Saturday, February 05, 2011

in the middle of our street/block

When I don't know what I want to blog about, I stick a virtual pin into the email inbox and choose the first do-able request/suggestion that I find. This is supposed to be a fair method, though perhaps not as fair as 'first come, first served'. Truth be told, many of the oldest ones in the inbox are in the 'may not be doable' or 'may not be a real difference' category, so I have come to avoid them a bit. At any rate, my 'fair' method might not seem fair this time, since the suggestion I've clicked on is from the same requester as the last blog post.

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:

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
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.)
Our house, in the middle of our street
Our house, in the middle of our ...
The 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.)

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 crowd
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
House-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.)
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 keep
Our house, in the middle of our street
We 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.

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.

64 comments:

David Crosbie said...

We Brits are agreed that the middle of our street is midway between the top of our street and the bottom of our street. What we can't agree on is a general rule to tell which end is the top and which the bottom.

Of course it's straightforward if the street runs up (or down) a slope. But if the street is on the level, we place the top at some arbitrary marker like a main road or a shop or two. Amazingly, it seems to work — we each understand what the other means. I suspect it's because we don't use the expressions when talking to strangers.

semidetachedbrit said...

Very nice. As always it's good to have my own observations confirmed in your blog.

One sense of 'block' that you didn't mention, is that even in Britain, one might go for a walk 'round the block', not referring to a block of flats, but in the American sense.

David Crosbie said...

Unlike most parts of a castle, the keep provides a ready rhyme for song writers. Compare:this ditty.

Ø said...

I wonder if Alan Jay Lerner considered having Freddy sing "in the street where you live" (rather than on) in My Fair Lady. Also, when he had him sing "the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before", did he mean the (AmE) sidewalk or the stuff that the street is made of?

ButMadNNW said...

Very interesting points about street/block. But I have to say that, even though I was familiar with this song LONG before I started really learning Britishisms, the "middle of our street" never struck me as odd. I guess I just "got" it, somehow.

vp said...

I'm the opposite of ButMadNNW.

Even though I was born and grew up in Britain, I never understood the "in the middle of our street" correctly. Up until now, I have always thought that it meant literally in the middle of the street, between the cars!

That is still the only way I would understand "in the middle of our street" in conversation, whether in the UK or US.

I suppose I never thought about it that much.

AndyJ said...

I (BrE) agree with vp on this. I think I would tend to continue the up/down top/bottom metaphor that David Crosbie mentioned, and say "our house halfway up/down the street". This, of course, should not be confused with the expression "right up your street"!

AndyJ said...

*idiom, not metaphor.

Rick Sprague said...

I (AmE) remember "in the middle of our street" sounding silly the first time I heard it, but it's not something I'd even notice any more. This blog post made me realize that I've pretty well internalized "in the X street", at least in British contexts. (I think that's because of you, Lynne.)

This post may also have answered a 40-year-old question I've had. In the Beatles' Ob-La-Di, the last chorus reverses the names of the lovers so that

Molly lets the children lend a hand
Desmond stays at home and done his pretty face
And in the evening she's a singer with the band


Is that another example of the "British male predilection for comedic cross-dressing", do you think?

Ben Zimmer said...

Rick: Re the role reversal in "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"... From A Hard Day's Write by Steve Turner: "When recording the vocals, Paul made a mistake in singing that Desmond, rather than Molly, 'stayed at home and did his pretty face'. The other Beatles liked the slip and so it was kept."

WaveyDavey said...

The 'castle' may well be a reference to the common English expression: An Englishman's home is his castle.

lynneguist said...

Undoubtedly it is. And that's part of what Kate Fox writes about too.

Elizabeth said...

As an AmE speaker apartment block and office block sound perfectly natural, but I'd define that as an office/apartment complex, not generally just one building.

Laura in Cambridge said...

The 'top' and 'bottom' of the street directional references still make me giggle, after living here almost four years. If it's a flat street, which way is top? (Going by the way mt husband uses it, I think it is the end furthest from the speaker).

David Crosbie said...

Andy J

This, of course, should not be confused with the expression "right up your street"

I'm not so sure. Up and down do seem to be used for location as well as motion.

Up and down the City Road springs to mind, along with On Mother Kelly's doorstep, down Paradise Row. A radio programme in my youth was called Down Your Way. Tom Stoppard uses the phrases in Travesties, when the Cecily and Gwendolyn of The Importance of Being Ernest are travestied as Mr Gallagher and Mr Shea:

GWEN:
Miss Carruthers
Is is done to wish you luck with all the others?
I'm not awfully au fait
With manners down your way —
CECILY:
And up yours, Miss Carr

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

We have known the expression "round the block" since my brother first went to school at the age of 3 in the late 1950s; the BrE pupils/AmE students were walked "round the block" for exercise on days when it was too wet or muddy to play in the garden. We had heard the term before, but it seemed logical! And is somehow not to be confused with BrE block of flats/AmE apartment block.

Kelli said...

I've always thought that the bottom of the street is where the lower numbers are and the higher numbers are at the top of the street, regardless of incline.

PW said...

Andy J said: This, of course, should not be confused with the expression "right up your street"

David Crosbie responded: I'm not so sure. Up and down do seem to be used for location as well as motion.

When I read Andy, I assumed the phrase to be similar to AmE "right up your alley"--right in line with your interests or abilities. But David's comment indicates that it means something different?

Mary Louise Eklund said...

Having grown up in the mountains of East Tennessee I remember teachers going to great lengths to show us what a block (AmE) was before taking a standardized test. We had no idea what it was. When I applied it to where I lived a block was miles long.

House-proud is a term I've heard all my life in East Tennessee. Someone keeps a pretty house they are house-proud though they maybe land-poor (own a large amount of land but have little money). For some reason those terms were often used together. "Poor things they are so land-poor but at least they're house-proud."

I'm still amazed to this day how many of the Appalachian colloquialisms are very similar to BrE.

rhb said...

"Have/(AmE) take a look at this map of Camden Town"
Though your map seems to be of Brighton.

woodpijn said...

BTW, the link to the map of Camden is actually a zoomed-out map showing the location of Brighton - wrong link pasted in?

marypcb said...

yes, 'right up your street' mens extremely relevant or suited to you. compare top and bottom of the street to up and down for place names; you go down from Scotland to Cornwall, but you always go up to London or Oxford (in the university sense).

Boris Zakharin said...

What I find interesting is that to me (AmE) up and down the street have exactly the same meaning (except possibly when there is an incline) and yet are not ambiguous. For example if someone asks for directions, I can say "go down/up the street (pointing) and make a right at the next corner". Without pointing they would both be ambiguous. When saying something like "I live right up/down the street from you", the direction would also not be implied unless I add some reference point ("if your coming from route 202") in which case up would be closer and down would be further away from the reference point.

Of course regional meanings may exist. For example in Manhattan uptown means north and downtown means south whereas in my town (and in most places) downtown means something like "business district" and uptown is everything else, so it would not make any sense here to say "I live uptown from you" especially since I live downtown, so every direction would be uptown from me, while in Manhattan, it makes perfect sense and the official subway signs and announcements bear that out.

lynneguist said...

Thanks for pointing out the map error. This is the second time in two posts that Google's done something strange when I've copied a link. Last time it was showing the wrong ngram when I published, but showing the right one in preview. And this one was showing up ok for me, but it must've been because of whatever cookies/cache I had from Google Maps.

Google, it must be said, has been annoying me ever since they kicked me off AdSense with no reason why.

David Crosbie said...

PW

I assumed the phrase to be similar to AmE "right up your alley"--right in line with your interests or abilities. But David's comment indicates that it means something different?

I was merely suggesting that behind the figurative meaning you decribe, the phrase up your street had the literal meaning 'situated at/on the street where you live'.

jayw said...

At risk of being an Anorak (BrE) I remember when working on the railways, all tracks leading towards London, irrespective of direction were up, and leading away from London were Down. Also street numbers ascend as the roads and streets lead away from the local Post Office, which inevitably would have been in the town centre. Hence to go to your local town centre would have been to go down [town].

Neil Dolinger said...

OK, here's a SOMEWHAT non-AmE thing about the last verse:

"Then we'd say nothing would come between us,
two dreamers"

The couplet works much better if you are non-rhotic. Yes, I realize that there are rhotic Brits and non-rhotic Yanks, but for the most part....

Andy JS said...

Semidetachedbrit makes a very good point. It's very weird how the phrase "have a walk round the block" is used so much in Britain when "block" on its own is not used at all. I hadn't realised that before.

lynneguist said...

But we need to keep clear here that there are different meanings of 'block' at play. 'I live in the middle of my block' refers to one edge of a square block. The 'walk [a]round the block' refers to all the edges of that square. In my experience (and the OED's description), the latter is mostly but not exclusively North American. But the former is the really American one. If one tried to understand 'live in the middle of my block' using the more BrE-accepted meaning, it'd have to mean that you lived in the cent{re/er} of the square of land.

David Crosbie said...

it'd have to mean that you lived in the cent{re/er} of the square of land.

Or on the fifth floor of an eleven storey (tower) block, say, and equidistant from the main external walls.

lekkermeisje said...

I always remember thinking the Madness lyric was a bit funny, too. I was about 6 or 7 when the song came out, and I too always pictured a house literally in the middle of the road.
My grandparents' house (which is where I now live), is at the end of a road that curves, so that when you are driving up to it, it looks like it's 'in the middle of the street' in the AmE sense. My brother and I used to sing the Madness song every time we were approaching on visits.

AndyJ said...

David Crosbie said: "Or on the fifth floor of an eleven storey (tower) block, say, and equidistant from the main external walls."

Of course that would only be true in the UK, Australia and NZ, In the USA and most parts of Canada you would need to be on the sixth floor.

Boris Zakharin said...

@AndyJ,
I believe this has already been discussed. I might have even chimed in before, but if you say "most of Canada", you must also say "most of the US". I've seen buildings here in NE US where where there is a Ground Floor or Lower Level beneath the first floor. I've even seen a building with a zeroth floor (that is, it's marked "0") not to mention floor M (Mezzanine) between the first and second floor and PL (Plaza) between second and third. You're right, though, that most buildings start with a first floor here, and when they don't, the floor above whatever the lowest floor is called is the second floor. Most, but far from all.

AndyJ said...

@ Boris Zakhain. I did look in the index but couldn't see the topic as having been mentioned before, although I did think it was likely to have been.
And of course I relied on Wikipedia as the authority on the US system! Mea culpa.

lynneguist said...

'Our House' features in a new ad campaign for Virgin Media.

yonray said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the use of "Sunday best". This very working-class expression (in UK at least) is just right for what the song is trying to do. Do you have Sunday best in AmE?

"In the middle of our street" is doing the same, I'd say: the house is a normal one, with neighbours either side, as opposed to the aspirational "end of terrace" ones.

lynneguist said...

I can't comment for all Americans, but 'Sunday best' wasn't at all foreign to me. Googling "wear your Sunday best" brings up lots of US Christian websites. So, might be marked as working class in UK, but I think it's widely found in AmE.

Creeping Bobbism said...

I've always found road much more common than street in BrE, particularly in the sense of being up/down the road, going along the road and suchlike.

And the nonsensical placement of the house being literally in the middle of the tarmac/asphalt, surrounded by cars, would be in the middle of the road, as in "look at that idiot pedestrian standing in the middle of the road". Or, alternatively, "the white lines are painted down the middle of the road".

David Crosbie said...

might be marked as working class in UK

This could be cultural reference rather than linguistic choice.

After a first visit to a folk club held on a Sunday evening, a friend remarked that it seemed full of people in jeans who wore suits the rest of the week and people in suits who wore jeans the rest of the week.

(Admittedly, this was fifty years ago.)

Boris Zakharin said...

Having listened to the song again, I notice something else. Is it normal in the UK to pronounce "iron" as one syllable or was it done to keep the rhythm? Either way, it sounds very strange and, I think, wouldn't be a possibility even in a rhythmic context in US English.

vp said...

@Boris Zakharin

I would say that it could be either one syllable /aɪən/ or two syllables /aɪ.ən/ in a non-rhotic English accent. It may well come out something like [aːn] if smoothing operates in the speaker's accent.

David Crosbie said...

Boris

In Britain we can choose between one an two syllables — especially in song. Listen to Any Old Iron?

Rob P. said...

The video makes me wonder whether it is more usual for middle class folks to play squash in the UK? In the US, I think it's generally considered a game played only by the rich.

Slow on the Uptake said...

@ Rob P: my first (UK) reaction to your question was "yes". Then I realised that you meant US middle class (most people excluding rich and destitute), not UK middle class (ie posh people, in the minority), so my answer would be "no".

David Crosbie said...

It's ironic. The cloth caps and visible braces (Is it true that Americans call them suspenders?) are visual shorthand for 'traditional working class'.

It's not just the dress but the stereotypical social style of dress in squash courts and posh swimming pools that's ludicrous. Even Suggs's outfit looks out of place in the boardroom.

The video is full of class allusions that are not necessarily part of the song. Most of the speakers say our 'ouse. The house itself is a terrace house stereotypically associated with working class areas.

Even the use of the word our can carry class overtones in British speech — as in our mum, our Fred etc. This is clearly not the case in the song lyrics, which employs class-neutral father, mother etc (as well as aspirated house), but the video invites us to remember the connotations.

The director of the video seems to have superimposed a story of well-spoken, smartly dressed aspiring working-class boy still feeling ties of class solidarity. That's how obsessed we Brits are with social class.

Rick Sprague said...

@David Crosbie: Yes, the general American word for braces is "suspenders", except in the American skinhead and punk subcultures, where the British term is retained out of tradition. What you call suspenders we call garters. ;-)

David Crosbie said...

Rick

We also speak of garters — but only as the elastic or tied ribbon used to grip the top of a stocking or long sock.

Rick Sprague said...

David - We use that sense also, but neither kind of garter is very common nowadays. As far as I know, the first kind is only used as part of an erotic accessory undergarment, and the second as a wedding tradition (after the bride tosses her bouquet, the groom sometimes tosses her garter to his groomsmen). Are these traditions in the UK as well?

I have also seen sleeve garters, typically used by card players to hold their cuffs above their wrists (thus demonstrating that they have "nothing up their sleeves") but only in films.

Henery the Eighth said...

And the final words on garters are of course, honi soit qui mal y pense.

David Crosbie said...

Rick

When I was a little boy in short trousers I sometimes wore garters on my socks. In the Scouts we wore garters with a flash of ribbon. In both cases the garter was a wide elastic band worn near the top of the sock. It wasn't visible because the top of the sock was folded down over it. But the flash of ribbon was long enough to be visible.

Here is a picture of garter tags as worn with Scottish Highland Dress — i.e. with a kilt. I've never seen suspenders for socks, but apparently they look like this.

Otherwise, we use garters as you do, with the same wedding tradition. Our folk songs quite frequently include situations when a girl's garter becomes untied, and an obliging lad offers to tie it up again.

biochemist said...

Back to the discussion of street, middle of, and so on - I have just returned from a visit to the (English)countryside - narrow roads with warnings such as 'Oncoming traffic in the middle of the road'. Giving directions to an isolated house, one might say 'it's halfway along the road' - or in the town, 'halfway up/down the street'. Something in the middle of the street or road would be straddling the white lines..

David Crosbie said...

I've just noticed Lynne's definition of house proud: To be house-proud is to take particular pride in the upkeep and decoration of one's house.

I've never used in in that sense. To me, being house proud is a matter of cleaning and tidying. The pride is in the appearance of the house. Housewives are (or were) house proud — the upkeep and decoration are (or were) for the landlord and/or the husband.

lynneguist said...

David, we mean the same thing by house-proud. The problem is that we don't mean the same things by 'upkeep' and 'decoration'. You're using the former to mean tiling the roof and things like that, I presume, whereas I was using it to include tidying/cleanliness. 'Decoration' you're using in the BrE sense of 'painting and wallpapering (etc.), whereas I'm using it in more generally to include having pretty cushions on the sofa and hanging pictures.

So--sorry that my definition was too AmE-orient(at)ed!

Normal for Norfolk said...

Curiously I always thought 'house-proud' was unhyphenated but I may be unwittingly influenced by the UK flour brand name Homepride?

lynneguist said...

Hyphenation is the kind of thing that typically varies a lot, but the OED lists it as hyphenated.

David Crosbie said...

I originally typed houseproud but the spellchecker objected.

Normal for Norfolk said...

I always think of my now revised and appropriately hyphenated 'house-proud' as conforming with the other 'house-' combination words: housewife, housework and housekeep.

David Crosbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Crosbie said...

Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary, which based far more on statistical evidence than the average dictionary, gives the spelling houseproud. I suppose this could be just a reflection of Collins house style, but they do put a hyphen in house-party.

Normal for Norfolk

Yes I agree that the concept of being houseproud can exist only in a mental world where women can be housewives I wonder whether we should consider that world a survival or a memory.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised by the assertion that in the UK "middle class" means posh people. I suppose it depends on where you're looking from!

Kate (Derby, UK)
(a professional librarian who regards herself as middle class but certainly not posh.)

Fnarf said...

This problem never came up for us, because we always sang along, substituting the words "our nose, in the middle of our face".

Andy JS said...

This is a link to the UK Top 40 chart from 16th January 1983 which did include Our House by Madness (although it had to be edited out for copyright reasons on these uploads):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZrFGkdWokY&amp

Robert "Anaerin" Johnston said...

On the whole "Road Vs. Street" discussion, My Br.E understanding was always that the "road" was the asphalt bit the cars drove on, whereas the "street" included the Road, the (Br.E)Pavement/(Am.E)Sidewalk and the houses on either side.

And (Br.E)Lifts/(Am.E)Elevators in the UK typically go G 1 2 3, whereas in the US/Canada they go (M/1) 2 3 4... Though something else there, UK house doors tend to open straight at ground level, whereas US/Canadian houses have steps leading down. This could be largely related to the US preponderance of basements, whereas basements are quite rare in the UK.

Ed said...

I think "middle of or street" may be regional or marked as "low class". Often the two things go together in Britain, with regional dialects being associated with lower status.

"Middle of the street" would probably be interpreted as being where the painted line is in standard (southern) English English without some context. It would be more usual to describe the location of the house 'midway along the street'.