Saturday, January 30, 2010

watershed and prime time

This post is inspired by the following quotation from darling, two-year-old daughter Grover:
"Bastard.  (BrE) Mummy said it!"
 Before she (orig. AmE) outs me as a (orig. AmE) potty mouth at her (AmE) daycare/(BrE) crèche (or nursery), I'll have to take the matter into hand and save my sparkling wit (in response to Better Half's all-too-accurate parodies of me) for (BrE) after the watershed.

Because it's late at night (or early in the morning), I'll let Wikipedians do the work for me:

United Kingdom

According to Ofcom, the watershed on standard television in the UK starts at 9:00 p.m., and finishes at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. Programmes that are 15+ are shown during this period. However, some 12+ shows can be shown before 9:00 p.m., such as The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle and Doctor Who. On premium film or pay-per-view services requiring a subscription, the watershed starts at 8:00 p.m. However, 12, 15 and 18 rated films can be shown on PIN protected channels (such as Sky Movies) at any time of the day. Viewers are required to enter their PIN to view. There should be a gentle transition to adult material, and 18-rated material is not allowed to be shown before 9:00 p.m.
See also for the UK: The Ofcom Broadcasting Code - Section 1

United States

The term "watershed" is not used in this context in the United States. In the US, the "safe harbor" for "indecent" programming begins at 10:00 p.m. and ends at 6:00 a.m. the next morning (all time zones). However, content that is considered "obscene" (including explicit human sexual intercourse) is never allowed by the FCC rules for broadcast stations. Those content rules only apply to channels broadcast terrestrially and not those only available on cable. Consequently, restricted-access networks (like the premium channels HBO and Showtime and adult channels Playboy TV and Spice) have taken advantage of considerably more leeway in their programming.
The term is an extension of other uses of watershed:  'the ridge or crest line dividing two drainage areas; water parting; divide' (which some dictionaries list as 'Chiefly BrE') and later ' an important point of division or transition between two phases, conditions, etc.' 

If I needed an equivalent for after the watershed in AmE, I think I'd say not in prime time, which isn't exactly the same thing.  The watershed is a dividing line between the times when stricter and looser 'decency' codes have to be followed, whereas prime time is the part of the evening in which television networks expect to have the most viewers and therefore where they put their choicest programming (8:00 to 11:00 or 7:00 to 10:00, depending on the time zone).  It's also when they charge the most for advertising time.  In BrE, this is more commonly known as peak time, though since the major broadcaster (the BBC) is (orig. and principally AmE) commercial/(BrE)advert-free, it's less directly about advertising revenue.  While prime time is not the only time when children might be watching, not in prime time is often used to mean 'not appropriate for a general audience'.  This gives a double meaning to the name of Saturday Night Live's original troupe, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

On American (chiefly AmE) network television (i.e. distributing programs to local affiliates; not cable/satellite), the rules are fairly restrictive at all times, so I was surprised when I first moved to the UK and saw things like Something for the Weekend (which was really horrid) or The Sex Inspectors (experts watch couples getting it on and give them pointers on improving!  The website describes it as post watershed), right there on free TV at a time when the equivalent US stations are showing the nighttime news.  (Did the US ever import this format?)  The reason why most of the good American television comes from HBO and Showtime is that those, as pay channels, do not have the same content restrictions as their free broadcast counterparts (and they've decided to use that power for good rather than evil).

At any rate, either Better Half will have to wait until the watershed from now on before he points out my pedantries and hypocrisies, or I'll have to rein in my tongue-in-cheek responses. Or else Grover will be teaching the entire pre-nursery room some choice AmE phrases.    I think I know which one is most likely.

Friday, January 22, 2010

fancy dress and costumes

In the Weekend magazine in Saturday's Guardian, the following letter to the editor appeared:
Please reword your Q&A for Americans. Clearly, to them, "fancy dress" means "dressing for a fancy party". Why I need to know if Joyce Carol Oates would dress as a bee or a pirate I'm not sure, but I do.
Jane Jones Manchester
She's referring to a feature in each week's magazine, in which a standard set of questions is put to some famous person.  Here's the relevant question, and Joyce Carol Oates' response:
What would be your fancy dress costume of choice?
A beautiful Fortuny gown.
I would have thought that some Americans would understand this question, just because the word costume is in it, and we go to (BrE) fancy dress parties in costume.  In fact, we rarely use the word costume for anything except fanciful disguises, unlike in BrE, where (swimming/bathing) costume is is often used to mean (AmE) swimsuit or bathing suit.   Our disguise-themed parties are thus called (AmE) costume partiesBut perhaps Ms Jones is right...have other American Guardian Q&A victims misunderstood the question?  Here's a survey:

Jared Leto:  Authentic period Genghis Khan body armour or the original Ziggy Stardust outfit.

Hugh Hefner:  My pyjamas.  [note BrE spelling; AmE is pajamas]

John Waters:  I'd never go to a costume party - I have to dress as John Waters every day.

Cybill Shepherd: Belinda The Good Witch.

Camille Paglia:  David Hemmings' Hussars uniform in The Charge Of The Light Brigade.

Eli Roth:  A turn-of-the-19-century millionaire, in a top hat and tails.

David Schwimmer:  Tuxedo, but with a cream jacket.

Mickey Rooney:  Tuxedo with tails, but I really prefer to wear shorts all year long. I'm a California-casual kind of guy.

Juliette Lewis:  A peacock.

Jorja Fox: My birthday suit.

Nathalie Merchant:  Traditional Dutch girl.

Damon Dash:  James Bond, a real cool English dude.

Now, of course, this was just a lame excuse for me to read the celebrity pages instead of doing something useful with my Friday night.  We can see that a couple of them have misunderstood and a few others are ambiguous.  We can suspect that some have spend a lot of time in the UK, or have had the question explained to them.  But, excuse me, Interviewer Person; it seems a bit cruel (or thick) to allow 'tuxedo' as an answer.  More questions are asked than published, so, for instance, we'll never know what Viggo Mortensen would be for Halloween.   So, the only possible reasons to publish that David Schwimmer would wear a tuxedo to a fancy (dress) party are (a) he was unspeakably boring in all his answers--at least this one had some detail, or (b) to make him look boring.  Possibly both.

Besides being an excuse to read about celebrities, this post is an excuse to provide a link to an article that Strawman sent me, on why it is that the British have so many fancy dress parties.  (And when in Rome...)  It starts with this story:
There is a popular urban legend about a British couple in New York who attended a black tie gala dressed as a pair of pumpkins. Turns out they had misinterpreted the host’s instruction to ‘dress fancy,’ as an invitation for fancy dress — something Americans only do once a year on Halloween. Did they burst into tears and run home? Not a chance. Being Brits, they put on brave faces, pulled their orange foam bellies up to the bar, and proceeded to get shamelessly drunk as the Manhattan glitterati swirled around them.
The Canadian author goes on to recount her inverse experience--showing up in a cocktail dress for a costume party--and has some nice observations on the phenomenon.

It's been a while since I've been invited to a fancy dress party...perhaps my friends are getting too old.  (And perhaps that'll spark some party-organi{s/z}ing!)  So tell us:  What is your fancy dress costume of choice?

Monday, January 18, 2010

gritting, salting and blizzards

[I started this back when it was snowing...then the term started.  Eek.  Thanks to my new Twitter-followers for their recollections on grit and sand.]

A couple of Americans have remarked to me about BrE speakers' use of grit as a verb in snowy contexts like these (from a single article in the local newspaper):
Hospitals across Sussex were inundated with patients over the weekend who had broken limbs after falling on ungritted pavements.  [Ed. note: the weekend broke limbs?]
Dozens of people contacted The Argus to condemn the lack of gritting which has left many elderly people trapped in their homes.  [Ed. note: did they also condemn the lack of a comma on a non-restrictive relative clause?]
A Brighton and Hove City Council spokesman said all the authority's refuse and recycling staff were being diverted to gritting roads and pavements today.
Now, I don't believe that this use of grit is solely BrE, but in the snowy Northeastern US, one talks about salting the roads--which may include some sand--or less frequently of sanding the roads--which usually includes some salt or other de-icing agent.  In addition to sand, ash and cinders are (or at least have been) commonly used.  The "sand" that's used may be more coarse material, like the grit used in the UK.  And while gritters are used in the UK to spread grit, salters and sanders are used in northern north America for the same thing.

I come from a place where we get to talk about lake-effect snow and (orig. AmE) blizzards a lot.
And when we use the term blizzard back home, we don't mean a piddly 6 cm (2.4 inches) of snow like my local UK paper does.  It turns out that the word may be common to AmE and BrE now, but the meaning is not.  From Wikipedia:
In the United States, the National Weather Service defines a blizzard as sustained winds or frequent gusts reaching or exceeding 35 mph (56 km/h) which lead to blowing snow and cause visibilities of ¼ mile (or 400 m) or less, lasting for at least 3 hours. Temperature is not taken into consideration when issuing a blizzard warning, but the nature of these storms is such that cold air is often present when the other criteria are met.[1] Temperatures are generally below 0 °C (32 °F).
According to Environment Canada, a winter storm must have winds of 40 km/h (25 mph) or more, have snow or blowing snow, visibility less than 500 feet (150 m), a wind chill of less than −25 °C (−15 °F), and all of these conditions must last for 3 hours or more before the storm can be properly called a blizzard.

Many European countries, such as the UK, have a lower threshold: the Met Office defines a blizzard as "moderate or heavy snow" combined with a mean wind speed of 30 mph (48 km/h) and visibility below 650 feet (200 m).

Of course, even a little snow in a place like southern England (or the southern US, for that matter) grinds the place to a halt.  I've had three 'snow days' from work so far this year, and we've never had accumulation of more than a few inches.  But not only are snow (AmE) plows/(BrE) ploughs rarer than hen's teeth here, but no one has a (possibly AmE) snow shovel, few have appropriate footwear (attention: (BrE) wellies [AmE: rubber boots] are not snow boots!) and almost no one knows how to drive on icy roads.  So, we can't really blame the victims of these snows for their inability to deal with them--though that didn't stop me from less-than-sympathetically exclaiming in response to the laceration on my friend's face and talk of the bruise on another's (BrE) bum: "You people don't know how to walk on snow!"  I have since spent every outdoor moment convinced that this comment is going to come and almost-literally bite me on the (AmE) ass/(BrE) arse, landing me with a broken coccyx or worse.

Final reflection: I can't believe that I just had to invent a 'weather' tag for the blog in response to this post.  I'm in England!  I'm supposed to be talking about the weather at least 74% of the time.  I hope they don't find out and revoke my citizenship.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

sick and ill

I'm pleased to welcome my former student, Solo, for her second guestblogging service here on SbaCL.  Take it away, Solo:


The Oxford Dictionary of English informs me that sick is an adjective meaning “affected by physical or mental illness,” suggesting that illness is the dominant term. Furthermore, to my BrE mind, the generic term when one is suffering from any form of malady is ill, which covers generally feeling unwell right through to serious, long-term affliction.  (The definition of ill incidentally is “suffering from an illness...”.)

I would have said the exception was poorly for the under-fives, but previous comments on this blog suggest most Britons consider poorly an old-fashioned or locali{s/z}ed Yorkshire expression to mean ‘very seriously ill in hospital’. In my personal (Southern) experience however, it’s just a word said to small children with stomach bugs.

The obvious transatlantic synonym is, of course, sick, which receives reasonable employment on this side of the pond too.  I’d argue that ill  is favo(u)red over here, however, it would seem that sick has broader meaning for AmE speakers than for BrE.

Case in point: I recently asked an American (and long-term UK resident) colleague how she was. She did seem a little under the weather. She replied “I’ve been sick.” My response to this was {sympathetic face/noise} “Oh, what was wrong?” To demonstrate the thought process here, I heard sick in an AmE accent and automatically translated to ill. If a fellow Brit had told me they’d been ill, that would probably mean they’d  had some specific, diagnosable malady.  I therefore anticipated greater explication at this stage in the conversation, e.g. “I’ve had a cold/flu/a stomach bug/malaria.” However, she simply reiterated “I’ve been sick.” As though this were explanation in itself. In my idiolect a reiteration like that would be followed with a slightly patroni{s/z}ing "haven’t I?" It therefore transpires that sick was not merely an umbrella term covering all manner of sickness, but also had some specific connotation for the AmE speaker; perhaps something akin to run down? If we say we are run down it means not feeling one’s best due to maybe working too hard, not getting enough sleep/exercise or eating badly, but without having an actual illness.

Sick in the ‘unwell’ sense does of course enjoy widespread popular use in BrE, but, I’d argue, with nowhere near the prevalence with which it is used in AmE. Exceptions would be compound phrases such as off sick (AmE equivalent: taking a sick day) and the related sick pay. Then there are sickness benefits, paid to those unable to work for health reasons. *Illness benefits would grate on British ears. So these are exceptions in which sick is used in BrE, but with very specific applications. Then there’s the very British sickie, which is the act off taking a day off (from) work claiming ill-health when actually either hungover or simply not in the mood for a day’s work. AmE phrases like sick day have become codified in the lexicon of the workplace, so on an application form one would have to state how many sick days one had taken in the last two years, but I wouldn’t use the phrase independently, I’d just say I’d had the day off, or I was off sick.  [Lynneguist’s note: I've been asked how much BrE medical leave I've taken.  Disturbingly for an American, it's legal here for a prospective employer to demand medical info.  I recently read that that may change soon...] The prevalence of AmE expressions in work practice seems to be growing exponentially, but that’s a topic for another post.

Etymologically, my highly academic sources lead me to believe that somewhere around the turn of the last century ill was the common parlance amongst the common people and should they wish to better themselves and their manner of speaking they were encouraged to employ the term sick, as was the preference of the more socially advantaged.  I’m fairly confident this is no longer a class shibboleth, in the fashion of sofa/settee, but I have noticed the BrE use of sick in this context is far more prevalent amongst more senior generations, especially the better to do thereof.

To me, the most obvious meaning is the verb phrase form to be sick (AmE equivalent presumably to get sick). Context aside, this would typically be my first interpretation of the word. I always thought this meaning was very closely linked to the mass noun use of sick, a direct synonym of ‘vomit’. Oxford however tells me the mass noun use is an informal and specifically British application, which appeared sixth in their pecking order of definitions. So do AmE speakers find this use odd or improbable?


For an example the last time I was at Thorpe Park (the UK’s secondary theme park), we were made to wait at the front of the Colossus (BrE) queue/(AmE) line, where we heard the following announcement:
Thorpe Park apologi{s/z}e for the temporary delay. This ride is closed for essential cleaning. There is sick on one of the seats and we have to clean it, or it will be on you. We would like to remind passengers to keep all food and drink inside themselves at all times whilst on the ride.
For this reason I have a lot of trouble hearing/using I’ve been sick to mean I’ve had an illness. I would always process it to mean the action in the recent past and then from context would have to work out what the speaker actually meant. Is this too broad a generali{s/z}ation, BrE speakers?

After those interpretations there is also the implication of depravity, propagated particularly by the gutter press (Ban this sick filth!), which seems to carry equal weight on both sides of the water, and lastly, though by no means leastly, in the sociolect of the kids it is also an expression of approval originating in London, which has graduated to Brighton. For example, That is sick, bruv.  Or Those alloys are well sick, and such words to that effect. I have reason to believe this employment of the word has enjoyed perennial popularity amongst the AmE adolescent populace too, but the ‘unwell’ usage carries far more weight in the US than it does here and the colloquial use is therefore far less likely to affect its salience to such an extent, though whether older or more Northern BrE speakers would find that the current slang use of sick affects their processing is not something I can judge. So with that, I’ll throw open the floor…

Saturday, January 02, 2010

centenary and centennial

In the review I just posted, I used the words sesquicentennial and sesquicentenary, which reminded me of a topic that's been on my list for some time.  It came to me from Ann S:
I'm just back from two weeks in England [...] We were over for WINGS 2009, which stands for Windsor INternational Guide and Scout camp.  The festivities included the kick-off for the centenary of Guiding (I think it's a one-year celebration and that the actual anniversary is next year). 

"Centenary" isn't the word we would use in the US; we would say "centennial".  And we would pronounce the second syllable with a short 'e', while they pronounce it with a long 'e'.
Some good observations from Ann there.  The centennial/centenary divide works as well for multiples thereof, so in Massachusetts, they've had the Darwin 2009 Bicentennial Project and at Down House, Darwin's home in Kent, they've celebrated his bicentenary.

Because the second 'e' in centennial is followed by a double consonant, it's fairly clear that it should be pronounced as a short 'e'--i.e. the second syllable is ten.  But if Americans were to say centenary, they would expect to pronounce it with a ten there too.  In fact, you can hear the American Heritage's pronunciation of it on WordNik.  I'm very bad at explaining pronunciation differences, and I can't explain this one (phonologists...help!).  It's not down to different stress patterns, as both dialects usually stress the second syllable.  I thought at first that it was the same as in plenary, then reali{s/z}ed that Americans generally pronounce it with a short 'e' and British with a long 'e' (American and Australian pronouncers can be found here) but now I've found that there's little agreement about how these are pronounced--see the comments. So, now I'm totally confused...but I've just asked my colleague Herr Doktor Phonologist, and off the top of his head he says:
This, I think, is just randomly assigning one of two possible pronunciations of the letter "e" in a borrowing from Latin; it's orthography-based pronunciation anyway, and I think the letter is ambiguous between a short and a long vowel. [...]  to be a bit more confusing: there is an old (and now mostly unproductive) rule of "trisyllabic laxing": a long stressed vowel becomes short if followed by two short vowels, hence sereene but serenity, sayne but sanity etc. Applying TSL should give you pleenum but plennary, for example, but this "rule" is pretty much only in the lexicon now and has acquired lots of exceptions.
So, BrE speakers who say 'plennary' and 'centeenary' are following the rule for plenary and not for centenary, but AmE speakers who say 'pleenary' and 'centennary' go the other way (though, I have to say, I don't think I've ever said PLEEnary in AmE, no matter what the dictionaries tell me).  And it's probably not surprising that AmE tend not to follow the rule for centenary, since it's a word we're unlikely to encounter and so rely on rules and analogy with centennial (which people of my age know well from our country's bicentennial in the 70s...and lots of other bicentennials of towns and other institutions since then).

Review: Origins of the Specious

When a publisher sends me (unsolicited) books for review a few months before Christmas, they probably intend my review to be part of their pre-Christmas promotions.  What they haven't counted on is that I'd have no time to look at the book until Christmas break.  And so it goes for Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman's Origins of the specious: Myths and misconceptions of the English language (2009, Random House)O'Conner is the author of the popular Woe is I: The grammarphobe's guide to better English in plain English, among other titles and together they run grammarphobia.com.  The book takes on different kinds of myths about language--particularly the kinds of myths that prescriptivists (often so-called language lovers who have very little patience for language) bandy about.  The first thing to note for this audience is that it is a book based in American English, by American authors.

Now, given the theme of this blog, I wouldn't review just any book about the English language that arrives unannounced on my desk.  But this one gets in because of its first chapter, 'Stiff upper lips: or, Why can't the British be more like us?'  The main myth that this chapter discusses is a major topic of discussion here (in their words, p.4): 'If there's one thing that people agree on, it's that British English is purer than its American offshoot.'  And, of course, they show that
neither English is more proper. In some respects American English is purer than British English. We've preserved some usages and spellings and pronunciations that have changed over time in Britain.  But the reverse is also true. [...] In many cases, it's nearly impossible to tell which branch has history on its side.
They go on to give a number of examples of differences, histories and false beliefs about English as she is spoke on the two sides of the Atlantic.  These include many that will be familiar to long-time readers of this blog, including the contradictory meanings of the verb table, pronunciation of /a/-before-/s/ and post-vocalic /r/, the /h/ in herb, Webster's effects on AmE spelling, gotten, and gone missing.   It's only a 13-page chapter (supplemented by three pages of bibliographic notes at the end of the book), so some of these are just mentioned in passing.  The tone is chatty and accessible, the pace is quick and there's lots of good information.

Further myths about English are dismantled in chapters on stupid prescriptive rules (like 'don't split infinitives'), false etymologies, 'dirty' words, English's relationship with French, 'politically correct' language, the role of errors in language change and such.  The chapters are generally loose collections of examples--that's not a criticism, just a description--and it's perfectly understandable in a book of this type.  So many assorted false beliefs about English, and language in general, exist, and they defy easy categorization into chapter headings.  The themes will be familiar to most people who read language blogs or similar types of books, but most people will find new and interesting examples among the familiar ones.  The scholarship cannot be faulted.  The book is pitched toward a non-scholarly audience and so there is little source citation and no endnote reference numbers in the text, but there are bibliographic notes and acknowledg(e)ment of several linguistic scholars--which account for about 17% of the pages in the book.  (Would I have liked to have seen a suggestion that this blog is a nice source for people interested in the BrE/AmE myths?  Well, yes, but they don't cite many blogs at all, so I can't take it personally.)

Incidentally, I love the title--but so did someone else who published a book about gamers this year.  I guess it was the thing to do in the (AmE-preferred) sesquicentennial/(BrE-preferred) sesquicentenary anniversary of Darwin's On the origin of species.