April 17, 2010

If it ain't broak ...

On a recent trip into the hills that involved a fair amount of road travel, several Ambassadors scuttled past us. Usually some kind of official cars, these. You know: mostly (but not always) white, those peculiar visors above the windscreen, often with an upward-pointing arrow that begins the registration number. And, most of the time, this written on the back: "Power Break".

Now you know that's supposed to be "Power Brake".

So I got to wondering.

* What are power brakes, how do they differ from regular brakes, and why do cars have them?

* Why do they need to announce to the world that they have said power brakes? Is my safety somehow compromised if a car with these things shoots past, to the extent that I need this warning?

* Most crucial of all, how did the mutation happen from "brake" to "break"? Think about it. As a spoken word, "brake" is known to all. Still, there are guys who don't know the written words apart -- the painters of these Ambassador warnings would appear to be such guys. Yet it seems likely to me that even these guys would know that "break" is further, phonetically, from the sound of the word than "brake" is. No?

If that's the case, why is "Power Break" apparently muscling out "Power Brake"?

My feeling is that the phrase is the 21st Century "Horn OK Please", a meme that caught on. Painting the words on Ambassadors, some poor sod misspelled it as "break" once; others saw it (maybe liked it) and copied it, and the rest is history.

Yeah, but give me a brake.

23 comments:

Ugich Konitari said...

Guys favouring these cars, and using them at our cost, are generally on a POWER BREAK from their normal humdrum lives. As for BRAKES, they dont need them. Anywhere. It appears.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Yet it seems likely to me that even these guys would know that "break" is further, phonetically, from the sound of the word than "brake" is. No?

I didn't follow that. Aren't they exact homophones? And I've seen the "power brake/break" signs long before the 21st century. Modern cars say ABS.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Clumsily expressed, I see! Thanks RS for pointing it out.

What I meant was, to someone who isn't sure how to spell the word "brake", it might just strike him that "ea" is more usually pronounced "ee", whereas "ake" would invariably be pronounced the way he wants. I mean, perhaps it would be a clue.

But I can see I am getting more and moar tied in notes hear. Or do I mean nots? Or knotes?

Anonymous said...

When power brakes were uncommon and sudden stops as common, it was imperative for these officials to avoid being rear-ended by their followers who, invariably, lacked power brakes and had the simpler mechanical brakes and could not stop fast enough. Hence the sign. RSid -- thanks for getting ddd to explain brake/break.

Rabin Stephen said...

With all the rattling in the Amby the brake got broke and hence needed a break.

Or given that the cars were headed towards the hills, it was really a power break like a longish power nap.

Or it was fans of Powar's off breaks and the whole thing got misspelt.

btw met any brake inspectors on the way?

(Horn OK Please actually means, Wake Me Up Before You Go Go!)

Jai_C said...

1. The braking distance is significantly reduced with power brakes and so others using "normal" brakes needed the warning- especially useful IMO in our kind of traffic with tailgating a norm.

2. On spelling: I still see danger spelled as "dengar" occasionally. This was funny until it struck that phonetically that sp makes more sense. D-EY-NJ-AR rather than D-AA-NJ-EYR.

Thanks,
Jai

Anonymous said...

Attitudes: When a "foreigner" comes to India and speaks in broken Hindi it is "cute" and we rally around. (The French, btw, aren't thrilled when someone massacres their language..). When a son of the soil eking out a living misspels "brake" s/he is a "poor sod". DDD, Why? Is it about wealth alone?

Anonymous said...

err.. "misspells" I meant to say.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

anonymous:
The French, btw, aren't thrilled when someone massacres their language.

Not true in my experience (I lived two years in France). In the early days they were always delighted to hear my attempts at French after they failed to understand my English -- and, to my surprise, usually understood me. As my French improved I ceased to rely on English and became more confident in asking in French directly, but sometimes got answered in English.

When a son of the soil eking out a living misspels "brake" s/he is a "poor sod".

Yes, I too ceased to find these things amusing some time ago. Or, as Krish Ashok wrote (after a last snigger at a mangled menu):
I realize that humour is either intentional, or the outcome of embarrassing pomposity exhibited by the high and mighty, and not a result of a struggling man who left his village to run a “Chaines” joint out of a ramshackle van struggling to communicate what he’s trying to sell in an illogical, unphonetic language he has never been taught in his life.

But I know Dilip didn't mean to poke fun at the misspelling: it was academic curiosity about why the illogical spelling "break" (which does not rhyme with "freak", "speak" etc) should win out as a bumper meme.

Suresh said...

Your point about "break" being phonetically "further" would make sense if you assume that the person (making the mistake) knows neither word. That may not be true.

Consider that "break" appears in such words as "breakfast" or "breakdown" and both words are used even by people who don't speak English. It is therefore possible that people encountering "brake" mistook it for the more familiar "break."

Just a guess, of course. Nice post.

Anonymous said...

Well it's good to know, RSid, that you spent two years in France, thanks for sharing. Even horrible French is better than perfect English, I get it. What I meant was the insistence of the French to keep out non-French vocabulary from coming into common usage, like jumbo jet. Avion gros porteur?

I have a suspicion DDD pronounces break as "Brek" as in "don't brek that vase!". Apologies d^3 if that's not true.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

anonymous: that may be what you meant but it's not what you said. And anyway, even that is not true unless you're referring to members of the Academie Francaise (whom you're unlikely to meet on the street). Right now on the front page of Le Monde I see "newsletters" (twice), "week-end" (main headline), "webdocumentaires" (a hybrid word), "foot" (football) -- and that's just the first screen.

Jai_C said...

"...I know Dilip didn't mean to poke fun at the misspelling:it was academic curiosity..."

Thanks Rahul and the others. I got chewed up a bit when I criticized Dilip's propensity to show up subaltern spelling and provincial pronunciation a few years ago.

I didnt help myself though. I equated English (an acquirable skill) with caste ( a birth attribute) and tried telling folks that this was like Brahmins chuckling at the "low-caste" attempts to enter their club.

Thanks,
Jai

Dilip D'Souza said...

Actually, I will gladly admit: I do find odd menu items funny and am something of a collector of them (I have several entries from two recent restaurant trips saved up to post at some point). One of my favourite stories is about the time a whole gang of people laughed at me because of the silly mistake I made in speaking Spanish in Los Mochis, Mexico. (OK, instead of telling our hosts that a friend was embarrassed by something, I said she was pregnant -- if you know Spanish you'll know why I made the mistake).

I think we can all use some fun poked at ourselves, given and taken in a good spirit. To which end, despite possible opprobrium, I plan to continue collecting odd menu items. (Like Lemoterian soup).

Suresh, good point about "break". Perhaps it is indeed more familiar than "brake". Anon 725, I say "don't brek that vase" all the time. When I do, Chaminda turns around and says "That vasen't a nice thing to say".

I am also something of a chewer. Will have to live with that.

Bottom line, this was, as RS points out (thanks), about an interesting meme. that's all.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Dilip - laughing at yourself is admirable. Laughing at your friends (who can give it back) is ok too. Laughing at the high and mighty is often necessary. "Poking fun" at subordinates, unequals, unskilled workers does not seem like something that "we can all use" to me.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Fair enough, RS, and you're right. Speaking for myself, I don't believe I've ever poked fun at "subordinates, unequals, unskilled workers", because I consider it repugnant.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sorry, again sent off a comment without finishing ...!

But I do find some signs and menus fascinating and funny, for the reasons cited in that linked Lemoterian piece. They will continue to seem funny to me.

Suresh said...

Speaking for myself, I don't believe I've ever poked fun at "subordinates, unequals, unskilled workers", because I consider it repugnant.

The implicit assumption here is that you are the equal of anybody. But suppose somebody refrains from poking fun at you because he/she "fears" that doing so would be "mean spirited" since you are an "unequal." Would you not be offended once you found out what was going on? Why should it be different for someone you think of as an unequal?

It is (trivially) true that what passes for humour can be mean spirited. Yet, "theorising" along the lines you do has its own problems.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Amazing the line the comments here have taken, but intriguing anyway!

Suresh, I don't fully follow. The point in my defence, if that's what it is, is this: I haven't knowingly poked fun at a person who I think will be offended by it, for whatever reason (being "unequal" in some sense, or sensitive, etc).

There was a guy in college who used to joke with us all about his poor grades, and good-naturedly laugh when the rest of us ribbed him about them. Until one day I said something just like on previous days. This time he erupted angrily and told me that if I ever said anything about his grades again he would break my face. Well, my face has stayed intact, and also nobody ever ribbed him again.

I realize humour can come across as mean-spirited. The best I can do is to ensure I mean no mean-spiritedness. Making someone feel bad about themselves is not my idea of humour.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Suresh,
But suppose somebody refrains from poking fun at you because he/she "fears" that doing so would be "mean spirited" since you are an "unequal." Would you not be offended once you found out what was going on?

That's a rather weird thought. I don't think I have ever encountered the idea that being made fun of is a measure of respect.

The "equality" thing need not even be "social equality". People in certain positions may be forced to be polite to you (or it may just be their inner nature) and to take advantage of that is mean.

Example (in my opinion) of "good" humour: Stephen Colbert nailing Dinesh D'Souza.

Example of bad humour: Sacha Baron Cohen, dressed as Borat, offering Bob Barr some cheese and then saying it was made by his wife, from the milk from her tit. (Most of Baron Cohen's "humour" can be classified as "taking advantage of the politeness of others.")

Suresh said...

Dilip, what I meant was that "unequal" is not necessarily well-defined. You may think of me as unequal to you but I may not think of you as my superior. In which case, your attitude -- not poking fun at me -- may be seen as patronising, or even offensive. I don't think there is a way of avoiding such problems altogether.

I don't want to derail the thread so I'll stop here. I certainly agree with you that humour should not be about making someone feel bad about themselves.

Anonymous said...

Yes -- not poking fun at someone when you have the opportunity to do so, by this thread, is an insult. Well done.

RSid: okay fine it's what you heard and not what I said. Agreed. You have indeed shown, by dint of superior knowledge, my statements to be false. The French commoners possibly do not care if someone massacres their language, spoken or otherwise. Or at least the newpapers you quoted don't care.

ddd: Chaminda vase right!

Anonymous said...

>> "not poking fun at someone when you have the opportunity to do so, by this thread, is an insult. Well done."

Dont know what u mean by ths. Pls clarify. What is an insult?