Friday, November 26, 2010

Word of the Year 2010: nominations, please!

(A lightly edited version of last year's announcement for this year.)

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 2010, but it should have come into its own in some way in the (popular culture of the) other dialect this year. 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 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 before Christmas.

Monday, November 15, 2010

childish pronouns

Monica emailed me recently with this query:
Often when I'm reading something from a British person, I'll run into a statement like this: "it made a cute face."  OK, so I'm thinking someone's talking about a cute little puppy or kitten.

WRONG!

Said statement is referring to an infant or child!

This one gets my blood boiling every time, because it seems so dehumanizing.  Is that actually correct English in ANY form, and if it is, in your experience, is there indeed a difference in usage, and, am I the only American to have this reaction?  What about people from the UK?  Do they feel the same way?

Now, I was so confident that I'd already written about this phenomenon that I've spent a very long time searching past posts for it.  But apparently I haven't.

The quick answer is this: referring to a young child as it is far more common in British English than American. But. But but but.  But the practice is dying out.

And Monica, you're not the only American to have this reaction. After Grover was born, an English friend (who's in his early 60s) came to pay his regards.  He knew her sex, but he repeatedly referred to her as it. And each time, I corrected him with a her ('my child is not a thing!') I told this story to other English friends, and they found it a bit surprising that he would use it when he knew the sex of the child (it would have been more excusable to them if he hadn't known), but not very surprising--after all, they figured/reckoned, he's probably not that interested in babies and he's old enough to be old-fashioned. She's nearly three years old now, and I'm still recounting the story, so we can safely conclude that it bothers at least one American.

But it's also starting to bother some British people, as evidenced by this blog entry, where a father recounts doing the it-she correction.  What interested me, though, was one of the commenters who seemed to think it was a (BrE) storm in a teacup/(AmE) tempest in a teapot:
You know, people get SO offended when you refer to a child as "It". Even if it's your own child! I can't tell you how often my boss has yelled at me for saying something as simple as, "Yes, it's fine." Or "No, it didn't go to it's father's this weekend."

Sigh. She...it. Whatever.
 And that commenter appears to be American.  So there's no accounting for tastes.

For a more objective measure, I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus for instances of "{child/baby/infant} has {its/his/her/their}".  The numbers of hits were small enough that I could make sure that in each case the pronoun referred to the aforementioned child or baby. (The search strings containing infant got no hits in either corpus.) Of 22 hits in the American corpus, only one had its.  (Three had the gender-neutral their, and the rest had a gendered pronoun.) In the British corpus (which is a quarter the size of the American one), there were 7 hits, three with its (and zero with their).  So, 18% of the AmE cases used a gender-neutral pronoun, but only one of those (4.5% of the total) was it.  In BrE 43% of the hits were gender-neutral and all of those used it.

You could look at that and say "Well, maybe the American corpus had more instances where the writer/speaker knew the sex of the baby", but I don't think that's true. Instead, some of those gendered pronouns in AmE refer to babies/children whose sex isn't known, or to babies generally.  It's too rude in AmE to call a baby it, frowned-upon to use singular they, so parenting magazines, for instance, just pick he or she. Three of the American four baby has her examples, for instance, were general advice for parents (e.g. Your baby has her own inborn temperament). There were no BNC hits for baby has her or baby has his

Here's a more targetted search. I looked for "give the baby its/his/her/their own" on babycenter.com and babycentre.co.uk.On the UK site, I got only one hit, and that was for its. But, interestingly, on the AmE site I got as many its as their (three each). Now, on the internet, it could be that these people using the American site aren't actually American. But in all the contexts in which the its occurred, the baby wasn't born yet; parents-to-be were discussing what they would do about names or sleeping arrangements once their babies were born. And you know what? None of those examples bothered me. This one even began with an it in the question:

Will you be sleeping with the baby when it's born? - October 2010 .

23 Oct 2010... safety for the baby, but also so id doesnt get dependent on sleeping next to you, i think its a good idea to give the baby its own bed.
If you'd like to read more about what others say about all this, searching for the phrases "refer to a baby as it" brings up a number of discussions.  Searching "refer to the baby as it" is very depressing, as many of the hits are about how (not) to talk to bereaved parents.

And on that note, I think I'll go give Grover a kiss on her sleeping head.