Category Archives: Language

Oh, my word!

After spending time in Britain this summer, I didn’t return with an accent, but I did collect some new vocabulary.

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Changing of the Guard, Buckingham Palace

It’s true that North American English resembles its British parents, but as children will, we Canucks and Yanks have insisted on forging our own identity. Words and phrases differ, so “translation” may be required when visiting the land of our linguistic forefathers.

Take vests, for instance. Who knew that in England the word refers to men’s undershirts? Not I – until I wandered through a Marks & Spencer department store. I also discovered that when something is impressive – a painting of Shakespeare created while he was alive, for instance – it’s “brilliant,” like a star shining above, perhaps. When I was peckish in mid-afternoon, it was time for a break for “cream tea,” aka a cup of tea and a scone served with clotted cream and jam. What a perfect way to take the edge off my hunger!

There were also times when I found myself reaching into my magician’s linguistic hat for a rabbit and pulling out a toad instead. It was both amusing and embarrassing.

I seemed to have most of my difficulties reaching for the correct word while travelling on trains. En route to Edinburgh, I automatically ordered chips in the refreshments car, even though I know the British word for potato chip is crisp. It earned me an admonishment from the server that I “ought to know better by now.” Really? No quarter given after only a month’s time?

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At the border

Even the cleaning staff on board got into the act. I’d eaten a sandwich and my “crisps” during the journey, but didn’t see a place to discard the wrappings. As I was collecting my luggage and the detritus of my meal at journey’s end, two men armed with a huge plastic bag walked by. I hailed them excitedly and asked if it was a trash bag they were carrying. They gave me a haughty look and told me the bag was for “rubbish.” Oops!

Faux pas notwithstanding, it’s these language differences that add spice to travelling. The country you’re visiting may look superficially like your own, but words can remind you that you’re far from home.

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Don’t get your knickers in a knot!

Since I’ll be spending my vacation in Britain this summer, it seems an appropriate moment to consider the language we have in common – or do we?

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British English is different from Canadian English which is different from American English, although I imagine that 90 per cent of the words we use are understandable to each other. A rose is a rose is a rose after all.

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Nonetheless, there are words that are used in both Britain and North America, but have different meanings depending on the continent. It’s these words that we travellers must beware, lest we receive puzzled looks, outright stares or requests for translation. In the interest of self-preservation, I’ve learned a few of them, but there are endless traps for unwary visitors:

  • Flat. We North Americans think of this word as an adjective that describes a piece of paper (not wrinkled) or the calm state of a body of water (Lake Ontario is flat today; not a hint of wind or waves). In Britain, it’s a noun synonymous with an apartment. (Suzy finally moved out of the house and is sharing a flat with two colleagues.)
  • Lift. In Canada, this is a verb used when one plans to pick something up from the ground or a shelf (Be careful when you lift that glass bowl – it’s heavier than it looks!). Across the pond, however, it refers to an elevator (Hold the door to the lift, please. I’m coming!)
  • Boot. When we hear this word, the thoughts of those of us in northern climes turn to the foot coverings we wear throughout the long winter (The snow comes nearly to the top of my boot.). In England’s more salubrious climate, it refers to the trunk of a car. (Open the boot so I can fetch my other pair of shoes.)
  • Jumper. In Toronto, this term is ghoulishly used for someone who commits suicide by throwing themselves in the path of an oncoming train, but it’s much more innocuous abroad; it simply refers to a sweater. (Did your grandmother knit you another ugly jumper for the holidays?)

So, pitfalls lurk everywhere – around any corner, there could be disaster. For hapless, helpless tourists who want to prepare, there is probably help online, but I think I’ll wait to be surprised – and, undoubtedly, embarrassed.

P.S. Feel free to send me your own examples – and how you learned to appreciate the other meaning. Vive la difference!

 

Photo credits: creativecommons.com

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Batter Up, Word Wonks!

It’s October, and to baseball fans and the Boys of Summer (i.e., baseball players) this month is synonymous with the baseball postseason – and this year, that’s especially true in Toronto. The playoffs and the World Series are the culmination of a hard-fought, six-month campaign – or, what often seems to non-enthusiasts like a painfully long, 162-game season.BaseballImage1.jpg

In honour of the Toronto Blue Jays — and the other teams unlucky enough to face them in the playoffs – let’s look, once again, at some of the oddball terminology used in baseball, with thanks to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary:

  • Boys in Blue – The umpires. The term was borrowed from the nickname given both to Union soldiers during the American Civil War and to modern police forces, based on their blue uniforms.
  • Ducks on the Pond – Runners on base. The term was introduced to baseball in 1939 by a broadcaster, Arch McDonald, himself colourfully called the Barnum of the Bushes.
  • Four Bagger – A home run. The term derives from the necessity for the hitter to circle the bases and touch all four bases – which are referred to as bags — before he scores the run.
  • Money Player – A player who performs at his best when there is a lot on the line.
  • Moon Shot – A home run. This slang term merged perfectly with baseball’s penchant for statistics in 1986 when statisticians determined that former Philadelphia Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt did his best hitting when the moon was full.
  • Speed Merchant – A particularly fast runner who is likely to steal bases. The term can be traced back to Baseball magazine in 1910.
  • The Mendoza Line – Pity poor Mario Mendoza. The shortstop, who played eight years total for three teams in the major leagues and had a career batting average of .215, low by professional standards. The term is actually used to refer to any major leaguer whose batting average is below .200, embarrassing for any pro.

And, last but not least, for Blue Jays fans:

  • The Mistake on the Lake – Cleveland, referring to a city that was generally, until this year’s NBA basketball championship, unlucky in sports. Canadians can only hope the bad luck continues!

Let’s go, Blue Jays!

 

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Talking Rio: Olympic Sports Terminology

The 2016 Summer Olympics are in full swing in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and Canada is busy cheering its athletes to the podium. The temptation to ignore everything else and watch the action 24/7 is overwOlympic rings logohelming; luckily, many Canadians take a vacation in August!

Join me for an Olympic tour of some sports terms that may help clear that look of confusion from your eyes:

  • Dig – No, it’s not an insult aimed at your buddy; it’s a volleyball term that refers to the ability to prevent a ball hit by the opposing team to touch the ground in your own court.
  • False start – In a track or a swimming contest, this term refers to a competitor who begins moving before the starting bell, generally leading to automatic disqualification from the race.
  • Heat – Yes, it’s hot in Rio, but we’re not referring to temperature here. A heat is a preliminary round of competition held to whittle the field to the strong competitors. Generally, only a couple of entrants in each heat advance to the next round.
  • Ledecky Slam – Winning the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-metre freestyle swimming races at one meet. It is named after Katie Ledecky, the 19-year old American swimming phenom, who has accomplished it .
  • Omnium – A multiple race event in track cycling (e.g., time trial, individual pursuit). Cyclists participate in all the events and earn points for their finishes in each. The overall points leader at the completion of the events is the winner.
  • Pike position – A diving position where the body is bent at the waist, but the legs are straight.
  • Repechage — Second chance. A term used in rowing and cycling. Participants who don’t automatically qualify for the next round of competition by placing well in their heats have another shot at qualification.
  • Penny – We all know soccer greats Pele and Ronaldo, but now Canada has its own single-moniker athlete: young Penny Oleksiak, the 16-year-old swimmer who earned four medals in Rio and is now the country’s most-decorated athlete at one Summer Games.

The 2016 Olympics continue through Aug. 21. Don’t miss the fun – or the chance to impress your friends with your knowledge of sports nomenclature!

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The Sound of Branding

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing a pair of University of Toronto researchers about their work in sound symbolism, the intersection of linguistics and cognitive science that demonstrates the perceived link between sounds and meaning.

New research by research fellow Cris Rabaglia and Professor Sam Maglio shows that people associate words with front-of-the-mouth vowel sounds — those produced with the tongue relatively far forward in the mouth, such as the ee in feet – with nearness. Conversely, back-of-the-mouth vowel sounds — those produced with the tongue far back in the mouth, such as oo in food –are associated with distance. The research is published online in the journal Cognition.

It’s not only English where sound symbolism is evident; researchers have shown it to be valid for languages as diverse as Japanese and Swedish, and it is BoubaKikiEffectapplicable for more concrete characteristics, too, such as an object’s shape. This was demonstrated as early as 1929 in an experiment by a scientist named Wolfgang Kohler and repeated in a 2001 experiment with English-speaking students in the United States and Tamil speakers in India. They were asked to look at a pointy object and a rounded object and determine which was called a bouba and which a kiki. At least 95 per cent of those in each group chose kiki as the pointy object and bouba as the rounded, organic shape.

Learning about sound symbolism is quirky and fun, but why should we bother otherwise? For anyone who works with branding, it’s important because these linguistic associations affect people’s impressions and behaviours.  Doing some research before naming a product is worth the time it takes.

“Our feelings and intuitions about sounds influence what we feel is okay for names of specific items or brands,” Rabaglia told the University of Toronto Mississauga news. “If you name something in a way that isn’t intuitive, it could decrease the likelihood that people will want to interact with that product.”

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Let’s Play Ball, Language Lovers!

As all of Canada began cheering, “Go, Jays, Go,” at the start of the Toronto Blue Jays’ 2016 Major League Baseball season, my thoughts turned to team names and their intimidation factor.

blue-jay-1238211_640Historically, many team names were chosen to exude a strength that caused their opponents to shudder.The blue jay may not be a muscular, frightening creature like a tiger, but at least, jays strike fear in the hearts of other avian species with their sneaky, destructive ways.

By comparison, pity the poor baseball player who opens the season in the minor leagues. It’s likely that he will be wearing a uniform featuring an oddball creature such as a grasshopper (Greensboro, North Carolina) or a Flying Squirrel (Richmond, Virginia). Great for marketing, but tough on the ego!

Minor League Marketing

Minor league teams are generally farm teams for the major league clubs. Minor league management signs contracts with the big guys to train players on their behalf. The minor league affiliates benefit from a steady supply of potential future stars, but one of the problems they have is that the talented players can be called up at any time to the next level of play. They can’t bank on their stars being around for an entire season, so they look to catchy names, branded gear and clever promotions to fill the ballpark seats.

“The minor leagues are all about cheesiness and entertainment,” wrote Brandon McClintock, a correspondent for Major League Baseball. “One of the wackiest, and greatest, things associated with minor league baseball are the team names.”

Offbeat Monikers

The Blue Jays can relate to this assertion since their Single-A affiliate is named the Lansing Lugnuts. Lansing, Michigan, is part of the massive automotive empire that once fanned out from Detroit, and lugnuts are essential for holding wheels in place. A local association and a lively name: who wouldn’t want to own a Lugnuts T-shirt or pay a visit to the ballpark?

Lugnuts players should rejoice that they don’t play in Montgomery, Alabama. The Tampa Bay Rays AA team in this Southern city is called the Montgomery Biscuits. Sure, I love biscuits and gravy, but wearing one on my uniform? What is the team cheer, I wonder? “C’mon, Buttermilk”?  Or “We rise to the occasion?”

rubber-duck-248093_640Residents of Akron, Ohio, don’t have much better luck. Their AA team, an affiliate of the nearby Cleveland Indians, is called the Akron Rubber Ducks. The name pays homage to the local rubber industry that produces automobile tires, but wasn’t there a more fearsome way to do so? Do the players threaten to drown opponents in the bathtub?

Animation Appreciation

At least, the ballplayers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have a fashionable, funny story to explain their oddball team name, the Albuquerque Isotopes. The Colorado Rockies’ AAA affiliate takes its name from an episode of the popular television series, the Simpsons.

In this animated comedy series, Homer Simpson, the family’s father figure, works at the Springfield, Massachusetts, nuclear plant. The Hungry, Hungry Homer episode homes in on his dismay at the possibility that the town’s baseball team, the Springfield Isotopes, will be moving to Albuquerque. When the city of Albuquerque needed a name for its minor league team, the amused owners called it the Isotopes in a case of life imitating art. At least, the players can proudly boast, “We’re da’ bomb!”

Of course, I’m looking at the names from a player’s point of view. The same names that cause grown men to shudder as they sport the team logo on their chests are a marketer’s dream. They’re unique and interesting, and they draw baseball fans from other cities to the ballpark to enjoy their curiosity and buy their merchandise. I’m sure there are few complaints at the cash register.

So, Blue Jays fans, what do you say? Would you rather be cheering a dust devil (Tri Cities, Washington) or a Mudhen (Toledo, Ohio) instead?

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Gender Confusion, Pronoun Style

In today’s gender-sensitive world, I know I am not the only one trying to wrap my head around the new realities of language usage. There are a plethora of words being tossed about as gender-neutral pronouns, but which ones shall I use – if any – in my writing?

The New York Times recently published a story noting that the American Dialect Society, an organization of etymologists, grammarians, lexicographers and linguists, recently named they – in singular pronoun form – as the word of 2015. The society suggests that they is appropriate for situations where someone’s gender is unknown or fluid, as well as for the gender binary individual, a person who doesn’t view gender as only male or female with no gradations (e.g., Mary said that they isn’t ready to take the exam.).

I understand the need for alternatives, but I’m not yet comfortable with the choices available. Using they as a singular pronoun still jangles my ear, although I now see it regularly on Facebook when Suzie or Charlie has updated their profile.

I am also unprepared to commit to other alternatives, such as ze or ey, as suggested by the office of campus life at The American University in Washington, D.C. Staff at AU  have embraced the new reality and taken the step of providing guidance to the university community on pronoun options and usage, but many other institutions lag behind.

Until I see wider uptake and more agreement — Oxford Canadian Dictionary and Canadian Press, I’m talking to you — I’ll undoubtedly follow the existing Canadian Press guidance, which suggests avoiding gender-based pronouns and using the singular they only as a last resort.

The gender revolution is underway. As writer Adrienne LaFrance notes in a recent Atlantic article, … “culture doesn’t just trump language rules, it creates them.” Will your own language usage lead or follow? Do let me know!

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Homonyn Horrors

I’ve talked previously about homonyms – words that sound alike, but have different meanings, such as peer and pier – and the importance of knowing the difference between them. Yet, these errors crop up, time and again, as well-meaning people get confused or don’t realize the limits of their vocabularies.

For a writer/editor, it’s jarring to encounter the misuse of a homonym while reading along in an otherwise well-written story or document. It stops me short and breaks the flow of the narrative; it also frustrates me that someone didn’t catch the mistake before the piece was printed/posted. It shows carelessness or ignorance and reflects poorly on the source.

I come across such words regularly, as much as I wish I didn’t. This week, while MountBakerreading through a brand profile provided by a client, I discovered that James enjoys discovering new flavours that “peak” his taste buds. Oy! Peak is generally used as a noun, not a verb, e.g., climbing to the peak of Mount Baker. The writer actually meant pique, or arouse (curiosity, interest, etc.).

The next day, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and came across an artistically designed, inspirational post from an acquaintance. The sentiment was lovely, but I couldn’t enjoy it fully, because it talked about finding someone to love who “compliments” you. (Hmmm, taken literally, isn’t that a given? Why would you want a lover who insulted you or ignored you?)  Complements, or completes, is the word the author was undoubtedly seeking, and all the work that went into creating the lovely lettering and layout was spoiled by the use of the wrong word.

To what shall I attribute these missteps? A poor educational system? Sloppiness? I know that language is fluid and ever-changing, but mistaken usage isn’t part of that evolution. Let’s get it right!

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Expletive Deleted

Sitting on the subway or walking down the street, I often feel like cringing as I overhear nearby conversations where every other word seems to be “f*#!.”

The tight rein on polite language of decades past has evaporated. Words that once meant a mouth washed out with soap are now part of the everyday vocabulary. I’ve even found myself weakening when I’m upset, but I’m not proud of it. For the New Year, I’m aiming to use more interesting ways of expressing myself.

To find other options, I’ll simply travel back in time to 19th century Britain, where words were colourful without being quite so off colour. The richness of that period’s language never fails to make me smile.

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For instance, while singer Carly Simon wouldn’t have had a hit if her song, You’re So Vain, had been titled, You’re a Coxcomb, she would certainly have sent people scrambling for their dictionaries. Conceited or vain is the definition, although the term once meant fool, because the fools (jesters) in the royal retinue wore caps adorned with bells and topped with a piece of red cloth shaped like a cock’s (rooster’s) comb.

Often, said coxcombs speak nothing but fustian — pretentious, pompous language. We’ve all certainly come across people in positions of power who hold forth as if every word is a pearl of wisdom, when we privately consider their words nothing but faradiddles (lies).

One of my personal favourites from the 1800s is rapscallion, which translates to rascal, scamp or rogue. Let it trip off your tongue and enjoy the sound.

So, time travel it is. The next time I’m in high dudgeon (angry) about something, don’t be surprised if I eschew an expletive in favour of balderdash (nonsense). It has a satisfying ring to it as we ring in the New Year.

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The Name Game, Part 2

“A rose is a rose is a rose,” 20th-century author Gertrude Stein famously said, and on a superficial level, that’s true. However, names are also about identity — how you see yourself and how others see you.

It’s an issue that Anna Maria Tremonti, the CBC journalist, explored this week in a CBC radio panel discussion about how to refer to the group that the U.S. and its allies are fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Prime Minister Trudeau calls the group ISIL, while French Prime Minister Francois Hollande calls it Da’esh and the group itself prefers the term ISIS. Why all the confusion? Does it matter?

Yes, it does matter, because a name is an identity. The group, says The Guardian, refers to itself as  the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a name that it uses to proclaim itself a caliphate, or an Islamic state for all Muslims. (The term al-Sham refers to the western portion of the Middle East).

The term ISIL, used by Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama, is the acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the English term for al-Sham. It’s convenient, but it also confers a legitimacy on the group that many people question.

Many of the group’s opponents believe it’s wrong to call the violent group a state because that term generally implies laws and governance. They gravitate toward the appellation preferred by France, Da’ esh, shorthand for the group’s full Arabic name. It has added appeal because its plural form, daw-aish, translates to “bigots who impose their views on others.”

So, a rose may be a rose, but in the case of ISIS /ISIL/Da’ esh, the name you give it may indicate whether it smells sweet to you or not.

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