So, thank you Ben Zimmer for putting another interesting and pop-culture-related suggestion in my inbox. Ben noted the use of in the middle of our street in the Madness song 'Our House', and asked: "Have you talked about this one? I don't think it's possible in AmE for a house to be in the middle of a street."
Yes, that's an interesting one. But so is the rest of the song. It's Saturday night--let's do the whole thing!
I should start by noting that this is the only Madness song that made it to the Top 20 singles chart in the US, whereas in the UK they were HUGE, having 20 singles in the Top 20 in the 1980s (more if you count re-issues). So, for British people of my generation, mention Madness and they're as likely (if not more likely) to wax nostalgic about 'Baggy Trousers' or 'House of Fun' as about 'Our House'. Still 'Our House' has had a lot of attention in the UK. It won the 'Best Song' in the Ivor Novello Awards, became part of the advertising campaign for Birdseye frozen foods (video) with frontman Suggs as pea-shiller (not fair--but a good pun, no?), and was the title of a Madness-based West End musical. Unlike some other pop/rock-band-based musicals, like Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You, the Madness musical did not transfer to Broadway or tour the US.
I loved 'Our House' as an American teenager, particularly for its wordplay, but I have to wonder how much I missed in my pre-UK days. So, for the benefit of my teenage self, here's a stanza-by-stanza playback:
In my day job, antonyms are my special(i)ty, so I am particularly fond of the juxtapositon of up/down here. However, I don't think that in my youth I understood that this wasn't just a little lyrical nonsense. To play up is informal BrE for behaving irritatingly or erratically. One's lumbago can play up, the computer might play up, and certainly one's children can play up. (Late addition: BZ has pointed out the AmE equivalent: act up.)
Father wears his Sunday best
Mother's tired she needs a rest
The kids are playing up downstairs
Sister's sighing in her sleep
Brother's got a date to keep
He can't hang around
Our house, in the middle of our streetThe chorus, and the point of BZ's original query. To my young American ears, this sounded intentionally funny. The house is in the middle of the street! Like where the manholes should be! No, no, no. This is the BrE equivalent of in AmE in the middle of our block. This is a originally AmE use of block to mean 'the length of a street between cross-streets' or 'one side of a square of land with buildings, bounded by four streets'. This sense is not often found in BrE, though most BrE speakers I know are aware of it. Still, they find it odd when Americans apply it to British places since (a) there are rarely regular blocks in British towns ([BrE] Have/(AmE) take a look at this map of Camden Town, London [home of Madness], for instance) and (b) block has a more prominent residence-related BrE sense: 'a building separated into units', e.g. an office block or a block of flats. This sense of block is not marked as dialectal in the American Heritage Dictionary, but do Americans actually say it much? In AmE, I'd always say office building or apartment building. (For another difference in UK/US use of street, see back here.)
Our house, in the middle of our ...
But even if it weren't in the middle of the street, 'our house' would still be in our street, because in BrE addresses can be in the street or road. John Algeo, in British or American English?, writes:
For specifying the position of something relative to a street, British generally uses in and American on. When the street in question is noted as a shopping location, British uses on or in.Algeo's corpus has equal numbers of in/on the High Street (i.e. the main shopping street--akin to AmE Main Street, at least, before the Walmartification of American towns). A Google search of British books shows a clear preference for in in this case, however. (Click here to see the ngram view.)
Our house it has a crowdHouse-proud is the piece of BrE I remember learning through this song. The meaning is fairly transparent. To be house-proud is to take particular pride in the upkeep and decoration of one's house. The expression reminds me of Kate Fox's discussion of the English relationship to their homes in her book Watching the English. A related newspaper piece by Fox can be found here--but I really recommend the book. Again. (Click on the link for mum--I've discussed it on an earlier occasion.)
There's always something happening
And it's usually quite loud
Our mum she's so house-proud
Nothing ever slows her down
And a mess is not allowed
Father gets up late for work
Mother has to iron his shirt
Then she sends the kids to school
Sees them off with a small kiss
She's the one they're going to miss
In lots of ways
This one has no glaringly specific BrEisms, but does allow us to note British male predilection for comedic cross-dressing, evident in the video above.
The last unrepeated verse has nothing particularly non-AmE about it either, but I include it here for completeness, and because I like how I can hear the words being delivered as I read them.
I remember way back then when everything was true and when
We would have such a very good time such a fine time
Such a happy time
And I remember how we'd play simply waste the day away
Then we'd say nothing would come between us two dreamers
The song ends with the chorussy bit repeated, with variations, including this one:
Our house, was our castle and our keepWe can't say that castle and keep is non-AmE; if we needed to talk about castles and keeps, those are the words we'd use. But since we don't have medi(a)eval castles, many Americans might not know this sense of keep. Call me a philistine (you probably won't be the first), but I didn't know it (despite hearing it in the song repeatedly) or other castle-part terms until I moved to England and started visiting castles. Here's a guide to castle parts for those who want to know.
Our house, in the middle of our street
And in case I haven't already thoroughly shown my age, I'll say this: I was so lucky to be a teenager and (AmE) college/(BrE) university student in the 1980s.* At least when I'm going senile and just want to sing songs from my prime, I'll be ok. Oh wait, I just had a Lionel Richie flashback. I'm doomed.
*Whether it was cool to like Madness in the 1980s is another matter, especially for my English generation-mates, such as Better Half. At the time, he tells me, one couldn't like both the ska-inspired London music that included Madness (though Madness were definitely ska-lite) and the northern New Romantics. But age works wonders on taste, and now we find ourselves nostalgic for music that we were too cool for then. But I am still embarrassed to have done so much dancing to Lionel Richie.