Tuesday, October 16, 2012

For Word Lovers

I recently stumbled upon a great blog called Not One-Off Britishisms (I'd provide the link, but Blogspot's new program is giving me fits, as usual. If you're interested, it's at britishisms.wordpress.com/) The author is an American, and his blog is dedicated to outing insidious Britishisms creeping into American English (something he finds vaguely despicable and utterly pretentious.) It makes for entertaining reading, especially for people like me whose own language has become hopelessly confused.

As a child, I attended a school taught half in Spanish and half in the Queen's English. I first moved to Australia in 1975 (Wow, typing that makes me feel old!), then to England. I spent 16 years married to someone who was educated in Britain and spoke the Queen's English; lived to Jordan where all my friends were Aussies and Brits, or Jordanians taught English by Brits; then moved to Australia and raised a couple of kids who spoke Aussie. If I wanted to be understood, I learned to adapt.

There were some words I always steadfastly refused to embrace: mum (I refuse to be a "mum"), bathers (bathing suit), and nappies (diapers) being the ones that come to mind, along with expressions such as "made redundant" (let go). Some I adopted but have since mostly dropped, such as bin (waste basket), tin (can), and crisps (potato chips, since what Americans call french fries are chips).

Others are such delicious words that I refuse to part with them, or they fill a gap in the language. Into this category fall whinging (sort of like whining, only subtly different), punch-up, car park (much easier to say than parking garage), fancy (as in, "I think she fancies him" or, "Fancy a hot fudge sunday?"), daggy, and knackered (the last two aren't exactly for polite company). Some are so useful, I've noticed Steve has also adopted them. For instance, what DO Americans call that strip between the sidewalk and the street? We call it "the council strip".

But what amazes me in reading NOOBS is the number of expressions or words I didn't even realized are Britishisms. Reading this blog is like an extended "oops" moment, even though I don't subscribe to its operating theory that using these words and expressions is pretentious. But as someone who employs words for a living, you'd think I'd be more aware of my own speech. Yet I did not realize the many, many words and expression I use that could sound pretentious or odd, and at times be incomprehensible to most listeners. Into this category fall proper (as in, make a proper spectacle of yourself), make a hash, on the back foot, dab hand, have a quiet word, cock-up, barman, sacked (fired), hang on (as in, "Hang on, are you telling me Americans don't say that?"), sorry (as in "I didn't hear that; could you please repeat it?).

Not that I plan to try to change, because language is a fluid thing, and we all add and lose expressions and words over the course of our lives. Still, if you love words, the blog makes for fun reading.


Liz said...

Enjoyed this post very much. As a Canadian, I live in a half-way house of English. I am a "mum", in spite of my kids having spent 16 years of their lives in Washington, DC, I eat "tinned" tuna, and I use the letter U a lot more in spelling than you Americans. On the other hand, I see trucks on the road, not lorries, and eat potato chips (although french fries are sold from "chip wagons"). Since I write a blog and publish knitting patterns, I've bookmarked this page here, http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/BritishCanadianAmerican.htm, to keep myself straight. BTW, one of the verbs you use astonishingly frequently in your Sebastian series is the verb, "to hunker". It strikes me as a uniquely American expression, but I could be wrong. Perhaps it's British and we simply don't use it much here in Canada. Language is so fluid after all.

paz said...

Have been a fan of NOOB since last year. I stumbled upon them while doing a search for the meaning of the word "twee" (which I often found in reviews of Wes Anderson's films). Now I just like to check it every so often to keep track of who is being pretentious around me -- though marmite-eating can be a dead giveaway...

cs harris said...

Liz, I know I overuse "hunker." My problem is I seriously dislike the word "squat." It just conjures up a mental image I really don't care to visit! One thing this post has done is to make me realize that I have serious negative reactions to certain words!

Paz, I stayed up to the wee hours reading it the first night I found it. It's a true joy.

liz fenwick said...

As an American who married an Englishman and has 3 English kids I live in no man's land when it comes to language especially as we currently live in Dubai. My husband complains that is vocabulary has been dumbed down because of working in an international environment and we both struggle at time to know which word is English vs American. This issue really came to the fore writing book two A Cornish Affair because the heroine is American and I had to retrain my brain to use words I had to eliminate in the book before. The big bugbear is the word gotten. It is considered vulgar and to be avoided at all costs to writers in the UK but is perfectly normal in the US. If you wish to rile British writers...use the word gotten. Even my husband flinches as at school they were fined if they used it in an essay....

I'm off now to read the websites...

Anonymous said...

My great grand parents emigrated to America from verious parts of Great Britian at verious times over the last hundred years or so. There were and are a lot of expressions that are Britishy in the extended family and the small community they lived in. Not all of the people using these expressions are pretenious they are just what people were raised with. (Sorry about the spelling I have really problems with that)

Helena said...

It's amusing to us in England to see that it is considered pretentious in the USA to use British words and expressions. Here the use of Americanisms is deplored because they are associated with what some consider to be too many American TV shows, and rather than being considered pretentious the use of Americanisms is frowned upon as "dumbing down".

The BBC news website has carried a couple of magazine posts about the use of British expressions in America: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19929249

Charles Gramlich said...

I definitely have emotional reactions to certain words, sometimes negative, sometimes positive. Fascinating how that happens. When I started writing I often used British spellings for things, like Sulphur, grey, colour, because I had read lots of books first published in Britain.

cs harris said...

Liz, you must have an awful time! I think that once your language is a jumble, it becomes extremely hard to remember which expression came from where. And I know what you mean about "gotten." I was in Jordan when my first book came out, and the Australian ambassador's wife offered to proofread it for me. They're the ones who first told me in no uncertain terms that one should NEVER use that word. So every time I venture to do so, telling myself I'm writing for an American audience, my memory conjures up the grimace Bob made over it, like he'd just swallowed a spider.

Anon, so true! When I was reading NOOB, I found my self thinking about all the WWI British war brides, who surely bequeathed their language to their children and grandchildren. My mother was from the South, so I've dragged a lot of typically Southern expressions through life with me, too.

Helena, thanks for the link! I think the entire world considers Americanisms vulgar unwanted additions to their language. I remember the complaints of the purists when I was living in France (I noticed that frequently when I couldn't understand what was being said to me, it was because the speaker was using an American word/expression, rendered unintelligible by their heavy French accent).

Charles, since I was never a good speller, things went from bad to worse when I was exposed to constant British spellings. I also get annoyed when copyeditors Americanize my amongst and dreamt. You'd think since I'm writing a book set in England, I could get away with it. But no.

Nanciann said...

A question: is the center g in whinging hard or soft? I've seen the word before but don't know how it's pronounced.
I love words. As a retired newspaper copy editor, the dumbing down of the language saddens me, but I've learned to (mostly) keep my thoughts to myself. My younger relatives used to flinch when I joined their conversations. Tact was never my strong suit.

Firefly said...

Having been born in India that had been under British rule for about 300 hundred years, I Lived in the country of my birth, I was schooled & also lived in the UK & in Australia as well, so I tend to lean towards the "Queens English" as my mother used to call it.

As children growing up, we were reprimanded when and if we tended to use any American words or slang!

The first time I came across the word "gotten" in a book by an American author, I had to look up the actual meaning in a dictionary and finally found it in the American Webster.

Well, we moved to Canada a short time ago and live in a city which borders the USA.

The terminology problems I have encountered on a daily basis and am still encountering, was and is still astounding to say the least. To name a few simple words like skirting boards, architraves, electrical plugs, soft drinks, offal, queue, fortnight etc etc etc. As for the spelling, well that is another story!!

The list does go on and on and on!!!

I'm seriously considering writing a book on the use of all the different terminology around the English speaking world!!!!

Anonymous said...

Whinging =winjing

Nanciann said...

Many thanks.

Jan Power said...

Hey Candy,

I dislike squat as well. How about hovered, rocked back on his heels, knelt, bent close; I notice you get dinged on Goodreads for the on-going hunkering.

Counting the days until March...any tidbits you are willing to share, not that I am not already salivating like a Pavlov dog? (Side note, when in St. Petersburg I noticed that Pavlov's hospital was directly across the street from the Imperial Kennels...one could imagine the light bulb going on.)

Marcus said...

As an American, I can think of no other culture that takes such joy in their use of English as the Brits do. They take the mundane, and make it an art form.

I will use words from any dialect of English, or for that matter, from any language, if it helps me express myself or just feels good. Nobody would ever take me for British, and if folks think I'm being pretentious, well, let them. Language is too much fun to be restricted by such pedantry.

LOgalinOR said...

Hey Ms. Harris,
After all the hoopla, I decided I was going to jump into the fray, the "hunker" fray, that is. I was convinced before I started researching that there MUST be another word that could be used in its place. After checking numerous sources and references, I could't keep from chuckling myself. There is NO other word that comes even remotely close, to adequately describe this terrific little word as you have used it. Many conjured up the mental image that you described, as a place you don't want to visit. LOL!
Not only the image, but the sound of some of these others had a definite different twist and meaning to them. Words such, crouch, cower, dip, duck, grovel, huddle, kneel, quail, quat, squat, schrouch, stoop, wince, as well as adding the second word "down" along with it. Haven't the naysayers and the pundits bigger fish(words) to fry? Did THEY offer alternatives?

Ms. Harris, please continue the use of the word "hunker" as you see fit, without the guilt. Your readers will even more enjoy seeing the word "hunker" in your books, and "bloody hell" to those that disagree.

cs harris said...

Nanciann, it's a soft "g". And I couldn't agree more on the loss of language skills.

Firefly, I know what you mean. When I first moved to Australia, I went into a shop looking to buy a comforter and dust ruffle, and got blank looks. Took me a while to realize I wanted a duna and valance!

Anon, thank you!

Jan, there's a reason I don't go to Goodreads! I guess I must say "hunker" more than most people. I suppose there's crouch, but that always reminds me of someone crouching down behind bushes. As for hints about the upcoming book, I'll have to do some posts on London sites in the upcoming book.

Marcus, well said!

LOgalinOr, well I'm glad you agree! I find it incredible that more than one person would be so bothered by the word as to write about it on Goodreads. Jeesh.

Bower said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gale said...

Your post started a lengthy conversation with my English father-in-law who is currently visting. In the end, he decided that the space between the road and the sidewalk should be the "verge". Here in California, we call it the "parking strip". (Don't worry, even here we really don't park on it.) My husband and father-in- law are currently having a long dialog about "gotten". I'm afraid I must have used it a lot when we lived in London exposing my crass American roots. Oh well! Thanks for the food for thought.

cs harris said...

Gale, does this mean that "council strip" is Aussie but not English? And I will forever be traumatized about "gotten." I frequently find myself spending ages trying to figure out how to reword a sentence so I don't need to use it.

Gale said...

My English father in law has no idea if "council strip" is English or not but thinks it could be. Of course his only comment about Australian usage is that "they do get a lot of things from us don't they". (I'm not sure what I was expecting from a man in his eighties born in Burma before the war.) So there you are, mass uncertainty on our part!

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