Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

Fiancé, Fiancée: How Do You Pronounce Them?

My friends have fallen prey to an engagement epidemic. And when you’re the first to know, you want to tell everyone else you know, too.

But spreading the news that your two best buds are affianced can be tricky.

You can look up both spellings to make sure you get the mass mailing right. I was stymied, however, when it came to regular, real-time conversation.

Different on Paper, Same in Speech

If your engaged guy friend is a fiancé, and your engaged girl friend is a fiancée, wouldn’t you expect to preserve that difference when talking to people? At the very least, it would help your grandfather understand exactly what’s going on with your best friend Lindsay Lohan:

Her fiancé’s name is Sam Ronson, you say? Well isn’t that nice, dear.”

Get your grandfather an e-mail address, because without some serious pronoun work on your part, he would understand more by reading about the engagement than he would by hearing it in conversation.

While there are three acceptable American English pronunciations for these French terms, the word sounds exactly the same whether it’s fiancé or fiancée.

So How Do I Say It?

For the record, Webster’s offers a male voice intoning fee-ahn-SAY as the proper pronunciation for fiancé and fiancée. I prefer fee-AHN-say, which Bartleby also deems acceptable.

You’ll just have to use context to get the word out to your friends. That, or cue cards.

Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

How Do You Keep Your Eyes Wide Shut?

I’m working on a very large and very urgent translation project this month. While being so busy has its drawbacks for updates, the job I’m doing does provide a lot of inspiration for posts.

For example, I could swear that the only time I’ve ever heard the expression “eyes wide shut” was in reference to the Kubrick film. Yet I had a hunch that it would be the perfect translation for a German expression I came across in my work today.

But how could I find a definition when the Google results are crammed so full of Cruise-Kidman speculation and middling movie reviews? I ended up searching for

“eyes wide shut” definition -kubrick -film

This still didn’t generate any of the obvious, easy reference sites that I can usually count on finding in the search results.

It turned out, however, that the context was enough. Look at the titles on these results, and you can probably guess the meaning of the phrase already:

Internet, you are a translator’s best friend.

Even when that translator has to work a little harder to make you useful.

Editor at Large Politics Spoken English

The Obamas: When Grammar Gets Political

Obama pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in the superdelegate count two days ago, and is poised to bag a major endorsement this evening in the U.S.

So when Edwards takes the podium after I’m fast asleep in Berlin, take a moment to consider Obama’s latest grammar mistake, memorably noted by Radio Free Mike.

The senator from Illinois distanced himself once and for all from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright during a press conference, with an even-tempered and eloquent kiss-off. However:

…he was somebody who was my pastor, and married Michelle and I, and baptized my children…

Ahem. That would be Michelle and me, wouldn’t it?

It’s not the first time that Obama has mixed up his pronouns. He seems to have a penchant for this particular error, one his wife, Michelle, has also made.

Michelle, on the other hand, has also done exactly the opposite:

Let me tell you who me and Barack are…

There is a telling difference between the mistakes being made here. While both of the Obamas made the same “for I” mistake, when talking about Reverend Wright, only Michelle made reference to “me and Barack” in a subject context and only then when refuting accusations of elitism.

If ever there was a mistake made by grammar elitists, the “for I” mix-up is it. Using a subject pronoun (“I”) when the context calls for an object pronoun (“me”) is over-correction, the result of hundreds of well-meaning grade-school teachers and bifocaled aunties reminding you that it’s not “me and Susie went to the bathroom” but “Susie and I.”

It’s interesting, then, that Michelle seemed to be aware of this class distinction in her own speech, saying moments later that she is the product of “a working-class upbringin[g].”

Obama, on the other hand, gets caught in the grammar mistakes of the elite. But what else is there, really, to ding him for? The man’s an outrageously eloquent speaker. Take a look at what else came out of his mouth at the press conference on the Wright debacle:

What particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks was somehow political posturing.

I gave an audible “wow” when YouTube-sized Obama spoke these words to me. When you get rid of the repetition, this is an impressively wordy statement to make off the cuff during a press conference.

Indeed, is it too impressive? Should Barack take a page from Michelle? I got laughed at in junior-high detention when I said I didn’t know the “procedure”. Hillary trounced Obama among working-class West Virginia voters yesterday—who can guess what the electorate will make of him and his verbosity in November?

Editor at Large Spoken English

The Crazy English Tongue Muscle Training House

In honor of my Chinese readers, please enjoy this link to an astonishing article in this week’s New Yorker on English language learning, the Li Yang way:

China today is divided by class, opportunity, and power, but one of its few unifying beliefs—something shared by waiters, politicians, intellectuals, tycoons—is the power of English. […] Li’s cosmology ties the ability to speak English to personal strength, and personal strength to national power. It’s a combination that produces intense, sometimes desperate adoration. A student named Feng Tao told me that on one occasion, realizing that he had enough cash for tuition to an out-of-town Li lecture but not enough for train fare, “I went and sold blood.”

via Language Log and Dick & Garlick

Editor at Large Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

I’m So Disorientated!

As far as I’m concerned, the title of this post is completely inappropriate in the United States. I have always considered adding that extra syllable to the already unwieldy “disoriented” to be a grammar mistake up there with irregardless and could care less. But guess what?

It’s in the dictionary!

And this one’s no April Fool, I’m afraid. There’s an entry for orientate, as well.

So what gives? How can these obviously made-up words be in the dictionary? Why is a solid reference body like Merriam-Webster fomenting such erroneous pronunciation (and why don’t they pay me for mentioning them so often, already)?

Knowing what we do about English differences across the Atlantic, let’s first see if any of our pals in the UK can get us orientated. And how better to that than to consult the BNC? Good thing I already did, in March:

All those times I’ve seen “orientated” used in the English press, and been supremely freaked out by it, were ameliorated by the results I got when I compared it to “oriented” on the Corpus: “orientated” showed up half as much.

Half as much, however, is still more than we see it in the United States, where the “ate” in “disorientate” is so rare that we most definitely consider it an error.

If you follow that entry for orientate, up above, you’ll see that M-W defines it as “facing to the east” – the Latin root orient – and that there is no trace of the figurative meaning we’re more familiar with, the one that’s synonymous with discombobulated, confused.

This is a tough one. Could the U.S. have fixated on the figurative meaning, while the UK has retained both terms? Could it be that this is not a new error at all, but rather one that goes back centuries, to the first reference for disorientate in the eighteenth century?

Here’s hoping I can tell you tomorrow.

Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

Is It Internet or Is It Oral?

Disclaimer: Dear readers, this entry contains examples of a virulent and suggestive Internet meme. Several, in fact. Viewers who scroll down will find pictorial innuendo and thinly abbreviated expletives. Discretion is advised.

Do ppl rly say OMG IRL?

I’m serious (srsly). Do people really say O-M-G in real life? Do girls in middle school mouth it to one another when their sportcoated history teacher goes off on a liberal tirade? Do teenage rock stars use it in interviews? Will it be Hillary’s next gambit (“We should have a government blogging team!”) to connect with the young people?

I live in Germany, so I don’t get to sample much impromptu U.S. English. I get dribs and drabs from American Idol, but the closest spelled-out IRL abbreviation I’ve heard used there was Danny Noriega’s amusing attempt to coin a new catchphrase out of T-M-T-H (Too Much To Handle).

When I see “omg” somewhere, or when I use it here to make a point, the deadpan reader voice in my head says something along the lines of “ohm’god,” emphasis on the first syllable, same rhythm as “Gossip Girl.”

Coincidentally, I guess the Gossip Girl PR team didn’t hear it quite like I did:


That’s a long, drawn out Oh. My. F@$*&#$g. God.

But what if it’s actually an O-M-F-G?

I really want to know! Especially since even before I came across this poster, I heard “O-M-G” used in a celebrity news report I lost one minute and thirty seconds of my life on last week. Don’t let that time be in vain!

The network airing “Gossip Girl” in the United States has claimed that their ad campaign

speaks directly to our adult 18-34 viewers using expressions that are part of their lexicon.

But would that lexicon be spoken or written? What do you say when you read the thing out loud?

Tell me: is O-M-G just what the anchors on Extra are saying to sound like those kooky MySpace kids? Or is it really appearing in the vernacular? This is one incidence where the recency illusion won’t come into play: I’ll be hornswoggled if OMG has been around one minute longer than AOL.

Editor at Large Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

Do You Beaver?

After two and a half months blogging, I am approaching the all-important 40th post. Today’s is number 39. My nose has been so close to the grindstone, however, that I’ve barely noticed. I’ve got new projects to complete, old bills to write, a daily blog to keep up…in short, I’ve been beavering away.

Have you heard beaver used in this way before? It was new to me when I first heard it at Cambridge.

I’ll let Simon J. James give another example:

One morning last week, I was sitting at my desk, beavering away (building a small dam out of gnawed down pencils)

I found Simon through my BlogRush widget near the bottom of this blog and his extended metaphor was just too adorable to leave out. I also have a sneaking suspicion he’s British, for the following reasons:

  • he spells it self aggrandisement and standardise
  • he reports a colleague’s utterance of “whilst” in a telephone conversation
  • he uses single quotes to explain in an extended riff why his colleague’s use of ‘bye now’ in said conversation was rude

‘Bye now’ suggests immediacy to me, a flagrant disregard for all others in the conversation; it’s the verbal equivalent of hanging up. And also you can’t say, ‘bye earlier’ can you really?

So London Simon (I checked) uses “beavering away.” But what about my U.S. and Canadian readers? Have you used this expression before, or would you call yourself as busy as a bee, instead?

Here’s another explanation from a UK website:

The beaver is remarkable for its industry (and skill) in constructing its habitation and creating dams to preserve its water supply. This gave rise to the verb beaver away for someone who works very hard and to the faintly derogatory eager beaver for a person who is keen to succeed.

The expression is certainly evocative. I wouldn’t dare use it around my American friends, but Simon’s usage is guileless, down to the cute little pencil dam image—or perhaps he’s done that to avoid confusion with that other meaning for beaver:

OK, stop tittering. In British English, to beaver away is to work busily. However, these days you’d have difficulty saying it without a chorus of sniggers from the peanut gallery, as we also all know the American definition. It’s the sort of thing your grandmother might say at Christmas dinner that would make the younger generations choke on their soup.

That one’s from the English-to-American Dictionary. And though apple-pie M-W does define beaver as a verb (dating back to 1946), I think this is one expression best left to the British.

Editor at Large Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

See No Evil, Hear No Evil: The Out-Group Illusion

This final post in the Language Log terminology trilogy will introduce you to another linguistic illusion to watch for on language blogs: the out-group illusion.

One of the myriad ways we can jump to linguistic conclusions, the out-group illusion refers to a belief that a certain language quirk or habit occurs only among a specific group of speakers that does not include you or anyone you would deign to speak to. As Arnold Zwicky puts it,

Things you view as novel, or simply bad, are characteristic of groups
you don’t see yourself as belonging to.

Take as an example the posts on this blog that deal with the US/UK language divide. My post on obliged vs. obligated has received more hits to date than any other piece of writing on this site. I even got a link on LEO, my first destination for German-English word look-ups on the Internet.

Who’s to say, however, that my explanation of British English speakers’ behavior, based on a few hours of web research, wasn’t tainted by my status as a U.S.-born observer? There could be plenty of native Californians for whom “obligated” grates like the Wu Tang Clan at two in the morning (turn it down, you crazy kids!). Perhaps there are Kansans I’ve never met (and that would be all of them) who favor obliged in everyday usage.

If you encounter anyone who fits into one of these categories, do let me know. You’d be free to write me up for an out-group infraction–and I’d be obligated to write about it here.

Editor at Large Spoken English Subject-Specific

“Harden the Quangle-Wangle!”

An excellent article about the experience of learning a new technical vocabulary. From the New York Times.

Apologies for the short post today; I haven’t got an hour to write.

Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

Do You Suffer From the Recency Delusion?

Lots of work today, but I wanted to post a quick note on the first of three interesting terms I came across yesterday as I searched for the proper term to describe the (not) new meaning for “hopefully.” All three terms describe mistakes I have probably made, and continue to make, on this blog.

The first was coined by Language Log poster and Stanford linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky. It’s called the recency illusion:

the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent

When “hopefully” came into more frequent usage in the 1960s, there was a lot of muttering about those halcyon days when grammar had still been good. While this use of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb became more prevalent in the 1960s, it was nothing new: my pal Peter Andrews at the ol’ M-W dates popular usage back to at least the 1930s. So much for the good old days pre-language change.

So if you think that today’s whippersnappers have only just started substituting “their” for “they’re,” you’ve got another think coming. I’ll be on the lookout for more recency illusions–mine and others–from now on.