Sunday, October 29, 2006

a puzzle for you

Many ideas for posts, but no time, so here's a placeholder until I have cleared out my inbox:

Paul pointed me to a discussion on a bridge discussion list (that's bridge the game, not the architectural kind, or the dental kind, or the musical kind...) that starts with a puzzle, directed to members of the American Contract Bridge League:
In the phrase "skillful signaling" can you move one letter
and retain correct, preferred English spelling?
I hope that readers of this blog will be able to solve the puzzle. (Find your hint here.)

The American responders find some clever ways to answer this question while missing its point--which just goes to show how separated the common language is.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

local fauna expressions (part two)

Previously on SbaCL: I started a discussion of expressions that include names of animals that are special because both the expressions and the animals mentioned in them are local to either BrE or AmE. The discussion started with the AmE raccoon eyes and (slightly cheating) BrE pissed as a newt. While I was having a hard time coming up with more related to British (and not American) animals, Swedish Teacher's Beau yesterday suggested flat as a hedgehog, which works. The thing to understand here is that hedgehogs are very often roadkill (orig. & chiefly AmE). There are only a few examples of this expression on the net and a couple more of flat as a steam-roll(er)ed hedgehog:
The sign said WATCH OUT THIS HOUSE COULD FALL DOWN AND KNOCK YOU FLAT AS A STEAMROLLED HEDGEHOG. --Story by a (BrE) pupil/(AmE) student at Abernethy Primary School
I have to make the point that the McFly version is as flat as a hedgehog on the M1! --'Michael' on Ramair 1350am Forum
But still, I can think of more relating to American animals, possibly because there are more American-and-not-British animals to name.

The groundhog, aka woodchuck, has a day named after it, Groundhog Day, which will be a familiar phrase from the 1993 Bill Murray/Andie McDowell film/movie. The other week, I had to disabuse a friend of the notion that the observation of Groundhog Day and the famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil were not products of a screenwriter's imagination, but real cultural treasures of the United States. The superstition is that on the second of February, groundhogs awake from their hibernation and pop their heads out of their burrows. If the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter (so he pops back into the burrow), otherwise, spring will come early. The OED records another groundhog expression: a groundhog case--'a desperate or urgent affair'. Thisis mostly a regional term, chiefly used in the southern Midlands and South, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English. Here's a current use of the term:
Groundhog Case A term used by CS professors to describe a student hopelessly below the passing grade mark that absolutely needs to complete the course for a variety of reasons (graduation, marriage, work, MOM, etc...) --Software Engineering Terms glossary, West Virginia University Insititute of Technology
As for woodchucks, there's the tongue-twister How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

On to the skunks! There's the verb to skunk, meaning either 'to defeat, to prevent from scoring' as in (1) or 'to cheat (by not paying)'. These are listed in the OED as originally and chiefly American.
I've played games where I 'skunk' the opponent, winning without any meaningful response, and it's ego-building, but not nearly as fun. --emlprime on Digg
But there's another verb sense of skunk that the dictionaries don't record: 'to be sprayed by a skunk'. If one Googles "got skunked", one finds lots of examples of that sense:
Our dog recently got skunked for the 2nd time in 5 months. --from Berkeley Parents Network advice forum
Another skunk-derived expression is the adjective skunky, meaning 'to smell/taste bad, in a skunk-like way'. This is not completely foreign to BrE (OED doesn't mark it as AmE), but it's not quite as, um, pungent here as one can't be expected here to know what a skunk smells like--but there are few mainland Americans who've escaped this unpleasant bit of education.

To play possum is listed in the OED as 'orig. U.S.', but again, it's one I've had to explain when I've used the phrase in the UK. It means 'to play dead; to feign injury/illness; to pretend to be asleep'. This follows from the fact that (o)possums are thought to play dead in order to trick their predators--in fact, what they do is pass out, but it has the same effect.

Goodness knows, there are probably other local fauna expressions I'm missing. I've speciali{s/z}ed here on a certain size of animal, it seems. Feel free to add other examples in the comments.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

running the bases

I promised a 'part two' on local fauna expressions, which I've written, but don't want to post until I've checked a source in the office. So, I hope to post that tomorrow, and in the meantime I will provide a public service to the British television-watching public.

Better Half and I tonight watched (on DVD) the last three episodes (ever! Aiiiigggghhh!) of Arrested Development. Luckily for BH, he had the remote control and a native speaker of American English sitting next to him--and he knows how to use them. This time he used them to ask: "What is second base?" Of course, this is a baseball term, and also a metaphor for sexual activities, but there's some dispute/lack of clarity about which bases stand for which activities. The (probably most) standard progression is:

first base

second base
touching above the waist
third base
touching below the waist
home run
sexual intercourse

Back in my more innocent days, before all the facts of life had presented themselves to me, my friends and I believed that first base was holding hands and second base was kissing and third base was kissing with tongues--and I have no idea what we thought a home run was. For others, second is touching outside the clothes, and third is getting inside the clothes. I'm sure there are all sorts of other permutations these days. Wikipedia has an article that includes many other baseball metaphors about sex, some of which probably have little currency outside the Wikipedia article.

Now, go forth and enjoy the final (and truncated) (BrE) series/(AmE) season of Arrested Development! (Though it seems to have been bounced off the air by snooker this week, thus postponing its tragic end.)

Friday, October 20, 2006

local fauna expressions (part one)

When I come home after a long day's hay-feverish work, I often give my eyes a good rub and suffer the mascara-smeared consequences. [Incidentally, the second syllable in mascara sounds like care in (most northern, at least) AmE and like AmE car in (most south-eastern, at least) BrE.] When Better Half sees me after my eye-rubbing catharsis, he'll say something like "Hello, panda eyes." But in my AmE dialect, what I have are raccoon eyes. Think of a black-eye-masked animal in the US, and one naturally thinks of a raccoon. Think of one in the UK, and the panda more readily comes to mind. [Raccoon eyes is also the informal, and descriptive, name of a medical condition--bilateral periorbital ecchymosis.]

This got me thinking on the theme of animal expressions that don't work in other dialects because the animal isn't native to other dialect's area. I'm finding it easier to think of AmE expressions that don't translate into BrE. For instance, while the hedgehog is a native species in Britain, there don't seem to be any hedgehog-based clichés. So, I'm going to cheat a little and offer pissed/drunk/tight as a newt, meaning 'extremely intoxicated'. There are newts in America, but (a) they are different genera than the newts in Britain and (b) salamander is, in my experience, the more common way of referring to them in AmE. (But this may differ in parts of the US with different kinds of newts.) According to Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack, the newts in pissed as a newt weren't originally animals, but young men who were hired to watch gentlemen's horses while they were out on the town. The gentlemen would return from their libations to find that the "newts" had tippled too. However, there's no record of this sense of newt in the OED and Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says the phrase probably comes from Army officers' slang. Is Albert Jack a quack? (For some clues as to the answer to this question, see Arnold Zwicky's post at Language Log.)

Martin Willett, in the glossary of his Debate Unlimited website, notes that as a newt doesn't need a word meaning 'drunk' in order to convey drunkenness:
Pissed as a newt and pissed as a fart; expressions of extreme drunkeness. The ending “as a newt” can be added to other expressions to express the concept of drunkness e.g. “Did you see Caroline Aherne receive her award last night, she looked, er, relaxed... as a newt.”
On the internet, one also finds cute as a newt (a few times). Since this is on the Urban Dictionary and MySpace, we might suppose it's a recently coined phrase. It doesn't mean 'drunkenly cute', but something more akin to AmE cute as a bug.

Both these BrE phrases can be compared to drunk as a skunk, which involves a North American animal, but nevertheless is said in Britain as well. Like cute as a newt, we can presume that it's caught on in large part because it rhymes--not because of any lack of sobreity in skunks or because of the inherent attractiveness of newts.

This one phrase has taken rather longer than expected, so I'll leave the rest of the American animals for tomorrow (or thereabouts). Stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

outwith and diet (the Scottish factor)

As frequent commenters on this blog can tell you, I am not all that up on the details of English as it is spoken in Scotland, nor in the north of England (or Wales, or Northern Ireland...). I'm in the south, on the south coast. South south south. So most of the Scottish speakers I hear are on television (or, in pleasant but intense weekend bursts, Scrabble tournaments). For a while, I was hearing a fair amount of Scottish-accented speech on The Thick of It, a political satire in which the government's spin doctor is played by (*sigh*) Peter Capaldi (whom I still have a crush on due to Local Hero--undaunted by the many more/less savo(u)ry characters he's played since then). In/on the program(me), the Scots seem to run the government really, and it's generally felt that this was made to reflect real life. Sometimes I think it reflects my real life too, as I work at a university in southern England that has a Scottish Vice Chancellor and a history of Scottish people running various parts of the administration.

Linguistically speaking, this means that sometimes the unfamiliar terms that come up in the university's administration-speak are Scottish imports. I'm not sure if we're the only university south of the border in which the year's exam diet is spoken of, but my colleagues who have come from other parts of England to work here find this term as foreign as I do. In Scottish law, a diet is a court session--and in academia it is the series of exams and examination boards (a feat of mind-wrenching administration necessitated by the classification of degrees) that happens at the end of the academic year--i.e. the examination 'session'.

I was reminded of this today when I was filling out a form concerning a new course. It said:
List all the programmes which will include this course. This should include ALL programmes within and outwith your school.
This was not the first time I'd encountered outwith where I would say outside or possibly (but only if I wanted to sound highfalutin) without. But this time, I was moved to investigate it, and (whaddya know?) it's marked in my dictionaries as Scottish. (My concise dictionaries say Sc(ottish), while the OED says Now chiefly Sc.) A little further investigation on the (BrE) uni website reveals that the author of the document is a graduate of the University of Aberdeen.

I wondered whether I should start to develop a paranoid theory about the Scottish conspiracy to run my life and drown me in paperwork (for all of my paranoia is deliberate), but then I thought about the fact that all the Scottish people I know are super-nice and very efficient. Contrary to popular stereotypes, they always seem willing to buy a round of drinks. (So what if my sample size is limited to less than a dozen Scots? They're buying!) If these people do have plans to run my life, well, maybe I should let them. Perhaps it'll turn out that all the drink-buying was a ruse, but it's a lot better than the other paranoid fantasies I have to choose from.

Friday, October 13, 2006


I am misunderstood when I say can't--almost as often as I'm misunderstood when I do my modern dance interpretation of Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Many BrE speakers have difficulty hearing the difference between most AmE pronunciations of can and can't.

In both dialects, it's not really the 't' that helps us tell the difference between the positive and negative words--that sound is mostly swallowed at the end of the word. It's the vowel that makes the difference. In standard BrE, the vowel quality is the clincher. Can rhymes with pan but can't is pronounced like the AmE pronunciation of Kant (see the comments for more discussion). In other words, the vowel in can't is considerably further back in the mouth than the vowel in can. (One feels the need to mention the old chestnut: Kubla Khan, but Immanuel Kant--but note that Khan and can are pronounced differently.)

In AmE, the vowel quality is very similar between the two forms, but the length of the vowel in can't is shorter. (By a 'shorter' vowel, I literally mean 'shorter'--i.e. not pronounced for as long.) I explained that fact to my students yesterday, and once they knew that they got much better in the "which one am I saying?" test.

Pronouncing can't the other way is a favo(u)rite way for British singers to make themselves sound more American, and for American singers to make themselves sound more British. (I suppose either identiy has some cachet, depending on what kind of sound you're going for.) I've got to run to London to celebrate some fellow Librans (yeah for us!), so will leave it as your homework assignment to identify one example of each!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

heavy machinery

Do not take cold and flu medications while operating this blog entry.

One of the "surprise hits" of the UK music charts around last Christmas was a folky song by Nizlopi. It's from the point of view of a five-year-old who feels safe and co{s/z}y while skipping school in order to ride around with his dad on a piece of heavy machinery. This was called the The JCB Song. My first thought about this song was "Well, that's not going to chart in America--no one would know what a JCB is." My second thought was "I'm feeling slightly queasy." My third thought was "Where can I find a sharp object to jam into my ears?" (Yes, it's a terribly sweet song. The charitable interpretation of my distaste for it is that I'm just too sweet to require more sweetness. I'm sure you can think of uncharitable interpretations on your own. Better Half has just suggested a few, but he can get his own blog if he wants to report them.)

Non-Britons must be listening to the JCB song, though, as there are people on the Internet asking what a JCB is. The (British) answers are often in the spirit of "it's a digger, duh! where have you been?" (So much for the stereotype of Britons as polite and proper.) JCB is a company name that's used generically to refer to any kind of big, yellow construction vehicle, typically the kind of bulldozer/backhoe thing pictured here. Incidentally, OED and BH say that backhoe is AmE, but that's what the British JCB company calls them.

Another piece of heavy machinery with a non-travel(l)ing name is the kanga hammer (heard recently at a lovely dinner party--thanks, Gill!). This is again based on a tradename (though I can't find a company website--are they still going?) and seems to be most used in Australian English, but it's unclear to me from the evidence on the web whether this is a specific type of (small) jackhammer, or something different from a jackhammer (as hinted at by the contrast with jackhammer in the second quotation):
A construction engineer offered me the use of his Kanga hammer, a small jack hammer, and after ten minutes of vibrating the rust the bolt loosened. -- Travel Through Cambodia on a Harley-Davidson by Peter Forwood

My hands are familiar with the steely hexagon of a crowbar, the distinction between the long handled and short handled shovel, the two blades of the pickaxe etcetera. I recall the jackhammer and kanga-hammer, the ramset nailgun, the wheelbarrow of treacherously sloppy cement and the narrow scaffolding along which it had to be manouvred. --'On poets being paid for their work' by Geoff Page and Alan Gould in Thylazine: The Australian Journal of Arts, Ethics & Literature

[Update: Eimear in the comments has noted that I'm not finding many Kanga hammers on the web because they're Kango hammers--aha! Here's a picture--they are a sort of power-hammer, not as big/bulky as a jackhammer.]

Finally, an AmE tradename-cum-generic-heavy-machinery-name is the Mack truck, heard often in the phrases hit by a Mack truck and run over by a Mack truck:
Being divorced is like being hit by a Mack truck. If you live through it, you start looking very carefully to the right and to the left. --Jean Kerr

If you wake up feeling as though you've just been run over by a Mack truck – what doctors refer to as unrefreshing sleep – it is reasonable for your physician to assume that you have a sleep disorder.
--Fibromyalgia Network
(Click here for pictures of Mack trucks.) OED has Mack as 'Chiefly N. Amer. (Orig. U.S.)', so it may be somewhat familiar in BrE. Other AmE names for Mack-type vehicles of various types are: 18-wheeler (marked in OED as 'orig. N. Amer.'), semi (also AusE) and tractor-trailer. The usual BrE term is articulated lorry.

Off topic, but someone would be sure to mention it, are the BrE meanings of semi. Usually semi refers to a (BrE) semi-detached house or (AmE) duplex. In Scottish English it can also refer to the second year at certain universities, including St Andrews (similar to AmE sophomore).

Sunday, October 08, 2006

cater to/for and beat up (on)

Nancy e-mailed to ask about AmE cater to versus BrE cater for. This is where the book that I got for my birthday comes in handy. In it, John Algeo writes:
In CIC [the Cambridge International Corpus], cater for is more than 100 times as frequent in British texts as in American; cater to is 3 times as frequent in American texts as in British. In the sense "provide food (at a party)" British prefers cater for or possibly cater at; American also uses the verb transitively: cater a party.
What can I add to that? Just that catering is used more broadly in BrE than in AmE. For instance, a Scrabble comrade describes herself as working in catering. In AmE, I'd expect that to mean that she is an events caterer--someone who shows up to feed people at parties and conferences. In BrE, it means that she works in the food branch of the hospitality industry. In her case, catering is the department of the university that's responsible for the cafés/tea bars/restaurants on site.

Since Algeo so neatly took care of that case of verb complementation, I should move on to another challenge: a complementation difference that Algeo missed. John (coming to us through the Association of British Scrabble Players) writes to say:
One phrase not yet covered (as far as I can tell) is

beat up on = to attack physically or verbally (Websters 11th Collegiate). This strikes me (oops no pun intended) as exclusively North American, the equivalent British phrase being "beat up"

Where does the "on" come from? It appears to be a relatively recent addition. The 1937 version of Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition Unabridged lists only "beat up" - (sense b) Slang to thrash (a person) esp. soundly.
John, come and be one of my students--I love the ones who do a bit of research before coming in with a question. Ten (BrE) marks/(AmE) points for laying the groundwork! Let's start by comparing beat and beat up:
(1) Batman beat the Joker

(2) Batman beat up the Joker.

(1) is ambiguous. It either means that Batman struck the Joker or that Batman won against the Joker. (2) indicates that Batman physically beat the Joker until some conclusion was reached--i.e. the Joker soundly thrashed. This involves the completive particle up, which we've seen before. The OED notes that beat up is originally AmE, and the first example of it (in an O. Henry story) is from 1907. Next year we can celebrate its hundredth birthday in print, then.

Then there's beat on:
(3) Batman beat on the Joker

(4) Batman beat on the door.

(3) sounds odd in many dialects, but (4), with an inanimate object, sounds better. If we use beat on with an animate object as in (3), it can sound like the object is not so animate--perhaps the Joker is unconscious or otherwise being very passive about being beaten. (Note that the participial form is beaten in standard BrE and AmE, but can be beat in informal and non-standard contexts, as in the AmE phrase It can't be beat = 'it's the best'.) On also seems to give a more repetitive connotation--it's the same spot on the door/the Joker that is being struck repeatedly. Batman beat the door/Joker sounds a bit more like the door/Joker is being struck all over.

So, now we come to the one that John wondered about:
(5) Batman beat up on the Joker (AmE)
Here we get both some completiveness from up and some impugned inanimacy from on. (Or at least, this is my reading of the situation.) Here, Batman pretty soundly (AmE dialectal) whupped the Joker, but the Joker didn't offer much resistance. As John's dictionary quotation indicates, this is often used figuratively. So, if you don't agree with what I've said here, you can beat up on my ideas in the comments section. I'll be passive about it in the sense that I probably won't be on-line to defend myself when you comment. But if you say something cleverer than what I've said here, I'll only thank you for the beating. After all, blogging is a form of intellectual masochism.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Babel and Clerks (II)

Previously, we've discussed how the pronunciation of names differs, and the commentators' consensus was that people's names should be pronounced the way they themselves pronounce them. But what if it's a place whose name we're talking about? A fictional place or one whose inhabitants have long been dead? Whose pronunciation is 'right' then?

A new (BrE) film/(AmE) movie coming soon to a (BrE) cinema/(AmE) movie theater near you is called Babel. (And yes, of course film and cinema are words in AmE too. But they're not as basic/everyday in the AmE vocabulary as they are to BrE.) In BrE, this is pronounced 'BAY-bel'. In AmE, it usually sounds like babble. (American Heritage gives the BrE pronunciation as a second alternative. Oxford doesn't acknowledge the AmE pronunciation.) If any name should be pronounced differently in different places, it's most fitting that it should be this one. According to the story in the Bible, it was at the Tower of Babel that humanity came to all speak different languages and misunderstand each other.

Another film around these days is Clerks II. Better Half calls the original Clerks 'clarks' (as the word is pronounced in BrE), and I always "correct" him, because sales clerk (the clerks of the title work in a convenience store) is an Americanism--thus the AmE pronunciation is more fitting. (I can't hear the 'clarks' pronunciation without thinking of someone who looks like the man to the right.) In BrE the people who ring up your purchases at the (BrE) till/(AmE) cash register are called shop assistants. (The words till and cash register are used in both countries, but in AmE till refers only to the drawer with the money in it [or the removable tray in that drawer], not to a location in the shop/store where you pay for things.)

So, anyhow, having heard BH talk about going to see 'clarks two', I asked for tickets to 'clarks two' when we went to see it this weekend. The (English) box office person didn't understand me at first, then said "Oh, Clerks", using the AmE pronunciation. I thought "Here's a woman who knows her American independent cinema." Then we handed our tickets over to the ticket-ripper and he said "What's this movie about?" and I realised that everyone working in the cinema/theater was no older than 10 when the original Clerks came out. I was already a university lecturer by that time. You know you're old when the films you think are hip are actually twelve years old already.

(If you're a fan of Clerks, then it's worthwhile to see the sequel for the warm-fuzziness of it all--if one can say such a thing about a film that features an 'interspecies erotica performance'. If you haven't seen the original, you won't see the point and will only be offended by the terrifically horrible acting by Bryan O'Halloran.)

Sunday, October 01, 2006

jinx and snap

Suzannah e-mailed to ask about the rituals involved when two people say the same thing at the same time. In the US, the schoolyard tradition is to say jinx! (For a discussion of the etymology of the word see World Wide Words.) In general, a jinx is a kind of curse. After simultaneous speech, one tries to be the first to say jinx (or to jinx them, for it can be a verb too), after which the "jinxee" is "cursed" by not being allowed to speak. Wikipedia elaborates the rules as:
"Jinx" is also a term used when two people say the same thing at the same time and the person who says jinx first makes the other person not speak until somebody says his or her name. The only prevention for this state is to yell the word "buttercup" after the jinx. This can be countered by "Jinx no buttercups".
This shows up a limitation of Wikipedia--the rules here are undoubtedly the rules that the author has experienced, but there are plenty of other rules too, since regional variation is rife in children's games and playground activities. (So go now and add your own rules to Wikipedia!) In Suzannah's experience:
When I was in school, if two people said the same thing at the same time you hurried to say "jinx" first - whoever lost wasn't supposed to talk until someone said their name. A bystander could also say it, and both of the people involved would be caught. I learned from a friend who grew up in another area that "pinch poke you owe me a coke" was the answer to this situation, or sometimes just "jinx you owe me a coke". I saw in an old movie (and another friend said she'd seen it in person) where the two people stopped for a second in their conversation and linked pinkies when this happened, then kept going.
(I think we played with something like Suzannah's rule--but usually we just got bored with our friend not being able to talk so we'd unjinx them.) Over at The Law of the Playground there are some more versions. OED doesn't have this sense of jinx but does note that the word is 'orig. U.S.'.

Better Half says that he knows jinx from his days on a South London playground, where they said jinx and fainites. (Though BH remembered the word as "fainlights", making it difficult to look up. Some kind folks at the American Dialect Society set us straight on the spelling.) Fainites (and variations on it--OED lists fains, fains I, fainit...) gives the sayer immunity from jinxing or touching.

Off the playground in BrE, one is more likely to hear snap, which is, as the OED puts it, 'an exclamation used when two similar objects turn up or two similar events take place'. This doesn't have the cursing connotations of jinx and is used off the playground as well. For example, when playing Scrabble, if I announce my score and my opponent has the same score, she might say Snap! or if you reach for something at the same time as someone else, one of you could say it.

This use of snap comes from a card game of the same name, which is similar to the game I played as a child called slapjack--but there are many variations of this game (and other names for it) that are of varying similarity to snap. (Here are two--including one in which one actually slaps jacks.) Essentially, one splits a deck of cards between two people; both lay a card face up on the table and continue doing this, piling the cards on one another, until two cards match (e.g. two jacks). The first one to slap the pile and say (BrE) Snap!/(AmE-dialectal) Slapjack! gets to keep the pile (or in some versions not keep it--depending on whether the aim is to have all the cards or none of them). For young children, one can buy snap cards with pictures.

In my house, slapjack always ended in tears and accusations, and sometimes with being sent to one's room. The name snap sounds much more civili{s/z}ed. But is the game?