Wednesday, November 28, 2007

There's a Rocket in My Salad, or English as a Foreign Language

"And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

In this final sentence in the Declaration of Independence, is Thomas Jefferson also declaring independence from the British language? The last word is honor, not honour. Spelling in those days was not consistent, so it probably was not a deliberate attempt to Americanize the word. But since 1776 the differences between American and British English have grown. Yes, Americans have adopted British terms, such as kiosk and queue, and the British have picked up quite a few Americanisms. But the difference remains. I am reminded of it nearly every time I read Julie's blog, The Virtual Journey, or one of her other blogs. Her posts are always interesting and always well-written, but the language is distinctly British.

In a wonderful description of a meal at an English inn, Julie writes: "In the centre of the plate, a field mushroom nestles in a bed of rocket and green salad; it is topped with spinach, grilled cheese and crisp lardons of bacon." There are no guided missiles here; rocket is British for arugula. (It made me wonder--excuse the groaner of a pun--if British botanists who specialize in arugula could be called rocket scientists.) And Americans just don't eat lardons of bacon, which I believe are small cubes. Our bacon comes in strips, or what the British would call streaky rashers.

I was reminded of an article I read more than thirty years ago. I dug out the Summer 1975 issue of Horizon Magazine and reread "Of Panda Cars and Pantechnicons, Biros and Blimps," by Ian M. Ball. Ball quotes Oscar Wilde as saying, "the English have really everything in common with the Americans, except of course language."

"To begin with, " writes Ball, you might pick up the Times Educational Supplement and read the following: 'A fifteen-year-old Croydon boy has been suspended by his head since last September because of his long hair.' No, this is not the British belief in corporal punishment carried to sadistic lengths. Head is an acceptable abbreviation for headmaster."

Then there's the simple sentence, "I was mad about the flat." For an American, it expresses anger about a punctured tire: to a Briton, it means being crazy about an apartment. Ball goes on with a paragraph to test the reader's understanding of British:

I was wearing a bespoke suit, with gongs, and was sitting in a bath-chair in a lay-by in the arterial road, when I first saw a panda car, then a milk float, followed by a pantechnicon and an articulated lorry. The driver of the lorry, oddly enough a real blimp, stopped, got out, and asked if I was carrying a biro. It transpired that he was carrying a load of geysers, immersion heaters, and loofahs for the ironmonger on the front. He said he had heard there was trouble locally in the mains in town and he was searching for a blower. I told him there was a kiosk ahead, just past the pillar-box.

While I'm sure Julie understood all the references, most Americans wouldn't unless they had spent quite a bit of time in the United Kingdom.

Here's a glossary:

Bespoke suit=custom-tailored suit


bath chair=wheelchair

lay-by=rest area

arterial road=main highway

panda car=small police patrol car

milk float=milk truck

pantechnicon=moving van

articulated lorry=tractor-trailer truck

blimp=a pompous, elderly man

biro=ball point pen

geysers=over-the-sink hot water heaters


ironmonger=hardware store

front=seaside promenade

mains=electric power supply

kiosk=pay phone


Kiosk, of course was more general term even then, and has since crossed The Pond, as the British are wont to call the Atlantic. You can buy loofahs at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, but biros, pantechnicons, and geysers haven't made the journey.

Personally, I love learning about the differences in American and British, as well as the regional variations. (The Kensington and Allegheny, or K & A dialect of Near Northeast Philadelphia may be grating to my ear, but I'm glad there are still those who speak it.) But it must be difficult for my Hungarian friend SzélsőFa , who must not only deal with the sometimes bizarre rules of English spelling and grammar, but then have to sort out peculiarly American and British usages. And I haven't mentioned Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Jamaica, and so many other nations which have taken English and made it their own.


Anonymous said...

Ha! Great post. My family is English and immigrated to the States in 75, the year I was born. And while I've spent a good deal of time in my grandmother's company, that test paragraph almost completely stumped me.

Julie said...

Steve, my husband is sitting here killing himself laughing.(Esp the Croydon Schoolboy). He's going to quote this post in church on Sunday when he's preaching.


btw Lardons can be used of narrow strips of bacon which in French cuisine are added to a salad; more often are laced into meat or fowl to add flavour in cooking. And if we tyre of lardons...we can always use them to grease the wheels....

Julie said...


Only six of the words in that paragraph are in anything like common usage after 30 years.

steve said...

Rebecca-Thanks. I think some of these terms are slang, or taken from brand names (We vacuum the floor; the British hoover, even if they don't use a Hoover vacuum cleaner). Some of these terms may have been uncommon in 1975--Ball was born in Australia and was working in New York in 1975.

Julie-I'm glad your husband enjoyed, and hope the congregation appreciates the "suspended by his head" line as much as he did. Thanks for the info on lardons. I checked Wikipedia and the small strips were one of the possibilities. I'm not really surprised that many of the terms have slipped out of usage. I'm guessing that biros, blimps, panda cars, and pantechnicons aren't in common usage. I think "bespoke" showed up in Harry Potter. Geysers would appear to be more energy-efficient than the traditional hot-water heater, but they've never caught on here.

P.S. Somewhere I have an old issue of Punch, which makes fun of Prince Charles's induction into the Order of the Bath. According to Punch, he shows up with a sponge, which he called "Lady Chatterley's Loofah.

Julie said...

Yes - interesting point in that some words would still be used in literature to give the feel of a period, but hardly ever used in common speech.

I would identify lay-by, sea-front, and mains as still common; loofah, kiosk and biro are less so now. Some would have been upper middle class usage even thirty years ago; and its so long since I heard anyone refer to geyser (unless cockney 'bloke') that I thought you were talking about hot springs!

Pantechnicon and articulated would tend to be used in a formal context nowadays.

steve said...

Julie--I missed your "tyre" pun the first time. Very good.

Charles Gramlich said...

I delight in these differences. Infinite fun, especially to hear the British talk about cigarettes at times and use the word "fag" for them.

Leigh Russell said...

I find these language differences great fun. But the variations aren't only geographical. I've been having great fun learning the "yoof" language from the teenagers I teach. It all started when one lad was absent and the others taught me what to say to him on his return. In place of my "If your coursework isn't up to standard, you'll be in trouble," or some such, I greeted him: "Oh blad, if your coursework ain't bare raw, I'm gonna bang you up straight." Was this 'dumbing down'? Perhaps. But I've never seen those kids so excited about language. They had great fun, teaching me their language and I gained a lot of "cred" and "respect" for talking "slang". It was very funny. Believe me, I don't look like the sort of person who would talk like that! I do have serious concerns too about the way their language has developed, but won't go into that now. I think I've droned on for long enough. My point is, my American friend, that these teanagers and I live in close proximity geographically. The difference is in our ages.

Charles - yes, I decided to avoid referring to "fag butts" in my book. Cigarette butts is less ambiguous...

Leigh Russell said...

woops - teenagers
also, the correct form of address is "oy blad" not "oh blad"

sorry about the typos. I really should check my comments before I 'publish' them. Thank goodness we have editors for other sorts of 'publishing' !!

steve said...

Charles--I once heard a story, which may be apocryphal, about a director of a Joan of Arc film having a character yell "More faggots," as the saint was being burned. His assistant told him that people would laugh. And yes, people laughed at the previews, and the line was cut out.

Leigh--This is the first I've heard of "yoof" culture The "f" for "th" sounds like American Black English. "Oy blad" sounds Yiddish. And any American teacher who threatened to bang someone up would be hauled up on sexual harrassment charges.

I don't talk to many teenagers, except for my son (18) and his friends, and they don't use a lot of generational slang, at least not around me. The university students I talk to in the course of my job as Amtrak ticket clerk, will sometimes use "my bad" instead of I'm sorry, and a few young women still sound like Moon Unit Zappa's 1980s rendition of "Valley Girls." If I were back in Chicago or Philadelphia, I might notice more of a difference.

SzélsőFa said...

I'm only halfway into reading this post, but I popped in to note that my English probably consists of a mixture of American and British terms. Which MIGHT make my writing hardly understandable for either parties. Sad, really sad.
But one whose English is *just* a second language simply can NOT use either American OR British vocabulary. S/he is determined to have mixture.

But it might have advantages, too: I knew for example that rocket salad and arugula (salad) are the same. I also happen to know the Italian name, btw :)))

SzélsőFa said...

oh well, it was a hard read for me!
I guess there must have been some antic words included as well in the text.
I understood biro, and mains, and lard(on) and the name of the salad from the first excerpt, though.

Yes, the grammar somatimes gets me, like in my last comment (to this entry) where I messed up with the so called sequence of times. I know the rule but keep forgetting about it.

Julie said...

Steve, in response to szelsofa I'd say that Brits tend to use English fairly loosely in spoken speech - social mobility is a factor. I mix elements of North and South - don't think Britain is as uptight as it was even a generation ago re 'correctness'.

Bernita said...

I recognized them all except pantichnecon -
probably from a youth mispent reading English writers.

steve said...

From reading your posts, I've noticed that you generally stick to standard BBC British English, with a few Americanisms here and there. You're understood. It's just that I feel for you when you're trying to understand some of the peculiar British and American usages.

Julie--I think a lot of people have become less formal--even in 1983, Germans were using "du" instead of "Sie" pretty regularly.

steve said...

Bernita--Thanks for visiting. My wife spent a lot of time reading English writers in her youth as well, so she knew a lot of these before she read the article.

SzélsőFa said...

Steve, I did not actually notice that I QUOTE generally stick to standard BBC British English, with a few Americanisms here and there END QUOTE.
I like this *result*, and thank you for measuring and monitoring me :)
- if you have any suggestions to my grammar and/or word use your words are welcomed anytime. (Like those about brake/break)
Thank you.

Stacey said...

Yo, those Brits should come to Philly where they can take the sub to the Link and watch the Birds and have a cheeseteak wit onion and drink some WAR-ter!

(Yep, I've been told I have "the NE Philly accent" when I've traveled out of PA!)

steve said...

Stacey--"Sub," I assume, is short for subway, which in England is a pedestrian tunnel under a street. (Ride the Underground.) When I was in Philly, I took the El frequently, which morphed into a subway near the Old City. Chicagoans drop the "E" and call their elevated trains the "L."