Wednesday, September 30, 2009

badminton

Tim showed up in my inbox recently to ask:
As a Briton in the US I am frequently flabbergasted to discover the deep linguistic differences between us.

The most recent case of this arose with the pronunciation of the word "badminton." In the UK, we say the word as it is spelled. However, to my surprise my seemingly uncontroversial pronunciation elicited scoffs and giggles from my American friends. They apparently pronounce the word "bad-mitten," leaving the poor old N out entirely... Have you noticed this?
Indeed. Americans often ignore or minimi{s/z}e the first n in the spelling. There does seem to be some variation within the US, though. Most sources I've found list both the n-ful and the n-less pronunciations for AmE. (Except for the OED, which seems to think that we favo(u)r the [n] and leave out the [t]. I've never heard that pronunciation.)

I grew up without the [n], but now say it. However, when I use the [n] I don't really enunciate the /t/--so it's more like badmin?n--where the ? is a pause in sound-flow. (I'd say it's a glottal stop, but it seems to me that I'm creating the stop at the soft palate--closing off the sound at the entrance to the nasal passage. Is there a name for this, phoneticians?) I'd not be at all surprised to learn that Americans misspell this word (e.g. as badmitten) far more often than the British do, but it's hard to search for misspellings on the web, as one gets a lot of hits for a band named Bad Mitten (an allusion to the AmE pronunciation of the game name, no doubt) and many sites about badminton seem to have included badmitten in their code in order to funnel bad spellers their way. That itself is evidence that people are aware of misspellings of the word, but not enough to say that it's mostly Americans misspelling it.

You can get upset on behalf of the first /n/, if you like, but you might also want to spare thoughts for the sounds from spelling that go missing in BrE too, like the /o/ in some BrE pronunciations of inventory, the /r/ in the Received Pronunciation form of farm or half the letters in Cholmondeley.

Why do many Americans not pronounce the /n/? I have no idea. Sometimes letters that are spelled but not pronounced in words are re-introduced because increased literacy has left us expecting to pronounce them. (See this Wikipedia bit on spelling pronunciation, if you like.) But this doesn't seem to be the case for badminton, which was named after a castle stately home in England and has always had the 'n' in the place name too.

An old discussion on the Linguist List notes that badminton is among a small number of English words that are exceptions to the generali{s/z}ation that 'closed penults in English attract stress'. Translation: that second-to-last syllables that end in a consonant are stressed. That generali{s/z}ation would predict that BADminton would be pronounced badMINton instead. Could it be that AmE has reacted to badminton's exceptionality by dropping the sound that closes the penultimate syllable, i.e. the first /n/? Once that happens (if my reasoning is correct) badminton acts more like a typical English word in its stress pattern. I'm sure my phonologist friends/readers will tell us if I'm completely (orig. AmE) off the wall on that one.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

milk( )shakes

Like many in the UK these days, we do our weekly shop(ping: AmE) on-line and have our groceries delivered to us by a nice person in a van (that would be called a truck in the US) that's named after a fruit or vegetable.* It started out really well. The first order we got had a free, big Galaxy bar (which in the US would be a Dove bar) as a tie-in promotion for the Sex in the City (usual BrE) film/(usual AmE) movie. Score!

Our grocery supplier gives us a free copy of the Times with every delivery, so I suppose I shouldn't complain about the quality of other freebies since the Galaxy incident, but this week we got this stuff (photo swiped from Wikipedia):


On the back, it promises "the healthier milkshake that's packed full of flavour". But this is milkshake (or milk shake as most dictionaries would have it) in the BrE sense to mean what most AmE speakers would simply call chocolate milk. I'll give you here the OED definition of milk shake:
milk shake n. orig. U.S. a cold drink made of milk, a sweet flavouring, and typically ice cream, mixed together as by shaking or whisking until smooth and frothy.
Typically ice cream? No, definitely ice cream!** And not the piddly amount of ice cream that the shake shops in Brighton use. A LOT OF ICE CREAM. And some malt powder (or syrup), please! (Gourmet Burger Kitchen does ok, but lime is a rather odd flavo(u)r for a shake from an American perspective. But they're from New Zealand. Who knows what they do there?)

Some Americans will be quick to point out that they happily use milk shake to refer to milk mixed with some sweet flavo(u)ring and no ice cream. But they're from in/near Boston, where they use the term frappe (rhymes with cap) for proper (ice-creamful) milk shakes. So, they have an excuse. But the British have no such excuse for advertising milk shakes on café menus and then stirring a bit of Nesquik*** into a glass of (BrE) semi-skimmed and charging a (orig. AmE in this sense) premium for it.

I'm just grumpy, of course, because I'm on a diet and instead of having mostly-ice-cream malted milkshakes, I'm having water--with a slice of orange in it when I'm really treating myself. The upside, though, is that I did taste the low-fat Yazoo drink that I was sent, and I don't feel that I'm missing much. In fact, I'm glad to have an excuse to pour it down the drain, even though the perpetual student in me thinks: "FREE CALORIES MUST BE CONSUMED."

* I can't believe this hasn't caught on more in the US. No, not naming vehicles after produce--having your groceries delivered. It's wonderful. I suppose that in the land of cars, it's not as much of a service.

** Note that certain fast food establishments sell shakes. Not milk shakes, because they can't legally advertise them as containing milk. Those may not have ice cream in them, but they at least try to mimic a milk shake with ice cream.

*** Apparently, it's now called Nesquik in the US as well as the UK, but when I was a kid in the US, it was called Nestlé Quik.

P.S. My friend Todd sent this in response to this post--and I thought it was worth sharing!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

goatee (beard)

My brothers and I have discussed making a 'Mom bingo' game, in which you get to mark a square in your bingo card if it matches something that our mother regularly says or does--mostly says. Things like to each his own, said the old woman as she kissed the cow and we're off on an adventure! and paint the barn white if you want it to look bigger (the reason you will never, ever see me in white [BrE] trousers/[AmE] pants). Another that I would add to the bingo card is never trust a man with a goatee. Which, of course, is why I married one.

I am reminded of this because a dip down to the bottom of my virtual mailbag brings this query from Joan:
As a US-ian, I've always heard it used as "goatee" pronounced (sorry for the non-technical notation) [go-TEE]. My department manager is a UK-ian, and he uses the phrase "goatee beard" rather than just the word "goatee," and pronounces the first word [GOAT-ee] as if it were spelled "goatey" or "goatie." Is this a real US/UK difference?
The answer to Joan's question, like most of my answers to most readers' questions, is "Yes, but..." In this case, yes, the difference is dialectal, but while a goatee beard-sayer will be British (if the choice is only between British and Americans) not every British English speaker will say goatee beard. The one I live with says goatee without the beard. I suspect it's a generational thing.

Goatee is originally an AmE word, and in AmE to say goatee beard would sound pleonastic, and it would grate, like saying robin bird or bungalow house. Which is not to say we're pleonasm-free. After all, we say crossword puzzle and tuna fish. It's just to say that goatee beard sounds weird and redundant to Americans because it's not what Americans say--we just say goatee. I did a quick comparison of a couple of newspapers just to check. The Boston Globe website has four examples of goatee beard, all of which come from UK sources. The (London) Times Online on the other hand, has 99 goatee beards and more than twice as many just plain goatees. So, goatee beard is not necessarily the norm in the UK, but it's definitely of this place.

(I liked this quotation in the OED from Isabella L. Bird's The Englishwoman in America:
1856 I. L. BIRD Englishw. Amer. 366 They [Americans] also indulge in eccentricities of appearance in the shape of beards and imperials, not to speak of the ‘goatee’.)
As for the pronunciation, I have only heard initial stress on GOAtee when I've heard it before beard (though I am not sure that everyone who says goatee beard stresses it in that way). The OED does not record the GOAtee pronunciation, just the goaTEE one. I can think of two (and a half) reasons why the stress might've moved in this case: (1) the British like to move the stress to the front of words, which is where most native disyllabic English nouns would be stressed (recall our discussion of beret, ballet, etc.) and (1.5) maybe this need is particularly felt when the word is compounded, since we expect the first element in a noun compound to be more heavily stressed, or (2) perhaps he is thinking of goatee as an adjective meaning 'goaty'--after all, it's a beard that's like a goat's. I'm leaning toward(s) (1). But as I have prove{n/d} time and time again, I'm no phonologist--so I hope that someone with a better insight will be inspired to write an elucidating comment.

POSTSCRIPT, 5 NOV 2009: Sorry, I've had to close comments because this post has attracted a spammer.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

cupboards and closets

I've got a few posts brewing in my head that require me to (a) take my camera out with me and (b) remember to take pictures of the relevant things when I get to them. So far, I've only managed (a), which, it must be admitted, is pretty pointless without (b). But there's a lot of pointless activity in my life at the moment, like an afternoon investigating new textbooks after being told that mine couldn't be ordered--only to discover that the bookshop already had the books in stock, they just looked them up the wrong way. And waiting for the phone and internet to be re-connected after my neighbo(u)r told the people working on our house that the wires at the front of the building were extraneous and should be removed. And investigating and correcting the recent mistaken change to my tax code which left me paying three times as much as I owed this month. It's the camera one that really irks me though, since it's the only one I must blame myself for.

So with those plans thwarted, I have clicked onto a random post in my 'to be posted about' mailbox and found JHM, writing:
I've been on an Agatha Christie binge of late, and have subsequently been up to my eyeballs in potential questions on BrE. Seeing as these stories were written between the 30s and the 70s, however, it becomes complicated from your vantage, because even trying to compare fifty-year-old AmE usage to modern AmE would present problems.

Even so, one usage that seems fairly consistent over time, and that tends to confuse me, is the BrE use of "cupboard." I see that you've covered this to some degree, but I still have a few questions. [...] My word for the small, doored-off areas either hanging from the ceiling or under a [ed: AmE] countertop is cupboard (which I pronounce /cubbard/, making it a further annoyance when I see the word spelt, as the two seem not to match at all, and besides which, my "cups" usually hang from hooks below the cupboard, and are one of the few items not to be found inside one). So, first minor question is whether BrE by and large has the same pronunciation.

Now, it seems to me that BrE never seems to use closet, but prefers cupboard for just about anything that has a door. In my case, a cupboard is never something in which a corpse (at least one still in one piece) could be either found or put, but this seems commonplace in my stories. What are the bounds of the BrE cupboard, when does closet become more likely, and is all of this an artifact (ed: BrE artefact) of obsolete usage?
First, let me recommend that people who haven't read it click on the link to get to the post on (BrE) Welsh dresser, since it answers some questions. It's one of those sad posts from the beginning of the blog that would have received many more comments had I had readers at the time. Please feel free to comment on it there--it's never too late to comment on this blog's posts and it's one of those posts that gets a lot of hits via search engines, so your comment may help someone nice. Or possibly someone nasty. But if you help someone nasty, you're still being nice. Unless you're aiding and abetting in something nasty, that is. And I don't think anyone could hold you accountable and take away your niceness badge if your comment happens to lead to the Great Welsh Dresser Robbery of 2011 or the exploits of the Countertop Ripper in 2015.

I expect JHM that your rendition/rendering of the pronunciation is a bit misleading in terms of the second vowel. Since the stress is on the first syllable, most people would pronounce it with schwa-type sound. So, it sounds more like the word bird than bard. Like you, the British do not say 'cup-board', so the word is pronounced similarly in AmE and BrE--except for the way in which you'd expect it to differ: in what is done with an /r/ after a vowel.

On the meaning, one of the reasons why one doesn't hear closet much in BrE is because there just aren't many of them. Our current (three-bedroom) home has none. Our last (two-bedroom home) had none. My first (one-bedroom) home here had none. Instead, people generally keep their clothes in free-standing wardrobes, which move from house to house with them. (I have met/needed this beast only once in my dozen or so past American abodes.) Most Americans will be familiar with the furniture sense of the word just from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe--but I'm not sure that all reading the book would recogni{s/z}e that the wardrobe isn't a closet. Closets are becoming more popular in the UK in new-build/remodel(l)ed homes.

But that aside, BrE has held on to other meanings of closet to a greater degree/longer than AmE has. The original meaning was 'a private room' and this has been extended in various ways to refer to small rooms in general or small rooms of particular types. The OED tells me that this meaning is (or was when that entry was written) common in the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, where bed-closet means 'a small bedroom'. That meaning seems to have gone by the wayside in AmE, probably because there are so many storage-closets there. So, the small rooms in American homes are for storage, the word for small rooms closet is applied to them, there are no smaller rooms in the homes, so it's odd to refer to bigger rooms as closets too, and eventually people no longer reali{s/z}e that they could be using the word for other types of rooms. At least, that looks like a likely progression of events.

This has some knock-on effects idiom-wise. A skeleton in the closet (which goes back at least to the 19th century in BrE) transmogrifies into a skeleton in the cupboard in modern BrE, while it stays in the closet in AmE. On the other hand, (orig. AmE) come out of/be in the closet (as gay, etc.) has been imported directly into BrE. One can find a few instances of come out of the cupboard or come out of the wardrobe (as gay) on UK websites but they're few and far between. It's possible, though, that the imagery for the two is not quite the same in AmE and BrE minds. Do Americans imagine the closet-dweller as hunched among hangers and clothes and shoes and British people imagine them as just being in a small, private room? I imagine that the range of imaginings on an individual level vary a lot no matter where one lives.

Some types of closets in AmE are cupboards in BrE (or vice versa), such as a broom closet/cupboard. But this discussion reminds me that RMWG (another of my frequent, initial[l]ed correspondents) wrote a long time ago:
My American colleague is having problems with the concept of airing cupboards. I have done my best to explain, but as an American who presumably now has experience of them, perhaps you could do better.
Airing cupboards are called the same thing in the US, there are just far fewer of them. I got to know them in old houses in New England. More Americans would have a (non-airing) linen closet, which in BrE would be a linen cupboard.

On our recent trip to the US, Better Half didn't know what I meant when I said that I wanted to give a donation to the local food closet, which is run by a friend of our family. Food closet is essentially the same as (orig. AmE) food bank, the term that has come to be used in the UK (and is still used in the US too). I read with some surprise the Swindon Food Bank's claim that food banks are a 'ground-breaking concept'--since they've been around for decades in the US. But the first one in the UK was founded only in 1999.

Of course, closet is also found in the BrE term water closet, but please go back here to discuss that.

Back to JHM, he followed up his first email with:
[...] my reading has introduced me to the boxroom which, aside from their being convenient places to try to hide potentially incriminating evidence, seem to answer to an American's description of a closet. Is boxroom still in use? is it readily recognizable, if not commonplace?
I've never come across box(-)room in the wild, and the OED defines it only as 'a room for storing boxes, trunks, etc.'. It looks like it has developed in meaning a little bit, judging from this exchange on Gumtree:
> Hi, I'm currently looking for a place to live in London, and I'm simply wondering what a "box room" is?
>>
very small room often with no window.
>>>
or it can simply mean a very small single room, where you can just [s]queeze a bed & small desk or bedside table in - I'd ask about the window for each property - as I've never looked at a box room that didn't have a window personally, but I can see how in Cities that could apply! - I expect people try to rent out broom/laundry cupboards as commutor [sic] "bedpods"
>>>>
studio flat for £180 per week in zone 1 or 2 Laughing [link added for clarification--ed.]
In sum, I'd have to say that it's not a closet in the AmE sense and is not used all that much for storage rooms these days. Better Half adds that he gets the connotation of 'no windows' with box room, and that the adjective boxy is applied to rooms to mean that there's no room to swing a cat. (Not that good-conscienced, vegetarian BH has ever tried the cat-swinging bit.) To my AmE ears, a boxy room would just be one that has only 90-degree angles and probably walls of a uniform size.

Since we were corresponding at Thanksgiving time last year, JHM added:
As a seasonal bonus question, I wonder if you could discuss the use of the word larder in BrE [...]. I recognize the word, but don't have any idea how I might use it. There is the pantry, a small closet for dry goods, and the aforementioned cupboard, and the refrigerator (which seems to me what is referred to by larder in my stories. My grandfather would have used an ice box before refrigerators, but larder brings to my mind images of a cave, or walk-in refrigerator (perhaps since it sounds a bit like lair, I couldn't say). Does modern BrE have larders? What are they?
As the name hints at, larders were originally for storing bacon or other meats in the pre-refrigeration days. It is still used by extension for a large cupboard where food is stored. So, some old homes may have larders, which should be cooler than the rest of the house. (E.g. they may be on a side of the house that gets no sun or may have stone or porcelain parts to help keep the temperature down.) There's some information on BrE dialectal terms for larder in this Wikipedia entry. These days, one hears it in contexts like raid the larder, used like raid the refrigerator to mean something like 'get snacks'.

AmE ice box (or icebox) is still sometimes heard, having shifted its meaning from a literal 'box with ice' to 'refrigerator'. It's what my grandparents usually called the fridge. In some AmE dialects ice chest is used--though for many people that would refer to an insulated (orig. AmE) cooler (BrE: cold/cool box and these days one often gets cool bags--which reminds me, I need to get one. How about this one?). I can't imagine that there are many people under 60 years old using these terms for refrigerators--but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. One does still see/hear it in the names of certain sweet recipes.

As a cultural aside, Americans might wonder how the British live without built-in storage space. (UK houses also rarely have basements and residents may not have much--or any--access to an attic.) The answer is simple: they generally keep less stuff. I'm always reminded of this when I visit the US and see the seasonal stuff that a lot of people decorate their homes with. During our August visit, the shops there were already full of Hallowe'en (BrE) tat like this and plenty of people in my hometown decorate their porches with an ever-changing display of seasonal flags or banners like these. Some have special sets of china or linens for Christmas as well as decorations for every room and the great outdoors. One just doesn't see all this much in the UK. Where would you put it when it's out of season? Rather than sticking something that has outlived its usefulness or stylishness into a cupboard, closet or attic, a lot of UK residents would drop it by the nearest (or dearest-to-them) (BrE) charity shop/(AmE) thrift store. People often brought in single items or small bags of things to the shop where I used to work and we keep a constant 'Oxfam bag' going in the house--whereas I think Americans usually do their charity-giving after bigger clear-outs--often just before moving (house) or after dying (in which case they get out of doing most of the packing themselves). I must admit that some gifts I've received from some Americans (who do not appreciate that I have nowhere to put that cute/funny/weird thing that made them think of me--our place is smaller than a single floor of their three-stor(e)y+basement+garage houses) have gone straight to the charity shop. But not yours, of course. I cherish that. It is just so really, really extra cute and weird.