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
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.
Yogi Berra, the Hall-of-Fame Yankees catcher, was also known by his teammates and his fans as something of a cockeyed philosopher. Some of his famous observations on life were paradoxes, contradicting themselves, while others just didn’t seem to add up, either mathematically or logically. Yet Yogiisms, as they are commonly known, generally bring a smile to the faces of those who hear them.
Some of his folk wisdom has stuck and become a part of our modern lexicon. Which sports fan, watching a team fall behind, hasn’t quoted Yogi, saying, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over?” It’s a statement that seems obvious, until you think about the meaning: Don’t give up on the team until the last play, because miracles happen. And who could disagree with Yogi’s sentiment that “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too?”
The thoughtful Yogi, however, is often forgotten in favour of the confusing Yogi, with amusing or paradoxical statements such as:
- “Baseball is 90 per cent mental — the other half is physical.”
- “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
- “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
- “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
- “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
As wise as a Hindu yogi? You decide.
My father, a high school teacher, was a master of the proverb – those short, pithy sayings that express a traditionally held belief, such as “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” In fact, his lectures were so liberally sprinkled with these phrases that a few of his students made a list over the course of a year. The variety was endless, with the total climbing into the hundreds. Although my Dad passed away eight years ago, every time I hear myself spouting one of these time-tested phrases, it brings him to mind.
After being passed down from generation to generation, proverbs become a familiar part of the general phraseology of a culture, and they reflect that society’s values. For example, the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” originated in Africa, where a strong sense of community is still a common cultural characteristic and people in addition to a child’s parents take responsibility for developing his or her moral character. In North America, we use the proverb, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” because we believe in a strong work ethic.
Here are a few more of my favourites; feel free to share some of yours with me!
- Many a true word is spoken in jest.
- Every cloud has a silver lining. (We North Americans are optimistic.)
- Nothing ventured, nothing gained. (A
proverb from the U.S., a culture of risk-takers)
- Brevity is the soul of wit.
I’ll end now so that you’ll find me witty!
While reading recently, I came across the word, temperance, and was startled to find it used in a rather ordinary sentence.
In my mind, temperance is associated with the U.S. anti-alcohol movement that began in the 1830s. Many people believed that liquor was at the root of societal ills, and led by groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, vocally protested its availability. These efforts led to passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. The amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale or transportation of “intoxicating liquors,” and ushered in its namesake Prohibition Era, complete with bootleggers, bathtub gin and speakeasies. For me, the word conjures images of women in Victorian-era dress marching and carrying signs denouncing alcohol.
Interestingly, I discovered that the word, temperance, itself is defined as “moderation or self restraint, especially in regard to eating and drinking.” Temperate, the adjective form of the word, means “avoiding excess or self-restrained; moderate.” Not abstinence, but moderation; no wonder I was confused.
Temperance is a good word for us in 21st North America, but we should apply it to food, rather than to drink. With obesity reaching epidemic proportions and restaurants dedicated to super-sized portions, perhaps we can give the word new meaning for our times.
“What’s in a Name?” the playwright, William Shakespeare, famously asked in Romeo and Juliet. Quite a bit, says Jessica Taylor, a lecturer in linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto.
Linguistic anthropology is the comparative study of the ways language shapes social life, and Taylor offered some insights into names during a lesson at last week’s SPUR Young Scholars Day at the university.
Names, she said, not only identify individuals, but they point to social meanings that may vary according to culture. In Italy, for example, Romeo is a serious name that translates to Pilgrim to Rome. To English speakers, however, the name often connotes a lover, a colloquial meaning based on the hero in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Different versions of a name can also indicate how close a relationship two people have. The boss may call his employee James; his best friend may call him by his nickname, Jim; while his mother may be one of the few people who calls him Jimmy, his childhood nickname.
These linguistic layers of meaning certainly cast a different light on the rest of the quote from Romeo and Juliet: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
The baseball season officially opened this week in cities across North America – another sure sign of spring.
Baseball is a sport with a rich history and culture, as well as a loyal fan base. Evidence of its popularity can be seen in the way some of its expressions have leaked into the English language as jargon, taking on new meanings. Some of them have become so ingrained, speakers don’t even think about their baseball origins.
Take, for example, the phrase Hit One Out of the Park. In baseball, it refers to a batter who hits a homerun and scores for his team. In the business world, it refers to someone who has turned a task or a project into a big success.
Or consider the term Batting 1,000. In baseball, it refers to someone who has a hit every time he bats, which is impossibility throughout a long season. In business, however, the phrase describes someone who is on target or doing an excellent job on a project.
Do you use any baseball jargon in your everyday conversation? Or is this whole essay too Inside Baseball (specialized) for you?