Category Archives: Ventriloquism

“Fine”

My general understanding is that, weather-wise, where Americans would talk about it being “a nice day,” British people would refer to “a fine day.”

I still remember my first awareness of the latter. It came nearly fifty years ago, when I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Looking at a Gutenberg edition of the novel now, I can see why I was struck by this usage. The very first line is, “‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay.” The conversation continues (I have left out a lot of words about what Mrs. Ramsay’s son James, who really wants to go to the lighthouse, is thinking):

“But,” said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, “it won’t be fine.”

“But it may be fine—I expect it will be fine,” said Mrs. Ramsay.

Fine!

Now, Americans would sometimes refer to a “fine day” — indeed, a classic song by Carole King and Gerry Goffin says, “One fine day, you’ll look at me/And you will know our love was meant to be.” But the difference seems to be that American “fine” and “nice” bring with them a positive association, and are used in contexts other than weather. (“Have a nice day!”) Whereas British “fine” is more purely a description of weather we might call “fair.” Here’s an OED citation from 1913:  J. G. Wood Insects at Home iii. 337   “On a fine day, it is very interesting to watch the ants.”

After all these years, I just encountered for the first time an American use of this “fine.” It occurs in Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. On p. 44 we read, “Beaverbook convened key meetings in his downstairs library or, on fine days, outside on a balcony outside his first-floor bedroom (the second floor in American parlance.”

I have categorized this under “Ventriloquism” — the phenomenon of Americans consciously or unconsciously adopting Britishisms when writing about British people or topics.

 

Ventriloquism

If you look to the right of this post and scroll down a bit, you’ll find a “Category Cloud,” consisting of words or phrases with which I’ve tagged posts.  If you click, you’ll be taken to the relevant posts. I haven’t been very diligent in my tagging, which one reason why the biggest word is “Uncategorized.” (The larger the type, the more often the category has been used.)

You’ll find a fair number of posts in such categories as “On the Radar,” “Outliers,” “Australianisms,” and “Food and Drinks.” Others are more or less orphans, including “Ventriloquism.” This refers to the phenomenon of American writers using British terminology while writing about British people or topics. While I’ve only labeled one post that way, it’s not at all uncommon.

The latest example I’ve encountered is from the Twitter-feed of American (New York-born) journalist Heidi N. Moore. Yesterday, she objected to a Guardian obituary of the English Scottish Deborah Orr (which did indeed come off as weirdly passive-aggressive and drawn to non-relevant details).

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(By the way, for those not on American Twitter, there’s a tradition to adopt scary names around Halloween time, hence “Hades N. Morbid.”)

There are two NOOBs in the tweet: “stroppy” (derived from obstreperous and meaning bad-tempered or belligerent) and “sacking,” British equivalent of American “firing.”

Then Moore–who once was a U.S. correspondent for The Guardian–followed up by going even deeper into Brit-speak, to terms that haven’t even penetrated here.

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“Sloane”: “a stereotypically conventional, if fashionable British upper-middle-class young woman (occas. man)”–Green’s Dictionary of Slang. “Head girl”: “an older female student in a British school who is chosen to have special duties and to represent the school“–merriam-webster.com.

The really subtle one there is the last two words, “won’t they?” It’s a very British thing to use these question tags (sometimes called tag questions) at the end of sentences. In fact, I’m driven crazy by their incessant use by British tennis and football commentators; I keep wanting the scream out the answer. And I have a sense that the use has spread to American announcers. If I get some data, I’ll write a post about it–and make sure to mark it with the correct category, won’t I?

“Drugs party”

In his review of the English nature writer Robert MacFarlane’s book Underland, Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times:

There’s the prickling sense, reading Macfarlane like [Geoff] Dyer, that a library door or a manhole cover or a bosky path might lead you not just to the end of a chapter but to a drugs party or a rave.

The sentence has led me to add a new category to the blog: “Ventriloquism.” By that I mean cases where an American writer is writing about British people or topics, and consciously or not adopts British lingo. One example in the Garner sentence is “bosky,” which Google Ngram Viewer suggests has consistently been used roughly 50 percent more in Britain than the U.S. (The word, which means “wooded,” is now pretty rarely used on either side of the Atlantic, and when it is generally precedes “glen” or “dell.”)

But I feel “bosky” is a one-off and will devote my attention to Garner’s choice of the word “drugs” instead of “drug” to describe a party in which presumably taking drugs is the dominant feature. It’s a case of pluralizing an attributive nouns, and I’ve written about it before, in the cases of “drinks menu” (instead of “drink”) and and “covers band” (instead of “cover”). Other examples include “books editor” (for the person in charge of book coverage at a newspaper or magazine) and “jobs report” (for studies and statistics about employment trends). In the post on “covers band,” I summarized some of the surprising amount of research done on the topic. For example:

In a 2002 paper, the linguist Elisa Sneed refines the work of Maria Alegre and Peter Gordon in determining the circumstances in which plural attributives tend to be used. There seem to be two important factors. The first is “abstractness.” Sneed writes: “Something not easily imagable, such as a process (admissions), an action (assists), a thing (benefits), or something that is otherwise complex (dissertations) is abstract; something easily imagable and simple conceptually, such as pencils or flowers, is concrete” (italics added).

So dissertations index sounds okay; *flowers pot does not.

The second factor is heterogeneity in the head (final) noun of the phrase. Sneed gives the example of analyst as a head noun that promotes “diversity among the entities denoted by the internal noun” and pile as one that highlights homogeneity. So we might say weapons analyst but weapon pile, as well as cookie jar and sock drawer….

Three other wrinkles. First, irregular plurals tend to be more acceptable than regular plurals as attributives. We might say mice droppings but never *rats droppings. Second, as noted by David Crystal, the plural is often used in cases when meaning might otherwise be ambiguous or misleading. Thus, in baseball, a batter who doesn’t have enough power to produce doubles, triples, or home runs is a singles hitter. To call him a single hitter might mean that he’s just one hitter, or that he’s unmarried. Finally, the plural is used in cases when a possessive apostrophe is understood, such as farmers market.

But here’s the funny thing. It seems self-evident to me that plural attributives are a strongly British phenomenon … but I’ve never seen it referred to as such in any scholarship or commentary, and I even got pushback when I asserted this in previous posts. So I’ll try to support my contention, a little at a time. In the “covers band,” I included an Ngram View chart showing British preference for the plural and American for the singular. (And by the way, Google being an American company, it’s “Ngram” not “Ngrams.”)

As for “drugs party” vs “drug party” here’s the Ngram Viewer chart for use in American books, 1990-2000:

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And here’s the one for British use:

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2000 is the most recent year for reliable Ngram Viewer data, but the News on the Web (NOW) Corpus, which tracks postings from 2010 to the present, shows “drugs party” being used exclusively in Britain and Commonwealth countries (though admittedly not very often).

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So can I get an “amen” that Dwight Garner’s “drugs party” was a NOOB?

Next up: “jobs report.”