Category Archives: language

Maybe I just got out of bed the wrong side this morning?

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of labels, it has to be said. Not the ones that come inside your underwear, although frankly I think I speak for us all when I say that it can be rather annoying when they get caught in your netherlands when you least expect it. But grouping people into one amorphous mass because it’s just kind of easier to say “crazy” rather than “that woman with the collection of frogs perched on her head” just doesn’t really work for me.

I’ve attracted a few labels in my time. The current favourite for the kids (The Little One mercifully excepted, although possibly only because of her inability to form understandable words at this point) is ‘fat’. Seemingly a little harsh, but hopefully nothing that a month of not drinking alcohol won’t sort out. That said, my tag as ‘gadget geek’ is probably well-deserved, although if I continue to purchase with the pace I’ve been keeping up over the last five years, the next label I’ll no doubt be acquiring will be ‘vagrant’ thanks to The Special One kicking me out on the street.

It doesn’t even have to be me that’s being labelled in order for me to get annoyed. A few times over the last three months, one relatively distant acquaintance has consistently referred to The Special One as ‘mommy’ eg How’s mommy? Is mommy sleeping well? What are mommy’s plans for going back to work? It’s all I can do to stop my fingers slamming the keys through the keyboard in fury as I reply. After all:

a) Do you think that using the word ‘mommy’ with me is ever going to induce joy in my soul?
b) You are a grown adult with a good education, do you really have to talk like a five year old?
c) My wife has a sodding name, you know.
d) I’m pretty sure that if she defined herself by anything, The Special One would be likely to use ‘world champion cumberland sausage eater’ rather than ‘mommy’. I appreciate that she’s had three kids and that they’re a hugely important part of her life, but she also peed the bed three times when she was young and she doesn’t expect people to refer to as ‘legendary bedwetter’.

But the label I least like being used to describe me is ‘expat’.

The problem is not so much with being away from my homeland, although that in itself brings its own problems such as missing friends and family. But does the tag that comes with leaving your own country really have to be quite so negative sounding?

a) It defines me by where I used to be, rather than where I am now. I went to Rhyl when I was a kid, so should I have been referring to myself as ‘ex-Rhyl visitor’ for all these years?
b) There’s an implicit assumption that I cannot truly be happy until I am returned from whence I came. I mean, most nights I do look out of the window and watch the rain pour down as I dream wistfully of black pudding, but even I smile sometimes.
c) Is it just me, or does it somehow suggest that I was thrown out of my own country, possibly for my role in the Great Train Robbery?

My biggest problem though is that I’ve seen too many TV shows featuring British expats in Spain. And frankly, I don’t like the idea of being lumped in with some over-tanned tracksuit-wearing former hairdressers from Bermondsey whose idea of having exotic food is having tinned tomatoes with their egg and chips. Call me a snob if you like, but my idea of exploring the world is not ‘drinking halves of mild in Ye Olde Red Lion just outside Torremolinos’.

Essentially, ‘expat’ has become too much of a catch-all for anyone living away from their home country. Reluctantly accepting that the world would fall apart without collective nouns, I think we need a wholly new label rather than attempting to reclaim ‘expat’ as a proud tag for adventurous world citizens.

But what to call people who have no vote, a permanent look of confusion, and who regard ‘wherever in the world we happen to be’ as their true home?

“Disenfranchised befuddled turtles” just isn’t going to cut it, is it?

Keeping mum

When you tell people that you’re going to become a father for the first time (or in my case, a father to a baby for the first time, given the presence of The Young Ones), you suddenly find yourself playing a game of Baby Bingo. As the well-meaning person you’re talking to rattles off platitudes with the staccato regularity of a machine gun, you can chuckle (or over dramatically fake abject terror) like it’s the first time you heard them, and surreptitiously tick each one off your list. Once you reach ten, you scream “Baby Bingo!” and run out of the room with your arms flailing above your head, before returning exhausted two minutes later to breathlessly wheeze “I’m a Baby Bingo winner and I hereby claim my five poundsdollars!”

Some of the bingo boxes are more easy to get than others, of course. “When is she due?” is practically checked before your conversational cohort has opened his or her mouth. I’ve become accustomed to answering “Are you having a boy or a girl? ” with “I certainly hope so!” such is the frequency of its use. And if I had a dollar for every time somebody said “Better catch up on your sleep now!” I’d be a rich man (although not rich enough to pay for even half the paraphernalia you seem to need to deal with the consequences of a steamy night nine months previously).

Other phrases come with perhaps less regularity, although still maintaining a frequency that would be the envy of the New York subway system if translated to trains. “Everything changes as soon as you take the first look at the baby” is a current favourite, while “Have you ever changed a nappydiaper before?” also seems to be a popular one right now. And don’t get me started on the number of differnt variations that people find in order to say “your life is about to come to an end”.

Having had so many questions and comments (solicited or otherwise) I thought I was ready for everything. Until I realiszed that my child is going to be born an American, and is therefore going to say ‘mom’ rather than ‘mum’. And frankly that put a bit of a dampener on my day.

Most Americaniszations I can deal with, to be honest, and I’ve learned to translate in my head before opening my mouth. But the moment I say ‘mom’ or ‘mommy’ will be a cold day in hell.

‘Mom’ just seems as uniquely American as peanut butter and ‘jelly’ sandwiches, or waterboarding suspected terrorists. I’ve already had to accept that the child might grow up to think that Hershey’s is an acceptable form of chocolate, or that there really is any point in (American) football. But there are some boundaries that really can’t be crossed. And that starts with ‘mom’. I’m British and proud of it, and I simply won’t give in to this slow and insidious creeping Yankification.

Now, enough of this chat – I’m off to have a bagel. Have a nice day y’all.

Losing my voice

It’s probably fair to say that my greatest fear as an expat is losing my accent. Not that my accent is anything to get excited about, or a strange dialect that only three people in the world speak. But the idea of waking up one morning with a strange mid-Atlantic twang is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.

A Brit Out Of Water Sr was in the city last week, and fortunately it appears that my distinctive Britishness is still firmly intact. I say ‘fortunately’ as otherwise he would probably have spent four days shaking his head and muttering something along the lines of “I used to have a son” under his breath. Being able to explain the nuances of baseball while sitting in a bar watching the Yankees play the Mets is a healthy sign of assimilation; using words such as ‘geez’ or ‘awesome’ without the faintest sense of tongue in cheek irony is a step too far.

As I may have mentioned before though, my ability to spot the American accent is fading, as I slowly get used to a new sense of normality. A couple of times in the last few weeks, I’ve had to ask The Special One whether a particular actor on screen is American. In retrospect, the fact that they were wearing a big stars and stripes T-shirt, carrying a rolled-up copy of the constitution, and sitting underneath a pink neon sign that said “For the avoidance of doubt, I am an American” should have been a bit of a giveaway. But now the American accent is the norm, and it’s the exceptions I’m more reaily able to identify.

After yesterday though, I’m worried that my British friends and family may be humouring me about my accent. Perhaps I’m turning to the dark side after all, and everybody’s too polite to say anything?

Sitting in training in the office, I realiszed that the trainer was British, and while we waited for the rest of the attendees to turn up, I engaged her in conversation for a few minutes about various things. Not quite able to place her accent exactly, I asked where she was from.

“I’m from a place called Nottingham,” she said. “You know, Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood and Maid Marian? It’s in the centre of England.”

I managed to stem my tears, you’ll be pleased to know, although it was almost too much when she looked at me as she told delegates to let her know if any of her British-isms were confusing.

Maybe I am subconsciously a language chameleon, who takes on the speaking style of all those around him? An ability to blend in could admittedly be useful if I ever launch a new career as a conman.

That said, it doesn’t augur well for forthcoming trips to Tennessee and Newcastle…

A nasty infestation of Brits

On my occasional trips back to the UK, there’s always one statement of presumed immutable fact that practically every person makes when they find that I live and work in New York. No, not “you must see movie stars on the streets everyday.” And not even “planes land in the river there, don’t they?” No, the one thing that appears to have become an indisputable truth is “oh they must love your English accent over there.”

Now, I wouldn’t say that I have the classic English tones of an upper class brat. I was brought up in the North-West after all, and the idea of saying something like “gr-arse” for that green stuff that you have a picnic on goes against everything I stand for. Nonetheless, nobody would ever have any trouble guessing where I was from. Well, apart from those Americans who have presumed I was Australian or Canadian, obviously.

But however English I may be (and to be honest, I’d rather be considered Welsh, but that’s another story), nobody really pays a tiny bit of attention to my accent anymore. Put simply, there are just too many Brits in New York. Once upon a time, on my first trips to the city to see The Matchmakers, my accent could turn heads, stop traffic and probably cure cancer. Now every fifth person you meet seems to be from ‘the old country’, and the novelty has definitely worn off for Brit-weary New Yorkers.

The general American attitude to Brits is not helped by the phenomenal success of our actors in blockbuster Hollywood movies. No gritty movie about disaster or the Holocaust is complete without Kate Winslet, and if you’re a producer in need a strong older woman to kick some scrawny American arseass, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you couldn’t get hold of the phone numbers for one of the damely duo, Dench or Mirren.

And then there’s the men. There is a requirement under American law that all action or superhero movies feature at least one British male, preferably in a lead role. If they can play the evil enemy, all the better. It’s a ruling that’s kept Jeremy Irons in Veuve Clicquot for many a year, I can tell you.

Like most women, it would appear, The Special One is particularly taken with swarthy British actors. She became particularly animated at Christmas during a discussion of the merits of Clive Owen, and had to be reminded of her own relationship status when bitterly rueing the fact that he appears to be “very married, sadly.”

And don’t even get me started on Daniel Craig. It’s one thing having a wife who has a soft spot for certain movie stars, but it’s a whole different story when you slowly realise that you are only your life partner’s second favourite person to come from your own home city.

Such is the omnipresence of British actors in movies these days that Americans have started claiming the British as their own. It’s a time honoured process that began with Cary Grant, and continues to this day. Even in my own house.

While watching The Dark Knight this weekend, The Special One and The Young Ones refused to believe that Christian Bale was British, necessitating much grumbling on my part and an eventual trip to Bale’s Wikipedia page.

Turns out that the crowd-sourced opinion of Wikipedia is that Christian Bale is a “Welsh-born English actor.” We Brits may be everywhere these days, our accents may count for little, and even our love of fish and chips doesn’t mark us out as special. But never let it be said that Americans are any closer to understanding a single thing about our geography, alright?

It’s only words, and words are all I have

The human brain is a wonderful thing, but let’s face it, on occasions it chooses the path of least resistance. This is particularly true when it comes to language. I think the average human vocabulary consists of around 20,000 or so ‘word families’ (meaning that The Special One’s extensive and expertly-curated collection of F-bombs sadly only counts as one), but that doesn’t mean that we don’t just use the same old words over and over again.

I’m no less guilty of this than anyone, obviously. While I might use any number of words to describe the melancholic beauty and wonder of, say, Odilon Redon’s symbolist art, you can pretty much guarantee that I will instead resort to ‘brilliant’ or – if I’m feeling particularly retro – ‘fab’. And while studying the history of international politics and diplomacy at university has helped give me enough of an understanding of the situation in Gaza or Afghanistan to comment relatively sensibly, I still occasionally hear myself say something like ‘yeah, it’s pretty bad, isn’t it?’

Of course, I still lob random multi-syllable words into speech with the speed and regularity of the Rafael Nadal forehand. But whether it’s my move to America or an indictment of global society, I think there’s a definite dumbing down of language going on all around us. Syllables don’t fit into the text speak world, it seems. To be fair, nor do ‘words that make any sense’ when it comes to The Special One, given that she’s still a text novice. But beautiful words previously in relatively common parlance are sadly disappearing faster than Rod Blagojevich’s credibility. After all, why use ‘diaphanous’ when you can say ‘hazy’, ‘effervescent’ when you can use ‘fizzy’ or ‘flabbergasted’ when you can write ‘OMG!!!! LOL!!!! ROFLMAO!!!!!!’

To be fair, there are plenty of examples of people keeping the flame of great words alive. I almost fell off my chair yesterday when one of my Facebook friends used the word ‘portmanteau’ in a status update. But on the whole it seems that if things continue the way they’re going, 2015 will be the first point in our history that man used less words than the number of the year.

One thing you can guarantee in America at least is that one of the last words to be eradicated will be ‘retard’. Rarely have I heard a word so overused or so misplaced. From The Eldest berating The Youngest because of a silly word-slip, or a commuter castigating a fellow traveller because he happened to get in her way, ‘retard’ is used more commonly than ‘coffee’ in New York. Not as much as ‘asshole’, obviously. But way more than ‘please’.

The sooner President Obama outlaws the use of the word, the better. It’s not like he’s got anything else to do, is it?

The curious incident of the missing letter

Anybody who knows The Special One will be well aware that she has an ill-disguised competitive side. Whether she’s playing a game of charades or just tossing a coin, she hates ending up on the losing side. As a result, she has an incredibly quick learning curve which, for example, has allowed her to win cash in poker games on three of the four occasions I’ve ever played with her. Some people would call it beginner’s luck, but I’d call it an abject refusal to be beaten. And woe betide anybody who gets in her way.

Of course, that means that I enter into any games with her with a certain amount of trepidation. After all, it can be particularly cold if you have to spend the night on the sofa due to an inadvertent victory at Mastermind.

Nonetheless, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to play Scrabble on Saturday night. And it quickly became apparent that Americans are the laziest people on earth. Not because The Special One couldn’t be bothered to pick up her own tiles (and brought in a local schoolkid to do it for her instead), but because they drop letters from any word that they (think they) can get away with.

Clearly, I’m well aware of the American propensity to drop u’s like they’re going out of fashion, and can easily deal with a bit of color, honor or behavior. But from yoghurt to chilli, and fillet to gauge, give an American half an inch and they’ll kick any letter they can out of perfectly spelled words, just to save the 0.12 seconds it would have taken to type or write it.

The problem is particularly acute in the world of medicine and the body, with words such as anaesthetic, foetus, caesarean, calliper and oestrogen all suffering a from a cruelly dumped letter. Although to be fair, most doctors have such bad handwriting that all of these are possibly just clerical/transcription errors of the kind that only get picked up when a patient realiszes that for the last six years they’ve been taking the contraceptive pill to fight excess gas.

In many ways, the American spelling changes make a certain amount of sense. After all, who really needs the extra ‘a’ in anaesthetic? Language should, I guess, be made to fit our needs and ease, rather than being rigidly rule- or tradition-based. Although given this, it seems strange that a nation so obsessed with litigation and legal action would continue to issue anything as peculiar as a subpoena…

When you’re playing Scrabble, of course, a dropped ‘a’, ‘h’ or ‘l’ can mean the difference between a triple word score and a humiliating four pointer. Or worse, allow The Special One to fit ‘feces’ into a tight space, and romp home with 27 points and the game. Damn America and its lackadaisical approach to scatological wordsmithery.

Still, at least I got to sleep in my own bed on Saturday.

A tale of two pasties

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and never more so than in the kitchen. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve gone to cook a well-loved recipe like fish pie, only to realise that I have forgotten to buy some of the vital ingredients. Like fish, for instance. The Special One is well used to me ferreting through the fridge and freezer looking for alternative foodstuffs, and to her credit, she doesn’t bat an eyelid at my culinary creativity even when it involves the unlikeliest of combinations. In retrospect, she should probably have put her foot down when it came to ducks feet with mango, but you live and learn.

When miners in Cornwall needed an easy to handle hot food to keep them going during the long and strenuous days of extracting tin from below ground, creativity and invention gave rise to the pasty. For those who haven’t been fortunate enough to come into contact with a pasty, it’s essentially a pocket of pastry containing diced steak, onion, swederutabaga and potato. Served hot, it’s like a flat pie with a thick crimped edge which allowed miners to hold it easily without contaminating their food with their dirty hands.

Of course, when the Cornish invented the pasty, they had little idea that it would become one of the great British convenience foods of modern times, with particular appeal as an alcohol-soaking hangover food. Such is the popularity of the pasty among non-mining everyday Brits that a number of chains have emerged peddling all kinds of strictly untraditional pasties such as chicken balti, cheese and bacon, and steak and stilton. Ducks feet and mango is not yet available, but it’s only a matter of time.

The Special One and The Young Ones are particular fans of the pasty, and take any opportunity to get their hands on one when we go to the UK. Sadly, while you can apparently get a pasty-esque creation in some parts of the States (and you can buy the British version in a few very select shops), the United States is yet to embrace the pasty fully to its hearts.

Clearly I would dearly love to set up my own pasty kingdom, to convert my adopted nation to the way of the baked pastry delight. Unfortunately, I’ve got a feeling that there may be a small amount of rebranding to be done beforehand. Given that in this country the word ‘pasty’ apparently describes the adhesive device used to cover a stripper’s nipples, I’m not sure that the folk who wouldn’t mind a pasty in their mouth are the kind of people I want to call customers.

We even have electricity

I know that it feels like America has been living in the dark ages for a while, and that Tuesday evening saw the re-emergence of this country as a respected player on the world stage. But it wasn’t until I went home to the UK this weekend that I realised just how far some people believe the United States has slipped behind.

Having questioned me at length about different British and American names for certain vegetables, Little Sis furrowed her brow and asked:

“Do you have apples and pears in America?”

This country’s return from the brink can’t happen soon enough, clearly.

Problems with the trouble and strife*

They say that men and women talk different languages, but in the case of The Special One and I, that’s pretty much true. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been forced to deconstruct a sentence in order to get to the heart of what I’ve actually been trying to communicate. And that’s just when I’m saying goodbye as I leave for work.

For more complex sentences, we generally play a high-speed version of charades. Sure, that can be embarrassing when all she’s doing is asking me whether I want whipped cream on top of my Starbucks coffee, but needs must. (Incidentally for charade aficionados out there, in this case I generally opt for a mime something along the lines of ‘one word, sounds like *performs passable impression of Steve Redgrave winning Olympic gold with oar in hand in the coxless four*’)

It’s true that I use peculiarly British phrases from time to time, such as those times I’m “gagging for a beer” or “losing my rag”. On those occasions, The Special One generally just raises her eyebrows and inwardly rues the day that she ever met me. Sometimes she’ll choose to mimic my voice instead. Sadly the quality of her British impression is such that even the mighty Dick van Dyke would give her a rueful look and advise her not to give up the dayjob.

The linguistic divide between us entered a new realm yesterday when I told The Young Ones to get their stuff together and head “up the apples and pears”. The expression cast in my direction by all three of them suggested I had just asked them to kill a litter of puppies.

And so began an hour long conversation with The Special One about cockney rhyming slang, and its importance to the vocabulary of even non-Londoners.

BOOW: “What do you think frog and toad is?”

TSO: “It’s a series of children’s books that are very highly regarded. I used to read them to The Eldest all the time when he was a kid. I didn’t really use them with The Youngest though as she was more into mer…”

BOOW: “It’s cockney rhyming slang for a road. What about pork pies”

TSO: “Are they those nasty things with the jelly in?”

BOOW: “It means lies. Septic tank is Yank, Ruby Murray is curry, and dog and bone is phone.”

At that point, The Special One tutted loudly, proclaimed that the whole thing was a load of rubbish, and muttered something under her breath about the Boston Tea Party. If she owned stars and stripes pyjamas, she’d probably have put them on too.

“Besides,” she joked, “most Americans don’t even know where Cockney is.”

At least, I think she was joking…

* ‘Trouble and strife’ = wife. After this post, mine may well be slapping me in my boat race…

Getting a little too comfortable

I’ve made two horrific discoveries today*. Discoveries that make me question my very existence, and look at myself in a new, and not wholly palatable, light.

1. I read a blog today which mentioned a visit to Home Depot, shortly after I’d taken delivery of an order of stationery from Office Depot. On both occasions, I internally pronounced the word to myself as “dee-po” rather than “depp-oh”. I had to wash my mouth out with soap and water for ten minutes shortly afterwards, obviously.

2. After more than a year of ignorance, I picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated today, and pretty much understood the basic implications of every story within its pages. And it wasn’t even the swimsuit edition. College sport was happily still beyond me, but other than that I almost felt like a natural. You’ll be pleased to know that I have forced myself to watch scoreless draws between Grimsby and Shrewsbury on repeat ever since, and now feel fully reacclimatised.

* Certainly, far more horrific than discovering that David Blaine is a big ol’ cheat.