An amusing Hollywood convention has it that in movies that take place in ancient Rome, on another planet, or in any exotic place, the characters speak English with an English accent (especially if they’re bad guys). I thought of that while reading Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s New Yorker essay about a mass killing in his country. In the piece, Knausgaard quotes from a fellow Norwegian author’s book on the incident. The killer has been apprehended and asks for a cut on his finger to be “bandaged up.” A policeman replies, “You’ll get no fucking plasters from me.”

“Plaster” would be a good word for Americans to adopt, since it’s more specific than our “bandage” and involves more serious dressing than our trade name “Band-Aid.” But we don’t use it, and its presence in the essay–which was translated by an American, Kerri Pierce–struck me as the equivalent of a Martian talking like an Oxford don.

When I looked into it a little more, I realized that the situation was more complicated than I had thought. It turns out the book from which Knausgaard was quoting, Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, was translated by an English woman, Sarah Death, legitimizing the “plaster.”

I did find one proper Britishism in Pierce’s translation: the fact that one of the victims was “called” Simon.

26 thoughts on ““Plaster”

  1. “Plaster” is complicated further by the American slang usage of the word to mean drunk (e.g. “get plastered”), and the coating substance you might find on an old wall. Since Band-aids are for little cuts, and bandages or “dressings” are for bigger wounds, “plaster” seems redundant to words already in common usage in the US.

  2. You say plaster “involves more serious dressing than our trade name “Band-Aid.””

    However, as a native English (resident in England for 25 years and in the U.S. for 15), I would say that “plaster” and “band-aid” are entirely synonymous. They are self-adhesive dressings suitable for covering minor scrapes, cuts, and grazes.

    In the UK at least, plasters are associated with the childhood injuries of cut fingers and grazed knees. There’s nothing serious about a plaster.

  3. My BrE tells me a plaster/plasters as a count noun means exactly what I think you would call a Band-Aid (if that is what we would call an Elastoplast). But “arm in a plaster” type usages mean a plaster cast (although I think these are rarer now than they were) made of plaster of paris or some such. So I’m not sure it is particularly useful for you. Perhaps it would be interesting to know what an AmE speaker thinks a BrE speaker means by plaster if it’s “more serious dressing” than a Band-Aid.

  4. My idea about how serious a plaster is comes entirely from this New Yorker essay. The killer says, “This will have to be bandaged up. I’ve already lost a lot of blood.” When he claims that the blood loss “could make him pass out,” the author tells us, “sticking plasters were procured.” (I have no idea what a sticking plaster is.)

    1. A sticking plaster is now also called a plaster.

      Chambers dictionary gives as a definition of “plaster” as “a curative substance spread on linen and applied locally”, but it adds “esp. formerly”. My guess is that when manufactured applications on adhesive tape were introduced, these were called “sticking plasters” to distinguish them from the older type. Chambers defines “sticking plaster” as ” an adhesive plaster for covering wounds”. But this term is itself somewhat old fashioned, and we now call them just plasters.

      And, just as “Band-Aid” is a trade name, we commonly call plasters Elastoplasts after another trade name.

      1. I, too, have heard of a “sticking plaster”, but does a “fucking plaster”, to which the policeman refers, serve a different purpose?

  5. As a native Brit, I second what lastyear1 said. Plaster and Band-Aid are the same, but broken bones get put in plaster too. A ‘sticking plaster’ is just a Band-Aid (sticking in the adhesive sense, i.e. it ‘sticks’ to the body.)

    Not sure what’s going on in the New Yorker essay. All I can say is that I wouldn’t want that person giving me First Aid!

  6. Northern European literature and TV tends to be translated/subtitled into BrE by UK publishers and TV stations before it gets picked up in the US, which is an interesting complicating factor here – for me it jars when Scandinavian or German characters speak in AmE, in a way that isn’t the case for Japanese or Latin American characters.

  7. BrE perspective: a (sticking) plaster is what AmE calls a Band-Aid. A “plaster cast” is what you use on a broken limb. A “bandage” would be a covering on a wound held in place with linen dressing tied around the limb. In the quote from the book the response clearly means the first of these.

  8. In this case there’s also an issue translation practice involved. The Norwegian word for Band-Aid or bandage is plaster (related to the German Pflaster), mirroring its English (especially British) equivalent. So assuming this was the world used in the original Norwegian as seem most likely, it’s easy to imagine the translator opting for the most exact English equivalent word for a combination of reasons, perhaps for phonetic consistency for example, but also for all the reasons you cited concerning genre and situational convention.

  9. It would sound very old-fashioned to call the thing which Americans call a “Band-Aid” a “sticking plaster” (rather than just a “plaster”), though I agree that they are synonymous (no plaster is going to save you from exsanguinating). However, “sticking plaster” is also (and still) used figuratively to mean a solution to a problem (often a political one) which is temporary and inadequate.

  10. I thought in the UK we made a difference between plaster and sticking plaster, Plaster is used for a broken limb and sticking plaster for a minor cut or scrape.In Scotland ‘ stuccy’ is the other word for plaster from the italian ‘stucco’ meaning plaster. Sorry, I’m slightly off subject but its just in case you get ‘plastered’ in Scotland and you end up in hospital and have no interpreter to hand

    1. That’s not true in my part of the UK (per my post above).

      A plaster [cast] is for a broken limb and a [sticking] plaster is for a cut, but when the associated word is omitted there’s sometimes ambiguity.

      Often the ambiguity can be resolved from the context – you might put something “in” a plaster [cast] but you would put a (sticking) plaster “on” a cut.

  11. Is it wrong that many of these titled ‘Britishisms’ iritate and anger me? I don’t mean disrespect in the slightest, but many of these words, like ‘cheeky’ or phrases such as ‘pop on’, have the seeming abbility to aggravate me by the way you are catagorizing them. Many kids in American are growing up with these words and pnrases being part of their vocabulary, I’ll say over text to my friends that they should pop on over, I’ve done this since I could actually invite people over to our house without my parents going mad.
    Ginger? It was my friends name, we used to joke that she was slightly ginger and that she was named Ginger, it quickly became part of all my peers vocabulary and language.
    And the other things such as ‘gap year’, ‘proper’, or even ‘easy peasy’ are blended into the language of my parents.
    Maybe it was because of my mom learning how to speak proper due to BBC that I have picked phrases such as these up, maybe it is from my own time spent watching BBC, or from the mindless months worth of time reading ‘Harry Potter’, and my dad watching Top Gear since before I could talk. Hey, maybe it’s even because of my need for grammatically correct sentances and the fact that I used to ready dictionaries when I was in Elementry School. But many of these words have transended the boundries that you still seem to think they belong in. And truth be told, some of those boundries are outdated.

  12. (BrE) “Elastoplast” and (AmE) “Band-Aid” are direct equivalents, ie the use of the leading brand in each country being adopted as a generic term (just as “hoover”, “google”). “Band-Aid is understood in Britain, where it is sold nowadays, and used occasionally – probably increasingly – but is an Americanism.

    As a first-aider in a school for many years, I would tend to offer a sticky-plaster to a young child, a plaster to an older child or adult.

    I grew up saying elastoplast, but swapped to plaster when I moved to Yorkshire, since I love the local pronunciation, the “a” in the first syllable being very short and flat.

  13. Several issues.

    First, in AmE, it’s technically an adhesive bandage, differentiating it from a bandage but no one actually says that. Just like we don’t say cotton swab and call it a Q-tip, we call them Band-Aids.

    Next, saying it’s better is just pseudo intellectual gobeltygook. The merit in language is that information is exchanged and the listener understands. One dialect isn’t better than the other and saying so is just snobbish elitism.

    Finally, I personally don’t like plaster as it’s not made from plaster as is a plater cast. The British call a plaster cast a plaster and we chose cast. Either seem logical. But since an adhesive bandage isn’t, plaster while understood is a bit illogical.

    1. It would appear from Chambers that plaster as in the medical sense of a fabric applied to a wound, and plaster meaning a substance that sets hard were two different words, although both derive from the same Latin and Greek roots meaning to mould, to apply as plaster. That plaster of Paris also has a medical use causes the confusion, As others have said, in the UK we put a plaster on a cut or graze, and we put a broken limb in plaster.

  14. When I was in elementary school, our spelling list included the word “color”. On the test, I spelled it “colour”, got it wrong, argued it was the British spelling, got it right, then Thedeus McClain said, “That’s not how it was spelled on the spelling list”, so I got it wrong. That was 45 years ago.

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