Tuesday, March 30, 2010

finger/fork buffets

Since I'm on (AmE) vacation/(BrE) holiday at the moment, I'm taking the opportunity to go through my blog inbox in order to try to reduce the backlog of requests.  Here's a year-and-a-half old one from Chas:
I was reading an Englishman's blog today and encountered the phrase "a champagne reception and fork buffet supper."

Now I have visited the UK, attended part of high school in Jamaica, have various British friends, and even do some freelance editing for a London-based publisher, for whom I beat the prose of British academics into conformity with the Chicago Manual of Style for the North American market.

But I never was invited to a fork buffet supper. The phrase gives me visions of a long table covered with dozens of glistening forks -- and nothing else.
Part of the reason for choosing this one to respond to now is that I can pretty much get away with just writing what I wrote to Chas.  So, to quote myself:
I've never seen fork buffet in the wild, but there are 24,000 Google hits for it.  It's the companion to the term I have heard a lot, finger buffet--i.e. a buffet of finger foods (51,800 hits). 
The OED can be called on to add:
fork supper (also -buffet, -dinner, -lunch(eon, etc.), a meal served at a buffet, etc., consisting of food suitable for eating with fork alone, making the provision of set places at table unnecessary.
The question that I haven't answered is 'what would this be called in AmE?'  Notice that Chas didn't offer an easy equivalent--I don't know that there is one.  I've come across the term standing buffet, but this can as easily (if not more easily) be finger foods, rather than fork-foods.  For a finger buffet, I'd imagine that an AmE invitation would say  'hors d'oeuvres will be served' or  'finger foods will be served', or some such thing.  I ask people in the US with more recent experience of these things to help out in the comments.

(Though, it must be said, I have very recent experience, since I went to a buffet lunch (with forks) after a funeral today. Unhelpfully for us, it was just called lunch.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

washing up and doing the dishes (and digressions on showers, baths, kettles, and coffee)

Here's a topic that we've partly done before, but it heads to the top of the to-blog-about list just because most of the heavy lifting has already been done for me.  John Wells (of Phonetic Blog fame) wrote to say:
Not sure if you've written about BrE washing up / doing the washing up = AmE washing/doing the dishes.
Who's going to do the washing up?
There was some washing up on the draining board waiting to be done.
As well as a kitchen, scullery, and larder/pantry, in the house where I grew up we also had a wash-up (room devoted to washing up). We boys had to help my father with the washing up there.
Nowadays of course we use a dishwasher (a term obviously of American origin, and still in competition in BrE with washing-up machine).
You'll have heard of the British couple dismayed to be greeted on arrival at friends' house for dinner with Would you like to wash up before we eat? (= BrE 'wash your hands')
Lastly, have you noticed how in Britain we assume that you don't need to rinse the (BrE) washing-up/(AmE) dishes in clear water, while in America you do so rinse them?

Thanks for all that, John!  By the time I was old enough to help out, my parents had a dishwasher, but I still learned how to wash dishes 'properly' from my grandmother.  She taught me that the right way to do it is to first put the kettle on,* so that after you've set the dishes in the drainer, you can pour boiling water over them in order to kill any lingering germs.  My grandmother did not have OCD.  This is just the way things were done.  I doubt many Americans would do that today, but we would run some clean water over dishes to get the soap off.  When I've seen English people not doing that, I must admit, I've been [more than] a little uneasy.**

And now for your commenting pleasure, the almost entirely non-linguistic footnoted digressions!!

*And when we say put the kettle on in AmE, we almost certainly mean putting it on the (AmE) stove/(BrE) hob.  When BrE speakers say it these days, they usually mean 'switching the kettle on', as almost no home (or office) is without an electric kettle.  It's probably the case that it's our lesser interest in tea that's kept us from having electric kettles--we have automatic coffeemakers instead.  I'm in the US at the moment, and had a moment of reali{s/z}ation about the ubiquity of coffeemakers yesterday.  I was in our local nirvana of a supermarket, looking to buy a little caffeinated instant (I drink coffee so milkified it doesn't really matter).  I was initially surprised to find LESS supermarket choice for this item in the US than in the UK.  I mean, many of the UK supermarkets I use would fit (not at the same time, of course) into the produce section of more than a few of the US supermarkets that I visit.  (Supermarkets are a major tourist destination for Better Half and me.)  Given that for any other non-nation-bound product [with the possible exception of cheese] there seems to be twice to ten times as much selection in an American supermarket as in a UK one, I had expected to be able to find a small jar of caffeinated instant coffee.  (There were some larger jars, but not many.  I saw no fair trade options.  Ended up buying a box of little (AmE) packets/(BrE) sachets, but only one brand offered those.)  And then it dawned on me: nearly everyone has a coffeemaker; almost no one has an electric kettle--of course there's not much market for instant coffee.  In the UK, in any place where people gather there will always be a kettle, ready to serve tea--and almost always a jar of instant coffee as a nod to the non-tea-drinkers.

**Which just reminds me of several encounters I've had with a few older English people who aren't terribly interested in showers, preferring baths.  I recall one in particular who declared that he couldn't see how having the water wash over you would get you really clean.  I replied, in a characteristically brash American manner, that I viewed baths as an opportunity to wallow in one's own filth.  (They're lovely for a sit and a think, but not what I would use to get clean.)  He claimed that the filth would be left in the (BrE) bath/(AmE) tub.  And I countered "No, because the soap with which you remove the filth floats, and so as you raise yourself from the tub [bath], you pass the lower half of your body through a film of soap, dead skin, and dirt, which clings to your skin until your next bath rearranges it." He had no answer to this.  I like to think that he went home and took a shower.  Of course, the relative paucity of decent water pressure in British showers may be at the root of any British-held beliefs that showers are insufficient cleaners.  The combination of poor water pressure and (in some places, like where I live) very hard water does indeed slow down the removal of filth.

Friday, March 19, 2010

protesting prepositions

For the second time in my life, I was on strike today.  I mean, really on strike as in having my pay docked for it, not like the one-woman strike I held in order to protest the rat infestation in my office at a former place of employ.  That one worked.  The rats relented.  This time, we're seeing some effect of staff and student protests and our counterproposals to the management's plan for over one hundred (BrE) redundancies/(AmE) layoffs, and I hope that will continue and that the strike draws attention to wider problems that, in my estimation, start with the government's classification of higher education as part of Business, Innovation and Skills (formerly Trade and Industry) rather that part of a department of education.  (There was such a department, but this (BrE) government / (AmE) administration turned it into a department for 'children, schools and families' and reclassified universities as part of the business world.) 

Happily, the only pay that I get for noticing AmE/BrE differences is my Google ad income, so I am free to notice them on a strike day.  That £4.50 per month will (N Amer & Irish colloquial, in this position) sure see me through the grim times.  <subliminal>Click! Click! Click! This child needs shoes!</subliminal>

And what did I notice today?  Well, this phrase in the BBC coverage of the strike, for one thing:
Hundreds of staff from the University of Sussex staged a strike in protest at job cuts, as students occupied a lecture theatre for an eighth day.
In protest at?   My first thought: 'Are the (AmE) copy-editors/(BrE) subeditors at the BBC on strike too?'  My second thought: 'What can a quick corpus search tell me about this preposition choice?'  A lot, as it turns out.

I used (as I usually do these days) Mark Davies' wonderful interface for the British National Corpus (BNC) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and searched for in protest with six prepositions:  at, against, of, over, to, and about.  The last two only occurred at tiny rates in both corpora, so I haven't included them in the table below.  These are the results, expressed as percentages within each dialect:

   BrE        AmE
       at     703
       against     2434

So, there you have it.  In British English, one generally strikes in protest at something but in American, there is no clear preference for a particular preposition (unless I'm not thinking of it?).  Personally, I'd edit my own writing toward(s) in protest againstAs we were just discussing the other day, American English does seem to be more of-ridden than BrE.

But another interesting aspect of this story is that the American figures represent a lot less (or fewer, if you insist) data, in spite of the fact that COCA is four times bigger than BNC.  Taking this into account, BrE uses in protest+PREPOSITION more than seven times more often than AmE does.  So I thought:  'that must mean that AmE doesn't like to use protest as an abstract noun as much as BrE does, and so we tend to use the verb.'  But searching the verb protest shows that AmE doesn't use that more than BrE does either (though the difference is not as stark as for the prepositional phrases I searched--in the BrE corpus it occurs 2427 times per million words, and in AmE it's 1968 per million).  In all uses of the noun BrE uses it more (but only 1.38 times more, not the 7x more of the in protest phrases). 

So, do the British have more to protest?  Or do Americans prefer other ways of talking about protesting?  I think I know the answer as far as higher education is concerned...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

off (of) and out (of)

Andy S wrote to say:
I'm interested in the Americanism off of which sounds very odd to British ears. I'd be interested to know more about it.
Indeed, Americans would often get off of a [much more common in AmE--in BrE it can have a more restricted meaning] couch, whereas British folk would get off the [available in AmE, but I suspect that the frequency varies regionally] sofa.  That's not to say that off of is the only way we put it in AmE, as evidenced by  Paul Simon's admonition to Gus to hop off the bus.  And Americans didn't make it up.  In the OED, one can find the following examples:

a1616 SHAKESPEARE Henry VI, Pt. 2 (1623) II. i. 98 A fall off of a Tree.
A. MARVELL Corr. in Wks. (1875) II. 224 The Lords and we cannot yet get off of the difficultyes risen betwixt us.
 Nevertheless, it came to be regarded as 'non-standard' in Britain. In AmE (according to Random House Webster's College Dictionary, 1991 [via Fowler's Modern English Usage, 3rd edn]), off of is 'widespread in speech, including that of the educated . . . but is rare in edited writing'.

But, in a weird twist, AmE speakers are more likely to say go out the window/door than BrE speakers, who more typically go out of the window.  According to a corpus study by Maria Estling published in English Today (1999; 15:3.22-7; via John Algeo's British or American English), when going through windows or doors, BrE uses out of twice as often as out and AmE uses out more than six times as much as out of in this context.  But BrE differs a lot in spoken (72% out) versus written (80% out of).  Algeo investigated this further and found that both BrE and AmE prefer out more strongly with door, but Americans 'more strikingly so'.  BrE users are twice as likely to say out with door but AmE speakers are nine times more likely to say out the door.

Algeo goes on to list several more cases in which BrE uses out of and AmE either doesn't, or is less likely to:
  1. Algeo reports that he's found equal numbers of from King's Cross ([BrE] railway station/[AmE] train station) and out of King's Cross, but no cases of out of Grand Central.  I'm not sure if he checked more than just Grand Central though...and whether he knows that Penn Station would be a better test case (because NY Penn Station gets more than four times the traffic of Grand Central, and there are Penn Stations in other cities too).  Checking on the web, I find that trains out of Penn Station gets 901 hits, while trains from Penn Station gets 18,100, backing up Algeo's evidence for a difference.
  2. BrE says out of hours to mean 'outside normal business hours', while AmE would use after hours in most similar contexts.
  3. BrE kicks people out of the team 96% of the time in Algeo's data (versus off the team) AmE always kicks people off the team.
  4. BrE sometimes (28% of the time in A's data--the Cambridge Intertnational Corpus) has things being out of all recognition instead of beyond all recognition.  AmE always uses the latter.
Why would anyone ever use a compound preposition with of if they don't need to?  When I want to give my students an example of a really meaningless word, I use of.  I mean, what does it add to anything?  Well, it adds a preposition, and we need prepositions to glue bits of sentences together and tell us which parts go with which parts.  For instance consider the phrase:
The Chairperson of the Committee of Ministers welcomes the deposit, by the Russian Federation, of its instrument of ratification of Protocol.  [Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers]
 And without the ofs:
The Chairperson the Committee Ministers welcomes the deposit, by the Russian Federation, its instrument ratification Protocol.
The ofs tell us to process the sentence like this:
The Chairperson
of the Committee
of Ministers
the deposit
of its instrument
of ratification
of Protocol
 by the Russian Federation

(That's my attempt at lazy [AmEish] sentence-diagramming on Blogger.)

So, why do you need the glue of of if you've already got a workable preposition?  Probably (in part) because there's some ambiguity about whether out and off are prepositions.  In many situations, they are adverbial.  You can tell the difference in that prepositions require objects--i.e. noun phrases--to go [usually] after them, but an adverb modifies the verb, rather than gluing a noun to a sentence.  So:

I jumped off  [adverbial; tells something about the direction of your jumping]
I jumped off the table [preposition; indicates a relationship between the me-jumping and the table]
(For the record, the AmE part of my brain is screaming for an of in the second example.) 
If we understand the off to be an adverb, then we'd need a preposition in order to glue the table onto the sentence.   But wait one (AmE) gumdanged minute!  There are other adverb/preposition pairs that don't have an of variant.  What's up with that? 

Well, I don't know--I've not researched this, so this is middle-of-the-night rambling, but notice that we don't get *in of or *on of.  (* is linguists' way of marking an impossible grammatical construction.)  The of seems to signify a movement away, a 'from' meaning. (Notice we do get into and onto-- a 'toward' meaning matches on or in--so we do make compound prepositions with them too.)  Why do off and out allow of, while other 'away'-meaning preposition/adverbs, like away, down and up, use from instead? Oh, I don't know...it's past 2 in the morning--stop with the questions already!  The most likely answer is 'because that's the way people have started saying it', but I'm tempted to think it's because the others are further to the adverbial side of the preposition-adverb continuum than off and out are and that they therefore need a stronger prepositional support.  But then again I don't know that I actually believe it, so I'm going to shut up already [final positioning of already is AmE, influenced by Yiddish].  Good night!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Separated by a Common Twitter: competition results!

Thanks to Twitter-followers who re-tweeted to me their nominations for 'most impenetrable to cross-ponder' tweet.  We have a winner, Transblawg (Margaret Marks) who sent two--one that I declare the winner, and one that I declare a runner-up.  First, the winner (I'm deleting the identities of the original tweeters, since they didn't ask to be here...):

KP v.lucky to wring that lbw decision out of Enamul Haque: that was missing off-stump by a mile! Bangladesh 163-5 and in trouble

Of course,  anything with personal initials/names is going to be hard for anyone to read, but with a little BrE knowledge, one can figure out at least what the roles of KP and Enamul Haque are.  The tweet, for anyone who needs translation, is about cricket, the only sport that Better Half follows, but still one whose scoring system has to be explained to me every single time he tries to engage me in a conversation about the game.  KP is Kevin Pietersen, who was (BrE) bowling (equivalent to pitching in baseball--except that it's done differently) and Haque must be an umpire.  'That lbw decision' refers to a leg-before-wicket call made by the umpire.  In this case, spelling out the initials doesn't help much, does it?  You have to know that the aim of the bowler in cricket is to knock the bails (little pieces of wood) from a wicket (three little poles, called stumps, with the bails on top--image from Wikipedia). The batsman (baseball equivalent = batter) tries to hit the ball, preventing it from getting to the wicket.  But the leg-before-wicket law means that the umpire can decide that the batsman is out because the ball would have hit the wicket, had the batsman's leg (or the pads on it) not been in the way.  The three stumps are called the off stump (which is on the off-side, nearest the bat) the middle stump and the leg stump (on the on-side, the leg side).  So, to translate: Kevin Pietersen is very lucky that EH decided that the ball Pietersen had bowled would have hit the stumps, since, in the tweeter's opinion, it was nowhere near the outermost stump.  The rest is the score, to be read as 'Bangladesh is 163 for 5', which means that they've scored 163 runs and lost 5 wickets (yes, I had to look that up).  In other words, you're only told the number of runs for the team that is batting.  The team that gets more runs wins, so you know from this information how many runs the other team needs to get when it's their turn to bat.  But don't expect me to tell you more than that.  Instead, I'll point you to a site where an American tries to explain cricket to Americans.

I'll ask the winner to send her address and her choice of biscuits/cookies to me directly.  Here's the runner-up that she sent:
blooming knackering. I've got a sales conference in a couple of weeks too. I liked garden leave!! boo hoo
And maybe this should have been the winner, since it's not in the jargon of a sport, but in general BrE--but since it means sending the biscuits/cookies to the same place, perhaps I'll just declare it a (BrE-prominent) draw/(AmE-prominent) tie. A glossary for the tweet:
blooming = is a bowdleri{z/s}ed version of the vulgar BrE modifier bloody--akin in this context to saying (AmE) darned.

knackering = exhausting, tiring (slang). 

garden leave (also gardening leave) is, to quote the OED: "Brit. (euphem.) suspension from work on full pay for the duration of a notice period, typically to prevent an employee from having any further influence on the organization or from acting to benefit a competitor before leaving."
Janibach sent the only American tweet among the entries, which was related to American football--and not as impenetrable for the average British reader as the cricket tweet:
Who do you want the Cleveland Browns to take in the draft. Where are they in line? #NFL
The NFL (National Football League) occasionally comes to the UK to play exhibition games, and some games, including the Superbowl, sometimes make it onto wee-hours television.  That doesn't mean that the average Briton knows much about the sport--but still, this one is fairly decipherable (It was the wrong time of year to get tweets about less transparent things like first downs and Hail Mary passes).  Cleveland Browns are pretty clearly a sports team (since they follow the code of city name + plural common noun found in many team names across the English-speaking world).  The AmE spelling of draft for draught has been populari{z/s}ed for several senses of the word even in BrE, and particularly when referring to American military conscription.  While reference to drafts in the context of selecting players for a team may not be usual in BrE, it's part of a general sense that BrE does have: "The withdrawing, detachment, or selection of certain persons, animals, or things from a larger body for some special duty or purpose; the party so drawn off or selected" (OED).  And while BrE speakers would usually say in or on the queue rather than in line, they can certainly understand it.

This probably was an unfair contest in that respect--since BrE speakers are generally subjected to more AmE than AmE speakers are to BrE, a winning tweet would probably have had to use either fairly low-frequency words or very current slang in order to be more impenetrable than the BrE entries.  Ah well.

I'm tempted to go through all the entries (as there were only six), but having spent most of my Saturday night at this already, I think I'll stop and leave the others as inspiration for future blog posts.  Thanks to all who (re-)tweeted!  Catch me in Brighton, and I'll buy you a cuppa (bring your own biscuit).

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Separated by a Common Twitter competition

I've just announced (in several <140 character parts) a competition over on the Twitter feed.

Here's what I tweeted (with added linkage for you blog-based readers):

Competition: RT to me a tweet (not by u) that is (unintentionally) so full of Americanisms or Briticisms that it would flummox a UKer/USer.

The prize: I'll send you a packet of whatever cookies/biscuits you most miss from UK or US.

My entry to competition: RT @Nancy4Brighton...the Speaker has interrupted PMQs to ask MPs to stop 'barracking' - it puts the public off...

Competition deadline: midnight Greenwich time, Friday.


Obviously, the intended audience for this competition is expatriates who are missing their baked goodies, but if you'd like me to use the post to send you some biscuits/cookies that you could buy at your local shop/store if only you weren't too internet-addicted to get out of your chair, well, I can do that too.

(The plan is to buy biscuits/cookies in one country, carry them to other country and post locally...so while I will try to send you biscuits/cookies, I cannot guarantee that you won't get a package full of ex-biscuits/cookies, aka crumbs.)

I'll post winning entries on the blog this weekend.