Scunners, Squeamishness, and Biting Wax Tadpoles

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July 4, 2017 by libroshombre

LIBRARIAN COLUMN

Contact Greg Hill, 4790-4344                                                            June 8, 2017

The public library’s such an endless source of unexpectedly interesting factoids. Borrowing our library’s book by Erin Moore, “That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us,” led me to a useful term: “scunner.” In the chapter titled “Toilet: In which we attempt to bring back a useful word (while simultaneously discouraging the use of a vulgar one), Moore cites

MFK Fisher’s use of “scunner,” which OxfordDictionaries.com defines as “a strong dislike” and describes as an archaic term for “shrink back with fear.” Besides being the leading foodwriter of the Twentieth Century, MFK Fisherwas founder of the Napa Valley Wine Library, which is housed in the St. Helena’s public library and “maintains one of the country’s most comprehensive collections of writings about wine,” according to a SFGate.com article.

“Toilet’s” a word that engenders squeamishness among some English-speakers, and, Moore asserts, especially Americans, saying as a rule we’re “more Victorian than the Victorians.” “There’s a mania for putting the best face on everything and avoiding

the inelegant,” she wrote, and she traced the national trend back Noah Webster, who often substituted euphemisms for words he considered “offensive to delicacy,” like using “lewdness” instead of “fornication,” and “odious” replaced “stink.” The upper and lower class-conscious Brits prefer plain talk and eschew euphemisms. “It was the striving middle, in their desire to disassociate from the working class, who started prettying up their language by using French words like ‘toilette,’ which the upper class cannot abide.”

Fisher harbored scunners for certain food-related words, especially “yummy” and “scrumptious,” saying “there is no dignity in such infantile evasions of plain words like ‘good.’” Moore goes on the cite other scunners, including the most infamous of all: “moist,” which many English-speakers despise. Last February Christopher Mele vented his particular scunner by writing an ill-conceived NYTimes.com article that recommended doing away with all “filler words.” Mele was taken to task in a subsequent WordPress.com essay by Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein.

She pointed out a distinction between types of filler words. Verbalized pauses, for example, such as “er,” “um,” and “like,” provide a panoply of conversational uses. Besides allowing time to consider what to say next, filler words can soften disagreement of criticism by making it more polite (“um, it’s not my favorite”), they can emphasize what we’re  about to say (My teacher is, like, a total nutjob”), smooth the introduction of delicate topics (“Soooo, um, how are things at home?”), and indicate degrees of certainty (“She was, perhaps, very angry)

Other filler words are called “discourse markers”: “words or phrases that help manage the flow of discourse. “To give a full list of discourse markers in English is probably impossible,” Barchas-Lichenstein wrote, “but they include: connectors like ‘and,’ ‘or,’ ‘and ‘but’; markers of time like ‘now,’ ‘then,’ ‘and ‘next’; word

s that show similarity and difference, including ‘like’ and ‘unlike’; cause-and-effect words and phrases like ‘then,’ ‘therefore,’ ‘ and ‘because’; … summarizing words and phrases like ‘briefly,’ ‘to sum up.”

“Without discourse markers, we’d be limited to one short phrase at a time, with no way to explain how they’re related. We’d lack contrast (‘but” and ‘despite’ and ‘although’) and connection (‘and’ and ‘also’ and ‘in addition’) … In fact, we can’t be socially appropriate human beings without them.” Filler words aren’t going away because they clarify human communication, and that’s also the goal of aspiring multinational corporations who seek “phono-semantic matches” in marketing their goods abroad.

A good phono-semantic match “preserves both the phonetics (sound) and semantics (meaning) associated with a brand, according to an online essay by Jane C. Hu. When Coca-Cola started marketing in China many potential Chinese customers thought their brand name was “Bite the Wax Tadpole.” The “la” in “cola,” for example, can mean “pull,” “slash,” “scabies,” “spicy,” “bald,” and“wax,” depending upon its inflection and tone. In Chinese phonetics, “Polaroid” means “precious, beautiful to come,” so they changed their brand to “Pi li de,” which means “to instantly take,” and Yahoo! Went with “Ya hu” (“elegant tiger”). Other early examples include McDonald’s (“wheat be labor”) and Pizza Hut (“must win customers”).

            Since the vast majority of Borough residents utilize our library so regularly, perhaps “Pizza Hut” should be the library’s Chinese motto.

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