Tuesday, 5 October 2010

American Clothes


I've been staying in the flat of an American friend and found amongst his books an American-English dictionary. It is a slim volume, almost bulimic, and it was first published in 1971.

This antiquity makes it a curious book. It preserves the distinction between the American billion (a thousand million) and the British (a million million): a numerological nomenclature that we abandoned twenty or thirty years ago. I believe that in the City billions have been smaller since the sixties.

Other terms testify to their times. I had no idea what a blackleg was, but imagine that in 1971 it was vital information for the travelling strike-breaker.

Mainly, though, it shows the areas in which our languages have drifted apart. Every third word or so is to do with either cooking or clothes. Barrettes, bathrobes, bellpeppers, bobbie pins, broils, business suits, candy, cheesecloth, clothes pins, collar stays, cookies, corn starch, cream of wheat and so on and so forth are still absent from English English. I knew about three of them, but the rest are a complete surprise. Do Americans really call it a lima bean rather than a broad one? Astonishing. Do swedes really become rutabagas beyond the Atlantic storms?

I suppose it's natural that these words should have drifted. Cooking is more talked about than communicated. It doesn't pop up much in films (movies) and novels in the way that serial killers do. Families have their own names for favourite dishes, so it is natural that a nation should as well.

And all those clothes! It is permanently amusing to an Englishman that American men like to wear their pants, knickers, vests and suspenders on the outside. If I tried that I would be arrested. Again.

What interests me about the clothes is that clothes do appear in novels. People are always being introduced as wearing a derby and jockey shorts, yet American novels have not affected English English. Why? I would guess that it is because clothes are almost never mentioned in films. On screen we can see what somebody has on (trousers and a tweed jacket) and no character needs to speak the words.

It's an old streetwalker of a book: outdated but fun. I never knew that a robin was a different creature in America. However, the book misses my favourite difference. Few legal activities give me more pleasure than hearing an angry American telling me that he's really mad and really pissed, because in English that means that he's drunk and insane.

Ours is prettier

25 comments:

  1. A fascinating post and I agree that our robin is prettier.

    Broad beans and lima beans are, I believe, two different bean types. The broad bean is Phaseolus Lunatus whereas the lima bean is Vicia Faba.

    I do believe that cheesecloth and barettes have been in common English usage since at least the seventies. I remember wearing cheesecloth smocks and blouses in the early seventies and many of us secured our long hair in barettes.

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  2. I've always wondered what a swede was. Now I know.

    But I'm not sure you should be using bulimic as a word for thin. Many bulimics are slightly overweight, since the binge-and-purge pattern doesn't necessarily lead to the kind of rapid weight loss that anorexia/starvation does.

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  3. "Mainly, though, it shows the areas in which are languages have drifted apart."

    An interesting spelling mistake that tells me something about your pronunciation.

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  4. Good Lord, how embarrassing. It only goes to show that you cannot proof your own work. And yes, it does seem to be are more than our, but I think it varies on the position in the sentence.

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  5. Dictionaries are fun. Not all my friends agree, though, when I get them out at dinner parties. Such spoilsports.

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  6. I'm an American who recently studied in England for several months. An English family who befriended me explained the difference between cookies and biscuits when I expressed surprise at being offered a cookie, which I had thought was an Americanism. They defined a cookie as softer and chewier than a biscuit. If my experience was not anomalous, this would mean that the word "cookie" does exist in English English.

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  7. PS - I realize that I am nitpicking at a tiny part of this post, but it just stuck out to me in that list. I do love when you discuss Americanisms, so I'm also curious what three words you were already familiar with from your list.

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  8. Alexis, I never knew the futility of it all. Perhaps I shall change it to lean and hungry.

    Rachel, Bathrobe, candy and cookie were my familiars. A lot of words drift over in a limited sense, if only because a company keeps its brand names universal. Fortune cookies are fortune cookies too. There may well be a special kind of chewy sweet thing, but I'm not familiar with it, which means that the usage is still rare. They are right that a fresh biscuit can't be soft, I've blogged on that incredibly important legal point here.

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  9. Dogberry, I think your sour tooth has let you down.

    I am ALWAYS eating cookies - and yes, they are the soft chewy ones rather than the hard ones.

    There is now a shop in Soho called Cox, Cookies and Cake - although the owner is not English but the Canadian Patrick Cox, and the alliteration may also have something to do with the choice of "cookies" rather than "biscuits".

    But even when I was at university, I remember the cookie shops scattered around town - Ben's Cookies and Millie's Cookies...

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    1. Between meals, Americans are known to snack on cookies, each of them often having more than one.

      From the right side of the Pond, the same thing is often referred to as a cake and is served in slices at tea or after dinner, one sufficing to a party of eight.

      Gerofono Noseital (dr.)

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  10. You definitely need to have cookies in your life, Dogberry - you don't know what you're missing. So much better than biscuits! I made white choc and raspberry ones last Christmas ... num num num (which I believe is the universal spelling of the experience of yumminess)

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  11. I have a problem as an American who reads predominantly English English (they have better humor and vocabularies) works when, in conversation, I unthinkingly slip in something British. This nearly always results in confusion from whoever I'm talking to. I also have a tendency towards British spelling, such as ise vs ize. As to the cookie debate, I make the distinction between cookies and biscuits based on the criteria of crunchy vs. soft. You've simply got to have a proper cookie. Crunchy may be good and well for biscuits served with tea, but soft cookies are truly indulgent. Don't get them from the store because they're really quite awful due to the preservatives needed to maintain softness. They absolutely must be fresh.

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  12. I am american. Here cookies can be soft, hard and all inbetween

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  13. Cookies are cookies. shut up already

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  14. I'm from Germany and the word cookie is frequently used in German to describe a large sort of biscuit with chunks of things (chocolate, mostly). Although it is rather a large version of what we call "Keks", it can be seen to have stepped into the place of "Plätz" which is nowadays only used in the diminutive form "Plätzchen", a more elegant or elaborate kind of biscuit.

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  15. The Etymologicon tells me that biscuit comes from the French meaning twice cooked, I surmise that is what makes them as hard and salty as an old seadog. Cookies are soft and sweet like all the best women. Perhaps Americans are more into comfort food than the British. While on military manoevres in the 1950s, our allies would not leave camp without supplies of cola and icecream. We, Brits, grumbled along on hard tack.

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  16. My favourite UK/US vocabulary distinction is: self-raising flour (UK) and self-rising flour (US). (Don't guarantee the hyphens are right) I have long pondered over which might be grammatically sounder, and concluded that you could make a case for either. Clearly British flour raises itself. But consider a moment the Russian for a kettle is a samovar, which doesn't boil itself, rather it boils by itself, so Yankee flour could therefore rise on its own. Your thoughts please, Inky.

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    1. I am always amazed by the way Russians use the same word for kettle (used to boil the water on the stove) and teapot (that which contains the tea and is put on the table). As the former only contains water surely чайник can only apply to the latter. As to самовар surely this cann only be translated as samovar - as it is not a kettle in the English sense of the word.

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  17. As an Aussie reader of novels I was always curious about graham crackers. They appear in many American novels. To me a cracker is something often taken with cheese or something savoury but I understand a graham cracker is a very plain, sweet biscuit. Anyone clear on this?

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    1. They're nearly always bought, not made, but recipes do exist that might help you get an image. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/graham-crackers-recipe/index.html is one. It's perhaps most closely related to a molasses (treacle) sort of biscuit but very bland....

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  18. Another well-populated area of linguistic divergence between Brit & Yank English, perhaps poorly represented in your American friend's tome due to its emergence in a more decorous era, is that of sex. Filling the bill of an activity more often engaged in than spoken of (we hope) is the practice of boinking. um, rodgering. But had you brought that up at the time you would quite probably have been given a slap on the fanny and offered a ride to the airport.

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    1. Er, I believe "fanny" is another one of those words which means something entirely different, depending on which side of the Pond you're on. In the U.S., it's everyday slang for your backside; in Brit English, I've been told it's something rather ruder.

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  19. I was happily wearing cheesecloth in 1970s Cambridge (Cambs) and also use the words bathrobe, business suits and corn starch regularly...Does that make me American?

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    1. Americans would not wear clothing made of cheesecloth -- the weave is far too loose for that. Cheesecloth is almost exclusively used in cooking and crafts, as a means of straining solids out of liquids.

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