“Rambling,” “Walking”

This post is a ruse. That is, I know very well that rambling and walking are not not-one-off Britishisms. They are not even one-off Britishisms. They have chipped away exactly zero at the U.S. equivalent, hiking. (I would be interested in knowing the difference, if any, between the two in the U.K.)

The ruse is that I am actually looking for some walking, or rambling, advice. My wife and I ware planning a trip to England this summer, and would like to spend three or four days of it on a walking holiday. We are looking for a place where we could travel fairly easily from London (without a car) and go on a few beautiful, moderately strenuous 7-10 mile hikes walks. One option we’ve been looking at is the South West Coast Path, but which of its 630 miles, I have no idea.

All suggestions appreciated.




In honor of tonight’s premiere of a new season of Mad Men and the conclusion last week of the annual American rite of basketball, what about mad? Americans  tend to use the word as a synonym for “angry.” The OED shows that it appeared in Britain this way as early as the 1400s but gradually lost favor there, even as it was being adopted early and enthusiastically in the United States. Horace Greeley (1811-1872) said: “My God! This is a great country—when it gets mad!” That last phrase had a colloquial feel as late as 1902, when William James put it in quotation marks in The Varieties of Religious Experience: “He can’t ‘get mad’ at any of his alternatives; and the career of a man beset by such an all-round amiability is hopeless.” For some years, it has been impossible to avoid the catchphrase “Don’t get mad—get even.” The Yale Book of Quotations quotes a 1967 Chicago Tribune article describing this “as a venerable slogan in Massachusetts politics.”

The quintessentially British meaning of mad, of course, is the mad of the Noel Coward songs “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Mad About the Boy”: that is, mad meaning crazy, twisted, oobie shoobie, you know, flip city.

Few if any Americans would call or refer to a nutty person as mad, because listeners would assume the meaning was “angry.” However, this meaning of the word has persisted and thrived in other forms and in idioms.  Madness is pretty common, notably in March  Madness, itself, which was apparently used to refer to Indiana high-school basketball tournaments as far back as 1931. Other examples include the word madman and phrases like mad, mad scientist, mad cow disease, and an expression used by both Duke Ellington and Jim Morrison. Ellington’s motto was “I love you madly.” The Doors, meanwhile, used it in possibly the worst lyrical couplet in the Western canon: “Don’t ya love her madly/Wanna be her daddy.”

Americans have also made creative use of the the double meaning of mad, possibly starting with Mad Magazine. The publication was created in 1952 as a comic book with the cover line “Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD.” In Stanley Kramer’s 1963 film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the constantly hollering all-star cast indeed seemed to be both very aggravated and not in the best mental health. The dual meaning probably helped the line “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!,” from Network, become a classic. The TV series Mad About You was a flat-out pun, and the title of Mad Men is a remarkable four-way play on words. It invokes the “crazy” and “angry” uses of mad, the phrase ad men, and Madison Avenue, where ad men work.

Meanwhile, another prominent meaning for mad has come out of African-American slang, as an intensifier. This can be an adverb, as in the movie Mad Hot Ballroom, or an adjective. You know what I mean if you’re a skateboarder. If you don’t have mad skills, you had better hang it up.


I heard a reference on a TV commercial the other day to the “Axe Peace Range”–Axe being a brand of men’s deodorant and such, peace being peace, and “range” being, as I dimly recalled once having learned, the British word for what Americans call “line” (as in “product line”) or “collection.”

To be sure, Axe is a product from Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch company, but my TV is in the U. S. of A., not England or Holland. Unilever’s (American) website notes:

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I couldn’t help noticing that this single page contains no fewer than six Britishisms, starting with range and the inverted commas in the screenshot above. The others: European date format, logical punctuation, and two different spellings. The first is organisation. The second is in reference to the advert where the Peace Range was first announced, on that quintessential American programme The Super Bowl.

Update: As reader Phoebus notes, below, I mistakenly described the Unilever site I saw and quoted. On the company’s American site, there seems to be only one Britishism. That’s right, range.



What’s Up with That?

From yesterday’s New York Times interview with director Darren Aronofsky:

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As Nancy Friedman tweets, “Aronofsky is from Brooklyn. What’s up with ‘adverts‘?”

Come, Come, Mr. Pullum

I had l’esprit de l’escalier after writing the post below, which is about Geoffrey Pullum’s assertion that most of the differences between British English and American English are matters of pronunciation or “word choice,” rather than grammar. Specifically, three grammatical differences occurred to me:

  1. The (British) use of plural verbs with collective nouns, such as “Manchester United are having a poor season” or “Parliament are meeting.”
  2. The singular “they” is overwhelmingly used in speech and in online writing in both the U.K. and the U.S. (“If someone writes a book, they [as opposed to "he," "she," or "he or she"] should be prepared to do a lot of research.”) However, it is not widely accepted in U.S. academic writing, journalism, or publishing, while it is (it seems to me) in the U.K.
  3. American English uses had gotten (and had forgotten), while  British English uses had got. The truth of the latter proposition was forcefully brought home to me a year or so ago when I was interviewed by an Irish radio presenter on the subject of NOOBs. Asked for an example, I mentioned that the New Yorker magazine uses got instead of the more otherwise prevalent gotten. There was a pause, as if for the host to make sure his ears had not deceived him. “GOTTEN??” he bellowed. “GOTTEN?? There is no such word as GOTTEN!” It took a full ninety seconds before I was able to convince him that I wasn’t having him on.

I should say that underlying Geoff’s argument is his contention that the differences, whatever the extent of them, do not constitute some sort of scandal or problem, or much misunderstanding or mystification, either. I would agree with him on both points, while noting that a few words, notably pants and pissed, can create comedy via their dual meanings.

I’ll conclude by noting that Lynne Murphy has jumped into the conversation at her brilliant “Separate by a Common Language Blog.” She says she has written 432 posts, almost all on the differences between British and American English, including “22 on grammar, 20 on morphology [and 11 on count/mass distinctions, e.g. do you say Lego or Legos for a bunch of them].”

She concludes:

Are the differences exaggerated due to cognitive biases and prejudices? Absolutely. Are we still mostly able to communicate easily? Yes, certainly.  But that doesn’t make the differences that are there any less interesting to me.

Much Ado About Not Much?

Geoffrey Pullum–the distinguished grammarian and my fellow contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Lingua Franca” blog–has a post up there today asserting that the so-called differences between American English and British English are exaggerated. He writes:

… most trans-Atlantic differences either involve nothing more than pronunciation (most Americans pronounce the r of car and have the vowel of hat in words like glass, and the majority of British speakers don’t), or are merely differences in word choice, almost always choices among nouns (in Britain a truck is often called a lorry, though truck occurs as well).

He does acknowledge a couple of grammatical differences:

Americans like using the preterit rather than the perfect in clauses reporting past time with present relevance (I already did that), whereas British speakers clearly prefer the perfect (I’ve already done that). But speakers of both varieties can always understand both constructions. Closer to being absolute is the limitation to British English of the special use of the verb do in cases of omitted verb phrases, as in I don’t know if she understands French, but she may do. Americans would say she may, without that final do.

That’s admittedly not much, and he concludes, “the tiny differences between standard American and standard British English are trivial, barely even worth mentioning.”

Trivial, you say?  Well, I’ve got 800,000 page views (as of today) that say NOOBs are very much worth mentioning. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Will Pullum apologize? I’m not sure, but he should do.

“Stand” someone a drink

I recently encountered this Facebook post (by an American, about an American): “Anyway, I just wondered if any of my Facebook friends in NY feel like standing a good friend of a friend to a drink? Jeff’s a blast, and any friend of mine oughta be a friend of his…”

The verb stand, as used here is defined this way by the OED: “To bear the expense of, make a present of, pay for (a treat); to put up or make a present of (a sum of money), esp. as part of a larger amount sought.” The first citation is from Dickens, Sketches by Boz (1836): ” Mr. Augustus Cooper..‘stood’ considerable quantities of spirits and water.” The quotations marks indicate recent coinage. The dictionary also has this 1890 quote from Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine:  “I’ll stand you a dinner.”

Google’s Ngram Viewer indicates the term is a Britishism, though one that started fading out around 1940. (The blue line indicates use of “stood me a drink” in British English, the red line in American English.)

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Some readers will have noted that my Facebook friend misused the expression,  talking of standing the gentlemen “to” a drink, when the proper expression is “stand him a drink.” That’s all the proof I need that this expression is a one-off.