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: Dunning-Kruger

How not to fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap.

You have probably heard the term Dunning-Kruger Effect. This basically describes a cognitive bias whereby people with a low ability in some skill or task over-estimate their ability. It’s particularly common in people who’ve studied a little in a field, but not quite enough.

If you ever want to run into this effect in the wild, study a language on Duolingo, especially if it’s brushing up on one you’re fluent in. Watch for an exception to some “rule” to come up, then check the comments.

One of my favorites is in Spanish whenever an expression like “Este es un problema” shows up, especially in the context of translating an expression from English into Spanish: “This is a problem.”

Their translation in Spanish will be flagged as an error for a lot of noobs who will then race to the comments to complain that they were right rather than to ask why what they wrote was wrong.

And those of us who know the language know what they wrote wrong: “Esta es una problema.” And they will insist that they’re right because “problema” ends in “a” and so is feminine.

This is a perfect example of doubling down on one’s ignorance, and people who insist on this are very quickly corrected. Problema, like many other Spanish words adapted from Greek, is masculine despite ending in “a”. It’s just an exception people have to remember.

An English version would be people pointing out that the word “weird” is, in fact, spelled “wierd,” because “I before E, except after C…” Which, of course, is wrong, and is also a rule that has far more exceptions. Right, Keith?

But if you really want to see Dunning-Kruger in action, go to any social media discussion forum on a post relating to science, politics or COVID-19 (you’ll often find all three together), and feast your eyes.

People who only know a little (or nothing) about a subject will make bold statements as if they are fact, and quite frequently double-down on their lack of knowledge after being corrected, especially by experts.

This will frequently come up when people prove that they made it to about 3rd grade Civics, never went further, and then forgot everything anyway.

“Facebook can’t ban Person X. What about their First Amendment rights?” Answer: The First Amendment does not apply to private business or individuals; only the Federal Government. You can’t be arrested or suffer other governmental actions, like a sudden 7-year tax audit, because of what you say or post or publish.

You can, however, be banned from a private business or social media site or sued by an individual whom you’ve libeled or slandered. It’s called “You have the right to free speech, but you do not have the right to avoid consequences for what you say.”

And even not all speech is protected from the Federal Government. There’s the famous “fire in a crowded theater” rule, meaning any speech likely to create a clear and present danger, like, oh, I don’t know… calling for an armed insurrection, perhaps?

When it comes to science, things get even more ridiculous and, again, it’s because of people who only made it through a very elementary understanding of things like genetics or biology who then try to argue about how many sexes or genders there are, how mRNA viruses “really” work, or why vaccines in general don’t.

These topics are a Dunning-Kruger field-day. Sadly, the lack of understanding about biology and genetics when it comes to gender and sex is actually harmful to people, because it leads to the undereducated and uninformed making stupid statements like, “There are only two sexes,” or “The gender you’re born with (?) is your gender, period.”

This also emboldens them to blatantly misgender people — this has come up a lot in stories about the woman who has now become the biggest winner on Jeopardy, even on strictly entertainment websites. Inevitably, some tiny-minded asshole will pop in with “he,” not realizing (or maybe they are) how damn transphobic and hateful they are being.

Not you, not your choice of pronouns, period.

There’s a big problem with misgendering or claiming that gender or sex are binary. They are completely wrong. But I’ll turn it over to a real clinical geneticist to explain why. Share this with people online the next time they try to claim that gender and sex are binary.

And remember, online, unless you’re calling out something that someone has posted that is blatantly wrong, stick to your own area of expertise. Oh… the real one, not the one you’ve Dunning-Krugered yourself into thinking you’re an expert on.

Hint: If you haven’t studied it multiple years with various teachers/experts, then don’t try to play expert yourself. Use their knowledge to point toward informed opinions, but always do the research first. In other words: Don’t be part of the problem.

Talky Tuesday: Compound interest?

English isn’t the only language to use compound words and, in fact, ours are rather tamed compared to some really complicated ones in other tongues.

Like several other languages, English uses compound words to create new concepts by sticking two other words together. This can actually be done in one of three ways: open compounds, which are separate words (hang glider); hyphenated compounds, which are what it says on the tin (life-size); and closed compounds, which happen when the words are fused together (superstar).

The latter shouldn’t be confused with a portmanteau word, which is one word shoved into another. That is, the separate words merge to form one that doesn’t contain a complete version of either. A famous example is smog, which comes from smoke and fog.

These kinds of words are named for a portmanteau, which is a large suitcase or trunk that opens into two equal parts, as opposed to a regular suitcase, which pretty much has a shallow lid and a deep storage area. Fun fact: portmanteau is itself a portmanteau, derived from the French words porter, “to carry”, and manteau, “mantle.” They’re very common in English, but not today’s subject, although you can find lists of them online.

Another thing that compound words are generally not is agglutinative, although that depends upon what you’re agglutinating. Broadly speaking, an agglutinative language is considered a “synthetic language,” but that does not mean made up. In this case, synthetic refers to synthesis, which is the creation of a whole from various parts.

English can show agglutinative propensities in word pairs like teach and teacher. The former is a verb, the latter is a noun describing a person who does the verb. Farm, farmer; game, gamer; preach, preacher; account, accountant; debut, debutante; and so on. These are all agglutinative words in English, short and simple, but they really aren’t an essential or sole feature of how words are built in the language.

A good example of simple agglutinatives are the classical versions of the Semitic languages Hebrew and Arabic, which both work in similar ways. They start with a simple word root, and then add prefixes, suffixes, and infixes to change the meaning, basically building a root outward into various concepts. (The modern versions are apparently more analytical, less agglutinative.)

Complicated agglutinative languages will pile on the prefixes and suffixes until a speaker winds up with a ridiculously long word that expresses a concept in great detail, but which a lot of other languages would have achieved through separate words and parts of speech.

What analytical and inflected languages do is build meaning through things like articles, nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, interjections, and interrogatives. A language spoken (at them) loudly and — wow! — what?

If you really want to go hog-wild with an agglutinative language, then check out Turkish. It’s a hot mess, but that probably explains why Recep Erdoğan is always so cranky.

But let’s get back to those compound words, because they are also a feature of Spanish and German, which both do them in very different ways, not only from each other, but from English.

English compound words tend to just go for it, jam the words together, and done. Examples: Airport, baseball, windfall, extraordinary, worldwide, sailboat, stockbroker, etc.

Spanish compound words are a little more practical, since they tend to pretty much describe what the thing does, which English compounds don’t always do. Also, they tend to be masculine words regardless of the second half so that, for example, the word for umbrella is masculine despite the second half of the word being feminine (and plural): el paraguas.

Other great examples in Spanish: abrelatas, can opener, literally open cans; autopista, highway/freeway, literally automobile trail; bienvenido, welcome, literally the same in Spanish; cumpleaños, birthday, literally complete years; horasextra, overtime, literally extra hours; lavaplatos, dishwasher (the machine) and also literally washes dishes; matamoscas, fly swatter, literally kills flies.

I think that gives you a good general idea, and you can find lists online as well. But when it comes to the granddaddy of ridiculous compounds that give agglutinative languages a run for their money, look no farther than German.

English may rarely stick three words together to make one compound, but that seems to be our limit. The Germans? Well, they do seem to have a knack for sticking words together to describe things they couldn’t be arsed to come up with single words for, like literally calling gloves hand shoes (die Handschuhe.) I don’t think we get quite that lazy in English.

But the Germans transcend that. Are three words a compound limit for them? Oh hell noes. They’ll go on shoving words together all day long to express a specific concept. I guess the idea of sentences is too much for them.

I kid! A big chunk of my ancestry is German — well, at least the quarter that came down from my paternal grandfather  — and it is the third language, besides Spanish and English, that I have actually studied beyond a passing interest. But, c’mon. Some of their compound words are ridiculous.

Here’s a good one, made up of no less than eight separate words: rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. A literal word-for-word translation into English is “beef meat labeling monitoring tasks transfer law.”

The Week made a great compilation of ten of the worst offenders, but I have to share a couple of them here.

Hey, this one is only three words! Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, legal protection insurance companies, as in companies that will indemnify your ass against lawsuits.

Again, only four little words but one huge result: Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. It literally means Danube steamship company captain, and wouldn’t you hate to have to shoehorn that word into your resume? But let us take a moment to look at the unfortunate word in there, and you know exactly which one I mean: dampfschiffahrts. Dampf means steam, and that should be pretty obvious after two seconds of realizing that it’s similar to the English word damp. Likewise, schiff for ship should be a no-brainer.

This leaves us with fahrts and no, it does not mean what you think it does. It comes from the German word fahren, to drive, and tends to wind up in anything involving a vehicle or journey. For that other word referring to the gas driven out of your ass, you want to use der Furz. And yes, it’s a masculine noun, because of course it is.

What? We all know that women never fart. It just isn’t done.

And, finally, there’s another four word jam slam: Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister. It refers to the master of chimney sweeps in a district, but breaks down to district (bezirks) chimney (schornstein) sweep (feger) and master (meister).

Talky Tuesday: Assuming gender

Since English has no grammatical genders, learning a language with them can be daunting, but fear not. Here are some quick tips on the concept.

One concept in other languages that just boggles the mind of native English speakers is the idea of grammatical gender. It has nothing to do with the actual gender or sex of the person being spoken about and, naturally, inanimate objects tender to be neuter, or have no gender.

Well, at least in English.

Most commonly, languages will either have no gender distinctions, two distinctions (masculine and feminine), or three (masculine, feminine, and neuter.)

Some languages go a little nuts with it, though. Polish technically has five genders — three variations on masculine, plus feminine and neuter. The masculine genders indicate whether something is a human being, a living creature but not human, or an inanimate object, although those last two are not really used anymore.

Bantu languages tend to go the most extreme, with Ganda having ten classes and Shona having twenty — singular and plural are considered distinct genders. Meanwhile, Ganda genders follow characteristics of objects, so pertain to things like people, long objects, animals, large objects, small objects, liquids, and so on.

So if you’re trying to learn a romance language with only two grammatical genders, consider yourself lucky.

Oh — also, do not confuse a language without grammatical genders and gender-neutral language. The latter tries to eliminate sexist terminology.

English still has some gendered nouns that are slowly being eliminated, like the pair waiter and waitress, which are being replaced by server. But note that the two nouns are otherwise not distinguished by articles or adjectives, although they may take different pronouns.

So, for example, “the happy waiter” and “the happy waitress” are both grammatically correct. So are the phrases “He is a server” and “she is a server,” with the pronoun being the only gender distinction.

English used to have a lot more gender-specific work roles and job titles, but these are going away as well. For example, any terms that used to end in -man, like Chairman of the Board, Fireman, Alderman, etc., is being replaced with terms like Chair or Chairperson, and Fire Fighter.

For some reason, probably having to do with Chicago politics, “alderman” is proving to be a holdout, despite efforts to change it.

There are also other gender terms like actor and actress that are changing so that “actor” is now used as the gender-neutral term for either, and a number of gendered terms fell out of use years ago, like baker and baxter, aviator and aviatrix, and seamster and seamstress — although the last one is a little odd, because seamstress stayed, while the former was replaced by tailor.

You also now know where the surname Baxter came from — the same place that Baker did. And yes, there’s a reason that occupational last names are so common in all languages. That’s because a town might have only one baker or miller or blacksmith, so someone would become known as John Baker or Tom Miller or Joe Smith.

This is really amusing when you realize that Giuseppe Ferrari and Joe Smith are exactly the same name.

But back to the gender thing and why it can be so daunting to native English speakers. In some languages, like Spanish, it’s well marked, so that masculine and feminine nouns will generally end in -o for the former and -a for the latter… but not always, and more on that in a moment.

In others, like German, there are broad rule for what words are masculine and feminine, but a lot of the time it’s a total crapshoot, and you can’t get any clues from the spelling. Neuter complicates it further and, on top of that, things don’t always line up, especially when it comes to animate objects and people.

In German, horses and girls are both neuter, for example.

But getting back to Spanish, genders are generally a lot clearer because of the o/a endings, and nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles all match:

La mesera alta.

El mesero alto.

These refer, in order, to the tall waitress and the tall waiter, although use camarera and camarero outside of Latin America.

This all makes sense for student learners until the day that the teacher writes, “El agua está fria” on the board, and people freak out.

They will either focus on the “el” and ask why agua is masculine, or they will insist that agua is feminine and ask why the article is wrong.

Welcome to your first grammatical exception — although this one isn’t quite what it seems. If you were talking about “the waters,” “las aguas” would be perfectly fine because the word is feminine. So what’s going on?

This one exists strictly for ease of pronunciation, and it’s the same thing that we do in English when we replace “a” with “an” before certain vowels, like “an elephant,” or “an opera,” but “a universe” or “a unicorn.”

The emphasis in “agua” is on the first a, so it’s very hard to say “la agua” with those two stressed a’s banging into each other. On the other hand, the “l” en el bleeds in very nicely to that stressed a, so that’s why it’s done.

This is true for any word in Spanish that starts with a stressed a, including el águila (but las Águilas), and so on.

This eventually starts to make sense, and then we get the next gender-bomb with something like “el problema.”

Again, the words ends in -a, so it should be feminine, right? Except that this word comes from Greek, where it is masculine, so the gender came over directly into Spanish, and now we have a whole class of words from Greek, generally ending in -ma or -ta and sometimes -pa, that are masculine: el problema, el programma, el planeta, el cometa, el mapa, etc.

Unfortunately, you really just have to memorize them, because a word like etapa (meaning a period of time or a stage in some process) is feminine — la tercera etapa del cohete, the rocket’s third stage.

Once you’ve had fun with those, we get to the word for the hand: la mano. And yes, mano is feminine, for the same reason those Greek words are masculine, except that in this case, “mano” came from Latin, and the form of the word that got adapted into Spanish was feminine.

“Necesitará una mano lista para enfrentar un problema duro.” You will need a ready hand in order to tackle a hard problem. Note how the articles and adjectives appear to not match their nouns at all. Get used to it.

Don’t worry. It gets worse!

Further into occupations, you might learn the word dentista — ella es una dentista. Now, you could assume that the corresponding sentence would be “él es un dentisto,” but you’d be wrong. The correct phrase is also “él es un dentista.”

This is another class of words, generally ending in -ista, that are invariant, and frequently refer to occupations or ideologies. “Socialista” is another one that does not change, regardless of the actual gender of the socialist.

The same applies to nacionalista, capitalista, comunista, marxista, machista, and so on.

Finally, there are words that take on a particular gender because of what is missing. For example, “radio” can be either masculine or feminine, but there’s a good reason for that. When you’re referring to an actual physical device designed to receive and play radio broadcasts, then it’s masculine: el radio. However, when you refer to the broadcast that’s played en el radio, then that is la radio.

The reason for this is that when referring to a medium the word radio is short for “radio difusión,” or transmission by radio, and since difusión is feminine, so is the shortened form.

You can see this in words like la foto and la moto, which are short for fotographía and motocicleta. This is also why days of the week are all masculine — the word for day, el día, is masculine — and why the hours of the day are feminine — because they pick up the gender of the word for hour, la hora.

Month is masculine, so I’ll let you figure out which gender applies to the names of the months.

So it’s not a system that is as hard as it seems, and while there are some exceptions, those exceptions actually follow their own rules. You can’t always assume the gender of a noun, but once you know what it is, remembering it will gradually become second nature.

Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! — because, in Spanish, luck be a lady.

Friday Free-for-All #76: Skill, youth, fashion, offense

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What skill do you wish more people took the time to learn?

Well, speaking as a resident of the U.S. and on behalf of quite a number of people for whom English is their first language (Canada, y’all get a pass here), I really wish that more people who only speak English would learn at least one other language, no matter how young or old they are.

The U.S. itself has no official language, despite what so many ignorant people seem to think. Sure, some states do, even a state as liberal as California, but only because our ballot initiative system is so screwed up. And, then again, our state government wisely ignores the “English only” BS that was passed in the 1980s, so it doesn’t really matter.

But learning another language and getting good at it is probably the best way to broaden your perspective, connect to another culture and — ironic, I know — learn a lot more about your own. Want to really, really learn about English? Study Latin, German, or French.

Or if you want a deeper dive into the effects of colonialism, study Spanish, any one of a ton of First Peoples’/Indigenous languages from the Americas, Hawai’ian, or take your pick from the language groups of the Philippines.

You’re welcome. Hey, at the very least, you’ll be able to order at your favorite local ethnic restaurant without sounding like a moron, so there’s that.

What do you really wish you knew when you were younger?

Oh, if I knew this one, I would have been dangerous. It’s a simple rule that applies any time, really, before you’re at least a few years out of college and into your first real adult job where they let you actually give your opinions about shit.

So… from infant sentience to maybe 26, essentially.

And the secret is this: Everyone else your age that you meet is just as goddamn insecure and scared and worried as you think that you are. It’s just that some are better at pretending that they’re not. Want to rule the school? It’s easy.

Give up your fear and cease to give a royal fuck about what anyone else thinks of you. Make bold statements. Commit outrageous creative acts. Be so daring that you inspire others.

I got a great example in this a couple of years ago, when I reconnected with one of my old college roommates on Facebook. When we finally got into an extended chat, we told each other what we had thought of each other at the time, and I was blown away.

See, I thought that he was this really confident, mature guy who was wise in the ways of the world and knew things about how life worked that I possibly couldn’t because I just felt so emotionally immature and totally insecure, and really didn’t know how to relate to people.

But he told me that his apparent bravado was just a cover-up for his shrieking insecurity, and that he always thought of me as one of the most intelligent people he’d ever met. But see, that was because I tended to use information and knowledge as a shield against my own insecurity — “if I tell you this fact, you won’t see my fear.”

It was a totally eye-opening experience not so much from what I learned about him but what I learned from him about me. It’s never easy to find out that someone else’s impression of you is so ridiculously positive, but it is encouraging.

So, when you’re young, if you’re the one who asks intelligent questions or approaches people and makes them feel welcome and heard, you’re going to be the coolest one in the room. But never do it to cover up insecurity. Learn first that all of your insecurity is self-produced and it probably can’t hold a candle to all of the insecurities that the #1 Influencer on campus actually has.

After all, if they’re so confident, why would they feel the constant need to basically scream, “Look at how amazing I am, and isn’t all the stuff I own just bonkers?”

But… guess what? The grown-ups are just the same, only worse. Inside every Karen, who seems to not give a shit what anyone thinks about them, there’s really an insecure child who feels utterly helpless without being a control freak. Hence, when they hit an obstacle, they start abusing the staff and screaming for the manager/

They’re not powerful. They’re pathetic.

So, kids, when the adults try to stifle your personality or creativity just because they think they can, well… if you truly wind up with all this adult knowledge stuck in your young head, dispatching them should be no problem at all, because they are even more insecure and worried than your own cohort.

Finally, if you rebel in the right way by driving them nuts without making them prosecute you, even if you get kicked out of school, you’re going to have set up the platform to becoming a superstar.

But I think that part has always been true.

Who do you think has the biggest impact on fashion trends: Actors and actresses, musicians, fashion designers, or consumers?

Oh, this one is easy. It’s the idiots who think that fashion trends have any importance at all. Or, in other words, the stupid consumers who buy it. This is one of the reasons that The Devil Wears Prada is so great.

Meryl Streep’s character, Miranda Priestly (yeah, no symbolism in that name!), builds up this incredible defense of what she does and why it’s important and it sounds plausible — but it’s a house of card(igan)s and even while it’s brilliantly argued in the film by her character, it also falls apart even while she’s extolling a (very particular) shade of blue and how it became a “thing.”

Simply put, her influence only exists because some people actually give a shit about what she decrees to be fashionable. And upon her words rise or fall the designers, and then the actors, actresses, musicians, and other influencers who get the free clothes to parade on red carpets in order to try to sell it to…

Oh yeah. The group I started with. The consumers. And it’s simple. Stop buying their shit and paying too much for it, wear what is within your budget and comfortable, and you could destroy the fashion industry in a season.

Or, you know — grow a set and make your own fashion. Truth to tell, some of the best-dressed people I know shop exclusively in vintage stores and thrift shops or even make their own. This is how hippies created their own unique style, and it was also the punk aesthetic before that got co-opted by… whatever they called hipsters in the 80s. Poseurs, maybe?

But ooh. Power! Take that non-designer purse or cheap wallet, spend in the right places, and bring down one of the most pretentious industries in the world.

Sequel idea to the above move: The Angel Wears Whatever the Fuck They Want To.” Coming to Amazon Prime, Spring 2022.

How much effort should an individual put into not offending others?

Well, it depends. Are you an artist, comedian, satirist, marketer or other creative doing your job? Then it’s practically your role to offend, with a couple of caveats.

Always punch up, and never down. Making fun of the homeless or addicts or the poor, etc.? Yeah. Fuck right off. Making fun of someone because of a trait they can’t control — like age, race, handicap, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, etc., then also fuck right off.

Belief systems have a wider range, since they are traits that people can control. So if they follow a particular religion (or not-religion) or political bent or whatever, but do not use it to punch down at others, then give them a pass.

If, however, they use the beliefs they have chosen to be dicks to people, then you owe them no courtesy, whether you’re a working artist or not.

Making fun of politicians, billionaires, celebrities, people richer than they ever need to be, and other random elevated idiots? Fire the hell away with both barrels.

And the last two bits apply to average people as well, on the internet and in real life. If they’re an elected official or espouse a certain ideology or political view and use that to try to oppress people for what they are instead of how they believe, then take the gloves off and punch away.

But if you aren’t dealing with assholes who choose to be assholes, then opt for compassion.

That obnoxious Karen screaming at a grocery clerk for daring to tell her to pull her mask over her nose? Yeah — give that bitch some sass and chase her out of the store.

Meanwhile, that maybe homeless person with the cardboard sign on the off-ramp… well, you may not feel inclined to give them money because it may not actually help, but the least you can do is just shut up and not call them names while you’re waiting at the light.

Oh yeah — I’ve seen this shit from far too many Karens in Range Rovers that I just know their gentrifying, developer husbands bought the Climate Change inducing vehicles mainly to keep their harridan trophy wives out of their hair.

That, and the little detail that driving a Range Rover is the universal language for “Caution: Giant Asshole on Board.”

Oops. I just punched up. See how that works? If they don’t like it, they can go cry on their yacht.

Talky Tuesday: Listen up!

Words are wonderful things in any language because they can communicate so much. Even more so, at least as far as English is concerned, the words themselves don’t have to make much sense and yet can still convey so much.

Just look at the two opening stanzas of Lewis Carroll’s brilliant Jabberwocky. Most of the words aren’t real words, and yet the thing still makes sense in its own way:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Now, why does it make such sense? Mainly because here Carroll is mostly just playing with the nouns and verbs. He leaves the other parts of speech alone. This tells us a lot about how English works, because if I said, “Did those mamleplompers from the widget fiskers over in Nimblebleck caravel up the shashandy yet, or do I need to frelgoik the yerpers in the warehouse,” wouldn’t it sound like it made some sort of sense, and you only didn’t get it because you didn’t know the jargon yet?

Real world example: “So if we go with the birthday rule, you can update your supplement next May, but there’s nothing we can do about your Part D until open enrollment, and as for your spouse, since they’ve already qualified for Part A but had prior coverage, it comes down to whether they fall under IEP or ICEP, which all depends on when Part B became effective.”

In that case, all of the words are English, but that probably made not a lick of sense to most of you and, about two years ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me either. (And in the five months sine I left that field, the lingo is slipping away.) Yes, jargon is a foreign language as well, and English (and all other languages) has many jargons.

But the fuckery can go a lot further than Carroll ever took it, and if we jump into the 20th century, we meet James Joyce, who wrote an entire novel, Finnegans Wake, using multi-lingual puns to create a language that almost did and didn’t make sense. And yet, somehow (to those of us who’ve braved it) it does somehow communicate meaning. The trick, I think, is to read it out loud, which turns it into an hallucinogenic experience. That’s right. Reading this book will make you trip balls.

Here’s just a taste from the first chapter:

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.

Really, read it out loud a few times, and it will start to make sense. Trust me.

Another author who played with language in a different way was William S. Burroughs (one of my influences), but rather than making up words, he instead broke up narrative coherence through a rather brute-force physical method called the cut-up technique. This literally involved cutting pages apart and then sticking them back together in random order.

It’s not prevalent in his early works beyond the galleys for Naked Lunch being sent to the printer separately and then put together and published in the order they were returned, which wasn’t the order they were written in. But in his later works in the 60s, he published his Nova Trilogy, three books created using this method. This article has an excerpt from the second book in the trilogy, The Ticket that Exploded.

The next one to play with language was Samuel Beckett, and while I don’t think he used the cut-up method, he did manage to create endless staircases of words that always seemed to be going somewhere but then which would hit a landing and start over. In his case, there weren’t really any cut-ups and all of the words and sentences made sense, but the ultimate effect was always a frustrating trek that dragged us along without taking us anywhere.

Well, at least not anywhere in terms of story, but good Beckett moments like this done with commitment by a talented actor can get us to exactly what he was aiming at. A great example of his style is the famous speech by Lucky in Waiting for Godot. He’s a character who is mostly mute for the entire show, led around by a noose around his neck, but when he gets his moment, well… you can watch for yourself.

Of course, the key to each of these authors is to actually listen to what they have written, and I see people constantly not do that. In fact, most people I know dis Joyce, Burroughs, and Beckett because they’ve tried to read or see their stuff and just didn’t get it. Meanwhile, they love Carroll as long as it’s Alice, but go beyond that and their eyes roll back faster than an odometer on a sleazy used car lot — especially when he was writing about math.

And that is a shame. Because, really, none of them are that hard to understand if you just take the time to read it, experience it, and ignore the literal while letting everything else wash over you. And, ultimately, Joyce’s intent was to recreate the experience of a dream, which only ever makes sense to the dreamer, because the cast and metaphors and everything else only have meaning to them, screw you Freud.

Honestly, I think that the main reason that all of these works by all of these authors are not appreciated is because the public takes half a second to try to understand, then throws up the, “Nope, sorry. Hard. Bye!” flag, and that’s it.

And, honestly, that is one of the biggest failings of society. It’s certainly one of the things that makes me cull my friends if they don’t have it. Mainly… be at least a bit curious about the world around you, and try to learn one or two new things. Or more. But, most important of all, your reaction to a new thing or bit of information should never, ever be, “Oh, no. That is way too hard for my little brain to learn.”

Instead, it should be… “Oh, cool. Opportunity.” Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t. If you do get it, maybe you won’t be into it, or maybe you will — but you won’t ever know if your first response is “No.”

Image: John Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock, 1871

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.

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! Check out the second half for rounds 12 to 23 to find out which version of English will come out victorious.

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