Reflections on baby talk and mutant English
This article is dedicated to my daughter Jennifer, born in Quebec, who gave birth to Maya Ruth Richler-Stoffman on April 5th in Bloomington, Indiana.
The Oxford Companion to the English Language (OCEL) is missing an “s” at the end of its title. The OCEL has headings for more than 400 varieties of our multitudinous language, such as Australian English, Singapore English, and Canadian English.
I’ve never even heard of some of the varieties, such as Babu English, which is described in OCEL as “a mode of address and reference in several Indo-Aryan languages, including Hindi, for officials working for rajahs, landlords, etc.”
My mother tongue, Quebec English, is actually one of these mutations listed in OCEL. In my dealings with the outside world, I’m constantly being reminded, if not chided, about the distinctiveness of my English.
Some years ago, while toiling in the steel industry, I couldn’t reach a customer in Newfoundland and in my recorded message stated that “my local is 222.” I found out a week later why the person never phoned me back. My reference to “local” made him think I represented a union—I should have used the term “extension.”
I would think that many a mother born in Quebec, but bringing up her children elsewhere, is likely to have her mongrel English roots sussed out were she to use the word “suss” as a noun in a prenatal class.
You see, for many Quebec anglophones a “suss” is their word of choice for a pacifier but this term is only to be found among English-speaking people deriving from Quebec. It comes from the French-Canadian term for a pacifier—suçon or suce—and derives from the French word sucer, “to suck.” Even in France, this term would be largely unknown as the definitive word there would be une tétine.
This mongrelization is not unusual, as the term “pacifier” for many products we associate with babies varies quite a lot in the English-speaking world. The term “pacifier” in the United Kingdom is largely unknown and the definitive term for such is a “dummy” because the device is an artificial teat. In North America and the U.K., many people use such other terms for pacifier as binky or nuk (or nuk-nuk). Binky was actually a brand name for a pacifier introduced by Playtex in 1948 and produced until 1977. Nuk derives from the Nuk baby product company, which was established in Germany in 1964.
Interestingly, the term “binky” grew beyond the sense of pacifier and is often used to refer to a young child’s blanket, stuffed animal or other prized possession.
To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, British English and North American English are two languages separated by an ocean, and we see this chasm in many terms we use associated with babies. After all, “popping” a baby in a cot in Britain just means placing it there, whereas stating that you “popped” a baby in a North American crib might get you arrested for harming an infant.
In England, a nanny changes a baby’s nappy, not its diaper. This word was first used in English in the 14th century when it referred to a textile fabric and by the next century it referred to a linen fabric.
It is in the 17th century that the word is first used to refer to a baby’s napkin or cloth. The word nappy is a version of napkin and its first citation in the OED is in 1927.
The term pram to refer to a baby carriage
goes back to 1884 and I was surprised to discover that it is actually a shortening of the word perambulator.
Nowadays this term has succumbed to the more descriptive push chair.
Howard Richler’s book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in 2013.