Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Down('s) syndrome

Another quick post as I desperately try to meet deadlines...

In September Virtual Linguist wrote about 'How Down's syndrome got its name' (from Dr John Langdon Down, as it happens). I responded in her comments, saying that I'd been taught that the "correct" name is Down syndrome. It turns out that this is a BrE-AmE difference that I hadn't known about. As VL replied:
In the book 'Dr John Langdon Down and Normansfield' by O Conor Ward MD, Professor Emeritus of Paediatrics at University College, Dublin [...], there is this sentence: 'From 1992 the alternative term Down syndrome was adopted in the United States'.
Actually, the date should be 1974, according to several sources, including the site Down Syndrome: Health Issues by Len Leshin, MD:
Many medical conditions and diseases have been named after a person; this type of name is called an eponym. There has been a long-standing debate in the scientific community over whether or not to add the possessive form to the names of eponyms. For quite a long time, there was no established rule as to which to use, but general usage decided which form is acceptable. So you saw both possessive and non-possessive names in use.

In 1974, a conference at the US National Institute of Health attempted to make a standard set of rules regarding the naming of diseases and conditions. This report, printed in the journal Lancet, stated: "The possessive form of an eponym should be discontinued, since the author neither had nor owned the disorder."(Lancet 1974, i:798) Since that time, the name has traditionally been called "Down syndrome" in North America (note that "syndrome" isn't capitalized). However, the change has taken longer to occur in Great Britain and other parts of Europe, for reasons that aren't quite clear to me.

One can see the adoption of Down syndrome in progress by looking at bibliographies on the topic, like this one, in which Down syndrome starts to appear in 1983. The term used in the names of conferences sponsored by National Down Syndrome Congress (US) shift from Down's to Down in 1978. (The NDSC was founded in 1973 under a different name, but their online history doesn't include the original name.)

Interestingly, though, the 'not using 's in medical eponyms' rule doesn't seem to have had as much of an impact for other conditions. Almost no one says Crohn disease and I don't recall ever hearing Alzheimer disease (although it's more frequent on the web than Crohn disease).

The "American version" of the term does appear occasionally in the UK. For example, the Portsmouth Down's Syndrome Trust morphed into Down Syndrome Educational Trust in 1997 (and changed its name to Down Syndrome Education International in 2008). But in the main, UK organi{s/z}ations use Down's. While the American medical establishment and people involved with the syndrome tend to use Down, Down's is certainly used a lot by American laypeople too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Words of the Year 2008 - nominations

Word of the Year season has begun, with bloggers calling for Word of the Year nominations and publishers showing little faith in the word-generating power of December. That means it's time for me to start the ball rolling for our little twist on WotY fever.

Long-term readers will know that we have (at least) two Words of the Year here at SbaCL, and nominations are open for both categories as of now:
1. Best AmE to BrE import
2. Best BrE to AmE import
I retain the editor's privilege of giving other random awards on a whim. I'd like your nominations for the main categories. The word doesn’t have to have been imported into the other dialect in 2008, but it should have come into its own in some way in the (popular culture of the) other dialect this year.

Please nominate your favo(u)rites and give arguments for their WotY-worthiness—in the comments to this post. It might be helpful to see my reasoning on why past words were WotY worthy and other nominations weren't. So click away for 2007's nominations and results and 2006's nominations and results.

Fire away! Please!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

some onomatopoeia

The requests for treatment of various topics are still coming in much faster than I can deal with them. So here's one that goes back almost a year. Roxana wrote to say:
I teach English in Italy, and the books we use come from the UK. The other day I was a bit surprised to read a sentence in "English Files" that went like this: "Do you hoot if the driver in front of you is slow?" (not "toot") I would have said "honk".
Have you come across this?
Yes, cars in the UK hoot (among other sounds) and in the US they honk (among other sounds), and those are but a couple of examples of the arbitrariness of onomatopoeia (words whose sounds imitate what they refer to). "The arbitrariness of onomatopoeia?" I hear some of you thinking. "Surely not!" But I reply "Surely, surely."

Onomatopoeia is always raised by some student when I teach the notion of 'the arbitrariness of the sign'--i.e. the notion that there is no causal connection between the form of a sign (e.g. a word) and its meaning. For example, it's just a social convention that the word for that thing in the middle of your face is nose. You had to learn to associate that combination of sounds with that body part because there's no other way to know that those sounds symboli{s/z}e that thing. And people who speak Zulu had to learn to match a different set of sounds to that thing because there's nothing in nature forcing us to use those sounds for that thing.

But surely, my student reasons, onomatopoeia does involve a natural relation between meaning and form (sound). We call the sound of a gun bang because guns go bang and so forth. Except, of course, that they don't. That's the way that the sound is represented in English, but in French it's pan (with the 'n' pronounced as nasali{s/z}ation on the vowel). And in Icelandic, apparently, it's búmm. While onomatopoeia is iconic, it still relies on the particular sounds that belong to one's language and it relies on some conventionali{s/z}ation. In English, our guns go bang and our bombs go boom because that's what we've learned from other English speakers, not just because that's what guns and bombs sound like. So there's some room for variation among languages, and even within languages, on onomatopoetic matters.

So it is with car horns. In both BrE and AmE, one might imitate the sound as beep, but (especially as verbs for making the sound) BrE likes hoot, which Americans reserve for owls, and toot too, and AmE likes honk (which can also be used for goose noises--OED marks this as 'orig. N. Amer.').

Here I must mention an absolutely charming website, bzzzpeek, on which children from around the world say the sounds of animals and vehicles. If you don't believe me on UK/US differences in onomatopoeia, check with the children. (The UK is the first country on each page, the US is the last--so it takes some clicking to get to.)

Here is a selection of onomatopoeia that I've come across in day-to-day existence. It's mostly come to the fore as Better Half and I clash in our sound effects for the song "Grover Murphy had a farm" (also "Grover Murphy had a bath", "Grover Murphy had some lunch" and anything else I can think to do sound effects for--but of course we use her real first and second name, which, as luck--or possibly careful onomastic planning--would have it, is metrically identical to "Grover Murphy" and "Old MacDonald").

donkeys: in AmE they say hee-haw, but in BrE eeyore--which is basically pronounced like hee-haw without the aitches (the penny drops for many Pooh fans--see the comments here)

frogs: the verb is to croak in both dialects, but in AmE (originally and chiefly, says OED) they say ribbit. This may have made it across the ocean now--Better Half was surprised to learn it's originally AmE, but the British bzzzpeek child has frogs saying croak croak.

emergency vehicles: in BrE children (or adults talking to children) sometimes call these nee-naws after the sound they make, which (traditionally) in Britain is a two-tone sound that's different from the sirens of the US (which are sometimes represented as woo-woo--but I've never heard that used as a noun to represent the vehicles, like nee-naw is). This one is not a case of the dialects representing the same sounds differently, but of having different sounds to represent. One might make the argument that hoot and honk are the same sort of thing--the British drive little cars that go hoot and Americans drive big ones that go honk. Except that the OED has BrE hoots and AmE honks back in the early 20th century, when the size of the cars would have been about the same in the two countries.

trains: we've already discussed the AmE origin of choo-choo and the BrE alternative puff-puff, which seems to be a bit old-fashioned now. BH doesn't use puff-puff, but does use (BrE) puffer train as an equivalent to (AmE) choo-choo train. Grover and I take the train to work/crèche, and as we wait for it, I find myself saying "Here comes the choo-choo train" then feeling ridiculous for doing so, since the train makes a kind of electric hum rather than anything 'puffy' or 'choo-choo-y'.

The thing that's struck me in thinking and talking to BrE speakers about these onomatopoetic items is that the American ones are mostly well-known here, but few people seem to reali{s/z}e that they were originally AmE. Considering how much disdain is felt for some AmE words in BrE, it's interesting that this section of the vocabulary seems somewhat resistant to that kind of prejudice. Or have I just missed it? And have I missed more onomatopoetic differences?