Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Words of the Year 2009

I'm celebrating (for two-and-a-half minutes) a major milestone in the preparation of the book manuscript (FINAL VERSION--eek!) that is due by the 30th (double EEK!) by logging on briefly for a little cut-and-paste posting. (Spot the differences between this and last year's version!)

Word of the Year season has begun. 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
The word doesn’t have to have been imported into the other dialect in 2009, but it should have come into its own in some way in the (popular culture of the) other dialect this year. (I'll admit I have something in mind for category 2--but I can be persuaded.) I retain the editor's privilege of giving other random awards on a whim.

Please nominate your favo(u)rites and give arguments for their WotY-worthiness (WotYness?) 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. Click on the WotY tag at the bottom of this post in order to visit times gone by.

Vote early and often! I plan to announce the winners in the week after Christmas.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sesame Street

While Grover takes/has her nap, a little reflection on her bi-dialectal language acquisition. She's six weeks short of being two, and (orig. AmE) talking up a storm. I'd wondered whether she'd get any Americanisms from me, but (a) I tend to use BrE words when in the UK and (b) I'm just her mother. It's not me she's going to get Americanisms from. It's Elmo.

So, she says (BrE) nappy and cot and loo and peebo (that one is the creche's influence, I think). I've had a little influence on her (and her father) with (AmE) washcloth and bathtub (as opposed to BrE bath). But I took it upon myself to sing the ABC song with (BrE) zed, which led me to entertain myself by making up new endings for the sake of rhyme:
...double-you, ex, why and zed
Now I know my ABCs...

...and it's time to go to bed
...next time you can sing instead
...and a zombie is undead
...you're a Grover born and bred
...can you get that in your head?
In fact, when rocking her to sleep I'd entertain myself by changing the last line each time. But all my zed training was all for (BrE) nought/(AmE) nothing, since this came into our lives:



Now the ABC song bring cries of "Elmo, Elmo!" and Grover sings it beautifully and Americanly. (Her rendition/rendering of it is the ringtone on my (BrE) mobile/(AmE) cellphone.) I was also being very good about saying (BrE) ladybird, not wanting her to be the odd one out for saying ladybug, but then we started singing this song, and the more transparent compound won:



Which is to say that Sesame Street is running our lives. And you know what? I don't really mind all that much. It's much better than Barbie or the Teletubbies or Thomas the Tank Engine, in my book. First, it has a great aesthetic--largely due to the Muppets. Second, it has a great sense of humo(u)r that speaks to child and parent on different levels. I mean, have you seen their Mad Men parody? Or the reggae joy that is Do de Rubber Duck? (And I'm always secretly thrilled/shocked when Hoots the Owl says near-taboo things like "Don't be a stubborn cluck".) Third, the songs are good enough to listen to even when your child is napping, and you just can't say that about the Wiggles. A lot of that is, again, the humo(u)r. I also think that the fact that the (BrE) programme/(AmE) show is made in the mother-city of the musical comedy helps. I also like that it is grounded in a kind of reality (where one has to brush one's teeth and learn to share)--it's not about a dream space like In the Night Garden (which is the drug of choice for toddlers in the UK at the moment, and which I just (BrE) can't get on with aesthetically or interest-wise). And Sesame Street is made by a production company that is all about children. Any profits it makes go toward(s) projects for children around the world.

What makes me reflect on all this is the fact that Sesame Street is celebrating its 40th anniversary (which means that I was 4 when it first started--part of their original demographic), and the BBC website published a piece called "Why did Britain fall out of love with Sesame Street?", which was interesting reading. Grover gets her Street fix in a number of ways. She was introduced to it by an animatronic Elmo doll, a gift from her American Papa. Then we got a CD of Sesame Street songs and now we have probably about five 20-minute sessions with SesameStreet.org each week. (Grover: "Puter. Elmo. Turn it on. Apple puter."*) The shop in our library (yes, our library has a shop, like a museum) sells Elmo and Ernie dolls, but the library holds no Sesame Street books or DVDs, strangely.

One British television executive is quoted in the BBC piece as "The style of the programme is a tad out-dated - there are very few puppet shows around now. Perhaps LazyTown, but that's a very different tempo". Um/Erm, who cares? Does my toddler really need something with a faster tempo? Wouldn't it be nice to encourage a longer attention span in children? And what's wrong with puppets? Children go to bed at night with cuddly toys, not two-dimensional animations.

Unlike in the rest of the UK, Sesame is enjoying a renaissance in Northern Ireland, where a franchise version, Sesame Tree, is produced locally, with funding from several peace and reconciliation organi{s/z}ations.

I do wonder a bit if different preferences for children's literature and television in the two countries reflect different ideas about childhood. The things that I know and love from childhood are (orig. AmE) wacky. The characters are brash and outgoing. Americans in the 1950s had Howdy Doody, but the British had the Flower Pot Men on Watch with Mother. The British program(me)s seem to have a lot more narration than American ones, which seem to have more direct interaction between characters and children. From the Flower Pot Men to Clangers to the Teletubbies, there are many British children's television characters who don't speak in discernible language, whereas American children's television is extremely focused on verbal humo(u)r (click on any of the Sesame Street or Howdy Doody links above). Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to these generali{s/z}ations, but they stand out when I reflect on the children's television that adults talk about.

I was prompted to think about this even more after I posted a status update to Facebook yesterday, in which I proclaimed (too hastily) that there should be a law that all children's picture books should rhyme. I take that back, but I will say that any children's book with text is not a very good one if there isn't some joy to be found in the use of language. An American friend in Japan responded that:
A British friend of mine in Japan HATES Dr. Seuss, and says his kids didn't like it either. Sounds like a blog topic to me....
So here we are. First thing to note about Dr. Seuss is that the British tend to pronounce it as Doctor [sju:s] or sometimes even Doctor [zju:s] (we've looked at the reason behind that before), whereas for Americans, it's Doctor [su:s]. But after that point has been made, there are certainly lots of people in the UK who like Dr Seuss, but, like my friend in Japan, I've heard British people say he's overrated (and have never heard an American fault the stories--though not everyone loves his drawing style). And I do wonder whether that is because Americans are looking for brash humo(u)r and language play in their children's stories, while the British are looking for calm and comfort.

I expect that this is the type of topic that's going to touch nostalgic nerves, so fire away! I'm in the (AmE) home stretch before a big deadline, so please excuse me if I go a bit quiet for the next couple of weeks. I hope I've given you plenty to talk among(st) yourselves about.


*An aside: It's a little scary how many brand logos Grover already knows before the age of two. We're not (BrE) label-Mabels, and she doesn't watch commercial television, but having flown on Delta four months ago, she still points at triangle-chevron-type things and says "Airplane!" We were in a cafe the other week and she was pointing out the window saying what sounded to me like "Books, books!" Then I reali{s/z}ed it wasn't books but Boots--she knows the logo and the name of the (BrE) chemist's/(AmE) drug store chain where we buy her nappies/diapers. Today she went to the door with glee, exclaiming "Ocado man!" (Indeed, it was.) And pointed at their logo with interest, saying "Ball". Of course, she's learn{ed/t} the Sesame Street brand too, not to mention Maisy, Charlie and Lola, and Miffy, which are brands of a type too. The most embarrassing thing is when she sees the Coca-Cola logo and says "Mummy". I really thought I'd hidden that dirty habit.

Friday, November 06, 2009

well done the

Often these days my blogging consists of answering queries from readers wondering about this or that thing they've heard or read. I'm going to turn that on its head and ask you about something. It's this little type of exclamation:
In each Festival match of 30 overs we scored over 115 runs and on average only lost 4 wickets an innings – well done the batters.* [Derbyshire Cricket Board]

Well done the players, we knew you had it in you and well done Juande Ramos, you sorted the tactics just right to get the best from our lads [comment on SkySports]

Well done the runners [comment on a JustGiving page]


This for us was an excellent result, playing in a section above a our current one and finishing in the top half of the results, nothing wrong with that, well done the band. Well done the other bands yesterday, it was by all accounts a great contest [Amington Band]

* I also found one example of Well done the batsmen. I know cricket purists will be annoyed by the batter in that example--but BH tends to associate the expression with batter rather than batsmen, so that's what I looked up first.

So...this well done the thing. I can't say it. Better Half says he hears it often in cricket commentary, but that it's rather new. I can't find anything discussing it in the usual places I'd look.

It looks like a congratulatory utterance directed at the named group, but if you're congratulating someone, you'd usually do so by addressing them. In the second example we see an example of that: well done Juande Ramos. But if you're addressing a group by common noun rather than by a proper name, you wouldn't normally in English use a definite determiner (the). So, Well done, runners would be fine in any form of English.

The other thing that it could be is a sort of indirect congratulation, where you're not addressing the congratulatee (congratulee? congratuland?) directly, but expressing your congratulatory sentiments about them to someone else. In this case, common core English would usually use a to: Well done to the runners! Or 'Well done!' to the runners.

Most of the cases of this that I've found involve no mid-phrase punctuation. With a comma after done, I'd think it a straightforward case of direct congratulations, and so would note the weird use of the whoevers as a term of address. Without the comma, it's less clear--though note that the comma is not always used when address terms are used--and may be less often used (or used less often) in less-comma-ful British English. One doesn't see things like the runners being used as a term of address elsewhere in the language. Race officials don't welcome racers with *Hello, the runners. So, it's less than clear that the runners is being used as a term of address.

But I can see no motivation for dropping the to in the indirect form either. I can't imagine similar droppings of to in other indirect greetings. Hello to the children, yes. Hello the children, no. So, I'm sticking with my initial assumption that we're supposed to understand the runners as a term of address in Well done the runners. But then again, there is the BrE Up the runners, which is also missing a preposition (with) from my AmE perspective. BH's perception is that that use of up is (his words) (BrE) "toffee-nosed Oxbridge talk" and well done the is in a different class--but others may have different perceptions of the two constructions. I'd love to hear about them.

Because BH knew this from cricket, I had a snoop around other countries--I found only one case on an .au site (searching for batters, batsmen, bowlers, players and runners), none on .ie, .pk, .nz or .za, and the only one I found in a few pages of sorting through Indian sites was by a New Zealander. So, it's looking pretty British to me--though whether it's coming from a particular dialect is not at all clear, since I've found it all over the country.

So, who's got [orig. AmE] the scoop on the origins of this construction? And is there anyone out there whose brain isn't a bit jangled by it?