it’s all about the subtleties

You know when you’re staring off into space, your eyes looking at (but not really reading) some mundane writing in front of you, like the nutritional content of your cereal box, or the safety notice in the bus?  That’s what it was like this evening, as I stood at the kitchen sink, washing dishes, my eyes looking toward-but-not-really-at the bottle of hand soap on the sink’s edge.  And then I noticed what the label said:

If you’re American, does anything strike you as odd about this slogan?  I mean, I’ve had this soap for a couple weeks, and never thought anything of it, either.  But tonight it occurred to me that I don’t/can’t use protecting in this way (as a present participle, I guess?).  I would rather expect to see the slogan “Protective Antibacterial Handwash.”  I think the only reason I noticed was that, as my eyes focused on the words, I realized I was expecting more of them.  In fact, my mind completed the superhero-esque slogan that wasn’t there: “Protecting Antibacterial Handwash From The Evils Of …” (oh, I dunno, what evils attack handwash?)  “… Dirty Water, Everywhere!” But this then leads to the bizarre reading of the label on the bottle as indicating that the bottle contains something which protects handwash, rather than being handwash that protects hands.

I’ve been living in the UK for seven weeks now, and as I suggested in my last post, the differences between US and UK English strike me as either big-n-obvious or small-n-subtle.  Much of the time they feel particularly subtle because I can’t even tell if they’re features of the majority of UK varieties in the area or if they’re specific, jargony aspects of Oxford (as Stan Carey‘s comment on my last post suggests).  In this case, I don’t know, offhand, if this soap slogan has anything do with UK Englishes or with the Carex soap brand, specifically.  Perhaps one of you will tell me.  Yet if even if you do, I wonder if I’ll ever get to the point where Americanisms and Britishisms are clearly, distinctly categorized in my mind, or if I’ll just continue to blend the two, so that my range of what feels grammatical simply expands increasingly?  Someone should ask me in a few months or a year if I find anything wrong with Protecting Handwash…

(Note-to-self to speak with my friend, Jennifer Nycz, about second dialect acquisition!)


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6 Responses to it’s all about the subtleties

  1. Kate M says:

    Hi there – great blog! Just to say that my partner, who’s American, has been collecting those small-n-subtle US / British English differences for a while now. I’ll find out what his favourites are. Mine is macaroni and cheese vs macaroni cheese. Kate (from Wolfson)

  2. Stan says:

    It reads very strangely to me too. Protective carries precisely the meaning they intend, and it lacks the ambiguous absurdity of protecting. It’s as though they are unaware of the first word. But I don’t know if this usage is peculiar to the company.

    They have also rendered pH as ph. Does this grate less on non-scientists?

  3. Lucy says:

    As a Brit, I think the use of ‘protecting’ as an adjective is pretty weird, now you mention it. Maybe the Carex people wanted it to be ambiguous? Or they thought that ‘protecting’ sounded more reassuring than ‘protective’? Or ‘protective’ sounded like there was something in the handwash itself that people needed protecting from?! Who knows. I didn’t read it as totally strange, but am not sure I’d use it in that way.

    Anyway, if you’re feeling surprised by the lack of differences between US/UK speech that you seem to be noting, I guarantee that by the time you’ve been to Manchester and Liverpool (i.e. ‘oop North’), they’ll be jumping out at you 🙂

  4. I’m British, and I would think exactly what you thought. Protecting it from what?!

    Looking at the alternatives on their website, I’m also interested to see that it contrasts with ‘superior antibacterial handwash’ (that’s possible) and ‘natural antibacterial handwash’ (really? I assume that’s made of garlic, then, or something…)

  5. Thinking about this a bit more… there are similar formations that I don’t find odd at all (e.g. ‘encouraging feedback’), but that doesn’t have an -ive alternative (‘encouragive’ isn’t a word!).

  6. vocalised says:

    I should say that it’s not that I’m having a hard time finding differences between US English varieties and UK varieties by any means!!! Rather, any worth commenting on that aren’t already commented on to death by both linguists, expats, and the locals who have to put up with expats. 🙂 It’s an extremely popular topic of conversation, and my goal with this blog is to explore topics perhaps less-often discussed, at least when it comes to language. But it could be that that’s a lofty and misguided goal.

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