Vernacular Spectacular #13: “bachelorette party” vs. “hen’s night”

Outside the long-running reality series, one doesn’t hear the word “bachelor” used to refer to unmarried men that often anymore, and hardly ever has an unmarried woman been referred to as a “bachelorette” (“spinster” skipping straight to “single woman”). Consequently, in the US, the only time in her life a woman might be called a “bachelorette” may be at the party to celebrate how she’s about to get married.

“Bachelorette party” sounds red-faced and boozy, and so captures the contemporary prototype pretty well. Hen’s night brings chickens into it. I get that they are female chickens and that it’s sort of like the counterpart of stag night, only instead of virile deer frolicking about there’s a bunch of clucking. Hen’s night is unequivocally the classier term, and sounds like something for which it’s perfectly fine to bring mum.

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Vernacular Spectacular #12: “kiwi” vs. “kiwifruit”

Apparently the kiwi used to be known as the Chinese gooseberry, and it was due to fear of communism and the Vietnam War that folks in the United States and Australia went along with the New Zealand rebranding of calling it “kiwi.” At least this is what we were told last month when we visited the Tropical Fruit Museum.

Kiwi is a great word; among the cutest of all fruit names. And yet, it’s a cuteness borne of jingoistic hysteria and racism. So, we have not just a frivolous comparison of words but a full-fledged moral dilemma. Also, the name “kiwi” only flies because Americans are ignorant of the bird, and it also leads Americans to think New Zealanders are called “kiwis” because of the fruit rather than the bird.

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Vernacular Spectacular #11: “debit” vs. “EFTPOS”

What an ugly acronym, EFTPOS. I think it stands for Electronic Funds Transfer at Point of Sale. (This is correct: although I dislike the acronym so much that it took me a few moments just now to muster to type it into Google to confirm.)

Or something, I can’t even bring myself to care enough to Google it.

“Credit or debit?” is a cute little close-of-transaction phrase. “Debit” sounds like it should be a diminutive form of “debt,” which is charming although I guess also incorrect since the point is exactly that you are using your own money to make the purchase rather than somebody else’s.

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Vernacular Spectacular #10: “cooler” vs. “esky”

“Esky” is one of those words like band-aid or frisbee or thermos (or heroin) that is technically a brand name but people use it in Australia for coolers regardless of who makes them. The Esky brand is currently owned by the American company that first comes to my own mind when I think of coolers.

Esky apparently claims to have invented the cooler, but I guess the alleged first-mover advantage didn’t expand to the rest of the globe.

The great contradiction of “cooler” is that it doesn’t actually cool anything, but instead just slows the rate of warming. This is compared to actual coolers, like the glass-walled refrigerator that stores drinks in a convenience store, or a “watercooler.” Then again, cooler does have the lovely “oo” in the middle, and “esky” has a friendly, picnicky air about it.

Comes down to this: Imagine a happy couple deciding to go on an impromptu beach outing. Would you rather one says to the other: “Hey, let’s bring a cooler!” or “Hey, let’s bring an esky!”

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Vernacular Spectacular #9: “elevator” vs. “lift”

So, today we’re considering what to call the box that moves folks between floors. Notably, both words focus the “going up” aspect, which is only half the job but I suppose is the tricky bit.

Word-wise, we’re using four syllables in the US, whereas Oz and the rest of the commonwealth uses only one. One might quibble that it isn’t “lifter” instead of “lift,” but I’m so used to “forklift” and “ski lift” that this seems normal.

Lift is a bubbly little word, while elevator is more serious, even ominous. A reasonable person could be afraid of elevators, while it feels like only the unaccountably prissy could be afraid of a lift.

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Vernacular Spectacular #8: “ramen noodles” vs. “two-minute noodles”

“Ramen noodles” has always puzzled me. Is it some kind of Asian word, or were they invented by some guy named Ramen? (Could be both, I suppose, if invented by an Asian guy.) “Two-minute noodles” emphasize how quickly they can be prepared, which I would have thought of as their third-most appealing feature, after (1) how cheap they are, and (2) how decent-for-dirt-cheap-food they taste, if your constitution can handle the salt. “Two-minute noodles” gets some nice assonance going with the “oo”-“oo”, and affords the knowing acronym TMN.

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Vernacular Spectacular #7: “beets” vs. “beetroot”

An odd thing here is that the place where the vegetable is less popular is the place that abbreviates the name. Australians put beetroot on pizza and hamburgers. In the US, you only see beets at restaurants that have many, many other vegetables on their menu or in old references to how kids should “eat their beets.” (And borscht, I suppose.)

“Beet” is a quirky little word, whose quirkiness is lost when the “root” is added. But “root” in Australia is another word for “sex” (“have a root), so they manage to make one of the most boring vegetables into something vaguely naughty.

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Vernacular Spectacular #6: “layaway” vs. “layby”

Can you actually buy stuff on layaway in the United States anymore? The Target. stores here — that’s not a typo, Target here is called “Target.” — have a big sign for their layby section. Don’t these people have credit cards?

This is a weak match-up, because it’s obscure enough it’s hard to rouse much passion for it, but if I did, there wouldn’t be much suspense because the outcome is straightforward: “layaway” has a nice little internal rhyme and “away” makes more sense than “by” for where the stuff is until you’ve managed to pay for the whole thing. I can’t think of a single reason why a place would call it “layby” instead of “layaway” except to signal a backwards consumer culture.

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Vernacular Spectacular #5: “laser tag” versus “laser skirmish”

We recently gave this a go, but here we aren’t focused on that adventure but rather what “this” should be called. Let’s get down to business:

The “laser” part is a draw. So then: “tag” is a game for children, a “skirmish” is minor episode in a war between men. The activity involves trying to shoot your foes with laser guns. It’s “cops & robbers” with rifles. The name “tag” takes the edge of violence off of it, but anybody who needs to edge of violence taken off it shouldn’t be playing a game with guns anyway. As words go, “tag” is an ugly word and “skirmish” is a fun one, but “tag” goes much better with “laser”–“laser tag” rolls off the tongue and sounds zippy, whereas “laser skirmish” gets hung up in the r sounds. “laser tag” feels like it is taking-ordinary-tag-and-making-it-awesome.

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Vernacular Spectacular #4: “how are you doing?” vs. “how are you going?”

This one takes some time to get used to both phrasings in order to be able to take a step back and provide the sort of objective evaluation we insist upon here at BAJTOTW. At first, “how are you going?” just sounds more like a mistake than an alternative, like somebody got the phrases “how are you doing?” and “how’s it going?” confused.

Really, though, a phrase like “I’m doing fine” is supposed to reflect the inner-state of a person, but the wording gets this wrong. That you can say “I act like everything is okay but really I’m not doing very well at all” should be, semantically, a contradiction in terms.

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