Thursday, April 7, 2011

Fish slice, blancmange, pong: How BrE is it?

I picked up the paperback of “So Much for That,” Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, for a recent plane ride, and I found that along with a good story, it offered readers a little Separated by a Common Language game to play.  

Shriver is American-born but has lived abroad a lot, and in London since 1999. This novel, unlike her last one, is set in New York, with American characters. The vocabulary, however, has some locutions that sounded more Brit than Yank to me.

Most striking is the name of a hand-forged kitchen utensil – a work of art that’s important in the book – that is called, from start to finish, a fish slice. I’d never heard the term – even during a stint as a food section copy editor – but of course it was easy to ask Mr. Google, who said it was essentially a spatula.

The other suspicious words were all ones I knew, but thought of as more or less distinctly British. Do you -- whatever your vantage point -- share that impression? Or am I imagining things? Here are the terms that caught my eye (in context), with definitions following: 

“Freeloaders and Fall Guys. Saps and Spongers. Slaves and Skivers” (p. 76). Skiver: One who avoids work; a shirker; a truant. (OED).

“A sip of pineapple juice, the Tuesday blancmange with strawberry sauce …” (p 134). Blancmange: In cookery, a name of different preparations of the consistency of jelly, variously composed of dissolved isinglass, arrowroot, corn-starch, etc., with milk and flavoring substances. (Century Dictionary, at Wordnik.com)

“They just wanted to collect their whacking fees for bedside phones” (p. 141). Whacking: Very large; huge. (American Heritage, via Wordnik)

“Maybe the best in me, to me, is hateful, vindictive, and ill-wishing” (p. 147). Ill-wish: To bring misfortune upon, or bewitch, by wishing evil, according to a popular belief in some rural districts. (OED) I’ve mentioned this before, and Lynneguist offered some support (see the comments) for my impression that it was mostly BrE.

“Flicka was deliberately winding her mother up, pushing her to cross a line” (p. 175). Wind up: to annoy, to provoke deliberately (colloq.). (OED)

“He was largely unaware of the pong of paper mills that fugged his hometown” (p. 203). Pong: A strong smell, usually unpleasant; a stink. (OED)

(I wondered about fug, too, but since I knew the noun – “A heavy, stale atmosphere, especially the musty air of an overcrowded or poorly ventilated room” (AHD) – I didn't think I'd have noticed the verb if I hadn't been looking for oddities. But it may be more frequent in BrE.)

Notes, dissents, and further elaborations welcome.

28 comments:

Laura Gibbs said...

The blancmange made immortal by Monty Python:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMCNltgrs1U
You can see the tennis-playing blancmange at around 3:12 in the video. :-)

Carolyn Roosevelt said...

The fish slice is used in some Wodehouse story or other as the generic wedding gift, as in, "You hear old Bingo's tying the knot, so you pop round to the shops and acquire a fish slice..." (That's not verbatim, obviously.) I've always pictured it like a pie server, a flat, handled instrument, but certainly I've never seen one.

Robin said...

Those all sound British to me except "winding her up."

tudza said...

Reminds me of the specialized butter knife. What I would usually call a butter knife is what I would use to spread butter on my individual portion of food. The actual butter knife at one point was a special knife used just to cut or serve up a portion of butter to my plate where I would then use my place knife to spread the butter on my food.

Also a bit like one of those forks with a broad cutting tine on one side that I would call a cake fork.

tudza said...

Most of the other terms are familiar from British this and that, especially pong.

I first heard of a blancmange from this Monty Python sketch:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMCNltgrs1U

Charles Matthews said...

I remember "fish slice" being used back in Mississippi for a fancy kind of spatula that you'd give as a wedding present. In the USA it's probably gift shoppe jargon.

Ø said...

Python fans know blancmange.

Wodehouse fans know fish slice as a stereotypical wedding present.

Steven Capsuto said...

Yup... All jarringly British terms for a story set in New Yawk. Were you reading a U.S. edition or a European edition? I wonder if the text got localized (or maybe even localised).

Also, is this the voice of an omniscient narrator? Maybe it's a British narrator telling an American story.

T. Roger Thomas said...

One might say there was a pong at the Paper St. Soap Co.

cleansheetsanddirtygirls.blogspot.com

bklynharuspex said...

I'm with you on the Britocity of all of these. Blancmange is just nonexistent in AmE.

The Wash Pond Navigator said...

fish slice is def. Brit

never heard skivers or pong.

"fug" not so sure, seem to have heard/seen it in AmE as well as BrE.

Blancmange also def. Brit (cf Monty P) as well as "whacking" though it's most often heard (in my experience) as the first part of "whacking great" (as in another Monty P sketch wherein Eric Idle is plinking a "whacking great rat")

Brent Wescott said...

They all sound British to me. But I've got no problem with that. American English needs a bit of British spice.

Jeanette said...

I agree with Robin. They all sound British to me except for "winding her up." I'm from the Pacific Northwest and I commonly hear and use that term.

Girl with the Interesting Hair said...

I'm in the middle of the book now & have noticed the same thing.

FYI, Blancmange was also a one-hit wonder in the 80s: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L03PJeB38dI

Girl with the Interesting Hair said...

I'm in the middle of the book now & am noticing the same thing.

FYI, Blancmange was also a one-hit wonder in the 80s
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L03PJeB38dI

Vireya said...

It goes the other way, too. I recently read US author Connie Willis's latest books, which are set in war-time UK. There were several examples of words which didn't fit the location of the book. For example, she sets some of the action at the "notions" counter of a department store. There is no such thing in BrE. It's haberdashery!

On the other hand, I would never have noticed the words you mention, as I grew up in a home with a fish slice, and learnt how to cook blancmange in school cookery classes.

Jan said...

Thanks for the Monty Python link, and the Wodehouse tip -- yes, apparently the fish slice is Bertie's standard wedding gift. Google Images shows both fancy silver ones and ordinary pancake/hamburger spatulas labeled "fish slice" (FWIW).
Stephen, I think these expressions (when not actual quotes) are pretty clearly meant to represent the characters' inner language, not an omniscient narrator with a different dialect. And Jeanette, I'm fascinated to hear that "winding someone up" is heard in the Pacific Northwest.
BTW, Lynneguist just posted about "skiving" (blowing off work, playing hooky) and its American counterparts at Separated by a Common Language. Go see!

Ø said...

Bertie Wooster's Aunt Dahlia tells him that a former butler of hers once "pinched a fish slice, put it up the spout, and squandered the proceeds at the dog races".

Brenda said...

Here in Texas we speak of our young students getting wound up quiet frequently. Teachers at times too.....

Jan said...

Yes, Brenda, but that's not the same sense of "winding up" as this one.

Jan said...

COMMENT VIA E-MAIL, from GIL:
The fish slice is a piece of tableware resembling a larger old-fashioned butter knife, with an offset handle. I think I have one of those butter knives around here that came from the family silverware. (I never use it--who serves a quarter of butter in a silver dish on the table anymore?)
I have had the fish slice as part of the table setting in a couple of London seafood restaurants. It looks pointless to an American like me but I think it is supposed to be used to help you fillet your Dover sole without getting your hands soiled. I never used mine as the helpful waiter did the job for me (better tip). And as the thing is not sharp at all I can't really imagine its being very useful.

Now for blancmange. This is an essentially tasteless dessert made from whipped egg whites (I'm told tasteless by those who have eaten it). I dunno where that cockamamie reference book got isinglass and such. Who today knows what isinglass is? I have seen some as a kid--it's a transparent sort of quartz that can be split into thin sheets (and used for windows on the surrey with the fringe on top). Our old [Merriam-Webster] pronunciation editor used to be fond of the word as it had the only silent "nc" he was able to find. I don't think the FDA would approve of an isinglass pudding nowadays.

I hope my references aren't so aged as not to be understandable. I imagine you might be able to find a picture of a fish slice in a uppity silverware catalog.

Anonymous said...

As a Brit, I'd say they're all British. A fish-slice has slots in it, and is broader than a butter-knife. I skived off class once, but was so overcome with guilt, I never did it again! Fug wasn't so common where/when I grew up, but I certainly know it. My brother and I were always winding one another up, and our mother, in the process. Public loos pong something awful.

John Burgess said...

A mix...

As an AmE speaker, I've known 'blancmange' or 'blanc mange' since childhood. I was and continue to be an inveterate reader of cookbooks. The creation also appeared often enough on the dinner table. Since, I've come across many of its cousins gelled through other than corn starch.

'Isinglas' was an early acquisition, too. It appears in Swiss Family Robinson as glazing material and in numerous cookbooks and outdoor adventure preparation books as a preservative for eggs.

All the others are distinctly British English, though making their various ways into American English. I learned them when living in London and follow their wending ways with some amusement.

As for the intrusion in the Pacific NW, well, as the song goes, 'Blame Canada!'

Snowparrot said...

I own a fish slice. You might think it a knife or serving spatula. It even has a matching fork. They are silver, with bone handles, and the slice is engraved with a picture of a fish. They belonged to my grandmother, and I believe they were wedding presents (in Toronto, circa 1910), but not from Bertie Wooster.

Kevin Morrison said...

Jan - I know this correspondence is getting old (and stale fish certainly pongs!) but don't confuse a fish slice with a fish knife. The knife is for individual use and is part of the 'posh' set of 'cutlery' (i.e. silverware) that we have; the fish slice is a serving implement. And thank you to everybody who reminded me that Bertie Wooster bought them in bulk!

dev0347 said...

Kevin is correct in that most people are describing a fish knife.

This is a fish slice: http://bit.ly/gt7KOV

Also, to refer to another previous comment - and apologies for being OT - butter knives in the UK are still different from regular place-setting knives because place-setting knives are slightly serrated or ridged on one side to help cut meat. Butter knives are smooth metal.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

(Referred back to this post from the current discussion on Separated by a Common Language.

Blancmange has nothing to do with egg whites - that's meringues. Blancmange is a mixture of milk and rather a lot of cornflour (cornstarch), with or without flavouring, so that it sets like jelly (Jell-O), and is often moulded like it.

And to my British self, a spatula and a fish slice are two different things - This is a fish slice, used for lifting food from a frying-pan (skillet) and this a spatula, used for scraping the last bits out of a bowl!

dennis hodgson said...

Referring to the OED definition of "to wind up", an essential part of the meaning has been omitted, which often happens with the OED and entries it labels "colloq.". A wind-up involves telling the victim a load of porkies (Cockney rhyming slang, meaning "lies") in order to elicit a reaction.

By the way, I hate the word "pong" because it qualifies as what Fowler calls a genteelism. "Stench" is a much better word, particularly for smells that are offensive.