Kid Gloves

Handle something with kid gloves – to treat a situation with particular tact, care, or sensitivity. This is one of those common expressions whose origins I’d never thought about, until one day I realised where it comes from. Or I read an explanation, and couldn’t believe I’d never figured it out before.

Read more: Kid Gloves

I like to think it was the former. Anyway, what might be surprising is that the expression has nothing to do with children. Well, not human children anyway. The kid the expression refers to is a young goat, and kid gloves are gloves made from kid-goat leather, which is particularly soft. This is why kid gloves are particurlaly appropriate for handling things delicately, without marking them. This is why, for example, the stereotypical white gloves of household servants were made of kid leather. The gloves became a symbol of wealth and refinement, and was often used in literature as a shorthand to indicate a character is extremely or foppish (I suspect this is where it became clear the name referred to the material of the gloves).

The expression to handle something with kid gloves became common in the 19th century. What’s not so clear is when people started assuming kid referred to human children, and treating someone with kid gloves meant treating them like they were children. I don’t know if I ever consciously thought that that’s what the expression meant, but a quick search for “kiddie gloves” online will show you that that variant of the expression is quite common, and shows what people think the expression means.

All of this is not to say that I’m amazed people have been mistaken about the origin of the expression. It’s quite understandable, in fact. Treating something with kid gloves – carefully, delicately – is basically how we would treat a child (well, hopefully). And kid-leather gloves aren’t really the height of fashion anymore, so why would one assume they’re what the expression refers to?

Most importantly, misunderstanding the origin of the expression doesn’t mean people misuse it. In fact, the misunderstanding comes from knowing what the expression means. So if you didn’t know what kid gloves are, don’t worry: you’re far from alone.

Received Pronunciation

Teaching English can be confusing. It’s simple, to an extent: just teach them English. Make sure you know your grammar, and have a range of useful expressions ready to go for students to use, and everything will basically go fine.

And yes, that’s true. But which English do you teach them?

Read more: Received Pronunciation

Obviously there are two basic choices: American or British English (including the many sub-varieties of the latter, most of which aren’t even British at all). And most of the English-teaching industry has settled for British English. Because you have to choose one, and obviously a lot of learners are from countries that were once part of the British Empire, so they have that connection. Whether they like it or not.

And, whether we like it or not, Britain has long held a certain prestige around the world. Yes, this image of Britain is often pretty simplistic (black cabs and the Queen basically: sorry, Charles), but people like it, and it’s how a lot of people still see Britain.

But while this image still lingers (especially here in Italy), it’s not reflected in how young people here speak English.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more young people here speaking English with a clear American accent, and using lots of American expressions and abbreviations (the kids really, really like gonna). Hell, it’s pretty much the same in English-speaking countries. I remember overhearing a group of college students back home in Ireland a few years ago, who were bilingual Irish and English speakers. They were switching quite naturally between the two languages, but when they spoke English there was a clear American twang.

The reasons for this are pretty simple. First, people have much more access now to a vast body of written American English, because of social media, where most of the native speakers are going to be American.

Second, in non-English speaking countries at least, is the rise of streaming platforms. Traditionally, in many European countries like Italy, all TV and movies were dubbed. This is still the case in cinemas and broadcast TV, but who’s watching TV anymore? (especially Italian TV – yikes!) Young people now are watching most of their TV and films online, in (American) English with subtitles. This has generally increased their ability to speak English fluently, but also means they speak with American pronunciation.

And while I don’t think we should we should change to teaching American English (yet…), I often wonder: should we continue teaching Received Pronunciation as the standard form? The very idea of it being a “standard” form is already problematic. It’s a regional accent spoken by somewhere between 3 and 10% of the British population, and with class associations that aren’t really relevant to most of the world.

For a long time, most English teachers knew that this style of pronunciation didn’t match their own, but understood the practical need for a single form in textbooks. Now though, many aspects of this pronunciation match neither how the students nor the teacher speak. And with what’s been happening in the UK in recent years, maybe the romantic image of Britain it represents for many learners won’t last very long. Adding to this the fact that most English speakers are non-native speakers who are probably going to use English to communicate with other non-native speakers, and the choice of Received Pronunciation seems increasingly arbitrary. Should we stop teaching it then?

Well, there’s the difficult thing: what would we replace it with? American pronunciation is the obvious choice, but I suspect that would be still be unpopular among a lot of learners who, despite being happy to watch mostly American entertainment, are still wary of American cultural influence, in Europe at least. Plus, there’d still be the problem of choosing which form of American English to use.

Perhaps the simplest idea is to do what most of us are doing anyway: teach with our own form of pronunciation. Being Irish, I’ve often been aware when teaching certain language points of how my pronunciation often differs from the Received Pronunciation model in the textbooks I use. Any time I teach can/can’t, for example, I’m aware of how my way of saying can’t is quite different from what the book teaches (as would an American’s). I sometimes tell students that, and give them the choice of using whichever form comes easier to them.

But most of the time, I just get on with it, and when introducing new language, I pronounce it how I normally would. And that’s fine, because there’s nothing significantly different about my pronunciation, and students are still going to speak with their own accent, especially as they get older and don’t absorb sounds so easily.

Still, this is an odd time for the English-teaching industry, where there are increasingly wide gaps between what books teach and the language students actually use, and maybe it’s time for textbook writers to give more of a sense of how English is used around the world every day. There are certain things which are common across all forms of English, like word stress, so maybe the books can focus on that, and leave the specifics of phoneme sounds to us teachers.

Thrift Store

I was watching an American TV programme or film recently, I can’t remember what exactly, when I noticed someone use the term thrift store. I’d of course heard it used many times in the past, but this time I began to wonder why this American term is so different from its British-English version, charity shop.

Store and shop I’ve already covered, but I find it very interesting that American English emphasises thrift, but but British English stresses the charity aspect.

Not to over simplify things (and I’ll state from the get go that I’m not indulging in generalisations about American people), but it does seem to neatly encapsulate some of the main differences between American culture, and its forebears in Europe.

British English emphasises that these shops are charity operations, to help those in need. But American English, in a country where capitalism and rugged individualism are inextricably woven into the national identity, emphasises the economic aspect (finding a bargain), and downplays the charity aspect (everyone can achieve the American Dream on their own).

And as much as I like knowing that buying secondhand books from a charity shop is indirectly helping people, I’ll also admit that I love getting a bargain (my favourite is still getting the full-colour edition of House of Leaves for either €2 or €3). Just as I’m sure most Americans shopping at thrift stores enjoying helping people as well as saving money.

Still, it’s interesting to think about how ideologies are transmitted through language and can still influence us, despite our individual beliefs.

Tick Tock

Don’t worry/be greatly disappointed (delete as appropriate): I’m not going to write about Tik Tok. I saw the name of the app recently, and thought about how I haven’t written about the origin of its name, as I have other social media.

But then, there’s not really much to write about, is there? It did set me thinking about tick tock specifically, as well as the curious fact that clocks don’t go tick tock. They go tick tick (and so on).

So why do we say tick tock?

Continue reading