Sunday, November 25, 2007

"I love this guy!"

Better Half got back (on)Tuesday after eight days in New York. He had a great time promoting his work at an English teachers' conference and enjoyed working with his US distributors, except for one thing that niggled. He'd be chatting with the American folk, cracking jokes as he is apt to do, and someone would exclaim (no doubt indicating him with a nod or a pointing gesture) to the others in the group, "I love this guy!" or "Don't you just love this guy?" or some variation on this. (He should be used to this by now--some of my family members are guilty of the same behavio(u)r.)

Now, BH, it must be said, usually enjoys the attention that he gets for being English when in America. In fact, his main complaint about the country on one of our visits last year was that due to the favo(u)rable exchange rate, New York was crawling with Brits, and he was no longer "special". So, one might think that he'd love people exclaiming their love for him, but he found it rather off-putting--and so would I. No doubt, the people who say it would think that they're being complimentary. So, what's behind this phrase/behavio(u)r (which I can't say I've ever experienced in the UK)?

Why some people would find it off-putting, or even rude, to be the topic of such an exclamation is easily explained. There you are, getting along with people, feeling like you're making headway in being accepted as part of the gang. Then you say something funny, and instead of laughter, compliments, or inclusive back-slapping, someone starts talking about you in the third person. You stop being you or Lester (or whatever your name is) and start being this guy. It's distancing. It makes you feel like a performing seal and not a person taking part in the conversation. And what do you say after someone says I love this guy? You haven't been addressed, so it has essentially ended your turn at talking. You're put in an awkward position.

So, why it makes people uncomfortable--easily explained. Why do people say it? It seems to say "Look at me! I'm sophisticated and/or clever enough to appreciate this person's humo(u)r!" In other words, it seems a rather self-cent(e)red thing to say. So, part of me is tempted to say that one hears expressions like this more in the US than the UK because the US is a more individualistic society, with more emphasis on the 'me' in conversation. And I'm sure that's part of it. Another part, I think, is the relative insularity of mainstream American life--if you don't interact with a lot of people from other cultures (as equals) on a regular basis, perhaps you don't know what to do when they make a slightly off-colo(u)r comment. (BH does have a tendency to like to shock middle Americans with his Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.) Folded into this is some Americans' insecurity around British folk, whom they consider particularly funny, well-spoken (recall AVIC) and therefore possibly more intelligent than themselves. So, perhaps in such a situation, it's more natural for people to express their appreciation in a distanced way (this guy!) rather than a personal way (you're hilarious!) or a joining-in way (carrying on the joke).

Those are my working hypotheses, at least. (Or since it's a bit of this, a bit of that, maybe it's only one complicated hypothesis.) I'm not sure how much they're worth (it's been a long and tiring week--not a good time for self-critique!), but at least I can offer the public service of pointing out to I-love-this-guy-sayers that there are more effective ways of making people feel loved.

BTW, one more notch in the Canadian count bedpost this weekend--courtesy of a very nice (well, not nice enough to let me beat him) Scrabble player from the Wirral. The Canadian count has slowed down of late (we're just up to 11 now)--maybe I'm not meeting enough new people, or maybe I'm volunteering information about my childhood home too early in conversations, or maybe I'm being accepted as British now that I'm a citizen (HA HA HA--tell us another one, Lynne!).

Sunday, November 18, 2007

information structure in newspaper sentences

I don't know that I've ever mentioned here that I was raised in a funeral home. (Actually, that's easily checked, isn't it? And I have mentioned it before.) That little fact might go some way toward(s) explaining some of my personality quirks. (I like to think of them as endearing, but you may think of them as weird.) It certainly goes some way toward(s) explaining why I'm reading a book called The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson, a celebration of the art of obituary writing.

In my childhood home (and perhaps now my two funeral-directing brothers' homes) the obituary page is always read first--both to check whether the newspaper made any mistakes in the obits that my dad had written and, more (de)pressingly, to see what business had been lost to the competitors. But those were local newspapers that print the obituaries of just about everyone who dies in the area. They are important for their role in announcing the death and the funeral/memorial arrangements to the local community. Now, I could write an entire blog about the differences between American and British funerary customs and the funeral industry (but I have enough procrastination methods, thank you). One difference is the timing of Christian and non-religious funerals. (Jewish and Muslim funerals must happen relatively quickly after the death.) In the US, you'd expect the funeral to be 2-5 days after the death. In the UK it's more likely to be a week or two later, in my experience, and I've wondered if part of the reason for this is because of the lesser role of funeral-detail-giving obituaries in newspapers in the UK. When I've asked why funerals are put off for a couple of weeks after the death, the answer I've been given is "so that we can get in touch with everyone". Sometimes that means by writing a letter and depending on the post/mail.

Johnson focuses on the types of obits that are more concerned with paying tribute to the great and the good (and sometimes the horrible)--the kind that are more usually found in national newspapers in the UK and the major city newspapers in the US. In one chapter, she describes the structure of a typical obit, assigning names to particular parts. The typical first sentence is what she calls the tombstone, and she notes an interesting difference between UK and US obituaries. See if you can spot it in her examples:
Jeannette Schmid, the professional whistler who has died in Vienna aged 80, performed with Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich; she had been born a man and had fought in Hitler's Wehrmacht before undergoing a sex change in a Cairo clinic. (Daily Telegraph, UK)

James R. Garfield II, father of the modern Cleveland auto show and great-grandson of an American president, died of a heart attack Tuesday at LakeWest Hospital in Willoughby. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, US)
In both examples, like most obit opening lines, two kinds of information are presented: the fact (and some of the circumstances) of the person's death and an abbreviated description of who they are/what they are remembered for. What is different is the order and embeddedness of the information. UK obits tend to put the fact of death in a relative clause (who has died in Vienna aged 80), which in this example is linked to an appositive (the professional whistler). Strip away these 'extras', and the main clause is about the person's life (Jeannette Schmid performed with Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich...). US obits do the opposite. In this particular example, the biographical detail is in an appositive (father of the modern Cleveland auto show and great-grandson of an American president), though in other examples it is in a relative clause. Thus, the main clause in the US version reports the news of the death (James R. Garfield II died of a heart attack Tuesday at LakeWest Hospital in Willoughby).

So both versions give the identifying information and the 'news', but they do so with differing focus. There are a couple possible reasons for this difference. One, which Johnson notes, is the fact that US obituaries tend to give more information about the demise of the deceased. In the Telegraph example, we just get the fact of death and Schmid's age, whereas The Plain Dealer gives us Garfield's cause, day and place of death. (His age would undoubtedly be made clear elsewhere in the obit, e.g. by birth and death dates at the beginning or end.) If you have a lot of information to impart, it's more awkward to do so in an appositive or a relative clause. So, the UK paper can get away with a quick who has died aged 80 in the middle of the sentence, whereas the US paper leaves the heavy-lifting for the end of the sentence, in the main clause. Now, as a hypochondriac, ghoul and wannabe epidemiologist (just some of the charming traits left by my sickness-and-death-immersed childhood), I find the lack of death details to be the greatest disappointment in the otherwise great British obituary tradition. Tell me how people died! {I/E}nquiring minds want to know! (AmE advertising catchphrase) I attribute it (in part) to the British sense of privacy. It's just not decent to put people's illnesses on parade in newspapers. However, I've noticed more and more death details in UK obits the longer I've lived here. The younger the deceased, the more likely they'll tell you the cause of death.

The other (but not unrelated) possible reason for the difference in information structure in these sentences is differing ideas about the purpose of obituaries in a newspaper. The US structure seems to be treating the obit as news--so the main point has to be made in the first sentence, and that main point is the news of someone's death. The UK structure seems to be more about presenting a remembrance of the deceased. Like UK funerals, UK obituaries can also be quite a while after the person has actually died. Yesterday's (17 November) Guardian, for example, has an obituary for a marine biologist who died on 27 October. (The other two obits are in their 'Other Lives' series of obituaries for people who might not be famous, but who were really decent people--in this case a disability activist and a head teacher [AmE school principal]. These are written by friends/family of the deceased, and don't give birth/death dates.) An obituary published two weeks after a death is not 'news' in the same sense as one published within a couple of days, so it seems to be serving the purpose of remarking on the person and their death, rather than reporting it. UK obituaries have the reputation of being more colo(u)rful than their American counterparts, and this remembrance-rather-than-reporting element probably has a lot to do with the development of that tradition.

Reading about this reminded me of a query from reader Bill P some time ago, which also has to do with the order of information in UK and US newspapers. Bill wrote:
Am I right in thinking that American newspapers routinely say "rising to 112 from 111" whereas the British usage is likelier to be "rising from 111 to 112"?
Since I don't read the finance pages as thoroughly as I read the obituaries, this didn't ring a bell for me. So Bill kindly sent a couple of examples:
First the hard economic facts: The Conference Board this morning said its Consumer Confidence Index fell to 95.6 from a revised 99.5 in September. [I don't know which paper this came from, but Bill says it's from a US paper]

In Mexico, for example, ...inflation fell from 35 per cent to 7 per cent. [Financial Times, UK]
The link between obituaries and these examples is rather tenuous, but what they have in common is a difference in journalistic style with respect to what information should receive attention. The UK style, as Bill has identified it, is chronological in nature: it started at X and now it's at Y. The US style puts the current information before the old: it's at X now, as opposed to the Y it used to be. Checking a couple of newspaper sites shows that Bill's observation of the 'to...from' construction does indeed seem to be an AmE style. I searched (using Google) the Guardian (UK) and the Boston Globe (US) sites for "fell from * per( )cent to" and "fell to * per( )cent from". The * is a wildcard, and I found both per cent and percent on the Guardian site and percent on the Globe site:

Guardian-UK
Globe-US
fell from...to50
8
fell to...from
4
862
All of the to...from cases on the Guardian website were 'feed articles' from Reuters. While this is a UK-based news agency, it may be more likely that the writers are from other countries/news organi{s/z}ations. (The locales of the three feeds I could see were Istanbul, Paris and Washington, DC.)

So--well spotted, Bill! Can any journalists out there tell us whether or not to...from/from...to ordering is something that is taught to journalists (as part of a paper's style guide, etc.)? Or is it something that one picks up without reali{s/z}ing it?

Friday, November 16, 2007

chinese whispers and telephone

Cathy wrote the other day to ask:
I've been watching "The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard" on Masterpiece Theatre in the US. [...] I noticed an interesting phrase Mrs. Pritchard used, "Chinese whispers." I thought at first she meant what Americans mean when we say children are playing telephone or whisper down the lane. Then I thought, in the context it was used in, that it wouldn't be appropriate to suggest the person was playing a child's game. Mrs. Pritchard's right hand man (I can't remember his title) has passed on a bit of gossip that was passed on through several people. Any thoughts?
Coincidentally, the night before, Better Half and I had been watching the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry David (surprise, surprise) makes a faux pas in playing telephone at a party, and BH asked, 'That's Chinese whispers, right?' Chinese whispers and the telephone game are indeed names for the same game in BrE and AmE, respectively. (And this came up once before in the comments for a previous post.)

What has thrown Cathy off is the fact that Chinese whispers is much more likely to be used in an extended or metaphorical way than this sense of telephone is. This is probably not too surprising, since telephone has other senses that would make the metaphor less clear. The OED lists Russian scandal as having the same two senses as Chinese whispers (though I've only ever heard the latter):
(a) a game in which a whispered message, after being passed from player to player, is contrasted in its original and final versions; (b) gossip inaccurately transmitted
People disagree about whether Chinese whispers should be avoided due to racist connotations. It makes me a little uncomfy, but then I don't find myself needing to say it very often, so I don't worry about it too much. It also reminds me of an AmE term (at least I've not found a BrE speaker who knows it yet---but I haven't asked that many) for another silly pastime with an ethnically (BrE) dodgy name: the Chinese fire drill. Wikipedia describes it as:
A Chinese fire drill is a prank, or perhaps an expression of high spirits, that was popular in the United States during the 1960s. It is performed when a car is stopped at a red traffic light, at which point all of the car's occupants get out, run around the car, and return to their own (or go to other) seats. Chinese fire drills are sometimes executed when one needs to get something from the trunk of a car. Occasionally, if one of the participants is late to get inside the car, the others might drive off without him/her. People have reported this phenomenon as early as the 1940s, so it is possible that the phrase was current at the time, but simply was not written down that early.

The term is also used as a figure of speech to mean any large, ineffective, and chaotic exercise.
When I was a child (a bit later than the dates in the Wikipedia article), the driver never got involved--because the driver was Mom or Dad. But we'd try our luck and yell "Chinese fire drill!" and judge how much trouble we were going to get into for trying to do it before opening the car doors. It always sounded like a marvelous idea to my young mind, but I don't know that we ever executed a true Chinese fire drill.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

How are you feeling in yourself?

If someone were to ask you "How are you feeling in yourself?" or "How do you feel in yourself?" what would you think they were asking?

I've been having a lot of medical appointments lately, and I am asked this nearly every time. (And then my BrE-speaking friends ask me the same thing when I say I've been to the doctor's.) It has struck me as something I'm not accustomed to being asked (and not because I'm a stranger to doctors!). So, I've had a look on the internet, and found that how you feel in yourself is used on American sites, but it tends to be referring to something more like self-esteem than how one feels physically, as in the following examples:
When you act as if you are confident you will not only feel it you will appear it to the world around you and you are likely to find this magnifies how you feel in yourself. [sleepingtiger.org]

There is a tie---an invisible umbilical cord---between how you feel in your body and how you feel in yourself. [firstourselves.com]
Now, at the doctor's office, I'm definitely being asked about my physical self, not my psychological self. But I don't recall being asked this when under the care of American doctors. So, the question is: is this an AmE/BrE difference? Let's ask you! If someone asks how you feel 'in yourself', how would you interpret it? Is this something you're used to hearing in a medical context?

Postscript (18 Nov): Just saw an ad(vert) for Danone Activia pro-biotic yog(h)urt , in which the woman who took the "Activia challenge" says "I feel healthier in myself" (thanks to the yog(h)urt, apparently). Checking out their UK website, it says: "It helps keep your digestive system ticking away nicely in the background so you can get on with life more easily and feel more comfortable in yourself." There are videos of their ad(vert)s on the 'Testimonials' part of the site, but they're not downloading for me at the moment--but they might allow you to hear the use of in myself by a native speaker. In the US, the company is called Dannon and they market the same yog(h)urt, but there's no in my/yourself on the US website.

Friday, November 09, 2007

more on vowels

Being too lazy to make myself a sandwich today, I went out for a so-called Reuben. There in the bagel shop what looked like a mother and daughter were having a disagreement. The daughter was pronouncing castle like I would--with the same 'a' sound as in bat. The mother took her to task for this--saying it is pronounced with an 'ah' sound (like in father).

The daughter's response was one that an American (at least not outside eastern New England) would never say: "It's not 'cah-stle' because it doesn't have an 'r' in it!"

(The mother went on to take the daughter to task for trying to be someone she isn't. Unfortunately, I missed the relevant bit when she said "You were born in Brighton, not [inaudible]!" Could have been someplace in the US, could have been someplace in the UK--since the 'ah' vowel-before-/s/ 'rule' is a particularly southern/'standard' English kind of thing.)

Americans who speak dialects with post-vocalic (i.e. 'after vowel') /r/s tend to think of ('standard') BrE accents as 'leaving out the /r/s'. But the daughter's response here gives an indication that that's not how BrE speakers perceive their dialects. Instead, they perceive the /r/ as being part of the vowel sound. (Really, the /r/ and the vowel preceding it are pretty much a single merged-together sound in any dialect--that's the nature of /r/. It's also one of the things that bad impersonations of AmE accents tend to get wrong--e.g. saying farm as fah-rrm. I had an old SAfE-speaking boss whose impersonation of AmE accents was spot-on except for that detail.)

And all this goes back to the previous post from today, about tot and that it's pronounced differently from tart. AmE speakers may think of a ('standard') BrE pronunciation of tart as 'not having an /r/'. But that's not necessarily how BrE speakers are perceiving (or even pronouncing) it.

totting and toting

JHM wrote in September to ask the following:
A [Financial Times] column used the phrase "tot up" which the context implied was a shortened form for what I would write as "sum up," in other words, to find the total amount. My questions are: 1) Is this a common usage? 2) Would a typical Englishman pronounce "tot up" to rhyme with "tote up?" a) If so, why wouldn't it be spelled "tote up"? b) If not, mightn't it sound more like "taht up," in which case it would it risk being confused with "tart up?"
I'll take JHM's questions in turn:
1). Yes, tot up is BrE meaning 'to add/sum up'. The OED lists it as colloquial, but the fact that it's used in the Financial Times probably means that it's not seen as being particularly colloquial these days. In AmE one is more likely to see/hear tote up. A fixture on American telethons (orig. and chiefly AmE) and other fund-raisers is the tote board, i.e. a representation of how much money has been pledged/collected so far (represented either just as a total figure or a 'thermometer', etc.). Tote boards are also used at racetracks, to show how much the return on a particular bet is. Of course, you have these things in British fund-raisers/racetracks too, but I haven't heard them called tote boards here (and they're not called tot boards either!). The OED lists the related noun tote 'now dialectal' and as originally Australian, with the noun form being short for totalizator--a proprietary name for a kind of machine that tallies numbers up. (In Australia and New Zealand, apparently, the Totalizator Agency Board is the official non-racetrack place where you can bet on horse races--i.e. the equivalent of American Off-Track Betting.)

2-a) Tot up rhymes with hot up, not with tote up. Both verb forms tot up and tote up come from total in some way or another--with the former looking more like it relies on the spelling of the abbreviation of total for its form/pronunciation, and the latter being a clipping of the (pronounced) word total. A similar shortened form is tut to mean tutorial (we used that in South Africa--is it used in British universities that still have tutorials?). It's pronounced to rhyme with hut, rather than like the first syllable ('toot') in the word it stands for, tutorial. So, the spelling of the shortened form has influenced its pronunciation.

b) In (at least southern standard) BrE, tot up and tart up ('to dress in a showy/gaudy manner') have very different vowels. The problem with explaining this to AmE speakers is that AmE generally doesn't have the vowel that's in BrE tot. So, if an American says tot up, it may sound like tart up to a BrE speaker because they're not using the vowel that a BrE speaker would expect to hear. But if a BrE speaker (at least the ones down here in the south) says tot or tart it would be very clear to another BrE speaker which one they're saying. I discussed this vowel back here, where there's a link to recordings of it.
Tote has another, unrelated meaning that is originally AmE: 'to carry'. Of course, the meaning has spread wider than AmE now, especially through the compound tote bag. The etymology of this tote is something of a mystery. It goes back to the 1600s at least, and is often claimed to be of African origin, but there's evidence of it being used that early in parts of America that didn't have many Africans. So, despite a lot of etymological attention to the word, it's still a mystery.

Monday, November 05, 2007

autumnal holidays

So far, Bonfire Night has only come up in the comments on another post on this blog. But thinking about it (for it is tonight) has me thinking about all sorts of differences in my experience of autumn (or, more often in AmE, fall) in the US and UK. Forgive me, but this post will be lighter on linguistic gore than most, and heavier on nostalgia and maybe even a touch of homesickness (not something I think of myself as suffering from!).

Autumn/fall was always my favo(u)rite season in the US, but in the UK, I tend to face it with a certain "Oh god, it's going to get dark early" kind of dread. It doesn't help that the UK goes off British Summer Time a week earlier than the US goes off Daylight Savings Time, but the greater problem is that this time of year there is less light up here at +50° latitude than there was at +43°, where I grew up, or +31° or -26°, the last two places I lived at. By the time we get to mid-December, when it's invariably overcast in Brighton, it seems to me like the day never gets all the way to proper daytime light levels. Today there are 37 fewer minutes of light in Brighton than in my hometown, and by winter solstice, that difference will be more than an hour--or two hours if I compare it to my last abode.

But it's not just the dark that does me in, it's the relative lack of distractions from the dark. American autumns/falls, especially in the northeast where I'm from, are chock-full of them. Of course, there are the back-to-school rituals (found in the UK too), and Lynneukah, the joyous festival of Lynne (at the start of October--it's not too early to start planning for next year). But after those, we get into the serious autumn rituals.

Watching the changing colo(u)rs of leaves is a big one--so much so that in New England there's a word for tourists/leisurely drivers who arrive in hordes to look at the trees: leaf-peepers. Here's a nice photo of what they go looking for. Where I come from, foliage observation is tied up with other rituals, like going to apple orchards for fresh cider (which in AmE is a rusty-colo(u)red, pressed apple juice, not a fermented drink), hayrides (AmE: 'a pleasure ride in a hay-wagon', OED), bonfires--and, my favo(u)rite, apple cider doughnuts. Bonfires and hayrides are often part of other autumn/fall rituals, such as Homecoming (for which, see Janna's comment describing Homecoming in the previous post on proms).

Then there's Halloween, which has roots going back to Scotland and Ireland (particularly the Scottish tradition of guising), but whose modern form is a recent import from the US to the UK--and a poorly understood import, I'd say. Boy, do people complain about it here. There's a common perception of trick-or-treating as "as a nuisance or even a menacing form of begging" (Wikipedia). After reading this anti-Halloween diatribe on the BBC website, I was relieved to read one British expat in Canada's take on it in the comments:
I moved to Canada from Britain in the mid 90s, and at first, treated trick-or-treating with a healthy suspicion. However, I soon realized, that in my neck of the woods at least, Halloween is more about fun than menace; it's about the treat rather than the trick. In our neighbourhood, it's mainly young kids who come trick-or-treating with their parents. We also get a few older teens who come by, almost self-deprecatingly, and we always compliment them on their costumes, or berate them gently for their lack of effort, but fill their bags nonetheless. No menaces, no threats. I was back in England last Hallowe'en and was surprised to see and hear the healthy antagonism there was against trick or treaters. Friends and family all had signs in their windows, weren't planning to answer the door, couldn't understand why my seven year-old wanted to dress up and go out after dark with a bag looking for treats. I think in England, what has happened is that the message has been lost in translation, and over the years the idea of treat has [been?] supplanted [by?] that of trick. Maybe you should all come over here and go trick-or-treating with my little ones tonight - then you'd have a better understanding of how it *should* work!
Anne, Vancouver, Canada
In other words, in North America, Halloween tends to be a child-cent(e)red event that brings people in a neighbo(u)rhood together in celebration of their children. A couple of differences I've noticed in trick-or-treating here (besides the fact that there's just a lot less of it) are (a) a lot of people give coins instead of (AmE) candy/(BrE) sweets, and (b) adults seem more 'purist' about costumes. I've heard a couple of people complain that a child was dressed as a fairy or a superhero, implying that that is not a Halloween costume. But by the time that the traditions were being (re)imported from the US, few people in the US saw anything wrong with dressing as whatever you liked. Thinking back on my Halloween costumes, I'd been a Gypsy fortuneteller, a magnet, and a bride--never anything particularly scary. So, (a) contributes to people seeing the holiday as extortionate and (b) contributes to a more sinister (it's all about evil!) view of it than is typically held in the US.

After Halloween, American attention turns to Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November). While there is the position that this holiday is politically/racially insensitive (since it celebrates the saving of European immigrants' asses/arses by Native Americans, many of whom were subsequently subject to genocide), it has a lot going for it too. Bill Bryson writes about it as 'The Best American Holiday' in I'm a Stranger Here Myself:
Thanksgiving is wonderful for all kinds of reasons. To begin with, it has the commendable effect of staving off Christmas. Whereas in in Britain the Christmas shopping season seems nowadays to kick off around about the August bank holiday, Christmas mania doesn't traditionally begin in America until the last weekend in November.
Indeed, the Christmas decorations have been up (not lit, but still...) in Brighton for several weeks now. There have been Christmas cards, Christmas decorations, and most weirdly Christmas food in the shops since September. You get a little of that in the US, but the onslaught is staved off by the retailers' need to keep part of their shelf space free for Halloween and Thanksgiving (BrE) tat (=junk). The reputed busiest shopping day of the American year (at least in terms of traffic, if not sales) is the day after Thanksgiving, known in the retailing world as Black Friday. Thanksgiving gives us a clear sense of when the (commercial) Christmas season begins--at a time that isn't too far away from when Advent begins.

Bryson continues:
Moreover, Thanksgiving remains a pure holiday, largely unsullied by commercialization. It involves no greeting cards, no trees to trim, no perplexed hunt through drawers and cupboards for decorations. I love the fact that at Thanksgiving all you do is sit at a table and try to get your stomach into the approximate shape of a beach ball and then go and watch a game of football on TV. This is my kind of holiday.

But perhaps the nicest, certainly the noblest, aspect of Thanksgiving is that it gives you a formal, official occasion to give thanks for all those things for which you should be grateful. I think this is a wonderful idea, and I can't believe that it hasn't been picked up by more countries.
(Though we should note that many churches have a Thanksgiving Sunday--but that's not typically an occasion when families travel to be together and do all of the other things that go along with American Thanksgiving.)

So those, plus a few things here and there like Veteran's Day (= UK Remembrance Day), the World Series in baseball and the (American) football season (and its many accout{er/re}ments, like tailgating) are some of the rituals that mark autumn/fall in (particularly north-eastern) America and distract us from the fact that the sun is going bye-bye and it's getting cold. We can still think of the weather as being crisp while we're enjoying ourselves with apple cider doughnuts and jumping in piles of leaves.

What do we have in the UK? One childhood autumn tradition is the playing of conkers. This is a game involving horse chestnuts on strings, where you try to knock each other's chestnuts, or conkers. (For a better explanation, click on the link.) More boys seem to play this than girls, and it can involve a lot of forethought, with dedicated players searching long and hard for the best conkers and then making them harder by, for instance soaking them in vinegar and baking them. This tradition may be dying out, with rumo(u)rs of schools banning the game for health and safety reasons. (I had to make that bold, since Health and Safety is such a BrE phrase/obsession. I suppose the AmE equivalent would be liability.)

Besides the half-hearted observance of Halloween, the main autumn ritual in the UK is Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. (Remember, remember the fifth of November.) This marks the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by a group of Catholics to blow up Parliament in 1605. Depending on where/who you are in the UK, this may be a bigger or smaller event. In nearby Lewes, it's huge--due to Lewes' history as a site of Protestant martyrdom. Here's a photo of a Lewes Bonfire Night from chrisgray.net--one that is bound to be a bit disturbing to Americans, since it looks like a Ku Klux Klan rally. In fact, Bonfire Night is not known for its political, religious or racial sensitivity. I have practicing Catholic friends who have been offended that I've gone and enjoyed the Lewes festivities since they involve the burning of effigies (Guy Fawkes, traditionally, but they'll burn anyone in Lewes) and throwing bangers (little fireworks) at someone dressed as the/a Pope--albeit nowadays a pope in fireproof clothing and safety goggles. (It's never clear to me whether it's supposed to be the current Pope or the one from 1605.) It also involves a parade that I've described before as something like "Mardi Gras with fire". Lewes has a number of bonfire societies, which can be likened to the krewes of New Orleans Mardi Gras, and each parades around town in themed costumes (not that the themes have to have anything to do with the Gunpowder Plot--some perennial favo(u)rites are stereotyped Native American dress, African tribespeople and smugglers). After parading around town a few times, they lead crowds to their bonfire site, where there is a huge bonfire and the burning of their effigy. The effigy is usually filled with fireworks, and the fireworks shows that follow are always incredible. (So are the crowds.)

Of course, not everywhere is near Lewes or other big Bonfire Night towns, and so most people will celebrate Bonfire night on a smaller scale (if at all), either by going to municipal fireworks or by buying/lighting one's own in the back (BrE) garden/(AmE) yard. (Our window wells were full of spent fireworks Saturday night. Coming from a place where mere citizens are not allowed to have fireworks, I never cease to be surprised by how willing people are to light them close to buildings/people. My friend the Postman's bonfire party this year ended with broken windows and a trip to the hospital.) While I love the fireworks, to me Bonfire Night is a night out to look at fire more than a holiday, since it doesn't involve the kind of planning and preparation (at least not by me) that Halloween (costume-wise) and Thanksgiving (food/hosting-wise) do. But I'm sure for some people, like the Lewes Bonfire Societies, it feels like much more.

So--what British autumn rituals am I missing here? Help me out--I've got a lot of darkness to get through!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

the floor

Since Better Half and I both lived with each other's dialects for some time before meeting each other, there aren't too many times when our linguistic differences get us into trouble. But one thing that hasn't stopped confusing me is when he calls the ground outside the floor. For instance, we might be walking along the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk and he'll say "Mind the poo on the floor there" or "Look at all the chewing gum on the floor!" (He's just come up with those two examples himself, reminding me of my mother's recurrent surprise at the 'uncleanliness' of England. Of course, my mother lives in a small town in a rural area in the US, so her comparisons to cities in England aren't really fair.)

Anyhow, BH's exclamations about things on the floor almost always knock me for a loop, because to me the floor is something inside a building. Of course, in AmE I can also talk about the forest floor, but I think of that as being a very speciali{s/z}ed usage; it doesn't just mean the ground in the forest, it means all the ferns and mosses and things that one finds on the ground in a forest. Similarly for the ocean floor--to me, it's about an ecosystem, not just a surface.

I've asked various BrE-speaking friends whether they use floor to mean ground, and their replies have been mixed. (But it also should be said that I usually don't think that asking people whether they say X is a very productive or accurate way of finding out if they say X. What we do when speaking is a largely subconscious process, and when we reflect on that process, all sorts of things, not least ideas about how we 'should' speak, get in the way.) Looking in the OED, I find that it lists the sense 'the ground' as obsolete, except in dialects.

Now, as a Saaff Lundun boy descended of a long line of South Londoners, I kind of doubt that BH is hanging on to some old ways that the OED compilers thought of as 'dialectal'. So, my hypothesis is that this usage has been re-introduced to the general language through cricket. (This would contribute to explaining why BH uses it more than most of my girlfriends.) As the OED notes, floor is the ground of a cricket ground--that is to say, the dirt/grass part of the cricket field (too many senses of ground in that last clause). So, the OED also lists
to put a catch on the floor as a colloquial way to say 'to fail to hold a catch' in cricket.

I was reminded of the whole floor issue while watching the quiz celebrating Channel 4's 25th anniversary last night. (For certain reasons, I'm watching way too much television lately.) They showed a clip of a program(me) in which Derren Brown gets 'normal' people to hold up an armo(u)red bank car. And in that, in the out-of-doors, the robber demands that the bank guy get 'down on the floor' (i.e. on the street/road). You can see a clip from that (BrE) programme/(AmE) show here on YouTube, but to hear people saying floor, skip to about 7:24. Here, of course, there's the possibility that the speakers have been affected by seeing lots of dramati{s/z}ed robberies that take place inside banks, and so the thing that one says in that condition is Get down on the floor. But it still sounds really unnatural to me--I can't help but think that I'd say Get down on the ground. Next time I rob an armo(u)red vehicle, I'll have to have someone tape me.

So--can you refer to the surface of a road as the floor?

Friday, November 02, 2007

institutional verbs

One thing that I like about British English is the range of verbs and phrasal verbs for various interactions with public welfare institutions. I don't know why I have such fondness for them--maybe it's just my fondness for the public welfare institutions. When asked by British folk what I like about living in England, my first two answers are: the National Health Service and the trains. They usually express shock or derision, but then I point out how much healthcare costs (and how unevenly it is distributed) in the US and the fact that in my last American place of residence (a city of about 125,000) the Amtrak passenger train came only TWICE A WEEK and even then you had to drive to a couple of towns away to catch it. After those explanations, my appreciation for what might not be the greatest health and transport services in the world seems a lot clearer. As a (smugly) non-car-owning person with chronic illness, I have very few complaints about the services, and tend to find that the loudest complaints come from healthy folk who drive everywhere. But maybe I should save my prejudices about healthy people for another forum. Some of my best friends are healthy. Well, one of them, at least.

(In case you're wondering what my third favo(u)rite thing about living in England/Britain is, it's: everyone seems to have a hobby or passion [besides sitting in front of the tv/(BrE) telly every night]. What fun! If only everyone in my family had a hobby--it would make Christmas shopping so much easier.)

But enough asides (or since they came first, should I call them atops?). Here are some of the BrE institutional verbs I love:
  • to sign on also known as to go on (BrE) the dole: to register to receive social benefits (AmE: welfare or unemployment insurance). I was going to link you to the episode of Spaced in which Daisy tries to sign on, but no one's uploaded that one to YouTube yet. Just when you start to think that you can depend on the Internet, it goes and disappoints you in a fundamental way.

    One can use sign off to mean 'go off benefits (because one has become employed)', but I'm more accustomed to hearing it used to mean:
  • to sign off: (for a medical doctor) to give a medical certificate (to someone), allowing them medical leave from work. This is usually done by one's (BrE) GP -- general practitioner (AmE: primary care physician [though that's (AmE) HMO-speak] or family doctor). This is often used in the passive--e.g. I've been signed off for the next five weeks. When it's used in the active form, the direct object comes between the verb and the particle: The doctor signed John off, not *The doctor signed off John.
Of course, no welfare system is without its cheats, and BrE supplies some interesting verbs for turning them in:
  • to shop (someone): to turn someone in for some misdeed. This isn't only used for fraud against the government, but it's certainly used for that a lot. The OED has it going back for centuries, but says it's now "only slang or dial". For example:
    Council [AmE: municipal government] launches 'shop your neighbour' dustbin [AmE: trash can] hotline (Daily Mail, 12 Oct 2006)
While it is slang-ish, newspapers and even the government use shop quite easily--although often in (AmE) quotation marks/(BrE) inverted commas in order to signal its 'slanginess'.
  • to grass (up) (someone): again, to inform the police/authorities about someone's misdoings. More likely than shop (in my experience) to be used for non-fraud kinds of crimes. There are also the nouns grass and supergrass, meaning a person who grasses. And once one learns that, the name of the band [warning: link makes noise] makes more sense. AmE alternatives that I can think of for this meaning, such as rat, are also found in BrE.
According to someone in this BBC article (which uses both grass and shop):
Most smokers are law-abiding citizens, and I can't believe people will want to shop smokers. It is not the British way.
That it is perceived as 'not the British way' might go a little way to explaining why (in my experience) British universities tend not to have Hono(u)r Codes, in the American sense. At many US universities, one must sign a document promising not to cheat and to report any cheating one knows about. At my UK university, students have to sign statements that they haven't cheated (when they take an exam or submit and assignment), but (as I found when someone grassed on a fellow student) there is no process in place to allow for the investigation of an accusation of cheating that comes from a student, rather than a faculty member.