Tuesday, June 30, 2009

pet, stroke and limerick winner

One of my newer internet addictions is Ross Horsley's My First Dictionary, which is wicked in every sense of the word. One must (if one is me) pause here to note that the 'excellent' sense of wicked is originally AmE. Several of my UK students have assumed that they'd have to explain this trendy BrE slang to me, but I was saying wicked pissa cool with my Bostonian university mates before my current students were even born. (I had a Master's degree by the time my youngest students were born. Who is going to cure me of this senescence?) MFD makes me feel incredibly uneasy and extremely amused at the same time. I don't know if that's a good thing, but I like it.

This dose of MFD, from 26 June, raised a lot of discussion of BrE versus AmE in the comments:
The comments at MFD were mostly about (mostly BrE) pussy versus (mostly AmE) kitty and the use of having as a light verb in the first sentence. But what struck me, because Better Half strikes me with it all the time, is the use of stroke for where AmE speakers would use the (originally Scottish English) verb pet. So, when I say to Grover Are you petting the kitty cat? Better Half is not far behind with Stroking! Stroking the cat! (He tolerates kitty, no doubt because of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink effect of pussy.) I'm starting to say stroke in this context, in the interest of marital harmony and getting my own back later, but to my AmE ears, it sounds a bit more, um, sexy. This, of course, makes not a lot of sense, since (orig. AmE) (heavy) petting is about (probably orig. AmE) feeling people up. But why should English and my feelings toward(s) it start making sense at this late date?

At any rate, I thought an introduction to a very funny website would work as an introduction to our very funny limerick competition. As promised, the judging involved a panel of my friends, whom you may know through their SbaCL-character alter-egos: the Blinder, Maverick, the Poet--and of course Better Half. (With the exception of the ubiquitous last judge, the links take you to their first appearances on the blog.) I asked each to send me their three favo(u)rites, assuming that the cream would rise to the top and there would be a clear front-runner. But there was too much cream. A few got two votes, thus limiting the field a little for my final judging. It came down to Dunce's Rubber and Richard English's Hooters, re-published here:

An eager young Yank on the make
Thought he'd finally had his big break.
She asked for a rubber
but she wasn't a scrubber.
Just had to erase a mistake.

My girl has a fine pair of hooters
Attractive to gentleman suitors.
But don't rush too far
They're both on her car
And she toots them to warn slow commuters.
My decision comes down to the fact that one of these poets had other efforts in the judges' top threes. So, congratulations, Richard English! Your copy of Britannia in Brief will be on its way to you soon, and the authors have asked to reprint the winner on their blog. (Let us know if that's not ok with you!)

On a last humorous note, British-Canadian singer-songwriter Luke Jackson (shouldn't he have a hyphenated name?) has sent me a link to the video for his song 'Goodbye London'. This animated treat might strike a chord for the American exchange students out there who've headed back home.

Monday, June 29, 2009

over-the-counter observations

As I write this (which is actually a few days before I post it--connection problems at home), I am enjoying two British (or at least not-American) things about which I often ask: How did I ever live without this? Crumpets and Syndol. I’ve written about crumpets before back here, and as usual I’m eating them in a very non-British way—this time, with peanut butter and (AmE) jelly/(BrE) jam. (My other favo(u)rite and very non-British ways are with butter and maple syrup or with melted Cheddar and lots of A1 Sauce. Eating those messy concoctions requires a knife and fork.) Syndol is heaven in an over-the-counter blister pack: (AmE) acetaminophen/(BrE) paracetamol with a muscle relaxant of some kind. [Late addition: I shouldn't believe everything my drug (orig. AmE) pusher tells me. It's not a muscle relaxant. See here and the comments.] It does the trick for tension headaches—and just about anything else you want to throw it at. (Since I can’t take ibuprofen, aspirin or opiates [maybe--see comments], this is a godsend.)

Thinking (rhapsodically) about Syndol has me thinking about expressions that are used in AmE that I didn’t really understand until I had met them the BrE context—because over the counter is one of them. We say this in AmE to mean ‘non-prescription medications’, but I never understood why we say it, because in my American experience only prescription medications come from the other side of the (AmE & BrE) pharmacist’s/(BrE) chemist’s counter. The non-prescription medications are just out there on the consumer-accessible shelves in the (AmE) drugstore/(BrE) chemist’s (shop)/(AmE & BrE) pharmacy. But in the UK, a real over-the-counter category exists for things like Syndol. Plain old paracetamol/acetominophen can be found out on the shelves in many shops—and can be found in other types of shops, like supermarkets, (BrE) petrol/(AmE) gas stations and (BrE) corner shops. But for Syndol and real Sudafed (i.e. pseudoephedrine, my other drug of choice at the pollenous moment), you must go to a pharmacy and must ask for it from over the counter. Upon doing so, you will be faced with a number of questions from the pharmacist or their assistant, such as Are these for you?, Have you taken these before? and Are you taking any [insert name of drug that might interfere]? Give the wrong answer (like that you’ve been taking something for a while and your symptoms haven’t cleared up) and they won’t sell you the good stuff, but will tell you to do something sensible, like seeing your doctor.

I presume that all medications used to be truly over-the-counter in the US too—since shopping used to be more like that in general. I don’t know if it’s just because the UK (and most of Europe, as far as I can tell) maintains the over-the-counter category and the US doesn’t, but one can get much better drugs without a prescription here—including painkillers with codeine, which I also enjoyed until my last two doses of similar-but-prescription-requiring stuff landed me (sorry, British taxpayer) in (BrE) A&E (Accident and Emergency -also known as Casualty)/AmE the Emergency Room (or ER, or, as my friend who works in a hospital insists, the Emergency Department—though I don’t know anyone outside hospital employment who uses that phrase). I only took the recommended dose, I swear! I’d just developed some kind of allergy to opiates. (At the first A&E visit, the doctor insisted that it couldn’t have been the pills that put me in so much pain--hence the second visit, that time via ambulance. Many apologies, British taxpayer! And a tip: be very careful with the phrase cold and clammy if you phone NHS Direct. Unless you want an ambulance at your house.)

I said I was thinking of expressions (plural) that involved this kind of linguistic eureka moment, though to be honest, there’s only one other that I can think of: pratfall, which I mentioned back here.

So, expatriates of one brand or another, have you had similar experiences in which your own language made more sense only after hearing it in another dialect/context? And what are the American things that British expats have become dependent on, and vice versa?


In other business:
  • I'm planning to announce the winner to the Limerick Competition tomorrow (that is, if I manage to contact all my co-judges by then). So act quickly if you have an entry to submit!
  • Lexiophiles is running their Top 100 Language Blogs again, so nominate a blog you love!
  • I'm experimenting with Google's AdSense here, having kept this a strictly not-for-profit blog for the past three years. Let me know what you think.
I'll be back soon with a real post about an actual linguistic difference!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Win a copy of Britannia in Brief!

Welcome to the first SbaCL book review--one of many to come, I hope. Thanks to the folks at Tandem Literary and Ballantine Books, we can celebrate this first review with a chance to win the book. Read further for details.

Today's book is Britannia in Brief: The Scoop on All Things British by Leslie Banker and William Mullins (Ballantine, 2009), an American wife and British husband team. In other words, here's the book that Better Half and I could have written if we'd thought of it first and weren't so gloriously behind schedule with everything else in our lives--like the laundry. Especially the laundry.

The book does what it says on its label: it is a sort of (AmE) Cliff Notes/(BrE) York Notes for Americans wanting to (orig. AmE) bone up on Britain. The chapters cover the geography and history, social structures, arts and culture, politics and government, food and drink, language and daily practicalities of UK life. Having been here 10 years, I didn't learn a lot reading this book--but, boy, if I'd had it 10 years ago, it would have saved a lot of people a lot of explaining. When I first sat down with the book, I tested it by looking up the things that I thought should be in it. Blue Peter? (AmE) check/(BrE) tick. Newspaper slants and allegiances? √ The 1966 World Cup? √ Jeffrey Archer? √ It passed all of my tests but one...but we'll get back to that.

The parts I found most helpful (as a long-standing resident) were in the first chapter--though I'm sure that newer arrivals will find the quotidian and cultural aspects the most immediately gratifying. The section entitled 'Snapshots of British History' starts with Julius Caesar and end with the 7/7 bombings of 2005, filling in enough details on the Glorious Revolution, the Battle of Britain and the Falklands War to give an American a sense of what these things were about. The longer section on Northern Ireland similarly outlines the Troubles and gives the sage advice that "it's better not to express any opinions on the matter of Northern Ireland unless explicitly asked. [...] All in all, it's just better to say that you hope things work out."

What about the bits on language? While there is a chapter on language, there's plenty of vocabulary information throughout the book, including a very useful two-page list of acronyms toward(s) the end. (There's also a two-page glossary, which hits some important words, but whether it includes the one you'll need to look up--well, that's another matter.) The language chapter provides some names whose pronunciation needs explanation (e.g. Leicester = "lester", Berkeley = "barclay") and an introduction to Cockney Rhyming Slang. These are followed by a couple of zesty sections on words with 'dirty' meanings in BrE (but not in AmE) and ratings of how offensive "swear words" are--with handy thermometer graphics. A section on the Welsh language serves the authors' obsession with the alleged lack of vowels in Welsh. (I lost count of how many times 'unpronounceable' and 'Welsh' co-occured in the other chapters.) For the record, Welsh has plenty of vowels, it just spells them with different letters than the English use. I didn't always agree with their list of 'prevalent British names rarely heard in the US'--sometimes because I thought the names weren't particularly prevalent in the UK, but mostly because they left Nicola off the girls' list. But these are minor points.

The book ends with a quiz that should probably replace the UK Citizenship test, since it tests things that UK citizens generally know, like the name of the pub on Coronation Street and who Brenda and Phil the Greek are (unlike the real test, whose questions native-born citizens typically fail).

The book is terrifically up-to-date, which does mean it'll become outdated all the faster. And this may be its failing in the one section that I found really wanting: the 'British comic gems you may be less familiar with'. Appropriately, this starts with the Carry On films. But it then hops on to Monty Python--which (a) is not something anyone is less familiar with (as they acknowledge), and (b) overshoots The Goon Show (and particularly Spike Milligan), which was one of the first things I tried to look up in the book (and one of the greatest influences on Python). The other comedians listed are all currently practicing, and some of them have crossed the pond rather often. Rather than Steve Coogan and Catherine Tate (whom I'd run into soon enough if I were a [orig. AmE] newbie to Britain), I would have liked to have read about the Goons, Tony Hancock, the Two Ronnies and Morecambe & Wise--the types of comedians who influenced later ones and whose presence is still felt--albeit a little more obliquely than the Coogans and Tates--in the culture. In other words, with such a rich comedic history, it's a shame to have so much focus on the present.

But that's one section of one chapter in an otherwise surprisingly comprehensive book. The authors have shown a real knack for getting to the heart of Britishness and presenting it in bite-size helpings. I'd heartily recommend this book for any (North) American who:
  • is about to embark on a year abroad/work placement/move to the UK
  • is going to visit people in Britain
  • is in love with someone in Britain
  • is slightly obsessive about Britain
And here's your chance to own a copy. Your task, should you choose to compete, is to write a (preferably humorous) limerick illustrating a US/UK cultural misunderstanding. Make your submission to the comments section. (Make them clean-ish, please.) Other readers are welcome to weigh in on which they think are the wittiest and best written, which will influence the judges (three of my friends and me) when we make our decision on 30 June. In order to enter, make sure we have a way to contact you--either through your Blogger profile or by sending an e-mail to me with your e-mail details. Happy limericking!

Saturday, June 06, 2009

like-less predicates

Ben Zimmer, the man responsible for my blogging about shit, has sent me a number of BrE sentences over the past few months. Each of these did not contain the word like where an American like Ben might've expected it. And, really, that was the point of the scatological post that Ben inspired too. He'd noted that BrE speakers are more likely to say I feel shit whereas AmE speakers would have to say I feel like shit. My response then was to say that shit can act as an adjective in BrE--and that is true. After all, one can (if one is BrE-speaking) say something like What a shit film.

But it's also the case that one can say I feel [NOUN PHRASE] in BrE and mean 'I feel like [NOUN PHRASE]'. Ben's example came from The Telegraph, in a story about a man who was injured while using Twitter:
"I guess you could say I feel a right Twit," he said.
For the grammar geeks out there, I'll quote Algeo's British or American English on the topic, "A group of copular verbs (...) have predominantly adjectival complements in common-core English, but also have nominal subject complements in British more frequently than in American." In other words, in AmE or BrE, you could say I feel old (because my students told me yesterday that Brad Pitt is 'a sexy old man'). You could also say I feel like an unsexy geriatric case, because the like phrase in that case plays an adjectival role in the sentence. But in BrE, you can also forgo the like and just go straight to the nouny part of the description. [In the Twit example, we also have the BrE noun-intensifier right, but let's save that for a rainier day.)

Here are some examples showing more of this pattern:
sound: He sounded a complete mess. [Jeremy Clarke in The Independent]

look:
Joey Barton has made me look a fool. [Oliver Holt on Mirror.co.uk]

appear
: I was trying to appear a total gentleman! [on ducatisti.co.uk]

Smell and taste are not found as regularly in the 'smell/taste like' sense, but a BrE expression one can find with them (and look and sound) is to [PERCEPTION VERB] a treat. So:
The honeysuckle shampoo is just gorgeous and she smells a treat. [customer feedback for a dog grooming salon]

Do you love cooking simple, no fuss meals that taste a treat? [ad(vert) on FilmBirmingham site]

Nokia E63 Handset Looks A Treat [digital lifestyles]
And if something looks or tastes or is a treat, then it can also (BrE) go down a treat--i.e. be received well.
BSC Seminars Go Down a Treat at Health and Safety 09 Show [British Safety Council]
If we were to to say any of these in AmE, we'd probably have to put a like in (and get rid of all the other Briticisms in the examples)--i.e. it looks like a treat, made me look like a fool, etc. The one that really confuses AmE speakers is (BrE) go down a bomb, which is not only ungrammatical for us without the like, but also means the opposite of what we'd think it means. If a performance bombs in AmE, it is horrid and no one likes it. But if it goes down a bomb in BrE, it's fantastic and gets a wildly positive reception. Ben sent me an example that had to do with Susan Boyle--the now-famous also-ran in the Britain's Got Talent television (BrE) programme/(AmE) show, and he's blogged about it here.

There are other things one could say about going down in BrE (you stop that sniggering right now!)...but we'l just leave that on the ever-increasing backlog of stuff to write about.

But if you want to know what really goes down a treat, check out this review of Better Half's work from today's Guardian! Then go and buy the entire SmartPass back catalog(ue), so that we can keep Grover in shoes!