Wednesday, February 28, 2007

spastic, learning disability

Different pronunciations and new-to-you vocabulary can be charming. "I just love your accent!" people say, or "I love how the English/Americans say [insert word here--but not wanker, please]." Dialect wannabes pick up on these things and incorporate them into the linguistic identity that they try to project. But different meanings are another matter--they sneak up on you. Different meanings can get you into trouble.

Tiger Woods discovered this when he called himself a spaz on live UK radio/television after playing badly at the Masters last April. (See Language Log's discussion from back then.) To an American ear, that's a word for a (AmE) klutz. To a British ear, it's one of the most taboo insults, on a par with retard as one of the worst playground taunts. The difference is that BrE speakers see the connection between spaz and a specific disability, cerebral palsy. When I first moved here and donated to the charity SCOPE, its literature still said 'formerly the Spastic Society'. The name was changed in 1994, and you can read about it here (NB: link is a .pdf file). Until that point, I had never heard spastic as a synonym for 'having cerebral palsy' or 'person with cerebral palsy'--which is not to say that they were never used in the US in that way, but that it wasn't a use of the word that people of my generation were likely to come across. I had heard it as a description of some of the symptoms of CP (e.g. spastic muscles), so when I saw the title The Spastic Society, I could guess what the society was about. Still, it immediately struck me as a fairly crude and insensitive description of a disability, even though I still wasn't associating spaz with the disability. But like Tiger Woods, I heard horrified, sharp intakes of breath when I first unwittingly used it in the UK to describe my own behavio(u)r.

As Liz Ditz points out, learning disabled is another disability-related term that could cause transatlantic offen{c/s}e. It's a term that I used often as a (AmE) professor* at an American university, since it's the term that's used to collectively refer to things like dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attentional deficits. In other words, it's used for people with normal IQs who have specific problems with some aspect of learning. But in the UK, learning disability is equivalent to what is now in the US called developmental disability--and what has been called mental retardation (though this is found by many--especially in the UK--to be offensive now). Dyslexia and other normal-IQ conditions come under the umbrella of specific learning difficulty. The thing that keeps me confused about not calling dyslexia a learning disability is that it's covered by the UK Disability Discrimination Act. So, it's a disability that's not a disability. When trying to speak about such things at teaching-related meetings, I remember not to say learning disability, but can rarely remember difficulty, so I usually end up saying useless things like we need to keep in mind the students with learning....issues. (Doesn't every student have a learning issue?)

Another big term in British schooling is special educational needs, or SEN, which is the blanket term for any learning or behavio(u)ral problem that requires special consideration at school, and is used in contexts like SEN classrooms. One also hears/sees special needs education. I asked one of my bestest friends, the Ginger Nut about this. GN has been studying for a teaching certificate in the US while (working full-time and) raising a child who has an autistic spectrum disorder--so she's much more in touch with the terminology in American schools than I am. She confirms that SEN isn't the term of choice in AmE, but that "We might say, Special needs, and the official phrase that I think is comparable is Special education and related services - that's the phrasing in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)." Incidentally, I was recently told by a UK teacher that one has to avoid referring to anything as special in the classroom these days because of the association with learning/developmental disabilities. It may be the same in the US, where I first (about 12 years ago) heard the taunt You're so special, you should be in special education (or, the Special Olympics).

To see fuller lists of terminology (and perhaps do your own comparison), you can find a glossary of BrE terminology at TeacherNet and of AmE terminology at the UCLA/Wallis Foundation website. A term from the latter that GN had mentioned was emotional disturbance (ED), whereas the BrE equivalent seems to be EBD: emotional and behavioural difficulties. We tend not to get these terms at the university level, and instead talk about such problems (including depression and schizophrenia) as mental health problems or mental illness.


*Yes, there are professors at BrE institutions too, but most British universities the term only applies to the equivalent of AmE full professor, and I wasn't one of those. Hence, the '(AmE)' marking. Someday I'll do an entry on that(And I now have.)

Friday, February 23, 2007

shameful self-promotion

It's just too embarrassing to ask, so I'll just put this here:


What you do with that is your business.

It's been a problematic week (Britishoid understatement), so haven't had a chance to post, but did see an old (17 April 1996) Steve Bell If... cartoon in the Guardian that made me think of (AmE) you-all. I can't reproduce it here (can't find it on the web, and fear that people who break copyright rules might not get blog awards), but the dialogue goes like this:
Her Majesty the Queen out on a walk with her corgi "Geraint" [emphasis as in original]

HM: Tell me Geraint Do you think I'm middle clawss? I pay
tex
, I live in inner London, I wear sensible claythes. My children aren't very bright and my husband's unemployed!

G: You'll always be my little bit of rruff maaajesty!

Some quick notes on the sounds here, courtesy of Upton and Widdowson's Atlas of English Dialects:
  • The pronunciation of a before [s], [f] or [θ] as 'aw' is a distinctly Southern pronunciation. This was due to a couple of fashionable sound changes in the South. In the 17th century, people here started lengthening this vowel, and in the 18th it moved further back in the mouth (hence the 'aw' quality). This later became part of 'Received Pronunciation' (RP).
  • Pronouncing tax as tex: This is an exaggeration of the conservative form of Received Pronunciation, which U&W describe as 'a with a flavour of e'. They note that 'to many Northerners southern [ae] sounds like [ɛ], and it is not hard to see how this pronunciation at times slips over in to the full [ɛ] to which it is so close.'
  • U&W don't cover claythes (i.e. variant pronunciations of o in the middles of words), and the RP pronunciation of this sound is typically [əʊ], which gives it a bit of a Frenchish sound. I've found a few uses of claythes on the web. One is from a man in Teesside wondering about a woman in a play (Does she get her claythes off?). But other evidence is in favo(u)r of this being a northern thing as well, as there are historical spellings of clothes with a or ai in the OED, such as clathes and clais, which are marked as Northern and Scottish, respectively. (Well, she does spend a lot of time at Balmoral...). Any other thoughts on why the Queen is depicted as saying claythes?
cheating postscript: I was sitting in the theat{re/er} tonight, watching a show, and suddenly reali{s/z}ed that I forgot to end this post in the manner I'd intended--which was to point out the study that's shown how the Queen's English has become decidedly more "middle clawss" over the years. So now I have.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

me (n)either / nor (do) I

Robert wrote last week to say:
Watching a film called The Holiday yesterday evening, I was astonished to hear Jude Law, playing a British character, say, "Me, either" in reply to something Cameron Diaz had said. To my [...] Southern British ears that sounds very American. I would say "Neither/nor do I" or rather less likely "Me, neither." Any thoughts?
My first thought is: the screenwriter is American, right? Right--although the title of the film, shows some Anglophilia. You'd have thought that Jude Law would have pointed the unnaturalness (for an Englishman) of the phrase to the director/screenwriter, but perhaps he's lost his sense of dialect.

Yes, me either is American, and there are plenty of pedants who will tell you it's wrong. Pedant's Parsnips (you can tell this is a British site--most Americans couldn't pick a parsnip out of a (AmE) line-up/(BrE) identification parade) says that me either is:
A doubly illiterate response to sentiments such as "I don't like this" where presumably it is short for "me don't like this either." Use Nor I. Or, if you prefer verbosity, Neither do I.
Americans are less vociferous on the topic, but there are plenty out there who will claim that it "should" be me neither or, preferably, neither do I or nor I.

Myself, I can't be too bothered about any of this. We can see two patterns here of agreement responses to positive and negative sentences. There's the "me-something" pattern and the "something do I" pattern.

The "me-something" pattern goes like this:
I like parsnips.

Me too.

I don't like Brussels sprouts. (AmE: often brussels sprouts)

Me neither.

BrE allows me too, as evidenced both by the title of a CBeebies television (BrE) programme/(AmE) show and by Better Half's predictable response when I say I want ice cream. But BrE doesn't like me (n)either. (AmE) Go figure.

The "something-do-I" pattern goes like this:
I like parsnips.

So do I.

I don't like {B/b}russels sprouts.

Neither do I. / Nor (do) I.


The "something-do I" pattern sounds more formal to my AmE ears, but "formal" isn't always "better".

As for pronunciation, me (n)either is pronounced with an 'ee' (IPA: /i/) sound at the start of the (n)either. Even if one uses the diphthong that sounds like eye (IPA: /aj/) at the beginning of (n)either in other phrasal contexts, in this phrase it must have the 'ee' (/i/). Both /i/ and /aj/ pronunciations of either/neither are acceptable in both AmE and BrE, although individual tastes may vary. (Myself, I say both/either. I've tried to discern a pattern in myself, but haven't come up with anything beyond the me (n)either regularity.) For more on the history of the pronunciation, see this 1999 post on Maven's Word of the Day.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

hairy subjects, part 2: hair accessories

Today's post was going to be a serious examination of sensitive subjects that affect many lives. But the Blogger ate my homework. So let's talk about hair some more! (So what if this means just giving a straight catalog(ue) of lexical differences (ho-hum)? It's what the blogger gods want, apparently.)

As we saw recently, some names for hairstyles (and parts thereof) differ in BrE and AmE. And things that one might put in or on one's hair differ as well.

First on our list is the thing to the left. The AmE word for it is barrette, whereas in BrE it is typically called a hair-slide. This particular one is from a wood-working studio in Canada, if you're interested.

Littler hair-holders made out of a folded piece of wire are called bobby pins in AmE--apparently because they were first used in 'bobbed' hairdos, and kirby-grips in BrE--based on the tradename Kirbigrip.

In AmE, the item worn by Alice at the right is typically called a head band. But in BrE, it's an Alice band, after Alice's headgear in John Tenniel's illustrations of Through the Looking Glass. Now, of course, head band could refer to a lot of other kinds of things as well, such as the type of thing a hippie or a martial-artist might wear across the forehead. The BrE term is much more specific, which is probably why one can find it from time to time in AmE as well.


A BrE hair band, on the other hand, is an elastic band (possibly decorated) for making a ponytail or pigtails/bunches. This little item (like rubber bands more generally) is a dialectal jamboree (orig. and predominantly AmE) in the US. I call this an elastic (and consider hair band to be another word for head band/Alice band). Elastic as a word for pony-tail holders is symboli{s/z}ed by the red bits on the map below from linguist Bert Vaux's Dialect Survey:

The purple in this map is the less-than-helpful term hair thing, leading me to wonder if the 'purple people' have short hair or particularly limited vocabularies. (Is hair thing really a lexicali{s/z}ed term with this specific a meaning? Americans, what do you think?) The royal blue is rubber band, and the gold is hair tie. See here for all the details and more maps.

A scrunchie, however, is a scrunchie--and an abomination--in any dialect.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

form and pro forma

When I lived in South Africa, I often claimed that the country's major industry was bureaucracy. As a foreigner, I had reason to feel this, since until I was granted permanent residence (not very permanent, it turned out), I had to stand for a few hours on a (BrE) queue/(AmE) line every three to six months in order to have my work permit renewed. There was one year in which I had three chest x-rays--first they lost one, and then they made me incorrect identity documents...twice. The first time, my ID book said I was born in South Africa, the second time it said I was born in Albania (see evidence right--first name covered with (BrE) toilet roll/(AmE) toilet paper in order to maintain a sense of mystery). It also said I was a South African citizen, which was never true. By the time all the corrections were processed, the second x-ray had 'expired', so I had to prove again that I was tuberculosis-free. So, if I ever come down with any cancers of the upper torso, we'll know which government to blame.

But it turns out that South Africans are mere amateurs at bureaucracy compared to Higher Education in England. My life is paperwork. Paperwork if I want to give students an extra week to write their essays. Evaluations to write up about my students' evaluations of my courses. Then evaluations of the external examiner's evaluations of my evaluation of my students. (Most American universities don't even have external examiners.) Evaluations of all the courses in the department, then evaluations of all of the degrees on which those courses are offered. My reading lists have to be written up in at least three different formats (one for the library, one for the bookshop, one for the students) before each course. And, just like in South Africa, there's always someone in some office to tell you that you've misinterpreted a question or you were supposed to fill out a CQ3 instead of a QC3, and therefore your proposal/evaluation/application won't be considered again until the next committee meeting.

But the most difficult part is that I have a big block against talking about this paperwork, because I just can't get my brain around the local terminology. My colleagues use the term pro forma for what I would call a form. This is a Latin prepositional phrase that means 'on account of form'. Using it as an adverb seems natural (It was done pro forma), as does using it as an adjective (a pro forma document). My colleagues use it as a noun, though, which I've never experienced outside the UK. The noun sense ('an official form for completion' [OED]) is not found in American dictionaries (well, at least not Merriam-Webster's or American Heritage), but is in Oxford's. It's spelt a variety of ways:

1945 Ann. Trop. Med. & Parasitol. XXXIX. 226 A senior member of the nursing staff..checked that the patient took the tablet and recorded each dose given and taken on a pro-forma. [OED]

1978 Jrnl. R. Soc. Med. LXXI. 413 Details of the illness were recorded on a proforma. [OED]

Use of a pro forma for head injuries in the accident and emergency department [Journal of Accident and Emergency Medicine, 1994]
The examples above make clear that use of this term is common in medical jargon, but I'm here to tell you that the term is alive and well in English Higher Education as well.

Now, form in this meaning is perfectly sayable in British English, so I'm not really sure what has motivated the use of pro forma as a noun. But we can note that form has another sense in BrE, relating to a division of students in a school, discussed back here.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

hairy subjects, part 1: hairdos

Michelle, inspired by recent posts by Neil Gaiman (and here), wrote to ask about (AmE) bangs and (BrE) fringe, the words for hair cut shorter on the forehead. While they mostly mean the same thing, they don't seem to absolutely match. Bangs sit on your forehead, but some fringes don't--as I've heard fringe used to refer to bits of hair that are shorter than the rest but still too long to sit on the forehead, so they flip off to the side. I, myself, would not call such things bangs. I once slipped at my old South African hairdresser's (the one where they gave the most incredible head massages. Sometimes I can't believe I moved away from that), and asked for my bangs to be trimmed, which the hairdresser thought was hilarious. After that, she always asked "should I trim your bangers?" (which could mean, among other things, 'should I trim your sausages?' Maybe that's why I moved away). According to the Online Etymological Dictionary: "Bangs of hair first recorded 1878, Amer.Eng., though 1870 of horses (bang-tail), perhaps from notion of abruptness (cf. bang off "immediately, without delay")." Someone on Gaiman's site felt it was unseemly that the word bangs thus seemed to implicitly compare her face to a horse's bottom.

Michelle's query leads us on to other words for hair(-)styles. I'll save the matter of hair accessories for another post.

If hair is divided into three locks then woven together to make a 'rope', the result is called a plait in BrE and a braid in AmE--though both words are known in both countries. BrE plait is pronounced to rhyme with flat, whereas in AmE most speakers pronounce it like plate.

If the hair is tied into a bunch with an elastic band (I'll save discussion of that term for later, but if you can't wait to see how complicated it is, check out this map), then it could be in a pigtail or a ponytail, but in BrE you might also say that someone had her hair in bunches, particularly if there are two such bunches on either side of the head. (Clicking here should take you to the images available via Google.)

I'm shying away from putting pictures here, since the ones I find on the web are generally photos of real people who haven't given their permission for me to plaster their heads on my blog. So, if you want to see a lot of photos of our next haircut, go here, to a site without the same ethical qualms, it seems. (Be sure to page down--the first photo doesn't count.) And what is our next haircut, you ask? It's that emblem of British 1970s (and still!) rebellion the (BrE) Mohican, otherwise known as the (AmE) Mohawk. Why two names? It's all rather confusing actually, as Mohican is a term of questionable lineage and accuracy and the Mohawks are a completely different people; the translation blog Transubstantiation discussed this a bit in August. If you want to be really esoteric (or some would say 'p.c.'--but you know I hate that term--and others would say 'annoying'), you could call the haircut a Kanyin'kehaka, which is apparently what Mohawk people call themselves. Mohawk hairstyles were only worn by Mohawk men going to war. Or people hanging around doorways in Tottenham Court Road. As this story from the travel pages of a Hawaiian newspaper states (with subdued amazement), "Punks with spiked hair can still be seen around [London] town."

Once a rebel, always a tourist attraction?

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.

Friday, February 02, 2007

the names of the games, part 2: games children play

It was probably Better Half's and my visit to the Strong National Museum of Play that inspired me to think and write about board games a couple posts ago. Then I promised a follow-up on children's games, but come to think of it, a lot of the games I've blogged about so far are games I played as a child (Parcheesi/Ludo, Clue/Cluedo, checkers/draughts, slapjack/snap). So, while not repeating those, here are some more.

It's not surprising that a lot of playground games (like a lot of nursery rhymes--there's fodder for another post) are different (in name and rules) in the two countries, since they also vary a lot from playground to playground within a country. Those kinds of games are passed on by oral tradition, and traditions get muddled and/or developed from time to time, so that we're left with games with just vague family resemblances. One of these was raised by the mysterious Dearieme on the previous games post: (BrE) British bulldog(s). When I looked up the game on some website, I didn't recogni{s/z}e the rules as those of (AmE) Red Rover, but according to the Canadian Dialect Topography site (skip down to item 73), the two terms are used synonymously in Canada. The games are no doubt related, but the description of British Bulldog on Wikipedia sounds little like the game that we called Red Rover on my old playground. There, there was no breaking through a chain of people or getting tagged, as described on various website descriptions of Red Rover. No, it was a game of social exclusion at my school (that and kickball were the only kinds of games we played)--the person who was 'it' would say "Red Rover, Red Rover let X come over" where X would be a colo(u)r (of clothing) or another physical/clothing attribute (e.g. "let t-shirts come over"). The 'it' would do this until some poor soul they didn't like was the only person left on the other side and they then knew where they stood on the social hierarchy. But apparently that's not how the game was meant to be played. Better Half says "That's not a game. That's bullying with a rhyme!" Perhaps it's explained to him some of my less appealing adult behavio(u)rs. ("Explained, but not forgiven," crowed BH.)

Kickball, while we're at it, does not mean (BrE) football/(AmE) soccer, as it can (BrE can do) in BrE, where, according to the OED, it's spelt kick-ball and started out as a Scotticism. In the US, kickball is much the same as baseball, except that an inflated ball (about the size of a soccer/foot-ball) is rolled on the ground and kicked instead of a smaller ball being thrown and hit with a bat. It was a staple in my (AmE) gym class (=PE [physical education]) and on our playground. (Since I went to a poor (AmE) Catholic school/(BrE) convent (school), our playground was a church parking lot. So none of this new-fangled climbing equipment and such that kids get these days. And I had to walk there, waist deep in snow. Past man-eating earthworms. Yeah, you kids don't know how good you've got it. I tell you, in my day...)

Let's get back to board games, though, as that's where I meant to be. The most shocking discovery at the Strong Museum was that Better Half had never seen, played nor even heard of Candy Land, a game that only three-year-olds could love. It's one of those games where one has to advance around the board to a final goal. To make it easy for tiny tots, the spaces on the board are different colo(u)rs, and on each turn one takes a card with a block or two of a colo(u)r or a picture of a landmark on the board (like the (AmE) Candy Cane Forest). That way, the child can tell where they need to get to without having to count their way there. Parents and (orig. AmE) babysitters/child-care workers (BrE child-minders) soon learn to stack the deck so that the child will pick the Lollypop Woods card early and the game will soon be finished. I pretended that I felt sorry for BH that he'd missed out on this game, but really I was seething with jealousy.

The advancing-up-the-board game that one does find in Britain is Snakes and Ladders (picture left from here), which was marketed in the US as Chutes and Ladders by Milton Bradley (picture right from here)--the same evil geniuses who brought us Candy Land. As the names suggest, in the more traditional British version the board has ladders that one can advance up and snakes that one must slide down, to a less advantageous position. But who in real life goes down snakes? The literal-minded Americans changed them to chutes, and the boards there reflect this.

Another game for playing with very young children is the memory game (AmE)Concentration/(BrE) Memory, which proves that the Americans don't have the patent on literal-mindedness. That's the one where you have a set of cards in which each card has a matching mate. A player turns one over and then gets one chance to turn over the mate. If the two cards match, the player keeps them and has another go. If they don't match, the cards are turned back over and the next player has a try.

One of the toys at the museum that BH was able to wax nostalgic about was the Erector Set--except, of course, that he knows it by the name Meccano. (I've just discovered there's a Meccano web ring. There's a web ring for everything these days.) But as a child in England in the 70s he didn't have Slinky or Mr Potato Head or Silly Putty. And he certainly didn't have Lincoln Logs. Disraeli Log just doesn't have the same ring.

Postscript! I forgot to discuss a children's amusement that I'd promised to M.A. Peel. (Apologies, Mrs Peel.) Remember dot-to-dot puzzles? In AmE, one must connect the dots, while in BrE one joins the dots--and thus the puzzles are sometimes called connect-the-dots or join-the-dots, depending on where you are. The verb difference carries over into metaphorical use of the phrases--i.e. 'to find the connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information' (or something like that).