Letter from America, January 2004

It’s been a while since my last letter, but then America has been on Orange Alert and I just haven’t been able to drag myself away from Fox News and all the hysteria about Dirty Bombs (they were looking in Baltimore, you know), cancelled British Airways Flights, Al-Jazeera Recordings and so on. In fact, I just bought a gun and some ammo from WalMart along with the kids’ Christmas presents (it was two for one – buy a Star Wars lightsaber, get an AK47).

Winter has arrived, something I have been dreading since last March. I keep all the lights on in the house in a desperate attempt to avoid S.A.D. Global warming? Bring it on, I say! Despite this, we are well. Jacob loves school and Finding Nemo. William simply loves life (but not sleeping at night), and Becky and I are five years married today. We’ve beaten the divorce odds! Congratulations!

I spent last semester deep in my own studies and still (somehow) found the time to teach a language class at Hopkins and an Old Testament class at Harford Community College. The latter was fun and provided an interesting challenge trying to avoid bringing out my own religious biases and navigating around those of my students. The class was secular and attempted to make no comments as to the Bible’s status as the Word of God (or not). I learnt a lot.

Much to my chagrin, I have found out that Americans often speak a more “correct” form of English than do we, if by “correct” one means more “original”. Before I continue with my blasphemy, let me give you a case in point. As you know, Americans say “diaper” for “nappy”. This is the kind of word that we are forced to use a lot, as Americans don’t understand what a nappy is (note: whilst we, because of movies and TV are very familiar with American English, it doesn’t work the other way around – often people simply don’t have a clue what we’re talking about. Also, good British books, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – which I am currently reading to Jacob – have American spellings and words over here. Bah!) Anyway, diapers. What a funny word! To my ear it seems like there should be a verb, “to diap”, and a “diaper” is what “diapes”. Alas, there isn’t. But to the point: if you look at a good dictionary with etymologies and contexts (like the OED) you will see that “diaper” is actually an older word:

1596 SHAKESPEARE. Taming of the Shrew. I. i. 57 Let one attend him with a silver Bason Full of Rose-water, and bestrew’d with Flowers, Another beare the Ewer: the third a Diaper.


1927 W. E. COLLINSON Contemporary English 7 Mothers and nurses use pseudo-infantile forms like pinny (pinafore), nappy (napkin).

The same holds true for stroller vs. pram. Can you Adam and Eve it?

The lesson here: I imagine that American English preserves more Elizabethan English from colonial days than does British English. So whilst the accent is awful (and Jacob sometimes speaks in it), the language ought not be distained by us snobby Englanders.

And finally, American healthcare. The best in the world. The most expensive in the world. It’s a horrible dilemma: sure, you can get what you want, when you want, but can you afford it? Being one of those European commies, of course I am aghast at how many people here simply cannot afford healthcare. It’s horrible and Americans should be ashamed. Becky recently had a major operation at our local hospital. The care was great and things were done smoothly and professionally, plus she only had to wait a couple of weeks. The bill: one night’s hospitalization with surgeons’ and anesthetists’ fees equals many thousands of dollars. Thankfully, we are insured ($3000/year premium). But here’s where it gets really annoying: you walk into this hospital and what greets you? A woman playing away on a grand piano surrounded by fountains, flowers and mahogany-paneling. Now, I’m all for hospitals looking nice, but does it need to be so plush? This, of course, is where some of all that money goes. Meanwhile, 40% of Americans are without insurance. Take away the piano and get universal healthcare!