Saturday, 12 May 2012

It sounds silly, so belt up

I am currently inconvenienced (hopefully in a temporary way) because my car is malfunctioning. The electronic indicator panel behind the steering wheel says, unhelpfully, "ALTERNATOR WORKSHOP!!" (sic) and the battery light has come on. It's not really clear exactly what this capitalised alarm phrase means, but it was soon really clear that the battery wasn't charging. Oh well. One of the joys of car ownership is that stuff like this happens, so one grits ones teeth and considers ones options. Calmly, patiently, and with a very British stiff upper lip, I endeavour to get the problem resolved.

It's not the first time car misfortune has befallen me (see here). Sadly it's an all-too-common part of my life. But I have a socket set, and the urgency to effect a repair motivates me to get on with it. All I need is a part. This should be straightforward. I need an "alternator drive belt" (I hope), once called a "fan belt" (cars were simpler then), but now, according to my Haynes manual and several websites I've looked at, it's called a "Serpentine Auxiliary Drive Pulley". A what?

Ok. I suppose it makes some sense. It curls round several gears and cogs in a snake-like fashion, drives several mechanisms including the alternator and the air conditioning (but not the fan), and it does pull. Armed with my newly acquired technical knowledge, I set about sourcing the replacement I need.

Now you'd think in one of the world's great sprawling metropolises this would be easy. This is a city full of Homebases and Halfords, and zillions of small car part shops. But not so. I start with the web; typing in exactly what I want. "Serpentine Auxiliary Drive Pulley". Nothing, save for the various blogs and car geek sites that first offered up this obscure phrase. I try entering make and model of car, even my registration number, but to no avail. Sigh. Ok, let's make some calls.

Before taking to the telephone, I decide that the car geek nonsense speak was not something I could be persuaded to say on the phone. I opt for "alternator belt" since this is actually what I want. It seems to me much more likely that a real human answering a telephone would respond positively if I adopt this approach. After all, I don't think anyone would actually walk into a McDonalds and say "I'd like a McChicken sandwich and some chicken McNuggets and a McCoke and make it McSnappy, please". Us Brits don't really do that, do we? Only the most pseudo-intellectual Brit would say "cellphone", because here they're "mobiles". I know others call them "cells" or similar, but the point I am aiming at is that most regular Brits are fairly uncomfortable with names which, in British English, would seem pretentious. I never get my money from an ATM, my luggage goes in the boot (assuming the car is operational), and tonight I am not going to eat a "take out", but in the words of the late great Lily Allen, I'm going to have a Chinese and watch TV. Oh, wait a minute, she means "telly", and as far as I know she's not dead (let's hope not because she seems nice).

Before any of my American friends take umbrage at any of this, please understand that I am not in the least bit critical of American English. On the contrary, I find it endlessly fascinating to watch the way that English has evolved around the world, and the separate efforts of Webster and Johnson effectively ensured the divergent paths of English on either side of the Atlantic (although they were only really endorsing existing trends anyway). In any event, American English at its best is a vehicle for the finest of art -- look at Poe, or F Scott Fitzgerald, or Mark Twain, or J D Salinger, or Harper Lee, or many others. All this is simply to say that Americanisms can sound ridiculous in British mouths. Despite this, a growing number of people resort to them.

I suppose American English is now very abundant, and I suspect it inadvertently provokes British nonsense speak. This can lead to either unnecessarily politically correct nonsense ("Seasons Greetings", in case "Happy Christmas" offends my Hindu colleague, who is cheerfully baffled by such idiocy and shares sweet Diwali goodies with us every year), or hellish tautologies (which, I suppose, are what they are), or baffle-speak designed to obscure something's true meaning ("I think we need to solutionise using responsive relative mobility techniques").

In the end, my car's slipping alternator belt is named in baffle-speak. That's why I had to say "alternator belt" to the nice lady on the telephone. She was trying hard to help me find the part I needed but had been previously unable to locate using any web-based search facility. She was very helpful. She said, "I can't seem to find an alternator belt in-stock for your car, sir. The only thing we have seems to be a serpentine auxiliary drive pulley. Sorry."

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When researching this blog-post, I was delighted to find the Plain English Campaign had a gobbledygook generator. It's great fun -- try it here. Thanks to them for inspiring me to a couple of items of high quality nonsense, deliberately sprinkled into this blog.


  1. What about the Americans only using the world holidays when referring to Christmas?! That drives me crazy.

    1. Yes. That pushes me over the edge a bit, too. Especially when Coke use the annoying "The holidays are coming..." ad's over here. I've broken several tellys this way. You'd think I was president of the pedantic society, but holidays are where I take my kids at summer. And actually, just to be clear, I'm the vice-president.


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