Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Day 217: Quite Literally Amazing Cross-Atlantic Vocabulary Cleavages

Today I learned a new word that has a subtle but important difference in British and American vocabularies: quite. In America, it has a positive meaning (if something is "quite good", it is better than just good), and in Britain, it has more of a negative meaning (if something is "quite good," it means it is less than good). Who knew such a small un-obnoxious word would vexatiously split its meaning somewhere across the ocean?

Other words don't have different meanings here but are simply overused, including 'literally' and 'amazing.' In the case of 'literally,' the word has been high-jacked and denatured by over and inappropriate usage such that when someone says 'literally,' they literally mean 'truly' or even ' figuratively.' (For an example of a highly-circulated satire of English public schoolkids idiosyncrasies, including overuse of certain words and phrases like 'literally' during their magical, soul-finding-excuse-to-drink-in-exotic-places 'gap year,' watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKFjWR7X5dU) We Yanks of course have rightfully been accused of slaughtering the English tongue through over-use, we just offend with different words.

Yet other new words might be particular to my new field, history. The most memorable of these is "cleavages." This modest Mormon girl may or may not have blushed when it was used for the first 10 times in class, even while knowing, given its context, that it had nothing to do with female anatomy...


  1. Haha! Cleavage does also have the female anatomy meaning here as well as the more academic meaning... :-)

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