Category Archives: Manners

And the award for most F-bombs in a movie goes to …


In her odd, rambling acceptance speech at the Golden Globes last night, after winning her best supporting actress award, Jacqueline Bisset let the word shit slip right out of her mouth — and, it seems, right past the TV censors. Bad bleeping, NBC. You can see the full cringe-inducing speech right here.

We’re not that used to hearing profanities on national network television, since its censorship process is usually pretty efficient. But in the movies — especially in the last three or four decades — it’s become a case of almost anything goes. Fuck, according to Wikipedia, is thought to be the taboo word used most in American film — and boy does it get used.

One movie that’s tipped to pick up a respectable handful of awards this season is Wolf of Wall Street. But it’s already landed itself a damned fine and dubious distinction: it has set the record for the most 4-letter F-words uttered in a single movie (well, apart from the 2005 documentary Fuck, whose subject matter allowed it to take a big fat helping of Hollywood’s favorite profanity). 506 F-bombs in the 179-minute comedy: that’s what Wolf notched up, pushing out 1999’s Summer of Sam, the previous record-holder with a mere 435 such bleepers.

According to Wikipedia, there are at least 107 English-language movies* — and possibly more — that feature the word fuck or one of its derivatives at least 150 times in their screenplays. That’s a lot of friggin’ effing. Scarface, from 1983, is the earliest movie to have entered this distinguished category, in 1983, with 170 occurrences; Platoon joined the list a few years later in ’86 with 159. Wolf is going to be hard to beat, with its incidence rate of 2.83 F-bombs a minute, although 1997’s Nil By Mouth managed to F— By Mouth some 3.34 p.m. …

Here are a few more fabulous factoids, courtesy Wikipedia, about the F-word and its more mild-mannered S-cousin invading our big and small screens with ferocious frequency:

  • “It Hits the Fan”, an episode of South Park, used the word shit 162 times in 23 minutes
  • Madonna’s appearance on David Letterman’s show in March 1994 featured the entertainer using the word fuck 14 times, making the episode the most censored in American network television talk-show history; it also resulted in some of the highest ratings of Letterman’s late-night career.
  • In the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Steve Martin’s character rants at a car rental clerk, uttering the word fuck or fucking 18 times in a little more than 40 seconds.
  • In an episode of The Wire called “Old Cases”, the word fuck is used 38 times in 3 minutes and 45 seconds. Fuck and its derivatives are the only words spoken in the scene.

See an earlier Glossophilia post about the sometimes ambiguous and downright silly content advisories that try and protect us and our children from these and other eyebrow-raising utterances.

* that’s non-pornographic movies, to be specific

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (4 Oct)


Welcome to “TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky”, a new weekly feature on Glossophilia. Every Friday, you’ll find a digest of some of the week’s best offerings about language, literature, grammar, usage and abusage — on the web and on the wire. Some of it will make you laugh, some might make you cry. Some will be genuinely useful, a lot of it won’t, and there will be stuff you just won’t believe. Enjoy (it).


On Facebook, Grammarly posted some incorrect word definitions offered by creative and lateral-thinking students. One of my favorites is Adamant: “pertaining to original sin” …

The Guardian reassured us that there are 10 grammar rules we no longer need to worry about. And one of those is starting sentences with a conjunction; another is all about what you should and shouldn’t end them with.

You think “OMG” or “srsly” are 21st-century inventions? You might have to think again, as Jen Doll, in The Atlantic‘s October issue, takes a look at the not-so-recent history of today’s hottest expressions (not yet online).

The Associated Press reported on the rise in heritage language programs — and why the need for them has grown. “Dorothy Villarreal grew up dreaming in Spanish, first in Mexico and later in South Texas, where her family moved when she was six. She excelled in school — in English. But at home life was in Spanish, from the long afternoon chats with her grandparents to the Spanish-language version of Barbie magazines she eagerly awaited each month. She figured she was fluent in both languages. Then the Harvard University junior spent last summer studying in Mexico and realized just how big the gaps in her Spanish were.”

Pride’s Purge offered us a very useful document: a pocket guide to Toryspeak – ie. what Tories (aka members of the British Conservative Party) say vs. what Tories mean. When they say they’re reforming the NHS, what do they REALLY mean? And what does everyone understand by it?

Keith Houston gives us a sneak peek [see Stealth Mountain below] of his new book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, when he describes “four scandalously overlooked typographic outliers” in the Financial Times.

You might not want to try singing like David Bowie – but now you can read like him. As part of the exhibition “David Bowie Is”, which recently opened at the Art Gallery of Toronto, a list of the legendary singer’s top 100 books has been compiled. Open Book Toronto has the list.

The writer Margaret Atwood is among a group of prominent Canadian women who have launched a campaign to make the English-language lyrics to Canada’s national anthem more gender-neutral, as the BBC reports.

Oliver Moody wrote in The Times (UK) that “many teachers do not have adequate knowledge of English grammar to teach the new curriculum, according to the architect of a government-funded teaching programme. Bas Aarts, a professor of English linguistics at University College London, … said that the English tests for pupils up to the age of 14 introduced by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, demanded more knowledge of grammar than many teachers possess.”

mental_floss brought us 9 colorful words and phrases from Breaking Bad‘s final season. (Here’s what I learned: The next time someone offers to send you on a trip to Belize, run in the other direction. Fast.)

On The Guardian‘s U.S. comment site, self-confessed accent geek Erica Buist asks whether Britain is becoming a nation of accent snobs. If we Brits don’t take the trouble to pronounce foreign words like bruschetta correctly, do we have the right to judge those who communicate less comfortably in English?

If you read literary fiction, you’ll become more empathic. That’s what a new scientific study shows, according to a New York Times science blog post. Apparently “reading literary fiction – as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction – leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” Um – do we really need scientists to tell us that? I hear a big resounding ‘duh!’ echoing through the chattering book groups of the world …

And finally, I think I’ve found my favorite Tweeter. Here is how Stealth Mountain @stealthmountain advertises his or her mission: “I alert twitter users that they typed sneak peak when they meant sneak peek. I live a sad life.” The replies to Stealth’s tweets are even funnier than the tweets themselves. Thanks to Reddit for the tip-off.

Instructions for American servicemen in Britain in 1942


In 1942, the United States War Department distributed pamphlets to American servicemen heading over to Britain to help fight the war. The aim of the publication was to prepare the young GIs for life in a foreign culture (many of the young soldiers had never been abroad before) and to try and prevent any tensions or misunderstandings between the servicemen and the locals among whom they would be living and working. As explained to the GIs in the introduction to the War Department “instructions”: “In getting along, the first important thing to remember is that the British are like the Americans in many ways —  but not in all ways. You will quickly discover differences that seem confusing and even wrong. Like driving on the left side of the road, and having money based on an “impossible” accounting system, and drinking warm beer. But once you get used to things like that, you will realize that they belong to England just as baseball and jazz and coca-cola belong to us.”

The Times wrote an editorial about the pamphlet on July 14 of that year, predicting that it would be a bestseller and comparing it with the works of Irving, Emerson and Hawthorne (who had all tried to capture the essence of Britishness for American readers), saying that “none of their august expositions has the spotlight directness of this revelation of plain common horse sense understanding of evident truths”.

Here are some of the GI handbook’s observations about British English and the quirky word usage that the young American soldiers were warned to watch out for.

“The British have phrases and colloquialisms of their own that may sound funny to you. You can make just as many boners in their eyes. It isn’t a good idea, for instance, to say “bloody” in mixed company in Britain — it is one of their worst swear words. To say “I look like a bum ” is offensive to their ears, for to the British this means that you look like your own backside it isn’t important — just a tip if you are trying to shine in polite society. ”

“Almost before you meet the people you will hear them speaking “English”. At first you may not understand what they’re talking about and they may not understand what you say. The accent will be different from what you are used to, and many of the words will be strange, or apparently wrongly used.”

“In England the “upper crust” speak pretty much alike. You will hear the news broadcaster for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). He is a good example, because he has been trained to talk with the “cultured” accent. He will drop the  letter “r” (as people do in sections of our own country) and will say “hyah” instead of “here”.  He will use the broad a pronouncing all the a’s in “Banana” like the a in “father”. However funny you may think this is, you will be able to understand people who talk this way and they will be able to understand you. And you will soon get over thinking it is funny.”

“Instead of railroads, automobiles and radios, the British will talk about railways, motorcars and wireless sets. A railroad tie is a sleeper. … A man who works on the roadbed is a navvy. … The top of a car is the hood. What we call the hood (of the engine) is the bonnet. … Gas is petrol — if there is any.”

“You will have to ask for sock suspenders to get garters, and for braces instead of suspenders — if you need any. If you are standing in line to buy (book) a railroad ticket or a seat at the movies (cinema), you will be queuing (pronounced “cueing”) up before the booking office. If you want a beer quickly, you had better ask for the nearest pub.”

And finally, here were some important do’s and don’ts for the GIs heading off to a foreign land to face a common foe:

“Don’t make fun of British speech or accents. You sound just as funny to them, but they will be too polite to show it. … NEVER criticize the King or Queen. … You will soon find yourself among a kindly, quiet, hard-working people who have been living under a strain such as few people in the world have ever known. In your dealings with them, let this be your slogan: “It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.”

“You won’t be able to tell the British much about “taking it”. They are not particularly interested in taking it any more. They are far more interested in getting together in solid friendship with us, so that we can all start dishing it out to Hitler.”

A reproduction of the original pamphlet,  Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942was published by the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which holds a copy of the original typescript issued by the War Department in Washington DC. Other than the important language usage excerpts above, the book contains similarly enlightening sections with titles such as “British reserved, not unfriendly”, “The British are tough”, “Keep out of arguments”, and “indoor amusements” — which is essentially a paragraph all about the great British pub…

Thank you. You might be welcome …


Do we say thanks too much? “Thank you” (or the appropriate equivalent — eg. thanks, tah, cheers, merci, etc.) tends to be said more frequently in some cultures — especially in English-speaking countries — than in others; many would argue that utterances of thanks and gratitude are dished out so habitually and gratuitously in England and the U.S. that the sincerity of the sentiment is often diminished.

The Chinese rarely say thank you to their family and close friends. And because they value humility, saying “thank you” after being paid a compliment can be perceived as arrogant. In Thailand, gratitude is generally conveyed using the “wai”, a gesture of hands clasped together as in prayer, which varies according to the social status of the person being thanked, and sometimes simply a smile will suffice; a verbal “thank you” is reserved for important actions that warrant sincere and special gratitude. The Nepalese have no words that translate directly to thank you or please; they adjust or conjugate their pronouns and verbs (much like the way the French use vous or tu) to reflect the level of respect they wish to convey, but don’t have dedicated “polite” words. (Similarly, most Scandinavian countries — certainly Danish, Finnish and Icelandic — don’t have an actual word for please.)

As for acknowledging thanks, the nature of the verbal response also varies from culture to culture and language to language, and seems to fall into three general categories. The first amounts to dismissing the act that inspired the thanks as unimportant or non-existent. The French say de rien, the Portuguese de nada, in Catalan, it’s de res — all translating roughly to “it’s nothing”. Then there’s almost the opposite: an expression of pleasure on the part of the person being thanked. The Dutch phrase graag gedaan translates literally as “gladly done”; when the Icelandic say gerdu svo vel, they mean “my pleasure”. And finally there’s a fairly common tradition of echoing back the word for please when you’re acknowledging an expression of gratitude. In Hebrew, Russian and a number of Eastern European languages, the way you say “you’re welcome” is by using the word for please. In Russia, it’s пожалуйста” (“pah-zhal-stah”); the Polish dual-purpose word is prosze; in Hebrew, it’s bevakasha.

In British and American English, we tend to use variations on the first two types of expression. An Englishman, if he does verbalize a response, is more likely to offer “of course”, “don’t mention it”, “it was nothing”, “by all means”, “no problem”, “no worries” (very common in Australian English), “that’s OK”, “that’s all right”, “my pleasure”, or “not at all”. The traditional “you’re welcome” is more of an American phenomenon. In fact, since the British have a habit of thanking everyone for the smallest and most trivial actions (they give thanks almost as much as they apologize), they’re less inclined to acknowledge all the gratitude being doled out — and therefore a nod or a smile, with deliberate eye-contact (which in itself is enough to make most English folk blush), will usually do the trick. The Americans are more conscientious (they will usually offer a verbal reply), less self-conscious and more effusive with their “you’re welcomes”, and common alternatives are “sure”, “sure thing”, or, even more informally, “you bet” — or “you betcha!”. That’s something you won’t hear an Englishman say.

Last year, Lynneguist on her blog Separated by a Common Language wrote a detailed and nuanced post comparing American and English usage of please, thank you and other general terms and expressions of politeness (a video of her TEDx talk on the subject at Sussex University accompanies the piece). It’s well worth a read to understand some of the more subtle differences in manners — both linguistic and social — between the Yanks and the Brits.

Here are a few international versions of “you’re welcome”, with their literal translations where I’ve managed to track them down:

Brazilian/Portuguese: de nada, “of nothing”

Catalan: de res,  “it’s nothing”

Cantonese: M̀h’sái haak-hei, “not necessary”

Danish: selv tak, “thanks yourself”

Dutch: graag gedaan, “gladly done”

Finnish: ole hyvä

French: de rien, “it’s nothing”

German: Bitte schoen, “please pretty”

Hebrew: bevakasha, “please”

Hungarian: nincs mit, “nothing”

Icelandic: gerdu svo vel, “my pleasure” or “there you go”

Italian: prego, “I beg”

Japanese: dou itashimashite

Norwegian: bare hyggelig, “my pleasure”

Polish: prosze, “please”

Russian: pohzhalstah, “please”

Slovenian: prosim, “please”

Spanish: de nada, “it’s nothing”, or mi gusto, “my pleasure”

Swedish: varsagod, “be so good”

Tagalog: walang anuman, “no problems”




Italian: Prego


Mrs. Thatcher or Lady Thatcher?


Whatever opinions we might hold about the former British Prime Minister who died this morning (and she probably was one of the most divisive prime ministers in living memory), it seems only fair that she should be referred to appropriately, according to the title that was conferred on her. In 1992, Margaret Thatcher was granted a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire.

This morning, the two most influential U.S. newspapers, reporting on Thatcher’s death, are calling her simply “Mrs. Thatcher”. The Wall Street Journal writes: “It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announced that their mother, Baroness Thatcher, died peacefully following a stroke this morning,” said Mrs. Thatcher‘s spokesman, Timothy Bell. She was 87.” It seems extraordinary that the newspaper’s house style apparently prescribes the removal of honorary or conferred titles, even in the very same sentence that the title itself is quoted by her official spokesman. The New York Times clearly has a similar editorial policy: “Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy, ‘in most respects, is uncontested by the Blair government,’ Mr. Young, her biographer, said in a 1999 interview.” This must be a new policy on the part of the New York Times, since its 2010 review of composer Andrew Lloyd Weber’s new musical in London referred to him appropriately, acknowledging the knighthood that was bestowed on him in the same year that Thatcher was granted her peerage: “Lord Lloyd-Webber’s last international smash was, in fact, the first “Phantom”.”

The English newspapers, when not referring to the Iron Lady just by her last name, respectfully use her correct title, which is either ‘Lady’ or ‘Baroness’:

“The first woman elected to lead a major western state, Lady Thatcher, as she became after the longest premiership since 1827, served 11 unbroken years at No 10.,” The Guardian reports.  The BBC also recognizes her life peerage in its coverage: “Lady Thatcher was Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990. She was the first woman to hold the role.”

We can trust Debrett’s, “the modern authority on all matters etiquette, taste and achievement”, to confirm and clarify how a baroness should be referred to and addressed. Indeed, its entry on baronesses ends with the example of Lady Thatcher herself:

“At present all peeresses in their own right are either countesses or baronesses. In the peerage of Scotland, the term Lady (ie Lady of Parliament) is the legal term of the fifth grade of peerage because the term “Baroness” is used in Scotland in a feudal sense relating to land tenure.

“A countess in her own right is addressed in the same way as an earl’s wife, but a baroness, whether hereditary or life, has the option of two alternatives, ‘Baroness’ or ‘Lady’.

“Since the Peerage Act 1963, and the growing numbers of female life peers, the use of the continental style of ‘Baroness’, both verbally and in writing, has become widespread. Most Baronesses in their own right, however, prefer to be styled ‘Lady’, and the same is true of a minority of Life Baronesses (for example Lady Thatcher).”

We’ll give The Queen the last word on this, as I’m sure she knows how to talk about a baroness. As a Buckingham Palace spokesman said this morning: “The Queen was sad to hear the news of the death of Baroness Thatcher.”

Vive le français en anglais


H. W. Fowler had this to say about French words: “Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth – greater, indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion & good manners. That is the guiding principle alike in the using & in the pronouncing of French words in English writing & talk. To use French words that your reader or hearer does not know or does not fully understand, to pronounce them as if you were one of those few (& it is ten thousand to one that neither you nor he will be so), is inconsiderate & rude.” OK, so he did write this in 1949 (Fowler’s English Language), but doesn’t he have a point?

Sometimes you just have to hop over the channel (or the Atlantic) to grab that little word from our favorite Romance language – to describe his blasé attitude, her style that’s so effortlessly chic, that risqué outfit or comment – because there’s just no other word that will do the trick. But when does littering our speech and prose with French words and expressions stop being colorful, nuanced and poetic (if not completely necessary) and start verging dangerously on the pretentious? When it comes to (the) French, is our inferiority complex (not only about our language but just about everything else as well) always in play?

Anglo-Saxon or Old English, with its essentially German base and subsequent influences from Celtic, classical Latin and Norse/Scandinavian invaders,  was spoken and written in England until the mid 12th century. When William the Conqueror seized the throne, French took over as the language of the court, administration, and culture – and stayed there for 300 years. The Norman conquest brought about huge changes in English language and culture. As English was relegated to the everyday classes as a usable, pragmatic tongue, and the more grammatically complex and nuanced French flourished at court, the two languages coincided happily for years, but not without a fundamental shift that turned Old English into Middle English. With the Norman invasion, about 10,000 French words were adopted , many of which are still in use today. This French vocabulary is found in every area of life and conversation – from politics and law to art and literature – and is used often unconsciously by people of all backgrounds and ages. More than a third of all English words are derived directly or indirectly from French, and linguists estimate that English speakers who have never studied French nevertheless know 15,000 French words.

It goes without saying that certain French words are non-negotiable: we would be tongue-tied without cuisines, souvenirs, matinées, bouquets or clichés. Then there are those words and expressions that simply have no real equivalent in our humdrum English: how could we possibly describe a rendez-vous, a pied-à-terre, a protégé, a tour de force? An idée fixe or a fait accompli, the nouveau riche, that feeling of deja vu? Who in the absence of the maitre d’ would run the restaurant, and what the hell would we serve at cocktail parties if we didn’t have hors d’oeuvres? And without either, how would we leave en masse? Repartee would be replaced by witless banter; a tête-à-tête would lose its intimacy. And how would we all cope without the freedom of carte blanche – or the option of a ménage à trois? Not being able to dismiss an outfit, attitude or concept as passé would be unfortunate.

But when do we start treading on dangerous ground? Many English speakers might feel bereft not having savoir-faire, laissez faire, pièce de résistance, touché, au fait, soirée, bon voyage, joie de vivre, or bon appetit in our vocabularies, but others might try and avoid using what could be regarded as snotty affectations.

Admit it: when you hear your fellow countrymen using some of the following words or phrases ‘on fronsay’ , don’t you agree with Mr. Fowler and cringe just a little? Just un soupçon?

Adieu! … A propos … Au contraire! … Au naturel … N’est ce pas? … C’est la vie … Comme il faut … Je ne sais quoi … Tout de suite …  Sans … Apéritif … Vis-à-vis … Et voilà!

What’s the problem with “no problem”?

Almost no one says “you’re welcome” when thanked these days. The exceedingly rude-sounding “no problem”, or — much worse — “no worries”, is the usual response (if ANY) to the simple “thank you”. “No problem” is tossed back with utter lack of care or notice – appropriately enough, since it indicates brain-death like a flatline. If you know enough to respond to thanks offered you for a task or deed, you should know enough to say “you’re welcome”.

Whenever a shop assistant (aka “team-member”, “associate” — of what or whom?, I ask myself) answers my thanks with “no problem”, I reply “I should HOPE there’s no problem; it’s your JOB” upon deaf ears and to a blank stare. But I’ve noticed that when I congratulate (and thank) the utterer of “you’re welcome” for her or his usage of the appropriate response to thanks, I get a pleasant reply. I rest my case.

PS. What, I wonder, will replace thank you, or thanks? Oh, that’s already happened: no thanks!