Tuesday, 11 September 2007

American English with PJ O'Rourke: go figure

I haven’t read anything by American satirist PJ O’Rourke for a while, so I was thrilled when I found a book called The CEO of the Sofa (published in 2001) in my local Paperweight discount book store.

While I’ve been looking the other way, PJ has got married and reproduced – twice by the time the book was published and he has declared himself keen to keep doing it. This disappointed me, firstly because I always thought PJ would marry me, and secondly because he’s exactly like every other dad I’ve ever known – that is, under the impression that he’s the first and only person ever to have fathered an actual human being.

But that isn’t the point of this post. One of the hats I wear is as a lecturer in ‘Plain English’, which is a newish way of writing intended to make communication clearer and easier to understand by bending some rules but not really breaking any. So, because I’m always looking for examples of iffy writing to show my students, I’m always interested in writers’ quirks.

Here are a few from PJ’s book.

* This isn’t his fault, because he’s American, but he calls maths ‘math’. This is an Americanism that particularly irritates me, because it reminds me of how some South Africans call a pair of jeans ‘a jean’ or a pair of panties ‘a panty’.

* He uses the term ‘I could care less’ when I’m sure he means ‘I couldn’t care less’. Surely, when you could care less about something, that means you do care, even if it’s just a little bit?

* He uses the expression ‘like the dickens’. I was interested enough in this very Anglo-sounding phrase to look it up, and discovered it has nothing to do with Charles. ‘Dickens’ is a euphemism for the word ‘devil’, possibly via ‘devilkins’. Shakespeare used it in The Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of.’

* He talks about ‘a tossed salad’. What the dickens is this? ‘Toss’ means ‘to throw lightly, with a flourish’ or ‘to fling or fling about’. I have tried to turn my ordinary green salads into tossed salads, and they’ve always ended up on the floor.

* He also mentions ‘collard greens’. If, like me, you’ve often come across this term and wondered about it, it’s cabbage.

* He starts one of his sentences with the following phrase: ‘The pharisaical, malefic and incogitant…’ For that, a Plain Writing student would be sentenced to a thorough flogging with a thesaurus. In Plain English, it means ‘The righteously hypocritical, harmful and thoughtless…’ I wonder why he didn’t just say that. And if he ate a dictionary for breakfast.

* He makes an interesting if misogynistic suggestion for getting around the pesky personal pronoun ‘he’ as a generic (when referring to females too): ‘Why don’t [they] just combine ‘‘she’’ and ‘‘it’’ and pronounce the thing accordingly?’ he writes. I shall put this to my students at my next workshop.

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Juno said...

Oh yes, Muriel, very annoying. But I have to say that I mended my snobbish, Only-the-Queen's-English ways after I read Bill Bryson's fascinating book 'Mother Tongue', in which he patiently explains that many of the Americanisms that grate so harshly on our reddened colonial ears are remnants, hangovers and legacies of the 17th century dialect of the Pilgrim fathers. Having said that, I can't say I enjoy these Americanisms:

'erb (herb)

missel (missile)

pannies (panties)

fanny (bum, buttocks, bottom). Note to Americans: a 'fanny' is a vagina to us South Africans, and to UK English speakers. (Don't know about Australia). So when we hear the words 'fanny-pack' or 'slap on the fanny', we collapse.

aluminum (aliminium)

Then again, South African English has its own idiosyncrasies.

A 'robot' is a traffic light.

'Just now' means in an unspecified while. 'I'll be there just now' means that you might be there in five minutes, or in an hour.

'Shame!' means, roughly, I empathise with you and/or am sorry for your misfortune. It also means cute or adorable. 'Oh, shame, sorry you've had a bad day.' Or, 'Ag, shame, your baby is beautiful.'

meggie said...

OMG! I totally relate to this whole post! I have not read the Bryson book, referred to by Juno, but will look out for it.
My mother was a stickler for English.
I am sure she would castigate me for ending a sentence in 'it'. haha.
And yes, a fanny is a vagina to NZ as well as Aussies!
We also have the confusing phrase, "I'll see you later" which can mean in 10 minutes or 4 years!!

bec said...

Well I'm miffed too, Muriel, because I thought PJ would come find me one day and we could go off and drink too much and smoke (back when I did) too much and take interesting coloured pills and make rude and clever observations about music and politics while we had wild and crazy monkey sex.

I never really wanted to marry him, though.

I've got one for you which I've heard New Zealanders say All The Time and I'm pretty sure cropped up in the bit of SA I lived in, too: "woman" as the plural for "woman".

eg "Don't those woman know they're too fat for bikinis?