Glosso’s series, “X v Y”, takes a look at two sets of words — envy and jealousy, irony and sarcasm — that are often treated as synonyms but actually have substantially different meanings. Continue reading
Next up in Glosso’s “X v Y” series: does momentarily mean very soon — or very briefly? Continue reading
Can you think of a word that means one thing and its exact opposite, depending on the context in which it is used? Continue reading
Brits say jelly, Americans say jello … Here’s a list of foodstuffs and beverages that have different names depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on.
Please add any further examples in the comments section below. (Note that some words are used by both the English and the Americans, but in each case at least one of the names is exclusive to just one country.)
Do we say thanks too much? “Thank you” (or the appropriate equivalent — eg. thanks, tah, cheers, merci, etc.) tends to be said more frequently in some cultures — especially in English-speaking countries — than in others; many would argue that utterances of thanks and gratitude are dished out so habitually and gratuitously in England and the U.S. that the sincerity of the sentiment is often diminished.
The Chinese rarely say thank you to their family and close friends. And because they value humility, saying “thank you” after being paid a compliment can be perceived as arrogant. In Thailand, gratitude is generally conveyed using the “wai”, a gesture of hands clasped together as in prayer, which varies according to the social status of the person being thanked, and sometimes simply a smile will suffice; a verbal “thank you” is reserved for important actions that warrant sincere and special gratitude. The Nepalese have no words that translate directly to thank you or please; they adjust or conjugate their pronouns and verbs (much like the way the French use vous or tu) to reflect the level of respect they wish to convey, but don’t have dedicated “polite” words. (Similarly, most Scandinavian countries — certainly Danish, Finnish and Icelandic — don’t have an actual word for please.)
As for acknowledging thanks, the nature of the verbal response also varies from culture to culture and language to language, and seems to fall into three general categories. The first amounts to dismissing the act that inspired the thanks as unimportant or non-existent. The French say de rien, the Portuguese de nada, in Catalan, it’s de res — all translating roughly to “it’s nothing”. Then there’s almost the opposite: an expression of pleasure on the part of the person being thanked. The Dutch phrase graag gedaan translates literally as “gladly done”; when the Icelandic say gerdu svo vel, they mean “my pleasure”. And finally there’s a fairly common tradition of echoing back the word for please when you’re acknowledging an expression of gratitude. In Hebrew, Russian and a number of Eastern European languages, the way you say “you’re welcome” is by using the word for please. In Russia, it’s пожалуйста” (“pah-zhal-stah”); the Polish dual-purpose word is prosze; in Hebrew, it’s bevakasha.
In British and American English, we tend to use variations on the first two types of expression. An Englishman, if he does verbalize a response, is more likely to offer “of course”, “don’t mention it”, “it was nothing”, “by all means”, “no problem”, “no worries” (very common in Australian English), “that’s OK”, “that’s all right”, “my pleasure”, or “not at all”. The traditional “you’re welcome” is more of an American phenomenon. In fact, since the British have a habit of thanking everyone for the smallest and most trivial actions (they give thanks almost as much as they apologize), they’re less inclined to acknowledge all the gratitude being doled out — and therefore a nod or a smile, with deliberate eye-contact (which in itself is enough to make most English folk blush), will usually do the trick. The Americans are more conscientious (they will usually offer a verbal reply), less self-conscious and more effusive with their “you’re welcomes”, and common alternatives are “sure”, “sure thing”, or, even more informally, “you bet” — or “you betcha!”. That’s something you won’t hear an Englishman say.
Last year, Lynneguist on her blog Separated by a Common Language wrote a detailed and nuanced post comparing American and English usage of please, thank you and other general terms and expressions of politeness (a video of her TEDx talk on the subject at Sussex University accompanies the piece). It’s well worth a read to understand some of the more subtle differences in manners — both linguistic and social — between the Yanks and the Brits.
Here are a few international versions of “you’re welcome”, with their literal translations where I’ve managed to track them down:
Brazilian/Portuguese: de nada, “of nothing”
Catalan: de res, “it’s nothing”
Cantonese: M̀h’sái haak-hei, “not necessary”
Danish: selv tak, “thanks yourself”
Dutch: graag gedaan, “gladly done”
Finnish: ole hyvä
French: de rien, “it’s nothing”
German: Bitte schoen, “please pretty”
Hebrew: bevakasha, “please”
Hungarian: nincs mit, “nothing”
Icelandic: gerdu svo vel, “my pleasure” or “there you go”
Italian: prego, “I beg”
Japanese: dou itashimashite
Norwegian: bare hyggelig, “my pleasure”
Polish: prosze, “please”
Russian: pohzhalstah, “please”
Slovenian: prosim, “please”
Spanish: de nada, “it’s nothing”, or mi gusto, “my pleasure”
Swedish: varsagod, “be so good”
Tagalog: walang anuman, “no problems”
We had Chelsea buns for tea yesterday. While discussing its ingredients (and its curious name), my American-raised daughter asked slightly suspiciously, “What’s a sultana?” Good question. Even though I know what it looks and tastes like, I realized I had no idea what it actually is, or what makes it different from a raisin. (And if you’re wondering what a Chelsea bun is, keep reading …)
The sultana is a “white” (pale green) variety of seedless grape, also called a sultanina, a Thompson Seedless (in the U.S.), a Lady de Coverly (in England), and a Kishmish (in Turkey and Palestine). The sultana grape is nicknamed the “three-way grape” since it’s used for table grapes, raisins and wine. Because of its multi-functionality, it’s the most planted grape in California. It’s thought to have originated from either Constantinople or from the Asian part of the Ottoman Empire, from where the sultana raisin was originally and traditionally exported to the English-speaking world, some time in the 17th and 18th centuries. In some countries, namely Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, sultana is also the name of that particular type of raisin; in fact, in the UK, sultana usually refers to the dried fruit — which is basically a golden, plumper, rounder, more juicy version of the raisin (it’s treated with sulfur dioxide to maintain its color) — rather than to the variety of grape from which it’s made. However, in the U.S., raisin is a catch-all word for all dried grapes, making the word sultana unfamiliar to speakers of American English.
Another variety of raisin is the currant, made from the small, dried Black Corinth seedless grape, which is produced mainly in California and the Levant.* Currants — not to be confused with the berries called redcurrants or blackcurrants — are miniature raisins that are firm, dark in color and have a tart, tangy flavor; they are more often found in cooking and baking than their sweeter raisin cousins, which enjoy strutting their stuff as healthy snacks these days. The currant gets its name from Corinth, the port in Greece from which it originated.
For a comprehensive history of the raisin — and other dried fruits — check out the second chapter of Sun-maid’s rather delightful 100th anniversary book.
And back to the Chelsea bun: This classy-sounding treat is a type of currant bun — made of a rich yeast dough sweetened with brown sugar, cinnamon and spice mixtures, spread with butter, and rolled up with currants, lemon peel and dried fruits before being baked. (Americans: think cinnamon roll or cinnamon swirl, with less sugar and lots of raisins.) It was so named after the Bun House in Chelsea, a fashionable area of London, where the bun was first created in the 18th century. Favored and frequented by the British royalty of the time, the Bun House was demolished in 1839.
Are you now craving a Chelsea bun? Well, don’t fret: Fitzbillies, Cambridge’s oldest craft bakery and a veritable institution, is famous for its Chelsea buns and traditional cakes. And it ships all over the world. As it boasts on its website: “Our extra sticky Chelsea buns travel well – Sir Edmund Hillary took a box with him to Base Camp when he conquered Everest. They are packed in an airtight cellophane envelope and then into a stout corrugated mailing box. They should reach you in perfect condition for the final assault on the summit… or indeed your tea.”
Go scoff a Chelsea bun today.
* The Levant is “the crossroads of western Asia, the eastern Mediterranean, and northeast Africa”.
Which of these sentences sounds easier on the ear to you? 1) “I’m inching forwards, aiming farther, and heading towards the finishing line.” or 2) “I’m inching forward, aiming further, and heading toward the finishing line.”
If you’re British you probably leaned towards the first (although you might have preferred further to farther); if North American, you almost certainly chose the second.
The differences in usage between further and farther, forward and forwards, and toward and towards often come down to preference, largely determined by which side of the Atlantic you live on. But there are also some subtle differences in meaning that can affect which word you choose.
Take these five recent instances of further/farther in the media:
“Gen. Martin Dempsey said the U.S. has been preparing for further provocations or action from North Korea.” (USA Today). “The Red Sox were waiting to get the results of John Lackey’s MRI further interpreted.” (Boston Globe) “In Britain, the word semolina conjures up images of grim school dinners, but farther east it’s one of the staple ingredients of sweet and savoury cooking alike.” (The Guardian) “In the eyes of the federal government, urban Minnesota has just pushed a little farther into the countryside.” (Minnesota Public Radio). Clare Mann, describing her tour of an Italian volcano in the Telegraph, wrote that “Some visitors climbed farther down into the crater.”
In the first two sentences, further is the adjective or adverb of choice, meaning “to a greater extent, more”, or “to or at a more advanced point in space or time”. However, in the last three examples, in which there’s a sense of geographical distance or movement, the word farther doesn’t seem out of place, as it would in the first couple of sentences.
The words further and farther are virtually interchangeable, although the latter is often used when literal rather than figurative distance is implied. The OED states that “the form farthest is used especially with reference to physical distance, although furthest is preferred by many people even in this sense.” Fowler in his Modern English Usage, explains what he understood to be the surprising etymology of the two words: “The history of the two words appears to be that further is a comparative of fore and should, if it were to be held to its etymology, mean more advanced, and that farther is a newer variant of further, no more connected with far than further is, but affected in its form by the fact that further, having come to be used instead of the obsolete comparative of far (farrer), seemed to need a respelling that should assimilate it to far.”
During a Commons debate on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, British MP Caroline Lucas was recently quoted in The Guardian as saying: “As well as looking backwards, it is also about learning the lessons looking forwards.” In this case, forwards is clearly being used to signal the direction of the looking, especially in contrast to the opposite direction mentioned earlier in the sentence. Lucas might also have wanted to distinguish “looking forwards” in a directional sense from the sense of anticipating something positively, ie. “looking forward” to something.
Like further and farther, the distinction between forward and forwards is subtle or in some cases non-existent. According to the OED: “The present distinction in usage between forward and forwards is that the latter expresses a definite direction viewed in contrast with other directions. In some contexts either form may be used without perceptible difference of meaning; the following are examples in which only one of them can now be used: ‘The ratchet-wheel can move only forwards’; ‘the right side of the paper has the maker’s name reading forwards’; ‘if you move at all it must be forwards’; ‘my companion has gone forward’; ‘to bring a matter forward’; ‘from this time forward’. The usage of earlier periods, and of modern dialects, varies greatly from that of mod. standard English. In U.S. forward is now generally used, to the exclusion of forwards, which was stigmatized by Webster (1832) as ‘a corruption’.”
The British forwards might well be in decline, often dropping its final ‘s’ in favor of its American counterpart. A Google search on forwards returns references mostly to a particular type of sportsman — “an attacking player positioned near the front of a team in football, hockey, etc” (OED) — in its plural form.
“Cyprus is edging towards euro exit,” read a recent headline on the Reuters UK blog. “Andy Murray turns focus towards clay court season” was the first part of a Telegraph headline last week. Across the Atlantic, Suzy Menkes in the New York Times talked about “[Mrs. Thatcher’s] attitude toward the Falklands war against Argentina.”
As borne out by these examples, the difference between toward and towards is one simply of usage and preference, determined by whether you speak British or American English (with the latter favoring the ‘s’-less word, in keeping with its preference for the ‘s’-less forward). About toward and towards, Fowler wrote slightly abstrusely: “The -s form is the prevailing one, and the other tends to become literary on the one hand and provincial on the other.” Whether that means logically that American English is both more literary and more provincial than British English is probably best left for a separate discussion …
Ah – the flat adverb. There’s nothing quite like it to get temperatures raised and grammarians talking. Is an adverb with its tail shorn off ever really legitimate?
A quick primer: an adjective describes a noun or pronoun (black as in “the black dog”, happy as in “she was happy”), and an adverb — which often ends in “ly” — describes a verb (erratically as in “he drove erratically”, happily as in “they danced happily”) or an adjective (“he was wonderfully peaceful”). There are some words, known as ‘flat adverbs’, that work legitimately in either role: hard can be both an adjective (“the ground was hard”) and an adverb (“he worked hard”); fast is another example (“her typing speed is fast”; “he drives too fast”). But there are certain adjectives — especially those that can be transformed into adverbs with the addition of “ly” (slow/slowly; fresh/freshly; healthy/healthily, safe/safely) — whose viability as adverbs when stripped of their two-letter suffix is debatable. Is it really OK to tell someone to “drive safe” or to “eat healthy”?
It might come as a surprise to learn that the flat adverb was much more common in middle English than it is now — especially when it came before an adjective. There are numerous historical literary and Biblical examples of the flat adverb: ‘the weather being excessive hot’; ‘extreme hot’; ‘the sea went dreadful high’ from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and “they were sore afraid” from Luke 2:9 are just a few. It was only when grammarians of the 18th century insisted on adding “ly” to the ends of adjectives to distinguish them as adverbs that the suffix gave the verb- and adjective-descriptors their own formal structural identity.
In an earlier Glossophilia post, “I’ll take that with a side of small words”, I pointed out what I see as an American English tendency to abbreviate or shorten words or phrases whenever a good opportunity presents itself, and I think the flat adverb is a good example of this. I really can’t imagine any of the so-called adverbs in the signs or ad slogans above being used or displayed in an English setting, even in the hip abbreviated lingo of today. And that’s not to suggest any kind of linguistic superiority or loftiness on the part of the Brits (they’re just as guilty of grocers’ apostrophes and other common clangers as everyone else in the English-speaking world). I just think they’re not programmed by their linguistic DNA to strip adverbs down flat the way Yanks do, even if this was the practice of their forebears. Go figure.
In most parts of the world, when you go under the knife you expect to be cut open and sewn up — and everything in between — by someone known as Dr. (or Dr — but that’s for a separate discussion). All medical practitioners — whether physicians, surgeons, psychiatrists, or dentists — are generally referred to as Doctor Someone. But trust the UK to be different: there, surgeons go by the seemingly lowly title of Mr, Miss or Mrs. As do dentists.
The reason is simple and dates back to the Middle Ages: physicians and surgeons differed historically in terms of their respective education, training and credentials. Right from the beginning, physicians have had to undertake formal university training to earn an academic degree in medicine before they can enter practice. The resulting degree, or doctorate, bestows the title of Doctor of Medicine or Doctor on successful graduates.
Surgeons followed a very different path until the mid-19th century. In medieval Europe, the most common medical practitioners were the “barber surgeons” who used their tools and expertise both to cut hair and to perform surgical procedures, usually on the battlefield caring for soldiers, or treating their royal paymasters. Rather than pursue formal academic educations and medical degrees, they trained and qualified as craftsmen, usually serving surgical apprenticeships along the way. In England in 1540, the Company of Barber-Surgeons was formed. Over the next two hundred years, under increasing pressure from the separate and flourishing medical profession, the surgeons eventually broke away from the barbers, forming the Company of Surgeons in 1745 (which became the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800 after being granted a royal charter); by the 19th century, barber surgeons had virtually disappeared. This organization oversaw the training and examination of surgeons, awarding successful practitioners with a diploma — rather than the medical degree conferred by academic institutions on graduating physicians. Hence the 19th-century surgeon retained the title of Mister, despite his relatively rigorous expertise and experience.
Nowadays, surgeons follow the same academic path through medical school as their physician contemporaries, becoming Doctors of Medicine once their degrees are conferred; they then undergo a further period of postgraduate study and training in order to acquire full consultant surgeon status, at which point they are addressed as Mister — the title bestowed, ironically, on the most senior, prestigious and highly trained medical practitioners in the UK.
Like British surgeons, dentists aren’t referred to as Doctor. This is simply because they don’t necessarily earn a medical degree, like the 18th-century surgeon, but instead receive a Bachelor’s of Dental Surgery (BDS, BChD, or BDent). In recent decades, British dentists have demanded the right to call themselves Doctor, so that they can enjoy the same privileges (and presumably salaries) as their European and other foreign counterparts. However, medical doctors have objected to the idea, arguing that such a title might mislead patients about the extent of their expertise. The Advertising Standards Authority ruled in favor of the medics in 2008, stating firmly that “Dentists must not use the title doctor unless they are medically or academically qualified to do so.”
As George Bernard Shaw famously noted, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Most of the time we know exactly what our friends across the sea (or ocean) mean, and our vocabulary, grammar and phraseology are sensibly in synch with each other. But every now and then, our innocent comments or statements can cause confusion or amusement — or at worst, offense — to those on the other side of the Atlantic, often because of a simple, tiny word. A Brit complaining that his roommate can be “a complete twat” will undoubtedly raise a Yankee’s eyebrows. (Br. Eng.: fool, idiot; Am. Eng.: vulgar slang for vulva). The British Prime Minister and I have both regretted joking publicly about the word being the past tense of “tweet”, little realizing how smutty we sounded at the time.
Here are some expressions and basic vocabulary that can seem a little weird, stilted, silly, or downright rude and smutty to the ears of our friends across the pond.
She has a new lease of life. She has a new lease on life.
We’re visiting her in hospital in a fortnight. We’re visiting with her in the hospital in two weeks.
I take it in my stride. I take it in stride.