Tag Archives: foreign word usage

The permeable membrane of the English language

Apparently it’s ok to tell people to shut up now. If someone says something even mildly amazing, you can yell, “Shut UP!” Stacey London does it on What Not To Wear. I understand that it means “No way!”, but I’m still uncomfortable with this particular usage. I’m trying to prevent my children from picking up too much slang or disrespectful speech, even with their friends, because children don’t know when it’s appropriate and not appropriate. With friends, appropriate. With adults, not so much (slang!). I find it counterproductive when adults are too jocular with kids because they blur the line between “adult” and “friend” and encourage the children to be impertinent. I think kids should know the difference and adults should help them. That’s why we use “auntie” and “uncle” when the children address close friends. It’s disrespectful for kids to address adults by their first names. We use this mostly-Asian solution, using family titles as terms of respect, as opposed to family relationships. Anyone else we use “Mr.” and “Mrs.”  I know it’s more common for kids to use adults’ first names, but I think that what our society needs is more formality, not less. “Shut up!” is so informal that I’m really not comfortable saying that to people. But it’s becoming more and more common and one day I’ll tell my Grandmother to “Shut up!” and then the lengthy explanation and apology. It’s all about the inflexion, but I don’t know if Grandma would get that subtlety.

I understand how difficult it is to prevent certain words and expressions from entering one’s permanent lexicon. I’m still saying “dude” and I’ve been trying for ten years to eradicate this one word from my vocabulary. Very frustrating. I’m still using English expressions from my year in England and exposure to English friends. “Taking the piss” really doesn’t have a North American equivalent, but it doesn’t sound good in North America. (My mother-in-law hates the word “piss.”) Thank goodness that you cannot, I think by law, use “blimey” if you are not actually English or I’d be trying to delete that from my vocabulary also. When you want to delete curse words from  your vocabulary it’s handy to have substitutes and “blimey” would be great if it were possible here in Canada. But I don’t need anyone to tell me it’s not.

My mother always spoke very correctly, so when I was growing up, so did I. I was teased by my cousins for being ladylike, which they found prissy, so to counter this impression I picked up whatever vulgarity was going. I still tend to speak very casually to new acquaintances because I want to seem “approachable” – apparently I give an impression of unapproachability. It’s not intentional; like Ringo Starr, “it’s just me face” and the fact that I don’t like big parties. When I get emotional enough to forget myself, such as when angrily critiquing the series The Tudors, the hyper-articulate, precise language comes out again. The adoption of lowbrow language, however, as a long-term strategy, has its pros and cons, to say the least. Mostly cons. It’s very difficult to stop swearing once you’ve started, like smoking or colouring one’s hair. Not to mention, I’m one of those people who get excited when someone says “excape” instead of “escape” or “nucular” instead of “nuclear”. Hypocritical, I know.

I picked up “dude” and “buddy” from one of my sister’s boyfriends. He was a rave promoter and his comfort zone was about as far from my comfort zone as you can get, although he is a very good person. Even though my sister was at school in Australia he’d come by to help me do things like assemble Ikea furniture and would periodically insist on taking me out clubbing. I’m the kind of person who likes to be in bed by nine with a cuppa, and I don’t really drink, so it was a definite novelty and I enjoyed these excursions. It was certainly diverting and educational and yes, there’s a bit of sarcasm there. For my part, I gave him reading lists, cooked him the occasional healthy meal with vegetables, and tried to encourage him to clean up his language, which was execrable. Instead, I picked up his! The least of it was “buddy.” “Buddy” is actually a rare Canadianism, from Newfoundland, so how it found its way to British Columbia I don’t know, but it’s quite useful, if vulgar. Instead of saying “that guy” you just say “buddy,” as in “Buddy over there just stole my parking spot!” However, it’s not particularly refined language and I’m trying to clean up my act so I’m deleting “buddy” from my vocabulary. I’ll miss buddy.

Another hard-to-erase vulgarity: when I lived in Malaysia, we had friends from all over the world, one of the best things about being an expat. One set of particularly good friends were from Kentucky and Tennessee, so of course we picked up “y’all” which I figure is basically equivalent to the French “vous”, which translates to the plural pronoun “you.” There is no English equivalent unless you’re a Southerner. It’s taken me about ten years to eradicate “y’all” from my vocabulary and I have to say, I miss it. When you are talking to a group of people in the northern 70% of North America, you have to make an extra indication as to whom you’re speaking. I moved to England directly after Malaysia, so of course I was saying “y’all” to the English, to their amused disgust, whilst I picked up words like “whilst” and “gobsmacked.” Say “gobsmacked” in a North American accent, deadpan, with a touch of irony. Funny, right?

The other thing I noticed whilst in England (see how hard it is to give up words?) was that the higher up the social ladder you are, the more freely you curse. Mind you, right at the bottom of that ladder the cursing is equally abundant. In the middle, where people are still striving for upwards class advancement, people are super-careful about their language, it’s like a hallmark of the lower- to middle-classes. I guess at the top and bottom you just don’t care. Although it has to be said that cursing is more common in England (they say words we really do not say and you know which words I’m talking about) and people don’t seem bothered by it the way we are here in North America.  (This is anecdotal observation, not statistical, so I could be wrong, but this is what I observed.) I should have stayed in England and applied to become an aristocrat (there’s a form) because I can’t seem to stop swearing. I generally blame this on my father, or the rave promoter, but maybe I can I blame it on reincarnation, like the people who travel back to their past lives via hypnotism and start speaking Polish, or 11th-century Greek. I travel back to my past life as a salty-tongued English countess via the pain of a stubbed toe or the trauma of bad drivers. I revert to my past self and out comes the f-word, usually in the present continuous tense with “bloody” on one side and “hell” on the other. It’s a powerful phrase, what can I say. Why that makes us feel better, I don’t know but I think there are studies showing this is true. Still, I’m working on it. I’m auditioning substitutes, methadone curses, like Steve Carell in Evan Almighty shouting, “Mmmmmotherfathersisterbrother!” when he bangs his thumb with a hammer. This is how words like “shoot” came into usage. “Darn” when you’re mad. “Double-darn” when you’re really mad! Are these pale substitutes effective? Do they alleviate pain and frustration? Sadly, no. There’s nothing like the real thing. Sugar, nicotine, butter, heroin, profanity. Take “shoot.” It forces the mouth to form a “u” shape, whereas the original keeps the teeth gritted as they should be when uttering a curse. You can’t say “shoot” through gritted teeth. Try it. Try saying “darn” without feeling like a cowpoke. “Double darn” and you’re Gomer Pyle (unless you manage to inject enough irony into it). Oh well. But like methadone these toothless curses serve a purpose, to wean people like me off the terrible words of power we cannot seem to stop uttering. And don’t get me started on the invocation of deities. Jesus doesn’t know where I left my keys but I call His name anyway when I can’t find them. Yelling “God!” when you’re frustrated probably just calls His attention to your bad behaviour. I’m not religious, but it’s funny how Holy-Mary-Mother-of-God comes to my lips when I’m exasperated.

Anecdote: I was driving with a child in the car and a driver nipped ahead of me, cutting me off, then proceeded to drive 40k in a 50k zone. Why do people do that? I started saying, “Gah I hate – ‘” then cut myself off because I could feel the f-word rising up and wanted to quell it. From behind me a little voice said, “It’s ok to say ‘hate’ when somebody’s driving bad, Mama.” I was surprised: “Oh, really? ‘Hate’ is ok?” Little voice: “Yes.” (or “Yeth.”) So I drove for a minute and then the little voice spoke again: “Also ‘asshole.’ That’s ok too.” Um, okay! Thanks for the licence! Because I was really hating that asshole for cutting me off and driving so slow and it was nice to know I could express myself accordingly. But I know, I know. We had to have a talk about that and I promised myself, again, that I would stop swearing.

Apart from the swearing thing, a lot of my usage comes from British influence, mostly books. Obviously. There are reasons, it’s not affectation like Madonna suddenly adopting an accent. I don’t call cigarettes “fags”, and I don’t say “reckon”, but when I say “cuppa” you know it’s tea because we don’t drink coffee around here. I don’t say anything that might confuse people, like “jumper” or “cooker” or “boot and bonnet.” There’s no gain in that. But I say “flat” because “apartment” is a longer word. I say “you’re meant to” instead of “you’re supposed to” because that’s shorter too. I love “not a bother on her” although I don’t know if that’s English or Irish. Being Canadian, we’re sort of straddling the line between American usage and British usage anyway, so I figure my usage goes under the radar. Also, many British expressions sound funny when you say them in an American accent but really deadpan or with inflected quotation marks. See above, gobsmacked.

Obviously globalization has had significant impact on the English language: “kawaii”, the Japanese word for “cute,” is in fairly common use here in Vancouver. When you hear people whose English is their second language speak, you can hear the slang that comes from all over the English-speaking world. Our Japanese chefs say “no worries” which I think they got from me – and I got it from living in Australia although I could have acquired it from watching Crocodile Dundee or hanging out with Aussie surfers, like everyone else. It sounds super-funny in a Japanese accent.

The flexibility of the English language allows me to adopt words that I find useful and convenient to my daily speech and that assist in my ability to express myself. Other languages have words that express concepts that are universal, yet have no English equivalents. The German “schadenfreude” – the pleasure one gets from the misfortune of others – is a classic! My favourites come from my frequent exposure to Japanese: “shoganai” means roughly, “it can’t be helped” or “what are you going to do?” in the face of adversity. It’s fatalistic, stoic, philosophical – so Japanese, but it’s a great expression, the equivalent of the French shrug, although the two have their differences in that the Japanese one is a kind of cheerful “oh well!” whereas the French one (in my experience) is a gloomy “Oui, we’re out of bread, so what.” “Gaman” is a concept based on perseverance, fighting, working hard. “Ganbatte!” means “Go for it!” “Otsukare” partners with “ganban” and means “Good work, you’ve been working hard!” Isn’t that nice? Another favourite is “genki” which means energetic, healthy, happy – a combination of all three and the possession of which helps with the ganban and the shoganai. Obviously I don’t use these words with those who are unfamiliar with them, but within our household and in our business, they are very useful. The girls are taking French Immersion and I’m pretty sure I’ll be adding French expressions to my vocabulary. Already we use  “Voila!” (here it is! but it sounds better in French and really facetious in an English context when said with a self-mocking expression); “c’est bon” which just means “good” but we use it because it sounds funny, especially when you pop the “bon”, and “n’importe quoi” (it doesn’t matter, it’s not important) which we use because it sounds better than “whatever”. Most Canadians use the French we have (severely limited for the most part) with more than a touch of facetiousness and sarcasm, because a) otherwise it’s soooo pretentious, and b) it’s the only way we can pull it off with our terrible accents.

For better (emphasis or humour) or worse (laziness), my personal lexicon embraces profanity, foreign language, foreign expressions, vulgar expressions, outdated language, and I still think of myself as fairly well-spoken, and I think that goes for most of us. We English-speakers can understand English words in many accents (unlike French and Japanese and some tonal languages where if you don’t get it exactly right they pretend not to know what you’re talking about), we incorporate idioms from everywhere, we constantly invent new slang – it’s an amazing freedom of speech. I’m so glad I speak English! I can get away with this attitude: if it says what I want to say more accurately, or more efficiently, and if my audience understands me, I’m using it. C’est bon!

But not “dude.” That’s going, along with the cursing. Wish me luck, y’all!

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