Sunday, March 23, 2008

johns, punters and ponces

Grover and I went out for a lovely lunch with our friend Maverick the other day, and now I find that her pseudonym creates a linkage problem. Do I link to her blog (as is my usual courtesy to people-I-mention-who-have-blogs) or to our previous discussion of AmE/BrE differences in the use of the word maverick? The solution of course is to make a roundabout way of doing both, as I have in this paragraph, but I'll have to (chiefly AmE) figure out a less verbose way of doing it before she points out something else to blog about...

So, Maverick got some good deal on magazine subscriptions and has started reading Time magazine. Though she receives the European edition, she finds that it doesn't make much allowance for the fact that its readers won't necessarily be speakers of American English. So, she was confused by the following sentence (or one like it--not sure if the on-line edition is exactly the same) in an article about recently shamed New York governor Elliot Spitzer:
Just last year, Spitzer had signed a law that lengthened jail time for johns from three months to as much as a year.
Maverick had assumed that john meant 'pimp', and so she was led astray, as it actually means 'prostitute's client'. Now, I think this means that Maverick doesn't watch Law and Order or CSI or any of the other 'gritty' American murder mysteries that are on (UK) Channel Five all the time. The OED marks this meaning of john (there are many more that I don't want to get into here) as 'orig. U.S.', meaning that it has made inroads into BrE.

Maverick and later Better Half tried to think of a BrE word for a man who pays for sex and came up dry. I've heard (BrE) punter used in this way, and there are thousands of examples of it on the web, including:
Meanwhile, lads' magazines continue their assault on British women with articles that aggressively blur the line between girlfriend/boyfriend and prostitute/punter relationships. -- Katherine Viner in the Guardian

The trio all use a website where "punters" - the men who visit prostitutes - go to discuss their encounters. -- Finlo Rohrer in BBC News magazine

Better Half and Maverick both protested, "But punter really means 'gambler'." Yes, I've heard that before, but it's a tough word to (orig. AmE) get a handle on (especially as a newcomer to these isles) because its meanings slide all over the place. The first sense that the OED (draft revision Sept 2007) has for it, dating back to the 18th century, is 'A person who plays against the bank at baccarat, faro, etc.' It then was generali{s/z}ed (as early as the 19th century) to mean any type of gambler and from there to mean someone who pays for something, and particularly a man who pays for a prostitute's services. As a side note, in AmE punter is one who (AmE) punts (drop-kicks the ball) in (American) football, and in the UK another kind of punter is one who propels a punt (a kind of flat-bottomed boat) down a river. The latter kind of punter is not marked as BrE in dictionaries, but much more punting goes on in the UK than in the US.

Back to john, in the OED, it defines the prostitute-client sense as:
A ponce; the client of a prostitute. slang (orig. U.S.).
Now, ponce is another difficult word. But according to the self-same OED (draft revision Mar 2007), it means 'pimp', not 'client':
derogatory slang (chiefly Brit.).
1. A man who lives on money earned by another person (esp. a woman); a kept man. Also: a person (usually a man) who lives off a prostitute's earnings; a pimp.
But I've only heard it used to mean:
2. depreciative. An effeminate or affected man or boy; (also) a male homosexual.
Searching for ponce + prostitute on Google.co.uk, I can only find evidence of it meaning 'pimp', and not 'john/punter'. So, it looks to me like a bad AmE-to-BrE translation in the OED--they haven't got(ten) to the Js yet in the current revision--but I expect this will be changed!

Postscript (1 April--but not an April Fool's joke!): Here's another example of punter, and how easy it is for a newcomer to misinterpret it. It's from The Guide (The Guardian's entertainment listings section, 29 Mar-4 Apr 2008), in a listing for Lucy Porter's stand-up show:
As she said of one of her younger punters, "I want to rip his clothes off -- but only so I can wash and iron them."
Now, they are not claiming that Porter turns tricks, though I originally thought that it meant someone she'd taken home (since they'd just said that "her specialist subject is relationships"), but Better Half was quick to dispel this impression by explaining to me that the 'younger punter' is a member of her audience.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

sticks and canes, walkers and frames

I've started several longer posts, but keep putting them aside in favo(u)r of topics that I can whip up a post for with very little research. I'd claim that this is an effect of having an 11-week-old child, except the real truth is that I'm congenitally lazy. I'm afraid that little Grover has inherited this from me, since she usually can't be bothered to burp (orig. AmE--considered slang in BrE according to the OED, but I think that info is out of date) after eating. But she has the good fortune to be gorgeous, which makes laziness a workable lifestyle, since everyone therefore has infinite patience with her. My laziness just causes people to roll their eyes and wonder aloud how I got so far in life.

But out on a walk today, after mocking an innocent bystander's footwear selection, Better Half noted the beauty of another bystander's walking stick, which led me to abandon linguistic-analytical subtlety and do another simple 'they call it this/we call it that' post.

So, say walking stick to me with my American ears on, and I imagine something like a staff--a big stick, possibly picked up while walking in a forest, used by a hiker (or BrE rambler) who wouldn't normally require that kind of support for day-to-day walking. (See photo here.) It probably wouldn't have a handle. But walking stick is what BrE speakers call what AmE speakers call a cane--a stick, like the one to the right, with a (usually curved) handle and often with a rubber anti-slip bit at the end, used by people with (BrE) dodgy feet/legs/knees/hips/ankles. Very often, walking stick is abbreviated to stick, as in Could you pass me my stick?, which was said by my hospital ward-mate last week. (Yes, if you couldn't guess from the last post, I was in (the) hospital again last week.) I asked Better Half if he'd ever use the word cane. First he came up with (AmE--but making inroads in the UK) candy cane, then he supposed that he might use cane for a walking-stick-as-accessory, for instance, as carried by a male Victorian opera-goer. So, in my AmE dialect, canes are for people who can't/shouldn't walk unassisted and walking sticks are for the able-bodied, whereas in BH's BrE dialect, the stick is for the disabled, and the cane is just for decoration. That said, all the photos on this post are taken from this British company's site, and they do use cane, but only for the type that has four feet--they call it a quad cane.

But sticks/canes are not the only differently-named ambulatory aid. If you're even less steady on your feet, you'll need a walker if you're an AmE speaker, and a Zimmer frame if you speak BrE. The latter is a proprietary name from a London company. The former is not marked as AmE in the OED, but I've only ever heard Zimmer frame used here (and I have heard it a lot, as Better Half's roommate when I met him--his grandmother--used one). Back on Mobility People's site, however, one particular model is called a walker--possibly because it is not made by Zimmer and it would be somewhat nonsensical to talk of a CASA Zimmer frame. Kind of like talking about a Canon Xerox machine--you might say it, but the people selling the Canons had better not.

Monday, March 10, 2008

ERPC

We're back, a bit disgustingly, in the realm of medical jargon...

So, there's a minor gyn(a)ecological operation, dilation and curettage, or D&C, in which the cervix is dilated and stuff that doesn't need to be in the uterus is removed by one or another method. This term is used in both the US and UK, but in the UK, when the procedure takes place after a pregnancy (usually after a miscarriage), it is called an ERPC (sometimes ERPoC), or Evacuation of Retained Products of Conception. (I have found this term in a US medical journal, but when I said it to an American gyna(e)cologist, she was completely unfamiliar with it.)

Why the variation in the two countries? I have no idea. Any medical insights?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

high tea

My reasons for not posting in more than a week form a list that is even more boring than long. My need to say that, in the egotistical hope that someone cares, is even more pathetic than it is banal.

But one of those reasons is that my parents are visiting, having come to meet their newest granddaughter, Grover. And visits from Americans are always good for a fresh supply of linguistic gaffes and confusions. My dear mom, for example, demonstrated a widespread American misapprehension of a British term when she informed me that she went to high tea at my nephew's school on Valentine's Day. Knowing that she was referring to something more like a tea party with tea or other drinks and some sort of baked good, and being the obnoxious daughter that I am, I replied, "No, you didn't."

The website What's Cooking America works hard to disabuse my fellow Americans of that misunderstanding:
Most people [i.e. Americans] refer to afternoon tea as high tea because they think it sounds regal and lofty, when in all actuality, high tea, or "meat tea" is dinner. High tea, in Britain, at any rate, tends to be on the heavier side. American hotels and tea rooms, on the other hand, continue to misunderstand and offer tidbits of fancy pastries and cakes on delicate china when they offer a "high tea."
What the hotels (and my nephew's school) are offering is actually low tea, more commonly (in my experience) referred to as afternoon tea. A particular subcategory of afternoon tea is the cream tea, which involves tea and scones with clotted cream and (almost always strawberry) jam. (We've booked a cream tea after Grover's naming ceremony on Sunday, which seems a little unfair, as she's not yet on solid foods--or even tea, for that matter.) My mother keeps asking if people 'still' have afternoon tea, and I reply "people will take a tea break, like a coffee break', and she'll say that she means do they have cucumber sandwiches and scones and so forth. (My mother seems to be jealous of any culture that fits an extra meal into the day.) Better Half and I have to explain that eating cucumber sandwiches in the afternoon is not something that the masses ever did much.

Back to high tea: I've never heard a British person use the term. They say things like I have to get home and make the children's tea, by which they mean their evening meal. In my experience, tea, when referring to a meal, is used by my friends mostly to refer to simple meals they make for their children or themselves in the early evening; a dinner party, for example, would not be referred to as tea.

Now, we could get into the different uses of other meal terms like dinner and lunch and
supper in the two countries--except that there's so much variation in meal names within each country that anything I could say from my own experience would be only a small bit of the picture. In the US, the use of meal names varies mostly by region (and, I'd suspect, by age). (See these maps for some info.) In the UK, there is a heavy social class element involved--so that Nancy Mitford, in classifying some turns of phrase as U ('upper class') or non-U, claims that calling the midday meal dinner is non-U, while calling it luncheon is U.

In fact, reader Paula wrote in the summer asking for coverage of an aspect of the meal-name problem:
Here in my area of North Carolina(US) we still use "dinner" to describe the noon meal. When I visited Australia and New Zealand, they also used "dinner", which made me feel right at home. The poor little Northern US children that traveled with us were quite confused since they thought "dinner" was the evening meal, lol.
How about it, how common is the word "dinner" now when "lunch" seems to be used more and more.
...and I've been avoiding the question ever since. So feel free to weigh in on the matter in the comments!