Some English words can only be understood fully by knowing how they fit into English culture
HOW CULTURE CAN UNDERLIE ENGLISH WORDS
Sometimes the full meaning of a word or phrase cannot be clear unless you are familiar with the culture that gave rise to it. By “culture” I mean the non-universal knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and practices of a particular group. The English language has numerous words that are linked to the culture of its originators. For example, the word stumped meaning “unable to find an answer” is actually borrowed from the game of cricket, where it refers to a situation that would need pages to explain here. You do not need to know cricket in order to use and understand the non-cricket meaning of stumped, but such knowledge does help a deeper understanding.
In this post I wish to present a wide range of words that strongly reflect English culture, explaining not just their meanings but also the cultural background. “English” should be understood as all of the cultures of so-called “core” English-speaking countries – Britain, Ireland, The USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – but quite often it will be British culture in particular that is the focus. Further information about specifically English writing practices is in the Guinlist post 59. Paragraph Length. For influences of other cultures on English, see The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary and 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary.
CATEGORIES OF ENGLISH CULTURAL WORDS
Cultural words tend to fall into categories. One that is considered elsewhere is politeness: where English culture sees a need for a special polite expression – for example in questioning other people or talking about debt – other cultures may not (see 166. Appropriacy in Professional English). The following other categories seem to be particularly important.
Many place names are cultural, since their users are normally thinking of special features of the places rather than just the places alone. For example, the home counties in Britain are more than just an area around London: counties are large local government areas, while home hints at the importance of London. In the USA, the Mid-West suggests a certain type of terrain, climate and people, while in New Zealand North Island probably suggests population and warm summers.
Geographical expressions can also represent types of places. A particularly cultural one is leafy suburbs: you have to understand that English speakers like trees, so that suburbs with them are considered desirable and hence tend to attract the rich. Green belts are similar: not just areas where building is restricted around a city, but leafy and wealthy. Very often they neighbour a stockbroker belt, an exclusive residential area popular with stockbrokers, who tend to be very rich.
Inner cities are the reverse: run-down places near a city centre where poorer people tend to be concentrated. Poorer people also often live on council estates, a British name for social housing (councils, which manage them, are the main British units of local government). Industrial areas are also viewed negatively: despite the benefits of industry, its environmental costs influence many people’s attitudes. More on positive- and negative-sounding words is in the Guinlist posts 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words and 106. Word-Like Suffixes.
Every English-speaking country tends to have some political terms that are unique to it. Unfamiliarity with them can easily hinder newspaper-reading. American Congress and British Parliament are parallel but not equivalent, while Britain and the USA have different understandings of counties and Attorney General.
Peculiarly British political terms that I have needed to explain to students include backbenchers, constituencies, party whips, white papers, council tax, safe seats, peers, Chancellor of the Exchequer, The Budget, Downing Street, The Speaker and The Queen’s Speech (see also the political use of north, south etc. in 151. Ways of Using Compass Words). In the USA, important terms include The White House, primaries, party conventions, running mates, federal laws, senators and governors.
This area is full of the abbreviation type called acronyms (see 130: Formal Abbreviations). Although not all acronyms are cultural (cf. NATO), many in education are. In Britain, they include SATs, GCSEs, A’ Levels, EFL (AmE = ESL), IELTS (TOEFL), BA, MD, RE, FE, HE, OU and OFSTED. The opposition between FE (Further Education) and HE (Higher Education) can be particularly challenging.
Other interesting expressions are public schools (private and expensive in Britain, state-run and accessible in America), comprehensive schools, grammar schools (the most academic British type – the name, I am sure, part of the reason why many Britons are slightly intimidated by grammar), sixth form (the last two years – sixth and seventh – of British secondary education), year 7 (first year of secondary school), half-term, eleven-plus, form tutors and prefects. The Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling give useful insights into the workings of elite British schools.
Stumped, of course, falls into this category. Its sporting meaning is cultural because not every culture is familiar with cricket. Its second meaning, “unable to find an answer”, is metaphorical (see 7. Metaphorical Meanings).
Many other sporting terms also have a metaphorical second meaning whose full understanding depends on familiarity with the sport. Readers are invited to decide the sport (or game) and the metaphorical meaning of each of the following (answers below): hit the bullseye, field questions, score an own goal, kick off, trumped, a pawn, a scrum, catch up, caught out, jockeying, a close call, a knockout blow, a good innings.
No major religion is exclusive to English-speaking countries. However, the main one found there, Christianity, has contributed some words to English that learners from non-Christian cultures can struggle with (for some other religious influences on English, see 62. Choices with Capital Letters). Like words from sport, most from Christianity have a metaphorical meaning as well as their basic religious one.
Take anoint. Literally it means “apply ointment to the skin”. In Christianity, this action is associated with desirable religious changes in the recipient, for example the change from non-Christian to Christian. In the metaphorical use, the idea of putting someone into a desirable new state remains. A common usage is in business, where a leader might “anoint” someone by naming them as their future successor.
Other fundamentally religious words, with their metaphorical meanings, include gospel (“unquestioned principle”), worship (“like very much”), sacrosanct (“not to be criticised or treated disrespectfully”), sanctimonious (“acting in an exaggeratedly holy way”), sanctuary (“place of rest and solitude”), religiously (“conscientiously”), sins (“mistakes”), to bless (“sanction; approve”), a baptism of fire (“difficult beginning”), biblical (“like something in The Bible”), angelic (“beautiful and well-behaved”), evangelical (“vigorously promoting”), a hierarchy (“group members ranked according to importance”), and sacrifice (“rejection of something desirable for a higher purpose”).
I was once asked to explain the meaning of sanctified in a text about product branding. It felt a strange use to me, but I quickly saw that it meant “given special or permanent status” (from the Latin “made holy”). The strangeness, I discovered, came from the fact that the text was actually a literal translation from French (the writer Bourdieu). I guessed that the meaning of sanctified is a common religious metaphor in French, unlike in English.
Animal and plant names can be associated with a particular culture either in themselves (the animal or plant originating where the culture is located), or through being used in a special metaphorical way by that culture. The former kind are often not a problem for learners of English: concepts like bear, kangaroo, kiwi, maple tree, rattlesnake and sheepdog tend to be known all over the world. Lesser-known ones might include shire horse, daisy, bluebottle and midge.
Metaphorical usages can involve creatures from outside the English-speaking world as well as within. Guinea pigs are South American, but they are also “people or things being tested experimentally”. Also notable are a can of worms (“rich source of potential problems”), cats’ eyes (headlamp reflectors on a road), to fox (someone) (“trick”), a hornets’ nest (“a potentially dangerous situation”), sheepish (“showing shame or embarrassment”), to squirrel (something) away (“hide for future use”), beavering away (“working hard”), to grasp the nettle (“initiate an unpleasant task”), weasel words (“evasive answers”), make hay (“maximally utilise an opportunity”), the lion’s share (= the majority) and eagle-eyed (“very observant”).
Metaphorical Meanings of Sport Words
hit the bullseye (archery or darts) = achieve the best target, field questions (cricket) = deal with numerous questions from different sources, score an own goal (soccer) = hurt your own interests, kick off (soccer, rugby) = begin, trumped (cards) = defeated by a better move, a pawn (chess) = an unimportant person used by others, a scrum (rugby) = crowd members fighting each other for the same thing, catch up (running) = rejoin leaders after falling behind, caught out (baseball, cricket) = exposed as having acted dishonestly, jockeying (horse-racing) = competing for the best position, a close call (tennis) = a small distance from disaster, a knock-out blow (boxing) = a winning move; a good innings (cricket) = a long life.