The Other I

July 23, 2011

Gallows humour

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 2:51 pm

When my mother was dying, a friend came for a visit bringing two bottles – one filled with Lourdes water, the other with Scotch whiskey.  “If one doesn’t work,” my mother said, “the other will.”  (For the uninitiated, Lourdes water is from a place in France where the mother of Jesus appeared to three peasant girls, and is now associated with miraculous cures.*)

  My mother did not think a miracle was likely, and she did not drink much.  So when she died there were several miracles still left in each bottle.  I don’t know what actually happened to the Lourdes water, but I can make a pretty good guess about the Scotch.  

This story is my justification for gallows humour, which, in my mother’s case, I think is a rather marvellous example of her courage.  If she could make jokes about dying at 48 with ten children under the age of 20, one can’t argue that laughing is to dismiss the gravity of the issue.

Which is my justification for a further discussion of Americanisms even in the light of the current state of the world.  This morning I turned on the news to see that at least 84 young people were dead after being shot by a 32-year-old Norwegian dressed as a policeman.  He went to an island where they were gathered after planting a bomb that devastated the center of Oslo.  The gunman now in custody does not seem to be an Islamist but is native Norwegian with a far-right Christian orientation.

If that weren’t enough, the story following this is that the talks collapsed last night between Republicans and Democrats to find a compromise to prevent the U.S. from defaulting come August 1st.  If they don’t reach some agreement, my own fear is that serious suffering will hit far more than 84 innocent families.  Tens of thousands of people could be affected.  That elected government representatives should be behaving with this kind of cavalier attitude is despicable.

So back to Americanisms.  A few people have shared their own pet cringe-making phrases.  Like “as of yet…”

As I was reading the expanded list, I began to change my assessment of Americanisms.  I know they sometimes come from carelessness or a failure to reflect on what we are actually saying.  But often they are quite creative.  And why shouldn’t we be creative with words?  They are no more static than poetry or art or architecture.

One of the reasons why I think Americans are so apparently inventive is that the population has originated from so many different countries.  So English (for English readers, excuse me for calling it that) for so many people was learned as a second language.  Many of our phrases, therefore, are a result of applying the rules of  our first language to English, or are a mistaken application of English rules.

I noticed that one person asked where “gotten” came from.  It was a term my mother used.  Okay, “gotten” wasn’t originally a correct past participle, but doesn’t it sound right?  Get, Got, Gotten?  Is this any stranger than the child who says it’s “winding and raining”?  Or thinks the plural of mouse is “mouses”?

Other Americanisms are direct translations from the original language.  The use of the double negative, for instance, has come to be associated with a lack of education.  But it began as a literal translation from languages that do appropriately use double negatives.

I’m sure “enough already” must have come from the original Yiddish, and I do know that “what for?” is a literal translation of the Spanish “why?”  Unfortunately, I cannot not, as of yet, provide any reasonable defense of “You know, I mean.”

Hmmm, I’m not sure this discussion actually qualifies as gallows humour.

I hope life doesn’t decide any time soon that I need some real-life practice.

* Whoops!  Really Important Correction:  Lourdes isn’t where the Blessed Virgin appeared to three peasant girls.  That’s Fatima.  The Lourdes appearance was to Bernadette.  Given that Bernadette was my name as a nun for 9 years, you would think I wouldn’t have gotten (sic) that mixed up.  



  1. Yes – the news globally is pretty bleak today.
    I don’t think Americanisms bother me. I love to spot and explain as many differences as I can with American English and English. I think because the visual culture is almost all coming the way of the English from the American English, it is easier from outwith the US to spot things. (Did you spot the Scotticism in there?)


    Comment by sanstorm — July 23, 2011 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

    • Since you seem to have begun a serious study of Exodus, I’m somewhat reluctant to badger you about trivia. But I will confess that I did not spot the Scotticism. I even went back and looked for it!

      I’m like you really. I mostly enjoy spotting the cultural differences and trying to understand them. I remember years ago figuring out that when I asked my (English) mother-in-law if she would like something, if she said “I’m not bothered,” it meant no, and “I don’t mind” meant yes. This probably does not sound like a mystery to you at all, but even now I wonder how many times my mother-in-law must have thought I deliberately ignored her request.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — July 25, 2011 @ 9:27 pm | Reply

  2. It’s “outwith” – which is a word that is not in English technically, but i find really useful. It also explains why the English hymn “there is a green hill far away, without a city wall…” does not make sense in Scotland as it implies the city had no wall – and why would a green hill have a city wall anyway…
    “Outwith” is a great Scots word – that I think English needs.


    Comment by sanstorm — July 26, 2011 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for taking the time to explain. Now let me see if I understand: Would the English hymn in Scotland more reasonably be translated as “….outwith the city wall”? I’m familiar with some of the lovely Scottish terms, but if I’ve heard “outwith” it eluded me. I probably heard something like “Out with the city wall!” or “Get rid of city walls: they are keeping the green hills far away.”

      I see you are making progress on Exodus. I’m wondering if I were to re-read it after all these years if it would seem like the same book at all.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — July 26, 2011 @ 9:18 pm | Reply

      • Luckily with the Exodus I am only crossing the red sea – then I can stop.
        It certainly is different reading it now!
        Don’t read ahead of me though! 🙂


        Comment by sanstorm — July 26, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

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