cures for what ails you

Better Half has been unwell (which sounds fairly BrE--I'd usually say sick in AmE) for more than a week now. The doctor says he has a chest infection, but an American doctor might've preferred to say bronchitis. It's not that bronchitis is an AmE word--just that people talk about being diagnosed with bronchitis in the US, and people in the UK tend to talk about chest infections. And it's not that BrE speakers prefer to avoid Latin/Greek-derived medicalese, either. Whereas Americans talk about getting urinary tract infections (people who get them a lot tend to call them UTIs), the British are more apt to say cystitis--a term I hadn't come across until I moved here. I heard urine infection (from a sufferer) here the other day, which I thought was a bit odd, as it's not the urine that's infected...but that's another matter.

This was supposed to be a short post, but I'm already going on off on my tangents. The real purpose was to tell you a joke that Better Half told me when I brought him some analgesic tablets. (Actually, BrE uses the word tablet much more often where AmE would tend to use pill--but that's another tangent. Oh dear.) Here we go:
Why are there no headaches in the jungle?

Because the parrots ate 'em all!
Americans cannot be expected to get that joke. And no one can be expected to find it particularly funny--but it is particularly punny. It relies on knowledge of (a) the word paracetamol, (b) how it's pronounced, and (c) that ate in BrE is often pronounced to rhyme with bet. That is, the answer is a pun on Because the paracetamol.

And why is that a relevant answer? Because paracetamol is what Americans generically call acetaminophen --though it's more commonly known in AmE by the brand name Tylenol. Both names, paracetamol and acetaminophen, are based on the description of the chemical components in the drug--they both make mention of the acet part. (I'm not qualified to comment any further on the chemical structure, so I'll stop before I make a mockery of pharmaceutical chemistry.)

Some BrE speakers will have come across acetaminophen in the White Stripes' song, 'Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine', which I particularly like for the rhyme:
You see the medicine
While I secretly enjoy them, I try to play it cool and roll my eyes when I hear puns like paracetamol = parrots ate 'em all. But I can't stop myself from expressing overt and enthusiastic admiration for tortured rhymes like that. Hurrah!


  1. Ha! I knew taking organic chemistry in High School would pay off some day. Not entirely relevant, but an explanation for the different names of Tylenol. The IUPAC name (official international name) for the painkiller you're referencing is N-acetyl-para-aminophenol.

    From this we can get most of the names for it:

    Acetaminophen: N-acetyl-para-aminophenol.
    Paracetamol: para-acetyl-aminopnenol. (Different order, still the IUPAC name.)
    Tylenol: N-acetyl-para-aminophenol.
    Panadol: N-acetyl-para-aminophe[a]n[d]ol.

    I can't believe I remembered all that without having to check anywhere. Also, am not sure, and checking quickly now I can't tell, if the IUPAC name actually came before the other names for it, however I'd assume if it wasn't the exact IUPAC name the full chemical description/name pre-IUPAC would be mostly the same (as it is a description of structure*), still leading to the names.

    * With a full IUPAC name you can actually figure out exactly how the molecule is put together. It's quite cool. I remember cramming** to get all the different structures in my head for an exam. : /

    ** - Cramming? Is there a BrE equivalent? Hmm.

    1. Apologies about the fifteen year delay on this reply.

      The nearest British equivalent to cramming is "revising".

      The implied British assumption that you learned it in the first place in class and the implied American assumption that you didn't amuse me.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Ack, the inserted [a] in the Panadol explanation should be after the n.

  4. But it's not just the pun that doesn't translate, but the grammatical structure. I knew about paracetamol, but still didn't get it, because I got lost in the "Because the parrots eat 'em all" "Because of the paracetamol." Even growing up on the Canadian border, watching BBC shows on the CBC.

    1. I'm British and the grammatical flaw in this joke annoys me too.

  5. One that I've always found weird: Brits say "ill" when Americans would say "injured", "the car accident left him seriously ill in hospital."

    1. We definitely do not say that.

    2. Nope, we would say "the accident left him seriously injured in hospital" or "the accident left him in a serious condition in hospital. Ill is used for minor illnesses ie a cold.
      Sick is when we vomit.
      I hope this helps

    3. You-all are on the wrong blog post for this topic!

  6. Yes, the pun doesn't seem to work grammatically, and I don't think there's a consensus in BrE on the pronunciation of paracetamol. The version I've heard is:

    Why are there no aspirins in the jungle?

    Because the parrots eat 'em all.

    The notion of parrots eating aspirins possibly makes more sense than parrots eating headaches, but either way, if I was doing a stand-up comedy gig, I'd probably skip that particular gag.

  7. Thanks a lot, Lowell! That's very impressive! Cram is known in BrE, but it seems to be used more in AmE, since the BrE has its special meaning of revise (search the blog for that word to see discussion of it--sorry, no time to create links this morning).

    Zhoen (and Strawman, who's beaten me to the punch as I was thinking about the answer to Zhoen!), the grammar of the pun doesn't work in BrE either (*because + noun phrase). That's why it's an especially groany groaner of a pun. I have heard the joke both with eat and ate (rhyming with bet)--depending on how the teller of the joke pronounces paracetamol. (The eat pronunciation is the one that the New Oxford Dict of Eng lists first.)

  8. Most of the people who become ill in our office in Oxford are said to be "poorly". There's yet another expression I'll NEVER start using myself, as it sounds very strange to me.

    Is that a more common expression in "this neck of the woods", I wonder?

    And BTW, I hope your husband feels better very soon!


  9. Poorly has been covered already here.

    The antibiotics seem to be working on BH, thanks!

  10. In AustE, we used to have 'swot vac' - a time off regular lessons prior to important (e.g. public) exams. So 'swotting' to me would be an Aussie alternative to 'cramming'.

  11. I'm Australian, and I've never heard 'swotting', I'd have said 'cramming'.

    Thinking about Lowell's explanation of the various trade names for... this chemical, I'm a little struck by
    Panadol: N-acetyl-para-aminophen[a][d]ol.
    It doesn't seem to me to be a very natural way of constructing a name from a chemical. I mean, with such a long list of letters, you could probably extract a lot of words, it'd make more sense to extract whole chunks, like 'para', rather than chop them up and take single letters. Also, the insertion of [a] and [d] seems a little ad hoc.

    I'd prefer to analyse panadol as being coined on the basis of pan(a)-, the Greek combining form for 'all-encompassing' (or so), plus an empty, medical-sounding syllable. Usually the second element of pharmaceutical trade names is meaningless and unanalyseable. C.f., Prozac, 'pro-' means 'good' but 'zac' is a meaningless syllable making it sound medical.
    There are heaps of others, and they go back decades. Heroin, '-in' is a common suffix for pharmaceuticals, heroin is/was the pharmaceutical (cooked up by Bayer, incidentally) that made you feel heroic. Aspirin was introduced when heroin presented an addiction problem. It is aspirational.

  12. -(d)ol seems to be a popular suffix for pills, including my favo(u)rite, Syndol--which, as I've said before, is reason in itself to move to Britain from the US. Another good one is co-codamol, which is basically what Americans call Tylenol-3.

    Could Panadol really be:


  13. cramming is, er, cramming (perhaps becoming obsolete) or swotting. "Sick" applies to vomiting: if you are "no' weel", you are "ill" (unless you are merely "below par"). If you have been injured but discharged from hospital, you remain injured but are, presumably, not ill. If you have been kept in hospital, you are ill. That is your state, although previous injury may be the explanation of it. Until recently, obituaries had two odd usages. "He died after a long illness" implied cancer. "He died suddenly" implied heart attack. Now they just announce cheerfully "he died when his penile implant exploded".

  14. I say 'poorly' or 'unwell', but occassionally will use 'sick'. I hope The Hubby is feeling better soon, and his illnes does not descend into Man Flu.

    The International Nonproprietary Name for the drug (designated by W.H.O.) is Paracetamol. The IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry nomenclature) name is used to describe the chemical compound, to show its structure. Thank goodness Joe Bloggs is not expected to reel off the IUPAC name at the chemist!

    Regarding swotting/cramming. Both are used here in NZ, but with slightly different meanings. Swotting means general revising for exams. Cramming means doing that swotting/revising at the last minute.

  15. I'm Australian and I would use revising, swotting and crammming but with different shades of meaning.

    In my mind, revising is something you can do at any time, whereas swotting suggests that you're preparing for an exam. If you're cramming, that means your swotting at 3am on the morning of the exam.

    But most of the time, I would tend to say revising.

  16. For my part, every time I hear "unwell", I can't help thinking of it as a euphemism, as in "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell". So for a second there, I was wondering just what your Better Half had been getting up to, to be "unwell" for more than a week...

    Great blog, by the way.

  17. In my eastern North Carolina dialect, we would say somebody is "feeling poorly" but we wouldn't say somebody "is poorly." I don't know if "feeling poorly" once had a meaning more specific than the general "not feeling well" meaning that I hear in it.

    "Poorly" is an adjective for me, not an adverb, in this usage. "Lovely" and "leisurely" are other "-ly" adjectives. "Badly" is an adverb and I would avoid saying "I feel badly" — "I feel bad" about something is grammatical to my ear.

  18. I'm having a Virgo-ascendant (we need order!) crisis here with people leaving comments here on words/topics that have their own posts elsewhere. Not that I'll forceably stop you, but note:

    revision is covered back here
    badly/poorly are back here

    And if your comments on related topics are here, then they will get hidden from people who are using the site as a reference work, since comments do not get searched in blog searches.

    My concerns are a little different from a typical blogger's, because this is a sort of reference work in progress as well as a conversation.


  19. Most interested in Ms Guist's forceably above, which must be AmE for BrE forcibly. I'm always puzzled by died suddenly. One surely always dies in an instant, but one's demise can be predicted or unexpected.

  20. OK Paul, you caught me spelling under the influence.

  21. I can't believe I found this post, so I just had to comment!

    Firstly, the definition of AmE and BrE??? I assume these stand for British English and American English? I hate this terminology! There is only English (Eng) and English with Bad Spelling and Grammar (EwBSaG). If the colonies are really incapable or too lazy to get it right, or you think that the language had diverged enough to warrant name separation, the please just call it "American" as it really bares no resemblance to English, the language both the Queen and I speak.

    As for the joke/pun - this is a classic joke for 5 year olds learning the language. It is great for demonstrating the complexities of English. Having lived and worked in many non-English/American speaking countries observing people using English as a second language, I have come to respect the mother-tongue command of English very much. English is very easily learned but very seldom mastered due to the subtle nuances which can alter the meaning completely. This probably explains why most of you colonials are struggling with this…

    I look forward to many clever American retorts like “So’s your face”.


  22. And this is why I shouldn't allow anonymous posts. It's too easy to be rude under cover of anonymity.

  23. Lynne, Thanks I would never have known that about acetaminophen, because I thought it was a medical term based in latin and would have never thought that it would have a different name.

    So, what about Ibuprofen? Does it have a different name? Personally acetaminophen never works for me so i take Ibuprofen.

  24. I think Brits of my generation (and generations before us) do (did) use the word bronchitis, but reserved it for severe and chronic conditions.

    My grandfather had bronchitis, so he moved south to Cornwall and always carried an inhaler.

    Incidentally, he was a pharmaceutical engineer at Boots factory. (He'd trained to work in the family drug-grinding business, only to see the whole sector disappear.) He remembered the time when only Bayer could sell stuff as aspirin. Boots and small chemists had to sell it as acetylsalicylic acid.

  25. I love that White Stripes song, but had never heard of 'acetaminophen'. I always heard 'I see the medicine', thinking it was kind of playing with the next 'You see the medicine'. Which I assume it is, but there's a whole layer I didn't even realise existed!

    Thanks for that!

  26. Another thing that probably doesn't travel well Westwards owing to the 'ate/et/ait' thing is this ditty, which I just heard recited by Gyles Brandreth on Just A Minute:
    'Twas in a restaurant they met,
    Sweet Romeo and Juliet.
    He had no cash to pay the debt,
    So Romé-owed what Julie-ate


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)