Sunday, February 04, 2007

never mind

I must admit, my feelings are a tiny bit hurt. The Guardian Guide's Internet page has published a list of recommended language blogs. It includes some of my favo(u)rites--Language Log and the blog of an American in Sweden--but, well, Americans in England weren't on their wanted list, apparently. Or at least I wasn't. The properly British thing to say in response to that is:

Never mind.

(As pop culture informs us, this is spelt with a space in BrE--as in the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, but sometimes without one in AmE, as in Nirvana's Nevermind. [PS: see comments for further discussion of this point!])

Ideally, I should say never mind with a sing-song quality. It's not that it's an exclusively British saying, it's just that it's used a lot more here--wherever I would say:

Oh well.

...which I say altogether too much.

I had a hard time getting used to this kind of 'Well what can you do? We might as well change the topic of conversation' never mind . Early in my days here I was telling an Englishman about something that I found upsetting (involving a close family member and emergency surgery), and his response was NEver MIND. Now this may have been a defen{c/s}e mechanism against a foreigner who was breaking British privacy mores, but I still found it a very glib response (how could I not mind?!). But a few years later, I reali{s/z}e it's more a statement of resignation (stiff upper lip and all that) than of lack of sympathy.

I had a similar bristly kind of reaction to the use of It's a pleasure as a response to Thank you--a response that is far more common in BrE (and South African E) than in AmE. After shame-facedly asking to borrow money until payday from my boss in South Africa, he handed over some number of rand and said It's a pleasure at which point I (AmE) wigged out and exclaimed It is NOT a pleasure! It's an inconvenience to you! Ah, I know how to show gratitude, don't I? That's probably why I'm not allowed to have nice things like a mention in the Guardian. It's karma.

49 comments:

Alliethekiwi said...

That's a frightful shame. Never mind. Ah well. Maybe next time?

That bloody sucks!

I find the comparison between different types of English far more interesting that any of those other blogs.

jangari said...

I have to say, it isn't a very good collection of language blogs, with the notable exception of LanguageLog, and of course, your exclusion only confirms this.

I had a brief look at buzzword hell and the comments seem to be dominated by those opposed to anything longer than three syllables. How riveting.

sharon said...

Additionally, 'Never mind' and 'Ah well' are among those phrases that have a fairly close association with 'I'll put the kettle on and make a nice cup of tea'...

Andrew said...

I think that one shade of AmE meaning conveyed by the BrE "Never mind" is something like "suck it up". It is a resigned, rather angry, stiff-upper -lipishness: what you say when there is nothing further to be done about a disagreeable fact.

But then that may not be the sense in which "suck it up" is used.

lynneguist said...

When spoken with the sing-song intonation, I don't think never mind is meant unsympathetically/angrily. People say it of their own situations, as in I didn't get that job I wanted. [bit of a sulk, followed by straightening oneself out.] NEver mind.

lynneguist said...

By the way, thanks for all the lovely compliments/commiserations. I wasn't fishing for them, really! (Well, mostly-really.)

I'm sure the less complimentary comments will start any minute now...

Kay said...

Just because Nirvana spelled it "nevermind," doesn't mean they're right. There's no such word and all Americans that copy this spelling are dolts.

lynneguist said...

That's not very friendly, Kay. Is this me getting the uncomplimentary comments I was worried about?

There is a word nevermind. It's a US colloquialism, recorded in the OED, among other sources. Americans aren't copying Nirvana, Nirvana copied Americans.

The one-word nevermind is recorded in its noun sense in the OED, as in:

1971 B. MALAMUD Tenants 177 Those are old books of his he wrote long ago, says Willie. Both been published. Then it makes no nevermind if we burn them.

Written English exists to represent the language, which is a spoken entity in its natural state. However, the spoken language changes faster than the written language, and British English is much more resistant to getting rid of the space in words once they become compound words. (It also likes to put spaces between non-words [morphemes] and words, as in non word, which is how my British students like to write it.) There's a lot of variation in BrE and AmE in spacing...for example, good bye versus goodbye (the latter only came became playable in British Scrabble when they took on the international dictionary). It's used as a single word, but written (often) as two.

Part of the way to tell whether something is being used as a compound word or not is whether it can be broken up with other words in between. Another is the intonational pattern it has. In this particular interjectional use, I can see no particular reason why never mind shouldn't be written as one word. It doesn't have the intonational pattern of the command it's based on, and doesn't really have the same meaning as the form that can be interrupted by you (never you mind...). (Also, compare with the intonational pattern of a true never command--like Never talk!

So, I've no problem with the one-word spelling--in fact, I think it makes sense.

Though I should say--the Nirvana use is more the meaning that I'm talking about here, whereas the Sex Pistols' version is more the command ('never you mind the bollocks'). I just enjoyed citing two seminal pieces of punk/post-punk music together to make a point about spelling!

lynneguist said...

I should also say, the last comment was written in haste, and I'm not absolutely 100% committed to everything in it, but I still like single-word nevermind as an interjection.

dearieme said...

Well, there you are.

lynneguist said...

Yep, there you are. I think never mind as an interjection can be considered a compound word, but not being a morphologist, I'm not going to bet the farm--or (more appropriately) the (BrE) flat/(AmE) apartment on it.

Are there any morphologists out there who'd like to make a firmer claim?

Nancy said...

Rest assured that "nevermind," sans space, would never make it past the copy desk of any major U.S. newspaper or magazine (unless the reporter were reviewing "Nevermind"). But to your point, Lynne, I envy the French with their expressive "tant pis" (accompanied by even more eloquent Gallic shrug). It just says it all.

Francis S. said...

If it's any consolation, I've gotten many more hits from your posting than I have from the Guardian. Interesting, eh?

Matt said...

When comparing the two dialects, I always find the difference in connotation between phrases commonly used in both dialects more interesting than the use of separate words to mean the same thing. As an American, I can understand your shock when someone told you “never mind” after you related a story of a sick friend. That would come across as quite insensitive if not downright rude. For the British, does “never mind” still have the same connotation of resignation when used in a phrase as in the Sex Pistols’ album name? I would translate the album title to “Ignore / Dismiss the B.S.”

jack said...

A shame your blog wasn't mentioned - it's currently one of my favorites.

Oh yeah, and Microsoft Word's spellchecker doesn't like "nevermind," and I say "oh well" all the time too.

Janet said...

Hi Lynneguist,

My English husband uses the "Never mind..." phrase a lot when I think he should be responding in a more sympathetic way to whatever minor tragedy I'm relating to him. I honestly thought he wasn't taking me serious enough. After being over here for 4 years, I honestly didn't realize the real meaning of the phrase.

Thanks. You have helped my marriage!

;-)

Janet

PS I think "The Guardian" really goofed leaving you off their list!

lynneguist said...

Thanks for the repeated consolations!

Indeed, never mind is not prescriptively allowed as one word--unless it is the noun (which is a colloquial usage, and therefore perhaps not surprising that MS-Word doesn't like it). My wondering-wanderings a few comments back are more about whether it can be considered a word (on linguistic/morphological grounds) in spite of having a space in it (and therefore whether the space should be negotiable!).

A lot of people (especially the type who like to read language blogs, of course!) have strong feelings about the prescriptivist issue--it should be spelt this way because it's spelt this way (or because it comes from two words, etc.). But that's a different issue than what I was trying to get at. Oh well. Never mind!

As for the Sex Pistols' title, the very fact that never mind has a direct object (the bollocks) tells us that this isn't the interjection never mind, but a more proper command ('don't pay any attention to'). The Nirvana title (if we interpret it in the context of the song 'Smells like Teen Spirit') does have the sense that we hear a lot in BrE (and, as I said, we also hear it in AmE, just not to the same extent). (From lyricsfreak.com:)

And I forget
Just what it takes
And yet I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard
It's hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind


We haven't got(ten) into the AmE youth-use of whatever...but let's save that for another time!

Ken Broadhurst said...

Can someone please give some more details about the British usage of "never mind." When my British friends use the expression, I have to stop and think about it. Sometimes I think they mean "don't let it get you down" or "don't let it bother you" when they say "never mind".

lynneguist said...

I think you've interpreted it correctly, Ken. BrE speakers are probably more likely to use it about their own situation (e.g. "I didn't get that job. Never mind."), in which case it means 'I can't/won't/shouldn't let that get me down'.

As Janet's and my experiences have shown, it feels odd to many AmE speakers that BrE speakers use it about their addressee's situation as well as their own. As in:

A: I didn't get that job.
B: Never mind. (Another one will come along.)

In the particular person/circumstance that I was talking about, it had the effect of being a topic-changing device as well. I frequently hear it used that way, which leads to Janet and me feeling like it seems a bit insensitive. (i.e. 'sorry to hear that your life is a misery. let's talk about something else'). But I really don't believe it's done out of insensitivity--just different (a) cultural rules about discussing personal matters and (b) different understanding of the use of never mind. There may also be some gender issues here besides the BrE/AmE issues! But on the (a) topic, you might be interested in Kate Fox's book Watching the English.

MM said...

That's an out-of-date list, isn't it? Surely it was put up before yours even started. E-Julie really has left the building (Language Legend).

lynneguist said...

No, it was published Saturday. Maybe they researched it ages ago.

Jack said...

Now I'm curious, what are the British "rules" about discussing personal matters? I assume that it is very taboo based on your postings, which doesn't strike me as a specifically British thing.

lynneguist said...

I hesitate to post this, because there are bound to be lots and lots of responses saying "but we're not all like that" or "but Americans are like that too", etc. Of course! There's variation in every culture! But the social sciences are about making generali{s/z}ations, and generali{s/z}ations are what are useful if you want to talk about the character of a culture. It's also the case that a lot of the rules, as they are stated below, are common sayings in both cultures--but it's what the culture does with them that matters. So...with that as a preface, I quote from pages 43-44 of Kate Fox's Watching the English:

"...a disproportionate number of our most influential social rules and maxims are concerned with the maintenance of privacy: we are taught to mind our own business, not to pry, to keep ourselves to ourselves, not to make a scene or fuss or draw attention to ourselves, and never to wash our dirty linen in public. [...] 'Private' information is not given away lightly or cheaply to all and sundry, but only to those we know and trust. This is one of the reasons why foreigners often complain that the English are cold, reserved, stuffy and standoffish. In most other cultures, revealing basic personal information--your name, what you do for a living, whether you are married or have children, where you live--is no big deal: in England, extracting such apparently trivial information about a new acquaintance can be like pulling teeth--every question makes us wince and recoil."

I could tell a few anecdotes here, but I can't think of any that I could tell without offending the subject's sense of privacy, so I'll stick with Kate Fox. (But really, you should read her whole chapter on gossip to get the whole picture.) So here's a quote from p. 39:

"The 'brash American' approach: 'Hi, I'm Bill from Iowa,' particularly if accompanied by an outstretched hand and a beaming smile, makes the English wince and cringe. The American tourists and visitors I spoke to during my research had been both baffled and hurt by this reaction. 'I just don't get it,' said one woman. 'You say your name and they sort of wrinkle their noses, like you've told them something a bit too personal and embarrassing.' 'That's right,' her husband added. 'And then they give you this tight little smile and say "Hello"--kind of pointedly not giving you their name, to let you know you've made this big social boo-boo. What the hell is so private about a person's name, for God's sake?
'I ended up explaining, as kindly as I could, that the English do not want to know your name, or tell you theirs, until a much greater degree of intimacy has been established--like maybe when you marry their daughter.'

(OK, the last bit is an exaggeration--but you get the picture.) Better Half, by the way, HATES IT when I read this book aloud to him (as I did often over Christmas). He says it's libelous. I think it's too close for comfort.

I find the book very interesting, but her ample and odd use of colons turns my brain inside out.

ally said...

Argh, you're completely right: That extract is way too close for comfort! It made me cringe when I was reading it. (I am British, obviously.)

Anonymous said...

For me (I'm American), "never mind" is used more when you are dismissing or retracting a proposal or a request. As in:
A: Hello, I'd like to file a missing person's report on my husband.
B: Yes ma'am, if I could just have your . . .
A: Never mind, he just walked in.

Sometimes it is used impatiently, as in:
A: I'd like a coke please.
B: Small medium or large? Diet coke, diet pepsi, pepsi lite, cherry coke, or pepsi free? By the way, our soda machine is being serviced, so it will be a 20 minute wait.
A: Oh, never mind! [storms out]

JohnB said...

*grins* If I get a - 'Hi, I'm Bill from London,' accompanied by an outstretched hand and a beaming smile - my instinct would be to step back and ask myself "What is going to try to sell me?" or "Why is he picking on me? Does he have an accomplice?"

Because that behaviour would be going against the norm here.

When I am in the US, I expect that type of greeting and respond to it more positively - even though it seems obtrusive and forced to me. I KNOW it isn't forced - but I would have to force myself to behave like that. *shrug*

I have similar feelings when I travel to family in France - getting kissed four times by complete strangers seems equally unusual and intrusive to me - even though its perfectly natural for the French.

I wonder how an American in New York would react if a complete stranger walked up to them, grabbed their arms and kisses them twice on each cheek?

Howard said...

I think perhaps "never mind" has a broader range of meanings here in Britain: from "I feel so sorry about your acute anxiety, and I wish I could remove it from you; here's a hug" (though one would never reply to the news of a loved one's death with "Never mind"!), to "Don't burden me with that - I've got more important things on my plate!" - said, for example, in response to "I've just broken one of the Crown Derby pieces." A lot is conveyed by the non-verbal means of communication, and by the context of the conversation.

> but her ample and odd use of colons turns my brain inside out.

Do you think Kate Fox ought to read Lynne Truss? :-)

Jack said...

Ah, thanks for your explanation about the British being more private - I had no idea that it could be to such an extreme (like withholding one's own name) and had assumed it simply meant not discussing private, health, or family matters with anyone outside of one's own family - a rule that was drilled into me while growing up.

Being a cashier I have found that some of us Americans can be very very open with people who are essentially strangers. I've had people talk to me for up to a half hour venting their troubles - the sorts of things I would never say to a close friend let alone a complete stranger.

lynneguist said...

Here's an example from a US encounter. I was buying a drink at a convenience store (=BrE corner shop) in Urbana, Illinois early one morning (for me that means about 10am). The man at the (BrE) till/(AmE) register, said "Oh come on, smile it can't be that bad."

On this particular occasion I (AmE) wigged out and said to him that for all he knew I had inoperable cancer! For all he knew my mother could have just died! It was not my responsibility to smile for his benefit--it's my face!

Not a British response at all, but the man's behavio(u)r was absolutely American. It's that kind of presumption of familiarity that makes Americans different from the British. Another is how loudly Americans speak in public--so that everything they say is imposed on everyone else. (Experienced tonight courtesy of some exchange students on the train. They're going to London tomorrow. Some of them are going to leave at about 7. Some of them think that's the crack of dawn. None of them knows what's going on with Mark...)

ally said...

No, sorry, you can't have that one! I am always, always being told to "Cheer up love, it might never 'appen" by (male) strangers in the street in Britain, and also know many unpleasant and personal details about various Brighton teenagers' lives just from sitting on the same bus/ train as them! Ugh.

lynneguist said...

Point taken, Ally, but:

The 'privacy' rules we're talking about (and the 'deference culture' in general) are lessening in general and are particularly less likely to be found (a) among youth (whether this is about being young or about a change in society must be asked. Probably some of both), and (b) among the working class, or generally any 'disenfranchised' subculture (see point (a)).

So, yes, teenagers on busses are obnoxious generally, but have you ever been on the Tube or in a restaurant with middle-aged US tourists? Don't they speak more loudly than just about everyone else!

(And would you agree that my (AmE) freak-out was a really American reaction?)

ally said...

I don't know if your reaction was typical of your nationality; shouldn't you not mind being told that sort of thing? Shouldn't you be used to it, if it's so typical to be treated like that?! :)

About the other stuff, yeah, i do see your point, and I can recall a few baseball-capped-leeeisure-suited-early-
retirement-aged Americans in 'Hey everybody! We're flying to Edinburrow in Scot-land tomorrow!'* type incidents on the train. But older (British) people on trains with mobile phones tend to be at least as bad as the youngsters ('CAN YOU HEAR ME DEAR? I'M ON THE TRAIN!' etc.).
*[I hope that bit didn't sound anti-American; I'm not.]

lynneguist said...

Kate Fox explicitly discusses the mobile phone exception in her book.

The thing that made my reaction American was not that I minded--it would be very British to mind that kind of intrusion on one's privacy. The American bit was that I yelled at the guy!

Mustn't grumble is a BrE mantra--not at all as internali{s/z}ed by Americans.

jangari said...

Australians on the whole aren't quite as... boisterous (loud) as Americans and not quite as private (uptight) as the British, but we tend to have these token conversations, probably closer to the British, wherein nothing confrontational is ever mentioned. For instance:

A: How's it goin'?
B: Good mate, good. You?
A: Good, thanks.

Either A or B could potentially be having the single worst day of their life, but the worst you'll ever hear from a stranger (who adheres to these norms) is 'Can't complain'. And quite frankly, this is how it should be. Asking how someone is should not elicit any truthful information about how that person actually is, because to be frank, I couldn't care less (note the negative).
No, that's not strictly true, but I'd really prefer not to go any deeper than this with a stranger.

jack said...

There's an old MGM musical, I think the Ziegfield Follies, in which the "token" conversation you describe is the whole theme. Two men meet each other over and over again for their entire lives and never once say anything meaningful (the "Hi, how are you?/great" "How are your wife and kids?/wonderful" type stuff).

I basically do it all day at my job:

Me: Hi, how are you today?
Customer: Good/fine/fair-to-middlin'/terrible (but always with a smile)/can't complain, and you?
Me: I'm fine

I'd heard that this sort of hollow conversation was more of an American thing that the British frowned upon.

lynneguist said...

Kate Fox, again, covers this kind of conversation in her book, claiming that the English norm is to give an automatic, vague/positive response to 'how are you?', unless one is very intimate with someone else.

The 'how are you' exchange is common across English-speaking cultures. What differs is how formulaic it is and the level of intimacy one must have with another before breaking from the formulae. One thing I always found amusing in South Africa is that I could say Hello to someone and their response might be Fine thanks, and you? The Hello, how are you? or (SAfE) Howzit formulae were so well entrenched that any greeting might be expected to be them.

Shefaly Yogendra said...

On 'How are you', this short poem is a dead give-away even to the philistine that Ogden Nash was American:

Do not tell your friend
About your indigestion
How are you is a greeting
Not a question.

Peregrine said...

One thing I always found amusing in South Africa is that I could say Hello to someone and their response might be Fine thanks, and you? The Hello, how are you? or (SAfE) Howzit formulae were so well entrenched that any greeting might be expected to be them.
===================================
Heh :)
I've caught myself making the response on numerous such occasions. And in testing it out, if someone's reasonably occupied with something, even a fairly nonsensical opener can get the conditioned response.

Robbie said...

No-one's seemed to mention what (to me) is a salient feature of saying "never mind" or "oh, bad luck" to someone under these circumstances.

These are the phrases you say to a child after a minor mishap. You fell off your bike? Never mind, get back on and try again. Spilled your drink? Never mind, we'll soon clean it up.

So the child learns not to make a fuss over trifles, and grows up with "never mind" as the phrase that springs naturally to the lips under such circumstances. And it's reassuring to hear because it's a throwback to childhood, even if only subconsciously.

That's my opinion, anyway. Or is it just me?

Chris said...

"I wonder how an American in New York would react if a complete stranger walked up to them, grabbed their arms and kisses them twice on each cheek?"

I would just like to correct any misunderstandings that may have been imparted on French culture by the above comment. Firstly, my associating with French culture stems from 1949, I'm native bilingual and spent 40 years oscillating between both counties.

Complete strangers in France NEVER exchange air kisses. A handshake, usually rather limp-wristed, is the formal greeting and is used far more often than in the UK.
And finally, it's four kisses in the north and three only in France méridional, and they are exchanged only between family members, close colleagues, and close friends. If anything , it is used slightly, but only slightly, less between men than between women.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm a naturally shy (British)person, but I don't think I would wince if an American stranger told me their name!

Kate in Derby

John Cowan said...

What I first remember about Never mind is that I could say it to my mother to mean "Ignore what I just said; it was wrong, irrelevant, or not directed to you." If I said Forget it, which to me meant exactly the same thing, my mother went into a tirade: "Don't tell me what to forget!", etc. etc. etc.

Julie said...

Emily Litella uses "never mind" in the classic American sense:

SNL

Harry Campbell said...

Nowadays I often hear something like "hey, what you gonna do?" as an alternative to "oh well" or "never mind". Either American or Cool Brit.

ella said...

Sorry to leave a comment on such an old post, I was lost in link-land and stumbled over it.

I was reading bits of this to my (BrE) other half & he was reminded of a (BrE) badge (AmE) button he had in the late nineties.

Kurt's dead.
Never mind.

Thought you might get a giggle.

Anonymous said...

Another late comment, but I don't think I'm rehashing anything that's already been said. I'd like to add a note about pronunciation. The distinction between "never mind" as two words and "nevermind" as one is pretty clear in spoken English by the stress. Lacking IPA in this comment box, I'll use ALL CAPS to get the point across:

NEver MIND = "oh that's too bad" (BrE) or "forget I mentioned it" / "it's irrelevant" (AmE)

NEvermind = difference/importance/unmentionable (this is a hard word to define, isn't it?)

The one-word version is found in strongly dialectal expressions like "it makes no nevermind" or "Don't give me no nevermind". I've even heard "she fell and bruised her nevermind"--that from a lady who called me her little kumquat and was generally countrified and adorable. I don't know the history of the one-word nevermind, but to my American ears, it sounds like something a little red-neck, but quaint rather than vulgar.

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

My uncle Lionel used to say That don't make no never mind. He was British — Welsh in fact — born over a century ago. That double negative was deliberately out of place in his otherwise middle-class speech, but it was essential for the rhythm

From what you say it seems likely that he picked up the expression from American fellow musicians some time in the Sixties. However, it was never MIND, not NEVermind.

You may not be familiar with the very English comedian George Formby (died 1961) who sang

Now there's a famous talkie queen
She looks a flapper on the screen
She's more like eightie than eighteen
When I'm cleanin' windows

She pulls her hair all down behind
Then pulls down her never mind
And after that pulls down the blind
When I'm cleanin' windows


See this video clip.

Anonymous said...

Hi David,
Same Anon as above, here. Thanks for the great clip and your notes about pronunciation! I'd never heard of Formby, but I enjoyed watching that video.

I don't know how common this use of the term is in the UK nowadays, but where I'm coming from (east coast, US) I rarely hear it and only from older people. That's a pity; I ought to revive it! After all, in the right context, a prim little "nevermind" is more saucy than whatever we're refusing to say. :D

Iain Mac Eochagáin said...

In Ireland in a slightly different context we have "fair enough". It's used to respond to someone expressing an opinion you could agree or disagree with but which you don't particularly want to engage with at the moment.