Friday, June 30, 2006

a little comfort

I had dinner with four Liverpudlians tonight, one of whom I initially had to ask to repeat almost everything. I took comfort in three things:
  • She had to ask me to repeat almost everything too.
  • By the end of dinner we could understand each other very well.
  • In telling a story about her uncle she said "We can hardly understand him--he's speaks with such a Scouse accent."

It made me feel a bit less awkward to think that even Liverpudlians (with Scouse accents) can't always understand Liverpudlians with Scouse accents.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Murphy's/Sod's Law

When I moved to South Africa in the 90s, I found that my American pronunciation of battery would not do when trying to buy batteries in shops. I learned to say, and somehow still say [bætri] instead of my flap-infested, three-syllable American version. Now I live in a place where the word has three syllables but no flap, yet I somehow made myself clear enough to succeed in buying a £7 battery for my watch on Saturday. Three days later, I hear a chink on the ground and it's my watch, which has irreparably broken in the place where the band is held to the watchy bit.

This is an illustration of Sod's law, which is the same law that Americans call Murphy's law ('anything that can go wrong will', etc.). The American name is older, having its origins in the first-half of the 20th century in the US military. (Stories of who the original Murphy was are best treated as apocryphal.) Sod's law came about in the 1970s, and is far more common on these shores than Murphy's law, which is nevertheless usually understood. It probably replaced Murphy's law because of the delicacy of Anglo-Irish relations. (Most Americans would claim that Murphy's law is not an anti-Irish gibe--but if your name is Murphy and you look Irish, you might have a different experience of this.)

Sod is short for sodomite and in this context is probably a play on God's law. It's commonly heard in poor sod--i.e., 'poor bastard' or in many of the places where a stronger vulgarity might be used--e.g. sod-all and sod off. As far as 'naughty' words go, this one is fairly mild these days, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of users of the word are unaware of its etymology.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

dens and forts

When my brothers and I were small we made lots of forts, usually with the (US-preferred) couch/(UK-preferred) sofa cushions. In the winter, we made snowforts in the snowbanks in the backyard (AmE; BrE = back garden). Our cushion-forts were especially important to me during the annual televising of The Wizard of Oz. I always watched with my head peeping out of the fort so that I could duck back in quickly whenever the flying monkeys came on screen.

Meanwhile on this fair island the children were making dens. These days, child development experts are afraid that dens/forts may be going the way of tiddlywinks now that children's time is taken up with organi{s/z}ed or electronic activities. The Guardian's Family section has recently run a few articles about den-making, including some how-to tips. Bring back the den/fort!

A related BrE term is Wendy house, which Americans would usually call a playhouse. A Wendy house (after Wendy in Peter Pan) is typically not made by the child but made or bought by the parent, and is usually situated in the garden/yard.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

the trouble with vowels

There are a couple of vowels that most distinguish my accent from those around me. One is the 'short a' sound before /s/. So, while I watch the [græs] growing ([æ] = the vowel in bat), everyone else is watching the [gras] growing ([a] = the first vowel in father)--or not growing, as the case may be. We've had months of drought--so much for the notion of rainy English weather.

The [æ]/[a] variation before /s/ is not much of a problem--it rarely results in misunderstandings between me and others. Half my friends seem to be from Liverpool, where people say [græs] like me, so in a way this isn't a 'foreign' pronunciation. It's only a little bit of a problem in my household because Better Half's company is called Smartpass, and the character who appears in all of their audio study guides is called the Passmaster, so I end up feeling a bit like an [æs] when I'm in a room full of people talking about BH's work and I'm the only one saying [pæsmæstr].

The vowel that causes more trouble is the 'short o'--i.e. the vowel in bob. Yesterday it was this very word that got me into trouble. I was playing a CD while working my shift in the charity shop, when a man asked who was singing:
Me: The Bobs.
Him (making a note of the name): The Barbs
Me (stressing the vowel, making it worse): The Bobs
Him: The Barbs
Me (catching on, using a more anglici{s/z}ed pronunciation): No, the Bobs. B-O-B-S.

I had a similar problem a few weeks before with BH. I told him I wanted to buy some caulk and re-caulk the shower. Now, half the problem here is that people don't talk about caulk in BrE. They buy sealant and re-seal the shower. But the other half of the problem was the vowel. BH thought it was odd that I'd want to put cork around the leaky bits of the shower.

Meanwhile, at Scrabble Club, I've been cruelly mocked (oh, they are so cruel at Scrabble Club) for looking for a 'bahx' instead of a 'bOx'. I'm having two problems in talking about this here. First, I don't know how to make the phonetic symbols here on Blogger (so, I'm using 'ah' and 'O'), and second, it's hard to explain the English sound to Americans, since this particular vowel sound generally doesn't exist in American English. To say it, one must round the lips slightly, rear the tongue back in the mouth (a little lower than one puts it for the vowel in law), and channel John Houseman. (You can hear all these vowels at the UCLA phonetics website.) After the Bobs incident yesterday, I was going about practi{c/s}ing: bauks, bAuhks, baks..., until BH proclaimed "By George, I think she's Rex Harrison!"

Friday, June 23, 2006

hen nights

Describing Nicole Kidman and what's-his-name's prenuptial activities, Scott Lamb on Salon writes:
Much less interesting is the description of Kidman's bachelorette party, or as they say down under, her hen's night: "Instead of male strippers and boozing, the girls each brought a favorite recipe to discuss."

They may say hen's night in Australia (and they do, if the internet is to be trusted), but in the UK and Ireland, it's generally referred to as a hen night. While the term bachelorette party is used in the US, I've never been to one--in spite of having been a bridesmaid five times and (more recently) a sister-in-law three times--so I wonder how popular they actually are. But here, [drunken] hen nights are hard to escape, especially if you live in a coastal/touristy town like mine. I met three hen nights tonight on my post-prandial promenade. One group were all wearing glittery pink cowboy hats, one seemed to have wreaths of flowers on their heads (much more classy), then there's the ever-popular bunny ears. You can usually spot the bride because she's the one (a) with a veil, (b) with L-plates (the badge that learner drivers must display on their cars), or (c) carrying a naked, male blow-up doll or giant penis balloon. More and more popular are hen weekends--which often involve going abroad, or to touristy coastal towns like mine. There are businesses that speciali{s/z}e in organising hen trips.

Of course, older brides tend not to go for the pink cowgirl outfits or matching t-shirts with pictures of the bride. Recipe-swapping sounds like a nice alternative. But I do wonder about the rate of male take-up on a local 'paint your own pottery' business that advertises "Have your hen night/stag party here!"

Thursday, June 22, 2006

bills, notes

At the post office today, I needed to pay 64p for stamps, but only had 63p in change. The following conversation ensued:

Me: I'm afraid I'll have to give you a big bill. A really big bill.
PostOfficeMan: That's ok, we like big bills.
Now, hearing an Englishman call £20 a bill rather than a note made me
reali{s/z}e that I'd said the wrong word:
Me: I mean, a large note!
POM: I know what you mean. We call them notes, but they tend to call them bills in America--oh, and Canada, Canada.
I took his eagerness to mention Canada as further evidence of the aforementioned fear of Canadians going bonkers when assumed to be American. (I should say that while I find these conversations amusing, I don't blame Canadians at all for resenting being assumed to be American. However, since Canadians don't seem to leave their country without maple leaf flags sewn onto all of their outerwear, it is hard to mistake them for Americans.)

But a few words on money. Americans (and Canadians!) have particular words for their coins: penny (1¢), nickel (5¢), dime (10¢), quarter (25¢), and in Canada loony for the $1 coin. The British mostly don't have names for the coins. Presumably this is because they had nice names for units of currency that almost all became obsolete with the introduction of decimali{z/s}ation in the early 1970s. So, don't go looking here for sixpence and guineas, they don't exist anymore. One might say that a nickname for the pound coin is quid, but that is really a nickname for the amount (on a par with American buck for dollar), rather than for the coin.

The copper coins (collectively known as coppers, which is also slang for policemen--by a different etymology) do have names, presumably because these units survived decimali{s/z}ation: penny (1p) and tuppence (2p) (although they were worth different amounts in the decimal system, so were, for a time, called new penny/pence). Pence is the plural of penny, so it's technically incorrect to say 1 pence, but more and more people do. The ha'penny (pronounced hay-p'nny), or half-penny, is no longer in circulation as a coin, but remains in circulation in some idioms and place names. My friends' mothers coached them: Keep your hand on your ha'penny--that is, don't let anyone in your knickers (US: panties).

On the other hand, the British have names for two notes/bills, the self-explanatory fiver and tenner. I tend to remember to use the British term too late and say things like "Have you got a five...R?" I'd call these the names of the notes/bills, rather than slang terms, as they are not at all stylistically marked in the way that saying a fin (=$5) or sawbuck ($10) would be in the US. There are no similar names for larger bills--i.e. no *twentier. While US bills/notes are sometimes called by the name of the person (usually president) pictured on them, all the UK Bank of England notes have the reigning monarch on the front, and the people on the back change from time to time, and thus aren't so firmly associated with a particular denomination.

Here's a site on British money slang that may be of interest, if you like that sort of thing.


I was saying to my Swedish teacher yesterday (på svenska, klart) that I like the word duk ('cloth') because I can guess a lot of duk words: näsduk ('nose cloth' = 'handkerchief'), halsduk ('neck cloth' = 'scarf'), bordduk ('tablecloth'), handduk ('hand cloth' = 'towel'). Thinking about duk got me thinking about a similarly useful word in English, bin. The tricky part is figuring out in which things Americans call bins and which things the British call bins.

Bin on its own in BrE is usually short for rubbish bin--i.e. AmE trash/garbage can or waste basket. In these you put a bin liner, which in AmE is garbage/trash bag (or in some parts of the US: garbage sack). A wheelie bin is the kind with wheels that you put outside by the (US) curb/(UK) kerb. I know someone who takes part in wheelie bin protests in Brighton. I'm afraid to tell him that I'm pro-wheelie-bin. The bins are a lot less ugly than rubbish (US trash) strewn all over the pavement (US sidewalk) by seagulls. Big wheelie bins would be called dumpsters in the US, but so would the things that are called skips in Britain. (Click the links for pictures.)

In BrE, bread is stored (not thrown away) in a bread bin, which in AmE is bread box.

Another bin I see a lot in the UK, but haven't heard in the US (though maybe an oenophile will tell me it's used there too) is a wine bin, which is a stack of bottles of wine. This gives rise to the notion of a bin end, that is, the last bottles of a certain wine, which are offered at reduced price. One of the big British off-licence (AmE liquor store, and many regional variations on this) chains is called Oddbins.

Both countries have storage bins and recycling bins, but only Americans name a part of the fridge the vegetable bin. Some Americans call the same fridge part a crisper. While I have found vegetable bin in fridge specifications in the UK, I believe that it's US copy. The UK equivalents I've heard are vegetable drawer (also good in the US), vegetable tray and vegetable box.

So, the moral of the story is that bin is a very useful word, but not so useful that you can predict with confidence which things will be called bin in another English-speaking country and which things won't. Containers in general suffer a lot of transatlantic name shifting, but I'll write about pots and cartons and jugs some other time...

Getting back to the Swedish start of this entry, I ought to give a little credit where it's due. Part of the inspiration for this blog is a lovely blog on the expatriate experience called How to Learn Swedish in 1000 Difficult Lessons. (I found this by chance when I started learning Swedish, then by chance found out that I'm two degrees of separation from its author, Francis Strand, but I've never had any contact with him.) As the name of the blog suggests, it does have a linguistic perspective, with a Swedish word of the day relating to whatever was discussed.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

sounding English/American

Bbrug pointed out an article on British and American authors' renditions of the other dialect's speech on the Telegraph website. Not being a Telegraph reader, I was grateful for the link.

The author starts with the following premise (BrE: premiss):
America has become more interested in the outside world since September 2001. If their first, bewildered question was "Why do they hate us so much?" it has, in time, been followed up by questions about what life in the outside world is actually like.
This premis{e/s} itself may be the most faulty part of the article. There have always been people in the US who are interested in what the outside world is like. But, having been an expat both before and after September 11th, I've felt that the proportion of 'what's it like to live there?' to 'why do they hate us?' conversations has changed in the opposite direction of that suggested by the author. Just in March, I was trapped in a conversation at an American party, where a man who'd never needed a passport kept drilling me on the hatred subject, refusing to believe that I didn't suffer as an American abroad. On the two occasions in which I've had dental work in the US since the terrorist attacks, I've been stuck with Dr Dentist's hands in my mouth while he lectures me on why he'll never return to France because of its government's stance on the war. When travel(l)ing with Better Half in the US, I'm always amazed when people ask where he's from and then say "That sounds nice. I have no interest in going there. There's enough of America to see." Why, exactly, did they feel the need to say that?

Anyhow, back to language. The author goes on:
There's an easy test to apply about how substantial this new interest is, or whether the outside world is actually being listened to. Can American writers reliably report the styles of speech of one of their nearest linguistic cousins?
By the end of the article, it's clear that this is not a very good test at all. As the author notes, creating realistic dialogue is one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction, and few writers master it even in their own dialect. And while Europeans can't help but be exposed to a lot of American culture (through media, retail, politics and tourists), there are few British novelists who ably write American voices without crossing the border into parody.

The author's segue into the main discussion of dialogue in novels starts on a filmic tangent:
From Cary Grant to Dick van Dyke to Woody Allen's inadvertently hilarious Match Point ("I was raised in Belgravia"), English audiences have been retching in the stalls at American film's idea of English speech.
Dick van Dyke's portrayal of a Cockney chimneysweep in Mary Poppins remains a byword for American misapprehension of British speech, but seems a bit unfair here in relation to American writers' reportage of the British 'voice', since an Australian wrote the Mary Poppins books. While it is easier to come up with examples of British (and Australian and South African) actors taking on American accents than vice versa, this probably has at least as much to do with the "economic migration" of British film actors toward Hollywood as to do with the quality of American acting. Renée Zellweger's Bridget Jones was warmly embraced here, and Gwyneth Paltrow's English accents, while not perfect, are rarely marked as a distraction.

The article goes on to discuss the stereotyping of (particularly upper class) British speech as 'pompous' and overly wordy, and this is undebatable. One never hears Brits in American films or novels saying "I reckon...". The pomposity is linked to Americans' tendency to cast Englishmen (complete with ridiculously pompous speech styles) as villains. As Leo Benedictus in the Guardian notes, "Sophistication in all its forms is a sure sign of evil, and American audiences find nothing more sophisticated (or untrustworthy) than a snooty Brit." (I can't help but relate Americans' association of sophisticated, wordy language as a sign of untrustworthiness to the otherwise unfathomable electoral success of George W Bush. Well, that and Republican money an a crooked Supreme Court, of course.)

People here often say to me "you don't sound American" or "oh, I thought you were Canadian." One could believe that this is because British people have wonderful ears for accents and recognize a couple of features that are shared between my part of New York and Ontario. But that's pretty unlikely. The only time any American has accused me of sounding Canadian was when I moved to Massachusetts and was relentlessly mocked for saying eh? at the end of each utterance. (This was useful in South Africa, where I easily adapted to saying hey at the end of each utterance.) No, I think there are three reasons why I don't 'sound American' to some Brits, listed here in order of perceived importance:

  • I don't sound like a hick* or a mafiosa. That is, the British get their ideas of what Americans sound like from stereotyped performances, just as Americans do for the English.

  • Everyone lives in mortal fear of travel(l)ing Canadians, who go bonkers when accused of being American.

  • I make certain accommodations for British ears, namely avoiding intervocalic flaps. (Click here to hear a flap in the middle of the word letter and here to hear it with a regular /t/ sound.)

*AmE has lots of unflattering epithets for rural folk, including: hick, hayseed, hillbilly, redneck, rube, country bumpkin, yokel. The last couple aren't marked in my Concise Oxford as 'US', so presumably they are known in Britain too. (Better Half is not here to serve as my editor today!) But while hick is now considered to be an Americanism, it's another of those words that started out in England and was forgotten here. See The Word Detective on the subject.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Welsh dresser, hutch, counter and side

We bought this piece of furniture (from a charity shop) for our kitchen last week, and I am learning to call it a Welsh dresser. It is a low cabinet with an open case of shelves on top. It has a little surface in front of the shelves where one could, say, slice bread. I was stymied in trying to find an American equivalent for this--which may go to show that I am suffering attrition of my native dialect. I've been calling it a cabinet when describing it to Americans, but the more specific name for it is hutch (as I found after searching US furniture retailers' sites). This is a word I know, but perhaps I never got to know it well enough, as I'd never lived in a house with one before now. That's my excuse for forgetting it, at least. Better Half protests "Rabbits live in hutches!" Strictly speaking, according to the furniture sellers, it's the top part that's the hutch, but since I didn't know until recently that the top and bottom halves were separable, I've always assumed that the whole thing is a hutch. (Without the top hutch part, it would be a sideboard--as long as it's in the dining room or kitchen.)

BH often reduces Welsh dresser to dresser, as in We bought a dresser for the end of the kitchen. This, to me, is weird (technical linguistic term), since I think of a dresser as belonging in a bedroom or dressing room. I suppose one could dress a chicken on a Welsh dresser...

While we're in the kitchen...the built-in work surface is called the counter or countertop in AmE, but tends not to be called this in BrE. Location-wise, it's generally referred to as the side, as in The plates are on the side or Cut the carrots on the side (which, of course, is ambiguous). You wouldn't, however, say I bought a new side for the kitchen or The side is formica. Referring to the thing, instead of the location, it can be called a worktop or work surface.

The things with doors above and below the counter/worktop are what I would call kitchen cabinets. Better Half calls them kitchen cupboards, which also works in American English. In BrE, it seems, a cabinet is free-standing.

Friday, June 16, 2006


When I first started marking (AmE prefers grading) essays (AmE would say papers, which is more likely to mean 'exams' in BrE university-speak) in the UK, I would correct students who used the word whilst instead of while, as in Whilst the students could write 'while', they tend to write 'whilst'. My comment would be the teacherly version of (AmE) take that stick out of your ass. I quickly learned, however, that whilst is not a punishable offense in British English.

Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage says: 'Although “whilst” is a perfectly good traditional synonym of “while,” in American usage it is considered pretentious and old-fashioned.' Indeed, it is. I try to not let it affect me nowadays...

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

rutabaga update!

Previously, I'd wondered why the most English of English condiments, Branston Pickle, included the American word rutabaga on their ingredients list. I e-mailed Customer Service at Premier Foods with this question, suggesting that they might be trying to hide the fact that Branston Pickle includes swede (or Swedish turnip--BrE for rutabaga). They have responded--yes, indeed that's the reason. Swede is not a popular vegetable. They have, however, pointed out that swedes are also called rutabaga in French, and that might be the more immediate source of the word in the ingredients list, rather than American English.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


In the US, a geezer is an old man--preferably one who looks something like the picture on the left.

In informal British English, however, geezer means something more like dude means in AmE. (But unlike dude, people don't go around addressing each other as geezer.) It can be used for any man, or to connote that someone is 'one of the lads' (US: guys) or a bit cheeky or laddish--i.e. a bit naughty. A diamond geezer is a great guy. A dodgy geezer is someone you're better off avoiding. Geezer used in this way has a bit of east London attitude to it.

One sometimes sees babygros (UK)/onesies (US) emblazoned with GEEZER, as in the picture on the right. Thought about getting some of these for my infant nephews, but thought they'd only cause consternation in the US.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

irregular verbs: gotten, fit, knit

The American past participle of get, gotten, is one of those American things that the British often express real distaste for. I get the feeling that some Brits think it sounds ignorant. Better Half is now shouting from the other room that it sounds uneducated and hillbillyish. It's an example Americans keeping an older form that disappeared in Britain. A lot has been written on this subject. I recommend the following:

For a bit more on the history, see Maven's Word of the Day.

See John Lawler (with help from David Crystal) on why British people often get it wrong when they try to use American gotten. Essentially, with the 'possession', rather than 'acquisition', sense of get, we say have got, not have gotten. This means that the following two sentences mean different things.

I've got a new hat. (= 'I have a new hat.')
I've gotten a new hat. (= 'I obtained a new hat.')

The thing that I find a bit funny about the looking-down-the-nose attitude toward gotten is that it's retained in British English in the participial verb forgotten (hardly an uncommon verb!) and in the adjective ill-gotten.

Americans also have an irregular past/past participle for fit, but this one isn't so old.

US: Before he lost weight, the jacket (had) fit him.
UK: Before he lost weight, the jacket (had) fitted him.

In my dialect (or at least my idiolect!), we do use fitted when describing making something to measure. So:

US & UK: I had that jacket fitted. The tailor fitted me for a jacket.

But according to The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style by Bryan A. Garner, I'm part of a dying breed and others are using only fit as the past tense of fit:

"Just since the mid-20th century, AmE has witnessed a shift in the past tense and past participle from fitted to fit. Traditionally, fit would have been considered incorrect, but it began appearing in journalism and even scholarly writing as early as the 1950s.
The traditionally correct past tense still surfaces—especially in BrE—but in AmE it is becoming rarer (and stuffier) year by year: “A most interesting item in my coin collection is a disk that fitted the pressure-spray nozzle on our apple-orchard pump some 50 years ago” (Christian Science Monitor). Although fitted may one day be extinct as a verb form, it will undoubtedly persist as an adjective fitted sheets."

Presumably the irregulari(s/z)ation of fit is on analogy with hit, which does not change its form in the past or past participle in either dialect.

Incidentally, if a tailor makes you a suit in the UK, it's said to be a bespoke suit. In the US we'd say tailored or made-to-measure, which is perfectly sayable in the UK too. Anything that's made to personal specifications can be bespoke. Checking the web, I got "bespoke vehicles", "bespoke network solutions", "bespoke mirrors", "bespoke browbands" (for horses).

Even more incidentally: Fit is also a recent BrE slang adjective meaning 'attractive'. Of course, this is more related to the 'fitness' sense of fit. I have no idea whether this has currency in the US now--I have heard it there in a British song: "Fit but you know it" by The Streets, which is full of lots of other Briticisms, which I might get around to discussing some day. Right now I'm being amused by a new antonym pairing: fit/fat.

Enough with the incidentals.

Lately, I've been losing my intuitions when it comes to knit versus knitted. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the past tense knit is most likely to be used to refer to the process of making rows of looped-together yarn (or wool as is more commonly said in the UK), and less likely to be used in other senses, like making a whole garment or 'knitting' your brow. According to the aforementioned style guide, past tense knit has taken over. As far as I can tell, I say knit for all but the figurative senses. So, I'd say: Celeste knitted her brow while she knit her scarf.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

cheap and tight

So, Friend 1 , Friend 2 and I were having a (BrE) natter tonight, when the fact of Mutual Acquaintance's stinginess came into the conversation. I exclaimed, "MA is so cheap!" and F1 said "It's so funny whenever you say someone's cheap when you mean tight. If you say someone's cheap here, it means something different."

Well, in the US it can mean that too--it's ambiguous. But, given the context most Americans would naturally have interpreted my comment as meaning that MA is careful with her money (to put a positive spin on it), rather than that she has loose morals. I know that in England I'm 'supposed' to say that such people are tight, but to me, that word has unappealing connotations when applied to a woman. This is not helped by my knowledge of British saying about stingy people, which is often applied to MA: She's tight as a gnat's chuff.

From now on, I think I'll have to resort to saying "MA is careful with her money for reasons that I don't entirely approve of."

Thursday, June 08, 2006

(h)erbs and (h)aitches

Just as it makes Americans giggle to hear English people say reckon, I've elicited numerous gasps and giggles with my American pronunciation of herb (more like urb). In fact, I've had to take up saying it the English way, with the /h/, so as to maintain any kind of credibility as an educated person.

[Update, 14 June 2006: As is often the case, Americans have the older form of the word--the British used to say 'erb too. It just happened to be mentioned in the Guardian's Weekend magazine this week. See Michael Quinion's World Wide Words for more...]

A common response to an American pronunciation of herb is: "Are you a Cockney, then?" Dropping aitches is a definite marker of lower social class--and these days it's fairly rare. In fact, aitches get inserted sometimes in the name of the letter, i.e. haitch. This is heard in the semi-humorous admonision to not 'drop your haitches' (and thus sound 'common'), but is heard unironically in many people's everyday speech, although it is not considered to be 'standard' usage. The story is that it's the Irish pronunciation, and I've read in various places that haitch marks Catholics in Northern Ireland and the Catholic-educated in Australia. I've noticed no such associations here, and neither have friends of mine, though one did suggest that it might be a marker of region rather than religion here. Indeed, my haitch-saying friend is from Liverpool, whose dialect (Scouse) is influenced by Irish immigrants.

As long as I'm talking about herbs...there aren't many that differ in name between the US and UK. Americans call the green part of the coriander plant cilantro, while the British call it coriander. Americans use coriander to refer to the spice made by drying and grinding the plant's fruit. Presumably the difference exists because Americans were introduced to the herb in Mexican cooking, whereas the British know it from South/Southeast Asian cooking. Once, reading a British recipe in Texas, I got confused. I knew that British coriander wasn't meant to refer to the powder in my coriander jar, but could only remember that the American translation also started with C. So I put a whole lot of cumin into my chicken soup. I ate about three bites before I decided that there was nothing to do but toss it out.

Oregano differs in pronunciation, with Americans saying oREGano and the British saying oreGANo. In South Africa (where I first started picking up 'commonwealth English'), they use oreGANum.

As for other herbs and spices, I have been asked "Why do Americans put cinnamon on EVERYTHING?" I can only answer (ignoring the hyperbole): "Because it's tasty."

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

can I get a latte grande?

Out for lunch Saturday with Better Half's Mum and her Better Half, when BHM'sBH declares "I hate it when English people take on American corporate jargon." I expected he was talking about thinking outside the box and investing in excellence. The latter is one of my pet peeves, as well as the current call-to-arms/pens by my university's management. ( I also hate that my university has a management team now instead of an administration.)

But no, BHM'sBH instead went on to talk about how he can tell who works for an American company when they open their mouths at Starbucks and say "Can I get a..." instead of "Can/May I have a...". If you ask to get a coffee, by his reasoning, you're asking to come (a)round to the other side of the counter and fix yourself a coffee. BH agrees with BHM'sBH that in the context of ordering a coffee can I get a means 'can I get myself a'.

Checking out can I get a on Google UK, some of the examples are:

can I get a qualification?
Can I get a regular health check at my GP surgery?
can i get a gmail invite?
Can I get a refund of unused portion of a season ticket...?
Can I get a refund on my parking permit?
Can I get a business grant to start up a new business in the Harrogate district?

Most of these are from FAQs, and are sincerely about ability ('Am I able to get a refund? How do I do it?'), rather than requests for things to be given. That's not surprising, as writing Can I get a decaf latte? on my website is unlikely to result in a hot beverage showing up beside me. (That's what yelling to BH in the kitchen was invented for.) The gmail invite example is the only one that stands out as a UK-located (but not necessarily UK) person requesting something using can i get a.

BrE speakers have no problem with saying I got a coffee on my way to work, meaning 'I took a coffee away from someplace where I ordered it'.

In can I get a, get is the converse of give:
Can I get a coffee (from you)? = Can you give me a coffee?

But it's not that the get/give opposition is American-only: on UK Google, one gets twice as many hits for get presents as for receive presents. Since one typically doesn't go and get one's presents from the giver ( one tends to passively receive them), it's clear here that British folk have the lexical/logical wherewithal to understand can I get a as a request.

I think is the real problem is that one learns early the 'polite' ways to ask for things, and this way is not in the British canon of polite requests. While get can mean a passive action of receiving, it also has other senses that are closer to take--which probably colo(u)rs people's perceptions of get's connotations. So, if you're brought up on saying can I have a, then can I get a might sound a little more greedy/impolite.

But why doesn't it sound less polite to American ears? (Especially if it's a relatively new locution there too?) Three possibilities, which don't rule one another out:

1 - Perhaps it does sound less polite to Americans too. To me can I get a sounds a little more brusque and self-cent(e)red than can I have a. (But maybe I've been influenced by my surroundings.)

2 - Perhaps it is slightly less polite in both dialects, but it's less important to sound "polite" in America. (The word polite is a bit loaded here. I'm using it to mean something like 'indirect/genteel'.) The US is known for its solidarity politeness system and for its individualistic culture. In a solidarity culture, one wants to act as if everyone's on the same social level. The UK is historically a deference culture, in which people's societal roles are more distinguished and great pains are taken not to inflict oneself on others unnecessarily. The UK has been shifting toward solidarity styles since at least the second world war, but is still not as far along that path as the US. The importation of (and unease with) can I get a may be a symptom of that shift.

3 - Or perhaps it's just that anything that sounds American grates on British ears and sounds less polite, just by association with Americans and stereotypes of Americans.

I think it's probably a combination of all of these.

Monday, June 05, 2006

pickles, pickle, rutabaga and ??

Grant Barrett asked me how long I think it takes for a person to lose the intuition for what's in your own dialect and what you've acquired in a second dialect. I can't say when it's happened to me, but it's definitely happened, which is why all of my posts have references to Better Half and friends in America, etc.--those are the people who tell me when I say something US or UK to the wrong audience. Not only have I got(ten) used to saying British things (like have got instead of have gotten), I have also acquired an intuition for when I might need a British word that I don't know yet. For instance, I have, like the good English homeowner that I have recently become, started to learn about gardening, and even though I don't yet know all the British words for the tools, I am often inclined to ask "What do you call this?" before saying "I bought pruning shears". (The BrE term is secateurs.)

But I've also found that my 20-something-year-old students can be fairly insensitive to dialectal differences coming from me. I recently asked them to read a draft chapter of a textbook I'm writing, and to let me know if they came across any examples that didn't work for British English. Many of them pointed out American spellings--even though I'd explicitly told them not to. (Instruction-following is a skill that's unevenly acquired among my students!) Only one out of about thirty students noticed a glaring Americanism that was repeated several times in the chapter: the use of pickle as a count noun.

In the US a pickle is a cucumber that's been pickled, but in the UK such things are called dill cucumbers or, if they're not dill, pickled cucumbers. If you are American and like dill pickles, don't bother buying English ones, even if the bottle says kosher dills. They are all made with sugar and taste more like what I would call sweet pickles than like a good deli pickle. Some specialty shops sell decent, non-sweet ones imported from Poland or Israel.

In the UK, pickle, also known as sweet pickle, is a condiment made of chopped vegetables and fruits pickled in vinegar and sugar or other sweet ingredient. Click here for a recipe for pumpkin pickle.

The most popular pickle in the UK is Branston pickle. If you're offered a cheese and pickle sandwich, it's probably got Branston pickle in it. The thing that I find most fascinating about Branston pickle is its list of ingredients:

Vegetables in various proportions (Carrots, Rutabaga, Onions, Cauliflower, Marrows, Gherkins), Sugar, Malt Vinegar - from Barley, Spirit Vinegar, Salt, Chopped Dates (with Rice Flour), Apples (with Preservative: Sulphur Dioxide), Modified Maize Starch, Tomato Paste, Colour: Sulphite Ammonia Caramel, Spices, Concentrated Lemon Juice, Onion Powder, Garlic Extract.

You can see a number of BrE terms here: Spirit Vinegar (US: White Vinegar), Marrow (a type of squash that's not common in the US), Maize (US: Corn).

You can also see a number of BrE spellings: Sulphur/Sulphite as opposed to US Sulfur/Sulfite, and Colour, of course.

But which of these things is not like the other? It's rutabaga! One of the great mysteries of life (which was later solved!) is why an British product made in a British factory for British consumers has an altogether American word like rutabaga on its label.

Every year I run a pub quiz for our incoming Linguistics/English Language students and (despite the fact that the word is on a jar in most English kitchens) a question that always stumps them is "What is the British word for the vegetable that Americans call rutabaga?"

Do you know?

Click the link below for 'comments' to get the answer and some etymological info about rutabaga.

Click here for the big list of vegetables.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

reckon and figure

Something that my American visitors often find surprising about British English is the copious use of the verb reckon, as in:

Well, here's what I reckon. I reckon that Rowling wasn't a fat teenager herself. And I reckon that her older daughter (the baby is too young to be considered) isn't remotely fat herself.
I reckon these things because, when I was 10, I ballooned almost overnight from being quite a slim child into a very fat one."

Last 3 in the house are never the ones I want there, so I reckon it'll be Craig, Derek and Kemal.

Since my American visitors have all, like me, come from the Northeast, the use of reckon is noticeable because it's a word we associate with the Southern US or with rural dialects. Americans tend to think of the British as speaking "better" English, and Americans from the North tend to think of the English of Southerners as being "worse" English. So, if one has those attitudes as background, hearing the word in a British accent can be a little disorient(at)ing.

In a Voice of America interview, Dileri Borunda Johnston, author of Speak American: A Survival Guide to the Language and Culture of the U-S-A, seems to express that surprise:

JOHNSTON: You know, like in England, it's quite common to say 'reckon,' which in American English is quite unusual, or you might here it in the South perhaps or in more old-fashioned contexts."

AA: "Like, 'I reckon I'll go in when the sun gets too hot.'"

JOHNSTON: "Yeah, and people in England say it sort of quite seriously, without meaning it to be funny or ironic or anything like that."

(Johnston goes on to discuss the perils of being an American parent in the UK: "A lot of the grammar is slightly different, so you would have things in British English that perhaps you wouldn't want an American child to learn because it might sound slightly incorrect. Like you wouldn't say 'I haven't got any more.' You would rather an American kid would learn to say 'I don't have any more.'" Gosh, it's hard to be a parent these days, what with drugs and internet porn and variant auxillary verbs...)

The nearest US equivalent to reckon, in most contexts, is figure, as in I figure I'll go for a walk soon. Better Half says: "That sounds sooo American."

Friday, June 02, 2006

lay the table / set the table

Tonight Better Half asked me to lay the table. I went to get plates, then noticed that he'd already filled plates for us. Which led to a conversation about which things the 'layer of the table' was responsible for, which could almost be seen as a dialectal conversation.

My reasoning: I grew up with the job of setting the table, BH grew up laying the table. I was responsible for putting down plates, silverware (AmE), glasses, placemats and napkins. BH says that he just put down cutlery (BrE). I don't actually believe him, having been involved in table-laying exercises at his mother's house where the plates have gone down with the cutlery on the placemats, but he did say "We never had napkins. Sometimes we had kitchen towel" (AmE paper towel).

It's not unusual for napkins not to be supplied at meals served in people's homes here. In the US, it may just be paper towels, but you are generally given something to wipe your mouth with. This may be a generational thing--it's my impression that "war babies" are less likely to have something on the table for mouth-wiping.

But stranger still for an American dining in English homes is being served a meal without a drink. I eat a lot of meals in a lot of different people's homes because of the Scrabble team I'm on. While one's always offered tea after the meal, it's not uncommon to be offered nothing liquid during it. (This always happens at my team's host's house. He has in the past pronounced it strange that I drink as much as I do. I've pronounced it strange that he hasn't had kidney failure yet.) Again, this is something that I associate more with the post-war generation, so may have its roots in necessary frugality.

We all know that Americans consume more than other cultures, right down to paper napkins and milk (the staple in my house) with dinner. But as the post-war generation is replaced by people who haven't known the same privations, the rates of consumption rise in the UK as well. One can only hope that the more voluntary 'green' ethos takes hold as strongly as the effects of involuntary rationing did.

But to get back to the language...why do we set or lay a table? Despite the different words in the two dialects, they are grammatically odd in the same way, with the direct object table not corresponding to the thing that is being moved. Usually if you set or lay a thing, it involves putting it down. In the case of the table, it's already in position, and that which is being moved is left unmentioned. We often leave out mentioning semantic arguments (i.e. things involved in the action) if they're clearly recoverable from the context. For example, we don't bother to say "Did you eat food yet?", we say "Did you eat yet?"

So, do we not mention the 'what' that needs to go on the table because it is predictable in the context? On the contrary, if you're preparing to eat a meal, the table is surely more contextually stable (and thus not needing mention) than what goes on it. For instance, if you're eating soup, you need to lay/set the table differently than if you're eating sushi, and if you're eating breakfast you might put down different things than if you were having lunch. So, why don't we leave out the table and instead say "Would you set/lay the dishes?"

Perhaps it's because there is no good term to cover that which goes on the table (it's not just dishes, it's also linen and cutlery), and also because we do have a sense of doing something to the table when we prepare it for a meal. But still--why then do we use verbs that have to do with moving something (usually represented by the direct object--but not here)? Why don't we say "would you ready the table?" or "would you prepare the table?"

Wonder about things like this too long and one works up an appetite...