Translating British English into American

Americans regularly rampage through the British Isles without translators and end up with the most minimal idea what of they’re hearing. Or saying. They may or may not be aware of the problem.

I’m going to take a reckless guess and claim that the people they meet have almost as much trouble.

Why “almost”? Because American movies are everywhere, leaking Amerispeech into even the most protected ear. Still, they haven’t leaked every possible word, so let’s run through a few differences. Not because they’ll necessarily be helpful to anyone but—as the kids said where I grew up—just because.

The words in boldface are British. The blithering that follows is for the most part American.

Irrelevant and wildly out of season photo: hydrangea

Chocolate box. This has nothing to do with candy, although it used to. It describes something that’s attractive, idealized, and boring, boring, boring. It dates back to the nineteenth century, when the chocolate company Cadbury’s added romanticized pictures to its boxes of chocolates—flowers, children, landscapes. Especially, I suspect, landscapes. It can be used about art but also about villages that are so perfectly English that you wonder if someone put them together just to mess with the tourists.

Fanny. This isn’t a euphemism for your hind end, it’s a euphemism for your vagina. Unless you don’t have one, in which case it’s a euphemism for someone else’s vagina. It’s also, inconveniently, a woman’s name, although for some reasons it’s gone out of style. There was a TV cook named Fanny Cradock, whose husband had a back-up role on the show and—allegedly—ended an episode where she’d made doughnuts by saying, “May all your doughnuts be like Fanny’s.” I won’t claim that he’s responsible for killing any interest the country ever had in donuts, but I can tell you that you don’t see them nearly as often in the U.K. as you do in the U.S. If you travel to Britain with a fanny pack and you have to call it anything at all, call it a bum bag or you’ll upset everyone within hearing distance.

Jam. This is jam, but to keep things from being too simple it’s also jelly, which is what Americans call the stuff they spread on their toast if it has no seeds and is a little more solidified than jam.

Jelly. This is the stuff Americans call Jello—a brand name that’s gone free-range and now describes a dessert made with gelatin.

Spotted dick. This isn’t a medical condition, it’s a dessert. One I’ve never tasted. Sorry. I haven’t been able to get past my preconceptions.

Soldiers. Toast cut into strips so you can dunk them in a soft-boiled egg. I have the impression this is done for kids, to get them to eat, but never having been a kid in this country, or responsible for jollying any into eating things they didn’t really want, I wouldn’t swear to that.

Biscuit. A cookie, but also a cracker. To keep from causing international mayhem, when I make what in the U.S. I called biscuits, I tell people they’re baking powder biscuits. No one knows what I’m talking about, but it keeps them from expecting something else entirely.

Cracker. A cracker, but also a roll of shiny paper and cardboard filled with a small toy no one really wants to play with, a set of bad jokes, and a paper crown that you have to wear if you want your Christmas dinner. No paper crown, no dinner.

Boots. These are things you wear on your feet, but your car also has one. It’s where your trunk would be in the U.S. The first time Wild Thing—who, since I haven’t mentioned her here in a long time I should explain is my partner—and I visited the U.K., we passed sign after sign that said “Boot Sale.” Why only one boot? we wondered. It was all very mysterious. We’d driven a lot of miles and seen a lot of signs before it came together: These were flea markets—people selling stuff out of the boots of their cars. Or more often, we later learned, off tables and blankets set up near the boots of their cars.

Wellies. These are also boots, but they slip on and they’re waterproof, high, and made of something that would once have been rubber and is now (I assume) synthetic. Britain’s a wet country. It loves its wellies. I didn’t understand why until a friend and I shoveled manure (which she called muck) for our gardens. I was wearing slip-on plastic clogs and she had wellies. We weren’t quite ankle deep in manure but a good part of the time we were close. She left with clean socks. I had to take mine off in the front yard and hose myself down.

Garden. That’s a yard, front or back, even if nothing’s growing in it. You could pour cement on it and it’d still be a garden.

Bonnet. This is on the opposite end of your car from the boot. If you’re American, you know it as the hood. In Scotland, a bonnet is also a hat—not of the Sunbonnet Sue variety, but any old hat. On the Isle of Skye, during that first trip, Wild Thing and I stopped at a B&B and the owner offered to show us a cottage we could rent instead of a room, since we were staying several nights. It was mizzling out, so he said something along the lines of, “Just let me get my wee bonnet.” Or maybe it was “ma wee bonnet.” It definitely involved a bonnet, though.

Vest. This is an undershirt, with no sleeves.

Waistcoat. This is a vest—the sort of thing you wear over a shirt.

Gilet. This gets the French pronunciation–something along the lines of zhee-LAY–and is one of those sleeveless vest things you wear for warmth when it’s not cold enough for a jacket. I’m sure we have a word for it in the U.S. but I’ve been away too long and can’t think what it is. A vest? Yeah. I’m almost sure it’s a vest.

Pants. These are underpants. It’s also an all-purpose term of disparagement: “The whole thing was pants.” (Quick, somebody, tell me if I’m using that wrong.)

Trousers. These are pants, but not in the this-is-no-good sense of the word. I still can’t make myself call my jeans trousers, because for me the word calls up those 1940s- and ‘50s-style suit pants, the baggy kind with the turned-up cuffs.

Suspenders. These don’t hold up your pants, or even your trousers, but your stockings. You know stockings: those things nobody wears anymore unless they think they’re sexy. I’m tempted to say that no one who thinks they’re sexy has ever worn them, but I’d be wrong so I’ll keep that thought to myself. One person’s I’m-glad-that-style-died is another person’s sexy. Humans are very odd.

Braces.  These are suspenders—they hold up your pants. Or your trousers, if you prefer. Or they pretend to, since as far as I can tell no one wears them because they need them anymore. They’re a (gak) fashion statement. Or doesn’t anyone say “fashion statement” these days? If they’ve stopped, it will be one small bit of progress in a world that’s falling apart.

Jumper: That’s a sweater. Also someone who jumps up and down. Or sideways—no one gets exercised about the direction.

Knickers: Women’s underpants–not the old-fashioned three-quarter-length pants (or trousers) that men wore and that mercifully went out of style early in the twentieth century.

Rubbers. These are not the things you giggled over when you heard those first misleading explanations about birth control. They’re school supplies: erasers. They rub out the mistakes you made in pencil. Isn’t the world a strange place?

Football. That’s soccer. The other game? It’s American football.

Holiday. A vacation, not a day off, so you go on holiday, not on vacation. A bank holiday has nothing much to do with banks, although they’ll be closed. It’s a public holiday. If that sounds too simple, don’t worry: The bank holidays in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland don’t necessarily match.

And finally, in case you’re not intimidated enough, a friend sent me a translation of upper middle class British phrases. I can’t paste the whole thing in because, hey, copyright matters, but you can find it here. It’s worth a look.

My friend adds, “I think it is even more complicated than this because many of these phrases may be used by the same speaker with different nuances. ‘Interesting’ can indicate the speaker is fascinated, bored or entirely disagrees.”

Which is, um, interesting.

Enjoy your visit. And good luck.

How the U.K. and U.S. differ

Let’s address the important cultural differences between the U.S. and Britain. Because here at Notes we’re passionate about what divides and unites our countries. We’re high minded and think deeply, and if that isn’t enough we’re suckers for strange questions. And yes, I’m arrogant enough to speak for you, dear reader, because I’m alone at my computer and by the time I publish this it’ll be too late for you to stop me.

And that’s how democracy works.

Sorry. I’ve been involved in the latest farcical public consultations. They don’t bring out the best in me.

First, then,Barb Taub asked in a comment, “Why are British fridges tall and narrow? Why are washing machines in kitchens? Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?”

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick mine. The mine tunnels themselves went out under the sea.

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick Mine (look down the cliff, where it meets the water). The mine shafts run under the sea.

Conveniently, reader John Evans answered all three questions, and he did it almost immediately, but in case you missed it I’ll quote him:

“>Why are British fridges tall and narrow?

“To fit in tiny kitchens in small British houses.

“>Why are washing machines in kitchens?

“Because few British houses have basements or outhouses (where Americans put their washing machines).

“>Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?

“Because long ago it was recognised that 240 volt electricity supply and wet hands and bodies in bathrooms do not mix well. (240 volts can easily kill a person, especially a wet one.) Shaver sockets in bathrooms use a special isolating transformer, so they’re safe in wet conditions. Normal household mains sockets don’t have isolating transformers, so they’re not safe in wet conditions.”

All I can add to that is that no American would say “outhouse” when talking about the building where a washing machine lives. In Ameri-speak, an outhouse is an outdoor toilet—the kind with a hole in the ground, no running water, and a distinctive odor. An outbuilding, on the other hand, is a building. Outside the house. Which can be used for any purpose other than to house a no-flush, hole-in-the-ground toilet. Language is a funny thing. It all seems to make sense until you step half an inch outside it and realize how completely random the alignment of words and meanings is.

I’ll also add that if you don’t read the comments here at Notes, you’re missing half the fun. Possibly more.

In another comment, Gilly noted that the British use washing up liquid for the kind of job that makes Americans reach for dish soap. I’d add that the British say “I’ll wash up” when they’re going to make dirty dishes clean. Even after ten years in this country, I half expect them to dash to the bathroom and scrub their armpits. Or at least remove three layers of dirt from their hands. If someone asks, “Have you washed up yet?” my first instinct is to tell them it’s none of their damn business. That was what my mother asked before a meal if she suspected my hands hadn’t been in conversation with clean water since that morning. But even she stopped asking as I approached adulthood. And these people aren’t my mother.

An American would say, “Have you done the dishes?” Or possibly, “Have you washed the dishes?”

Gilly also wrote, “May I suggest you explore knockers next? As in door knocker.”

A brief interruption before we get to the salacious bit: No American (or none that I know, anyway) would introduce that suggestion by saying, “May I?” We can’t manage that level (or form–you notice how I’m hedging my bets here?) of politeness. Or indirectness. Our brains would explode. But I’ll shut up about that and let her continue.

“The diversity of UK English always amazes me. ‘Knockers’ can refer to either the door variety or breasts (if you are an ignorant male of a certain age and socioeconomic class).

“And Debenhams [that’s a department store: e.h.], wow, what a sense of humour they have! There was once a department in the Ipswich Debenhams called Knobs & Knockers (yes REALLY!) where they catered for all your door furniture requirements.”

If you’re not British you need (yes, need—how could you live without this?) to know that “knob” is slang for penis. Or a general term of abuse, roughly interchangeable with “dickhead.”

Again, I’m not sure what I can add to Gilly’s comment, except that I’m glad I wasn’t in the firing line when Debenhams noticed they had a problem on their hands.

Stop that giggling in the back row. That’s not what I meant and you know it.

In a comment on a different post, Penny Hunt wrote, “As the older generation would say in Australia: it’s a bottler! Don’t ask me the origin of the expression; maybe you can find out. Perhaps related to ‘a corker’? We take our drinking quite seriously here, so I suspect they both mean something that is worth drinking and therefore pretty special.”

Well, I know Australia’s not in Britain, and if my memory’s still working it’s not in the U.S. either, which sets it outside of my usual focus, but I was intrigued enough to do some digging. Wordnik defines “corker” as the last word on a topic—something that, like a cork, acts as a stopper. From there—and this is a guess—it’s not a big leap to the meaning I grew up with: something good. It’s listed as British usage, but I can testify that it’s also American, although probably antiquated usage by now.

I’ve gone a bit antiquated myself lately.

But that didn’t help with “bottler”, and here the search got strange. The Urban Dictionary says it’s London working class slang for a coward. Try “bottle,” though, and you find out it means nerve, as in, “Do you have the bottle?”

So a bottler doesn’t have the bottle.

In Cockney rhyming slang, “bottle” means arse.

It what? How does that rhyme?

Bottle and glass go together, and glass rhymes with arse, although you may need to say “glarse” to make it work. Or something along those lines. Don’t ask me. I’m American and live in Cornwall. Cockneys are born in London. I’m out of my depth here. but I can tell you, in case you’re American, that “arse” means ass. Which rhymes very nicely with glass.

If you specify Australian slang when you google “bottler,” it means something good, but we already know that. It’s also used in New Zealand, but then if a Kiwi want to insult you they’re likely to say you’re an egg, which brings me back to how strange language can get. That has nothing to do with our important topic, but I couldn’t let a mention of Kiwis and slang go past without mentioning it.

I never did find the origin of the Australian/New Zealand use of “bottler” and stopped looking after I’d overdosed on websites offering me bottled gas and bottled Coke.

*

It’s all tickety boo

You want the American stereotype of British English? The phrase tickety boo comes as close as anything I can think of. It sounds like something that escaped from a 1920s comedy involving a butler who wears a bowler hat to hide his brains and a dim-witted aristocrat who needs a top hat to accommodate his sense of entitlement. Oh, and there’d be a lot of alcohol—martinis, probably—and women (strictly secondary characters) in what were then scandalously short skirts and are now scandalously modest.

Strangely, though, tickety boo is something people still say. Right now, in—what year is this anyway? Twenty something or other. And not clueless aristocrats either. Ordinary hatless, butlerless people who I know.

Or whom I know if you insist.

moose 005

Oh, and did I mention that we got a puppy? He’s the one of the right: nine weeks old and named (what else?) Moose.

So shut up, Ellen, and tell the good people what tickety boo means. It means is okay. or everything’s fine. It has an every little thing’s in place sound to it, although none of the definitions I found in my extensive five-minute Google search mention this. Still, my ear insists on it, and puts the emphasis on little.

It’s informal, as you might have guessed from the sound.

The Urban Dictionary says the origin may be Scottish, but along with the Oxford Dictionary it traces the origins, tentatively to Hindi, although the two dictionaries quote different versions of a Hindi phrase—or (let’s be skeptical) an allegedly Hindi phrase. If I had to bet on one version, I’d put my money on the Oxford one, but let’s not pretend I know anything about this. Oxford sounds impressive and its phrase sounds less like something an ear tuned exclusively to English might have mangled .

How a phrase originates in Scotland and India I don’t know, but to demonstrate the phrase’s Scottish roots, the Urban Dictionary refers to Danny Kaye singing “Everything is Tickety Boo” in a film I never heard of, Merry Andrew. Convincing stuff, right? Kaye was an American actor—the New York-born son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants whose original name was Kaminsky, which I’m reasonably sure isn’t Scottish or Hindi.

Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, so maybe we can make some sort of backing for the theory there.

Do you begin to get the sense that everything isn’t quite tickety boo about all this? That maybe some of the sources you find through Google aren’t perfectly researched? Maybe even that guesswork is involved in tracing word origins?

The Collins Dictionary, playing it safe, says the origin is obscure. Several sources say the phrase is outdated, even archaic. Which would imply that my friends are archaic. Sorry, but we’re not having any of that.

The Oxford Dictionary adds, helpfully, that tickety boo rhymes with buckaroo, poo-poo, shih tzu, Waterloo, and many, many other words that wouldn’t spring to mind if you were going for logical connection instead of pure sound. If anyone would like to use those in a rhymed, metered poem and submit it to the Comments section, I will shoot myself. Although not necessarily with a gun.

*

In Tuesday’s post I left some of you with unanswered questions—which bless your tickety little hearts, you asked—about why I’m cutting back my posting schedule. I didn’t mean to be cryptic or to worry anyone. Here’s what’s happening:

Ever since Wild Thing was diagnosed with macular degeneration and had to quit driving, I’ve been thinking about posting less often. Not necessarily forever, but for now. The changes in our lives haven’t been easy to get used to, either emotionally or practically, and one result is that I haven’t been keeping up with the details of my life lately.

While I was arguing with myself over whether or not to cut back, I got a bad cold, which came close on the heels of a miserable flu, and on Monday night I realized I had nothing at all to say for Tuesday’s post. The only thought in my head was, Do we have enough cold pills? So that tipped me over the edge. If I’d a bit more room in my head for thoughts, I might have said all this in Tuesday’s post but I didn’t and so I couldn’t.

I’m pulling back from some other commitments as well and hoping all this will leave me time to moult—you know, drop old feathers, grow new ones, maybe some listen to music more often, do more baking, spend more time with Wild Thing, and do more work on the book I’m theoretically writing. Maybe even shovel out the house a bit more often.

But you’re not rid of me yet. I’ll be around on Fridays. And already I’m missing my old schedule.

Talking about the weather—a lot

Britain really does get a lot of rain. Almost as much as people think it does. Enough that the vocabulary for rain is extensive and specialized. It’s raining stair rods. Or pitch forks. It’s chucking it down, or pissing down, or bucketing down, or mizzling—a lighter, mistier version of drizzling and a word I use sometimes for the pure pleasure of hearing it. In the U.S., it rains or drizzles or rains cats and dogs, but that’s about it. Once in a while, I guess, it mists enough to turn mist from a noun to a verb. But if it does anything else I can’t think what it is. We have words for different kinds of storms, from a shower to a hurricane, but for the rain itself? We haven’t been driven by the sheer indoor boredom of being stuck in the house on 356 consecutive rainy days to come up with new words and phrases.

Or maybe the words came from being out in the rain before the invention of anything that even semi-reliably kept a person dry. Naming the damned stuff could keep your mind off your misery. Or at least keep you busy while you were miserable.

A rare relevant photo: digging clams on a foggy day. Marazion.

A rare relevant photo: digging clams on a foggy day in Marazion.

Once you have a vocabulary, you have to say something with it, which is how we get to attitude. It rains enough here that people grow a kind of fatalism about the weather. I say “grow” because it creeps over them the way mold grows on damp walls. Sometimes it comes out as a wry fatalism and sometimes as plain old moaning. (When I lived in the U.S., a moan was nothing more than a sound. Here it’s transformed into an entire attitude, a form of not-gonna-do-anything complaint. A way of life, in fact.)

The content of wry fatalism and moaning is almost the same. It’s the attitude that makes them different.

“I guess we’ve had our summer,” a neighbor said on a gray day that followed some warm, sunny weather.

I knew enough to say, “Yes, and it was a beautiful day.”

He laughed and I congratulated myself: I’d played my hand in the game of wry fatalism. Not bad for a furriner.

On a different day—a sunny one—another neighbor said, “It won’t last.”

Same thought but pure moan. I wasn’t sure how to contribute. Maybe all I needed to do was shake my head mournfully and agree but I didn’t. What help can you expect of a furriner anyway?

Free of either fatalism or moaning (I think) is weather news. People trade bits of this the way American boys once traded baseball cards. A storm’s working its way across the Atlantic. An arctic front’s moving down from Iceland. A warm front’s bringing rain from Spain (really—no plains anywhere to be found but the rain falls anyway). You name it, we tell each other about it, especially if it’s bad weather. We listen to the weather on the TV. We check online. We get updates on our phones. Okay, I don’t. My phone is nothing but a phone, and I’ve given up on the evening news since I read the paper and enough already, how much weather (not to mention news) does one person need? So I’m using we loosely here. But every other single person in the country does all of those things, and every last one of them tells me about it. And as a result I can tell more people, who already know it and have already told me some version of it but it’s okay, this isn’t really about the information, it’s about talking to each other. We’re trading baseball cards. Baseball cards have no intrinsic value. They exist only to be traded.

No one’s weather news quite matches anyone else’s, but if it did what would we have to talk about?

Comparative medical bureaucracies

Of all the phrases the divide British and American English, the one I dread hearing is leave it with me. It’s not a phrase I ever heard in the U.S., and now that I live in Britain I know life is about to spin out of my control when someone says it.

And yes, I do know life’s always out of our control, but we all like to believe, don’t we? We live for the comfort of that illusion. Even when we know we’re full of shit. Maybe especially when we know.

Or some of us like to believe. I like to believe.

Irrelevant photo: The causeway to St. Michael's Mount, emerging as the tide drops. There's a castle out there, hidden in the fog.

Irrelevant photo: The causeway to St. Michael’s Mount, emerging as the tide drops. There’s a castle out there, hidden in the fog.

Suppose I need a referral from my GP to a specialist and I was supposed to be given an appointment by Wednesday and here it is the Tuesday after that Wednesday and I still don’t have the letter telling me when the appointment is. So I call to ask what happened. I’ve worked out an approach for this kind of situation. I’m polite and I’m relentless. I don’t demand, I don’t insult, and I don’t go away. This is easier to pull off when I’m advocating for someone else, but I can manage it for myself if I have to.

The receptionist says, “Leave it with me.”

Which means one of two things: 1. I will fix this so fast that whoever screwed it up will be dizzy for a week, or 2. I will make a note of this, bury it under a stack of paper, and forget you ever called, because your referral’s still a bunch of electronic blips in my computer but I don’t remember which file it’s in, or which computer, or what electronic means. Furthermore, I have worse problems than you. Don’t call back.

And I’m never sure which. Except for the don’t call back bit. I’m sure what that means.

I’ve learned to ask, “When will I hear from you?” so at least we’ve agreed on a date after which I’m free to make a pest of myself again, but until then I’m helpless. All my polite don’t-go-awayedness? It’s paralyzed by the leave-it-with-me beam of bureaucracy.

In the abstract, I could probably say, “No, sorry, I can’t leave it with you. Gimme my problem back,” but you know that bureaucracy beam? It’s like kryptonite. It keeps me from forming those words.

I did dodge the beam once, when a neighbor was having a medical crisis and D., who’s been a nurse, armed me with a magic phrase: That’s not acceptable. I listened to myself say it and wondered who I’d turned into, but in fact waiting wasn’t acceptable—it was a crisis—and since the phrase was magic it worked.

But you have to be careful with magic phrases. You can’t just spew that’s not acceptable in all directions and under less pressing conditions.

The leave-it-with-me problem stems, I think, from the British medical system’s paternalistic streak. The U.S. system is also paternalistic, but in a different way and—oh, you know how it is: When you’re not used to something, you notice it. The things you’re used to? They’re invisible. And the way they handle medical appointments here? I notice. If you need one, it will all be done for you and you’ll be told when to appear.

What if you can’t make it? You know, if you have to be in court that day or they’ll issue a bench warrant or you have some similar whim you might want to follow? At that point you get to step in and change the date or the time, but you have to wait to be given the wrong date and time before you can step in. And unless your condition’s a crisis, it’ll come by letter.

As far as I can figure out, this is true of both the National Health Service and private-sector medicine. Because that’s how it’s always been done and why change now just because the telephone’s been invented? And that other, even more modern thing, the inter-whateverit’scalled.

In the U.S., I can remember two systems for making specialist appointments. In one, I was given the name of a doctor and clinic (or a list of several) to call and I made my own appointment. In another, I stood at a desk while someone who worked for the clinic that was referring me made the appointment and could talk with me about whether I expected to be under arrest or in court at any given date and time.

In other ways, the NHS is more egalitarian than the U.S. medical system. I just read a nurse’s comment that “everyone is equal in the NHS; I find that amazing. In India, you can’t challenge a doctor, even if he is wrong. Here, a nurse can tell them straight away.” Unless things have changed since I last heard (and it’s not a topic I keep up on), challenges from nurses aren’t welcome in the U.S. yet.

But patients don’t seem to have claimed their power from the system, even if nurses have. So listen up, bureaucracy: I’m registering my complaint. Can I leave it with you?

Why is Britain called Great Britain?

The question of why Britain’s called Great Britain popped up in a comment thread, and if I were a better person I’d go back and figure out where it was and link to whoever raised it (it was a British reader in case that strikes you as being worth knowing) but I’m crazed lately. I made a note to do sixty seconds of research on the topic, forgot to copy the link into my notes, and here I am, without a clue where we were at the time.

Sorry.

But the question persists. What are we talking about when we say “Great Britain”?

If you wander around London long enough, you’ll eventually stumble into a street called Great Russell Street. It’s not a particularly big street, but I’m assuming it’s bigger than (not great) Russell Street, which you’ll also stumble into if you stumble long enough. (All this stumbling relies on the same principal as those thousand monkey on typewriters who will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare, assuming you can convince monkeys to type. And assuming I can get you to wander long enough. You’re welcome to stop for tea as often as you like if that helps. Or a beer.)

Great, my friends, isn’t a value judgment in either context. It means big. Big honkin’ Russell Street, Big honkin’ Britain.

Irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie is growing and would now like to be known as Great Eddie.

The first person to use great in the context of Britain seems to have been Ptolemy, who wasn’t writing in English so we’re fudging our facts here, but it’s interesting anyway. He called what we now know as England, Scotland, and Wales (and Cornish nationalist would add Cornwall)—in other words, the bigger landmass hereabouts—Great Britain, and Ireland—the smaller one—Little Britain.

Then everyone forgot about it for centuries. They had other things on their minds. In the twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth called that bigger landmass Greater Britain to distinguish it from Lesser Britain, which wasn’t Ireland but Brittany. And then they forgot about it all for another long stretch of time.

The phrase pops up again in the fifteenth century in a not very interesting context, then gets serious in the seventeenth century, when James united what were still and continued to be two separate countries, England and Scotland, under a single monarchy—and (although it’s not relevant to our discussion) claimed Ireland and France as well. In the next century, England and Scotland were united into a single country. Wales had been conquered some time before all this and the English had gotten into the habit of thinking it was part of England (the Welsh thought differently), so it didn’t get a separate mention right then.

James, by the way, was either the first or the sixth, depending on whether you’re standing in England or in Scotland when you count. I told you not to trust me with numbers—they go all shifty when I’m in the room. It should also be noted that James couldn’t spell for shit. He called himself the king of “Great Brittaine,”

Well, he was king. He got to spell it any way he wanted. Who was going to tell him he had it wrong? Besides, pretty much everyone did that back then, with pretty much any word they set their feathery pens to.

Fast forward to the days when Britain had an empire. The Great in Great Britain must’ve been handy and did take on the tone of a value judgment. But the origin? Big. Nothing but big.

These days, Great Britain means England, Wales, and Scotland. (The link here is basically a footnote in case you’re seriously interested. I could also link to some kid’s school paper, which for reasons I won’t stop to think about came up at the top of Google’s list, but I won’t.) And Cornwall, as the Cornish nationalists would remind us. Along with some of the surrounding small islands but not others, which are self-governing dependent territories.

Don’t ask.

It doesn’t include Northern Ireland. But in everyday speech, people often use British to cover the entire United Kingdom, which does include Northern Ireland. A website called Know Britain says that from a legal point of view this is inaccurate—and just afterward it notes that the phrase is often used to mean exactly that in legislation, especially in reference to nationality.

So there you go. Are you confused yet? Then my work is done. But because I don’t like to leave a topic until I’ve overdone it, I should add that Know Britain says the British Islands is a political term meaning the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. But the British Isles is a geographical term meaning Great Britain, all of Ireland, and all the smaller islands around them. Don’t you just love this language?

Someday when I’m feeling particularly brave I’ll tackle the question of which categories of people would say, “I’m British,” and which ones would say, for example, “I’m English,” or “I’m Cornish” and so forth, and what all that means. Or may mean.

But for now we’ll end there . It may not all be good, but it’s great, isn’t it?

Does my vocabulary look too British in this?

The differences between British and American English are an endless source of—well, pretty much anything you can name: confusion, fascination, amusement, bad temper, accusations (subtle and otherwise) of either ignorance or stuffiness, depending on which side of the Atlantic taught you your rash assumptions.

I’ve written about the differences between British and American English before, which means I’m supposed to slip in a link or ten to tempt newcomers deeper into the blog. That sounds ominous—step deeper into the dark and trackless blog, my dears. But I have to do it anyway. Who am I to defy the rules of the blogosphere? (Note: I already do with my irrelevant photos, and I’m not likely to stop, but once in a while I should behave like a serious blogger.) So here’s the link: This will connect you to a whole category of posts. You can pick through and see what interests you. Or not. I’ll never know.

Semi-relevant photo: What's more English than morris dancing? I like this shot because the guy on the right looks like he's about to brain the guy on the left. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Semi-relevant photo: What’s more English than morris dancing? I like this shot because the big guy on the right looks like he’s about to haul off and brain the guy on the left. If you squint, the whole thing begins to look like a brawl. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Where was I? I’m returning to the topic because Karen wrote to say my writing sounded British to her. I asked what specifically struck her that way and she said what “sounds to my American ears not-so-American” were the phrases “‘he wasn’t being immensely clever” and “trying to conduct a bit of business.” 

I’m probably the last person who’d know if those are not-so-American. When I talk, I still sound American enough to get asked if I’m enjoying my stay (well yes, although it seems like I’ve been here for years), but Britishisms have crept into my brain and my speech. I’d like to think I notice them and build walls around them—you know: the kind with turnstiles, so I have to sacrifice a coin before I can get at them—but I’m not sure the system’s working.

In the first phrase, I wonder if what struck Karen isn’t the word immensely, which is formal—a tone I fall into a lot when I’m kidding around, although I’m never sure if it works. On the other hand, clever may be more common in Britain than in the U.S.  Emphasis on may. I’m not sure. But I can call up the sound of an English accent saying “you clever girl” or “clever clogs” (one is a compliment; the other probably isn’t), but I can’t come up with anything like it in an American accent.

What about the second phrase, trying to conduct a bit of business? Bit shows up a lot in British English. Bits and bobs. Or Zadie Smith’s wonderful phrase about nudity in a movie, the dangly bits. Do we use bits much in American? Ask someone if they’re tired and “a bit” wouldn’t be a strange answer, although “a little” might be a bit more common.

Did the bit in that last phrase jump out and sound British?

Conduct again has a formal tone, and although I’d guess it’s used equally in both versions of the language, we (the we here being Americans) do tend to think British English wears a corset (or at least a top hat) while American English slouches on the couch with its feet on the coffee table. That’s because we think everyone in Britain is belongs to the aristocracy. Even when we know better. We know the laws of physics decree that you can’t have an aristocracy without a whole lot of peasants to keep them fed and et cetera’d, but somewhere underneath whatever our good sense we have we still believe the British are all aristocrats.

We (again meaning Americans) are both right and wrong about the formality of British English. It can be more formal. It also can be gloriously rough and informal—like, I’d guess, any language or national version of a language.

Karen went on to write, “Isn’t this a problem writers encounter all the time when they create characters who are ‘other’? How does a woman writer ‘sound’ male? How does a thirty-something author ‘sound’ like a teenager? How does an American ‘sound’ British?”

The answer is that at their best, writers listen, deeply and actively, and learn their limits. I don’t hesitate to write dialog in a man’s voice, or to write from a man’s point of view. We’re not as different as the world tells us we are, and even if we were I’ve lived around men I don’t live with one, but I know what they sound like.

I wrote from man’s perspective in parts of Open Line (and here we go with the links again) and felt that I knew the character well and did him justice. He wasn’t an admirable person, but I ended up liking him. I’d lived inside his head.

Writing the male characters in The Divorce Diet was different. I only got to see them through my central character’s eyes, and if she was fed up with them, so was I. They’re not as fully realized because of the point of view I chose. You can’t tell every story from every perspective. But their dialog? It didn’t feel like a stretch.

But I know my limits and I stay well away from the edges. I’ve watched writers write dialog that goes past theirs. At its best it embarrasses me as a reader and makes them look ignorant. At its worst it comes off as racist. For myself, the rule is this: If you haven’t lived with it, don’t write it. If you don’t know the accent and vocabulary and attitude and life first hand, don’t write it. That doesn’t mean limit yourself to characters who are replicas of yourself. It means know your limits, and if they form too tight a circle, learn more. Live more widely.

Sorry: I’ve expanded the issue beyond vocabulary, but dialog isn’t just about word choice, it’s about the character. And writing about someone from a different demographic group isn’t just about finding the right words. If you don’t know the reality of another person’s life, you won’t write it with any depth or power. Or respect, no matter how good your intentions are.

Maybe that’s why so many male writers have written paper-thin women: They couldn’t see beyond what they wanted from women, or how women affected them, so they couldn’t create any depth in the women they wrote. You can plug other categories of writer and character into that sentence in whatever combination you like, but I have an English degree and ended up reading a dismal lot of paper-thin women. My patience wore thin and it doesn’t seem to be one of those things that repair themselves with time.

But let’s come back to the original question about words. It worries me when Britishisms creep into my brain. Picture me as an auto mechanic and someone’s slipped metric wrenches my toolbox, which would be fine except I work on American cars and nothing but American cars. They’re fine wrenches, but they don’t fit anything in the shop.

I’d love to work on both kinds of car, but I’m just the kind of maniac who couldn’t keep my wrenches apart.

I’ve tried keeping British words out of my head and it’s not possible. My brain loves words, and it vacuums them up wherever it finds them. And as I typed that, a voice in my head supplied the phrase hoovered them up. Because vacuuming’s a brand-name verb here, based on the Hoover vacuum. Like the American word band-aid, which in British is the generic (if, to me, bizarre sounding) sticking plaster.

Some words get planted more deeply because I use them, however hesitantly. There’s no point in asking where the band-aids are if no one knows what I’m talking about. Others plant themselves deeply because they sound good. People here have such a way of leaning into the word bloody that it makes me want to say it myself. If I find myself in the right time and place, cells in my brain jump up and down like popcorn in the microwave, begging, Can we say that? Please can we say that?

The wall-and-turnstile approach to keeping my vocabularies separate hasn’t been a screaming success. I might have more luck if I think of myself as having two toolboxes (or if I run those pesky foreign cars out of my garage), but I doubt it. It’s a problem I haven’t solved.

Any comments on what I sound like to you are welcome. Or on anything else that comes to mind. This should be interesting.

Strange stuff non-Brits want to know about Britain

Two stray questions about Britain that people have asked me to address, which I’ll group together because they’re 600% unrelated: kinky sex and the letter U.

 

Are the English particularly kinky?

Katie Powell wrote, “I want to know why English folks are so kinky.” I asked her to be more specific and she answered, “The Brits exude this very staid exterior, but then there is the underbelly of kinky sex — maybe the kinkiest in the world? Not violent or dangerous, just kinky . . . .”

Sadly, I’m not willing to do any original research on the topic. Nope, not even for my blog. A few other things I won’t do, in case you need to know about them: I will not eat haggis in order to tell you what it tastes like. Not particularly because it’s haggis but because it involves meat. You can get vegetarian haggis, but that’s like vegetarian bacon—it is vegetarian but it’s not bacon, so it’s not much use if you’re trying to report on bacon. I also won’t get stinking drunk so I can find out if the tendency of drunks in this country to sing is cultural or due to some mysterious influence of the geography. So, sex in the British Isles? It does go on. I’m sure of that. But Wild Thing and I have been together for—wait, let me wrestle with a few numbers—38 years now. That’s long enough, really, for a person to make a commitment to a relationship. To get comfortable in it, and not want to wreck it. And then there are my own tastes to consider (which, forget it, you don’t need to know about, and very probably don’t want to).

cut kitten picture

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie and the laundry

I can report that back in the Stone Ages, when phone booths were the kind of thing you found on any city street, lots of London phone booths were plastered with stickers advertising sexual services designed for specific tastes–mostly S&M, at least as I remember it. I’d never seen the sex trade advertised that way. Does that mean the tastes of actual people here are kinkier than they are anywhere else? I haven’t a clue. Maybe they’re just out in the open more—although I’ve known some Americans whose interests were far from white bread and who had a lot more to say about them than I, for one, wanted to hear. They didn’t plaster them on phone booths, but then they weren’t in business, so they had no reason to.

So this separates into two question: Is there a difference in kink level? Do different cultures channel their kinks in different directions? It’s also possible that the definition of kinky is worth some thought. It assumes there’s a standard practice out there, and I wonder how standard anyone really is. I haven’t a clue, but I’ll leave you with that thought and move on to a question where I can be more useful.

 

History of the letter U in British and American English

Once upon a time I knew who asked me about this, but I didn’t paste either the name or the link into my notes, and although I swam back through the comments trying to find where it came from it, it was too far and I sank. That’s me you’ll notice on the bottom of all your insightful, hysterical, wonderful comment threads, blowing the last electronic bubbles out of my lungs.

Bad blogger.

So I’m going to be rude and not acknowledge the source of the question.

However. Someone asked me to write about the history of the letter U in British and American usage, and if you’ll let me know who you are I’ll provide a link to your blog. In the meantime, the tale takes us back to two of the most influential compilers of early dictionaries.

When the British first settled in North America, English spelling was still fluid. You went to school, you were issued a toolkit with 26 letters, and as long as another person in possession of that same basic toolkit could figure out what you meant, you were free to spell a word any old which way you wanted. I may exaggerate a bit, but not much.

It was Samuel Johnson, in the eighteenth century, who’s usually credited with (or blamed for) standardizing English spelling, although—as is usual with this kind of thing—there was a general movement in that direction and rather than creating the momentum himself he rode in on its tide. But still, if you don’t like the U in British spellings of words like favour and honour, Old Sam Johnson’s your bad guy. Up until then, English had used  -our interchangeably with -or.  According to an article in Bartleby Johnson “established the position of the u in the –our words. . . . Other lexicographers before him were divided and uncertain; Johnson declared for the u, and though his reasons were very shaky and he often neglected his own precept, his authority was sufficient to set up a usage which still defies attack in England.”

He was so knocked out by the U (which I’m capitalizing and the Bartleby entry doesn’t) that he tried to introduce translatour, emperour, oratour and horrour. Oddly enough, although he kept exterior U-less, its opposite was interiour.

Johnson’s reasoning was that the -our form acknowledged modern English’s French roots. If you know any French, you’ll have noticed that the argument’s shaky. French uses -eur, not -our: honeur; faveur. But never mind, an argument doesn’t have to make sense to be effective. British English is firmly committed to sticking a U into any word it possibly can. And, hell, they’re free, so why not?

If Johnson’s usually credited with standardizing English spelling, Noah Webster’s usually credited with divorcing American spelling from its British ex, although here too other people were already agitating for that and he too rode a tide he didn’t create. The United States was a new nation. It wanted a new culture. You know what it’s like: You have a revolution, you rename the streets, tear down the political statues, replace the schoolbooks.

Webster came down heavily on the side of simplified spellings, and his early books deleted a lot of the language’s silent letters: the B in thumb, the O in leopard, the A in thread. You could cut a 300-page book down to 150 pages if you kept that up. Also the K that was then in frolick, the spare L in traveller and jeweller. He transposed the -RE in words like centre.

“Those people spell best who do not know how to spell,” he said. Or quite possibly wrote. But let’s not split hairs. The point is that they were spelling phonetically and logically, and he set out to follow their lead with spellings like wimmin, tung, porpess, and fantom.

They didn’t all catch on, and as a result generations of schoolchildren toddle home with spelling lists to memorize for no better reason than that they’ll look ignorant if they don’t spell the words in the approved way. Think what they might have time to learn instead if our language made sense.

George Bernard Shaw, in demonstrating the need for rationalized English spelling, is said to have argued that, given the rules of the English language, you should be able to spell fish ghoti: GH as in tough, O as in women, TI and in nation.

Don’t use that on your standardized exams, kids. The people who mark them won’t be impressed.

English place names: where did the missing syllables go?

barbtaub asked why some English place names have “whole syllables missing? How could Worcester only have two syllables? Where do the L and the W go when you say Alnwick out loud?

Well, I’m here to enlighten. The L and W go out for a pint, and after that, y’know, you just can’t count on them so it’s better to pronounce the word as if they’d never been there at all.

Now the R, C, and E—that’s a whole ‘nother story. They’re tea drinkers, and they’d come back if they were invited, but no one thought to so there they sit, with their cooling cups of tea, waiting for someone to remember them. It’s all very sad.

Why tea instead of beer? If they’d dropped out of Cornwall, I’d guess they were Methodists—Cornwall is historically Methodist country and the Methodists are serious teetotalers—but since we’re dealing with Worcester I won’t risk a guess. It just is that way. Some people want a pint, others want a cuppa.

Camel Estuary. Padstow. North Cornwall.

Irrelevant photo: the Camel Estuary.

What I can tell you is that the letters in English place names are unreliable. I expect that’s a cultural inheritance from French. You know, 1066, the Norman invasion, all that French influence pouring into what was until then a Germanic language. Whether you could count on the spelling of Old English to be even vaguely sensible I don’t know, but I do know that French is wasteful with its letters, not just in place names but in everything. It tosses in handfuls it has no intention of pronouncing as if to say, “See how rich we are? We have so many of these we can afford to throw them away.”

When you treat letters like that, why should they stick around? They’re not needed, so of course they seek solace in the pub or the café. Who wouldn’t?

Now that Britain’s in an age of artificially induced austerity, you’d think the government would want to claw some of those wasted letters back. I mean, at one point, the government considered selling off nationally owned woodlands, which were being used and weren’t in the pub, and it only backed off because the proposal caused an uproar. I’ve read speculation that they’ll sell off property owned by the National Health Service soon. You know—balance the books in the short term, even if it impoverishes the nation in the long term. What the hell: by the time the problems show up, some other government will be in power, so who cares? It’ll all be their problem to solve.

What I’m thinking is that they could easily sell off those vowels and consonants that no one’s using. A prime example lies up the coast from us: Woolfardisworthy is pronounced Woolsery, and the spelling’s so out of whack with the pronunciation that the road sign (in a rare moment of linguistic sanity) gives both spellings. So we could not only save on letters, we could have a smaller road sign.

Not all place names present as clear a case. The town of Launceston has three pronunciations: LANson (that’s the Cornish version), LAWNston (I’m not sure who pronounces it that way), and LAWNson (I think of this as the compromise version and it’s the one I use; with my accent, LANson sounds too strange). The only pronunciation that’s wrong is lawnCESSton—the one that uses all the letters. With three pronunciations, it’s not clear what letters we should sell off, but that doesn’t have to stop the program. Sacrifices must be made.

For what it’s worth, I’ve read that over centuries the sandpaper of time tend to wear away at difficult pronunciations. I’m still waiting for it to smooth out the pronunciation of sixth. Try saying that quickly three times. Still, the theory would explain the bizarre spellings of place names. English spelling was codified when the pronunciation was still changing rapidly, and it reflects (or so they say) pronunciations we no longer use. So place names were frozen even as the residents went about the natural business of simplifying the pronunciation, leaving us to wonder, What were they thinking?

Aren’t you glad you asked, barbtaub?