International Linguistic Silliness

I find the subtle differences between American English and British English endlessly fascinating. Leaving aside the obvious divergences, as in spelling and slang terms, I'm intrigued by the ways that Standard English words have acquired different meanings and are used for different purposes in the two branches of the language.

I bring this up because of a BBC headline on the Senate's recent re-consideration of the big immigration bill. The headline is "US Senate Revives Migration Plan". The intention of the headline writer is clear, and I suppose the British use Migration to mean much what we mean when we discuss Immigration, but still the use of the term has a weird connotation to a speaker of American English. I tend to think of Migration in terms of what animals do when they move long distances. "The Senate reached a compromise on the Migration Bill today; foreign guest workers will be permitted into the United States during the warm summer months, but must migrate to sunnier tropical climes when the bitter cold of northern winters looms."

My other favorite dicordant Britishism is the term "Redundancies." Redundancy has no special significance to Americans, and we tend to think of it only in terms of its standard denotation of duplicating other functions. You might speak of a redundant system in engineering or a redundant argument in a discussion. In England, though, "Redundancies" carries the same meaning as the American phrase "Lay-offs," large-scale firings that are not directly the result of malfeasance on the part of the worker but that are instead caused by larger macroeconomic trends.

Of course, "Redundancies," in the British sense, is a euphemism, the kind that passive-aggressive managers devise in the hopes that if the word used to tell someone they're fired is nice enough the worker might forget that they've just lost their job. "It's not that you're a bad worker, you see, it's just that, well, you're kind of redundant. The firm would love to keep employing you, as would I, but, well, through no fault of your own, your function is already done by somebody else. Completely our mistake. An over-hiring problem, really. Best of luck to you, though. Security will escort you out."

What's interesting is when the euphemistic sense of the word doesn't apply at all, which can leave someone unfamiliar with the term a bit confused. "The Thistlebottom Construction Company closed its door for the last time today, as trying economic times and a dearth of new construction starts forced it into bankruptcy. The firm's closure created 600 redundancies." It makes no sense when read literally; if nobody's working at Thistlebottom at all anymore, how can anyone be redundant? I suppose, if one wishes to get metaphysical about it, one could argue that now that it no longer exists the Thistlebottom Construction Company is in the business of doing nothing. Since there are a great slew of non-persons available at Thistlebottom to do Nothing, any actual persons employed there to do nothing would be redundant. On the other hand, one could argue that Thistlebottom is now in the business of Not Existing. While non-persons are superlative at the job of not existing, actual employees have a much more difficult time of it. While the actual persons would not be necessary, insofar as they are not advancing Thistlebottom's primary business activity of non-existence, they can't honestly be said to be redundant.

The question boils down, then to whether Thistlebottom is an ethereal entity in the business of doing nothing, or a non-entity in the business of not-existing. The question is intractable, so we must assume both that Thistlebottom exists and that it does not. This is known in Business Law as Schrödinger's Firm.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on June 26, 2007 8:40 PM.

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