Two Almost Physicists With Almost Something To Say

Two Seconds Hate: Britishisms


When I’m at a loss for stuff to write about, I should just crank out these diatribes. I never have trouble coming up with them, but I worry about transforming this blog into one whose format is just complaining about inaccurate use of phrases like “beg the question” or “the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”

I don’t hate British slang. This isn’t a general complaint about UK-sian/Irish/Sometimes-Australian language differences. It isn’t stupid or bad that they use words differently, have colloquialisms that we don’t, or even that they spell words differently (though it’s dumb how vehemently they seem to believe it is important that color be spelled with a ‘u’). This is a complaint about some specific, annoying, obviously wrong ones.

I watch a lot of British shows, particularly comedy, (despite their stupid insistence that a season of a show should only be 6 episodes long and that a ‘season’ should be called a ‘series’) and I’m even fond of some radio things from over there, like Ricky Gervais’s XFM program that introduced the world to Karl Pilkington, Stephen Merchant’s late unlamented 6Music show, podcasts like The Bugle, Infinite Monkey Cage, and that kind of thing. It’s nice to listen or watch stuff that’s a little different (but not too different, because that would be scary). The point is that I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to how them people talk over there. But still, there are some things that make me cringe every time I hear them:

  • Drink Driving — instead of ‘drunk driving.’ This makes no sense. ‘Drunk’ describes the person’s state when they are doing the driving. Theirs is two verbs next to each other. Or at best, a noun and then a verb. But when we (both) use noun-verb pairs, the noun is the thing being acted on or used. Like ‘lawn mowing,’ ‘bar hopping,’ or ‘bird watching.’ (And I mean ‘use’ in the sense that that object is the fundamental part of what’s being done). ‘Drink driving’ is like saying ‘get drink’ instead of ‘get drunk.’ Obviously, no one would say that, unless they were really drink.
  • Fancy Dress — to mean ‘in costume.’ This is the term for any kind of costume, and ‘fancy dress party’ means costume party. This is simply misleading. Costumes are not necessarily fancy. And what if you’re trying to throw a party where people are supposed to dress like rich old fashioned people, and everyone shows up dressed like characters from Battlestar Galactica instead?
  • Middle Class — The way we use ‘Upper class.’ It seems like Upper Class over there is sort of reserved for nobility, permanently wealthy and otherwise super-fancy people (but not ‘fancy’ in the sense of ‘dressed like clowns or werewolves or whatever’). While more conventionally rich and refined people are called middle-class. This is very strange, and I can’t get used to how they sneeringly refer to well-off twits as ‘middle-class’. I realize this sort of implies that I am calling for more of a distinction between poor and working-class people, but whatever, it’s strange to say that those in the upper portion of society are in the middle.
  • Public School — this means ‘private school.’ So they’ve essentially just chosen the opposite. This originates from the desire to distinguish between those who were educated on their vast estates by tutors, ‘privately’ and those who studied with others at a fancy boarding school, which was ‘public’ by comparison. I suppose nobody else went to school back then so it didn’t matter. Thus, in both England and America, Middle class kids usually go to public school…but those mean different things.
  • Maths instead of ‘math.’ This is due to different ways of abbreviating ‘mathematics’—they kept the ‘s’ and we didn’t. Presumably we decided that it was silly to drop the rest of the word but then keep the last letter, while they decided it was a plural ‘thing’ so they kept it. You can find both ways abbreviating in English so it is hard to make a case that either is superior. Sean Carroll covered it recently and came down on the American side (this stuff is much like the DH debate, it usually depends if you’re an AL or NL fan). In his words: “’Physics’ is just a word with an ‘s’ at the end, not an abbreviation. ‘Econ’ is an abbreviation for a singular concept, and doesn’t get an ‘s.’ ‘Stats’ is an abbreviation for a plural concept, and gets an ‘s.’ Because ‘mathematics’ is not the plural of ‘mathematic,’ there’s no reason for its abbreviation to retain the vestigal ‘s.'”
    It’s hard not to agree with this logic.
  • Dating System (21/12/12 instead of 12/21/12). This, in addition to looking stupid and illogical, is stupid and illogical. There was a graphic circulating around the internets recently, that purported to make the opposite point, while throwing in some other things like Fahrenheit vs Celsius. The little triangle they made (and basically everything else about that chart) illustrates only that they have never heard the phrase ‘begging the question’ (at least not in the sense that it means ‘tautology’). How far does this go then? Should clocks then go Seconds:Minutes:Hours? The point is that we really should be going Year:Month:Day: Hour:Min:Sec (as we do in most programming, and certainly in astronomical applications), but since we don’t always need to write the year, it’s the afterthought. Month is more important, so it comes first, and our system isn’t “arbitrary”—you only need to learn either one once.*
  • Cuppa — for ‘cup of tea.’ This is nails on a chalkboard. It’s an abbreviation that ends with an ‘of.’ Arrrgghgh!
  • Fag — for cigarette. C’mon people, not cool. I mean obviously it has a prior meaning that has nothing to do with the slur, but well, being uncomfortable with it is just a reflex.
  • Pronouncing lieutenant as ‘leftenant’ — I don’t know how they justify this— and I don’t want to know.

Americans make a big deal out of a lot of other stuff that is simply word choice differences, but that stuff is just random. I’m annoyed at Brits who think petrol is more correct than gas, or that jail should be spelled gaol. But that’s just pointless cultural hubris. Calling dinner tea is a bit ridiculous, but whatever, metonymy.

*The other stuff on there is kind of stupid too. Despite being pretty into science, as I am, unless you’re doing a ton of conversions, it doesn’t much matter which units you have in your daily life. And, in fact, for some things, the non-SI units are better. Celsius temperature differences are great for chemistry, but that system is ‘arbitrary’ as well: it’s based on water. Kelvin is the one that isn’t arbitrary in this sense, but we don’t use it because we’d always be using three digit temperatures where only significant, memorable, number is at 0° for a temp that has physical significance but no meaning in daily life. 0°-100° Fahrenheit is at least a range that roughly spans the temperatures you will actually encounter in habitable parts of Earth. In Celsius, most of the livable outdoor temperatures are within like 40 degrees of each other, and the variation between a crisp autumn day and a gusty winter one is like 5°. Pounds and ounces are arbitrary too, but unless you’re doing conversions, it’s not a big deal. Units aren’t more or less logical than each other, what matters most is what you’re using them for.


Author: (Ryan) Michney

Dread Astronomer

4 thoughts on “Two Seconds Hate: Britishisms

  1. Interesting post, as a British person. To pick up on some points

    > I can certainly agree on “math”, I don’t know why it gets the S either. Fair point on that

    > Actually there’s a logic in the date system we use here. In Britain we idiomatically state the date as (for example) “fifth of April, twenty-thirteen”. Therefore our numerical representation merely relfects that, to wit 05/04/2013; thus pragmatic, rather than stupid, I’d say.

    > Upper-class in Britain, are those born into money, the gentry, aristoracy. The middle-class have earned their way into money, are defined by their profession. Certain professions are traditionally working class, some are middle-class; ironically the former can often earn more than the latter, these days.

    > Fag still means cigarette in Britain, the homophobic meaning isn’t used in Britain. If the Americans choose to give it an entirely different and pejorative meaning, it doesn’t make the British “dickheads” (and that term in turn, is better applied to those who make arrogant comments)

    > When “fancy dress” invites are issued in Britain, a theme is specified on the invite (if it wasn’t, you ask). So if you had a FDP in Britain, and wanted folk to turn up as characters from Battleship Galatica, then you specific that on the invite (it’s what we mere mortals call common sense)

    > The spelling “gaol” is very much archaic in Britain; the spelling “jail” is universal, I’ve never seen “gaol” in contemporary publications in my lifetime (and I work for the Ministry of Justice!). I think it would only be “stupid”, as you like to say, to get annoyed by something that few (if any) Brits do.

    > “Cup of” is pronounced “cuppa” in most British accents; the spelling is a droll relfection of that. Keep listening to/watching British comedy, you’ll get the idea soon enough.

    > Because of the smaller budgets in British television, we don’t have so many episodes in a “season”. Thus would be even more risible to call a series a season, since few weeks is not a few months (after all a season in the literal sense is three months).

    Series is a legitmate description, because a series can be any number of objects or events arranged or coming one after the other in succession. A number of episodes shown at the same time one week after the other fits that description, whether there are six or sixty.

    > “Public school” is rarely used now, olf-fashioned term. Fee-paying schools are now usually termed “private schools”. No wonder you’re confused.

    > The pronunciation of “lieutant” comes from the Old French way of saying it, since it’s loan from Old French. For the same reason you say “fiance(e)” and “double entendre” the way you do.

    > I concede that Celsius has bigger intervals than Fahrenheit, however there’s nothing stopping us from subdividing Celsius. Even 0.5C notches will give 200 intervals between freezing and boiling point of water (comparable with 180 whole deg F intervals)

    The reason why F was dropped in many places, was because the way the F scale was calibrated. Confer this article:

    100C can be encountered in a habitable parts of the planet; in your house in fact, unless you don’t boil water in your kitchen.

    > The term “drunk driving” is actually frequently used in Britain.

    As for “drink-driving”, again there is a rationale: You’re have a alcohol drink, then you’re commiting crime by the driving.; truncate that, and you have “drink-driving”. Or you drink, then one is driving; the latter is the present particple, because that is when the crime committed.

    The fact you’re thinking in terms of noun+noun, verb+verb is why it makes no sense to you– because “drink-driving” is neither of those combinations– it’s a actually gerund– by virtue of the hyphen in the phrase (which I note you omitted).

    I concede I am not a ultra-talented physicist or scientist; but I have enough nouse to appreciate that language isn’t always logical, nor does it have to be: Which why we allow for metahpor, hyperbole, litotes, meiosis, similie, irony and idiom in language

    Afterall: If you chop down a tree, then chop it up– you don’t end up where you started… do you? ;-)

  2. PS: We don’t calling it “bar hopping” in Britain. That, now especially considering your bird watching/lawn mowing analogy, would imply somebody jumping (in one-legged fashion) on an public house’s service area.

    There’s the term pub-crawl. To pre-empt any annoyance you may have with that term, I would point out its a humorous allusion to the ambulatory characteristics of a person who has visited and ‘enjoyed’ several, ney a series, of pubs in one night.

  3. Thanks for your comments, David. I’ll take most of your points, and for some of these, where the difference is a fairly arbitrary one (like the date system, or maths v. math), it’s mostly the idea that one is superior. Of course, Americans are almost always obliviously certain that the way we do things is superior, so it’s just hard to watch someone else do it to us ;-). I should also be clear that my reaction to these is knowingly irrational, so when I say they were “annoying, [and] obviously wrong” I was using the dry ironic voice I picked up from listening to your funny people.

  4. Good evening Ryan,

    Many thanks for your feedback, much appreciated :-)

    I concur with your sentiment about one system being ‘superior’ to the other– it’s just a different way of doing things. A wrench is no better than spanner, a zucchini is no more superior to a courgette. A rose is a rose, a dozen is twelve.

    I think what many British people object is not Americanisms per se, but that they are infiltrating British speech. From your post, it’s guess it’s vice versa over the pond: I get the impression you have no problem with Britishisms per se, however you don’t like them infiltrating American culture.

    And that’s fair enough. I think that is brilliant that across the Anglosphere we have these variations in language, part of life’s rich tapestry; thus Britishism should stay with the UK, and Americanism remain in the USA. Alright it might be a bit of inconvenience with translation or conversion either way (personally I think it’s fun)– but I’d say that’s better than bland conformity for uniformity’s sake.

    I can see the rationale of your arguments, I can understand the ‘bafflement’ at our British terms; because if you take those idioms from British culture and transpose them into American culture, it’s taking a fish out water (and out onto the wrong side of the Atlantic): Hence the confusion with the use of middle-class, dd/mm/yyyy and cuppa. One needs an acquaintance with our class-system, date system and our accents, to appreciate them. The opposite is true over here: Phrases such as “touching base”, “left-field”, “softball” and “rain-check” just sound stupid (!) to us, because we don’t have baseball here. Given that baseball is widly popular in the USA, those idioms will make perfect sense to you, fair dos.

    I had suspected a deft line in a dry ironic voice on your part. Although the cogent parts of my last post were serious, my tongue was never far from cheek either :-) It’s been nice talking to you– in a metaphoric way of course!

    Regards David

    One final point I missed off my last post: The gap between a crisp autumn day and gusty winter one, would more like gap of around ten degrees Celsius– rather than five– or at least it is round my way. A gusty winter day in the middle winter here would be about -3C, whereas a crisp autumn day would be 7C.

    Hmmm… I note you use “autumn” too– isn’t that a Britishism [haha]? Well not that British actually, it’s Latin (via French). I do rather like the American term “fall”– has a nice poetic touch feel to it.

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