Sunday, January 27, 2008

some clothing fasteners

Back at the baby post, commenter dadge wrote:
Another word for your list is "popper".
...which is another word that's come to the fore of my experience since Grover's birth. BrE popper is the equivalent of AmE snap, which is to say it's the name for a type of fastener, as illustrated to the right (image from madeinchina.com). Searching for this photo on the web, I found that a lot of dealers in such fasteners call them snap buttons, but to me they're just snaps. The OED, in its definitions for snap and popper, calls them press studs. This counts as a baby-related word since one is constantly doing and undoing snaps/poppers at the crotches of (BrE) babygros/(AmE) onesies in order to get at (BrE) nappies/(AmE) diapers. I don't know why, but I feel silly saying popper, so I've been glad that I seem to be able to get away with snap. (Better Half won't let me get away with diaper, however.)

When one fastens/unfastens snaps, one snaps [and unsnaps--see comments] them, so I just asked Better Half what one does to poppers. He says you pop them. To my AmE ears, though, it would sound funny to pop something closed--things pop open, but don't pop shut. But perhaps BrE ears don't have that bias. [Added 29 Jan: The difference seems to be that snapping involves making a closure, and popping usually involves undoing the fastening. I'm pretty sure that no one says unpop to mean 'to fasten a popper'. So what seems to have (AmE colloquial) weirded me out here is that the verb doesn't seem to describe fastening--the purpose of the device--but describes unfastening. Both dialects' words are onomatopoetic.] (Your thoughts?)

(For other BrE/AmE differences in the use of the word snap, see here.)

Another clothing fastener that differs transatlantically is (BrE) zip versus (AmE) zipper. (The verb in both varieties is zip.) One is tempted to form the theory that there is a strict economy of syllables: dialects are allowed a fixed number, and since press studs have two syllables in BrE and one in AmE, some other clothing fastener had to inexplicably differ in its number of syllables. It would be a silly theory, of course, but it appeals to my taste for symmetry.

When zips/zippers are at the front of a pair of (BrE) trousers/(AmE) pants, they mysteriously differ in their number: in BrE you must take care to do up your flies, while in AmE, you do up your fly. But that matter is discussed in the comments for this old post, so please see there for more details.

I can't think of any more clothing fasteners with dialectal differences...but I'm sure someone will point them out if they exist...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

posset

In the comments on the last baby-orient(at)ed post, an anonymous person said:
Posset. No mention of posset!
Well, that was because I hadn't yet come across the term. But now that baby Grover is posseting, I'm hearing it all the time. First, as a verb (transitive or intransitive) by Lazybrain and the (BrE) health visitor, and today as a noun by Better Half, who came home from shopping and observed:
That's a nice bit of posset on your top!
So, have the AmE speakers out there figured out what (BrE) posset means? It means 'to regurgitate small amounts of milk', i.e. (mostly AmE) spit up (which can be used as a noun or verb--depending on where you put the stress). The original meaning of posset was:
A drink made from hot milk curdled with ale, wine, or other liquor, flavoured with sugar, herbs, spices, etc., and often drunk for medicinal purposes (OED-draft revision March 2007).
The connection with baby regurgitation is, of course, the curdled milk. Grover's been through four outfits and three sets of sheets today because of the possetting. Meanwhile, I'm just accruing layers of posset on the outfit I put on this morning. We can see who has the status in this household...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

diagramming sentences

Lazybrain has been reading Anne Tyler's Digging to America, and asked about the phrase diagramming a sentence:
I hadn't come across this term before, although in my 'progressive' education I missed out on being taught formal grammar so I wouldn't swear to the fact that it is not used in Britain.
Most American and British native English speakers who are younger than 50 missed out on the technicalities of English grammar in school because grammar teaching went out of fashion in the 1960s-70s. But if you're an American, you're more likely to be familiar with the phrase diagram a sentence for a few reasons: (a) the verb to diagram is 'chiefly' AmE, according to the OED, (b) there were pockets of resistance to the downgrading of grammar in the US (which would have been harder to maintain the the UK because of national standards, and later the introduction of a national curriculum), and (c) it was probably a more popular activity in the US even before the 1960s, because grammar study enjoyed more status there.

Dick Hudson (Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at University College London) has written a helpful concise history of grammar teaching in England and, with John Walmsley, a much longer academic paper on the subject (published in Journal of Linguistics (2005), 41:593-622; warning: link=PDF file). Before the dropping of grammar in the 1960s, the status of grammar as an area of study was a bit different in the US and UK. As Hudson and Walmsley write:
Up to the outbreak of war, it seems, little serious work on grammar was being pursued in Britain, still less on the grammar of English. The work which was published was produced primarily by free-lances or practising teachers and was orientated to the needs of schools, journalists or civil servants. But although there existed only the most rudimentary institutionalised framework for academic work on the grammar of contemporary English in Britain, and little motivation to produce anything outside such a framework, writing grammars only constitutes a small part of the country’s linguistic endeavour as a whole: the energies of the next generation were being absorbed by other tasks.

Outside the UK, by contrast, the first half of the twentieth century was a productive period for English grammars. Major works were published in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany - in English, but not by British authors. During the same period, other important grammars appeared in the United States (Curme 1935, and the first of Fries’s grammars - American English Grammar, Fries 1940). The latter is significant in that it is the first grammar of English to be based on a specified, limited corpus of material – 2,000 personal letters written to U.S. government departments, together with excerpts from 1,000 others.
After the war...
While work on the description of English proceeded apace on the mainland of Europe, it was not apparently seen as sufficiently prestigious, intellectually challenging or stimulating, to draw scholars in England into its sphere of influence. A perceived gap in scholarship can, though, act as a spur to filling it. The question that exercised some scholars’ minds was how to do this. In the United States, the new insights provided by structuralism were already beginning to work through into descriptive grammars.
Now, Hudson and Walmsley here are writing about academic work on grammar, but there seems to be some reflection on this in what as happening in schools. In his brief history, Hudson writes:
The early 20th century [i.e. pre-1960s] saw a steady decline in the quality of grammar teaching in English schools, and increasing calls for its abandonment. One reason for this decline was the complete lack of university-level research on English grammar, which led a government report in 1921 to conclude that [it is] “…impossible at the present juncture to teach English grammar in the schools for the simple reason that no one knows exactly what it is…”. Another reason was an energetic campaign on behalf of literature, presented as a liberal and liberating alternative to the the so-called 'grammar-grind'.
Meanwhile, in the US, (AmE) students/(BrE) pupils were learning to diagram sentences using the Reed-Kellogg system. Because I went to a Catholic school rather than a (AmE) public/(BrE) state school (and the Catholic schools, at least then, were less easily swayed by educational fashions), I did learn to diagram sentences--and I couldn't get enough of it. (Had I known then that I could get paid to do such things as a grown-up, I would have been a less awkward adolescent, I'm sure.) But I should note that 'diagramming sentences' is not the same thing as drawing sentence [or phrase structure] trees (i.e. what most syntacticians do nowadays), although sentence trees are indeed diagrams of sentence structure. 'Sentence diagram' generally refers to Reed-Kellogg diagrams, a different animal, and I'm thrilled to have an excuse to post this one from Capital Community College's grammar guide (which I read about on bOINGbOING yesterday). It shows the grammatical relations among the words and phrases of the preamble of the US constitution. (Hey, maybe the UK doesn't need sentence diagramming, since it has no written constitution. Any American my age can recite a modified version of this preamble [leaving out 'of the United States' in the subject], to a tune, because we learned it while watching Saturday morning cartoons.) The preamble goes:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
And it can be diagrammed like this:



Dick Hudson also has a web page addressing frequently-asked questions about grammar teaching, which includes:

Q. Wasn't there once a thing called 'sentence diagramming' that was part of grammar teaching?

A. Yes, and in many countries it's still a popular activity - e.g. in the USA, which is well provided with web sites explaining how to do it. The system that's widely used in the USA and parts of Europe was invented in the 19th century and is rather rigid, but it has its uses as a way of showing how a clause is built out of a verb and its subject, with various bits and pieces added to each of these and to each other. Modern linguists have devised much better ways of diagramming sentences which would be very useful in KS3 [ed: Key Stage 3] classrooms. For a good illustration of how they might be used for teaching syntactic structure, try the VISL web site in Denmark, which was built for school children; but there are plenty more to choose from (e.g. one for KS3 teachers on my web site).

In my last job in the States, I really enjoyed teaching a grammar course for Education majors. (I taught it in the summer term [i.e. during vacation time], which meant that most of the students had already failed the course at least once and were re-taking it. Gotta love a challenge like that!) And these are the types of diagrams that that course required. I hadn't done such diagrams since I was 12 or 13, but I have to say I really enjoyed them--even if they're not the types of diagrams that come with academic-linguistic approval.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

seasons and series

Apologies to those of you who wrote to me during my recent confinement, as I wasn't able to respond to e-mail at that time, and the thought of responding to all of those messages now is a bit overwhelming. So, if you're requested coverage of something on this blog, then rest assured that I've marked your request for further attention, and will let you know if/when I cover that topic on the blog. And now...I'll start work on that backlog, starting with a request from my old friend the Ginger Nut (whom we met back here). She writes:
We downloaded what's available of series 3 of the Boosh so far and we're working through it. Here's a BrE / AmE question for you. They [BrE speakers] call a season a series. We use series for the show across time (Seinfeld was a series that ran for 9 seasons) and break it up into seasons which usually correspond to years. What's the BrE equivalent to our use of series?
My read on this would be that BrE doesn't have a series/season distinction, since there really isn't such a thing as a television season in British broadcasting. In the US, new program(me)s [i.e. new (AmE) series] and the new set of episodes of an old program(me) [i.e. the new (AmE) season of an existing (AmE) series] typically begin around the same time in the (AmE) fall/(BrE) autumn. So, one can talk about the television 'season' as something that begins in fall/autumn and continues through to spring. (Some series begin later in the year, after other series get cancel(l)ed , and these are known as [AmE] mid-season replacements.) Because almost all series begin and end at the same points in the year, they tend to be 24 to 26 episodes (13 for the first season of mid-season replacements). This makes them much longer than typical British series (if we're talking about dramas or situation comedies; soaps and reality program(me)s go on FOREVER), which are typically not longer than 12 episodes, and more usually quite a bit shorter--situation comedies are often six episodes, for example. In the US, anything that short would be called a mini-series. In UK television listings, the name of the program(me) is often followed by a fraction, for example:
8:30 Jam & Jerusalem
2/6; series two. Indignant that Spike has saved up to buy a ticket for Glastonbury, Tash resolves to find her way in for free as usual, but things do not go to plan. [Radio Times, 22 Dec 2007-4 Jan 2008]
The fraction tells us that this is episode 2 of 6 in the current (BrE) series/(AmE) season. Of the UK-made program(me)s on terrestrial channels in that week according to Radio Times (not a typical week, because of the New Year holiday, but it's the only copy of RT I have here), they were composed of:
4 x two episodes [2 x comedy; 1 x mystery; 1 x documentary]
3 x three episodes [1 x costume drama; 2 x documentary]
1 x four episodes [documentary]
1 x five episodes [documentary]
3 x six episodes [1 x drama?, 2 x comedy]
2 x seven episodes [(BrE) quiz/(AmE) game show; reality]
4 x eight episodes [1 x panel quiz (more on this later), 2 x comedy, 1 x how-to]
1 x nine episodes [reality/competition]
3 x twelve episodes [hospital drama, panel quiz, talk show 'best of' series]
1 x sixteen episodes [comedy]
(God, I do know how to make blog-writing unnecessarily time-consuming--which is why it's taken me most of a week to write this entry.) The short lengths of series means that new series begin throughout the year, hence, we can't talk about a particular year's television 'season'.

It's also the case that British sitcoms and the like are not necessarily meant to go on for years. Take the original UK version of The Office, for example. It ran for two series of six episodes, plus two Christmas specials. It was very successful in the UK (hence the Christmas specials), but that didn't mean that it was destined to go on for years and years, well past the time when it had (orig. AmE) jumped the shark. Now, compare the US version of The Office. While at first it was very closely based on the UK series (just Americani{s/z}ing the scripts where necessary, as I understand it), it's now gone on for 59 episodes--so they must've been adding lots of new plots since starting. (Has the shark been jumped yet? I don't watch it, so I don't know. I could only watch the UK version through my fingers, as such drastic social discomfort gives me nightmares.)

A couple of downsides to the UK system are:
  1. Because the series are so short, if you don't pay a lot of attention, you may not discover a good one until you've missed most or all of it. (But if it was good, it'll probably be repeated at some point.)
  2. You often don't know whether a favo(u)rite program(me) will ever be back. Fans of the wonderful Spaced still listen for rumo(u)rs that it might come back--even though the last episode was in 2001. (Our hope gets more far-fetched as Simon Pegg's (AmE-preferred) movie/(BrE-preferred) film career develops.)
And, of course, the television schedules are not as predictable in the UK as the US, where, for instance, Thursday nights meant Cheers for years and years and years. I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Far fewer sharks get jumped.

Another thing that differs between UK and US television is the survival of (BrE) light entertainment programming in the UK, when it has pretty much died out in US prime time network programming (in favo[u]r of a strict diet of sitcoms, dramas and reality shows). Light entertainment refers to comedy-music-variety programming, and while it may technically (in terms of what the light entertainment budget at the BBC covers--I'm not sure) include formats that are familiar in the US, like sketch shows and comedian-led talk shows (which don't tend to run in prime time in the US), it prototypically covers (prime time) variety shows like Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway (which involves a lot of audience competitions as well) or panel quizzes (called panel games on Wikipedia, but quiz is what I more typically hear) like Have I Got News for You, QI and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. These program(me)s are typically hosted by a comedian (though some, like Have I Got News..., have guest hosts who may be other kinds of celebrity--e.g. newspaper editor or politician), with teams of other entertainers/famous people answering questions on a particular topic and being awarded points by the host--usually in a fairly capricious way. The point of these quizzes is not so much to get the answers right as to be entertaining in discussing the questions. The closest thing I've seen on US television was Whose Line is it Anyway?, which was (BrE) nicked from the UK (which was more a game than a quiz--but had the capricious score-giving element). I believe that there are some panel quizzes on National Public Radio, but I can't remember if they're British imports or homegrown (answers, anyone?).

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

2007's Words of the Year

Better late than never, I hope (I have a fairly good excuse...), here are my picks for SbaCL Words of the Year. Thanks to all of you who have nominated words...

In the category of Best AmE to BrE Import, I was fairly convinced by dearieme's nomination of subprime (though I took some convincing; see comments back here for the discussion). But I've decided against it in the end because (a) I'd like to see if it lasts in BrE beyond the current mortgage crisis, (b) the American Dialect Society chose it as their Word of the Year, so it's already had a lot of attention (and I like to support the [orig. AmE] underdog), and (c) I was reminded of another AmE word that made British headlines this year, which has demonstrated staying power in BrE.

So....the AmE-to-BrE SbaCL Word of the Year is:

cookie

Why, you ask? Well, British television has been wracked by controversy this year because of several incidents in which contest results had been fixed, and none of these was stranger than the Blue Peter controversy. On that children's program(me), there was a viewer vote on what to name the new Blue Peter kitten. The viewers voted for Cookie, but the production team named the cat Socks instead. This is how the Blue Peter website explains the situation to the kids:

Back in January last year we introduced you to a new kitten and asked you to suggest names that would suit him. You gave us lots of great ideas and then voted for your favourite name on the website.

Your first choice was Cookie and your second choice was Socks. Part of the production team working on the programme at the time decided that it would be better to choose Socks, as they felt this suited the kitten better. This was wrong because we had said that it was your vote that would decide.

They then tried to make up for their misstep by introducing another kitten and naming it Cookie. No one seems to know why Cookie was deemed unsuitable. One theory is that it's because the name could encourage child obesity. I can't help but wonder if it wasn't because the name was felt to be too non-traditional (i.e. American!).

But the success of Cookie in a poll of children indicates that the word is now entrenched in BrE. What it doesn't show is that the meaning of cookie has shifted between AmE and BrE. In AmE, cookie refers to what BrE speakers would refer to as biscuits, but also to a range of baked goods that were not typically available in Britain until recently--what we can call an 'American-style cookie'--that is, one that is soft and (arguably) best eaten hot. Since in the UK these are almost always bought (at places like Ben's Cookies or Millie's Cookies), rather than home-baked, they also tend to be of a certain (largish) size. In BrE, biscuit retains its old meaning and applies to things like shortbread, rich tea biscuits, custard creams and other brittle things that can be dunked into one's tea, but cookie denotes only the bigger, softer American import. (In fact, twice this year I heard Englishpeople in shops debating the definition of cookie, and had noted this for further discussion on the blog...and here it is. For previous discussion of this and other baked good terminology, click here.)

The front-runner in the reader nominations for best BrE-to-AmE import was pint, to refer to a unit of beer. The nominators report that the pint measurement is not literal in this case (and anyhow, the British pint is 118 millilit{er/re}s bigger than the American). I've not experienced non-literal use of pint in the US...but then again I wasn't drinking on my last trip to the US. As fine as the support for that nomination was, I'm going to be entirely selfish (what, again?!) and give the award to a word that was personally very relevant this year. So, the BrE-to-AmE SbaCL Word of the Year is:

(baby) bump

That is, the abdominal protuberance evident in pregnancy, illustrated (unflatteringly) here:

I distinctly remember first hearing this term from Kate Winslet (not in person!) when she was pregnant with her daughter in 2000, the year I moved here. At that point, I assumed it was a Winsletism, but soon learned it was general, informal BrE. (While the OED has only added it in its 2007 draft, its first citation for it is from 1986. The first American citation is from 1999.) Shortly thereafter the American celebrity gossip media started using it too, to my chagrin, as I thought it was a nasty term--too (orig./chiefly AmE) cutesy, in a crude way. And I'm not the only one. Google-search hate baby bump, and one finds lots of American discussions of the term, including:
Can we have a moratorium on the phrase "baby bump"? Ugh... I hate it so much. (commenter on Jezebel)

And yes, by the way, I, too, absolutely hate that stupid term "baby bump". It is EXTREMELY annoying. It sounds like something that a 12-yr old might say because their uncomfortable with the word "pregnant". Any adult who uses the term is a jackass. (commenter on Huffington Post)

The term 'baby bump' sounds so juvenile and pedestrian. How did this term come in to existence, and why do presumably semi-intelligent people use it? (commenter on StyleDash.com)
No one in these discussions seems to reali{s/z}e that its origins are British, and one wonders whether they'd have more affection for the term if they could associate it with "the Queen's English" (not that Her Majesty would ever say baby bump). I should say, in the UK, one is more likely just to hear bump, while in the US it seems more often to be prefaced by baby.

As I said, I used to hate this use of bump, but goodness, if you've got one, it's a useful term. So, in hono(u)r of ex-bump Grover, it is the BrE-to-AmE WotY.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

baby talk: introducing Grover...

Being rather superstitious, I didn't mention the reason why I spent most of the last 6 weeks in (the) hospital, but now that there's a happy outcome, I'm thrilled to announce that I'm back...and I've brought someone with me. Better Half and I are pleased to announce the birth of our daughter, who, for the sake of her tiny privacy, will be referred to here as "Grover". That's what we called her in utero, before we knew she was a girl. I've mentioned before that one can often guess the nationality of an English speaker by their given name, and it would seem that Grover is one that marks an American (not that many Americans are named Grover these days; a great pity, I think). Many BrE speakers didn't seem to recogni{s/z}e it as a human name, confusing it with Rover. (And we'd say, "As in Grover Washington, Grover Cleveland...").

Grover had to be born five weeks early because of her mother's scary blood pressure, and consequently she's tiny (2kg --approx. 4 lbs, 6 oz). Happily, due in large part to the wonderful care we were given, she was born healthy and perfectly formed. (Three cheers for the antenatal staff at the Royal Sussex County Hospital!) Already, she's given us plenty of opportunities for dialectal comparison. For example, AmE tends to prefer prenatal (as in prenatal care, etc.) and BrE, antenatal. A popular informal term for premature babies in AmE is preemie (rhymes with see me), whereas in BrE it's prem (rhymes with stem). The hospital staff seemed to have their own language for talking about small babies--on meeting Grover, they'd exclaim that she was "a diddy one" or that she was especially tiddly. Diddy is originally a Liverpudlian colloquialism (meaning 'tiny'), but it now seems well-established in the world of midwifery here in the Southeast. BrE tiddly ('tiny') is similarly colloquial. I'd never heard those two syllables used outside the game name tiddlywinks--but that use is related to a set of different meanings for tiddly: 'an alcoholic drink' (noun) or 'a bit drunk' (adjective).

Due to my hospitali{s/z}ation, shopping for baby was left mostly to Better Half, kind friends and family, and that's probably not a bad thing, since there are lots and lots of AmE/BrE vocabulary differences in the 'baby equipment' semantic field. Here, to demonstrate, is a list of essential supplies for new babies, cobbled from a few different UK/US website baby shopping lists. Many of these we've seen before...click on the links to see where we've seen them before:

AmEBrE
cribcot
bassinet
Moses basket
stroller
push-chair
onesie
babygro
diaper
nappy
washcloths
flannels
cotton swabs
cotton buds
cotton (balls, etc.)
cotton wool
nipples (for baby bottles)
teats
t-shirt [undershirt]
vest
pacifier
dummy

Another new thing/term that I've learnt about is muslin squares, which are billed as a babycare necessity on many UK advice sites. I wondered why I'd never heard of these in the US (though maybe they are sold as such now--my baby-handling AmE vocab may not be up-to-date). The answer is: because they're basically used for the same non-excretory uses that American cloth diapers/nappies are used for--e.g. to put on your shoulder while (AmE) burping/(BrE) winding (that's pronounced with a short 'i', not like winding a clock!) a baby, to clean up baby-related messes, etc. I wondered why cloth diapers/nappies weren't used for the same purpose here--but that became obvious when I saw the traditional British cloth nappy/diaper--the (BrE) terry/(AmE) terrycloth square, which is HUGE, thick, and not as soft as the type we used in the US (see this site for a comparison of the terry type that Better Half wore in the mid-1960s and the 'prefold' type that I wore in the same period). It may be that terry(cloth) nappies/diapers were used in the US in earlier days (many cartoon representations of babies in diapers/nappies look like they're representing a square-cut fabric, rather than the rectangular type that I know from my youth), but I'd never seen a terry type nappy/diaper in use in the US in all of my nappy/diaper experience. These days, of course, there are all sorts of newfangled diapers/nappies that are shaped like underpants and have Velcro fastenings and sometimes psychedelic colo(u)r schemes...so maybe there's the need for muslin squares everywhere. In France (according to a short piece in last week's Saturday Guardian), they're promoted as 'security blankets'. Very clever...get the kid hooked on a thoroughly generic piece of cloth and you'll never have to worry about what happens if it gets lost or needs laundering--just replace it with a fresh one.

No doubt my posting habits will be erratic as I try to find the routines that can be found in caring for a tiny one (while mourning my Technorati rating). The next post, I promise, will be the Word of the Year post...so please make any last-minute nominations here.