Language, semantics, armchair linguistics — my secret passion! Having lived in or traveled to many states in the US, visited a precious few foreign countries, plus having lived in England, my secret passion has only been inflamed.
British English vs American English
What do you reckon the photograph I’ve chosen above represents? Nah, it’s not the midsection of a handsome guy; it’s a fanny pack. I used to wear a fanny pack to carry my too-many necessary belongings. On my first trip to the UK, I was visiting friends (who I could barely understand because of their heavy accent, but eventually learned to understand easily). The darn fanny pack was heavy and gave me a backache. So I said something to the effect of, “I’ve got to take off my fanny pack.”
The room full of friendly faces, my gracious hosts, burst into hooting and uproarious laughter. I was puzzled — what had I said that was so funny? You’d think that American English and British English would be easily mutually comprehensible. It ain’t so!! After my face cooled from beet red to pale pink, I asked what my hosts found so funny. It was then I learned that if you are an American, you have to be very careful what you say in England, very, very careful With snickers, it was explained to me that in Britain, “fanny” is an impolite way of referring to female genitalia.
The Very Best of British explains it better:
Fanny – This is the word for a woman’s front bits! One doesn’t normally talk about anyone’s fanny as it is a bit rude. You certainly don’t have a fanny pack, or smack people on their fannys – you would get arrested for that! Careful use of this word in the UK is advised!
Believe me, from there on out, I was careful to call that thing my “bum bag.”
Please pardon the next example, because as a transgendered man, I mean no offense, though it may be a little off-color for some. To American ears, the word “fag” is highly insulting and derogatory. Brits know this as well, but it’s not quite as offensive there. From my experience, it’s more common to hear smokers referring to their cigarettes as “fags.” This is pretty common knowledge on both sides of the pond, I think.
But my hilarious Brit friend, who knew I was a transgendered man and had lived most of my life as a lesbian, was a smoker. A straight woman, she didn’t smoke inside her house, but would go into her garage to light up. In good humor and with no malicious intent — she was a strong supporter of GLBT people — she liked to poke a bit of fun at me. When she got ready for her next cigarette, she’d look at me and say, “I’m going to go suck a fag!”
Okay, so what’s this?
If you are an American in England and you are thinking, “Pants?” you’d be wrong, wrong! They are “trousers.” These are pants, or knickers, in the UK:
On some website I’ve forgotten, I read an American woman describing an experience she’d had in London. It was a frigid and blustery winter day, and she was huddled with other morning passengers, waiting for the bus to arrive. She’d worn a skirt for work that day, and the woman pulled her coat around her to break the chill. As is so typically British, the waiting passengers were bemoaning the weather. The poor woman joined in the friendly chit-chat, and innocently said, “I wish I’d worn pants today!” I can only imagine the looks she got as most of the people backed away from her, and a few men stepped closer! This one was a real struggle for me to get used to, because the first thing I did when I rose to get dressed in the morning was to look for a clean pair of pants.
Honestly, the British have more slang words for certain anatomical body parts, come-uppenances, and rude insults, and an American has to be very careful what she says.
You might not think it for a relatively small country, but the United Kingdom has a number of regional accents that are very hard for Americans to understand until they’ve heard them for a while. We all know that people in Pittsburgh say “you’uns” while people in the south say “ya’ll.” And then there are the people who live in New Joisey. And of course, Bostonians have may have a “good ideer” or two. Most know it’s a bit hard for Americans to follow a Scot, Irish, or Welsh conversation. But, people from Liverpool speak Scouser:
People in northeastern England use the Geordie accent. This clip is pretty good because it gives an introduction to Geordie-speak, but also includes some American vs British vocabulary differences:
Here’s a “fun tour of American accents”:
And the following is an example of Cajun accent, which I heard spoken in New Orleans. If you can understand more than two or three words the man says, then you have better ears than me. 🙂 I got it at the end, when he says, “Okay, that’s it.”
As a side note, I took a trip to Finland in the 1990’s. Finnish is one of the hardest languages for foreigners to learn, both because of the number of unusual vowels sounds, but also because prepositional phrases are not formed by individual words added to the phrase like we do in English: “under the bed,” “behind the door,” “over the rainbow,” “inside the refrigerator,” etc. Nope, prepositional phrases are formed by tacking seemingly infinite endings onto nouns. This might not be so bad if the endings were standardized across all words, but instead, the ending that notes a particular preposition varies according to the last consonant or vowel in the root noun. When one walks the streets of Helsinki, noticing the window displays, street signs, and advertisements, one feels as if one has landed on another planet. Except when one walks past a McDonald’s…
Thankfully, many Finns speak English, and when they do so, they tend to use a flawless standard British accent — one wouldn’t even guess they weren’t British-born.
Onomastics has nothing to do with Yoko Ono or mastodons or chewing. It is the subfield of linguistics which is the study of the origin, history, and use of proper names. Surnames (Smith), given names (John), geographical features (Mount Fuji), companies (Kodak), products (Kleenex), countries (Kiribati), nicknames (Bob), etc. Names and naming practices, and how proper nouns get converted into common nouns (Kleenex became kleenex even if one is buying a box of Puffs; Xerox became xerox even if one is using a Mitsubishi copier).
I desperately wish I could find the citation, alas my memory and sleuthing skills fail me. A few decades ago, there was a man in some northern state (Minnesota? Michigan?) who petitioned the court to have his name changed to a number — I *think* he wanted to be known as something akin to “1064.” The court refused his request.
Last year, a Tennessee judge, Lu Ann Ballew, was cited for inappropriate religious bias for ordering a child who was named “Messiah” to be called “Marshall” over the objections of both parents. Her own name is, um, rather poetic.
A three-member investigative panel of the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct concluded this week there was “reasonable cause to believe (Ballew) has committed judicial offenses,” and directed the state board’s disciplinary counsel to file the charges, according to a document obtained from a court clerk.
Names banned around the world includes the “Messiah” case, and gives a select few examples of other names that have been banned, of which there are many more.
Surprisingly, Asian countries like China and Korea have a very limited number of surnames compared to English-speaking countries. For example, “Li,” “Lee,” or some variation thereof is a common Chinese surname. If one looked in a Beijing telephone book, it would be nigh impossible to find the “Li” one was looking for amongst the tens of thousands (or more?) of other Li’s. In Korea, the common surname is “Park” with the same problem. From what I’ve read, these societies have a “clan” social structure, and are much more informed about their genealogical past than Americans who may know no further back than their grandparents or great-grandparents. This is essential because a Chinese courting couple, both having the common surname Li wouldn’t want to find out too late that they were close blood relatives!
I’m Italian, and Italians are famous for their hand gestures. It seems to be genetic. I think this is so because even when I’m talking on the telephone to someone, I find myself gesticulating even though they can’t see me. I would love to learn American Sign Language.
In the hippie era in which I grew up, everyone flashed the “peace” sign. This was also the “victory” sign used by the Allies in World War II — fingers spread to form a “V” with the palm forward, away from oneself. But in the United Kingdom, the inverted peace sign, palm facing toward oneself, it is equivalent to “flipping the bird.”
In America, when we want to beckon someone from a distance, we curl our fingers with palm facing oneself, and flick our fingers. Don’t do this in Japan! In Japan, this is the way you beckon a prostitute!
This is just a small smorgasbord of why I’m in love with language, and probably why I enjoy blogging so much. I hope you found it entertaining! 🙂
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