Same Same But Different

[20 Sep 02] My Madagascar notebooks also contain a few scraps from our late-2000 trip to Thailand. Being way behind at the time on my Mad diaries, I didn't write one for the Thailand trip—which was a shame, as at least a few days of it made a good story in their own right, and the whole trip was great fun. But for part of it, at least, I wrote down some shining examples of Crazy Thai English that give other dialects of Crazy English a rung for their monkey. Why just leave them trapped in a notebook when I can release them here?

Sign at Bangkok International Airport: "Welcome to the Land of Smile"

Hotel Menu: "Good Morning Breakfast—Fruit Jouce—Toast with Jame and Butter—Mussli with Yoghurt"

Name of a travel company: "Same Same But Different"

On a restaurant menu: "Chocgolect Ice Cream"; "Plan Pancake".

On a can of coffee-coated peanuts (which are delicious): "Keep Cool in Refrigerator for Better Crunchy"

Postcard captions: "A Lovely Family Elephant"; "Elephants Enyoi Ther Bath"; "The Monks—They Seek for Peace in Thailand".

Sign on a beach: "No Collecting of Coral and Marine Lives"

Ingredients on a bottle of drinking yoghurt: "yoghurt, sucrose, kiwi juice, food colourings, nature identical flavour."

Sign over a street: "BanPong Municipality—Welcome to City of Nice People"

T-shirt worn by a pretty girl on a motorbike: "SHITHEAD"

It is, of course, Evil to laugh at other people's honest mistakes in speaking such a difficult second language. Fortunately, these examples were all written, not spoken—and I freely admit that I can't pronounce anything properly in Thai, which gave Thai people plenty of opportunities to laugh at me. Also, today is International Be Evil Day.


[21 Aug 02] Learn how to read faces—or learn how psychologists learnt how to read faces in the latest piece from Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame [via the 'Filter]. After reading Gladwell's article I'm on the lookout for micro-movements of raised outer eyebrows. No-one's slipping any subliminal Kabuki past me.


Picture It

[23 May 02] The acronym 'IT' first abbreviated its way into my head in late 1996. I remember my new boss using the term, and remember wondering how long it had been around—it had been a while since I'd paid much attention to tech jargon. A few months later, it was everywhere.

Something about IT always irritated me. Sure, IT's short; but whenever you use IT, IT looks like your caps key is broken. And IT's meaning of 'information technology' seems an unnecessary substitute for its predecessor, 'computers'. It's as if cars suddenly became 'transportation technology' or 'TT'. After all, not everything involved in the vehicular transportation of people from point A to point B is a car: there are other vehicles, like trucks and motorbikes; there are the integral parts of the cars themselves, like tyres and headlights and windscreen-wipers; and there are add-on extras, like tow-bars and fluffy dice. All, in their own way, examples of TT—yet people insist on talking about 'cars' and 'the car industry'. How confusing.

For those who didn't know their ASCII from their elbow, the switch to 'IT' did nothing to clarify matters—which was perhaps the intention. Computers were becoming commonplace by the mid-1990s, and losing their capacity to dazzle the average Joe; the mystical power of acronyms reclaimed that potential for wonder and awe. "What's that," Joe would ask, "a computer?", and the tech junkie would reply, "No, it's a Palm Pilot, an example of information technology or 'IT'", and the awed Joe would wonder, "What's the difference?", and the tech junkie would say, "This has a small LCD screen and a miniature keypad and somewhat less memory and a less-powerful chip", and Joe would say, "It has a screen and memory and a chip?", and tech junkie would say "Yes", and Joe would say "Like a computer?", and tech junkie would say "Er... look over there!", and would point dramatically at his life-size cardboard cut-out of Captain Picard, and run outside to his transportation technology device, and cut and paste himself onto the other side of town.

But I exaggerate. Except about the Picard cut-out. There was at least one good reason to replace 'computer' and 'computing' as the dominant labels for the technology and the industry, and that was the advent of the wondrous and awful Internet. The Net was where the computer industry met the phone industry, and rebranding is inevitable in any corporate merger. 'Information technology', despite its roots in the term 'information science', can suggest both computation and communication; and 'IT'—well, IT can mean anything, can't IT. The term echoed Al Gore's rhetoric about the Information Superhighway, and the acronym reduced the temptation to make troublesome distinctions between information, data, knowledge, and wisdom. IT was the way forward, and soon we all used IT.

Well, most of us. By 1999, at least in Australian bureaucratic circles, there were pretenders to IT's throne: 'communications and information technology' (C&IT); 'information and communications technology' (ICT); 'information technology and communications' (ITC or IT&C). All attempting to shoe-horn the term 'communications' into the very acronym that was created in response to it.

"Ah yes, but it doesn't include it. Talking about 'information' neglects the communications aspect."

"So, you communicate stuff that isn't information, do you? Meaningless drivel, perhaps?"


"Or you create information that isn't intended for communication? Like, say, government reports?"

"Er... look over there!" [Points to cardboard cut-out of Sir Humphrey Appleby, runs outside, etc.]

By 1999, no-one needed to be told—least of all by the Australian federal government—that information technology involved communications from time to time. The extra word was clearly redundant—so why was it being tacked onto the mercifully brief 'IT'? It surely wasn't to beef up the character count of government reports.

Three years later, surrounded by yet more papers and reports that use 'ICT', I can think of only one explanation. It's completely daft, but it's an explanation: IT sometimes gets autocorrected to 'It' by Microsoft Word. Imagine typing 'IT' hundreds of times in a long document and having to fix Microsoft's helpful autocorrection every time. This wouldn't concern anyone who actually works in IT, because most such people either refuse to use Microsoft products, know how to switch off autocorrecting, or write software and company reports, not papers about 'IT'. But academics, journalists and bureaucrats do use Microsoft Word, often have no idea how to switch off autocorrecting, and write about IT in general terms. And once they latch onto a new acronym they have the power to propagate it.

In fact, forget the autocorrect theory. I'm prepared to believe that the bureaucrats did it out of pure love of acronyms. Bureaucrats use letters like Lego, building teetering towers of red and yellow blocks on lumpy sheets of green. The more redundant letters, the better—after all, you can never have too many clear blocks. Just imagine the acronymic possibilities of ICT: PICTURE; FICTION; INFLICT; ICTHYOSAUR. Acronyms that paint a thousand words; acronyms with bite! What committee chair could resist finding a way to turn ICT into DICTIONARY?

Whatever the reason, 'ICT' is now entrenched in bureaucratic and academic circles, at least here in the UK. It remains widely ignored by industry and the general public; but for how long? How long until the students of ICT users give IT the flick?

Well, not me. I'm drawing my line in the sand, right here next to my cardboard cut-out of George Orwell. Nicht bin ein ICT, as Herr Doktor would say. For every autocorrect function there's an all-caps search-and-replace.


You Say Tomato

[17 Jan 02] I'm halfway through Nick Hornby's How to be Good, which as usual is an example of how to write good. But one minor quirk is annoying me, and it's no fault of Hornby's. You see, this is the American edition, and like many transatlantic editions of British novels it replaces 'obscure' anglicisms with their more 'obvious' Americanisms. Since the main characters of Hornby's latest are Guardian-reading North London lefties, these most English of pages are scattered with the word 'liberal'.

Ahhh, 'liberal', such a useful word. What Brits and Australians would call 'Labour' or 'left', Americans call 'liberal'. What Australians call 'the Liberal Party', Brits would call Conservative and Americans would call Republican. When Brits hear 'liberal', they think of their laissez-faire middle-of-the-road Liberal Party; what Brits call Liberals, Aussies would call Democrats, and what Americans call Democrats, Aussies would call Labor (without a 'u'; at the time the ALP was founded, dropping the British 'u' was a mark of independence, even though it persists in everyday use). Australians usually use the qualifier 'small-l' when talking about 'liberalism' to distinguish it from the Liberal Party, but that's no help to Americans, who have shifted the long-standing political science definition of 'liberalism' into the territory other Westerners would call 'social democratic' or even (gasp) 'socialist', since even uttering that word would give many Americans an anxiety attack.

It's a tangled web, but each naming system is understood within its own country, and is in fact inextricable from any discussion of politics in that country. So it's strange to see the UK terms replaced by Americanisms in an English novel written by an Englishman.

It isn't just American publishers who pull this stunt, though. British publishers do it too. There's something wrong about reading Dave Barry with '-or'-ended words and US terms carefully replaced, as if colorful American prose would give the British reading public Boston Tea Party flashbacks.

Worse, though, was to be an Australian reader in the days before our British-dominated book market was opened up to US imports; we would get American books with their obscure Americanisms replaced with almost as obscure anglicisms, and be left to untangle it all ourselves. It hadn't dawned on British publishers that the colonies may not be familiar with every word used in the mother country.

(When I first lived in the UK I found one word particularly amusing. In Australia and the US a 'bun' is both a sweet bread product served with tea or coffee and a white or brown bread used to hold hamburgers or salady fillings. In England the former is a bun, but the latter is a 'bap', although the US usage is widely understood. 'Bap' still sounds regurgitative to me:

'What did you have for lunch?'


'I asked you to tell me, not show me.')

The wholesale substitution of regional words is a relatively minor irritation, a legacy of publishers' attempts to justify having separate US and rest-of-world editions, but one that reinforces longstanding misunderstandings and mutual ignorance. One kind of book that never suffered in this way, though, was the comic strip collection, because no publisher would pay an editor to hand-letter replacement talk balloons and paste them over the originals before printing. The first place I ever encountered the word 'faucet' was in a Peanuts collection, and at age seven it seemed every bit as exotic to me as Charlie Brown's snow-shovel. That one word opened up a world of different dialects, different cultures, difference: it showed me that regional linguistic differences involved more than just accents. By the time I figured out that 'faucet' meant 'tap', I'd started a life-long fascination with words, all because the editors at Coronet hadn't discovered Tipp-Ex (UK; a.k.a. Liquid Paper [US], white-out [Aus.]).

I suppose I'd have got the message from television eventually; even the most condescending Australian television producer wouldn't dub US and UK shows into Strine. American producers, though, have no qualms about remaking UK sitcoms for a US audience, and Hollywood even dubbed the entire first Mad Max movie into pure Californian for fear that Valley girls wouldn't understand what Mel Gibson was saying. I have visions of UK and Australian TV stations enjoying sweet revenge by casting Hugh Laurie as Kramer in the London-based remake of 'Seinfeld'—not 'woah, mamma' but 'what ho, ma-ma'—and Steve Vizard as David Letterman in a Melbourne-based rip-off of 'Late Night'. (Erm, hang on. That one actually happened.)

All of which saves readers and audiences the stress and mental anguish of having to deduce for themselves what words and references mean: 'trunk' for 'boot', 'elevator' for 'lift', 'Daryl Somers' for 'Noel Edmonds'. And leaves us with the illusion that the rest of the English-speaking world is exactly like us, just living in a slightly different climate.

Fortunately, this cultural dike-building is under seige by a medium that moves too fast for editors to control. Every time someone uses UK or Australian slang on an American-dominated web forum or mailing list, they end up having to explain themselves. Every time an American publisher decides that readers won't understand what a 'philosopher's stone' is, those readers learn from the web that non-American Harrys have never heard of a 'sorceror's stone'. The cultural broadcasters that are the United States and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom are being challenged by pirate radio operators from the rest of the English-speaking world, and the results can only be Good.


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