Friday, May 30, 2014

Who is ruining/spoiling/destroying English?

This is NOT a serious post. Nothing here stands up to particularly good academic standards. But I just wasted some time in the corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) and thought I'd share this with you in order to make me feel better about the time-wastage.

I wanted to see who blames whom for 'ruining English language, so I looked in GloBWE because it conveniently divides things into country categories like this:

I looked for the verbs spoil, ruin and destroy (with -s, -ed/t, and -ing endings too) with the word language three words before or seven words after the verb. (I also tried it with English instead of language and all most all the results were about BrE football/AmE soccer, so I gave up on that.)  Then I looked at the texts and (a) reassigned the categories if it was obviously a person from another country writing (a couple of the US ones have British writers) and (b) tried to determine who (or if I couldn't find a who, then what) is responsible for the degradation of the language according to these writers. Most of the results were from US and UK--in part because these parts of the corpus are bigger and in part because people in other countries were often worried about other languages (in these cases it may have been English doing the ruining).

So, here's who ruins the English language, according to various people.
people who say like a lot people who say like a lot
PC police liberalism
hypothetical Nazi victory the French
reality television immigration
Americans "wretched burn-outs"
Americans southerners
Americans slothful abbreviation

(Australia is the only other country for which I got more than one result. There it's the commercialism of modern literary publishing and feminists who are to blame, apparently.)

For good measure, here's the first things I get when I google the question "who is ruining the English language?". It was interesting that no one blamed technology/texting in the corpus:

Happy Friday!

P.S.  I'm on Radio 3's The Verb on Friday 6 June talking about British and American dictionaries. Should be on iPlayer for a week after.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

sandwiches, more particularly bacon sandwiches

On Fridays, I sit and work in a cafe with a little group of writing friends, and I've got(ten) into the habit of ordering the same thing for lunch each week (just because it makes calorie-counting easier). Giving me what I've ordered has, alas, not become the habit of the (AmE) waitstaff. So, when my special order was agreed-to but not delivered at a new cafe, I grumpily posted the following on Facebook:

To quote myself, from the previous toast post:
Now, I endeavo(u)r to maintain a descriptive rather than prescriptive attitude toward(s) language on this blog, but I have no hesitation in being prescriptive about toast.
That little Facebook post generated more than 40 comments and 2 additional Facebook posts that afternoon. Then I tweeted about it.  All of this was pretty catastrophic for my productivity that day. But, TOAST!

There are two cross-cultural differences that may have triggered my unsatisfactory lunch. The first is a fairly linguistic problem: the on.  The second is a culinary-cultural problem that is linguistic to the extent that it involves the meaning of sandwich.  And appended to that is the bacon sandwich problem.

Problem 1:  on 
The on problem is that I used an AmE meaning for on in my on toast. This usage would be recogni{s/z}ed by a lot of Brits from television, hearing people order a pastrami on rye or some such. (See my past discursion about semantic drift in the naming of pastrami sandwiches here. Note: I've never seen a sandwich on rye bread anywhere but on American television while in the UK.) But on is not what would be said in BrE, especially for toast, because this idiomatic use of on clashes with BrE use of on toast, as in scrambled egg on toast. There, the egg is put on a slice of toast*, but no sandwich is made. (Americans might call it an open-face(d) sandwich--on toast.)

Some overly pedantic British commenters at my FB/Twitter posts (you know who you are) insisted that I had asked for a bacon sandwich placed on top of a piece of toast.* I call them 'overly pedantic' because while I may not always get what I want when I place this order, no one has ever tried to give me a sandwich atop a piece of toast. It is a possible interpretation, but not one that any waiter would go for. To make it known that I wanted the sandwich bread to be toasted, my English friends tell me I should say with toast, but I fear that I might get a side order of toast in this case. I have since had success asking for (and receiving) my sandwich by saying "could the bread be toasted, please?"

If I had said I wanted a toasted bacon sandwich, I would have got(ten) another thing: cooked bacon put between bread and then heated in a (BrE) sandwich toaster/(AmE) [toasted] sandwich maker (or more recently: panini maker). At one of the cafes we work in, such sandwiches are pre-assembled and put in an opaque, label(l)ed bag, which one can select and then hand to the person at the counter, who toasts it for you. It's ok, but not as good as a bacon sandwich on/made with toast. This is my opinion. Or it may be a fact.

Problem 2: the sandwich problem
I've dealt with the sandwich problem before at the baked goods post. Let me just quote myself again:
As an American, I can make a sandwich using sliced bread, a roll, a bagel, whatever. In the UK, sandwiches are made with sliced bread, and anything else is called by the name of the bread it's in--for example, a ham and cheese baguette. A bacon roll is bacon inside a roll that's been sliced in half (usually with ketchup or brown sauce), and is a popular hangover treatment.
Add to the list of things Americans can make sandwiches with: toast. You might think that's the same thing as sliced bread. You might be wrong. (I love this old Calvin & Hobbes comic that recogni{s/z}es that it isn't.)  I have seen British sandwiches toasted (again: the old toastie post), but I can't recall seeing any made with toast. Lots of open-faced things on toast (eggs, sautéed mushrooms, [AmE] canned/[BrE] tinned spaghetti or beans, about which another post must be written), but not with another piece of bread on top.  Americans make lots of sandwiches with toast, particularly when breakfast foods are involved. I couldn't believe it the first time I saw Better Half make a fried egg sandwich with untoasted bread and ketchup.

Of course, when such disagreements occur, one is bound to hear an English person say 'but we invented the sandwich, so we get to say what it is'. I note/ask here (a) putting things between bread was happening a long time before the 4th Earl of Sandwich had the thing named after him, (b) who is this we who invented [or named] sandwiches? You weren't there. The world of foodstuffs-between-bread has changed between the 18th century and now, and you weren't even around for most of that. It's like when football fans (of either type) say "we won!" No, you didn't. You watched someone else win. You may have enjoyed it, but you didn't do it. But there is no doubt that the English are serious about sandwiches. Here's one of three sandwich-filled fridges in a shop in Brighton station. My American food sensibilities generally keep me from buying any of them.

One of my English FB friends responded to my desire for a bacon sandwich on toast with "No such thing. A sandwich is a sandwich, on toast is on toast." To which some Americans replied "but a club sandwich is always on toast". I'm not sure that's always absolutely true (but Wikipedia seems to agree with them), but it is typical. And it's something that's escaped the attention of some dictionary-writers, including the OED:

Problem 2': the bacon butty problem
The other thing that Americans said was: "a BLT is always best on toast". So here is the crux of our problem. Not only do we have different sandwich cultures. We have very specific different bacon sandwich cultures.

To Americans, the prototypical bacon sandwich is the BLT (or bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich).  It's usually made with mayonnaise and the bread is usually toasted. Like so:

To the English, the prototypical bacon sandwich  is the bacon butty aka bacon sarnieJust bacon and optionally ketchup or brown sauce on (usually) buttered, untoasted bread (supposedly brown sauce is the more northern way to have it, but most people I know down south prefer it that way too, as do I). (The Wikipedia entry for this is pretty [BrE] rubbish. C'mon UK Wikipedians! Priorities!) This (orig. AmE in this sense) guy took this photo to celebrate his Father's Day breakfast:

And this picture looks just like what I get in the cafes, but they give me much less bacon (which is good for the calorie-counting, not so good for the sandwich). I must note here that in both the non-toasting cafes, the thing on the menu was bacon butty.  So my whole trying-to-get-toast thing was probably doomed from the start.


* According to GloWBE, slice of toast is much more common in BrE (63 instances) than in AmE (8), but both can have a piece of toast. The differences are not so clear if one looks at piece/slice of bread.

P.S. [6 June 2014] I forgot about rounds! In BrE, people talk about rounds of toast and rounds of sandwichesI always find this confusing. Here's the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary definition:

8 (British English) a whole slice of bread; sandwiches made from two whole slices of bread
  • Who's for another round of toast?
  •  two rounds of beef sandwiches
So, if it's toast, it's one slice of bread. But if it's a sandwich it's two. If it's cheese on toast, it's one. If it's a cheese toastie, it's two. Got to get that into my head. Except that I just ordered what is described on the menu at this café as "Toast and jam - a round of white or multi-cereal bread..." And I got two slices.  No wonder I get confused. 

And why rounds of sandwiches? Is there any difference in meaning between two beef sandwiches and two rounds of beef sandwiches?  Answers in a comment, please!

Until I get my act together and revamp the blog to have this info in a margin, I'm going to continue to commit acts of shameless self-promotion at the ends of posts.

Upcoming talks:
And I'm halfway through my year of providing mini-essays on British idioms to Focus (UK) magazine, if you're interested.