Uncommon language

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bit of a difference, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday nibble #36: An epic undertaking

This will be short and sweet because yesterday was quite involved — the reading of Part 2 of my epic play, Strange Fruit. And yes, it turned out to be as long as I had always aimed for, coming in at probably about six-and-a-half hours for the two parts together, not including intermission or any parts that would take longer in full performance, of course.

You can view both parts at the LA Writers Center Facebook page, on their video tab.

Momentous Monday: A play about the 20th century

A play of mine called Strange Fruit has been long in development, with on-and-off again attempts at production, and a period of time when it looked like it wasn’t relevant. Oddly enough, thanks to the pandemic, it’s going to get a live streaming reading in two parts in August and September via Howlround Theatre Commons in Boston.

Part One happens 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, August 29th and you can watch it live and for free on the L.A. Writers Center Facebook page.

One of the co-producers, the Los Angeles Writers Center, asked me to explain how the play came about. Here is that explanation.

Intentionally epic: Creating Strange Fruit

The reason I wound up writing Strange Fruit in the first place is that the epic plays of the 1990s, like Cider House Rules, The Kentucky Cycle, and of course Angels in America, inspired me to think big. I wanted to do my own epic six- or eight-hour long play one day. I just couldn’t find the subject.

After Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998, it brought homophobia to national attention, and also linked it to lynching, particularly those of Black people. After all, James Byrd had been dragged to death behind a truck almost exactly four months before Matthew Shepard was killed. Both men gave their names to the hate crimes act that Congress bravely and swiftly passed… eleven years later, and only after Barack Obama had taken office.

At first, my ambition was to just try to tell these two stories in a simple and non-epic way, but as I started to research, I came across the story of Mary Turner, which had occurred at the other end of the century, in the 1910s.

I had also always known that the song Strange Fruit was about lynching and wanted to work it into the story. What I hadn’t known is that Billie Holiday didn’t write it. Discovering the identity of the author and composer of that song naturally led me to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,

So I suddenly had stories about racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that spanned a century and I knew I had the framework for my epic. As a new century dawned, I started writing it.

As I got seriously into the research and writing, I was working at Dreamworks Animation, at their very lovely campus in Glendale. Since they provided free food to us daily, I never had to leave, so I’d spend my lunch hour either reading one of the myriad books I’d bought in order to help understand the characters, or would be furiously revising and editing the manuscript as it progressed.

What made it particularly ironic is that I was writing a story about such dark and hateful things while doing it in a location that was almost whimsical and really felt like being in some hidden European villa with its own lake, regular Friday noon “friends and family” BBQs, and at the center of it all a topiary of the Dreamworks logo known as “Moon Boy.”

At the same time, I brought the play in every week to Che’Rae Adams’ Monday Night LA Writer’s Center Advanced Writing Class, where my fellow playwrights would read small chunks out-loud and then offer feedback. This was instrumental in honing the piece, which wouldn’t exist without the support of LAWC, and especially of Che’Rae.

As I eventually finalized each of the four acts, LAWC had a series of staged readings in collaboration with the company at Syzygy Theatre Group, and they also played a huge role in helping me develop the characters.

One of the nice things for me about working with a fairly consistent group of actors and having the luxury of the same actor doing the same role as it progresses is that their unique talents and voices begin to inform those of my characters, and it becomes a feedback loop. This really helps each of those characters to become fully alive and distinctive. Actors aren’t just for show time, after all! They tweak the colors I put on my brush before I turn it to the canvas.

Since there was so much ground to cover in researching and creating the play, I learned a lot of interesting things along the way, although some of them are in the piece as surprises for the audience, like the background of one of the founders of the NAACP, and what happened to the Rosenberg children after they were executed — although you knew that last part.

One of the big surprise was how connected that composer of Strange Fruit was to multiple other characters. Interestingly, he’s actually the only character in the play that was actually alive across the lifetimes of almost every single character in it — 1903 to 1986. He did miss Oscar Wilde by a month shy of three years, but when he died Matthew Shepard was about a month shy of ten years old.

Learning more about Matthew was another revelation, because he wasn’t the pure little angel history turned him into when he died. Not that he was perverse monster, either. He was just a normal young adult with the same strengths and flaws as any other. There was also a lot of ambiguity about whether he actually knew his killers, which becomes one of the issues Matthew’s character has to deal with in the play.

Another fun fact: Another main character, who functions as a sort of Virgil to Matthew’s Dante, happened to die on Matthew’s 11th birthday. I picked him as a character for reasons that had nothing to do with that, though.

The play was set to be produced in the mid-‘00s, but then the project fell through, at least temporarily, or so we all hoped. And then, in November 2008, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, we started to see things like the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and it suddenly felt to me like, “Okay. This play isn’t relevant anymore.”

Although it was sad to see that it wouldn’t be produced, I still felt proud of the accomplishment. But when I thought that it would never need to be produced, I didn’t realize I could not have been more wrong, and so now here are, with Strange Fruit more relevant than ever.

That’s probably the biggest message I hope that people will take away from it: It’s very easy for a society to turn on a dime from tolerance to hatred, especially when the powers that be make it their mission to divide. It’s especially easy to let it happen when we try to pretend that it’s not.

Most importantly, the power is in our hands — each of us individually and all of us together — to stem the tide that ebbs towards bigotry and evil and instead raise that tide and, with it, the dignity, value, and acceptance of all other human beings, regardless of their differences.

Those differences, as the process of developing Strange Fruit reminds me constantly, are purely aesthetic. But our commonalities go as deep as our hearts and souls. We all want friends and family, love and acceptance, fulfillment and happiness.

Fortunately, there is plenty of all of those things to go around for everyone. We just have to see it and then accept it.

5-3 FB Event Cover Part Two CheRae