Tuesday, May 30, 2006

chav

A recent list of American (well, North Carolinian) university student slang includes the word chav, defining it as:

CHAV - working class boor. From British slang. "“This club used to be nice, but now it's full of chavs."

I find this borrowing of the British term a bit sad, since it necessarily involves some semantic shift or drift. It's not so much that I'm against linguistic change and borrowing, but chav describes a very particular social phenomenon, which is generally not found in the same way in the US--with the notable possible exception of Britney Spears. The word becomes less useful if it just refers generally to 'working class boors'.

Britain, on the other hand, does not have exact equivalents of the American phenomena rednecks, trailer trash or wiggas, although there are overlaps between the latter two and chavhood.

A key difference between the US and UK social stereotypes is their relation to race and class issues. The US categories all implicitly or explicitly reference race--rednecks are whites who stereotypically have racist attitudes, trailer trash is a subcategory of white trash, and wiggas are (typically/originally upper middle class) whites who emulate 'urban black' styles. While chavs are generally white, and while their style and slang often echoes an 'urban' Black American aesthetic (e.g. bling), the relationship is less direct than for wiggas. Football (AmE: soccer) also plays a heavy role in chav style, whether in emulation of favo(u)rite players (or their wives), or in the display of football-nationalistic symbols (e.g. England team wear). Click here for a football-themed post on World Cup words.

Chavhood is also associated with Gypsydom, although more through shared stereotypes than actual lineage. The word itself is thought to be Romany in origin (see Michael Quinion's excellent site), and pikey, an offensive word for Gypsies (or Travel(l)ers, a preferred term in Britain), is often used as a synonym for chav.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Special trade names issue: wally, waldo and chocolate bars

Standing outside a bookshop today, Better Half pointed out the Where's Wally books, and wondered why the man called Waldo in America is Wally in the UK. No one seems to know.

The Wally/Waldo books are the invention of an Englishman, so I am assuming (just because there's precious little info on this on the internet) that Wally was the original name. In BrE, a wally is someone who's a bit of an idiot. It doesn't have this meaning in AmE, and neither does Waldo, so why they felt the need to change it in the US, I'm not sure. My only guess is that they chose Waldo because it's a funny-sounding name, and that might make up for the fact that the 'dunce' connotations of the name were lost on Americans. It's also a name that's pretty much died out in the US since the 1950s. The Where's Waldo books have not, it seems, sparked a baby-naming trend. (See: Name Voyager, a fun way to waste some time.)

The family of (US) candy bars / (UK) chocolate bars made by M&M/Mars (aka Masterfoods) provide another case of onomastic mismatch between the US and UK, as the following table shows. (Hey, look at me! I figured out how to make an html table!)

inside the barUSUK
nougat3 MusketeersMilky Way
nougat, caramelMilky WayMars
nougat, caramel, peanutsSnickers until 1990: Marathon; since 1990: Snickers
nougat, caramel, almondsuntil 2000: Mars now: Snickers Almond n/a
caramel (in a pretzel shape--vague equivalents; not made by the same company)Marathon (R.I.P.) Cadbury Curly Wurly


Just to be confusing, there's now an energy bar called Snickers Marathon. I have read one theory that Snickers was originally called Marathon in the UK because Snickers sounded too much like knickers (i.e. underpants).

For a visual comparison of US/UK Mars, see The Visible Mars Bar Project In general, Americans are more likely than Europeans to put Almonds in their chocolate, and Europeans are more likely to put hazelnuts in their chocolate, though you see more and more of both on both sides of the Atlantic these days. Both are delightful in their own ways.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

charity shop/thrift store

On Saturdays like today I volunteer for four hours at an Oxfam shop. It's a fun job--most of my fellow volunteers are foreigners as well--mostly students who want to practice their English or to get some shop experience in hopes of getting a paying job at some point. Anyhow, working there today got me thinking about the differences between UK charity shops and US thrift stores. While you could say that the two terms are cross-dialectal translations of one another (as wikipedia does), the different focuses of the names reveal differences in the establishments themselves and the cultural attitudes to them.

shop vs. store
Generally, BrE uses the noun shop where Americans would use store, but for me as an American, a shop sounds smaller than a store, and indeed size is a major difference between the average transatlantic thrifting (US informal) experiences. Most UK charity shops are smallish shops in the high street (UK; = US 'on the main shopping street, downtown'), while US thrift stores often have warehouse or supermarket proportions. Because of the smaller amount of floor space, some UK shops can afford to be very choosy about what they put out for display. Oxfam recently had a campaign to discourage donations of "not so good" goods.


thrift vs. charity
More differences in the social attitudes toward these shops are revealed in the descriptors thrift and charity. In the past few years, attitudes toward buying second-hand goods have changed in the US (hence the popularity of eBay), but when I was a kid, thrift stores were understood to be 'for' poor people to shop at. Hence they were in poorer (or in my town's case, industrial) areas. Nowadays you can find many thrift shops in strip malls, mixed in with retail shops appealing to all kinds of tastes. The prices are still pretty cheap, though I expect that the influx of middle class thrifters and the need to pay rent in more expensive parts of town may raise those prices in places.

Charity shops like Oxfam are clear that their main purpose is to raise money--not to provide cheap goods to the community (that's a nice side effect). Our shop is particularly expensive (as customers like to tell me), but we generally charge what we think we can get for an item. This means that anything that has possible value as a collectible is priced only a bit cheaper than it would be in an antique or other specialist shop. Secondhand books are £2 or £3 for most paperback novels (new ones in bookshops are £6 or £7), but there are also art books and antique books priced at around £20. (£1 = ~$1.90)

A broader cross-section of the UK (than the US) population seems to frequent charity shops--not everyone would buy their clothes there, but most readers enjoy checking out the books. Although there are real charity aficionados here, there is not, to my knowledge, any equivalent of the US verb to thrift.

Friday, May 26, 2006

roiling and broiling

A few days ago, I read Better Half a bit of something I'd been writing about cooking terms, and my mention of a roiling boil completely flummoxed him. Not sure whether I'd stumbled on a dialectal difference or whether BH just had a poor vocabulary when it came to cooking, I asked my boss, a historical linguist who also professed ignorance of the word roil. So, dialectal difference then--BH's vocabulary is vindicated!

To roil is to move water so that whatever is in it (sediment, etc.) gets stirred up. By metaphorical extension, it can mean to perturb or upset. A roiling boil, then, is the type where your eggs knock against your pan.

OED's first citation of roil is from 1590, but most citations past 1700 are American. The origin is obscure, possibly from a rare French verb. Development of the adjective roiling seems particularly American, with the first citation in 1967.

It's a common enough word in American recipes, with an estimated 9300+ Google hits for roiling boil:

To purify questionable water, bring it to a roiling boil and keep it there for 10 minutes at least.

Bring to a roiling boil, reduce to simmer and cook until the meat is tender...


The sea and emotions frequently roil as well.

The British equivalent for roiling boil is fast boil [updated link].

The lack of roiling boil in BrE reminds me of another American -oil word, broil.

Playing Scrabble recently, my opponent The Postman was unsure of broiled, but played it figuring that it must be related to embroiled. This reminded me of one of the first times I watched "Who wants to be a millionaire?" in the UK. The million pound question was (approximately, from memory):

The American word broil means:
(a) bake (b) boil (c) grill (d) braise


I could've won a million pounds, except that I probably would've wiped out on a cricket question long before getting to the mil.

separated by a common language

When I first moved to the UK, more than six years ago, I started a list of ways in which British English (henceforth BrE) and American English (AmE) differed. I thought I might try to write a grammar/spell-checking program that would translate texts from one dialect to the other. That idea never got off the ground, largely because I can't program, and because I doubted that the amount of work it would require would be in reasonable proportion to the number of people who would actually want to pay for such a thing.

Dictionaries of British/American English mostly cover well-known variants like truck/lorry and elevator/lift But these are just the tip of the iceberg. What I intend to cover here are words/phrases/pronunciations/grammatical constructions that get me into trouble on a daily basis.

If you'd like to suggest any words for discussion, please use the 'e-mail Lynneguist' feature.