Whoo! Suzie and Steve and I are over the halfway mark with this series! Unfortunately the back half is not a set of categories in which I can claim any kind of expertise, so expect a great deal of out-of-ass pulling. This week we are discussing our 10 favorite things about our respective versions of the English language. Because yes, they’re all different. And yes, I think I may be at a disadvantage because whereas the English have Cockney slang, and the Scots have “boak”, we have passive aggressive bullshit where “Bless your heart, honey!” actually means “You’re fucking stupid.”
I use this word generously in real life and in my posts because I love nerds. I love that there’s a word – American in origin – that describes the kind of people I like to surround myself with. I am a nerd. My friends are all nerds in something. I divorced a nerd. I’m going to marry a nerd. I’m grooming my children to be nerds. I own an “I ❤ Nerds” tote bag, given to me by a nerd friend. There are subtle differences in meaning between “dork”, “nerd” and “geek” (here’s a Venn diagram to explain them), with many endearing characteristics shared among them. But only the mighty “nerd” possesses them all.
Nobody’s sure exactly where this term for a software error originally came from, but it became popular when Grace Hopper gleefully spread the story around about how they discovered a moth in the relay while trying to figure out why their electromechanical computer wasn’t working. One of her colleagues taped it in his log book and added the note “First actual case of bug being found.” (Incidentally this bit of trivia was the million dollar question on an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) Grace Hopper was so influential in computer science and excelled in what is sadly still a man’s field, and this story is just too cute. That’s why “bug” goes on the list.
3. Political terminology
We have such interesting vocabulary when it comes to politics, largely referring to sneaky bastard activity. Among my favorites:
Gerrymander – the act of redrawing the voting district lines to favor one political party or another
Pork barrel – the act of blowing wads of government spending to benefit a legislator’s home constituents, thus securing their votes for the next election
Carpetbagger – a candidate who runs for office in a district where the candidate hasn’t lived very long. The derivation comes from Northern US citizens moving down to the post-Civil War south to take advantage of the messiness of the Reconstruction
Filibuster – the act of delaying a bill or the voting of a bill by talking one’s everloving ass off, either until the the bill is defeated or until…
Cloture – the process by which a majority of all the other legislators vote that the filibustering legislator should have to shut the hell up
Pigeonholing – the act of killing a bill by completely ignoring that it exists
Logrolling – “Hey Joe, if you vote for my More Tater Tots bill, I’ll vote for your Ban Wallpaper bill.” “Ok.” It should sound familiar if you were paying attention to the 2002 Winter Olympics.
‘normalcy‘ – my favorite achievement of President Warren G. Harding was popularizing ‘normalcy’ over ‘normality’. Even now if you Google it, Google corrects it to ‘normality’!
God bless America, we’re such assholes!
4. The Lack of U’s and the Bounty of Z’s
Sure, every other English-speaking country has held on to the British English spelling for words like “colour” and “metre” and “realise”. And sure, maybe we gave Noah Webster a little too much influence over spelling by swearing fealty to his dictionary. But now, when you see the sentence “I didn’t realize the color of the meter stick matched my comforter [not ‘duvet’]”, you instantly know that person is a good ol’ US American.
Plus we give the poor neglected Z some love, like that Chinese Crested Dog, which looks like an extra puppet from Labyrinth.
5. Making up Stupid Words and Mocking Ourselves for It
I’ll just offer up these two commercials with no comment.
6. Words/phrases we stole from the UK
Oh, but what do I mean by stole? I mean words that we Americans use that our dear cousins across the pond no longer do. Not at all because they fell out of popular use by gradual organic changes to the language, but because we totally dispossessed the UK of them. SO THERE. British in origin, American in usage and sometimes attribution.
- fall (as in “autumn”, not “drop”)
- I guess
- mad (to mean “angry”)
- regular (referring to size, e.g. “I would like a regular bowl of pho.”)
7. Native American Languages
Before the Americas were colonized by the Europeans, there were thousands of indigenous languages. As the indigenous people were gradually displaced, assimilated, or killed off, those languages also started dying off. Today, only about 300 languages remain, the majority of which survive in the United States. Each language falls into a few dozen language families, which may be broken into further subfamilies. For example, Ojibwe, Blackfoot, and Cheyenne all belong to the Algonquian subfamily of the Algic languages while Navajo, Apache, and Chiricahua belong to the Athabaskan subfamily of the Na-Dené family. The most commonly spoken of these with about 200,000 speakers is Navajo. Fans of Nicholas Cage will know that native Navajo speakers were recruited by the US Marines during World War II for the purpose of sending secret messages and codes, a means of encryption initially used during World War I with speakers of the Cherokee, Seminole, and Choctaw languages. The US military also recruited soldiers from the Lakota, Comanche, and Fox tribes. Despite setting dozens of anthropologists to the task of deciphering these languages and dialects, the Axis powers were never able to do so. Like the extermination of their people going without acknowledgement for so long, these Code Talkers weren’t recognized for their contribution until long after the war had ended.
Today, the entire United States is peppered with the legacy of Native American languages: just over half of our states bear names descending from Native American vocabulary as well as countless cities and places including Malibu, Tallahassee, Chicago, Potomac, Quantico, Manhattan, Roanoke, Tulsa, Waco, Chattanooga, Shenandoah, Seattle, and Spokane.
8. Phrases Derived from Music
I often have discussions with Earl about how much of our social climate is bound to our popular music. This phenomenon has a historical basis where slaves used songs to communicate, whether it was their intent to escape or a recommended route to avoid capture. Later, popular music was used as well for social commentary. Check out this haunting and heartbreaking song by Billie Holiday about the Jim Crow South and see if you can keep your shit together by the time she gets to the last gut-wrenching note.
Sometimes these socially-aware songs became anthems of a movement, and their lyrics became the slogan. Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changin’, and We Shall Overcome all began as songs and eventually became rallying cries to wake social consciousness.
Also, I keep seeing people say that their milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, that they like big butts and they cannot lie, that baby got back, or asking for the real so-and-so to please stand up. So it’s not just social awareness; it’s also people saying, “If you like it then you should have put a ring on it.” Oh oh ohhh, oh oh ohhhh…
Programming languages are not all that unlike spoken languages. In fact, there’s been a greater push for children to learn coding literacy in school. Like any spoken language, you have to learn a basic syntax and the rules of grammar that make the language work the way you need it to. Being familiar with the structure of one language makes it rather easy to learn another language in the same family.
C is a low-level language that allows you to muck around with your memory address registers so that instead of telling your assembler something like this:
movl $0, %edx
movl %edx, x
(move 0 into the register, and then move the contents of the register into x), you get this in C:
x = 0;
It might be a little disingenuous to call C American when it has international standards and is used all over the world, but it was developed by Americans, and it’s why this American has a job in an American software company, so I’m going to go ahead and stick my flag in it.
10. Words and Phrases We Owe to The Simpsons
It’s not just that I can hear each character say these things as soon as I read them. It’s also that I’ve heard people use them out loud in a non-Simpsons context. I love that The Simpsons has pervaded the lexicon of American English. Either that, or I love that I’ve surrounded myself with people who love The Simpsons as much as I do.
- Mmmm, <food>
- Everything’s coming up Milhouse!
- You don’t win friends with salad!
- Eat my shorts!
- Don’t have a cow, man!
- Oh boy, sleep! That’s where I’m a Viking!
- Hi Everybody!
- So, do you like…stuff? (the future husband of a friend of mine used this line on her)
- And the lesson is…never try.
- Me fail English? That’s unpossible.
American Language of Shame: “I could care less” (warning: angry swears)
It’s “I couldn’t care less!” Couldn’t! For fuck’s sake. Let’s make this easy. Say that “care” as a concept were enumerable, only instead of “care” we called them “shits”. And the phrase were “I give <n> shits.” In that event, I probably give 87 shits about pie. I give 75 shits about steak. I give 2 shits about cream of mushroom soup, which is vile. And I give 0 shits about fucking coronation chicken. In all instances besides coronation chicken, I could give fewer shits, implying that I still care to some degree about them. Even cream of mushroom soup. But for coronation chicken, it is not possible for me to produce even one shit of caring. It is the nadir of shits. There cannot be fewer shits given. I cannot care less.
SAY IT RIGHT. And don’t try to sell me on that “reinventing” or “colloquialism” bullshit. You don’t get to pull that crap just because you say it incorrectly.
There’s my list. If there’s anything I’ve missed, do let me know, and feel free to contribute your own.