28 January 2007

Limey, and other symbols

Since Friday, when Dr C posted his Friday Crab Rockfish Blogging, I have been musing on the word "Limey" ... and, more generally, on the way words come and go.

Throughout my childhood, US Americans (including kids with whom I was a at school) called me "Limey" - it used to be the standard way to describe a Briton. Nowadays, I'm a "Brit" ... and it occurs to me, suddenly, that I haven't been called "Limey" for years. When did the word drop out of use?

The latest reference listed by the OED is 1973. I was twenty one in 1973, and was in the US in the summer of that year ... was I still called "Limey" that summer? I can't remember. I remember people commenting on my "cute" accent, but not whether the word Limey was used.

The word was once used to describe British immigrants to other ex colonies as well - Australia, New Zealand, South Africa - but I never heard it in either Australia or New Zealand in the early 1960s ... had it already died out there, replaced by the "Pommie" or "Pom" to which I habitually responded at that time?

Other words disappear from use; others again endure; and then there are some, like "cool", which reappear unexpectedly after an absence of a generation or so

Words are symbols - specifically, they are what linguistics calls "arbitrary signifiers" - standing in as placeholders for mental images which in their turn bear a flexible and sliding relation to objects or concepts (signifieds). The expression "arbitrary signifier" is in itself an arbitrary signifier representing a concept ... a metasymbol, enabling language to talk about itself. Words are symbols which enable us to encode information (thus tenuously and obliquely linking this orphan post back to Dr C's information thread) in various subtle ways - much of the subtlety deriving from uncertainty and slippage in the exact relation between signifier and signified.

This question of symbols is one to which Jim Putnam periodically returns, for example here and more recently, less explicitly but just as certainly here ... it's a fascinating one, and goes to the very core of every area of human activity. Every one of us holds within her or his mind a model of the universe, and that model is built from symbols.

I was tempted to go on ... but I'm short of time and there are other things to be done ... so, back to "Limey".

How many of my US American contemporaries knew the source of that label when they used it? It refers to the use of lime juice rations on British ships to avoid vitamin C deficiency in the days before canned and frozen food ... but I doubt that my classmates knew that (any more than I, or other British children, knew either the origin or inaccuracy of calling all US Americans "Yank").

In Australia, on the other hand, they did know the origin of the word "Pommie". Another fruit, since you ask: the pomegranate. Opinion was divided on whether this referred to the red sunburned colour of many new arrivals or a tenuous rhyme with the word "immigrant", though children my own age preferred the first explanation.

And here a meandering and directionless post, which has gone nowhere, comes to an inconclusive end...

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