Monday, June 29, 2009

over-the-counter observations

As I write this (which is actually a few days before I post it--connection problems at home), I am enjoying two British (or at least not-American) things about which I often ask: How did I ever live without this? Crumpets and Syndol. I’ve written about crumpets before back here, and as usual I’m eating them in a very non-British way—this time, with peanut butter and (AmE) jelly/(BrE) jam. (My other favo(u)rite and very non-British ways are with butter and maple syrup or with melted Cheddar and lots of A1 Sauce. Eating those messy concoctions requires a knife and fork.) Syndol is heaven in an over-the-counter blister pack: (AmE) acetaminophen/(BrE) paracetamol with a muscle relaxant of some kind. [Late addition: I shouldn't believe everything my drug (orig. AmE) pusher tells me. It's not a muscle relaxant. See here and the comments.] It does the trick for tension headaches—and just about anything else you want to throw it at. (Since I can’t take ibuprofen, aspirin or opiates [maybe--see comments], this is a godsend.)

Thinking (rhapsodically) about Syndol has me thinking about expressions that are used in AmE that I didn’t really understand until I had met them the BrE context—because over the counter is one of them. We say this in AmE to mean ‘non-prescription medications’, but I never understood why we say it, because in my American experience only prescription medications come from the other side of the (AmE & BrE) pharmacist’s/(BrE) chemist’s counter. The non-prescription medications are just out there on the consumer-accessible shelves in the (AmE) drugstore/(BrE) chemist’s (shop)/(AmE & BrE) pharmacy. But in the UK, a real over-the-counter category exists for things like Syndol. Plain old paracetamol/acetominophen can be found out on the shelves in many shops—and can be found in other types of shops, like supermarkets, (BrE) petrol/(AmE) gas stations and (BrE) corner shops. But for Syndol and real Sudafed (i.e. pseudoephedrine, my other drug of choice at the pollenous moment), you must go to a pharmacy and must ask for it from over the counter. Upon doing so, you will be faced with a number of questions from the pharmacist or their assistant, such as Are these for you?, Have you taken these before? and Are you taking any [insert name of drug that might interfere]? Give the wrong answer (like that you’ve been taking something for a while and your symptoms haven’t cleared up) and they won’t sell you the good stuff, but will tell you to do something sensible, like seeing your doctor.

I presume that all medications used to be truly over-the-counter in the US too—since shopping used to be more like that in general. I don’t know if it’s just because the UK (and most of Europe, as far as I can tell) maintains the over-the-counter category and the US doesn’t, but one can get much better drugs without a prescription here—including painkillers with codeine, which I also enjoyed until my last two doses of similar-but-prescription-requiring stuff landed me (sorry, British taxpayer) in (BrE) A&E (Accident and Emergency -also known as Casualty)/AmE the Emergency Room (or ER, or, as my friend who works in a hospital insists, the Emergency Department—though I don’t know anyone outside hospital employment who uses that phrase). I only took the recommended dose, I swear! I’d just developed some kind of allergy to opiates. (At the first A&E visit, the doctor insisted that it couldn’t have been the pills that put me in so much pain--hence the second visit, that time via ambulance. Many apologies, British taxpayer! And a tip: be very careful with the phrase cold and clammy if you phone NHS Direct. Unless you want an ambulance at your house.)

I said I was thinking of expressions (plural) that involved this kind of linguistic eureka moment, though to be honest, there’s only one other that I can think of: pratfall, which I mentioned back here.

So, expatriates of one brand or another, have you had similar experiences in which your own language made more sense only after hearing it in another dialect/context? And what are the American things that British expats have become dependent on, and vice versa?


In other business:
  • I'm planning to announce the winner to the Limerick Competition tomorrow (that is, if I manage to contact all my co-judges by then). So act quickly if you have an entry to submit!
  • Lexiophiles is running their Top 100 Language Blogs again, so nominate a blog you love!
  • I'm experimenting with Google's AdSense here, having kept this a strictly not-for-profit blog for the past three years. Let me know what you think.
I'll be back soon with a real post about an actual linguistic difference!

29 comments:

lynneguist said...

I've now been informed that pseudoephedrine is literally over-the-counter in most of the US now--I've been gone too long!

Thanks, Todd!

xinef said...

And in at least some parts of Canada, the Emergency Room is often referred as "Emerg". I've surprised a few American friends by using that term.

lynneguist said...

Is that with a hard or soft 'g'?

Zhoen said...

ED is only used by hospital administrators and PR people, for some unfathomable reason. ER. Like on TV. Like OR, for operating room, even though it's the whole department with a number of ORs.

Not Am/E vs Br/E, but in Canada they used to have 222s, with codeine, caffeine and aspirin - very useful, used to smuggle them back from Windsor, ON.

lynneguist said...

There aren't enough ambulances for me and that combination! ;-/

jcowan said...

If you really are sensitive to opiates, then you should know that Syndol contains codeine, which is certainly an opiate. It also has paracetamol (as you note), caffeine, and doxylamine, an antihistamine primarily used for its short-term sedating effect (not technically a muscle relaxant, but plays one on TV).

Note: You misspelled "acetaminophen". Easy to get wrong.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor; this is not medical advice. But it is not the unauthorized practice of medicine either.

lynneguist said...

Very interesting. Maybe it's just too little codeine to bother me (as I'm not bothered at all now on it. Whee!), or maybe there's something else in Co-dydramol and Oramorph that were doing me in.

Will correct the misspelling--thanks!

Frugal Dougal said...

Like the US, shopping for medicines was literally over the counter in the UK as well, until the early 20th century, when the Pharmacy Act effectively spelt death for the apothecaries, although until then you could still buy even the opiate laudanum at tobaccanists'. When I was a drugs worker, my boss used to refer to it as the legal pushers exercising their control over their market.

Anonymous said...

If this is a blog about the diffs between UK and US pharms, I have an anecdote about 'rubbing alcohol', which in the US is ubiquitous. As a Brit in the US, I used it to soak and clean my Tar-Gards, which are excellent at removing tar from cig smoke. On a visit back to the UK in '77, I asked for a bottle of it at a chemists, and they had no idea what I meant. I tried 'Wood Alcohol'. Again, no idea. I tried 'Isopropyl Alcohol'. Same response. So, I described what I wanted it for, and the chemist said "Ah, you must mean surgical spirits". So I bought some of that. It did the job, but was much more 'greasy' than what you get at the local Walgreens. BTW, I never discovered how it got the name rubbing alcohol, and what you're supposed to rub with it.

Stephen said...

Interesting. I've always known it as ED (just the two letters, never spoken in full) and I've lived in NZ, Australia and bits of Asia. On the other hand, my parents and spouse were/are fairly high level nurse managers, and I grew up living near or on the grounds of hospitals, so I'm probably not representative.

John Cowan said...

It's called rubbing alcohol because it's rubbed onto the skin to provide a cooling effect. In the U.S., rubbing alcohol strictly speaking is ethanol (the drinkable kind) with some acetone (nail polish remover) added to make it undrinkable. Isopropyl alcohol, or isopropanol, which is inherently undrinkable, is loosely called "rubbing alcohol" because it serves the same purposes and is easier to produce; it also will not burn easily because of its low vapor pressure at room temperature.

Surgical spirit is a mixture of ethanol and methanol; the methanol, or wood alcohol, accounts for the "greasiness" but again serves the same purpose of making the mixture undrinkable. Added methyl salicylate gives it its characteristic wintergreen odor.

Trish Fritz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Simon K said...

Oh dear Lynne, better get ready for the torrent of spam for one or another online drug pusher.

mollymooly said...

-And in at least some parts of Canada, the Emergency Room is often referred as "Emerg".

-Is that with a hard or soft 'g'?


This is one time when the abbreviation punctuation symbols come into their own: "veg." ; "Emerg." ; "reg'o" [AusE].

There's a Wikipedia article on Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, but apparently it has "multiple issues". I'm sure there's an OTC for that...

mollymooly said...

A related US/UK difference is that prescription medicines can't be marketed direct to the public in the UK [so no Pelé flogging Viagra] whereas behind-the-counter non-prescription medicines can [so ads saying "ask your pharmacist about..."]

mollymooly said...

"have you had similar experiences in which your own language made more sense only after hearing it in another dialect/context?"

I'm not an expatriate, but just this minute I was reading a Scots poem where "gown" is spelt "goon" and realised that was the etymon of the Irish [Gaelic] "gĂșna" [= dress, gown].

Mark Anderson said...

As an English law student, visiting the US in the 1980s, I was intrigued to see realtors (and references to real estate) rather than estate agents, which made me think more about the legal categories of real property and personal property. (I was also fascinated by bail bondsmen, which don't exist in England as the person putting up bail is supposed to be someone who knows the accused person, but that's another story. Also we are not allowed to go after the absconder with a shotgun!)

If I may digress beyond UK/US linguistic differences, civil law countries in Europe tend to distinguish between movable and immovable property (rather than real and personal). The French/Italian words for furniture shops and estate agents seem to be based on this distinction.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Another medicine/medication that you can buy here in the UK without prescription, and which I understand is unavailable in the US is ibuprofen gel. And that doesn't even need to be over-the-counter - you can get it in supermarkets.

My newest friend is voltarol gel - is that available in the USA? Brilliant stuff, even better than ibuprofen gel. Although arguably not better than the ibuprofen/Deep Heat or Deep Freeze mixture one can also get.

(Anti-spam "word" is "Buzedsts", which feels faintly appropriate here!)

Almost American said...

My favourite over-the-counter medicine in the UK was Collis Browne Compound, or chlorodyne, taken for stomach upsets. Not one you could take if you're sensitive to opiates!

lekkermeisje said...

In other countries in Europe almost all drugs are OTC. You have to ask for aspirin in Germany and (usually) in the Czech Republic. When I visited the UK from the Czech Republic I went to Superdrug and stocked up on basic meds, happy that I didn't have to have a conversation with a pharmacist about it before getting it. I did get a laugh out of 'wind relief tablets'.

Jennywenny said...

I guess lemsip used to be a really nice cold remedy that I miss, although nyquil is totally awesome as a replacement. As soon as I start feeling a bit sick, I take nyquil before bed and I'm passed out until morning, often by which time I've recovered.

Andrew said...

thirty five years ago, what is now boujis nightclub, outside South Kensington tube, was a very old fashioned chemists, where you could buy "Strickland specials", home-made cough pastilles loaded with codeine. They really worked, and let me float through German lessons at the Goethe institute just up the road on a little cloud. No coughing.

Joel A. Shaver said...

We will have difficulty doing without a constant supply of Scottish oatcakes, custard, and Olbas oil (not mixed) when we leave the UK, although the first two should be makeable / procurable in the States. I also really like 'mentholated bronchial balsam', mostly for the name.

Anonymous said...

I've been looking for a US equivalent to Eno's Fruit Salts or Andrew's Liver Salts, so far without luck. Alka-Seltzer conatins 325mg of aspirin in each tablet, which I consider irresponsible. If I need aspirin, I'll buy aspirin and take it with my Eno's, TYVM. Look as if I'll have to mix up a batch of Eno's myself. Any suggestions how to do this?

biochemist said...

Beecham's Powders are a memory from my (UK) childhood for flu-like symptoms - not much more than painkillers and a flavouring compound, I suppose, but wrapped in a slip of white paper they seemed more romantic than a tablet of aspirin or paracetamol (acetaminophen), and dissolved readily in water.
Is this related to the US phrase - 'take a powder'?

librarygeek said...

I'm late to the party, but I wanted to add that drugs like pseudoephedrine are considered to be "bahind-the-counter" medications. For an example see fierce Pharma.
This differentiates them from the over the counter meds in the aisles. I always perceived over the counter to be from the pharmacist's perspective :)

librarygeek said...

I'm late to the party, but I wanted to add that drugs like pseudoephedrine are considered to be "bahind-the-counter" medications. For an example see fierce Pharma.
This differentiates them from the over the counter meds in the aisles. I always perceived over the counter to be from the pharmacist's perspective :)

lynneguist said...

Well, now I feel like I should delete the whole post. Never occurred to me that it was from the pharmacist's perspective! (AmE) Duh!

Lindenwood said...

I was horrified when I moved to the US from the UK that one could not buy codeine OTC! (Thereafter, I used to implore friends and family visiting from Australia and the UK to bring a packet of Mersyndol (Au) or Syndol (Br) "for personal use" with them.)

I mentioned this to an American friend whose father was a doctor, and he was incredulous that you could get OTC codeine in other countries, and laughingly said, "OMG, if you could get codeine OTC in the US, everyone would be addicted!"

Funnily enough, my ob-gyn had no problem prescribing me Tylenol 3 for pregnancy-induced migraines.