Twenty years ago, when Conrad Black dominated the Canadian newspaper industry, I noticed that certain British terms were starting to replace North American terms here and there in Canadian newspapers.
So, writers were suddenly using “barmy” or “sometimes “daft” instead of “crazy.” (“That Jean Chrétien government makes me absolutely barmy.”) Or what was once a “posh” neighbourhood became a “tony” neighbourhood. (“Everybody knows the ski hill area is the tony neighbourhood of Kimberley.”)
This Anglicization of words started spreading into our everyday speech. My cigarette smoking friends and I were suddenly stepping out for a quick fag, instead of a cancer stick, coffin nail, or phlegm thrower.
Conrad Black, of course, is an Anglophile non pareil. He even gave up his Canadian citizenship to sit in the British House of Lords. He later spent some time sitting in an American jail — or gaol, as the British spell it. It’s a real World O’ Irony, isn’t it?
We haven’t yet started saying “lorry” instead of “truck,” or “boot of the car” instead of “trunk of the car,” but one can see this subversive Anglicization of our North American speech is ongoing, if one watches for it. For instance, here’s this new word (certainly to me): “Bespoke.”
“Bespoke” is a sartorial term, indicating the highest level of tailoring you can get for your suit. There’s “off the rack,” “made to measure” and, most expensively, “bespoke.” But it has come into general usage in Britain as anything custom made. “They’re getting new window frames, but they’re having them made bespoke.”
Makes me wonder, speaking of fags, and speaking of tailoring; if you’re out of money for good store bought cigarettes, and you’re rolling up butts out of the ashtray, or some of that awful Drum tobacco, and your friend proffers his pack and says “Here, have one of my ‘tailor-made’ cancer sticks,” and you answer, pridefully, “No thanks, I prefer my ‘bespoke’ fags.” Which really is the tailored and which the bespoke?
“Bespoke” isn’t in common usage in Canadian speech, as far as I’ve heard, but I’m seeing it more and more, often in advertising.
Thus, words continue to cross the Atlantic, hidden in the holds of ships, like Norway rats.
* * *
As an Anglophile myself, I was fascinated by last week’s UK election and spent a lot of time with British newspapers online following the action and the aftermath of that astonishing result. Though our parliamentary systems of government are closely related, I noticed the Brits have different terminologies for the same thing — on election night, candidates arrive at their “counts,” for instance, instead of “campaign headquarters.”
But the term that really jumped out at me was their use of the term “scalp,” to indicate one party winning a seat from an incumbent. As in: “Labour added another scalp by taking the seat of East Northsouthing off the Tory Education Minister.”
Scalping is where you tear off your defeated enemy’s scalp for a trophy, and it has been practiced by various cultures around the world. Scalping was quite prevalent in Pagan — meaning pre-Christian — Europe. The Vikings, the Saxons, the Angles, the Franks all scalped their enemies, and had special bronze frames to hang them from (the Romans report that the ancient Celts had the habit of dangling the heads of personal enemies from the necks of horses, but that’s a whole other ballgame).
So maybe there’s some ancestral antecedent in play, whereby the Anglo-Saxon Brits use the term scalp as a modern day political term. Here in Canada, with our hunting culture, it would be slightly different.
“The federal NDP mounted another severed head on their wall when they took the riding of Kootenay-Columbia off the incumbent Conservatives.”
All this talk about scalping as a metaphor makes me wonder how it would be in real life. If I were suddenly set upon by a band of marauding Vikings, would they take my scalp? Would it hurt?
What if I were with the Italian actor/model Fabio Lanzoni when the Vikings attacked, looking for scalps? Whose scalp would they prefer? As they surrounded us, drawing their scalping knives, would their gaze linger on Fabio, with his long, flowing golden locks? Or my scalp, with its hairless, leathery sheen? Would my scalp be of any value to them as a trophy?
I suspect, following this train of thought through to its end, that the Vikings would take Fabio off as some prized captive, and just hack me to bits.
And people wonder why I am so reluctant to run for political office!