Arrogance American Style

Solipson says he admires much about America; we admire much about Europe. Lex, indeed, is constantly reinforcing the history and affection that lie between us and the wide-spread Anglosphere – which includes at least one European nation. And most of us, immigrants that we are, lovers of the western tradition that we are, do not want a huge wall between us and them. (And of course, of late, many of our posters are not American and are rightly proud of their own loyalties.)

Nonetheless, I come to our little blog & his comments having just read a Wall Street Journal piece by Pete du Pont, “Ceasefire in Tunisia”; here we see how wide the breach is in in both tone & content. A readiness to impugn our motives is not, well, attractive. But the real sadness comes from the fact that we revere a value that we often see as perhaps uniquely American but whose ancestors we recognize in that European tradition from which we were spawned.

As Lex has noted, even such an Anglophile as James noted again and again the “honesty” of his Americans, their direct method of speech. It is one we still cherish. But we have reasons other than the fresh charm we see in it (and Europeans may well not) nor does it come (at least solely) from the vulgarity and naiveté Europeans find. We believe it, well, right. My idea of hell would be life lived in code; our inner as well as our society’s health require an ability to speak honestly, directly, words coming up and out with no filter, no hedging, no reinterpreting in “appropriate” words, muted feelings. With such a distraction at such a level, we become less intent on (and less good at) capturing reality. It wastes time but more importantly energy. Perhaps Europeans can not understand how much we are struck by such experiences as the writer describes in his concluding paragraphs:

When the U.S. attends those IGF meetings, our representative will surely be reminded of the repeated advice Tony Mauro, the Supreme Court correspondent for The American Lawyer, recalls receiving from Europeans at a run-up meeting of the U.N. Internet group in Budapest three years ago. Do not invoke the First Amendment in Internet discussions, he was told, for it is viewed as a sign of U.S. arrogance.

If the U.N. establishment believes free speech is arrogance, we can be confident that U.N. control of the Internet would be calamitous.

50 thoughts on “Arrogance American Style”

  1. Free governments are a minority. If Internet control were ceded to the UN, why would they take it any more seriously than the UN Human Rights Commission, currently sporting such moral giants as China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and the Sudan?

  2. I think Americans are so blunt spoken because historically we have had to be to survive.

    In continental Europe, an individuals success in life has always been governed by his political (in the broadest meaning of the term) skills. The ability to manipulate people was much more important than the ability deal with impersonal natural forces. In such an environment, circumlocutory speech is an asset.

    In America, personal success was more a matter of raw merit. The defining environments of America have been the frontier and sea borne trade, both areas of endeavor where political skills take a back seat to skill. America speech patterns evolved to quickly transmit the factual information needed to survive hash physical conditions. Calling someone “plain spoken” is a compliment.

    In European and similar cultures, telling someone an unpleasant truth or disagreeing with someone publicly is often an explicit statement of dominance. Conversely in America, not telling someone the truth or disagreeing publicly is taken as a sign of dominance or duplicity.

    So both sides can easily insult the other just by treating them as they themselves would like to be treated (one of the times the golden rule fails.) American’s attempts to treat Europeans as equals causes the Americans to appear to be arrogant. Europeans attempt to treat Americans as equals makes them look like “weasels.”

  3. Thank you, Shannon, for that broad perspective. A related point: It may come from our value (theological, aesthetic & pragmatic)for the “plain stile.” Flowery speech, artful metaphors, irony – we may enjoy them, but, as Shannon observes, we don’t trust them.

  4. Good post, Ginny. And both SparcVark and Shannon have both left insightful comments. Shannon in particular.

    Speaking as someone who has had to deal with a wide variety of people at their worst, I can say that straight talk is a survival trait here in the United States. We’re a mix of cultures and peoples that is unique in all the world and in all of history. understanding is sometimes tought to come by.

    Tell it like is is, without any flowery flourishes, or there’s probably going to be trouble. To the Americans this is indescribably obvious.

    I once read a comment to a blog post (can’t locate it right now) from an American who spent a great deal of time in England on business. He claimed that it was considered alright in Old Blighty to be as insulting as you pleased as long as you were clever about it. Doing the Wilde thing, as it were.

    OPf course, if someone pulls that with an American we dismiss them as being an idiot. And they are an idiot, by indulging in behavior that has a high anti-survival factor.


  5. This post at Aqoul may also be of interest: On language expression and real communications for public diplomacy and business

    “Having long been away from American business, to take an example, I admit that I am, for example, taken aback by the abrupt directness which Americans tend to plunge into subjects (not that I can not do the same). At the same time, one has to admit that even if one understands in theory that, say, Arab culture or whatever requires a less direct approach, it is hard for the person who has merely read this in a ‘cross-cultural’ communications handbook to truly integrate this into their actual behaviour or understanding of what is said.”

  6. Shannon–“In such an environment, circumlocutory speech is an asset.”


    “Calling someone “plain spoken” is a compliment.”

    The same polarity can be observed across and within organizations within a single country. For example, in most companies commissioned salespeople tend to be independent spirits who say what they think. (At least internally) If you’re at 150% of quota, you don’t really need to worry about what people (internal people) think of you. Similarly, a general manager of a P&L business unit is likely to be more “plain spoken” than the exec in charge of an HR staff unit.

    I think one side effect of the shift from manufacturing jobs has been s shift from the “plain spoken” to the “circumlocutory” modes.

  7. So what is it about the way the internet is “governed” that is supposed to be broken such that it must be fixed by the UN (or anyone else)?

    As far as I can tell the only complaint is that it is run by Americans which seems to be a defacto problem that must be “corrected”

  8. Good comments..

    I work for an large American corp. Whenever this is politics involved people are careful. The manager a very plain spoken though. When I stand my ground and don’t let me people walk all over me because I was the new guy, I was plain spoken. In general, if we talk blunty then we will.

    That may a difference.

  9. With respect, I am utterly baffled by this post. Who are these “Europeans” you refer to? French? Portuguese? Dutch? Greeks? Scandinavians? Italians? Surely you aren’t suggesting all these vastly diverse countries hold identical views about Americans and, indeed, plain speech? And what is the “at least one European nation” you mention as being included in the Anglosphere?

    Most of those 400m Europeans don’t speak English at all. Some of their own languages and ways of speaking may be florid, I don’t know. But the Scandinavians and the Dutch, who *do* speak English, are very plain spoken, straightforward people. I’m puzzled about who you deem finds American speech patterns naive or too direct.

    By the way, for straight forward speaking, you will not ever beat the northern English or the Scots – although I do understand that you were limiting yourself to discussing European countries.

    As to impugning America’s motives, I do not believe that that is confined to (some) Europeans. It is socialists everywhere, including those in your own country and Canada.

  10. Verity,

    Its all relative. There exists significant differences in speech patterns between the cultures of northwest Europe and southern and eastern Europe and for much of the same reasons. In general, the more dynamic and merit driven a culture has been historically, the more its speech modes tend towards the blunt and explicit. The more static and political the more the speech goes in the other direction.

    Northwestern European culture is heavily influenced by sea trade which is highly merit driven. It has also historically had smaller and less centralized states which creates a more dynamic society overall.

    You can see the same effect even within America itself. The Deep South has an economic and social history much like that of southern and eastern Europe and speech patterns reflect that. Southerners make heavy use of allusions and metaphors that require extensive interpretation to understand. Its what makes southern speech so entertaining. By contrast, Americans from the so-called “sagebrush” culture of the interior western states are notoriously blunt. Ditto for the laconic Old Yankee speech of trading New England.

    In any case, speech patterns have little to do with whether one likes international control of the internet or not. Rather, it has to do with perceptions of arrogance or duplicity across cultural lines.

  11. I don’t know if Americans are as blunt as you make out, Ginny. Not from where I am sitting. There is a fair amount of circumlocution in all negotiations and American diplomats are as good or bad at it as anyone else. As far as comparison with Britain is concerned, many of us find (and this is a real compliment) that Americans are far more courteous in a slightly old-fashioned but wholly admirable way. That’s not to say that there is no American arrogance. Of course, there is and it is as irritating as anybody else’s arrogance. I got rather sick of being lectured on British politics and Tony Blair by Americans I met during my last trip to NYC and Washington, who clearly had not idea what they were talking about. I don’t take kindly to suggestions (not expressed on this blog to my knowledge) that terrorism did not exist or was/is of no importance unless it is to do with America. But these faults occur in all nationalities. We are all obsessed with our own problems.

    I do think, however, that anti-Americanism (and I am sorry to say, Verity, it is not just on the left or to do with socialism) is rooted in other matters – some to do with America but most to do with the problems Europeans, including the British, face.

  12. I agree about the internet, Shannon, of course. But most of the post was about the imagined opinions of some mythical Europeans on American speech patterns.

    I was amused by your comment on the American south. Yes, indeed, some of it is so drowned in treacle and dressed up with magnolias that it is almost impossible for a non-native to figure out the real meaning behind the words. And it’s often all drawled out with a mean little smile. And then they get offended when you misunderstand them.

    Another interesting (to me) point is the American West. Specifically, Texas. Their thoughts are blunt, but dressed up in vivid locutions. As in (the only one that comes immediately to mind), “That dawg won’t hunt.” And a couple of cruder ones I’ve just remembered.

  13. Helen – I agree with you. Most English people find Americans endearingly courteous and mindful of the feelings of others. In a discussion, we have no hesitation in saying, “No.” Americans tend to say, “I don’t believe so.” or “That’s not quite the way I feel about it.” They generally try to soften negatives whereas we use them as bludgeons.

  14. There are big regional and cultural differences among American styles of expression. The differences to a significant degree reflect similar differences between the European cultures from whence many of the American subcultures derive. For example, the expressive style of Americans of Frisian ancestry might have more in common with that of modern Frisians than it would with the style of Americans of Spanish decent. It’s difficult to generalize about Americans, except in terms of their civic values, use of English language and, perhaps, independent-mindedness. Their communicating styles are all over the place.

  15. Again, rather than being plain-spoken and straight forward, I think Americans tend to be more prudish than the British. (This was also mentioned by Bill Bryson.) They can’t bring themselves to say the word tit-bit, for example. They’ve changed it to tid-bit. In connection with poultry, they are squeamish about saying cock. They say rooster.

    That said, Americans have to be the most inventive creators of slang in the history of the universe. The Brits and the Aussies are good, but by god, American slang is vivid and inventive and the entire Anglosphere has picked up on it and is using it routinely, and correctly, within 24 hours. That’s how universally appealing it is.

  16. Verity:

    Stuck on stupid.


    I’m still not sure what a Waltzing Mathilda is, but I have heard of bubbles and squeak.

    As to arrogance – are we arrogant or are we right?

  17. If someone asks me for an opinion on their decorating, I don’t tell them I don’t like it, it’s “How interesting,” or something along those lines.

  18. Sandy,

    Always be polite! Balance any criticism with upbeat remarks, e.g.,

    Your decorating is bloody awful. Great pie, though.

    This is the American way.

  19. Well, this is all very interesting. But what upset me was the “Do not invoke the First Amendment in Internet discussions, he was told, for it is viewed as a sign of U.S. arrogance.” I actually didn’t think the first amendment was only an American ideal – though even our closest allies tend to be less absolutist than we, I thought most Europeans believed in it to some degree. And that this openness, offered to everybody, could be considered a sign of arrogance by one party struck me as bizarre.

  20. Sandy P – Re comments on decorating – in my experience, courtesy is common in every country and every race. I can’t think of anywhere where someone would respond, “I don’t like it.”

    But I think the Brits, the Ozzies and some Americans tend to be more direct in discussions, whereas some other Americans – Texans, for example – try to be more emollient. We tend to say, “No. That’s wrong.” A Texan (for example) will generally say, “I think you’ll find it doesn’t work that way.”

    Jonathan – that was funny! But what if the pie was terrible, too? “The decor’s terrible. Great car in the driveway, though.”

    “The decor’s terrible. Cute cat, though.”

  21. Again, Ginny, which Europeans are you referring to? They are not a 400m strong mass of monoglots with a monoculture and a monohistory. They have different legal systems. I don’t believe the Napoleonic Code, for example, recognises anything similar to your First Amendment. I have no idea about the legal systems of Hungary, Portgugal, Greece, etc. I suspect the Scandinavians have something similar though.

    Also, European countries, even if they had a common legal system, which they do not, do not make up the bulk of the United Nations. That is Messrs Stealth, Klepto & WaBenzi.

    That aside, they still have no right to be busying themselves with discussions about the internet, so it’s moot.

  22. “They can’t bring themselves to say the word tit-bit, for example. They’ve changed it to tid-bit. In connection with poultry, they are squeamish about saying cock. They say rooster.”

    I’ve never even heard someone say “tit-bit”! I had no idea the word was anything BUT tidbit. I find it difficult to say “tit-bit”. I’m not sure why really. Tidbit rolls off the tongue much easier. As for “cock” I always thought that was Olde English, not current speech as well as slang for a word the comment submission system won’t let me post.

    Verity’s post reminded me of this hilariuos article I read by the Guardian(!) of all papers. It’s about American political slang. A couple quotes:

    “From the moment Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, confessed that “All previous statements are inoperative”, the lid came off a world in which documents were deep-sixed, hang-out roads considered, slush funds accumulated, enemies’ lists drawn up, pointy-heads abused, downside risks calculated and opponents left to twist slowly in the wind. Drawing from the language of gangsterism, sports, accountancy and marketing (as one commentator put it, the White House tapes read like the proceedings of a minor advertising agency in hell), the most secretive and manipulative White House of modern times gave the world a unique insight into the rugged vernacular of power, from which more sculpted rhetoric was never to recover.”

    “The most comprehensive behind-the-scenes picture of the Reagan White House is the memoir of his first budget director David Stockman, which reveals a vocabulary largely drawn from the colloquialisms of small-town America, a world in which ducks are gotten into a row, squeaky wheels greased, pork barrels consumed and cows removed from the ice (though at one memorable point, Stockman describes the Reagan economic team as “a firing squad deployed in circular formation”).”

    ” As I travelled down America’s west coast in late 2001, researching two plays I had been commissioned to write about a fictional governor’s election, it was a relief to find that a muscular political language was alive and kicking. Elegant political consultants helpfully distinguished between retail and wholesale politics (basically, street-stumping against 30-second TV spots), defining the move from unpaid to paid door-to-door work as the shift from grassroots to Astroturf. Campaign strategists explained exactly how they planned to broil, cook, cream, fry, toast or shish-kebab their electoral opponents, often by way of jerking their chain, cleaning their clock, biting them in the shorts and/or handing their asses to them on a platter. Cultivated party pollsters would patiently explain how their clients planned to detach the lawnsprinkler vote from coastal feminazis. In San Francisco, I asked a well-known feminist campaign manager – who won’t handle pro-life candidates and is passionate about electing women to executive office – about the place of public policy questions in a political campaign. “Well, you know what they say, David”, she replied. “Basically, issues are tissues.”

  23. “And that this openness, offered to everybody, could be considered a sign of arrogance by one party struck me as bizarre.”

    Clearly, staying true to your own beliefs and being unwilling to violate the most fundamental law of your land is viewed as arrogance by other elites who feel no similar compulsion. Afterall, it holds up a mirror to the other’s reptilian soul and own lack of values.

  24. Lindenen – The word it tit-bit. In all of the Anglsophere, only Americans are too shy to say it! And everyone else describes a male fowl as a cock. Bill Bryson had a funny list of these, but I can’t find it.

    Yes, political writing out of DC has given us some marvellous slang – and cant. My favourite from this administration is misunderestimate, which I now use all the time. I just love it.

  25. By the way, this slang illuminates the freedom of not only the English language, but the people who wield it. In France, l’Academie Francaise would simply not tolerate a word like misunderestimate being not only wrong, but being used in place of the correct word. (The French don’t have our sense of fun.) Same with ‘stuck on stupid’. It’s too wild, too off the wall and wouldn’t be countenanced. We just grab whatever suits our fancy and run with it.

  26. So funny that a country that churns out music, etc drenched in sex would feel uncomfortable saying “tit”. I wonder how long ago the word “tit-bit” came to the US.

  27. Lindenen – I think it’s a very old usage, so maybe came over with the original settlers. (I suspect it came from the old word tittle.) The settlers who came over were Puritans, so perhaps that was the genesis of the change.

  28. –. I can’t think of anywhere where someone would respond, “I don’t like it.”–

    Oh, Verity, you should have been at my house yesterday.

    My cousin. And she complains that her outlaws are rude.

    Oh, yeah, there’s another slang word – outlaws instead of inlaws.

  29. Verity, I thought you were in Mexico, you made it across the border????? If so, welcome home.

    Unless there’s another Verity at Samizdata.

  30. Hmm, I always thought that the proper spelling was teat…the part of the cow you milk :). Yeah, tit-bit sounds odd to an American. Cock is used here in America, just go to Columbia, SC. Yeah, the vulgar use of the term makes it hard to use in polite society these days. Still, there’s nothing like a cock fight in the hills of Appalachia, though the authorities won’t approve.

  31. I had a house in Vermont for close to twenty years and the farmers there had a very interesting attitude which could be summed up in the frequently repeated phrase – If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
    The Internet doesn’t need fixing particularly by a bunch of bureaucrats.

  32. Changing tit-bit to tidbit and cock to rooster were niceties of the social-climbing classes in the 19th century. The Puritans had their own problems but they were quite different from Victorians. They weren’t even all that anti-sexual (lots of healthy full-weight births recorded seven months after the wedding date in old New England!) so long as it was within marriage. An excessive regard for virginity was considered a suspiciously Romish affectation. But the 19th century vocabulary-cleansing was so effective the next generation did not remember is was a “nice” version; it was just the word.

    Except, as others noted, in some regional speech it never changed. And compounds like “cockfight” remained universal.

  33. The OED lists “tid-bit” under “tid”, but it doesn’t have a heading of its own.  This discussion reminds me of the joke (set in New England) with the punchline “Excuse me, ma’am, but would you hold my cock and pullet while I scratch my ass?”

    (let’s see if that passes the filters.)

  34. No, Sandy P, I didn’t “make it across the border”. I’m not that strong a swimmer. When I go home from Mexico, it will be on a plane.

  35. Ginny: The idea that people possess rights and free speech is among them is not, of course, uniquely American. What is uniquely American (in its intensity if not its existence) is the belief that these rights are both absolute and justiciable: that a private citizen can enforce them by law and not be subject to government veto for raisons d’etat. No place on Earth has as much protection for free speech as the US. Not England, with its libel laws and “official secrets”; not Australia with its “religious villification” law. Everywhere else, free speech is regarded as being a nice perk afforded to the grateful citizens by the munificent State, to be withdrawn whenever and wherever it becomes inconvenient. And this is also the official UN position: remember, all the “rights” supposedly upheld by the UN’s “Universal Declaration” come with the rider that they may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. If the UN ever gets its clammy hands on the internet, then free speech will be a dead letter.

    (I think it’s generally the case as well that outside of the US there is no conception of a government being forbidden by law from doing things. I find this particularly when I’m unlucky enough to catch the BBC’s reporting of a school shooting or something, which usually features a ritualised exchange along the lines of

    ANCHOR: “So Matt, why haven’t these dumb Yanks banned guns like civilised people, eh?”
    JOURNALIST: “Well Kirstie, it’s because of the Powerful Gun Lobby bribing senators”.

    No mention of the fact that the US government simply isn’t empowered to pass a sweeping nation-wide ban on handguns, because the prevailing concept of government is of absolute power tempered by the occasional gerrymandered election.)

  36. xi – They are so provincial they absolutely cannot conceive of the structure of the United States even after it have been explained to them in words of one syllable with large cartoon illustrations with thought bubbles.

    Why didn’t George Bush send federal aid to Louisiana to those who remained stranded and are BLACK (mentioned, in passing, once every 15 seconds)? Because he has to be asked by the chief executive of the state, you moron. The president is not the boss of the governor, you three-week old soiled toe-rag wet with iguana wee. Mewling microbe Matt Frei staring at the camera with sad eyes, demanded to know, “Where is President Bush?” In the White House, you flippin’ idiot, waiting for a phone call from Louisiana’s governor.

    Despite the huge negative publicity the BBC’s ignorant coverage of Katrina garnered in both Britain and the US, they still can’t take a spanner to their brains and loosen up that hate-America lug. That George Bush had twice begged the LA governor to let him declare a state of emergency in advance so he could have federal aid ready for when the hurricane hit, goes against everything the BBC holds dear, so they simply ignored it and “reported” on the story they wished was happening.

    And strange that they devoted all that manpower (and those long distance phone lines for Matt Wells, who was vigorously covering the New Orleans disaster from his condo in Los Angeles) to Lousiana – specifically New Orleans where the vast majority of those that were stranded were BLACK (George Bush hates BLACK Americans, as we all know)when the hurricane didn’t even hit down in NO. It was only the fringes. The damage was caused by the levees crashing because they were ill-maintained by Democrat governor Blanco and Democrat Mayor Nagins – the Laurel and Hardy of disaster management. Hurricane Katrina touched down in Mississippi, a Republican state, which had requested federal aid in advance and was busy rebuilding within a couple of days. Where were doe-eyed Matt Frei and Gavin Hewitt who, poled a flat bottomed boat around the streets of NO dressed as though for a trip up the Limpopo, while Mississippi was coping heroically (on pre-organised federal aid)? Nowhere to be seen.

    Frei and Hewitt were torn when General Honoré showed up very much in control. He is black. (Good.) But he was chosen by President Bush. (Bad.) Ain’t life a bitch?

    I’ll just bet Matt Wells snapped off the TV in his air-conditioned condo in LA in a right old snit.

  37. Verity – I suspect many words (like rooster) that were once consciously used as euphemisms are no longer perceived or used as such by most American speakers. I call a rooster a rooster ’cause, well, that’s what you call male poultry. Likewise, words like “bathroom” and “restroom” probably started as prim affectations, but few people now use them because their delicate sensibilities are offended by “toilet”. (“The little girls’ room” brigade, however, I will grant you. Gack.)

    I’m also deeply dubious about the the reasons for the “tid” in “tidbit”, and suspect it has to do with phonetics, not prudery. Any phonetician out there please correct me, but I don’t think anybody naturally produces a perfect unvoiced consonant directly before a voiced one – I would think the tendency would be to make the pair voiced or unvoiced. (To use an unrelated example of anomalous speech, I used to think a friend of mine in high school was pretentiously hyper-correcting her pronunciation of “little”, etc., by articulating the tt as “t”s instead of saying the word with a “d” sound or the more standard glottal stop. Turned out that was her natural dialect. Odd, but she really wasn’t trying to be a twit.) Like lindenen, “titbit” for me is unpronounceable. I can say “tidbit” or I can say “titpit”, but cannot produce “titbit” without a marked, unnatural pause between the syllables.

  38. Moira, well I can. And I have to pause before saying ‘tidbit’ when I’m in the US because I find the d intrusive.

    In the light of authoritative opinion, I will continue to believe these circumlocutions were based on prudery, probably during Victorian times – or were regarded as “genteel” speech, to differentiate the speaker from those he considered not in his class. And of course became incorporated into normal American speech. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Americans today are being prim by saying “rooster”. It’s their normal word for a male fowl. We use cock for all male fowl – although not for swans. That’s cob. And the female is a pen.

  39. I’ve read that a vowel shift happened in the nineteenth century in all non-US English-speaking countries that never took place here. Could this be part of the difference? Titbit really is impossible to say.

  40. Re. “American English” language “bluntness” or directness:

    I had occasion to install a water pressure tank today. Around the Schrader valve (air pressure valve) there was a ring with instructions printed in English, Spainish, and French. The paragraph was 4 lines long in English, 6 lines in Spainish, and 7 in French. A considerable difference it seemed to me.

    It seems reasonable to imagine that (since there is such a great differential in descriptive effort required to explain a relatively low tech device such as a pressure tank) high tech tasks would be even more difficult (requiring even greater numbers of words) to describe technical phenomona in these non-English languages.

  41. lindenen – and I, a native British speaker, find ‘tidbit’ to be so clumsy it takes an effort to say it. You have to make a real effort to spit out the ‘d’.

  42. I must politely say “No” to Verity. According to the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, ‘tidbit’ is the older form of the word. The first ussage of ‘titbit’ the OED cites is from 1640. To wit: J. Smyth LIVES BERKELEYS — “A tyd bit, i.e. a speciall morsell reserved to eat at last.” I suspect that, since the use of ‘titbit’ in England began after the colonization of America, Americans stuck to the older form. ‘Rooster,’ however, is a strictly American innovation.

  43. Scotus – Very interesting. Could certainly be. So Bill Bryson could have been wrong! My etymological dictionary (Eric Partridge) gives it as tit, though, probably Scandinavian origin.

    It could be both. Its pronunciation would have depended on what were, at the time, very strong regional accents. Someone in Ireland would have used a thicker ‘t’, sounding like a ‘d’, than someone from Buckinghamshire, say. I think this is very likely, actually, as it is my theory that the entire American accent, except for NE patricians, came from Irish immigrants.

    Glad to read Bryson was right about rooster, though!

  44. Verity – I don’t think anyone is disputing your overall thesis about the origins of certain prudish American euphemisms. I just don’t think that “tidbit” is one of them. Its pronunciation is more likely the product of general phonetic patterns in American English, as Scotus suggests. (Our difficulty with pronouncing “titbit” is evidence against “tidbit”‘s origin as a euphemism. I can pronounce “cock”, no problem.)

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the American habit of euphemizing is dead, at least in some regions. As a member of a non-Southern family who was born and raised in the South, I can attest that the use of endless bewildering “ladylike” circumlocution as a mark of “genteel” status among women was alive and well as late as the ’60s and ’70s. (Southernisms are wonderful – and my vocabulary would be sadly impoverished without them – but the speech habits of certain status-conscious Southern belles must surely have driven some outsiders to murder and mayhem.)

  45. Moira Breen – Yes, su’thun gentility can be trying. One of my friends was from the deep south when I lived in Texas, and sometimes, despite listening closely, I had no idea what her point was because it all so couched in circumlocutions

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