Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Half way through a long and difficult to write post about the big health scare of last week. Maybe I'll get it done tomorrow sometime.

So, to tide you over here are a few titbits of news (did you know, by the way, that the US word is tidbits which reflected a nineteenth century US desire to purge the language of what can only be described as rude syllables? You may have thought that the Victorian era of prudery was a British phenomenon, but it apparently was worse over the Atlantic. This is also the reason why a cockroach is a roach, a cock is a rooster, and nobody titters in the USA)

The final of the Romanian Ice Hockey Championship starts tomorrow. As I reported last year, the final is always between Sport Club Miercurea Ciuc and Steaua Bucharest. This year we have home ice advantage (meaning that if the match goes to the full 7 games 4 of those games will take place here). I'll keep you updated on the outcome of an event which grips Csikszereda and leaves the rest of the country completely unmoved. Though these days they do show it on Pro Sport TV)

Last week JK Rowling visited Romania, presumably to help launch the Romanian translation of her latest book. There was a charity dinner to which parents could bring their children to meet the authoress - for 1000 Euros a ticket. I have no idea how any Romanian can come up with 1000 Euros for a dinner. (Aside from those members of the PSD who have suspicious relatives leaving them large sums of money in their wills). Just think if I'd known way back when when I knew JK (or Joanne as she was then) what having dinner with her would one day be worth. I even babysat her daughter once - that kind of insider stuff would fetch a small fortune these days.

It was -32 again this morning. When will this bloody winter ever end?


Soj said...

Hey Andy... according to this, her visit to the Big B was to promote her literacy campaign and the charity Grupul la Nivel Inalt, whatever that is in English.


Anonymous said...

US desire to purge the language of what can only be described as rude syllables... This is also the reason why a cockroach is a roach, a cock is a rooster, and nobody titters in the USA

Um. Cockroaches are cockroaches everywhere in the US (except in New York, where they're water bugs). "Roach" is used occasionally for shortness, not because of a fear of cocks.

"Titter" was in wide use well into the 20th century. It declined, not because of fear of tits, but because the meaning shifted and became more specific. In England, it seems to be just another word for giggling. In America, it's a shrill, unpleasant giggle suggesting some degree of derangement; if you say someone "tittered", there's a negative connotation, suggesting the titterer was senile, drunk, or just very silly.

You can see the shift beginning in the works of H.P. Lovecraft (1920s and 1930s); he loves the word "titter", but it's definitely something that creepy mad scientists and monsters do.

"Titbit -> "Tidbit" seems to be one of those odd small senseless shifts. AE is full of them: chips vs. crisps, clothes pin vs. clothes peg, pressure vs. pressurise, railroad vs. railway, backpack vs. rucksack, etc., etc.

Note that a lot of these shifts aren't really BE -> AE. Rather, they're AE holding on to an older or alternate form that BE has abandoned. The classic example of this is "gotten" as the pp of "got" -- it was standard BE up to the days of Pope and Dryden, but you've completely abandoned it. So, I wouldn't be at all sure that "tidbit" is a bowdlerized descendant of "titbit".

You'll notice that American English retains titbirds and bluetits, and that we can still titivate, trade tit for tat, and be titular.

We can also turn a stop-cock, cock a gun (which may go off half cocked), or go to a cockfight. A pastime which, though long outlawed in squeamish Britain, is still legal in several US states... and is never, ever a rooster fight.

There are a few areas where AE seems to be a bit more squeamish than BE; the near-universal usage of "bathroom" for toilet, for instance. On the other hand, I'll take "fanny pack" over "bum bag" any day. And we call blood sausage what it is, with none of this stuff about "black pudding".

In sum, this smells like an urban legend to me. I would bet money that -- for instance -- the first appearance of "tidbit" is well before 1850, and I would be surprised if it weren't originally British.

(It's testable. All these etymologies can be found in the OED; we could also check in at one of the linguistic newgroups, or at Language Hat.)

Anyway, color me deeply skeptical. No offense. But I'm pretty sure it's nothing but -- as we say in America -- a titillating cock-and-bull story.

Doug M.

Andy H said...

My source was Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue". I don't have a copy here or I'd check out what his original source for this was.

And yes, that fact about AE hanging on to older uses is definitely the case. I think it's one of those inevitable facts when one population is effectively cut off from the centre of their language (as was the case with the colonists in the US) and they then tend to stick with how the language was when they emigrated. You can see this to a lesser extent with Hungarians in Romania - here there are a certain number of words that no longer exist (or are in common use) in Hungary.

Fanny pack could not possibly be called that in the UK, because, well, we have an entirely different meaning for fanny. And "fanny pack" does still sound pretty lewd to my ears

Anonymous said...

I'm fond of Bryson, but I don't think he can be considered reliable here.

N.B., cock = male avian is still in wide use in the US. All that's happened is that the specific meaning "male of _gallus domesticus_" has disappeared. Today cock means either a male bird generally (cock sparrow, cock parakeet), or a fighting cock.

It occurs to me that this is probably the reason the meanings diverged. Cockfighting died out in Britain a while ago. In America, where it survived much longer, it made sense to distinguish the fighting bird from the ordinary male chicken. "Rooster" -- which I'd bet money is another old BE term -- was recruited for the latter.

So, it's American brutality rather than American prudishness that drove the change.

Cutoff populations: yes, indeed, they do tend to be more conservative. To a surprising degree, modern AE is 18th century English. Fielding or Defoe would probably find my accent reasonably normal (a sort of generic western counties drawl interspersed with Fen-isms), while yours would seem quite strange and unplaceable.

Similarly, Australian can be sweepingly generalized as early 19th century English, mixed London and northern.

The smaller and more distant the group, the more conservative and divergent it tends to be. Afrikaans is only a little older than AE, but the Afrikaners were much more isolated than the American colonists, so Afrikaans has diverged into a distinct language.

Linguists have developed some powerful techniques based on these. If I had nothing else to do this week, we could discuss how those techniques apply to rival Romanian and Hungarian theories of Romanian ethnogenesis and continuity in Transylvania. (Both fare badly, but this upsets Romanians more than Hungarians.)

But I think I will leave that post to you. No, don't thank me...

Fanny pack: my point. You delicate, blushing Brits!

Doug M.

Andy H said...

Blushing? You know that fanny in BritEng refers to the female genitals right?

Th online etymology dictionary here
backs Bryson up (though I have no idea of the reliability of said resource) "1772, from roost (earlier roost cock, 1606), in sense of "the roosting bird," favored in the U.S. as a puritan alternative to cock (and compare roach)."

The bathroom thing cracks me up. A (US) friend of mine was once at a British railway station and asked the ticket colector where the bathroom was. He replied that there wasn't one, which nonplussed her. Fortunatly behind he in the queue someone overheard and clarified "She's Amercian, she means the toilet" at which the ticket guy pointed her in the right direction.

(My favourite story of similar origins is a friend of a friend who was visiting the UK and hired a car. He needed to find somewhere to park in a ciy, and so rolled down his window and asked a passer-by "Is there a lot around here?" To which the confused answer came "A lot of what?")

Anonymous said...

But of course. This seems to be a relative neologism -- "Fanny" was a perfectly acceptable female name as late as Regency times.

Cockroach and rooster: no, I gotta call bullshit. 1772 for rooster: that's not Victorian. Those were the good old, let-it-hang days of the preRevolutionary ancien regime, American style. Hookers made house calls up and down Wall Street in broad daylight, and Ben Franklin was on like his seventh illegitimate child.

1837 for roach... that's barely Victorian, but I'm not convinced. Looks more like the American passion for abbreviation at work. As George Orwell points out (in an otherwise mostly whiny and useless essay about AmE), Americans very early showed a strong tendency to flatten all the beautiful, complex insect names of BE into some variant of "bug".

Oh, and the same source gives "tidbit: c.1640, probably from dialectal tid "fond, solicitous, tender" + bit "morsel." Hah. Knew it: "tid" was the original form, but you tit-obsessed Brits messed it up.

(Hm: it also gives the first appearance of Fanny = female genitals as 1879. AmE has kept the older, only mildly saucy meaning.)

I would cautiously trust this source on things like first dates and linguistic linkages. But "puritan alternative"... no.

But let's take the next step. You want to ask language hat, or should I?

Doug M.

Andy H said...

Go for it - I wish I had a copy of Bryson's book so I could look up what his refernce was for all this.

I prefer titbit to tidbit - the rhyming thing works better in my opinion. One of the things we were right to change. Tidbit doesn't trip off the tongue so well.

Anonymous said...

Response from language hat.

Are you still ad hoc at rocket mail dot com?

Doug M.

Andy H said...

From the Lnaguage Hat, via Doug...

I completely agree with you [Doug], as does the OED, which says of roach in
this sense simply "abbrev. form of COCKROACH." The Online Etymology
Dictionary is useful and often correct, but it's certainly not
authoritative, and as you say, talk of "puritan alternatives" is
suspicious when there are obvious alternatives (like simple
shortening). You have my permission to smite your pal with my smiting
stick -- but I'll need it back by Sunday, when Safire is likely to
utter further stupidities.

Al said...

Any comments on why Americans call their arse their ass? A vowel shift through early unstandardized spelling or language cutesification?

Robert said...

A roach is the butt end of a joint. A cockroach is a cockroach. When Americans want to be prissy they eat "tasty little tidbits" or maybe they are gossiping.