Sunday, November 26, 2006

missing /j/s

Southern BrE speakers frequently comment upon AmE speakers' lack of the /j/ or 'y' sound in words like Tuesday and tune: BrE /tjun/ versus AmE /tun/ (= toon). The difference is found in many words with a coronal consonant followed by an /u/, including assume, new, duke, sue, due. The two dialects don't usually differ when it comes to the /ju/ sound in other phonetic contexts, as in use, huge and cute.

Since BrE is so /j/-ful, it often strikes me when the /j/ goes missing in some British pronunciations of American names. Twice this week, I heard the American director John Huston's name pronounced by BrE speakers without the /j/: /hustn/. Americans would pronounce his name as /hjustn/ (imagine the 'n' as a syllable--I'm too lazy to go after the phonetic symbols tonight)--and as far as I can find, that's how the Huston family now pronounces it too. (There was a slight discussion of this on the American Dialect Society list in 2003. The name was changed from Houghton by John Huston's father, Walter, but the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary reportedly says that Huston is pronounced with the /j/.) Similarly, BrE speakers often call Houston, Texas /hustn/, but the American pronunciation has a /j/. (We can't take the British too much to task for incorrectly pronouncing Houston Street in New York City, since most non-New-Yorker Americans pronounce it incorrectly too. The first syllable is pronounced like house.)

I encountered another missing /j/ in a production of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in Johannesburg some years ago. There I sat, enraptured by an excellent production of an incredible play, believing that the actors had been imported from the US, as their accents were impeccable. But then the Mormon characters started referring to the state of Ootah. (The actors also seemed to be allergic to the the in the AmE phrase in the hospital.) It didn't diminish the strength of the play, but it left no doubt that the actors were not American.

This all could lead to the hypothesis that there are only so many /j/s available to a dialect, and if they use them all up in words like Tuesday, they'll not have them for use elsewhere. (Similar things have been claimed for dialects that don't pronounce the /r/ in dear but find an /r/ to put at the end of idea.) But I think the real story, once again, is that the pronunciation of names is particularly difficult to master.

Friday, November 24, 2006

cricket out of context

Better Half is a bit obsessed with the Ashes, which, because it's taking place in Australia, involves listening to the radio at very unsocial hours. One of these days I will do a post on cricket metaphors in BrE (as I have started to do for baseball in AmE--though there is a lot more to do in that field, so to speak). I incidentally heard the following on the radio very early this morning by Geoffrey Boycott ("a horrible , nasty man," says BH, "but very entertaining"):
If you're going to be a hooker, you should be a controlled hooker, not a compulsive hooker...

I said, "there should probably be court-ordered therapy on the NHS for compulsive hookers." BH agreed.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

happy thanksgiving

No turkey for me. No cranberries. No Macy's parade. So, none of that to be thankful for then. I suppose that I can be thankful for the lack of (American) college football.

Other than that, the day has really been (BrE) pants, with one bit of silver lining (ooh, silver-lined pants! how posh!): The Home Office phoned to say that I should disregard the letter in which they denied me citizenship, as my documents have turned up. So, I'm thankful for that.

I've postponed my Thanksgiving until next week, when friends are available to help celebrate. We have a tradition (based on, but more involved, than my family tradition) of pausing before each course to go around the table and say one thing we're thankful for this year. That usually involves three courses/three thanks/umpteen people. If you would be so kind as to say what you're thankful for this year, then perhaps I will thankfully plagiari{s/z}e your thanks in my little thankful speeches.

Monday, November 20, 2006

bollards

The American Heritage Dictionary lists bollard as 'Chiefly British', and indeed this is a word that I hadn't encountered before I lived here, though I'd certainly encountered the things before.

A bollard (in its most frequent sense in BrE) is a post that is used to get in the way of traffic--for instance to keep cars from driving or parking on the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk (like the ones on the left) or to direct cars toward(s) the correct lane (see right). There's a scene I like in the film The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz that involves some paranoid bollards. But then again, I like every scene in that film. It's not a film that would be to everyone's taste (I saw it in a Paris cinema's season of 'British eccentrics'), but it's one of those films in which the city (London) is at least as much of a character as those that are played by actors.

Prior to my residence in Britain, I would have called bollards posts. Oh, what an impoverished vocabulary I had back then! But then one does come across more bollards in the UK than in the US. Sometimes they're there for no obvious reason. For example, on a two-way road near my house, there is a bollard that makes traffic going down hill give way (AmE yield) to traffic that's coming up the hill. Since the road is wide enough at this point to let the traffic go both ways, the bollard is just there to slow down the cars that are going down the hill. I can't see why they didn't choose another way to slow the traffic that wouldn't involve the creation of traffic (BrE & regional AmE) queues (general AmE lines). For instance, one could use a (BrE [originally] & regional AmE) sleeping policeman (other AmE speed bump; BrE & AmE speed hump; BrE road hump). Better Half has just called this bollardy arrangement a chicane, another word that only entered my (passive) lexicon after I moved here. The term comes from motor racing, where it usually refers to a little kink in the racetrack, but it's extended here to include the type of traffic slowing measure described above, and like the one (that's barely visible) in this picture from Lancashire.


Sometimes the word bollard is used (in BrE) to refer to the thing on the left, though such things are usually termed traffic cones in BrE and pylons in (at least my dialect of) AmE. Pylon, of course, can also refer to the electrical type of thing to the right--in either dialect. A strange piece of lexicographical trivia is that American Heritage doesn't record the 'traffic cone' sense of pylon, while the OED does (and marks it 'U.S.').

.........

In other news, I was away playing Scrabble again this weekend (hence the lack of blogging), and, as often happens in such situations, I was twice mistaken for Canadian. That brings the Canadian count to five instances in five months. (I also got one instance of "I usually don't like American accents but...".)

Perhaps it's a good thing that I didn't have a chance to blog, as I believe the blog is starting to work against me. I mocked mushy peas, and, lo and behold, five days later my application for UK citizenship was turned down. They say it's because some of my paperwork didn't arrive on time, but I think we can read between the peas...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

veg

American reader Jackie e-mailed to say that after some time living in London:
"I can't tell you happy I am to be back in [a] country in which veg is a verb."
Now, I trust that Jackie has some happy memories of London as well, but you can understand a girl's homesickness for a comfy verb like veg. Not that she necessarily had to miss it here. To veg or to veg out, while originally AmE (a clipping of vegetate), is used in BrE too, as the following Guardian headline indicates:
Saturday night's all right for vegging (8 Jan 2005)
But veg is more common in BrE as a noun, a clipping of vegetable(s). In AmE, it's more common to affectionately refer to vegetables as veggies. Here we have examples of clipping in both dialects (let the clipping wars re(-)commence!), but also another interesting case of count/mass distinctions in the two dialects. Americans eat mashed potatoes and veggies (both plural), while the British eat mashed potato and veg (both mass nouns). One is tempted to say that this is because of the traditional British tendency to cook vegetables into unrecogi{s/z}able sludge. But that might not be nice. Then again, does one need to be nice to people whose culinary contribution to the world is mushy peas (pictured, right)? [I might not be allowed to sleep in my own bed tonight after that one.]

Then again, it could be argued that it's in the plural in AmE because Americans are more gluttonous. But using mass nouns does not seem to have stemmed the 'obesity epidemic' in Britain.

In order to distract attention from the incendiary statements (particularly the food criticism) above, I should point out that veg shows its, ahem, face again in the expression meat and two veg. This has two meanings. One of these refers to a type of traditional diet. In the same way that Americans would call someone a meat-and-potatoes man, a (male) traditional eater in the UK is a meat-and-two-veg man. That phrase can, however, provide a double entendre, as it also slangily refers to a man's genitals. I'll let you work out the details of the metaphor in your own time.

Postscript: Two things I meant to mention here, but failed to (due to the heat of my debate with Better Half about the political/culinary (in)correctness of this entry). First, as Rebecca's pointed out in the comments in BrE veggie (also veggy) means 'vegetarian' and works both as a noun and an adjective. Second, British supermarkets typically have a section called Fruit and Vegetables or Fruit and Veg, but in the US, it's generally called the produce section. One is more likely to come across a greengrocer's shop in the UK than in the US. American Heritage lists this word as 'chiefly British'--I certainly knew it before moving here, but not because I ever needed to use the word. While one could call such a shop a greengrocery, people tend to say I stopped by the greengrocer's, much as people prefer the butcher('s) over the butchery.

Friday, November 10, 2006

...no knickers

Wore my red shoes today, which always provides someone with an excuse to exclaim red shoes, no knickers! The word knickers is, of course, a dead giveaway that this is a BrE expression. The first 50 or so times I heard it, I assumed it was a comment on the raciness of the colo(u)r red and the type of woman who might call attention to herself (and her feet) by wearing red shoes, but the story is a bit less lady-of-the-evening than it seems at first.

The more common phrase--never applied to me because of my fondness for wool--is all fur coat and no knickers. Both phrases are used to refer to someone (or something) that is all flash and no substance. That is, one who's bothered with the decorations, but not with the basic necessities, like knickers (=AmE panties).

Of course, the moralistic edge of the phrase--encouraging us to have a good foundation (garment) before turning our attention to frills, is often these days overlooked, in favo(u)r of the ol' nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Search (unfiltered) all fur coat and no knickers on Google Image to see what I mean, if you need to. But you don't really need to, do you?

Another faintly misogynistic (which is not to say entirely unuseful) phrase that the British have introduced me to is mutton dressed as lamb: used to refer to any woman who is unflatteringly dressed in a style that is deemed too young for a woman her age. Better Half also enjoys the phrase mutton dressed as mutton, which is to say a woman who is unflatteringly dressed in a way that is too appropriate to her age. (Thankfully, neither of these has yet been applied to me...to my face.)

The British do not have a monopoly on phrases that pass judg(e)ment on the sartorial choices of women. Muffin top, to refer to the roll of flesh that often appears at the top of some low-slung trousers/pants is an Americanism. This word has made its way into BrE, even though the types of muffins that the phrase alludes to are a fairly recent import to the UK.

[Here I must digress. The cake-like American-style muffin seems to have taken over the UK. This is the kind of muffin that a lot of my students think of first when asked to describe muffins--which they are often asked to do in my courses--rather than the type of flat, non-sweet thing that looks like what Americans call an English muffin, but which actually differs from those as well. According to United Biscuits, individually packaged muffins, such as those pictured at the right, are now 'the second largest sector in eat-now cakes' in the UK. But...there has been some semantic slippage in the transfer of this term (and baked good) to the UK: (a) The muffins that are sold in the UK as American-style muffins often lack 'muffin tops' --i.e. the mushroomy bit that has risen over the side of the muffin tin-- so I'm not sure whether the phrase muffin top is quite as evocative here when applied to love handles. I've yet to come across a home-baked muffin in the UK that wasn't made by me--though one can buy Betty Crocker blueberry muffin mix at Asda, I see. (Not that I want to admit to having been in an Asda--which is owned by Evilmart.) (b) Many of the so-called muffins I see in UK shops are, in AmE terms, cupcakes, as far as I'm concerned. One started to see (horrors!) chocolate chip muffins in the US when I was in my late teens, but to my mind, muffins have to have some whiff of healthfulness about them--bran or fruit, or at least cornmeal--and certainly no frosting. Something built around the theme of a chocolate bar, such as the Galaxy muffin above, is most definitely a cupcake. And before raising the issue of fairy cakes or otherwise taking this conversation any further on the baked goods tangent, please do have a look at the baked goods post from July.]

Back to American body-fascist misogyny! Or cultural observation...take your pick! The other AmE phrase that springs to mind (though admittedly not as widespread as the others discussed so far) is sausage casing girl, to refer to someone young and female who wears clothes in a size or two smaller than the sizing lords intended. I learned this phrase from an LA Times article this summer, and it did strike me as descriptive, though cruel. The article seems to no longer be accessible to the masses on-line, but you can read Grant Barrett's record of it here.

All of these expressions describe phenomena that exist in both countries, but the two cultures have had different priorties as to which type of woman gets judged on the basis of her behavio(u)r with reference to her appearance. As ever, we can wonder about what this says about the cultures--although one has to be careful about plucking a couple of phrases out of the culture and judging the culture on the basis of those. Nevertheless, in the spirit of sweeping generali{s/z}ation, we see in (some of) these phrases British women being mocked for not acting their age and American women being mocked for not acting their weight. And men on both sides of the Atlantic remaining relatively unscathed.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

kit

A correspondent on the American Dialect Society e-list expressed surprise at the following Briticism spoken by an American character in the American television show/programme Law & Order: Criminal Intent:
He liked to dress in women's clothes - panties, bra - the whole kit.
In BrE, kit is used both more frequently and in more ways than in AmE. Used alone, AmE kit is likely to refer to a set of parts that one can put together to make something--as in She built her car from a kit. It's also used in various combinations. For example, a shaving kit or Dopp kit is a travel bag for men's toiletries. (Dopp is a trade name, but Dopp kit has been generici{s/z}ed.) Kit is also heard in the AmE phrase the (whole) kit and caboodle--that is, the entire collection of things related to a certain task or context:
Dell's modular approach is an attractive proposition for those who wish to avoid lugging around the whole kit and caboodle every time they hit the road. --Newsfactor Network
For some etymological information on this phrase, see The Maven's Word of the Day.

In BrE, kit is used to refer to any collection of related things, particularly equipment or clothing. For instance, in the second (if I remember correctly) episode of the new BBC program(me) Torchwood, newcomer Gwen experiences a lot of whizzy gadgets in a vehicle and says (sarcastically) to her colleagues (again, if I'm remembering correctly), Got enough kit?

The Law & Order quotation above shows the clothing/equipment sense, which is most often used in relation to what one would carry/wear for a sport. Thus tennis kit (typically used without a or the) would consist of the clothes, the shoes and (often) the racket.

The 'clothing' sense of kit is often heard these days in get one's kit off, as in:
Sometimes in life it's nice when people are complimentary about you without trying to get your kit off. --Don Pablo Escobar on bangingtunes.com
Other ADS-list correspondents noted having heard BrE-like kits on another television show/programme and in the cycling world--so it seems to be infiltrating AmE.

I'll stop here because an IBook failing-battery horror caused me to lose (another version of) this entry once already. I need new kit!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Spelling standards

Derrick e-mailed the other day with the following request.
My question to you, based on your interesting in both spelling variants and common citation of Wikipedia, is what your opinion is on the official Wikipedia policy on English spelling in articles, described here. [...]It's one of the oldest rules on Wikipedia, resolved in its infancy, and has stood the test of time, consistently resisting attempts to modify it. [...] I've seen proposals to consistently use one spelling method, to extend the software to allow the user to configure which spelling they prefer, and countless other suggestions, but all met a rapid demise. Is this a good rule, and why is it so popular? Thanks for your insight.
I was glad he drew this to my attention. I think it's a popular policy because it's a terribly sensible policy.

Basically, any standard English orthography (spelling system) can be used on Wikipedia, with the following provisos:
  1. Articles should use the same dialect throughout.
  2. If there is a strong tie to a specific region/dialect, use that dialect.
  3. In choosing words or expressions (especially article titles) there may be value in selecting one that does not have multiple variant spellings if there are synonyms that are otherwise equally suitable and reasonable.
  4. Follow the dialect of the first contributor.

I've heard British people argue that BrE spelling should be used in international contexts because the UK is the 'homeland' of English. I've heard Americans argue that AmE spelling should be used because Americans outnumber the British. I've heard learners of English from other countries argue in favo(u)r of AmE spelling because American cultural exports are more widely found than British. Whichever decision one makes about how international English should be spelt/spelled, some sector is going to be offended or disappointed. So, let's not favo(u)r either. Let's let the forces of culture decide.

Rule 2 in the list above is exemplified on another Wikipedia page:
Sean Connery
Fact profile: A Scottish-born actor, but has spent much time in America. He now lives in the Bahamas. However, he has retained his British citizenship and still sees himself as Scottish.
Conclusion: Use standard Scottish English for the article on Sean Connery.
Harold Larwood
Fact profile: English-born cricketer, who is notable for his performances for England in the 1932/3 Bodyline series. After retirement he emigrated to Australia, took Australian citizenship and saw himself as Australian.
Conclusion: As his notability relates to the period in which he lived in Britain, use standard British English for the article on Harold Larwood.
Said Musa
Fact profile: Said Musa is the Prime Minister of Belize. He was born in Belize when it was known as "British Honduras" and was under British rule. He also studied law at Manchester University in England, but returned to Belize the following year. He became a politician in independent Belize and has lived there ever since. Belize usually considers itself a Caribbean nation, rather than a Central American nation.
Conclusion: Use standard Caribbean English for the article on Said Musa.
Fiat Regata
Fact profile: The Fiat Regata is an Italian motor car. It is produced in Italy, where there is no national variety of English, by an Italian company. It is sold in many markets, across which many varieties of English are in use.
Conclusion: The country of Italy is within the political and geographical entity of Europe. The government of the European Union has several official languages including British English. This is currently the version employed in the article.
All of these conclusions are debatable (or moot?), of course, but we've got a lovely set of rules as the pivot on which our debate reels. How pleasantly legalistic! (And no, I don't think that's an oxymoron.)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

moot

Someone some time ago asked about moot. This is a real source of miscommunication in BrE and AmE, as it has opposite meanings when used as an adjective, as in the phrase a moot point.

My first experiences of this word were in relation to moot court scenes in The Paper Chase (that [AmE] show/[BrE] programme was one of the early influences leading to my academic career). (Moot court is a trial practice exercise.) Then there was a sketch on Saturday Night Live that has stuck in my mind for 22 years now (I can't believe that I'm old enough to type that). In it, Jesse Jackson (the guest host, who was running for president at the time) was the host of a game show. He'd ask contestant a question, and when s/he tried to answer it, he'd interrupt and say "The question is moot!" and then he'd embark on a diatribe about how it doesn't matter when Halley's Comet will appear (or whatever the question was about), because the Reagan administration is going to get us all killed in a nuclear war (etc.). You can see a video of it here.

As that example demonstrates, moot in North America is affected by its American legal sense:
An issue presenting no real controversy.
Moot refers to a subject for academic argument. It is an abstract question that does not arise from existing facts or rights. --Thomson-Gale Legal Dictionary (US)
You can see how this relates to the moot court experience--the exercise is academic and will have no real effect on the world. Meanwhile, in BrE, moot retains the sense 'debatable'. So, in BrE a moot point is one that can/should be debated, while in AmE it's one that isn't worth debating because the issue is already decided or out of our control.

The American Heritage Dictionary gives some context for this meaning variation in the following Usage Note:
The adjective moot is originally a legal term going back to the mid-16th century. It derives from the noun moot, in its sense of a hypothetical case argued as an exercise by law students. Consequently, a moot question is one that is arguable or open to debate. But in the mid-19th century people also began to look at the hypothetical side of moot as its essential meaning, and they started to use the word to mean “of no significance or relevance.” Thus, a moot point, however debatable, is one that has no practical value. A number of critics have objected to this use, but 59 percent of the Usage Panel accepts it in the sentence The nominee himself chastised the White House for failing to do more to support him, but his concerns became moot when a number of Republicans announced that they, too, would oppose the nomination. When using moot one should be sure that the context makes clear which sense is meant.
Whether there's anything that I can add to that is a moot point!