Tag Archives: Words

Eating our words…

It hasn’t escaped my attention that a large portion of my blog traffic comes from America, so I hesitate (ever so briefly) to do anything to alienate my transatlantic readers, but what with so much internet content generated in the U.S. and the fact that I have a lot of  Facebook friends over there, I am constantly reminded that we are indeed, as George Bernard Shaw said, “…two countries separated by a common language”

Noah Webster published his A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in America in 1806, and anyone with even a minimal grasp of the definition of the word “dictionary” will tell you that it refers to a list of new and pre-existing words, together with their meanings.

However, what Noah proposed to do was to list and re-spell any words he didn’t like the look of, purely on the strength of aesthetics;

Find that “re” at the end of centre a bit difficult to remember?
No worries, let’s make it “er” and say no more about it.

Have trouble with that pesky “ough” sound in plough, it’s hard to get your head round isn’t it?
Hey presto! Plow.

As for all those ridiculous “..nce” words like licence.
Pah! Henceforth let them end in “se” and have done with it.

Worst of all, who could forget the trauma caused by all the unlicenced, sorry, unlicensed “U”-shaped interlopers in good ol’ American words like color and humor?
Begone foul vowel!

And the national antipathy towards poor maligned vowels didn’t end there. Even official names of natural elements weren’t safe.
Not content with removing extraneous silent letters from words, the language police denuded aluminium of its penultimate “i”, changing the pronunciation forever to aluminum, like something out of a bad fifties sci-fi movie.

Fortunately sanity prevailed when Webster proposed changing the traditional spelling of women, to the more literally-minded and aesthetically pleasing wimmen. This was one semantic step too far and was vetoed.

But words themselves are not the only English hand-me-downs that get the stateside language makeover, plenty of their definitions go through the linguistic blender too.

Let’s start with the traditional English biscuit.
All biscuits in America are cookies apparently, not just the ones made of cookie dough (or possibly Doh!) that we call cookies, but all biscuits.
Except crackers.
And biscuits.
Because they’re scones.

Yes, in the States what we would call a scone is called a biscuit and is eaten with gravy.
And don’t go imagining a cream tea with Bisto over it either, that’s not what they mean by gravy.
No, “gravy” is a thick white sauce, often with sausage meat in it, poured over scones biscuits and eaten for breakfast.

What’s wrong with bacon, egg and fried bread?
Well, it turns out that what’s wrong with that is, the fried bread.
From what I hear, raw dough is fried, presumably resulting in a sort of bread dumpling, but a decent fried slice is harder to come by.
Unless you want Toad in the Hole, that is.

Excuse me, what?

Ok this gets a little complicated, so listen up.
Over there, Toad in the Hole is basically a cheesy fried slice with an egg in the middle.
Explaining that it should be made with Yorkshire pudding won’t help you either, you’ll just get blank looks unless you have the extraordinary luck to guess the word Popover.
That’s right, Popover is what they call the same batter mix (with added butter) that we put sausages in and call Toad in the Hole.

– You want vegetables with that?
– Thanks, how about some nice mashed swede?
– No, sorry. How about some rutabaga instead?
– Ok, I’ll try anything once…..Hang on this is swede..

Of course being so enormous, America can be excused for playing fast and loose with its own version of English. I mean, if you’re going to make up words anyway, why insist on them meaning the same thing everywhere.
Ok, there’ll be minor differences in pronunciation and usage.
In one state for instance, the generic term for carbonated soft drinks might be soda, in another it could be pop.
But some places take this grammatical laziness to a new level.

I’m reliably informed that in some southern states, even ordering a Coke is not as simple as it sounds.
Because everything is Coke.
If you want Coke, order Coke.
If you want Fanta, order Coke.
If you want Dr Pepper, (what’s the worst that could happen?) order Coke. (you could get Coke, that’s what)
If you want… well, you get the idea.

Must make vending machines very confusing;
– Hey! That goddamn machine just gave me a Coke!
– I’m sorry sir, what did you order?
– A Coke.
– Ah…


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American idle…

I feel as though I should apologise.

I won’t of course, I rarely do, but if I was the type to do so, this would be the time at which I’d be doing it.

Right, that’s that out of the way, now let’s move on to what I’m definitely not apologising for.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am slightly hooked on Facebook (although I’m having so much fun doing this, I’m neglecting my fb duties more and more of late), and one of the things I enjoy about it most is the ability to make friends with people that you would never have met in normal life.
In my case, this, for the most part, seems to mean Americans.

In my dealings with our US cousins, I have frequently found myself with the opportunity to say things like “I’ve heard of those on American TV shows, what exactly are they?”
For instance, how many times have you seen people in US TV shows order “biscuits and gravy” in a diner? Always puzzled me, that one. Then it occurs to me to ask one of my new friends across the water, and I find “biscuits” are in fact a type of heavy savoury scone mix, often eaten with sausage meat. With gravy.
For breakfast.


Now, I know that I could look all this sort of stuff up on the net, but when I see one of my friends, Max – a maple syrup producer, homesteader, and fixer of pretty much anything mechanical from what I gather – post, "Sloppy Joe is actually pretty good for breakfast.” then you just have to ask don’t you?
Turns out that it’s almost exactly what we would call a Bolognese sauce.

Once again, two countries separated by a common language.

Anyway, my point is, I may have been slightly unfair when I accused the Americans of having stolen acquired most of their language from the various settlers to the New World, instead of relying on the native dialects of the indigenous population.
For a start, the very word we use to describe them, Yankees, derives from the native American word yengees or yanghis, which was used to describe English and French colonists. Dutch settlers picked up on the word as soon as they arrived, and used it to describe all Americans.

They have also given us several common phrases that we use today, and to avoid being collared by a Lynch mob for not giving credit for their contribution, and being forced to Eat crow, before I Knock off work for the day, and this post Peters out, I will attempt to explain.


“That’ll teach the limey bastard to complain about our spelling”

Back in the 1780’s, two US military men, both called Lynch, were having trouble with outlaws and bandits in their respective, neighbouring states. So they made an agreement that they should form a group of men – dubbed “Lynch’s mob” – who would bring these law-breakers to justice.
Corporal (Corporeal in those days), not capital punishment, would then be administered, such as beatings, floggings or horsewhippings etc.
The term to “lynch” somebody, or to have a “lynching” were only applied later on, usually to the mass hangings, by mobs, of mostly black, innocent victims.

(In fifty years, between 1880-1930, ten states alone recorded 2,805 lynchings. 2500 victims were black)

I had always assumed that the American term “Eating crow” was similar in origin to the british “Humble pie” (Literally, a pie made from the left-overs and offal, by the cooks in kitchens of large houses, to feed the staff)
But it is far more amusing than that.

Now serving at Heston’s Little Chef

During a temporary armistice in the Anglo-American war of the early 19th century, a US soldier inadvertently crossed the English lines whilst out hunting crows.
Some smartass English officer heard about this and went to confront the man. He approached him unarmed, and in a friendly, conversational way, congratulated him on his haul of birds.
Having gained his trust, the officer asked to try shooting for himself with the American’s rifle.
Of course, immediately he got hold of the unfortunate soldier’s weapon, he turned it on him, forcing him to take a bite out of a dead crow, as a punishment for trespassing on british territory.

The story does, however, continue. Once he was satisfied that the US soldier was sufficiently defeated, the typically arrogant English officer gave him back his rifle, at which point the amazed American forced him, at gunpoint, to eat the rest of the crow.

“Knocking off for the day” is another phrase with it’s roots in a dark period of US history. During the days of slavery in the Deep South, the slave workers were transported between plantations on river boats. When it was time for the man beating out the rowing rhythm to change shifts, he would include a particular beat, to indicate it was time for the next man to take over.


And finally, a saying that is due to our friends across the pond’s propensity for creative spelling.

In the 1800’s, during the Californian gold rush, gunpowder was commonly used to blast out seams of gold ore.
One of the constituent compounds of gunpowder is saltpetre, but the Americans spell it SaltPETER. So when a gold mine had come to the end of it’s useful life, it was said to have “Petered out”

Much like this post…

Incidentally, should you wish to try biscuits and gravy, go here.


Posted by on August 12, 2012 in Etymology, social networking


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A question, for sport…

Right, time for a quiz.
What is a quiz?



A quiz, I hear you cry, is a load of tricky questions, asked by some smug bloke in a pub, the point of which is to enable you to win a bottle of Scotch or a leg of lamb.

Or a TV show where a famously smug bloke asks desperately cheerful families in shellsuits how many people they think might have the same inane opinion on something as they do.

Or it’s sitting in a spotlit chair, answering questions about things you really should know the answers to, having thought about those same things To The Exclusion Of Everything Else for the last three months, making you a pariah amongst anyone who won’t “test me on the history of lampposts of the UK (1879-2005), go on, ask me anything”


No, in fact it’s a discussion about graffiti.

Many words are made up.
Now, that sounds like a bit of a fatuous statement, but quite a lot of words come from a root of some sort, often in a completely different language i.e. Latin, French, etc

(In the case of America, of course, most of it came from somewhere else. Although they seem to have a creative way with spelling sometimes)

But that’s ok, we’ve got a sense of humor about it.

But sometimes, new words come along that supersede any ancient root, which is why new words are always being added to the dictionary – yuppie, girl power, chav, all words that have fallen into language through repeated common usage.

My absolute favourite example of this is the story of an Irishman called Daly.
This 18th century Dublin theatre manager bet his mates that he could introduce an entirely new word into the English language, a word with no meaning whatsoever.
Well, his friends took him up on the bet as he was obviously onto a loser with such a ambitious scheme.

So Daly set about his plan without delay, spending the following several hours criss-crossing the city, leaving his enigmatic message wherever he went:


Within hours, people all over Dublin were discussing it, and the subject became such a hot topic that a newspaper ran a story about the graffiti epidemic.
At which point, Daly’s friends had to concede, as everyone was talking about the “quiz” and what it might mean. In fact it went on to be a subject of discussion all over Ireland, and England, for months afterwards.

The word has since been taken to mean the seeking and receiving of answers.

So the next time you see someone looking at you with a quizzical expression, you can tell them why.


Posted by on August 8, 2012 in Etymology


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