But there was a comment in the post that got me a bit down. Orac shows a photo of a sign for a "Baby Nappy Changer Unit" in a public toilet/restroom (which funnily uses the more Canadian washroom in the sign--it's at the Tower of London, so perhaps they're going for the most transparent term, given the tourists). About this sign, Orac says:
It sounds so much more civilized that [sic] "diaper."And my question is why? Nappy, the modern BrE equivalent to (AmE) diaper, is a baby-talk version of napkin--though no one these days calls the things that you put on babies napkins.* So, nappy, etymologically speaking, is on a par with other baby-talk words like doggy, horsie, and choo-choo. The OED's (draft 2003 definition) first citation for it in print comes from 1927, and it's hardly complimentary of the word:
1927 W. E. COLLINSON Contemp. Eng. 7 Mothers and nurses use pseudo-infantile forms like pinny (pinafore), nappy (napkin).Diaper, on the other hand comes from a Latin, later French, with a root meaning 'white'. The first citation for it is from the 14th century, where it refers to a type of cloth, and it has its place in Shakespeare (probably not referring to a baby's napkin in that case, but to a napkin or towel). So, why does a babyfied word sound more 'civilized' to an educated AmE speaker than a good, old latinate word? Methinks that this is a symptom of American Verbal Inferiority Complex.
AVIC strikes Americans from all walks of life. It's why my mother thinks that it's "pretty" when an Englishperson rhymes garage with carriage. It's why Americans think people with English accents are more intelligent than they are. It's why I get e-mails from Americans who despair of their fellow citizens' diction and thank me for championing the 'correct ways'. (I e-mail back and explain that I'm doing no such thing and that their reasoning on the matter is flawed. I wonder why they never send a reply...) Of course, there's a similar syndrome affecting some BrE speakers: British Verbal Superiority Complex; however, I've not found this to be quite as evenly distributed through the population as AVIC is in the US.
Now, there are times to think that some (uses of) language is(/are) better than others. One thing that Orac and commentators on his blog praise is the directness and honesty of certain signs. I don't always agree with their examples, but directness and honesty are admirable qualities in signs. (One that is pictured on the blog, but that I've never understood, is the BrE convention of putting polite notice at the top of a sign that orders people around. What's wrong with please?) Other things that make some (uses of) language arguably better than others are consistency within the system (e.g. in spelling) and avoidance of ambiguity. But these are issues about the use of the language, and both BrE and AmE can be (and often are) used in clear, consistent, direct, honest ways.
So, back to my old mantras:
- 'Different' doesn't mean 'better' or 'worse'.
- 'British' doesn't necessarily mean 'older' or 'original'.
- 'Older' doesn't mean 'better' either!
- Let's enjoy each other's dialects AND our own!
(One can be obnoxiously preachy in either dialect too.)
Happy Labor Day to the Americans out there. (I won't re-spell it Labour, since it's a name.) And I will admit my prejudice that American Monday-holidays generally have better names!
* I can't resist a few side-notes on nappy and napkin.
- AmE uses sanitary napkin for a feminine hygiene product, while BrE uses sanitary towel.
- Then there's the AmE meaning of nappy, which derives from the more general sense of 'having a nap'--as fabric can (BrE: can have). In AmE this also refers to the type of tightly curled hair that is (pheno)typical of people of sub-Saharan African ancestry--particularly when said hair is not very well cared for. This was the meaning in play when (orig. AmE) shock-jock Don Imus called the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos". When the news story was reported in the UK, there was some confusion (see, for example the comments here), with some people thinking that Imus was claiming that the women wore diapers or napkins on their heads (à la Aunt Jemima).
- Then there's the old napkin versus serviette drama in BrE and related Es. In some (e.g. South African and some BrE speakers), the former is reserved for cloth table napkins, and the latter for paper. Elsewhere, serviette just marks you out as being 'non-U'--i.e. not upper class. Serviette is virtually unknown in AmE.
Grace often retold the story of how, at 19, desperate to be a poet, she took a course taught by WH Auden. When she used the word "trousers" in a poem, Auden asked why she was writing in British English - why didn't she just say "pants"? Paley explained that she thought that was just what writers did, and then never did it again.