Monday, June 14, 2010

tokens

Thanks for your patience while I was not-really-blogging for the past month.  During that time, I've been working in five UK cities/towns and two other EU countries (Germany, Malta)--not to mention preparing for all those meetings and (BrE) marking/(AmE-also) grading my brains out end-of-year essays/term papers and exams.  Now I just have lots more student work to read and the page proofs of this book to correct and the collaborative book to finish...and...and...and...and should  I really be blogging now?  (Best not to think too hard about that.)

But how to get back into the blogging groove?  Doing 'Differences of the Day' on Twitter has kept me and the groove on a nodding acquaintance, but which of the multitude of un-blogged-about topics should I start with?  It's inbox roulette time again.  This post's winner is Astro Brat, who wrote to ask:
Is the British version of "token" different than the American one?
I ask because in the last few days I've run across the term used by Brits that sounds more like where my mid-western US dialect would say voucher or perhaps coupon?

One was in a television show and I just assumed it meant the same -
"I hope you like this gift, because honestly it's either this or tokens"

But when I read this later in the week:
"it’s not a book that would have been top of my reading list, but I was in a bookshop and I had some book tokens so you know how it is!"

Where I come from token is a kind of coin used for amusement parks or kid's restaurant sort or things.  It can also be a little small gift, a token present.  Does Britain give out specific-use coins for bookstores?
AB has correctly surmised that in BrE a token is a kind of (AmE) gift certificate/(BrE) gift voucher.  These days, one most often hears token in this meaning for one of two things: National Book Tokens or Theatre Tokens.  These are sold at bookshops/box offices, but usable at almost any (BrE/AmE) bookshop/(AmE) bookstore or (BrE/sometimes AmE) theatre/(AmE) theater, not just the one at which it was purchased.  For shop/store-specific gifts, I more often hear voucher, rather than token in BrE, but the OED has examples (latest from the 1980s) of shop-specific tokens, so there's not (historically, at least) a hard-and-fast meaning difference. 


AB's little error is in transferring the coin property of (AmE) subway/amusement park tokens to the British context. Tokens are like American gift certificates, so traditionally paper, nowadays likely to be in the form of a gift card.  There's a gallery of these at the National Book Token website, and while I could photograph the two in my (AmE) wallet/(BrE) purse for you, I am far too lazy, so here's one from the 1930s, courtesy of the NBT site (the relevant details would have been on the back) and the modern plastic type.

My two are really Grover's.  They're paper ones with a value of £1 each, given to children in schools and (BrE) nurseries on National Book Day.  I can't tell you how many books I've bought while holding the wallet/purse that holds those book tokens.  I generally think of them about 10 minutes after the purchase, even if I've stepped into the bookshop with the specific goal of spending the tokens.  So, Grover gets books and I contribute £2 more than I'd intended to the recovery of the retail sector.

(I also want to mention Bookstart, a lovely UK institution, which gives children free books (through their local libraries or at health check-ups) at three points in their preschool years.  I've only just missed mentioning them on National Bookstart Day (11 June this year). Bookstart is a charity, funded by the government and book publishers.  Given the slash-and-burn approach of the new (BrE) government/(AmE) administration, I am crossing my fingers for it.  Not to mention for all jobs in higher education. *sigh*)

The notion of a token as a coin is not foreign to BrE.  The OED has this sense-definition (though it includes subway tokens under the same sense as gift token):
 11. a. A stamped piece of metal, often having the general appearance of a coin, issued as a medium of exchange by a private person or company, who engage to take it back at its nominal value, giving goods or legal currency for it.
  From the reign of Queen Elizabeth to 1813, issued by tradesmen, large employers of labour, etc., to remedy the scarcity of small coin, and sometimes in connexion with the truck-shop system. bank-tokens, silver tokens for 5s., 3s., 1s. 6d., were issued by the Bank of England in 1811
You might need metal tokens in the UK for use in amusement parks or cloak-room lockers or such things--I don't know of any public transport systems using them here at present, but I'm happy to be informed otherwise.

Most other uses of token seem to be the same in the two dialects, though a draft addition to the OED marks this sense as US:
[3.] c. A nominal or ‘token’ representative of an under-represented group.

Does this mean that the joke of the South Park character Token's name has gone over some British heads?  (Say it ain't so!)

And on that note, welcome back to my blog.  I've missed you!

49 comments:

ansarrachy in the UK said...

It ain't so! At least, I hope not for dialect reasons. I'm imagining an under-familiarity with the 'token black x' concept if anything. 'Token gesture' (stress always on 'gesture') is probably the top usage of the term.

Oh! Trolley tokens. I'll be off to bed thinking of what other coin-tokens I'm familiar with.

lynneguist said...

Trolley token needs its own translation for AmE speakers. See this old post for help.

Roger Owen Green said...

Damn- I have the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight suddenly stuck in my head. Yes, it's by the Tokens, a Brooklyn, NY USA group. Presumably named for the subway tokens.

RWMG said...

I can remember references to people as the token woman on committees and so forth in my student days in NE England, so I don't think it can be restricted to the US.o

Anonymous said...

Re. token woman etc. I think that in the UK this is used more in the sense that the OED has it in 16b, as a sort of adjective "She was sick of being the token woman on the committee" rather than "she was sick of being the token". The latter I'd find unusal in British English, the former is quite common.

Nineveh_uk

Anonymous said...

Several BrE meanings spring to mind:

- book token
- swimming pool locker token
- the archaic sense of payment by token (ie to be used in the company's shop), outlawed by the Truck Acts in the nineteenth century
- token woman, black, etc
- similar to vouchers (eg dining room token)

James said...

You suggested that the AmE equivalent of the BrE 'government' would be 'administration'. This is common, especially with British people, but I think it's more complex than that. To my knowledge, the BrE analogue of 'the administration' would be something like 'the cabinet, in its non-legislative capacity', and the AmE analogue of the BrE 'government' would be something like 'Congress and the administration' or 'majority party in Congress' or probably many other things, depending on the context.

(You probably just didn't want to get into all that! What can I say, it's just a little pet peeve.)

Jill said...

The terms BrE "government" and AmE "administration" don't mean exactly the same thing because the details of how the systems work are different enough that the terms don't translate well. And yes, AmE "administration" implies the members of the executive branch both elected and appointed, and excludes the legislature, whereas BrE "government" refers to the MPs of the party (or at the moment coalition) currently in the majority, contrasted with the "opposition", which is the MPs of the parties not in the majority. And then there are the civil servants, who do vital government work while being neither government nor opposition.

However, the two are used in an extremely similar way as a shorthand for the people currently in power, particularly in newspapers and on newscasts, so it's reasonable to explain one in terms of the other.

lynneguist said...

@James: The political systems are different, therefore the words in common use for them will have different referents--but that's essentially how it would be reported in a newspaper. And in this case, when referring to the new government, I am, more than anything, referring to those in cabinet posts, since they're the ones who are proposing all the cuts, which then go to parliament--just as the presidential administration proposes bills in the US system.

It's not uncommon to use 'government' to mean essentially the same as 'administration' even in the UK. For example, this BBC news story refers to 'the coalition goverment' suspending Home Information Packs. It needs to go through Parliament to outlaw them, but the people in the cent{re/er}, i.e. the administration, have made/taken the decision, and they're referred to as 'the government' in this case.

Since you acknowledge that this is an understanding of the term in BrE, I think you're complaining not so much about the translation as about the term's polysemy (multiple meanings). But polysemy is the default state of most words, so that's a harder fight to fight!

lynneguist said...

I was typing at the same time as Jill--but we basically say the same thing! Thanks, Jill!

Harry Campbell said...

Many car parks(BrE) seem to use tokens, bought from a machine and inserted into a slot to raise the barrier on your way out.

In France there used to be public phones that accepted tokens but I don't think the UK has ever used that system.

Shaun Clarkson said...

Although book tokens are a familiar term to me I'd never heard shop-specific gift equivalents ever called anything other than vouchers (or nowadays cards). Interesting to hear the term was in use at least up to the eighties.

The post did remind me of the milk tokens we used to use when I was young. Door to door early morning milk delivery was very, and is still fairly, widespread in Britain. Mum would buy small plastic discs, the ones I remember were blue, and put these out with the empty bottles to pay for however many new bottles she wanted. I'm not sure if this payment system was universal, certainly locally the dairy gave up on it years ago and now the milkman calls in once a fortnight to be paid in cash.

I tried Googling these, and the responses suggest there is a different current use of milk tokens, as a benefit for poor families with young chidlren.

Shaun Clarkson said...

I've now found a reference to the mlk tokens, which also makes references to stamps and coupons.

http://www.edinphoto.org.uk/1_edin/1_edinburgh_history_-_recollections_gorgie_and_chesser.htm

Stephen said...

As a Kiwi/Aussie, we seem to stick closer to the US meaning on this. To me tokens are coin-like objects, never paper (those would be gift certificates/cards or maybe tickets, depending). I also remember milk tokens from when I was younger - different shapes and colours for milk (plain, homogenized, skim), cream, and grapefuit juice.

Grinnyguy said...

As a Brit, I would happily use both voucher or token to talk about 'pieces of paper given as gifts for use as money in specific shops', but we also collect tokens on packets of cereal/tea/other food. Do these exist in the US? I am thinking of special offers where you can collect 5 to get another packet of cereal, or perhaps collect 100 to get a limited edition bowl. What is this called, if not a token? It's a small piece of cardboard that's much to small to call a voucher in my (british) eyes...

Brian said...

@Grinnyguy

We (AmE speakers) certainly do have such programs in the US; I immediately thought of the now-defunct Betty Crocker Points that my mom used to clip. Many of the offers usually ask for the UPC/bar code as "proof of purchase."

I wouldn't have thought to call the cardboard pieces "tokens," though. I'd probably call them "coupons," if I had to come up with a generic name.

lynneguist said...

@Grinnyguy: when I used to collect them, they were called 'proofs of purchase'.

Aha--Wikipedia has it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proof_of_purchase

Christina said...

The NYC Subway used to use tokens (the little metal coins), but then they switched to Metro Cards (electronic cards that you swipe to get past the turnstile) about 10 years ago. What does the London Underground use? Also, and I know this is off-topic, but do they really deliver milk door-to-door in Britain? To this New Yorker, it sounds so quaint!

arwel said...

Until fairly recently (last 10 years, I'd guess) UK pensioners would get a supply of bus tokens every year - these were metal tokens with a notional value of 5p or 10p each, which could be spent as money on any bus. The actual value of tokens you received depended on which council area you lived in. Nowadays of course, pensioners get a free bus pass instead. I'm a bit vague about when bus tokens became obsolescent, as it happened at different times in different parts of the country - my memory is of my mothers' tokens, but she lived in Wales which was, I think, the first part of the UK to switch to having a national bus pass for OAPs.

lynneguist said...

@christina: you only have to look upstate for milk delivery--it's certainly not specific to UK, I grew up with it in NY.

London Underground uses paper tickets w/ magnetic strip (as do overground/cross-country trains), but nowadays residents mostly have Oyster Cards, which have an RFID chip, so you just touch them to a sensor. They're good on underground or bus (and I think they're now good on some commuter trains? I think?). Not sure what was used before magnetic strips.

mollymooly said...

"Gift token" or "book token" work for me, as something you give as a birthday or Christmas present. If you're using a cash-substitute that's not a gift, it would be a "voucher"; e.g. getting lunch in the cafeteria of a building where you are on an all-day training course. A "coupon" is 50c off your next box of Acme Household Product.

These distinctions may well be idiolect rather than dialect.

Boris Zakharin said...

I'm in New Jersey and I know Philadelphia has one of the few transit systems to still use tokens as the primary system of payment.

I am familiar with one type of paper tokens, the ones that come in multiple colors and say "Admit One". Used for children's events. They also have a multi-digit number that may be used for raffles. (it seems everyone else online calls them tickets, so I may be misremembering from my childhood).

What really interests me, as a computer programmer, is what the etymology of the two uses of "token" in computing is. First as in token rings where a token is something you have that grants you exclusive use of some resource until you give it to someone else. It's not really like a subway token because with those you only get to use something once you give the token up. Second is the smallest meaningful unit of text like a single word in a string of multiple words. Is it just that tokens tend to be small in size?

Anonymous said...

Regarding the paper tokens on the back of cereal packages, etc., I have seen them referred to as tokens many times here in the US. You collect a certain amount for toys, etc.

Metal tokens are used in the US for gaming places. You buy a certain amount of tokens and use them to play video games, laser tag, bumper cars, etc. while at their establishment. Chuck E Cheese is a kiddie version example.

Anonymous said...

As a child in 1970 (UK), I collected World Cup tokens, handed out at Esso (Exxon) garages when my parents bought petrol (gas). If I remember right they were plastic or metal coins.

townmouse said...

I think the etymology of the token in token ring networks was to do with trains - a token used to make sure two trains didn't enter the same stretch of track. But that's from memory - haven't even googled it.

arwel said...

@Boris Zakharin and @townmouse: Ah! Railway tokens - yes that's another usage of the term in the UK. A token is the permission for a train to enter a particular section of track - it's a large piece of metal, usually with a large loop of material attached so that a train driver (AmE engineer) can lean out of the cab and collect it from a signaller without stopping the train; in a clever piece of Victorian electromechanical engineering, things are arranged so that only one token can be removed from the equipment at either end of the block, thus providing the authority for the train to enter the section, and the token has to be reinserted at the other end of the block before another token can be issued.

John Wells said...

For token (black etc) in BrE, see the recent Guardian cartoon of Diane and the Tokens: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cartoon/2010/jun/10/diane-abbott-labour-leadership

David Young said...

Lynne: you only have to go as far as Brighton pier (UK) to see coin-like tokens still in use for amusements. You buy them from machines or a kiosk and give them to the ride attendants. Like book tokens, they serve as currency which is only valid for a limited range of goods or services.

On tokens in use on railways, to prevent two trains using the same stretch of track: I remember this practice from my (UK) childhood, and I always assumed that it was what gave rise to the token ring terminology in computing. In Yorkshire in the 1960s, the token was in a little satchel fastened to quite a large ring, so that drivers could lean out of their cabs and pass it between them or to station staff very easily. I don't think the token had any physical effect; rather the driver was simply not authorised to proceed unless the token was in his possession.

Robbie said...

Lynneguist: Before magnetic strips, London Underground tickets were just little cardboard oblongs printed with the name of your destination. You'd hand them to the ticket collector when you got there.

I moved out of London before Oyster cards. I clearly remember my Underground season tickets (magnetic-strip variety), renewed every year. Luckily, my employer offered interest-free loans to pay for the things.

itinerantlondoner said...

we used to have record tokens as well (very similar to book tokens), which were always my favourite gift as a kid.

the scheme died when the individual retailers pulled out of the scheme one by one and introduced their own - like the HMV Gift Card for example

Solo said...

The card ticket with a magnetic strip is still very much in use for the occasional traveller in London. I can't remember a time before then, but I do remmeber the little oblong carboard tickets being issued by the bus conductor.

I've only ever heard of milk tokens (UK)as a benefit for mothers, so the expression has been in common use in that sense since at least the mid-eighties. I'm not sure if it's just for poor families, Lynneguist you'd be more likely to know than me. Milkmen have only ever taken cash as far back as I can remember. I've never seen or heard of bus tokens either.

As a pre-paid slip of paper which you can exchange for goods in a shop, I'd happily use 'token' or 'voucher', except in the case of 'book' which is collecated with 'token'.

I'd also collect tokens off a cereal box etc, though I'd expect it to be called a 'coupon' in AmE. Rude Health cereals have this ace competition where you(BrE) cut out/(AmE)clip the token/coupon and complete the sentence "I like tokens because..." The best answer wins a hundred tokens.

Oh and the South Park joke is as obvious to BrE speakers as it is to AmE I'd say. The construction "The token x" is very common. I have often been 'x' myself :) Little claim to fame there.

biochemist said...

I agree that 'token' refers to a coin-shaped item with a specific monetary value, whether for milk or in the company shop (19th century). When Book Tokens were introduced in the UK, the word 'coupon' was still remembered from the 1939-45 war - each person had a book of coupons that permitted them to purchase clothing or food - they had no monetary value themselves. So Record Tokens and Department Store Tokens were analogous to Book Tokens - all now replaced by pre-paid cards with a magnetic strip (although sneakily some of them have an expiry date if not used!). We could have used the word 'chit' or 'chitty' I suppose, but that might have sounded too military or colonial.
Vouchers always have the connotation of 'money-off' to me, rather than representing the full purchase price.

lynneguist said...

@solo: I think milk tokens must just be for families with lesser financial means--I've never been offered any. But I do get a child benefit (as do all parents in the country--£20 a week for one child), plus the £250 you get to invest for your child when they're born, and the free books...not to mention the free healthcare, of course. Not as cushy as raising a child in France, but surprising to an American all the same...

RickS said...

@Boris Zakharin et al.:
I don't think it's the small size that qualifies something as a "token"--the tokens in token rings are, after all, not even physical entities. Rather, what unifies most of the definitions is that a token is a symbol with a conventionalized meaning. In a token network, it represents the right to transmit (and incidentally, you DO have to give it up after you use it, according to the protocol). In the context of parsing text, the token is a syntactic unit that represents a minimal semantic unit for the purpose of semantic analysis. A token person of some class is meant to represent sensitivity to the values of that class (although if that sensitivity isn't genuine the effect is annoyingly patronizing). Etc.

Of course, there are many kinds of conventional symbols that we don't usually call tokens, such as money, traffic signs, etc. But that's simply linguistic habit; I don't think most people would be stupefied if I were to say that a STOP sign betokens a duty to halt your vehicle.

biochemist said...

Lynneguist - milk tokens in the UK were issued by the Co-op dairy and possibly other local dairies - they were pre-paid, i.e. bought by the householder as a 'pay-as-you-go' system rather than having the milkman call at the end of the week, with the risk of missing the payment. What I mean is, they may have been very useful for people on a careful budget, but they were not (to my knowledge) a welfare benefit.
The comments by Rick S rather went over my head, but I think I agree that a token is intended as a substitute (token male, token of my esteem, book token) and thus this computing/railway use of 'token' is a symbol of permission.
By the way, is the word a past tense of a now-vanished verb? (cf. taken)

lynneguist said...

Not a past tense, as far as I can tell. From OED, for the noun:

[OE. tácen, tácn; = OFris. têken, têkn, teiken (WFris. teiken, {dag}teeckne), OS. têcan (MLG., MDu., LG. têken, Du. teeken), OHG. zeihhan (MHG., Ger. zeichen), ON. teikn (tákn from OE.), Sw. tecken, Da., Norw. tegn, all neuter:{em}OTeut. *taik-nom (in Goth. taikns fem.:{em}*taiknis), cognate with *taik-jan, OE. t{aeacu}cean to show, TEACH.]

For the verb, note that there's an extra 'n'--so the 'n' at the end of 'token' is not the same as a verb-suffix 'n':

[OE. tácnian (also {asg}e-) = MLG. têkenen, OHG. zeihhanôn (Ger. zeichnen):{em}OTeut. *taiknôjan, f. *taiknom, TOKEN n.]

Solo said...

Biochemist- Lynne and I were talking about the contemporary sense of milk tokens which is a benefit issued to people with babies. I'm not sure if they are in actual token form, I suspect they are like a food stamp and can be exchanged for milk for the child, though many places will also allow them to be spent on other groceries too, which is why they are very popular (as in well-liked) amongst the needy mothers of Britain.

Thinking about it, the system probably began with the local authority purchasing the old style milk tokens from a dairy and issuing them to needy parents and the expression carried on when the mode of payment changed.

Lynneguist- they may have been given out to all and sundry when I was a bairn, but no doubt Thatcher did away with that, and of course there was no such thing as investment capital or free books when I was a nipper. It was staright down the mines or off to Borstal if I remember correctly...

biochemist said...

Got it thanks, Solo - generation gap! How the (UK) world has changed.

arnie said...

David Young mentioned a use of "token" in amusement machines on Brighton pier. Until relatively recently fruit machines and similar gaming machines in public places (pubs, amusement arcades, piers, and so on) could only pay out in tokens. Only machines in private members' clubs could pay out cash.

Since the amount of the payout was severely restricted most people would immediately put their tokens back in the machine and lose them in time, but it was usually possible to change them for goods, but not cash (although that was often quietly ignored).

Robbie said...

Upon re-reading my gibberish... I don't know why I said Underground tickets were printed with the destination. That sentence was rewritten so many times it went flooey.

The ticket was printed with the *issuing* station and the amount paid. You'd hand it in to the collector when reaching your destination.

Coin tokens are common in places like game arcades for several reasons. First and foremost, the manager gets your money up front. If you buy, say, £5 of tokens and then don't use them all up for any reason, that's extra profit. (And if you save one as a souvenir, it doubles as advertising.) Also, it means the game machines aren't worth breaking into. The only cash is at central points where it can be better guarded. It can also be easier to adjust the price paid per game, since it's only adjusting a number of tokens instead of messing with different coin sizes.

Anonymous said...

In the [London] Times yesterday, an interview with the new Secretary of the [UK] Masons. Asked about dodgy handshakes etc, he referred to them as tokens [of membership?]

Doug Sundseth said...

There's a railroad siding outside my office. The token used on that siding is a caboose. It's certainly a large piece of metal. 8-)

Since cabooses are no longer used on most trains*, I suppose it makes sense to get some use out of them.

* Replaced by an "End of Train Device" -- EOT or ETD.

(All of the above AmE.)

Gary said...

A BrE speaker would have had a railway siding with a guard's van.

Graham Asher said...

"Also, and I know this is off-topic, but do they really deliver milk door-to-door in Britain? To this New Yorker, it sounds so quaint!"

Yes, and to me, the phrase 'this New Yorker', used by the speaker of himself or herself, sounds rather quaint, and (for an unaccountable reason) slightly aggressive; I'm sure it wasn't meant that way.

I can't conceive of using the phrase 'this Englishman' of myself. I don't think the construction exists in BrE.

PW said...

@Biochemist on 16 June at 18:21 - You said chit or chitty could have been used, but might have sounded too military or colonial. Are you meaning colonial in the sense of having been used at the time of the British colonies, or in the sense of being used in the colonies? As an AmE speaker, chit is a word I recognize, but never use. But I know there are other colonies.

@Anonymous on 18 June at 11:16. You mention the Masons' dodgy handshakes. Again, a word I recognize, but don't use. The meaning I thought I understood (unreliable, though maybe also not quite right or ethical) doesn't seem to fit. So what does the word mean?

townmouse said...

Re the mason's dodgy handshakes (sorry if we're straying too far off topic) I think it's the masons who are considered dodgy (i.e. a bit shady) and by extension their handshakes. There's a word for that (synecdoche?) but I can't quite remember it.

biochemist said...

PW - one of Britain's lasting legacies in India is the bureaucracy - among which is the requirement for a chitty (or chit), a correctly filled-in form, before any work can be carried out. This is a Hindi word, absorbed into English in the absence of an equivalent in the 19th C or earlier.
My concise Oxford dictionary also tells me that the 'chitty system' was a means of putting off payment for drinks (chota peg at the club, old man?) - in fact, what we would now call setting up a tab at the bar. So a 'chitty' could have been used where we now use voucher or (book) token.

Anonymous said...

The handshakes that (historically and theroetically) identify Freemasons are indeed termed 'tokens' within the terminology and ritual of the United grand lodge of England, using token in the senes of ' a proof of authenticity or authority'.

schwal said...

As an American network engineering major it's very interesting to hear the origin of the token in token ring networks (non-subway/light rail train journeys are exceedingly rare in the US. Most people who can't drive for one reason or another use greyhound (genericised brand name, but by far the biggest) buses (BrE coaches) between cities).

To me tokens are always small discs of metal if used in the literal sense. Up until 2006 they were still used for the Boston subway system.
They were once used for New Hampshire's tolls, (you would by a roll at a rest stop for ~2/3 of the regular price) But they stopped in the mid '90s. My dad found out they stopped using them three years before the trip at a toll booth while he still had half a roll, much to his dismay.

Just about the only places that still uses them as far as I know are amusement arcades. Generally tickets you buy yourself, vouchers are given to you by a company or government, and gift certificates/cards you are given by other people.