“Saviour” and “Nappies”

Now there’s a combination you don’t normally see, but they are, or at least seem to be, favorites of Amy Bishop, the American woman convicted of murdering three of her colleagues at the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 2010. Patrick Radden Keefe recently published a long article about her case in the New Yorker, and in it a line of dialogue spoken by a “pompous scientist” in one of Bishop’s unpublished novels:

“And you want to change nappies, wipe snotty noses, and shovel green glop into a baby’s mouth like any fat, stupid Hausfrau?”

If you are unfamiliar with the term and the context clues are insufficient, nappy is British for diaper. I don’t know if the pompous scientist is supposed to be British, but I can affirm that nappy has virtually never been used anywhere else in the U.S., even among the hipsters of deepest Williamsburg.

Elsewhere in the article, in discussing Bishop’s religious feelings, Keefe writes: “Amy told me she accepts Christ as her Saviour, and she has been reading the Bible in prison.”

The most common U.S. spelling is savior and has been since the 1930s. In the Google Ngram chart below, the green line is British use of saviour, red is U.S. saviour (note the NOOB uptick on the right), yellow is U.S. savior, and blue is British savior.

Screen Shot 2013-02-20 at 3.07.50 PM

Despite the recent NOOB uptick in U.S. saviour, the u-less version is very much the standard here. The New York Times Style Guide mandates Savior in religious contexts, savior in secular ones (such as “the new goalie will be the savior of the hockey team”). The Associated Press Style Guide (followed by most U.S. newspapers) calls for lower-casing both. The New Yorker, true to its idiosyncratic self, calls for hockey saviors and a Christian Saviour. 

The nappy may be Amy Bishop’s; Saviour is very much the New Yorker’s.

17 thoughts on ““Saviour” and “Nappies”

  1. Check out the Downton Abbey episode in series 3 in which the Dowager Duchess Violet has a plate of food dropped on her and into her lap by a new, young footman. Annoyed by the attendant fuss, she sharply admonishes the servants to bring her a new napkin. We know better, don’t we? The only word she would have used in requesting new table linen would have been serviette. In the ’70s my daughter, on a school trip to England, watched a confused attendant in a chemist’s shop scramble to produce a package of feminine sanitary supplies upon having been asked for napkins.

    Best, Jane Erb

    Sent from my iPad

    1. “Serviette”/”Napkin” is supposed to be one of the “U”/”Non U” markers.

      The upper classes supposedly use “Napkin”; the aspiring middle classes “Serviette”. So I think “Downton Abbey” got it right.

    2. dw is quite correct. The Dowager Duchess is no more likely to request a serviette than have baked beans with her meal.

  2. Is nappy British for diaper, or is it diaper that is American for nappy? What I mean is that (admittedly mostly from watching TV) I’ve never seen “diaper” being used outside US. I think the whole English-speaking world outside US uses nappy?

    1. The OED’s second definition of “diaper” is: “A towel, napkin, or cloth of this material [that is, the linen known as “diaper”]; a baby’s napkin or ‘clout’.” It offers three citations:

      a1616 Shakespeare Taming of Shrew (1623) Induct. i. 55 Let one attend him with a siluer Bason Full of Rose-water, and bestrew’d with Flowers, Another beare the Ewer: the third a Diaper.
      1837 H. Martineau Society in Amer. II. 245 Table and bed~linen, diapers, blankets.
      1879 J. M. Duncan Clin. Lect. Dis. Women iii. 31 You cannot judge of these discharges when dried on a diaper.

      First citation for “napkin” in this context is 1842 (in a letter by none other than Charles Darwin) and for “nappy” this from 1927: “Mothers and nurses use pseudo-infantile forms like pinny (pinafore), nappy (napkin).”

  3. dw is correct: I grew up with serviette, and only learned in late teen-age that the upper crust use napkin. (Which I now use, class-traitor that I am!)

    1. True or not, there is a persistent story about a former Duke of Devonshire who, seeing some silver napkin rings in Asprey’s, asked his companion what they were for.

      ‘Your grace, in some households they roll napkins inside these rings so that they can be used for a subsequent meal, rather than being laundered every time.’

      ‘Good heavens’ said the Duke ‘I never knew such poverty existed in England.’

  4. When the american funk band WAR recorded a song called ‘Nappy Head’ – what was that about? Listening to it suburban London I pictured some kind of headwear, like a variation on the rasta’s tea-cosy hat.

    1. ‘Nappy head’ refers to very frizzy hair that tangles easily and is difficult to comb. The term is mostly used by Black Americans.

      1. Nappy, in this case, being related to the idea of the “nap” of cloth, rather than deriving from any sense of napkin.

        The nap being the way in which some cloth, when stroked, feels smooth in one direction but rough in the other.

  5. Just saw an American cartoon on Netflix called Disenchantment (Matt Groening’s next thing after The Simpsons). Season 1 Episode 5 – he refers to it as a “nappy”.

  6. Nappy is, most certainly, the British word for diaper, and is in almost universal usage there. I have never heard the diaper used in the UK.

  7. I have absolutely no proof for this hypothesis*, but I suspect that the original description may have been, “diaper-work(ed) napkin” or something similar because old napkins, or any scrap cloth, would have been used for babies’ nether garments.

    If you have a poke around using your favourite search engine you’ll find lots of examples of diaper work, commonly diamond patterns in brickwork, but the term is / can be applied to any repeating pattern applied to or incorporated into a surface.

    *Wild and unsupported speculation is perhaps a more accurate description. 🙂

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