Monday, December 5, 2011

Lingua americana

Laura Agustin has caused a stir by criticising journalist Nicholas Kristof for using the American term "seventh-grader" in relation to a twelve-year-old girl he helped to "rescue" in Cambodia. Agustin's broader point is a very profound one - that the use of such terminology betrays the unconscious and pernicious colonial mindset that underpins the whole "rescue industry". But it also reminded me of the much more minor irritation caused by the innumerable petty ways that Americans attempt to force the rest of the world to conform to their norms on a day-to-day basis. One good example is postal codes. If I was writing a letter to someone in another country, I'm confident I would take special care to copy the postal code exactly as it's written. But I can tell you from experience that if you send your address to someone in the US, there's at least an 80% chance that the reply will delete the space in the middle of your postcode. American zip codes don't have spaces, you see, so a postal code with a space is automatically interpreted as an error. And then there's the issue of names. Most of my family and friends call me Jimmy, but I've had experiences where I've literally said to an American "Hi, I'm Jimmy", and the instant reply was "oh hi, Jim". It seems that the American practice is to only use nicknames like Johnny and Jimmy for very small children, and to switch to the shorter names for older children and adults. Ah, well. They're perfectly entitled to their own traditions, but there are times when I can't rid myself of the feeling that I'm dealing with people who have been instructed by a stage hypnotist not to hear the second syllable of my name, no matter how clearly I pronounce it.

The most hilarious example of this mindset has to be Bill Mallon's claim that the selection of Rio de Janeiro as the host city for the 2016 Olympics was proof that the IOC is "international-centric". For the uninitiated, "international" is code for that peripheral part of the world that lies beyond the borders of the US, and where a mere 96% of the global population live. That's the rough equivalent of residents of the Isle of Wight splitting the UK into two distinct regions for the sake of convenience - "Wight" and "The Rest". And it has to be said the government and media are disgracefully Rest-centric.

For those who don't know, I have dual US/UK nationality, so you can put these periodical anti-American rants down to a form of self-loathing.


  1. Believe me, although I do not have dual nationality, having spent a lot of time in both the US and the UK, I sympathize. As a writer, I run into the insistence from reviewers that Scottish terms I use, for a story SET in Scotland, must be misspelled. I refuse to accommodate their insularity.

    I am not saying Americans are bad people. I try to avoid self-loathing, but the American conviction that the rest of the world should kowtow to us is annoying. Then again, I've run into a similar imperial attitude in a slightly different form in the UK. Neither are attractive.

  2. I'd love to have your Jimmy/Jim problem. Ever since before I even started school, I've been Daniel Douglas or Douglas Daniels to various people who have no reason not to know better, since my name is written right in front of them at the time - teachers who for some reason think I'm the only person on the register with their name written the opposite way round from everyone else, doctors and opticians who just aren't paying attention, even today I get people replying to emails addressing me as Daniel, despite always ending my emails with Doug and my email address always being

    As long as folk get the order right and don't pluralise my name, I don't care if it's Doug, Doog, Dougie, Doogie or Dougal!

  3. You mean Billy Mallon surely?

    Doug, I went to school with Graham Stuart, Stewart Graham and Stuart Gray.

    They all ended up being called Greybaws for some reason...


  4. Doug

    Perhaps, like Granville, you have an Hungarian air about you, as they put the surname first

    You'd better fetch your cloth!

  5. I was at school with someone called Lesley Bain.

    He didn't like it when we shortened his first name.

  6. I was at school with a Rock Stars. Some teachers refused to believe he hadn't made the name up even when they saw it on the register.

    J. R. Tomlin : "Then again, I've run into a similar imperial attitude in a slightly different form in the UK. Neither are attractive."

    Yes, I entirely agree.

  7. J. R. Tomlin : "Then again, I've run into a similar imperial attitude in a slightly different form in the UK. Neither are attractive."

    In Scotland older tenements don't have letters to indicate different flats, so 16 Street Crescent may have 8 flats in the building all with the same address. But, to assist the postman we have the habit of putting our names on the door.

    However, in England the different flats in a building are numbered 16a, 16b, 16c, etc.

    At one point a few years ago when the pensioners' winter heating payment was brought in, some of the elderly people in my building (and across Scotland) didn't get the money. The reason was that, all having the same address, they were assumed by the English-based DWP, to live in the same house.

    Trying to buy anything from England over the internet or by phone is always a nightmare. You say '16', they say 'there are 8 addresses at 16, what letter are you?'

    As a final thought, James: I've always referred to you as James (given that it's the name that appears by your posts), should I be calling you Jimmy?

  8. tris round our way, we usually use 1R (one up right) or 1/2 to indicate our flat

  9. Tris : Feel free to call me whatever you like (well, as long as it's not Jim!). Actually, I should have mentioned earlier that I had exactly the same problem as Doug, because my first name and surname are interchangeable. So one or two teachers looked up from the register, expecting to see a Miss Kelly James...

  10. I thought the Isle of Wight called the rest of us "North Island"

  11. I thought you were joking until I did a Google search!