Saturday, May 31, 2008

red hots

From the back of a (UK) Pizza Express box for the buy-in-the-supermarket version of their American Hot pizza:
Harry's American bar, one of the most famous bars in Paris, used to have a machine on the counter for keeping sausages hot. The sausages were known as 'red hots' -- an evocative moniker that inspired our original pizzaiolo to change the name of his pepperoni and hot green pepper pizza to the far more catchy American Hot.
I can't help but think that Pizza Express has missed a bit of the meaning of AmE red hot. Goodness knows what kind of sausage they put in the machine at Harry's, but a red hot is a hot dog--more specifically a red hot dog (the usual kind), as opposed to a white hot. I believe that white hots are a special(i)ty of my part of the US, western New York State--hot dogs are a very regionali{s/z}ed food in the US. While there are national brands, many areas have their own. In Rochester, NY, the brand is Zweigle's, and they are so fantastic that when I visit my parents, I eat nothing else for lunch, no matter how long my stay. (Poor vegetarian Better Half!) Folks who relocate to other states used to fill (AmE) coolers/(BrE) cool boxes with Zweigle's and fly them home as part of their carry-on luggage. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Homeland Security has interfered with hot dog migration patterns in the US, but at least now you can order them by (orig. AmE) mail order/(BrE) post over the interweb--but only if you're in the US.

(When I want to horrify my American family, besides telling my tales of British sugared popcorn and (sweet)corn on pizza, I point out the hot dogs that are sold in jars here. [Have searched the web for a photo. No luck.] They are truly (orig. AmE) icky-looking, and no discernible relation to the noble Zweigle's hot. No wonder the British often (orig. AmE) bad-mouth/(BrE) rubbish American foods--the versions presented here are disgracefully inferior!)

Barry Popik is probably the world's expert on the etymology of hot dog-related terminology, and his blog entry on the topic states that the term red hot predates the term hot dog. It also predates white hot, which seems to have been made up later, on analogy with red hot.

At any rate, a red hot is nothing like pepperoni. Except that it's a sausage. And it's red. And it's long and slender. And it's made of pork and/or beef. (AmE) Aw, shucks.

Friday, May 23, 2008

adverbial dead

For my birthday in October, Better Half promised me a weekend away before the birth of Grover. But since I (a) spent the first half of my third trimester in (the) hospital and (b) was cheated out of the second half entirely, that didn't happen. So this week he took Grover and me for a plush few days in the New Forest. And there, in the village of Hythe, I photographed this sign:

This was convenient, as I'd been meaning to take a photo of such a sign in Brighton, but since I'm not a tourist in Brighton, I rarely have my camera with me. So, it was great to see one while I had my camera at the ready on our mini holiday/vacation.

Needless to say (since I've posted a photo of it), this is not a sign you'd see in America. There, such a sign would probably have an unmodified slow or go slow.

In this context, dead is an adverb modifying slow. It makes me chuckle involuntarily for two reasons: (a) dead slow is not as idiomatic in AmE as in BrE and therefore the literal meaning occurs to me when I read it, and (b) in BrE adverbial dead is frequently a colloquialism, and therefore it seems a bit funny to see on a sign.

Since I get the literal meaning of dead slow when I read it, it strikes me as an oxymoron. If something's dead, it seems to me, it wouldn't move at all, so it couldn't be slow. But that "logic" is misplaced, since AmE, like BrE, uses dead as an adverb with other adjectives that indicate a glimmer (or more) of life--for example dead certain and dead tired. So, we could use dead with slow, but we tend not to.

If one hears a lot of colloquial BrE, one knows that dead can go with just about any adjective in certain informal registers. For example:
Dom looks dead sexy in eyeliner and black nail varnish (=AmE nail polish) [comment on blog.pinknews.co.uk]

... I also watched "Sky High", which was dead good. [...] It's odd really, some of it is DEAD POSH, like the lobby and the millions of people tidying plates away at breakfast, and some of it ISN'T, like the mucky marks on the walls and the water dripping on your head in reception. [...] We then had a LOVELY bit of tapas (ooh, it was DEAD nice, roast potatoes and hot garlicy [sic] tomato sauce, ACE!) ... [a (orig. AmE) mother-lode of deadness in a description of a Singapore holiday from MJ Hibbett--I haven't bothered to mark all the other Briticisms in that]
The OED, however, classes dead slow as a non-colloquial usage (going with dead calm and dead tired) rather than this all-purpose colloquial intensifier. At any rate, it all sounds dead British.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

more on orthographic r

Language Log has a discussion by Mark Liberman, reacting to a BBC News Magazine article on whether a certain country should be called Burma or Myanmar, that is relevant to our on-going observations about the contrast between 'r' in BrE orthography (spelling) versus its Received Pronunciation in post-vocalic (after vowel) contexts. The upshot is:

Leaving aside the notion that the local pronunciation is a "corruption", the BBC's discussion omits the most interesting part of the story, at least from an American point of view. They should have asked John Wells, whose discussion of the question I linked to at the time ("Myanmar is mama", 10/15/2007). And the explanations that I've heard and read this time around — yesterday on NPR, for example — again miss the key point. So here it is.

There is no 'r'!

Never was. Not in Burma and not in Myanmar. The 'r' is an orthographic imposition of post-rhotic British colonialists.
Click on the links to read more.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

snarky, sarky and narky

In the comments for the last post, Jo asks:
(By the way, had you run into the geeky AmE "snarky" to mean sarcastic? I'd always wondered where that word had come from, and now I think I see a family resemblance.)
As I said there, I love the word snarky because I find it rather evocative. But there are a couple of assumptions to challenge in Jo's query. First, it doesn't seem to be exclusively AmE--the first OED example of it is from the very English book The Railway Children. It comes from the dialectal verb snark, meaning 'to snort' and also 'to nag, find fault' (which has some cognates in other Germanic languages). AmE speakers may use it more commonly than BrE speakers these days, or it may still be regional--I don't know--but these may be reasons why Jo assumes it's AmE.

Second, it doesn't quite mean 'sarcastic', like BrE sarky, though it could readily be used of someone who was being sarcastic. It means something more like 'irritable, bad-tempered' (OED). If someone's being sarcastic, it's often a symptom of bad temper, so one can see how the two have come to be linked in (some of) our minds. An AmE word that comes to mind is snit, which means a little fit of bad temper. I wonder if the case could be made for some sound symbolism between /sn/ and bad temper. /sn/ is onomatopoetic in words for nose-breathing-actions: sniff, snort, etc. And bad temper is getting one's nose out of joint or possibly turning one's nose up at something (and we get /sn/ in snob...). [There seems to be at least one academic paper on the topic, so I won't go any further on this...probably not news.]

Now, a BrE speaker may be led to believe that snarky is AmE because they're more accustomed to (BrE) narky, which the OED gives as a synonym of snarky. This is derived from to nark 'annoy', hence (BrE) narked 'annoyed'.

Now, I was surprised to learn that the 'police informer' sense of nark is related to this. It comes from a sense of nark meaning 'nose'--so a nark noses around for the police. But in AmE we also have narc, short for 'narcotics officer'. I always believed that the informer sense was based on narcotics too. This is why one shouldn't make assumptions about etymologies based on the apparent similarities between contemporary words. It's likely that narc was influenced by nark, and that narky, snarky and sarky have influenced each other. Still, they have different roots.

Friday, May 09, 2008

blinkers and indicators

Better Half, Grover and I were waiting to cross the street/road yesterday. BH and I were both annoyed when the oncoming car that was making us wait suddenly turned left instead of passing us. Simultaneously, we made sarky (BrE informal, = sarcastic) comments. The funny thing about our comments was that each of us had accommodated the other's dialect. That is to say, BH used an AmE term and I used BrE:
BH: Nice use of your (AmE) blinkers! (=BrE indicators)
Me: Nice (BrE) indicating! (=AmE signal(l)ing)
In AmE, the more formal term for blinkers is turn signals.

Is dialect accommodation the definition of true love?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

bowls

I'm embarrassed by how much television I've been watching lately. On further reflection, perhaps that's not true--maybe I'm just embarrassed by how much television I've found myself admitting to watching. But it does raise lots of bloggable issues, so here I go again with the admitting.

Better Half came home tonight to find me watching The Big Bang Theory with a sleeping baby on my lap. (My excuse: I was stuck--I couldn't very well disturb the baby, who hates to nap and so must be tricked into doing it on my lap. So, nothing to do but power up the remote control.) In this episode, the boys are preparing for the "Physics Bowl". When they started practi{c/s}ing for the Bowl with physics quiz questions, BH said, "Oh, that's what they're doing! I couldn't figure out why physicists would get so excited about bowling!"

The AmE bowl in Physics Bowl is the same as the more general College Bowl--a contest between (usually) students in which they answer (usually) academic questions. The UK equivalent to the College Bowl is University Challenge, a television program(me) in which students from different universities (or colleges within the Oxbridge/London universities) compete on television. (Perhaps some Americans will have seen this in the book/film Starter for Ten--if it was released over there...) University Challenge was based on the College Bowl, but it has overtaken its ancestor in terms of popularity. The College Bowl was televised in the US from the 1950s until 1970, but University Challenge is a television institution that's still very popular today. My own bowl experience was to be in the History Bowl when I was in the 8th grade. In that case, it was a county-wide competition for which I had to learn much more than I ever wanted to know about the Erie Canal. (I stayed home on the day of the final, insisting that I was [AmE-preferred] sick/[BrE-preferred] ill, but I think my mother was right in insisting that it was just butterflies. Oh, the regret.)

I'm fairly certain that the name of these kinds of contests (which hasn't made it into the OED or American Heritage) is derived from the use of bowl to refer to certain post-season football (=BrE American football) games, such as the Rose Bowl, which are played between (AmE) college (= BrE university) teams. (Plus the Super Bowl, which is played between professional teams.) They are so-called because of the bowl shape of the stadiums (or stadia, if you prefer--the spellchecker doesn't) in which they were first played.

The kind of bowl(ing) that Better Half was imagining is generally called bowling in AmE, but ten-pin bowling in BrE. (In AmE bowling can also refer to variants like candlepin bowling. You can look these things up if you'd like to know the difference! The social class implications of bowling in America are noted in the comments of a recent post.) This distinguishes it from the game more traditionally played in England, (lawn) bowls, which is closely related to the continental games boules/pétanque and bocce (which is the more familiar game in America, thanks to Italian immigrants). Another kind of bowling found in the UK (more than the US), particularly in the Southwest, is skittles, the game from which modern indoor bowling is derived. This provides me with an excuse to post one of my photos of the Children's Parade in the Brighton Festival. This year the theme was favo(u)rite games, and one school chose skittles. (It's not the best photo I took, but I've suddenly had qualms about posting a photo of other people's children.) In the US, I imagine most people would associate skittles with a (AmE) candy/(BrE) sweet.

(...which compels an anecdote. I was at a party in Waco, Texas once and met a man who told me he was in Research and Development at M&M/Mars, one of the bigger employers in town. I asked what he'd developed. His wife proudly put her arm in his and beamed, "He invented Skittles!" As you can see, one meets Very Important People in Waco. And I should join Anecdoters Anonymous.)

The verb to bowl is used to describe what one does with the projectile in all of these games, but is also used to describe how the ball is delivered (or not) to the bat in cricket--and hence the person who does that delivering is the bowler. The closest thing in popular American sports is the pitcher, who pitches a baseball.

Going further afield, another bowl that differs is found in the (AmE) bathroom/(BrE informal) loo. While AmE speakers clean the toilet bowl, BrE speakers stick their brushes into the toilet's pan. I'm not absolutely sure that BrE speakers don't also use bowl in this sense (do you?), but it jars whenever I hear people speak about the toilet pan, as it makes me imagine something very shallow.

Those are the bowl differences I've noticed myself, although the OED also gives a special Scottish English sense: a marble. Their only example is from 1826, so you Scots will have to tell us whether it's current!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

uh, er, um, erm and eh

When I was young, some of my favo(u)rite books were by British authors. The title of one, Five Dolls and a Monkey, I was interested to find, is (until I publish this post) cited only once on the web. Am I the only person who loved that book? After I grew out of Five Dolls, I made my way through Agatha Christie's oeuvre. And in one or the other of these books I first encountered er and erm, as in this transcription of a comedy sketch (before I start getting complaints, please keep in mind that this is an example of the English poking fun at themselves--as they do so well--and not anti-[African]-American humo[u]r!):
CLIVE (playing an interviewer):
Erm, I think it can be truly said that the Americans have, er, their soul singers, and we English have ars-oul singers. And, er, Bo is one our leading, er, soul singers.
DEREK (playing 'Bo Duddley'):
Arsehole singers, yes.
CLIVE:
Bo, I-, I wanted to ask you first of all, erm, .....
DEREK:
Yes.
CLIVE:
This is obviously a sort of, er, boogie, er, .....
DEREK:
This is a boogie, erm, .....
CLIVE:
What? Jive stuff, is it?
DEREK:
Jive boogie woogie song, erm, and, erm, it is-, it is a, a story of ..... well, shall I, shall I sort of go through it?
CLIVE:
Yes, I-, I-, I was thinking that some of the lyrics for, er-rm, English speaking audiences might be a little obscure.
DEREK:
Absolutely. Well let me .....
CLIVE:
I wonder what the-, what-, what-, what it really is all about?
DEREK:
Well, let me-, let me just go through it, erm, for you. Ah:
(sings and plays piano:) "#Mamma's got a brand new bag!"
Er, "Mamma's got a brand new bag", er, this means, erm, that the-, the Harlem mother has gone out into the bustling markets of Harlem .....
CLIVE:
Yes.
DEREK:
..... er, to buy a gaily coloured plastic bag. Erm, and there's a certain amount of pride in this: Mamma's got a brand new bag.
CLIVE:
I-, I suppo-, I suppose a gaily coloured plastic bag is, er, a bit of status symbol in Harlem.
DEREK:
It certainly is. Certainly is. Obviously, er, you know, sign of a birthday or something like that.
Now, when I was a 12-year-old reading British novels, I liked to read them out loud, in my best "English" accent, probably gleaned from Dick Van Dyke's murder of Cockney. One of the unfortunate effects of this was that I pronounced Hercule Poirot as something like "Ercule Pirate" (never mind that he's Belgian--he was in England and so must speak as my 12-year-old self believed the English to speak). But another effect was that I believed that when British people paused in speech, they made sounds that rhymed with my American pronunciations of her and worm. And for much of my life, I continued to believe that there were millions of English-speaking people somewhere (or somewhen) pronouncing /r/s in their hesitations.

But then I had a baby, and the penny dropped.

I regret to say that this is not because motherhood has made me smarter/cleverer. It's because breastfeeding is so horrifically boring. (Contrary to some of the pro-breast propaganda, Baby does not stare worshipfully into your eyes. It may be good for the immune system, your figure and your purse, but it can hurt like hell and you can spend a third of your 24-hour day doing it.) Being a good mother (orig. AmE) wannabe, I'm trying to keep Grover away from the television for as long as possible, but it's tough to type or turn pages while breastfeeding (though I've got(ten) pretty good at both, plus doing Kakuro). But I also want to watch television to distract myself from the realities of breastfeeding, and somehow Grover's always there when I'm doing it. Since she's facing away from the (orig. & chiefly AmE) TV set, I can get away with watching it if I turn down the sound and turn on the 'subtitle' option on our Freeview box. Watching in this way, I've become addicted to Eggheads, but when it's not 6 p.m., I often end up watching Friends or Scrubs, since one or the other seems to be on at all times. And it was only when seeing er and erm in the subtitles for American characters in these American sitcoms that I reali{s/z}ed: it's not that the British put different interjections (or discourse particles, as we say in the trade) into their filled pauses, it's just that they typically spell those pauses er and erm instead of uh and um. Since many BrE dialects do not pronounce the /r/ after vowels in such contexts, the /r/ here is just to indicate that the vowel is not a proper 'e' but a long schwa-like vowel.

And before any of you complain that I should not have been allowed to have a doctorate in Linguistics if it took me this long to figure out something this basic, let me tell you: I've thought the same thing myself. I think the technical term for this is: Duh!

When I mentioned a few posts ago that I'd be covering er/erm/uh/um soon, reader David Up North (as I'll call him to differentiate him from the other Davids I've mentioned before) wrote to ask:
I was interested to see in the comments to your latest blog that you were planning an article on 'er' and 'erm'. I wondered if you'd be covering 'eh?' as well? It's often pronounced (or possibly replaced by) 'ay?' (or something like that – rhymes with 'hey', but I don't recall ever seeing anyone writing either as 'eye dialect' representations of the sound, they usually use 'eh?'). It came to mind because I've occasionally seen Americans transcribe the sound as 'aye?' – which is obviously wrong.
I can't imagine why an American would transcribe eh as aye (pronounced like I in every dialect I know) and haven't seen it happen, myself. I speak a northern AmE dialect that, like Canadian English, ends many sentences with eh? (Famously parodied by the Great White North sketches on SCTV: How's it going, eh?) And when we write that, we spell it eh and pronounce it to rhyme with day. (I was happy to discover upon moving to South Africa that SAfE has the same kind of interjection, but it's pronounced hey. It was very easy to adjust. Much better than when I moved to Massachusetts and was mocked relentlessly for the ehs that I'd never noticed myself saying.) But, of course, the problem we're seeing here is that these interjections are usually spoken and generally only written when one is trying to represent natural speech. Since they're not part of the written language (since they're not needed in the same way when the language isn't immediately interactional), people aren't used to spelling them, and thus the spellings have been slower to become standardi{s/z}ed than the spellings for nouns and verbs. Even within AmE, I find that the informal version of yes is spelt in different ways (yeah, yeh, yea, ya) by different people. To me, yeah is informal 'yes', and yea is pronounced 'yay' and is a positive vote, yay is what you say when you're giddy and ya is what South Africans say instead of yeah. I believe that my spellings are the 'standard' spellings for AmE, but, as I say, I've seen a lot of variation and it's hard to 'correct' such spellings, since the 'standard' is not as well-established for these mostly-spoken sounds.

It's worth noting that all of these discourse particles have meanings, though they can be hard to put into words. My favo(u)rite quotation from the OED's entry for er is:
1958 Aspects of Translation 37 The really astute Englishman..must feign a certain diffident hesitation, put in a few well-placed -- ers.
The interjections' meanings are generally the same in AmE and BrE, but what may differ, as indicated by the above quotation, is how often and why people use them. One reason to use er/uh is to feign hesitation--to make it seem like you're reluctant to say something. Another reason is to hold your place in the conversation--to indicate that although you're not saying anything at this very second, you intend to finish your thought, so no one should interrupt you. It may be that people in different places from different backgrounds use these sounds for these purposes at different rates and in different situations. I believe that the stereotypes would have it that the British use er/erm to hesitate--not to rush into committing themselves to any proposition--and that Americans use um/uh because they're inarticulately rushing to commit themselves to all sorts of opinions. Nevertheless, both American uh/um and British er/erm have the potential to be used in either way by individuals.