Uncommon language

Oscar Wilde was probably right. The U.S. and UK have everything in common nowadays except, of course, 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.

Noah Webster explains it all

All about the guy who wrote the arguably better English Dictionary — the American one.

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!

Talky Tuesday: Sibling, can you loan a word?

English has borrowed its share of words from other languages, but do you know which words these five languages have borrowed form English?

It’s no secret that English has borrowed a lot of words from other languages, as any list online will tell you. But, just as often, other languages take on words from English as well.

These are technically known as loanwords and are quite often altered in spelling to be pronounceable to speakers of the borrowing language.

It only makes sense that English would take on so many loanwords from other languages as well as leave so many loanwords behind in its wake as it spreads across the globe via popular culture. But what, exactly, are these loan words?

Well, here’s a brief survey of some of the most common ones, by language.

Spanish

Keep in mind that it’s far more common for these words to be borrowed into Spanish in Spain via Britain rather than into Latin American Spanish via America, but that’s most likely because there are so many different Spanish speaking countries in the Americas that they all kind of do their own thing, whereas Spain and its resorts are infected by British tourists on holiday every spring like crabs in a courtesan’s panties.

Here are just a few:

Bistec: This is just a phonetic rendering of the words “beef steak.”

Panfleto: Pamphlet, which cleans up the weird spelling that would not even be pronounceable in Spanish.

Mitin: Meeting, although in the sense of a public hearing or a political conference, and reunión is still far more common in the Americas.

Drenaje: This is a great example of a double borrow. Spanish adapted the word “drainage” from English, but English took it from French without changing a letter.

Esmoquin: If you had to guess what this word meant, you probably never would in a million years, but it’s kind of borrowed from English and means “tuxedo.” How this happened is that Spanish actually picked up the word for “smoking jacket,” which was a heavily quilted garment meant to be worn over the good clothes while the men stepped into the smoking room to fire up their pipes, cigars, and cigarettes. The heavy material was meant to protect the good clothes from ash, cinders, and pinhole burns. How Spanish made the leap of logic from one to the other is a little unclear, but smoking jackets would have definitely been de rigueur at any formal, black tie event that ended with brandy and cigars.

Esnob: This simply means “snob” in Spanish, and comes from the difficulty that Spanish speakers have in saying words that start with an “s” followed by a pronounced consonant. You can see it even in their native words, for example “español.” Note that another loan word, from the English for sandwich, does not do this, so it’s just “sándwich.” That’s because it starts with “s” followed by a vowel, and that’s totally normal in the Spanish words for saint or holy, San and Santa.

Fútbol: Which means football in most of the world, but is soccer in America. Again, only the spelling was changed.

Cóctel: Probably very popular at every tapas bar happy hour, this word is clearly “cocktail,” although it’s pronounced with a long O in the first syllable and a short e in the second. Close enough, I guess, if you’re on your third.

Japanese

Japanese is infamous for taking English words, spelling them phonetically in katakana, and then sending those new terms right back to English. One of the more famous ones is cosplay, which was created in Japanese from a shortening of the English words “costume” and “role play,” but then shot right back into our vernacular, except once more in English.

Japanese for “cosplay” is pronounced “kosupure.”

Afu-reko: Derived from the words “after” and “recording,” this refers to the process of dubbing new sound or dialogue tracks in post-production. Obviously, this would be very important when making English language dubs of Japanese anime.

Aidoru: Referring to teen idol or pop star, and it’s pronounced pretty close to the word it came from, idol.

Aisu kurīmu: Again, remembering that the “ai” is pronounced as a long I, it should be pretty clear that these words mean “ice cream.”

Amefuto: American football, pure and simple, and meant to distinguish it from real fútbol.

Amerikan doggu: Pretty clearly “American dog,” but not the animal. Nope. This is a corn dog.

Bebī kā: Literally from “baby car,” a stroller or pram.

Datchi-waifu: From “Dutch wife.” This is a blow-up doll. Why the Japanese blame this on the Dutch but borrow the term from English is a mystery.

Furaido poteto: Quite clearly “fried potato,” as in French fry.

Hotto kēki: Another probably obvious food item: hot cake.

Janpā: Jumper, as in sweater or jacket. Not to be confused with Juanpa.

Manshon: Mansion.

Nōto-pasokon: A super mash-up of note, personal, and computer that means laptop. Without nōto in front, it just means personal computer.

Sekkusu: Sex. Boning. Doing it. Bumping uglies. Fucking. You get the picture.

Tenkī: Ten-key, as in that numerical keypad that may or may not be at the far right on your computer or laptop keyboard.

Dutch

Since they’re both Germanic languages, you wouldn’t think that Dutch would borrow that many words from English, but it happens, largely due to people who speak “Dunglish.” This is what happens when native English speakers are learning Dutch, but apply English word order and grammar. The two are not the same, so it can get weird.

But there are English loanwords in Dutch that have nothing to do with Dunglish.

Whatsappen: The verb form of “to Whatsapp,” as in to send a message via that platform.

Downloaden: Again, pretty obvious. The infinitive verb form of “to download.”

Airconditioner: Three guesses.

Laptop: Just what it says on the tin.

Helpdesk: Although they probably actually won’t.

Junkfood: It’s food. It’s junk. It’s one word.

Okay, a longer list shortened, but it’s pretty obvious that the Dutch aren’t all that creative when they borrow words from English. If it’s two words, just stick them together, and don’t even change the spelling. And yet, they make fun of Dunglish.

French

Now you might think that it would be difficult for French to borrow anything from English, since we’ve already borrowed so damn much from them. Also, thanks to the French Revolution, they were the first country to come up with a Royal Language Academy whose sole purpose was to define each and every word specifically, and with only one definition.

Top that off with the disdain in France (multiplied by ten in Québec) for borrowing words from English, and it’s a miracle that any of these exist — but they do. All of the following nouns take the article “le” in the singular:

Pull: Pullover, sweater, or jersey.

Shampooing: Shampoo.

Scoop: Breaking a big news story; same meaning as in English.

Sandwich: So Spanish wasn’t the only language to borrow this one!

Hashtag: Sorry, France!

Lifting: A facelift or plastic surgery.

Parking: A car park in general, and not the verb referring to what you do to your car.

Zapping: Channel surfing on a TV, although who does that anymore?

Baskets: Plural, so “les baskets,” any kind of sporting shoes, probably derived from basketball.

Smoking: See the Spanish word “esmoquin,” above; also a tuxedo or formal dinner attire, for all the same reasons.

Relooking: A makeover.

Tagalog

This is one of the languages of the Philippines, and since America has stomped all over that place since winning the Spanish-American war, it should be no surprise that English linguistic footprints are all over it. Here are a few.

Aborsyon: Abortion, which replaced the original word “pagpapalaglag.”

Adik: As in drug addict, with the traditional word having been more or less a Spanish loan word, durugista.

Badyet: Budget, originally Laang-gugulin.

Basketbol and Besbol: Basketball and baseball, because American sports manage to infect everything they touch.

Bistek: Beefsteak, just like in Spanish although, ironically, I don’t think anybody in America refers to any cut of meat as a beefsteak anymore. I mean, it’s a steak. Of course it’s made of beef — unless one of those beyond or impossible companies tells you that it’s not.

Drayber: Driver, although the earlier word was “tsuper,” itself borrowed from the Spanish chofer, from the word chauffeur, although via English instead of the French from which English stole it. Damn. Complicated enough yet? Yeah, that’s what happens when you colonize people.

Iskul: School. Another example of a language adding a vowel sound before an “s” and hard consonant. The native word was “paaralan.”

Madyik: Magic. Originally Salamangka,

Sandwits: Sandwich, yet another variation on that most British of creations, thanks to an Earl with a gambling habit who liked to eat at the table.

Tin-edyer: Teenager, originally lalabintaunin.

Traysikel: Tricycle, because who doesn’t enjoy a three-wheeled vehicle?

So there you go. Wherever English has gone, it’s left its words behind, whether they’ve been sucked in unchanged Dutch-style, altered slightly for other markets, or rendered phonetically as closely as possible, as in Japan.

Here’s my question for my readers who come from all over the planet: What is your native language, and what words has your language borrowed from English? Hey, don’t be afraid. Click and comment below!

Talky Tuesday: American vs. British getting stressed

American and British English are two very different animals despite a common source. Today, I take a look at how and why certain words are pronounced differently.

I’ve written several times about differences in American and British spelling and vocabulary, and why I think that the American version of English — accent and all — is actually the more correct one.

Naturally, I’m biased because it’s what I grew up reading, speaking, and writing, but purely objectively, a lot of British ways of phrasings just make no sense.

Take for example how they use the word “different” as a comparative. In British English, they would say something like, “She’s different to her friends.”

Different to…? This just grates on my ear because it doesn’t compute. You’re making a negative comparison — she is not like the ones you’re comparing her with. But “to” is a preposition that implies movement toward, whether figuratively or literally: “We are coming close to a decision.” “We walked to the store.”

It makes perfect sense to say, “She’s similar to her friends,” because that’s a positive comparison moving her into the group. “Different from” would make more sense, although that’s not usually what we say in the U.S.

Here, we’d say, “She’s different than her friends.” Using from would not be wrong, although it only feels correct when making a comparison to a less well-defined group: “She’s different from the others.”

Also, to me, saying “She’s different to her friends” implies that her differentness is something that only her friends notice, not that she has traits that differ greatly from those of her friends.

Oddly enough, Spanish also has the same distinction between Latin America and Spain which exactly mirrors this. In Spain, they would say, “Ella es diferente a sus amigas.” The “a” is equivalent in this use to “to.” In a lot of parts of Latin America, it would be, “Ella es diferente de sus amigas,” with “de” being the equivalent here of “from.”

Using “to” with different like this to me is just as jarring as when someone uses the phrase “based off” — and anyone who ever says that out loud should be slapped upside the head and corrected immediately.

A base is what something is built on top of, so you literally cannot base something off of something else. The only proper preposition her is “on,” as in “Based on a true story.”

But there’s another area where Americans and Brits differ greatly, and that in how they emphasize words when speaking.

Putting the emPHASis on the wrong syllAble

The very short version is that American English tends to put the emphasis on the first syllable of longer words, while British English puts it on the second. A classic example is the word “laboratory.”

In America, it comes out as LAB-or-a-tory, while in Britain (and the Commonwealth) it’s pronounced la-BOR-a-t’ry. That’s actually bonus points for this word, because American English gives a slight additional emphasis to the “tor,” not as strong as on “lab,” while British English just erases it.

As usual, this happens because a lot of these words come from French, and in their ever-imperialistic way, British English pronounces them according to the rules of English.

Meanwhile, in their very differently imperialistic way, American English pronounces these words to sound more like the French. Hey — at least we kind of acknowledge the cultures we steal from.

Ironically, the differences in British and American English happened for the opposite reason — British spelling kept the French versions — colour, valour, honour, etc. — while American English simplied — color, valor, honor etc.

Of course, the British versions aren’t pronounced at all how they’re spelt, rhyming with neither velour or hour, but sounding exactly like the American versions.

There are a rather substantial number of content creators on YouTube who are from Commonwealth countries, and so speak this flavor of English. It also gets more complicated on sites based in the UK with multiple presenters from different locations, because their pronunciations even vary from person to person and accent to accent.

One word that really stands out for me, because a number of these sites cover arts and entertainment, is the word “biopic,” which is a portmanteau for “biographical picture,” meaning a movie about a person’s life.

In the U.S., it’s pronounced “BI-o-pic,” and I think that’s how they say it in Canada, too. But in the UK, it gets mangled into “bi-OP-ic,” which, again, makes no logical sense. Also again, the American version has that slight additional stress on the last syllable.

And since we’re talking about language, the “Americans first syllable, Brits second syllable” rules doesn’t always hold either because of course it doesn’t. Here are some words that work the opposite, with British first and American second:

Adult:  AD-ult, a-DULT

Buffet: BUF-fet, buf-FET (silent T)

Cliché: CLI-ché, cli-CHÉ (hey, Britain — the French left an accent in it!)

Debris: DE-bris, de-BRIS (silent S)

Premature: PREM-a-ture, pre-ma-TURE (America held out until the third syllable)

Oddly enough, the one case where Brits get it right is the brand name Adidas, which is not pronounced “a-DI-das” but rather “a-di-DAS,” because it was named for the founder, Adolf Dassler. His nickname was “Adi,” and the last name was shortened, and once you know that, you’ll probably always pronounce it “a-di-DAS” as well.

If you’d like to see a Brit and American compare how they pronounce 100 words, you can get a look on YouTube. Here’s Part 1 and here is Part 2.

Talky Tuesday: Y iz speling inglish so hard?

I’ve often joked that I’m glad I happened to be born in a country where English is my first language, because if it weren’t, the spelling alone would have forever kept me from even trying to learn it as a second.

I mean, it makes no sense. On the other hand, a lot of (but not all) other languages have spelling conventions that do make sense. Even Irish Gaelic, which I tried to learn but gave up on because I could just not pronounce it, allegedly has very strict spelling rules.

To be fair, though — English is all over the map. Exhibit 1:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/DU9w9qLynwE

How did we wind up with this messy orthography? It mainly happened because two dudes, one in England and one the the U.S., decided to write the definitive English dictionary, but followed different rules. But it also has to do with the convoluted descent of the language itself.

Let’s take a quick trip through time — but it’s going to start about five hundred years before what you were probably (or possibly not) taught in high school.

This would be Caedmon’s Hymn, a fragment from sometime in the 7th century C.E., which would mean over 1400 years ago. Here’s the opening line: “Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard…”

Any idea what that means? Well, probably not. The translation is, “Now must we praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian…”

Perhaps the only word that jumps out as even close to anything in modern English is “Weard,” but only if you realize that English at this time capitalized nouns, and “Weard” is very close to “Ward,” who is legally not the guardian but the guarded. Think Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s young “ward.”

“Nu” might kind of hint at “now,” but with a very warped vowel-sound.

Let’s check out the language about four hundred years later.

Here’s the first line of Beowulf, written in the early 11th century CE, in the original: “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon…” This translates to “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” You probably recognize exactly one word in that sentence: The first person plural pronoun “We.”

Maybe, if you look closer, you might realize that “þeodcyninga” has the word “king” hiding in it, and is probably the possessive form of the noun built on the stem “cyning,” which would have been pronounced with a hard “C” at the beginning.

This is Old English, but it might as well be a foreign language, right? Let’s take another little jump forward:

“siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at troye…” This is the opening line of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written around 1100 CE in a dialect of Middle English, and it’s probably a little easier to understand. In modern English, it reads, “After the siege and the assault of Troy…”

The funny looking letters that appear to be lowercase p’s in which the round part slipped down is actually the equivalent of the letters “th,” so you could interpret it as “sithen the sege,” and that second word reveals the reason for the biggest misunderstanding modern English speakers have about Middle English.

If you’ve ever seen something like “Ye Olde Shoppe,” that’s where this comes from. Instead of replacing the “þ” with “th,” early typesetters (who didn’t have the character) used a “y” instead, because to them it looked similar, and hence a non-existent word was born.

But back to the point, if you read that line out loud slowly, you can pretty much hear the modern English meaning in it. But look at how much the language had changed in just a century. Why? Simple. Beowulf and The Green Knight lived on opposite sides of the Norman Conquest.

This had a huge impact on the English language, infusing it with French. It’s a big part of the reason why we raise cows, pigs, and chickens, but eat beef, pork, and poultry. The farmers and cooks were lower-classes, so spoke English. The people who ate it were upper-class and rich, so spoke the courtly language, which was French.

Let’s jump ahead to 1392 and The Canterbury Tales, written in a later version of Middle English. I’ll bet that you can understand this one perfectly well: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…”

It’s basically giving us the setting — in April, when the rains of that month end the drought in March that affected plants right down to their roots.

Set the time machine for 1469, and Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, and look at this opening line: “HIt befel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned…”

I don’t even need to translate that, do I? Except maybe to point out that “Vther pendragon” is better know as “Uther Pendragon,” father of King Arthur.

One last jump of 140 years, and we get this line, for which I don’t even need to cite the author or source: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

And so was modern English born.

Think about that one for a moment. If you were to jump into a time machine, you could only really safely go back a touch over 400 years, or maybe 550, and still be able to communicate with other English speakers — and that’s not even accounting for The Great Vowel Shift.

But spelling was not standardized in Shakespeare’s day. Here’s an example from Twelfth Night, aka Twelfe Night, or What You Will.

And if you want a really funny take on the language of the era by a very famous American author, check out Mark Twain’s hilarious short story 1601, which is naught more but an extended fart joke at Queen Elizabeth (I)’s expense.

Shakespeare would have loved it.

But after Shakespeare died in 1616, it was less than a century and a half before Samuel Johnson felt compelled to compile a dictionary of the English language. His initial attempt was to “fix” the language, but he soon admitted that this was folly.

Unfortunately, he didn’t really fix much, and it’s thanks to him that we have such weird (British) spellings as programme instead of program, tonne instead of ton, and all of those words with “ou” instead of just “o,” like “colour,” because he had this weird boner for maintaining the spellings of words from non-English sources, like French and Latin.

Meanwhile, Noah Webster was born three years after Johnson’s dictionary came out in 1755, and the United States as an independent nation were born by the time he was in his early 30s. He started working on his own dictionary with a goal toward simplifying spelling, and it came out in 1828 after a preliminary run at it in 1806.

Of course, Noah learned 26 languages in order to properly classify English words, and his dictionary was considered by many to outclass Johnson’s in every regard.

But this meant that there were still two English dictionaries with quite different spellings, and with authors who didn’t really simplify anything.

Sure, Webster gave us the short forms of program and ton, and the less nonsensical versions of “tyre” (tire), “kerb” (curb) and “gaol” (jail), but that was about it. He could have quashed such nonsense like the letter “C” (totally redundant as long as we have K and S around); really simplified vowel sounds by standardizing them as single letters and creating strong and defined diphthongs and, finally, getting rid of those stupid silent vowels, mostly “E”, that like to creep at the end of words after a consonant and change the pronunciation of the internal vowel.

So, again, come on. “Maik” is a much more sensible spelling than “make,” which would be two syllables in most other languages.

Speaking of “syllables,” what’s with those double letters? In Spanish, two L’s together makes sense because they are pronounced differently — “Lavas,” meaning you wash, is pronounced just like that: “lavas.” But “llaves,” meaning keys, is pronounced “ya-vays.”

Well, unless you’re from Argentina, in which case it becomes “sha-vays,” but the less said about that the better.

But it gets really weird because American English prefers things like “traveler,” while British English insists on “traveller.” Or what about “judgment” vs. “judgement?” (Hint: Sorry, Brits. You’re wrong. It does not need that second “e”. Webster was right.)

Ben Franklin had tried to simplify spelling before Webster, proposing a new alphabet, but that never caught on. Then again, some of the Founders actually proposed making the official language of the new nation Hebrew instead of English.

Or maybe they were actually going to go for German. Who knows?

In any case… English is the bastard child of Anglo-Saxon, Danish, French, Latin, German, Celtic, and (in latter days) borrowings from every country and culture we’ve managed to touch. As such, our spelling is a total hodgepodge and a hot mess, and it’s probably never going to get fixed.

On the other hand, a couple hundred years from now, everyone may speak Emoji, which would be a weird full circle back around from Egyptian hieroglyphics, where everyone knows what the little pictures mean even if they pronounce them in their own language.

Honestly, I’m not sure whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Talky Tuesday: English, do you speak it, MoFo?

Actually, the real question should be, “English, do you only speak it,” because that seems to be a huge problem with people for whom English is their first language. Particularly in America, they never bother to learn a second, and dog forbid that the average American would attempt a third.

At least Canadians have a cultural and political reason to also learn French, or at least be able to ask directions and order from menus in that language — but listen to a Canadian try to pronounce words in Spanish sometime if you want a laugh.

Oh — not all parts of America are immune to second languages, and if you live in a big melting pot city with a predominant non-Anglo cultural group, you are much more likely to be at least somewhat fluent in that language.

In Southern California, that means Spanish, which also means that I’ve heard Canadians ask for, with a straight face, “Some naa-chose and the fadge-eetas.”

Australians barely speak English, at least according to the Brits — and never mistake the latter for the former unless you want to get the look of death and have a strongly worded letter sent to the Daily Mail deriding the total lack of education of Americans. (I did that once, and I think I actually did it to Emma Thompson, whom I adore, at a charity event. Oops. Lame excuse: I was dating an Aussie at the time, and they did sound alike.)

Brits may know some words in other languages, but they make no pretense of even trying to pronounce them right. Or maybe they do, but they’re just stuck in the past.

There’s still a lot of debate over whether the way they pronounce “Don Quixote” — as “Daan Keyshot” instead of “Doan Key-ho-tay” — actually matches the way that people of Cervantes’ time would have said it.

Then again, that’s Castillian, and as most Hispanics in the Americas (except Argentina) would tell you that Spaniards can’t speak proper Spanish. Just like any American will tell you that Brits can’t speak (or spell) proper English, while the Canadians remain politely quiet because they’re stuck in a limbo between the two.

That is, they spell like Brits but sound (mostly) like Americans from the U.S. (Remember: Canadians — and Mexicans — are Americans, too.)

But this brings me back to the original question: Why is it, particularly in modern times, that most native English speakers do not know at least one other language, if not multiple languages?

On the one hand, maybe there’s no need, because English is the most spoken language in the world. However, it barely edges out Mandarin, and when it comes to native speakers, it falls to fourth place, after Mandarin, Spanish, and Hindi.

It’s all those other people who speak English as a second language that keep us in first place, but when it comes to total speakers, we’re only ahead by about 15 million out of over 1.1 billion for each of English and Mandarin.

Coming in behind Hindi is French, but the interesting thing here is that it has far more non-native speakers (203 million) than native speakers (only 77 million). This is largely due to colonial expansion, which brought the language to the Americas, Asia, and Africa.

I think a lot of people don’t realize this, but France looked to the south to colonize, and so left its fingerprints all over the second-largest continent. To this day, French and various native dialects are still the official languages in many African countries.

The influences in Canada and Louisiana are obvious, and it was the Vietnamese finally kicking out the French in 1954 that led to the involvement of the U.S. in its second-longest war.

Of course, dating back to after their Revolution, French became the language of diplomacy for one simple reason: The revolutionaries, who were actually quite conservative reactionaries, pulled a George Orwell and rewrote the dictionary with the idea that any word in the language could have exactly one meaning only.

Great for lawyers and diplomats. Shit for poets and artists.

But… once upon a time, educated people learned their own language and French. But there was more. Part of the curriculum included Greek and Latin, and this was the case in British schools until fairly recently and American schools until… I’m not sure, really, but I’m guessing sometime around or just after WW II.

However, it is still taught in some schools, surprisingly, particularly private Catholic schools, not surprisingly. Hey — they could always overturn part of Vatican II someday and go back to Mass in 100% Latin.

But go read Edgar Allan Poe, for example. He was just your average artistic drunk from Baltimore who died at forty — quite possibly the victim of a voter fraud scheme — but he frequently led off his stories with quotes from the original Latin, Greek, or French.

James A. Garfield, whose major claim to fame is as the second U.S. President to be assassinated, could write in Greek and Latin at the same time with both hands. I bet that party trick got all the ladies. Or not.

But the emphasis on Greek and Latin was so that people could read the classics — Homer, the Greek and Roman Playwrights, and the Roman histories — in the original, not to mention a lot of the New Testament in the language it was written in.

LOL — how many many people think it was written in English by King James? Nope. Hebrew and a little Aramaic for the O.T., and Greek for the N.T., mostly, although the Gospels were possibly based on an Aramaic source.

It was nearly 1,400 years later that the whole thing (as opposed to just various books) wound up being translated into English for the first time — well before the King James Version.

Meanwhile, once upon a time in America (and Britain and anywhere else with mostly native English speakers) learning a second and even third language was the norm, not the exception.

And for the rest of the world that must do business with this English-speaking cultural empire, it’s a requirement, really. That’s why you’ll wind up talking to so many call center operators with allegedly American names but that tell-tale hint of a beautiful Indian accent that makes English just sound so much nicer.

Call center dudes (and you’re mostly all dudes): Kudos! You speak my native language better than I do. Plus, if I actually bother to ask because I’m truly interested, you engage in wonderful conversations.

But as far as native English speakers, what changed, and why have Americans in particular become so averse to even taking the time to learn another language?

One big reason, probably, is that foreign languages, like the arts, have gradually been bled out of American education. I was probably among the last cohorts who got the options, so that for my entire secondary education, I was tracked into one of the big three.

I was lucky enough to be put into Spanish from the start. I had other friends who got stuck into German and French and didn’t make it past a year, and having tried to learn German and French later, I can see why.

The former has impossibly difficult declensions and the latter is impossible to understand because vowels and terminal consonants just get eaten and obscured.

I think I remember my older half-brother telling me that when he came into school, a decade before me, the choices also included things like Russian, Japanese, Greek, and Hebrew. Or something. But much more than Europe’s Top Three.

And yes, I’ve tried all four of those, and Hindi, and just… no. Russian grammar makes German look simple, Japanese has way too many writing systems, Greek… okay, I actually kind of almost made sense out of Greek. However, Hebrew. like Arabic, which build words by taking a stem, sticking it in the middle of prefixes and suffixes, and then dumping the vowels just didn’t work for me. Sorry, y’all!

But I got Spanish, so I ran with it through all the possible five years, then took a year of German after Spanish ran out in my senior year, and a semester of German in college and… dumped German, stuck with Spanish.

However, look at the subtext in all the above. I’ve dipped my toes into a metric fuckton of non-English languages, including ones not mentioned above: Norwegian, Italian, Gaelic, Hindi, Old English, Hawai’ian, Korean, and Sanskrit.

A lot of them have been way too difficult and easily abandoned, but here’s the point: I tried. And The English-speaking world does not, and the only conclusion I can come to is that it’s because of some sort of fear.

I could easily try to blame it on imperialism, colonization, and the inherited arrogance of the British upper class before WW II (“We’re wealthy and white, so we’re just better than you are”), but I don’t think that’s the cause in the long run, and not in the U.S.

However, I think that a lot of native English speakers are just afraid of words and grammar — especially ones that don’t belong to their language. That fear is kind of ridiculous if you think about it, though. Just look at English spelling. It makes no sense at all.

Or let me rephrase that: “Inglish speling maiks no sins at al.”

You probably understood that perfectly, and it’s what a language like Spanish does. If you know how to say a word in Spanish, you should be able to spell it. I say “should” because they silent H and the similarity of how B and V are pronounced does screw with native speakers, so I have seen written errors like “asta la vista” (instead of “hasta”) and spelling the word for cow as “baca” instead of “vaca.”

I’ll get to how English spelling got so messy while still being less of a mess than it was in a future post. But getting back to the concept of fear keeping English speakers from learning another language, I’ve had firsthand experience of this in my role as a playwright.

For the stage, I tend to write about historical subjects or real-life characters. Ironically, the only full-length play of mine based on an entirely made-up story is also the only one to ever almost make it to production only to be canceled at the last minute — twice.

The second time was because we had been scheduled to open two weeks after the COVID lockdown began in 2020. I’m convinced that the play is cursed.

But… writing about real people often involves other languages. For example, my play Bill & Joan, about that time in Mexico City in 1951 that William S. Burroughs shot and killed his wife at a cocktail party, is built on a flashback structure with the modern-day story taking place as he’s interrogated by two cops.

That would be two Mexico City cops, so there’s a lot of Spanish dialogue. Of course, I only used it when I wanted it to appear that the Burroughs character didn’t understand what they were saying but also knowing that there was a good chance that a lot of my audience might know exactly what they were saying.

In every developmental reading I had of the play over a long, long time, whenever a non-bilingual native English speaker hit one of those lines, there was no predicting what would come out of their mouth, but it was frequently at about the level of those Canadians ordering Mexican food.

Another play, Strange Fruit, deals with a bunch of characters throughout the 20th Century, and because of those people and locations, there are lines in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, French, Chinese, and probably a few others.

In these cases, it’s not quite as extensive, but I’d see the same result in readings — except with the Yiddish, for some reason, except that in modern America, even among the goyim, Yiddish expressions have become such a lingua franca of comedy that they don’t appear to be foreign.

Of course, I’m writing them in the Latin alphabet, not the original, so that makes a difference.

One writer/actor I worked with a lot (who is, sadly, no longer with us) was a very interesting case because, despite being of Hispanic origin, he didn’t speak a word of Spanish because he was of that generation who was raised by a generation of immigrants from Mexico who wanted their kids to blend in and succeed.

The Sleepy Lagoon Murder, the Zoot Suit Riots, and a lot of anti-Mexican racism at the time probably had a lot to do with his parents wanting the kids to seem as non-Hispanic as possible. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they had tried to pass as Italian.

It was a long-running joke between us, in fact, that the tall, very white, Irish-Scandinavian dude spoke Spanish and he didn’t.

But it wasn’t even a matter of he never bothered to learn. He was never even allowed. And any time he was reading a script of mine that even had so much as a single non-English word in it, he wouldn’t even try to pronounce it or even approximate it.

Literal gibberish would come out of his mouth like his tongue had hit a speedbump that disengaged his brain.

And I think that’s how a lot of American English-only speakers react to a foreign language. It’s the old knee-jerk, “Oh, I can never learn that. It’s hard!”

But I can guarantee you this: With that mindset, you never would have learned English as a second language no matter what you started from. And how did you learn English in the first place?

Trial and error and being immersed in it, and it’s the same damn thing with any other language, no matter how young or old you are when you start.

For maybe your first five years of life, you only knew simple words and made a lot of mistakes and probably didn’t even know how to write or spell yet. But, over the thirteen years after that, you got pretty damn fluent. Hell, you were pretty damn fluent before you got out of grade school.

Judging by internet comments, however, a frightening majority of native English speakers never learned to spell. But, again, our language is not at all easy to spell.

That’s why I’m glad I learned it first. I would have given up if I’d tried to learn it second, no matter how young I was when I started.

What second language would you like to learn? Maybe it’s something from your background — what was spoken where one or more of your ancestors came from. Maybe it’s from a culture you admire — French cuisine, Japanese Manga, Korean cinema, Egyptian art, IKEA furniture…

But pick one and give it a try. There are plenty of online resources. And if the first one doesn’t stick, try another. And another. And another. And, who knows? Bottom line is that learning a new language is a lot easier than you think it is.

You just have to stop thinking that it’s not.

Talky Tuesday: Careful where you stick your ‘but’

Conjunction junction, what’s your function… this is a refrain many of us might know from Schoolhouse Rock, but the important conjunction here is “But.”

And is the conjunction that puts words together: “This and that.” Or is the one that allows both options: “This or that.”

Then there’s but, which pretty much excludes whatever comes after it.

You’re probably already jumping ahead to a common sort of phrase it appears in, but let’s hold back for a moment.

“I like pasta and sushi,” she said. So what’s the function of that sentence? Inclusion, pure and simple.

How about this one? “I’ll take pasta or sushi.” Both options are acceptable although, while it’s not clear whether the speaker is making the choice or only responding to the options given by someone else, there’s no judgement.

Finally, “I like pasta but not sushi.” This is basically a refusal, whoever was given the choices. The speaker reads a menu to make their own choice, picks pasta, done. Or… the speaker’s date asks what they want, and the reply is pasta, but not sushi — which could be a really big dismissal of what the date likes, intentional or not.

However, this conjunction gets a lot more troublesome in other contexts, as we’ll see in a moment. First, let’s look at the others.

“And” and “Or” are inclusive, always.

“Do you want to watch some BBC, and then Netflix?” Boom. Both. Done.

And “Or” isn’t as inclusive, but not dismissive. “Would you rather watch BBC or Netflix?”

“I don’t have a subscription to Netflix, so BBC?” (or vice versa) or even “I don’t like (BBC/Netflix), so the other?”

When we get to but, there’s a bit of a problem. Any invocation of “but” requires a condition to go with it. You cannot just say, “I like A, but not B.” Even though that B comes with a not, that “not” means nothing without a qualifier.

And when the construction that comes before “but” is in the form of “I’m not a (blank)…” then you really need to think long and hard about what the hell you’re saying.

As in things like, “I’m not racist, but…” Guarantee you that the next words out of your mouth are going to be 100% racist.

And stick any other –ist or –ic in there, and you’re done.

“I’m not homophobic, but I wish that gay men weren’t so swishy.”

“I’m not misogynistic, but why are women so pushy?”

“I’m not racist, but why don’t Mexicans speak English?”

And on and on and on.

Well, I hope you get the idea by now.

Any phrase that begins with “I’m not (X) but (Y) immediately tells the rest of us that you are absolutely X, and you absolutely believe that whatever bullshit you spew in Y is true.

Period, end of quote.

So, especially in these trying times, if you ever try to say, “I’m not X, but…” stop right there before you open your mouth, think about what you were going to say, then go ask a smarter friend to bail your ass out before you go full-on stupid.

And… happy almost end of (social) summer, and or happy surviving the really weird times we’re still going through right now.

Theatre Thursday: Life is a…

One of the earliest things I can remember, oddly enough, is the soundtrack to the musical “Cabaret,” specifically the title track as sung by Liza Minelli, but also the opening number, “Wilkommen,” which may have inspired my love for languages, and the song “Money,” which probably introduced me to the idea that you could have two different melodies going on at the same time. Ironically, I would not see the entire movie in a theater until I was in a film class in college despite home video and all that, but this was probably for the best. It’s really something that needs to be seen on the big screen first. (And yes, this was also the film that basically screamed at me “Being bisexual is a thing!”)

But… prior to all of that, this was probably the show that infested my baby brain with the idea of Musical Theater Is Amazing, and made me want to perform. And the title tune, of course, features the very famous line “Life is a cabaret.” Well… duh.

Life is a performance. Life is art. Life is dance. Life is creation. If you don’t think that it is, then you aren’t living life. You’re just going through the motions. But if you take charge of your own movements and emotions, and then take every step in your day as if you’re onstage and entertaining the masses, then you are going to have a really good time. And this is what taking those early lessons to heart and going on to make life a performance has taught me. You can either be the show or the audience. But being the audience is boring as hell.

Life sure as hell is a cabaret, ol’ chum. Life is performance. Life without performance is not life at all. So consider this when you go into the muggle world (if you must), but I know that you know it if you’re an actor, singer, artist, writer, performer, whatever. It’s what Saint Shakespeare told us. All the world’s a stage. And we are but mere players on it. But play we must, and play we should and shall, because in taking up our roles we can make this planet a better place.

The only people who don’t play are the ones who are afraid of life and living. And they avoid playing by lying and not being themselves and blaming everyone else. Improv is about “Yes, and?” Guess what? The people who aren’t improving themselves are all about, “No, not.”

Nothing will stop the fun faster than “No, not.” Nothing will make the fun more amazing than “Yes, and?” So choose wisely. But keep in mind: Life is a cabaret, old chum. Life is a cabaret.

Talky Tuesday: Words you might be using incorrectly

If you want to communicate effectively, and especially if you want to have credibility whether you’re speaking or writing, it’s important to use words correctly. Yet I hear certain words misused all the time, even by otherwise well-educated people.

Note that I’m not talking about often mangled phrases, like “for all intensive purposes” instead of the proper “for all intents and purposes,” or mixing up words like “affect” and “effect.” These are single words that are frequently used improperly.

Cliché

We probably all know that “cliché” means something that has been used in art or literature so often that it has become bland and predictable, and so should be avoided. Movies are full of them — the horror movie villain who isn’t really dead after they seem to have been killed, the henchmen who are terrible shots, the witty comment as the hero dispatches a goon.

We also get these in live theater, though. The so-called “11 o’clock number” comes from the world of Broadway musicals, when the shows used to start at 8:30. This was the “knock ‘em dead before the finale” show-stopper of a song that usually highlighted the vocal talents of the lead, manipulated emotions, and was catchy as hell. Think Memory from Cats, the titular Cabaret, or Rose’s Turn from Gypsy. Also note that nowadays, it’s more likely to be the 10 o’clock number.

Of course, in the latter case, the cliché isn’t so much a specific thing as it is a stylistic conceit.

In literature, clichés can refer to either hackneyed turns of phrase — “I need that like a hole in the head” — or plot elements that have been pounded to death. Young adult literature in particular, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games via Twilight and Maze Runner abound with them, although, to be fair, they’re more forgivable in YA only because their audience may not have met them yet.

All that said, then, how does the word “cliché” itself get misused? Simple. It’s a noun, and never an adjective. So you’re safe if you say “that’s a cliché.” Not so much if you try to describe something as “that’s so cliché.” In that case, you want the word “clichéd.”

Comprise

This is a word that tends to get used backwards. Hint: If you follow it with a preposition and a list, then you’re using it wrong. Nothing is ever “comprised of” anything else. In that case, you’d be looking for “composed of.”

The “mp” combination in English is interesting because it is one of the ways in which the language has a lot in common with Spanish, and it comes from compound words that would otherwise create the consonant combination “np.” Hell, it even shows up in “compound!” A good Spanish example of this is the word “compartir,” which is very common in social media, because it means “to share.” The constituent words are “con” and “partir.” The former is a preposition that means “with.” The latter is a verb that means “to split.” So, when you share, you split something with someone else: con + partir, but that “np” isn’t liked, so we get “compartir.”

Now to get to the meaning of “comprise,” we have to go back to Middle English via Middle French, where the word “prise” meant to hold or grasp, so the combo basically means “to hold with.” Your preposition is in the phrase, so all you need to add are the nouns.

So… The U.S. comprises fifty states or the U.S. is composed of fifty states.

Further

This word is often confused and misused with “farther.” The two are very similar, but I’ll give you a simple way to remember the difference, making this a very short entry. “Further” is metaphorical, while “farther” is literal. The latter refers only to physical distance, while the former refers to abstract difference.

“Dallas is farther from Boston than Chicago.”

“He managed to walk farther than his brothers that day.”

“She ran farther in the competition than any other runner.”

Those are the literal versions. As for the abstract or figurative:

“He could extend the metaphor no further.”

“They wouldn’t accept any further questions.”

“Their research proved they had no further to go.”

The simple mnemonic to remember it by is this: To create physical distance, you have to go away, and farther has an “a” in it. Yeah, simple and cheesy, but it works.

Ironic

Sorry, but Alanis Morissette is just plain wrong no matter how popular her song was. Irony is not some weird coincidence that happens. For example, slamming the keyboard lid on your hand and breaking it right before your big piano recital is not ironic. Neither is someone saying something during that whole “speak now or forever hold your piece” moment at the wedding.

There are three forms of Irony. First is when what you say is the opposite of what you mean. For example, someone gives you rollerblades for your birthday but you have no legs. That part isn’t ironic, but if you open the gift and announce, “Oh boy, just what I wanted,” then you’re being ironic.

Situational irony is when the intended results of something turn out to be the opposite of what was expected. For example, a husband surprises his wife with an anniversary trip to Paris because she’s always talking about the city, but the real reason she’s seemed so obsessed is because she’s always hated the place, so he’s given her the worst gift ever.

The third form is dramatic irony, and if you’ve ever heard of O. Henry, particularly his short story The Gift of The Magi, then you know this one. A man sells his expensive watch to buy some combs for his wife’s hair. Meanwhile, she cuts off her hair and sells it to buy a fob for his watch. Bang! Double irony. This can also happen when the viewers or readers know something that the characters do not.

Less

If you’re a grammar nerd like me, then every time you see that “15 items or less” sign in the store, your butt probably clenches and you have to resist the urge to tell the blameless clerk why it’s wrong. The difference between “less” and “fewer” is really simple.

“Fewer” refers only to countable nouns, while “less” refers to uncountable nouns. And if that seems all super-grammar unintelligible, it’s not, because the words mean what they say. Countable nouns are objects that can actually be counted: one apple, two oranges, three ducks, etc. Uncountable nouns are those that can’t be counted: sugar, coffee, tea, etc.

Note, though, that uncountables can become countable when they are quantized: a cup of coffee, a tablespoon of sugar, a glass of tea, and so on.

But here’s the rule. If you can count them, then you want to say “fewer.” If you can’t, then it’s “less.” “I want fewer apples.” “I want less sugar.” But also note: “I need fewer pounds of sugar,” since pounds are countable.

I don’t have a great mnemonic for this one, although maybe remembering that the “F” in fewer is in “First,” a counting number, might do the trick. And the great compounder to this one is that the term “more” refers to both countable and uncountable nouns: More apples, more tea.

Yeah, I never said that English made any sense.

Whom

This one is not as hard as it might seem, and in order to get it right all you have to do is rephrase the sentence in your head. For example: “To ??? should I send the gift?” Make it not a question, and it becomes “I send the gift to him/her/them.” And the clue comes in the masculine and plural pronouns. They end in “m” and so does “whom,” so if the rephrase would use him or them, then the other way around would use “whom.”

Most of the time, you’ll use “whom” after a preposition, although not always. For example, a question involving verbs without prepositions gets tricky. If someone asked you which person you believed, would it be “who” or “whom?”

Turn it around and you get, “I believe them,” ergo, “Whom do you believe?” (The implied but omitted preposition is “in.”)

Of course, this also puts the lie to the lyrics of several songs. But no one ever said that lyricists have to be grammarians. Poets do get to slide a bit, after all, no matter the language they write in.

 

Talkie Tuesday: More fun with British vs. American English, Part 2

At the end of the first half, the score was America, 9 and Britain, 2. Let’s cheer the teams back onto the field as we continue the list and find out who wins. If you missed the first half, you can catch it here.

  1. Demister (car) vs. defroster

It’s in your car. It’s designed to clear up your back window on particularly damp, humid mornings when the glass is fogged by condensation. I suppose that it could theoretically be used to remove frost and ice, but most people facing icy circumstances will use a scraper first, instead.

Nope. What we’re generally dealing with here is a wet, foggy window that you can’t see through.

Correctness Verdict: The point goes to Britain, for actually using the right term. 9-3.

  1. Drinks driving vs. drunk driving

You shouldn’t do this no matter what you call it, but the first one sounds like an awkard sentence made up of two verbs: “He drinks driving.” The second is a nice, simple adjective and verb combo.

Correctness Verdict: America, for not have an utterly stupid sounding expression. 10-3.

  1. Earth vs. ground (electricity)

This is the third wire that provides a method for your electrical circuits to not kill you by directing overload and the like down into the ground where it will dissipate. Yes, technically the ground is the Earth, but the problem with using “earth a circuit” as a term is that it turns the planet into a verb, which is unnecessary since you can just ground a circuit instead.

Correctness Verdict: America, because planets should not be verbs. 11-3.

  1. Fairy-cake vs. cupcake

Although fairy cakes are a little bit smaller than their American counterparts and have less frosting, it’s another case of the fanciful versus the practical.

I mean, what could a fairy cake be? A sheet cake decorated with fairies? A bar of soap made by the same company that made Fairy washing-up liquid? (That’s dish soap in the U.S., which should be another point to the U.S. because dish soap is specific.)

Fairy cake conjures up those abominable flavors of American ice cream, like birthday cake or unicorn vomit or whatever they call that one — conflagrations of unnatural pinks and purples with far too many sprinkles, way too much sugar, and a base of vanilla fighting valiantly against it all.

Meanwhile, a cupcake is a cake small enough to have been baked in a cup. Simple. Straight-forward. Practical. You know what it is immediately even if you’ve never seen one.

Correctness Verdict: America, for not being twee about it. 12-3.

  1. Fancy dress vs. costume party

I’m sure that this one has caused much an embarrassment on either side of the pond. If you’re invited to a fancy dress party in the UK, don’t show up in black tie and tails. Well, I mean, you could and claim that you came as James Bond, but you’d still feel awkward.

Of course, there have probably been people who were invited to something fancy dress in the U.S. and appeared decked out as Peter Pan only to find a sea of black tie and tails. Now, we don’t tend to use the term fancy dress here all that often — generally, we’d say black tie if we meant it — but fancy dress would never mean the equivalent of Halloween party or furry convention.

Correctness Verdict: I’m calling this one a tie, because you can never be overdressed, even at a costume party, and American English doesn’t lead to the error. 12-3.

  1. Flyover vs. overpass

These are things you see on the freeway or highway (both U.S.) or the motorway (UK), and they are ramps designed to enter or exit by going up and over what I’ll collectively refer to now as the roadway. They have a lot to do with how that roadway was built, with overpasses or flyovers being much more common between cities and underpasses (or… flyunders?) more common within cities.

That’s because the intercity/interstate routes were quite frequently laid down through undeveloped land with long, straight stretches, so it was just easy to keep the whole thing at grade — meaning ground level — then build a bridge over it where necessary to join it to local roads or create interchanges with other major arteries.

Meanwhile, within cities, there were already existing streets, so the roadways had to be elevated to pass over them, with ramps going down to street level to provide entrances and exits.

Again, this is a case of British English being unnecessarily obtuse. They could have called it a drive-over, although it’s probably fortunate that they didn’t call them pass-overs instead. But no. They had to suddenly mock the fact that we still don’t have flying cars.

Correctness Verdict: Clearly America. It passes over the road. Simple. 13-3.

  1. Greaseproof paper vs. wax paper

Another kitchen staple and it’s actually for the purpose that the British word states on the tin. Yes, it does this by being coated with a thin layer of wax on both sides and it’s great for keeping things from sticking or keeping oil from leaking through onto the cookie sheet. But people who don’t cook or bake a lot might wonder why it should even be a staple in their kitchen drawer.

Still, the American term is misleading, since it’s paper coated with wax and not paper made out of wax. Some people do say “waxed paper,” but they’re actually wrong. And remember: wax paper is mostly used for putting greasy things on when they come out of the fryer or oven, or separating layers of sticky things like fudge.

You shouldn’t put it in the oven because it will smoke. For that, they make parchment paper, which is not for writing on.

Correctness Verdict: Point to Britain here, despite the term using more syllables. 13-4.

  1. Hen (stag) night vs. bachelorette (bachelor) party

No matter what you call it, it used to be an excuse for that final night of debauchery before locking oneself into presumed monogamy. Of course, the complexion of both has changed. A lot.

Once upon a time, the guys’ version usually involved lots of booze, strippers, perhaps a pub crawl, and either the future groom or best man or both having a go at one or more of the strippers, either separately or collectively.

What happened at the bachelor party was like what happens in Vegas. It stays in Vegas.

Meanwhile, back in those days, bachelorette parties were sort of like baby showers, but for the bride, with her, the bridesmaids, and friends gathering to give the bride gifts — some serious, and some of them raunchy gags — along with playing various slightly risqué party games. There might even occasionally be a male stripper, although it would be far more likely for an unmarried bridesmaid to have her shot at him instead of the bride-to-be.

Present day? At least in America, a bachelor party is just as likely to involve an evening of laser tag or an escape room, no strippers, and a lot more decorum. Bachelorette parties, though, frequently go off the hook, with the popular pre-COVID version being the whole party renting a limo, taking over a popular local gay club, and then getting bombed and groping all the cute men.

No, I’m not making that up.

Meanwhile, stag nights in the UK seem to remain the piss-ups that they’ve always been with epic pub crawls that often end in inappropriate behavior among the boys — who leave video evidence online — which is even more incriminating if they take the party to Magaluf for the weekend.

Hen parties are likewise, apparently. The women are just wise enough to not post it all on TikTok.

Correctness Verdict: Point to America for not using animal terms that imply strength vs. weakness. 14-4.

  1. Hoarding vs. billboard

Once upon a time, a “bill” was something put on a wall to advertise something — hence a common admonition seen in places like temporary walls around construction sites: “Post no bills.”

Eventually, advertising got bigger and paid for, and so those bills got put up on big boards. These were attached to walls, building marquees, or freestanding frames. In the modern day, we even have electronic billboards that can change their message every minute or two.

Technically, a British hoarding is the temporary fence put around a construction site, but that term is also unique to the UK. Also note, temporary vs. permanent. In the U.S., billboards, particularly the large ones on rooftops or their own poles, are permanent, with the ads rotating in and out on a regular basis.

Correctness Verdict: A tie, mainly because while there are connections between the two, they really aren’t the same things. 14-4.

  1. Hob vs. stovetop

To Americans, British kitchens are just weird. For one thing, what is your washing machine doing in there? Okay, once upon a time in New York, the bathtub was in the kitchen as well, but that was New York, and it was always weird.

To us, a stovetop is fully covered and has multiple burners, usually four, and sometimes a warmer or covered griddle in the middle. Each burner has a wrought iron metal trivet that holds pots and pans just above the heat source, and each burner is powered either by an electrical coil or a gas flame.

To us, if we even think about it, the gas flame comes from a hob, or nozzle, but it’s a mostly hidden part of the stovetop, and each stovetop has more than one.

A hob just takes a part of the whole but doesn’t really express the entire idea.

Correctness Verdict: America, hands down. You can only light a hob. You can cook on a stove. 15-4.

  1. Hundreds and thousands vs. jimmies or sprinkles

These are the colorful things that you sprinkle on ice cream or sundaes or the like, and note that even in America there are multiple terms, with jimmies being less common and regional. (I picked it up from my east coast relatives. Otherwise, it’s rare where I live in California.)

But if we go with sprinkles, that’s pretty damn accurate. Get your frozen treat, grab that shaker, and sprinkle away.

Meanwhile, what does “hundreds and thousands” even mean, especially given that you’re nowhere near likely to shake that many of them out without burying your ice cream in molded sugar bits?

Correctness Verdict: America, as Britain once again goes for the fancifully impractical term. 16-4.

  1. Ladybird vs. ladybug

 This one just demonstrates a real lack of biological knowledge on one side of the Pond. Yes, both birds and a lot of bugs have wings and legs, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Birds have two legs, warm blood, and feathers. Bugs have six legs, a not at all warm oxygenated goop that doesn’t use veins or arteries to circulate, and no feathers. Not to mention that birds eat bugs.

Even the smallest of birds, the hummingbird, is like a Lear jet next to a typical ladybug.

Of course, there are religious reasons that the ladybug got this very inappropriate name. As with many things over there that have “Lady” in the name, it’s a reference to the Virgin Mary, because the red color of the ladybug’s shell resembled the red cloak with which Mary was often depicted in medieval art, and the European variety tended to have seven spots on its shell, seven being a mystic number.

It is possible that they didn’t use the term “ladybug” in the UK because it’s close to the term “bugger,” but they could have just as easily gone with the original name for it, which was Our Lady’s Beetle.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., if you say “Ladybird,” people are going to think of either a former First Lady, Hank Hill’s dog, or a recent award-winning movie.

Correctness Verdict: America, for keeping religion out of entomology.

Final score, 17-4, America, with two ties.

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