Translations From the British

John Kilgore

   Reprinted from The Vocabula Review, November, 2004



ead Slow Children” the sign says, and my students report the phenomenon with grins and chuckles. I have heard this one already, and besides, we have our own variant in America: “Slow Children Playing.” But a few weeks later, when someone spots “Dead Slow Hoot,” I do exactly that. Any of the signs might benefit from punctuation after “slow,” helping one to construe the word as a command (elliptical for “slow down” or “go slow” perhaps) rather than an adjective modifying “children” or (conceivably) “hoot.” But “dead slow” would still sound outré to American ears, notwithstanding such analogous constructions as dead right and dead set. As for hooting in place of honking one’s horn —the notion is simply perverse.

Posted signs, far more than conversation or written prose, seem to show up stark differences between American and British dialects. In the process they cast a sharp light on the odd wobbliness of words in themselves, their obstinate ambiguity, the vagueness they retain until usage and context finally pin them down. A stroll around Harlaxton Manor, where I am staying for five weeks with twenty-two adventurous American students, reveals “This Door is Alarmed,” “Traffic Calmed Area,” and a warning that near to the “Petroleum Mixture” there shall be “No Naked Lights.” A label taped to the stapler in the copy room says, “Not to be taken away,” whereas its American counterpart might read “Do not remove,” a directive that must sound to the British, as theirs does to us, uncomfortably vague. (Remove how, remove when, remove from what?) A notice on a door, “Our apologies—the laundry is not in use” leaves an American briefly scratching his head while he mentally revises in use to in service: we might apologize if the laundry were in use. But the vending machine will still sell you “washing detergent,” a perfectly adequate substitute for the laundry detergent you are used to.

All easy enough; but a notice on the whiteboard outside the Refectory, which I am learning not to call the cafeteria, would probably puzzle even British ears: “Please be aware that there will be an external dinner taking today.” Huh? Given the context, I get it after a second: a group will be coming in from outside the college for a catered dinner, no doubt in one of the fabulously ornate rooms over on the south side. The situation is unfamiliar, the idiom strictly local, and that, far more than any intrinsic illogic in the phrasing, is why the notice seems so baffling and ungainly.

On a long bike ride one afternoon, I record “No Tipping / Maximum Fine £ 20,000,” which sounds like an outrageous penalty for a minor breach of restaurant etiquette; but the sign is by a roadside gate, and “tipping” of course means, in American, “dumping.” A little further on, in the branching driveway of a prosperous estate, a small round sign with two arrows advises that “Goods” go up this road while the “Inwards Office” is to be found on that one. I already have the goods on goods, which seems to be a favorite British word; the English speak of “Heavy Goods Vehicles,” for instance, a category that doesn’t exist in America, or anyway in American. Our equivalent to the “Goods” sign says “Deliveries.” But what can an “Inwards Office” be? A sign at the next fork clears this up, pointing down one road to the “Office,” just as in the States, while the other arrow points “Inwards.” Well, duh. The phrasing is perfectly logical, but somehow, still, to American ears, impossible. Rather than direct our visitors “Inwards,” we would prefer the unhelpful terseness of an arrow by itself, or perhaps something like “Center of Park.” Is the problem that we tend to hear innards?

Our group takes a five-day excursion up to the Lake District, then down to Wales. Down, by the way, seems to mean any direction you like, not just south, as it tends to in the States; in Jane Austen novels it means “away from London,” which figures as a cultural mountaintop despite the physical elevation, so near to sea level the Thames at Tower Bridge has twenty-foot tides. To get where we are going, we have to take the motorway, not the freeway, entering by means of a slip road rather than an entrance ramp. The road is crowded with holiday makers, not vacationers, but we can take a break either at a service area, just as in the States, or a lay-by, a rather short pull-off area which lacks either rest rooms (American) or toilets (British), so that if you need to spend a penny, a euphemism for which America has no equally poetic equivalent, you must keep driving. Signs on the HGVs ask “Well driven?” not “How’s My Driving?” and advertise “Haulage and Storage” in preference to “Hauling and Storing.” Periodically we are warned of “Soft Verges,” and commanded to “Kill Your Speed.” “Adverse Camber” would escape me completely if the cartoon right on the sign did not illustrate the concept: the lane slopes outward, toward the verge. “No Fouling” signs, ubiquitous in parks, would likewise mystify (basketball? hockey?) if not for the illustration: a heavy X over a cartoon doggie. On reflection the phrase is at least as apt as our odd equivalent, the approximate, possibly punning “Curb Your Dog.” If you wish to complain about violations, you must ring the authorities here, not, as in America, call them.

Some of the divergences are nearly imperceptible. In Britain you look forward to a pay rise, not a pay raise, shifting a single phoneme but thereby making the event sound a touch more spontaneous, like a bit of weather for which no one is responsible. You speak of what you are doing “at the minute,” not moment. You can hire things—appliances, rental cars—not just people. At the other extreme are differences so striking they serve as unmistakable shibboleths of national identity: No one in America says “Cheerio!” or “Jolly good!”, just as no one in Britain says “Shucks!” or “Y’all.” The English say “Brilliant!” where Americans would say “Cool!” Many changes seem to be migrating one way or the other, though it would take meticulous research to tell which. “No problem” in place of “You’re welcome,” which I began noticing in the States only a few years ago, is even more common here than in Illinois; perhaps it was invented by a football hooligan or a lager lout rather than a skateboarder or a valley girl. “Exit” signs compete with “Way Out” signs in Britain, possibly a sign of creeping Americanism—unless in fact the latter phrase, unwieldy as it seems to me, originated here and is gradually winning the battle. The border between cultural difference and individual creativity can likewise be hard to spot; when a columnist in a London paper speaks of a stroller on a nude beach “flaunting his wedding tackle,” the locution is unmistakably British; but were the last two words his own invention, or a phrase he had heard before?

Some of the habits of English English are so handy that an American can hardly resist picking them up. Bit I think I have always used, but this much? And nip as a verb seems wonderfully clever: nip in here for a bit; nip in between the lorry and the motor scooter. Nip upstairs for a word with my supervisor. Easy to say, easy to hear, and in one syllable it conveys a whole basketful of ideas: motion, quickness, brevity, intention, good humor, and the assurance that nothing grave is intended or expected. “Mind” is an imperative the British use everywhere (mind the gap, mind your speed, mind the slope) while we avoid it except for a few special constructions like mind your manners, sustained perhaps by its mild alliteration. But our alternatives—pay attention to, watch out for—are so ungainly that the British habit quickly takes hold, and you wonder why it has not yet crossed the Atlantic.

What gets under your skin first, though, is not the vocabulary but the music of British English: the lilt, the slightly theatrical enunciation and pitch, the restless shifts between high and low, loud and soft. Live in it a few days, and you begin to understand that this under-song is fully functional, lending a precise emotional shading to everything that is said, counterbalancing the famous reserve. How did we Americans ever come to exchange it for our assortment of ugly twangs and monotones?

A traveler between cultures is necessarily a relativist, his values thrown into some degree of confusion, and these contrasts between the two Englishes unsettle the idea, intuitively true for most of us, that there is such a thing as correctness in language. The very notion comes to seem impertinent, misplaced. There is no a priori reason that “alarmed” should mean “filled with alarm” rather than “equipped with a warning device”; on one side of the Atlantic it just does, while on the other it just doesn’t. To call either usage incorrect on its own ground would be an act of pure chauvinism. Isn’t the lesson, then, that we should be comprehensively tolerant in linguistic matters?

For a while it seems so. Solving identical problems in sharply different ways, the two dialects give a vivid sense of speech as a creative performance, not orderly and rule-bound but impulsive, haphazard, arbitrary. Language, you begin to notice, is no finite set of predefined meanings. It is more like a heap of tools and materials spread out in glorious disorder on a gigantic workbench, and the individual speaker, to borrow Levi-Strauss’s famous metaphor, is necessarily a bricoleur, a handyman accomplishing his or her task through inventive make-do, albeit with recycled materials. There is never one absolutely right way to say a thing, but always a whole range of different fixes, some better, some worse, each shaded a little differently from all the others, but none deserving an absolute, Platonic primacy.

Every parent has stories relating to children’s gift for linguistic bricolage, their ingenious recyclings of whatever bits of language they have acquired. At the preschool stage my kids had already invented their own way of describing what the TV does during a thunderstorm: “It’s scribbling!” But my favorite example comes from a conversation I overheard when my daughter was eleven. She was sitting with two friends, the three of them chattering away at warp speed, and one of them began describing someone

who was yelling, and she opened her mouth so wide, and you know that little hangy-down thing at the back of your throat?—you could see it, and . . .

That little hangy-down thing? Well, it would do. My daughter’s friend had quite likely never heard the word uvula, and even if she had, her own solution was superior for her purposes, since it was vivid, funny, and clear to her audience. She produced it without an instant’s hesitation, keeping her place in a conversation that was as competitive in its way as a rugby match, and this was no mean feat given what the invention entailed: transformation of an entire verb phrase, “hang down,” into an adjective through application of the –y suffix at the right point—“hang-downy thing,” somehow, would not have worked—and insertion of it at the correct point in her unfolding sentence.

Clearly, to condemn such virtuosity as error or “abuse of the language” would be the height of pedantry. Indeed, I would argue that such nonce-constructions are more typical than not, that incorrectness is the more or less natural state of language that is actually being used, whereas correctness is only a sort of theoretical construct, never fully achieved in practice. Words as they arrive from the factory, all shiny and new, still wrapped in cellophane, have so many possible meanings that they effectively mean nothing at all. It is only after you get them unwrapped and installed and customized, after you bend and trim and hammer on them for a good while, that they begin to point to anything specific, and even then your phrase—“external dinner taking”—may mean next to nothing without massive assistance from the extralinguistic context. In its struggle to pinpoint meaning, parole, the individual speech act, always strains against langue, the ideal or theoretical structure of the language, with some degree of violence.

Who are we, then, we teachers of English, to natter on about right and wrong, better and worse, in usage? Shouldn’t we put all our emphasis on the other side, celebrating the creative ingenuity with which speakers—or cultures—find different routes to meaning, successfully conducting (as T.S. Eliot puts it) “A raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating”? Can’t we simply, as my students sometimes urge, “look at what I say, not how?”

Probably the best answer is: go ahead and try. Rules are not some alien and superficial imposition on language, but its very tissue and essence. Blame English teachers if you like, but the truth is that all of us are instinctive grammarians, obsessively fussing over the language as we use it, for the excellent reason that we cannot otherwise make any sense—and that, if we ever quit, the deterioration Eliot speaks of would soon become complete disintegration. Merely to ask what does this mean—this sign, this phrase in the paper, this person speaking to me with a slightly annoyed intonation because I misunderstood the first time—is to ask by implication how the words ought to be used, how they are defined, what their grammatical interrelationships are, how they fit the context, and in general what the ground rules seem to be. Creative invention is only the yin of language; hidebound dogmatism is the yang, and necessarily so. Every speaker in a language community comes equipped with a zealous concern for consistency and order, the purpose of which is to prevent just the sort of stupefaction the visitor suffers as she tries to puzzle out “Inwards Office” or “Adverse Camber.” Somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind is the sentiment, fervently held, that we can say tomayto or tomahto, “queues likely” or “congestion ahead,” “bathroom” or “loo,” but for heaven’s sake let’s get it settled, so we can all understand one another. We are all, you might say, conservative grammarians by preference, poets only by necessity.

So to revert to my previous example, “hangy-down thing” is charming on a first encounter. On a second it might elicit a tolerant chuckle. On a fifth your teeth would begin to clench, and on a fiftieth you could be pardoned for braining the perpetrator with your Fowler’s. Parole is never innocent; it seeks to become langue in its turn, the law of the land, the right word or phrase or construction. Every attempt to say a thing is simultaneously, like it or not, a vote on how the language shall be used the next time and the time after; permit hangy-down thing and sooner or later you will confront sticky-out thing, blowy-nose thing, and so on. Against such dangers the left brain or the superego or whatever it is rightly keeps guard, so we are all not just performers but critics, irritable busybodies where the other fellow’s grammar is concerned, perpetually giving a mental thumbs-up or thumbs-down to what we hear.

The hunt for consensus and regularity, then, the jaundiced conservatism that prunes away neologisms and eccentricities almost as rapidly as they occur, is as perpetual as the urge to play and experiment, and language clearly needs both. Rules without invention would yield a language incapable of saying anything that had not been said before; invention without rules would take us to the Humpty-Dumpty extreme of words having no agreed-upon meanings at all. The real argument for prescriptivism is not that it can reach its goals—it never does, or even comes close—but that it is ineluctable, part of the incessant push-pull of language as it tears apart and rebuilds itself, expands and then draws back. The conclusion seems obvious: we better not shoot all the English teachers after all.

Read more of John Kilgore's work in Agora.
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