Thursday, August 30, 2007

lefties and righties

Joe e-mailed to ask:
I understand that in Great Britain the terms lefty and righty refer to people's political leanings and not their handedness as in the U.S. Is this true, and if so how do the British refer to a left-handed or right-handed person, especially in the context of sports (which is where the issue most often arises here)?
That's mostly true, Joe. Better Half, an avid cricket fan, reports that left-handed batsmen (NB: batter, as in baseball, is AmE, though it's gaining frequency in the UK to refer to cricket players--much to many fans' horror) are referred to as left-handed batsmen. One can also in BrE and AmE call such a person a left-hander. (There are much more derogatory/slang terms--see below.) Most AmE speakers wouldn't think of the diminutive lefty as derogative; in fact, they may consider it to be affectionate. While lefty/righty as handedness labels are found in BrE as well as AmE, they are not used so freely in that way.

Originally from AmE in reference to baseball, we get the slang term southpaw, which has been populari{s/z}ed world-wide through boxing. (Northpaw for right-handers is markedly less common.) It's sometimes considered to be a bit derogatory, particularly since it refers to a human by the name of an animal body part. But as derogatory epithets go, it's got nothing on some of those listed for BrE here. (I'm sure there must be a similar list for AmE, but I'm not finding it--might any of you lefties know?)

As BrE political terms, lefty (also leftie) and the less-common righty (or rightie) are not particularly derogatory either--though, like any epithet, they could be used with belittling intent. Better Half asked me how an American would refer to a socialist, if not by lefty. An awful lot of Americans would probably answer pinko, which is rarely used without derogatory intent and is frequently used in phrases like pinko-commie bastard. The fact of the matter is, while it would be unsurprising and not insulting in the UK to refer to some (certainly not all!) members of the current party in power (Labour) as 'good old socialists', there are few localities in America (Vermont comes to mind) where one could publicly use the word good to modify socialist and not start a fight. Most AmE nicknames for political positions are derogatory or extreme. The most neutral terms are probably left-winger and right-winger, but of course these days almost everyone likes to claim to be 'moderate' or 'middle-of-the-road', etc. Twenty years ago, liberal became a word that was considered a label of shame or an accusation for even the "non-conservative" candidates in the US. (That was back in my student-politico days. The Young Republicans --one of whom recently went to prison in the Abramoff scandal [so there!]-- used to do the L-for-Loser sign on their foreheads while chanting "Liberal" at my colleagues and me.) Conservative has not suffered the same fate in the States. Nor should it--it's a useful word, which makes the 'loss' of liberal as a usable political description all the more sad.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

jumpers, sweaters and the like

Sorry for my week of silence (if you noticed). It was just too hard to entertain out-of-towners in my hometown while also being on-line. Somehow they thought hikes and malls and museums and restaurants were more interesting than watching me type. But among those visitors to my little American hometown were ten British English speakers. Predictably, there were lots of linguistic discussions. Unpredictably, the weather took an unwelcome turn and the most discussed words (in August!) were jumper, sweater and terms for related items of clothing.

Most BrE-AmE dictionaries will tell you that BrE jumper = AmE sweater, but this is a little misleading and far from the whole story. When referring to knit(ted) garments, AmE sweater has much broader application than BrE jumper, which refers only to (generally long-sleeved) pullovers--that is, they are donned by pulling them over the head. In BrE, jumper stands in contrast to cardigan, a word that is used in AmE, but sweater is used frequently in AmE to refer to cardigans as well. So, AmE sweater is a superordinate term or hyper(o)nym, which includes cardigans and pullover sweaters. In BrE, jumper is not the hyperonym of cardigan, but kind of its 'opposite'.

Jumper in AmE is a kind of dress, called a pinafore (dress) in BrE. (Both dialects have the 'apron' sense of pinafore.) In other words, it's a sleeveless dress that's made to be worn over a blouse or other top. Thus my mother, who finds cross-dressing unexpected and hilarious, always has something to say when Better Half says he's going to put on his jumper.

Another sweater that is not a jumper is the (AmE) sweater vest (illustration from this catalog(ue) site). Now, there are two reasons why this isn't called sweater vest in BrE: (1) sweater is AmE (as already established!), and (2) in BrE vest is generally used to refer to (more typically AmE) undershirts (with or without sleeves) or sleeveless undershirt-like things worn by sports players. In AmE, on the other hand, a vest is a sleeveless garment for the upper body that's typically worn over a shirt. This includes the kind that one finds in three-piece suits, which have buttons up the front, and which BrE speakers call a waistcoat. Vest was once used in BrE for what are now called waistcoats--originally the term for a more complicated garment:
The earliest waistcoats, intended to show through the slashings and other openings of the doublet, were often extremely elaborate and costly. They were sometimes provided with sleeves, and appear to have reached to or below the hips. (OED)
So, Americans kept an old (but certainly not the original) meaning of vest, while the British adjusted the meaning of another term. A related term that I've only heard in the UK is gillet (also gilet), for a type of furry waistcoat/vest that became fashionable a couple of years ago. (Here's a photo.) I was questioning whether I've only heard it in BrE because it's only been fashionable since I moved here, but most of Google results for gillet + fur are from the UK, so I'm suspecting that it's a far more common term in BrE these days. On an American catalog(ue) site, I find similar items described as fur vests.

But I've got(ten) away from the question: what is the BrE for (AmE) sweater vest? It is, in my confused experience, tank top. Here's a so-label(l)ed photo from a UK retailer. The experience [of hearing of a dean coming to work in a tank top!] was confusing for me because of the AmE meaning of tank top: a sleeveless undershirt (nowadays often worn as an only-shirt). I was wearing one of those today, so had the opportunity to ask Better Half what he'd call such a thing, and his (sorry, honey) rather unsatisfying answer was 't-shirt', later adapted to 'sleeveless t-shirt'. A more precise BrE term is singlet (as one can see here), but it's not a term one hears a lot these days. Such undershirty things are likely to be called vests, as one can see when searching 'vest' on the Next [UK clothing retailer] website.

This brings to mind another (colo[u]rful but unfortunate) Americanism: wife-beater, which is a slang term for the type of tank top/vest that Marlon Brando wore in Streetcar Named Desire. Slangcity.com claims (I've never heard it) that wife-beater is also BrE slang for Stella Artois beer--which brings one back to Brando and Streetcar (Steeelllllaaaaa!).

Getting back to sweater and jumper, there are more ways in which the former is more general than the latter. For example, I have fine-gauge, short-sleeved knit(ted) tops (like this one on Knit Sisters) that I'd only wear on their own--not over another shirt/blouse--and that I'd call sweaters. I'd not feel comfy calling such things jumpers in BrE, though. Searching summer-sweater on Google Images brings up images of both short-sleeved and sleeveless tops and lightweight, long-sleeved sweaters/jumpers, but searching summer-jumper just results in lightweight, long-sleeved jumpers/sweaters and AmE jumpers (the one short-sleeved one is a red herring: it's on the same page as a long-sleeved one that has the 'summer jumper' label). What would one call a 'summer' sweater in BrE? My best guess is that it's just a top. (BrE-speaking 'summer sweater' wearers, what do you think?)

And speaking of top (once I get going, I just can't shut up, can I?), I find that it's used much more often in BrE than in AmE. And in AmE, one is more likely than in BrE to call a woman's blouse or top a shirt. I'm not saying that these terms aren't used in both dialects, but just that their frequency/commonality seems to be different--at least in the forms of BrE and AmE I've been exposed to. But on that intuitional note, I've got to go bed...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

yard sales, car boot sales and other sales

Getting back to Kelley of Delaware's queries (which I started answering here):
Every weekend this time of year there are dozens of yard/garage sales in my town. Do such things exist in the rest of the English-speaking world, and, if so, what are they called?
I can't speak for the rest of the English-speaking world, but similar things do exist (to some degree) in England, though not by the names yard sale or garage sale. These things are allegedly named after the locations in which they occur, however the ones I've passed by this week (in NY state) that have been advertised as 'yard sales' or 'garage sales' were mostly actually in (chiefly AmE) driveways (BrE drives) next to (AmE) yards or garages. AmE has other terms for such kinds of sales, including tag sale (popular in New England). Many of these terms can be seen at the Dialect Survey map here.

(Side note: The pronunciation of garage was a point of discussion at dinner tonight. Better Half's mum said it in her normal way, so that it rhymed with HAIR ridge carriage, and my mom expressed her admiration of BHM's unfamiliar pronunciation. BHM countered that the AmE (and sometimes preferred BrE) pronunciation gər-RAZH was nicer. Garage is one of the few words (maybe the only word?) that BrE speakers have complimented my (AmE) pronunciation of. This is another case in which the AmE pronunciation is closer to the original [French] pronunciation than the BrE--which only matters if you're one of those people who think 'older' means 'better'.)

Of course, part of the reason that people don't have yard sales in Britain is that they would not call the un-built-upon fronts of their properties yards. That would instead be the front garden (at least, if it's planted). (This was a point of contention between an American and an English friend this summer. The American kept calling the Englishwoman's garden a yard, and the Englishwoman kept letting the American know that she felt insulted by this description.) Nevertheless, there is nothing called a front garden sale either. I've not seen many sales of household merchandise on/in residential properties in the UK, but those that I have seen have been advertised as moving sales. Obviously, that term only applies to certain situations, when people are trying to get rid of things that they don't want to cart to their new abode. There may be a term for non-moving household sales that I've not come across. (Answers in the comments, please!) But these kinds of things are pretty rare--at least in my neck of the English woods.

What the UK does have (and the US generally doesn't) are car boot sales. These take place in public spaces, usually a (BrE) car park/(AmE) parking lot [or a field--see comments]. People put the things that they want to sell into their car's (BrE) boot/(AmE) trunk, then set up a little stall of their wares (often using a folding table, etc.) by their car in the car park/parking lot (typically paying a fee to the organi{s/z}er/landowner). These happen all year round--there is one that happens every week, for example, at Brighton station. Big ones like that often have professional sellers, who may be selling new or used goods (so they resemble flea markets). Others, like the one at a school near our house, are more geared toward(s) the occasional seller.

Both countries have other types of sales in which people donate their used goods for a one-off sale (and possibly social event) to benefit a charity--for example a church. In the greater part of the US, these are called rummage sales, although they may have other regional names. In the UK, they are jumble sales. White elephant sale is a term that I heard as a child in the US (and it was already old-fashioned at that time), but that I've seen more often in the UK.

When I asked Better Half if he knew of any BrE equivalent of yard sale, he drew a blank and noted that such things are a rarity in Britain. One reason for this is that most British homeowners wouldn't have the space for such things. Front gardens/yards tend to be very small, drive(way)s are quite short, and garages are a luxury in town cent{er/re}s. Another reason is that most British homeowners just don't have the space to store as much unwanted junk for as long as American homeowners can--and thus they can't store up a sale's worth of merchandise. BH's mum, for example, has a good-sized three-bedroom house. But as is typical of a post-war London home, she has no basement, no attic to speak of, no garage, and no walk-in closets. In that situation, one doesn't wait long to get rid of clothes that don't fit, gifts that didn't hit the mark, and decorations that have been replaced. People have various ways to get rid of unwanted stuff (and, it must be said, they tend to buy less junk in the first place), with charity shops (AmE: thrift stores) playing a major part in the second-hand economy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

crossing the street/road

My father and Brother Number 2 were giving Better Half walking directions to somewhere or other today, when they said that he'd have to cross the street. BH replied that if he were to do it, it'd be (BrE) crossing the road. Which led Dad and BN2 to expatiate on the AmE difference between streets and roads. They agreed that they could cross the street in town, but would cross the road in the country.

In general, the term road is found much more often for street names in towns in the UK than it is in the US, where it tends to be reserved for either country roads or sometimes biggish thoroughfares in cities (e.g. Rochester, NY has a Winton Road within the city, but I don't think there are any streets named road within the village limits of my hometown).

This led me to create a new joke:
-Why did the chicken cross the street?
-Because she lived in town.
You're not going to tell me that jokes have to be funny, are you?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

corn, sweetcorn, maize

Hello from Upstate New York, where Better Half and I are stationed for our second wedding reception. You should try this bi-continental couple thing, you get more parties than regular ol' couples. On our second day here, BH and I went out for a Mexican meal (BH: "Look at how cheap this is! How do they sell food for so little? Look at how much this costs!"). BH asked for "a glass of water", and true to my past story-telling, the waiter asked him to repeat that three times, after which the waiter gave up and asked "Could you explain to me what that is?"

But being here, barbecuing, eating fresh peaches from down the road, and fighting the mosquitos puts me in the mood to answer an old message from Kelley in Delaware, starting with its second half (to be continued...):
Another seasonal phenomenon [...] is corn on the cob. I understand that BrE calls this vegetable “maize,” in which case the alliteration is lost. What is it called when corn/maize is sold and eaten as an entire ear? Furthermore, the process of removing the husk and silk is called “shucking” in AmE; is there a BrE equivalent?
In BrE, corn on the cob is called (surprise, surprise!) corn on the cob. BrE names for (AmE) corn have come up in the comments for another post, where it was pointed out that it's not so simple as corn=maize. In BrE corn retained for longer the earlier meaning of 'grain' (this is present in both dialects still in compounds like barley(-)corn, and pepper(-)corn), whereas in AmE, it came to refer specifially to a certain kind of grain. Because BrE didn't until recently generali{s/z}e the meaning of corn in this way, it used Indian corn or maize (from Taíno via Spanish mahiz, later maíz) for this particular plant. Maize refers to corn as a grain, rather than in its use as a vegetable (though you might see maize on ingredients lists in vegetably-things like this). So the term sweetcorn is used in BrE to refer to corn kernels eaten as a vegetable. Eaten very differently than in the US. In the UK, one may be served (sweet)corn cold as a part of a salad (or not), and it is a popular pizza topping. One of my favo(u)rite restaurant pastimes is to check out the ingredients of the "American pizza" or "American omelet(te)" etc. While American pizzas are usually pepperoni pizzas, sometimes they come with (sweet)corn, to which most Americans say (AmE) YUCK! (v. BrE yuk). Here are a few others:

Americano pizza, Locatelli, Exeter: mozzarella, tomato, pineapple & ham
(that's what Americans and many UK restaurants would call a Hawaiian pizza; Some Americans, including me, think that there is something seriously wrong with anyone who orders/eats this.)
Pizza Americana, La Vita Pizzeria, Glasgow: Smoked sausage and caramalised [sic] onions on a tomato base topped with Mozzarella cheese.
(not overwhelmingly American, but sounds much nicer...)
American Chicken Pizza, from American Fried Chicken and Pizza, Poole: Cheese, Tomato, Chicken, Sweetcorn, Mushrooms & Pineapple
(Ugh.)
For more pizza fun, see the Dial-a-Pizza menu from St Helens, Merseyside. They have pizzas named for many American states and cities. The match-up between names and ingredients is fairly mysterious....

But back to Kelley's questions... Shuck is listed as 'orig. and chiefly U.S.' in the OED. BH learned the word from me when I first brought unshucked corn home from Waitrose [supermarket]. But unshucked corn is a rarity in the UK, so one doesn't have much of a need for a speciali{s/z}ed verb for husk-removal. The usual way to buy corn-on-the-cob in the UK is to find it shucked, de-silked and with the pointy end cut off, sitting on a (BrE) polystyrene/(AmE) styrofoam bed, wrapped in plastic. In the 7+ years that I've lived in the UK, the quality of corn-on-the-cob has improved drastically. When I first tried it there, I remarked that it seemed to be the kind of corn that we give to livestock (feedcorn), rather than the kind we give to people. It was generally picked way too late. These days, we're getting some beautiful c-on-the-c from Spain that is almost as good as the stuff we buy from farmers on the roadside here. (BH rises to defend Spanish (sweet)corn and revises that to "every bit as good".)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Brit

We're finally going on our honeymoon, so there will be no posts here for at least 10 days. So, here's something for you to entertain yourselves and each other with...

If you are a (native, not like me!) British citizen (or 'subject', if you prefer), would you call yourself or any one of your fellow citizens a Brit? Do you think of the noun Brit as a term used mostly by foreigners?

I've polled three people today, and these are my results so far:

Better Half says it's not a noun he'd use, but he doesn't find it offensive when foreigners use it about him. So, for him Brit is neutral and foreign. (As opposed to pom and limey, which are foreign and insulting. The former of these is fairly unknown in the US, but well-known in the Antipodes.)

The Syntactician says "I don't use it and wouldn't like to be called one because to me it conjures up ex-pats of the worst kind."

And the friend who puts a B in BOMB (she'll know what that means, at least!) says that it can be neutral or insulting, depending on the context, and 'when abroad' is a time when she'd be likely to use it.

The thing that one notices when writing a blog like this is that the AmE speakers use the term a lot more than the BrE speakers. When referring to themselves individually, of course, BrE speakers are more likely to use a more specific term, relating to their country of origin (England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland--but let's not get into the problem of whether that's British or not--it's in Greater Britain, if not Great Britain!). I suppose BrE speakers are less likely than AmE speakers to want to (or need to) generali{s/z}e about the British.

I have noticed that use of Brit as a noun modifier is more common (Brit wit, Britblogs, etc.). I'm not as interested in that. Nor is it particularly interesting that there are music awards called The Brits. No, what's interesting to me is what we call people and how they feel about it. So, native Britishers, what do you think?