Category Archives: Language

Let Them Eat Panettone

We’re snowed in again.  When the forecast said we were in for some serious snow, and remembering last year’s remarkable winter, a good few of my neighbors here on the Surrey-Hampshire border shifted into panic-buying mode. Someone at the gym told me that a nearby supermarket entirely sold out of bread; the queues for the tills (lines for the checkout) stretched all the way down the aisles, and she’d had to wait in one of them an hour and a quarter . This dedicated shopper is also a schoolteacher, and was wondering at the time whether school would be cancelled the next day.  (In the end, the snow wasn’t the deciding factor; school was cancelled where she teaches because the heating system broke down, and there is a legal minimum temperature required before students are allowed in the classrooms.) 

When I was a kid in Kentucky, on snowy mornings we listened to the radio–with a degree of attention I’m sure we never gave our teachers—to see whether our county, Fayette county, would be on the alphabetical list of schools closed for the day.  If they got to Floyd county or Garrard county without mentioning us, we’d groan—and listen again ten minutes later to see whether Fayette had made its way onto the list.  If we actually ended up having to go to school, we felt robbed. 

Until sixth grade, we could easily have gotten (UK: have got; they don’t use gotten here) to school despite any snow that Kentucky was liable to see; we only had to walk down to the end of the block.  And in that school, they tried to teach us not only to read and write English, but to speak it properly. 

For starters, we weren’t to say ain’t, which was puzzling because the teachers would say “Ain’t ain’t a word”, as if that settled it.  And if I said that they’d just proved it was, because we could understand perfectly what they’d said, it didn’t go down very well.   

I didn’t ordinarily use ain’t myself, I was just peeved by the lack of logic.  I also didn’t pronounce spaghetti as “buzzghetti”—where on earth did kids get that one?—nor did I pronounce sandwich as “samwidge”.  All of these, we were taught, were markers of low-class low-lifes who would never amount to anything.  To say you had a “samwidge” in your lunchbox was enough, to hear the teachers talk, to doom you to a life of poverty, with only demeaning low-paid work during those short periods in which you were not actually incarcerated.

So you can imagine how surprised I was to move to England, cradle of our mother tongue (don’t look too closely at that mix of metaphors), and find that “samwidge” seems to be the default pronunciation for much of the country. 

At the moment Caroline Quentin, an actress we’re used to seeing in comedy dramas and mysteries, is doing telly adverts (TV commercials) for holiday party food for M&S (Marks & Spencer, an upscale department store, including a grocery department) saying to us several times an hour “if you must have samwidges, make them mini dessert samwidges”.  Yet she seems to have found decent employment and somehow avoided imprisonment. 

 It seems like everyone in the British broadcast media and, in fact, I’d say almost everyone who lives within commuting distance of London says “samwidge”.  The exceptions, oddly enough, include the inhabitants of the town of Sandwich in Kent.  I confirmed this with the woman who was answering the phone yesterday for the Sandwich Tourist Information Centre.  There, they say “sandwitch”.  Fine, upstanding people, those Sandwich-dwellers. 

Even the posh-voiced announcers on the BBC say “samwidge”.  These announcers also interview experts about the economic crisis and ask them to give us the “figgers” on such things as proposed budget cuts, meaning “figures”.  And since Ireland’s economy has been iffy lately, they may turn us over to “our island correspondent”; it took me months (okay, maybe I’m a little slow) to realize that they were saying “our Ireland correspondent”. 

It used to be that the BBC only hired people who spoke RP—that’s Received Pronunciation, which has been known by several names including simply BBC English, but the name Americans are most likely to know is the Queen’s English. Someone who speaks RP particularly precisely and beautifully is said to have a cut-glass accent, as BBC announcers historically did have.  But in recent years the Beeb has started to diversify, so you do hear radio presenters with a variety of regional accents.

I plan to post more about the variety of British accents soon, and I should have plenty of time to listen to the various sorts of speech that show up on British radio while we’re snowed for in the next few days.  We’re out of bread, so we won’t be having any “samwidges”.  We do have a couple of panettones that I bought as Christmas gifts for friends, but we might be forced to eat them.  Surely, if we’re cut off from civilization, our friends wouldn’t want us to starve.



Filed under Culture, Language

It’s not what you think it is

With the US and the UK importing each other’s television, films, and books, most of us know at least a few of the common differences in the way the two cultures use English words: the US has elevators, the UK has lifts; American cars have trunks, British cars have boots. But the real zingers are words spelled the same in both types of English, but with different British and American meanings.

My older sister studied over here a couple of summers during law school, so she encountered British English before I did. You can hardly blame her for being confused on her first night in England when the landlady at her B&B asked “Would you like to be knocked up with orange juice in the morning?” (US readers: the landlady was offering a wake-up call with beverage; UK readers: the landlady seemed to be offering to impregnate my sister via some procedure as yet unknown to science, apparently involving citrus.)

Old-time baseball players wore knickerbockers, too.

My poor sister also couldn’t figure out why she got funny looks in shops when she tried to buy some knee-length trousers on behalf of a friend at home. She asked for black wool knickers for a man to wear while playing golf, and no matter where she went, the shop staff said they didn’t sell any such thing. Given that knickers generally means ladies’ underpants here, I have some sympathy for the bemused shop assistants, but at least they got a crazy-American story out of it, which they probably tell to this day. (Knee-length golfing trousers are called knickerbockers here, though they’ve been out of fashion in both countries for decades, so I don’t know why this guy wanted them in the first place.)

Words that are spelled the same and mean something different are homographs. (Not to be confused with homonyms, which merely sound alike: bear and bare, deer and dear, boar and bore—why do examples of homonyms generally seem to involve animals?) In addition to knickers, but sticking with the theme of underwear, consider the words pants, vests, and especially suspenders.

Pants here means underpants. You may put on a bifurcated garment to cover your limbs, something running from waist or hips down to the ankles or thereabouts, but don’t call ’em pants; they’re trousers over here. Presumably the British don’t use the idiom Americans do about who wears the pants in the family; most likely everybody wears pants, but covers said pants with trousers or skirts before going out the front door. Pants is also a slang term of disapproval, generally meaning that something is outmoded or inferior and ought to be got rid of: “Nothing on but reruns! Summer telly is pants”. You hear it used as an expletive (here pronounced ex-PLEE-tiv; in the US it’s EX-pleh-tiv) and read it in slogans and headlines: “Say Pants to Poverty!” or the punning “Top Briefs Say Pants to GM”. (Not a strange protest against General Motors; in this case you have to know that a brief means a lawyer and GM means genetically modified food or crops.)

The green garment seen under this fellow’s jacket may be a vest in the US, but it’s a waistcoat in the UK

A vest here is not the dapper garment that with trousers and a jacket makes up a gentleman’s 3-piece suit; that item is called a waistcoat, pronounced something like weskit. Vest here means an undershirt (think Brando in Streetcar) or sometimes a tank top.

And suspenders, as I think I mentioned in a previous post, are not worn by British men to hold up their trousers, at least, not usually and rarely in public. The strips of cloth ending in clips or buttons, worn over the shoulders to hold up trousers, are called braces. Suspenders means ladies’ garters for holding up stockings; a garter belt is here called a suspender belt. Gives a whole new twist to the old (American) joke about why a fireman wears red suspenders.

Not all homographs that cause confusion have to do with underclothes, but somehow those leap to mind first. We could talk about the term pavement, used in the US for any paved surface, but used here to mean the sidewalk only; the street may be paved and usually is, but it is not the pavement. Where I grew up, a daddy long legs was a spider, but here it’s a flying insect; it looks like the mosquito of your worst nightmares, but it’s harmless. What Americans call a jumper, the British call a pinafore dress; what the British call a jumper, Americans call a sweater. The names of so many foods fall into the homograph category that I’ll leave them for a whole post some other time on the vocabulary of food.

One of the strangest homographs I’ve run across is quite. I’ve entirely given up using the word, because over here, quite has two meanings: quite and not quite.

That’s not a typo. The Oxford English Dictionary will tell you that quite can mean “completely, fully, entirely; to the utmost extent” and can also mean “moderately” or “somewhat”. Like the tonalities in Mandarin Chinese, the intonation that makes the difference between the two opposite meanings of quite presents grave difficulty to those not born to the language. Native speakers of British English apparently have a specialized gene or a few extra neurons for detecting whether quite means what it says, or means the opposite. I certainly can’t tell which is which.

This guy’s trousers are held up by braces (UK) or suspenders (US)

In print, I can usually decipher from context which meaning is intended. I’ve seen more than one survey which presented several statements—statements more or less like “how did you find navigating around the Guildford Borough Council website today?”—and asked me to mark my answers from choices such as very difficult, somewhat difficult, neither difficult nor easy, quite easy, easy. Did you catch that? Aside from the fact that with most websites the answer you want to select is “ridiculously difficult and each time you change the website it gets worse”, they slipped a quite into the lineup, which in that context clearly means not quite. (UK readers: You’d never, ever see that in an American survey.)

On a visit here years ago, as I left my friend’s mother’s house after a wonderful meal, the hostess said “I hope the dinner was alright.” I don’t know why she needed reassurance, but perhaps we hadn’t praised it enough, so I said enthusiastically, “Oh, yes! It was quite nice!” and her face fell. Years later I found out that she’d thought I was saying to her face that the feast she put on for us was almost, but not quite, nice. She must have thought me the rudest guest she’d ever lifted a spoon for, but honestly—she couldn’t have interpreted my quite to mean not quite unless she was predisposed to think I could be that rude, which I find pretty mindboggling.

When I told that story to a British colleague, stressing that it would never have occurred to me in a million years that quite could mean not quite, he said he’d now have to adjust his thinking about Americans. It seems he once saw a party of Americans leave a restaurant, one of them taking pains on the way out to tell the staff that the meal had been quite nice, which my British contact interpreted as an insult to a very good restaurant. Apparently he thought Americans go out of their way to tell people that what they’ve been offered isn’t absolutely up to par.

So, British readers, please be aware that for Americans, quite does not mean not quite, unless we put the not in front of it. And if you think a visitor has insulted you, please consider that the phrase s/he used might not mean what you thought it meant.

Trousers. In the UK, don’t call ’em pants.

This language gap—not a difference in words, but a difference in ways words are used—is worse than the gap between English and foreign languages, because it’s insidious; we can so easily misinterpret each other and have no idea how wrong we are. I’ve not found a reference book that’s really on the case in this regard; besides, you don’t generally look up a word or phrase that’s normal English as far as you’re concerned; you just assume you know what it means, and so does everybody else.

When I first got here, someone told me he grew up on an estate, and I thought he meant a mansion with substantial acreage, when actually he meant what Americans might call the projects. The hairdresser said I’d look better without a fringe and, as I wasn’t wearing buckskins, I had to ask what she meant; it turned out she thought the short hair over my forehead (US: bangs) didn’t flatter. Someone told me I looked smart, and I wondered how anybody could think you can judge someone’s IQ by what they look like, but they only meant that I was, to quote the OED, “neatly and trimly dressed”. When a realtor (UK: estate agent) suggested I view a property with an outhouse, I couldn’t believe she would offer a property without indoor plumbing, but it turns out that just means an outbuilding.  (An outdoor toilet would be called just that: an outdoor toilet.)

Last week marked the eleventh anniversary of our move to the UK (and the first anniversary of this blog), but I can still get into a muddle over these kinds of differences in language; in fact, I’ve been here so long, I sometimes forget which definition is American and which is British. I’ve just had to accept that there will be misunderstandings and if I want to communicate at all, I have to jump in and risk getting things wrong.

The only sane way through this, I think, is for all of us to give each other the benefit of the doubt. It’d be a happier world if we did that more often anyway.


Filed under Culture, Language

Taking Sides

If the BP oil disaster had happened in the English Channel. Picture courtesy of; to link to this map use

I wrote playfully on my About page that my dual nationality ought to be no problem as long as the US and the UK don’t “descend into open warfare”. With the FIFA World Cup US vs. UK match scheduled for tonight, figuring out which team to cheer for was the worst conflict of interest I thought I’d be liable to run up against.

But then came the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Recently the press coverage here took a strange turn, with reports of politicians and prominent figures accusing Obama and his administration of spouting “anti-British rhetoric”, with calls for the British Prime Minister to “protect BP”. What on earth were they talking about?

On Thursday evening, radio and television reports began to air the view that Obama is painting the problem as BP’s fault in order to deflect criticism from himself. But surely Obama paints the leak as BP’s fault because it was not Obama’s oil rig that failed, but BP’s.

A former British trade minister interviewed on BBC radio Friday said that he was afraid the situation was being hijacked by American political posturing having to do with the midterm elections. Well, actually he said he “didn’t want BP to fall foul of domestic pork-barrel politics with midterm elections coming up”, but I don’t think he actually knows what “pork-barrel politics” means, because there’s no pork-barrel involved in this issue.

Things began to fall into place when I realized that these speakers were reacting to the BP spill as if it were only a matter of politics. It isn’t; the oil is real. All the politicking in the world doesn’t change the fact that 40 thousand barrels of oil a day (or whatever figure you trust from the variety seen in print) is fouling fishing grounds, beaches, and wildlife refuges.

As for “anti-British rhetoric”, nobody in the Obama administration has said anything against the British people or the British nation. In fact, I have not been able to find examples of any anti-British message coming from anybody in the US government—or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough, but if I haven’t, neither has British Foreign Secretary William Haig, who has said that he hasn’t heard anything from Americans that he would class as anti-British.

So where’s this anti-British rhetoric? The only example I can find is ludicrous: Obama and other administration figures have slipped up and called the company British Petroleum instead of BP, which many people here take as “anti-British”. Surely this is a desperate grasp for the flimsiest of straws. It seems hardly possible that while poison spreads, people could be so appallingly hypersensitive to correct forms of address, or wouldn’t give the benefit of doubt to Americans who don’t know that the initials BP have lost their referrents, that BP—after having been known as British Petroleum since 1954—officially changed its name in 1998.

Some commentators here have suggested that holding BP responsible for the disaster is anti-British because if BP goes bankrupt, it will devastate the British economy. This is in part because so many pension funds here have their money invested in BP shares. I’m sorry that pensioners may lose money because of BP’s practices, or even because of BP’s bad luck, but I’m sorrier about the enormous damage to New Orleans’ culture and way of life (because this goes far beyond its economy) and to wildlife. If the hurricane season spreads the oil over hundreds of miles, it’s not the British economy I’ll be thinking of first, nor the need to “protect BP”.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, said “OK, [BP] has presided over a catastrophic accident, which it is trying to remedy, but ultimately it cannot be faulted because it was an accident that took place and BP, I think, is paying a very, very heavy price indeed.”

Can BP really be that easily absolved? Here’s another British voice: Andrew Sullivan, a conservative British columnist who lives in the USA, wrote in last Sunday’s Times (that’s the one in London, not the New York Times) about US authorities citing BP and other multinational oil companies for negligence and corner-cutting; in the past three years, counting only “egregious, wilful” violations, they cited Sunoco and ConocoPhillips 8 times each, while Citgo had 2 violations, and Exxon had 1. Oh, and BP? 760 violations.

So compared to the next-worst multinational oil companies, BP had almost 100 times as many egregious, willful (“wilful” is the UK spelling) violations of regulations. Perhaps it’s not entirely coincidence, then, that the accident happened to BP rather than to one of the others, and it’s not unreasonable to lay responsibility at BP’s door.

And if paying for the cleanup bankrupts BP? It may well be true that in the long run it would be unwise to require BP to pay every penny in cleanup costs and compensation that they should, but that does not make simply calling for BP to be held accountable an anti-British stance, any more than it is an anti-British stance to make the mistake of calling the company British Petroleum.

BP could have carried insurance to cover the costs of a catastrophic failure, which would have given it further defenses against bankruptcy; the company decided not to carry that insurance. They decided instead to self-insure, which just means they are uninsured. Perhaps BP believed its own press, and didn’t think a catastrophe like this could happen. The problem is that they didn’t just bet their company on that; they bet the lives of millions of aquatic and marsh creatures and the livelihoods of thousands upon thousands of people who depend for their living on either tourism or on seafood: catching it, cooking it, feeding and housing tourists who come to the Gulf and eat it.

In the end, charges of anti-Americanism or anti-Britishism waste time and energy. Taking offence because Americans don’t know that BP is no longer meant to stand for British Petroleum does not save a single family fishing business, a single pelican, not even a single oyster. The problem isn’t the British economy, pensioners, or mid-term elections; it’s the cold hard facts of one of the largest man-made environmental disasters ever seen.

And it’s that size, the enormous scope of the disaster, that is another reason, I believe, that some British politicians are content to handle this as if it were merely a political problem: they simply don’t get how big this is. I’ve had ample evidence over the last decade that most British people do not grasp the vastness of the USA; at this point, I don’t think some of the commentators over here realize the scope of the oil problem. It’s in the Gulf of Mexico, right? That doesn’t sound so bad. How big can it be?

Apparently Shaun Ley, an anchorman on BBC Radio 4’s main mid-day news programme, “The World At One”, hasn’t quite taken in the areas involved. He referred Friday to the “oil leak off the coast of Mexico”. Yes, the oil spill in the Gulf is huge, but the Gulf is 1000 miles wide. There are 4000 miles of coastline around the Gulf from the tip of Florida to Cancun, and New Orleans isn’t anywhere near Mexico.

The map at the top of this post may help put the size of things into perspective. If this “spill” were to have a twin in the English Channel, it would reach from Norwich almost 400 miles around the south coast of England to Portsmouth. It would coat all of Kent, East Sussex, and West Sussex, plus parts of Surrey, Hampshire, Middlesex and Berkshire. Oil would go up the Thames and inland past Reading. It would fill the Channel almost entirely, washing into France to contaminate Dunkirk and Calais and pretty much all of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardie. That is the scale of the devastation.

The final frustration is hearing people claim that Obama’s intention to hold BP responsible is nationalism. On Friday’s “World At One” broadcast, Shaun Ley spoke to former trade minister Lord Digby Jones, who began by saying that he didn’t want the discourse to “descend into nationalism”, but followed that straightaway with this:

It was an American company that built this.
It was an American company that operated it.
It’s an American regulator that told these people not to go on shallow [sic] but to go out deep where the technology is at the border of what we can do.
It’s an American population that, the, that takes the black stuff and turns it into their gas guzzlers.
It’s an American Fed that takes the tax dollars—

At that point, Mr Ley cut him off, and asked Lord Jones what he wanted from the Prime Minister. He answered:

I want the Prime Minister to stand up and be counted to take this away from nationalism and make it understood that, you know, 40% of the dividends that come out of BP are going into American pension funds.

And the English stereotype holds that Americans have no sense of irony! Then again, perhaps Lord Jones doesn’t mind nationalism as long as it isn’t American nationalism.

Given that I’ve heard British people blame the USA for everything they dislike right down to too many brochures coming packaged with British magazines, I imagine the outcry here would be as bad or worse, and would be decidedly nationalistic, if a US-based multinational were to cause environmental damage of any kind in UK waters, much less something of epic scale. (I refer to a “US-based multinational” because there have been claims here that BP, being a multinational, cannot validly be called a British company.)

I still haven’t decided which team I’ll cheer tonight in the World Cup match. As for the BP oil leak, I’m not going to take a nationalistic stance; I’m on the side of clean waters, oil-free wildlife, good fishing, and seafood gumbo. I believe that BP made the mess and BP should take responsibility to the fullest extent it can. If that makes people think I’m anti-British, so be it.


Filed under Current events, Language, Law/Politics/Government

The Call of the Pun

When it comes to newspaper headlines, the British never met a pun they didn’t like. Some of the subeditors who come up with these are consummate artists; others should be relieved of their responsibilities and set to more constructive work elsewhere—digging ditches, maybe.

The ne plus ultra of the punning headline came from a story about politician Michael Foot being named to lead a group working towards nuclear disarmament, which ran under one of the world’s all-time great headlines: “Foot Heads Arms Body.”

Call of the wild 2That’s often quoted, but rarely with attribution. The inter-net being what it is, some sites say the line came from the Daily Mirror and some that it’s from The Times; if I looked further, it’s likely every newspaper over here would be mentioned sooner or later. It’s possible that somebody made the whole thing up and that headline never appeared anywhere. (If anyone has the facts, I’d love to hear them.)

That’s an unusual example not only for its multi-level cleverness, but because it headed a serious news story. Punning headlines appear more often in the travel sections or home sections of the broadsheet papers, where it’s impossible to escape puns such as “Goan Inside” (Goa beyond the tourist areas), “Loch, Stock and Barrel” (loch-side property for sale in Scotland), and “Join the Press Gang” (growing your own olives), to list some I’ve run across recently in broadsheets. I won’t comment on the tabloids; British tabloids are another animal altogether, and I wouldn’t put anything past their editors.

Of course you get punning headlines in the US, but not to the extent you do here. And here, there doesn’t seem to be any requirement that the headline reflect the content of the story. Olives, for example, have nothing to do with press gangs. I once saw the headline “Call of the Wild” on a book review when the reviewed book had nothing to do with the novel Call of the Wild, or with Jack London, or with dog-sledding, or with Alaska. The article was about Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, set in the Texas Panhandle. Go figure. My guess is that an overworked British subeditor either didn’t know anything about Call of the Wild beyond the title and figured that all of these outlandish American places must be similarly uncivilized, or didn’t know that Anchorage is as far from Amarillo as London is from Mecca.

Ace in the Hole CoverTo be fair, I didn’t know that exact distance factoid, either, although I did know roughly how far the Yukon is from northern Texas and certainly knew how utterly different the two regions are. And I knew that Amarillo, biggest city in the Texas Panhandle, is a place that British readers will have heard of. Everybody over here seems to know the Neil Sedaka song “Is This the Way to Amarillo?”, which I’d never heard before my move to the UK.

Some punning headlines leave me cold because they turn on British pronunciations that are foreign to me. A friend had to explain why a profile of Joaquin Phoenix was titled “Joaquin On the Wild Side”. I don’t pronounce Joaquin as walkin’ (in California, it was pronounced something more like whhah-KEEN) but apparently walkin’ is what they say here, or at least it’s something close enough that the pun works for British readers. And obeying the headline-doesn’t-have-to-pertain-to-story rule, the article didn’t refer to any sort of wild behavior by Phoenix, either.

Since puns in headlines usually feature in, well, features, puns in headlines over hard news can make it look as though the newspaper is rather unfortunately making light of serious subjects. I’ll grant them “Foot Heads Arms Body” as being too good to pass up, but when the main photo on the front page of the Sunday Times was of Ted Kennedy’s casket carried by an honour guard, I didn’t expect to see the accompanying article headlined “Four Presidents and a Funeral”. Yes, Bush Sr, Clinton, Carter, and Obama all attended, but is it necessary to make light of the death of an important American politician? I don’t think an American broadsheet-quality newspaper would run such a story under a jokey headline, but these days that may be because major American newspapers are falling like dominos and there aren’t that many left.

Still, when the British get it right, they really get it right. I’ll end with a tremendous example of the punster’s art, even though it takes some explanation: _38993885_sunheadline203Inverness Caledonian Thistle Football Club, sometimes known as Caley, played the Celtic Football Club of Glasgow for a Scottish football cup despite the fact that Caley is in a lower league and Celtic is one of the major UK teams in the premier league. Caley managed one of the all-time great upsets, beating Celtic 1-0, and the Scottish edition of The Sun ran the story as “Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious”.

Okay, football doesn’t have anything to do with Mary Poppins, but that is one premier-league pun.


Filed under Arts, Language

On the Street Where I Live

Okay, I live in England—but where? That’s complicated. In fact, it looks like it’s going to take more than one blog post to explain about British houses, streets, and addresses.

The Street, Puttenham, Surrey

The Street, Puttenham, Surrey

Street addresses aren’t always straightforward in the US, either. I grew up in Kentucky on North Broadway Park—except here in the UK they would say I grew up in North Broadway Park. The only people in the US who grew up in streets would have to have been homeless.

Mail addressed to us would occasionally wander over to South Broadway Park or to North Broadway (no Park) before reaching us, and my teetotal mother didn’t appreciate that our twin on North Broadway (no Park) was a bar. When I moved to California, I used to underline North once and Park twice when I sent a letter home, which seemed to help. Later I worried that as my parents grew older that if they ever needed an ambulance, help might go down to the tavern on North Broadway.

Surely it’s better to live at a place with an address that isn’t easily confused with another place, right? But the wonderful old farmhouse we fell in love with in California sat on/in West Meadow Drive, a little two-block extension of the much longer and better-known East Meadow Drive. It’s remarkable how many people can hear “West Meadow” and yet write down “East Meadow”.

The Street, Compton, Surrey

The Street, Compton, Surrey

Then we moved to England, where addresses suffer all kinds of further complications, the first one being that many houses have only names, no numbers at all. We lived for a few years in a house called Berwick Cottage. No number. And no way for anyone to find us except to go up and down the street, looking for the house names on signs in the front yards/gardens. Berwick Cottage sat between White Heathers and Wickets—picturesque, but without rhyme or reason.

Berwick Cottage and most of its neighbors dated from the 1930s, so by English standards, they’re practically brand new. After Berwick Cottage we lived in a house so old that no one knows when it was built, but since the town map of 1500 included that house, it presumably dates from 14-something. Giving houses numbers along a street is a newfangled practice brought in by an Act of Parliament in 1765, and it’ll take more than a mere few centuries here to change the habit of naming, rather than numbering, dwellings. Yet our 15th-century house had a number; you’re allowed to change a named house to a numbered house, but not to change a numbered house to a named house. They’re phasing out naming of houses, but they don’t seem to mind if it takes quite a while; when people here think about results in the long term, it can be the extremely long term.

Names of older properties can be more confusing because they often took their names from a manor house or stately home nearby, which made for a lot of redundancy. So—to make up an example—near to a place called Greatbig Manor you may very likely find Greatbig Lodge (possibly the original gatehouse for the manor), Greatbig House, Greatbig Farm, Greatbig Cottage, Greatbig Farm Cottage, and so on.

The Street, Compton, Surrey (camouflaged)

The Street, Compton, Surrey (camouflaged)

These will be situated on Greatbig Road, Greatbig Street, Greatbig Lane, Greatbig Avenue, Greatbig Close (close means court), and so on. Finding an address in one of those areas can feel like moving through a hall of mirrors. Didn’t we see that street just a minute ago?

At the other end of the scale,the principal street of smaller villages may simply be called The Street (see illustrations for three of the very many The Streets in our corner of Surrey). Or in truly tiny hamlets, people may omit the street name altogether, leaving residents with addresses such as The Old Schoolhouse, Tinyhamlet. Now that’s Olde Worlde, for sure. (Although even The Old Schoolhouse would have to have a post code, but let’s leave post codes vs. zip codes for another time, shall we?)

These streets—Greatbig Avenue and so on—also change names from time to time as they meet other streets at intersections. What looks like one long road can be a series of smaller roads each with its own name; stay on Aldershot Road long enough and it becomes Guildford Road, then Ash Street, then High Street (most towns of any size have High Streets just as American towns have Main Streets) and so on. There’s often no sign to alert drivers that the road name has changed. This continual metamorphosing of roads into other roads can make following directions impossible.

The Street, Shalford, Surrey

The Street, Shalford, Surrey

Lost in England, you might hear from a helpful local “turn left at the pub, then go to the end of the road and…” But what is “the end of the road”? In the US, I would normally drive on until I came to a T-junction and had no choice but to turn because the road has, well, ended. Here, you just have to know that after a couple of blocks (using the term loosely as the Anglo-Saxons didn’t lay out their towns with rectilinear streets) Queen’s Road becomes Queensway becomes Victoria Avenue, often without anything to mark the change so that some nondescript corner, very much like any other corner, might be “the end of the road”.

On the other hand, some parts of England still use roads that were first laid out by the Romans; these will run straight as a ruler for miles and miles, often without changing names throughout much of their lengths. These tend to be named Stane Street or Stone Street, because Romans paved their roads and Anglo-Saxon used muddy tracks. One Stane Street still runs from London through Surrey and West Sussex to Chichester remaining Stane Street for most of its length, though in small sections it does use aliases.

Oh, and with Roman roads still in use, it’s not too surprising that you’ll find some very old buildings on streets called New Street; if you come across a New Street, it might have been named centuries ago.

There are also regional variations, most notably in the city of York, where the roads into the city still run through gates in the medieval city wall. But the gates in the wall are called bars—Monk Bar, Bootham Bar—and roads in the city are called gates—Petergate, Gillygate, Goodramgate. (The bars, of course, are called pubs.) Just to make things more interesting, you also find hybrids, such as Micklegate Bar. Not knowing the local customs, I once spent ages wandering around trying to find my hotel using directions I couldn’t understand. (In this case, bar comes from a bar such as a tollgate would have had, and gate comes from the Viking word for street.)

When you move up to discussion of the names of towns and villages, it gets even more complicated—I’ll leave that for the next post. Besides, it’s tea time.


Filed under Culture, Language

How do you say that in Welsh?

Here’s a brief postscript to the recent post on pedestrian crossings:

Wales has to put up all road signs in two languages. Even though almost everyone speaks English and just over 20% of the people speak Welsh, both are official languages–and sometimes they run into translation problems.

In 2006, they put up this sign, meant to tell people, in both languages, to look right.
Welsh look-right-or-left

Unfortunately, the Welsh reads “look left”.


Then last October, government employees who needed to erect a sign warning truck drivers not to enter a residential area, sent off an email message to a translator, asking how the Welsh version of the sign should read. They got an answer back and the sign was duly manufactured. You can see from the picture what it says in English.
Welsh out-of-office

In Welsh, it reads “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated”.

Well, it could happen to anybody, really, couldn’t it?

Read the full stories at and


Filed under Language, Uncategorized

Horseback Writing

A couple of days ago I got on the phone to organizers of other writing groups in the Surrey–Hampshire area, trying to drum up interest in a joint effort at publicity.  My first call started in confusion and only got worse: 

“Where did you say you got my name, again?”

“Your group’s web site.  Your writing group.”

“I don’t belong to a group like that.”

“Oh! I beg your pardon.  Um, but it does say ‘The Art of Writing’, with your name.”


“And this number.”

“Oh, dear.  I think there’s been some dreadful mistake.”

“I’m sorry.  But maybe…that is, do you happen to know who’s in charge of the group now?”

“Well… I don’t know.  What kind of horses are you interested in? 


It was my accent.  I grew up in the bluegrass region of Kentucky (though they didn’t let the likes of me get anywhere near the thoroughbreds); she grew up in England.  I said writing; she heard riding.* 

A drama student who tends bar at one of the pubs on my normal flight path (the Seahorse in Shalford, if you want to know) tells me that in drama school here, they’re taught a generic American accent and a generic American Southern accent.  I don’t think it’d be polite to point out that there’s no such thing as a generic American accent and there are any number of different Southern accents, too, so I don’t.  I’d be very surprised if American drama schools did any better than that at teaching British accents; from what I can tell, there are as many different British regional accents as there are American regional accents, even though the UK is only a little more than twice the size of Kentucky. 

That drama students learn a generic US accent explains a thing or two about what I hear on the radio.  You get actors in dramas (we have excellent spoken-word radio here) who are meant to be playing Americans, but who sound at times as if they’re from Wisconsin, and at other times in the same program/programme as if they’re from Virginia.  Or less often, you hear actors whose speech bears no identifiable relation to anything I’ve ever heard, anywhere in the USA. 

And then there’s the case of the intrusive R. The British seem sometimes to save 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; I’m already tired of hearing Obama called President Obamer, and I once came in on a radio broadcast I couldn’t understand at all until I figured out that what I heard as career actually meant Korea.  Some American accents do include the intrusive R, but when you get that R mixed into the speech of an actor trying to sound like he’s from, say, Texas, it falls very oddly on my American ear. 

Then again, sometimes you get extremely accomplished actors with very convincing American accents and you can even think you’re listening to an American actor until the speaker falls foul of a tiny exception to an otherwise valid rule—which brings us back to the T pronounced as D.  While it’s true that Americans don’t pronounce a T anywhere near as crisply as the British do, even so, we do leave some Ts alone.  A supposedly American character in a BBC Radio 4 drama the other day was exposed when he got to a line about something that happened in 1939.  Now, it’s a big country, and perhaps some Americans somewhere say ninedeen for nineteen, but I’ve never come across one.  And even though we don’t say ninedeen, most do say thirdy-nine andninedy-three.  The poor actor needed to keep in mind that what most Americans would actually say is nineteen thirdy-nine.  

(I haven’t looked at this in detail, but I’m guessing the N in front of the T makes the difference.  We say antique, not andique, for example, and untried, not undried.  I’m sure a linguistics scholar somewhere has already figured this out, probably a century ago, and formulated a multisyllabic name for the rule.) 

It’s practically impossible, I think, to defuse all of the pronunciation landmines for a British actor playing an American on the radio (although it wouldn’t cost much to hire an American to listen to the cast during just one rehearsal, and correct their slips, and I’m available).  As for me, fortunately I don’t have to say anything for broadcast, and I’ve learned to modify what I say over the phone.  When I have to give out some number—phone, credit card, National Insurance (that’s like Social Security)—I take care to alter the way I say five and nine so that my Kentucky I vowel doesn’t throw the person at the other end. 

But I’d never encountered confusion over writing and riding.  Now that I’m aware of the problem, I’ll watch for it.  And the conversation gave me a great idea for a new hobby, perhaps even a new art form: horseback writing. 

* Even though, like most Americans, I turn the T of writing into a D when I pronounce writing, the words writing and riding sound different to me.  In my Kentucky accent, the first I of writing gets a diphthong and sounds like the more mainstream American I, while riding gets a monophthong, the long I that people associate with the American South.  I was in my thirties before someone asked me why I pronounced the I in bike differently from the I in bicycle, and I stopped to think about it; turns out it’s controlled by whether a voiced or voiceless consonant follows the vowel, and is a phenomenon well-known to, well, to the kind of people who study such things. 


Filed under Language, Uncategorized