Wednesday, June 30, 2010

glee clubs, with asides on club-joining and barbershops

Still active on the Twitter feed, but having a hard time re-introducing myself to the world of blogging.  I am starting to think that the internet, with its 140-character limits, 60-second games, and instant 'friend'ship, has robbed me of my attention span. But since I keep writing books (have I mentioned that this is the year [August to August] of three book deadlines?), I must have some attention span left.  It just gets used up on the day job.  (And why do I call it my "day job" when it doesn't seem to let me get any work done till night?)

At any rate, my attention span held out for several tweets on a single topic tonight, and that's just cheating.  That's trying to make Twitter do what the blog does, and doing it a lot worse.  So, in true blogger spirit, I hereby embark on a long exposition on something I know almost nothing about.  I'm back!!


I'm disqualified from writing this one on at least three levels:  
  1. I have never seen the (AmE) TV show/(BrE) programme Glee.
  2. I have never voluntarily belonged to a choir.  ('Chorus' class in school was my living purgatory.)
  3. I have consistently found excuses to leave early when required to attend choir concerts.
  4. I hated that Journey song the first time (a)round, and I hate it even more now that it's re-released in a form that is mind-bendingly more over-earnest than the original.  
Oops, that was four.  I got a little carried away there.  I might very well like Glee —several people whose taste I respect are addicted to it— but I'm not a choral music person and I just can't afford a new television addiction at the moment (see paragraph one, parenthetical comment one).  But I assure you: I could never like it enough to get over my horror at the Journey cover.  Never ever.

At any rate, my interest was piqued by this Guardian article about Glee, which includes the line (emphasis added): 
The comedy-musical show charts the story of a group of teenagers in a US high school show choir, or glee club.
Not knowing a lot about the subtypes of choirs, I had to look these things up.  Wikipedia (best that I could do) said this about show choir:
A show choir (originally called 'swing choir') is a group of people who combine choral singing with dance movements, sometimes within the context of a specific idea or story.
Show choir traces its origins as an activity in the United States during the mid-1960s, though cultural historians have been unable to determine the date and location of the first "true" show choir group [...]. Two groups of touring performers, Up with People and The Young Americans, traveled extensively throughout the country in the 1960s, performing what could be called the show choir concept. When students and directors of the day saw these organizations, they would, in turn, start similar groups at their high schools.
So, show choir is original to AmE, but used in BrE now too.  But the definition of show choir didn't particularly sound like the glee clubs that I remember from my school and (AmE) college/(BrE) university days.  In particular, I don't remember them dancing.  So I looked up glee club.  The OED says:
glee-club, a society formed for the practice and performance of glees and part-songs
Wikipedia expands on this a bit:
A glee club is a musical group, historically of male voices but also of female or mixed voices, which traditionally specializes in the singing of short songs—glees—by trios or quartets.
And that's what I remember. The Wikipedia article goes on to say:
Although the term "glee club" is still used in some places, including the American TV series Glee, glee clubs have largely been replaced by the show choir in schools throughout the United States. Show choirs tend to be larger and more complex than the traditional glee club.
What I'm less clear on —and I'm sure you Gleeks out there can help me— is (a) whether it's ever called a show choir on Glee and (b) whether the meaning of glee club shifted pre-Glee to mean something more like a show choir.  (I suspect not--Glee is a really good title for television, so I would think it might be an opportunistic appropriation of the term.)  

The meaning of glee club has certainly shifted now in the UK at least, since schools (see the Guardian article) are leaping on the Glee bandwagon and re-naming their choirs glee clubs (or is that Glee clubs?). What's interesting (to word-nerdy dual citizen me, at least) is that although the Guardian felt the need to explain the term glee club to its UK readership, it is an originally BrE term. Here's Wikipedia again:
The first named Glee Club was founded in Harrow School, in London, England, in 1787.[1] Glee clubs were very popular in the UK from then until the mid 1850s but by then they were gradually being superseded by choral societies. By the mid-20th century, proper glee clubs were no longer common. However, the term remained (and remains) in use, primarily for choirs found in Japanese and North American colleges and universities, despite the fact that most American glee clubs are choruses in the standard sense and no longer perform glees.
The term didn't entirely die out in the UK, but the only recent pre-Glee uses of it that I can find are figurative uses or plays on the term (referring to the emotion glee, rather than the song type).  For example, the headline of a 2001 Simon Hoggart column, "Two-party disharmony with the Tory glee club", describes this group of Conservative Members of Parliament:
John Redwood rocked gently with happiness. Eric Forth's tie, a modest effort of only six or seven colours, seemed to wink at us as he too rolled about in pleasure. And Ann Widdecombe does a wonderful fake laughter turn. She throws back her head, waves her arms in the air, and opens her mouth as wide as you do at the dentist, in order to imply that she might otherwise implode with the sheer effort of keeping all that hilarity inside.
Now it's back in UK consciousness, but with a different meaning again.

As a cultural side note, I was thinking about the fact that I've known several adults in England and South Africa who belong to non-church choirs.  In the US, I  was never aware of non-church, non-school choirs, with the exception of gay choirs (and I never lived in a city big enough to sport one of those).  I've also been known to opine that clubs are more popular in  England than the US.  (In a small city in Texas, I had to travel 90 miles to get to a Scrabble club. In England, I moved to a not-large city that had two.) And I'm not alone in that--commentators on Englishness like Jeremy Paxman and Kate Fox have noted this tendency, since there seems to be a clash between Englishpeople's "obsession with privacy and [their] 'clubbability" (Fox, Watching the English). Kate Fox has this to say about English club-joining:
If you do not have a dog, you will need to find another kind of passport to social contact. Which brings me neatly to the second type of English approach to leisure [...] — sports, games, pubs, clubs and so on. All of these relate directly to our second main method of dealing with our social dis-ease: the 'ingenious use of props and facilitators' method. (Watching the English)
So, I was wondering whether there seem to be more choirs here because choral music is more popular here (it definitely is in South Africa and Wales) or because there's a greater tendency to join organi{s/z}ed groups. And then it hit me.  It's that non-church bit.  It's not that Americans don't join things.  They do. They join churches (and other religious groups, but mainly churches), and with that comes all sorts of activities, clubs, and committees.  UKers are less likely to  organi{s/z}e their hobbies and social needs around a church, because they're less likely to go to church, and it's generally more socially acceptable not to go to church in the UK.  (This site has church attendance at 44% in US and 27% in UK. According to this site, 53% of Americans consider religion to be very important in their lives, versus 16% of Britons.)  It may be that gay men's choirs became so strong in the US because of a need for joinable singing groups among people who were less likely to turn to the community church to fulfil(l) that need.  The rest of the US population might dip into church to satisfy their need to sing, but in the UK there are plenty of other outlets.  (In fact, my old reflexologist belonged to a non-religious Gospel choir--they just like the style of singing, not the religious message.)

Come to think of it, I do know Americans who belong to non-religious community singing groups, but these are (orig. AmE) barbershop quartets.*  Am I wrong about community choir-joining?  Should barbershop quartets count as choirs, when the things I'm thinking of in the UK have far more singers?  Let me have it in the comments...

*OED notes that barber(-)shop as a name for a haircutting establishment is not originally AmE, but is "chiefly North American" nowadays.  I'm not quite sure whether there's a replacement in the UK--Better Half just talks about going to the barber's and we both marvel all the time that yet another hair-cutting place is taking over yet another place that used to be a nice shop.  Do other people in Brighton get their hair cut every two weeks? Do people travel for miles for a Brighton haircut?  How can the population possibly support this many hair stylists?

Monday, June 14, 2010

tokens

Thanks for your patience while I was not-really-blogging for the past month.  During that time, I've been working in five UK cities/towns and two other EU countries (Germany, Malta)--not to mention preparing for all those meetings and (BrE) marking/(AmE-also) grading my brains out end-of-year essays/term papers and exams.  Now I just have lots more student work to read and the page proofs of this book to correct and the collaborative book to finish...and...and...and...and should  I really be blogging now?  (Best not to think too hard about that.)

But how to get back into the blogging groove?  Doing 'Differences of the Day' on Twitter has kept me and the groove on a nodding acquaintance, but which of the multitude of un-blogged-about topics should I start with?  It's inbox roulette time again.  This post's winner is Astro Brat, who wrote to ask:
Is the British version of "token" different than the American one?
I ask because in the last few days I've run across the term used by Brits that sounds more like where my mid-western US dialect would say voucher or perhaps coupon?

One was in a television show and I just assumed it meant the same -
"I hope you like this gift, because honestly it's either this or tokens"

But when I read this later in the week:
"it’s not a book that would have been top of my reading list, but I was in a bookshop and I had some book tokens so you know how it is!"

Where I come from token is a kind of coin used for amusement parks or kid's restaurant sort or things.  It can also be a little small gift, a token present.  Does Britain give out specific-use coins for bookstores?
AB has correctly surmised that in BrE a token is a kind of (AmE) gift certificate/(BrE) gift voucher.  These days, one most often hears token in this meaning for one of two things: National Book Tokens or Theatre Tokens.  These are sold at bookshops/box offices, but usable at almost any (BrE/AmE) bookshop/(AmE) bookstore or (BrE/sometimes AmE) theatre/(AmE) theater, not just the one at which it was purchased.  For shop/store-specific gifts, I more often hear voucher, rather than token in BrE, but the OED has examples (latest from the 1980s) of shop-specific tokens, so there's not (historically, at least) a hard-and-fast meaning difference. 


AB's little error is in transferring the coin property of (AmE) subway/amusement park tokens to the British context. Tokens are like American gift certificates, so traditionally paper, nowadays likely to be in the form of a gift card.  There's a gallery of these at the National Book Token website, and while I could photograph the two in my (AmE) wallet/(BrE) purse for you, I am far too lazy, so here's one from the 1930s, courtesy of the NBT site (the relevant details would have been on the back) and the modern plastic type.

My two are really Grover's.  They're paper ones with a value of £1 each, given to children in schools and (BrE) nurseries on National Book Day.  I can't tell you how many books I've bought while holding the wallet/purse that holds those book tokens.  I generally think of them about 10 minutes after the purchase, even if I've stepped into the bookshop with the specific goal of spending the tokens.  So, Grover gets books and I contribute £2 more than I'd intended to the recovery of the retail sector.

(I also want to mention Bookstart, a lovely UK institution, which gives children free books (through their local libraries or at health check-ups) at three points in their preschool years.  I've only just missed mentioning them on National Bookstart Day (11 June this year). Bookstart is a charity, funded by the government and book publishers.  Given the slash-and-burn approach of the new (BrE) government/(AmE) administration, I am crossing my fingers for it.  Not to mention for all jobs in higher education. *sigh*)

The notion of a token as a coin is not foreign to BrE.  The OED has this sense-definition (though it includes subway tokens under the same sense as gift token):
 11. a. A stamped piece of metal, often having the general appearance of a coin, issued as a medium of exchange by a private person or company, who engage to take it back at its nominal value, giving goods or legal currency for it.
  From the reign of Queen Elizabeth to 1813, issued by tradesmen, large employers of labour, etc., to remedy the scarcity of small coin, and sometimes in connexion with the truck-shop system. bank-tokens, silver tokens for 5s., 3s., 1s. 6d., were issued by the Bank of England in 1811
You might need metal tokens in the UK for use in amusement parks or cloak-room lockers or such things--I don't know of any public transport systems using them here at present, but I'm happy to be informed otherwise.

Most other uses of token seem to be the same in the two dialects, though a draft addition to the OED marks this sense as US:
[3.] c. A nominal or ‘token’ representative of an under-represented group.

Does this mean that the joke of the South Park character Token's name has gone over some British heads?  (Say it ain't so!)

And on that note, welcome back to my blog.  I've missed you!