When is bacon not bacon?

An American asking for bacon in Britain would be in for a surprise.

An American asking for bacon in Britain would be in for a (delicious) surprise, and vice versa.

Blog post based on an article in English Today, written by M. Lynne Murphy

In the most recent issue of English Today, I discuss some words of general English whose apparent similarities hide some subtle differences in meaning. Words like sandwich, soup and bacon might have similar dictionary definitions in the UK and US, but Britons and Americans have different expectations when they order these things in a restaurant.

The ‘prototype approach’ to meaning helps us to describe and explain these differences. According to that approach, meanings are organized around some idealized view of a ‘typical’ example of the category (a prototype).

So, for example, whether something is called a cup depends on the degree to which it matches the ideal of ‘cup-ness’ and whether it echoes ‘ideal cup-ness’ better than it echoes ‘glass-ness’ or the ‘bowl-ness’ ideals.

This is in contrast to a ‘classical’ view of meaning where something would be called a cup if it had all the properties that all cups have, and if those properties together are sufficient to distinguish cups from glasses, mugs or bowls. (That approach doesn’t work because there may be no properties (a) that all cups have and (b) that are collectively sufficient to distinguish cups from other vessels.)

This means that the things we call cups can be very different from one another (china teacups, disposable foam coffee cups, plastic beer cups, medicine cups), and that some things are more likely to be called cup than others.

When we look at cross-dialectal differences, as in the meaning of soup, the word initially looks like it has the same meaning across dialects because there are a lot of things that all English speakers would call soup. But at the boundaries of the category, there are things that Americans would call soup that Britons would call stew – because the prototype for soup in British English is ‘smoother’ than the prototype for soup in American English.

In the article, I mention the word boot, which Willett Kempton investigated in Texas and Britain. He showed that the two groups varied in their ideas of what constituted a typical boot, with the Texan prototype extending further above the ankle than the British one. The Texan prototype fits better with cowboy boots, the British one with walking boots or army boots.

This means that, say, if asked to draw a boot, the Texans would draw taller ones than the Britons would. But still, Texans and Britons still use the word boot to refer to ankle boots, riding boots, combat boots—mostly the same things, because they’re all ‘close enough’ to the boot ideal—which includes other properties like being closed (as opposed to gladiator sandals), sturdy (as opposed to slippers), weather-proof, etc.

Since writing the article, though, I’ve been struck by a particularly British use of boot: to refer to a certain style of Converse-brand footwear. The ‘Chuck Taylor’ or ‘All-Star’ shoe comes in an above-the-ankle style or the ‘low-cut’ or ‘Oxford’ style. In American English, when you need to distinguish between the two, the taller ones are high-tops. But in Britain, I’ve often heard them called Converse boots. Indeed, as I write this (28 July 2016), the News on the Web corpus (2010-yesterday) has 12 instances of Converse boots: 10 from Britain, 2 from Ireland. To an American ear, using the word boots for canvas high-top sneakers seems just weird. Converse high-tops comes into the corpus 7 times: 4 from the US, 3 from Canada.

The difference between my aversion to calling the ankle-high version boots and my English spouse’s everyday “Have you seen my grey Converse boots?” can be explained by our differing prototypes for boot. In neither dialect are Converses at the centre of the ‘boot’ category. If I asked the spouse to grab some boots for me to pack for a trip, he’d go for leather knee-high things before he’d go for the Converses, because the leather ones satisfy more ‘typical’ properties of boots: they’re sturdy, weatherproof, reach above the ankle, etc.

But when we get to a kind of footwear for which British English lacks the vocabulary, the Converses come close enough to the ideal category to be allowed into the category of “things that can be called boots”. It works for British because even though canvas shoes aren’t sturdy or waterproof or anything else that ‘typical’ boots are, they do reach the place on the leg the British ‘typical boots’ reach. For Americans, they’re just not booty enough to be called boots because, in addition to their non-sturdiness, they’re not particularly high.

And so Americans had to come up with a new word for shoe styles that are not-quite boots: high-tops. (This happened at least 20 years before the Converse started making shoes, because other shoemakers had ‘high-top’ and ‘Oxford’ styles.) Converse does make a version of the All-Star that comes all the way up to the knees. In my American idiom, I’d have no problem calling those boots because they better match the American idea of bootiness.

The more I think about names for human-made things, the more I find British/American prototype differences. They rarely cause interruptions to communication, but they do make one wonder: how often do we not-quite-communicate without noticing?

For more information, and to delve into detail on the differences between British and American bacon, read The differences behind the similarities, or: why Americans and Britons don’t know what the other is talking about from the latest issue of English Today. View and download the article for free through 31st August.

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