Saturday, September 17, 2011

Wonderful Words

I was in England for two weeks this past summer. The only souvenirs I acquired (mostly because my study in Norway depleted my entire finances for the past two years... Way to go, $35 pizza) were some all-natural, locally milled soaps in Straford-Upon-Avon (I'm sure this is an obligatory tourist right of passage there, getting all wrapped up in the Tudor-ness) and this book on idioms and their origins.

I've always found etymology really interesting. Meanings change significantly over time, to the point that after a few hundred years an idiom's implied meaning overpowers what its original context was. Excellent example: "Start from scratch." We all know what the phrase means: to start something at the beginning, usually with no help or advantages. The original context, however, arises from the practice in some sports of handicapping the most skilled athletes to give the less-skilled an advantage. The starting point for the best players was called the "scratch." The phrase was apparently first used in the 1920's and in less than a hundred years has completely lost its original meaning. This is a minor change compared to what other aspects of language can do over time.

However, I feel that at this point I should be more engaging and less informative.

So I’m going to write about the English signs.

My conclusion is that everything that the English write sounds infinitely more polite, intellectual, and just outright awesome because of two words that American English has almost entirely forgone: “whilst” and “mind.”

The Tube in London is perhaps the most infernal area in the entire city. Way below the street level and devoid of natural light, fresh airflow, and indication of life, it is not a place I would ever want to use on a daily basis. However, I could certainly enjoy my time down there (marginally, mind you) by looking at the difference between a sign there and a sign in America. We would advise people to “Watch your step” while they announce “Mind your step” over PA systems. We have signs that say “Beware the gap” while theirs say “Mind the gap.” We would say “While in line please do not disturb your neighbors.” They say “Whilst in queue please mind your neighbors.”
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See what I mean?

Perhaps my favorite sign in all of England though was not something that was particularly polite or intellectual-sounding, but just something that satiated my inner nine year-old boy sensibility.

What we call speed bumps they call humps. Our pedestrian crossings are called “zebras” because of the white lines on black asphalt. This terminology is also used in Norway, where it was even more foreign to me. I did not understand when the house parents explained to cross the street only on the zebra. I was very disappointed to see no African animals anywhere near the UiO campus. So naturally, when there were speed bumps on a pedestrian crossing, they were called this:
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Of course my crass brain immediately gravitated to something between this and bestiality.

I apologize for adding a bit of innuendo to this otherwise upstanding blog.

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