Sunday, September 08, 2013

forest, wood and woods

I am supposed to be giving the 'How America Saved the English Language' talk in Ashford at the moment, but it had to be cancel(l)ed because the organi{s/z}er isn't well. I hope it will be rescheduled--but not on a day like today when the Brighton-Ashford train journey/trip would have involved replacement bus service (a hated phrase in BrE, if ever there was one).

So, I dip into the inbox to find a suitable blogging task, and out comes this from Ben S:
I was watching the clip episode for QI and in it Rob Brydon explains the phrase "missing the wood for the trees" REDACTED FANCIFUL ACCOUNT OF ORIGIN OF THIS PHRASE. [Lesson: check any facts that appear on QI. They may be Quite Interesting, but they're not always true. --ed.] But, as an American, I've always heard "missing the forest for the trees"
Hey, speaking of QI, I was on the (orig. AmE) radio/(dated BrE) wireless this past week with Stephen Fry (the host of QI) on Fry's English Delight. By the time you read this, it may not be available for listening-again, but here's the link to the episode. The most very frustrating thing about this program(me) is that it is about spelling. My job is to talk about spelling reform in the early days of the USA. So, to introduce me, Fry announces 'That's Lynn, without an E.' Watch forty-something years of trying to get people to spell my name right go straight down the toilet. Thanks, Steven! (But much fun to be on the program(me).)

Wait, what? You wanted me to talk about the phrase Ben asked about? Oh, all right then. Missing the wood for the trees is the main BrE version of this phrase and missing the forest for the trees is the main AmE version, as shown in this entry from Cambridge Dictionaries Online:
Ben sent me a long message about this because Brydon's tale about the meaning of this phrase treated it as if the wood in it referred to (AmE) lumber/(more BrE) timber--which is also the usual way that an American would understand wood without an s on the end. But that's what was wrong with Brydon's story. The BrE wood here is woods in AmE (AmE kinda-sorta. There's more to say.)

When talking about tree-filled land, BrE has woods as well as wood. Preschools here are filled with children singing If you go down in the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise. (Actually, most people these days sing If you go down to the woods today. Better Half has just declared the original lyric obscene.) But one hears a lot more of wood as part of place-names in BrE than AmE (e.g. Bromwich Wood). And one hears it in as a common noun to refer to foresty places. Here are some examples from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBe), which strike me for their general morbidness (I've 'retouched' one of the lines to remove an irrelevant reference to a sexual act in a wood pile):

Now, I had assumed that Americans use the word forest more than the British do, because I often hear this wood where I would have said forest. But that's not the case--checking a few corpora, the British seem to use forest just as much as Americans. (Since one of those searches was case-sensitive, I don't think it's a case of place-names throwing the numbers.) I had this impression because if I were to Americani{s/z}e some of the sentences above by replacing the BrE wood, I'd put in forest. But that's because of the a. If I were allowed to change the whole noun phrase to be natural to my AmE brain, I'd change a wood to the woods. Now, it may seem strange to have the the there, since that's a definite determiner,* and it implies that we know which woods we're talking about. But it's really not that strange to use the when talking about geographical place-types, since we talk about people liking to swim in the sea or go hiking in the mountains, even if we don't know (or if it doesn't matter) which ones they do it in. To be clear: one can say in the woods in BrE. But since one can also say in a wood in BrE, the British don't say in the woods as much as Americans do.

Back to the 'for the trees' proverb: it is older than old, but in John Heywood's Proverbes (1546) it is given as ye cannot see the wood for trees. The forest version goes back at least into the 19th century in the US. I can only presume that it came to be preferred over the wood version because that version is confusing in AmE, where it would pretty much have to be woods. But, as Brydon, in his misunderstanding of the phrase on QI, demonstrated, it's not just ambiguous to Americans--since wood has more than one meaning in both countries. (If you'd like to see the discussion on QI, it seems to be on YouTube in several places. Probably illegally, so I'm not going to link to it, because those links eventually fail.  But should you want to search for it, it should be in (BrE) series 10, episode 3 'Journeys'.)

* As long as I'm talking about definite determiners, I can mention that I'm the 'Ask a Linguist' linguist in the current issue of the lovely new-ish language magazine Babel. The topic there is the the (or lack of it) in the phrase in (the) hospital. I've covered that before here, but I cover it better in the magazine--which I really recommend for anyone who's interested in language. Subscription info is here.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Knowledge Transfer Activities – Lynne Murphy / Lynneguist

Regular blog readers:  This post is a little egotistical linkfest that I had to do for a job-related reason. Comments are closed, but if you know of other links I should put under these categories or encounter dead links, please feel free to email me!

Knowledge Transfer Activities – Lynne Murphy / Lynneguist

1.     Links to information about past talks
a.     ‘How America saved the English language’:
Skeptics in the Pub: Eastbourne (Dec 2013), Ealing (Sept 2013); Kent Skeptics in the Pub Roadshow (Sept 2013); Tunbridge Wells (July 2013); Guildford (Mar 2013), Brighton (Oct 2012), Horsham (May 2012).
Discussed at:
Alison Amazed (Brighton Catalyst Club), Tannice (Horsham Skeptics), Atomies (Ealing Skeptics)

b.      ‘Whose Language is it Anyway?’. Brighton Book Festival, June 2011.

c.       ‘And now for something completely English’. Brighton SEO Sept 2012 conference.

e.        ‘The politeness of the Brits?’ Catalyst Club, Brighton, Sept 2011.  [See also TEDx talk in §2.]

2.     Links to online videos
a.     TEDx Sussex, April 2012. American and British Politeness
b.     Numberphile (Periodic Videos, dir. Brady Haran): Math versus maths, June 2013.
c.     Numberphile (Periodic Videos, dir. Brady Haran): Numbers Confuse Americans, July 2013.
Reposted/discussed at:  Numberphile, BBC America: Mind the Gap

3.     Links to media appearances
a.     Sept 2013. Fry’s English Delight (BBC Radio 4). Commenting on Noah Webster’s role in spelling reform in America. Originally broadcast 2 September.
b.     July 2013. The Today Show (NBC, US). Interviewed for ‘Deciphering Duchess Kate’s British English’.
c.     May 2013 Today (BBC Radio 4), reposted on BBC News US & Canada. Interview with Evan Davies on Britishisms in American English. Broadcast 22 May 2013.
d.     Autumn 2012. Quoted on Britishisms in American English:
Atlantic Wire, ‘Are you an Anglocreep?
e.     Aug/Sept 2011. The World in Words with Patrick Cox (Public Radio International). Two part interview (part one and part two).
f.      Dec 2009. Imagine: Scrabble (BBC1). Interviewed by Alan Yentob on the word-knowledge of Scrabble players. Broadcast 23 Dec. Appearance listed on IMDB.

4.     Google Analytics 

5.     Evidence of use of SbaCL and other work in the language professions and as a reference source
a.     General reference
 A Way with Words: ‘How British and American first meetings differ’
b.     Professional editors
Number 8 in the list of Top 20 resources on language in (Guardian Production Editor) David Marsh’s For Who the Bell Tolls.
c.     Translators
Translation Advisor, interview on the differences between translating to UK and US English.
d.     Communications training:
July 2012. Emphasis: Business Writing Trainers (blog), ‘Ten differences between UK and US English’. Guest contributor.
Feb 2012. Emphasis Writing Communication Lab. Podcast interview.