Tag Archives: language

Crimbo Comes but Once a Year

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.

A dish of clementines on my dining room window sill.  Apologies for the vaguely noir-ish lighting.

A dish of clementines on my dining room window sill. Apologies for the vaguely noir-ish lighting.

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.

A box of "easy peelers", small clementines sold mainly for kids.

A box of “easy peelers”, small clementines sold mainly for kids.

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.


Filed under Culture, Language

In the know, British style

Of gen, swot, skiving off, hooky, bent, nous, berk, plonker, numpty, pillock, clot, twitching, anorak, and bumf

This morning I jotted down a list of words, mostly slang or at least informal words, commonly used in the UK and not in the US—at least, not as far as I can remember. I’m not only getting to the point that sometimes a British expression comes to mind first when I’m speaking, I occasionally can’t remember whether a phrase is British or American, and then there’s always the possibility that a phrase might have crossed the Atlantic while I wasn’t looking.  And I should point out that these are slangy words that have grown up in the language, applied for mortgages to buy space in nice vocabularies, and set about having little phonemes of their own; that is, none of this is what you’d call cutting-edge stuff coming up from the streets or from youth culture, but they are all in use in the part of Britain where I live.

I seem to have amassed quite a few dictionaries. The smaller ones here are sitting on the 2-vol Compact OED (Oxford English Dictionary)

So I picked out a handful of words from the list, mainly those having to do with information, looked up where they came from, and I’m ready to give you the gen.

Gen (pronounced like the woman’s name Jen) means information. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but used enough that I’ve picked it up while living here.  It probably started as Royal Air Force slang from the Second World War (the British are less likely than Americans to use the form WWII); experts aren’t sure whether it comes from the common military phrase for the general information of all ranks, or just from intelligence, but here if you need to learn something you might say you need to gen-up on it, instead of using bone-up on it, as Americans (and some Brits) do.   If you think that using military slang in the wider world is odd, but you don’t think twice if someone says they’re boning up on a subject, you might be surprised—I was—to find that to bone up started as slang at West Point.

One of my dictionaries—rather unhelpfully for Americans who don’t spend much time over here—gives swot as an explanation for gen-up. Swot comes from a Scottish dialect and means sweat: if you swot or swot-up, you’re working hard. Somebody who studies all the time is called a swot, too; I can’t swear that anybody in the Harry Potter books called Hermione a swot, but plenty of books about the J. K. Rowling books call her that; examples are easily found via Google Books.

(By the way, a swot isn’t necessarily smart, since here smart is not usually used to mean clever, but used to mean dressed nicely or lookin’ good.  When a colleague who usually wears jeans shows up in a suit, you’ll hear “Well, don’t you look smart!”)

These days I use the latest edition of the OED on-line to look up etymologies, but this is still a nice dictionary to have around the place. Notice the line "reproduced micrographically"; the print is so small the set comes with a magnifying glass.

If what you swot up on is something terminally uncool—such as the engine numbers of trains; trainspotting is rather like twitching (that is, bird watching), but with fewer feathers and less uncertainty as to where to find the creatures you’re after, because if  you stand on a railway platform long enough and look up the track and didn’t eventually see a train, something would be very wrong—then you might be called an anorak.  Apparently terminally uncool people standing around British train platforms writing down engine numbers tend to get cold, and their choice of outerwear is a kind of jacket or coat with a hood, called an anorak.  The word comes from the language of Inuit people in Greenland, and is used (I think) in parts of the US, too—at least, the coat itself may be called an anorak in the US, but I’ve never heard Americans use anorak as a synonym for nerd, as the British do.

If you’re a swot in the ordinary sense—teacher’s pet, always with your nose in a book (I plead guilty here)—it’s unlikely that you’ll skive off, which means to leave what you’re supposed to be doing and do something you’d rather.  In context of school, skiving off means playing truant, which we called playing hooky when I was the age for doing it. But hooky here is slang for something you got illegally, or something counterfeit.  (“Don’t buy one of them Gucci handbags down the market, they’re hooky.”)  Someone who deals in hooky merchandise, or otherwise bends the rules, is bent.  (Americans who watch imported British murder mystery TV shows probably already know about bent coppers.)  The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that bent came over here from the US in the first place, but that must have been some time ago, as I’ve never heard an American use it. We’d say crooked, though I suppose it’s the same thing; something can’t be crooked without being bent at least a little, or at any rate I can’t think of an example.

Being a swot, however, doesn’t necessarily mean you have nous, which rhymes with house and is something of a cross between common sense and gumption. On the other end of the scale of common sense, there are any number of words here for people who, where I grew up, might be said not to have the sense God gave a mule: berk, plonker, numpty, pillock, clot, and on and on. Looking these up, I was surprised to find that two are derived from words for a certain popular male appendage (and one from its female counterpart), and will say no more except that one of the dictionary entries reads “The penis. Also in extended use.”

A page from the Compact OED with an American dime to show the scale: the dime covers 16 lines, by my count. I've posed the dime between BLOCKMAN and BLOKE, because that's where BLOG would have been, if the word had been invented when that dictionary was printed.

That points up a recurring issue for ex-pats: knowing which words are and aren’t acceptable in polite conversation. You can easily run into trouble if you learn a new word from the TV/telly or the people you meet in the pub, and don’t realize that it’s something that will raise eyebrows, if not elicit outright gasps, when you say it in a suburban living room. And then again, sometimes you can look up a word that you’ve heard used by perfectly polite, well-brought-up people and find that the definition points right back to something that in the US, you probably wouldn’t say in front of your mother or your boss. (At least, I wouldn’t say it in front of my mother or my boss.)

I ran into that with bumf—yes, bumf. First time I heard it, a local businessman giving a talk to people considering starting up new businesses saw me taking notes and said “Don’t worry about writing everything down, I’ll give you a lot of bumf to take home”. That turned out to mean printed info, leaflets, pamphlets. A useful word since these days, although we have the technology to have paperless offices, we seem to generate more paper than ever and my files bulge with bumf. Unfortunately, bumf turns out to be a shortening of bum-fodder, that is, toilet paper. Do my friends and neighbors realize that? Probably not.

Stay tuned for further posts on the differences between American English and British English from time to time.  The subject usually provokes readers to comment (don’t let me down!), though a piece like this often gets a reaction, usually sent privately, from at least one British reader who feels offended, assuming that in pointing out how British English differs from what I grew up with, I disapprove.  I not complaining; I’m just a bit of an anorak where language is concerned.


Filed under Culture, Language, Travel

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

Self-Congratulatory Anniversary Post

August 1 was a big day here — the 12th anniversary of my move to the UK and the 2nd anniversary of this blog.

  Of the 115 pieces I’ve posted, the mostly widely read by far was Tea at Fortnum & Mason.  That one got  1313 hits just on the first day it was up, because Roger Ebert (blessings upon him!) tweeted it.

The posts that generated the most comments, though, were about language–especially pronunciation.  Top of the list is Houston, the BBC has a Problem — a problem pronouncing Houston, that is — followed by Horseback Writing, about some difficulty I had in being understood on the phone, and mentioning the intrusive R, that is, the habit of some British people who save up the Rs at the ends of the words, which they don’t pronounce, so they can pronounce them in the middles of other words, which are spelled without any Rs at all. And the fourth-most-commented-upon post was Put the accent on the right syl-LA-ble, which is self-explanatory or, as the British say, does what it says on the tin.

I realized I’ve skipped the third most popular (as judged by the number of comments); that was Taking Sides, about the British condemnation of what the media here saw as American nationalism during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the only political, really the only serious piece I’ve posted. There’s a more thoroughly fleshed-out article on the British media’s quite remarkable reaction to Obama’s slip in calling BP by the outdated name British Petroleum, which I wrote for another blog: Does the Tar-Spangled Banner Wave Over a Nation That Hates Britain? But I’d much rather write about things that are amusing, and so far I’ve been lucky in that readers seem to be amused as well.

Many thanks, then, to those who’ve read and who’ve commented on posts over the past two years. If you’d like to suggest topics, please do, though there’s no dearth of ideas on the stack already.

And as of this second anniversary, I’ve begun tweeting.  If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter at @wordboffin (somebody already took @mefoley, alas, and my business is The Word Boffin).

In any case, I hope you can stick with me here at the Anglo-American Experience, and we’ll see what happens next!


Filed under Just For Fun, Language, My Life & Stuff That Happened

A Jocular Look at the Poorly Sick

Not long after we moved here, while looking to buy a get-well card at a stationery stall at Guildford’s weekly market I ran across cards that read “Sorry to hear you’ve been poorly sick”. That seemed rather hostile; it’s bad enough to be sick, but to be accused of not doing it well adds insult to illness.

I’m not used to Americans using poorly in the sense of “not feeling well”, though I’m sure some do. In a rare moment of serendipity, when I first started typing out some ideas about poorly, I ran smack into an American example. The Saturday Play on BBC Radio 4 last week was “Farewell My Lovely”, Radio 4 being in the middle of a celebration of Raymond Chandler, whose P.I. character Philip Marlowe rarely gets through a story without being bashed on the back of the head.  This time an unknown assailant knocked him unconscious with a sap, and when later asked—by someone he probably would have described as a dame or a broad—“How’s your head?”, he answered “Poorly”.

Still, we don’t generally see poorly on US greeting cards (in the UK they are greetings cards), and I’ve never known any Americans to use poorly sick either in conversation or in print. A Google search, though, turns up many examples at British web sites, not only in health forums but in requests for help posted by people who say they have poorly sick computers, poorly sick web servers, and poorly sick cars.

On the other end of the health spectrum, some of my British friends are likely to say, if they’re healthy, that they’re “keeping well”.  This is a quality I ascribe to UHT milk, not to human beings. A recent message from a friend who had been ill began with “I generally keep quite well, but…”.  Perhaps she wasn’t refrigerated once opened.

If you don’t keep well, in either the US or the UK you might say you were sick as a dog, but only in the UK would it be common (in the sense of what’s ordinary, rather than what’s vulgar) to describe yourself as sick as a parrot. Why a parrot? I don’t know so I looked it up; the dictionary tells me this is “a fanciful catchphrase, chiefly used joc”. If I were well enough to be joc, I wouldn’t need a phrase to tell people how sick I was.

And if you really want fanciful, I suggest the phrase sick as a cushion, which also appears in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, the granddaddy of all dictionaries) along with sick as a cat and sick as a horse (though the example for sick as a horse explicitly says the phrase is vulgar).

But sick as a cushion? Well, the example the OED gives is from one of Jonathan Swift’s satires, and the context is this:  Poor Miss, she’s sick as a Cushion, she wants nothing but stuffing which, given the British slang use of stuffing that’s clearly intended here, is pretty darned vulgar.  Having said that, I know people are going to ask me what stuffing means in this sense, which leaves me with the problem of how to phrase it politely.  I resort this time to the listing for stuff in my dictionary of UK slang, which gives verb, slang, taboo: to copulate.  No doubt Swift was being joc.

Now having defined that term, I hesitate to say I’ve been unwell recently without adding quickly that I was not as sick as a cushion.  But I have indeed been poorly sick, and so haven’t been uploading blog posts as often as usual. I apologize and hope to resume normal service soon. In the meantime, you can see some examples of authentic British greetings cards for the poorly that I’ve used as illustrations here, all taken from card designs purchased from http://www.craftsuprint.com.


Filed under Language

Put the accent on the right syl-LA-ble

A view from the Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, for no excuse other than that this post mentions "The Irish Washerwoman", and for no reason except that such an amazing green is a welcome sight in an English winter.

In Isaac Asimov’s 1963 essay “You, Too, Can Speak Gaelic” he writes of going, as a student, to the chemistry lab stockroom to get some paradimethylaminobezaldehyde—No! Wait! I’m really writing about England and the English, just stay with me—but he didn’t know how to pronounce it. You’ll never forget it, said the stockroom attendant, if you sing it to the tune of The Irish Washerwoman—and he was right, as I’ve never forgotten it either and, like Asimov, at odd moments I find it running through my head.  Years later Asimov, mumbling through it under his breath in the waiting room of a doctor’s office (UK: doctor’s surgery), was startled when the receptionist said “My God! You know it in the original Gaelic!”

My organic chemistry professor, in common with the rest of his kind, had to teach students how to pronounce the names of these compounds, and often joked that we had to “put the emphasis on the right syl-LA-ble”.

But it turns out that in everyday speech the British put the stress on a different syllable than I do in lots of common words. I don’t know what to make of this, why it should be. It seems to be innate. I was laughed at just after we moved here when,  in a conversation about househunting, I pronounced the name of Godalming, a nearby town, as godALming–which seemed natural to me–when everybody knows (of course) that it’s GODalming.

I’ll leave further comment on the pronunciation of British placenames for another time; today I’m only looking at the way the syllables are emphasized. Godalming is perhaps not the best example because I was stressing the second syllable and the British locals stress the first.  It’s usually the other way around.  Of the handful of examples I can think of as I sit here, only one or two don’t involve a surprising (to me) stress on the second syllable.

The most recent such surprise came from a telly advert (US: TV commercial) for a film based on a book by Patricia Cornwell, when the voice-over guy said “Patricia cornWELL”. Did I hear that right? It is the nature of telly adverts to run again and again so I heard plenty of iterations and, yes, he was pronouncing it cornWELL.

The first example I noticed when I moved to England was someone on the radio talking about the best books of the last deCADE.  deCADE?   I thought it must have been a personal idiosyncracy, until I heard other people say the same. (Not everyone here does; that one seems to vary.)

Between those two I ran into any number of other examples. ConTROversy and perSEVerance are seen by some British people to be incorrect, but I hear the words said that way all the time. In sports—or in a metaphor taken from sports—we British don’t pass the batON, we pass the BATon. In the kitchen, we have PAPrika and oreGAno (PAPrika being one of those examples, like Godalming, in which the stress on the first syllable seems surprising; why the stress in oregano should slip all the way back to the third syllable is anybody’s guess). Plenty of British people call one of the popular internet service providers yaHOO.

I will leave you with that misCELLany. I wish I had some scholarly explanation to present about how words came to be pronounced so differently by descendants of the American colonists, or even some cockeyed reason I could try to pass off as the real thing. All I can do is to report the differences, and ask anyone who knows more to let me in on the secret.

People who know me in the off-line world won’t believe, I’m sure, that I’m ever quiet if there’s a chance to chatter, but I’m often quiet here in England, not wanting to advertise, the second I open my mouth, that I’m a foreigner. Keeping shtumm also gives me a chance to hear how the people I’m speaking to sound, and maybe adjust the way I speak to fit in.

That’s a technique I learned in graduate school at Stanford, when it turned out that my old organic chemistry professor had taught me the wrong pronunciation of several important terms. I learned not to use them until I’d heard someone with a better undergraduate education say them. Getting laughed at is a great teacher; you never forget the lesson. I’ll never say those terms the wrong way again, although there’s been little need for me to say them at all since I left academe.

I can, however, still pronounce paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde, and sing it to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman“, too.


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