Thursday, October 23, 2008

stabilizers / training wheels

It's been a killer week work-wise, so here's a very short post.

Flatlander wrote to ask:
I was watching “Supernanny” the other day (it’s voyeurism, I know) and she made reference to removing the “stabilizers” from a child’s bicycle, meaning the “training wheels”. Is this a common BrE term or just a one-off?
It's not a one-off--one often hears stabilizers (and often reads stabilisers) for these things in BrE. Looking it up on the web, I've also found it on American sites, but particularly where training wheels would not be an appropriate term--for example wheels for balance-impaired adult cyclists for whom training wheels would be a misnomer.

Training wheels doesn't seem to be in the OED, so I'm having a hard time finding out if it was originally AmE. It is used currently in BrE (14,100 hits on UK Google), but I get the feeling that (a) stabilizers is the more usual way to refer to the things on children's bicycles, and (b) training wheels is more likely to be used metaphorically. Training wheels is a more transparent metaphor than stabilizers is, since the word stabilizer is pretty ambiguous--can refer to a food additive, something to keep dye from running, parts of various types of vehicle/craft, etc. For example, a headline from the Times Higher Education Supplement (14 Feb 2003) reads:

Diversity bike wobbles as the training wheels come off

For more on z versus s in BrE spelling, see back here.
For more on bicycles, see this one.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

condiments

Steve Jones wrote to ask me a question--which was kind of confusing, as I know three Steve Joneses. Turns out he's none of them, but he still has a good point:

From an off topic post on a practice US nationality test on one of the web's leading technology sites is this statement.

>>1. What condiment applies to French-fried potatoes?
>> Vinegar... no, mayonnaise... no wait, it's that red stuff.

>No credit for not being able to name the red stuff. Negative points for even thinking of the
>words vinegar or mayonnaise.

Now even in the sixty comments nobody mentioned salt and pepper which is what I would use. Is there a difference in the meaning of the word condiment between British and American English?
Better Half and I have visited this particular transatlantic chasm. I'm struggling to remember the details, but it involved him claiming to have put out condiments on the table, and me saying something like "You can't call it condiments when there's only a jar of mustard there", and him retorting that there was mustard and salt and pepper. At which point we began a particularly pointless argument about whether salt and pepper can be called condiments. It's at these points in a mixed marriage at which a spouse like me can do one of two things:
  1. Attribute his use of the word to his adorable Englishness.
  2. Assume he's a culinary cretin who just doesn't know the proper meaning of the word.
Then along comes Steve to save BH from fate (2). BH didn't even know that he has such a guardian angel.

To me, salt and pepper are seasonings but not condiments, and condiments are things that are usually wet and require a recipe to make. Let's compare some BrE and AmE dictionaries to see whether they differ on this point, starting with the British:
a substance such as salt, mustard, or pickle that is used to add flavour to food.
(Oxford Dictionary of English, 2nd edn)

Seasoning added to flavour foods, such as salt, or herbs and spices such as mustard, ginger, curry, pepper, etc. ...
(Dictionary of Food and Nutrition, Oxford University Press)

any seasoning for food, such as salt, pepper, sauces
(Collins on-line)
All of the British sources I checked explicitly mention salt and often pepper. And the American?
A substance, such as a relish, vinegar, or spice, used to flavor or complement food.
(American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edn)

something used to enhance the flavor of food ; especially : a pungent seasoning
(Merriam-Webster on-line)
While the AmE definitions could apply to salt and pepper, neither dictionary mentions them.

Searching online for the phrase "salt, pepper and condiments", I got 1,550 hits. Searching UK sites only (using Google.co.uk), there were four. So, it is looking like the urge to separate salt and pepper from condiments is not a particularly British urge.

Why is it this way? I don't know. I can't think of any seasoning-related behavio(u)r that would make salt/pepper more or less prominent in any group's collective mind. In fact, the only salt/pepper cross-cultural difference that I can think of has to do with the number of holes in the containers in which they're served. In the US, a (AmE) salt shaker has several holes, whereas the shaker for ground pepper has fewer holes. In the UK (and elsewhere) a salt-cellar (a term also found in AmE, but not as frequently; see the comments for corrections re this term) has one biggish hole and the (BrE) pepperpot has several smaller holes. Thus, those visiting one country from the other almost invariably put the wrong condiment/seasoning on their food on the first try. But in both countries, salt and pepper are expected to be found on a table and are provided on restaurant/cafe tables--except for those restaurants in which the waiter presents a huge pepper-dispensing phallus, generally after you've had the first bites of your food and when you're in the throes of a really interesting conversation, troubling you to ask "Fresh Ground Black Pepper, Miss?" (you can hear the capital letters there). Obviously, we mere consumers are not to be trusted with the Pepper God fetish. But that happens in both countries too.

There's a strange disagreement between the British and American dictionaries on the etymology. While Collins and Oxford give the Latin condire as meaning 'to pickle', AHD and M-W give it as 'to season'. You'd think it'd be the other way (a)round, given the interpretations of condiment in the two countries.

Monday, October 06, 2008

...and one to grow on

RWMG, in wishing me a Happy Lynneukah, asked:
Any differences between UK and US birthdays you want to let us in on?
Funnily enough, a difference came up in Max's list of Americanisms from Anne Tyler's Back when we were grownups:
Biddy was using the butane torch to light the candles on the cake --an actual one hundred candles, as Rebecca had insisted, plus an extra to grow on.
Max asked about this extra to grow on business. It's not a tradition I've thought about in a long time, but there's a tradition in the US in which you spank a child on his/her birthday (but I've also seen it with adults--usually the term sexual harassment comes to mind). The birthday girl/boy gets a light spank on the bottom for each of their years (counted loudly), then just when you think the ordeal is over the spanker will give you an extra "one to grow on" (i.e. a spank to help you grow). A more pleasant variation on this is to give the person an extra candle on their cake.

The phrase has taken on a life of its own, used in situations where something extra is given, especially something that's supposed to help/force you to grow (up) a bit. For example, here's a bit from Time magazine in 1956, about a reporter who has taken recently merged labo(u)r unions to task for various 'sins':
On the first birthday of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. merger, one of the U.S.'s top labor reporters, New York Timesman A. H. Raskin, gave the "brawling infant" one to grow on in the Times's Sunday Magazine.
I asked Max if there's anything similar in the UK, and he replied:
The nearest thing to your birthday spanking is "the bumps" which schoolboys subject one another to on birthdays. One holds the victim's arms and another the legs, and they "bump" the victim on the ground (not hard) for the appropriate number of times, plus maybe "one for luck". You "give someone the bumps".
I'm sure you'll let us know if these traditions are still practi{c/s}ed among children today and what variations on these themes are out there...

Happy Lynneukah!