Sunday, July 30, 2006

fools and cream

I'd told myself I was going to take a break from writing about food, but that decision seems to be in conflict with my determination to write about linguisticky things that come up in my day-to-day doings...and it seems like all I do is eat.

Better Half is mad for (AmE=crazy about) gooseberries, a fruit I'd never experienced in the US, though I did know that the kiwi (fruit; BrE) used to be called the Chinese gooseberry. Anyhow, this is the label on the punnet (BrE*) that he bought this week.

I said to him, "Sweetie, you don't have to buy things just because it says on the label that they're perfect for you."

Better Half was not amused. It is a trial to live with me, I must admit.

Gooseberry fool is a traditional British treat, which involves gooseberries (duh), sugar and lots and lots of cream. BH made some when his nan (=grandma) visited Friday, but in an attempt to make it less calorific, replaced some of the cream with yog(h)urt. (Myself, I think that yog(h)urt has its place, but that any excuse to eat cream should not be taken lightly.) Fools can be made with other fruits as well, but gooseberry fool is the king of fools.

Now, I have to give two links for recipes, suitable to each continent's measures and ingredients. For the American version, click here, for a British version, click here. Some recipes include custard in the fool, but that's newfangled tomfoolery.

If it's just about berries, sugar and cream, why do you need different recipes? Well, because cream just isn't the same in the two places. In the US, there are three (basic) types of cream: light cream, heavy cream and whipping cream, which I always thought was a con, because it doesn't seem to be terribly different from heavy cream. In the UK, on the other hand, there is single cream, double cream, whipping cream and clotted cream. Clotted cream has been subjected to heat and is very butter-like, and perfect for spreading on scones with a bit of strawberry jam. As for the first two, one might believe that these are easily translated. Single cream = light cream and double cream = heavy cream. Right?

Wrong! I discovered when I first made my chocolate mousse recipe here. It called for heavy cream, so I bought some double cream. Some double cream is label(l)ed "suitable for spooning"--when you scoop a dollop onto your cake, it'll keep its shape. I made my mousse with non-spooning double cream, but it was still much heavier (48% butterfat) than a heavy cream (36-40%). The mousse was perfectly edible, but it was more like eating a truffle than a mousse. No one could finish their portion, except for BH's sister's better half, The Gardener. The man has the sweetest tooth (full of cavities) and the kind of metabolism that I mention in my prayers. Not only did he finish his own, he finished everyone else's plus the "safety serving" I'd held back in the fridge.

Single cream and light cream have around 18% butterfat. Whipping cream has 30-40%. So, if you have a US recipe that calls for heavy cream, use whipping cream if you're in the UK. North America also has half-and-half, which has 10-12% fat. I've seen it claimed that single cream and half-and-half are the same thing, but really you have to add a little milk to single cream to make it like half-and-half.

Cream is a more serious business in the UK because it is so central a part of pudding (AmE = dessert). Cream is poured over most puddings/desserts, including a cake, true puddings ("sweet dessert, usually containing flour or a cereal product, that has been boiled, steamed, or baked." --American Heritage Dictionary), apple crumble (AmE = apple crisp), or even fresh fruit salad (which, even though I am a great fan of cream, I find a little disgusting). For some desserts/puddings, one is offered warm, pourable custard as an alternative to cream. The only puddings/desserts that I can think of that one doesn't always get cream, custard or ice cream with are those that are already made of cream, custard or ice cream, like fools or trifle--a concoction of sponge cake, (BrE) jelly (AmE=gelatin, usually called by the brand name Jell-o), custard, sherry, cream, and jam. In the US, one might get whipped cream or ice cream with cake, pie or crumble/crisp, but not poured cream.

Another oddity in the gooseberry label: it says "ENGLISH MID SUMMER GOOSEBERRIES", but the county of origin (almost legible in the photo) is Perthshire--in Scotland. I fear for Waitrose (supermarket) if the Scottish nationalists pick up on this slight. (I could say something about the space in mid summer, but hyphenation will have to wait for another post.)

* A note on punnet. Historically, this word refers to a shallow basket for collecting fruit, but these days it's the (often plastic) container that soft fruits are sold in. In AmE, we tend to say a pint of strawberries, referring to the amount, rather than the container, whereas hereabouts one buys a punnet of strawberries. When I refer to the container itself, I'd probably say a pint box. If it were a bushel of strawberries, I'd probably call the container a crate, especially if it were wooden.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Spiro Agnew

Better Half was listening to a Radio 4 quiz show earlier in which a question was asked about former US vice president Agnew, whose first name, Spiro is from Greek.

"Spy-ro Agnew!" I shouted. "Who calls him Spy-ro Agnew?"

"I've only ever heard him called that," replied BH.

This isn't the first famous American's name I've heard mispronounced on these shores. Another is Edward Sapir, as in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In the UK, the last syllable of his name rhymes with ire and in the US it rhymes with ear and gets the main word stress. Whenever I lecture about him/the hypothesis, I preface it with "I know you've been hearing SAP-ire, but he was American, so I think he deserves the American pronunciation sap-EAR, don't you?" (He emigrated from Germany at age 5, so I think we can call him American.)

Now, of course, Americans pronounce names from other languages, including British English, in 'wrong' ways as well. There's a long discussion (with no real academic merit or answers!) about the difference between American and British pronunciations of Van Gogh at Yahoo answers. The residents of neither country should allow themselves to become smug about name pronunciation, as there are some that are "wrong" in both places.

The issue, to my mind, is respecting actual people by pronouncing their names the way they were intended. Granted, we have to work within the limits of our knowledge and pronunciation abilities--most non-English names I pronounce are a pale imitation of their bearer's pronunciation of them. If your native language doesn't have the sounds or the sound-combinations in another person's name, then you do the best you can. And if you've never heard a name pronounced (or only heard it pronounced incorrectly), you can't do anything but have a stab at it, relying on the spelling. So, though most Welsh people named Davies pronounce their names Davis, most Americans can't be expected to know about that.

But I do feel that I can give the BBC a little bit of a hard time over Spiro Agnew. News-broadcasting organi{s/z}ations create and use guides to pronunciations of names, and many dictionaries (including many on-line ones) provide the correct pronunciation. (One wonders whether and how Agnew appears in the BBC's list.) One problem, of course, is that the newsreader/presenter has to reali{s/z}e that the pronunciation they know might not be right before they'll have reason to look it up. The other problem, discussed well at Language Hat, is that such lists can be full of mistakes.

Let's end with a fairly unrelated anecdote from my days in South Africa. I phoned to order a pizza, and spoke with a speaker of (white) South African English.
Me: I'd like to order a small marguerita (AmE: cheese pizza) to collect (AmE: pick up).
Pizza Man: What's the name?
Me: Lynne.
PM: Sorry?
Me: Lynne.
PM: Could you say that again?
Me: Lynne.
PM: Really sorry, could you spell that?
Me: L-Y-N (I didn't see the point of confusing anyone with the -N-E)
PM: Ah! Lunn!

As I said, you do the best you can with the sounds you have.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

candy and sweets

Did you know that the word candy comes from the Arabic word for 'sugar'? Well, I didn't until just now.

Since my post on baked goods has inspired comments on wine gums, I should say something about candy and sweets.

In BrE, candy refers to things that are made from sugar that's been melted (usually with water and some flavo(u)ring) and resolidified in some form, including boiled sweets (AmE = hard candy) and candy floss (AmE = cotton candy). Candies belong to the wider category of sweets, which includes chocolate, toffees, and anything else that you'd eat on its own in order to rot your teeth. When talking with children, they're often called sweeties. Sweet shops speciali{s/z}e in selling sweets.

In AmE you'd get them at the candy store, and they'd be called candy, even if they're made from chocolate or nuts or whatnot. Thus, in the US one eats candy bars such as a Milky Way, while in the UK one eats chocolate bars such as Milky Way. (Click on the link to read more about the difference between Milky Ways and other candy/chocolate bars in the UK and US.) Candy store also has its place in an AmE idiom: (to be/feel) like a kid in a candy store--that is, really excited and happy, due to some external stimulus. For example:
Lately he even gets offered more interesting work than he can handle, a problem he tends to solve by accepting all of it. He feels like "a kid in a candy store." [International Herald Tribune on jazz musician Chris Potter]
Like a child/kid in a sweet shop is used in this way in BrE, but it's not as established as an idiom.

Of course, there are lots of sweets/candies that are produced in the UK but not the US and vice versa (though Canada provides an interesting middle ground with some of both). But here are a few whose names create cross-dialectal confusion.

In BrE sherbet is a sweet-tart powder consisting of sugar, tartaric acid, bicarbonate of soda (AmE prefers baking soda), and mostly artificial flavo(u)rings and colo(u)rs. The closest thing in the US is probably the stuff in Pixy Sticks (straws filled with sweet-tart powder), but it's a bit different because sherbet is more fizzy (due to the soda). English friends my age get very sentimental about flying saucers (pictured left), which are (BrE) sherbet surrounded by a material that tastes and feels like communion wafers. When I was young, we played "church" with Necco wafers (pictured right). I wore a half-slip on my head to be a nun or a bride, depending on my mood. I feel rather cheated that we didn't have flying saucers to play church with, but other than their similarity to papery-tasting hosts, I don't really understand the appeal. But then, physical resemblance to communion hosts was just about the only appeal of Necco wafers as well.

In the US, sherbet is a frozen dessert that is like sorbet, but which usually has some dairy content (though not as much as an ice cream would). I don't think it's eaten as much now as when I was a child, since sorbet has become available and popular.

[This paragraph added later due to a comment from kathyf.] Smarties are small, colo(u)rful sweets/candies in both countries. UK Smarties (pictured left) are like M&Ms--milk chocolate in a candy shell, made by Rowntree/Nestle. They differ from M&Ms in the colo(u)r assortment, the quality of the chocolate (people tend to prefer the one they grew up with) and the fact that orange smarties have orange-flavo(u)red chocolate. (There's a lot more orange-flavo(u)red chocolate in the UK than the US.) US Smarties (pictured right) are little discs of mostly-sweet-with-a-little-tart pastel-colo(u)red sugary stuff, which crumbles when bitten. I've just described them to Better Half, and neither of us can think of something similar in the UK. They come in a stack wrapped in cellophane and are mostly known for being a candy/sweet one gets from cheap/tight grown-ups on Hallowe(')en.

BrE speakers are often amused by and curious about the AmE candy/sweet name taffy, as here Taffy is a derogatory name for a Welshman. The word is a variation on toffee, which is what BrE speakers would call the stuff. You don't want to go to the US and just start calling all toffees taffy, however. (Well, maybe you do want to, but you shouldn't.) For me, taffy is reserved for pulled taffy, which is a light colo(u)r or white because it has been repeatedly pulled into strings and reshaped, and has a fruity or minty flavo(u)r. Anything else that is toffee in BrE, for example chewy caramels, would be toffee in my AmE dialect as well. (Note that salt water taffy, despite its name and the fact that it's sold at the seaside, contains no sea water.)

Globali{s/z}ation means that the confectionery world is becoming smaller. I've already discussed some chocolate/candy bar names that have become more similar in the US and UK (click the Milky Way link above for the Marathon/Snickers story). Another source of UK resentment is that Opal Fruits changed their name to Starburst in 1998 to be in tune with the US brand. The confusing thing about this is that they're not quite the same. UK Starbursts are paler than the US ones, and a bit different in consistency, since they're vegetarian (the US ones contain gelatin). To my mind the worst part of this US name-imperialism is that the UK consumer gets the new name without the main benefit of US Starburst--the cherry-flavo(u)red one. UK Starburst has lime instead--but everyone knows that cherry is the best flavo(u)r.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

baked goods

Overheard an exchange at the supermarket today. An elderly (English) lady asked an (English) employee, "Where are the scones?" And he replied "There are scones just there." She laughed and said "You say scons, I say scoans. It's just one of those things." I recall debating with friends in Illinois nearly 20 years ago about what the "correct" pronunciation of scone was--that is, which was the more British. But, as our little supermarket drama points out, they're both English. John Wells at University College London has done a survey (NB: link is pdf file), finding that two-thirds of the 2000 Britons surveyed prefer the pronunciation that rhymes with con. He found no differences between the north and the south of England, but Scotland is solid 'scon' territory.

One of my favo(u)rite in-class activities is to have my students work in teams to create lexical field box diagrams (a way of representing the relations between word meanings) for terms for baked goods. This never fails to create vigorous debate, as one needs to decide things like "Is a scone a bread or a cake?" or "Is a bagel a type of roll?" Part of what makes the debates so complicated is the differing extents to which American English has infiltrated the class. (God help any American exchange students in this activity.) Not only is the range of baked goods in the two countries quite different (and taste preferences are quite different too), but even the words for the common items are often different.

Scones are sometimes likened to American biscuits, which is kind of true. But scones and biscuits are only as similar as British muffins are to what Americans call English muffins. Superficially, they look the same, but the tastes and textures are quite different. American muffins (e.g. blueberry muffins) have made their way here and become quite popular, though I have heard older people react to them with puzzlement--"that's not a muffin, that's a cake!"

The most recent Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine includes a letter to the editor that calls for a campaign to resist the word cupcake for what would traditionally be called a fairy cake (pictured) in BrE. To me, the two things are a bit different, with fairy cakes being smaller and typically a specific kind of sponge cake (traditionally with icing), whereas a cupcake is a cup-sized cake of any sort. You can get fairy cakes of other types, but the assumption upon hearing "fairy cake" is that it's a vanilla sponge.

British biscuits would be called crackers in AmE if they're savo(u)ry or cookies if they're sweet, but American cookies have made definite inroads here in the past few years, with cookie shops like Ben's Cookies (my favo(u)rite: peanut) and Millie's Cookies (my favo(u)rite: raspberry and white chocolate) serving American-style cookies. One wouldn't call those biscuits, as they're soft. My dad (what a guy!) sent me Christmas cookies the last time I was in England for the holidays. (One needs familiar baked goods at holidays, I think, and in the UK it's all about mince pies [AmE prefers mincemeat pies].) I showed Better Half how we put a slice of bread in the cookie tin in order to keep the cookies soft. He looked at me in horror and said, "Why would you want to do that?"

Digestive biscuits, or digestives for short, are somewhat like American graham crackers--though they differ in shape (round vs rectangular), and I often find digestives to be a bit greasier than graham crackers. My personal favo(u)rite UK biscuit is the malted milk biscuit (pictured), or if I'm feeling super-naughty the milk chocolate malted milk biscuit--with a layer of chocolate on the bottom.

One could go on and on about baked good differences. Ok, one will.

As an American, I can make a sandwich using sliced bread, a roll, a bagel, whatever. In the UK, sandwiches are made with sliced bread, and anything else is called by the name of the bread it's in--for example, a ham and cheese baguette. A bacon roll is bacon inside a roll that's been sliced in half (usually with ketchup or brown sauce), and is a popular hangover treatment. Just to confuse you, a sausage roll is not a sausage sandwich made with a roll, but a sausage baked in flaky pastry. The closest American equivalent is a pig-in-a-blanket, which, when and where I was a child, referred to a sausage (often a hot dog), wrapped in bread or (American) biscuit dough and cooked. Nowadays, I mostly see it referring to sausages wrapped in pancakes (about which more below).

Baps (BrE; pictured left) are soft rolls for making sandwiches with, and also a crude term for a woman's breasts. (Channel 4 recently ended an advertisement for the film [AmE prefers movie] The Gift with "...and Katie Holmes gets her baps out!" Apparently, the highlight of the film.) Baps (the baked kind, too) are softer than a Kaiser roll (AmE; pictured right), more like a hamburger bun, though American hamburger buns are typically rather brown on the outside, and baps aren't. Better Half tells me that barmy cake is a Northern term for a bap or a bap-like roll, but I've found little printed evidence of it, besides a number of sandwich shop names. [Postscript: see comments for a correction.]

Hamburger bun is odd to English ears because buns are usually thought of as being sweet, such as Chelsea bun (pictured), currant bun and hot cross bun (also found in the US).

The god of British baked goods is the crumpet (pictured), which is kind of cheating, as it isn't actually baked. Crumpets are made on a griddle, though I've never known anyone who makes their own. They are heavenly, and because of their relation to American pancakes (though crumpets have yeast), I like to eat them very un-Britishly with butter and maple syrup, but they're equally euphoria-inducing with raspberry jam. (American pancakes, by the way, are thicker than British pancakes, which are more like crèpes. We eat them with different things and at different times. Be cautious in ordering "American pancakes" in UK restaurants, as they're often not cooked all the way through. A lovely British tradition is treating Shrove Tuesday, i.e. the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, as Pancake Day.) The last time I was in the US, the international section of our megasupermarket had something called crumpets, but they looked nothing like the kind you get here. They looked more like thick, misshapen pancakes. I didn't dare try them, as the disappointment of a bad (and overpriced!) crumpet would be very, very keen. Pikelet is another (regional) word for crumpet, sometimes specifically applied to a flatter type of crumpet. Crumpet, you probably know, is also dated (sometimes crude) slang for an attractive person (usually a woman) or sometimes a term of endearment.

Of course there are many many more cakes and breads and rolls and such that are different in the two countries, but my main aim here (as ever) was to point out differences in the language for them. I'm sure others will fill in some of the items I've missed here...

George Saunders: an American abroad

Hilarious article in the Guardian's Weekend magazine this week by an American writer on his first trip to Britain.

He says:
The traveller must, of course, always be cautious of the overly broad generalisation. But I am an American, and a paucity of data does not stop me from making sweeping, vague, conceptual statements and, if necessary, following these statements up with troops.

Spot the British spellings--undoubtedly the work of a Guardian sub-editor (BrE; AmE=copy editor). But the sentiment...well, that could be the motto of this blog.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

comments policy

Comments and discussion are very welcome here, but please do not use the comments of one post to request coverage of language issues that are unrelated to that post. Instead, please use the 'e-mail Lynneguist' feature to request a new topic. (Regardless of whether your query begets a post, I will reply to it in as swift a manner as possible.) It's not [necessarily!] that I want the glory for posting about your new topic. It's that the comments are not searched when one does a 'search this blog' search, thus no one can ever find those interesting comments again--and I aim for searchability here, since this blog should be able to be used as a reference work on BrE/AmE differences.

I will remove comments that are unduly abusive to other individuals. Feel free to disagree, but please do so in a polite way.

I also remove spam comments as soon as I detect them.

Friday, July 14, 2006

holiday / vacation

I'm out and about until 21 July, so I get a (BrE) holiday and you get a (AmE) vacation from me.

If you're desperate for some English-on-English action, then have a look at the archives. There are some lonely orphan posts with no comments on them. They need you! I won't be around to assure them that they're just as interesting as Welsh dresser and World Cup words. (They can get a bit whingy (AmE=whiny), but don't let that put you off.)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

british overstatement

The British are masters and mistresses of understatement, one is told. Yeah, well, maybe.

For your consideration, my current list of most hated, painfully overused words:
  • essential
  • fanatical
  • excellence
I've grumped about excellence once before, and I'm sure that it's come in from US corporate-speak. So let's concentrate on the adjectives, which seem to represent the full extent of many advertising copywriters' adjectival vocabularies.

The bus that goes past my house says that it offers Essential Travel for our City. If I weren't boycotting the word, I could shop at Essential Records or Pet Essential or let (AmE prefers rent) property at Time Essential and listen to The Essential Mix on Radio 1 or read the dozen or so publications that say they are the essential guide to the city and what's going on in it before heading over to the Essential Festival, essentially.

If fanatical is less used, it's only because there seems to be a rule that it must only be used in alliterative phrases. The Odeon cinema (AmE prefers movie theater) chain is Fanatical About Film. Upper Crust sandwich shops are Fanatical about Freshness. And everyone else is Fanatical about Football.

Another relevant example is brilliant (informally, brill), which in recent years was the overstater of choice among young people. Now it's amazing, which I hadn't noticed until a Swedish colleague pointed it out. We were in my office when a student came and asked to borrow a book. Our interaction went something like this:
Me: Here you go.

Student: Amazing! Thanks!

Me: You can give it back to me at seminar.

S: You're amazing! Thanks!

SwedCol: [muffled giggles]

These are not the words of an understating culture--and yet they are so repetitively and unimaginatively used. One can't really find too much fault with the young people, as youth everywhere get infected by the buzzwords of their age. But the advertisers? Aren't they supposed to make us want to buy their product, rather than wanting to track them down in their offices and bludgeon them with thesauruses?

Could it be that overstatement is so foreign to British culture that those who try to do it cannot help but do it badly? Perhaps overstatement should be left to Americans, who do it so effortlessly. Mission Accomplished!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

having a Chinese

Someone who regularly reads/comments on this blog (you know who you are, but I won't say because your blog seems pretty anonymi{s/z}ed) wrote yesterday:
we went to the supermarket and then had a Chinese.
I suppose we could put this with the count/mass differences I discussed last week. In AmE you could have Chinese for dinner or have Chinese food, but have a Chinese sounds a little like cannibalism.

This have a [insert cuisine here] construction is used for take-away (BrE; AmE = take-out) meals, rather than fine dining experiences. Other examples:
[on the great nightlife for yoof (BrE slang) in Doncaster:] ...all we can do is go into town on a Friday night. Or maybe go to the cinema and have a McDonalds. (
When in Spain, do as the locals do...have an Indian. (Benidorm Spotlight)
When I have a Burger King I have a diet coke to offset the damage. (What Mountain Bike Forum)

In AmE, you could go to McDonalds or eat at McDonalds or have a Big Mac, but you couldn't have a McDonalds. Unless you were a franchisee, of course.

Better Half points out that in AmE you can get your coffee in a to-go cup, but in the UK it has to be a take-away cup, which might be made of paper or polystyrene (AmE=styrofoam).

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

double Ls

I've just come from Scrabble club, where I often have to suffer the indignity of people putting down completely silly misspellings of words and saying "Maybe the Americans spell it like that." (The Association of British Scrabble Players started playing to the international Scrabble dictionary, called SOWPODS in American Scrabble circles, in 2001. The American National Scrabble Association has taken an isolationist position, and now only North America doesn't play the combined dictionary.) I take great joy in telling the people who guess silly "American" words that the American spelling system is more regular than the British. Unfortunately, no one pays attention to me when I do so. So, I'll subject this audience to my rant, since I can't know for sure if you're ignoring me or not, and can pretend that you're all fascinated by my opinions on spelling-rule complexity.

The American rule is: if the stress is on the syllable that attaches to the suffix, then you double any final consonant that follows a short (lax) vowel. But if the stress is elsewhere, you don't double the final consonant.

comMIT --> committing (not *commiting)
reFER --> referred (not *refered)
BUS --> bussed (not *bused)

EDit --> editing (not *editting)
LAbel --> labeling (preferred over labelling)
aBANdon --> abandoning (not *abandonning)
FOcus --> focused (preferred over focussed)
SEver --> severed (not *severred)

British English follows the same rule, EXCEPT when it comes to words ending in L, which are doubled after short vowels regardless of the stress. So, for no particular reason labelling, travelling and gambolling have one more L in the preferred BrE spelling than in the preferred AmE spelling. Notably the 1990 Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD) doesn't even mention the possibility of labeled, labeling and labeler. The American Heritage Dictionary lists the double-L versions after the single-L ones.

For some reason, focus is also an exception. While the COD and Microsoft's UK English spellchecker prefer focuses over focusses , I have been "corrected" for using only one s.

Ones that really strike my American eye as wrong are BrE dialling and fuelling. Since the l is preceded by a 'long' vowel (the diphthongs /aj/ and /ju/) in my pronunciation), they shouldn't have doubled consonants, just as one doesn't double the L in tailing or healing. They seem to come under the 'doubling' rule because dial and fuel are perceived as having two syllables each, with the latter one being unstressed--i.e. di-al and fu-el. The COD presents the BrE pronunciation as /dai(ə)l/ and /'fju:əl/--so definitely two syllables in fuel but not necessarily in dial. I'm not convinced that the second syllable in fuel is regularly pronounced. Better Half pronounces fuel with one syllable and dial with close to two.

I'm not a big one for spelling reform, so I don't mind that the two spelling systems differ. Just don't insinuate that American spelling makes less sense than British!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

nicknames: clipping+s, -zza

It's conference season on campus, so there are lots of people walking around with nametags. One can often guess the nationality of delegates by the first names. I saw a nametagged Clay the other week, and thought 'That's got to be someone from the southern US'. Since I didn't have the satisfaction of hearing him speak, I went back to the office and googled his full name. Sure enough, he's from South Carolina. I asked a couple of English people, and they'd never heard of the given named Clay. Nancy is another name that is usually attached to an American. In the other direction, while the US has Nicoles, it doesn't have many women named Nicola. Here, everyone's bound to know a couple of them, who will undoubtedly spell their nickname differently (Nikki, Nicki, Nicky), just to confuse you.

Of course, there are Josephs and Julies and Barries and A(l)lisons on both sides of the Atlantic. What differentiates them is their nicknames. I've known a few Allisons in the US, but none is regularly called Alli, but here, where it's usually spelt Alison, most are known to at least part of their social circle as Ali.

Both AmE and BrE use -y (or -ie) as a diminutive and marker of affection, as in Jenny or Maggy. But BrE (and some other Es) also make a lot of use of clipping (i.e. shortening) a name and adding -s. Some examples:

Julie/JuliaJools (or Jules)
(David) BeckhamBecks

In AmE, the Friends character Phoebe was called Phoebs, but other than that I can only think of (the rather old-fashioned) Babs for Barbara. I can't help but see Madonna's UK nickname (spread by now to the US), Madge, as being related to the phenomenon. After a voiced consonant, the -s is pronounced [z], and it's a short jump from [mædz] to [mædʒ]. Jos is another common BrE clipping, but in this case the s (pronounced as unvoiced [s]) is not added but retained from Joseph. I'd never heard Jos till I met two here, both now 15. One now opts for the 'cooler' Joe.

My old university in South Africa, University of the Witwatersrand, is commonly known as Wits, which led many of my American correspondents, unaware of the diminutive -s, to address my mail (BrE prefers post) to "University of the Witswatersrand".

Another common personal nickname, via a different history, is Bazza or Baz for Barry. One also hears Shazza for Sharon and Mozza for Maurice or Morrissey, etc. (Click the link at the start of the paragraph for more examples.) Tabloid newspapers seem to like to dub people with -zza names, for some reason, but I do know of an unfamous Baz(za), a Shazza, and a Mozza, though the names are only used in very informal settings. In Bridget Jones' Diary, the character Sharon is nicknamed Shazzer, which is pronounced like Shazza.

[This paragraph added 10 July:] While some of the tabloid names make a -zza out of sibilant sounds--e.g. Gascoigne-->Gazza, Prescott-->Prezza, what's interesting to me here is how the -zza ending is added to the first syllable of a name whose second syllable starts with an /r/. I'm investigating this--but if you know anything about it, leave a comment!]

On the other hand, there are lots of American nicknames that are foreign here, including Bud(dy), Chip, Trip, Muffy, Buffy. Not that these are very common in the States, but they are really American.

Postscript (12 July): When I posted this, Better Half said "But those aren't nicknames." In my reading today I discovered the better term for reduced 'pet names' based on a person's given name: hypocoristics. So I guess BH is right. Don't tell him--it'd upset the whole balance of know-it-allness in our house.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

plumbing the depths for words

I was at a party again today. It must be the party season, as I've got another to go to tomorrow. Thank goodness. If it weren't for parties, I'd just be sitting alone at my computer most of the time, not having interesting interactions with British English.

First thing to note about the party was that once again someone I'd just met assumed I was Canadian. I'm going to start keeping track of these. That'll be number 1.

Second thing to note is an interesting Cocktail Party Effect I experience. The Cocktail Party Effect is our ability to tune into one conversation and ignore others in a noisy environment, but while still apparently paying enough attention to the surrounding noise to switch our attention when someone in another conversation says our name. I've noticed that I switch attention when others say American or the States, etc. I can't help but (BrE) earwig (=eavesdrop).

Today I found myself listening to the end of a conversation between Better Half's Sister and Distant Relation. DR is an Englishman with a vacation home in South Carolina (first time I've come across that combination!). He's trying to supervise some plumbing work from a distance, and was saying that "everything there has a different name." I didn't catch all of the examples, but did get (BrE) tap versus AmE faucet and BrE bath vs AmE tub. I can add the following. Some of these you would hear in either country, but different words are preferred in the two countries.

sink trapU-bend
(toilet) tankcistern
hot-water heatergeyser (for certain types)

All of this ignores discussion of what to call a toilet or the room in which a toilet stands. I'm saving that for another time. [Now available here.] Meanwhile, can anyone add to the plumbing list? I know there are more differences out there...

Friday, July 07, 2006

count/mass nouns: potato, egg, tax, sport

Some nouns that AmE treats as count nouns are mass nouns in BrE. One school of thinking on noun countability is that whether or not a noun is countable is somewhat arbitrary. The other school holds that such differences reveal underlying cultural differences. (See Anna Wierzbicka (1986) "Oats and Wheat" in The Semantics of Grammar.) So, can we find cultural differences between the US and Britain to account for these examples? Well, we can have fun trying.

Let's start with food.

I ate some...

mashed potatoes mashed potato
scrambled eggs scrambled egg

These kinds of prepared food are substances more than individuable things. You can't see the boundaries of the individual eggs or potatoes once they are scrambled or mashed. The BrE forms reflect this--they're singular just as other 'substance' food names like porridge (= US oatmeal, Scots English porage) and dip are. The AmE forms, however, reflect the state of the food before mashing/scrambling. Does this mean that Americans think more about the origins of their food? I can't think of much other evidence for that.

It's also not a perfect pattern. I've never heard anyone in Britain order refried bean with their Mexican food. But then again, (BrE) tins/(AmE) cans of refried beans tend to be imported from the US, with the AmE name for them on the label. But one also buys tins/cans of chopped tomatoes, not chopped tomato, which seems to indicate that scrambled egg and mashed potato aren't really part of a deep pattern. (There are 8 hits for "tin of chopped tomato" on UK Google, but over 500 for "tin of chopped tomatoes".)

BrE is also less likely to plurali{z/s}e sport and tax than AmE is.
Here we explain the main points that you may need to consider first if you cannot pay your tax. (TaxAid website (UK)).

You may qualify for an Offer in Compromise if you are unable to pay your taxes in full (Internal Revenue Service (US) FAQ sheet)
In April of every year, Americans do their taxes --even if they only pay Federal Income Tax. Nevertheless, it may be conceptuali{s/z}ed as plural because many people have to pay income tax at both the state and federal level. Still, one pays only one tax on one's property in most areas, but people still speak of their property taxes in the US.
If you pay your property taxes by eCheck, for your security you will be asked to enter a receipt number as your PIN. (Iowa State County Treasurers Assoc.)
Of course, in both countries, tax is money, and money is a mass noun, like BrE tax. But finding logic in any of this strikes me as futile. (You're welcome to contradict me!) In the UK, one pays council tax (predictably singular), but before that one paid rates--uncharacteristically plural. And in New York, we pay sales tax, but not sales taxes, even though the sales tax is composed of two taxes: the state sales tax and the county or city sales tax. (UK equivalent is VAT, for value-added tax. Because it's the same in every part of the country, it is usually presented as part of the retail price of any item in a shop. For more expensive items, like computers, the VAT is often listed separately. People have asked me why it can't be so straightforward in the US--and the answer is that the tax in the next town may be different from the tax in this one.)

For sport:
Girls are you interested in sport? (item on 'Making the News' website for schools)
versus AmE:
Get a girl interested in sports, the experts say, and chances are you’ll get a girl who exudes confidence, is physically healthy and is a success story waiting to happen. (Trinity College (DC))
The BrE singular uses of sport seem to treat the various types of sport as belonging to a more coherent category than AmE plural uses do. I note (from my internet wanderings) that Canadians seem to use sport in a more British way.

One more that I forgot until I found this blog entry on the topic: Americans play with Legos and step on a Lego, while the British play with Lego and step on a piece of Lego or a Lego brick.

Shall we say that this is all just a matter of habit, or can you see some reasons why the two cultures would conceptuali{s/z}e these concepts differently? Are Americans just plural-happy?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Better Half and I made it past the protesters to see Jerry Springer: The Opera tonight. While it's about an American institution, the opera was written and first performed in London. So, I have to admit looking out for places where their American English fell through, but it was prettyf-ckinggood. (One must use the 'f' word in describing anything to do with this show. Not to do so would be disrespectful.) The two things I noticed were reference to a Skoda car --which is very unlikely to be the car of an American hillbilly, though it is a famously cheap car here-- and the British spelling of programme in some text that scrolled by on the set. (Note that BrE does use the spelling program to refer to computer programs, though.)

As we left, BH (who had seen it before WITHOUT ME) said, "Now you see what all the furore was about when it was on television." Furore/furor are often treated in lists of British/American spelling differences, but this hides the fact that the two words are pronounced differently, the BrE version with an 'ay' sound at the end. (Wikipedia says that the e-spelling is also found in the US, but I think Wikipedia is just weird on this point.)

The OED and some purists claim that furor and furore have different meanings--with the former meaning 'mania' and the latter 'a craze' or 'an uproar'. But the 'mania' meaning is not in active use, so there's not much point in making the distinction. Furor came into the language from Latin, and furore much later from Italian, but the first recorded instance of furor with the 'craze' meaning comes 86 years before the first citation of furore. The various meanings are so relatable that it's little surprise that in some parts the word has been both Anglici{s/z}ed in pronunciation and merged in spelling.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

university names

Shall I declare my independence from British English today? No, but I will take the British to task for misunderstanding us colonials. Incidentally, I have tried to convince my council (local government) that I should not be subject to taxation without representation, but they're not having any of it--no matter how many tea bags I throw into the sea. If I were European or from a Commonwealth country, I would be able to vote here without British citizenship. But because my country severed its ties with the empire (only to come back as a different kind of empire), I have no say in how my tax is (AmE = taxes are) spent.

On with the show.

I saw a man at the station wearing a t-shirt from "University of Yale". As another blogger noted, seeing a similar sight: "Somehow, I don't think anyone in New Haven is receiving any profit from those shirts."

People outside the US often get American university names wrong in this way, since elsewhere University of X and X University are synonyms. Thus in the UK, University of Essex and Essex University are two names for the same thing. But in the US, University of X may very well be the name of a different university from X University. Some examples:
University of Miami is in Florida; Miami University is in Ohio.

University of Indiana is in Indiana; Indiana University is in Pennsylvania. [see comments]

University of Washington is in Washington State; Washington University is in Missouri.

New York University is a private university; City / State University of New York are city/state-funded.

University of California is in California; California University is in Pennsylvania.

So, the Guardian is just plain wrong when it writes that Donna Shalala is "now a professor of political science and the president of Miami University" and the Telegraph refers to a non-existent place in talking about "Dr James Enstrom of the school of public health, California University, Los Angeles." You'd think that newspaper (AmE) copy-editors/(BrE) sub-editors would know/care about such things, but they don't seem to.

T-shirt pirates, on the other hand, probably know what they're doing--it's harder to make a copyright infringement case against them if they've changed the name of the university.

Monday, July 03, 2006

nervy and homely

At a party yesterday I was told a story about an American psychometric test that was deemed unethical when it was imported to the UK. I've not been able to confirm the story, but the alleged problem was that people were asked whether they considered themselves "a nervy person", and that answer affected what 'type' the person was considered to be. Since the words mean opposite things in the two countries, the UK test classified people wrongly. In AmE, a nervy person has 'got a lot of nerve'. They're bold and fearless. In BrE a nervy person is 'a bundle of nerves'. They're nervous, anxious.

Words that are their own opposites are sometimes called Janus words (or contronyms or autoantonyms or lots of other things). A classic example is to temper, which can mean 'to harden' (e.g. metal) or 'to soften' (e.g. comments). Nervy isn't technically a Janus word, since its opposite meanings belong in different dialects, but if you're bidialectal, then it seems like one.

Another Janus-like cross-dialectal word is homely. In AmE means 'ugly' and is typically applied to people--i.e. having a face that really should not go out much. In BrE it means the same as AmE adjective homey--i.e. 'co{z/s}y, comfortable in a home-like way'. The first time someone told me my house was homely I assumed he was making a joke, as it seemed such a rotten thing to say.

A 2001 issue of The Maven's Word of the Day covers some more UK/US Januses, including the other one that was raised with me at this party: momentarily.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

World Cup words

England are (BrE; AmE = is) out of the World Cup competition. For people like me this means an end to excellent crowd-free shopping opportunities. It also means that I should write about the (BrE) football/(AmE) soccer words I've been noticing, before it all seems completely irrelevant.

While British people can watch football games, they're more likely to watch football matches (unless they write for BBC News Online, in which case they're oddly out of step). American English would refer to matches for tennis, but generally not for team sports. If you look up baseball match on Google, you find the source is generally Australian, European or US-immigrant.

Of course, the sport itself is referred to as a game--and not just any game, but The Beautiful Game. A well-worn cliché in these parts is Football is a game of two halves--i.e. 'don't count on things staying the same way, they might change'. This is applied to just about anything. Sometimes it retains its original sense, and other times it just means 'X has two aspects':
Attractiveness is a game of two halves. (New Scientist)

New Zealand, like football, is a game of two halves. (The Times (Ireland))

Sisters, like football, is a game of two halves. (CD review on Rate Your Music)

Your report “Virgin’s £30m German peace price” (Business, last week) reminded me of the fact that business, like football, is a game of two halves. (The Sunday Times (UK))

(I haven't found the original source of this phrase. Anybody know?)

This World Cup has seen the coining of a new tabloidific word. (And it's not tabloidific, which I just made up all by my lonesome--you can googlewhack it with any other word on this blog.) It's the acronym WAGs (pronounced [wægz]) for 'Wives and Girlfriends', but also used in the singular, where the acronym doesn't make as much sense:
For those footballer W.A.G. (Wives And Girlfirends!) wannabees, we've cherry-picked some fabulous designer goodies to have you looking as high-maintenance as Victoria, Colleen and Cheryl in no time. (Tiscali shopping site)

Presumably this term was born out of frustration with the thwarted desire to refer to Footballers' (AmE=Soccer Players') Wives--thwarted, that is, by the marital status of many of the most watched football couples. Marina Hyde at the Guardian pegs it as "what promises to be this year's most tediously predictable new OED entry" and it was last week's Word of the Week at Macmillan English Dictionary's site. It's not a very kind term, since wag also means a joker, but footballers' wives (and girlfriends) are treated as a kind of national joke anyhow.

Are there any wives of American sports figures who are famous just for being wives of sports figures and shopping a lot?

kids breaking up (it isn't hard to do)

My friend is going on holiday (BrE; AmE = vacation), she tells me, "after my children break up."

This phrase always catches me unawares and I imagine the children falling to pieces, but what it really means is that their school term is coming to an end. A school or the people in it can break up, as in:

July 22, the day my kids break up, is ringed in red and underlined in triplicate in my diary: from thereon in, through the long days of August, no piece of work will be safe, no deadline certain, no commission guaranteed. Because if juggling work and children is precarious in term-time, it's 10 times harder in the holidays. (Joanna Moorhead in The Guardian)
The Spring Term begins on Tuesday 3rd January 2006, Half Term is the week of 13th February and we break up for the Spring Holiday on Friday 31st March. (Mayhill Junior School)

How much money have you set aside for your family holiday this summer? Because as every parent knows, once the schools break up, those prices soar, turning a relaxing break into a hefty financial hit. (The Sunday Times)

Another Briticism in these quotations is Half Term (also half-term or half term), a week off in the middle of each school term. There are three terms in the school year: Autumn (not AmE fall!), Spring and Summer, and there's time off at the end of each of these, plus the week in the middle. Working parents spend a lot of energy trying to figure out child care arrangements (or holidays) during these times. Because schools in the US are run by local authorities according to state, rather than federal, guidelines, I don't believe that the names of school breaks are quite as regular. At my school we had various Monday holidays, some time off at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter and a week in February that we called the week off in February. These days, I hear more people talking about Fall Break, Winter Break and Spring Break (the last of which is a long-held tradition at universities).

Another thing to note in my friend's quotation above is that she refers to her children as my children, which sounds a little stuffy in American English, where kids has all but taken over informal speech and is not seen as degrading in any way. I have been 'corrected' here by a school teacher who was uncomfortable with me calling her pupils (AmE: students) kids and when I teach language acquisition I sometimes become hyperaware that I'm saying kids, while my students are saying children. As can be seen from the Guardian quotation above, kids is used here, but comfort levels with the term vary.

Kingsley Amis (admittedly a linguistic curmudgeon) complained in The King's English (posthumously published in 1997):
My objection to [kid's] 'committed' use is not to be traced, I hope, to my being snooty, old-fashioned, old or British. No, this use carries a strong hint of being down-to-earth on purpose. It condescends to children and robs them of their dignity in just the same way as it denatures an Italian, say, to call him a wop.

He notes that the 1982 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary marked kid as an Americanism, though the US tag doesn't appear in the 1990 edition or any other Oxford books I have. The word has a long history in the UK--as noted in the OED.