JANE: Alan, I enjoyed your most recent “wot i red on my hols” column, especially the account of everything Jimmy the Painter did to get the exterior of your house cleaned up and repainted.
All that work with sandblasters and high-powered hoses made me very glad that my house is stuccoed. When we had the exterior redone about five years ago, there was none of that sort of hassle.
ALAN: That’s one of the problems of living in an active earthquake zone. Houses built of wood tend to flex under stress whereas more rigid materials like brick tend to shatter. So wooden houses are safer, and they predominate. But they do have maintenance hassles and you are right, it can be a pain in the neck.
JANE: I hadn’t thought about the earthquake element. Here stucco is preferred to paint because the heat and dryness are really hard on paint.
Anyhow, the bit where Jimmy nearly crashed to the concrete pavement because a board on his scaffolding snapped in two was pretty scary.
However, the next part of your write-up lost me. You examined the two broken pieces of planking and exclaimed, “Thick as!”
Why the heck would you do that?
ALAN: There’s a couple of things going on here. We have a saying – “Thick as two short planks” – which indicates that a person is dumb or stupid (Jethro Tull was riffing on that with the “Thick as a brick” album). So that’s the reference to the two short planks that Jimmy had after his long plank broke in two.
JANE: I’ve certainly heard “thick as a brick” used here but, these days, I think the saying would be considered somewhat old-fashioned. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “two short planks.”
ALAN: We do also use that phrase, but the two short planks construction is much more common.
But there’s another aspect as well. Our teenagers (I don’t know about yours) have taken to using comparatives without actually comparing them with anything. “Cool as!” “Sweet as!”, both of these phrases have actually entered the language here, and are now used by lots of people, not just teenagers, to indicate strong approval. So I was playing with that idea as well when I said “Thick as!”
JANE: Hmm… I’ll need to claim ignorance of current “teen-speak.” “Cool!” has been around for decades.
I’ve also heard “Sweet!” But that’s also been around for a while. It even made its way into the sort of hybrid English one often hears in subtitled Japanese anime. I have an anime in which one character frequently cries out “Swee-toe” when he finds a new item for his collection.
Maybe our readers can fill me in on current American slang.
ALAN: Indeed – “Cool” is even older than I am, and I remember the dinosaurs. I still have fond memories of the pet diplodocus I had when I was a child. Perhaps the cool kids are not as cool as they think they are…
JANE: You had a pet diplodocus?
ALAN: Yes, I did. I was very sad when they went extinct, but I suppose it was inevitable. They had a very unintelligent design.
JANE: What do you mean?
ALAN: Diplodocus was so large that it had two brains to control its body, one in the skull and one at the base of the spine. The skull brain was in charge of the front half of the animal and the spine brain looked after the back half. Pterodactyls, which were mischievous beasts, were well aware of this, and when they wanted to have some fun they would dive down from the sky, land right in the middle of diplodocus’ back, and dig in their claws. The shock of this sudden event would be transmitted to both brains and each would react to escape from the danger. The front brain jumped the body forwards, the back brain jumped the body backwards, and diplodocus tore itself in half. And that’s why the beasts are extinct.
JANE: Ouch! You got me! (And I love it.)
ALAN: Where was I? Oh yes…
It occurs to me that since constructions like “Sweet as!” have moved from being used only by teenagers into general use, perhaps we ought to re-write our nursery rhymes:
“Mary had a little lamb
“Whose fleece was white as!”
No – I don’t think it quite works…
JANE: No. Definitely not “Cool as!”
As you know, I recently read Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventures of English: The Biography of a Language. You mentioned that you’d enjoyed his television series. Wouldn’t it have been boring for you? I mean, the majority of the book focuses on British English and you already speak it.
ALAN: Indeed I do – but I didn’t know why I was speaking it until Melvyn Bragg told me. And, among many other things, I learned that the American variety of English corresponds quite closely with the Elizabethan English that the first colonists took with them.
The language in England continued to evolve in odd directions whereas American English, while it did change, remained more static. So Americans can legitimately claim to speak “purer” (perhaps even “better”) English than the English themselves! Bragg even found some isolated colonies in New England that were so removed from the development of mainstream American English that they still had Elizabethan accents.
JANE: He mentioned something similar in the book – which is apparently related to, but not merely a spin-off of, a television show he did. One of the things, I was enlightened to learn from Bragg that in British English, the word “lumber” means junk or waste material.
Suddenly, the “lumber room” that gets mentioned in so many British novels – at least the older ones I tend to read – made a whole lot more sense. I’d always wondered why there would be a room for lumber. I mean, Jim and I do tend to keep scrap lumber left from various building projects, and sometimes it even comes in handy, but a whole room…
ALAN: It works the other way round as well. On several occasions I’ve come across a mudroom in American novels. What’s that? Why is mud so precious and useful that you need to fill a whole room with it?
JANE: Oh… You’ve made me laugh! (Again!) A mudroom is a small outer room in which you can leave muddy boots and other messy outdoor attire, so you don’t track dirt into the house. I must say, that, to my ear, this term is more intuitive than “lumber room.” In the U.S., “lumber” has completely lost its broader meaning. It now refers only to wood.
A lumberjack is a man who works cutting timber, not a junk collector.
ALAN: And don’t forget that a lumberjack also likes to dress in women’s clothing and hang around in bars. Because he’s OK.
JANE: (singing quietly) “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay…”
ALAN: Mind you, I’ve had similar linguistic shocks with Robin’s Australian view of the rooms in the house. We both talk about bedroom (one word), bathroom (one word), and dining room (two words). But then we part company. I say lounge and Robin says lounge room. I agree her version is more logical, but nevertheless it sounds quite strange to my ears.
JANE: Interesting… We don’t use “lounge” at all for any room in the house. I think that family room or T.V. room are what we’d call similar space.
Just goes to show… You folks lounge, but we don’t.
Speaking of lounging, I should stop lounging and get back to work… Meantime, any of you readers want to weigh in on “Sweet as” and other trends in teen-speak?