Category Archives: Yanks vs. Brits

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

Billions and billions

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

Food word couples

Continuing Glosso’s short series* on “Words with Partners”, let’s look at foodie word couples. Some of these famous couples, which are technically “Siamese twins” (or “conjoined words” – see Thursday’s post on that subject), are phrases or expressions in their own right with meanings beyond the food pairings they name. Can you think of any more? [Update: a few more have been added, thanks to Candice*.] Continue reading

Marmite and its unconvincing etymology

 

Beyond the Joke, when reviewing last year’s comedy offerings, wrote that “[Ricky] Gervais might be a Marmite comedian but the success of Humanity shows that a hell of a lot of people love Marmite. Politically challenging, controversial but also laugh out loud funny.” Brits will confirm that many plays and musical theater productions (in the UK, not anywhere else) get tagged these days as “Marmite shows”. What does that mean? And is there a connection with the Marmite name’s origin? [Update, March 8: Thanks to a hat-tip from John Leake on Glosso’s Facebook page, we’ve also got the origin of Bovril — Marmite’s cousin: scroll to the bottom to see its etymology.] Continue reading

Killer Queen & Royal Jelly: What’s turpentine got to do with it?

 

Gelatin dessert / Wikimedia

With Bohemian Rhapsody becoming the second-highest grossing music biopic of all time, Freddie Mercury and Queen are back in the news and on the airwaves. There’s a word in the chorus of “Killer Queen” (“Mercury’s piano-led paean to a Moët-quaffing courtesan”*) that I’ve only just realized I’ve been hearing wrong all these years. And I had always assumed Freddie knew something I didn’t when he sang the French loan word. How could I have been so wrong? Continue reading

Highbrow: a person to regard with admiration or disdain?

phrenology

Highbrow and lowbrow come from phrenology, the 19th-century peudo-science of regarding the shape of the skull as a key to intelligence. Is highbrow — that man of high thoughts and high culture — the sort of person we all aspire to be? Or is the highbrow with his pretensions of superiority an object of disdain? Continue reading

You say smelled, I say smelt; you say dreamed, I say dreamt …

Clothes were hung up to dry …

Men were hanged at the gallows …

There are several common verbs that have more than one past tense or past participle — like spill, and hang. Where he spilt the ink, I spilled it; the villagers hung their clothes out to dry, but they hanged their thieves. Many of these usage differences are geographical, determined largely by which side of the Atlantic you’re on. (Brits tend to prefer the poetic “t” to the more formulaic “-ed”.) But not all. There are a few other factors — some of them slightly obscure, and even possibly unconscious — that can affect which past-tense version you decide to opt for. Continue reading

Old-fashioned journo jargon

UPDATE, Nov 5: see a new entry – cock-up – below, brought to Glosso’s attention on our Facebook page.

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The world of journalism is changing — fast. Not just in terms of who is writing (or no longer writing) about what on which platform or outlet: it’s how and by what means the words travel logistically from the writer’s mind to the reader’s eye. And along with that shifting means of transport comes a whole new constantly-changing language. Let’s take a nostalgic journey back to the old-fashioned days of journalism when red pens, paper galleys, metal rules, fax and telex machines, telephones and glue sticks ruled the newsroom. Some of the old jargon from that time still floats around today, but mainly only in the dusty minds of us old scribes and subs … Continue reading

Dead & quite: How two intensifiers behave on either side of the pond

First of all, what exactly is an “intensifier,” in grammatical terms? It’s an adverb or adverbial phrase that gives the adjective it precedes extra force or emphasis. (Intensifiers are actually a particular type of what we call a “sub-modifier”: an adverb used in front of an adjective — or another adverb — to modify its meaning.) British or American, we use standard intensifiers all the time: absolutelycompletely, extremely, highly, rather, really, so, too, totally, utterly, very. And most of these “very variations” are used the same way on both sides of the Atlantic. But not all: there are in fact a couple of exceptions, one of which is quite ambiguous … Continue reading