Showing posts with label metaphor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label metaphor. Show all posts

Boxing Day leftovers

According to some stories of the origins of Boxing Day (a public holiday in the UK and many Commonwealth countries), the servant-having classes would box up their Christmas leftovers and give them to the servants, who would have the day off. So, in the spirit of leftoverness, here are some random observations from this trip to the US that relate to previous blog entries. But let's not carry the metaphor too far; I don't think that blog writers are the masters to servant readers. It's almost the other way (a)round on this blog.

Leftover #1: The July entry on candy/sweets led to some discussion in the comments about which British (BrE) sweets/(AmE) candies are most similar to American Smarties (as opposed to the chocolate Smarties found in the UK, Canada and elsewhere). I found a roll of Smarties (pictured right) in my parents' pantry and forced a taste test on Better Half. His verdict: "It has the chalky texture of a Parma Violet, and the taste of a Love Heart (AmE generic name = Conversation Hearts). May I spit it out now?"

Leftover #2: High-waisted trousers/pants are not as hard to find in the US as in the UK (and one can get them in natural fib{re/er}s here too!). I was reminded of the question "How long does it take to lose one's instincts about one's native dialect?" when wandering around Macy's in the local mall. When I saw the sign directing shoppers to MEN'S PANTS, my first instinct was to titter. The resulting crisis of dialectal identity was cut short by the next line on the sign, which utterly puzzled me: MEN'S FURNISHINGS. According to the thesaurus in the Free Dictionary, this refers to 'the dry goods sold by a haberdasher'. This department store has only become a Macy's since I was last here, so I'm quite sure that the sign is new, but the phrase sounds old-fashioned. Checking on the web, I find that it's used at some 'better' US department stores, including Nordstrom, where the heading "Men's Furnishings" covers "Accessories, Dress Shirts, Sleepwear and Robes [= BrE dressing gowns], Underwear and Socks". It seems to mean 'the clothing that a suit-wearer needs, besides a suit'. (Although shoes have a separate heading, not under 'Men's Furnishings' or 'Accessories'.) Searching for this on .uk sites, I mostly find US sources, and while the American Heritage Dictionary includes "furnishings Wearing apparel and accessories," the OED does not have such specific senses, the closest being "Unimportant appendages; mere externals." So, I think that we can conclude that this is an Americanism--but do let me know if you have evidence to the contrary. The phrase women's furnishings is much rarer.

Leftover #3: My two-year-old nephew received for Christmas a toy kitchen with toy groceries. His mother read the label of a tube-shaped item and asked "What the heck are 'chocolate digestives'?", leading to our discovery that these American-bought toy groceries (made in China) "came from" a British supermarket: Sainsbury's. I went through the (more BrE) packet and while 21 of the labels were understandable in AmE, 11 of them were either for products not found in the US (mushy peas!) or had names that don't work in AmE, such as mince (= AmE ground beef), macaroni cheese (= AmE macaroni and cheese), orange lollies (=AmE popsicles), non-biological (= a type of laundry detergent, 'non-biological' is the only product description given on the front of the box--so you'd have to know that it's a detergent descriptor). Could this be considered to be British cultural imperialism, off-setting the American type?

Happy Boxing Day!
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blinders and other metaphors personified

Last time, I mentioned a (BrE) fancy dress/(AmE) costume party at which everyone was to come as a metaphor they'd been accused of being. I learned that among my friends are three dark horses, one social butterfly, a piranha with manners and an 40-year-old trapped in the body of an 8-year-old (that would be our dear Better Half). About 40 people came, five of them American, at least as many from other parts of the world, and the remainder British. The party-goers made a game of trying to guess what what everyone else was, but a few of the British ones stumped the Americans, and vice versa. (Incidentally, stump is originally AmE, but now used in BrE.)

The number one stumper was my dear friend to the right here. She was head-to-toe in glittering things and battery-powered lights. The BrE speakers had a hard time guessing, but when they were told, they said "Ah!" The AmE speakers, on the other hand, said "Huh?" She was (if you haven't guessed from the title) a blinder--that is, "Something ‘dazzlingly’ good or difficult" (OED), or in this case a "looker" (orig. AmE). Unsure that people would believe that she'd been called a blinder, she carried with her the sweetest love letter from long, long ago. (It would be impolite of me to tell you how long ago.) The universal reaction to the love letter was "My god, why didn't you marry him?" (Not that we have anything against Blinder's better half--but he didn't come to the party to defend his own hono(u)r, so we got all moony over [the idea of] Love Letter Boy.) Incidentally, Blinder won one of the evening's prizes--the Elbow Grease prize for the most effort devoted to the reali{s/z}ation of the metaphor. We got literal about our metaphorical prizes--the Elbow Grease was Body Shop Body Butter.

My dad, pictured right, was another transatlantic stumper. He and my mother came as what they (claim to) call each other (never in front of the children, though!). Mom came as "the cat's (AmE) pajamas/(BrE) pyjamas", wearing p{y/a}jamas with cats on them. Dad's was a less visuali{s/z}able metaphor, though the BrE speakers consistently guessed that he was the cat's whiskers (='the acme of excellence'--OED). While that was originally an AmE expression, it's now mainly used in BrE. In AmE, the expression is more usually (at least where we're from) the cat's meow. (All of these are a bit dated, like my dad, who celebrates a big birthday next month. Despite having enjoyed my metaphorty party, he's declined having a metaseventy party.)

Another American friend came as a mixed metaphor--so it's no surprise that people had a hard time guessing what he was. He had a target, with an antlered deer superimposed on it, taped to his back. By his estimation, he was "a moving stag", mixing the metaphors of a moving target and going stag to a party (i.e., 'without a date'). The latter of these (as the telltale bold font indicates) is AmE, and relates back to the notion of a stag party (orig. AmE), which was raised when we discussed local fauna terms.

Please steal the metaphorty party idea (leave off the -ty if you're not forty, but have the party all the same)! It's a helluva lotta fun, and if you invite both AmE and BrE speakers, you can report back to us any further metaphors that don't translate. My own metaphor required translation as well, but only because it was in Swedish. Jag var en djävil på Scrabble. (I was a demon at Scrabble--the first metaphor that I was called [to my face] på svenska.)

Or, join the virtual party in the comments area. What would your metaphor be? (Try to keep it clean, please!)
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Ben Zimmer of The Language Log forwarded the following to me some time ago. It originally appeared in the Financial Times (UK), but was reprinted in the Los Angeles Times:
George Bernard Shaw suggested mischievously that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."

Here is a book title — if not a book — that proves it: "Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win."

To Americans, imbued with the frontier spirit, a maverick is an admirable person, independent in thought and action.
But the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition: "a masterless person; one who is roving and casual." A former British Cabinet minister recently was described as a "maverick voice." This was not meant as a compliment.

The mavericks described in "Mavericks at Work" are to be emulated, not disparaged. (Stefan Stern, 'That office "weirdo" might be a maverick", 29 Oct 2006)
At first this didn't sit entirely right with me because of a party I threw--which I'll come back to shortly. But I was reminded of it today when the new New Scientist (9 Dec 2006) arrived with the cover screaming: MAVERICKS: POWER OF THE LONE VOICE. NS is a UK-based magazine, but it has an international readership and is usually edited with consciousness of its varied audience. I was therefore curious to see if the word maverick had positive or negative connotations in the special section dedicated to 'lone voices', like the creationist geologist and the doctor who fed himself bacteria to prove it causes stomach ulcers. The fact of the section itself hints at the possibility that the editors intend to counter the usual assumption that being a maverick is a bad thing. But for the most part, the word is used positively:
Such mavericks are crucial to progress, but are they a dying breed? (Editorial, p. 5)
In other places, it's used as an adjective:
If science were a matter of combining unambiguous data from perfectly conducted experiments with flawless theories, assessing the claims of "outsider" scientists and their maverick ideas would not be that hard. (Harry Collins, 'How we know what we know', p. 46)
Neither of these seems to indicate that the BrE sense of maverick is necessarily "masterless". Indeed the OED lists the sense 'An unorthodox or independent-minded person; a person who refuses to conform to the views of a particular group or party; an individualist' and does not mark this as AmE. So, is the Financial Times writer misrepresenting the BrE situation? Not entirely. One can find plenty of examples, like the one the article cites, of maverick being used with negative connotations in BrE sources:
I suppose that in the years when we were trying to persuade people that Berlioz was a great composer, and not just a maverick or an oddity --David Cairns on Hector Berlioz website

Scientists in Britain tend to exclude controversial "maverick" colleagues from their community to ensure they do not gain scientific legitimacy, new research has shown. --Cardiff University news release
While there are probably similar AmE examples out there, they're harder to come by. (For the ones I've found, a bit of deeper digging often reveals that the writer is not a native AmE speaker.) Part of the reason for this, says my armchair ethno-psychology, is the usual British aversion to self-promotion. (I know plenty of self-promoting Brits, but many more who find the notion extremely unseemly.) In order to be a maverick, one needs not only to be a non-conformist, but also to carry oneself as if one's own ideas are superior to the other ideas on offer. In other words, a maverick has a bit more hubris than a mere eccentric has, and hubris is socially unacceptable.

But getting back to the party I threw... It was a (BrE) fancy dress / (AmE) costume party with a "Metaphorty" theme: everyone had to come as a metaphorical thing they'd been accused of being. I'll come back to this--perhaps in the next post--to talk about some of the metaphors that didn't translate among the BrE- and AmE-speaking guests. The point for the now is that one friend came as a maverick--dressed as Brett Maverick. (I wasn't sure that actually counted as a metaphor, but it was a party, so who cares?) She, an Englishwoman, definitely saw being a maverick as a positive thing.
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American reader Jackie e-mailed to say that after some time living in London:
"I can't tell you happy I am to be back in [a] country in which veg is a verb."
Now, I trust that Jackie has some happy memories of London as well, but you can understand a girl's homesickness for a comfy verb like veg. Not that she necessarily had to miss it here. To veg or to veg out, while originally AmE (a clipping of vegetate), is used in BrE too, as the following Guardian headline indicates:
Saturday night's all right for vegging (8 Jan 2005)
But veg is more common in BrE as a noun, a clipping of vegetable(s). In AmE, it's more common to affectionately refer to vegetables as veggies. Here we have examples of clipping in both dialects (let the clipping wars re(-)commence!), but also another interesting case of count/mass distinctions in the two dialects. Americans eat mashed potatoes and veggies (both plural), while the British eat mashed potato and veg (both mass nouns). One is tempted to say that this is because of the traditional British tendency to cook vegetables into unrecogi{s/z}able sludge. But that might not be nice. Then again, does one need to be nice to people whose culinary contribution to the world is mushy peas (pictured, right)? [I might not be allowed to sleep in my own bed tonight after that one.]

Then again, it could be argued that it's in the plural in AmE because Americans are more gluttonous. But using mass nouns does not seem to have stemmed the 'obesity epidemic' in Britain.

In order to distract attention from the incendiary statements (particularly the food criticism) above, I should point out that veg shows its, ahem, face again in the expression meat and two veg. This has two meanings. One of these refers to a type of traditional diet. In the same way that Americans would call someone a meat-and-potatoes man, a (male) traditional eater in the UK is a meat-and-two-veg man. That phrase can, however, provide a double entendre, as it also slangily refers to a man's genitals. I'll let you work out the details of the metaphor in your own time.

Postscript: Two things I meant to mention here, but failed to (due to the heat of my debate with Better Half about the political/culinary (in)correctness of this entry). First, as Rebecca's pointed out in the comments in BrE veggie (also veggy) means 'vegetarian' and works both as a noun and an adjective. Second, British supermarkets typically have a section called Fruit and Vegetables or Fruit and Veg, but in the US, it's generally called the produce section. One is more likely to come across a greengrocer's shop in the UK than in the US. American Heritage lists this word as 'chiefly British'--I certainly knew it before moving here, but not because I ever needed to use the word. While one could call such a shop a greengrocery, people tend to say I stopped by the greengrocer's, much as people prefer the butcher('s) over the butchery.
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running the bases

I promised a 'part two' on local fauna expressions, which I've written, but don't want to post until I've checked a source in the office. So, I hope to post that tomorrow, and in the meantime I will provide a public service to the British television-watching public.

Better Half and I tonight watched (on DVD) the last three episodes (ever! Aiiiigggghhh!) of Arrested Development. Luckily for BH, he had the remote control and a native speaker of American English sitting next to him--and he knows how to use them. This time he used them to ask: "What is second base?" Of course, this is a baseball term, and also a metaphor for sexual activities, but there's some dispute/lack of clarity about which bases stand for which activities. The (probably most) standard progression is:

first base
second base
touching above the waist
third base
touching below the waist
home run
sexual intercourse

Back in my more innocent days, before all the facts of life had presented themselves to me, my friends and I believed that first base was holding hands and second base was kissing and third base was kissing with tongues--and I have no idea what we thought a home run was. For others, second is touching outside the clothes, and third is getting inside the clothes. I'm sure there are all sorts of other permutations these days. Wikipedia has an article that includes many other baseball metaphors about sex, some of which probably have little currency outside the Wikipedia article.

Now, go forth and enjoy the final (and truncated) (BrE) series/(AmE) season of Arrested Development! (Though it seems to have been bounced off the air by snooker this week, thus postponing its tragic end.)
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)