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The Back Page, part 2

By Mike Orr (Sluggo)

The Linux Laundrette, continued

Words, Words, Words

[Jason Creighton] My bad.

[Thomas Adam] I keep hearing that phrase... WHAT DOES IT MEAN??? Your 'bad' what? Foot, ankle, knee, head, eye???? Damn slang.

[Sluggo] Ooh, Thomas is getting frustrated with American slang. It's a weird phrase. I have no idea where it came from. It just appeared maybe three years ago. I don't like it.

[Thomas] Three years ago? Good God, where have I been all that time? I only started to hear it maybe within the last six months; and that's with my friends using it.

[Jimmy O'Regan] It's ebonics. It's been around a lot longer than that. It means "my fault" or "my mistake". Just wait until you get up to "fo shizzle dizzle". :)

[Ben Okopnik] <laugh> That's almost Cockney slang! Except... the thought of that accent makes my brain hurt.

[Thomas] Cos, that's just like so typical of Americans.

[Jimmy] So you have no problem deciphering all of the many regional variants of English in England? The trend started before the Americans...

[Thomas] What makes me laugh though is that there is now a distinction between English(US) and English(UK). You guys definitely have tainted? No..wrong word to use, altered/destroyed the English language.

Thomas's assertion split into several different subthreads...

[Sluggo] NOW??? It's been happening ever since Noah Webster (1758-1843) started writing 'color', 'draft', 'encyclopedia', and 'center' just to be different. But the language my parents and schools taught me was called 'English', not 'American'. Deal with it.

[Rick Moen] Without us Yanks, you POMmies would still be struggling for words to describe oregano, papaya, mesquite, barbecues, pecan, stampedes, calumet, cafeterias, and poinsettias. Not to mention jazz and the blues. What could you possibly have done without those?

[Ben] <cough> About half of the above are Spanish or American Indian. "barbacoa" is bastardized island French, I believe. My favorite example of that last being "buccaneer" - a "boucanier" was someone who used a "boucan" (Arawak/Caribe word), a smoker, to preserve meat (make jerky) for shipbord use, one of the standard things that pirates in the Caribbean did during the slow season.

[Sluggo] Is that the pirate you bought the slingshot from?

[Rick] Stem-winder, cowcatcher, rubberneck, bunkum, has-been, roughhouse -- these are all gifts that enrich our tongue. They're not just useful; the have attitude.

[Jimmy] A lot of American spellings have been adopted; gaol is archaic, for example. There are a few pages on Wikip[a]edia devoted to the topic. (And the talk pages are fairly lively; a lot of Americans have trouble accepting that "fanny" doesn't mean ass in British English). How about "arse"? It's a great general purpose word:


The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
-- James Nicoll, rasseff

Not only that, instead of the money, it escapes with the pocket lint.
-- Don Roberts

[Jimmy] Hmm. The version I saw looks like this:

Not only does the English language borrow from other languages, it sometimes chases them through dark alleys, hits them over the head, and goes through their pockets.
-- Eddy Peter

[Jimmy] And to think it only took two words to start this thread!

Jimmy whinges about American terms creeping into Irish English

[Jimmy] It annoys me sometimes, because I don't watch soap operas, and words creep into usage here.... I'm waiting for the day that Scouse is declared an official language. :) (Why not... Scots is)

[Thomas] LOL, if *that* happens, I'll emigrate to somewhere like Bolivia. Mind you, Ireland isn't without its own set of interesting little phrases. Of course, it's nothing compared to the Welsh...

[Sluggo] In Ireland, "village" = city center. "I'm going to the village to get the messages" = I'm going to the pub for a drink (and maybe I'll stop at the post office too).

[Jimmy] I've never heard any Welsh phrases.

[Sluggo] I haven't heard any Welsh phrases, but written Welsh is a trip. See attached. Misuse is "gamddefnydd"???

[Jimmy] Heh. I used to know how to say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, back in secondary school when I used to do table quizes. I can't be arsed now.

[Sluggo] What's Scouse? Is that what they speak in Trainspotting? I thought that was Scots.

[Thomas] 'Tis those people from Liverpool. Scots is a completely different dialect.

[Jimmy] ... Pejorative for Liverpudlians. Scots is recognised as being a separate language. (Which is just as well, really.)

[Rick] A lot of people, especially 'Merkins, don't realise what the term "Scots" refers to in the area of languages. It's a collateral descendent of Old English that the arriving Scottish tribes from Ireland picked up starting in the seventh century from the northern English already present in the lowlands -- picking up Anglo-Norman and Scandinavian loan-words (brae, graith, lowp, nieve) starting a few centuries later. Even later, it picked up French vocabulary (fash, ashet, leal, aumrie) and Dutch (loon, pinkie, golf, scone) through trading and political alliances. The poetry of Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, and Gavin Douglas was from this era, and is easier than Chaucer for modern readers, but still sometimes tough sledding:

  Ane cok sum tyme with feddram fresch and gay,
  Richt cant and crous, albeit he was bot pure,
  Fleu furth upon ane dunghill sone be day;
  To get his dennar set was al his cure.
  Scraipand amang the as be aventure
  He fand ane jolie jasp, richt precious,
  Wes castin furth in sweping of the hous.

Starting around the Act of Union (1603), Scots became much more anglicised, mostly through government and church efforts to weld the two countries together. Bobby Burns hails from that period:

   Poor Tammy Gage within a cage
   Was kept at Boston-ha', man;
   Till Willie Howe took o'er the knowe
   For Philadelphia, man;
   Wi' sword an' gun he thought a sin
   Guid Christian bluid to draw, man;
   But at New York, wi' knife an' fork,
   Sir-Loin he hacked sma', man. 
It also isn't the same as Scots Gaelic, a quite different third tongue.

[Jimmy] From what I'd read, there was a separate group of tribes from around Denmark who settled around Scotland, bringing a language which was similar to Anglo-Saxon, but different enough. After that, both languages followed a similar path. I think there was a slight influence of Pictish in there too.

Yeah, Scots Gaelic is descended from Old Irish, and is supposed to be closer to Old Irish than modern Irish is.

[Rick] I still can't think of any Irish phrases though. Peculiar usages, yes; words, yes; phrases, no.

[Jimmy] I suppose there's the old Oirish favourite "Go néirí an bóthair leat" (May the road rise with you).

Things take a turn toward the subjunctive

[Ben] Pshaw. Thomas, if anything, it's _you_ people that have introduced the changes; language generally stop evolving once away from their source. See "got->gotten" in current American usage, which I understand the Brits dropped a couple of centuries back.

[Sluggo] Or the lingering traces of subjunctive in English(Am):

She turned up the radio in order that he hear it better.
Which I understand English(Br) changes to:
She turned up the radio in order that he should hear it better.
[What? He "should" hear it? Since when does he have a moral obligation to hear it?]
She turned up the radio in order that he hears it.
[Possible if he does hear it, but technically incorrect because it's a goal, not a matter-of-fact statement.]

[Jimmy] In Hiberno-English [Irish English], it'd be:

"Why did she turn up the radio, you ask? Well, 'tis funny you should ask, and I'll tell you why...." etc. The story would include details on how the radio came to be purchased, what sort of weather they were having (including the inevitable complaints about the rain), why it was that she turned up the radio....

[Ben] <*blink*> I'm astounded, Jimmy. You mean it actually gets to that last part at some point?

[Jimmy] That gets mentioned in passing; why she did it, instead of him turning it up himself. All Irish stories have an end; it may not be the same ending as the last time you heard it, but they do have an end.

Sluggo tries to convince Thomas of the advantages of American spelling

[Sluggo] I know a Canadian who spells 'color' coz it's shorter. Try it. It's not that difficult to write 'draft', 'plow', 'gram' and 'check'.

[Thomas] Hehehe... *That* is lazy. 'Draught' (as in beer), 'Plough' (Horse and Cart mechanism), 'Gramme', 'Cheque'.

Of course the use of these words depends upon the context in which you are using them. One "drafts" an idea, but one does not drink a "draft", but rather a "draught". One writes a "cheque", but "checks" to make sure he has completed it.

[Sluggo] Once you get used to it, you'll never look back. The Brits should be thanking us for getting rid of those cumbersome spellings.

[Thomas] LOL. Not at all.

[Jimmy] But thanks anyway, I think I'll stick to "colour", "draught", "plough", "gramme" and "cheque". I find it comforting to know that I can trace the origin of a word through its spelling, or use it to make a reasonable guess. If you have an idea of what "exchequer" means, and don't know what a "cheque" is, you have a better chance of making a reasonable guess with British spellings.

[Sluggo] Every time I see draught (as in beer), I pronounce it 'drot'.

[Thomas] No, that is incorrect. It is pronounced "dra-aft". The fact that you're trying to pronounce it as "drot" suggests that your natural way of pronounciation is: "aught" == "rot". Hmm, *most* interesting.

[Sluggo] Yes, aught is rot. But normally I don't pronounce it at all. There was a curious article after the Millenium about what to call the 2000-09 decade. We still don't have a word for it, although I call it the "oh-OHs". But these reporters asked several grandparents what they called 1900-09, and without hesitation they said "the noughts". But "nought" is another word we don't use, preferring "none" or "nothing" instead.

[Thomas] Oh, excellent. I would say "naught" (pron: noor-t, stress on the first syllable), and I do indeed say the naught-naughts. "Oh-Ohs" to most people would either mean the letter or, umm, something associated with a sexual act, but it depends on the mind of the person to whom you are speaking to.

[Sluggo] Too bad we didn't get rid of "ph" too like Spanish and Italian did. photo -> foto

Thomas is, like, sick of 'like'

[Thomas] Golly, I am amazed by the response this thread has generated thus far. I was *only* joking about you ruining the 'English' language, I assure you. But, the response has been both interesting and enlightening. I've read each and every one of them...

But my original concept was the use of what I term 'American Slang' filtering into the 'English' language. For instance, many people now use the word 'like' as a noun:

"I was like walking, and there was like this huge like truck, with like this big flashing light....".
This is very American to me.

[Ben] Valley-girl-speak had its 15 minutes in the spotlight and died out here (leaving, or course, an inevitable residue - mainly as linguistic in-jokes, such as "fer-sure" and my own use of "yeeeew". It implies something like "here's the blonde way of saying it".)

[Sluggo] What you call American slang we call Californa slang. "like" was popularized by Moon Zappa in the song "Valley Girl" although its use goes farther back. Like, totally, it's like SO bitchin', gag me with a spoon. That's how the high-school girls in the early 80s talked, those whose major pastime consisted of shopping in the mall (Sherman Oaks Galleria) in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. Extreme use of 'like' is Valley Girl style, but moderate use of 'like' goes all over the country. 'totally' is more associated with San Francisco (cf. Amistead Maupin's Tales of the City) but is also used everywhere.

'like' is an adverb, not a noun. Many people hate it, but I think it has a genuine use. It softens things. Sometimes it's too stark or impolite to say something IS something, but if you say it LIKE IS something, it sounds softer. It also provides that needed touch of uncertainty sometimes, like "about" or "approximately".

'totally' means "really, really yes", or "I understand" in the sense of "I'm with you, brother", but sometimes it's just a substitute for "yes". It also makes the speaker sound like a surfer boy or... I don't know how to describe it, but the type of person who has a goatee and maybe was a skater in the 90s. But lots of other people say "totally" too.

When Heather was writing curdgemonly (sp?) to a clueless querent a few years ago, she said, "Dude, get a new 'tude." I said, "That must be a California expression." She said, "Yes, very California."

[Thomas] Mike, you miss the point, not to mention the fact that saying something "like is" something else goes against my idea of grammar. First, I was complaining about how the word: 'like' is being used as a connective between everyother word. However, what you have just done is to try and rationalise its existance.... Tut tut.

[Sluggo] Don't you "tut tut" me. Overuse makes it a meaningless filler word, but some people do use it carefully in the sense I described.

[Rick] It seems appropriate to cue William Safire's advice to authors:

It reminds me of a story: There's supposed to have been a college English class where the professor was holding forth on grammatical structure. He cited and discussed examples in English of double negatives -- and then claimed _no_ similar examples exist of a corresponding double-positive, whose meaning equates to a negative.

A voice rang out from the back row: "Yeah right."

[Ben] Sure, whatever you say.


picture Mike is a Contributing Editor at Linux Gazette. He has been a Linux enthusiast since 1991, a Debian user since 1995, and now Gentoo. His favorite tool for programming is Python. Non-computer interests include martial arts, wrestling, ska and oi! and ambient music, and the international language Esperanto. He's been known to listen to Dvorak, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Khachaturian too.

Copyright © 2004, Mike Orr (Sluggo). Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 102 of Linux Gazette, May 2004

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