“Kellyanne Conway says Donald Trump’s team has ‘alternative facts.’ Which pretty much says it all’,” reported the Washington Post recently. Well, these ‘alternative facts’ issuing from our new President’s administration might be wrong, but at least the adjective Conway uses to describe their facts is correct on both sides of the Atlantic. She could easily have used the alternative adjective and called them ‘alternate facts’.
“Alternative facts” are the new lies. And at least in America, they can also technically be known as “alternate facts,” which will grate on many an Englishman’s ear. Take the following examples:
The day before the inauguration, the New York Times reported that “around the country, an unusual number of alternate activities are planned to coincide with weekend events surrounding the inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump and the Women’s March on Washington.” And in the same article, discussing her own event that she hosted up in Washington Heights, the actress Ellen Burstyn explained: “It’s not a protest,” “It’s an alternate reality.”
Yes, in America we don’t just have alternative facts, but we also have alternative words for alternative. On this side of the pond, alternate is a synonym of alternative (as well as being an adjective describing things that are alternated). This is presumably a case of linguistic evolution, in which a word frequently confused with and substituted for its similar-sounding colleague has been absorbed into the vernacular with the ‘wrong’ meaning becoming standard and legit.
As Oxford Dictionaries explains succinctly: “In both British and American English the adjective alternate means ‘every other or every second’, as in they meet on alternate Sundays, or ‘(of two things) each following and succeeded by the other in a regular pattern’, as in alternate layers of potato and sauce. Alternative means ‘available as another possibility or choice’ (an alternative route; some European countries follow an alternative approach). In American usage, however, alternate can also be used to mean ‘available as another choice’: an alternate plan called for construction to begin immediately rather than waiting for spring. This American use of alternate is still regarded as incorrect by many people in Britain.”
“Inauguration planners rushed to wipe away a potential controversy Friday after porta-potties on the National Mall happened to be adorned with the President-elect’s first name. Workers were spotted Friday morning covering the “Don’s Johns” logo with blue masking tape. … Trump, whose middle name is John, will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States at the US Capitol next Friday, an event expected to draw thousands of onlookers onto the National Mall who will use the facilities, of which there are about 2,000. The company [Don’s Johns] is the number-one provider of sanitation services in the Washington area.” So reported CNN a couple of weeks ago, before the country started going down the lav (or the toilet, or the WC …). Oh, where to start …
Perhaps surprisingly, the language of loos is something Glosso hasn’t yet addressed. It’s such a mess of expressions that stream from our mouths and tongues when we refer to that little room of excretion, and yet it’s a topic that no-one can really avoid, even if only when you have to ask how to get to the lav — or the john. With their various whiffs and odors of place, class and manners — from the perfumery of hair powder in the 17th-century French toilet to the stench of Don’s Johns in dirty D.C. — the words for our potties plastic and porcelain and where we house them are teaming and flowing with linguistic innuendo. Let’s dive in … Continue reading →
Continuing our exploration of American political jargon, here’s a look at the word filibuster, which to British ears sounds more like a horse-trainer than an obstructive political process. Here’s an explanation from an earlier Glossophilia post. Continue reading →
“Thursday brought another WikiLeaks dump of nearly 2,000 emails hacked from the Hillary Clinton campaign, allegedly by Russians. As usual, they were inside-the-beltway gossip rather than game-changing.” So The Guardian reported earlier this week. What does “beltway gossip” mean? Continue reading →
Kitchen in the Vanderbilt tenements, 1912; Wikimedia Commons
The other day I read an article in the New York Times, from 2011, about a particular block on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that had a colorful history. One particular sentence jumped out at me, and I’ve bolded the part that caught my interest: “The handsome red brick apartment houses at 167 through 173 West 83rd Street are one of McKim, Mead & White’s minor commissions; even famous architects have to put food on the drafting table. People often call such buildings tenements, but these were known then as flats, for tenants a notch or two above the working class. They got one three-bedroom apartment per floor.” Were those dwellings really once known as flats, in the heart of New York City? Continue reading →