Talkie Tuesday: More fun with British vs. American English, Part 1

While I have many friends throughout the British Commonwealth (although, apparently, not a drop of British blood according to DNA tests but despite genealogy), it always amuses me how quaint and weird British English sometimes sounds.

I love collecting comparisons of British and American expressions in order to look at their differences, and which language focuses on what. For example, in general I find that British English tends to focus on the form of something, while American English focuses on the function. That’s not always the case, though.

For this round, I’ve got 23 word pairs, and I’m going to take a look at which one is really the more accurate and pertinent of the two. Here we go. In each pair, British appears first and American second.

  1. Sun cream vs. sunscreen

This is a perfect example of form vs. function. “Sun cream” zeroes right in on the original form of what used to be called sun-tan lotion in the U.S. When it first came out, it actually wasn’t even supposed to protect you from UV rays, but rather make sure that they baked you to an even tone of skin cancer.

The first sunscreens also came in the familiar “squeeze it out of a bottle and rub it all over yourself” form, hence the obvious form designation of cream, since the stuff was generally white and about the consistency of clotted cream or whole milk.

But then along came aerosol sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and different classes of sunscreens — chemical absorbers and physical blockers. So the term “cream” really doesn’t apply to them anymore, especially not if you’re spritzing them all over yourself like hairspray.

Correctness Verdict: American English takes the point. 1-0.

  1. Salad cream vs. salad dressing

Again, another case of British English going right for the color and form of the originals, since many early salad dressings were based on mayonnaise and, in fact, in many places mayonnaise itself is referred to as just salad dressing and appears in the same aisle in stores.

But… what salad cream ignores as a term is, again, all of the many varieties of dressing that don’t revolve around cream or dairy at all. Without dairy, you couldn’t have ranch or bleu cheese or thousand island or any kind of creamy or yoghurt-based dressing.

On the other hand, there are so many other dressings that don’t contain dairy that the ones that fell out of cows only make up a tiny chunk. You’ve got Italian, Caesar, balsamic vinaigrette, Russian, French, honey mustard, roasted garlic, lemon herb, raspberry- and  honey-Dijon vinaigrette, red wine vinaigrette, sesame ginger, and  olive oil which is (surprise) the real vinaigrette. That “vin” doesn’t come from vinegar, but from vino or vine.

But… having run down the menu, it’s kind of obvious. Most salad dressings have nothing to do with cream, and since they cover up the leafy bits when used, well, I think you can guess who wins here.

Correctness Verdict: American English takes the point, bringing the score to 2-0.

  1. Allen key vs. Allen wrench

If you’ve ever put together anything from IKEA, or from any flatpack, really, then you’ve met this little L-shaped bugger. Usually no longer on one side than your pinky and no longer on the other than the last joint of your thumb, this versatile tool has one job: Screwing in bolts and the like that have hexagonal indentations in their heads.

The form factor of the thing makes it really easy to use. Stick short end into opening, turn long end until bolt is screwed totally in, done. Repeat four hundred times before you realize that you stuck the left side of the legs on the right side of the desk. Throw instructions at wall and scream.

Now, in this case, if we look at the words they break down like this. A key opens or closes something, while a wrench grabs and turns something. And while this little tool technically does grab and turn things, it doesn’t actually act all that wrench-like because you can’t clamp it only anything.

Correctness Verdict: British English for the win, and the score is now 2-1.

  1. Anticlockwise vs. counterclockwise

This one is simple to understand — either something goes around the way that the hands on a clock do, turning from left to right, or it goes the other way around. But what to call that other way?

“Anticlockwise” actually seems to have some kind of hidden political agenda to it — “Down with Big Time!” But “counterclockwise” seems a lot more neutral and just implies going in the opposite direction to the norm. Compare to a musical term like counterpoint. They didn’t call it antipoint for a reason.

And let’s not get started on “widdershins,” which neither language has decided to claim.

Correctness Verdict: American English scores, and that score is now 3-1.

  1. Baking tray vs. cookie sheet

 British English doesn’t even call cookies by the right name, instead referring to them as biscuits. Meanwhile, American biscuits are pretty much scones in the UK. And I have no idea what they actually call American cookies in Britain, but the word had better be “delicious.”

There are pretty much only three things Americans will ever cook on what the Brits call a baking sheet: Cookies, biscuits, or croissants. Okay, there’s the occasional pizza, but let’s not muddy the definition with that, especially since pizza pans are also a thing if we invest enough in our kitchen stuff.

Now since the aforementioned food items (sans pizza) all fall into the basic family of floury treats that either have a lot of butter in them or will get a lot of butter put on them, they’re really the same family of things: Buttery treats.

So we can give them the overall heading of “cookie like objects” and forget the idea that we ever really bake anything else on those sheets.

Correctness Verdict: American English scores again, making it 4-1.

  1. Block of flats vs. apartment building

 Another really baffling British term: flat to mean apartment. So, okay… and what’s “flat” about it? Not a lot. The term is probably derived from a Scottish word, “flet,” which refers to a floor or story of a house. Since most apartments tend to be on one floor, they’re also literally flat, or at least that’s how they try to justify it.

As for the block part… this also makes no sense because a lot of apartment buildings are not just giant square cubes, which is what “block” implies. In the U.S., a block refers more to a street measurement, and demarks the distance, curb-to curb, between points where a road or street interrupts a sidewalk.

In the U.S., a “city block” is generally a half a mile (805 meters), while a residential block is a quarter mile (402 meters). Buildings of all sorts sit within those blocks, but none of the buildings are called blocks, ever. Because they’re buildings. Well, duh.

Correctness Verdict: American English for the self-evident score again, now 5-1.

  1. Breakdown van vs. tow truck

Now this one is just silly. “Breakdown van” sounds like something they send around with a nice mental health counselor who will talk to you at the side of the road and make it all better. They don’t have any tools and can’t fix cars, but you can sit in the back of the van and listen to soothing music or watch calming dog videos.

Meanwhile, “tow truck” is just what it says on the tin. You break down, we send out this hefty vehicle that can winch your pathetic junker up or load it onto the flatbed and whisk it away to the car hospital.

In America, for a small annual fee, you can belong to the Automobile Club (AAA) which is a sort of regional, sort of not organization that provides a butt-ton of services to its members: Free roadside service, towing, trip planning, discounts on various travel and touristy things (and not), a monthly magazine, and cool “avoid the DMV” stuff like auto registration and, now, ability to get your “real ID” (which is total horseshit, but I do digress.)

So… Tow Truck — macho roadside savior. Breakdown Van — is that what it’s called when it’s not trying to find people who haven’t paid their annual BBC license fee? Wimpy.

Correctness Verdict: American, 6-1.

  1. Candy floss vs. cotton candy

Although there were so many better names this shit could have been called — like “Dentist’s Retirement Plan” or “Hyperactivity on a Stick” or “Fluffy Diabetes,” it’s basically hot sugar water shot out through an extruder and wrapped around a cardboard pole by some teen carny who isn’t even making minimum wage because his uncle is the star of the geek and blockhead show and the kid’s mom made him take the job in order to make sure that her brother Toby doesn’t actually injure himself too badly.

A big issue here is referring to it as “cotton,” because that crop has so many nasty connotations in American history. Hell, it was pretty much the foundational product that created decades and centuries of systemic racism.

Plus cotton candy came out of carnivals and stuff like that, and for a long time these were places where only people who couldn’t be hired by “respectable society” (read: Handicapped, disabled, deformed, mentally challenged, or not white) got jobs.

On the other hand, while “candy floss” might sound like something you’d find riding up a stripper’s ass, it has another nice, built-in reminder: Don’t stick this shit in your teeth, okay? And no, I’m not going to make a cheap British dentistry joke here because, you know what?

They’ve done got their shit together on that front. Seriously.

Correctness Verdict: Brits for the win, 6-2.

  1. Cling film vs. plastic wrap

More form vs. function, but the simple answer is “Damn, do the Brits make this product just sound needy.”

[Consumer pulls cling film from box. It wraps around his arm.]

Cling Film: Da! Don’t let go, da! I need you da! PLEASE!!!!!

Consumer: Get the fuck off of me you little freak!

[Rips plastic away and bins it.]

As opposed to:

[Consumer pulls plastic wrap off the roll and stretches it over bowl, pulling it down for a tight seal.]

Plastic Wrap: (in breathy voice) Ooh… thanks, daddy.

Consumer: You’re… welcome?

Yeah, good luck getting that out of your head next time you need to wrap a cut cucumber. But remember: whether you call it cling film or plastic wrap, the thing it sticks to best is… itself.

Correctness Verdict: America is far less needy for once? 7-2.

  1. Corn flour vs. cornstarch

They’re both made from corn, and while the U.S. does have both, they’re different, whereas American cornstarch and British corn flour are the same thing. Confusing? Of course it is.

Cornstarch, as the name implies, is ground only from the endosperm of the corn kernels, so it does not contain protein, fiber, or other nutrients, just starch. Corn flour is ground from the whole kernels, plus the germ and hulls from the corn.

Cornstarch is white and silky to the touch. Corn flour can be white, yellow, or blue, depending on the source, and is a little rougher and not as finely grained.

Both can be used as thickening agents in cooking, but you’ll need to use twice as much corn flour to get the same effect. Since flour actually involves more than just the starchy part of the source grain, I think that this one is easy to score.

Correctness Verdict: America gets the point for culinary accuracy. 8-2.

  1. Current account vs. checking account

This is another one that, to American ears, just sounds weird. We generally have two kinds of regular bank accounts: checking and savings. The latter is the one that you put money into where it theoretically earns interest, but the banks pay so little nowadays that you can have tens of thousands in there and still not make more than half a buck a month.

A checking account is the day-to-day one that you write checks (UK: cheques) from, although that’s become mostly archaic, so it’s now the one attached to your Debit card. They might as well call it a debit account.

Seriously — when was the last time you even wrote a check, or saw someone under 65 write one in a store? And even if you do occasionally get paid by paper check, when was the last time you physically took it to the bank instead of deposited it via your phone?

But… calling it a current account makes no sense at all. Current what? Currently all the money you have readily available to spend? And it’s also kind of an insult to people who aren’t the best at balancing their check books, since what they think they have and what the bank says they have aren’t going to match.

Correctness Verdict: America for having a term that makes logical sense. 9-2.

And now it’s half-time! Come back next week for rounds 12 to 23 to find out which version of English will come out victorious.

Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things COVID-19 lately for obvious reasons. The last year and a half have been an absolutely surreal experience, and now we have the delta variant to deal with. But, in keeping with today’s theme, I wanted to take a quick look at some words related to things like this pandemic, and explain where they came from.

Some of them are straightforward, and some took more circuitous routes. Let’s consider them in logical order.

Corona

Corona comes from the Latin word coronam, which means crown. If you’ve ever looked at the printing on a bottle of Corona beer, there’s a crown right there as the logo, and in Spanish corona is the word for crown as well. You may have heard the term “coronary artery,” They get this name because they encircle the heart, much the way a crown encircles a monarch’s head.

The corona is also a part of the Sun (well, any star). It’s the outer atmosphere of the star. Our Sun’s is usually invisible because of the glare of the star itself, but it becomes visible during a solar eclipse.

Coronaviruses as a class were given the name because the spikes on their surfaces resemble the spikes on a crown.

Virus

Virus comes from another Latin word, virus. In case you’re wondering why so many medical terms come from Latin, it’s because this was the language that physicians used for centuries in order to create terms that would be universal despite a doctor’s native language. Greek is also common due to the roots of western medicine going back to the likes of Hippocrates.

In Latin, the word can variously refer to things like poison, venom, slime, a sharp taste, or something’s pungency. The use of the word in the modern sense began in the 14th century, which was long before the invention of the microscope near the end of the 16th century. Even then, germ theory didn’t develop until the middle of the 19th century, and viruses themselves were not discovered until the 1890s.

So while the idea that “virus” was something that caused a disease may have gone back to the late Middle Ages, it was probably consider to be more like a toxic liquid in food or water, or perhaps an imbalance of the humors. Or just divine punishment, like pestilence.

Pandemic

This one is all Greek to you. It comes from two words: pan and demos. The former is the Greek prefix meaning “all.” You might recognize it from a word like “Pantheon,” with the second half coming from the Greek word theos, meaning gods. It can be a building dedicated to the gods of a particular religion, or just refer to that collection of gods in general. It can also be a building dedicated to national heroes, or a mausoleum in which they are entombed.

Another pan word is panacea, with the appendage, -akes, meaning a cure, and a panacea is supposed to cure everything — even a pandemic.

The second half of the word comes from demos, as noted, which is the Greek word referring to a village or a population, or group of people. It’s the root of the word democracy, rule by the people. However, it is not related in any way to the word demonstrate.

So a pandemic is something that comprises all of the population.

As an aside, my personal favorite pan word is Pandemonium, which was actually created on this model by John Milton for Paradise Lost. It refers to the capital of Hell — the place of all demons. I’m kind of disappointed that Dante didn’t think of it first. He only gave us the City of Dis in the sixth circle. And when it comes to religious fanfic, Dante’s is far superior. Well, qualification: his Inferno is, especially in the original Italian. Purgatorio and Paradiso are kind of boring. But still better love stories than Paradise Lost.

Pox

Despite popular misconception, this is not what Mercutio wished on the houses of Montague and Capulet before he dies in Act III of Romeo & Juliet. That would have been a plague. A pox was something different, more like a symptom, and this brings us to the first English word on the list. Pox is the plural of the old English word pocke, which referred to any kind of pustule, blister, or ulcer. The Black Plague was full of those.

Now you’re probably wondering: How does an English plural end in “X?” Simple. At one time, the plural form of words that ended in –k or –ck didn’t take an s. They changed to x. The most famous example of this is the New York borough of The Bronx. It was named for a Swedish settler, Jonas Bronck. Originally, the term was possessory: Bronck’s Land and Bronck’s River. The “x” spelling crept in, and “the” was retained although land and river were dropped to indicate that they were specific entities instead of just an abstract place name.

Pox don’t have a lot to do with corona virus, but one particular type of pox has everything to do with how we came up with the next item on our list.

Vaccine

In the 18th century, a particularly nasty viral disease was circulating: smallpox. (No, there’s not a large pox.) At best, it left its victims horribly scarred. At worst, it killed them. But there was an urban legend going around: milkmaids, who often caught the non-lethal and minor disease called cowpox (for obvious reasons), never contracted smallpox.

A physician named Edward Jenner decided to test this theory in the most ethical way possible. No, I’m kidding. He found an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, inoculated him with gunk from a milkmaid’s pustule and then, after a while, inoculated him with smallpox.

Luckily for Jenner, the kid didn’t get sick, and so the idea of a vaccination was born. The name itself comes from part of the Latin name for the smallpox virus, Variolae vaccinae. The second word, vaccinae, is an inflected form of the Latin word for cow.

And vaccination works, kids. It doesn’t cause autism, and it’s safe. Case in point: smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979. Although, keep in mind, it could always come back, and the culprit could be climate change.

Sorry about that downer. But this is why we have to be so vigilant and serious about communicable diseases. Stay home, stay safe, and don’t forget the tip jar!

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) courtesy of Alpha Stock Images, used unchanged. Original author, Nick Youngson.

Talky Tuesday: Gone and went

Every language has its very irregular verbs, and three of the ones that seem to be irregular in a ton of languages are also three that are very, very common: to be, to make/do, and to go.

Aside from the bit after the colon in the above paragraph, for example, I used three forms of one of them in only 30 words: “to be” once, and “are” twice.

And when irregular verbs go irregular, they go all out. The Spanish verbs for the same thing: ser and estar (that’s two to bes), hacer, and ir are also very irregular.

For example, we’ll look at the Spanish verb “ser” and the English verb to be, and the first person conjugations are these:

Yo soy (I am), tú eres (you are), él/ella/lo es (he/she/it is), nosotros somos (we are), Ustedes son (all y’all are) and ellos/ellas son (they are). All right, if you insist, vosotros soís, but only in Spain, which uses Ustedes as the formal form.

In the Spanish version, parts of the conjugations sort of follow the overall pattern, which is basically that verbs in the present, in the same order as above, will end in –o, -s, no ending except the vowel before the r in the infinitive, -mos, -n, and –n.

What makes a verb irregular are the parts that come before. If “ser” were conjugated like a regular very, then it would be the very weird-sounding (to a speaker) seo, ses, se, semos, sen, sen.

Notice that beyond the first-person conjugations in English, though, the irregularity vanishes — sort of. Am, are, and is are all very different than the infinitive, but when you get to second person, every one of them uses the second person singular form: are.

If you were to conjugate “to be” regularly, then you’d get I be, you be, he/she/it bes, we be, all y’all be, they be. And there are valid versions of English that use exactly this construction, with the exception of third person singular also being be instead of bes.

You’ve probably heard someone say something like, “Dude, you be trippin’,” and while it isn’t standard, it isn’t wrong in the context of the vernacular it comes from.

Go beyond present tense, and irregular verbs get even weirder. Here are ser and to be in the preterite:

Yo fuí, tú fuiste, él/ella/lo fue, nosotros fuimos, Ustedes fueron, ellos/ellas fueron. And all right, dammit, vosotros fuisteis. English: I was, you were, he/she/it was, we were, they were.

In both cases, this form of the verb bears no resemblance to the infinitive. At least English only makes people learn two words instead of five. And Spanish further complicates it in that the preterite conjugation of ser is identical to the same conjugation of the verb to go, ir.

No, that never made any sense to me, either.

An example of a regular verb in English is “to want.” In the present, every person uses want except for third person singular (he/she/it), which gets wants. In the preterite, it’s wanted all around.

Complex tenses use either want or wanted with auxiliary verbs, and the gerund form can either be used as a noun/adjective (the wanting is the hardest part; that wanting feeling), or as a verb, again with helpers, “he’s wanting to go,” “I’ve been wanting to move,” etc.

Nice, simple and easy. But irregular verbs don’t play that, and one in English that I hear tripping up a lot of people is “to go.” In the present, it pretends to be a regular verb: I/you/we/they/y’all go; he/she/it goes. The only irregularity there is adding the e before adding the s, but that’s a pretty standard feature of English, too.

Any other tense, though, and “to go” decides to go batshit crazy.

For one thing, the preterite conjugation of the word bears absolutely no apparent relationship to the infinitive or present. It becomes “went.” Sure, it’s went for every person, but it’s still completely different than its root.

Now, this is where it trips people up. With a regular verb in English, you just use the preterite with the helping verb “to have” to complete the past perfect — an action that you had been wanting to do in the past, but stopped wanting to in the past.

Here’s a regular example: “I had wanted to talk to Bill about it.” Present perfect is the same: “I have wanted to talk to Bill about it,” the difference being that it’s an action you started in the past but are still doing now. And yes, wanting is an action.

And to make it even simpler, the form of “to have” has only one change. Regardless of number or person, it’s have or had all the way down, except for the present perfect third person singular, which would be he/she/it has wanted…

But throw in an irregular verb like “to go,” and that messes with the whole thing, and yet I hear the wrong version all the time.

If we followed the rules above, then past perfect would be something like “I had went with Bill,” and present perfect would be “I have went with Bill.” And, in fact, I know otherwise well-educated adults who do this all the time — and it makes me cringe every damn time I hear it.

See, irregulars like this have an extra layer of dark magic in them: Two past participles. One can be used with auxiliary verbs, and one cannot.

In this case, “went” can only stand alone. If any other verb comes before it, then the word is “gone.” “I had gone with Bill.” “I have gone with Bill.” Contrast “he went away” and “he is gone.” Same idea, but that extra verb makes all the difference. Although I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say something as heinous as “he is went.”

Some other sneaky verbs that do this: “to run,” which gives you either “he ran in the marathon” or “he has run in marathons”; “she gave it her all” or “she had given it her all”; “we already ate,” or “we have eaten already”  — and note the change in position of the adverb there. Since it modifies the verb, it comes before a simple one and after a complex one.

Okay, technically, you could say “we ate already” and it would be fine, but “we already have eaten” would sound a little weird.

Then there’s a classic that I hear Brits use all the time — and we’re talking professional presenters on the BBC even, and that is “to sit.” The preterite tense of that is sat — I sat, you sat, etc. In complex tenses, well, it gets complex because it depends on the verb.

Properly, you would say I was seated, you have been seated, etc., but I had sat, you have sat, etc. What I hear, particularly in British English, is the abominable “he was sat,” and similar violence done to the language.

Never, never, never, never, never, to quote Shakespeare.

The trigger on this one is “to be.” Stick it in front of “to sit,” and the verb must be seated. It has only sat when being seated cannot be.

One other really weird irregular one in English happened because… who knows? But the verb “to hang” has a different preterite depending on the circumstances.

In every normal usage, the past tense of “to hang” is hung — “I hung out at the mall last week,” although “I used to hang out at the mall” would also be correct.

The exception is if someone was executed by hanging, in which case the preterite is hanged. And in that weird confluence of slang and proper English, if you’re referring to an executed criminal and you say, “He was hanged this morning,” you’re reporting on the execution.

But if you say, “He was hung,” then you’re just bragging about the size of his genitalia. And that’s why proper word usage is so important.

Contrarians

There is an interesting class of words in English called contronyms. They are defined as words that have two contradictory definitions. You might wonder how this happens. There seem to be three different reasons.

The first is that the words are homographs. If you remember your Latin, this comes from the words “homo” for same, and “graph,” which refers to writing, so homographs are words that are written the same, but that’s the only thing they have in common. Contrast this to homophones, meaning same sound but with different meanings. Additionally, the words should have different etymologies. That is, they did not come from the same source words.

A good homographic example of this is the word “cleave,” which can either mean to join together or to split apart. “The bride and groom cleaved onto each other until hard times cleaved them apart.” The former sense comes from the Old English word cleofian, with the same meaning. The latter comes from Old English clēofan, to separate, which actually is a different word despite looking so similar.

The second way contronyms happen is through a form of polysemy, which comes from the Greek for many (poly) signs (semy, the root of semiotics.) [That link is provided for the sake of showing sources, but unless you’re a linguist it will make your head explode trying to read it. —Ed.] The main point to remember is that contronyms can happen as language evolves and a word begins to be used in a different sense by different groups.

Frequently, this refers to technical jargon, although it doesn’t always create contronyms. A good example is the word “insult.” In the medical field, it refers to a physical injury and not nasty words Medically speaking, adding insult to injury would be completely redundant.

A modern example of a contronym created this way is the word “sick” — in one sense, it refers to something that’s not well off: “Javi is feeling very sick today.” In another sense, it means something that’s really excellent: “Javi busted out some sick rhymes to win that rap battle.”

Finally, contronyms can happen when two different versions of the language use words in a different sense. The classic example of this is the word “table” as used in meetings. In American English, when a bill is tabled, that means that it’s removed from discussion and either dropped or put on hold. In British English, when a bill is tabled, that means it’s brought up for debate.

A few fun examples

There are a lot of contronyms, not just in English, but in other languages. Spanish has its own autoantónimos, and some of them even match their English counterparts. For example, rent/alquilar refers to the act of either renting from someone or renting to someone; sanction/sancionar refers to imposing a penalty or officially allowing something.

They can be a lot of fun, so let’s look at a few from a very long list, used together in their opposite meanings, along with some alternate meanings the word might also have.

Bill: When it’s not on a duck, you can pay a bill with a twenty-dollar bill, so this word has your money covered coming and going.

Bolt: When a lightning bolt strikes nearby, you might be inclined to bolt the door fast and stay inside, or you may bolt in fear and run away.

Custom: Everybody had followed exactly the same custom for years: to custom order for the New Year so that everyone’s shoes were completely different.

Dust: After the detectives dusted for prints, I had to dust the furniture to get it all off.

Fast: After a brief fast, I wanted to run away fast, but alas I was held fast because my belt got stuck to the chair.

Garnish: He was a chef who loved to garnish the entrees with parsley and cherry tomatoes, but was very sad after his divorce when his ex got a judge to garnish his wages.

Give out: (a rare two-word contronym!) He gave out his business cards tirelessly until his energy gave out completely.

Left: By the time there was only one bottle of wine left, all of the guests left and walked to the left, disappointed.

Off: Bob the Burglar thought that the alarm was off until he broke inside and set it off.

Out: It wasn’t until all of the lights went out that they could see how many stars were out at night.

Oversight: The oversight committee thought that they had monitored everything, but they realized their big oversight too late to fix it.

Refrain: “I wish you would refrain from singing that,” the teacher demanded, but the students went on and sang the same refrain again and again.

Rock: Joe was always solid and immobile as a rock until someone started to play rock music, at which point he would rock back and forth uncontrollably.

Strike: During the general sports strike, the replacement archers managed to strike the targets every time. Meanwhile, the baseball batters weren’t so lucky, getting strike after strike.

Throw out: (another two-worder!) I’m just going to throw out this idea for everyone to consider, but we really need to throw out the trash.

Trim: Before we can trim the Christmas tree, we really need to trim some of these branches.

Weather: The house had weathered many a winter season until its walls became too weathered to stand any longer.

Wind up: (two-worder number three!) I don’t mean to wind you up, but after you wind up this jack-in-the-box, we really need to wind up the evening and go home.

Why?

Some of the most interesting and fun contronyms lend themselves to neat wordplay, some of which I indulged in above. Since one of the hallmarks of humor is the unexpected, throwing a pair of contronyms into a sentence can be a great tool for spicing up your writing. I would offer an apology for my puns but I think I can write a pretty good apology in support of the concept. And there’s another word with great Greek roots: Apo-, a prefix meaning, among other things, a response or defense; logo, which means word; and –ia, a suffix in Greek indicating either a female singular or neuter plural noun or adjective.

So… words in response to or defense of something. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it’s not. If I offer an apology for my puns, then I’d say something like, “I am really sorry that I’ve made those puns.” If I write an apology for puns, then it would be a long piece tracing their history, showing examples, and describing why they are a valid form of humor — the exact opposite of apologizing for them.

But I won’t apologize for puns. Especially not when a contronym also has other meanings, because that’s where we can get into triple word score on a single sentence.

I mean, I’m not trying to be mean, but I think that puns are a wicked mean form of humor, you know what I mean.

Photo: “Black Sheep Meets White Sheep” (cc) 2011 by Leon Riskin, used unchanged under Creative Commons license 2.0.

Talky Tuesday: False friends and other stuff

As I wrote about previously, learning at least one other language is something that’s good for your brain, and not necessarily as hard to do as you might think, especially depending on how your native and second languages are related. For an English speaker, Germanic and Romance languages are probably easier to learn than Semitic or Japonic languages. Not necessarily the case — I know plenty of Americans who’ve learned Hebrew as pre-teens or learned Japanese because of a love of Anime and Manga — but sticking to other languages with common roots will help.

And if you learn one language from a family, while you may not be able to fluently speak related languages, you may at least be able to understand them. From learning Spanish, I can often understand spoken Italian, as well as frequently be able to read French and Portuguese. No such luck with Romanian, though. And yes, although it might be a surprise to some people, Romanian is a Romance Language, too. In fact, it’s the one that gave the family its name. Because I’d studied German, Dutch made sense to me when I dabbled in it. And so on.

But… a funny thing can happen as languages diverge from their origins and change. All of the Romance languages came from Latin. They are the remnants of the Roman Empire, after all. But all of them evolved and changed until they went from being street dialects of the imperial tongue to their own very separate things.

The same thing happened with English. It started out as a language spoken by a tribe on an island off of the west coast of Europe with influences from a different language from other tribes on an island off of that island’s west coast. This got a heavy early dose of Latin thanks to Roman invaders. Then, a few centuries later, it was infused with Nordic Languages via the Vikings and, for a while, the kings there were Danish.

That all ended when ol’ William the Conqueror came roaring in in 1066, bringing French with him. In fact, for a long time, the nobility spoke French while the peasants spoke English and everybody went to church in Latin.

We can still see remnants of the Norman Conquest today. It’s so often cited that it’s not really news, but that’s why we have different words for the animals: cow, pig, chicken, sheep; and for the meat from them, beef, pork, poultry, mutton. The former are all old Anglo-Saxon terms and the latter are French. The peasants grew the stuff. The nobility ate it.

The French roots are still really obvious in the latter: boeuf, porc, poulet, mouton. Meanwhile, the Germanic roots are really clear in the Anglo-Saxon words: Kuh, Schwein, Huhn, Schaf. The one odd one might seem to be chicken, Huhn or Hähnchen, until you remember that we call a female chicken a… hen.

Side note, looking at poulet and mouton: The reason that a lot of English words in British spelling have –ou where the American versions have just –o is that Samuel Johnson had a jones for preserving etymology, so words derived from French kept the French spelling — colour, behaviour, etc. Johnson was kind of a pedant — which is just a fancy Latin-based word for “douche.” But I do digress.

The real point here is this: One of the big bugbears that language learners do face is what are called “False Friends.” That is, words in two different languages that look like each other, but actually have very different meanings. At their most harmless, they can lead to silly misunderstandings. At their most harmful, well… that’s self-explanatory.

Probably one of the most famous examples that any English speaker who takes Spanish 101 learns almost off the bat is this one: Embarazada. For those of you who haven’t studied Spanish, I’ll give you a moment to take a guess at what this word means. Hint: It’s an adjective.

While we’re waiting: One of the funniest (to me) Spanish errors someone can make is to leave the tilde off of the “n” in the word “años,” which means years. In Spanish, the phrase is not “He is X years old,” it is “He has X years.” So leaving the tilde off changes a statement like, “My grandfather (is) has seventy years (old)” to “My grandfather has seventy anuses.”

As for embarazada, what’s your guess? If you said embarrassed, then be embarrassed, because it actually means pregnant.

Speaking of actually… it’s generally easy to convert adverbs from English and Spanish and mostly be right. Adverbs that end with –ly in English end with –mente in Spanish. Probably, probablamente. So the word actualmente might look like it means actually… but it doesn’t. It means currently, as in “right now.” Actualmente escribo un artículo por mi blog. Right now, I’m writing an article for my blog.

Easey peasey. Or, in Spanish, pan comido, which literally means “eaten bread,” but I think you can see how that relates to another English saying: “piece of cake.”

Other fun false friends: Carpeta is not a carpet, which is alfombra, a word that Spanish borrowed from Arabic. Rather, carpeta is a folder, particularly a file folder. You’ll see this word all the time if you switch your devices to Spanish.

And there’s another one. Dispositivo might look like it has to do with disposing stuff, but it doesn’t. This is the word for devices, particularly phones and tablets.

If you work for a business or company, then you might feel like they’re getting all imperial on you. Easy mistake to make if you misinterpret the Spanish word therefore: Empresa.

Looking for a way out? Then you don’t want the éxito, which is actually a big hit — un gran éxito is a song or movie or TV show that earns a lot of money. If you really want to go, look for la salida.

If you want to introduce someone in Spanish, then don’t use introducir, because that means to insert something, and I don’t think you want to get that intimate with your… um… introductions. Instead, use presentar.

On the other hand, molestar in Spanish is a lot more innocuous than it is in English. If you molestas alguien en español, at most they’ll look at you funny and walk away. If you molest someone in English, you’ll probably wind up in jail and on a list. Molestar in Spanish simply means “to bother.” As Winnie the Pooh might say, “Ay, que molesta.”

Then, there’s this one: Fingir. I know what it looks like, but what it really means is “to pretend.” But if you go around fingering people in English… well, without their consent, don’t.

Finally, if you want to wash up, don’t reach for the sopa unless you want to bathe in soup. Otherwise, what you want is jabón… not to be confused with the Spanish word for ham, which is jamón. And this word may or may not have appeared in Michael Jackon’s “Bad.”

I haven’t done this in reverse, but let me know if you can. If you’re a non-native speaker learning English, what words in our language look like but aren’t words in your own? And if you’re an English speaker learning something other than Spanish, what false friends pop up in your target language?

Comment below!

Talky Tuesday: Noah Webster explains it all

Noah Webster was 70 when he copyrighted his Dictionary of the American Language in 1828. This in itself is a meta-event because he was one of the people most instrumental in reforming American copyright law in order to extend its terms, extending coverage from 14 to 28 years, with an option to extend another 14 to a total of 42 years.

The dictionary was originally released in two volumes for the price of $20, which may seem cheap until you adjust for inflation: $471. This meant that, effectively, it was probably only purchased by institutions like libraries and schools. A price cut to $15 ($353) did improve sales and the first edition run of 2,500 copies sold out by 1836.

It’s kind of ironic, really, that the price of a good hardcover version of the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary is actually the same or less than $15 in absolute dollar amount and would have cost about 64 cents back in the 1820s.

Webster’s original dictionary had 70,000 entries, but how did they happen? Well, not quickly. It took him 22 years and along the way he learned 26 languages in order to accurately track word origins.

His main goal was to define and create a uniquely American version of English, avoiding the classism and mutually unintelligible local dialects of England, and he really started the job not long after American independence.

He also sought to simplify spelling to avoid foreign influences on orthography, which Samuel Johnson didn’t. This is why one of the most notable differences between British and American English shows up in word pairs like centre/center, flavour/flavor, and programme/program.

By the way, Johnson lost more than he won. For example, he wanted to spell words like “public” as “publick,” and extended his “ou” fetish to words like “horrour.”

In modern times, dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers, who look for usages of words in the wild and, once they become widespread enough to be commonly known, go through the process of defining and adding them.

Note that unlike Spain or France, the U.S. does not have a single, national governing body that determines the rules of the language or the words in it.

The dictionary is adding words all of the time. Sometimes, new words wind up there fairly quickly. In other cases, it takes a relatively long time. Here are some additions from April and September 2019, and a general idea of how long they were in the wild before they became “official.”

Here are a dozen recent additions.

  1. Bechdel test: Coined by Alison Bechdel in 2007, this was her way of assessing the representation of women in fiction. The question in the test is this: “Does this work feature two women who talk to each other about something besides a man?” Sometimes, the additional requirement of both female characters being named is included.
  1. Bottle episode: This is one of my personal favorites mainly because it relates to my field. A “bottle episode” is an episode of a TV series that takes place mostly in one location, and with only a few characters, and it exists entirely to save money. Often, showrunners will toss in a bottle episode when they know they want to shoot the moon on the budget of their season finale. It can actually make for compelling television, though. Although a number of examples on that list predate it, the term was first used in 2003.
  1. Deep state: This one is older than you’d think, since it’s only recently shown up in the demented ravings of certain politicians. The idea is that it’s a hidden cabal of unelected government officials working behind the scenes to influence government policy in an extra-legal way. The joke is that this system already exists in the open, and it’s called lobbying. The current usage of “deep state,” despite perceptions, goes back much further than 2016. It originated in 2000.
  1. Escape room: I think most people know what these are — elaborate interactive theatrical puzzles in which a group of people gets a certain amount of time to solve a mystery and get out. This is also one of the faster additions to the dictionary. Unlike other words here that date back twenty or more years, the first use of escape room was in 2012.
  1. Gender nonconforming: Added along with top surgery and bottom surgery, the first term originated in 1991, and the other two go back to 1992 and 1994 Gender nonconforming refers to someone who exhibits behavioral, psychological, or cultural traits not usually associated with their biological sex. The two surgeries refer to the procedures used in gender confirmation surgery to respectively make the breasts and upper body or genitals and lower body match the person’s true gender.
  1. Gig economy: This is the modern system of serfdom that forces people to freelance at severely depressed wages and without benefits in order for incredibly well-off companies to save money by not actually providing living wages and things like health insurance, paid time off, and pensions. Coined in 2009, it has very quickly proven to be about the worst possible invention of late-stage capitalism.
  1. Page view: This is a web statistic, as in how many times a specific web page has been viewed by visitors. Considering that the concept of counting visits to a page goes back to the internet dark ages of the mid-90s, when every Geocities page had a hit counter, this concept took forever to finally make it into the dictionary.
  1. Purple: A new definition for the color, extended to refer to states that are neither predominantly Democratic (blue) nor Republican (red). The idea of color-coding political parties goes back to 1976, but the specifics of red and blue weren’t nailed down until the election of 2000.
  1. Qubit: This is the quantum computing equivalent of digital computing’s bit, which is the most basic unit of information. The difference is that a qubit doesn’t store a single digit. It contains all of the possible states of a particle until its collapse to a single value. It was also coined over 25 years ago, in 1994.
  1. Rhotic: This one is surprising, considering that it comes from the world of linguistics, which would seem to be a natural field for harvesting dictionary words. And yet, it took 51 years for it to be added. The term was first used in 1968, and refers to whether or not the consonant “r” is pronounced in words, especially before other consonants (cart, park) or at the end of words (car, jar.)
  1. They: All right, the word itself goes way, way back in English history, arising in the 13th century as the third person plural pronoun. What became official in 2019, though — and which you can now use to shut up pedantic purists — is that the pronoun “they” is now accepted as a gender-neutral singular as applied to a nonbinary person.
  1. Vacay: The term is a very straightforward shortening of the word “vacation.” Surprisingly, it took nearly thirty years to make it into the dictionary, having been first attested to in 1991.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the dictionary. What are some of your favorite words that may or may not have been added? Let us know in the comments!

Momentous Monday: Dog talk

Here’s a blast from the past, an article from before the quarantine which is still relevant today. In fact, this one is even more relevant because, when I wrote it in 2019, I had no idea that all three of my dogs would be past tense by now.

I’ve noticed a really interesting phenomenon with two of the three dogs I’ve owned as an adult. Well, technically one-and-a-half, because the first one, Dazé, started out as the family dog that we adopted after the first dog died. Basically, we started out together when I was still doing the whole K-12 thing and lived with my parents when I went to college.

But although she was supposed to have been my mom’s dog, Dazé was having none of that. She decided that I was her human almost from the beginning — we adopted her at 12 weeks old — and when I finally moved out on my own after college and as soon as I was able to, she moved in with me and then never left. She was probably the most intelligent dog I’ve ever met, and also one of the most easy-going. She loved people and other dogs, and yet somehow always managed to be the boss dog in any pack. The first place I moved her to, there was a Rottweiler mix that started as a puppy but who grew into a giant of a dog that could stand on her hind legs and look me in the eyes, and I’m 6’2”. Didn’t matter. That dog, Toad (my former roommate has an odd but wonderful sense of humor) totally deferred to Dazé in everything, and all it took was a look from my dog. She never bared her teeth or made threats or anything. It was amazing to watch.

This carried on later when I lived in a house with two other guys and four other dogs, all of which were much bigger. Dazé weighed about 30 pounds, while the other dogs each weighed at least 90. That didn’t matter. It was a house rule, at least among the dogs, that none of them were allowed in “my” room, even if I tried to beg and coax them in. I remember one particular night when the roomies were both out of town and it was storming something fierce. I’d let one of the dogs, Sarah (an Irish Wolfhound, so you know the scale) into the backyard because she gave me that “Gotta pee” look. But when she was done, I decided to let her in via my room, which had a sliding door that opened onto the yard, rather than through the kitchen. So I opened it, called her in, and despite the downpour and sad look on her face, she really, really didn’t want to.

And what was Dazé doing? Just sitting on the bed, looking calm and harmless. I finally managed to get Sarah to come in, but she slinked so low to the ground and dashed through so fast, that the message was obvious:

“SorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorryokayImout.”

And Dazé just stayed on my (ahemn — her) bed, doing nothing.

I never really did figure out how she had this super power, although I did see one crack in it at a New Year’s Day party held by a playwright friend of mine. Her theory was that since we could never really know the exact birth dates of our dogs unless they came from a breeder (hint: they never should) then we might as well just peg it to the start of the year and go from there. So everyone was invited to bring their dog.

All well and good, Dazé gets along with dogs, but then a party guest who had snorfed a little too much herbal refreshment started giving Milk Bones to my dog and the hostess’ dog, Hank, who was a pretty hefty yellow Lab mix. Well, the inevitable happened. She tossed one too close between them, Dazé went to grab it, and Hank decided to put her head in his mouth. It was more of a warning than an attack, but she ducked and fled, and when she came back to me — and it was very clear that she was in “Daddy, daddy, help” mode — I was able to pick her up like she was a Kleenex. She’d gone so limp in fear that she really seemed to weigh nothing. There was a tiny nick on her head that was bleeding, and it was the one and only moment I ever got to see her lose her mojo.

Flash forward to current dog, who has a lot in common with Dazé, but a brief side trip through dog number two, Shadow. I adopted her when she was about a year old, exactly eleven days after Dazé finally passed, and she came to me as a fearful rescue, a white German Shepherd mix who started out terrified of me until I just ignored her, but once she realized that it was okay for her to sleep in my bed with me and that I gave her food, she bonded totally. Just like with Dazé, I was her human. However, she never really developed the talent that Dog 1 and Dog 3 did, and although I loved her very much, I have to say that she was the problem child I had to have in order to learn.

When Shadow was five, I decided that she needed a companion, and so I adopted Sheeba, who was 11 months old, and who had been thrown out of a car for reasons I’ll never understand. What struck me about her in the shelter, though, was that she just seemed so calm — and this was even more amazing when I found out on adoption day later that week that I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in after being saved from the streets.

Sheeba is a lot like Dazé. Put her in a pack situation, and she goes into boss mode. The big difference with her, though, is that it’s really clear that she does it physically instead of mentally. Dazé would just give a look. Sheeba tends to get in the other dog’s face and puff up. (By the way, the two of them were just about the same size.)

And yes, she’s gotten into her share of fights — several times with Shadow, and once or twice with friends’ dogs. These mostly revolve around food, as in, “Bitch, back off my dish, or Ima hurt you.” A big thing I learned when I had both Shadow and Sheeba was this, too: As a human, do not try to impose the alpha/beta roles, because it will lead to disaster. See, in my mind, I did the typical parent thing. “Older kid gets first dibs and such.” Yeah, that works with humans. With dogs? Not so much.

If I’d been aware enough from the start, then I would have made Sheeba alpha, and that would have made both of them happy. Instead, I tried to make Shadow alpha, which only managed to piss off Sheeba and make Shadow even more nervous.

Oops.

But… all of that said, the real point here is this: What I learned from Dazé is that dogs really do speak to us, too. We just have to learn to listen. Now, I’m not sure whether I’m the one who took so long to pick up on it, or she’s the one who took so long to figure out how to train me, but… during the last five or six years of her life, I started to notice that she would approach me with intent, make eye contact, and then basically create a subject-verb-object sentence (SVO) by where she was looking.

The funny thing is that this is actually the way that English works, too. “You do this” is probably one of the simpler examples. Stripped down in dog talk, though, it omits finer points of vocabulary like adjectives and adverbs, although, to be honest, these really seem to come out of attitude — a really impatient, huffy dog is coloring the entire sentence with “fast” or “soon.” In a lot of ways, that’s like any form of sign language, where the tone of the sentence isn’t portrayed in what the hands are doing, but rather in the face and expressions.

In that context, it makes total sense, because our dogs have basically had to figure out how to teach us how to understand their signing. And that’s pretty amazing.

Both Dazé and Sheeba eventually started doing this, and it always took the same pattern. After they’d gotten my attention, they’d make eye contact, which meant “You.” Then they would pointedly turn their head to look at something, so literally using an action as an action word, although I think that “Dog” probably only has one universal word that can mean do, make, get, or give. This really isn’t all that far off from human languages, which not only frequently have one verb that can mean all of those things, but it’s also one of the most irregular verbs in the language. (Side note: It’s almost a guarantee that the verb for “to be” was, is, and/or will be ridiculously irregular through all tenses in every language.)

Anyway, so… look at me, then turn the head — subject, verb. And what happens next? Object, which is where the dog looks — their bowl, meaning “food,” the sink, meaning “water,” the cupboard, meaning “treat,” or the door, meaning “walk,” or… anything else. The point here is that the need the dog expresses is not abstract, and that is probably where the species separate.

After all, a five-year-old can tell its parents, “I want to go to Disneyland when school is out.” A dog, not so much. While they may have a sense of language, they do not have a sense of time. If you doubt that, compare how excited your dog is to see you come home after five minutes vs. five hours. Not really a lot of difference, right?

A long time ago, humans naively believed that we were the only species to develop language, but that’s clearly not true. If we define language as set of syntactic methods to communicate, then most species have language, and humans are not unique. We are probably unique in the sense that we alone use written or inscribed symbols to represent the sounds that make up our language, which is what you’re reading right now, but we do not absolutely know that we are the only ones.

The point, really, is this: We all need to step back from this idea that humans are the superior life forms (hint: we’re not) and, instead, start to listen to all of the others, and to nature itself. If you’re lucky enough to have pets of any kind, start to pay attention and listen. They may be trying to tell you something, and are getting totally frustrated that you’re too stupid to understand. Dog knows that this is how Dazé finally taught me.

Did I mention that the first couple of times she tried the “You give food” thing with me, she actually gave me a dirty look when I didn’t get, audibly sighed in frustration, and then pointedly repeated it until I finally got it? Because that is exactly what she did. And that is why I got it the first time Sheeba did it. Which is interesting in itself, because it means that one generation of dog managed to teach me a language that I was able to understand in a much later generation, and, holy crap, how amazing is that?

Image: Dazé, Shadow, and Sheeba © Jon Bastian

How have your pets communicated with you? Let us know in the comments!

When it’s “its”

Even Microsoft Word’s spell-check gets this one wrong sometimes, but you shouldn’t. Here’s the scoop on possessives that don’t take apostrophes.

I could write tons and tons on the use of apostrophes, but there are already plenty of guides online. So, instead, I’m going to focus on one area that causes a lot of confusion: Possessive pronouns that do not have apostrophes.

There are eight of them, five of which end in an S and one of which ends in an S sound, although the mistake is most common with only two of them — and it’s a very common error. I’ve even seen it happen on presumably professional sites like CNN and the Huffintonpost.

Here are those eight possessive pronouns:

My
Your
His
Hers
Its
Whose
Ours
Theirs

The most obvious thing about them on sight, of course, should be that there are no apostrophes to be seen. They aren’t necessary because these words are always possessive. For some of them, that doesn’t seem to cause any problems. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use hi’s or her’s or our’s or their’s. That doesn’t mean this hasn’t happened; just that I can’t remember seeing it.

But I see “it’s” and “who’s” get misused all of the time — probably because both of them are perfectly legitimate words. It’s just that these two are contractions and not possessives. They just happen to look a lot like possessives, hence the confusion.

At least in the case of its, it’s a very easy typo to make, and I’ve caught myself doing it accidentally from time to time — hence the importance of proofreading. Of course, before you can proofread, you have to know the rules.

For “it’s” and “who’s,” the easiest way to remember is to always read them in uncontracted form. It’s helpful that the apostrophe even sort of looks like a little letter “i.” (Well, only sort of, but go with me on this one.) So, when you see “it’s” or “who’s,” read them in your head as “it is” and “who is.”

This makes it easy to spot their misuse:

The cat licks it’s paws.
The cat licks it is paws.

Oops. Wrong word! “The cat licks its paws.” Conversely:

It’s time to go.
It is time to go.

Right word!

Yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we have these words that are possessive but don’t use apostrophes, but I never said that English does make sense. However, it is a fairly standard feature of a lot of languages that possessive pronouns work a little differently than regular possessives.

English used to have — and many languages still do — an entire grammatical case to show possession, so at least take heart in that fact: You only have to learn a few apostrophe exceptions instead of a completely new set of inflections for nouns!

Uncommon language

As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Canterville Ghost, “Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” (This was an observation by the narrator, by the way, concerning an American woman who has been in England so long that she has gone native, so to speak.)

Wilde wrote his tale 133 years ago, and you might think that in all that time, the interconnectedness of the world, the exchange of media and culture, and the common language would have brought British and English (okay, sigh, American English, if you insist) closer together, but you’d be wrong.

Okay, so the big divide happened a couple of centuries ago, when British dictionary guy Samuel Johnson decided to go all fancy and pretentious and base spellings on where words came from, so that British English wound up with ridiculous things like flavour, colour, tyre, kerb, programme, and so on.

Meanwhile, a couple of generations later, Noah Webster got busy with his real English dictionary, and he preferred simplified spellings — flavor, color, tire, curb, program, etc.

But the differences go beyond that, and it comes down to word usage, with some of the differences being unfortunate. For example, it might be quite common in Britain to ask a co-worker or schoolmate, “Can I borrow a rubber?” or “Did you wear your rubbers today?”

In America, not so much. Instead, we’d ask, “Can I borrow an eraser?” or “Did you wear your galoshes today?”

Bit of a difference, eh?

If you’re American and you hear “cooker,” what do you think? Most likely, it’s some large, specialized device, frequently found in a backyard, and used to smoke or cure meat, and not something that everyone has. In Britain, there’s probably one in every kitchen, and you cook on it because it’s a stove.

Also note that stove, oven, and range are not the same thing. A stove is generally just the cooktop, meaning the bit with the burners (also known as a hob in the UK); an oven is the enclosed box that cooks stuff without open flame; a range is the combination of both — presumably because it covers the full range of options.

Meanwhile, in America, you’d assume that a gummy band is some sort of German candy that’s maybe in the shape of One Direction or some other group. In the UK, you’d wrap it around your newspaper, or use it to tie off a plastic bag.

Of course, our rubber bands probably sound like something made out of erasers to them.

One of my favorite weird British expressions is “dummy.” It has nothing to do with ventriloquists and everything to do with babies. In America, it’s called a pacifier. There’s  a wonderful British expression, “spit the dummy,” which specifically means for an adult to react in an overblown, angry, and infantile manner to a situation.

Actually, when it comes to babies, this is where there are a lot of differences in standard terminology between the two variations of English. For example, what’s called a diaper in America is called a nappy in Britain, while nappy in America happens to be a very derogatory adjective used to describe black people’s hair in a negative way. The two words have very different derivations, with the diaper version not appearing until 1927, and being slang for “napkin,” presumably because folding a diaper around a baby’s ass is as complicated as folding a napkin for a formal dinner.

The word diaper, by the way, goes back to the 14th century, and refers to a very expensive cloth. To hear parents tell it, diapers of either the cloth or disposable variety are still expensive. Damn. Just like feminine hygiene products and razors, that shit should be heavily subsidized and practically free.

Two more that are also odd because the British words exist in American but mean something completely different: cot and flannel. In America, a cot is a light, simple, and portable bed, quite often consisting of a foldable frame, often in metal, that locks into place to keep a piece of canvas taut enough to support a sleeping adult. Americans would expect to see cots in summer camps, military barracks, field hospitals, and emergency evacuation shelters.

In Britain, a cot is what a baby sleeps in — an enclosed bed designed for infants too young to not be trusted to roll out of a regular bed. In America, that’s called a crib. Oddly enough, in Britain crib can refer to what Americans would call a crèche (we cribbed that from French, see what I did there?) which is the traditional nativity scene commonly set up around the holidays.

As for flannel, in America it’s most associated mostly with either a generally plaid shirt worn by lumberjacks or lesbians, or a gray material that was commonly used to make suits in a bygone era — and, slight detour, having only known the expression because I’m a film nerd, looking up its origin gave me an “oh, wow” moment. Definitely check out the book that the movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was based on, because it continues to speak to now even though it came out in the 1950s and its protagonist would have been the parent of a Boomer.

But I do digress. The American flannel is a British washcloth.

One that’s a really big difference is pram. In America, that sounds like a mispronunciation of an annual high school tradition, the prom. Ironically, Britain, proms are what the BBC does every year to introduce their new programs. In the U.S., those events are called upfronts. The British word is short for promotionals.

The British pram is the American stroller (or baby carriage if you’re fancy), and it’s basically short for the word perambulator.

One of the more unfortunate British words that really doesn’t cross the pond well is the colloquial term for a cigarette, although as that filthy habit dies out, maybe the word will, too. That word, of course, is the other F-word: fag. “Bum me a fag, mate,” is an innocuous request to borrow a smoke over there. Here, in America, not so much.

And don’t get me started on the weirdness of the word “bom” meaning to loan in this context when it means “arese” in others, and winds up next to the word “fag.” It’s almost like they intended it.

But note how both slang terms — fag and smoke — use synecdoche, with a part standing in for the whole. Now, to Americans it’s obvious that “smoke” refers to what comes from a cigarette. Another slang term that uses the same literary device is “butt.” So how does “fag” come to be a partial stand-in for a whole cigarette?

Well, simple, but you have to go back to an older expression and a meaning that predated its derogatory and homophobic intention. The expression was originally fag-end, and this referred to any sort of loose bit or remaining piece still hanging around.

While no one is definite on it, the conjecture is that it could have referred to the loose bits of tobacco sticking out of the end of a hand-rolled cigarette. Alternatively, it could refer to the part left over when most of the cigarette has been smoked, and this is what would have been bummed, so the query would literally mean something like, “Hey, can I have the rest of that?”

Or not. And probably the most interesting thing about these linguistic differences is that context is everything, and an uninitiated American who can get over the accents (apparently, that’s hard for a lot of Yanks to do) will pick up on the meaning of these strange words, and it works vice versa.

Still, I think that Wilde’s observation was as spot-on over a century ago as it is now. The U.S. and the British Common wealth have everything in common… except for the language.

Of wigs and words

I ran across a very useful and interesting phrase in Spanish today — interesting because there are actually various versions of it. It is: “ni calvo ni con dos pelucas,” which literally means “either bald or with two wigs,” although I’ve seen it with varying numbers of wigs, at least up to seven. (Another fun fact: Unlike English cats, which have nine lives, Spanish cats only have seven.)

But the meaning of the phrase is simply that neither extreme — having too little or having too much — is good, and you should aim for the middle. And now that you know the word for wig, peluca, you might be able to recognize another word you may see on businesses: peluquería, which is derived from it; the c to q change is very common in Spanish. And no, this word does not mean wig-maker. It means hairdresser or barber shop.

The word for bald, calvo, might remind you of another Spanish word you may have seen: calavera, which means skull, or calvario, which refers to Calvary, the Latin word for the hill Jesus was crucified on and which was known as Golgotha, or Gólgota in Spanish, from the Greek word Γολγοθᾶ. This gets really interesting, because that word came from Aramaic, Gûlgaltâ (obviously not in the original characters) and wound up also being translated into Greek as Κρανίου Τόπος.

Now if you transliterate that Greek into the Latin alphabet, it might be more obvious: Kraniou topos. “Cranium” is pretty clear in the first word, and topos means place — hence the word “topography,” or writing about places. All of the words above refer to “Place of the Skull” and, apparently, that hill sort of resembled one.

In case you’re wondering, yep. The name “Calvin” comes from the same roots and originally meant “Little Bald One.” Same goes for the author Italo Calvino, whose name rather unfortunately meant “Little Bald One from Italy.” Ironically, he never really went all that bald. But we can now see that using somewhat negative terms to refer to people losing their hair goes back quite a long time in human history.

Finally, here’s a nice twist on it showing how strong the influence of Latin has been on most Western European Languages. The German word for bald is kahl, and you’ll find similar-sounding words for it in a lot of other European languages. Interestingly, even a language as unrelated as Finnish has “kalju,” which is clearly related. The common thread seems to be the hard “K” and the “L” ending. Play around with that long enough, and “skull” just pours itself right out of the sounds.

This does make me wonder whether George R. R. Martin wasn’t playing around when he named a character Khal Drogo, although khal also means “vinegar,” hence “bitter,” in Arabic, as well as “canal” in Bengali, more on which below. Although it also evokes Genghis Khan, who could certainly be taken as a role model for the character in every way, and which may have been more what Martin was going for.

As for the Drogo surname, on the one hand, it invokes the Latin draco, dragon (and hence Draco Malfoy, whose last name means “bad faith” in French), on the other hand, Drogo is also the word for “expensive” in Polish.

And this is why languages fascinate me, because it’s just so damn fun to look at how they’re connected and how they influence each other, and how long-dead empires and cultures can still have an impact to this day because of the literature and influence they left behind. It’s also interesting to see how similar sounding words have no connections whatsoever. For example, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was named after a city on the Scottish Isle of Mull, which came for the Norse words kald and gart, for “cold garden.” And Kolkata, in India, was either named for the goddess Kali or for its original location on a canal, or khal. Although they both sound like it, neither one has anything to do with Calvary. Or, for that matter, the cavalry, but let’s not horse around with that one right now.

And that’s enough PUNishment for the moment.