It wasn’t easy the first time, but I did it. Realizing the waitress wouldn’t understand me if I said “tomahto,” I gritted my teeth and said “tomayto.” She still didn’t understand me. Spotting the problem, I ungritted my teeth and tried again. Success! I had just spoken American.
That was many years ago, and since then I have done my best to adapt. If you study the second sentence above, you will notice that, in deference to the customs of my host country, I have put the quotation marks in the wrong place, after the full stop – sorry, period. I barely winced as I did so. After all, I have written whole books following that illogical practice. And I long ago weaned myself from calling quotation marks inverted commas. You have to make yourself understood by the natives, after all. Besides, that one actually makes sense.
For almost two decades I have cheerfully referred to bonnets as hoods, boots as trunks, lifts as elevators, aubergines as zucchinis, coriander as cilantro and all the rest. The secret to coming to terms with this is to regard American as a foreign language, albeit one that is closely related to English. By applying this doctrine, I was even able to come to terms with calling a herb an “urb.” It wasn’t easy, but with a disciplined mind and strong stomach, anything is possible. Also, it is possible to say “urb” through gritted teeth.
Did I say anything was possible? Well, almost anything. I have discovered a line that I will not cross. This line is represented by that delicious variation on the pizza, the calzone. Even summoning all my will-power and the “when in Rome” adaptability which has served me so well, I just can’t do it. I can’t bring myself to refer to this doughy delight as a “calzoan.” This is the point at which I bring down my fist on the table and cry “Enough, dammit!” Well, I don’t of course – we British don’t like to make a scene – but I still won’t call it a “calzoan.” I just can’t.
After two attempts to make the waiter understand the word “caldzonay,” I point to the item on the menu. “Ah, calzoan, “ he says. I sigh and nod. In my mind, I’m trying my best to call it a draw (that would be a tie to you American readers), but in my heart I know it’s a defeat. Still, it was either that or change my order to a stromboli. And I really wanted a calzoan. I mean caldzonay.
It’s called a chaise-longue because it’s longue. And a chaise.
The irony does not escape me that, in finally standing up for proper pronunciation of the English language I should have taken a stand in defence of an Italian word. (Defence / defense – I’m on the fense about that one). This is not the first time something like this has happened. I had an attack of the vapors (they are similar to vapours) the first time I heard somebody refer to a “chaise lounge.” I had to sit down while I recovered from the shock, ironically on a chaise longue – yes, that’s how you pronounce it, people. It’s a long chair; the word “lounge” is not French. I would have taken a stand right there in defence (there’s that word again) of the correct use of French words in English, except that it’s hard to take a stand, when you are sitting down suffering from an attack of the vapors. By the time I recovered, about two days later, the chance had gone.
For a speaker of English the way it was meant to be spoken, perhaps the most perplexing part of the American language is a change in meaning of certain words deriving from a long-ago misunderstanding or mistake. Over time, the incorrect usage has become standard. “Alternate” for “alternative” for example. Practitioners of correct English know that “alternate” means every other, or every second, as in “on alternate Tuesdays,” while “alternative” means, well, “alternative.” It is useful to have this distinction, which Americans do not enjoy. Worse is the misuse of the word “momentarily” (spurning the perfectly good “shortly”) to mean “in a moment,” instead of “for a moment.” “We will be landing momentarily.” When I first heard that on an aeroplane, I was understandably concerned. Did the pilot intend to touch down, then take off again without stopping? My fears were groundless, as it turned out, and we were soon informed that we would be deplaning momentarily. Which leads me inexorably to “deplaning.”
Americans have a great talent for inventing words that conveniently and succinctly describe a common activity. Unfortunately, they often do so in a way that causes great pain to insufferable pedants like me. “Deplaning” is a useful word, but fundamentally wrong-headed. It should mean “ridding oneself or another of planes” (as in delousing, deworming). I have yet to encounter anyone with a plane infestation, and I think I would have noticed if I had. The correct word should surely be “disemplaning,” following the example of “disembarking.” Ladies and Gentlemen, we will shortly be “disemplaning.” Doesn’t that sound better? No? Well, I think it does.
Oh, one last thing. I would appreciate it if you Americans out there would take a moment out of your busy day to study the correct pronunciation of the letter “u” or the letter combination “ou.” You are clearly capable of forming the sound “you.” You use it in the words “you use,” after all, and it would seem to amuse you to refuse to confuse the pronunciation of “cute.” You are able to remark on the beauty of a booty with no danger of being misunderstood. So why the devil do you presoom to mispronounce “institoot,” “toon,” “doo” and all the rest? And why do you make fun of me when I pronounce these words correctly? – No, I won’t say “presumably” again. Oh, alright, but this is the last time, and don’t you dare laugh.
It is, of course, your right to behave in this way, but I believe a reasonable case might be made for a constitootional amendment to prohibit the utterance of the syllabic combination “cyoupon.” Someone, long ago inserted the letter “o” into the word “coupon” for the specific purpose of informing you it should be pronounced “coopon.” Otherwise it would be written “cupon.” Presumably that person was French, given the origin of the word, and I know how a lot of you feel about the French, but there’s no need to spit in the eye of someone who was only trying to help. I mean come on. Having gone to all that trouble to eliminate the sound “you” from where it belongs, you now go out of your way to insert it where it clearly doesn’t. Nobody hates the French that much.
Unless, perhaps, the people who insist on saying “chaise lounge.”