Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

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In Defense of Talking Funny

This is from a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster about different ways of talkin’ American and how many of the ways which are perceived as wrong are actually just different.

harm·less drudg·ery

[Ed. note: Five months! I know. My (very poor) excuse is that I was working on another big project that I can’t tell you about yet. In the meantime, here’s an extra-long post to pay you back for the extra-long wait.]

I was talking with a friend–well, a “friend”–about some of the videos we were about to shoot for M-W. We were at a crowded, chic-chic restaurant, the type of place where the waiters pull your chair out for you and ask if you want sparkling, still, or mineral water. In short, a place far above my usual grab-and-go, paper-napkins milieu. A place where it behooves you to not only look smart, but sound smart. A place where you’d use the word “behoove.”

So I was behooving, using some expansive vocabulary and trying not to think about how I was paying $12 for a glass of wine when…

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What’chu talkin’ ’bout?

I went to college in Boston, over a thousand miles away from where I grew up. In European terms, the distance is similar to that between Paris and Moscow, which is to say that I was a long way from home.

My very first week, I was paying for a Coke in the dining hall and I asked the cashier if there were free refills on pop. “On what?” he asked. “On pop,” I said. “What?” he said again. “Pop,” I replied more forcefully. “What?” he smirked. “Pop! Pop! You know, like Coke?” I stammered. “Oooooooh, you mean soda,” was his smug retort. “No.”

That guy shamed me in a way I hadn’t experienced before, but he also taught me a lesson. There are language traps everywhere and you’ve got to look out for them lest you fall into one. Any little thing can give you away (if you’re trying to hide something or just assimilate), so it’s important to listen to people around you and adopt their ways if you want to blend in.

The pop v. soda debate is probably the biggest lexical tell in American culture and is actually something that’s studied and argued about. This map shows that I was well within my comfort zone, linguistically, since I’m from the heart of “pop” country.

Interestingly, when telling my new college pals about what had happened in the dining hall, a friend from northern Florida said that he called all carbonated beverages “coke” leading to unusual-sounding drinks orders like, “I’ll have a Dr. Pepper coke.” In the end, he decided he didn’t want to become too Yankee-fied, so he stuck with his coke catchall, but I never called anything pop again.