Saturday, December 30, 2006

a slosh

I was thrilled last week to be contacted by Jan Freeman, who writes a weekly language column, The Word, for the Boston Globe. One of her readers had written in to ask how much port might be in a 'cheddar with a slosh of port', as advertised on an English website. We had a nice correspondence on the matter and I and this blog get a mention in the 24 December column in which she answers that reader query (see here, but you might have to register your details with the Globe first). One or two Globe readers have made their way here through that column, so (BrE) cheers (thanks) to Jan for bringing you here.

While slosh can be found in AmE recipes, it's found more often in BrE ones. (In some of the American recipes, it looks suspiciously like the recipes may have been "translated" from a BrE source.) American dictionaries don't cover the liquid measure noun sense of slosh. Within BrE, it's hard to pin down exactly how much a slosh is. OED only says it is "A quantity of some liquid." After a recipe on epicurious.com that calls for 2 tablespoons of whisk(e)y, a Scottish cook writes in to say that the recipe is better with "a good slosh of whisky much more than stated." So, a slosh in this context is a good deal more than 2 Tbsp. Another recipe site calls for one to soak more than a kilo of dried fruit in "a generous slosh of rum or brandy." With that much fruit, that slosh is likely to be cups of liquid. (Side note: British recipes generally don't use cup measures, but instead use grams, lit{re/er}s and portions thereof. An American cup = about 240 ml.)

In general, it seems that a slosh is a "generous" amount, and what one considers to be a generous amount will vary from recipe to recipe, liquid to liquid and person to person. While it is used for measuring (AmE-preferred) liquor/(BrE-preferred) spirits in recipes (and to my mind sounds best that way), it's also used for milk, juice and water. But compare: 36 google hits for recipe + "slosh of milk", 21 for recipe + "slosh of water", and 38 for recipe + "slosh of brandy". More recipes use milk or water than brandy, one should think, but brandy is more likely to come in sloshes. I think this is because slosh likes to go with liquor, rather than that you're more likely to use a small quantity of brandy in a recipe than a small quantity of water. That's just a (non-native) hunch, based on the fact that there's often a reason to use a sloshy quantity of water in cooking. But when it comes to spirits in one's baking, there's a need for imprecision, which slosh helps with--one person's "generous amount" is another person's homeopathy and yet another person's poison. While one can find translations of other "casual" measurements like dash, splash, pinch and smidgen into more precise measures, I've yet to find a precise equivalent of slosh.

On slosh versus splash: Both are onomatopoetic, but note that the 'o' sound seems to indicate a larger amount than the 'a' in splash. This is a well-discussed element of sound symbolism. Here's a (rather technical) quote on this from a paper (NB: link is to a .pdf file) by John Ohala:
Based on data of this sort, it has been claimed that the following sound types are predominant in the expression of "small": high front vowels like [i I y e] [...], and "large": low back vowels like [ɒ ʌ ɔ o] [...]. There is support for this pattern from experimental (Sapir 1929; Fischer-Jørgensen 1968) and statistical studies (Chastaing 1958, Thorndike 1945, Ultan 1978). The phonetic generalization that can be made is that the expression of size utilizes speech sounds whose characteristic acoustic frequencies vary inversely with size of the thing designated.
The /ae/ in splash being a more fronted, higher frequency vowel, it "sounds smaller" than the back, lower frequency /ɒ/ in slosh. Notice also that when you say slosh your mouth has a bigger "hollow" in which the liquid could slosh around in. The mouth seems less open (from an ingestion point-of-view) in splash.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Word of the Year update

The response to my call for British Word of the Year nominations has not been overwhelming, in part, no doubt, because so many words of the year have already been proclaimed by various sources. So, instead, I propose the following categories for recognition, which are more in keeping with the purpose of this blog:
  • Most useful import from American English to British English
  • Most useful import from British English to American English
  • Best word invented by a reader of this blog
The second category is the hardest, I think. Do people have any ideas about BrE words that have made a splash in AmE this year? I can think of some that were popular in recent years, but this year is harder...possibly because Sacha Baron Cohen's presence is Kazakh, rather than West Staines-ian this year. (What do you call someone from West Staines? Nevermind--I can imagine the answers that some of you might come up with.)

I do recall that we discussed some BrE words from lyrics by The Streets that AmE speakers had been introduced to--but I think I need to hear from people who spend more time Stateside before declaring the most useful BrE import to AmE.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Boxing Day leftovers

According to some stories of the origins of Boxing Day (a public holiday in the UK and many Commonwealth countries), the servant-having classes would box up their Christmas leftovers and give them to the servants, who would have the day off. So, in the spirit of leftoverness, here are some random observations from this trip to the US that relate to previous blog entries. But let's not carry the metaphor too far; I don't think that blog writers are the masters to servant readers. It's almost the other way (a)round on this blog.

Leftover #1: The July entry on candy/sweets led to some discussion in the comments about which British (BrE) sweets/(AmE) candies are most similar to American Smarties (as opposed to the chocolate Smarties found in the UK, Canada and elsewhere). I found a roll of Smarties (pictured right) in my parents' pantry and forced a taste test on Better Half. His verdict: "It has the chalky texture of a Parma Violet, and the taste of a Love Heart (AmE generic name = Conversation Hearts). May I spit it out now?"

Leftover #2: High-waisted trousers/pants are not as hard to find in the US as in the UK (and one can get them in natural fib{re/er}s here too!). I was reminded of the question "How long does it take to lose one's instincts about one's native dialect?" when wandering around Macy's in the local mall. When I saw the sign directing shoppers to MEN'S PANTS, my first instinct was to titter. The resulting crisis of dialectal identity was cut short by the next line on the sign, which utterly puzzled me: MEN'S FURNISHINGS. According to the thesaurus in the Free Dictionary, this refers to 'the dry goods sold by a haberdasher'. This department store has only become a Macy's since I was last here, so I'm quite sure that the sign is new, but the phrase sounds old-fashioned. Checking on the web, I find that it's used at some 'better' US department stores, including Nordstrom, where the heading "Men's Furnishings" covers "Accessories, Dress Shirts, Sleepwear and Robes [= BrE dressing gowns], Underwear and Socks". It seems to mean 'the clothing that a suit-wearer needs, besides a suit'. (Although shoes have a separate heading, not under 'Men's Furnishings' or 'Accessories'.) Searching for this on .uk sites, I mostly find US sources, and while the American Heritage Dictionary includes "furnishings Wearing apparel and accessories," the OED does not have such specific senses, the closest being "Unimportant appendages; mere externals." So, I think that we can conclude that this is an Americanism--but do let me know if you have evidence to the contrary. The phrase women's furnishings is much rarer.

Leftover #3: My two-year-old nephew received for Christmas a toy kitchen with toy groceries. His mother read the label of a tube-shaped item and asked "What the heck are 'chocolate digestives'?", leading to our discovery that these American-bought toy groceries (made in China) "came from" a British supermarket: Sainsbury's. I went through the packet and while 21 of the labels were understandable in AmE, 11 of them were either for products not found in the US (mushy peas!) or had names that don't work in AmE, such as mince (= AmE ground beef), macaroni cheese (= AmE macaroni and cheese), orange lollies (=AmE popsicles), non-biological (= a type of laundry detergent, 'non-biological' is the only product description given on the front of the box--so you'd have to know that it's a detergent descriptor). Could this be considered to be British cultural imperialism, off-setting the American type?


Happy Boxing Day!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Zamboni


This entry is mostly an excuse to post a picture of the pretty (and, in person, pretty imposing) Christmas tree at Rockefeller Centre, which Better Half and I visited a week ago. This was the first time I'd been to New York City during the (AmE-preferred) holiday/(BrE-preferred) festive season, and I was excited to watch the ice skaters in the rink below the tree. But when we got there, all I got was an opportunity to teach Better Half an AmE (or, as the OED puts it, "Chiefly N. Amer.") word: Zamboni. This is a proprietary name for a machine (in vehicular form) used to resurface ice in ice rinks, introduced in 1962 (patented in 1965) by Frank J. Zamboni & Co. of Paramount, California. BH had never seen one before, however he was not content to watch it do its job for more than 10 minutes before declaring that we weren't going to see any ice skaters. Instead, we merried ourselves with the fantastic light show at Saks Fifth Avenue.

A few days later, in a (AmE) book store/(BrE) bookshop, I spotted a children's book called Z is for Zamboni: A Hockey Alphabet, illustrating that in AmE hockey refers to a sport played on ice. In BrE, one must say ice hockey to refer to that sport, and hockey refers to what Americans would call field hockey.

Merry Christmas from Better Half and me!

Friday, December 22, 2006

happy holidays

Happy holidays is an American seasonal greeting--one that I find very useful, because (1) I don't like to say (AmE-preferred) Merry Christmas or (BrE) Happy Christmas to people unless I know for sure that they celebrate Christmas, and (2) it saves having to say Happy New Year as well. To Christmas-celebrating Americans, 'the holidays' are Christmas and New Year, but the phrase happy holidays could equally refer to Hanukkah and New Year or Kwanzaa and New Year or Solstice and New Year, etc. So, it's an equal-opportunity phrase.

But over on the UK-Scrabble list, I've just discovered that some people (or at least a Dutch person writing in) believe that the holidays in Happy Holidays refers to Christmas and Boxing Day. Not the case. Americans do not observe Boxing Day.

Better Half and I can think of no BrE phrase that people actually say that does the same job. In cards, one sees Greetings of the festive season or Season's Greetings. In speech, people just say Happy/Merry Christmas. Boxing Day doesn't get a mention. A few people do say Happy Holidays, but this is perceived as American and often resented for being "politically correct". To me, politically correct just means 'polite and considerate', so it's beyond me why it should be resented.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

types of schools, school years

In the comments for my last entry, Paul Danon wondered about the names of school years in AmE and how they compare to those in BrE. The Brackley Baptist Church in Northamptonshire has on its website (for some reason!) the following table summari{s/z}ing these differences .

British stage British
year
Old British system Year in age American year
Preschool
Children enter Pre-school sometime after they are 2 years and 6 months old. They do not wait until September to start.

Keystage 1
Reception
Rising 5’s
5th
PK

Year 1
Infants
6th
Kindergarten

Year 2
Top Infants
7th
1st
Keystage 2
Year 3
Bottom Junior
8th
2nd

Year 4
2nd Junior
9th
3rd

Year 5
3rd Junior
10th
4th

Year 6
Top Junior
11th
5th
Keystage 3
Year 7
First form
12th
6th

Year 8
Second form
13th
7th

Year 9
Third form
14th
8th
GCSE 1st
Year 10
Fourth form
15th
9th
GCSE 2nd
Year 11
Fifth form
16th
10th
A Levels 1st
Year 12
Lower Sixth form
17th
11th
A Levels 2nd
Year 13
Upper Sixth form
18th
12th

This is a great start, but there's room for a lot of clarification (for the Americans reading), and a lot more detail on the American side (for the British people reading). Let's start with some caveats before we get into either too deeply. First, there's a lot of local variation that can't all be covered here. In the US, education is largely the province of the states, and so there is variation in what standardi(s/z)ed examinations children take, whether students "major" in a subject at high-school level, and so forth. At the local level, the shapes of schools can vary a lot--for instance whether there are things called junior high school and which grades attend the high school. So, I'll talk about what I know as 'typical', but there will be variation. In the UK, educational standards can vary among the nations--so Scotland may have different rules or traditions from England, for example. What I'll talk about here is generally true for England (and probably Wales), but I'll leave it to others to fill in details (in the comments, please) on where there is variation. Second, educational systems seem to be in a near-constant state of flux. What you knew as a child may be quite different from what is done now. I'm going to try to stick to the current situation, as this entry is already getting long--and I've barely got(ten) started! Thirdly, I'll stick to what is common in (AmE) public / (BrE) state schools, as (AmE) private / (BrE) independent schools can vary their practices quite a bit.

Before we get back to that table, a note on types of schools. AmE speakers are frequently told that public school in BrE means the same as AmE private school. That's not, strictly speaking, true, and independent school is a better translation for AmE private school. The OED explains:

public school [...] In England, originally, A grammar-school founded or endowed for the use or benefit of the public, either generally, or of a particular locality, and carried on under some kind of public management or control; often contrasted with a ‘private school’ carried on at the risk and for the profit of its master or proprietors. In modern English use (chiefly from the 19th century), applied especially to such of the old endowed grammar-schools as have developed into large, fee-paying boarding-schools drawing pupils from all parts of the country and from abroad, and to other private schools established upon similar principles. Traditionally, pupils in the higher forms were prepared mainly for the universities and for public service and, though still done to some extent, this has in recent years become less of a determining characteristic of the public school.
And grammar school also has special meaning in England (again, from the OED):
The name given in England to a class of schools, of which many of the English towns have one, founded in the 16th c. or earlier for the teaching of Latin. They subsequently became secondary schools of various degrees of importance, a few of them ranking little below the level of the ‘public schools’.
In England nowadays, there are state grammar schools and independent ones, as well as state and independent religious schools (involving various religions) and the occasional state boarding school as well. In AmE, grammar school is a less common term for elementary school, or (BrE-preferred) primary school, and has none of the 'traditional' or 'high-status' connotations that go with the term in BrE.

And a final bit of terminology before we get back to the table. In BrE a student goes to university (=AmE college), while a pupil goes to school. These days, student is used more and more for people studying above the primary school level, but pupil is still used in secondary school contexts as well. Pupil is understood in AmE, but generally not used--all learners in institutions of education are students in AmE.

So, let's get back to that table and the British (or at least English) system. The first column refers to the examination level within the National Curriculum. Everyone goes through Key Stages 1-3. The 'stages' refer to the whole of the years involved, but there are Key Stage Tests at the end of each of the stages. At the next level, GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) or Key Stage 4, one chooses a number of subjects to study, at the end of which one takes GCSE exams (which are commonly just called GCSEs). The Scottish equivalent of GCSE is the Standard Grade. Prior to 1986, people took O-levels. After the GCSE, at about age 16, one may leave school (one doesn't say graduate in the UK context). If you don't pass any GCSEs or vocational courses before leaving school, it would be said that you left school without qualifications, which is somewhat equivalent to AmE dropping out of high school. Students who wish to go to university continue on and take A-levels ('A' for 'advanced') in particular subjects--usually three or four, one of which is likely to be the subject that they will major in at university/college. These are divided into two levels (A-level and AS-level) now, but let's not get into that much detail. See here for more info.

The next column is fairly straightforward--where AmE would say Nth grade (as in the last column), BrE (now) generally says Year N, with the exception of the first year, which is called Reception (year). (Note though, that N≠N in this translation, as the table shows.) Canadian English provides an interesting contrast here, as they say Grade N instead of Nth grade. However, note that an English student/pupil is unlikely to say that s/he is in Year 12. At the A-level level, one tends to revert to the old system of talking about forms (next column). So, a student studying for A-levels could be said to be in the sixth form. Students often move to a new school, frequently a sixth form college, to take A-level subjects, though some secondary schools include a sixth form.

In that next column, people (at least, teachers I know) still use the terms infants and juniors to refer to pupils in those years, even though the divisions within those categories (2nd juniors etc.) are not now used in most schools. Many schools still have names that reflect those divisions, however.

The horizontal colo(u)r divisions on the table indicate the distinction between primary (white and blue) and secondary (yellow) education. In AmE, the terms primary and secondary are used as well. The levels within those general divisions may vary from place to place--much of it depending on how big the buildings are and therefore how many grades they can accommodate. Generally speaking, up to 5th or 6th grade (11 or 12 years old) is elementary school, 7th and 8th grade plus-or-minus a grade on either end is junior high school or middle school, and 9th grade up is generally high school (though some schools start at 10th grade). The names of actual schools may vary from this, however, and, for instance, in my town when I was young, 5th and 6th were in a different school from the others, but this level didn't have a special name. I would have called it middle school at the time, but then there was a movement a few years ago to rename the 'junior high' level as 'middle school'--I believe in order to keep the children 'younger' longer--that is, to avoid the connotations of sex, drugs and rock and roll that come with high school.

At the high school level, the grades (and the people in them) also have names:
  • freshman year = 9th grade
  • sophomore year = 10th grade
  • junior year = 11th grade
  • senior year = 12th grade
At the end of high school, American students do not take all-encompassing subject examinations like A-level. (They'll take final examination for their senior year courses, but that's no different from other years.) Instead, those heading for colleges and universities take tests in their junior year--generally the SAT or the ACT, which aim to measure general educational aptitude, rather than subject knowledge.

On to the the tertiary level! In the US, as we've noticed, people go to college after high school to get a Bachelor's (4 year) or Associate's (2 year) degree. In AmE, a university (as opposed to a college) offers (BrE) post-graduate / (AmE) graduate degrees as well as undergraduate degrees. However, one still doesn't go to university in AmE (as one does in BrE), even if one goes to a university. After one goes to college in AmE, one might go to grad(uate) school.

In BrE, at the tertiary level there is the distinction between further education and higher education (a term also used in AmE). Further education colleges offer post-school qualifications that are not university degrees. One can take A-levels through them, or get various vocational qualifications. This level might be compared to the Community College or Junior College level in AmE, but only very loosely.

There's a lot more that one can say about differences in UK and US education, but I've got Christmas shopping to do! Happy longest night of the year...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

citizenship and school

Americans have a well-established distaste for taxation without representation. This is part of the reason why, this past Wednesday, I became a British citizen (while retaining my American citizenship as well). Since 2004, the naturali{s/z}ation process has involved a test on "Life in the UK" (which serves as an indirect way of making sure you have some knowledge of the English language as well) and a citizenship ceremony at the end of the process. This is based on the US system and strikes some native Britons as un-British. I was hoping to have some good SBaCL stories to tell about the experience, but there was little of linguistic interest at the ceremony. But I did affirm my allegiance to the Queen, her heirs and successors. My UK-born friends think this is hilarious, as they've never had to do so, and are confident that they would get a lot of questions wrong if tested on the details of the history and structure of their government. But they know the answers to the questions that really matter if you want to get along in British culture, like: What is Blue Peter? Who is David Essex? Who has right-of-way at a roundabout? and Who's paying for the next round?

Two days after becoming a citizen, I was on my way back to the US. What a fickle soul I am. Better Half and I have just had a lovely weekend in New York City, which was only marred for BH by the fact that the place is crawling with Englishpeople. "But I used to be special!" he cried. "People used to love my accent! Now everyone's got one!" BH's loss of specialness is directly attributable to the pathetic condition of the American dollar. After it dipped to nearly $2 to £1, British Airways added an extra flight a day to accommodate British Christmas shopping trips, and the UK newspapers are full of price comparisons of iPods and designer handbags/purses in London versus New York, with analyses of whether it's worth the trip, once you've paid airfare and import duty. Depending on what and how much you're buying, it very well may be worth it. On other comparisons of NYC and London, BH and I agreed that NYC wins on the politeness and helpfulness of its citizenry (one cannot open a map/guidebook in public without someone approaching you to offer their help), while London wins on the relative pleasantness of its underground (=AmE subway) trains and stations--though NYC definitely wins on the cost of public transport(ation).

While we don't turn our noses up at the bargains, our reason for being here is to visit family and friends for the holidays. While visiting with the first couple, The Interpreters, I had my first cross-cultural miscommunication of the trip. BH was telling tales from our previous busy day, during which we went to the theatre and the cinema. After asking for a repetition of "the theatre and the cinema", Interpreter S noted to Interpreter K "I would've said we went to the movies and a play. Theatre and cinema sounds so much better." We had seen the new Christopher Guest film For Your Consideration, which BH liked better than I did, though I told The Interpreters about my continued affection for Parker Posey. Upon hearing this, Interpreter S said "I went to school with Parker Posey." Since I'd been under the impression that Parker Posey had grown up in Mississippi, and that Interpreter S most certainly hadn't, I was (BrE informal) well confused and asked which school that was. "SUNY Purchase," IS responded. And there was my "a-ha" moment. When AmE speakers say "I went to school there," they often mean 'I went to (BrE) university/(AmE) college there'. (SUNY Purchase = State University of New York at Purchase.) In BrE, school denotes primary or secondary school, but not university.

It's not common for me to misunderstand Americans speaking AmE. Perhaps I became more British than I reali{s/z}ed last Wednesday!

Monday, December 11, 2006

blinders and other metaphors personified

Last time, I mentioned a (BrE) fancy dress/(AmE) costume party at which everyone was to come as a metaphor they'd been accused of being. I learned that among my friends are three dark horses, one social butterfly, a piranha with manners and an eight-year-old trapped in the body of a 40-year-old (that would be our dear Better Half). About 40 people came, five of them American, at least as many from other parts of the world, and the remainder British. The party-goers made a game of trying to guess what what everyone else was, but a few of the British ones stumped the Americans, and vice versa. (Incidentally, stump is originally AmE, but now used in BrE.)

The number one stumper was my dear friend to the right here. She was head-to-toe in glittering things and battery-powered lights. The BrE speakers had a hard time guessing, but when they were told, they said "Ah!" The AmE speakers, on the other hand, said "Huh?" She was (if you haven't guessed from the title) a blinder--that is, "Something ‘dazzlingly’ good or difficult" (OED), or in this case a "looker" (orig. AmE). Unsure that people would believe that she'd been called a blinder, she carried with her the sweetest love letter from long, long ago. (It would be impolite of me to tell you how long ago.) The universal reaction to the love letter was "My god, why didn't you marry him?" (Not that we have anything against Blinder's better half--but he didn't come to the party to defend his own hono(u)r, so we got all moony over [the idea of] Love Letter Boy.) Incidentally, Blinder won one of the evening's prizes--the Elbow Grease prize for the most effort devoted to the reali{s/z}ation of the metaphor. We got literal about our metaphorical prizes--the Elbow Grease was Body Shop Body Butter.

My dad, pictured right, was another transatlantic stumper. He and my mother came as what they (claim to) call each other (never in front of the children, though!). Mom came as "the cat's (AmE) pajamas/(BrE) pyjamas", wearing p{y/a}jamas with cats on them. Dad's was a less visuali{s/z}able metaphor, though the BrE speakers consistently guessed that he was the cat's whiskers (='the acme of excellence'--OED). While that was originally an AmE expression, it's now mainly used in BrE. In AmE, the expression is more usually (at least where we're from) the cat's meow. (All of these are a bit dated, like my dad, who celebrates a big birthday next month. Despite having enjoyed my metaphorty party, he's declined having a metaseventy party.)

Another American friend came as a mixed metaphor--so it's no surprise that people had a hard time guessing what he was. He had a target, with an antlered deer superimposed on it, taped to his back. By his estimation, he was "a moving stag", mixing the metaphors of a moving target and going stag to a party (i.e., 'without a date'). The latter of these (as the telltale bold font indicates) is AmE, and relates back to the notion of a stag party (orig. AmE), which was raised when we discussed local fauna terms.

Please steal the metaphorty party idea (leave off the -ty if you're not forty, but have the party all the same)! It's a helluva lotta fun, and if you invite both AmE and BrE speakers, you can report back to us any further metaphors that don't translate. My own metaphor required translation as well, but only because it was in Swedish. Jag var en djävil på Scrabble. (I was a demon at Scrabble--the first metaphor that I was called [to my face] på svenska.)

Or, join the virtual party in the comments area. What would your metaphor be? (Try to keep it clean, please!)

Friday, December 08, 2006

mavericks

Ben Zimmer of The Language Log forwarded the following to me some time ago. It originally appeared in the Financial Times (UK), but was reprinted in the Los Angeles Times:
George Bernard Shaw suggested mischievously that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."

Here is a book title — if not a book — that proves it: "Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win."

To Americans, imbued with the frontier spirit, a maverick is an admirable person, independent in thought and action.
But the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition: "a masterless person; one who is roving and casual." A former British Cabinet minister recently was described as a "maverick voice." This was not meant as a compliment.

The mavericks described in "Mavericks at Work" are to be emulated, not disparaged. (Stefan Stern, 'That office "weirdo" might be a maverick", 29 Oct 2006)
At first this didn't sit entirely right with me because of a party I threw--which I'll come back to shortly. But I was reminded of it today when the new New Scientist (9 Dec 2006) arrived with the cover screaming: MAVERICKS: POWER OF THE LONE VOICE. NS is a UK-based magazine, but it has an international readership and is usually edited with consciousness of its varied audience. I was therefore curious to see if the word maverick had positive or negative connotations in the special section dedicated to 'lone voices', like the creationist geologist and the doctor who fed himself bacteria to prove it causes stomach ulcers. The fact of the section itself hints at the possibility that the editors intend to counter the usual assumption that being a maverick is a bad thing. But for the most part, the word is used positively:
Such mavericks are crucial to progress, but are they a dying breed? (Editorial, p. 5)
In other places, it's used as an adjective:
If science were a matter of combining unambiguous data from perfectly conducted experiments with flawless theories, assessing the claims of "outsider" scientists and their maverick ideas would not be that hard. (Harry Collins, 'How we know what we know', p. 46)
Neither of these seems to indicate that the BrE sense of maverick is necessarily "masterless". Indeed the OED lists the sense 'An unorthodox or independent-minded person; a person who refuses to conform to the views of a particular group or party; an individualist' and does not mark this as AmE. So, is the Financial Times writer misrepresenting the BrE situation? Not entirely. One can find plenty of examples, like the one the article cites, of maverick being used with negative connotations in BrE sources:
I suppose that in the years when we were trying to persuade people that Berlioz was a great composer, and not just a maverick or an oddity --David Cairns on Hector Berlioz website

Scientists in Britain tend to exclude controversial "maverick" colleagues from their community to ensure they do not gain scientific legitimacy, new research has shown. --Cardiff University news release
While there are probably similar AmE examples out there, they're harder to come by. (For the ones I've found, a bit of deeper digging often reveals that the writer is not a native AmE speaker.) Part of the reason for this, says my armchair ethno-psychology, is the usual British aversion to self-promotion. (I know plenty of self-promoting Brits, but many more who find the notion extremely unseemly.) In order to be a maverick, one needs not only to be a non-conformist, but also to carry oneself as if one's own ideas are superior to the other ideas on offer. In other words, a maverick has a bit more hubris than a mere eccentric has, and hubris is socially unacceptable.

But getting back to the party I threw... It was a (BrE) fancy dress / (AmE) costume party with a "Metaphorty" theme: everyone had to come as a metaphorical thing they'd been accused of being. I'll come back to this--perhaps in the next post--to talk about some of the metaphors that didn't translate among the BrE- and AmE-speaking guests. The point for the now is that one friend came as a maverick--dressed as Brett Maverick. (I wasn't sure that actually counted as a metaphor, but it was a party, so who cares?) She, an Englishwoman, definitely saw being a maverick as a positive thing.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

revision

There I go, confusing the students again.

Earlier today, I left a message on a course website, instructing students to bring to the next session any questions they have about (among other things) 'essay writing/revision'. This set off a panic in some that there might be an exam that they hadn't yet known about. That's because the words revise and revision are used very differently in American and British educational contexts.

My intention was to refer to the writing and revision of essays. American college (= BrE university) students become accustomed to the practice of writing, revising and re-submitting draft upon draft of their essays, especially in Freshman comp (i.e. a first-year university course on how to write--particularly, how to write an academic essay). In this context, revision refers to the process of creating a new version of a text, through editing and re-writing. Thus, answers.com gives first draft as an antonym for revision. This sense of revise/revision is not foreign to BrE, but in the context of of what British students expect to do, it is not the first thing that comes to their minds.

Instead, they think of the BrE-only meaning 'to review/study material in preparation for a test/exam'. Thus in BrE one can revise for exams or revise Chemistry, while in AmE the object noun for the verb revise would have to refer to some kind of text: revise an essay. Look up "How to revise" on .ac.uk websites, and one gets lots of information about how to prepare oneself for examinations (see, for example, this). Look up the same phrase on .edu (i.e. mostly American university) sites, and one finds advice pages on how to improve a first draft of an essay (such as this one).

I continue to use revise to mean 'create a new version of a text' in BrE contexts because it is a 'legal' meaning of the word here, and there isn't a very good substitute for it (rewrite scares the students, edit makes them think that they just have to proof[-]read). But usually I take the time to clarify my intention. In this particular course, the fact that they have to revise and resubmit their work has been discussed for ten weeks now, so I relaxed a bit and assumed we were speaking the same language by now. The ambiguity created by my virgule (slash) undid all that teaching, it seems. The ambiguity, of course, is whether essay writing/revision means 'essay writing and essay revision' or 'essay writing and (exam) revision'. I have to tell myself that the ambiguity created the problem. Otherwise I'd have to believe that no one's been listening to me harping on about first and final essay drafts all term, and believing that would be very bad indeed for my self-esteem.

Monday, December 04, 2006

word sale

One of my more entrepreneurial students is trying to earn a little cash by (BrE, informal) flogging* a word on eBay. Here's a bit of her sales pitch:
The perfect gift for wordsmiths, linguists and bookworms this Christmas.
Buy your loved one their very OWN word! This auction is for something really special: a wonderful personalised gift for the pain who has everything.
I am a Linguistics student and writer, and I will exquisitely craft an original, 100% unique word for the winning bidder. They can show it proudly to their friends, knowing that this word is their very own and made specifically with them in mind. And if you desire, I can use it in writing and encourage others to do so. Eventually, it could even become a recognised word with your own name featuring in a dictionary definition!
The word will land on your doormat within 5 days of auction end, presented beautifully with a professional definition and an essay explaining how it was made, in full linguistic detail!
I'm very happy to report that she has used a fair bit of the terminology from our course (Approaches to Meaning) in her eBay (BrE) advert/(AmE) ad, and she's used it all correctly. Thus, I believe that I can and should endorse her wordsmithing business. (I hereby endorse it!) But as I try to stay out of business transactions with my students, I'll leave it to someone else to bid on her word. Starting bid is £9.95. Or you can skip the bidding and buy it outright for £100.

*As far as I can tell, the 'sell' sense of flog is BrE. (Note the BBC (BrE) programme/(AmE) show Flog It! ) AmE does have the related sense 'to promote relentlessly'.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

nominations: British Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society will soon be voting on its Word of the Year for 2006. The WotY is a word that best captures the Zeitgeist of that year. (They/we [when I'm there] also vote for words in other categories, for example 'most likely to succeed', 'most unnecessary', etc.) The WotY is often a new word, but it doesn't have to be, so long as it fits the bill.

I'd like to propose a British Word of the Year vote. This is how it works:
  1. You nominate a word (or expression) that you feel captures some particularly "2006" aspect of UK life. You can nominate via the comments for this entry, or by e-mail.
  2. On/around 1 Jan 2007, I present a shortlist of nominations for your vote.
  3. Voting closes 8 Jan, and a winner will be crowned.
The only word I've discussed here that looks like a contender is WAG.

Nominations are open!

prevarication à la mode

The theme today is "issues my Italian colleague, La Lettrice, has raised in the past (BrE) fortnight / (AmE) two weeks". While at first glance these are very different topics, they have a nice symmetry about them. Each case involves English doing something strange with an item that comes from a Romance language. In one case Americans have committed the weirdness, in the other it's the British.

First off, we have à la mode. When LL lived in the US, she thought it hilarious (and still does) that a French phrase meaning 'in the current fashion' could come to mean 'with ice cream', as it does in AmE in pie à la mode or pancakes à la mode (as ordered in the recent and wonderful film Little Miss Sunshine). A situation involving ice cream may also be described as à la mode in AmE:
One item on the Blue Bunny ice cream parlor menu, however, has never been purchased. It's called Sock Hop a la Mode.
You and 25 of your friends can rock around the clock at a sock hop at the ice cream parlor, complete with '50s music, decorations and all the ice cream sodas and treats you can eat. --USA Today, 25 July 2003
So, how did à la mode come to mean 'with ice cream'? Various stories circulate, but the most 'official' of these is that Charles Watson Townsend introduced pie à la mode to Delmonico's restaurant in New York (having dubbed a pie thusly at an upstate restaurant) in the 1890s, and it took off. You can read more of that version of the story here.

So, that's Americans doing strange things with a French phrase. Now we come to the British doing odd things with a Latinate word. LL e-mailed me (BrE) in/(AmE) during the week to ask whether prevaricate really means 'to hesitate' in English. Knowing the cognate Italian word, LL believed the word to mean 'to evade or deviate from the truth'. That's what I believed the word to mean too, until I encountered it as used by my UK students, who use it as a synonym for procrastinate. This meaning is not considered to be standard--and many dictionaries do not record it, but some (e.g. Penguin) and some style guides acknowledge that the sense is 'out there' in BrE mouths and minds, and try to fight against it.

Incidentally, prevarication, i.e. using a communication system to deceive, is one of the Design Features of Language--that is, one of the hallmarks indicating that a communication system is a language.