Saturday, March 31, 2007

cheers

The hardest thing to cope with for an English learner of Swedish is not the gender system in nouns, nor the voiceless palatal-velar fricative, nor the verb-second syntax. No, the toughest thing to learn is how to make do without a word for 'please'. I end up saying Tack ('thank you') in all sorts of places, just in order to make some polite noise when I don't know what else to do.

How often one should thank others is something that differs from culture to culture, and something that people tend to notice as over- or under-present in cultures that are not their own. British expats in America are often heard to say that they miss people saying please and thank you. For what it's worth, as an American in Britain, I miss people saying (AmE) Excuse me or sorry when they knock into me in shops or on the street. (Whenever my mother comes to England, she has cause to exclaim But I thought the English were supposed to be polite!) The worst case of this involved a 9-year-old American guest who was shoved to the floor when she was unfortunate enough to get between a Londoner and an open Tube train door. There's no explaining away that kind of behavio(u)r, that was just rude. Otherwise, my theory is that the reason that British people apologi{s/z}e less often than Americans when they knock against you in a public place is that they're in denial about having made physical contact with a stranger. (See the discussion of notions of privacy in the comments back here.)

One hears a lot more thank yous in Britain during a typical exchange at a (AmE) store check-out counter/(BrE) shop till. Somehow, I've caught on to this, and when I'm working at the charity shop/thrift store, I say thank you when the customer gives me an item to ring up, when they give me their money, and at least once at the end of the transaction. The customer says thank you at least when I give them their change and when I give them their purchase. So, that's a minimum of five thank yous per transaction, but in real interactions, I've counted up to eight. An American encounter would typically have two or three, mostly toward(s) the end of the interaction, and would not include the initial thanks for putting the item-to-be-purchased on the counter. Perhaps because they say thank you more, the British have more ways to give their thanks. One informal means of giving thanks is to say ta, which the OED says is "An infantile form of ‘thank-you’, now also commonly in colloq. adult use." Another is cheers (which is the word I started out intending to write about, since I had a request months ago from Ben Zimmer).

Cheers is interesting because it is so flexible. In AmE, it is simply used as a salutation in drinking (or sometimes with a mimed glass in hand, as a means of congratulations). In BrE it has this use, but is also used to mean 'thank you', 'goodbye' or 'thanks and goodbye'. I first learned these uses of cheers in South Africa, where my American colleague and I learned to pronounce it as chizz, following the example of our South African colleague Chaz (Charles). Using cheers to simply mean 'goodbye' is probably more South African than British (the OED doesn't note this sense, and notes that the 'thank you' meaning is as recent as the mid-1970s), but I find it very useful for those situations in which one wants to close an e-mail with thank you for something that hasn't been done yet. A British colleague noted recently noted with incredulity that Swedes often close e-mails with thanks in advance, wondering whether that was a direct translation from Swedish. It is (tack i förskott), but I had to point out that Americans write this too (whether or not we have knowledge of Swedish!), as we (or at least some of us) have been taught that it is presumptuous to thank someone for something they've been asked to do but haven't done yet. Since cheers is ambiguous between Hail, good person! and Thank you!, I use it to express gratitude while avoiding the feeling that I'm breaking that letter-writing rule that I learned from Miss Pitrella back in whatever grade/year that was. (If anyone is watching me from the Beyond, it's Miss Pitrella.) However, it was Ben Zimmer's impression that cheers "always struck me as UK-derived, yet my sense is that in email context it's used more in the US than the UK." This is not my experience at all, but you can side with Ben in the comments if you like.


So, cheers from Sweden! Or as I tend to think of it, Heaven on Earth (at least when the weather is as gorgeous as it has been this week). Heading back to the UK tomorrow (which, according to the Swedish newspaper I was reading today, is smutsig).

Postscript (the next morning): Woke up this morning reali{s/z}ing some the things I hadn't said in this post. One is that the reason why please and thank you are a little more important in Britain is that Britain is more on the 'deference' side and the US more on the 'solidarity' side on the scale of politeness systems. I discussed this a little back here. This means that Americans start out assuming that everyone's equal/friendly, whereas the British start out assuming some status distinctions between people, and therefore treat strangers (and expect to be treated by strangers) with a bit less familiarity and a bit more polite caution. (Note that this doesn't mean that there aren't big social differentiations in America--just that in many situations we feel it's more polite not to make a big deal of them.) This doesn't directly explain the lesser amount of excuse me behavio(u)r when bumping into people, which is why I had to come up with my little theory above.

Another place where the English say thank you more often is when travel(l)ing by bus or coach (in AmE, they're both bus--we don't differentiate lexically between the cross-town and more comfy long-distance types). If the exit of the bus is by the driver's seat, then one says thanks or thank you to the driver. In Watching the English (if I'm remembering correctly), Kate Fox describes this as insincere English behavio(u)r. Personally, having heard American friendliness described as 'insincere' by many non-Americans, I have a real problem with outsiders describing others' behavio(u)r as 'insincere'. (Kate Fox is an insider, but as an anthropologist, she was taking the outsider's role.) Non-Americans often say to me that they can't abide the insincere way in which Americans are so friendly and complimentary with people they don't even know. I don't think this is insincerity, but optimism and enthusiasm--which can seem unseemly in cultures in which earnestness is unseemly (see Kate Fox again).

I'll stop there before I write another post's worth!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

signs you wouldn't see in America

Hej från Sverige!

That is to say, Hello from Sweden!

English in Sweden is interesting because (besides being impeccable) it more often sounds American than British (at least in terms of vocabulary). My former Swedish tutor attributed this to the fact that Swedes get a lot of their English from television, and most of that English is American. In fact, flipping channels on my hotel room television (which gets Swedish, Danish and German channels), my choices now include a Will Smith vehicle, Lost and MTV's Jackass, subtitled in Swedish (or Danish, depending on the channel--I'm on that end of Sweden).

While Swedish English is usually very natural, I was initially puzzled by the following instruction, embossed in the control panel of the elevator/(BrE) lift in my hotel:

INSERT ROOM KEY TO DRIVE CAR

In AmE, the 'box' part that you enter in an elevator/lift is called a car, and according to the British information on lift/elevator safety equipment that I can find on the net, they're called cars in BrE too. However, when I tried to use car as an example of polysemy (multiplicity of meaning) in a semantics class in the UK, my students told me they'd never call a part of a lift a car, so perhaps it's not a well-known term in BrE. Anyhow, while/whilst it's correct to call that thing a car in (at least American) English, it is not idiomatic AmE to drive the car of an elevator. I think that such an instruction in AmE would read "Insert room key to operate elevator" (or, more probably, "To operate elevator, insert room key").

But talking about this Swedish sign is just a weak introduction for talking about "Signs You Wouldn't See in America". Of course, there are many signs in the UK that one wouldn't see in America. The speed limit signs look different, the (AmE) YIELD signs say (BrE) GIVE WAY and, of course, there are no signs in America for Ansty Cowfold. But I know people like reading about taboo words (if the number of comments on the toilet post are any indication!), so here are a few more for you.

This picture, advertising an event on my (BrE) uni's campus, would of course not be seen in America, where people would have made sure to abbreviate association as Assn or Assoc. (Go back here for discussion of ass/arse.)

Another one, which I haven't managed to capture in pixels (One used to say on film... What does one say now?), is at the local Bon Marché (BrE) shop/(AmE) store. This company, which sells inexpensive, larger-sized women's clothing (and which, as far as I know, is unrelated to similarly-named companies in the US), has recently taken to re-branding itself as BM, and offering the BM Collection. (Americans, stop your giggling right now!) As my brother Bill will tell you, you don't want to be a BM. When he has to initial things, he uses his 'proper' initials WM, because of the tee-hee-hee factor of BM. BM, you see, stands for bowel movement. In other words, it's a way to avoid saying shit.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Canadian count: 6

Had another "Is that a Canadian accent I'm detecting?" moment today, bringing the Canadian count to six. This one, upon hearing that I was American, said "I thought so. I always guess Canadian first. That way, I don't offend anyone."

I told you that people are afraid of Canadians!

toilet

Howard wrote recently to ask:
What about the word Toilet? From correspondence and discussions with American friends, I am given to understand that this is very much a no-no word in AmE.
In AmE, toilet is used to refer to the porcelain receptacle for human waste, but not usually to the room in which it's situated. It can refer to either in BrE. So, toilet is a perfectly usable word in AmE when one wants to refer to the fixture, as in I stood on the toilet in order to change the lightbulb. But one wouldn't usually hear it in AmE in contexts in which is refers to the room, as in They were smoking in the girls' toilet(s). For someone who associates that word only with the porcelain object, it seems a bit too personal to say Where's the toilet?, since there's no doubt that bodily functions will be involved if you're asking for that porcelain object. On the other hand, asking for the room in which the toilet sits seems less personal, since there are lots of reasons to go to that room (e.g. to brush your teeth, get some toilet paper for blowing your nose, adjust your toupee...). So, one asks for the room, and no one is forced to contemplate bodily functions.

In AmE, bathroom has been used to euphemi{s/z}e 'toilet' for so long that go to the bathroom means 'evacuate one's bladder/bowels'. So, an unfortunate person might say to the doctor I have pain when I go to the bathroom. They don't mean that they knock their head on the door frame. Because bathroom = bodily functions, that word has become tainted as taboo, and thus other euphemisms like restroom and powder room have been invented for the room.

BrE has different reasons for having many names for the room with a toilet. One is that bathroom only indicates a room with a (BrE) bath/(AmE) bathtub, whereas in AmE it refers to a room with a toilet (and usually a sink, and possibly a bath(tub) or shower). I heard the following exchange a couple of years ago in the National Gallery (London) between a couple of American tourists and a cruel (and probably bored) security guard:
Tourist: Could you tell us where the restroom is?
Guard: Do you need a rest?
Tourist: Oh no--I mean the bathroom.
Guard: Why? Do you want to have a bath (=AmE take a bath)?
Tourists: *gasping for another word*
Guard: I can direct you to the ladies' toilets.
Since bathroom refers only to rooms with baths, toilet or loo is used for a room with a toilet/sink, and sometimes shower room is used for a room with a toilet, sink and shower. (To my AmE ears, that sounds like a room with just showers--such as one finds in a gym.) I remember as a child learning that the British say water closet or W.C., but it's not a very popular phrase today, at least not in the circles in which I travel. I've seen W.C. on public facilities far more often in France than in England. A term I wasn't prepared for but do hear a lot is en suite (bath/toilet) which refers to a room with a toilet (etc.) that is adjacent and private to a bedroom. This comes from French (bien sûr). En suite accommodation is a hotel (or bed-and-breakfast) room that has its own toilet/bathing facilities.

While/Whilst toilet is less taboo in BrE than in AmE, some people avoid it because it is déclassé* (or non-U, in BrE terms). The U (i.e. upper class) terms are lavatory (or lav for short) or loo. At school in the US, I was taught to ask to visit the lavatory. I can still recall my classmates' and my confusion as to why the bathroom was called the laboratory. I can also recall Sister Helen's exasperation with our insistence on saying labatory or labratory (the usual AmE pronunciation of laboratory).

When I first moved to South Africa, and was faced with not being understood when using AmE euphemisms for the room with the toilet in it, it caused me considerable discomfort to ask Where are the toilets? Loo came to the rescue, since it was clear to me that that referred to the room. But by the time I left SA, I'd got(ten) used to saying toilet when I needed one. You should've seen the looks on faces when I asked for the toilet on my first day at my new job in Texas. It was at a reception for faculty wives and female faculty. Yes, this university was so conservative that it was considered improper for faculty husbands and faculty wives to have luncheons on their own, so they avoided the problem by inviting the female faculty instead of their husbands. So there I was in a reception full of big-haired, proper Texan ladies (one of whom actually said to me 'It must be so good to be back in civili{s/z}ation'!) and I asked for the toilet. It was priceless.

*Déclassé can be used in AmE to mean 'reduced in social standing' (i.e. formerly higher status) or 'of low social status' (i.e. not originally at a higher status). The OED has only the former meaning, so I am unsure at the moment whether my use of déclassé here is AmE, or if the OED is just a bit out-of-date on that one. Better Half is away, so you'll have to be my guide.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

onions, green and spring

Allie (the Kiwi) wrote to say:

I have a friend from LA staying with me at present. This evening she cooked supper, and one recipe included spring onions (or whatever those are called in the US). Anyway, after supper, I was doing the dishes when I noticed the spring onions sitting beside the pig bucket waiting to go out. The green ends had been neatly snipped off, and the white bulb parts left. Now, I use the white bulb parts, and throw out the green tips. Hilarity ensued when we realised we made a good pair and would get far more use out of spring onions as she'd use one half and I'd use the other. Apparently she was told by her mother to never use the white part as it is poisonous. I've no idea why I do not use the green tips, but I know my mother never did - and nor does anyone else I've seen chop onions - so I just followed suit.
Is it a usual thing in the US to not use the white part of these onions, or had my friend (and her mother) got the wrong end of the stick (onion) somewhere?
I grew up not seeing the white bits used either, and whether to use the white bits is a matter of dispute in American cooking, it seems. Better Half grew up using the whole onion, but for the rooty bit at the very bottom. But Allie's observation did lead me to wonder whether we might see the hand of linguistic relativity here.

Linguistic relativity (aka the Whorf Hypothesis, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is the idea that the language you speak influences how you think. (Hit the link for more details.) Whorf , an American insurance investigator, was inspired to argue for this position based on his experience of how particular phrasings influenced people's behavio(u)r. In particular, he noted that if (AmE) gasoline/(BrE) petrol drums were described as empty, people would treat them as non-dangerous, even though such drums would be filled with very dangerous fumes.

Now, I don't know if all BrE speakers are like Better Half and use the whole onion (do you?), but the BrE term for this variety is spring onion. In AmE, the most common term is probably green onion, but they are also called scallions. Does the fact that the name of the food includes green inspire users of that name to perceive the edible part as the green part? Hmm...

Incidentally, the 1960s tune 'Green Onions' has been given lyrics by Raymond and the Circle (a performer from 1980s western Massachusetts who no one but me seems to know/remember; until recently I was the only person to have mentioned him on the web). It goes like this:
Onions
We're eatin' those green onions
Onions
We're eatin' those green onions
They go great with grunions
And they're good for puttin' on your bunions.

Scallions
Some people call 'em scallions
Scallions
Some people call 'em scallions
They're the size of medallions
And we've got enough to feed three battalions.
If you know the tune, it's pretty easy to sing along...

suckers for an accent

Paul pointed out this article and discussion on BBCNews about the tendency for Americans to assume that the British are brighter (and their lack of recognition of non-RP accents as British). Better Half says that he's not sure whether Americans think he's smarter because of his accent, but he does think Americans (in America) find him more interesting and give him more attention because of it. American women often also find the accent sexy... Better Half says for the record that he didn't say that last sentence--though the fact that he's had more American girlfriends than British may provide some corroboration.



Saturday, March 17, 2007

math(s)

As promised in the comments of my last post, this post pulls together and expands upon discussions that have come up more than once in comments on other posts and e-mails to me. Back in July, Ahab wrote:

I was castigated recently by a Brit for the nonsensical nature of saying math when the long form is mathematics, so any explanation you can provide on that front would certainly put my mind to rest.
Castigation is common on the math/maths issue, and the castigation is usually British to American. So, I'm going to castigate a bit in the other direction, because there's absolutely no reason why maths should be considered to be more correct than math.

The castigation usually goes: "Mathematics is plural, so maths needs its -s." It's a logic based on a false (AmE) premise/(BrE often) premiss. Just because there's an -s at the end of mathematics doesn't mean it's plural. The suffix -s is homonymous. Homonymy is when the same lexical forms (i.e. words or affixes) have unrelated meanings/functions. That is to say, it's when two words/affixes just happen to be pronounced/spelt the same. So, can is a homonym because either it can refer to a kind of container (can of Coke) or it can be a modal verb (I can go). Those two cans are completely unrelated. Similarly, there are several suffixes with different meanings/functions that all coincidentally have the form -s:

suffixfunctionexample
-spluralone cup > two cups
-spresent tense, 3rd sg
verb agreement
I run > he runs
-sadverbial markerunaware (Adj) > unawares (Adv)
-snoun markerlinguistic (Adj) > linguistics (N)
(I've left out the possessive suffix 's, because it has some complicated properties that aren't relevant here.)

How do we know that these are really different affixes, and not just the same affix doing a range of jobs? Partly we know from history. The plural -s comes from an Old English case suffix (-es or -as). The verb one has derived from the suffix -eth (or -ath) in earlier Englishes. The adverbial one is related to the possessive 's. And our friend the nominali{s/z}ing (=noun-making) suffix generally affixes to roots from classical Greek. (See comments for further discussion.)

These suffixes differ in their productivity -- that is, how regularly/predictably one finds them in contexts where they could, in principle, go. The first two are very productive--although there can be exceptions in which they are not used. That is, while -s is the most productive plural marker in English, it's not the only plural marker--we also have -(r)en in children and oxen and a zero (invisible) suffix on sheep and fish (one sheep, two sheep).

The last two in the table are not very productive at all, and the last one is the -s we find in mathematics. Because we have a very productive and common plural -s and a not so productive/common nominali{s/z}ing -s, people often mistake the less productive suffix for the more common suffix. This has raised such a debate in the field of folkloristics that no fewer than three articles in Journal of American Folklore have addressed the final -s in folkloristics. [See References, below.] In one, Bruce Jackson calls folkloristics a noun with 'no existence as a noun in the singular', but he's corrected by Dan Ben-Amos, who says that folkloristics is instead a singular noun with no existence in the plural. (Note that there is no *folkloristicses.)

How can we tell whether or not this -s is marking a plural in mathematics and folkloristics? We do so by seeing whether the words trigger plural behavio(u)r in other words in the sentence. A first test might be whether you can count mathematics (* means 'ungrammatical'):
*one mathematic*two mathematics
*a mathematicsome mathematics

Mathematics doesn't work with numbers because it's not a countable noun, it's a mass noun. That is, it does not take plural marking because it is not the kind of thing one can or does count. Similar examples (without the confusing -s) on the end are cinnamon and boredom. Note that you don't talk of putting *cinnamons in your food (unless you're making the point that they are different types of cinnamon--which is a different matter), nor does one suffer *boredoms if the boredom happened at different times. Cinnamon and boredom are treated as masses with undistinguishable (or at least not-worth-distinguishing), and therefore uncountable, parts. If we want to make such words countable, we have to use another noun to do so: two teaspoons of cinnamon, three episodes of boredom. Similarly, you can have three theories of mathematics or three mathematics classes, but not *three mathematics.

The third person, singular present tense -s verb suffix (the second -s in the table above) provides another test of singularity. If the subject of a verb is singular, then the verb needs the -s (or the equivalent in an irregular verb like is or has), but if the subject is plural, it can't have the -s. So:

singular subjectplural subject
The idea pleases me.The ideas please_ me.
Mathematics pleases me. ??Mathematics please_ me.
Now, some of you will say that Mathematics please me is what you'd say. This is the effect of the folk-belief that mathematics is plural; it has started to change how people use the word. We see the same kind of language-change due to misapprehension of the -s suffix in the short form maths. Math is the older form--the OED has examples back to 1847, but examples of maths only from 1911.

Another interesting point here is that you don't see the same kinds of abbreviations for other nouns with the nominali{s/z}ing -s. For example,when BrE or AmE speakers abbreviate linguistics, they tend to say ling. I've never heard anyone talk about the Lings Department.

Why is maths the exception here? It probably has something to do with the fact that it's a much more common word, especially since it refers to a school subject. Because it's more common, it's subject to more folk-reasoning about it and more spread of that folk-reasoning. It also requires more frequent abbreviation than less common (linguistics, folkloristics) and shorter (physics) similar words. So, someone along the line misunderstands it as plural, starts using the -s in the abbreviation, and perhaps making it agree with plural verbs, and it spreads. It carries on because the belief that -s on nouns is always a plural marker is a simpler belief to hold than that -s has different functions on different nouns.

Better Half has just run in from listening to A Prairie Home Companion, where he says that Garrison Keillor just said you do the maths. (The AmE expression is usually you do the math.) We met Keillor (if it counts as a 'meeting' to have a book signed and make a little chit-chat about being an American abroad) in Brighton a couple of years ago, and in many ways you could say he's not a typical AmE speaker (even though he certainly trades on his down-home midwesternism), since he's lived abroad at various points in his life. But do let me know if you're a Minnesotan who believes this is one of Keillor's actual down-homeisms.

Myself, I do tend to say maths in BrE company, but only because it's so painful not to. Can you imagine if I had to say all of the above every time I was unjustly castigated?

References
Ben-Amos, Dan. (1985) On the Final [s] in Folkloristics. The Journal of American Folklore, 98: 334-336

Hansen, Wm. F. (1987) A Note on the Final [s] in Folkloristics. The Journal of American Folklore, 100: 305-307.

Jackson, Bruce. (1985) Folkloristics. The Journal of American Folklore, 98: 95-101.

Friday, March 16, 2007

scale(s)

Was out with my friend the Blinder tonight, talking about my plan to re-establish a gym routine and improve my diet. (Let's see how long that lasts.) I need to make my plan as numbers-driven as possible, and need to involve Better Half in the process in order to discourage his practice of showing me how much he loves me by making me more food. (Today I was packed two lunches.) So, I said that we need a new scale, as the one we have now (which I've had since 1987--it's lived on three continents) measures in pounds, whereas BH understands weights better in stones. The Blinder said, "There's one for your blog," and I replied "I've already done it!" But guess what? I haven't! All this writing I do is just running together; I've written about scales in the lexical semantics textbook I'm writing. The exciting implication of all that is that I can basically cut-and-paste bits from that manuscript and call it an exciting preview of my forthcoming textbook. Recycling! It's good! The only problem here is that the bit that I'm cutting and pasting is part of a larger discussion of noun countability. You'll just have to buy the book to make sense of it all, won't you now? [I'll paste in links to the catalog(ue) entry when it's finally published. Here I am, four years later, adding that link.]

Historically, the name for a weighing device is scales. It is plural because scales had two clear parts in which one thing was weighed against another. So, they looked like this:

(a)
Modern scales don’t involve balancing things in two plates (photo from here):

(b)AmE has changed along with the scales, so that item (b) is usually called a bathroom scale, but scales is still used for the older kind. In BrE and AusE, however, it is still called scales, no matter whether it has two salient parts or not. When Anna Wierzbicka (Semantics: primes and universals) asked Australians why the word is plural, they answered that it was because there are lots of little numbers on the contraption. This seems to be a case of the word leading the thinking about an object. That is, because they say scales instead of scale, some people think about scales as being 'made up' of little numbers because they need to make sense of the fact that this singular object gets a plural name. Wierzbicka also notes that Australian English has shifted from speaking of a pair of scales, to a set of scales (for (b)). There, it looks like the name scales was broadened to cover (b) as well as (a), but when people started to think of numbers (of which there are many) rather than the plates on which measurable bits are put (which come in pairs in (a)-type scales) as the 'plural' part of scales, they shifted to thinking of scales as sets, rather than pairs.

Hm, aren't you just dying to take a lexical semantics course now? Or at least in the market for a textbook? Hey, maybe I can get you a discount...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

cures for what ails you

Better Half has been unwell (which sounds fairly BrE--I'd usually say sick in AmE) for more than a week now. The doctor says he has a chest infection, but an American doctor might've preferred to say bronchitis. It's not that bronchitis is an AmE word--just that people talk about being diagnosed with bronchitis in the US, and people in the UK tend to talk about chest infections. And it's not that BrE speakers prefer to avoid Latin/Greek-derived medicalese, either. Whereas Americans talk about getting urinary tract infections (people who get them a lot tend to call them UTIs), the British are more apt to say cystitis--a term I hadn't come across until I moved here. I heard urine infection (from a sufferer) here the other day, which I thought was a bit odd, as it's not the urine that's infected...but that's another matter.

This was supposed to be a short post, but I'm already going on off on my tangents. The real purpose was to tell you a joke that Better Half told me when I brought him some analgesic tablets. (Actually, BrE uses the word tablet much more often where AmE would tend to use pill--but that's another tangent. Oh dear.) Here we go:
Why are there no headaches in the jungle?

Because the parrots ate 'em all!
Americans cannot be expected to get that joke. And no one can be expected to find it particularly funny--but it is particularly punny. It relies on knowledge of (a) the word paracetamol, (b) how it's pronounced, and (c) that ate in BrE is often pronounced to rhyme with bet. That is, the answer is a pun on Because the paracetamol.

And why is that a relevant answer? Because paracetamol is what Americans generically call acetaminophen --though it's more commonly known in AmE by the brand name Tylenol. Both names, paracetamol and acetaminophen, are based on the description of the chemical components in the drug--they both make mention of the acet part. (I'm not qualified to comment any further on the chemical structure, so I'll stop before I make a mockery of pharmaceutical chemistry.)

Some BrE speakers will have come across acetaminophen in the White Stripes' song, 'Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine', which I particularly like for the rhyme:
Acetaminophen
You see the medicine
While I secretly enjoy them, I try to play it cool and roll my eyes when I hear puns like paracetamol = parrots ate 'em all. But I can't stop myself from expressing overt and enthusiastic admiration for tortured rhymes like that. Hurrah!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

drink/drunk driving and pot plants

James Henry wrote to say:
I had a hard time believing that an utterance such as 'He was cited for drink-driving,' wasn't a typo, or some other error. Apparently it is standard usage, and I'm left wondering if there are 'drink tanks' in the UK.
If there aren't (AmE) drunk tanks in the UK, I'd guess that it has at least as much to do with a tolerance for public drunkenness as with linguistic considerations (though they seem to be warming to the idea of American-style 'tanks' in Scotland). But (BrE) drink-driving does take a lot of getting used to for those accustomed to (AmE) drunk driving. Incidentally, the crime of drink/drunk driving is known in different ways in different parts of the US: either DWI 'Driving While Intoxicated' or DUI 'Driving Under the Influence'--though these days most people in most places know both terms.

Drink-driving and drunk driving are both compound nouns (never mind whether there's a space in it--it is a compound). While the first words of those are morphologically related (i.e. they're both derived from the word drink), they differ in grammatical category; that is, drunk is an adjective, based on the participial form of the verb drink, and drink (in this case) is the base form of the verb. How can I tell that drink in drink-driving is a verb, rather than a noun ['a drink']? Because its origins are in the phrase drink and drive--both verbs. In early days (the 1960s) it was sometimes called drink-and-driving.

This is far from being the only case in which BrE and AmE make compounds of the 'same' words in different grammatical guises. One that creates misunderstandings is AmE potted plant (participle + noun) versus BrE pot plant (noun+noun) for a plant that's been planted in a pot. In AmE, pot plant is understood to involve the slang noun pot (orig. AmE) meaning (AmE-preferred) marijuana/(BrE-preferred) cannabis. So, when British (or South African, etc.) speakers talk of tending their pot plants, AmE speakers can be expected to raise eyebrows.

Just within the topic of intoxicants, one can find more examples of morphological mismatch between the dialects. For instance a BrE headline (on what is probably an American wire story) reads (after I've corrected the punctuation and capitali{s/z}ation problems in it):
Britney Spears 'No Drink Or Drug' Problem
Now, if BS were to cop to (AmE slang, = 'to admit to') such a problem, she'd probably say that she has a (AmE) drinking problem (particple+noun), rather than a (BrE) drink problem (noun+noun). (The article itself uses the more dialect-neutral noun+noun alcohol problem.)
But drug problem in that headline is interesting too, as in BrE one often sees/hears drugs problem, which sounds strange in AmE. Here's another headline from another British source:
Britney Spears' Ex-Hubby: She Had 'Drugs Problem' With Me
The quotation marks/inverted commas in both of these headlines are amusing, since, being in the wrong dialect, they are clearly not quoted speech from Britney Spears, Kevin Federline or "their people". I'm collecting such dialectally incorrect quotations for a future post. It's not so surprising when they're in headlines, in which the notion of quotation is taken very loosely indeed, but they also occur in the main text in most newspapers. If you have other examples of quotations that are dialectally suspicious, please e-mail them to me.

And as long as I'm on bloggy business at the end here... Apologies for my recent (comparatively) low posting volume. If you're wondering why that is, see here. I'll be working (and blogging) more reasonable hours during my Easter break from teaching.

And THANK YOU for nominations to Metro's blog award. While I don't think that I have a serious chance of winning an award (not with the likes of Phileas Blog in the competition), they have noted your enthusiasm for this blog (and your ability to understand self-serving hints). Thanks very much--it means a lot to me! I'll nominate you for the Best British Blog Readers awards, whenever Metro gets around to having that competition.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

ticks and checkmarks

I'm sure I missed many opportunities when writing about games recently, but I almost immediately reali{s/z}ed I'd omitted (BrE) noughts and crosses/(AmE) tic-tac-toe. Clearly, the BrE name is naming the symbols used in the game: O and X. In AmE, however, those symbols are usually called by the names of the letters they resemble: 'oh' and 'ex'. But the X-like cross has another use in British culture; it marks things that are incorrect, and its opposite, symboli{s/z}ing correctness, is the tick: .

Now, this took some getting used to when I first started teaching in South Africa, where they use the same system. Why? Because when/where I was a child, a checkmark (AmE for ) on your work meant that you got it wrong. This is actually fairly counterintuitive, because a can mean 'good' in various other contexts. For instance, if I wrote an essay in school and it was just OK, it would get a at the top of the page. If it were (usual BrE = was--but we'll get to the subjunctive some other time) very good, it would receive a + or ++. And a in an advertisement or on a grocery list means 'we've got it' or 'mission accomplished' or similarly positive things.

It seems that many American schools use the British system of for 'correct' and X for 'incorrect', while calling them check(mark)s and exes still. It's not clear to me whether this is a recent innovation or a long-standing variation. (American readers--did you get checked or exed wrong, and when?) But there is some evidence that the system that I knew as a youngster is still around in some places, as these teachers (on the page linked above) note:
Canuck: I am a Canadian teacher, working in Korea at an American school. (Yikes) As a result, I'm confused! I've always used a check mark for correct answers and an x for wrong. However, my students are confused and think this is backwards. [...]

Wig [from western Michigan]: I wonder how much it has to do with how papers were graded when you were in school? It's a good question, but everyone in my school uses a checkmark if it is wrong.
Over on the Guardian's Notes and Queries page, it's noted that the Swedes also use to mean 'incorrect' (adding to the multitude of reasons that I feel a kinship with Swedish culture), and it's supposed that originally came from V for Latin veritas 'truth'.

During the first multiracial elections in South Africa (which I was lucky enough to witness), trainers crossed the country teaching people how to mark a ballot paper. One of the things that they had to contend with was the fact that people with some schooling saw the X as a sign of wrongness, so rather than putting a cross/X next to the person they wanted to vote for, it was some people's urge to put crosses next to all the people they didn't want to vote for. So, it's not just the tick/checkmark that can sometimes mean 'wrong' and sometimes mean 'right'--the cross/X can too.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

humo(u)r

The Guardian, particularly its Weekend magazine, has been publishing a lot of things that relate to transatlanticism these days, and I keep ripping them out and putting them on the 'blog ideas' pile. But here's one that I don't feel the need to say much more about: Simon Pegg on why British and American humo(u)r aren't really that different. His conclusions about our approaches to irony will sound familiar to those who have read Kate Fox's Watching the English.