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You call it class, I call it grade… let’s call the whole thing off

Steffan Meyric Hughes on two nations separated by a common language.

American modifications to English used to be a staple lament of the English. We used to complain bitterly that they removed the ‘u’ from ‘colour’, ‘favour’ and so on; that their expression was intemperate and crude, their new words so often rooted in the enthusiasms of the day rather than in the scholarly traditions of Greek and Latin. These days, most of us just speak in American English – perhaps unconsciously (“I’m good” for instance, has largely taken over from “I’m well”). Nowhere has this backdoor cultural hegemony been stronger than in kayaking, starting with the word ‘kayak’ itself. When I started paddling in the late 80s, we were all canoeists, doing canoeing in… canoes. Our magazine of choice was, of course, The Canoeist. No one went boating, the only sending that was done was of letters and postcards and people did not fire things up. They just got on with it.

This Americanisation is all the more strange in a culture that (outwardly) at least has come to vilify, or even reject American values. Even would-be leaders of Britain lapse into American slang, like Ed Miliband, whose answer to Jeremy Paxman a few years ago, on the question of whether or not he was tough enough to be PM, was the speakeasy-vintage “Hell Yeah!”.

Sometimes though, American terms are better than their British counterparts. Even Fowler and Fowler, the best commentators on English usage there have ever been, are fair-minded enough to comment in The King’s English that ‘fall’, for instance, is a superior word to ‘autumn’ in every respect: more descriptive, more Anglo-Saxon, and shorter.

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Photo by Steve Brooks

The willingness of English to accept new words is its strength, say some. This is not usually true: new terms usually displace old ones rather than complement them, and growth through ignorance is just lexicographical cancer.

So the challenge for those of us who care about our language is, therefore, one of judgement: if an American word or phrase is better than an English one, let’s use it. “Go big or go home” is, for instance, a lot stronger than “do your best or leave now”. If it’s not, let’s get high on our own (dwindling) word supply instead.

Access, egress/put-in, take-out
Access points and egress points sound like Alan Partridge trying to write the Highway Code. The Americans open their score on this one, with the vastly preferable “put-in” and “take-out”.

Bony/Shallow
I have no idea where this comes from. Like most exuberant argot, it has the tang of the new world to it. But then it could be a British expression. Either way, it’s more descriptive than the old terms “scrapy” or just “shallow”.

Bow rudder/duffek stroke/hanging draw
The bow rudder (UK) or the Duffek stroke (US), is now redundant in all but slalom, although it’s still a graceful and powerful way to turn sharply without adding forward or reverse speed. It is named (in US English) after the Czech/Swiss paddler Milo Duffek who invented it and developed it in the 1950s. The British term, bow rudder, is more instantly comprehensible, but loses the historical connotation. The term ‘hanging draw’ takes a poor third in this race.

Break out/eddy out
Break-out is the English term here. Both seem to describe the move well enough, so we might as well stick with the English.

Gnarly
1970s US surfer slang, by the 80s, it had sprouted a secondary meaning – its antonym. Like ‘bad’, ‘wicked’ and ‘sick’, it can be used as a term of approbation but rarely is this side of the Atlantic. It’s more often used in kayaking in its ‘noun form’ – gnar, and often used to describe Norwegian creeking – and why not?

Grade/Class
Because the Americans lack an evolved class system, they class rivers instead. Actually, that’s probably bollocks, but it makes me laugh. All the same, let’s stick with the word “grade”.

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Photo by Steve Brooks

Hip flick/hip snap
Flick is the English term, and it’s more descriptive. So forget about hip snaps.

Inspect/scout
We used to ‘inspect’ rapids in the good old days of wetsuits, beards and long boats. Now, the US term ‘scout’ seems to have taken over.

Kayak/canoe
You could almost write an essay on British usage of the Native American term ‘kayak’ over the years. The distinction is one that Americans, with their rich tradition in both, have always understood and observed. In reality, Americans go ‘boating’ and British kayakers, these days, go paddling. I suspect the reason is simply that ‘kayak’ although a beautiful word to behold (it’s almost a mirror-image palindrome) is awkward and ugly to voice. This magazine has got it right: the best term is “paddler” and “paddling” even if your civilian friends think you’re at Margate beach with your trousers rolled up to your knees.

Portage
Same word, different pronunciations. The US pronunciation that rhymes with ‘Nigel Farage’ is simply abhorrent, as awful as ‘pasta’ with a long initial ‘a’ or homage (again, to rhyme with Farage). The proper pronunciation is ‘portidge’. Please never say it any other way!

Sieve/strainer
I’m sure we used to call these things ‘sieves’ in the old days, but ‘strainer’ has become the accepted terms. In the kitchen, sieve is a fine mesh (for sifting flower and so on) and strainer refers to colanders and so on, for quicker, simpler straining of, say, pasta. I suspect ‘strainer’ is the more American term.

Send
This is a strange expression that evolved from climbers (say climbers) and skiers (say skiers). It sounds very weak, as though the perpetrator has sent some sort of agent down the river and is re-living the experience vicariously (“I sent it down that drop”). Stupid really.

Sick
Sick is to now what ‘bad’ and ‘wicked’ were to yesteryear. I suspect it’s US in origin, although urban etymology is famously woolly. It’s powerful, intemperate antonym that works vividly. If I could get away with using the word to mean anything other than vomit, I would.

Spraydeck/sprayskirt
We don’t wear skirts. We wear decks. A point to English.

Stopper/hole
A stopper was a stopper until some clever-clogs came alone talking about hydraulics. Then it was all holes – ledge hole, play hole, munching hole, river-wide hole, retentive hole (that’s just plain disgusting), and so on. The glossary of Mike Jones’s Canoeing Down Everest (1976 expedition) refers to ‘holes’ and ‘stoppers’ and even ‘hydraulic jumps’. Whether English or American, ‘hole’ has won. I mean no one is ever going to refer to a “play stopper” are they?

Sweet
Sweet is as weak as ‘sick’ is strong. It has overtones of sentimentality and lacks ambition as a word. It’s American urban English at its very worst and should be avoided by all. For some reason it’s sometimes uttered in a revolting faux-yankee crooning falsetto. Thankfully the sort of person who’s about to say it usually has it written on his hoodie as a warning so you can avoid them on sight (that’s the ed told:)

Steffan has been paddling on and off since 1988, when he first stepped into a Perception Mirage. He is a keen historian of the sport and author of Circle Line: around London in a Small Boat (2012). These days, he paddles a dark blue Jackson AllStar (2010). He is a full-time yachting journalist in his day job.

About thepaddlerezine (561 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler ezine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK and WindsurfingUK magazines

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