Thursday, May 31, 2007

breakfast in Brighton

The title of this post is also the title of one of the first books I read after moving to the titular town. (I recommend it if you know the town, or have reason to get to know it.) It's also what I'm looking forward to tomorrow. Tonight I'm in an airport hotel outside Copenhagen, after another heavenly work trip to Sweden. The only thing that keeps me from believing that I really have gone to Heaven when I'm in Sweden is the preponderance of icky fish in the diet. It's charming the way that my Swedish friends constantly offer me food with fish in it, even when they know that fish is the one thing I cannot keep in my mouth long enough to swallow. (OK, it's not the only thing...but they haven't had reason to discover my relationship with broccoli.) It's not that they're cruel or forgetful, it's just that it doesn't occur to them that anchovy toast or caviar paste actually contains fish products--until I embarrass myself by refusing their kind offers.

But tomorrow I fly early enough to be home before I would have been awake on a normal day. And the only way I'll be able to get through the day is to have a nice protein-o-rific breakfast. Known in those parts as a cooked breakfast.

And the reason for letting you in on my breakfast plans? Oh, just to give unneeded autobiographical background to discussing some queries from Dennis in Wisconsin. Dennis has been noting down (I don't know for how long) sentences in British books that contain words he doesn't understand and can't locate the meanings for. A number of these fit into the category of 'breakfast'. So, here's a tour (in alphabetical order) of British breakfast foods in literature (mostly murder mysteries, from what I can tell. Can't solve crimes on an empty stomach, I guess):
"He had consumed a jumbo dogknob and beans for breakfast that morning" Grave Music, Catherine Harrod-Eagles, p. 5.
Sorry to start with this one. It's just crude. Dogknob here is most likely referring to a sausage--probably a hot-dog-like (i.e. red) sausage. Knob is slang for 'penis', and dogknob red is a crude description of a certain shade of colo(u)r. Moving right along...
"After a breakfast of two eggs and couple of rashers of the greenback he liked..." A New Lease of Death, Ruth Rendell, p. 27.
Because this comes in rashers (a word I haven't heard much in AmE--we tend to call them slices), we can tell it's bacon. I haven't found a definition for it, but since it is contrasted with smoked back bacon on this butcher's site, I think we can assume it's unsmoked back bacon. (Leave a comment if you know otherwise!) The type of bacon that's eaten in the US is called streaky bacon in BrE. If you buy it in Britain it's unlikely to crisp up the way that American bacon does--I'm not sure if it's because it's more thickly sliced or if there's something else different about it. (Your theories?) It won't be maple-cured, that's for sure.

And next on to...
"[Slider's tray held] two fried eggs, double fried bread, sausage, bacon and tomato, tea an' a slice." Blood Lines, Catherine Harrod-Eagles, p. 3
That's a slice of bread. If it didn't say double fried bread just before, I'd have assumed that this was a fried slice, which is certainly not as inedible as fish or broccoli, but not something I'd choose to eat. I looked fruitlessly for a picture of fried bread on the web, but did find a video on how to make it--I'm not sure if the humo(u)r in it is intentional. (The resulting fried slice is far more attractive than anything I've seen in the caffs [BrE slang = 'cafés'] that I frequent.) The same team has made a video on how to make a Full English breakfast.
"Carver went off with his breakfast into the guv'nors' dining-room, but Slider preferred to mess with the ORs, and exchanging friendly nods with some of the sleepy night relief just coming off, who had stayed for a cuppa and a wad, he took his tray to the window table." Blood Lines, p. 2
Dennis didn't ask about cuppa, but I had to highlight it anyhow, as it's just so BrE. It refers, of course, to a cup of tea, which for many Britons is a drink, a security blanket and a way of life. Wad is (apparently military) slang for a (BrE) bun ([postscript:] more probably a sandwich--see comments).

Of course, there is much, much more that could be said about breakfast foods (some of which has already been said on this site--hit the food/cooking label to go to more food discussions). But for tonight, I'm sticking with what Dennis gave me.

There's a very strange noise coming from the hotel bathroom, so if I don't post again, you can imagine that I came to an untimely (because I won't have had my English breakfast) and grisly end, at the hands (or tentacles) of a toilet monster.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

round and around

They're doing some fixing-up on campus, and this week I was faced with the following in my path:

(In case you can't read the writing on your screen, the left(-)hand sign says "Please go around" and the right(-)hand one says "Please go round".) I liked this bit of linguistic indecision.

Adverbial and prepositional round is far more common in BrE than in AmE. (And just typing it gets the Dead or Alive song going through my head. Which Dead or Alive song, you ask? You mean they had more than one? I thought they just released the same one over and over and over and over again.) According to John Algeo's British or American English?, round is 40 times more common in BrE than AmE (in the Cambridge International Corpus). Though it might just be differences in lexicographical practice, Algeo also notes that (US) Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (2003) lists 2 senses for prepositional round but 7 for around, whereas the (UK) New Oxford Dictionary of English lists 5 for around and 8 for round.

I searched for round the on the Guardian website and asked myself whether the examples I found would be round or around in my native dialect. Here are the results from the first two pages that didn't involve other Briticisms (otherwise I'd be typing explanations all day and night), repetition, compounding (e.g. a round-the-world ticket), or other disqualifiers:
  1. Party round the world in 2007
  2. Reading round the Christmas tree.
  3. He's an expert guide, fluent in Italian, takes you round the museum
  4. Pubs are to be allowed to stay open round the clock under plans for a radical overhaul of licensing laws
  5. 'Listen: tinkering round the edges will change nothing'
  6. On the way round the labyrinth, there are slits in the walls,
  7. He has recently completed the last section of a walk round the M25 [a motorway/highway]
I'm fairly confident (though I must confess that I use a BrE-flavo(u)red round fairly often these days, and so may have lost my intuitions), that a typical AmE speaker would say around in all of these cases. The last seems to me the most natural with round, but perhaps some of you with more intact AmE intuitions will be better judges.

Using Fowler's as a guide, The Grammar Logs of the Capital Community College Foundation (Hartford, Connecticut) answers a query about round and around with:
In almost all situations, the words are interchangeable and you'll have to rely on your ear to come up with the word that sounds better. [I]n British English, there are several idiomatic expressions in which "round" is obligatory, but where "around" would work just fine in the U.S.A.: "winter comes round," "show me round," "he came round to see me." In the U.S., "around" is obligatory when you're using it to convey approximation: "He arrived around 4 p.m.," "Around two-thirds of the faculty will retire next year."
There are other idioms that must have one or the other in them--for instance to get around, meaning to go to/be in a lot of places (as in the Beach Boys song), needs around. But in the meaning 'to evade' (as in We got (a)round the security guard), BrE prefers round and AmE prefers around. Feel free to add your own examples in the comments!

An interesting example in the Guardian results was The speech heard 'round the world. Here the apostrophe seems to indicate the writer's feeling that round has been contracted from around--and probably the writer's feeling that round is a bit more informal. That was the only apostrophe'd one in the 20 I looked at. But is it round really a contraction of around? Maybe not. Around is a fairly recent addition to the language. The OED lists around as 'rare before 1600', and notes that it doesn't occur in the works of Shakespeare. Round goes back further, and Shakespeare used it in places where I would have said around (but he didn't ask me, did he?):
1602 SHAKES. Ham. III. ii. 165 Full thirtie times hath Phoebus Cart gon round Neptunes salt Wash.
So where did the a- come from? It could be on analogy with other a- prepositions like across and among. At any rate, the OED marks its fourth sense for around as an Americanism now, but perhaps not in the past or the future:
4. In U.S.: = ROUND. Perhaps orig. U.K. (cf. quot. 1816). Now coming back into British use under U.S. influence.

JANE AUSTEN Emma I. x. 187 Emma..was beginning to think how she might draw back a little more, when they both looked around, and she was obliged to join them.
All this seems to indicate that apostrophes are unnecessary for 'round (at least in BrE), and that the perceived need to put them there may be analogous to 'til, which was till before it was until.

Friday, May 25, 2007

quite wh-

Mark Liberman over on Language Log has blogged about the following sentence, which appeared in the Guardian today:
Quite who Fatah al-Islam are, or where they came from, is a matter of dispute.
Liberman finds the sentence-initial quite who very strange, preferring exactly who or just who. He suspects that it's BrE, though he shows through a search for these structures in the Guardian archives that quite who is the least common of the three even in BrE.

Quite who is no doubt less common than Just who or Exactly who, but it may be more common in speech than in writing. I approached Better Half on his way out of the shower this morning and asked him what he thought of Quite who he is is a mystery and Quite who does he think he is? His immediate reply was that they were fine things to say, but that they'd sound better spoken than they'd look written. (Then he gave me one of his 'Can I go now?' looks.)

To me, quite who sounds a bit worse than quite why, so I did a little investigation of this on my lunch hour. I haven't figured out how Liberman searched for just sentence-initial examples, so my methodology here is probably a bit different. I've searched for the following phrases on the Guardian website (representing BrE) and on the Boston Globe website (representing AmE), then looked at the first 50 and counted how many were sentence-initial. I'm counting as 'sentence initial' only those that start with an upper case letter or are preceded by a colon or semi-colon and those that are immediately preceded by just a discourse particle of some sort (e.g. Well, quite why that is...). There are many more that are clause-initial in subordinate clauses or that are complement clauses, but I'm not counting those. (*Some of these figures are more reliable than others. In particular, the just what figures include some things that weren't really sentences, but noun phrases, e.g. Just what the doctor ordered! Just what I didn't need! But scanning for capital Js was all I had time for.)
BrE hits

BrE S-initial
AmE hits
AmE S-initial

quite how

exactly how

just how

quite why





exactly why


just why114


quite what





exactly what


just what*1140



quite who





exactly who


just who


What's striking here (or should that be quite what's striking here?) is how much more sentence-initial quite we see in BrE. But then, almost all of the percentages are greater for BrE than AmE. My theory is that the Guardian is more prone to ask (rhetorical) questions than the Globe (since newspapers here identify more with political positions than they do in the States, and therefore aren't shy about having leading questions with telling presuppositions here and there). But the differences between the BrE quite percentages and the AmE ones are pretty severe, which seems to support Liberman's hypothesis that sentence-initial quite is a Briticism.

Liberman goes on to say:

What I can't figure out is why Americans should object to "quite who" in subject position but not elsewhere. It seems to have something to do with polarity -- thus my judgments are:

I don't know exactly who is responsible.
I know exactly who is responsible.

I don't know quite who is responsible.
*I know quite who is responsible.


Do British speakers have different rules about the scope of polarity-licensing operators? Or is (this sense of) quite not really a polarity item for our British cousins, despite the evidence in the table above? Perhaps some well-informed and sociolinguistically-inclined syntactician or semanticist will enlighten this befuddled phonetician.

When referring to polarity here, Liberman is talking about how certain words have to go or not-go with negative words like not or nobody. (For example, already goes in positive sentences, but it has to be yet in negative ones: *I haven't slept already. So already is a negative polarity item.) I favo(u)r the 'quite is not as polar in BrE as in AmE' hypothesis.

Quite differs in many ways between BrE and AmE, and maybe some of these are related to Liberman's puzzle. First, there's the use of quite in BrE as a marker of agreement. Here's Robert Burchfield in Fowler's on the topic:
quite 1. A colloquial use that often puzzles or amuses visitors to Britain is the use of quite (or quite so) to express agreement (= 'I quite agree') with a previous declarative statement: e.g. 'The minister should have resigned.' 'Quite.' Other ways of expressing agreement exists (...), but quite, quite so and rather are the ones that are likely to be regarded as distinctly British by visitors.
Now, I think of quite as being the way that a BrE speaker dismisses someone else while paying lip-service to agreement. Here's the kind of thing I'm thinking of, from a Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction site:
"Seishin, we should really get moving if you intend to finish this business soon" said her first mate, Victor, from the docks.
"Quite" she said shortly. Ignoring the plank, she jumped of the rail and landed neatly next to him.
In this context, the quite-sayer knows that Victor is right, but probably doesn't want to hear it from him (either because he interrupted her thinking about something else, or because she doesn't like her first mate bossing her around). Agreement quite is certainly not always said in a 'short' way, but it's a stereotypical way of using it.

Second, there's the fact that quite is often (but not always, the story is complicated--see Fowler's!) used to weaken the force of an adjective in BrE, while it strengthens the force in AmE. So, a sentence like that book was quite interesting is probably enthusiastic praise in AmE, but probably a damp squib of praise in BrE.
Now, these are not (quite!) the senses of quite that are operating in Liberman's examples, nevertheless I'm wondering whether some of these facts are somehow connected.

Monday, May 21, 2007

packing peanuts and monkey nuts

How am I avoiding marking/grading? Let me count the ways... Every time I finish a dissertation (which in AmE would be called a thesis, since it's an undergraduate piece; thesis and dissertation are used in reverse ways in BrE and AmE), I reward myself by going on-line. I probably read more on-line in my breaks than I read on paper in the work times (which means that the work times then extend through the night in order to stay on schedule). It's just so much more pleasant to read things that don't involve me having to make a formal judg(e)ment about them, which I'll later have to defend to someone else (second examiner, external examiner) and which I'll later have to live with--and live with the knowledge that someone else has to live with it. Don't get me wrong, I'm reading some really good work, but still I find the process emotionally draining.

But I've taken so many reading breaks that I've pretty much read the Internet now. Well, everything in my bookmarks, at least. So on this little dissertation break, I'll write instead of reading. Some time ago, I ripped the following bit from the Guardian, intending to write about it later. (Welcome to Later.) It's from a piece in the Work section on April Fool's pranks for the office:
Fill a desk with peanuts
According to the interweb, Americans love filling other people's desk drawers with peanuts. Handy for a snack--but read the small print. These are packing peanuts (whatever they are), and therefore not edible. Ridiculous! I'll be going straight for the dry-roasted KPs [a UK brand of peanut--L]. Open those drawers wide. [Vicky Frost, 'Pick a prank for the delayed April Fool', The Guardian, 31 Mar 2007]
Now, usually I will defend the Grauniad, but here I cannot. Vicky Frost, what kind of reporter are you if you have to write "whatever they are" in an article? (OK, an article that is meant to be taken as humorous, but an article nonetheless.) Research, darling, research! (This is starting to feel like marking/grading. Uh-oh.)

I was reminded to find and write about this item (in my staggering tower of things to write about) when BH and I walked by a packing supply shop/store the other day. Its sign advertised that it sells loosefill. Now, this is trade jargon (used in the US too), not BrE particularly, but it gave me cause to ask BH "Is that what you'd call packing peanuts?" and he guessed that it would be the name for them, though not a word that he'd necessarily use. He'd probably just call them annoying polystyrene (=AmE styrofoam) bits, or some such thing. (The photo of a particularly miscellaneous collection of packing peanuts comes from this blog.)

Packing peanuts are so-called in AmE because of their typical shape, like a whole peanut (i.e. with its shell on). Perhaps this name is not so transparent in BrE because the word peanut is generally restricted to the shelled nuts (technically not nuts, but legumes; but since this isn't a botany blog, we'll just call them nuts). The shell-on version are sold as monkey nuts. (Stop that tittering!) Packing monkey nuts just doesn't have the same ring. (Photo 'borrowed' from this blog.)

Incidentally, I haven't run into cornstarch "peanuts" in the UK, though they are a wonderful invention, as they melt in water, making them completely biodegradable. Of course, it's the corn (BrE maize) growers of America, trying to find more things for us to do with corn/maize, that are behind this--so not terribly surprising that you don't find them here. (Just as you're more likely to find cars running on ethanol in the US.) Still, I really like them, as they're relatively guilt-free packaging.

P.S. I had a Canadian count double-whammy yesterday (at a Scrabble tournament--these happen often in Scrabble contexts). A player (whom I've known for a few years now) expressed surprise when I mentioned going to the US to see my family. She said "Oh, you're not Canadian?" And then added "I told A [another player from her town] that you were American, but he was so insistent that you were Canadian..." So, those are numbers 8 and 9 on the Canadian count.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

up the albion!

The comments on the last post mostly cent{er/re} around uses of up as a verb...which led me to recall one of my first encounters with a BrE sense up. (This one a preposition.)

It was on the back of a bus, and it said: UP THE ALBION!

Now, the Albion is Brighton and Hove Albion, also known as the Seagulls, the local (BrE) football club / (AmE) soccer team, so I was puzzled as to why the local bus company would want to say something rude about the local team. You see, in AmE I would have to say up with the Albion (reminding me of a slogan from my childhood, Up with People). Without the with, I could only presume that I should interpret it as I interpret Up yours, which is a rude thing to say wherever you are.

Better Half says that Up the Albion! is a kind of cheer that one used to hear on the terraces, but these days one is more likely to hear You are going home in a fucking ambulance! (he sang that, but I can't figure out how to give you a sense of the rhythm) or some of the chants available on this website. (I'm sending you to the Albion page, but there are lots more on that site for other clubs too. For an intro to football chants, see also this BBC site.) Terraces in this sense means steps or tiers where people stand to watch the (BrE) match/(AmE) game. They're kind of like (AmE) bleachers, except that they're for standing, rather than sitting. Terraces are becoming a thing of the past (whereas increasingly abusive football chants are not), because of safety concerns, following a number of horrible incidents in the 1980s (including and especially the Hillsborough disaster). New stadiums have seating throughout.

Of course, there are other ways in which up is used differently in AmE and BrE, but they'll have to wait until I haven't got so much marking/grading to do.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

to up sticks / to pull up stakes

Marking (=AmE grading) season is upon us--meaning that I have about 145,000 words to read before the next batch of 122,000 words shows up on Monday. How much I blog in the next few weeks will tell you just how much I'm avoiding those essays. But in trying to be a good faculty member (if not a good blogger), I'll limit myself to a short entry now. That's what I say to myself at the beginning of each blog entry. Then two hours later...

Today's topic comes to us courtesy of Nancy Friedman, who asked (11 days ago) about upping sticks:
I encountered this idiom for the first time recently in a blog by this fellow.
I did a Google search and discovered 1,300 references, including a book title (subtitle also veddy British: "How to Move House and Stay Sane," where AmE would simply say "Move").
Can you shed light on the origin of the expression? Does it mean "permanently relocating" or simply "taking off for a while"?
It almost sounds like the name of a quaint township. Nether Upping Sticks, perhaps.
I quote the post in part because I was very satisfied to discover that the 'this fellow' has a link to SbaCL on his blog. What a sterling person he is! (And it's so much better to be sterling nowadays!)

In his post, he used up sticks to mean 'temporarily relocate', as he was going on holiday/vacation. It also can be used for a more permanent move, as in: We're going to up sticks and move to the country. (Something that happens a lot in England. It's surprising there's any country left.)

While it is sometimes believed that the phrase refers to picking up one's (sticks of) furniture, the OED traces it to its nautical meaning, i.e. to set up a boat's masts, in preparation for departure. There are some other (folk) theories about its etymology here.

Until I read Nancy's e-mail, I hadn't reali{s/z}ed that up sticks was a Briticism--probably because the AmE equivalent is so close: to pull up stakes. The the phrase originated in the practice of putting stakes down to mark the boundaries of one's property. So, when you moved, you pulled up your stakes and took them to the next place.

In AmE, I'd never use pull up stakes for anything but a permanent move, though, so I find up sticks strange for temporary moves. However, locals don't. Norman Schur's British English from A to Zed (1991; cited at the above link) says of up sticks:
This can describe moving one's entire ménage or simply clearing up after a picnic.
I think one runs into up sticks in BrE more often than up stakes in AmE. There are about 1000 more cases of up stakes when one googles up sticks and move and up stakes and move, but considering that there are a lot more Americans on the web than Brits, that may be taken as supporting my intuition. At the etymology link above (the one with the variant etymologies), someone claims that he only knows up stakes in AusE.

The OED has up sticks as originating in the early 1800s, but cases of pull up stakes have been traced to as early as 1640 (see origin link above) or 1703 (OED). The two phrases are so close that I was tempted to think that one might have its origin as an eggcorn of the other. Alas, there's no evidence for such fancy.

How was that for a short post? Not.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

women's clothing

Was out shopping for shoes today, and after my shoe-hunger was sated, I had a quick look into a (BrE) shop/(AmE) store as part of my never-ending quest for high-waisted (BrE) trousers/(AmE) pants (or as I like to think of them, waist-waisted trousers). I tried on the ones with the longest (BrE) zip/(AmE) zipper, and was predictably disappointed. But looking at the tag made me reflect on an interesting difference in BrE/AmE fashion-marketing lingo.

I was in Next. (I thought about pretending here that I was shopping somewhere fancier, but it is the only the place in the UK where I've found a pair of trousers that (AmE) fit/(BrE) fitted in the past three years, so they deserve some credit.) On the tag of the ill-shaped trousers/pants was the line Next Woman. That is to say, the item was from their women's range.

Compare this to American brands, where Woman often means 'extra large'. For instance lists 'Woman Sizes' as (US) 14-24. (American 14 = UK 16/18.) The Women's department in an American department store, such as Macy's, will carry precisely those larger sizes. Of course, this is confusing, since there are plenty of women who don't wear these sizes. But it works in the US because there are two other types of departments for smaller women. The Misses department carries the even-numbered sizes 14 and down, and the Juniors department carries odd-numbered sizes (up to 13) that are cut for younger women--or teenagers (smaller bust and hips). The word Misses is seen less these days in the actual marketing of clothing than it was when I was young, but the term is still used to designate sizes. Some non-department store retailers, like J.Jill, make the Misses'/Women's distinction. (There are also Petites in both AmE and BrE, but this category has to do with height, rather than width. One can find Petite Misses and Petite Women's sizes.)

The less-confusing name for women's sizes is (orig. AmE) plus sizes, but one sees the effect of the 'women' designation sometimes in plus sizes, which can be designated as 14W-24W. As Wikipedia (today, at least) explains, the W indicates a difference in cut:
As more and more retailers are rushing to join the plus-size clothing market, the fastest growing sector of the apparel industry, confusion has entered for the consumer regarding sizing. Some lines offering traditional "Misses" sizing have extended their size ranges up to 18 or 20, overlapping the "plus" or "women's" size range. However there is a difference between a Misses size 14 and a Women's size 14W. Traditional plus or "women's" sizing is cut with a deeper arm hole, lower and larger bust-line, and larger waist compared to hip ratio than "Misses" sizes. This results in 14W being about one size larger than a Misses Size 14. This cut difference also means a better fit for differing body types. Those women with a traditional hour glass or pear body type will usually find a Misses size range fits better. Women who have a rounder, more apple shaped figure and carry their weight mainly in the bust and abdomen, will find the traditional plus-size clothing or Women's Sizes will fit their figures better.
Of course, the fact that the US has invented this vocabulary for large clothing might be taken to corroborate the picture of Americans as fat--and it's true that Americans on average are fatter than other nationalities. But it's worth pointing out that the UK is not far behind--if at all behind. According to, the rate of obesity (as opposed to mere over-weight) is 14.6% in both countries. However, as this site points out, attitudes toward(s) obesity vary in the two countries.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

strikes and prying in the Grauniad

We buy the Guardian every Saturday because Better Half just cannot live without the Guide. It's a lot of paper to buy just to get the television listings, but this doesn't deter BH. It's a nightmare for me, though. Once a newspaper crosses my threshold, the only section that I can bear not to read is the sport(s) section. On a good week, it takes me a full seven days to get through the whole paper. I haven't had a good week in ages.

So, excuse me if I treat the following as news, 'cause it is to me. The British pound is worth more than two US dollars now, which gives all news outlets an excuse to write about British shopping tourism in the US. The Guardian joined this particular fray (21 April) by playing the game that BH and I play at the airport: guess the nationality. They stood outside Macy's in New York City and guessed at which shoppers were British. They had a hard time distinguishing the Brits from the Scandinavians, but they're pretty easy to tell from Americans:
New Yorkers claim they can detect British exchange rate shopaholics a mile off, through a combination of the rabid Buy Now look in their eyes, the British male's sideburns - American men usually shave them off - and over-reliance on Diesel clothing, and the women's slight scruffiness compared with their highly-groomed American sisters.
I think the scruffiness comparison only works in urban America. There are a lot of other clues, though. Middle-aged women in sweatshirts with embroidery or appliqué: probably American. Older men whose hair hangs below the tops of their ears and their collars: probably British. And so on and so forth.

But back to the article. The first couple they approach is/are indeed British. The second is/are Danish. Then we come to the third:
The third attempt gets another strike.
I thought I understood that sentence until I read the next one, which, in my estimation, contradicted its predecessor.
Avril and Stuart MacFarlane from Edinburgh are very much over here for the shopping.
Finally, I reali{s/z}ed that a baseball metaphor was getting in the way. If an attempt at something is described as a strike, an AmE speaker would naturally assume that it was a failed attempt, since in baseball a strike is (rather illogically) a failed attempt to hit a ball. The strike in the Guardian article is, of course, more related to the sense used in to strike gold or to strike oil--i.e. to succeed in finding something. Interestingly, the use of the noun strike to mean 'an act of discovery' is originally AmE too. But still it didn't sit right in my brain, as the baseball sense is rife in AmE, both on and off the playing field. A common saying is three strikes and you're out, meaning (as in baseball) that a person should only be given three chances before they're not given any more. This metaphor carried over into American legislatures, where three strikes laws have been passed in various states. Such laws guarantee that the penalties for a third criminal offense are extremely steep -- characteristically, life imprisonment for a third felony. This has contributed to America's prison overpopulation problem.

Now turning to another topic, which is only related by the Guardian connection, Strawman wrote to point out a correction in Monday's Guardian. (And he actually asked about it on Monday. I can only assume that Straw leads a life of leisure if he can actually read a newspaper on the day it comes out. I believe he also won a prize last year for playing more tournament Scrabble games than anyone else in the country that year. Some people know how to live...) The correction said:
American (or Canadian) usage slipped into a report, Robbers superglue man to bike (page 26, May 4), about a South African crime victim: "Paramedics used chemicals and petroleum jelly to ... pry the man's skin from the bike." Pry: to make an impertinent or uninvited inquiry (Collins). British English calls for "prise".
...and Strawman wrote to ask whether Americans indeed use pry to mean prise. All the time! (And also to mean 'to be nosy', as it is used in BrE.) But the Guardian is not absolutely correct in its implication that pry=prise is just a North Americanism; the OED lists it as 'dial. and U.S.'--i.e. it is used in some British dialect(s) too, particularly, it seems, in Suffolk and Essex. Incidentally, the OED lists the alternative spelling prize before prise, but in AmE, as in the Guardian, prise seems to be preferred nowadays.

The Guardian is sometimes (as it was in Strawman's e-mail) nicknamed the Grauniad, because of its past reputation for typos. I liked the fact that the entry for Grauniad in Urban Dictionary includes an unintentional misspelling. (Or at least I am pretending to like that fact because I think it's ironic. I'm not sure like is the right word here.) The definition also has misinformation in it. Par for the course in UD.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

dishpan hands

A colleague who teaches French knocked on my door today to ask about an Americanism that his student had encountered in a translation exercise: dishpan hands. The student was imagining someone with hands shaped like dishpans. Oh no!

Dishpan hands are hands that have spent too much time in the dishwater--i.e. they've suffered the drying effects of soap and water. I was amused to see that it's a condition that's listed in the Houghton-Mifflin Medical Dictionary--I had no idea it had reached disease status! Oh, how we suffer.

Dishpan is an AmE word for the basin in which one washes dishes, though I wouldn't use the term myself, as it sounds old-fashioned to me. But I see that Rubbermaid use(s) the term, as do lots of other folk on the web, so what do I know? I'd probably say dishwashing basin (as do some others on-line) and others also say dishwashing tub. In BrE, it is called a washing up bowl. Here's a beautiful one from Norman Copenhagen. I can't decide whether I wish I could afford a £35 dishpan/washing-up bowl (though the brush is included!), or whether I think I'd disgust myself if I spent that kind of money on trying to look cool while (AmE) doing the dishes/(BrE) washing up. I just (BrE, informal) bung everything into the dishwasher anyhow.

Thinking about dishpan hands reminded me of a recent interaction with Better Half, in which he was searching for something-or-other that was right in front of him. I exclaimed, You're soaking in it! (I do a lot of exclaiming), only to discover that he had never had the joy of Madge the Manicurist in ad(vert)s for Palmolive (AmE) dish detergent/(BrE) washing-up liquid. I believe you can see one of those ad(vert)s here (though I don't have the plug-ins to see it on the computer I'm on now). Catchphrases don't travel well through time or space.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


It must be school dance season, because two people have written to me about (AmE) proms. This is usually translated into BrE as school dance, but a prom is a specific kind of school dance--a formal dance (that is, the clothes are typically formal, not the dancing) that happens in high school in either the senior year (i.e. the final year) or the junior year (i.e. the penultimate year). These may be called senior prom and junior prom, respectively. (For discussion of all those school terms, please see back here.) Proms involve various traditions, such as the election of a prom king and queen, drinking too much and engaging in irresponsible sexual activity. Not that I'd know. I wasn't invited to my prom. And the bitterness has almost worn off.

The term comes from promenade (perhaps because the dancers promenade in their nice clothes), and if you look it up in the OED, it says:
1. U.S. = PROMENADE n. 2c.
...leading you to the definition under promenade, which is kind of silly, as NO ONE calls it a promenade (dance), and the last AmE quotation they have for promenade in this meaning is from 1933. Rather than saying that prom is a shortening of promenade in this case, I think we should say that prom is historically related to promenade--by abbreviation, sure, but the abbreviation happened long ago and was forgotten about.

Paul wrote a while ago to point out that this meaning of prom seems to have made it into BrE, as is evident in this BBC News story. Prom is more usually found in the plural in BrE, as (the) Proms, which the OED records as:
2. = promenade concert (s.v. PROMENADE n. 4b); the Proms, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, now given annually at the Royal Albert Hall, London (also in sing.).
Follow that cross-reference and you get to:
promenade concert, a concert at which the audience walk about instead of being seated or at which a proportion of the audience stands.
The Proms are all over the place now, not just in the Royal Albert Hall. To get a taste of the scope and history of the Proms, see the BBC Proms website.

The other e-mail I got about proms was from new reader Julie, following other discussions of the on the blog. She says:
A recent "the" usage caught my ear. In the late 60s outside Philadelphia, I went to the prom. (Actually, I didn't, but if I had, I would have said "the"...definitely.) My 16-year-old daughter & her friends are going (really!) to prom. No "the", ever. I have no idea if this represents a temporal change or regional difference.
I've taken an instant liking to Julie, since she was promless (oh, let's be positive--prom-free!) in high school too, so we'll ignore the fact that this isn't really a BrE/AmE query. Prom versus the prom seem to be in free variation in many young people's (American) English, judging from the places Google took me--the same person within a single web discussion would call it both, though with a stronger tendency (it seemed to me) to capitali{s/z}e Prom when it had no the. It's my impression that this is a generational difference, not a regional one (and certainly not an AmE/BrE one, since they're only starting to get the hang of [orig. AmE] calling dances proms here). There's a discussion with a vote on the subject over here, but I suspect that many of the voters in that poll are not of prom-going age. On this site, there's someone who seems to think that the prom/the prom variation is a rural/urban thing. In the discussion here, someone thinks it's regional--but no one's identified the region. There was quite a bit of discussion of this last year on the American Dialect Society list (you can search the archives here), but I couldn't find any reference there to a particular regional origin.

An ex-sweetheart used to say when leaving the house, I'm off like a prom dress! I say this in the UK every once in a while, and only I chuckle. But that's a feeling I'm used to. Probably indicative of why I didn't get to go to (the) prom.