Showing posts with label English. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English. Show all posts

25 September 2019

It Rained All Night the Day I Left


I've been thinking lately about the diminution, or devaluation, of language. Degradation, even, not too strong a word. The calculation being that it doesn't matter, that precision or accuracy is irrelevant, and we're just a bunch of persnickety snobs, who condescend to honest folk and treat them like knuckle-dragging hillbillies, that never had no book-larnin', and get things all twisted around with fancy words and high-falutin' airs.

I'm obviously thinking, too, that this is connected to our present culture of false or competing narratives - conspiracy theories, in effect. Bad money drives out good. The counterfeit devalues honest weight.



There was a time, not that long ago, when a guy like Albert Einstein inspired respect. ("How does it feel to be the smartest man in the world?" somebody asked him. "I don't know," he said. "You should ask Tesla.") An athlete or a war hero, sure, but Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, the NASA team that put us on the moon, an American novelist winning the Nobel. We admired their skill, and tenacity, and sheer will. We took pride in their intellect. All of a sudden, this is suspect, and we're not supposed to trust the weatherman. Not an exact science, admittedly, but more informed than reading the entrails of chickens.

Maybe this is an odd complaint from a writer of fictions, but to be convincing, fiction depends on exact detail. If you get one thing wrong, it casts doubt on all the rest. Not to mention Twain's enduring advice: use the right word, not its second cousin. 



So if you take this inexactness, and fold it in with false narrative, you get a kind of Stalinist double-talk. "Our brave soldiers are moving ever forward," or "Our fervent comrades of industry are exceeding all expectations," and pay no mind to the NKVD machine guns behind our brave soldiers, to shoot slackers, or the bazillion shoes made to fit left feet. Facts become transactional, in the sense that they're negotiated. We agree on a shared reality, the least common denominator. (Or is that the most?)

The question then becomes, what's lost, in the exchange? As language gets dulled, it conveys less. Misuse makes it less useful. Without precision, it's at the same time less resonant. It slips its moorings, cast adrift.



Now, in France - I know, this sounds like the opening line of a comedy routine, the same crowd that regards Jerry Lewis as an auteur - the French answer to an Academy, which guards against barbarisms, like social media or cell phone jargon imported from les Etats Unis. Good luck with that one. But it reminds me that my grandmother, all these many years back, wrote a letter to R.J. Reynolds, complaining about their advertising slogan, 'Winston Tastes Good, Like a Cigarette Should.' And she actually got a very courteous response. Apparently enough people were offended by the use of 'like,' instead of 'as,' that corporate assigned a team to answer the complaints. The answer, in effect, was that they were dumbing it down. This was advertising, not Freshman English. It simply sounded better to the naked ear. My grandmother was having none of it. A longtime educator, she wasn't in the least mollified. She was fluent in French, too, although to my knowledge she never saw a Jerry Lewis picture. 

English as a language, of course, develops through usage and accretion, much like English common law, established by precedent and convention, not by fiat. There is no ruling body, the Chicago Manual of Style notwithstanding, to lay down the law one way or the other, or settle the dispute over the Oxford comma. But it's disheartening, all the same, to see language disrespected - or more to the point, dismissed. I'm not that much of a grammar Nazi, although I do think spelling counts, and I'm overly fond of the semi-colon, but what distresses me is that the dismissiveness, the act of not caring, seems symptomatic of a larger contempt for expertise, for informed debate. Somebody, maybe from the CDC, commented about the anti-vaxxers, "Science is just another voice in the room." In other words, everybody gets equal time, no matter that common sense calls bullshit. 



I'm well aware that I could be accused of falling into a You-Kids-Get-Off -My-Lawn thing, and that what I'm saying is by definition elitist, but that's the whole damn point. When language loses coherence, when it loses exactness, it loses utility. You can't share an agreed-upon reality if you can't even describe it. Is this political? Of course it is. The politics of language is about ownership. If we surrender ownership, we lose the gift of speech itself.  

07 January 2017

The English Language


NOTE: It is my honor today to welcome my friend Herschel Cozine as a guest blogger. Herschel has published extensively in the children's field, and his stories and poems have appeared in many of the national children's magazines. His work has also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines, Wolfmont Press Toys for Tots anthologies, Woman's World, Orchard Press Mysteries, Mouth Full of Bullets, Great Mystery and Suspense, Mysterical-E, and many other publications. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and his flash story "The Phone Call" appeared in Flash Bang Mysteries' summer 2016 issue. He currently has a mini-mystery in Over My Dead Body, and a story scheduled in OMDB's next issue as well. Herschel, it's great to have you here (again)! — John Floyd





I would like to concentrate today on the English language. I'm not talking about its idiosyncrasies that  allow one to use "ghoti," according to GBS, to spell "fish." Rather I am more interested in the variances between the British and U.S. in the spelling and meaning of words.

I am fully aware that the British were here first, so to speak, and that it is their language that we have borrowed and, supposedly, corrupted. But because one is the first to use an item doesn't necessarily mean he is using it correctly.

The British, for example, have the philosophy that two letters are better than one in the spelling of a word. "Why use one when two will do the same job?" It sounds like our government's approach. A brief list to demonstrate my point:

Sulphur
Aluminium
Honour
Humour
Programme
Grille
Favourite

I won't even try to spell "maneuver" the way they do.

It seems to me a waste of space and ink. Walt Disney drew his characters with three fingers instead of the usual four. "Think of the money I save on ink," he said.

But Disney wasn't dealing with the British. They're awash in ink; most of it red as I understand it.

Recently I contracted with a magazine in Canada to write a story, and was told by the editor to use the British spelling of words. Fortunately for me there were only two. I'm not good with this kind of thing.

Then, of course, there is the meaning of words. In this instance I see no advantage of one over the other. Here are a few:

US                                 British

Hood                             Bonnet
Trunk                            Boot
Elevator                        Lift
Policeman                    Bobby
Gentleman                   Chap
Run (in stocking)        Ladder
Panties                         Bloomers
Bathroom                     Loo
Excellent                      Capital
Flashlight                     Torch (or Electric Torch)

Then there is the ubiquitous "bloody," which encompasses most of the four-letter words we Americans use. In this case the British have economized. Would that we followed their example in this instance.

Of course, the British refer to a two-week period of time as a fortnight. I have no idea why. When I was in the army, stationed at a fort, a day seemed like two weeks. Is there a connection here?

One need not travel to the United Kingdom to see and hear differences. In this country we speak several different languages, depending on which part of the country we are in. My father, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, changed the "erl," liked "berled" potatoes, and lived on "Thoid" Street. When I lived in New England, the residents drove "cahs," went to "grammah" school, and ate "botatoes." Since they dropped the "R's" from words, they found themselves with a surplus, so they put them on the end of other words. "Idears" and "diplomers," for example. Southerners eat "ahs" cream. Texans? I am still grappling with that one.

Here in California, we don't even speak English. Recently I was in a coffee shop. The table next to me was occupied by some young folks. One young lady with purple hair and tattoos on her arms and eyelids was holding court. I couldn't understand a word she said. I attributed that to the ring in her nose, which kept her from enunciating. But the others at the table had no problem with it. Truly remarkable.

But I digress. In the past few years a whole new language has come into existence with the emergence of texting. I wonder if the British text. How could they possibly communicate using a single letter? LOL.

I wonder, too, if this form will ever influence our writing. Just as English in Chaucer's time is far different from today's, will future generations see a similar change? Hamlet will soliloquize thusly: "2BR not 2B." I will, gratefully, not be around to see it.

CU later.



11 September 2016

Don't Bury that Lede


James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren
featuring guest star James Lincoln Warren

Today’s article takes an international bent, one at which the British might cock an eyebrow, South Africans pretend not to look superior, Australians mutter, “WTF?” and Canadians cringe. “Oh, not another American diatribe to confuse the issue.” Yes, I’m talking about spelling, but words of particular interest to writers.

I’ve lived and worked in the UK so I’m a bit schizophrenic about the topic. On good days I might give myself an A- but other days barely a B. When it comes to those plural-singular collective noun & verb combinations, I want to shoot myself, e.g, “Manchester are a great team.” Manchester what? Even Liverpool and Leeds disagree… for different reasons, but do they say Manchester suck or sucks? No… yes… maybe… I’m off on an unwinnable rant.

We can blame the devil in Noah Webster for part of our dilemma, but no one ever credited natural language with logic. It’s up to us poor writers to struggle against the darkness. And the not so poor– Stephen King reportedly insists upon certain ‘international’ spellings. Double points to him because he provides a web page so readers can report typos and other errors.

Story v Storey

Our steadfast friend, James Lincoln Warren, has previously suggested we should use ‘storey’ to refer to a floor within a building and ’story’ for literary uses. JLW writes:

The reason I prefer “storey” to “story” when describing a level of a building above the ground floor is because it is more specific. “Story” can mean several things, but “storey” means only one thing.

For whatever it’s worth, etymologically, both words derive from the same origin, Latin historia. In medieval “Anglo-Latin”, historia was used in both senses as with “story”, i.e., “narrative” and “floor”. The Oxford English Dictionary therefore considers “storey” a variant spelling of “story”, and doesn’t show an example of the spelling with the “e” until Dickens, which suggests to me that the inclusion of the “e” in the architectural spelling is quite recent.

Brilliant and simple, right? So if we use story and storey, why not further distinguish other words the same way?

Cosy v Cozy

We North Americans recognize (or recognise– more on that later) two great British inventions, the cosy and the, er, cosy. One popularly keeps tea warm and the other warms readers of golden age mysteries.

Some American authors happily use this spelling, but exceptions abound including our own Fran Rizer, and why not? She writes Southern cozies with a ‘z’, thank you very much.

I like cosy as a noun, but when it comes to verbs and adjectives, my senseless sensibilities kick in. “She cosied up to him,” seems wrong, like she quoted Agatha Christie while serving him a pot of tea.

But if we expand our North American use of cosy with an ’s’, I suggest we negotiate ‘-ize’ endings. The poor zee (or zed) sees so little use, why not allow it to participate in ‘authorize’ and ‘pressurize’ and ‘legitimize’?

Celebrate, crossword puzzlers, celebrate!

Lede v Lead

The first time I came across ‘lede’, I had to look it up to make certain I wasn’t misreading it. The use of ‘lede’ as a variant of ‘lead’ is even newer than storey, dating back to the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Lede has been used to mean a headline, but more precisely refers to the opening paragraph of an article or story that summarizes (not summarises) the content following. Waffling Wikipedia suggests lede/lead combines the headline and first paragraph, but the ever precise Grammarist narrows its definition:

Strictly speaking, the lede is the first sentence or short portion of an article that gives the gist of the story and contains the most important points readers need to know… allowing readers who are not interested in the details to feel sufficiently informed.

In more dramatic forms, the lede can compare with a hook, but perhaps less obviously in, say, legal and technical writing. Professional journalism practices say a lede must provide the main points of a story, interest the reader in the story, and accomplish those goals as briefly as possible.

Newspapers used to be set in hot and cold lead (molten metal, Pb), so the lede of a hot lead could be cast in cold lead. As an interesting footnote, the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language comments upon lede:

Obsolete spelling of lead, revived in modern journalism to distinguish the word from its homograph lead, strip of metal separating lines of type.

Bury the lede” uses only the lede spelling. It’s sometimes misunderstood as burying a lead article within a newspaper, but it more narrowly means to begin an article with unessentials and postpone revealing salient points or facts until deeper in the body. For example, an editor might bury the lede for popular or political reasons.

Kerb – Curb, Tyre – Tire

If we succeed in making the spelling choices in the English language smaller while making the meanings more exact, why stop with these words? Why not use certain British nouns in exchange for North American verbs? “I tired of the tyre against the kerb, which curbed my enthusiasm.” Yeah, that works.

The words clew/clue seem to have sorted themselves out, although an author like  James Lincoln Warren might employ ‘clew’ in nautical and historical writings.

Back to crime writing, what the hell do we do about ‘gaol’, an unholy Norman abomination that dismays even the Welsh? We turn to James once more:

Interestingly, in Samuel Johnson’s definition of GAOL in his dictionary, he writes, “It is always pronounced and too often written jail, and sometimes goal.” He does, however, also list JAIL under the letter “I”. (There is no "J" section).

Publishing News

Congratulations to James for two stories soon to appear in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines. Tip your boater to him at the New Orleans Bouchercon.

12 September 2015

To Verb or Not to Verb?


"I can't access the fingerprint files," Phil said.
Sally fisted her hair. "Oh, no! That could negatively impact our investigation!"
Should I contact the lieutenant?" Fred asked.
"I'm efforting that right now," Phil assured him.
In this brief but thrilling bit of dialogue, I have verbed five nouns. That is, I have taken five words once firmly ensconced in the language as nouns, and I have used them as verbs. This sort of verbing seems to be going on a lot these days. We read newspaper articles about the benefactor who gifted the museum with a valuable painting, about the county office transitioning to a new computer system. And of course almost all of us speak of texting people and friending people. Some of us say we Facebook.

Should we accept the verbing trend as inevitable, perhaps desirable? Should we resist it? Does resistance make sense in some cases but not in others? Writers, including mystery writers, probably have some influence on the ways in which language changes, perhaps more influence than we realize. So maybe, before we let ourselves slip into following a linguistic trend, we're obliged to examine it carefully, to think about whether it's a change for the better.

Obviously, there's nothing unusual or improper about a word functioning as more than one part of speech. "He decided to turn off the ceiling light and light the candles, while his wife, wearing a light blue dress, fixed a light supper." Here, in one sentence, "light" serves as noun, verb, adverb, and adjective--repetitive, but not ungrammatical or unclear. And I think we'd all agree language is a living thing that needs to change to meet new needs. Many would argue (and I'd agree) that the English language, especially, is vital and expressive precisely because it's always been so flexible and open, so ready to absorb useful words from other languages and to adjust to changing conditions. Sometimes, change means inventing new words to describe new things--telephone, astronaut, Google. Sometimes, it means using existing words in new ways--text, tablet, tweet. These sorts of changes in the language reflect changes in reality. Some of them may enrich the language; some may make it sillier or less euphonious. Either way, trying to resist them is probably pointless.
I'm not so sure about "fist." I've been seeing it used as a verb more and more lately, especially in erotic scenes. Usually, it's a man who does the fisting, and it's a woman's hair that gets fisted--"Lance pressed his body against Desiree's and fisted her hair, declaring he could not bear to leave her that night." Well, gosh. First of all, I have trouble picturing exactly what Lance is doing to Desiree's hair. He's grabbing hunks of it, I guess, and forming his hands into fists around the hunks. If that's what he's doing, couldn't we just say "clutched"? I have a feeling some writers choose "fist" because they think it sounds sexier and more forceful, because it hints at a trace of coercion, a smidgen of violence. If that's the appeal of "fist," maybe it's a verb we can do without. Let's have Lance stroke Desiree's hair while keeping a respectful distance from her and suggesting they discuss their plans for the evening. If we want to get sexier, he can always finger a tendril.

Is verbing such a change? In some cases, I think, it probably is. Consider the first sentence in the opening dialogue. "Access" used to be a noun and nothing but a noun. Fowler's Modern English Usage (I've got the second edition, published in 1965, inherited from my English professor father) draws careful distinctions between access and accession, showing scorn for those who "carelessly or ignorantly" confuse the two. Fowler doesn't even consider the possibility that anyone might use "access" as a verb. One might need a key to gain access to the faculty washroom, but the idea that anyone might access the washroom--no. Today, though, when almost all of us use computers and often have trouble getting at what we want, using "access" as a verb seems natural. Yes, Phil could say he can't gain access to the fingerprint files, but the extra words feel cumbersome here, an inappropriate burden on a process that should take seconds. Old fashioned as I am, I think using "access" as a verb might be a sensible, useful adjustment to change.

Back to the opening dialogue: Sally fears not being able to access the fingerprint files "could negatively impact our investigation." I think some writers use "impact" as a verb because, like "fist," it sounds sexy and forceful, sexier and more forceful than "affect" or "influence." But does it convey any meaning those words don't? If not, I'm not sure there's an adequate reason for creating a new verb. And if we have to modify "impact" with an adverb such as "negatively" to make its meaning clear, wouldn't it be more concise to choose a specific one-word verb such as "hurt" or "stall"--or "end," if the negative impact will in fact be that bad? Again, I'd say "impact" is a verb we can do without. It answers no need our existing verbs fail to meet. It adds nothing to the language.

What about "contact"? In the opening dialogue, Fred asks if he should "contact" the lieutenant. Like "access," "contact" was once a noun and nothing else. Is there a problem with using it as a verb as well? Strunk and White think so. In the third edition of Elements of Style (a relic from my own days as an English professor), they (or maybe just White) declare, "As a transitive verb, [`contact'] is vague and self-important. Do not contact anybody; get in touch with him, or look him up, or phone him, or find him, or meet him." Or, in this situation, Fred might ask if he should inform the lieutenant, or warn her, or ask her for advice. "Contact" is pretty well established as a verb by now, but I think the argument that it's "vague and self-important" still holds. "Contact" is a lazy verb. It doesn't meet a new need--it just spares us the trouble of saying precisely what we mean. Even if few readers would object to using "contact" as a verb these days, writers who want to be clear should still search for a more specific choice.

Common Errors in English Usage: Third Edition
Then there's "effort." What possible excuse can there be for transforming this useful noun into a pretentious verb? In the second edition of Common Errors in English Usage (a wonderful resource), Paul Brians declares such a transformation "bizarre and unnecessary": "You are not `efforting' to get your report in on time; you are trying to do so. Instead of saying `we are efforting a new vendor,' say `we are trying to find a new vendor.'" Maybe some people think "efforting" will make it sound as if they're working harder. If so, they can always say they're "striving" or "struggling"--but those words will be obviously inappropriate if not much work is actually involved, if they're just making a phone call. Is "efforting" appealing because it lets us get away with making simple tasks seem more arduous than they really are? If so, we should definitely resist the temptation to inflate the importance of what we're doing by using a fancy new verb.

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.
By now, some may be wondering if any of this matters. If we want to dress up our sentences by turning some nouns into impressive-sounding new verbs, so what? Where's the harm in that? George Orwell provides an answer in his classic "Politics and the English Language." I can't summarize his subtle, complex argument here; I can only offer a quotation or two and urge anyone who hasn't already read the essay to do so. Just as ideas can influence language, Orwell argues, language can influence ideas. The English language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Nor should we surrender to damaging trends in language because we assume resistance is futile. "Modern English, especially written English," Orwell says, "is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble." As writers, perhaps we have a special responsibility to protect the language by setting a good example. At least we can effort it.

Oops. Sorry. At least we can try.

20 December 2014

Have a Confusing Christmas!


The following story is true.  And it may explain the slightly manic sense of humour I have been displaying on these pages over the past six months.


Most of my life, I have been confused about Christmas.

This is because I am the quintessential Canadian mutt.  Four parts Italian, one part Irish, one part English, one part Chippewa, and the final bit was a surprise.  It overlaps with the English part (wait for it.)

The Italian part is easy to explain.  Every year, my Sicilian grandmother put the plastic lighted crucifixes (made in Japan) in glaring rainbow colours, on the Christmas tree.  I was a bit confused by that, not only because it was gawd-awful tacky and fought with my budding interior designer.  But the part in the 10 Commandments about ‘no graven images’ seemed to be at risk here.

Nevertheless, we all looked forward to the blazing orange, green and red crucifixes, unaware that it was a sort of macabre thing to do to a Christmas tree.  Did I mention Halloween is my favorite holiday?

The Chippewa part was a tad more elusive.  I first got a hint that there might have been First Nations blood in our family when someone asked why we put ground venison in our traditional Christmas Eve spaghetti sauce.  True, we had a freezer full of deer, moose, salmon, and not much else.  Later, it occurred to me that I actually hadn’t tasted beef until I was ten, when for my birthday, Dad took us to the A&W for a real treat.  “This tastes weird,” I said, wrinkling my nose.  “It’s made from cow,” Dad said.

Of course, if I had been more on the ball, there were other clues.  But at the age of six, you don’t necessarily see things as out of the norm.  That summer in Toronto, I loved day camp.  They split us kids into groups named for First Nations tribes.  By happy coincidence, I got placed in the Chippewa tribe.  When I got home and announced this, the reaction was: “Thank God it wasn’t Mohawk.” 

The camp leaders were really impressed with my almost-authentic costume.  (Everyone else was wearing painted pillow cases.)

But the real confusion about Christmas and my provenance came many years later.

I spent most of my life not knowing we were part Jewish.  I was about forty, when the designer shoe (a bargain on sale at David’s) finally dropped.  Dad and I were eating pastrami on rye at Shopsy’s Deli one day (which we did on a regular basis, once a month – a reasonably intelligent person might have considered this the first clue) when Dad wiped a drip of mustard off his face and said:

Dad: “I haven’t heard from my cousin Moishe Goldman in a long while.”

Me:  “We have a cousin named MOISHE GOLDMAN??”

Of course, if I had been thinking, all this made sense.  We had lived in a Jewish neighbourhood.  Our last name is Hebrew for antelope.  And I was only the only kid in school who got Halvah in their Christmas stocking every year.  (Damn straight.  I really did.  I still do.)

So I’m hoping this may explain why we have a five foot lighted Christmas peacock on our front porch this year, and a lighted Christmas palm tree in our back yard.  “A Peacock in a Palm Tree” may be confusing to you folk who know the song and are expecting a partridge with pears, but to those of us who have been confused about Christmas all our lives, it is mere icing on the proverbial Kugal.

Melodie Campbell writes funny books. You can buy them at Chapters/Indigo, Barnes&Noble, Amazon, etc.  Sometimes even at the discount table at Zehrs and Walmart.)

The Peacock.  You thought I was kidding.

08 October 2013

Our Common Language


The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.

     George Bernard Shaw
     Attributed

We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.                                                             
                                                                                                                                                              Oscar Wilde
                                                                                  The Canterville Ghost

       For whatever reason, the language of Shakespeare seems to invite inconsistencies.  Writer H. Beam Piper has attributed this to the very foundation of the language:  "English is the result of Norman men-at-arms attempting to pick up Saxon barmaids and is no more legitimate than any of the other results."   While that might be a bit over the edge, we are still left with a perplexing language.  Bill Bryson, taking a more scholarly approach, has observed that "English grammar is so complex and confusing for the very simple reason that its rules and terminology are based on Latin, a language with which it has precious little in common."  It is relatively easy to find examples of the resulting inconsistencies.  "Debt," a word we likely adopted from the French, nonetheless carries a non-French silent "b," which tracks its lineage back to the Latin word "debitum."  And look at our simple rule that putting the prefix "in" in front of a word turns the word into its opposite -- inhumane, inconsistent, inflexible are examples.  So what about invaluable?  Such internal quirks in the language only intensify when those speaking it are geographically separated.

       Years ago, when I was in private practice, an attorney with whom I worked traveled to Japan to make a presentation before the board of directors of one of our major clients. The attorney was accompanied by a representative of the client, a Japanese man who had lived most of his life in the U.S. and, as a result, was well positioned to straddle the differences between the two cultures. After the attorney’s presentation the chairman of the board stood, offered his hand, and as they shook said “Thank you for the presentation. Our views are completely parallel.” After leaving the board room the attorney turned to the company representative and said “I thought that went really well.” The representative’s eyes widened. “How can you say that? It was a disaster.” “But,” the attorney responded, “the chairman said their views were completely parallel.” “That means,” the representative said, shaking his head, “that they never intersect.” 

       This anecdote is a bit afield from the Shaw and Wilde quotes set forth above, since the countries involved were the United States and Japan, but it still illustrates the point. Just as species of animals and plants evolve differently on different continents, so, too, words, each of which is a work in progress. 

       In the new novel Lexicon (which premises a world in which words are used for their magical powers by a group of wordsmiths referred to as “poets”) author Max Barry notes, for example, that the word “cause” is in the process of changing from meaning strict causation to denoting the causation of something bad. (He was the cause of the problem). And, as noted by Shaw and Wilde, the evolution of words can proceed differently in different regions, even those purporting to speak the same language. This can be true regionally within a country, and can become even more pronounced in different countries, geographically separated, that start off with a common language.

Barney and Clyde, Weingarten & Clark, Copyright 2013,
The Washington Post
       In the United States, for instance, the word “moot” is used to denote a settled situation, one that is no longer open for discussion. By contrast, in England an issue that is “moot” is one open for discussion. Similarly, when we “table” an issue in the United States the issue becomes off limits for discussion, whereas “tabling” that same issue in the U.K. indicates that it is next up for discussion. 

        Reflective of all of this, a short guide for the English speaker (both U.K. and American) has been circulating on the internet the past couple months that further defines the separation between the two English speaking countries. First reported in an article by Alice Philipson of The Telegraph, the chart might as well make a stop here at SleuthSayers as well. 

WHAT THE BRITISH                 WHAT THE BRITISH                 WHAT FOREIGNERS
            SAY                                          MEAN                                UNDERSTAND

 I hear what you say                   I disagree and do not want to            He accepts my point of 
                                                 discuss it further                               view

With the greatest respect            You are an idiot                               He is listening to me 

That's not bad                            That's good                                     That's poor 

That is a very brave proposal      You are insane                                 He thinks I have courage

Quite good                                 A bit disappointing                            Quite good 

I would suggest                          Do it or be prepared to                     Think about the idea, but
                                                 justify yourself                                  do what you like

Oh, incidentally/ by the way        The primary purpose of                     That is not very important
                                                 our discussion is

I was a bit disappointed that        I am annoyed that                           It doesn't really matter

Very interesting                          That is clearly nonsense                   They are impressed

I'll bear it in mind                         I've forgotten it already                    They will probably do it

I'm sure it's my fault                    It's your fault                                   Why do they think it                                                                                                                          was their fault?

You must come for dinner            It's not an invitation, I'm just             I will get an invitation soon
                                                  being polite

I almost agree                             I don't agree at all                            He's not far from agreement

I only have a few minor                Please rewrite completely                 He has found a few typos
comments

Could we consider some              I don't like your idea                         They have not yet decided
other options

       This helpful little guide can doubtless get you a long way in conversing on either side of the pond, but even it does not cover all contingencies. As an example, if you ask the clerk at the front desk of your hotel “to knock you up” just before breakfast the result is likely to be decidedly different depending upon which side of the Atlantic your hotel is located!

       All of the foregoing examples focus on words that have evolved different meanings in different regions.  But that is not the only problem.  Even when words retain a common meaning pronunciation differences can render them unintelligible to those in different regions.  One of the best detective series that has been broadcast in the last year has been Broadchurch, which aired on BBC America.  Half way through the series, having been unable to understand some critical exchanges, I found that the best way to watch this English language series was with sub-captioning turned on.  And one can encounter similar dialectic challenges without crossing the Atlantic.  Last year I went into a liquor store in Gulf Shores, Alabama to purchase some scotch.  I handed the clerk my Mastercard and she looked at me and asked "Daybit?"  I was perplexed, but only for a moment, before replying "No.  Credit."

      Having led off with Shaw on the difficulty of maintaining a common English language, we might as well let him have the last word as well. With a little help from Lerner and Lowe, that is . . . .