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.