P is for Pocketbook

Here’s a funny thing about bags. In America it seems like lots of people don’t call handbags, handbags. They call them pocketbooks. Which is odd. As child 3 so beautifully put it… “I would have thought that a pocketbook was some kind of book you put in your pocket.” But no. It is a handbag. Or a purse. Recently the lady on the checkout in my local Wegman’s said pocketbook but I think most people I know call it a purse. Apart from me. Calling it a purse would not be possible because my purse is what I keep my credit cards and money in. Only here, that’s a wallet. Which is odd because to me, wallets are carried by men. And don’t have zips.

But the biggest shame of there being all these pocketbooks and purses over here is that the following clip probably means nothing. And yet it is one of the best delivered lines of a play in the history of the universe. In my opinion anyway.


H is for Hooker and S is for Sideburn

Here are two men that I just recently learned about from Child 2:

On the left is Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was a Civil War officer with a bit of a checkered career: at one point being conspired against (according to Wikipedia anyway) by the man on the right, Joseph Hooker.

But that’s not what is of interest here, nor was it particularly fascinating to my current student of Civil War history, Child 2. No, what he wanted to share with me is that sideburns are known as sideburns because of Ambrose Burnside’s fancy whiskers, and that the word hooker, meaning a prostitute, came into the language because of Joseph Hooker’s fancy for the company of ladies of the night. Always good to talk about prostitution with your fourteen year-old son, no?

But beyond that, was he right?

Hmm. Well, in the case of Hooker, maybe not. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary cites ‘hooker’ as first making its appearance in 1845. Although Joseph Hooker was born in 1814, he wasn’t really famous until the Civil War started in 1861. But while I was looking this up I could not help but look over the vast number of words for a prostitute listed in the dictionary.


Here are a few side notes:

The first entries (not quite in this pic) are from Old English, confirming prostitution’s claim to be the oldest profession. Here are a couple to challenge pronunciation skills:




And here are a couple that stand out from the crowd:

Winchester goose (in use 1606-1778)

marmalade-madam (in use 1674-1717)

Twopenny upright (in use 1958-1978)

I could go on…

But instead, let’s switch to whiskers. Ambrose Burnside’s facial hair definitely brought the term side-burn into both American and English languages. My big fat dictionary has a section on ‘sidewings’ which it says was first used in 1811:


Side-burns, we see, crops up in the language 1887, amidst a clear up-tick in the need for words to describe men’s facial hair. Obviously I had to google Dundreary whiskers and Piccadilly weepers and am so very happy to be able to add a couple of photographs here of Edward Askew Sothern:

Sothern, an English actor, played Lord Dundreary in a play, The American Cousin. I can’t imagine a better example of an English eccentric and it seems both terms come back to this very fetching looking gent.

As a further interesting bit of trivia, The American Cousin was the play that Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre in 1865. Although not with Sothern in the Lord Dundreary role.

S is for Suspenders

Only in America would you get a text like this one from a neighbour:


To be fair – it is Halloween. But this is not the kind of neighbourhood where people borrow each other’s intimate underwear (thankfully). No one wanted one of these:


What they wanted were braces. By which I do not mean these:


I mean these:


Which left me wondering what these are called over here, if not suspenders…


And they are called a garter belt.

Which made me think of this:


Now that’s a long way from those:


But the Queen here is wearing robes as a member of the Order of the Garter which is one of those British things that you grow up hearing about but really not having a clue what it is. So I have done some highly superficial research and from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica I have learned that the Order of the Garter began in the 14th when Edward III gallantly picked up and wore a garter which had fallen from his dancing partner’s leg. Here he is in his Order of the Garter get-up:


All which is a long way to go from someone wanting braces/suspenders for a Halloween costume. But I liked it.

C is for Chorus and Chorale

Here is a report of a very recent chat between me and Child 3 who, now eleven, has recently started Middle School.

Me: “So, did you have choir today?”

3: “Mom. It’s called chorus.”

Me: “Oh, yeah. I knew that. Sorry. It’s a British thing.”

3; “It’s fine. I understand. And I know what you mean. Just don’t say it in front of anyone else or they’ll think you’re weird.”

Actually, that’s probably funny enough in itself, but it gets worse. Child 3 has also auditioned and got a spot on the school’s vocal ensemble and when I was telling Child 1 about this in the car on the way home from wherever, we had a conversation that went like this:

1: “Oh, yeah. They have that in High School too, except it’s called ‘corral’.

Me: “Corral?”

1: “Yup.”

Me: “Seriously?” (sniggers a tad)

1: “What’s funny about that?”

Me: “Well isn’t that something you do with horses?”

1: (witheringly) “It’s spelled C-H-O-R-A-L-E”

Me: “Really? I’m looking that up when we get home.”

It turns out that he is correct of course. Which means that Child 3 has opened the door to another world of linguistic intrigue and surprise for me. Chorale? Pronounced like corral or core-Al. Who knew?

But the best part of this debacle was (for me anyway) yet to come. Googling around for a picture of some choir (chorus or chorale or who cares what you call them) to illustrate this post, I came across this:


These are the Sutherland Sisters! I love them! I had already come across the sisters and their six feet or so of hair each, somewhere or other on the web, but I didn’t realize that they were first famous as a singing group!┬á Even better, by 1884, these seven sisters from Niagara County, NY, were part of Barnum & Bailey’ Greatest Show on Earth. Yes!! Because not only do I have a thing about writing about Barnum, I also have an interest in writing about sisters. And now here they are helping me out with my other little hobby of linguistic difficulties.

Such a happy day ­čÖé

A is for Aluminum

On Tuesday Child 2 found something I said so amusing that he had to get his phone out and record me. Seriously, that’s just wrong. Isn’t it??

Anyway the word in question, as you may have guessed, was Aluminum, because in Britain its not Aluminum, its Aluminium.

To be clear:

US English – Aluminum – pronounced Aloominum

UK English – Aluminium – pronounced Al-you-min-eum

For the record I can tell you that after you’ve repeated it 20 times for the entertainment of your 13 year old, you can no longer pronounce either right and may well wish you’d wish you had not been born.

So why this difference in spelling and pronunciation for the 13th Element of the periodic table? Well I did a little research and for a while I thought that the element was first identified at the beginning of nineteenth century by this man, Humphry Davy:


So I read a bit more about Humphry Davy and found out he (maybe) invented the Davy Lamp (which I remember learning about at school) and also that he was addicted to laughing gas (which wasn’t on the curriculum, sadly). Also sadly though, it turned out he didn’t discover aluminium/aluminum and the website I read that on was wrong. That’s because this man, Hans Christian Orsted, discovered it instead:


You can just tell by looking at him that he wasn’t addicted to anything, can’t you? Although he did write poetry, so perhaps I’m wrong.

After all that, I have failed thus far to shed any real light on the aluminum/aluminium difference, beyond the common, post-Independence divergence of the language. But I did get a giggle in a thread of comments I read on the About.com chemistry page on Aluminum which I have a snapshot of here, just to show that squabbles over US/UK language differences are alive and well on the good-old internet:

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