Sunday, January 28, 2007

scatological adjectives

If you don't like "naughty" words, please skip this post.

American visitors to the UK enjoy taking in the culture while they're here, and on Ben Zimmer's (of Language Log) most recent trip, he took in the controversies of this year's Celebrity Big Brother. For those of you who are in another country (for you can't avoid the news of it here), a woman who is a celebrity only for having lost a previous Big Brother got into trouble on CBB for alleged racist bullying of another celebrity. (I say 'alleged' because I haven't seen it myself, so shouldn't have an opinion on the matter.) She's quoted in the papers as having said I feel shit.

What she's done here is to use shit as an adjective. (Unless, of course, she was intending to say that she habitually handles f(a)eces. I really don't think she meant that.) Shit (or shite) and crap are found in the various places one finds adjectives in English--as in:
  1. I feel shit.
  2. ....remember how shit you feel now for future refernece [sic] and make sure you don't do it again! (University of the West of England student forum)
  3. I am having a shit day. (mildlydiverting.blogspot.com)

Now, this is not unheard of in AmE (as noted by Arnold Zwicky on the American Dialect Society list some time ago), but more typical AmE is to use shitty (or crappy) when one needs an adjective--or to use different grammatical constructions (as in 4b) in order to work around the nouniness of shit:
4. a. I feel shitty. b. I feel like shit.
5. remember how shitty you feel now
6. I'm having a shitty day
Which is not to say that people don't say shitty in BrE too. The OED records the attributive (adjectival) use of shit first in Hunter Davies' 1968 book The Beatles. Shitty is first recorded in a 1924 letter by Ernest Hemingway.

This is ignoring, of course, the use of shit as a term of appreciation (as in it's the shit or shit dope and all that). That's always shit, not shitty, but it's also not what I'm talking about.

On shit versus BrE shite (rhymes with bite), the OED says that "The form shite now chiefly occurs as an occasional jocular or quasi-euphemistic variant." But most southern English people will tell you that shite is a northern and Scottish variant. I don't know what the Northerners and Scots say about it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

black (briefly)

I haven't got a lot of time tonight to talk about this, but I'm very interested in discussions I've seen regarding Barack Obama's racial identity--particularly because the meanings of social category names is a major (though at the moment suspended) research interest of mine. On the Obama issue see, for example, this article and this one, both from salon.com. The first one claims that Obama is not really black in American terms, since he is not decended from American slaves.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Black History Month (in October, as opposed to February in the US), at least in my English town, is focused on "the history of Asian, African and African Caribbean peoples." Plainly, the use of black varies, at least around the edges, in the two countries. As in AmE, the primary BrE sense of black is 'person of sub-Saharan ancestry',* but AmE's main second sense tends to be restrictive (i.e. 'descendants of American slaves'), while BrE allows more inclusive interpretations.

But that's all I can afford (time-wise) to say at the moment, so I'll leave it at that and will promise more on black after one of my students finishes the research for his BA dissertation (AmE thesis) on the meaning of black in the UK today.


*And no, I'm not counting among 'persons of sub-Saharan ancestry' the Afrikaners or other people whose ancestors (somewhere between Lucy and grandma) are European. And yes, I am aware that most 'black' people in America have some European ancestry (the one-drop rule, and all that). As I said, I need to be brief!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

the names of the games, part 1: board games

Better Half has found himself surrounded by out-laws (not quite in-laws) who like to get together and play games. My out-laws (BH's family) think this is hilarious, because of BH's reputation as a games-hater, which stems from several throwing-over-the-board-in-disgust incidents from when he was a child. When I met him, he was willing to play Connect Four with his godchildren, but only because he could still obliterate them. I count it as great progress that he now actually volunteers to play Yahtzee and Cribbage and will tolerate a few more games. (God, I've been good for him.) But games still remain a source of transatlantic miscommunication in the family since they, as we've seen already, frequently have different names in different places. The ones I'll cover in this series don't require a lot of discussion, hence my putting them all together like this.

Most of you will know that (BrE) draughts is (AmE) checkers. Or checkers is draughts -- I can't figure out whether I think the earlier term should go first or last in that equation, I can see the connotations going either way. You may also know that Americans spell draught as draft, reflecting the fact that the 'gh' is pronounced 'f', but while I have seen the board game sold as Checkers/Draughts in the US, I've never seen the BrE name of the game translated into AmE spelling. (I'm not going to get into the pronunciation of the vowel...suffice it to say that it too is different in different places.) Where do these names come from? It's a tricky question, since the OED, amazingly enough, includes neither draughts nor checkers. (No, what's amazing enough is my poor dictionary search skills in this instance--see the comments.) The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that draughts is related to dragon and goes back to about 1400. Checkers, alluding to the appearance of the board, arose in America in the 18th century. That "OED" (shall I call it OnEtyD?) also notes that "British prefers [the spelling] chequer, but the U.S. form is more authentic." Another case (cf. -ise) of British spelling being influenced by French. So, (AmE) Chinese checkers is known (though not very widely, it seems) in BrE as Chinese chequers. (Chinese draughts seems much less common, and seems mostly to be used by non-native speakers).

BrE Ludo (left, from Wikipedia), from the Latin for 'I play', is the game that Americans call Parcheesi (right, from Robby Findler's software construction course), though as you can see their boards are slightly different. It derives from an Indian game, and the AmE name is based on the Hindi name--which has been spelled in many ways in English, with pachisi sometimes regarded as 'most authenthic'. Parcheesi is the most familiar spelling in the US, as that's how the game was marketed by Selchow & Righter, 'the house that Parcheesi built'.


Once you know about Ludo, it makes more sense that the game that is called Clue in AmE is called Cluedo in BrE. Cluedo came first, as it was named by its inventor, A.E. Pratt of Birmingham, in the 1940s. Since the pun wouldn't be appreciated in the US, it was marketed there as Clue. The game is the same, except for the names of some of the characters, weapons and rooms. There's a nice table of this at Cluedofan.com (click 'International'). The Hollywood film based on the game, incidentally, was called Clue internationally and used the American character names.

I've got other board games to cover under part 2--children's games. There may be a part 3 on card games, if I can find more to mention. E-mail me if you have any suggestions.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

range and collection

Nancy Friedman wrote ages ago to say:
Now that UK and Commonwealth retailers are extending their reach into the US, I've been noticing a usage that's recognizable but still distinctly alien: "range" to indicate "collection" or "line"--as in "Our New Winter Range" from UK clothing catalog merchant Boden and, in an email from Australian retailer REMO, NEW Candela Range & LOTS More.

Over here, a "range" sits in the kitchen and turns out tasty stews.

I've written catalog copy for years, but would never consider using "range" in the way the Brits and Aussies do.
As Nancy notes, it's recogni{s/z}able for AmE speakers/advertisers, but it's not what they tend to use. In order to research this, I mentally strolled through the last US mall I was in, and then searched for the websites of the clothing retailers. So as not to take forever, I only looked at their front pages, or, if not much was going on there, I looked at their main "women's" page. None of the thirteen American retailers I searched used range on their websites. In fact, I found no equivalent word on seven of those websites. The Gap, The Limited, Ann Taylor, Lane Bryant, and J. Jill use collection, and J. Jill and Eddie Bauer use selection (e.g. our selection of shoes). [For the record, I'm way too lazy to provide links to all of those websites, but not too lazy to tell you how lazy I am.]

Meanwhile, on the UK High Street (or at least on my virtual High Street), there are collections (Jigsaw, Next, Marks & Spencer, Wallis), ranges (Boden, Laura Ashley, Next), and lines (Monsoon, Topshop, Miss Selfridge). Is there any difference between these things? Not that I can tell--but apparently Marks & Spencer recogni{s/z}es a difference between them because on their women's clothing site, they divide their wares into Our Collections, Our Ranges and Our Products. Their "collections" include Autograph and Per Una--lines of clothing that are sold under their own labels and that are meant to appeal to different demographics. But they also include maternity wear and collections that are defined by size (plus, petite). Under "our ranges", we find "career" and "denim". "Our products" are organi{s/z}ed by clothing item type (knitwear, jeans, etc.). Why does Per Una constitute a collection, while MagicwearTM is a range? I have no earthly idea. Any marketing mavens out there who can help?

[Thanks to all this research, I'm now fighting a serious case of jacket lust--after promising myself to stop spending. The US may be better for high-waisted trousers, but the UK has much cuter jackets.]

While on all these catalog(ue) sites, I noticed something that another reader pointed out to me (again, some time ago!): the use of apparel in AmE. Anthony B wrote to say that while apparel is in common use in AmE, in BrE it sounds "old-fashioned, borderline pretentious and rare". (AB sent a list of words like apparel that seem odder in BrE. We'll get to one at a time.) Whether apparel is in common use in AmE depends on how you define common. Retailers use it. You see it in catalog(ue)s (and now websites) and on informational signs in department stores and so forth, but if a friend ever asked if I wanted to go shopping for some apparel, I'd think she was being old-fashioned, pretentious and rare.

Finally, as Nancy notes, range (chiefly AmE) can mean a (AmE) stove/(BrE) cooker, though like apparel it's a word that I associate with marketing rather than everyday use. It makes me think of being eight years old and home from school with a fever, watching The Price is Right, where the prizes always seemed to include [must be said in the voice of Johnny Olson] an Amana range!!! And then there are other geographical AmE senses of range (as in Home on the Range), but that's just getting us too far from cute jackets.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

double

David, another American who does language research in the UK, has blogged about something I've been meaning to blog about. I'm trying not to hold it against him, because he seems like a nice (AmE) guy/(BrE) bloke, and you should read his entry. The issue is how people read out or recite strings of numbers, such as phone numbers or credit card numbers. Take the number 8853, for example. Americans typically say that as eight-eight-five-three, whereas a BrE speaker would be much more likely to say double eight-five-three.

David's entry talks about the cognitive dissonance that he experiences when he is writing down a number and has to translate from double 8 to two eights. I completely identify with that feeling--it feels like the information is coming backwards. They say two, you write 2, but when they say double you have to wait to hear what you need to write and then write it twice. And when someone spells a word and they say double-u, you're expected to write W, not UU.

All the same, it is an aspect of BrE (and other Es) that I've embraced (my phone extension at work is two sets of double numbers), but one that's also led me astray. When I lived in South Africa, I had a credit card number with three zeros in it. Reading it out to people, I'd say seven-nine-triple zero (or whatever it was), which usually led to some consternation. People were used to hearing double zero, but triple zero didn't sit right, and they'd ask me to repeat the number. I think I made single attempt at quadruple four for another number, but that didn't go over well at all.

So, I've stuck with the doubles but given up on the triples and quadruples. (Nowadays, I say double four, double four when faced with 4444.) Better Half claims that he'd definitely use triple and might even use quadruple--but that he is extra careful in reading out numbers on the telephone and says "four [pause] four [pause] four (that's three fours)". But now he's added "I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask about these things." So, what do you do?

Friday, January 12, 2007

slingshot and catapult

It's time to start catching up on the trickle of queries that seems to have created a flood in my inbox. James in western Massachusetts writes:
My source is some eighty years out of date, but I've been reading a British author who used "catapult" for what (today) an American would call a "slingshot." Is this still the case, and does this make the machines of war seem more puny, or the child's toy more fearsome?
Catapult continues to be used in BrE for things like this toy to the right, which is advertised for sale on the English Heritage website. It's also used, as in AmE, for big machines used to shoot boulders over castle walls. Slingshot, originally AmE (goes back to 1849, at least), doesn't refer to the machines of war, just the toy thing and extended senses relating to motion. These days, slingshot is understood and used in the UK as well as catapult. The OED quotes an occurrence in The Economist in 1966.

I also found a spoof "Edwardian" on-line magazine called The Slingshot [no longer available]--does the editor reali{s/z}e that even his title is an anachronism? In-joke or sloppiness? One can only guess.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

antsy

Today on a Catalan open-source dictionary discussion list, one of my immediate colleagues asked whether a particular word was American, and someone else on the list recommended my blog to him (which he then forwarded to me, knowingly). Does that mean I'm two degrees of separation from myself?

The word in question was antsy (not to be confused with Ansty, a village in Sussex whose (shared) sign on the A23 I consistently misread as Antsy Cowfold, thus self-inducing the giggles). I only discovered that antsy was American when the Association of British Scrabble Players moved to a combined British-American dictionary (soon to be replaced by another one). Antsy is an important word to Scrabblers because of its comparative form: antsier. Competitive Scrabble players tend to study "stems", typically 6-letter combinations that have a high probability of making a 7-letter word when combined with one more letter, and thus using all of the tiles on one's rack. Doing so results in a 50-point bonus score, and thus is called a bonus word in BrE and a bingo in AmE Scrabble circles. Antsier is a case of RETAIN+S, and RETAIN is one of the first stems a Scrabble geek learns. (I say geek [orig. AmE] in the proudest possible way.)

But what does antsy/antsier mean? To a Scrabble fiend it should not matter, but I'll tell you anyway. The first meaning is 'fidgety, restless', that is, acting like one has ants in one's pants (orig. AmE), and it's often assumed to have derived from that idiom, although there is some evidence to the contrary. Thus, the goal in my lectures is to keep the students from getting antsy. If I see them starting to shift around in their chairs, I tell them something outrageously untrue to keep them interested. Oh wait, sorry, that's what I do when I can sense your attention starting to wander away from this blog. Maybe I should have done it back in the Scrabble paragraph.

By extension, antsy can also mean 'nervous, apprehensive'. So, I might start getting antsy before my first lecture of term. Or maybe my students will. I was very relieved when, about two years ago, I finally stopped having teaching anxiety dreams before every single term. I should probably (AmE) knock on/(BrE) touch wood now that I've said that. Maybe they stopped because parts of the dreams started coming true--such as students take phone calls during class.

By the way: HBBH! (LynneE for: Happy Birthday, Better Half! A few minutes belatedly!)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

could (not) care less, adverbs

A flock of relatives came from Indiana for Dad's birthday party and were underwhelmed by the hotel services in Hometown. At various times, at least three relatives told the sad story of the check-in and said that the staff "could care less if they got any business." This set off the prescriptivist alarm bells in my head, and it took great acts of willpower to not play teacher and correct them with "could NOT care less." Just hours later, regular reader/contributor David in Dublin sent me a link to John Cleese's podcasts, and in particular podcast 18, in which he lectures Americans about the correct form of this phrase. It's an entertaining little rant.

Let's keep this straight: there are BrE speakers who erroneously say could care less as well. But AmE speakers do it a LOT more often.

Besides could care less, the use of adjective forms in adverbial slots is, from time to time, brought to me (by BrE speakers) as a certain sign of AmE inferiority and of the degradation of BrE through the influence of AmE. Here are some examples, in case you don't know your adverb from your elbow:
He did it realADJ well. VERSUS He did it reallyADV well.

He did it real
ADJ goodADJ. VERSUS He did it reallyADV wellADV.

She did that so cuteADJ. VERSUS She did that so cutelyADV.

When BrE speakers chide me about "ignorant" aspects of AmE, I have a ready arsenal of BrE illogicalities, "errors" and losses to throw back at them--some of which have been or will be discussed here. And the adjective-as-adverb issue is easier to dismiss as "not our fault", since using adjectives as adverbs is an established feature of several BrE dialects. Furthermore, both adjective-as-adverb and could care less are considered to be "non-standard" in AmE--we do have some standards, I say. But on the way home from an American Christmas party, I remarked to Better Half "I don't think I've ever gone for so long without hearing an adverb," to which non-linguist BH replied, "I wouldn't have been able to say it that way, but I know what you mean!" (The last adverbless example above is an actual example from the evening.) One does hear adjective-as-adverb in BrE--and not just in noticeably dialectal speech. But it's certainly not heard in BrE at the rate one hears it in AmE speech these days.

Tomorrow we're back to Blighty, so this ends my (BrE) holiday-/(AmE) vacation-time blog-o-rama. Next week we'll be back to term-time posting frequency.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Words of the Year 2006

Ta-da! Here are the results of the first annual SbaCL Words of the Year Awards, celebrating the words that demonstrated a lessening of the separation of our common language in 2006. I thank readers of this blog for their nominations. My selections from among those nominations have been based upon the timeliness of the nomination (in other words, if the word enjoyed a particular surge in popularity this year) and the success of the word in the relevant dialect--i.e., whether people are actually using the word.

The first category is Most Useful Import from American English to British English. This is a difficult category because of the regularity with which words travel from AmE to BrE these days. Nominations included Size 00, through when used to describe an inclusive range (e.g. the numbers 1 through 5), and cookie. Only the first of these meets the timeliness criterion, but I think it must be disqualified on two counts. First, its lack of nativi{s/z}ation in BrE is evident from the fact that no one seems to be able to agree how to pronounce it. Second, it remains a name for an American thing. American size 00 is equivalent to British size 2. The term size 00 was in the news a lot, but it is regularly noted as an American phenomenon.

So, the winner of best AmE import to BrE is...


muffin topthe roll of fat that bulges over the waistband of (BrE) trousers/(AmE) pants that are too tight and too low
Muffin top is found almost as often in the UK news as size 00 this year, but when it is used, it's usually to refer to British muffin tops--thus clearly filling a gap in the BrE lexicon. Here we must take issue with Hadley Freeman at the Guardian who incorrectly (a) confuses a muffin top with a double hip (a phenomenon that is not dependent on tight jeans) and (b) claims that muffin top is a British coining. As I've pointed out here before, the term depends on an understanding of American muffins that few BrE speakers have--since it's rare to see an "American-style muffin" in the UK that has an actual muffin top, as illustrated at the right here. And it's been popular in AmE slang for several years now, while it's still used somewhat tentatively in BrE. The majority of my 19-year-old students did not know the term at the start of the Autumn (AmE prefers Fall) term this year, but few Americans who have recently survived high school would have missed the term.

On to our next category: Most Useful Import from British English to American English. Here there is a clear winner, with no other nominations meeting the timeliness criterion. And the WotY goes to:

wanker (and its derivatives)
a detestable person, a loser, a self-aggrandi{s/z}ing person
The meaning of wanker is difficult to make precise, but it derives from the BrE verb to wank, i.e. to masturbate. Wanker has been sneaking into American popular culture under the radar for some years (e.g. Peggy Bundy's maiden name on television's Married with Children [1987] was Wanker, which was certainly meant as a joke that could make it past the censors' noses--though it would have more trouble doing so on British television). But it came into its own in AmE this year, especially, it seems, in political blogging, where many variants on the term are found, including: wankiest (in American Prospect), wankerism (quoted on Firedoglake), wank-fest (in a letter to Salon.com), wankery (on Brendan Calling from the Underground). Though some of these don't include the -er suffix, I'm treating this as backformation from wanker rather than derivation from wank because of my hunch that wanker was the vanguard word in the move from BrE to AmE. In other words, the British had the word wank and made wanker out of it, wanker travel(l)ed to America, then lost its -er. Notice that all of the above words are derogatory, but there is at least one positive member of the wank(er) family: wankalicious. According to the Urban Dictionary (never the most reliable source), this describes something "so good it compares with masturbation". My understanding of the term, however, is that it's something so good that it inspires masturbation. This one definitely derives from wank without involving wanker.

Finally, our last category of the evening, Best Word Coined by a Reader of this Blog. And the WotY goes to:
Googleschaden
"the way in which pundits' past pontifications can now come back to haunt them"

Regular reader/commenter Paul Danon created the word, after Andrew Sullivan created the definition (and an ill-fitting word) on his blog, which was forwarded to this blog by M.A.Peel during the nomination stage. Sullivan then noted Paul's word on his blog, leading more than 9500 of his readers to this blog (and the entry in which Paul coined the term) in two days. While I'm sure many of you have created new words this year, and we even witnessed monetary exchange for a new word on this blog, Googleschaden was definitely the one that got the most attention this year. Tip for next year's WotY contest: make sure your word has a good PR machine behind it.

Thanks again to everyone who's played a role in making the first SbaCL WotY happen!

Monday, January 01, 2007

roast

As mentioned previously, my dad has an important birthday today, for which we had a big party on the 30th. We needed a theme for this party that would suit my dad and that his friends and family would enjoy, so I suggested that we roast him. Better Half protested that he couldn't possibly take part, due to his vegetarianism, which is how I reali{s/z}ed that the roast tradition is an American thing. Since I'm beginning this entry on the morning after the night before, I'll let Wikipedia do the explanation for me:
A roast, in North American English, is an event in which an individual is subject to publicly bearing insults, praise, outlandish true and untrue stories, and heartwarming tributes. It is seen as a great honor to be roasted, as the individual is surrounded by friends, fans, and well-wishers, who can receive some of the same treatment as well during the course of the evening. The party and presentation itself are both referred to as a roast. The host of the event is called the roastmaster. [...] In short, it is both the opposite and the same as a "toast".
The Friars Club, a (AmE) fraternal organization for comedians, is known for its roasts, but people of my generation are likely to know about them because of Dean Martin's Celebrity Roasts on television in the 1970s. Because I remembered my dad enjoying those when I was a child, a roast for Dad seemed like a great idea--and it was. I must say, my family and their friends are some pretty hilarious folk. But the break-out star roaster was our own Better Half, who discovered that my dad shares his birthday with great Americans Paul Revere and Betsy Ross. So BH riffed (orig. AmE) on the theme of "what if it had been our birthday boy who had been called on to warn that the British were coming or to sew the first American flag?" It was abso-effing-lutely riotous.

The roastee sits on the stage while he is being roasted, and we had a huge throne for Dad to sit in (right). At the end of the roasting, there is some toasting of the roastee, after which the roastee has the opportunity for a rebuttal--which is done with the same type of humo(u)r as the roasting. You might be able to see in the photo that dad has paper and pen at the ready to make notes of jokes he'll want to make at the roasters' expense.

Also in this picture you get a view of BH's shoulder. I've got too much of a headache for any serious cropping action today.

So, Happy New Year to you, and

Happy 70th Birthday, Dad!