Thursday, July 31, 2008

quite

I am often asked to cover the differences between AmE and BrE use of quite as an intensifier (i.e. a modifier of adjectives that tells you 'how much'). When asked, I point people to this post. When they write back and say "I meant how it means opposite things in BrE and AmE", I reply "Read the post. All the way. To the bottom." (Go ahead and picture me at the front of a classroom. I have them quaking in their boots, I do.)

But I just have to share with you this little item that came through the door yesterday. It's from a man who looks like an over-coiffed Russell Howard who wants to be my MP (Member of Parliament). Me, I'm waiting for Russell Howard to run. Our Howard-wannabe (a member of the Conservative Party) has been "out and about on the streets of Brighton meeting as many people as possible and listening to residents' views and opinions". But he didn't meet me, so he had his lackeys litter my front hallway instead. He wants to know:
How concerned are you about the proposed NHS changes and their effects on the Royal Sussex County Hospital?

Very [] Quite [] Not at all []
So there we have it. An illustration of how BrE quite differs from AmE quite. In BrE it means 'not so much', in AmE it means 'very much'. So while it's the middle ground in this BrE survey, for an AmE speaker, the first two choices are way on one side of the scale, so no moderate choice seems to have been offered. Better Half thinks that the question is (BrE) cheeky, because the interpretation of quite depends a lot on context, in that understatement with quite can be used as a forceful statement, given the right intonation. And the influence of AmE has probably muddies the waters as well. What a politician! I look forward to seeing how the results are interpreted.

P.S. A kind reader and fellow blogger has started a page for this blog using the Blog Networks feature on Facebook. It needs more readers to confirm that it's my blog before it will take feeds from the blog, etc. So, if you want to identify with this blog on Facebook, please come by and give us a click! We can be frieeeeeends!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

brown-bagging and potlucks

Today's query comes from Kirsten in Australia:

Would you be able to explore/explain the expressions brown-bagging or brown-bag lunch?

I first heard it used by an American colleague visiting our Melbourne office. Searching references on the net I gather it is used to refer to a home-made lunch in a school or business situation (as opposed to buying from fast food or cafeteria). I have some questions about the term:
  • Could you please confirm the correct meaning/usage in the US?
  • Is the term used/understood in the UK?
  • Is it typical for Americans literally to carry home-made lunch in brown bags?
Kirsten has the AmE meaning generally right (more on this below), and it is AmE (or more generally North American English) and not BrE. On her last question, it's probably less common in these days of hyperconsumerism to use brown paper bags (I'm sure people are using Tupperware [often used generically in AmE] and designer insulated bags and such), but it's certainly traditional to use paper bags. Originally, this was a way of re-using small shopping bags, but by the time I was a child, one could buy packages of lunch-sized brown paper bags. (I always wanted my mother to buy them and give me a fresh paper bag each day, but my mother was generally more sensible than that.) When I was a child, up until about age 9-10, you wanted to have a lunch box--a new one each year, usually with a cartoon or toy character or pop star or something on it. For me it was (click on the links for added fun!):
  • First grade: White and yellow flowers on a olive-green background (this one was vinyl, and purchased before I knew what was 'cool' on the playground; can't find a photo on the web--must not be 'collectible' enough)
  • Second grade: Miss America
  • Third grade: The Partridge Family
You can tell how important these things were, given that I remember them 35 years later. But just as important was the shift to brown paper bags in the fourth grade. By that time, I recogni{s/z}ed that lunch boxes were 'little kid' stuff, and I needed to have brown paper bags in order to look more grown up, like I didn't have an investment in Barbies or ElectraWoman and DynaGirl (boy, do I wish now that I had that lunchbox. I'll just have to console myself with listening to the theme tune over and over).

Kerstin says that the term brown bag is not used in Australia, but hearing it conjures up something less savo(u)ry than homemade lunch:
To my Australian ears (and those of my Australian colleagues) "Brown-bagging" sounds a very unsavoury term - We don't use the specific phrase for any particular meaning, but it conjures up images of responsible dog owners cleaning up after their pets. Or less revoltingly, but still not particularly pleasantly, an allusion to discrete packaging used to disguise porn, alcoholic beverages, or bribes.

The use of brown bag (noun) or brown-bag (verb) in AmE can also refer to drinking alcohol from a bottle that's wrapped in a paper bag, a way around the general proscription on street drinking in the US (now making its way to the UK).

When I asked Better Half if he was familiar with the term, he said that it would be avoided in England because "brown is a problem"--that is, its association with egestion. But innocent American that I am, I knew the term brown-nose ('chiefly' AmE, according to the OED: a sycophant) for years before I reali{s/z}ed that it had anything to do with bottoms, so I'd never think such a thing of the humble brown paper bag. (Though filling paper bags with [more frequent in BrE] poo/[more frequent in AmE] poop and setting them alight on someone's front step is a classic Halloween prank--though it's never happened on my watch.)

The verb brown-bag is primarily used with a rather empty object, it, as in this newspaper headline Save a buck [AmE slang: 'dollar'], brown-bag it or in the common phrase "I'll be brown-bagging it". The 'it' in the first example does not refer to the buck. It could arguably refer to the lunch, but I think it's the kind of near-meaningless it that one finds in expressions like to wing it. The it there could refer to something, but when we put that something in place of the it, the meaning seems to lose something. I'll be brown-bagging my lunch sounds like it refers to the wrapping of a brown bag around the food for a lunch. But I'll be brown-bagging it sounds like it refers to coming to a lunch event with a meal in a brown bag.

And then there's the venerable academic (etc.) institution, the brown-bag lunch (as in I'm going to a brown-bag lunch, rather than in I brought a brown-bag lunch). This is an uncatered event that occurs over the lunch hour (12-1 in the US), usually a somewhat informal talk by an expert on a subject. In the case of this series of such lunches at the University of Pittsburgh, they are also referred to as Brown Bags.

While I see lots of 'lunchtime concerts' advertised in the UK, it seems rarer (than in the US) to have 'lunchtime talks'. Here, the lunch hour is more jealously guarded to keep work out. (For instance, in the US, I was used to the staff in university offices staggering their lunch hours so that the office would stay open all day. In the UK, the university--except for the catering facilities--basically shuts down between 1 and 2, although we've recently started teaching in the lunch hour--a change brought on by lack of classroom space, more than willingness to give up lunch. Unfortunately for working/studying parents, the university crèche still closes from 1 to 1:55.) But where they do occur, they're more likely to be called lunchtime talks, with instructions as to whether bringing a lunch is necessary/acceptable, rather than fitting all that information into the neat little title Brown Bag. I think there must be a connection here between the rarity of organi{s/z}ed bring-your-own-lunch events and the relative (to the US) infrequency of (AmE) potlucks (or potluck suppers , or [AmE dialectal] covered-dish suppers). I had to've gone to at least one of these a month when I was in graduate school (what with the departmental potlucks, the potlucks organi{s/z}ed by political groups I belonged to, and just friendly potlucks). Have I been to a single one in the UK, even under another title? Just picnics--and then they can be quite comedic. For Grover's half-birthday picnic we asked people to bring a dish to share and noted that I'd be bringing the cakes. Better Half kept suggesting other dishes we could bring--salads, side dishes, main courses, but I kept saying "No, we're bringing the cake". He'd say "what if everyone else brings cake?" And I'd say "they know we're bringing the cake, so they'll bring (chiefly BrE) savo(u)ry stuff." "You over-estimate their attention to the invitation," he warned. Not only did EVERYONE bring cake (or biscuits or cookies or muffins), they all brought at least three different things, not just 'a dish'--and in several cases this was three different kinds of sweet baked good, rather than anything lunch-like. I think I made two mistakes here:
  1. misplaced faith in the apparently transparent (but really culturally loaded) 'bring a dish to share' potluck notion (though I didn't use the usual AmE turn of phrase bring a dish to pass--i.e. 'pass around')
  2. making the invitation for 2:00, rather than within the national lunch hour of 1-2--so that people were less sure about whether we would be eating lunch together or not.
  3. not listening to BH, who is always right, or so he tells me. (You'll notice that I only thought I made two mistakes--you understand that this third is dictation, right?)


Thursday, July 24, 2008

showers

In April, a reader who we can call 'Newlywed' wrote to me, asking for some advice:

I have recently married a Brit (me being American) and we are expecting our first child. As is custom in the U.S. we throw Baby Showers. I was not aware that Baby Showers are not common in the U.K. and was baffled by the in-laws' apparent offense [BrE offence--ed.] at being invited. Even though they currently reside in the U.K. and we in the U.S., I had sent invitations to all of the new in-laws regardless. In America if the family were not invited this would be considered extremely rude as it would send the message that they were cut out of a major part of our lives. In my mind, it would be akin to having a large wedding and not inviting the family. I would like to mend this obvious misunderstanding. Can you provide any suggestions as to how I can explain this American phenomenon to my new in-laws? Most importantly, that the Baby Shower’s function is not an intentional display of over-the-top American greed only designed to ring in gifts.

Newlywed should be a mother by now, what fun! And as a new mother, I hope she'll appreciate my low-on-time recycling of her note and my response as a quick way to write a long blog entry! In April, I replied:
We had the baby shower problem here as well. The thing about them is--they are designed to ring in gifts, that is their purpose--and inviting people to something whose purpose is to get gifts is just seen as crass to most (especially older) British folk. By inviting people who obviously could not attend, it really looks like an attempt to get gifts. The British would not see such a party as 'a major part of [your] lives' (they'd see that as a great exaggeration). So, I think the best you can do is to say 'Sorry if that invitation seemed like an attempt to be greedy. It really was an attempt to let you know what's going on in the run-up to the birth. Of course, we don't expect you to send a gift to a shower you are not able to attend, but we really look forward to the time when you'll meet your new grandchild.' Or something like that.

Usually baby showers are organized by the friends/families of the expectant mother, not the mother herself. If that's the case, you can also just shift the blame--i.e. 'Cousin Fifi wanted to include you in the invitation. Sorry about that.'

The need to explain yourself/your intentions to them [in addition to apologi{s/z}ing] is in itself kind of an American thing. So, you might want to ask yourself whether you're doing it for them or for you. Your husband might be able to help decide whether his parents would be made to feel even more uncomfortable by prolonged discussion of the topic.

Wow, I feel like Miss Manners.
In our case, a wonderful American friend wanted to organi{s/z}e a 'cybershower' for me, and wanted a list of my friends' e-mail addresses from the US and the UK. I was happy to give the US addresses, but hemmed and hawed about the UK ones. She really wanted them--she felt it would be a way to 'bring together' all the people who care about Better Half, then-future-Grover, and me. So, my compromise was to give her friends' addresses, but not in-laws'. And some of the UK friends participated, and some didn't. (All gave baby gifts, though. We've only just had to start buying Grover clothes, since we were catered very well for in the first three sizes.)

So, there are two linguistic issues to cover here: the lexical item shower and the sociolinguistics/pragmatics of the invitation. But, you know what? I've only got time for the word. So, your assignment (should you choose to accept it): think back on some of the anthropological observations on Americans that have been discussed here (e.g. the compliments post and the social class post), then try to untangle what's going on with Americans inviting people to a little party that they know the invitees cannot attend. (Or, disagree vehemently with my claim that this is American--and not English--behavio(u)r. Your choice.) Let the party begin in the comments section.

As for (AmE) shower, the term is becoming more familiar here, but baby and bridal showers are still considered to be very American (and often thought to be very crass) activities. To give the OED definition, a shower is: 'An abundance of gifts of a similar kind presented by guests at a party to celebrate esp. a wedding or birth; a party given for this purpose.' In other words a 'shower' of gifts. The parties usually involve games and sentimental traditions. A baby shower I once went to had a great game, in which they'd taken the labels off (of) about 20 jars of baby food and you had to work out (guess, really) which orange thing was the carrots, which the squash, which the sweet potato, which the peaches, etc. (OK, it's a great game if you like silly games.) A bridal shower tradition I've seen involves taking all of the ribbons and bows from the gifts, assembling them on a paper plate and then giving it to the bride to use as her 'bouquet' at the wedding rehearsal. (Wedding rehearsals and their traditions are [AmE colloquial/jocular] a whole nother ball of Americanness.) The OED's citations for this sense of shower go back to 1904, but the term must be a bit older (since the source, a newspaper, didn't see the need to define the term).

While bridal showers are relatively rare over here, hen nights are bigger in the UK than in the US. (Click on the link if you want to discuss hen nights!)

Another sense of shower--which I assume is BrE, since I've never seen it before and American Heritage doesn't have it--is given by the OED as:
A group or crowd (of people). Usu. derog., a pitiful collection or rabble. slang.
I imagine that if you know that sense of the word shower, the party meaning could be somewhat humorous. And if you know the 'pathetic crowd' sense, but not the party sense, it would not seem like a compliment to be invited to a shower.

Friday, July 18, 2008

pavement, sidewalk, and the stuff thereof

I'm essentially an idealistic and optimistic person, if one can judge by thoughts that go through my head like "Sure, I can work on the blog tonight and still meet all my other deadlines." But I have a very healthy morbid streak (as the hypochondriac child of a funeral home should have), as evidenced by the following train of thought, which stopped at several stations in my head this afternoon while I was pushing Grover in her (BrE) pushchair/(AmE) stroller across the (BrE) car park/(AmE) parking lot at the (AmE) train station/(BrE) railway station:
"Oh look, that car is (AmE) backing up (= BrE-preferred reversing).
"Maybe I ought to get on the (BrE) pavement. That way, if they hit me, it'll be the driver's fault and I'll have a moral victory.
"Hm, if you said to an American 'the pedestrian was on the pavement when she was killed', they'd probably think it was the pedestrian's fault.
"That'll disappoint my parents when the police come to tell them about my tragic demise. (Of course, Grover, being on wheels, will be pushed to safety. )"
Now, one point of interest (at least to me) is the fact that I seem to be thinking in a mix of dialects. That's probably not as clear in reality as it is when I type out the thought process. When I saw the car's movement, I probably thought "!!!" rather than "Oh look, that car is backing up." But the word pavement definitely made it through my head, since otherwise the subsequent thoughts wouldn't have come hot on its asphalt heels. But that's not the reason I've stopped to blog about it.

People frequently note that AmE sidewalk = BrE pavement, but it's rarer to see the AmE use of pavement explained in those ubiquitous lists of simple AmE/BrE lexical differences. In BrE, if you're on the pavement, then you're not on the road, but for Americans, this can be confusing because the road is paved, and therefore pavement. The OED gives the following:
2. a. The paved or metalled part of a road or other public thoroughfare; the roadway. Now chiefly N. Amer. and Engin.
The main sense in N. America.
But the more common sense in BrE is:
b. A paved footpath alongside a street, road, etc., usually slightly raised above the level of the road surface. See also foot-pavement n.
I've seen one person on the web claiming that we use pavement in this way in the US--i.e. to distinguish the pedestrian path from the road. That's not my experience at all--so it may be that that it's regional--the writer doesn't indicate where she's from.

Incidentally, sidewalk (originally side walk or side-walk) is one of those things that was originally British English, but which faltered here while gaining favo(u)r in America. So, next time you see/hear a British person showing distaste for the word, you can ask them to thank their ancestors for it. Let's start with these charming folk:
Sir David Attenborough would never say 'sidewalk', he speaks English (properly). [poster PEB at the ITV football (=AmE soccer) forum]

i find myself using more and more American English, in an effort for smoother understanding, as i come into contact with so few Brits here. i say ’apartment’ and ’soccer’ and ’line’ instead of ’queue’ - which is all pretty bad - i commit to never say ’sidewalk’, though - and hope that if i ever did, even in jest, anyone who thought of themselves as a friend would have the common decency to punch me in the face. square in the face. repeatedly. [a gareth egg's myspace page; I don't consider him a friend, but I would consider punching him square in the face. Maybe not repeatedly, as that would ruin my pacifist cred.]

But all that wasn't the reason I've stopped to blog about my morbid thought train either. No, the reason I'm blogging about it is that I have a modicum of guilt about the fact that I've used so few of the good ideas sent to me by readers these days, and thinking of pavement made me think of an e-mail sent to me by my emeritus colleague Max (since he uses his own name when he comments here, I won't do my usual pseudonymi{s/z}ing). He's just read Jane Smiley's Ten days in the hills (which I won't be reading because I've given her two chances and she's driven me [BrE] mad/[AmE] crazy each time), and he sent me a list of Americanisms that were new to him. Among them was
He went down the front steps and walked toward the aviary across Mike's pavers, set in an elaborate pattern of interlocking arches.
which, as he correctly worked out, is equivalent to BrE paving stones, though I had to look it up to know that, as it's not a word I'd ever use. In fact, it's not in many dictionaries--answers.com has to go to the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction for it, so it might just be trade jargon. That's not the only place in Smiley's novel where Max found a term that I had to go to a specialist glossary for (true-divided-light windows, anyone?), which gives a little hint as to why I find her writing too gristly to chew.

Of course, these days, paving is done with just about anything that can be used to harden an area of ground. Where I grew up, we called the black stuff that's used on roads tar or blacktop (one could also, more dialect-neutrally, call it asphalt) but in BrE, it is more likely to be called tarmacadam--a word I'd never heard in America--or its abbreviation tarmac. In AmE, tarmac
(originally Tarmac, a trade name) is reserved for the surfaces that (AmE) airplanes/(BrE) aeroplanes drive on at airports--as in "I once had to sit on the tarmac for five hours at JFK." (Not that my bottom came into contact with the tarmac, but that my bottom made contact with a plane that made unmoving contact with the tarmac.) In the OED definition above, we see metalled (AmE would prefer metaled), which refers to road metal, a term that I've never come across before, but refers to "broken stone used in making roads", as is found in these tarmacky, asphalty things. If you'd like to know the technical differences between tarmac and asphalt, I recommend that you look them up because although I've just read all about it, I just can't build up the enthusiasm to tell you about it.

I can't leave this subject without mentioning crazy-paving, which I have only heard in BrE contexts--the first of which (in my American circumstance) was in Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' song Rattlesnakes:
her heart, heart's like crazy paving
upside down and back to front
she says ooh, it's so hard to love
when love was your great disappointment*
Getting to hear that live was the first and only reason we've had to find someone to (orig. AmE) babysit in the evening so far. Did not disappoint--in fact, Mr Cole appointed very well. But getting back to language and away from the little (orig. AmE) crushes of mine that Better Half bears so well, crazy paving is the use of paving stones in a 'crazed' non-pattern. Although, as far as I know, the term crazy paving is mostly used in the UK, it is based (according to the OED) on the originally AmE collocation crazy quilt, for a patchwork quilt with irregularly shaped/placed patches.

* These are the published lyrics, but I've always heard this as 'love was sure a great disappointment'. Click on the link above to watch the video and tell me I'm not wrong!

Monday, July 14, 2008

controversy

Jan Freeman, in her The Word Blog, reacted to the zebra post by writing:
What with my near-daily dose of BBC News on the radio, I thought I was pretty current on British-American pronunciation differences: furore with three syllables (and an extra letter), vitamin with a short I (VITT-a-min), con-TROV-er-sy with a different stress, and so on.
...which made me remark to myself with surprise that I've never got(ten) (a)round to blogging about controversy, since (and this is the crucial thing about my blogging, isn't it?) I have an anecdote. (I think I didn't do it earlier because I was going to write a lot more about stress patterns in Latinate words, but in my new working-mother-on-the-go incarnation, I'll do this word now, and a hundred other words a hundred other times.)

And now, the anecdote you've managed to live without so far (but how?):

When I lived in South Africa, I had the altogether ego-enriching experience of being a relatively big [linguistic] fish in a relatively little [language-fascinated] pond, and so I had the pleasure of being a panel(l)ist on the SAfm (sort of the equivalent of BBC Radio 4 or NPR) program(me) Word of Mouth (which is like Radio 4's Word of Mouth or a bit less like KPBS/NPR's A Way with Words). Listeners write to the show with their language-related questions, and a couple of language experts join the host, John Orr, to answer them. Not once but THREE TIMES during my experience with WoM, some member of the South African native English-speaking population wrote in to complain that South African English was going to the dogs because people had started pronouncing controversy as conTROVersy (there's a short 'o' in the stressed syllable), rather than CONtroversy, and THREE TIMES they blamed this on the influence of American English.

Now, I only answered that one on-air once, but when I did, I did so with great glee as I pointed out (as I seem always to be pointing out) that just because something is annoying and new, it doesn't mean it's American. No, this "perversion" of the English language has its home in SAfE speakers' linguistic motherland. To quote Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd edition, 1996):
controversy. The mood of the moment is to challenge orthodoxy by placing the main stress on the second syllable. This stressing is often used by newsreaders and also, in my [editor R.W. Burchfield's] experience, by many scholars and lexicographers, not to go any further. My verdict is that the traditional pronunciation with initial stressing is at risk, but is still, just, dominant among RP speakers in the UK. In AmE the stress is always placed on the first syllable in this word.
I believe I read this on the radio--but since I no longer own a working cassette recorder, I doubt I'll ever hear those old program(me)s again.

Friday, July 11, 2008

zebra

Can you tell that my maternity leave has finished? Little, tiny posts nearly a week apart--how sad! But the real sadness is that I now know the point of maternity leave, and that point is CAKE. You go to get-togethers with other new mothers and everyone orders cake. You meet for coffee with friends and colleagues who want to meet the baby, but, what the hell, why not order some cake too? People come to visit, they bring you cake. The baby has a 'birthday' every month, so let's bake a cake. Yes, I have seen the cake. I have eaten of the cake. And now I must desert the cake.

So, here's your little cakeless observation of the week, brought on by Grover's newest toy--the one in the cent{re/er} of this photo (from Bright Starts). It took some work, but I finally convinced Better Half that this is a blue zebra. (Grover agreed with me from the start.) But I'm starting to wish that I'd called it a stripey donkey, because I am mocked (not by Grover, who is too bidialectal to notice and would be too polite to mention it even if she weren't) every time I say zebra in the way that I learned to say it, with the first syllable pronounced like zee (the American name for the letter that's called zed in BrE). In British English, the first syllable is pronounced as it would be in the French zèbre, i.e. zeb.

This is one of those pronunciation differences that is not the result of a general pronunciation rule that differs between AmE and BrE--instead, it's just a lexical oddity, like vitamin (first i as in bit in BrE, but like in bite in AmE) or tomato (you know the song). BrE is probably influenced by a tendency toward(s) shorter vowels and greater awareness of French, while AmE isn't. In spite of the fact that the only non-dual-citizen in the household (ha! who's the minority now?) will only accept the zeb pronunciation, the OED lists the zee pronunciation first. (People from other regions of the UK will have to let us know if they use the zee-bra pronunciation there. Zeb seems to be standard in the Southeast.)

On my listening to it (as you can see from my description of the sound in the last paragraph), it sounds like the BrE version puts the syllable break here zeb•ra, rather than here ze•bra, but as far as I know, that's against English syllabification rules, which favo(u)r complex onsets (i.e. a consonant cluster at the beginning of a syllable) of increasing sonority (i.e. the explosive /b/ before the more vowel-like /r/) over plosives in the coda (i.e. putting the /b/ at the end of the previous syllable). So, I'm assuming that I'm wrong about that syllabification (i.e., that it's just my perception of the less-familiar-to-me pronunciation and not the reality of it) and that both versions put the syllable break before the /b/--but I'd be happy for real-life phoneticians (rather than a dabbling lexicologist) to weigh in on the matter.

I pronounce it (to the extent that my American articulatory organs allow) in the British way when I say (BrE) zebra crossing (a pedestrian [AmE] crosswalk marked by stripes on the road--as seen on the cover of the Beatles' Abbey Road). But when talking to my baby about toy animals, I revert to my mother tongue--now my mothering tongue.


P.S. Apologies for all the (annoying, I know) parenthetical comments, which make my sentences (oh, won't someone stop me?) so difficult to parse.

P.P.S. Two mentions in Language Log this week. Wow, I'm somebody now! Thanks Ben and Arnold!

Friday, July 04, 2008

invigilate, proctor


A True Story
(would I lie to you?)

Once upon a time, a young American academic moved to South Africa. When it came to be exam season, her boss asked her to (BrE--and other Es) invigilate an exam.
"Invigilate? That sounds painful!" she cried.
"What do you call it then?" asked the bossman.
"(AmE) Proctoring!" she replied---reali{s/z}ing just a little too late how that sounded...
(Hat tip to Maverick for the request.)