Tuesday, September 30, 2008

dogs

There are some things about the English that I almost don't want to understand. I mean, I find these things so strange that I am afraid I won't like the English anymore if I think too much about them. And one of those things is the way in which animals often come above people in a significant portion of Englishfolk's priorities. Kate Fox in Watching the English notes that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded long before the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which "appears to have been founded as a somewhat derivative afterthought." Another case in point: there's a donkey sanctuary in Devon that gets over £13 million pounds a year in donations. (I was trying to find a recent article I read about it, but now I can only find this 2003 one.) That's more than MenCap (the leading charity for the mentally handicapped--or in BrE, those with learning disabilities), Age Concern (leading charity for 'older people') and the Samaritans (mental health/suicide-prevention hotline). Donkeys. Better Half's sister and her (BrE-ish) partner have just returned from a well-enjoyed (BrE) holiday in Cornwall, but reported that visiting the donkey sanctuary on the way back was the highlight of the (BrE) fortnight. Donkeys.

But that's the same sister-in-law who refers to her two dogs as my baby daughter's "cousins". She takes no notice of me cringing when she does so. Or maybe she gets a thrill from it. I don't want to think about it too much. I do think of this bit from The Xenophobe's Guide to the English (and similar bits from most of the other books about the English on my shelf):
For while [the English] are not always very good at talking to each other, they excel in conversation with their animals. Although they are not often successful in forming tactile bonds with their children, they continually chuck the chins of their lap dogs and whisper sweet nothings into their hairy ears. (p. 23)
People who feel that animals are fine--outdoors, in the jungle, not bothering me--had better be quiet about it, since:
If our pet takes against someone, even if we have no reason at all to dislike the person, we trust the animal's superior insight and become wary and suspicious. People who object to being jumped on, climbed over, kicked, scratched and generally mauled by English animals who are 'just being friendly' also clearly have something wrong with them. (Watching the English, p. 236)
On that note, we turn to the following correspondence from British reader Bill:
I used the expression "dog's breakfast" in a comment on an American blog, and the bloke said he'd never heard it before. The day before, I saw some Americans misunderstanding the British meaning of a dog's basket - apparently they'd have said "dog's bed". I understand that Americans are reluctant to use "bitch" in its literal meaning. Are we separated even in woofer-related matters?
All of my brothers and my good friends in the US have dogs. They also have full-time gainful employment. Meanwhile, in the UK I know people who would love to have a dog, but who feel that it would be cruel to leave a dog at home while they go to work and can't understand people who do that. I think we are separated especially in woofer-related matters.

So, on to Bill's phrases, and some more. I was surprised to find that I'd not mentioned (BrE) dog's breakfast before, since it was one of the non-translating metaphors/costumes at my Metaphorty party, and I wrote about those back here. But it seems I left out my sister-in-law's costume. Being a petite person (like all of Better Half's family), she was able to cut arm holes into an economy-size dried dog food bag (Baker's Complete, I believe it was) and call herself 'the dog's breakfast'. Dog's breakfast means 'a mess'.  [Postscript, 12 Sept 2011: Mark Liberman at Language Log points out that this is originally AmE! See the 3rd comment on this post of his for those details.]

This is not to be confused, The Phrase Finder tells us, with (BrE) the dog's dinner, meaning 'dressed or displayed in an ostentatiously smart manner':
Why a dog's breakfast is synonymous with mess or muddle and dog's dinner with smartness isn't at all clear. It appears that the two phrases were coined entirely independently of each other.
'Dog's dinner' is first cited in ‘C. L. Anthony's play 'Touch Wood', 1934:
"Why have you got those roses in your hair? You look like the dog's dinner."
And then there are (BrE) the dog's bollocks, with bollocks being informal BrE for 'testicles' (= balls). On its own, bollocks can be used as roughly equivalent to (AmE) bullshit--i.e. a load of (AmE) garbage/(BrE) rubbish. But when they're the dog's bollocks, it means "as good as it could be, the best of its kind, the Rolls-Royce of its type" (Jeremy Paxman, The English, p. 236). So, human testicles = rubbish, refuse; canine testicles = the best thing in the world. See what I mean about priorities?

Back to Bill's list, I'd not have thought of dog('s) basket as particularly BrE, but I searched for it on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com and found that the former shows dog beds (many, but not all, involving basket-y structures) and the American site shows baskets for carrying your pet on your bicycle--so perhaps there is a difference there. I'd have to use dog bed in AmE if there was no wicker involved, but I'd be happy to say basket if an actual basket was part of the structure.

And as far as bitch goes, I don't know anyone in either country who uses the word a lot in its literal meaning. Both of sis-in-law's dogs are female, but she refers to them as girls, not bitches. In my experience, bitch is used by those who breed dogs and those who hunt with them. And since I avoid both populations to the best of my ability (or at least avoid engaging them in animal talk), I haven't got a clear notion that Americans do use it less. On the contrary, bitch appears over 500 times on the American Kennel Club website, but only once on a document at Kennel Club UK and 16 times on the Crufts site--though since I don't know how those sites compare size-wise, it's not a very useful comparison.

Having revealed my lack of enthusiasm for dogs (at least as compared to people), I expect that I'll go down in many a reader's estimation. But they already liked dogs better than me, so I won't let it faze me. I've concentrated on the English here, with no claims about the rest of the British, but it should be noted that the Scottish have a famous monument to dog loyalty. Maybe that's just there to bring English tourists across the border, but I don't think so...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

stemware and other wares

My now-retired colleague Max has time to read novels. He not only has time to read them, he has time to note the Americanisms in them and send them to me. I have more than 20 years until retirement. Do you think it's too early to start counting the days?

Here's one of the passages he sent me from Anne Tyler's Back when we were grownups:
Alice Farmer washed stemware so silently and morosely that she might have been hung over, except that she didn't drink.
Max correctly surmised that AmE stemware means 'glasses with stems', and avers that BrE has no term for this collection of things. One would probably say wine glasses in most cases, but, of course, not all wine glasses have stems and not every stemmed glass is a wine glass--some are champagne flutes or brandy (AmE) snifters/(BrE) balloons. (You can debate whether these are 'wine glasses', but in my world, they don't count.)

This word had fallen onto my own 'to be blogged about' list back in July 2007, when Better Half and I did the legal deed and got an embarrassment of stemware. We'd actually asked for gifts to charity, but plenty of folks felt they couldn't not give us stuff, so we received five sets of wine and/or champagne glasses. We'd just got two boxes of champagne flutes for Christmas and a set of stemless red wine glasses as an engagement present. If only there were enough room in our (BrE) flat/(AmE) apartment to have a large enough party to use them all. Or, if only we had a working fireplace, so that we could make dramatic toasts and throw our glasses at the fire. But I'm getting away from my point, which was this: a friend was taking down the gifts and givers for our thank-you note list, and I'd call out "stemware from [insert your name here, if you gave it to us]" and half the room said "Whaaa?" (Incidentally, one set had no card with it. So, if you gave us wine glasses and never got a thank you, then I thank you now! We will use them all eventually, I'm sure, as we do tend to break them even without dramatic toasts.)

Stemware is but one of many -ware terms that Americans are fond of using. Another is silverware, which in AmE can apply to any of what BrE would call cutlery. In my AmE experience, the more common use of cutlery (not that it's a common word) is to refer to cutting instruments--e.g. knives and scissors (what was traditionally made by a cutler). (Both the 'cutting instruments' and 'knives, forks and spoons' meanings are included in American Heritage; strangely, the latter sense has not yet made it into the OED.) The bleaching of the meaning of silverware is evident from the fact that the phrase "plastic silverware" gets more than 39,000 Google hits. If one wants to talk about the silver silverware, you can leave off the -ware. Or, do as my mother does and say "(AmE) set the table with the real silver". Of course, the people selling you the stainless steel stuff would get into trouble if they called it silverware, so another term for this stuff in AmE is flatware.

Hardware, the pre-computer meaning (i.e. metal things), is a useful word in both BrE and AmE, but hardware store is originally AmE. The traditional BrE equivalent would be ironmonger('s shop), though these days one might also hear hardware shop. (Google tells me that hardwareshop is "Australia's premier online hardware and home improvement store".)

Some other -ware words that I thought might be AmE are not AmE according to the OED. But then the OED doesn't mark stemware as AmE, and I've yet to meet a BrE speaker who uses the term. So, whether or not words like tableware and stoneware and so forth are AmE, I get the feeling that AmE speakers are a bit happier using the -ware suffix than BrE speakers are. In fact, when I asked BH which -ware words he thought were particularly American, he said, "All of them." The one other 'originally AmE' one that I've found in the OED is barware. Are there more?

Monday, September 15, 2008

going places...going times?

Regular reader Robert WMG wrote in the autumn/fall with the following (and I'm rushing to respond to it before I have to shame myself by writing 'last autumn/fall'):
While talking to a Canadian friend, I said "It's gone five" (meaning "it's after five o'clock" but with definite connotations, depending on context, of "it's later than I thought" or "we're going to be late" or "we're late"). She said that without very strong contextual clues this would be incomprehensible in N. America. Any comments?
Robert describes the situation well. One issue that's not clear is what the 's stands for. You almost always hear it with the 's contracted: it's gone five rather than it has gone five or it is gone five. (See this post for further discussion of it's gone in BrE and AmE.) So, which is it, is or has? Either, it seems. Perhaps BrE speakers out there can enlighten us as to whether they can see any difference in meaning or dialect in the following examples (I searched for the past tense because it was easier):
It was gone four o'clock by the time we left the restaurant so whatever the hell we were talking about it must have been good. (from 'Star Blog')

With that cheeky grin she wished me a happy birthday (it had gone 12 o'clock by now) and that was it, and pardon the pun but for me it was a 'perfect day'. (from kirstymaccoll.com)
(For what it's worth, London-born Better Half thinks the was gone version sounds 'just wrong', but concedes that it might set up things a bit differently in a narrative.)

BrE speakers can also use gone for peoples' ages (with mostly the same connotations as Robert gave for the time-telling gone), i.e. He's gone 60 ('he's over sixty already'). Algeo's British or American English? counts both of these uses of gone as prepositions. If it's a preposition, then you'd use it with a form of the verb to be, but if it's a past-participle form of the verb to go, then you'd generally use it with a form of to have. Of course, the preposition is historically the same word as the participle, but it's drifted away from it to a different (more grammatical/functional) part-of-speech--that is to say, it has undergone grammaticali{s/z}ation.

Another BrE-particular temporal gone is the use of gone as a post-nominal (i.e. after the noun) modifier that means 'ago', as in this example from kultureflash (London):
With Batman a decade gone, Spiderman and Daredevil hits, and Ang Lee's Hulk promising to smash, it's a KA-POW comic book dreamworld just now.
You might hear this in AmE, but then the gone would almost certainly mean 'dead', and it would be found in newspaper memorials (advertisements placed by mourners to remember their dead) and the like (e.g. a decade gone, but not forgotten).

Another use that I believe is mostly BrE (having a hard time confirming its dialect, but I'm pretty sure I'm right about this) is post-nominal gone to mean 'pregnant', as in this travel(l)ing-while-pregnant story from The Times:
Four months gone, over the sickness and constantly hungry, I was delighted to find that they had one restaurant serving European and Egyptian specialities and another specialising in modern Indian which satisfied my cravings for spicy food and yoghurt.
I used this on occasion while pregnant, but it always seemed to me to have an unpleasant connotation that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It reminded me of (BrE) up the duff, in that it sounded to me like pregnancy was somehow foisted upon me and that it was not a socially acceptable state to be in. I would love to hear from folks who use X months gone more naturally than I do on whether it has those connotations for you. So...comment away!

Monday, September 08, 2008

partner

I looked at my collection of e-mails from readers that request coverage of this or that Americanism or Briticism. The collection contains just those that I've not blogged about yet and that I think have at least a little potential to be an interesting post. At my current rate of one post a week, it'll take me a year to get through them--that is, if each e-mail has only one request in it. Maybe a year and a half, then. And they just keep coming in! If you ever thought I'd be out of bloggable ideas by the third year in, you were wrong. (And we're not even counting the topics on my own lists of questions I want answered, gripes I want to air, and little jigs I want to dance on your computer.)

With such a backlog (the ones that I consider answerable go back a year now), it seems a bit unfair that I'm going to write about the one that arrived today. Blame my mother. Whenever my brother didn't get into trouble when any reasonable person could see he was guilty as sin (He really was on my side of the car seat! And besides, HE'S LOOKING AT ME FUNNY!), my mother would explain "Life isn't fair." I took logic (AmE) in college/(BrE) at university, so I figure/reckon: Life isn't fair, and I'm alive, so I don't need to be fair. Right?

Regular reader/requester Jackie wrote today to request coverage of the BrE use of partner (since some of the requests I'm ignoring in order to do this one are hers, it's not that unfair, is it?) . She sums up the situation:
When I lived in London I was forever getting confused by people referring to their heterosexual partners as their partner. In the U.S., when someone refers to his or her "partner," it usually means the other person is the same gender. Or that they are in business together, a source of frequent confusion here. I don't know if it's worth discussing, but do you know how the words acquired the narrower meaning in the U.S. (or the broader reading in the U.K.)?
I am going to come out of the closet and tell you that I LOVE partner! In the UK, it is the unmarked--which is to say normal, usual-- way to refer to the person you share your life with (but usually aren't married to). It's gender-free, works as well for gay and straight relationships, doesn't infantali{s/z}e either party. It's wonderful. In fact, I love it so much, that it's still how I refer to Better Half, even though the law has intervened and I could call him my husband now. It's just such a grown-up, practical word, and I feel grown-up saying it. (I think I'll be at least 70 before I stop getting a kick out of being an adult.)

Jackie asks how it came to be this way. How? Hard to tell without a lot of etymological research, which I haven't the wherewithal to do now. But I can tell you this: the OED has examples of partner meaning 'spouse' going back to Milton (17th century). The business sense goes back a to the 15th century. In between, the word was extended to include dancing partners and bridge partners, etc. The OED comments:

Now increasingly used in legal and contractual contexts to refer to a member of a couple in a long-standing relationship of any kind, so as to give equal recognition to marriage, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, etc.
But it doesn't say when that 'now' started. Milton notwithstanding, it does have the feeling of a modern use. I've heard older BrE speakers expressing discomfort with the term ("that's what they all call it nowadays, isn't it?"), although I think the real discomfort isn't the word partner but the fact that their children are (chiefly AmE) shacking up instead of getting married.

Why don't Americans use it so generally? Probably because gay and lesbian folk started using it, and no one wanted to be mistaken for gay/lesbian, so they avoid it--though the official story is that it 'sounds too business-y'. What do Americans use instead? All sorts of things--there just isn't an unproblematic and widely accepted equivalent. They use boyfriend/girlfriend, significant other, lover and write articles like this.

The fact that it sounds 'business-y' is part of its appeal to me. It doesn't traipse into the emotional or bedroom details of your relationship. It acknowledges that you have to work together with anyone who's such a deep part of your life, that you share goals and assets and responsibilities. And I suspect that is a reason it's found popularity in the UK--it talks about a personal part of your life without getting into the private details. That and the fact that co-habiting relationships (including same-sex relationships) are treated with more seriousness and respect in British law these days, so they require a term that can be used in officialdom as well as by someone wanting to mention the person who picks their dirty socks up off the floor (with only the pleasure of self-satisfied eye-rolling as payment).

Generally (in BrE), if your refer to someone as your partner, people will assume that you live together. But I can think of at least two committed pairs I know who don't live together but who use the term for each other. That's how I can tell when my friends have become serious about the people they're seeing--they start calling him/her 'my partner'.

By the way, I'm retiring the Canadian Count. I've had a few lately, but I've lost count and I think it was only amusing me--and less and less so.

Monday, September 01, 2008

be/have nothing to do with

Reader Tim wrote recently to ask:
I noticed the phrase "are nothing to do with" in David Crystal's The Fight for English (p168) and it seemed peculiarly British to me. I would have used "have nothing to do with" instead. Google backs me up, saying its relative frequency is 10 times higher on UK websites than on the Internet in general:

"are nothing to do with"= 115,000 / "have nothing to do with" = 8,700,000 = 1:76

"are nothing to do with" site:.uk = 21,000/ "have nothing to do with" site:.uk = 156,000 = 1:7

Is it a well-recognized regionalism?
Now, I love queries that come with the homework already done. Farrrr superior to the ones with no greeting, no signature, no please and no thank you that demand that I explain why their spouse says such-and-such or why other people are idiots who say this-and-that. (I'd write "you know who you are", but such lack of self-consciousness in making demands of complete strangers is evidence of a lack of, well, self-consciousness.) And Tim did a good job of comparing the two phrases...except for one little problem. Can you spot it?

Before we get to the methodological issues, I'll answer his question. No, it's not a well-recogni{s/z}ed difference between BrE and AmE. Every source I've checked lists the two phrases as variations on each other, without noting anything about dialect, and sources on BrE/AmE differences (like Algeo's British or American English?--my usual [chiefly AmE] go-to book for verb variations like this) don't mention it either. But I share his intuition that are nothing to do with sounds "less American" than have nothing to do with. Note that here we're only talking about the use of these phrases when they're describing states and not when they're describing intentional behavio(u)r. So, if I want to proclaim that something has no impact on me, I could say (if I felt equally comfortable with either phrasing): It is nothing to do with me or It has nothing to do with me (or it's nothing to do with me, which hides whether it's a be or a have--but see this post for BrE/AmE differences in contractions). But if we're talking about shunning someone, it has to be have and not be: She'll have nothing to do with me since I insulted her pig.

Back to the methodology: Tim has made do with the limitations of the internet in studying US versus UK: comparing the UK to the whole world and assuming that anything peculiarly BrE will stand out in the .uk sites. It's hard to get around that, since few US URLs end in a reliable country code. What one can do instead is to search something like .edu versus .ac.uk or .gov versus .gov.uk, or search a couple of reasonably similar newspaper sites, but Tim's .uk versus 'the whole world' analysis is telling...except for one little problem.

The problem is comparing are and have. Both are the plural forms of their respective verbs, but have is also the base form. So, many of the have examples have their equivalent in be nothing to do with rather than are nothing to do with (as in it could be/have nothing to do with). So, let's try re-running the searches with the third-person singular forms is and has, which won't have this dual purpose (remembering that some of the has examples will have the 'shunning' meaning):


all sites .uk sites
is nothing to do with
1,440,000 85,900
has nothing to do with
13,400,000
333,000

ratio
1:9
1:4


So, the difference here is not as dramatic as Tim's figures would suggest, but what hasn't changed is that he's right in his intuition that be nothing to do with is more common on .uk sites than in the rest of the world. But much of the rest of the world is speaking Britishoid Englishes. To try to get out that influence, let's try it once more with .edu versus .ac.uk:


.edu sites .ac.uk sites
is nothing to do with
4340 1140
has nothing to do with
232,000
2030

ratio
1:53
1:2

Now there's a big difference! (Not quite as big as Tim's original difference, but big enough.) I suspect that the 'shun' meaning is less common on academic sites than on general sites, which include lots of places where people can be relatively free about declaring whom they are shunning--so I believe this might be a truer reflection of the relative Britishness of be nothing to do with.

So, well done, Tim! (Despite my methodological quibbles, which we in the educational establishment call a "teaching opportunity". At least that's what we call it when we want to show off a bit.)