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I recently wondered why, in American movies and TV shows set in foreign or imagined lands, the characters almost invariably speak in British accents, and whether there’s a literary equivalent. I can now report some news on the topic.
First, there has been a lot of discussion about the general phenomenon. One commentator theorized that, on the fantasy end of things (on up through Game of Thrones, where poor Peter Dinklage is made to talk British), it’s the responsibility of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the books that started the genre, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: “even though Middle Earth is a fantasy world it’s clearly inspired by England. Thus it’s not unreasonable that the characters sound like they come from the country that has such a heavy influence on the settings in Middle Earth.”
The invaluable website TV Tropes came up with a name for the custom–“the Queen’s Latin”–and has this explanation for its use in historical dramas:
Britain’s long history causes British accents to seem somehow “older” — they are used to suggest a sense of antiquity. This is actually inaccurate from a linguistic perspective; the modern British accents actually represent a more evolved form of English. Older English accents were closer to modern Irish and American accents.
In any case, using the Queen’s Latin makes a series or film commercially viable in the U.S. It alleviates the need for subtitles, while maintaining the appearance of historical authenticity. It’s just foreign and exotic enough. (Many British actors already Play Great Ethnics.) It’s also no doubt inspired by productions of Shakespeare‘s plays set in Ancient Rome. Remember: Romeo might have been Italian, but he’s not realistic unless he talks like a proper British toff.
The other new thing is another example of literary Queen’s Latin, from the novel All the Light We Cannot See. The book is set in France and Germany during World War II, yet the author, Anthony Doerr — an American— frequently uses British terms: crisps instead of potato chips, lift instead of elevator, and biscuits. (The last is a reversal of the English rapper Lady Sovereign’s couplet “Some English MCs get it twisted/Start sayin’ ‘cookies’ instead of ‘biscuits.’”)
The lingo doesn’t make sense, but I suppose it adds to the feel of the book as taking place in a long-ago era.
Way back in 2011, I wrote about the expression “full stop” (BrE for AmE “period”), specifically to emphasize what the speaker has just said.
According to a Christian Science Monitor blog post, the trend has continued and, seemingly, intensified:
Before announcing his presidential bid, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley made clear in December his disdain for the CIA’s highly controversial interrogation tactics. “I don’t believe the United States should torture,” he said. “Period. Full stop.’’
An amusing Hollywood convention has it that in movies that take place in ancient Rome, on another planet, or in any exotic place, the characters speak English with an English accent (especially if they’re bad guys). I thought of that while reading Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s New Yorker essay about a mass killing in his country. In the piece, Knausgaard quotes from a fellow Norwegian author’s book on the incident. The killer has been apprehended and asks for a cut on his finger to be “bandaged up.” A policeman replies, “You’ll get no fucking plasters from me.”
“Plaster” would be a good word for Americans to adopt, since it’s more specific than our “bandage” and involves more serious dressing than our trade name “Band-Aid.” But we don’t use it, and its presence in the essay–which was translated by an American, Kerri Pierce–struck me as the equivalent of a Martian talking like an Oxford don.
When I looked into it a little more, I realized that the situation was more complicated than I had thought. It turns out the book from which Knausgaard was quoting, Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, was translated by an English woman, Sarah Death, legitimizing the “plaster.”
I did find one proper Britishism in Pierce’s translation: the fact that one of the victims was “called” Simon.
When last heard from, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was referring to argle-bargle . Now, dissenting from the court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), Scalia accused the majority of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The OED notes that the term derives from a venerable Scots expression, joukery-pawkery, and means “deceitful or dishonest ‘manipulation’; hocus-pocus, humbug.” The dictionary’s first citation is from 1893, but Ammon Shea, at Merriam-Webster’s “Words at Play” blog, beat that by a remarkable five decades, quoting a December 1845 article from the (Reading, England) Berkshire Chronicle: “… under the present law, the averages were made up so faithfully and fairly as to prevent any jiggery-pokery.”
I myself had not encountered jiggery-pokery since 1967, when it served as the title of Anthony Hecht and John Hollander’s anthology of double dactyls. In inventing this form years earlier, the two poets had come up with some wild and crazy rules. As described by the poet Julie Larios, it consists of:
eight lines of two dactyls each, arranged in two quatrains. The first line of the poem must be nonsense (like “Higgledy-piggledy” or “Jiggery-pokery”) and the second line must be a name; the fourth and eighth lines are dactyls followed by spondees, and they rhyme; and one line of the poem (often the 6th or 7th) must be a single six-syllable word.
Here’s an example, by Hollander:
Higgledy, piggledy,Anna KareninaWent off her feed and justCouldn’t relax.Then, quite ignoring the
Threw in the sponge and was
Scraped off the tracks
Any readers want to try their hands?
The British equivalent of Americans’ traditional “on vacation” seems to be getting more established over here, at least judging from the e-mail I got today:
Or maybe she was using it in a distinctive way, to mean “out of the office on the day of a holiday.” Question to British readers: can “on holiday” refer to a period of time as short as a day?
In any case, happy July 4th to all of you as well, and no hard feelings to my friends across the Atlantic.
Earlier this month, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said, “We have things rolling out this fall that I am over the moon about and can’t wait for people to see.” The week before, race car driver Scott Dixon said he was “over the moon” about winning the Firestone 600.
“Over the moon” is of course a metaphorical way of saying you’re happy and excited. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from 1936. It’s not unfamiliar to Americans, but it’s traditionally been more common in Britain, as this Google Ngram Viewer chart shows:
In recent years, it’s mainly been the province of British and Australian celebrities talking about being pregnant or having a child, or athletes talking about winning a game. Such uses still yield the majority of Google News hits, such as Perth Now’s that an Australian businessman’s girlfriend has a baby bump: “’I’m over the moon. It’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me,’ the proud expectant dad told us exclusively.'”
But the Costolo and Dixon quotes suggest that “over the moon” will follow the lead of “at the end of the day” (which I see to my horror that I’ve never done an entry on) and become established in the U.S.