U.S. EDITOR OFFENDS U.K. WRITER.

I had read Tim Parks’s NYRB complaint about “an edit that transforms my English prose into American”; it was nicely written and brought up some valid issues (“But where I had written mamma and papà, the edit had transformed to ‘mamma’ and ‘pappa’”), but for me it basically fell into the “authors sure hate to be edited” file, and when he said “On sending in my observations on the proofs, my commissioning editor turns out to be more than ready to negotiate,” I said “Well, there you are, then,” and moved on. But frequent commenter Paul (thanks, Paul!) sent it to me with the observation that it was “one of those times when the added comments made its web version more interesting,” and sure enough, they do. I particularly liked a comment by linguist Thomas Wier, who I hope is this Thomas Wier (a Kartvelianist at the Free University of Tbilisi!); he starts off by saying “Speaking as a linguist who takes empirical evidence of language use very seriously, some of these problems are clearly just an editor’s whim”—alas, speaking as an editor, I have to acknowledge that editors exercise their whims all too frequently—and ends with “The bottom line is that more editors would do well with a course in introductory linguistics” (hear, hear!), in between sharing some interesting thoughts on got vs. gotten.

Comments

  1. I was struck by “the truth is that house style is a much more common occurrence in the US and more aggressively enforced”. It does make me wonder whether The Land of the Free is just much more regimented than Britons are used to.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    Homeowners’ Associations are a US thing in any case…

  3. An american translator complaining about having to adapt to british standards, grammar, and vocabulary would have gotten very different comments.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    I was caught up slightly short by “Kartvelianist,” even though I could decode it perfectly well in context. That’s a pretty rarely-used word, I thought, and indeed there prove to be only two pages of google results (including this post), which do however reveal that the word, however rare, is still suitable for use in intemperate internet invective, e.g. “Do not think I agree with Kartvelianist crap. It was some crappy idea from some bolshevik assholes.” and “STOP GAYeorgianist-Kartvelianist fascism to MEGRELIANS !”

  5. mollymooly says:

    Was the papà->pappa change intended as a British-to-American adaptation, an Italian-to-American translation, or an Italian spelling (in)correction? The last seems most likely but least relevant.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    The writer used Italian words, and the editor, who does not seem to have known much Italian, probably standardized the second word to agree with the first, since mamma is relatively well-known (as in mamma mia!). Perhaps the accented final “à” looked like a spelling error caused by using the wrong language font? perhaps it was also the influence of American Poppa?

  7. To me, of course, he is “the conlanger Tom Weir”.

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I don’t particularly mind having my prose rendered with American spelling (though I draw the line at American placing of punctuation and quotation marks), but I do like it to be done properly, and the only way to ensure that is to do it myself. Proofs that I received a couple of weeks ago showed a thoroughly botched mess. I think the sub-editing was probably done in England by someone who, to judge from her name, was of Indian origin, and who certainly knew less about American spelling than I do. In principle, the journal concerned allows either British or American spelling, but half the time they seem to forget that. Probably she noticed that I like my verbs in -ize, and assumed, Microsoft-fashion, that I was aiming for American spelling, and then proceeded to change some, but not all, of the other words. So, on the one hand we had “catalyzed” but on the other hand “haemoglobin”. The notion that British spelling requires verbs in -ise is surprisingly (or surprizingly, as Jane Austen would have had it) widespread, even though a look in any of the Oxford dictionaries would show otherwise.

  9. I agree about the punctuation, but why not have some American spelling and some English, Athel? I suppose it would be a bit weird in an academic paper, but otherwise I rather like it. It’s a way of showing how I (we, you & I) actually talk.

  10. Do american readers actually complain to publishers if they encounter british spellings and usages in british novels, or do the publishers just do it to make work for themselves? Are there copyright benefits to having a different edition? I don’t see how it could affect sales: a reader won’t know which standard a book is in until they’ve taken it home and started to read.

  11. I don’t even know how I did that. sheesh.

  12. vrai.cabecou says:

    s/o: As an American I prefer to read the British version of novels set in England (what was the point of American editions of the Harry Potter series, for instance?) but recently I’ve encountered novels by Brits that featured American characters using words Americans would be unlikely to use, like revise for cram, and I found that off-putting.
    Also, novels set in India or nearby that use crore and lakh slow me down because I have to convert them into numbers I can understand.

  13. “like revise for cram”: isn’t it odd that someone would go to the trouble of writing a book without checking the dialects used with people who might know? Mind you, my father’s (British) generation used “cram” for exams anyway: my friends and I didn’t.
    On the other hand, the past is a foreign country and the failure to check the dialects there doesn’t seem to inhibit the scriptwriter for Downton Abbey, who has a cloth ear for such things.

  14. narrowmargin says:

    Without the accent, papa in Italian gets the stress on the first syllable, and means pope. Which is why so many Italians smirk at foreigners when someone says/shouts the word without stressing the second syllable when they mean Dad.

  15. I was once instructed about the differing Italian pronunciations of casino, one meaning casino and the other brothel. But I don’t know which is which.

  16. narrowmargin says:

    In Italian, casino has those 2 definitions. However, there is no difference in spelling or pronunciation. Only the context will tell you which way it’s meant.

  17. narrowmargin says:

    Unless, of course, there’s a regional difference in spelling and pronunciation. But in all my talking to Italians, I’ve never heard of any such differences.

  18. vrai.cabecou – Of course Harry potter is a children’s book: some editing was reasonable to change the words small children are likely to mis- or not understand (“jumper”, “sellotape:”, etc…) I read some of the Harry potter books in the UK edition when someone brought them back before they were out in the US, but i didn’t notice any substantial difference in the way the books read. (Except that that the US books themselves were nicer.)
    Personally, i’m going to read whichever version my library carries, but I haven’t heard of any actual reason for the bother of “translating” trans-atlantic novels. The dialect edits seem pretty cursory, though: as you’ve noticed, changing a few words isn’t going to make a british writer sound american.

  19. Of course Harry potter is a children’s book: some editing was reasonable to change the words small children are likely to mis- or not understand
    I disagree with this, actually — in my experience, most kids love exotic little details like this in the books they read. I suppose there are edge(y) cases like “bum a fag” in which one might need to be a bit flexible; I personally wouldn’t die on that hill if you could show me that leaving it that way would provide ammunition to school bullies or whatever.

  20. I’m sure there are lots of reasonable points of view on this, but suddenly I’m thinking why shouldn’t an American kid be allowed to run into the incomprehensible word “jumper”?
    “Daddy, what’s a jumper?” “Huh?” “In this Harry Potter book: it says somebody was wearing a jumper.” “Oh, I think it’s like a sweater or something.”
    Really, no harm done. Au contraire. A little moment of recognition that other people have other words for things–maybe other people even have other things. I seriously doubt that book sales would be adversely affected overall either by the difficulty of reading something so very slightly foreign or by offended insular American attitudes.
    By the way, I think cellophane tape is or was marketed in the US as Sellotape, but with a different spelling: I distincty remember that my friend Doug, when we were about 13, told me he briefly persuaded his mother that Cello Tape was a specialized product used in the repair of one of the larger stringed instruments.

  21. Indeed, Empty. It is much better to meet an unknown word, says Tolkien, in a poem or story, and not desiccated and under glass in a glossary. His example was plenilune.

  22. Empty – Our imaginary kid doesn’t need to ask what a jumper is, she already knows it’s the sort of sleveless dress she wears over shirts or turtlenecks. And her dad doesn’t know what sellotape is either. It’s probably not even in the dictionary.
    But everyone keeps bringing up “insular american attitudes”. Do these actually exist *w/r/t british language in novels* to the extent that publishers need to smooth them out or they won’t sell books? Is there some other reason that American publishers like to re-edit british books? Surely someone here has worked in the industry and knows? Or are we all just imagining them in order to sneer at imaginary somebodies more midwestern than ourselves and prove our relative brilliance and cosmopolitanity?

  23. he briefly persuaded his mother that Cello Tape was a specialized product used in the repair of one of the larger stringed instruments
    Thanks, Ø. That made me laugh (out loud).

  24. An american translator complaining about having to adapt to british standards, grammar, and vocabulary would have gotten very different comments.
    Possibly. But the comments to the article did hold up The Great Gatsby as an example of poor editing to meet British standards.
    I personally don’t mind changes to conform with spelling standards, but I do find the whole idea of changing the author’s language to conform with so-called British or American standards irritating in novels.
    On the other hand, for magazine articles changing language usage seems to me much more acceptable, and I’m not sure why. Could it be because I expect an article in a local (say Australian) magazine to speak to me in a local voice? Reading an article that was clearly written with (say) American readers in mind would seem somewhat out of focus, as though it weren’t really speaking to me. (Living abroad this is not such a problem, but I still have to make allowances when I read articles that are directed at Americans. Often the information is slightly out of focus, too. Recommendations of where to buy things could be inaccurate, or certain items may not even be available in either China or Australia.)

  25. About our learning curve on Downton Abbey: we’ve stopped calling the programme “Dog’s Bum” and started calling it “Downtown Abbey”.

  26. Australians used to be warned when travelling to the UK that while Durex is (was?) a brand name for sticky tape in Oz, in the UK it’s a condom. Thus automatically shouting across a crowded London party for sticky tape to repair a malfunctioning gramaphone (that dates me) “Throw me some Durex” got a big laugh, particuarly as they were still a whispered subject in those days.

  27. And a US house style question. In a current New Yorker review of books on St. Francis, I came across this “…who claimed that medieval Church officials had engineered a coverup.”
    Coverup ? Thus possibly co-VER-(r)up ;-)? Not cover-up any more?

  28. Dearie & Paul, explain the current British expression bell end; someone might call me “a bell end”, this being a very bad thing to be. Does it mean roughly the same as “pair-shaped”?

  29. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Australians used to be warned when travelling to the UK that while Durex is (was?) a brand name for sticky tape in Oz, in the UK it’s a condom.
    Basically the same story as rubber, which meant (in the days when people still used pencils) eraser in the UK but condom in the US. When I was at Berkeley (late 1960s) I always asked for a rubber when I needed one.
    In France, of course, Condom is the name of a town, which tends to lose its sign when British tourists drive through.

  30. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Why not have some American spelling and some English, Athel?
    I’m not sure I have a convincing answer. Probably because it can look careless or ignorant.

  31. mollymooly says:

    @AJP Crown: if imagination fails, Urban Dictionary will tell you what any insult means, “bell end” included.
    “American characters using words Americans would be unlikely to use, like revise for cram”. Cramming is a specific type of revision, namely that done hastily and concentrated before an examination. Dictionaries suggest this distinction is cross-dialectal. Perhaps “cram” is more pejorative in BrE than AmE? In that case, a British student saying that they were cramming (rather than revising) for a test would be admitting that they had not studied adequately up till then and were now paying the price; whereas an American would simply be stating that they were doing what all students do before any test.

  32. I thought Americans said ‘review’ for ‘revise’.

  33. I personally don’t mind changes to conform with spelling standards, but I do find the whole idea of changing the author’s language to conform with so-called British or American standards irritating in novels.
    This is my take on it as well.
    Coverup ? Thus possibly co-VER-(r)up ;-)? Not cover-up any more?
    Yes, in the U.S. the hyphen is no longer used, a perfectly regular process (cf. “base-ball” > “baseball”) that happens on both sides of the Atlantic, if at different rates. I don’t know where you’re getting the “possibly co-VER-(r)up.”
    I thought Americans said ‘review’ for ‘revise’.
    We do; in the U.S. “revise” is used only for changing written compositions, never for studying.

  34. I was amused that someone complained in the comments to Tim Parks’s piece about the occurrence of the phrase “bottles of ale” in their British edition of The Great Gatsby, believing it to be a copy-editor’s alteration from the American original: “bottles of ale” is actually what Fitzgerald wrote,it’s in the American version so the phrase was unaltered for the British version, and it would have been natural at the time he was writing about for Daisy and Tom to be drinking something called “ale”, which would have contrasted in American English, then as now, with something called “lager”.
    AJP, a “bell end” is the same as a “dickhead”. Not a nice think to be called, indeed. Indeed, there was a big row a couple of years ago when Manchester City (a soccer club, m’lud) wanted to name a new stand at its ground after one of its greatest former players, Colin Bell, because too many people feared that part of the stadium would inevitably be dubbed “the Bell end”.

  35. I see. Thanks. Although if they felt obliged to use a euphemism, you wonder why they didn’t just start with a different metaphor. I’ve noticed it’s very popular in the Guardian‘s comments, which I’ve also noticed is overrun by nitwits.
    That led to a re-think with Colin Bell’s angry family told that the stand would be called the Joe Mercer Stand.
    Well if they weren’t before…

  36. Re ‘cram’. Britain also has the term ‘swot’. Not sure of the difference between ‘cram’ and ‘swot’ here.

  37. Cram & swat could (through the 1950s, as dearie said) both be used to mean ‘to revise for exams’. A swat is a person who works, perhaps, too hard at school (it’s not good to be thought a swat). A crammer or a crammers is the place where public schoolboys (in the English sense) go, for a fee, when they have failed to get in to Oxbridge and want to learn how to get better A-Level grades so they can retry. Martin Amis wrote about how he used this route to Oxford in Experience. …And to link this with the previous thread, the best-known crammers in London when I was a lad was Davis, Laing & Dick.

  38. “Daddy, why would Harry Potter be wearing a jumper? Is he a cross-dresser?”
    “Huh? What’s a jumper?”
    “You know, one of those sleeveless dresses that you might wear over a turtleneck or something.”
    “I thought those were called shifts.”
    “Daddy, don’t you know anything?!”
    “Uh, well, girls’ clothing is sort of a blind spot, sorry. Here, show me the passage … I dunno, I bet jumper is something else in England. Let’s look it up.”
    Educational all around.

  39. When I was a child we had these overshoes that stretched a bit to cover your shoes. Nothing like a boot, no bigger than an everyday shoe. They were called rubbers.
    This “overshoe” sense of rubber may have been driven out by the “condom” sense: you don’t want every use of the word to risk snickering responses. But what I don’t know is when condoms were first widely called rubbers.

  40. J.W. Brewer says:

    I dispute that “ale” standardly contrasts in modern AmEng with “lager” as opposed to merely “beer” although perhaps that was different in the pre-Prohibition days in which Fitzgerald’s vocabulary was being former. (Unclear whether AmEng speakers conceptualize “ale” to be not-beer, versus simply a marked subset of beer – I think W.V.O. Quine uses this as an example of something or other somewhere in his works about philosophy of language; perhaps a Brit philosopher would not have done so.) zythophile may have, given his own interests, had too much contact with the small and unrepresentative fraction of AmEng speakers who are beer snobs or enthusiasts. Since the overwhelming default style of beer in the U.S. is in a technical sense “lager,” the word is in my experience little used by normal American beer-drinkers (i.e. the vast majority who voluntarily drink mass-market domestic brands without a sense of hipster irony). My own perhaps unreliable recollection is that when beer-snobbery/enthusiasm started to become a recognizable market phenomenon in the U.S. about 20-25 years ago, people making high-end lagers tended to use “pilsener” as their distinguishing word, because it sounded more fancy/expensive than lager. It would, I would say, be odd in modern AmEng (but I started drinking myself coming on six decades after Gatsby was published, so things may well have changed) to just say “bottles of ale” as opposed to something more specific, as by brand (whether Bass or Genessee) or style (e.g. IPA). My dad grew up in Pittsburgh, so he knew all about “Old Frothingsloth, the Pale Stale Ale with the Foam on the Bottom,” which I suspect may have actually technically been a lager.
    The overshoe sense of “rubber” was still used in AmEng when I was a boy (I think I might be a bit younger than Ø although I’m not certain) – it became the subject of snickering once we reached puberty, but our parents had not all preemptively decided to use a different word when we were toddlers to head that off. I don’t think my daughters or (that I’ve noticed) their peers actually had rubbers as little kids, as opposed to special-purpose rainboots that you switched with regular shoes once you were back inside, so I have not had occasion to need a word for the object in recent years myself.

  41. Stay-at-home Paul (try that without hyphens) says:

    I don’t know where you’re getting the “possibly co-VER-(r)up.” It could be an involuntary pronunciation on seeing it without the expected hyphen.
    Bell end: never heard it, but then I don’t get out much (as witness all my commenting today). Is it a Midland/Northern expression primarily, says a Londoner ?
    Rubbers for overshoes: in my home they were always called galoshes. Presumably died out when more waterproof shoes were developed.

  42. I dispute that “ale” standardly contrasts in modern AmEng with “lager” as opposed to merely “beer” although perhaps that was different in the pre-Prohibition days
    I’m certain it was, and since zythophile was specifically referencing “the time he was writing about,” and since he probably knows more about the history of beer/ale/lager than the rest of us put together, I’m quite happy to take his word for it.

  43. J.W. Brewer says:

    Well, http://tinyurl.com/bfx4e7w
    will show you the google n-gram incidence of “bottle of beer” v. “bottle of ale” v. “bottle of lager” in the AmEng sub-corpus from 1890 to 1930, which seems a useful timeframe to put Fitzgerald’s usage in context. Draw your own conclusions. It’s not that I don’t respect zythophile’s beer scholarship (which I enjoy and would not have known of if he didn’t comment here), it’s that it *might* naturally lead him to be more familiar with technical usages and trade publications (esp as to a distant country in a distant time frame) than with how non-specialists typically talked about the subject. That’s just a risk of knowing a lot about a subject.

  44. In Olde England, the distinction between ale and beer was that beer was made with the aid of hops, to give it that delicious bitter flavour. Then, in the last few decades, the rise of lager (or, to use the technical term, faux-continental pisswater) meant that the marketing men needed a handy word for non-lager beer, and settled for “ale”.
    Bell end: I dunno, Crown, it’s not one I ever use, nor do I know the source. But I do have a suggestion to make. As Mr Teagarden shows below, you can play a trombone without its bell, so perhaps a “bell end” implies useless, redundant, obsolete?
    Mind you, he did need a beer glass.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vc8D46tJuFM&list=PL2BBB70078DC272D1

  45. J.W. Brewer says:

    Unfortunately, the books I enjoyed reading as a kid from which I learned in passing BrEng variant vocabulary (lorry, torch, lift, etc. etc.) didn’t feature a lot of boozing. Paddington was not, IIRC, knocking back pints of bitter at his elevenses with Mr. Gruber.

  46. it’s that it *might* naturally lead him to be more familiar with technical usages and trade publications (esp as to a distant country in a distant time frame) than with how non-specialists typically talked about the subject. That’s just a risk of knowing a lot about a subject.
    Very true, and I’ll be curious to see if zytho responds; it’s not that I automatically take his word for everything beer-related, I just have deep respect for his beery wisdom.

  47. marie-lucie says:

    dearieme: As Mr Teagarden shows below, you can play a trombone without its bell, so perhaps a “bell end” implies useless, redundant, obsolete?
    All brass instruments are tubes ending in a widened part called a bell. Just because it may be possible to play this sort of instrument (within limits) while the bell is removed (the instruments are built in sections so they can be taken apart) does not mean that the bell is useless or just decorative. The range and the specific tone quality of the instrument are both affected by the presence, shape and size of the bell. But from the point of view of the player, the bell is not a “working part”, as it is never touched by the mouth and fingers, which are otherwise occupied with other parts of the instrument. In the video (?) Mr Teagarden only plays a short section without the bell (with a thin, high sound) but otherwise always has the bell in place. Playing without the bell looks like a demonstration of virtuosity (since the player must use a special technique to compensate for the absence of the bell) which does not add much to the music.

  48. Bell end = glans penis. Urban Dictionary agrees, for what that’s worth.
    It occurs to me that ‘dickhead’ could have the same origin, though I’ve always assumed it was analogous to ‘bonehead’.

  49. When stretching before soccer games, our English captain would at some point suggest we swap legs. There’s one that would throw a 9 y.o. American Harry Potter reader for a loop.

  50. Quine does indeed have a comment on ale vs. beer in Quiddities, s.v. “Classes versus Sets”:

    Man is a practical and even a penurious animal, and as such he has little patience with multiple labels. Some say ‘furze’ and some say ‘gorse’, but none, in a state of nature, will say both. Faced with two terms for the same thing, one tends to cast about for a distinction. Faced with the two words ‘ape’ and ‘monkey’ for what is indiscriminately called Affe in German and singe in French, we evidently found an easy out: sort them by size. I suspect that the situation was similar, but less easily resolved, when the invading Danes introduced the word ‘ale’ into our language in competition with the already current ‘beer’. Encyclopedias are inconclusive and a bit frantic in their effort to state ways in which ale, properly so called, may generally or frequently said to differ from beer, properly so called. I sense an effort to sustain a preconceived maxim: “Two words, two senses.”

  51. mollymooly says:

    “Bell-end” is not a euphemism; unlike, say, “trouser snake”. I don’t know why or how that should be.
    The hand-gesture for “dickhead” suggests an entire phallus growing from the forehead. I guess that was originally a rebus long after the word was coined, but it’s probably now the default mental image for many Britons.

  52. David Marjanović says:

    In France, of course, Condom is the name of a town, which tends to lose its sign when British tourists drive through.

    Just like Fucking in Austria.

  53. Surely it is, Molly. I’m pretty sure you can’t write “So-and-so is a dickhead” in the Guardian‘s comments, but I see “X” (usually D. Cameron) “is a bell-end” all the time – at least I would do if I read the Guardian comments.

  54. mollymooly says:

    Google finds 86 users have used “bell end” in Guardian comments, while 84 have used “dickhead”.

  55. I admit defeat.
    “you are an utter bell-end”
    Someone never got over Billy Bunter. I’m glad I don’t live in England and only have to see this stuff in the Graun (or google).

  56. Wait. No, I don’t. There are 481 for bellend and 799 for bell-end.

  57. vrai.cabecou says:

    s/o: I work for a publication, and actually do regularly remove BrE words and phrasing from articles by British writers. That’s because my employer wants a consistent tone in what we publish. I’m less sure of the rationale for doing this in books.
    I also often remove BrE words and phrasing from articles by American writers. Maybe they read “Harry Potter” in the British version :)

  58. Vrai Cabecou: And does your employer also equip you with a list of pre-approved sarcasms to insert ad libitum into articles judged insufficiently grating to maintain that same consistency of tone? (I do but jest, poison in jest, no offence in the world….)

  59. Note that vrai.cabecou’s company has a ‘publication’ that features ‘articles’. It doesn’t do novels. The desire for consistency of style is understandable. A publication does not want to read like a hodgepodge of disparate articles simply pasted together. The use of a consistent style is similar to that of maintaining a standard typeface or adhering to particular spelling conventions. It means that the publication speaks with a consistent voice.

  60. John Cowan says:

    A publication does not want to read like a hodgepodge of disparate articles simply pasted together.

    No, it doesn’t. But that’s achieved by a shared theme, not by a shared style, unless indeed we are dealing with a serial published under a house name or something of the sort. As Wolcott Gibb’s 31st rule of New Yorker editing says: “Try to preserve an author’s style, if he is an author and has a style.”

  61. Are you seriously quoting the New Yorker in support of the idea that a publication need not have a shared style?

  62. John Cowan says:

    They have a shared style sheet, but they don’t make V.S. Naipaul sound like James Thurber. (Unlike, say, National Geographic.)

  63. John Cowan says:

    That’s Gibbs’s, not Gibb’s, to be sure.

    marie-lucie: The player of a French horn (a German instrument, actually; Fr. cor d’harmonie, Ger. Waldhorn) does in fact put one hand in the bell of the instrument as part of controlling the pitch, thus making the bell a working part of the horn, as it is not of the trumpet, the cornet, the trombone, or the tuba.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    JC: You are right, as usual. I had not thought of that instrument.

    The name cor d’harmonie is probably the official one, but in everyday speech we only say le cor, as opposed to le cor anglais ‘English horn’. There is at least one other instrument sharing this basic name, le cor de chasse ‘hunting horn’.

    Using the French horn is called jouer du cor ‘to play the (French) horn’, but using the hunting horn is sonner du cor, for which I don’t know the English equivalent. The difference is probably that one is a melodic instrument, while the other one is quite limited in how many notes it can produce.

  65. Rodger C says:

    “To sound the horn.”

  66. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks RC, I think I have read that before, but I had never reallythought about it.

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