“Head boy”?

I have a category here called “Ventriloquism,” which covers cases where American writers adopt British language when writing about British people or subjects. The August 15 issue of The New Yorker has a doozy. The article is a profile of (British) philosopher William MacAskill, written by (American) Gideon Lewis-Kraus. In the first paragraph Lewis-Kraus writes that in his early undergraduate days at Cambridge, MacAskill like to “frolic about in the nude”–the Britishism being the “about.” (An American would normally say “frolic around” or “frolic” or, actually, might not make the reference at all.)

That’s pretty mild, but soon Lewis-Kraus goes all in. MacAskill is the leader of a movement called Effective Altruism, and the article says that various qualities he has “made him a natural candidate for head boy.” I probably wouldn’t have known that the head boy (or girl) is the most senior prefect at a school if I hadn’t read Anthony Powell’s novels. Apparently there are head boys and head girls in the Harry Potter books as well.

A few paragraphs later, we’re told of a point in his life where MacAskill spent a lot of time wearing “a wolf-emblazoned jumper.” For Americans, a jumper is (I quote from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary) “a sleeveless one-piece dress worn usually with a blouse.” And unless they had read a lot of Harry Potter or Anthony Powell, Gideon-Lewis’s sentence would call up a truly bizarre image.

27 thoughts on ““Head boy”?

  1. Jumper…. Pullover
    I think these are practically identical items of clothing and may be known outside the UK as “Sweaters.”
    I think sleeveless pullovers are known as sleeveless pullovers here in the UK…

  2. Sorry to correct you, but you’ve relied on an imperfect reference: Mirriam Webster is hardly the go-to for British English definitions. Try the OED.

    Meanwhile, a “jumper” in this context is a knitted long-sleeved top, perhaps referred to in the US as a sweater. 😀

    1. He’s saying that that is what Americans mean by a jumper and that they could be confused unless they had read those British books.

  3. Hi Ben—I love this blog because it so narrow, but sometimes I think you haven’t read enough British novels. Try Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey. Thanks.

    1. No such thing in the States. By the time they’ve gone through the election process, with primaries etc., the school year is up.

      1. I know you are being facetious, but of course in UK schools the head boy and head girl were appointed, ultimately by the headmaster at my school.

        Which makes me wonder why in UK schools we have headmasters, headmistresses and now head teachers whereas in American schools you have principals. (Of course, my knowledge of US schools is derived solely from TV programmes.)

        Incidentally, at my school in the sixties, every pupil in the upper sixth was automatically made a prefect, even if they didn’t want to be. If you turned it down, I heard, the headmaster would put this in his final report when you applied for university.

      2. In U.S. private schools or independent schools, there are indeed headmasters and (I think) headmistresses, though I think the preferred term now his “head of school.” Principal is used exclusively in public or state schools in the U.S.

      3. Well, I went to state schools and we had headmasters, both at primary and secondary, and googling tells me the prestigious public schools of Eton and Harrow have headmasters.

      4. An increasing number of British schools now have principals. My son’s old school, currently all boys, has recruited a woman to replace the current headmaster. She was earlier the vice-principal of a girls school, but will be known simply as the head.

      5. As with Paul Dormer’s experience, at my school (a state grammar) we were all made prefects in the sixth form. But the more favoured boys became lictors, a higher rank derived from the ancient Roman office.

    2. U.S. schools have class presidents (and in fact a panoply of officers – usually vice president and secretary and treasurer as well) and student council presidents, but these are symbolic roles mainly connected with planning school dances and the like. And you might also get to speak at graduation as a representative of the class. My understanding is that the duties of a head boy are quite different.

      1. For a start, at least at my school in the sixties, no graduation. I took my A-level exams in 1970, and after that we could leave, even though the school year went on for another few weeks. No point in us staying.

        There was something called Speech Day at which pupils who had done well received prizes – usually books – but this was months after I left. I had to come back from university to attend it.

        The head boy and head girl were the chief prefects and probably represented the student body on certain occasions. Prefects were pupils who watched over the younger pupils to make sure they weren’t misbehaving when no teachers were around.

  4. Many years ago, I was having lunch with some friends and there was an American woman with us. She said she had been reading an English book and someone in it had got dressed in a skirt and a jumper, which confused her.

    Afterwards, I was at work talking to a colleague and she said that anyone who did home dressmaking knew the American meaning of jumper as most dress patterns are printed in the US with American terms.

    But, more recently I’ve heard Americans use the term jumper to refer to a combination shorts and top, which seems to be also called a romper.


  5. Back in the 1960s a British friend of mine had a year’s exchange, teaching in a New York university. In one class, calling on a student to give a response, he said: “Yes, you, wearing the red jumper.” The student was mortified but the rest of the class thought it hilarious.

  6. Incidentally, for the record, the UK name for a sleeveless one-piece dress worn usually with a blouse is a pinafore dress. I believe that pinafore meaning a protective garment is the same on both sides.

      1. Curiously, the entry “Pinny” does not appear in your index.

        The one comment that appears in that entry to refer to a pinafore dress calls it just a pinafore. Although Chamber (and Wikipedia) both say that the word can mean that, I have only heard pinafore dress. Pinafore to me would always mean an apron of some sort

  7. Did MacAskill actually become head boy? If that was his title, then I guess the author could not avoid using it. Translating it into American would confuse more than clarify.

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