Author Archives: Louise

“Anniversary”: years in a word

Originally posted in August 2011.

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It seems an opportune moment, as we approach a significant date that history will never forget, to look at the meaning and derivation of the word “anniversary” — a word that will be on everyone’s lips over the coming weeks and days. It’s a word that many feel the need to qualify – wrongly – with the word “year”, even though the notion of year is inherent in the definition of the word itself. Do a Google news search on the phrase “10-year anniversary”, and hundreds if not thousands of results come up, none of them really correct. Continue reading

A fortune known as Bunny

Originally posted in May 2011.

Following up on my earlier post about misused em dashes, here’s a good example of a situation in which a couple of those dashes might have come in handy.

An article published in today’s New York Times about former presidential candidate John Edwards facing criminal charges ( you can read it here) includes a poorly-worded and badly-punctuated sentence that bestows a nickname on a million-dollar fortune:

“Investigators have said that the money came from two top donors — Rachel Mellon, the heiress to the Mellon fortune known as Bunny, and Fred Baron, Mr. Edwards’s finance chairman, who died in 2008.”

A more careful copy-editor would have corrected the punctuation to make the sentence read as follows:

“Investigators have said that the money came from two top donors: Rachel Mellon, the heiress — known as Bunny — to the Mellon fortune, and Fred Baron, Mr. Edwards’s finance chairman, who died in 2008.”

Or more simply — and avoiding the em dashes altogether by using a well-understood practice of indicating monikers — the sentence could have placed the offending nickname in quotation marks between Ms. Mellon’s first and last names. Poor — or rather rich — Bunny.

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I’ll take that with a side of small words …

Originally posted in April 2011.

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It’s probably a cultural thing. With our need to please everyone and to offend no-one (at least not overtly or publicly), not to assume anything nor to presume – God forbid – any sort of familiarity or intimacy, to clarify, to tiptoe around the subject, and to mind our Ps and Qs, we Brits love to pile on the words. Mainly little ones. Our colleagues across the ocean are all about being direct: what you hear is what you get.

“Please, if you would be so kind, would it be possible to have a sandwich with some pastrami and some rye bread, if that’s OK? Thank you,” whispers the red-faced Englishman in the queue at the deli counter.

“Gimme a pastrami on rye!” yells the Yank.

In most examples of usage differences, it’s the Brits who add the extra words:  an article here, a pronoun there, a qualifier, a conjunction, a polite plea — oh just anything to soften the brutality of that bare utterance.

Americans are known to look after their mouths more carefully than do their counterparts across the Atlantic, so perhaps it’s in the spirit of lingual thriftiness that they’re always on the look-out for an opportunity to save a syllable. “The exhibit opens April 15,” they say, shortening the exhibition to one of its components, taking out the “on”, and skipping all the laborious date embellishments that Brits prefer to add (“it actually opens on the 16th of April”). “That’s two hundred fifty-three bucks!”, they exclaim, while we surreptitiously slide a conjunction in between the numbers. “Enjoy!” they command, removing the object of anticipated pleasure – or its pronoun. “Write me” doesn’t mean you have to spell out a two-letter word.  “He took it in stride” leaves no Yank guessing: “Whose stride”? Hell, they even save a whole syllable by removing that tiny “i” from the name of our planet’s most abundant metal … (But don’t let’s get started on letter-dropping here.)

So, why then is every American willing to expend that extra ounce of oral energy when they refer to themselves receiving (but not dispensing) treatment in their temples of healing? Along with the Brits — who admittedly have to venture a little outside their comfort zones in these instances, Yanks are usually content with article-less descriptions of their locations, deployments or confinements when they’re “at sea”, “in jail” or “at school”. But the moment an American becomes a patient, she is in THE hospital” (unlike her British counterpart who’s as happy in hospital as she is in prison).

Both their attending physicians need a definite article where they work, though. Just to avoid any confusion.

 

To prorogue or not to prorogue

King Charles I at his trial in 1649

There are two words screaming from today’s British headlines: prorogation and prorogue. “MPs pledge to form alternative parliament in case of prorogation.” “Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is preparing to ask Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue or suspend the UK Parliament from September until mid-October.” You’re probably wondering — as I am — what on earth prorogue means, and where that word comes from.  Continue reading

The language of sex: come one, cum all!

Originally posted in 2013, and then updated last year when it came back into the news … 

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Update: The censored cake … With the word “cum” back in the news today, Glossophilia is happy to republish one of its most popular posts.

The censored cake / Facebook

 

KamaSutra

*  *  Warning: contains strong language *  * Language advisory: viewer discretion advised * *

I was watching Masters of Sex the other night on Showtime, and it struck me that Masters and Johnson were using the word come a lot. And they weren’t meaning the opposite of go. (It didn’t escape my notice that they also seemed to be coming a lot — but that’s another story…) I know these ground-breaking sex researchers of the 1950s and ’60s were famously ahead of their time, but not in their word choices — and their use of this particular piece of sexual terminology sounded weirdly anachronistic to me. I really thought that this word “come” was a more modern invention… Continue reading

Forever blowing bubbles

Originally posted in May 2011.

“For ever”: these two words, when used together, are so poetic and so laden with meaning. In their definitiveness they conjure up the most extreme notions and emotions of the human condition: eternities of love, of despair, of hope, of estrangement, of desire, of determination, of life itself and even the hereafter. The words can’t be used lightly, whether they’re whispered or declared in the context of a single mortal lifespan or the unfathomable eternity of the universe; their meaning carries a certain gravitas in terms of time and intention. “I will stay here for ever” has no ambiguity about it. The OED defines the expression “for ever” as “for all future time” – or, more colloquially, “for a long time”. But put those two little words together, and here’s where the Americans and the Brits part company. Continue reading

That prat skived off to scoff his spotted dick, the jammy b…

Originally posted in April 2011.

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Here are some words and expressions you won’t necessarily hear in New York City – unless you’re loading up on Bisto at the fabulous Myers of Keswick, or chewing wine gums at the recently opened London Candy Company on Lexington Ave, or chowing down on bangers and mash at Tea & Sympathy, or scoffing spotted dick at the Chip Shop in Brooklyn …

I’ll add definitions in a fortnight. Meanwhile, let me know if you can think of any more Englishisms that provoke such delight in American listeners and readers.

NB: it has just occurred to me that most of these slang words and expressions have quite negative connotations,  referring to undesirable characteristics, moods, or commands. A few exceptions are ‘chuffed’, ‘dishy’, ‘morish’ … and of course we all love a bit of how’s your father.

any road (not meaning vague directions)
belt up (not fastening your seatbelt)
bloke
blow me (not what you might like to think)
bob’s your uncle
boffin
bog off
bovver (spot of)
budge up
chuffed
dishy
faff
fagged
flog
fluke
fortnight
gen (up)
(big) girls blouse
gormless
(a bit of ) how’s your father
jammy (adj.)
kip
knackered
(get your) knickers in a twist
morish
naff
nick / nicked
nouse
one off
pear-shaped (not describing your figure)
piece of cake (not what you eat)
pissed (not mad, angry)
plonk
porkies/pork pies (not what you eat …)
prat
rubber (not a condom)

sarky
shirty
skew-whiff
skint
skive (off)
slag (off)
sod / sod off / sod all
Sod’s law
spend a penny (not what you do at Myers of Keswick – unless you ask very politely)
strop / stroppy
suss / sussed out
table (as verb; not removing it from the agenda)
take the mickey / take the piss
twee
ups a daisy
waffle (vb.; not what you eat for breakfast with syrup)
wangle
whinge
wobbly / wobbler (not what the Weebles do)
wonky
yonks
zonked

 

And here are some favorite English delicacies:

Chip butty

Spotted Dick

Bubble ‘n’ squeak

Bangers ‘n’ mash

Toad in the hole

Sticky buns

 

 

Oliver’s army is on its way

Originally posted in April 2011.

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Elvis Costello’s lyrics are sometimes exquisite. I’ve been listening to them for years, since I was a teenager. But it was only this morning, sitting in Riverside Park and listening to my iPod, that I realized for the first time something curious about the chorus of one of his songs: that he uses the same collective noun with two different verb forms, one after the other:

Oliver’s army is here to stay
Oliver’s army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today

Unlike Americans, who tend to use verbs only in the singular form when the subject is a collective noun (“the crowd is screaming loudly”), Brits use collective nouns followed by either singular or plural verb forms, depending on the context. It’s a matter of emphasis and importance: whether the group is acting as a whole or whether the group’s individual members are important to the meaning of the sentence determines how it is formed. “The student class are causing unease in the school, given the range of learning differences amongst the scholars,” versus, “the student class is the most successful in the school’s history”. However, as a rule*, in both England and America, national sports teams are always treated as a plural noun: “England are beating all the odds and scoring their way to victory.”

So, given Costello’s use of two simple words, perhaps he’s conveying two disarming messages. “Oliver’s army is here to stay”: the army of his imagination (representing “a vision of mercenary and imperial armies around the world”) has no internal doubts or conflicts about its purpose, and it has no intention of leaving or disbanding. But as the lyrics’ author observed when asked about writing his song, ‘they always get a working class boy to do the killing’. “Oliver’s army are on their way”: The army is made up of many young souls, all of whom are marching into battle …

The song’s verses are worth reading, to get a sense of Costello’s brilliance not just as a musician but as a lyricist and poet.

* with some notable exceptions

Trump’s use of the word “invasion” has eerie precedent

    

As The Week reported last week: “Since January, President Trump’s re-election campaign has posted more than 2,000 Facebook ads focusing on immigration that use the word “invasion,” the New York Times reported. He also used the word “invasion” in several tweets regarding immigrants at the border. Trump’s word choice is in the spotlight following Saturday’s massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which left at least 22 people dead. The suspect is believed to have written an online screed ahead of the attack, declaring it “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Data from Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic communications firm tracking 2020 presidential candidates’ digital advertising, shows that since late March, Trump has spent an estimated $1.25 million on Facebook ads about immigration.”

Donald Trump isn’t the only world leader who has used the words “invasion” and “invaders” with political (and malevolent) intent. As Lynne Tyrrell explained yesterday in The Guardian: A 1992 speech by Rwandan political leader Leon Mugesera is widely considered to have launched genocidal mobilization in Rwanda. Mugesera repeatedly called Rwanda’s Tutsis “invaders”. Like Trump, who recently said that four Democratic congresswomen should go back to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Mugesera said that the Tutsi “invaders” should be sent back to where they came from: “I am telling you that your home is in Ethiopia, that we will send you by the Nyabarongo so you can get there quickly.” The Nyabaraongo river runs to the Nile. After steady repetition of this rhetoric, the river grew clogged with Tutsi bodies during the genocide. Sending them back to Ethiopia, literally. Words became horrific action.”

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A literary “fav” – and a couple of gems – from Meghan Markle

An installment of The Duchess of Sussex’s now defunct lifestyle blog, “The Tig”, has been doing the rounds, thanks to People magazine. Describing in hungry detail what Meghan Markle wrote about five years ago on the subject of “the sweetest tradition [she] can think of,” People quotes liberally from the former actress’s July 2014 post in which she listed her summer literary “favs” and those of some of her Suits co-stars. I caught a couple of little gems in The Duchess’s post — both sparkling prettily in the same paragraph. Can you spot them? (Clue: I wrote about one of them in a very recent Glosso post. The other one just made me giggle.) Here’s the paragraph in question: Continue reading