diapers, nappies and verbal inferiority complexes

I was tracking back to sites where visitors to this site have come from (as you do, if you're a nosy procrastinator like me), and was taken to the blog of an American surgeon, Orac, and his[?] post on linguistics differences, particularly in signs that he noticed on a recent trip to London. Those of you (particularly the American yous) who like signage discussions will probably enjoy it.

But there was a comment in the post that got me a bit down. Orac shows a photo of a sign for a "Baby Nappy Changer Unit" in a public toilet/restroom (which funnily uses the more Canadian washroom in the sign--it's at the Tower of London, so perhaps they're going for the most transparent term, given the tourists). About this sign, Orac says:
It sounds so much more civilized that [sic] "diaper."
And my question is why? Nappy, the modern BrE equivalent to (AmE) diaper, is a baby-talk version of napkin--though no one these days calls the things that you put on babies napkins.* So, nappy, etymologically speaking, is on a par with other baby-talk words like doggy, horsie, and choo-choo. The OED's (draft 2003 definition) first citation for it in print comes from 1927, and it's hardly complimentary of the word:
1927 W. E. COLLINSON Contemp. Eng. 7 Mothers and nurses use pseudo-infantile forms like pinny (pinafore), nappy (napkin).
Diaper, on the other hand comes from a Latin, later French, with a root meaning 'white'. The first citation for it is from the 14th century, where it refers to a type of cloth, and it has its place in Shakespeare (probably not referring to a baby's napkin in that case, but to a napkin or towel). So, why does a babyfied word sound more 'civilized' to an educated AmE speaker than a good, old latinate word? Methinks that this is a symptom of American Verbal Inferiority Complex.

AVIC strikes Americans from all walks of life. It's why my mother thinks that it's "pretty" when an Englishperson rhymes garage with carriage. It's why Americans think people with English accents are more intelligent than they are. It's why I get e-mails from Americans who despair of their fellow citizens' diction and thank me for championing the 'correct ways'. (I e-mail back and explain that I'm doing no such thing and that their reasoning on the matter is flawed. I wonder why they never send a reply...) Of course, there's a similar syndrome affecting some BrE speakers: British Verbal Superiority Complex; however, I've not found this to be quite as evenly distributed through the population as AVIC is in the US.

Now, there are times to think that some (uses of) language is(/are) better than others. One thing that Orac and commentators on his blog praise is the directness and honesty of certain signs. I don't always agree with their examples, but directness and honesty are admirable qualities in signs. (One that is pictured on the blog, but that I've never understood, is the BrE convention of putting polite notice at the top of a sign that orders people around. What's wrong with please?) Other things that make some (uses of) language arguably better than others are consistency within the system (e.g. in spelling) and avoidance of ambiguity. But these are issues about the use of the language, and both BrE and AmE can be (and often are) used in clear, consistent, direct, honest ways.

So, back to my old mantras:
  • 'Different' doesn't mean 'better' or 'worse'.
  • 'British' doesn't necessarily mean 'older' or 'original'.
  • 'Older' doesn't mean 'better' either!
  • Let's enjoy each other's dialects AND our own!

(One can be obnoxiously preachy in either dialect too.)

Happy Labor Day to the Americans out there. (I won't re-spell it Labour, since it's a name.) And I will admit my prejudice that American Monday-holidays generally have better names!

* I can't resist a few side-notes on nappy and napkin.
  • AmE uses sanitary napkin for a feminine hygiene product, while BrE uses sanitary towel.
  • Then there's the AmE meaning of nappy, which derives from the more general sense of 'having a nap'--as fabric can (BrE: can have). In AmE this also refers to the type of tightly curled hair that is (pheno)typical of people of sub-Saharan African ancestry--particularly when said hair is not very well cared for. This was the meaning in play when (orig. AmE) shock-jock Don Imus called the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos". When the news story was reported in the UK, there was some confusion (see, for example the comments here), with some people thinking that Imus was claiming that the women wore diapers or napkins on their heads (à la Aunt Jemima).
  • Then there's the old napkin versus serviette drama in BrE and related Es. In some (e.g. South African and some BrE speakers), the former is reserved for cloth table napkins, and the latter for paper. Elsewhere, serviette just marks you out as being 'non-U'--i.e. not upper class. Serviette is virtually unknown in AmE.
Postscript (8th September): Found a lovely example of AVIC (and its cure, in this case) in last week's Saturday Guardian Review section, in an article by AM Homes about American writer Grace Paley:
Grace often retold the story of how, at 19, desperate to be a poet, she took a course taught by WH Auden. When she used the word "trousers" in a poem, Auden asked why she was writing in British English - why didn't she just say "pants"? Paley explained that she thought that was just what writers did, and then never did it again.


  1. Interesting that they thought "nappy" was more civilised. In this Age of Imus, when niggardly can be misconstrued, "nappy" is a word to be avoided on this side of the pond.

  2. "British Verbal Superiority Complex"

    Ah, now I have a phrase for what my Brit friends are suffering from when some American version comes out of my mouth and they pounce on it for being "wrong". It's all in good fun, mostly, but I do get tired of it. I'll accuse them of having BVSC next time and see if I get anywhere.

    I'm enjoying Donny Osmond on BBC2's Identity. Yesterday he got all giddy when he suggested to the contestant that they "crack on" and realized that something BrE had just come out (that, and even I could pick out that Michael Fish was the TV weatherman)

  3. I'd always assumed that "polite notice" was always added in the hope that people misread it as "police notice", though I'm not sure whether that would make them more or less likely to comply with the request. Also, the problem with "please" on notices is that it makes the notice sound more formal, which in a request or instruction can often be construed as less polite.

    As another footnote, pinny for pinafore is by now easily the most common word, though the apparel has fallen largely out of use. Maybe it's my Northern upbringing, but I would avoid "pinafore" as over-formal.

    1. Polite notice was indeed printed with the aim that at a glance people would think it said police notice. Therefore more likely to conform!

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with Dan H about the (extremely annoying) form "polite notice": I too believe that you are meant to see it as "police notice" when considering, for example, the mortal sin of "turning". (As in, "polite notice, private drive, no turning")

    As for AVIC, well yes, but - and I know anecdotal exceptions don't really prove anything - how about this? My (Br) daughter, on an Anglo-American course, is requested repeatedly by a US colleague to say "water". Eventually she complies and is treated to a tirade from the said colleague on how snottily and snobbily we British speak. As a lifelong Anti-British-Superiority-wrt-Americans-ist, (if you see what I mean) I was disappointed, to say the least, to hear this. But yes, it is merely one swallow, and does not make a summer.

  5. I'm pretty sure there is a website somewhere with a collection of clearly impolite polite notices. Can't remember the URL unfortunately. Private Eye used to run an occasional item on signs that claimed some inconvenience, for example a non-functioning escalator, was for your convenience.

  6. GY, could you be thinking of PassiveAggressiveNotes.com? I haven't seen any 'polite notices' there (hard to search for them, as the words are likely to be in the images), but that's what it reminds me of...

    Searching "polite notice" and "impolite" gets a few more people who are annoyed with the turn of phrase, like this one and at the QI Talk Forum, where the 'police notice' hypothesis is also raised.

    Strawberryyog: I wouldn't be surprised if the teenagers grow out of that sense of superiority. Most of us eventually do! :) When my goddaughter came to visit, other children followed her around saying "Say 'whatever'! Say 'whatever'!" wanting her to pronounce it like a Valley Girl, and expressing their disapproval when she didn't! But still, I won't claim that AVIC is universal, just that it's extremely widespread.

    Another odd occurrence during our trip to the US: Americans talking to Better Half, trying to mimic his accent (but insisting that they weren't trying--that it was just that they were naturally good at picking up accents and didn't realise that they were doing it). They were universally terrible at doing a British accent, unfortunately. (I wonder if they're reading! They've probably heard it from me before...)

  7. Just reali{s/z}ed that Strawberryyog doesn't say that her daughter is a teenager, and she may likely be older (if she's taking an Anglo-American course). So, we've got someone with ASIC? Possible. There's the common mis-perception in both cultures that "everyone has an accent but me", and verbal superiority complexes are usually the standard in American culture. (E.g. Southerners thinking Northerners sound terrible, Northerners thinking Southerners sound terrible) The reason why AVIC is so notable is because it bucks that general trend.

  8. I was cured of British Superiority Complex when I discovered “burglarize” is older than “burgle”. (Of course I still suffer from Irish Superiority Complex.)

    “Polite notice” is something I’ve noticed only in the last few years, though this may be what languagelog calls the “recency illusion”. I don’t believe it appears on official, standardized, or mass-produced signs. I like to imagine that some private citizen, small trader, or minor assistant subofficer, wrote a sign on their own initiative to counter or forestall some irritating public behaviour; and, wary of seeming arrogant or surly, sought some wording to reduce the rudeness of the sign without reducing its imperative force. “Polite notice” is something of a contradiction in terms, like a Mafioso saying “I’m asking you nicely”, but I grudgingly admit it does its job (again, like the Mafioso).

  9. Interestingly, the verbal complex equivalents equally seem to affect both speakers of European and Latin-American Spanish and speakers of European and Brazilian Portuguese. *sigh*

  10. I find it interesting that Dan H finds adding "Please" to something makes it seem more formal.
    I don't find this to be the case at all...is this becasue please is used more frequently over here? We don't have things (generally) that say "Polite Notice" over here, and Please is almost always used in signage...
    But is that all there is to it? Or is Please just seen as a more formal word?

  11. Interesting that Orac finds nappy more civilised than diaper. I'm British and live in the US, and I would have said it's the other way around (it's just the way the words strike me, nothing to do with any inferiority/superiority complex - I hope). I wonder if he finds "dummy" more civilised than "pacifier"?

    1. I actually find diaper, to be more preferable than nappy. & I like pacifier as opposed to dummy. I don't know why, but I just think they are nicer sounding words

  12. I don't know about "dummy" be more civilized than "pacifier", but it's definitely more ambiguous. There are at least two other common meanings for "dummy": stupid person or ventriloquist's doll. The only other meaning for "pacifier" that I know of is "thing that pacifies", which doesn't come up too often in real life.

  13. My guess is the reason "nappy" would sound 'more civilized' than "diaper" -- or vice versa -- is because of its unfamiliarity when describing an unpleasant subject. You say that word to anyone who's ever changed one and a distressingly vivid image arises, whereas saying the other word makes the listener focus on its foreignness rather than its meaning. It's the same reason "contusion" sounds less painful than "bruise."

  14. I grew up between Am/E and Can/E. I remember seeing 'serviette' on napkins, (both mouth wiping and 'feminine products') but that might just have been the French on all Canadian packaging. Menstrual supplies are usually referred to as pads, out in this western part of the US these days.

    I was amused at the signs in Massachusetts, "Police Take Notice" usually regarding loitering or littering, but it always struck me as cops stealing, say, notice signs.

  15. Just for the sake of completeness: yes, the people involved were teenagers on a very splendid Anglo-American music course, http://www.youthmusicinternational.com/ . This year it was in Oxford (or is that perhaps Oxford, England?) and next it is in San Francisco. That particular daughter is 16 and the young lady who so objected to the way BrE speakers say "water" is probably 18-20ish (no-one there is older than 23). So yes, you are right, it is undoubtedly grow-out-able-of. I was just surprised, having not encountered that sort of hostility before. I should add, hastily, that Martha enjoyed *every* other aspect of the course, has made many good friends from both sides of the Atlantic, and will be off over there like a shot next year if invited.

    On the subject of bad impersonations of accents, one of the funniest evenings we had recently was spent driving home with a young friend from Manhattan, KS. We had just been to see "Chicago" and a discussion of UK actors doing American accents led to us all trying to do one and the American in the car kindly reciprocating by inviting us to take crumpets on the lawn, or whatever. All I can say is that it is harder than I thought, and laughing too much makes your jaw ache. More tea, vicar? :)

  16. Speaking of fake accents, I can't resist mentioning a dream I had recently. The BBC had remade the 1960s American TV show Batman. It was just as campy, but now the actors for Batman and Robin were English but spoke in American accents. But as usual their accents weren't perfect, and occasionally their middle-class English accents would poke through, which was doubly campy.

    Possibly the best idea I've ever had.

  17. In keeping with the recent posts about impersonating accents...there are a few Brits who always do flawless American accents. With most British actors you can tell that there is another accent underneath. Christian Bale is a good example of this I think. A lot of times, they go for a "stylized" accent like Ewan MacGregor's in Big Fish or Bob Hoskins' and Mark Addy's New Yorkish accent. The best American accent I have found is Helena Bonham Carter. Hugh Laurie is excellent as well.

    Some of the ease of Brits doing an American accent may stem from the fact that there are actually Americans who speak in the same "overdone" accents that are most often mimicked (sp?) Whereas I think that there are few Brits who actually sound as outlandish as the Americans often sound.

  18. Anonymous, is your 'outlandish' a symptom of AVIC or BSVC?

  19. Gee, I feel better. I always thought "nappy" was daft, but didn't want to come off as an american chauvinist.

  20. Lynne,
    Not sure really...
    but by outlandish I really meant "Blatantly bad"

    One question is, do American's generally do GOOD British accents, but fail at the more specific things such as having a spot on accent for South London but saying you are from somewhere else or something like that?

    Or is it when accents are bad, they are just really bad?

  21. Sorry, Anon, I think I misunderstood you. Were you saying that British people doing AmE accents were not as bad at doing them as Americans were at doing BrE accents? I first read it as you saying that some Americans have AmE accents that are outlandish...

    1. There are hundreds of British accents, not just one.

  22. If one reads about American art and architecture, you'll find there was a sort of inferiority complex well into the 20th Century - with the notion that the Europeans have all the culture and class (having been around longer). So it doesn't surprise me that there might be an American inferiority complex in regards to language too..

    Also, I was recently looking for some Ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation resources online and a couple times I came accross English pronunciation tips for choral singing - both of them refer to the "American 'R'" as being a problem that needs to be eradicated when singing, and advocated that consonants be pronounced in a more British sort of way.

  23. Well up here in Scotland (albeit in Scots rather than in ScE) we have another, rather more pleasant meaning for the word nappy. You can find it here:
    and also in use here, in Robert Burns's famous poem Tam O'Shanter (in the first stanza)

    Nappy, ladies and gentlemen, is none other than guid Scots ale.

    1. Scottish people do not pronounce R in murder. It is mudder.

  24. zhoen - No, "serviette" is Canadian English, not Canadian French. In Canadian French "serviette" usually means "towel", although you can say "serviette de table". If I just asked my in-laws for a "serviette" I'm sure they would hand me a towel.

  25. Lynne said
    "Sorry, Anon, I think I misunderstood you. Were you saying that British people doing AmE accents were not as bad at doing them as Americans were at doing BrE accents?"

    I was saying that (at least from what is constantly said about how bad Americans are at faking a British accents) Brits are more successful because even if they do an "over the top" American accent, the odds are that there are quite a few Americans who actually talk like that.
    But the question I had that followed was about why Americans apparently do such bad accents. Is it just that the accent sounds completely fake? Or is it more like doing a London accent when the character is supposed to be Welsh?

  26. The British are exposed to American accents far more than Americans are exposed to British ones.

    But it's also a matter of perspective. I had a South African colleague who did devastating impersonations of people from various backgrounds, but whenever he did Americans, I could tell the ways in which he was a little 'off'. I suspect that means that none of his impersonations was exactly perfect, but that I was more sensitive to the problems in the accents I knew better or identified more strongly with.

  27. It seems to me that American actors can do certain kinds of Br. English accent more than competently - upper class southern in particular (Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma, let's say, or Renee Zellweger's Bridget Jones). Others, however, are often gruesome/comic. I still giggle every time Juliet Landau opens her mouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and tries to sound like a working class Londoner (I think hers is the worst British accent in Buffy, and there's some strong competition). But perhaps the most memorable recently was the scene in Firefly where a British actor with a genuine London accent was supposed to be conned by one of the main cast pretending to be his compatriot. Her accent was dire and the contrast with the real thing just heightened the comedy. (I'm inclined to think Joss Whedon did it on purpose as an in-joke for British audiences.) Has *anyone* ever heard an American doing Cockney plausibly?

    See also: Welsh (How Green was my Valley, dear sweet lord), Oirish (Angel!), etc.

  28. Sharon,
    I know the show Firefly really well, so I assume that you are talking about the River/Badger scene...
    My question is, what was so wrong with her accent? What parts of it were wrong? Was it the inflection? Were the vowels not round enough? Or too round? Or what? (Please not that I am not trying to say that she had it right or even that it was good.) I am just wondering what about her (and Juliet Landau's for that matter or any bad accent really) accent was wrong.

    I guess my question is what is done so wrong that makes it a "Bad Accent"?

  29. Re: pinafore, "pinny" is used in American English to refer to a garment tied on by girls over a gym suit to indicate which team one is on. (Boys usually did "shirts vs. skins"). I believe that what BrE calls a "pinafore" is what AmE calls a "jumper," i.e. a sleeveless dress worn over a blouse.

  30. Yes, those terms are discussed in another post here: click to see.

  31. Until the whole Imus thing, I had never heard 'nappy' used in the sense that he used it. Likewise, I may have heard 'nappy' used in the BrE sense to mean 'diaper', but it never stuck in my mind.

    I have, however, heard it used, usually in the plural, to mean an actual nap, as in, a small sleep, when speaking to small children. IE, "Time for nappies!"

  32. My introduction to the "napkin"/"serviette" distinction was confusing and fraught with a peculiarly British subtext which, as an American, I've yet to decipher.

    It happened while I was accompanying my friend on a trip to England, during which we visited a great many members of her family. Now, this family is very definitely "U" but, as I already knew from having met them during their trips to the U.S., various branches and generations within the family dealt with their class status in different and distinctive ways.

    The eldest among them seemed stereotypically "U." On his visit to my midsized Western-U.S. city, one elder patriarch confounded a grocery-store employee by wearing knee-length breeches while trying to purchase "two hundred cigarettes." This represented such an arithmetical problem for the store clerk that I was forced to clarify it as "a carton"--which, I assume, seemed similar enough to a correction that my British gentleman registered offense, though I was never sure whether it was on behalf of himself or the clerk.

    The youngest generation adopted working-class speech and habits, which seemed an agreeable affectation until I realized that they hadn't discarded class signifiers at all, but had merely disguised them. This only served to create an intricate network of hidden social pitfalls to which I was always susceptible.

    It was the middle generation, though, that really confused me. They didn't casually condescend as did the older generation; neither did they play subliminal headgames like the younger generation. They felt free to openly correct and criticize me--and, although I'm sure they meant to be helpful, I was never sure whether their aim was to educate me in their ways or to keep me from embarrassing myself by putting on airs above my station.

    On the trip to England, we were at Gatwick airport waiting for a flight; they were having tea and I was having some crazy sweetened coffee beverage. I casually announced my intention to get a napkin so I could manage the froth--and suddenly, they made such a big deal of the fact that I mustn't call it a "napkin" but a "serviette," that I realized it was more than a simple American/British dialect issue akin to "truck"/"lorrie," "flashlight"/"torch," etc. But they refused to explain it.

    I never figured it out. Obviously it had to do with "U" vs. "non-U" connotations of "napkin" vs. "serviette." And they obviously placed a high importance on this distinction. (For my part, it had never occurred to me that an English speaker would seriously use the term "serviette"--it seemed Frenchified and pretentious.)

    But was it that they, as a generation, had rejected "U" words such as "napkin" which were used by their parents? Or were they uncomfortable using the word "napkin" in mixed-class public facilities like airports?

    Or was it only that my use, as a working-class American, of a "U" word like "napkin" made them squeamish because it made me seem like an unbearable social climber?

    I've never been able to figure this out.

    1. I can appreciate your confusion. Any UK citizen correcting "napkin" to "serviette" obviously doesn't understand the class system. "Serviette" is clearly French and, as such, is obviously unacceptable to a civilised English person, especially one who voted for leaving the EU in our glorious referendum.

    2. So far as I can see, it is perfect English. What's wrong with it? Irish English is often far more poetic than English English, but that doesn't make it imperfect.

    3. I personally say napkin,I don't think I have ever used, serviett other than working as a waiter in a 5 star setting

  33. Some people make a distinction between paper napkins--esp. the kind you'd get at a fast food place--and 'proper' napkins, calling the former 'serviettes'.

  34. Re: Polite notice

    Many years ago you used to get "Police Notices" telling you things, can't think exactly what off-hand - maybe No Parking here. "Polite Notice" was used when it was not being issued by the police, but the authors hoped you would think it was.....

  35. In Russian 'polite request' (убедительная просьба, ubeditelnaya prosba) is used in both spoken announcements and printed signs. I've never seen 'polite request' in Ireland. I think the whole area of signage is fascinating: I don't know what goes through people's heads when they make signs but I suspect it is not the same as when they speak or write other texts. How else could you explain "First-Rate Gates You Will Find No Cheaper" (Co. Galway, Ireland)? As my grandmother said, "it's not perfect English, but it's hard to fault it".

  36. My wife, a native Russian speaker, would translate убедительная просьба as 'a humble request' — a phrase she would associate with begging letters.

    I've always assumed that POLITE NOTICE was used exclusively as a deception. I first spotted it when I was a small boy over sixty years ago. If it really is now being used seriously, I can't help feeling that it's a copy of the practice of those bogus police notices.

  37. Thanks for the insight David! The adjective ubeditel'niy could well be translated as "humble", but an even more literal option would be "persuasive", as ubedit' means "persuade".

    You could be right about the police/polite notice deception. That would explain why we don't have them in Ireland: we call our police gardaí.

  38. I believe that, in actual fact, diaper originally meant a pattern and then became linked with a patterned material. The French word diaspre meant patterned cloth. The Latin diasprum and Greek diaspros does seem to be a link too, certainly - hence the white. I think the point of diapering was that it took a plain item and made it look nicer.

    Nappy actually came from nap, a 15th century word for a downy cloth. The -y suffix would indicate it is akin to nap - nappy! However, there is also a link to napkin, of course - for example, we say nappy rash in Britain, but ointments often say they are for napkin rash.

  39. Nap still refers to the raised pile on fabrics like velvet and corduroy.

    The actor in question from Firefly is Mark Sheppard (I looked this up) who does a credible American accent in a couple episodes of Dr. Who, "The Impossible Astronaut" and "Day of the Moon" -- he sounded a bit off, but not so much so that I didn't just put it down to him being a mid-Atlantic states East-Coaster since they talk a bit differently back on the eastern seaboard than we do out here in the plains states. It was only later when I saw and recognized him in a few episodes of Warehouse 13 that I realized he was actually English.

    John Barrowman, having split his growing up between Scotland and America, can switch accents whenever needed. When I first heard him I could tell his was somewhere east of where I live, but not that far east -- certainly not the East Coast. Somewhere in the Midwest -- Ohio? Indiana? I finally looked him up and it's Illinois, definitely solidly in the American Midwest, next door to Indiana.

    How have we left out Vivien Leigh, who was English, but did such a lovely Southern accent as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind"? It may not sound right to someone from Atlanta, but it was good for the rest of us from outside the Deep South.

  40. And to this we now must add Benedict Cumberbatch who did an impeccable American accent in "Dr. Strange". I saw him interviewed (can't remember where) and he said that some sounds were much harder to do than others; there were a few pronunciations that gave him quite a bit of trouble to get right. You'd never know it, he did an amazing job.

  41. Ok, if you are not going to print my comments, I won't bother with you anymore.

    1. My priorities:
      1. parent my child
      2. do the jobs I'm paid for
      3. vet the comments on old posts on blogger, trudging through the dozens of spam ones to find the legit ones.

      Sometimes it takes a while to get to 3, because it's not part of 1 or 2. But I will, in the end, bother.

    2. (Since May, Blogger has not informed bloggers by email when new comments come in, so the process has got(ten) slower, unfortunately.)

  42. Good old Latin. Sure... It's because of posh gimps that look to classical tongues that English is full of unhomely words that sound outlandish to the ear. Head borough or under borough are better than capital and suburb. It's time English went back to its roots 'Germanic roots' instead of continuing to put classical tongues over English words. Bookhouse instead of library, Ingang and outgang instead of entrance and exit. Eftnewing rather than renewing, infleshness instead of reincarnation.

  43. Br.E. , and fascinated by the growing number of commenters, like myself, re-visiting older posts.

    @Darkstar and others: the nap iof the cloth is very important to a snooker player.

    @Unknown. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume you are attempting humour. I presume you know that borough has solid “Germanic” roots, while suburb (and I think also capital) are from Latin.


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