Updated April 2020: There’s another word that has sadly become much more familiar to English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic in recent weeks. Glosso posted this piece originally back in October 2013. Continue reading
Are you familiar with the phrase “going by Shanks’ pony” — and do you know where it originates? If you’re American you might know it as Shanks’ mare … Continue reading
Originally posted in April 2011.
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.
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
Originally posted in April 2011.
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)
blow me (not what you might like to think)
bob’s your uncle
bovver (spot of)
(big) girls blouse
(a bit of ) how’s your father
(get your) knickers in a twist
nick / nicked
pear-shaped (not describing your figure)
piece of cake (not what you eat)
pissed (not mad, angry)
porkies/pork pies (not what you eat …)
rubber (not a condom)
sod / sod off / sod all
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
ups a daisy
waffle (vb.; not what you eat for breakfast with syrup)
wobbly / wobbler (not what the Weebles do)
And here are some favorite English delicacies:
Bubble ‘n’ squeak
Bangers ‘n’ mash
Toad in the hole
Originally posted in April 2011.
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
If you’re a Billions fan, you’ll be familiar with Bobby Axelrod, the ambitious American billionaire manager of a hedge fund called Axe Capital. You might also know that Bobby is played by the British actor Damian Lewis. If you had the choice, would you rather be a British billionaire or an American one? (That’s setting aside the difference in currency values, and how you might choose to spend your loot on either side of the Atlantic.) If you know your billions, you might well choose one over the other, and here’s why. Continue reading
Pencil-neck: definition from Oxford English Dictionary: Continue reading
“It came out of left field”; “she threw me a curve ball.” These sayings — and others like them — might have started “inside baseball”, but they’ve traveled outside the ballpark and taken root in our everyday language, especially in the mouths of North Americans. Here are 20 words and expressions that came right off the bat, or out of left or right field. Please feel free to add any others I’ve missed in the comments section below. [Update, March 2019: a new – 21st – entry has been added: thanks, Candice.]
1) Ballpark: Continue reading
Finishing up Glosso’s short series on “Words with Partners,” here’s a trip through the triplets. They’re basically a triple-take on the Siamese twins discussed last week with the same identifying characteristics, i.e. three nouns, verbs or adjectives joined by and or or, and an immovable word order (“tears, sweat and blood” just doesn’t quite cut it). You’ll also see the comma splice in action here; you’ll know it when you see it. This “linguistic trinomial” (which I prefer to think of as a wordy ménage à trois) is a very good example of the powerful “rule of three” in speech and writing, which was covered in an earlier Glosso post, “Celebrating the rule of three.” Can you think of any more? Continue reading