Visit theallusionist.org/continental to read about or hear this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, hold language up to the light to check whether it is legit.
Coming up in today’s show are some of your opinions about the use of ‘please’, in response to the last episode, about differences in how the word is deployed in the US versus the UK.
And before that, continents. The land mass kind, not the bladder control kind. But we might as well clarify why those rather diverse uses are the same word - this slice of etymology is sponsored by those longterm friends of podcasting, Squarespace.com. They are also your friend if you want to build a beautiful, well-designed website, and you don't speak code - with Squarespace, you can do all the work right there on the front end of your website. However you want to express yourself online - in writing, in a podcast, a portfolio, a store, a gallery - Squarespace is ready to be the conduit. Don't tarry, start your free trial today. Visit squarespace.com/allusion.
Thanks to Squarespace.com, I can now reveal that 'continent' and 'continent' both derive from the same Latin verb as the word ‘contain’: continere, to hold together. I expect you can infer how that applies to continent as in the control of the bodily evacuations, and ‘continent’ has been used in that sense since the 19th century, but it had entered the English language via French quite a while earlier, around the 14th century, and during the intervening time it was more about self-restraint, particularly reining in sexual urges. And I still like to describe my stoical family as ‘emotionally continent’.
The land mass meaning of ‘continent’ arrived in English a little later, in the mid-16th century. Nothing to do with holding in your emotions or effluent, except for that mutual root word ‘continere’, which appeared in the Latin term ‘terra continens’, land held together, a continuous land. And this is where the modern-day definition of ‘continent’ runs into a bit of mess. What is meant by ‘continent’?
If a continent is a continuous land, are all islands continents? Even tiny ones like Guernsey? No offence to Guernsey, but I don’t think Guernsey would call itself a continent for fear of being laughed out of the Channel. And does it mean that all the land masses that are joined together count as just one continent? Afro-Eurasia is considered a single continent by some factions of continent-considerers. But then, Africa is technically surrounded by water, because there’s the Suez Canal, and North and South America are divided by the Panama Canal: so if you’re in the contingent that defines a continent as a land mass bordered on all sides by water, North and South America, Africa, Antarctica and Australia each get to be separate continents - but does Greenland ever get invited to the being-a-continent party?
And then in some definitions of continents, Europe and Asia are separate; in others, they’re bundled together as one continent, Eurasia - because, depending on whether you define continents geographically, geopolitically or geologically, there are either four, five, six or seven continents. And which country belongs to which continent varies according to which interpretation of continent. Do you group countries together according to whether they occupy the same continental plate? Or some other way? I thought I knew which belonged in Europe until Israel and Australia started competing in the Eurovision Song Contest...
I bet this was more straightforward in the era of one single continent, Pangaea. Firstly because that predated language: 300 million years ago, all the continents (whatever they are) bashed into each other to form the supercontinent Pangaea, named from Ancient Greek terms: ‘pan’, all, and Gaia, the deity who is the mother of the Earth and the Universe. The name Pangaea was coined by the German meteorologist and geophysicist Alfred Wegener, who spearheaded the theory of continental drift in his 1915 book The Origin of Continents and Oceans. Well, actually, in it he named his single giant continent 'Urkontinent', ‘the original continent’, but in the 1920 update to the book he used the nickname Pangaea, and that caught on amongst the tastemaking geologists of the day. Note to self: Classical Greek and Latin always have the advantage when you’re naming something, so when I come up with a new theory about a supercontinent, remember it’ll attain more credibility if I dub it something like 'Zaltzophilania' rather than 'Zaltzpatch'.
In the time of Pangaea, here was also a single body of water, Panthalassa, again from Ancient Greek ‘πᾶν’ all and ‘θάλασσα’, meaning ocean. Come to mention it, ‘ocean’ is from Greek as well. When the world was assumed to be a big flat disc encircled by a river, that river was called Okeanos, or Oceanus - a lot of Greek words have their Ks softened when other languages get hold of them. The river was personified as the deity of the same name, who was the son of the aforementioned Gaia and Uranus, the sky god, who was also Gaia’s son. WHAT? It was a different time, alright?
Thanks to etymology, the Greek gods have really managed to cling on to fame long after most people stopped worshipping them. They’re still all over the English language.
Anyway, according to Alfred Wegener’s theory, Pangaea started drifting apart again around 175 million years ago, leaving us in this fine state of not knowing whether the world has 4, 5, 6 or 7 continents.
Luckily one thing we can all agree on is that the etymology of ‘continental breakfast’ is from the Latin for ‘hotel con to ramp up the price of yoghurt and croissants by pretending they are imbued with European sophistication’.
Supercontinents are thought to be on a cycle, so in a couple of hundred million years there might be another one; geologists are already thinking up names, such as Novopangaea - new Pangaea - or, because Asia and America would be squished together, Amasia. It’ll amaze yer! Listen, geologists, I think you can do better than that portmanteau, and I’m here to help you with that whenever you need. I’ll give you mates’ rates.
And now, Please: the follow up, after this message from today’s sponsor, Bombas, makers of superlatively structured socks. My current sock situation: orange. This week I’ve been hiking wearing them, and they do not chafe your feet or slip down into your shoes, because Bombas spent two years working on the structure to make sure that doesn’t happen. Even better: by buying yourself some Bombas socks, you’re buying someone else some Bombas socks: for every pair purchased, Bombas donate another pair to homeless shelters, where socks are the most requested item. They’ve already donated more than 900,000 pairs across the USA - help them reach one million. Get yourself some socks and save 20% by visiting bombas.com/allusionist and enter the offer ‘allusionist’ in the checkout code space. Please.
There’s been a big range of responses to the last episode, in which linguists Lynne Murphy and Rachele De Felice talked about their research into the different ways in which ‘please’ is used in the US versus the UK. And I’m hearing particularly from people in a relationship with someone from a different ‘please’ culture saying, “Ohhh, this explains so much.”
I’m travelling around the USA right now, and ever since the episode I’ve been so paranoid about using please appropriately when ordering in restaurants that the panic makes me try to be more polite and so I’ve inadvertently been using please even more than I would normally. Sorry, America!
Listener Matt has been doing his own comparative study: ‘11 years in the UK, 15 in the US. Your "Please" episode was a pulling back of a curtain that I'd always assumed was a wall.’
I’ve heard from a lot of American listeners - not so many Brits, which I’m interpreting either as, “Yeah, that sounds about right,” or, “Don’t make us examine our own behaviour”. But the USA is so vast that I’m not surprised that there’s an array of ‘please’ use: a disparity of social and professional expectations, and the ways in which manners are expressed - and attitudes about how one should treat waitstaff. There seems to be a bit of a generational difference in please use as well as geographical; Lynne, Rachele, can you start researching that variable?
Several listeners from the American south have piped up to point out that they are power users of ‘please’; likewise ones from Minnesota, and the Pacific Northwest.
I keep hearing about the 'Cincinnati please' - that sounds like a cocktail or a euphemism. But Dale, born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, says: “Cincinnatians confuse visitors by saying 'Please?' when they didn't quite hear you. So whereas most Americans would respond with 'Pardon me?' or 'I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear you' or 'Huh?', a Cincinnatian says 'Please?' as a way of asking you to repeat yourself, only louder.” Which, according to Liz, “stems from the way German uses "bitte" since so many Germans settled into the area.”
In England in that context we’d say ‘pardon?’ or ‘sorry?’ But it’s not an apology. Or a request for a pardon. Bethany says, “We Canadians use ‘sorry’ to mean ‘Could you repeat that?’, ‘I don’t want to bother you,’ and ‘You’re being inappropriate.’ Which sounds a lot like how the Brits use ‘sorry’. And many Canadians wrote to say Canada errs on the British side of 'please'.
Julia says: "In Australia there’s a pull b/w old ties to the UK & too cool for school US attitude, so we're all over the shop."
A few of you wrote in to say that in Belgium and Holland, people will say ‘please’ where in English we’d say ‘thank you’, because it’s an indirect translation of ‘alstublieft’, which means ‘if it please you’.
Kio says: " I'm Irish (and I think we often use please similar to the English, in my experience), but my partner is Montenegrin/Czech. We speak English between us, but, when we first started living together, he'd get frustrated if I asked something like 'Could you pass the salt, please?' He's explained that this is because, where he's from, between family members, or people who love each other, you don't use terms like 'please', as they are actually a distancing form of politeness. You use them with strangers to show respect and politeness - with what I gather is some deferential distance. But, among family, you don't use it - if you care for someone, of COURSE you're going to pass the salt/butter/whatever - so no need for 'please'!"
Jillian lives in Minneapolis, in that aforementioned hotbed of 'please', Minnesota, which she says is the “home of an over-the-top politeness culture known as Minnesota Nice”, of which she says, “To me the most striking feature is the liberal use of 'thanks'. Phone conversations devolve into a competition to see who can be the last one to say 'thanks' before hanging up. I regularly find myself thanking people for whom I have just done a favor or performed a service. I used to work at an indoor children's playpark (which was exactly as awful as you'd imagine) and my quiet rebellion was to short-circuit this ritual by smiling and saying 'You're welcome'. I hadn't actually been rude, so they couldn't complain, but I'd often see a flicker of irritation cross their faces when I didn't respond to their thanks with the expected, 'No, thank you!' Good times.”
‘Thank you’ has a number of functions as well, not just expressing gratitude and appreciation. I talked to Rachele De Felice and Lynne Murphy about that, too; here they are again:
RDF: ‘thank you’ has this label as ‘the polite word’, but you can use it to cut someone off, for example on a podcast or a radio show, a very final, “Thank you! Let’s move on to X.”
HZ: “Thank you, I’ve already faded your mic down.”
RDF: It’s an interesting ambiguity.
LM: ’Thank you’ is used to mark points in an exchange. So I give you money at the till, thank you, you give me my change, thank you; that’s why you get so many thank yous in those kinds of till interactions, service encounters. So if you hand me the credit card machine, and I say, “Thank you,” then I say “Thank you” as I hand it back to you, these things happen in British till interactions. And I’m not thanking you for anything when I’m giving you the machine back - I’m giving you something. But I say “Thank you” to say, “I’m done with my bit of this interaction; it’s now time for you to do your bit.”
HZ: Here’s what I found a real head-scrambler: the thank you that’s intended to be grateful but is received as rude, because the ‘thank you’ tacitly suggests to them that you didn’t expect them to do whatever it is you’re thanking them for. This is also a problem for Rachele, as an Italian now living in England.
RDF: I fell into that trap after a few years of living here, and going home and having dinner with my parents at home, they would bring something to the table, I’d say “Thank you,” and they’d get really annoyed: “Why are you thanking us? Do you think it’s weird? Do you think we wouldn’t normally feed you?”
HZ: I’d thank someone for bothering to feed me, I don’t think that’s a particularly lowly expectation. A simple ‘You’re welcome’ might have been a more grateful - and graceful - response to Rachele’s thanks. Or one of the many other expressions we use to mark our acknowledgement of an exchange.
LM: When I moved out of America into South Africa, people would say, “It’s a pleasure,” and I would say, “You liar, it was NOT a pleasure!
HZ: Or “you pervert!”
LM: "You just lent me money - that was a pain, not a pleasure!”
HZ: We say it here too.
LM: So you get “It’s a pleasure”; “No problem”, which a lot of people complain about in both countries.
HZ: What’s the problem with “No problem”?
LM: It belittles the request.
HZ: I feel like it more suggests that the impact of the request is minimal.
LM: That’s what the sayer probably thinks, but some people find it annoying.
HZ: Also there’s that response of when someone says “Thank you”, you say “It’s nothing.” They have that in Italian - “Niente”.
RDF: I think that’s related - “no problem”, “not at all” = it wasn’t a big weight for me, it wasn’t too much for me.
LM: Probably the real problem with ‘no problem’ is that young people say it and older people don’t, and therefore it’s considered faddish.
RDF: As long as you don’t start saying “No probs”, I think we’re safe.
HZ: If there’s anything this contemplation of ‘please’ and manners has taught me so far, it’s that we’re not safe. We’re not safe! Language has turned against us! Grab 1000 years’ worth of water and trail mix and head for the bunker!
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This episode was produced in a meconium-coloured room in a B&B in Utah by me, Helen Zaltzman, with music by Martin Austwick. The music you heard during the part about continents: he made that here in the B&B room, recording himself whacking lamps with a pen and kicking my suitcase. It’s a jolly holiday with the Zaltzwicks! We make our own fun! Sounds better than when I try it [whacks pen].
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