accent deafness

In addition to celebrating her half-birthday, Grover started (BrE) crèche/(AmE) daycare last week. It's the campus crèche, and it's really great, for many reasons. For one, it has a very gentle acclimation process--after three sessions, Grover is only up to 40-minute stays. For another, each baby is assigned a primary carer. We were assigned to E, and since the parent doesn't leave at all for the first session, E and I spent a lot of time discussing Grover's habits and her likes and dislikes.

When I got home that night, I told Better Half all about our day, and he was particularly amused by one part of the story: E and I had been talking for about an hour before she and I reali{s/z}ed that we were both American. BH is constantly bemused by my accent-deafness and will quiz me after any brief conversations with strangers who have an accent of the British Isles that's not the local accent. I've usually been paying no attention to the accent and have to take a wild guess. Now he's started saying "What was {his/her} accent?" after we pass people in the street who are American. (Even if I haven't been listening, I guess 'American' because that's all he's asking me about now. He never expects anything more specific than 'American', happily.)

My excuse for missing E's accent is that she's from New York State too, and when I am talking to someone with the same accent as me, I tend not to cotton on to the fact that they have an accent. It's that old "I don't have an accent, everyone else does" syndrome, that's so faulty, but so easily slipped into. (The only problem with this theory is that she's not from the same part of the state as me, and so once I knew where she was from, I started to notice some differences in our vowels. I suppose I could use the excuse "I was too worried about the fate of my firstborn to pay attention to accents.")

I do notice American accents that aren't as similar to mine--particularly midwestern and southern ones spoken by tourists. Or loud exchange students from any part of the country--and most of them are loud (and plenty of tourists are too). They haven't learn{ed/t} to lower their volume when outside the States, and they seem to think of their conversations on trains and in restaurants as performances that anyone should be able to have a seat for. I think this has a lot to do with different senses of 'privacy' in the different countries--loud-talking Americans may be hoping that you'll join them in the conversation. But you know what? That's fodder for a separate blog post.

So, I often miss accents. I rarely pay any attention to the sounds of others' speech--I skip straight to the words and meaning. Is it any surprise that I became a lexical semanticist rather than a phonetician?

Of course, it's possible that it's not just me--maybe accent deafness is an American condition. We're fairly sensitive to some differences within America--e.g. north v(s). south--but the British are very sensitive to ways of speaking due in part to the connection between accent and social class. Some evidence in favo(u)r of American Accent Deafness: sometimes American tourists don't seem to reali{s/z}e that I'm American--for instance when they stop me on the street for directions or start up a conversation in a (chiefly BrE) queue. And I've also had the experience of Americans in the US thinking I'm British just because I have an address in England. While my accent has changed a bit since moving here, it's still very definitely American. (Maybe they just don't know a lot about British accents--but I don't have that excuse.)

I should be clear here, the 'deafness' is more like inattention. I can hear the difference between accent A and accent B--I just have to think fairly consciously about them to do so.

So, are there more tales out there like that of E and me? And is it an American thing?
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peek-a-boo, beebo

The special vocabulary that adults use in talking to babies has the potential to be very family-specific. After all, you're talking to a baby, who can't talk back (yet) and who's getting little other language input outside the family, so why not just make things up? We've got a number of 'inside jokes' that we use with Grover. For example, despite her lady-like appearances, Grover is a very farty baby. We started out saying poot poot when we heard the reports from down south. Then we'd say Are you pootin'? And this has turned into Is that you, Vladimir? So now, Vladimir = farty baby. And then there's the fact that we say knickerschnitz whenever Grover sneezes, which goes back to my brothers convincing (well, almost) my sister-in-law that this is what the English say instead of Gesundheit (which is, in fact, more popular in the US than in the UK).

But at the same time, babytalk is remarkably widespread within a culture--though the ocean often gets in the way of a generic, international babytalk. When talking to babies, we call cats kitties and wounds (orig. AmE) boo-boos. There's (BrE) bicky for (BrE) biscuit and (chiefly AmE) choo-choo for a train. And so on and so forth.

So, when I hear Better Half or his family using new-to-me babytalk, I'm never sure if it's something that's part of their 'family-lect' or more generally part of BrE. Since there may be a natural tendency to view one's in-laws as strange ('they're a family, but they don't do thing the way my family does!'), I tend to assume that their babytalk is 'theirs' until I hear someone else use it. Such was the case with (BrE) windy-pops, which came up in the comments back here. Now, I've found another case.

When I play the game Peek-a-boo with a baby, I hide my face, then show it suddenly and say Peek-a-boo! in a sing-song voice. Sometimes I vary it and say "Here I am!" or "There you are!", which follow the same three-syllable tune. And that's the only way that I've known the game.

But when BH's mother plays it, she says Beebo! I make a mental note to say peek-a-boo twice as much later, to reassert my influence (Jealous? Moi?), and put it down to her own creativity. Then I heard BH's sister say it, and I figured that she learned it from her mother. But then...we had a picnic in hono(u)r of Grover's half-birthday with other parents and babies, and I heard another mother say Peebo! So, yet another occasion on which I learn with disappointment (but, alas, not surprise) that I'm the strange one, not my in-laws.

The Wikipedia entry on peek(-)a(-)boo mentions nothing about alternative
exclamations, but the OED mentions peep-bo and bo-peep. I've also found this line from a London blogger, indicating that the variation in interjections is well known in these parts:
We've been playing beebo, peepo, peekaboo, whatever you want to call it for months.
So, am I right in thinking that most Americans stick to peek-a-boo? Are there other alternatives?

And is Better Half the only person who calls hands pandies or is that general BrE babytalk? (AmE snowclone): Enquiring babies want to know!
I know this derives from the nursery rhyme Handy Pandy, but I'm wondering about pandy on its own.
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carts and trolleys

This entry is inspired by a BBC News headline about a court case regarding a tragic event here in Brighton:

Reversing dustcart 'caused death'

The headline left me with a touch of cognitive dissonance, since in AmE carts tend to be small, relatively powerless things--like the cart that a donkey might pull or a go-cart. And dust, well, is dust. It wouldn't need a large vehicle, would it? But, of course, a (BrE) dustcart (which is staffed by dustmen) is what Americans would call a garbage truck (staffed by garbage men--though, of course, in both countries I'm sure that their official job titles are suitably euphemistic). In the BBC News article, they also refer to the vehicle as a refuse lorry (=AmE truck--kind of...but that's another post for another time).

So, it left me thinking of other kinds of carts. Like (AmE) shopping carts, which in BrE are shopping trolleys. Which made me think of other trolleys, like (BrE) tea trolleys or serving trolleys, which in AmE would be tea carts or serving carts. Which made me think of the announcement one hears at the (BrE) railway station/(orig. AmE) train station: "A trolley service of soft drinks and light refreshments will be available on this train." One usually has to go to the café car on an American train to buy refreshments, but if they did come around with refreshments-on-wheels, it would not be called a trolley service. In fact, the only AmE use of trolley that I can think of is one that the OED marks as AmE: "an electric car driven by means of a trolley", the latter trolley being a kind of pulley system. In the US these might also be called (as in San Francisco) cable cars. [See comments for correction of my understanding of the pulley system involved!] In the UK, such things are generally called trams--a term which no longer implies the use of a pulley system. The trams found in the UK would be called streetcars in many dialects of AmE. The OED marks an AmE sense of tramway, referring to the cables on which suspended cars travel--but I can't claim any first-hand knowledge of that sense.

Photos from image-searching dustcart and tea trolley. For a past post on (BrE) rubbish/(AmE) garbage collection, see this one.
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on the highway/motorway

Regular reader JHM sent me a link to this article from a Washington Monthly blog, in which an American complains about British (and European, more generally) road signs:
And as long as I'm venting a bit here, what is it with Europeans and compass points? Their road signs tend to be gloriously well designed and easy to decipher, but they never include the words north, south, east, or west. So when you get to a crossroad, all the sign tells you is that one direction takes you to, say, Chard, and the other direction takes you to Axminster. Unless you've memorized the map, or happen to be a local who doesn't really need the sign in the first place, you don't know which direction to go. (If you're lucky, one of the cities on the sign is the one you want to go to, which makes things easy. Usually it's not.) But although I might not know every town and village in the area, I always know from a quick look at a map which general direction I want to go. So why not add the words north and south here? Some sort of EU-wide directive to banish directional notation, or what?
JHM writes to ask:
Does the linked article ring true to you? If it is true that road signs tend not to indicate compass direction, I find this very odd indeed (even though (in New England at least) six or seven times out of ten the posted compass direction has a very low correlation to an actual compass point).
JHM often writes to ask if things that he's read about Britain ring true for me, and I think I always say "yes, it's ringing". I suppose that illustrates the extent to which we get so accustomed to things being one way that we never imagine them being another way. In this case, I have to say "yes, it rings true, but..."

When I lived in South Africa (and had a car), I don't remember ever seeing a sign on a (BrE) motorway/(AmE) highway* with a direction on it. This got me lost in the (AmE) boondocks when I needed to get from a rural hotel in the Northern Province to Swaziland. None of the signs said which way was north or east, and none indicated how to get to the major towns in the province (or to the border). Instead, at each (chiefly AmE) intersection there were signs pointing toward(s) the next town on the road. One thus needed to know every single town along one's route in order to make sense of the signs. I imagine GPS is very useful there these days.

While I don't drive in the UK, on occasions I'm a passenger for a longish car journey (Americans would usually say trip, but that tends to be reserved for shorter journeys in BrE). Initially, I was only travel(l)ing for southeastern Scrabble league matches, and thus only experienced the A-roads (trunk roads), which are so-called because they are designated by A + a number, e.g. the A27. (There are also B-roads, which are more local.) A-roads are roughly comparable to state routes, like New York State Route 31, which goes through my hometown.** But unlike the US roads, the British roads are not called by different names depending on the direction you're driving in. So, if I give you directions out of my town, I'll talk about 31 East or 31 West . A friend of our family lives on a different route, just outside the village, and her address is "[house number] Route 88 South, Newark, NY", meaning she lives on the stretch of Route 88 that lies south of Newark. (Before you think "hey, I've been to Lynneguist's hometown, note that it's not the Newark that has the big airport you've been to. That one, despite its pretensions, is not in the state of New York. My hometown doesn't have a travel agency, let alone an airport. It has apple orchards. And cows.)

In Britain, people don't talk about "the A27 West" (though Google the phrase, and you'll think me a liar; but really, no one says it! At least not with the same name-like intonation that one says "Route 31 West"). When you join the A27, the sign will tell you about upcoming towns, not whether you're going east or west. If you're on that road driving east from Portsmouth, you have to get past Chichester before you start seeing signs for Brighton, if I remember correctly. So, if you want to get from Portsmouth to Brighton, you'd better know that Chichester is on the way. You need to constantly make decisions about which town to head toward on roads like the A27, since for the most part, they are not limited-access roads with on-ramps and off-ramps. They have roundabouts (often called traffic circles in the US, but rarely seen there--though I believe New Hampshire has quite a few). Lots of them. The signs on the roundabout exits will indicate the number of the routes and some number of upcoming towns/landmarks, as in the picture below.

So far, so much like my South African experience. But then I graduated from southeastern Scrabble events to national ones, and got to be a passenger on the M-roads, the national motorways--which are more comparable to American Interstate highways. M-roads are dual-carriageways with limited access--ramps rather than roundabouts--and they tend to be used for longer journeys. When one approaches an M-road, one may see compass point names on it--except that they're not really describing the direction of the route, they're describing the destination. That is, instead of saying, for instance "M3 North", they say "The NORTH", along with whatever cities you might get to along the way. (So, in the sign here, it's not saying that Nottingham is in 'The North' so much as it's saying that this road goes to The North, and it goes to Nottingham too.) What's interesting in this picture are the (N) and (S) in parentheses/brackets after M42. You see this in places where you need to take different routes to different entrances to a motorway. Once you're on the M42 going south, there will be no signs along the way that say M42(S), whereas in the US, signs telling you what route you're on and what direction you're going in are planted regularly along the right side of the road. The reason why (M6) in this photo is in parentheses/brackets after M42(S) is to indicate that this roundabout is not taking you to the M6 but to the M42 which takes you to the M6 , which will get you to 'The S. WEST'.

Incidentally, in England people talk about the East (meaning the east of England, not 'the Orient') a lot less than the other directions. There are two reasons for this, I think. (1) There's a lot more West than East here--in that the island juts out, particularly in the Southwest. (2) London is treated (rightly or wrongly, depending on where you live) as the hub of the universe (sorry, Boston), and it's fairly eastward. So, striking out from London, there's very little to the East. Well, there's Essex (Americans: that's where Jamie Oliver is from. English folk: make it a new joke if you're going to make it). So, while you hear/see the North, the South and the West, and the Northeast/west and Southeast/west, you rarely hear about the East.

Back to the American side... as JHM notes, the directions on particular routes may bear little resemblance to the compass direction when you're on the road. Routes are not perfectly straight lines, and non-Interstate routes can involve a number of different roads that add up to a route in the right direction. For instance, if you look at the map for US Route 20, you'll see that, in spite of its status as an east-west coast-to-coast route, there's a bit in Idaho that runs north-south. Still, we'd instruct people in Idaho to take Route 20 West if they want to get to Oregon, because 20 West is, in essence, its name.

Rather than designating the different types of route by letter, American route types are distinguished by the shapes of the shields on their signs (images/links courtesy of Wikipedia):

Interstate Highways
U.S. Routes
State Routes
And within states there may be other kinds of route. There are systems to the numbering of the routes in both the US and Great Britain, but I won't go into those here, since they're not very language-y. So, if you're interested, see here for the US Routes and Interstate system and here for Great Britain.

Side notes:
* Highway is probably the most dialect-neutral term in the US, and can apply to various types of routes--the key is that there's no stopping and starting on a highway. On the west coast, one tends to hear freeway. For limited-access roads in/around cities, I'd say expressway. Major toll roads, run by individual states, have their own names. In New York, it's the Thruway. Several other states have turnpikes, which is sometimes shortened to pike, as in the Mass Pike--that is, the Massachusetts Turnpike.

** Two things to know about AmE regionalisms when it comes to routes:
  1. Some Americans say route like root, others say it like rout. I grew up with the former, but the latter sometimes creeps into my speech because of other places I've lived. These dialect survey maps indicate that the 'rout' pronunciation is more common in the South and Midwest. In a forum on Canadian English, someone named Kirk says:

    About "route," I use both pronunciations of the word depending on context. For instance, I've never heard anyone say "rowt 66"'s always "root 66" for "route 66." So, if I see an official route as in a state route I definitely pronounce it "root." When I was younger I had a paper route and I almost always pronounced it "rowt" in that context. In other, general usages of the word, I use "root" and "rowt" pretty interchangeably.
    My pattern and Kirk's pattern are the same. I grew up saying 'paper root', but now tend to say 'paper rout'.

  2. Southern Californians (and perhaps others) prefix route numbers with the, but Northeasterners like me don't. So, I'd say Take (Route) 5 but an Angeleno would say Take the 5.
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Last time I maintained that one gets fewer compliments in the UK than in the US. But if you're wanting more compliments in the UK (or anywhere, probably), I have a simple solution. Have a baby.

Not only will you get compliments (well, your baby will, but you're the one who will be expected to reply), they'll probably involve adjectives other than nice and good. And sometimes, they'll even involve BrE-specific adjectives, as happened tonight. Grover and I were watching cars in front of our house this evening, when a sixty-ish man (unknown to us) walked by and said, "Bonny baby!"

He sounded like a local southeastern man (from what one could tell from two words), but bonny is a word that conjures up Scotland. Here's what the OED says:

1. Pleasing to the sight, comely, beautiful, expressing homely beauty. Now in common use only in Scotland and north or midland counties of England; occasionally employed, with local or lyrical effect, by English writers, but not a word of ordinary English prose.

So, not only do babies elicit compliments, they elicit lyricism! (Or at least particularly gorgeous babies like Grover do.)

Fig. 1
Bonny baby
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compliments, nice and lovely

My first out-of-North-America experience was when I moved to South Africa at the age of 27, in order to take up a post at a large, English-medium university there. I'd been teaching for three years at my (AmE) graduate school by that time, and my teaching in South Africa was going fairly well, but a vague anxiety plagued me (as well as the not-so-vague anxieties that went with living in the city that had the highest murder, rape and [orig. AmE] carjacking rates in the world at that time). Although I was teaching my heart out, I had the feeling that my students weren't too impressed by me or my teaching. But after the term, when I read their teaching evaluation forms, I found that they rated me very highly. It was then that I worked out what had made me anxious: I missed receiving nearly constant compliments from my students.

Now, when I was teaching in the US, I was barely aware of the fact that I was being complimented. It would have been things like a student saying that he liked the course more than he thought he would, or another noticing that I'd had a haircut and saying something positive about it, or another expressing an enthusiastic appreciation of my kindness in lending her a book. In South Africa, my (mostly white, English-background--this was right after the downfall of apartheid) students were, for the most part, polite and committed to their course, but they showed little interest in me as a person. Of course, that wasn't a problem. The problem was that as an American, I was used to near-constant positive reinforcement from students, colleagues, friends, strangers...just about everyone. Once I reali{s/z}ed that the problem wasn't my teaching or my relationship with my students, but my expectations about them, that particular anxiety abated.

That aspect of living in South Africa was good general training for being an American abroad, as if you're outside the US, you'll probably have to get used to a less compliment-driven culture--and to outsiders' estimations of American compliment behavio(u)r.

One frequently comes across the notion that Americans are insincere--after all, they couldn't possibly be that enthusiastic about everything, could they? But the problem with such reasoning is that it comes from a different starting place than the behavio(u)r it judges. OK, sure, the waiter who is depending on you for a tip may be insincere in his compliments, but the friend-of-a-friend you've just been introduced to or the business contact you're meeting probably isn't. It is in Americans' nature to subconsciously look for points of connection with anyone they meet because mainstream American culture is solidarity-based (see Brown & Levinson 1987). This is to say that communication is based on the goal of creating a sense of equality and belonging. This, in turn, is due--paradoxically--to the facts that American culture rests on a belief in the primacy of the individual (rather than the group) and that it is achievement-oriented, rather than ascription-oriented--i.e. it's about what one does rather than what one is (we saw this recently in the discussion of social class). The individualism means that we can't just rely on the knowledge that we belong, we have to be reassured of it fairly regularly. In the words of Stewart and Bennett (1991: 139):
By defining people according to achievement, Americans can fragment their own personalities or those of other people. They do not have to accept others in their totality [...]; they may disapprove of the politics, hobbies, or personal life of associates and yet still work with them effectively. It is this trait of seeing others as fragmented, combined with the desire to achieve, that provides Americans with the motivation to cooperate.
In other words, I don't have to approve of you in order to compliment you, I just have to find a fragment of you that I can approve of in order to develop a relationship of some sort with you. One can see why this might be taken as insincerity in some quarters, but if I tell you I like your shoes and that you play the tuba well, it's almost certainly the case that I really do like your shoes and think you're tuba-tastic. So, it's a sincere attempt on my part to cement our relationship with shared values--at least as far as shoes and brass instruments are concerned.

If compliments are positive things that bring people together, why isn't everyone in the world complimenting so much? One reason is that they might not need to. If your social position is more stable, if you don't start new relationships all that often, then you might be able to take for granted the good things and commonalities in your relationships. Another reason could be that compliments are more costly in the interactional economy of other cultures. For example, in some cultures (I can never remember which ones!), if you compliment someone on their hat, they will insist that you have it. In that kind of culture, you'd not be appreciated for complimenting people on their things willy-nilly, and so compliments are more scarce. Similarly, in a culture in which praising oneself is taboo, compliments will be given more carefully, since to accept a compliment is to praise yourself. When I told my friend the Blinder that I was going to write about compliments, she said "you must write about the English inability to accept compliments". I'll let Kate Fox (2004: 408) start us off:
The English are no more naturally self-effacing than other nations, but [...] we have strict rules about the appearance of modesty, including prohibitions on boasting and any form of self-importance, and rules actively prescribing self-deprecation and self-mockery. We place a high value on modesty, we aspire to modesty.
If someone compliments you and you accept it by saying thank you, you are implicitly agreeing with the compliment and therefore breaking the 'modesty rule'. Thus, if you compliment an English person on how well she did something, she's likely to claim that anyone could have done it or to point out the bits she could have done better. As Fox notes, the self-deprecation is often ironic and humorous. Still, the fact that the modesty rule is stronger in the UK than in the US makes a compliment more 'costly'. The other reason that compliments aren't quite as free-flowing in the UK is that the culture here is traditionally deference-based (preserving hierarchies and differences between people--viz. the class system; maintaining a sense of personal privacy), although it has been shifting toward solidarity over the past century. Thus, members of the mainstream British culture are not so reliant on the approval of others as Americans are.

Now, the reason I started wanting to write about compliment behavio(u)r was because I had read the following in George Mikes' How to be an Alien (1946:31), the seminal book on being foreign in England:
If you live here long enough you will find out to your greatest amazement that the adjective nice is not the only adjective the language possesses, in spite of the fact that in the first three years you do not need to learn or use any other adjectives. You can say that the weather is nice, a restaurant is nice, Mr Soandso is nice, Mrs Soandso's clothes are nice, you had a nice time, and all this will be very nice.
Reading this, I was a little surprised, because I had got(ten) the impression, somewhere along the line, that nice was a crass American thing to say, so I got myself into the habit of saying the far more English-to-my-ears lovely wherever I would have said nice. I may have got(ten) this impression from people mocking Americans for saying Have a nice day (something that even Americans have been embarrassed to say since about 1980), or it may just be that I've heard general complaints about nice (without reference to America), as discussed by Ben Zimmer recently on his new blog--where you can see that nice already had a bad reputation well before Mikes wrote his book. At any rate, the frequency of nice noted by Mikes has also been noted in American compliments. Nessa Wolfson (1981) studied compliments in a number of cultures. In cultures where compliments are most 'costly', they tend to be rather indirect. For instance, Indonesians identified (the translation of) "You have bought a new sewing machine. How much did it cost?" as a compliment in their culture. But of America, where compliments are (BrE) cheap as chips, Wolfson notes, "The most striking feature of compliments in American English is their total lack of originality”:
22.9% of AmE compliments include nice
19.6% include good
85% of compliments fall into one of three patterns
53.6 % in the pattern: NOUN-PHRASE is/looks (really) ADJECTIVE
16.1% in the pattern: I (really) like/love NOUN-PHRASE
14.9% in the pattern: PRONOUN is (really) (a) ADJECTIVE NOUN-PHRASE
I haven't found an equivalent study of British compliments, but I don't imagine that they're much more creative, given Mikes' assessment of Englishpeople's adjectival vocabulary. (Hey, soon-to-be-final-year students--there's a possible dissertation topic!)

It must have been months ago that I first stated my intention to write about compliments, but I'd passed them up so far, favo(u)ring shorter posts. One of the things I would have liked to have done here is to go back through the comments on the blog in order to see whether I could tell which nationality was more apt to send "Hey, I love your blog"-type comments. The thought of going through thousands of comments, knowing I'd rarely be able to tell where the commenter was from, kept me from writing this for a while. So, I've not done it--and I don't recommend that you try! But feel free to pay a little more attention to your cross-cultural compliment experiences and report your observations in the comments.

Further reading/sources:
  • Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness. Cambridge University Press.
  • Fox, Kate. 2004. Watching the English. Hodder.
  • Mikes, George. 1946. How to be an Alien. Penguin.
  • Stewart, Edward C. and Milton J. Bennett. 1991. American Cultural Patterns (rev. edn.). Intercultural Press.
  • Wolfson, Nessa. 1981. Compliments in cross-cultural perspective. TESOL Quarterly 15:117-24.
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don't ask me for £5

Now, you could say that the following doesn't fit here because it's not about language, but I'd say it could be covered under the realm of pragmatics or interactional sociolinguistics...and anyway, it's just too interesting to pass up.

Via Boing Boing, quoting this source:

A price comparison website, ran a experiment on the streets of London and Manchester:

[Representatives] wandered the streets this morning wearing sandwich boards offering a free £5 note to anyone who asked. Despite encountering over 1800 people, only 28 passers by bothered to take advantage of the offer.
Americans, please imagine someone wearing this sign in your town, except it says $10 bill instead of £5 note. Don't you think that more than 1.5% of the passers-by would stop to claim some free money? (If any one of you is rich enough to carry out this experiment in/on the streets of New York or your nearest city, please do so and report back to us!)

From the source press release, we get the British reasoning for not asking for the money:
Why do Brits believe they would fail to take up the offer?
• Six in ten people say they their cynicism would prevent them from asking for free cash as they would suspect a catch or trick.
• Twenty per cent of people would simply not believe the offer was real – a trend which increased with age. Almost a third of over 60s claimed they wouldn’t believe the sandwich board wearer.
• Just over one in ten people said they would feel too embarrassed and three per cent of people said that £5 wasn’t worth the effort.
Now, I can sympathi{s/z}e with the cynicism and embarrassment, but I still can't believe so few people stopped, and can't believe that the cynicism and embarrassment would be so widely felt in the US. In fact, I think the natural optimism of the American character might lead some people to ask for the money even if they thought there was a catch, as they might feel confident in the belief that they wouldn't be caught by the catch.

Comparing a couple of anthropological works about the English and Americans offers some support for my suspicions. (I must admit, I'm making a point of citing sources because it's always dangerous to make generali{s/z}ations like this on a blog with an open commenting facility, so I need to do the "it's not just me who thinks this!" thing. I will check my e-mail tomorrow morning with some trepidation!)

Among the traits that Kate Fox (Watching the English) describes as being at the 'core' of Englishness are social dis-ease (making it difficult to approach a stranger), Eeyorishness (chronic pessimism--'it is in the nature of things to go wrong and be disappointing') and a sense of fair play (including a feeling that there is only so much to go around, so if you have more, someone else has less). I think that the reasons respondents gave for not taking the money could be brought together as "Even if it were a good idea for me to take money from you (and I can't imagine that it is), it's not worth £5 for me to veer out of my comfort zone to ask for it." (I just showed Better Half the photo of the man with the sandwich board and he said: "Don't take the money--he'll want to talk to you about Jesus!")

Stewart and Bennett (in their American Cultural Patterns) note that Americans are very action-orient(at)ed (approaching new situations with an eye to what needs to be done about them) and a belief that "the achievements of the individual are not gained at the expense of others"--which makes it easier to have an "I deserve it" attitude when faced with good fortune. And Americans (although I'm the exception that may prove the rule) are notoriously good at approaching strangers. (Better Half quips: "An American would go up, ask for the £5, then say, 'And let me tell you about Jesus!'")

So, who's got a few hundred dollars to spare and the wherewithal to make a sandwich board?
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Scene from a Marriage:

BH and L, the father and mother (respectively) of 5-month-old baby G, stand in their kitchen. G has recently begun eating (BrE) baby rice/ (AmE) rice cereal.

BH: (holding up two plastic measuring spoons) Should we sterili{s/z}e these?

L: Why are there two?

BH: Because I can't find the teaspoon and one's a half-teaspoon and one's a tablespoon. I don't know how many half-teaspoons are in a tablespoon, and it's a teaspoon of rice and a tablespoon of milk.

L: Three teaspoons to a tablespoon, but you can just eyeball it. Three parts milk to one part rice.

BH: Eyeball it? What, are you a cop?

L: Why would a cop say 'eyeball it'?

BH: Because only cops in cheap American detective shows say that.

L: No--graphic designers say it...

BH: No, the cop eyeballs the suspect.

L: ...cooks say it; tailors say it.

BH: No way.

L: Why would a cop say it? It's about measuring.

BH: No, it's about staring.

L: No, it's about measuring.

BH: Prove it.

L: (wild-eyed) Is that a challenge? (determinedly) I'll take your challenge!

(Pan to beautiful but neglected baby...sound of maniacal typing at a computer keyboard. Fade to black.)
So while Grover sleeps on Better Half's chest, I'll fill you in on the outcome of my --ahem-- L's research. The (British) OED sides with BH, giving the verb to eyeball as AmE slang for 'to look or stare (at)'. But one shouldn't trust the 1989 edition of the OED to be up to snuff on American colloquialisms. The American Heritage Dictionary (4th edn), on the other hand, gives two senses, both marked as 'informal':
  1. To look over carefully; scrutinize.
  2. To measure or estimate roughly by sight: eyeballed the area of the wall that needed paint.
So, it looks here like the OED is up-to-date on senses of eyeball that are known (as AmE slang) in the UK, but not on all AmE senses of the verb. In spite of the ignorance professed above, I have to admit knowledge of the first sense--it just wasn't coming to mind after I, I mean L, used the other sense. But I use the measuring sense often. Since the AHD lists it second, we can assume that it's a later addition to the language than the 'scrutini{s/z}e' sense, but Wiktionary lists it first, giving the impression that it might be a better known sense now. (I've put some feelers out trying to find out when the measuring sense arose. Will update if I get any info. Or will take hard evidence [personal memories are very unreliable when it comes to etymology] in the comments section, please!)

Fig 1. Neglected baby

Update (as promised), 3 June: My lovely colleagues on the American Dialect Society e-mail list have come through with dating info on the 'estimate a measurement' sense of to eyeball. I'm told that the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (which I have at my office...such is my problem with blogging at home) has a citation going back to 1946. Those who have looked on Google Books have found it only as far back as the 1970s (as did Doug in the comments here). But since it's slang, we'd expect that it goes back quite a bit further in the spoken language than in written sources--we just can't pinpoint when. If you'd like to see the discussion on ADS-L, click here. My thanks to David Barnhart, Mark Mandel, and Ben Zimmer.
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)