

Purse in BrE is a (typically women's) leather/cloth/etc. thing that money goes directly into--like the ones at the left, from Arnold & Arnold. Thus female BrE speakers usually have purses inside their bags. AmE retains this sense of purse in change purse. For North Americans, the things on the left are wallets. If it's in a man's pocket, it's wallet in both dialects--but my dad (like others in his AmE-speaking generation) calls his a billfold.

BrE has a few handbag idioms worth noting. Handbags at dawn (also a great name for a band) or handbags at ten paces is a way of referring to a usually loud, public fight--originally among footballers. This is sometimes shortened to handbags. The OED's earliest citation for this is 1987, but they're looking for earlier ones. To handbag is an established verb in BrE, meaning 'to assault with a handbag', and can also be used figuratively, meaning 'to verbally assault or criticise', as in:
Not since Mrs Thatcher handbagged her cabinet into attending a seminar on climate change at Number 10 had so many senior Tories been seen doing something green in one place. -- The Telegraph

Kate's Canadianness has reminded me that I haven't reported an instance of being assumed Canadian. It happened last weekend at the Scrabble tournament, though to be fair it was after I was explaining the differences between Canadian, American and British spelling. Who but a Canadian would know such things? I would, apparently.

(Links to commercial sites here are just (a) to acknowledge the sources of photos and (b) prevent people asking me "where did you get that bag/purse?" Now you know already. This is not an endorsement of these companies/products, but they are rather pretty, aren't they?)

Friday, September 01, 2006

malls

The first time someone in England suggested we meet at the mall, I thought they were joking around, since they pronounced it to rhyme with pal. I heard this pronunciation on and off again, but when I was invited to meet someone at the [mæl] tonight, I decided this issue needed more investigation.

My dining companions were mixed in whether they'd call it a [mæl] (rhyming with pal) or a [mɔl] (rhyming with tall), but they agreed that they only use the American-like pronunciation [mɔl] when referring to shopping malls--and especially in the phrase shopping mall. They also agreed that calling such things malls feels like a recent borrowing from AmE--that they feel the "real" name for such things is shopping centre. In fact, people usually refer to enclosed shopping areas by their proper names, such as the Putney Exchange or Churchill Square. Better Half and I don't know of any enclosed shopping cent{re/er}s in the UK named X Mall (but I'm sure one of you will point one out if there is one).

This is not to say that the word mall is a recent import to BrE--far from it. But in its native environment here these days it most usually rhymes with pal. For instance The Mall (a tree-bordered walk in St James's Park, London) is usually pronounced as [mæl]. Pall-mall, historically a game, but now (in the form Pall Mall) a street in London, is similarly pronounced with two [æ] sounds in modern BrE. In fact, mall originally meant an alley in which pall-mall is played.

In my childhood in the US, Pall Mall cigarettes were pronounced [pɔlmɔl], but I was taught that the place in England was [pɛlmɛl], rhyming with bell. Apparently, I was being taught out-of-date British English. While today it's pronounced with [æ], the 1904 New English Dictionary records it as [ɛ]. Of course, when you're young, you think your teachers are ancient, but I don't think they were really that ancient. This just goes to show that dictionaries, like any other reference book, go out of date.

And all of this is related to pell-mell (the similar form of which is thought to have affected the pronunciation of pall-mall). This has the bell vowel, but, according to the OED, BrE and AmE stress it differently, with Americans stressing the two syllables equally and Britons putting slightly more stress on the mell. For what it's worth, three English people pronounced this in conversation tonight, and I didn't notice any stronger stress on mell. But I'm not a phonetician, I just play one on the Internet.*

The fact that the shopping kind of mall and the outside kind of mall are often pronounced differently in BrE seems to suggest that people don't see the two types of things as very related. In AmE, both are pronounced the same (the mall being the local shopping cent{er/re} and The Mall being the green area around which the Smithsonian Institute is arranged)--but that doesn't mean that people necessarily see them as related. After all, people don't necessarily see the bird duck and the action duck as being related--although they historically are.

*Joke assistance for the young and/or non-American: In the US, it's illegal for licensed medical doctors to promote products in advertising. In the early 1980s, a (AmE) cough syrup/(BrE) cough medicine was therefore advertised by a soap-opera actor who said "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV" and then going on to plug the product. It was such a ridiculous premis{e/s} for an ad(vert) that "I'm not a X, but I play one on Y" became a popular joke. In fact, googling "but I play one on TV" results in over 87,000 hits. As a phrase, it's been discussed at the Language Log. (The link is to the third instal(l)ment of that discussion, but you can link to the earlier ones from there.)