Tag Archives: class

How do you spell ‘Duh’?

Tantallon Castle, North Berwick, Scotland. Since this topic doesn't lend itself to illustration, I've decided that the fact that I mention a couple of castles means I can show you lots of interesting medieval buildings.

As I write this, our corner of England is having what our family calls a dirl day. 

What’s a dirl day?  I’ll get to that in a minute–

I’ve mentioned the intrusive R before, though I just skimmed over the subject, saying that sometimes the British seem to save up those Rs they don’t pronounce at the end of words (supah for super, ka for car) so that they can tack them onto the ends of words that don’t have an R in the first place; hearing someone on the radio refer to President Obamer is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.  I once came in on a radio broadcast in progress and couldn’t understand it at all until I figured out that what I heard as career actually meant Korea.  People who speak this way seem to need an R to grease the skids between a word that ends with a vowel and the following word if it begins with a vowel.  So you hear President Obama said but President Obamer is going.  (Some American accents include this intrusive R, though it’s not as widespread. )

Deal Castle, Kent. Apologies for modern sun dial in foreground.

But there’s something else going on with the letter R in this country that is even more peculiar to my American eye.  I say the eye this time and not the ear because it’s a matter of spelling. 

I first noticed the phenomenon in an on-line forum when someone owned up to having made a mistake and added der, something like this: I can’t believe I did that!  I mean—der!

Took me a couple of beats to realize that der stood in for the conversational element (because surely it isn’t actually a word) that I would have spelled duh.  What’s interesting here is this: The writer has spelled this not-quite-a-word sound with an R expressly to indicate that there is no R sound in the pronunciation

Overgrown moat of Beeston Castle, Cheshire.

You see that form—not necessarily der, but –er used the same way—in lots of places here.  The most recent example I’ve run across comes from the latest historical novel by Malcolm Ross-MacDonald, who frequently leaves comments here on my posts.  In The Dower House (written as Malcolm MacDonald; he uses different versions of his name for different sorts of books), a character slurs together the words as a matter of fact, so Malcolm writes it smatterer fact.  Took me a minute to realize what he was up to there.

To me, if you’re altering the spelling to show how a word is pronounced, spelling it with letters that aren’t pronounced makes no sense; if you’re spelling the phrase phonetically, that is, choosing letters to indicate the sounds your character made because they weren’t standard English, why would you slip back into a more formal spelling including silent letters when you come to the last syllable?  

To Malcolm, born and raised in England, -er is precisely how you ought to spell a word that ends in what he admits (aha!) via email is the sound of –uh.  It is, to Malcolm, well established that the way to indicate an unstressed final syllable is by –er, whatever else you do with phonetic spelling. 

This kind of unstressed –uh  syllable is what dictionaries represent with a schwa, a character like an upside-down e, which I hope you can see here: ə. The schwa, which for some reason my high school English teachers loved, is the linguist’s indication of the unstressed uh-sound most people use for the last syllable of sofa or the first syllable of along.   

Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight

Since I don’t have a schwa on my keyboard—and since I come from a place where an R at the end of a word tends to be sounded—I write the schwa sound using an –uh (duh) or an a (kinda, fella or in this case smattera fact).  But Britons have used –er this way for a good long while, at least since 1825 according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  I ran across an example recently in the work of Rudyard Kipling; in his autobiographical Something of Myself (1935) he wrote that General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, called him young feller.  Since Booth was a Brit fromNottingham, it’s a safe bet Kipling was using feller to indicate that the man said fella.  

The problem is that for American readers, fella and feller carry completely different connotations.  Both mean fellow, but while fella is merely informal and could be used by almost anyone, feller—pronounced R and all—marks the speaker as being from a rural area and probably relatively uneducated.  The USA is a big country and I would never say “everybody in the US says this” or “nobody in the US says that”, but I’m tempted here, because it would be a very rare American indeed who would write feller when they meant that the person speaking didn’t pronounce the R.  The OED lists both fella and feller (with the pronunciation I’d expect would go with fella), but labels both as “vulgar or affected”—rather a slur on my character, as I grew up pronouncing it fella in everyday use, and reserving the proper pronunciation of fellow for formal designations: she’s a Stegner Fellow at Stanford;he has a Fulbright fellowship.  In any case, the OED doesn’t make the distinction between fella and feller that most Americans would make without thinking twice.

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

Kipling also frequently wrote kinder to mean kind of,  rather than using kinda or even kind o’ (a form you find a lot in older books) but as far as I can tell, he only used this in the speech of American characters, not that I’ve made an exhaustive study of his work.  Maybe he thought that all Americans spoke that way or maybe his neighbors in rural Vermont, where he once lived, really did say kinder, pronouncing the R, when they meant kind of. Stranger things have happened, and I don’t happen to be familiar with the dialects of Vermont in the late 19th century.

The -er word ending in British pronunciation trips up people trying to spell correctly in another way, too.  I recently ran across a British author who wrote of partygoers who formed a conger line.  That would be a conga line, by another—and a rather unusual—name.  But you can see how British English speakers, hearing conga and used to a final schwa sound being spelled as –er, would think they were hearing conger, especially when conger is a real word for a type of eel and a conga line could be thought of as moving, well, something like the way an eel does. 

Kidwelly Castle, Wales

In fact I spoke to the author, who suggested, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that the dictionary could be wrong, and the dance could easily have derived its name from the eel.  He went so far as to suggest it might have been “some bloody American” who misheard a British speaker say conger, and written it down as conga.  (Kipling apparently got tired of anti-British sentiment in the US.  Ah, Rudyard—welcome to my world, in which there is no language error too small to blame on Americans.) 

I think I’ll put my trust in the OED, which says the word started out Congo (as in the country), but filtered into English from Hispanic cultures which changed the ending to –a, to make it feminine.  In a quick poll of British friends, I found that they were all aware that conga is spelled with an a, although one of them thought that the eel was spelled conga, too.  That looks like the same error, but in reverse.

Blarney Castle, Ireland

While Americans don’t stick extra Rs onto words at the end, we do sometimes, under the influence of British (or British-like) pronunciation, push a square R into a round syllable in the middle of a word.  We do it for the same reason the author spelled out conger:  if you’re used to hearing British speakers pronounce syllables that end in –er as if there were no R, you may think an R is meant to be there.  So you hunt around for an R that nobody’s using and stick it back in the word.  You’re really just trying to help, you see.

My favorite example comes from my father-in-law, whose mother spoke with a bit of an Australian accent.  They weren’t a family that went in for a lot of religious instruction, so when he was small and heard his mother singing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, including the line “God and sinners reconciled”, in order to make sense of it he assumed she was singing about “garden sinners” instead.  (Well, Adam and Eve ate the apple in a garden, right?)

Dirleton Castle, North Berwick, Scotland

This is a mondegreen, and a good one.  (If you aren’t familiar with mondegreens, see below for an explanation.)  Hymns and religious songs seem particularly prone to this kind of thing, the classic being children who hear the hymn Gladly the Cross I’d Bear as Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear.  Malcolm reports hearing a hymn to My Great Redeemer as Migratory Deemer (which may confuse any Americans who don’t know that some British people pronounce migratory as MY-gruh-tree, and which leaves us to wonder what kind of bird a Deemer might be).

And what of dirl?  That’s my own spelling of a word that I kept hearing up in the Scottish borders on my first trip to the UK.  Everywhere we went, people would say “Too bad it’s such a dirl day” or “A dirl day for you, I’m afraid”.  Clearly, whatever dirl meant, it wasn’t good.  Finally during a stop at Tantallon Castle, when an employee gave me his regrets that I was visiting the site on such a dirl day, I asked him what that word meant. 

Castle Warden: “Dirl? D’ye mean ye dunna say that in America?”

Me:  “No, I’ve never heard it before.”

Castle Warden: “Dirl. D,U,L,L. Dirl.” 

Ah. A dull day, then.  One without much sun, the sky an undifferentiated wet blanket of gray. 

His vowel wasn’t the -uh I use for dull, not even close enough kin for me to recognize it as a word I knew.  And he didn’t pronounce an R, but it sounded like the vowel I’d been hearing in lowland Scotland in words like girl or twirl, so I supplied the R myself.  And why did I think I was hearing dirl and not durl?  I think the answer lies about 8 miles to the west of Tantallon, where we’d just been to visit Dirleton Castle.  In any case, the phrase stuck, and we still call such days dirl days.

You probably think it was rather dim of me not to figure out what people were saying, and maybe I should have.  In fact, I can’t believe I didn’t, I mean—der.

(Photos of Tantallon and Dirleton from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons license.  All other photos mine.)

MONDEGREENS — The best way to define mondegreen is through examples.  Scottish writer Sylvia Wright coined the term after she found that the lines of a song she’d learned as a child about the Earl of Moray (sometimes misprinted Murray, because that’s how it’s pronounced), which went like this:

      They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,

      And Lady Mondegreen.

Were actually meant to be:

      They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,

      And laid him on the green.

So one murder, not two – but a wonderful new sport: finding mondegreens.  San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll is known for his enormous collection of mondegreens (click here for his Center for the Humane Study of Mondegreens)


Filed under Architecture, Culture, Language, Travel

Peering at the Peerage

Peers are entitled to wear crown-like coronets at the ceremony in which the monarch is crowned. A duke wears a coronet like this one, decorated with gold (well, gilded these days) strawberry leaves.

A few years ago I cringed to hear an American politician say in a BBC Radio 4 interview—in England, for a British audience—that “Washington has got to get to work to support middle class families”, in part by “lowering taxes on middle class households”.  So—I imagine American readers asking—what’s wrong with that?

The problem is that “middle class” means something different over here.

American families who pay for their kids to go to private schools, whose parties are written up in the society pages, who have swimming pools or ponies or both, who have domestic help and second homes, who collect expensive wines, designer clothes, and country club memberships, who wouldn’t be seen dead in an evening gown they’d worn before or a tuxedo they had to rent, are generally considered upper class.  Here, those people would be called middle class.

That’s because in British terms, the US doesn’t have an actual upper class.  The upper class here is the aristocracy, a group united by attributes such as titles (Baron, Viscount, etc.), family ties to those with titles, or at least ties to certain socially prominent families that go back several centuries.  They tend to have (or to once have had) large estates, run by large numbers of employees.  They speak with the right accent (accent is extremely important here; think of how the Queen speaks and you’ve got the top end of the aristocratic accent) and get the right sort of education, which is not about doing well in school, but about which school you go to. Being upper class has little to do with how much money the family has in this generation: fortunes may come or go, but whatever your bank balance you’re still either U (upper class) or non-U (the rest of us)—terms actually in use here, although considered somewhat old-fashioned.

The Royal Opera House, London

If you want to know who’s a part of the aristocracy you look in a book known as Debrett’s but officially titled Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage (because baronets, who occupy the lowest rung on the title ladder, technically aren’t peers).  Debrett’s will also, of course, tell you Who in the aristocracy Outranks Whom. Virginia Woolf wrote “Americans have swallowed their dinner by the time it takes us to decide whether the widow of a general takes precedence of the wife of a knight commander of the Star of India”.  These social distinctions must be made before anyone can go in to dinner, because of course you have to enter the dining room in the correct order.  That is, people of her class did so in Woolf’s day, and the top echelon still does so on, say, formal occasions when to do otherwise might cause a diplomatic incident.

Fortunately I’m not often called upon to make those sorts of judgment calls. But I do occasionally run across web sites that, when they ask users to register, offer a pull-down menu with not only Mr. and Mrs. and such, but lots of aristocratic titles.  Take for example the web site for the Royal Opera House, home to the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, where prospective supporters of the arts are offered over 200 choices.

The British versions of Mr and Mrs are slightly different—did you notice the missing periods (UK: full stops)?  The British distinguish between a contraction, in which the final letter of the word is retained, and an abbreviation, in which it isn’t.  (There is hierarchy, or at least protocol, even in the realm of punctuation.)  So Mr, Mrs, and Dr have no period, but Rev. does, although the Royal Opera House’s web site, rather than peppering their list with dots, seems to have skipped them entirely.  Often it seems that the higher up the scale you go, the more likely you’ll leave that full stop behind you, so The Hon.—that’s for Honourable, used for the younger sons of earls, among others—may have the period, but it’s unusual to see the little typographical specks after the letters in HRH—Her/His Royal Highness.

On an earl's coronet, the strawberry leaves alternate with gilded balls (known as pearls, but not made of pearl) set high on points.

(Ms doesn’t get a period either, and here they pronounce it muzz, which always sounds to me like a put down, as though they’re mocking people who use Ms.  The American pronunciation, mizz, sounds right to me, but then that’s how people where I come from pronounce Mrs. anyway.)

But once we get past those everyday honorifics—technically these are styles, by the way—for ordinary people, things start to get interesting.  The Royal Opera House’s list continues with Ambassador, Baron, Baroness, Brigadier, Canon, Captain, Chancellor—on and on.  Lord Justice, Princess, Reverance.  Right Honourable Viscount brings up the rear of a group that includes Rt Hon Baroness, Rt Hon Lord, Rt Hon Sir, and Rt Hon The Earl. Are you a Sir, a Sister, or a Sultan, perhaps?  The only hierarchy that trumps that of social status is alphabetical order; only in a list like this would a Professor Dame precede a Queen.

The list includes military ranks, academic titles—both Prof and Professor, oddly, so perhaps one is for sticklers who want their positions noted in full—and various ambassadors.  In fact, there’s a special entry just for the French Ambassador, should he or she want to support the arts:  HE (His/Her Excellency) the French Ambassador M – for monsieur or madame.

And there are many religious ranks, mainly from the Church of England.  The church hierarchy is more important here than Americans might suppose, since all archbishops and some bishops sit in the House of Lords and help make laws—a strange idea to someone used to the separation of church and state.  Where I grew up, religious honorifics went no further than Brother, so clerical titles here seem exotic: Rev, Very Rev, Rev Dr, Very Rev Dr, Rev Canon, Rev Preb (Reverend Prebendary), Right Rev (for C of E bishops).  I won’t tax your patience with the whole list, but I’ve got to mention my favourite: The Venerable.  That’s for an archdeacon emeritus.  I don’t know anyone who’s ever met one of these; they must be shy creatures who rarely come out of their dens, something like badgers.

Bishops wear pointed headgear called mitres, rather than coronets. Mitre styles vary, but some of them look remarkably like tea cozies...

For titles in the Church of England, the reference book is Crockford’s Clerical Directory, rather than Debrett’s;  bishops and archbishops are not peers even if they do sit in the Lords, where they are known as the Lords Spiritual, as opposed to the peers, who are the Lords Temporal.  Of course, if a titled person becomes an archbishop, he (they might someday have female archbishops here, but that’s a loooong way off) would be a Lord both Temporal and Spiritual.  And some of these are members of the queen’s Privy Council (a set of political advisors), and so have titles added to reflect that status.

Mix secular and clerical titles, and you can come up with such lengthy and convoluted strands it feels like discovering a new kind of DNA, in which the sequence of chemical—or in this case social—building blocks combine in different ways to produce different kinds of creatures.  The highest-ranking priest in the Church of England is the Most Honourable and Right Reverend the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He’s also Primate of All England, a title that I always think invites thoughts of Darwin and—well, let’s not go there.

Among the Lords Temporal there are 5 ranks: baron/baroness, viscount/viscountess, earl/countess, marquis/marchioness, and duke/duchess.  From those 5 come any number of titles.  You might be not only the Duke of Someplace, but HRH the Duke of Someplace. Some people are the Earl So-and-so and others are the Earl *of * So-and-so, and the Royal Opera House caters for both.  (You cannot, however, be the Duke of Earl, unless you are Gene Chandler.)

Gene Chandler, "the Duke of Earl"

The longest title from the British peerage appearing on the Royal Opera House’s list, and the one that seemed the most improbable when I first saw that list, is the Dowager Marchioness of.  A dowager is a widow in possession of a title or property left to her by her husband; the word is related to dowry and endowment.  The marquess whose death added dowager to our arts-supporting marchioness’ title would ordinarily have left the bulk of his estate to the next holder of the title, usually his son, and in fact may have been legally compelled to do that by the terms under which he’d accepted his title and property in the first place.

And at the pinnacle of the social order sit royalty.  Kings, queens, princesses and princes, Royal Highnesses andSerene Highnesses, even HRH Sultan Shah—the Royal Opera House is ready for all of them to surf right in (tempting to make a pun on serfs, there).

In fact, this emphasis on titles risks reinforcing the impression that opera and ballet are the province of aristocrats, a view very much at odds with the Royal Opera House’s goal of making the arts available to everyone, from royalty to commoners.  (The life of Anna Nicole Smith provided the story for a recently premiered opera; it could be argued that you can’t get more common than that.)  The military ranks, for example, include the likes of Commodores and Major Generals; it might appear that enlisted personnel and NCOs do not fall into the Royal Opera House’s target market, although that’s not the case.

The coronet of a marquess has fewer leaves and fewer balls, and the balls are not raised onto points. These things are important, you know...

Royal Opera House staff confirmed that they’re planning a new web site, which will offer a few of the more often-used choices plus a fill-in-the-blank box for those who answer to titles beyond the run-of-the-mill.  The UK’s on-line passport application system uses that sort of mechanism, offering a choice of Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss and Mstr (Master—for boys not old enough to be Misters), plus a box for write-ins.  In the case of passports, if you claim to be a Wing Commander (in the RAF), a Lord Justice (a certain type of judge), or a Baronetess (a woman who inherits a baronetcy in her own right, rather than being married to a baronet, though few baronetcies permit females to hold the title), you’d better be prepared to prove it.

Looking through the Royal Opera House’s list of titles I began to wonder whether it had just accrued over the years.  Why a Dowager Marchioness, but no other Dowagers?  Why list all those Reverends, but stop short of Most Reverend?  Why Professor Dame and not Professor Sir?  The friendly staffer I spoke to said the list reflects all the titles of those who have, over the many years the Royal Opera House has been keeping a database, expressed an interest. So the list is a slice of social history, even if it is a slice from the top and doesn’t reflect the overall proportions; after all, they could have 5000 Misters and one Sultan, but the list gives each title equal weight.

Alas, the viscount gets no strawberry leaves at all. Pity.

So that’s the Anglo-American Experience blog’s first look at titles, and a cursory look it is; I’m sure this will come up again.  But you can better understand now, I think, why the British would view our American “upper-class”—the country-clubbed, ponied, and swimming-pooled set—as middle class, and why I cringed to hear the politician talking about the US being run for the advantage of the middle class.  Working-class British people would hear that as a plea for more help for rich Americans—but then again, that’s what a lot of people over here think the US government is doing anyway, because not only do we have an upper class on top of the classes Americans have, we have a political left that is far to the left of what Americans have.  But that’s a topic for another day.


Filed under Culture