Wednesday, July 28, 2010

deductible and excess

Feeling a bit guilty that I haven't blogged in more than a week, but then I'm also feeling guilty that I haven't finished all the things that I need to finish.  So, here's a quick one, largely in other people's words, starting with an email from an American colleague in another department at Sussex.  The difference is in insurance terminology.  Let's say you were (BrE/AmE) burgled/(AmE) burglarized and the insurance company agreed to cover your losses.  Of course, they never cover the full amount that you claim for; there will be, say $100 or £50 (or some such number) that is not paid, as per the insurance contract.  In BrE that's the excess, whereas in AmE it's the deductible.  My colleague writes:
It kind of comes down to how you think about it. In American English, you start with the total, e.g., £200. Then, you deduct the deductible (e.g., £50). So, you are left with the amount you can claim (£150). In contrast, in British English, you start with nothing* then, there is the excess (£50) and anything in excess of that amount you can claim (£150) towards the total (£200).
Her footnoted comment is that the differences in perspective are not terribly surprising, given the stereotype of Americans as positive-thinking and the British as, well, not.  I'd explain excess slightly differently: you start with a claim for £200. The insurance company gives you £150, so your claim exceeds (is in excess of) the settlement by £50.  I'm not sure that this is any less 'positive' in its perspective than deductible is.

On another insurance note, in BrE, you're more likely to see some insurance products or companies with assurance in their names, rather than insurance.  One particularly sees it in the context life assurance (vs AmE life insurance)--but this is rarer and rarer.  On the  differentiation of assurance and insurance, the OED says:
Assurance is the earlier term, used alike of marine and life insurance before the end of 16th c. Its general application is retained in the titles and policies of some long-established companies (e.g. the London Assurance Corporation). Insurance (in 17th c. also ENSURANCE) occurs first in reference to fire (1635 in INSURE v. 4), but soon became coextensive with assurance, the two terms being synonymous in Magens 1755 (see ASSURANCE 5). Assurance would probably have dropped out of use (as it has almost done in U.S), but that Babbage in 1826 (see quot.) proposed to restrict insurance to risks to property, and assurance to life insurance. This has been followed so far that assurance is now rarely used of marine, fire, or accident insurance, and is retained in Great Britain in the nomenclature and use of the majority of life insurance companies. But in general popular use, insurance is the prevalent term. Mr. T. B. Sprague, followed by others, considers assurance, assure, assurer, etc., the proper words for the action of the company or persons undertaking the risk, insurance, insure, insurer, etc., for that of the person paying the premium. This would be in some respects a useful distinction, if it could be carried out; but it would leave the members of mutual societies at once assurers and insurers.
That, happily, is about the extent of my experience with insurance-related terminology. If you know of any more, feel free to relate your examples in the comments.

Monday, July 19, 2010

hash/pound/number sign

Editor Mark recently wrote (to) me to suggest the different meanings of pound sign (or pound symbol) as a Twitter Difference of the Day.  In the US, pound sign/symbol is usually understood to refer to this thing: #.  It is also called the number sign in AmE, where it is used to signify the word number, as in #1, which is read as 'number one'.  The use of # to mean 'number' is increasingly understood in the UK, but not often used in that way.


But, of course, if one were to say pound sign/symbol in the UK, it would be understood to refer to this: £.  Now, if Americans needed to refer to £, they would probably say the pound sign or the pound symbol or That little squiggly thing that looks like a capital L in cursive* with a line through the middleBut since they rarely have to refer to £, they're not too bothered by the ambiguity.


The usual UK term for # is hash sign (or hash symbol), but it doesn't seem to have a long history. The OED says: 
hash sign [cf. hash-mark: prob. ult. f. HATCH v.2, altered by popular etymology], the symbol #, esp. used before a numeral (as in N. Amer.) to indicate a following number; the ‘number sign’
1984 Which Micro? Dec. 12/2 Neither user-defined characters, nor the ‘*hash’ sign could be reproduced. 1986 Guardian 20 Feb. 15 Would I please therefore oblige her by using the musical notation provided (I gather that it is called a hash sign).
The (AmE) quotation marks/(BrE) inverted commas and uncertainty about the term in the quotations suggests that hash sign was only becoming established in English (British or otherwise?) in the 1980s. The hatch mentioned in the etymology is the verb sense of 'To cut, engrave, or draw a series of lines', but although one also sees hatch mark in the wild, there's no indication in the OED that this term has ever been popular.  Of course, hash sign/symbol is not restricted to the UK, and its use in the Twitterverse term hashtag will probably give hash an advantage over pound and number in some quarters.  Another term that some seem to use is the descriptive crosshatch symbol--though the OED doesn't yet include it.


I can only guess that the apparent absence long-standing name for # in BrE is due to a lack of need for it.  BrE speakers weren't using # to mean 'number' or 'pound', so it was only when (AmE, orig. proprietary name) touch-tone/(BrE) push-button telephones became widely available that they had much need for a word for that symbol. (And maybe even later--it was years after we had such phones that we got automated interactions with instructions like "press the pound/hash key twice".) 


Because American keyboards typically do not have the £ symbol, people sometimes use # to signify amounts in sterling.  My understanding of this has been that it's called the pound sign/symbol because it is used to mean the same as lb. --i.e. pounds as an imperial measurement of weight--then because it was already called the pound sign, it fell into use for the other kind of pound when need(s) be.  But Mark Liberman on Language Log has been doubting this, and so my reason for choosing tonight to blog about this is just that it's a good excuse to link to his post.

Oh, and if you don't like any of these, you can always call it an (orig. AmE) octothorp(e), which seems to have been invented in the early 1970s specifically for the phone button.

* While cursive is not marked as AmE in the OED (it certainly wasn't coined in America), it's rarely heard in the UK, where people instead tend to say (BrE) joined-up writing.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

migraine, Miss Marpleisms, and linguistic imperialism

Last week I had two emails from fans of the recent British-made television versions of Miss Marple mysteries, which are apparently playing in North America at the moment.  As is often the case with British costume dramas and mysteries (those things that a certain class of American anglophiles like[s]), it is co-produced by British (ITV) and American (WGBH Boston) television companies.  (In a reversal of the stereotype of the original-series-producing television channels in the two countries, the British ITV is a commercial channel, while WGBH is part of the US's Public Broadcasting System.)  WGBH has a long history of Anglophilia; it is the home of Masterpiece Theatre (now just 'Masterpiece') and Mystery! (rebranded as 'Masterpiece Mystery!').  The former was originally introduced by 'Letter from America' broadcaster Alistair Cooke, and the latter by Vincent Price, and they are iconic program(me)s in the States to the extent that Sesame Street created a long-running parody, Monsterpiece Theatre (hosted by Alistair Cookie) and a parody mystery program(me) hosted by Vincent Twice Vincent Twice.  Of course, the only reason I mention this is to have the excuse to post one:



But that has nothing to do with Miss Marple, does it?  Both of my Miss Marple correspondents (American Judy and @mikcooke) have lived in the UK, but watched Miss Marple in North America and were surprised by apparent Americanisms and anachronisms in the script.  Apparently these recent re-tellings of the Miss Marple stories are known for playing fast and loose with the original Agatha Christie texts.  From Wikipedia:
The show has sparked controversy with some viewers for its adaptations of the novels. The first episode, The Body in the Library, changed the identity of one of the killers and introduced lesbianism into the plot; the second episode explored Miss Marple's earlier life; the third episode contained a motive change and the fourth episode cut several characters and added affairs into the story and emphasized a lesbian subplot that was quite discreet in the original novel. The second series also saw some changes. By the Pricking of My Thumbs was originally a Tommy and Tuppence story, while The Sittaford Mystery was also not originally a Miss Marple book and the identity of the killer was changed. The third series has two adaptations that were not originally Miss Marple books: Towards Zero and Ordeal by Innocence. The fourth series continues the trend with Murder is Easy and Why Didn't They Ask Evans?. The fifth series does the same, with The Secret of Chimneys and The Pale Horse.

@mikcooke points out the following:
  • Jane Marple phoned the local police station and asked for "Detective X" (AmE) and would have asked for "Inspector X" [This inspired a 'Difference of the Day' tweet last week--ed.]
  • She spoke about a man who took the bus from the "train station" (AmE) instead of "station" (BrE)
  • The village vicar was in traditional black attire but wore a grey trilby (inappropriate)
  • Various characters used current casual parlance (if not outright Americanisms, sorry, AmE) "not to worry", "waste of space"
  • A man lent another "half a million pounds (c. 1950)" which would be about a billion pounds c. 2010 (a foolish updating, which is never done in the Poirot series)
And Judy queried the pronunciation of migraine, which was pronounced "in the American way" by one of the English characters.  This is how the OED represents--and comments upon--it:
Brit. /'mi:greIn/, /'m^IgreIn/, U.S. /'maIgreIn/   
In other symbols, the BrE pronunciations are 'me grain' or 'my grain', whereas the AmE pronunciation is always 'my grain'.  The symbols are a bit different for the 'my grain' pronuniciations because the OED represents the diphthong represented by the 'y' in 'my' differently for the two dialects--claiming a slight difference in where in the mouth the diphthong starts.

But not everyone agrees that there's a distinction between the two pronunciations of my. For instance,  this dialect coach represents the 'price' vowel (for that's what phoneticians tend to call it) as being the same in the two dialects.  It's represented the same in this chart in Wikipedia, too.  The OED uses a scheme developed by Clive Upton that makes this and a few other distinctions that aren't universally made.  John Wells, writing about the advantages and disadvantages of Upton's system, says:
Price. The standard notation might seem to imply that the starting point of the price diphthong is the same as that of the mouth diphthong. In practice, speakers vary widely in how the two qualities compare. In mouth people in the southeast of England typically have a rather bat-like starting point, while in price their starting point is more like cart. In traditional RP the starting points are much the same. Upton's notation implicitly identifies the first element of price with the vowel quality of cut -- an identification that accords with the habits neither of RP nor of southeastern speech (Estuary English), and strikes me as bizarre.
I'm going to go with Wells on this one.  This means that American 'my grain' pronunciation is a known variant in BrE.  And in fact I've heard 'my grain' so much in England that I was beginning to wonder whether 'mee-grain' was just a South Africanism (since that was where I was first introduced to the pronunciation).

The OED also has a historical note on the pronunciation that first discusses whether the second vowel is pronounced as it would be in French (from which the word came to us--about 500 years ago) or whether it's "naturalized" to the English pronunciation of the spelling 'ai', as in grain.  It also says that two American dictionaries from around the turn of the 20th century listed the pronunciation as if the first syllable had the vowel in mitt and the stress on the second syllable--but that it later turned to the 'my' pronunciation that we know today.  It's unclear here whether the 'my' pronunciation started in the US and spread to the UK, or whether it might have been invented in both places.  To me, it doesn't look like the most natural way to pronounce that spelling--if I saw the word for the first time, I'd probably go for the abandoned /mI'greIn/ (mih-GRAIN)--so, how it turned to 'my grain' I don't know...


At any rate, the English character in Miss Marple could have naturally come upon that pronunciation, but I'm betting that it's anachronistic, like many of the things that @mikcooke noted.  So, has Miss Marple been updated or Americanized?  Probably a little of both.


Now, I've been feeling a bit down about all of the anti-Americanism-ism that's been going on in the UK press these days--everything from The Economist to our local property-listings magazine seems to have a feature or a series that urges its readers to defend the Mother Tongue against (in the words of the latter example) "ghastly, overblown, crass, managerial Americanisms".  It's not infrequent that the alleged Americanisms are (a) long-standing non-standard (or formerly standard) Briticisms, (b) management jargon that didn't necessarily start in the US and that is reviled in the US as much as in the UK, or (c) Australianisms.  

Why does all this make me uncomfortable?  It's not that I think Americanisms should or shouldn't be imported, it's just the vehemence and bile with which the (often unresearched) claims are made--the apparent assumption that if it's American, then it's crass and unnecessary.  (The Economist doesn't like gubernatorial because it "is an ugly word."  Is that the best you can do, Economist?)  One could point out many Americanisms that have found very comfy homes in BrE, and which no one complains about.  


But the implicit anti-Americanism in the anti-Americanismism becomes more understandable when one thinks about the American resistance --at an institutional level-- to importing British voices and words.  In addition to producing globali{z/s}ed versions of Miss Marple, British (pop-)cultural products tend to be remade (many would say [orig. AmE] "dumbed down") in some way or another for the American market--whereas the British take their American media mostly (AmE) straight-up.  So, a generation of British youth spout the slang of Friends, while Americans watched re-planted American versions of Coupling and The Office (and lots more).  In the case of The Office, the re-potting has been so successful that the American version is shown in the UK.  In the case of Coupling, oh I feel embarrassed for my homeland.  (See this wonderful compare-and-contrast video to see just how broad and--how can I say this? oh yeah!--terrible American comic acting can be.)  But it's not just changing the situations of situation comedies.  When I heard my American family talking about "Oprah Winfrey's Life on the Discovery Channel", I told them they should watch the David Attenborough series by the same name.  Then I realized it was the David Attenborough series, re-voiced by Oprah.  (You can read this discussion on which is better.  Apparently Sigourney Weaver has re-voiced previous Attenborough series.)  The American television programming that keeps British voices is on the channels that 'intellectuals' are supposed to watch: PBS, BBC America and some co-productions on premium cable channels (HBO, Showtime).  And while there have recently been lots of British actors speaking in American accents on American television (American-columnist-for-UK-newspaper Tim Dowling rates them here), for British characters it's not uncommon to have a North American speaking with a non-authentic accent--see most of the "English" characters (save Giles) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example.


Of course, ask Americans, and they'll usually say that they love the English (the rest of the UK doesn't really get a look-in) and would love to see more of them.  But that's not what they're getting--and for the most part, they don't seem to mind.  And this is why there usually are ten times as many candidates for AmE-to-BrE Word of the Year as BrE-to-AmE candidates. And why many of its speakers feel that British English is 'under attack' from an imperialistic America.  (But a country that prides itself on its sense of irony should eat that up, eh?)

    Sunday, July 04, 2010

    War of Independence/Revolutionary War and an aside on barbecue

    Happy 4th of July, which, apparently, is a good enough name for a holiday, since EditorMark, over on Twitter, informed us today that:
    “Independence Day” is more descriptive, but “Fourth of July” is the name given in the 1938 act that extended pay for the federal holiday.
    Here at SbaCL Headquarters, we're more about co-dependence than independence, but in hono(u)r of the holiday, my Twittered Difference of the DayTM was:
    BrE 'the American War of Independence' vs. AmE 'Revolutionary War'.
    In more formal contexts, I should add, you're likely to find American Revolution in AmE. 

    But then I read this New York Times article (pointed out by Not From Around Here) in which the English historian author writes of the War of American Independence.  Oh no, I thought, I got it wrong.  Or did I?  Google gave me nearly ten times as many War of American Independences (1.3 million) as American War of Independences (144k).  Searching just .uk sites, the difference is still there: 69k American independences and 16k American wars. But it still didn't ring true for me, or, it turns out, at least one of my Twitter followers, so I re-checked it in the British National Corpus, which gives us (among its 100 million words) 23 American War of Independences and 3 War of American Independences.  Now, the BNC texts are from the 1980s and early 1990s, and of course most web text is later than that.  And the web is not a reliable corpus, since it isn't balanced between different types of texts and it includes a great amount of repetition.  But still, one has to wonder whether the adjective-placement tide has changed.

    Incidentally, the (Anglo-American) War of 1812 is sometimes known as the Second War of American Independence.  It's one of those things that every American schoolchild will have to learn about, but  you'll be hard-pressed to find an English person who's heard of it.  Why? Well, the Americans won it, so they have the bragging rights, but more importantly, for the English, it was just an annoying thing that was going on in the colonies during (and as a consequence of) the Napoleonic Wars.  It'll be those conflicts that English schoolchildren will encounter (in year 8, according to the National Curriculum).

    As an aside, revolutionary is typically pronounced differently in US and UK. In AmE it has six syllables: REvoLUtioNAry.  In BrE, it may drop the 'a' (revolution'ry) as part of a general pattern of reduction of  vowel+ry at the ends of words--thus it has one main stress (-LU-) and one secondary stress (RE-), unlike the two secondaries in AmE.  Also, in BrE 'u' may be pronounced with an on-glide (see this old post for explanation).  Both of those "BrE" pronunciation features are not found throughout BrE.  I'd consider them to be features of RP ('Received Pronunciation'), but I'm sure others (you, perhaps?) can comment better on geographical distribution.

    I hope that wherever you are and whatever you're celebrating, you're having a lovely fourth of July.  I usually try to (orig. AmE) cook out to mark the day, but I discovered yesterday that our* (AmE) grill/(BrE) barbecue** has been murdered by scaffolders.  My beloved Weber! And this is how I came to celebrate American independence by eating a Sunday roast dinner complete with Yorkshire pudding and parsnips at a pub (with lime cordial and soda).  As I said, co-dependent, not independent.

    *Oh, who am I kidding? It's mine. Vegetarian Better Half could not care less.
    ** I mark this as BrE because in AmE a barbecue is generally the event (this sense also found in BrE) or the food (as in I miss good barbecue--it is a mass noun, and particularly used in the South). When I say it refers to 'the food' I emphatically do not mean overcooked burgers and sausages, the scourge of British summer entertaining.  What constitutes barbecue varies regionally in the US--in some places it's specifically pork, in others beef.  And it will involve smoking and special sauces.  And it will be tender and tasty.  Where you are when you order some barbecue will in large part determine where on the sweet-to-spicy continuum the barbecue will fall.