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You say erb, I say herb: American vs. British pronunciation of loan words



You say ‘erb (using the silent French ‘h’), I say herb (the way it’s spelt). Here’s a good example of the difference between the American pronunciation (usually referred to as General American, or GA) and the Received Pronunciation (British English, RP) of foreign loan words — ie. words that have been adopted into standard English from other languages, many from centuries ago. Many will argue that RP has tended more to assimilate these words and pronounce them according to English spelling-pronunciation rules rather than to the way the original word sounds. So fillet (or filet), meaning a small boneless cut of meat (derived from the French word filet), is pronounced by the Brits as “FILL-uht”, in the way that its English spelling prescribes. Americans prefer to approximate the French accent with their more exotic rendering, “fi-LAY”. However, there are many exceptions to this rule, as illustrated in some of the examples below.

Especially when it comes to words of French derivation, the distinction between GA and RP is governed largely by stress, with the Americans sticking more faithfully to the French tendency to emphasize the last syllable of the word, whatever the spelling (as in fillet above). Hence baton, beret, ballet and debris are all voiced differently on opposite sides of the Atlantic, with RP placing emphasis on the first half of the word and GA on the second; attaché and fiancé follow suit, with the second and final syllables stressed respectively by the Brits and the Americans. (There are exceptions; see below.) Croissant is another curious example: Americans order a “kruh-SAHNT”, where Brits prefer a KWAH-song. But this is a great example of just how these rules of thumb don’t really hold up: whereas GA follows the French rule of emphasis here by stressing the second syllable, RP probably does a better job of imitating the French vibe by approximating both the vowel and consonant sounds of the original word (“kw” for “cr”, “ah” for “oi”, the silent “nt” following the nasal-sounding “o”). So at the end of the day, there’s really no hard-and-fast rule about whether GA or RP more closely follows the original pronunciation of the word in its native language, and indeed this seems to vary according to the original language in question. The wonderful blog Separated by a Common Language looks more specifically at Spanish loan words and how and why they’re pronounced in GA & RP, and there’s a discussion about how German words are handled on the Word Reference Forum.

Here are a few examples of RP and GA pronunciations, with the one I feel more closely approximates the original word bolded.

herb: RP: herb; GA: erb

croissant: RP: KWAH-song; GA: kruh-SAHNT

valet: RP: VAL-lett; GA: val-LAY

fillet: RP: FILL-ett; GA: fi-LAY

address (as noun in postal sense): RP: a-DRESS; GA: ADD-ress

cigarette: RP: si-guh-RET; GA: SI-guh-ret

Van Gogh: RP: either Van-GOKH (rhyming with the “loch” of the Lochness Monster) or Van-GOFF; GA: Van-GO

schedule: RP: SHED-yule; GA: SKED-yule (Greek “sch” words are generally pronounced with the hard ‘k’, eg. school)

Risotto: RP: ri-ZOT-toe; GA: ri-ZOH-toe

Pasta: RP: PAS-tuh (first syllable rhyming with “lass”); GA: “PAH-stuh”


Cat’s pajamas, bee’s knees and dog’s bollocks


“You’re the cat’s whiskers!” one of my colleagues said to me recently. And I realized I didn’t know exactly what he meant — and it wasn’t an expression I had ever heard said aloud, except in old movies or shows set in the 1920s.

It was during that time that a whole collection of American expressions were coined to mean “an outstanding or excellent person or thing”, with overtones of style, class or newness (thank you Max! — although I’m pretty sure there was a touch of irony in your compliment …). The fad was to use the names of animals, body-parts and clothes in peculiar combinations, such as the flea’s eyebrows, the canary’s tusks, the eel’s ankle, the elephant’s instep, the clam’s garter, the snake’s hips, the kipper’s knickers, the sardine’s whiskers and the pig’s wings. Whereas most of these nonsensical expressions disappeared relatively quickly, three feline-themed terms — “cat’s pajamas”, “cat’s whiskers” and “cat’s miaow” — managed to stick around and they remain in use today, as does the rather charming “bee’s knees”.

As old-fashioned and archaic as they might sound today, these phrases were considered modern, clever and rather daring by the free-spirited flappers of the roaring 20s and the emerging ‘cool cats’ of the jazz age who bandied these words about. (Pajamas, by the way, were a new and fashionable article of clothing in the 1920s and therefore suitably hip for inclusion in this mod lingo.) So popular were these expressions that by the late 1920s, the ‘cat’ ones were sometimes abbreviated to just “it’s the cat’s.” All American by origin, they soon caught on in England as well. The lexicographers William and Mary Morris suggest that the “cat” phrases might have originated earlier than the ’20s, since they were reportedly first heard in girls’ schools and women’s colleges earlier in the century — at which time the terms were considerably risqué.

It’s widely believed that Tad Dorgan, the American sportswriter and cartoonist, first coined all these expressions (especially the cat ones), or at least brought them into popular usage. Dorgan created or popularized a whole “slang vernacular”, introducing into standard English a slew of now common words and phrases such as dumbbell (a stupid person), for crying out loud (an expression of astonishment), hard-boiled (referring to a tough person), and “yes, we have no bananas”, which became the title of a popular song.

I’m guessing that “the bee’s knees”, another such term still in use, endured simply because of its tidy size and tidy rhyme. According to Oxford Dictionaries, it was first recorded in the late 18th century, when it meant “something very small and insignificant”. However, its meaning changed in the 1920s — presumably to match its fellow “animal-body-part” expressions so fashionable at the time — to denote excellence. Some speculate that it derives from a comical mispronunciation of the word business, but there’s no evidence to support this idea. According to the Phrase Finder, another theory is that “bee’s knees” might have been connected to Bee Jackson, a 1920s dancer from New York who was said to have helped to popularize the Charleston by introducing the dance form to Broadway in 1924 (she went on to become a celebrated Charleston champion); “Bee’s knees” must have been fairly impressive. However, the phrase was in use before 1924, so this is also an unlikely scenario.

The British expression “dog’s bollocks”, which is thought to have originated as a printer’s term for the typographical colon dash “:-” (as Eric Partridge noted in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English in 1949), is now widely used in the UK to mean the same as the “cat’s whiskers”. (Here’s another example of animal body-parts, with bollocks being the British slang for testicles.) The OED cites an early example of the canine term being used in the sleeve notes for the cassette tape recording of Peter Brewis’s play The Gambler: “They are of the opinion that, when it comes to Italian opera, Pavarotti is the dog’s bollocks.”

Oxford & Cambridge: a new battleground for an old rivalry?


Although Oxford took home yesterday’s trophy in the 159th Boat Race, today it seems that Cambridge has something to crow about: it’s being reported in the London Herald that Cambridge University has announced its introduction of the “Cambridge comma”. Rivaling the contentious Oxford comma, which – after the apostrophe – is probably the most divisive punctuation mark in the English language (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on the Oxford comma here), the Cambridge comma introduces a punctuated pause AFTER the word “and in lists — ie. before the final list item, with Oxford already having staked its claim to the prime position before the “and”.

An example of the new Cambridge comma illustrates the unexpectedly belated verbal interruption that it offers: “He packed up his books, cigars, teddy bears and, slippers.” Oxford’s remains more predictably timely: “He packed up his gowns, pipes, long-johns, and ties.”

Oxford and Cambridge have enjoyed an infamous but healthy rivalry for centuries, dating back to when they were the only two universities in England and Wales. Competition between the “Oxbridge” institutions is most famously characterized by the annual boat race, which takes place on a four-mile stretch of the River Thames. Now the colleges will have one more thing — in addition to the best cox and crew, the most famous alumni, the best academic ranking, the most renowned theatrical society — over which to compete: the relative value of their respective serial comma positions. Are you an Oxford comma kind of character, or a Cambridge comma cat?

A spokesman for Cambridge University was quoted in the London Herald remarking on this new role for the ever versatile comma: “Cambridge is proud to add a new, dynamic and, pause-worthy role to the most widely-used and abused punctuation mark in the English language. We look forward to seeing it flourish in literature, text messages and, IMs as we encourage the world to take an added pause.” Read the full London Herald article here.

Why is a ship a she?


Why are ships called she?

“A ship is called a she because there is always a great deal of bustle around her; there is usually a gang of men about; she has a waist and stays; it takes a lot of paint to keep her good-looking; it is not the initial expense that breaks you, it is the upkeep; she can be all decked out; it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable. She shows her topsides, hiders her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.”

Based on this prose posted in the wardrooms of most U.S. naval ships and printed on many a tacky tea-towel (take it as mildly cheeky or inexcusably offensive), this is the explanation most people will offer up. (See also the even more chauvinistic rendering by Rear Admiral Francis D. Foley below.)

But seriously: why are ships and countries (and sometimes cars and other vessels and vehicles) often referred to with the feminine pronoun? Although the practice has been in steady decline for some time now, thanks no doubt to feminism and PC journalistic style guides (the Chicago and AP manuals strongly discourage it, and even maritime authorities now frown on its usage), it’s nevertheless been historically ingrained in nautical language and lore for many centuries. One prosaic explanation is that the gender of the Latin word for “ship” — Navis — is feminine. But people generally agree on the more romantic notion of the ‘ship as a she’ phenomenon: that it stems from the tradition of boat-owners, typically and historically male, naming their vessels after significant women in their lives — wives, sweethearts, mothers. Similarly, and more broadly, ships were once dedicated to goddesses, and later also to mortal women of national or historic significance, thereby bestowing a benevolent feminine spirit on the vessels that would carry seafarers across treacherous oceans. Figureheads on the prows of ships were often depictions of such female namesakes, denoting the name of the ship for a largely illiterate maritime population. This practice dated from the early 18th century, before which superstition had it that the presence of women aboard sailing vessels — whether in human or representative form — was an omen of bad luck. The practice of naming boats and ships after women continues today, although certainly not exclusively, as does the habit of feminizing our sailing vessels.

Like ships, but with declining frequency, countries have historically assumed a female form in historical and literary contexts — especially when the author or speaker seeks to personify that country for rhetorical or poetic effect. The New York Times in February 1917 quoted the then editor of The Economist, Hartley Withers, discussing a nation contemplating war: “If America with all her treasure of gold comes into the war against Germany she will be of incalculable help to her allies, regardless of anything she may do as a fighting force. If she stays out, as now, with broken relations with Germany, she will be an equally potent support to us. America’s wealth and financial aid mean everything to the Allies.” National personifications of countries in female forms have been extremely popular over the years, especially in the context of wartime propaganda and patriotism: Brittania, Germania, Mother Russia, Marianne (for France), and Italia Turrita are but a few examples. However, male symbols of nations are not uncommon; John Bull (for the UK) and Uncle Sam (representing the U.S. government) are two notable exceptions to the female country rule. To personify a country in the female form, both linguistically and symbolically, is now something of an anachronism. But despite our gender-blind naming of diseases, hurricanes, storms and other forces of nature, we still bestow on our planetary home and the very core of our existence names of the ultimate symbols of life-giving femininity: Mother Earth and Mother Nature.


“Why We Call a Ship a She?”

By Rear Admiral Francis D. Foley, U.S. Navy (Retired), Naval History, December 1998

“Ships are referred to as ‘she’ because men love them, but this encompasses far more than just that. Man-o’-war or merchantman, there can be a great deal of bustle about her as well as a gang of men on deck, particularly if she is slim-waisted, well-stacked, and has an inviting superstructure. It is not so much her initial cost as it is her upkeep that makes you wonder where you founder.

She is greatly admired when freshly painted and all decked out to emphasize her cardinal points. If an aircraft carrier, she will look in a mirror when about to be arrested, and will wave you off if she feels you are sinking too low or a little too high, day or night. She will not hangar around with duds, but will light you off and launch you into the wild blue yonder when you muster a full head of steam.

“Even a submarine reveals her topsides returning to port, heads straight for the buoys, knows her pier, and gets her breast-lines out promptly if she is single-screwed. On departure, no ship leaves port asleep, she always leaves a wake. She may not mind her helm or answer to the old man when the going gets rough, and can be expected to kick up her heels on a family squall.

“A ship costs a lot to dress, sometimes blows a bit of smoke, and requires periodic overhauls to extend her useful life. Some have a cute fantail, others are heavy in the stern, but all have double-bottoms which demand attention. When meeting head-on, sound a recognition signal; whistle. If she does not answer up, come about and start laying alongside, but watch to see if her ship is slowing . . . perhaps her slip is showing? Then proceed with caution until danger of collision is over and you can fathom how much latitude she will allow.

“If she does not remain on an even keel, let things ride, feel your way, and do not cross the line until you determine ‘weather’ the “do” point is right for a prolonged blast. Get the feel of the helm, stay on the right “tact”, keep her so, and she will pay off handsomely. If she is in the roaring forties, however, you may be in the dangerous semi-circle, so do not expect much “luff,” especially under bare poles.

“She may think you are not under command or control and shove off. If she edges aweigh, keep her steady as she goes, but do not sink into the doldrums. Just remember that ‘to furnish a ship requires much trouble, but to furnish a woman the cost is double!’

“To the women who now help us “man” our ships, my apologies for the foregoing. Only the opening phrase presents my true feelings. After all, a ship’s bell(e) will always remain her most prized possession, and every good ship has a heart, just like yours. A trick at the wheel, like you, would have been welcome aboard when I was on “she” duty for 40 years. May God bless you all, sweetheart!”

Songs my childhood taught me 1: Rhymes from the schoolyard



Glossophilia is taking a trip down memory lane with a series of posts on childhood songs and rhymes: when we skipped in the school playground, bounced on our parents’ knees, twisted our tongues around gob-stopping riffs, learned our lessons with nifty mnemonics, and recited —  delighted — silly nonsense.

Remember the days of the old schoolyard? If you’re a grown-up boy, you probably just remember the footie and the fisticuffs more than anything else. But we girls will never forget our hours and hours of hand-clapping and skipping-rope sessions,  the longer the better, with no-one ever tripping the rope or missing a beat, breathlessly counting, and chanting the rhymes and songs — often pretty rude — that gave it all reason, shape and momentum … Continue reading