Friday, April 29, 2011

bunting

I feel the need to mark the royal wedding (lower case, please! The Guardian Style Guide says so!) on this blog, because I think American readers will expect me to say something. But I have very little to say about it. Having married in the UK, I can tell you that there are not a lot of linguistic differences between weddings. There are some different traditions, but not many different ways of phrasing the similar traditions. I could blog about all the incorrect things that have been written about British English in the American popular press (I haven't seen a single piece--and I've seen dozens--that isn't riddled with silliness), but I'd like to be finished before the couple's silver anniversary. The main problem with the American press is that they've not been reading this blog. Of course.

So, here's a short-but-sweet difference, suggested by Not From Around Here:


In BrE, this is bunting. In AmE, I'd call it a string of pennants. This picture comes from a panicky article in the Telegraph:

Royal wedding party 'crisis' as bunting stocks run low


Now, I suspect that some AmE speakers will know this sense of bunting. The most recent edition of the American Heritage Dictionary includes it as 'Strips of cloth or material usually in the colors of the national flag, used especially as drapery or streamers for festive decoration.' But, judging from comments/questions I've heard in the cacophony of American voices commenting/asking about the wedding, I don't think it's widespread in AmE at this point. Compare the results for a search for bunting on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, and you'll see what I mean.

Growing up in the US, I knew a decorative sense of bunting, but it was limited to this stuff (from Amazon.com):
So, in my AmE, pennants are pennants and bunting is bunting and that's that. But what of these things? (From a Facebook update by Planted Feet.)



In BrE, they're still bunting, but in AmE, they're probably not pennants, since they're not pointy. I don't think I've ever had the problem of naming these things in the US, because they're just not as common, but I'd probably call it a string of little flags or some such thing.

The original meaning of bunting refers to the type of material that flags are made from, and then, by extension, it refers to things that are made out of that material. But the understanding of it particularly as 'strings of (decorative) flags' is ubiquitous in the UK. This sense in particular is not recorded in the OED (2nd edn, 1989), but I think it'll need to be in the next one, as I think it's the sense that most BrE speakers know--regardless of whether they know the more general 'material' sense.

There are, of course, other (unrelated) meanings for bunting. It's a kind of bird, for example. And, apparently, there's a dialectal difference here. In English generally, it applies to birds from 'Emberizinæ, a sub-family of Fringillidæ', and the particular species are generally called by compound names like rice bunting and corn bunting. But in AmE it's also '[a]pplied by extension to any bird of the bunting subfamily, and to similar birds of other families' (OED).

An AmE sense is related to baseball. To bunt is 'to stop the ball with the bat, without swinging the bat'. For more on why you'd want to do that, see Wikipedia.  This comes from an older BrE-dialectal word meaning 'to strike' (OED notes it in Wiltshire and Sussex).

Then there are the baby senses.  OED has "A term of endearment: in ‘baby bunting’, the meaning (if there be any at all) may possibly be as in Jamieson's ‘buntin, short and thick, as a buntin brat, a plump child’". Now, I only know this from a nursery rhyme that I only know from my time in the UK. The AHD doesn't record this one, so I'm going to call it BrE.

But AmE has bunting as 'A snug-fitting, hooded sleeping bag of heavy material for infants.' Like this one by Gap (from a UK site, but I'm assuming the name was imported along with the item):

These days, most things that are called baby buntings on US sites are indistinguishable from snow suits (which is what they'd also be called in BrE), in that they have legs, rather than a 'bag' at the bottom. The simple reason for this is that now all babies have to be strapped into car seats and (AmE) strollers/(BrE) push-chairs, with one of those straps going between the legs.


AHD gives the etymology as 'Perhaps from Scots buntin, plump, short.' So, we've got two baby-related senses (neither of which I caught in the big baby-related post), both supposedly coming from the same source, but mostly not shared between AmE and at least mainstream English-English. Scottish readers--do you use any buntings in this sense?

Bringing this back to the wedding: hanging bunting is a prime way to show involvement in the big day. So, it hangs in shop windows and will be strung around wedding street parties. But I'm not in the best place to show you BuntingFest 2011, as I live in what may be the most apathetic-about-that-wedding part of the country.  While Not From Around Here estimates that one in three shops in her town are decorated for the wedding, in Brighton/Hove/Portslade yesterday (I got around), it looked more like one in ten. And even then, it was often very half-hearted (say, a free-with-purchase flag or poster from a tabloid newspaper). Most of the (BrE) charity shops/(AmE) thrift stores have wedding gowns in their windows, but people I know are buying the cheap ones and wearing them with zombie make-up to go on (BrE) pub crawls. I've heard of no earnest street parties in Brighton and my Twitter feed is full of locals resenting the cost to the taxpayer at a time when the government is drastically cutting funding to just about everything else. (Some people counter that the wedding generates millions in UK spending, but we must remember that this is at the expense of many times that much in lost productivity because of the extra holiday.) The one sincere party I know of happened at my daughter's preschool on Thursday, where girls were dressed as princesses or brides and boys as princes or grooms. And all I can say is: I'm so glad Thursday is Grover's day off. (It's not the monarchism per se that bothered me, but the encouraging girls to dress up as princesses and brides. I would like to encourage her to dress up as an astronaut or a dragon or anything that isn't giving her the message that looking pretty is all that girls are supposed to do.) Though I've had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen and her successors, I can't imagine that the television will be on anything but Zingzillas tomorrow. (And if you don't know what Zingzillas is, you can count your lucky stars that you don't have the theme song going through your head right now. Make it stop! Please!!!)

And that's me doing a short and simple, dash-it-off post. Oh wait, it's 3am. I'm never going to be any good at this, am I?

37 comments:

Roger Owen Green said...

Yeah, you're right about string-of-flags. But I thought your post would be about baseball, bunting being a great skill therein.

Robin said...

Actually the string-of-pennants meaning of bunting is gaining a big foothold in American English too - it's a huge trend in nursery decor at the moment, and I've seen lots of kids' design blogs & websites use the word bunting to refer to strings with all different shapes of flags - triangle, square, or even semi-circles. For example: http://projectnursery.com/2011/02/oh-please-string-me-along/.

Harry Campbell said...

What an interesting post. I haven't heard buntin in Scotland, but DSL (Dictionary of the Scots Language, http://www.dsl.ac.uk/) seems to think it may be related to bantam.

Harry Campbell said...

@Robin I see the word is being used countably: "What is a bunting?, you ask." I would ask that too, as it's uncountable in BrE: "a string of bunting" is what I'd call it.

John Cowan said...

Totally useless comment: My parents called me Bunty as a child after that nursery rhyme, and later on Bun. Needless to say, I've always been John to everyone else.

Jan said...

I knew (in Ohio) the nursery rhyme from childhood (long ago):
Bye baby bunting
Papa's gone a-hunting,
To get a little (something) skin
To wrap the baby bunting in.

(Wikipedia says "rabbit skin" but I don't remember that -- my parents probably changed it to protect my tender sensibilities.)

Because of that rhyme, I assumed (until just now) that "bunting" meant simply "warm covering for baby," with "baby bunting" meaning just something like "cozy baby." So maybe the two have merged -- any baby wrapped in rabbit fur would appear "short and thick," no? But "bunting" as a term of affection is otherwise unknown (I think) in AmE -- maybe because most people interpreted the word as I did?

Michelloui | The American Resident said...

I enjoyed this refreshing take on all the 'festivities'!

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

If it's made of rags and hung low along the ground in woodland it's called "swieling" (not sure of spelling) and is used to encourage game birds to fly, rather than run, so they can be shot (oh, the benefits of a country upbringing!).

As for bunting, when my grandson was on the way, my daughter's friend actually held a baby shower for her (I tutted, but my daughter said it was an opportunity for people to gather in the park and eat cake! And I did take her a "Christmas stocking" of small presents for bother her and the baby. And the cake was lovely!), and made some beautiful bunting, each flag embroidered to spell out "Baby" followed by the baby's surname. Very beautiful, and still holds pride of place in his nursery. I'd never seen personalised bunting like that before, but it does seem all the rage!

Michele said...

What struck me most in reports about this wedding was reference to "knees-up" events. My American upbringing led me to think immediately of sexual intercourse ... but now I've decided the phrase must refer to a rollicking party.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

(My apologies if Lynne has already discussed this, or plans to). A "knees-up" in BrE is a jolly good party, the term coming from the song "Knees up, Mother Brown!" which was apparently traditionally sung at such events in the days before television.

Harry said...

On the bird meaning of bunting: American 'sparrows' are actually buntings and are not particularly closely related to old world sparrows (i.e. the house sparrow and so on).

chris perriman said...

I always assumed the flags resembled a line of birds on a wire so were named after bunting, the bird.

But thinking about it, why would they have chosen bunting? why not starlings or something else?

emmajeans said...

The nursery rhyme always made me think of babies pinned to string, instead of the pennants/flags. I would photoshop that, but I'm a bit lazy tonight.

Also, if Grover has to go as a princess and you/she are reluctant, there is always the Paper Bag Princess (which is such a cute story!)

Robbie said...

Michele and Mrs Redboots:

Knees up, Mother Brown
Knees up, Mother Brown
Under the table you must go
E-I-E-I-E-I-O
If I catch you bending
I'll saw your legs right off
Knees up, knees up
Don't get a breeze up
Knees up, Mother Brown

Yep, there's got to be enough right there to supply a whole posting.

David Crosbie said...

Another extension of bunting was to a navy chap who waved the flags purposefully: a signaller.

Source: A Sea of Words, a dictionary for reading the Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin novels.

David Crosbie said...

For any non-Brits unfamiliar with Knees Up Mother Brown, YouTube is awash with performances. I think this version gives a good impression of how it works.

Kelv said...

I'm surprised the OED doesn't have anything down for this particular type of bunting. Our street was decorated with bunting - and I remember it being referred to as such - for Charles & Di's wedding in 1981.

Harry Campbell said...

@Kelv OED: ‘An open-made worsted stuff, used for making flags’ (Ure Dict. Arts); also in general, a flag, or flags collectively.

Not exactly specific!

Boris Zakharin said...

Interesting how there can be omissions in vocabulary of an otherwise fluent immigrant (to the US). I had no idea what bunting was in any sense until this post. Even as a non-sports person, if you asked me what I thought bunting was, I would say it had something to do with sports, probably (but not definitely) baseball. I guess they don't teach you about little flags and whatnot in ESL, but I can honestly say that I don't think I've ever heard the word used before in a non-sports sense in the 20 years I've been in the US.

Jennifer said...

I recall the nursery rhyme this way (from the late 1960s in Michigan):

Bye baby bunting
Daddy's gone a-hunting
To fetch a little rabbit skin
To wrap his baby bunting in

I think it may have been in a nursery rhyme book; now I'm curious to see if the book was BrE (I probably have it packed up somewhere)

Ø said...

The Bugs Bunny theme song "What's up, Doc?" makes reference to that nursery rhyme.

Ø said...

I associate hustings with bunting.

catnap said...

Following up on Robin's comment, this item is extremely trendy right now with crafters in America, especially paper crafters (that is, women who make their own cards and scrapbooks, for whom an industry exists to supply fancy papers and embellishments). More often than not it is referred to as banners, but also as bunting, and mini flags. Since it is quite the rage it has spread across the crafting world and they are being made not only of fancy papers, in many shapes, but also of cloth and many other media, in many colors and patterns, and adorning all sorts of crafty items as well as being used for festive decorating indoors and out, embellished in many ways, often with words spelled out on the pennants. Moxie Fab World is a trend spotting blog for paper crafting. A key word search came up with many hits for "banners," so it seems the most popular term in the crafting world in the US. (The blogger has her own creative vocabulary for gushing over said trends, hence the name of the blog).

Anonymous said...

Interesting post to me as Bunting happens to be my surname (Am. E.= last name). I don't know which of the meanings it's derived from!

Kate (Derby, UK)

Berna said...

"Most of the (BrE) charity shops/(AmE) thrift stores have wedding gowns in their windows, but people I know are buying the cheap ones and wearing them with zombie make-up to go on (BrE) pub crawls."

Hahaha! :D Especially about the zombie make-up! :D

Cirrocumulus said...

Chambers' (Scots) dictionary says bunting was originally the cloth: "a thin worsted stuff for ships' colours" hence flags or cloth decorations. ISTR one could drape something in a length of bunting for a decorative effect. If it was black for a funeral it was called crape, which is really a different kind of cloth.
Nowadays it's all plastic, of course.

kiwianna said...

when I (native AmE, midwest) saw the string-of-flags I thought 'garland'. but when I think 'garland of roses' the image in my head is of a crown or wreath - or possibly the big u-shaped arrangements they hang on the horse that wins the derby. Go figure.

erin said...

This is definitely exploding in popularity in the US, especially in "offbeat" wedding decor. It's become a stereotype ("jam jars, gingham, and bunting") to describe the country-chic style that's popular right now. I always see it called bunting on wedding sites.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

This is going to sound appallingly snobbish, but when you say: "But I'm not in the best place to show you BuntingFest 2011, as I live in what may be the most apathetic-about-that-wedding part of the country. While Not From Around Here estimates that one in three shops in her town are decorated for the wedding, in Brighton/Hove/Portslade yesterday (I got around), it looked more like one in ten., doesn't that mostly reflect the area you live in? Putting bunting/flags/pictures of the happy couple in one's window is, I find, more prevalent in what I have to call working-class areas, and doesn't happen nearly so much in middle-class Brighton/Hove/Portslade?

lynneguist said...

That wasn't my experience, Mrs Redboots. I'd call Portslade 'working class', and it seemed to have very few markers of the wedding. More in middle-class Hove. Not From Around Here lives in an extremely middle+ class area, albeit one with more connections to the married couple.

Zarich said...

Bunting is SO British. I made my own out of fabric remnants, so I have patchwork bunting to put up in the garden in the summer. You can buy it at vast expense, but why bother when it's so easy to make?

I was curious about the baby bag thing called a bunting. We don't call them "a bunting" in the UK. They're called gro-bags. This is a parody of the plastic bags full of compost that you can grow summer vegetables in if you don't have a garden - I'm assuming that the marketing people thought it would be funny sticking a baby in a gro-bag. But that's what they are called. If it's for sleeping in, then it's called a sleeping bag. Brilliant things.

This is my first time visiting your blog (tipped off by a friend) and I really like it. I look forward to coming back. Zx

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@Zarath - I think "gro-bags" come from "Baby-gro", which was the brand name, now somewhat generic, of what in the US are called "onesies", which Lynne has covered elsewhere. Everybody promptly called them gro-bags, pften rather sardonically if you were the sort of person who thought they were a Bad Idea - many older people did, when they first came in - and then a company decided to manufacture baby sleeping suits under that name!

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Sorry, that last comment was aimed at Zarich!

Going back to "bunting" as a verb, I think I (Southern England) would speak of a calf "bunting" a bucket-ful of milk, i.e. bashing it with their heads, not realising you don't do that to buckets, however much you do it to udders! My husband, who is from Northern Ireland, refers to it as "dunting".

Harry Campbell said...

Mrs Redboot's verb is defined alongside the baseball one by OED:

To strike, knock, push, butt.
1825 Wiltsh. Gloss., Bunt, to strike with the head, as a young animal pushes the udder of its dam.
1867 H. Bushnell Moral Uses Dark Things 203 When the gusty shocks of broad~side pressure bunt upon the house.
1875 W. D. Parish Dict. Sussex Dial., Bunt, to rock a cradle with the foot; to push or butt.

OED's definition of the Scottish/"dialect" dunt is perhaps a little over-specific. It casts cold water on any assumption that it might be related to bunt:

To knock with a dull sound, as with the fist in the back or ribs. Also absol. or intr.
1570 (1478) Hary Actis & Deidis Schir William Wallace (Lekprevik) x. 285 Duschyt in dros, duntit [1488 in gloss, dewyt] with speris dynt.
c1610 J. Melville Mem. Own Life (1735) 393 The dunting of Mells and Hammers.
1789 D. Davidson Thoughts Seasons 59 (Jam.) The pliant foot‥Dunting, oppressive, on the verdant path.
1806 Jamieson's Pop. Ball. I. 304 (Jam.) He dunted o' the kist, the buirds did flee.
1895 S. R. Crockett Men of Moss-hags 38 The sound of my mother's roller‥‘dunt-dunting’ on the dough.
1897 N.E.D. at Dunt, Mod. Sc. It's too good a hat to be dunted about every day.

Anonymous said...

In the Royal Navy days, Communications ratings, i.e. signallers, were sub-divided into radio operators ('sparkers') or visual signallers ('bunting tossers'). In this this context the use of the word 'tosser' was literal and not pejorative, whereas calling someone a 'tosser' implies something a little different...

enitharmon said...

Mrs Redboots wrote:
A "knees-up" in BrE is a jolly good party, the term coming from the song "Knees up, Mother Brown!" which was apparently traditionally sung at such events in the days before television.

I'm afraid the term, the song and the dance are all things that conjure what for me is very far from a "jolly good party". It sounds like hell on earth to me.

Liz said...

Also in the bunting-as-verb strain, specifically when cats head-butt you it is 'bunting.' I've trained mine to keep following, and head-butting, my hand as I move my arm further across whatever counter or desk he is soliciting attention from. I think this bunting behavior is intransitive, whereas he can transitively head-butt my head.