Friday, April 29, 2011

bunting

I feel the need to mark the royal wedding (lower case, please! The Guardian Style Guide says so!) on this blog, because I think American readers will expect me to say something. But I have very little to say about it. Having married in the UK, I can tell you that there are not a lot of linguistic differences between weddings. There are some different traditions, but not many different ways of phrasing the similar traditions. I could blog about all the incorrect things that have been written about British English in the American popular press (I haven't seen a single piece--and I've seen dozens--that isn't riddled with silliness), but I'd like to be finished before the couple's silver anniversary. The main problem with the American press is that they've not been reading this blog. Of course.

So, here's a short-but-sweet difference, suggested by Not From Around Here:


In BrE, this is bunting. In AmE, I'd call it a string of pennants. This picture comes from a panicky article in the Telegraph:

Royal wedding party 'crisis' as bunting stocks run low


Now, I suspect that some AmE speakers will know this sense of bunting. The most recent edition of the American Heritage Dictionary includes it as 'Strips of cloth or material usually in the colors of the national flag, used especially as drapery or streamers for festive decoration.' But, judging from comments/questions I've heard in the cacophony of American voices commenting/asking about the wedding, I don't think it's widespread in AmE at this point. Compare the results for a search for bunting on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, and you'll see what I mean.

Growing up in the US, I knew a decorative sense of bunting, but it was limited to this stuff (from Amazon.com):
So, in my AmE, pennants are pennants and bunting is bunting and that's that. But what of these things? (From a Facebook update by Planted Feet.)



In BrE, they're still bunting, but in AmE, they're probably not pennants, since they're not pointy. I don't think I've ever had the problem of naming these things in the US, because they're just not as common, but I'd probably call it a string of little flags or some such thing.

The original meaning of bunting refers to the type of material that flags are made from, and then, by extension, it refers to things that are made out of that material. But the understanding of it particularly as 'strings of (decorative) flags' is ubiquitous in the UK. This sense in particular is not recorded in the OED (2nd edn, 1989), but I think it'll need to be in the next one, as I think it's the sense that most BrE speakers know--regardless of whether they know the more general 'material' sense.

There are, of course, other (unrelated) meanings for bunting. It's a kind of bird, for example. And, apparently, there's a dialectal difference here. In English generally, it applies to birds from 'Emberizinæ, a sub-family of Fringillidæ', and the particular species are generally called by compound names like rice bunting and corn bunting. But in AmE it's also '[a]pplied by extension to any bird of the bunting subfamily, and to similar birds of other families' (OED).

An AmE sense is related to baseball. To bunt is 'to stop the ball with the bat, without swinging the bat'. For more on why you'd want to do that, see Wikipedia.  This comes from an older BrE-dialectal word meaning 'to strike' (OED notes it in Wiltshire and Sussex).

Then there are the baby senses.  OED has "A term of endearment: in ‘baby bunting’, the meaning (if there be any at all) may possibly be as in Jamieson's ‘buntin, short and thick, as a buntin brat, a plump child’". Now, I only know this from a nursery rhyme that I only know from my time in the UK. The AHD doesn't record this one, so I'm going to call it BrE.

But AmE has bunting as 'A snug-fitting, hooded sleeping bag of heavy material for infants.' Like this one by Gap (from a UK site, but I'm assuming the name was imported along with the item):

These days, most things that are called baby buntings on US sites are indistinguishable from snow suits (which is what they'd also be called in BrE), in that they have legs, rather than a 'bag' at the bottom. The simple reason for this is that now all babies have to be strapped into car seats and (AmE) strollers/(BrE) push-chairs, with one of those straps going between the legs.


AHD gives the etymology as 'Perhaps from Scots buntin, plump, short.' So, we've got two baby-related senses (neither of which I caught in the big baby-related post), both supposedly coming from the same source, but mostly not shared between AmE and at least mainstream English-English. Scottish readers--do you use any buntings in this sense?

Bringing this back to the wedding: hanging bunting is a prime way to show involvement in the big day. So, it hangs in shop windows and will be strung around wedding street parties. But I'm not in the best place to show you BuntingFest 2011, as I live in what may be the most apathetic-about-that-wedding part of the country.  While Not From Around Here estimates that one in three shops in her town are decorated for the wedding, in Brighton/Hove/Portslade yesterday (I got around), it looked more like one in ten. And even then, it was often very half-hearted (say, a free-with-purchase flag or poster from a tabloid newspaper). Most of the (BrE) charity shops/(AmE) thrift stores have wedding gowns in their windows, but people I know are buying the cheap ones and wearing them with zombie make-up to go on (BrE) pub crawls. I've heard of no earnest street parties in Brighton and my Twitter feed is full of locals resenting the cost to the taxpayer at a time when the government is drastically cutting funding to just about everything else. (Some people counter that the wedding generates millions in UK spending, but we must remember that this is at the expense of many times that much in lost productivity because of the extra holiday.) The one sincere party I know of happened at my daughter's preschool on Thursday, where girls were dressed as princesses or brides and boys as princes or grooms. And all I can say is: I'm so glad Thursday is Grover's day off. (It's not the monarchism per se that bothered me, but the encouraging girls to dress up as princesses and brides. I would like to encourage her to dress up as an astronaut or a dragon or anything that isn't giving her the message that looking pretty is all that girls are supposed to do.) Though I've had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen and her successors, I can't imagine that the television will be on anything but Zingzillas tomorrow. (And if you don't know what Zingzillas is, you can count your lucky stars that you don't have the theme song going through your head right now. Make it stop! Please!!!)

And that's me doing a short and simple, dash-it-off post. Oh wait, it's 3am. I'm never going to be any good at this, am I?

Monday, April 18, 2011

telephony

I've had various requests to cover various telephone-related vocabulary. Most of it is simple enough that I can do that thing that I think of as not-really-writing-a-legitimate-blog-post--that is, writing a big list of equivalent words. Some aspects might prove harder, though. Take, for instance, this email from someone I know:
I had a proposal from a US Co. today. For a British English speaker it was virtually incomprehensible unless you knew (which I didn't [BrE] twig [='understand'] until I'd read it for the 6th time) that a 'deck' was a mobile phone and a 'carrier' was what we call a service provider. The most unintelligible phrases included the statement that 'Carrier WAP-deck retail space largely dictates sales' and a sentence about 'On-deck carrier competitions'.
In this case, I think we're looking at more than a BrE/AmE difference. Deck, as far as I can tell, is industry jargon for a phone as a platform for a game.  Searching the web for "receive calls on your deck" gets zero matches (versus 232K matches for "receive calls on your cell").  It's not impossible to find this on UK websites (e.g. this one). So, I'm not convinced that that deck belongs here.

But there are enough others that do belong here. So, here's the list. No, wait! Here's the preface to the list:
  •  Items in [square brackets] are found in both dialects, with no indication in the OED that it is original to the dialect whose column it's in. Nevertheless, its counterpart in the other column is specific to that dialect.
  • Items marked * are found in the other dialect now too, though they are not original to it. 
  • I haven't included really slangy expressions here--that would just get out of control. Maybe another day.
  • They're in no sensible order whatsoever.
  • If they have a link, I've already discussed them in more detail--click to see.
  • Some corrections have been made (in green) since comments started coming in. Please see comments for more discussion of those...

BrEAmE
mobile (phone)cell (phone), cellular phone
engagedbusy*
directory enquiries   directory assistance (aka information)

telephone directory  phone book*

service provider  carrier

answerphone /Ansaphone [answering machine]

dialling code   area code

bleeper  beeper (pager in both dialects too)

phone box, telephone call-box  (tele)phone booth

reverse-charge call   collect call*

dialling tone   dial tone

ex-directory   unlisted (of a person/telephone number)

freephone number (0800 number)   toll-free number (800 number)
hash keypound key
telesalestelephone soliciting (telemarketing in both too)
push-button phone*Touchtone phone*
3G WAP
0898 number900 number (premium in both)
1471 (pron. one-four-seven-one; identifies last caller)*69 (pron. star-sixty-nine; call-return)




The list credits: Thanks to the following people for suggesting some of the above differences: Mark Allen, Philip Nelkon, and Ofer at Tomedes). And to the OED and Better Half for confirming some. 

The other thing to mention here is the difference in verbs of telephoning, particularly BrE is to ring someone, to ring someone up or to give someone a ring. In AmE, one can use call in all of these cases. While call is not just AmE in this case, it is stereotypically American--so much so that I've taught myself to say phone, which is shared by both dialects and makes me feel less self-consciously American while not feeling like I'm in a Jeeves and Wooster novel. I don't know why saying ring makes me feel self-conscious when I've easily adapted to lots of other BrE words. Perhaps verbs are harder to make oneself at home in.

Why are there so many differences? That's relatively simple: the technology was introduced after these dialectal groups were well and truly separated--so, if a new word for something needs to be made up in one country, there's no reason why the other country should come up with the same word. In some cases, the technologies themselves took different paths. Similarly, (BrE) motorcars/(AmE) automobiles and road systems have hugely different vocabularies (click on the transportation tag for some--but I've yet to do the Big List of Car Parts).

A few other differences to mention:
(1) The sounds that phones make are different in different countries. When I first moved to South Africa, I mistakenly believed that everyone I tried to ring/call was on the phone, because the ring tone to me sounded more like the American busy/engaged signal than the 'ringing' sound. (I've also been tempted to think, in various countries, that the phone is broken--because the dial[ling] tone sounds 'angrier' than the American one.)
(2) The US and Canada share the country code '1' (hey, they started this whole telephone thing). Historically, one dial(l)ed the '1' to let the telephone exchange know that an area code was the next thing coming--and one still does have to prefix the number with '1' whenever one dials out of one's own area code. That evolved into a North American country code, when such things became relevant. In many other countries (including all of Europe that I've telephoned in and South Africa), when dial(l)ing a non-local number, the first thing you dial is '0'. But whereas the '1' is not represented as part of the area code in the US (it's separated from it by a dash), the '0' is represented as part of the dial(l)ing code in the UK. Here are examples of each, using government tax assistance numbers in each case, as they are presented on the agencies' web pages:
US: 1-800-829-1040
UK: 0845 300 3900
The tricky thing for USers to learn is that the 0 at the front of a UK-style number needs to go away when you dial from outside the country. So, if you wanted to phone the UK number from abroad, it would be:
+44 845 300 3900
And before the country code (44), one needs to dial the international access code, which has been 00 in every other country I've used a phone in, but is 011 in US (and Canada too?).  Another thing that surprises North Americans abroad is that in other countries, all the phone numbers don't have to have the same number of digits. For example, the London codes 0207 and 0208 are shorter than my city's code, 01273. And until a few years ago, they were even shorter (020).

Which is all to say that if you live in North America, you have a lot to learn about how telephones work when you go abroad. But if you live in the UK, you can travel a lot of places and still apply the same telephonic logic to the new country's phone numbers. Unless you're travel(l)ing to North America, of course.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

skiving, bunking, playing hooky

I have now lived in the UK (Brighton, England, precisely) for one quarter of my life. This came home to me today in a lexical way. You might want to shield your eyes now, people in the northeastern/midwestern/western US. We've been having days like this here (photos from my employer, Sussex University):





The temperatures have been around 70°F/21°C, which yesterday prompted three-year-old Grover to drag herself around in her shirtsleeves* protesting "I'm very VERY BOILING." This is how I know that my child is English. And that she watches too much Charlie and Lola.

Given the weather and that I have a lot of reading to do for work, I went to the picnic tables outside my building this afternoon. I had expected to find, as I had on Wednesday, some competition for seats in sunny spaces, as everyone would be wanting to work outside. But there was no one there. (I took photos. I have no photos. Why, oh why, great Internet, has my iPhone 3G not uploaded any photos during syncing for the past three weeks?)  My conclusion: everyone else had decided to leave work early on a sunny, non-term-time Friday.

But this is what I actually thought: Everyone but me seems to have skived off.

And then I thought: I have no idea how to say that in American English. 

I put the question to the Twittersphere and received a lot of responses (thank you, all of you!), but none of them were what I was looking for. Most seemed to be about what one does when one doesn't go to school:
 (AmE): play hooky, cut class, skip class
I wanted one that was specifically about slinking out of work early. (The responders may have assumed that I was talking about students, since (a) non-Sussexers mostly don't know that we're between terms at the moment and (b) many people assume that university [BrE] lecturers/[AmE in the sense that I mean it here!] professors don't do any work when we're not teaching. I would like to disabuse anyone and everyone of that notion, but it would involve a good solid hour of ranting and possibly minor physical violence and loss of property.) Here's the OED definition for skive:

intr. To evade a duty, to shirk; to avoid work by absenting oneself, to play truant. Also with off.

The term is originally from the military, so perhaps the best AmE equivalent is go AWOL (=absent without leave; marked in OED as 'orig. U.S.'), though that sounds a bit too permanent. The best suggestion that I had from the Twitterpersons was (AmE) ditch, which American Heritage also defines as being about school: ' To skip (class or school).' But, unlike the above suggestions, I can more easily use it about work (I ditched work to play Scrabble today) and to mean that I left early, rather than that I didn't show up at all. I think ditch allows this flexibility because it has other, related AmE senses concerning derailing (of trains) and ridding oneself of things or people (let's ditch Lynne and have some real fun)--which may at some level all run together as a big meaning-mass. One can transfer hooky from school to workplace too (e.g. I played hooky from work), but it, like skip, generally means not showing up at all.

***NEWSFLASH (orig. AmE)***
As I was previewing this post, about to hit *send*, two Twitterphiles suggested AmE blow off as in blow off work. That's pretty damned good. But it still isn't quite skive (see the bullet list below and compare). And I'm excited to have the excuse to mention another difference.  In AmE you can blow off a person by not showing up to an arranged meeting. In BrE you would blow [them] out. I've been told by UKers that blow off sounds obscene, but to my AmE ears blow out sounds violent--like a (AmE) tire/(BrE) tyre bursting. Now back to your regularly scheduled nonsense.
*****************************

BrE has its own expressions for not going to school, including bunk off, which happens to be the first thing I thought of when I was looking for a synonym for skive. Bunk off comes from bunk meaning 'to run off', and though it's associated particularly with school, there are over 75K Google hits for bunk off work[Added a few hours later:] A friend on Facebook has pointed out (AusE, but apparently known in BrE) wag, which the Online Slang Dictionary defines it as 'to not attend school or work, without permission'. 

The only other possible translation for skive that I can think of is the general English shirk. But it just doesn't have the same connotations. Shirking ones duties is morally wrong, but skiving can be (in the current slang, at least--possibly not in the military) just a bit mischievous. (Or it can be morally bad. But my indignation about skivers this afternoon was a mock indignation--something harder to carry off when calling people shirkers).

So, I come to the conclusion that skive is a wonderful BrE word that has no equivalent.
  • I love that it is intransitive (requires no noun after it).  While words like cut, ditch and skip make you mention the thing that you're ignoring, skive lets you really ignore it.
  • I love that it can be a noun, and one can have a good skive.
  • I love that you can do it by leaving work or being at work (see: The Art of Skiving)
  • I love that it is a grown-up activity, rather than a concept borrowed from childhood. 
And I wonder: Why doesn't AmE have a good equivalent? Perhaps it doesn't fit with the Work Hard, Play Hard motto Americans are so fond of. Kate Fox (in the ever-recommended Watching the English) suggests that the more apt slogan for England is 'Work moderately, play moderately'. Having a ready vocabulary for talking about not-working (another one: having a duvet day, which came up in the discussion back here) is consistent with various things about English† culture, discussed in Fox's book (quoted, selectively, from p. 178, with linguistic commentary added in brackets/parentheses):
  • We are serious about work, but not too serious.
  • [W]e also believe it is a bit of a [BrE] fag (general English translation: drag, bother) and a nuisance [...]
  • We indignantly disapprove of those who avoid work [...] but this reflects our strict, almost religious belief in 'fairness', rather than in the belief in the sanctity of work itself (such people are seen as 'getting away with' idleness, while the rest of us, who would equally like to be idle, have to work, which is just not fair).
  • We often maintain that we would rather not work, but our personal and social identity is in fact very much bound up with work. [...]
  • We also have vestigial traces of a 'culture of amateurism', involving an instinctive mistrust of 'professionalism' and businesslike efficiency [...]
The first (reflecting the general cultural values of moderation and avoidance of earnestness) and the last are probably where the US and English cultures differ most in terms of work values, and seem to coincide well with the apparent contradiction in treating avoidance-of-work as both wrong and (in small doses) completely understandable. Especially on gorgeous days like today.






* Is this AmE? It isn't in Collins or OED (that I can find). It is on Macmillan's website, but I generally find them to be more dialectally inclusive. It means: wearing a shirt but no jacket or (BrE) jumper/(AmE) sweater, etc.

† Here I can only talk about English, not general British--you'll have to enlighten me about whether Fox's observations on the English reach any further.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

on on

*ruffling around in the email bag*

And here's the start of a letter from American reader Emmet:
Was struck by this example from the Economist as something that could be highly ambiguous to AmE native speakers:

"Correction: we accidentally published an incorrect set of figures for the percentage change on one week ago. This was corrected on January 22nd 2010."
Another example is a headline from the Guardian:  "University applications up a fifth on last year"
Ah, on. As John Algeo writes, "This preposition is one that has many differences in use between British and American English". So, let's try to get through a few of those here. 

The on that Emmet's observed here is indeed a BrEism meaning 'in comparison to'. The OED definition goes like this:
Indicating comparison with a standard, originally a favourable one; (Finance) compared with, in relation to (a previous financial situation, figure, etc.), esp. in up or down on.
They trace the usage to the 18th century--though the more modern examples involving numbers don't show up till the late 19th century. In AmE in these cases, one would have to do something else, such as Five times one fifth more applications than last year or the percentage change since last week. You might be able to use from here too--but as far as I can tell (on the web--my corpus access isn't working tonight), that's still more common in BrE than AmE.

Emmet's message continued:
There's a second and maybe (?) related usage that I've seen in discussions of the standings/league tables of sport(s) teams, like "Humble Lions slipped two spots to 10th on 27 points", or "After defeating Everton, Manchester United are on 15 points."
This doesn't have the sense of comparison that the last one has, so I wouldn't call them related. In AmE, one could say with here--that is, the teams have that many points for the season.  These relate to another UK institution: league tables. In this case, the league tables are for a literal league--in (BrE) football/(AmE) soccer (where the term league table originated in the early 20th century).  Americans would call these rankings or standings. Nowadays, the British have league tables for lots of things--schools, universities, companies, pension funds...

Some temporal ons are often pointed out to me. AmE speakers can do something Wednesday or on Wednesday but BrE speakers need the on. When speaking of future weekdays, BrE speakers are much more likely to say a week on Wednesday where AmE speakers are much more likely to say a week from Wednesday. (And then there's Wednesday week--which I've already discussed, along with some of the other things in this paragraph.)

A lot of the other on differences are associated with particular other words--verbs or nouns that precede or follow on. I can't do those all here--they'll come up (BrE) as and when/(AmE) if and when.†  But looking through the OED's entry on on, I note a few other things:
  • In sport(s), on to express the relationship between opposing players (e.g. one-on-one) is described as 'chiefly N. Amer.'.
  • The use of on with closed means of transport (e.g. I went there on the train) is originally AmE, but generally accepted as common English now. (This followed the common English on horseback, on foot--it was only the 'closed means of transport' that ever differed.)
  • With [name] on drums/guitar/bass/etc. (no verb of 'playing', no the after the on) is another originally AmE usage that is now used by performers all over. 
  • [This one's amended since David Crosbie's comment:] Another American-invented sense (or pair of senses) is: 'Addicted to or under the influence of (a drug or drugs); regularly using or receiving (medication, treatment, etc.).' (OED) so... He's on drugs. She's on antibiotics.
  • And we talked about on the street versus in the street back here.

P.S.  I had thought that I'd be blogging a lot more now that we're on a five-week teaching break, but we're about to start the third week of it, and I've only managed two because the deadlines don't stop when the students leave. Alas. Must try harder!

But AmE is not as likely as BrE to use its phrase as a stand-alone. In AmE I'm much more comfortable saying if and when they are topical or something like that.