After spending time in Britain this summer, I didn’t return with an accent, but I did collect some new vocabulary.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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!
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 overwhelming; 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!
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 reading 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!
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.
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.
When was the last time you wrote a letter? If you’re like many of us, it’s so long ago that you don’t remember. Today, we have email, e-cards and texting. Why bother with snail mail when you can get in touch with someone in real time?
Recently, my hometown paper carried a story about a woman who is trying to revive this lost art, maintaining that letters are a way to tell someone else that you want to get to know them. It’s a lovely sentiment and one that rang true for many centuries. How else would we get to know many of the talented leaders and creators from times past if it weren’t for their letters to others?
Priya Parmar, author of Vanessa and Her Sister, a novel about painter Vanessa Bell and writer Virginia Woolf, told an interviewer that her understanding of the two women arose, in large part, from their letters. Many biographers turn to extensive correspondence for clues to the subject’s character.
I wonder if in today’s fast-paced world, where we are caught up in so many obligations, whether we have the time or inclination to truly get to know others. Perhaps Facebook, Twitter and other social media are the substitutes – a chance to share some of our thoughts and feelings, hoping to be heard. However, “Likes” don’t necessarily equal understanding and insight and they are no guarantee of real two-way communication.
The winter holidays are a time of year when we think of those we love and those in our larger circle. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to reach out to one or more of them in an unconventional way – the letter – and start a real conversation. All it costs is our time and a stamp.
Periodically, I’m struck by how clearly the English language mirrors Canada today: full of influences from the myriad cultures who have adopted it as their new native tongue.
My most recent epiphany came during preparations for a family celebration, when someone suggested we clear a coffee table of all the tchotchkes – or knickknacks — that decorated its surface. Tchotchke is a Yiddish word, and I was reminded about how many words from this language, once widely spoken by European Jews, are currently part of the English lexicon.
Growing up outside New York City, where there is a large Jewish population, I heard Yiddish words thrown into conversation regularly, but I’ve discovered that it isn’t merely a regional or ethnic peculiarity. Many of these terms have become integrated into the English language over the years.
For instance, how often do you schlep (carry or drag) groceries home from the market? When you attend a work function or a cocktail party, it’s natural to schmooze (chat, talk, network) with your co-workers and other guests. Movies are routinely dismissed as schmaltzy (overly sentimental), and common expressions are often given a bit of attitude by adding the common Yiddish prefix, schm; think of fancy-schmancy, for example.
Through the decades, immigrants have added spice to our cultural traditions, and they have also made English more interesting. Adding and embracing new words to our language is what keeps it alive and vibrant.
A blog post written by a PR practitioner I met recently at a networking evening asked readers to vote on the proper pronunciation for the name of our neighbouring province, Québec. Only 23.1 per cent of Ontario participants pronounced it in the correct French manner: Kay-BECK. Should this be shocking in a nation where French is one of Canada’s official languages? Perhaps not, depending on the mix of people who responded to the survey.
In Toronto, many residents “come from away,” as the saying goes, and they find learning English properly to be challenging enough without taking on Canada’s other mother tongue. Those who studied French in Ontario schools don’t necessarily learn French well, since they have every expectation of speaking English, the world’s new language of commerce, wherever they go. Then, there are those who are simply not adept at languages, and mangle any and all words from another language, whether French, Russian or Inuktitut.
Would it be respectful to learn the proper pronunciation? Yes! Is such an effort a mark of openness to other cultures and traditions? Undoubtedly. Is it a low priority for many people? Apparently.
Given the universality of English today, it’s probably realistic for us to expect that anglophones can get by, no matter where we travel. However, we’re the ones who are poorer for not trying to stretch our skills, for not bridging a cultural divide and for not realizing that other languages are gateways to interesting worlds and ways of thinking that we may never understand.
To my PR contact, I say, “Pardonnez-moi!”