Sunday, February 22, 2009

china marker/chinagraph

Sometimes I find myself censoring myself before I use a word just because I have a feeling that it might be an Americanism. (I know I've blogged about this feeling before--but I can't find where!) The thing is, I'm not entirely sure why I get that feeling about words I've never used (nor heard the equivalents of) in the UK before. Nevertheless, it's pretty reliable. And thus it was when I went into a stationer's and said:
I'm not sure if this is what you call them, but I'm looking for what I would call a (AmE) china marker.
I left it to my accent to tell the (AmE) sales clerk/(BrE) shop assistant why I might call it something different than they would. And this person surmised that I was talking about a BrE chinagraph (pencil). (These things are also called grease pencils in AmE.)


Unfortunately, this particular shop, part of a chain, had no such things, no matter what they called them, and they sent me off to the local stationer/art supply shop. By the time I got there, of course, I had forgotten the word chinagraph and so I repeated my question in the same way...only to be sent to another counter, only to be told that they were out of chinagraphs. What's a girl (who wants to write on her glass storage jars, as pictured here) to do?

Thinking a bit more about why I was so sure that the British would not say china marker, I decided it was probably because it's so common for stationery/office supplies to have different names in AmE and BrE. Among the more common of these:

AmE

BrE
ballpoint (pen)
[also the generic term in BrE]


Biro
[old proprietary name]
paper cutter


guillotine
(blackboard) eraser


duster
(pencil) eraser


rubber
thumb tacks


drawing pins
bulletin board


notice board

Then again, the majority of office supplies in any office supply catalog(ue) do have the same names in both countries. So...why have such a strong feeling that china marker would not be the local word? My only remaining hypothesis is that I had heard chinagraph at some point, but the memory only exists at some subconscious level.

Monday, February 16, 2009

gutted

This mail from American Susanna had me chuckling:

I wanted to tell you my experience with the term gutted. I've always associated it with "eviscerated", especially when applied to a human being. When applied to a document or law or something of that nature, to me it means "emptied of its important features". If referring to things like a burned house, it means destroyed so that nothing remains but the outer shell.

Last year I took to reading the online version of a newspaper in Scotland; I can't remember which one now but I was in the midst of a fascination with the Orkneys so it was probably in that vicinity. In the headline about a break-in and theft at a home, the newspaper said the residents were "gutted". Well! That seemed quite callous to me, to put a word that harsh in the headline. I assumed, you see, that the residents had been killed and eviscerated. So I wrote a note to the editor saying I thought it was pretty bad form.

Imagine my surprise to receive an email from a reader of the newspaper letting me know that the newspaper editor had published my email with a laughing note about the differences in American vs British English! Because, as you know, gutted in British English means some variation of "highly distressed".

I will tread very lightly when emailing non-American newspapers!
A good lesson for all of us!

To give a little more info about BrE gutted--it's a relatively recent, informal (some would say 'slang') term. It was added to the OED in its 1993 edition, with quotations going back only to 1984 (but, of course, it could be much older in speech). Their senses for it are: 'bitterly disappointed; devastated, shattered; utterly fed up'. The last of these doesn't ring true for me--I'd usually interpret it as 'devastated'--that is, a feeling as if you've been emptied out. Of course, it's used for much lesser things as well. Google "I'm gutted" and you'll get lots of sport-related exaggeration.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

scrimmage and scrummage

A while ago, I mentioned the (BrE) rugby term scrum and compared it to the AmE (regional) term dogpile. Chris E wrote today to ask a related question--which jumps to the head of the question queue because it's so simple to answer. Chris wrote:
If you are both a rugby and American football football fan, you will notice many obvious similarities between the two. I played rugby at school in England in the 70s and became familiar with the term scrummage, shortened to scrum in most usage nowadays. In the US, I have understood the word scrimmage to mean at least two things - 1. a term generic to many, if not all sports, meaning a practice game (a friendly in BrEng) 2. a specific American football term with which I'm not familiar.
Can you comment on the root or roots of these? I feel confident that they share a common heritage, but I don't know for sure.
It's simple to answer because the OED does all the work for me. (I can't claim to understand American football and am completely clueless about rugby.) In the OED, scrimmage and scrummage are treated as variations on the same word, and the etymology is given as:

[Altered form of SCRIMISH n., the ending being associated with -AGE suffix. Cf. the parallel skirmage, obs. var. of SKIRMISH n.

This is now used primarily as a sporting term. The older i-form is common in all senses, and has become predominant in American Football, whilst the u-form is preferred in Rugby Football.]

So, yes, they share a common origin. But the fun thing (for me, tireless defender of Englishes*) to notice is that we (again!) have a case of British people messing around with the language and Americans staying true to the original form--contrary to the popular stereotypes. Not that messing around with English is a bad thing, of course. After all, we wouldn't have poetry without some messing around.

* Actually, that's a lie. I'm a very tired defender of Englishes. The tiredness has little to do with the defending, though.