I’ve recently been watching Two Fat Ladies, a late-90s cooking show in which two rambunctious women travel the British countryside cooking regional food. One of the program’s perverse joys is its hosts’ sometimes shocking commentary.
Take, for instance, Clarissa Dickson Wright‘s opinion of pheasants:
Don’t let the fluffy bunny brigade every tell you [pheasants] are dear sweet creatures. They’re one of God’s nastiest animals. They come out of the egg trying to peck each other’s eyes out. And they have gang bangs! When all the cocks go round and they jump on this poor little hen pheasant and rape her to death. They are a very nasty bird indeed …
Certainly an easygoing, middle-aged RP-speaker wouldn’t talk about pheasant rape. But Dickson Wright likely means what it sounds like she means. Few would mistake the meaning of “gang bang,” and I doubt her use of “cock” is wholly zoological. Yet we Americans perhaps sometimes assume that Brits and other non-Americans mean something more genteel than their words suggest. Perhaps this is the origin of the observation that “[insert charmingly loutish Brit/Irishman/Australian] gets away with saying anything.” Perhaps I’m unfairly giving Dickson Wright a “fair pass.”
I talk a lot about phonetics and pronunciation here, yet I find the most inscrutable accent easier to comprehend than quirky lexical differences, foreign modes of politeness and cultural in-jokes. I believe most English speakers instinctually understand that different dialects demarcate semantic boundaries in different ways. So it’s not difficult to assume that “rape” and “gang bang” occupy slightly different tracts of lexical real estate than they do in American English. (Doubtful!)
My tendency to forgive seemingly outre statements is exemplified by yet another moment in which Fat Lady #2, Jennifer Patterson, walks into a West Country sausage shop and remarks something along the lines of “I love a good faggot. You never see really good faggots nowadays.”
Of course, the simplest explanation here is that Patterson, being born in the 1920′s, is simply using a British term for
sausage a type of traditional meat dish. But this show delights in innuendo, so is it possible that she is trying to deliberately ruffle American feathers by using our pejorative term for “homosexual?” And is she aware of how offensive the term is? Rather than wrap my head around any of this, I just go with the first explanation (that she’s unaware of the American/contemporary term). Patterson’s use of the word probably is completely innocent, but the endless possibilities of what I know, what she knows and what is intended have a way of unsettling an American listener.
All this reminds me, in a roundabout way, of an example sentence that linguist Alan Cruse often uses in this books:
The committee is wearing its hat.
Cruse finds this ungrammatical in British English. The more “acceptable” construction would be “The committee were wearing their hats.” But I must confess that I find “the committee is wearing its hat,” while a little odd, not nearly as unacceptable as Cruse does. Why the discrepancy? Is it just me? Is this because of the differences in plural concord between British and American English? Is it something else entirely?
I have no clue. I bring up Cruse’s example because it illustrates how in the dark we tend to be when encountering radically different dialects from our own. This even, in my opinion, extends to aspects of pronunciation. Why do some Americans recoil at a non-rhotic Boston accent but find this same feature the height of suave in an Englishman? Perhaps because our normal sense of what is stigmatized and what is not is thrown out of whack.