Happy New Year to readers still with me after a 6-month hiatus in posts, during which my Anglo-American experiences kept me so busy I didn’t pause to document them, for which I apologize. I’ll kick off 2014 with holiday-induced thoughts on the perennially interesting subject of our common language.
I’ve mentioned my Theory of Trans-Atlantic Word Shortening before: Americans think that Britons brutally truncate perfectly innocent words, and Britons think Americans do the same thing, so the only reasonable conclusion is that we must all be shortening words, it’s just that we shorten different words, or shorten words differently. Christmas in England offers a bunch of strange-to-American-ears examples, starting with decs (what you put on the tree) and pressies (what you put under it). As for Christmas dinner, the British eat roasties (roast potatoes), and sprouts (Brussels sprouts), and no matter what else is on the menu, you’re almost guaranteed to end with Christmas pud (Christmas pudding). Oddly, the four-syllable word chipolata, which seems a good candidate for truncation, isn’t shortened, but I guess chips is already taken, and chippies is overloaded as it is; chippy can mean a fish-and-chip shop, a carpenter, a nickname for somebody with the surname Carpenter, or a young lady with dubious morals.
This year I ran into a new example when a supermarket’s TV commercial (telly advert) invited me to buy their “sweet clems”—clementines. Where I grew up, we got tangerines in our Christmas stockings, we had heard of but had never seen satsumas, and we could get mandarins in cans(tins), but here you can buy all of those small orange citrus fruits, plus clementines, fresh. Frankly, I can’t tell them apart, but clementines seem to be the traditional choice for Christmas. I doubt that calling them clems is traditional, at least in our part of England; in 14 Christmas seasons in these islands, I’ve never heard that one, though I’ve seen it on greengrocers’ signs in the market (meaning signs on greengrocers’ stalls at the weekly outdoor market).
Linguists call these kinds of slang or informal terms, derived from existing words, diminutives; there’s even a British diminutive of the word Christmas itself. Are you thinking Xmas? Nope, it’s Crimbo. The OED doesn’t know what to make of it, either, suggesting it comes from baby talk. It’s not new: use of Crimbo dates back at least to the 1920s. And, like a lot of diminutives, it’s slightly derogatory. Crimbo is most often used by people poking fun, or worse, at the excesses and the materialistic aspects of festivities.
There’s a more recent slang/diminutive here, said to originate in Liverpool but to be spreading, though I’ve never heard anyone use it. If you’re a Beatles fan you might already know it. John Lennon is said to have come up with Crimble as another name for Christmas. You can hear it used in some 1960s Beatles’ Christmas videos for fans, but the Wikipedia page for Crimble is about to be deleted due to lack of evidence that the word is truly in common use. (If you have evidence of the use of Crimble in Liverpool or anywhere else and you want to save the page, you have until January 6 to speak up.)
Recently UK media outlets have taken to using crimbo to mean a CBO, a Criminal Behaviour Order, which is a new type of court order similar to the older ASBO, or Anti-Social Behaviour Order (which I’ve written about before, too). But that’s just an irony too far, if you ask me, and unnecessarily confusing.
Why do we shorten words in the first place? Are we all just lazy speakers? Do we yearn for the cozy world of baby talk? Some researchers suggest that we make up new words for old to boost social cohesion, which is presumably part of the reason for any kind of slang, as if we say to the world “Anybody can learn standard English, but we are the people who use this vocabulary”. If true, then the people who are concerned that they can’t define “Britishness” in today’s melting pot of immigrants, a subject raised in the British press again and again, might find it useful to look at how we speak. And if social cohesion is the name of the game, it makes sense that US-ians and UK-ians shorten different words: we are drawing lines to separate us, each group defining itself against the other. And if that’s the case, then after 14 years in England, I ought to speak these days in a mishmash of words from both sides of the ocean—and I do.
Long live interesting differences in English! And long live Christmas-Crimbo-Crimble! I know people complain that the season starts earlier and earlier each year, but as for the celebrating itself, that’s one thing I don’t particularly want to see shortened.