American Cultural Assumption

Many of the WikiZens who participate here rely on cultural frames of references that are unique to a single region, area, or unit. Under this classification one might include Global, National, Regional, Local, Neighborhood, Corporate and Family centricities. This page seeks to identify one of those most influential upon those participating in a Wiki located in the US and frequented mostly by Americans. Explanations of this particular Culture are the Assumptions listed below.

(Note: for debate on whether or not it's okay for WikiZens who happen to be American to rely upon such assumptions, and to use them freely without apology, it would be best to join in discussion at AmericanCulturalAssumptionDiscussion.)

America has culture? ;-)

"People have no reason to help you" - an EricRaymond quote from HowToAskQuestionsTheSmartWay. This attitude, an unquestioned fundamental in the US, is not just alien but committedly sociopathological in other cultures. The countries that Americans famously find "warm" - Italy, Australia, Polynesia ... - expect MutualHospitality? as a matter of course. In America the only expectation of MutualHospitality? is among members of the same locality, family, church or business, or persons exchanging money.

Otherwise it's dog eat dog, New York New York, gun-toting SocialDarwinism. The awful vulnerability this implies in a crowded place underpins both American domestic paranoia and American foreign policy. ("It's worse than dog eat dog. It's dog doesn't return other dog's phone call." -- Woody Allen)

Complete and utter rubbish--at least when applied to the US as a whole. Perhaps in certain parts of the country--though I'd note that firearms are generally illegal in NYC--but what parts of the US have you actually visited?

California, Louisiana, Oregon, Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, and New York over a period of 7 years. Before you continue AdHominem I am not US hostile - I became a naturalized US citizen because of the aspects of the American character that I admire. But in all the places I went I found people open, hospitable, and supportive only to people they could identify as peers in their business, religious, and social communities. Otherwise I found them openly xenophobic, fearful, condescending, hostile and arrogant toward one another. The expectation of an underlying human decency seems to me to be completely absent from the American conscience, and I point out the American acceptance of Raymond's remark above as evidence that this is commonly asserted.

Um, don't forget the context: ESR's essay is aimed at new online users asking questions on mailing lists. The "people" mentioned are domain experts. In the case of OpenSource, the field ESR was probably writing about, they are domain experts with almost no free time. The purpose of the essay is to prevent folks wasting the domain expert's limited free time. This is the same ethic which applies between students and research professors at academic institutions. Students are encouraged to avoid frivolous time-wasting questions. -- IanOsgood

American media provides so many examples of this ethic I'm not certain where to start ... the works of Michael Moore? Jackass? Survivor? Seinfeld? SNL? I guess we can ignore these along with ESR as shibboleths.

American social infrastructure fails to guarantee universal health care or education, work-based welfare, a reasonable wage for essential but menial worker like teachers and nurses, or even basics like clean air and water. But we can ignore these as failures of government, not cultural assumptions.

I could relate my own experiences. When I walk down the street in my native country strangers smile and ask how I'm doing. Interpersonal expectations almost never vary based on age, race, or sexuality. Everyone goes to the same beaches, the same pubs and clubs, and social mobility without courtesy is almost unknown. But these are just my value judgements about human relations, not something representative of either country as a whole.

As a rural American, who due to economics has had to re-locate to increasingly denser population areas, I tend to agree that many of the negative aspects attributed to Americans are correct; but only in sense that it is true for a certain cross-section of America as a whole. I would posit that many of the experinces relayed here are of one particular aspect of American society alone. Where I grew up complete strangers still wave at one anothers automobiles as they pass by on the road. On a crowded subway train in Brooklyn, NY only one other person on the train ever met my gaze. What is different in America I think that other places is how vast the gulf between the urban American and the rural American has become. It is to the point that I, who still identifies as a rural America, feel as if I am part of a completely different culture than the bulk of the American people. I'm also disenfranchised politically because of this.

Perhaps you'll help me here then, Ian. What evidence would it take to make this point?

See also:

The sobriquet "Dude" is always positive in American English. Some non-Americans have misinterpreted its casual role, such as in movies like "Dude, Where's my Car?" These movies symbolize how "dude" has come to simultaneously mean both "respectable urbane gentleman" and "slacker" -- which generally represent an achievement.

Dude! WTF?! Always?

I would say its a word whose positive/negative ranking depends on the context and how its said. It can mean "good buddy", or "just another nobody".

When an online discussion with a foreigner suddenly turns sour, dude, sometimes you can't figure out why. It's because they took it wrong.

That's why I said, _even_ when used as "just another [male] nobody" it is still always positive.

By contrast, "buddy" is very negative.

I would disagree; I think "buddy" depends on context. If a friend says "All right, buddy, have a nice weekend," it's a term of affection. On the other hand, if you are a phone solicitor and the person on the other end of the line says "Listen, buddy, I don't want to buy a damn vacuum cleaner," it's a kind of sarcastic way of implying you are not their friend.

It was appropriate when all the English speakers of the Americas felt themselves to be under the same government - note, it wasn't actually appropriate, because it assumed all speakers of English owed allegiance to that government, similar assumptions among all the European languages being common - but since the National government of the US was formed, it's just been a convenient way of identifying those who think of their nation as being independent of foreign governmental influence. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States being documents which established and formed the National Self Governance which they call The United States of America.

Those north of its borders did not form their government in the same manner, and have therefore formed government and culture which cultivates European roots and influences, which some put to their credit.

Who rewrote this? It doesn't make any sense now. I mean, using the word "American" to refer only to the USA and not to all the people of the Americas has nothing to do with whether that particular nation should be independent or not. Nor is it clear what those to the north - apparently the name Canada is verboten, 'cause that's all there is up there - have to do with anything. Hooray for pointless revisionism!

How about the little fact that the U.S. is the only country in the world with "America" in its official title? Are you SURE that isn't reason to abbreviate its citizens as "Americans"? Oh, but actually explaining it takes away the fun of mindless America-bashing. See official country names list at (this is obviously official English names; feel free to provide URLs that give the equivalent in the other 6,000 world languages).

So America is in America. Just like New York is in New York - because it is a City and it is a complete state.

Publisher copy editors often strike "American" and want rewrites to use some variation of "U.S." as more PC.

Note that PC is an Political view some Americans use to stand for "Politically Correct". The UK English equivalent is "politically sound". This illustrates the principle that the only practical way to eliminate cultural assumptions and differentiations from one's speech and to thereby assume a level of politeness which treats everyone on an expression level as being equal, even when profound distinctions exist. Some think that it robs part of the language from anything rich in meaning.

Well, no. "Politically sound" doesn't have much currency in the UK. "Politically correct" does. Also, if you strike 'American' and replace it with a rewrite of US, it's usually a more exact expression of what the author wanted to say.

North America Free Trade

Went to Toronto Canada in mid 2005, first time in this century, and found the former "Eatons" gone from the list of retailers. Lots of WalMart shops. Also heard news that WalMart decided to close its shop at a location where the unions became successful in signing up its workers.


.com frequently interpreted as a "US Commercial" Internet top-level domain (Webalyzer and common usage) See RFC 1591 (1994) which clearly refutes this misconception. (And we won't even begin to go into the various claims about who "invented" the Internet :)

Brand names

Typically a brand name will be used instead of a perfectly reasonable generic alternative. A problem occurs if the brand is unfamiliar to the reader, and it is even worse if the brand name means something else.

On ThreeRingBinders, mention is made of going to "Kinko's", which I can only guess is some sort of shop which does book binding. I don't think we have them over here. Would using "book binder" or "copy shop" really have been that difficult?

Why Kinko's instead of "copy shop": In informal American speech, an activity or manufactured item will often be identified by the highest profile or first company associated with the activity or item, such as Xeroxing to mean copying. Usually this association fades over time and a more generic term replaces it. By the way, Kinko's does have establishments outside the North American continent. Most of its shops offer a range of services including quick self-operated photocopiers, short run printing and binding, computer rentals by the hour, business card design and printing and the like. Ah, but the question was not Why Kinko's - we already know why. The question was: why not 'book binder' or 'copy shop'?.As an American (hehe), when I hear "go to a copy shop," I think "What the heck is a copy shop? You mean like a Kinko's?" For some reason, "Kinko's" is just the word I learned for that concept.

Another example is "Jiffy". My brother nearly got arrested when he told his secretary he was popping out to the Gents and would be "back in a Jiffy". -- AndrewCates

For us non-USA readers, what's a "Jiffy", then?

Actually the term "jiffy" to connote a short period of time dates back to the 18th century. -- DavidWeekly

I am here in pursuit of the meaning of a magazine article in which was written: "Record the conversation, take notes on the wiki, synthesize it in a team blog ..." How apropos!!

Tradename of a condom apparently. Whereas condom is a dwelling place. Hmm

I'm in the US, and "back in a jiffy" doesn't mean anything other than "back in a short period of time." A condo is a dwelling place. It's short for condominium. "Condom" doesn't have a meaning other than the type of contraceptive device.

[Possible conflation with jimmy(hat)?]

I'm also in the US, and he is correct. a condom can also be called a trojan (brand name) or a rubber (which it technically isn't)... leads to some very confusing mixups... in a stand up comedy routine I saw, a woman was talking about how she went to England and was completely taken aback by the word differences. Some quotes would be "Can I borrow a rubber please? I promise to give it back.", "What time shall I knock you up in the morning?" (in American English, knocked up means pregnant.) -- eaglewolf

We're guilty of this in the UK too... We "do the hoovering" when we mean that we will "clean the carpets with a vacuum cleaner" because Hoover were the pioneering creators of vacuum cleaners in this country (and elsewhere?). Also (and I suspect this happens in the States too), we talk about owning a "Walkman" to mean a "personal stereo" regardless of whether Sony have been anywhere near it or not... Probably loads of other examples, but you get the picture. -- MattStephenson?

Not any more - I Dyson my carpets -- NeilWilson

What, you build a sphere around it and absorb all of the energy it generates? -- DanielChurch

It's a minor point, but I've always 'vacuumed' my carpets (and I'm a Briton). -- RichardTurner?

I "Booth" my carpets and when traveling put hot coffee in a "Dewar". But then - I'm strange.

Similarly: Kleenex, Jello, and Band-Aids? Anymore?

In the UK we talk about 'Sellotape' when referring to plastic sticky tape, but only the transparent kind. Another brand-name that's about to become a generic is 'iPod', in much the same way as 'Walkman' already has. My mum called my brandless, cheap pocket-radio an 'iPod' when she saw it.

In response to this emerging practice this reader proposes a new word: 'iPoid' to mean a portable music device not branded 'iPod'.

Well, and I'm from Austria where we do the same thing in german

American measurement units


Pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters are available only as coins. All coins are round, and are silver-colored unless otherwise specified (the penny is copper). Dollars are available as both coins and notes, though the paper version is vastly more common. Other denominations are available only as notes, namely: 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 dollar bills. There is at least one version of a 2 dollar bill that is legitimate legal tender, though they are no longer produced (AFAIK), and are rather rare to encounter (Not all that rare, and the last run of $2 bills was printed in 1999). Notes with a value greater than 100 dollars have been produced in the past, but are no longer. Unfortunately, I have no personal experience with them and can't supply details. (The largest bill ever produced was worth a hundred thousand dollars, and depicted Woodrow Wilson on the front. It was never in general circulation. Bills over $100 have not circulated since 1969.)

There is also a half-dollar coin; it is quite large and rarely used, especially since the bust of John Kennedy on them makes it more of a keepsake. There have been several different dollar coins minted (most recently the Sacajawea dollar; about the shape of a quarter but brass plated); but these haven't really caught on for some reason, although the "silver dollar" was once widely used.

One other interesting thing about US coins is that the size/value function has become non-monotonic. The dime is physically smaller than both the penny and the nickel; (Think Value: Copper Penny, Nickel, Silver Dime, it takes a lot of nickel to be worth half as much as a little piece of silver) despite being worth more; and the half-dollar is larger than either the Susan B. Anthony dollar or the Sacajawea dollar, though smaller than the old style "silver dollars". In the nineteenth century, there was a silver coin called a "half-dime," but it was too small. The new dollar coins don't really matter, because they are still rarely used. This is true in the UK, too - pound coins are smaller than 10p coins, although thicker. And it is also true for Euro coins: sorted by increasing size they are: €0,01 €0,02 €0,10 €0,05 €0,20 €1,00 €0,50 €2,00.

The standard format for writing numeric monetary amounts is $xxx.yy, sometimes with a metric prefix (the irony!), but appended: $10k, $5M. Strangely enough, the symbol used for billion is B instead of G. (M and B for million and billion were in use long before the computer age made kilo- and k widely known and used) There is a "cents" symbol, ¢,which resembles a lowercase c struck from upper-right to lower-left, but it is much less common. Therefore even sub-dollar amounts are often written as $.02 or $0.02. The cents symbol is probably rare because it was left out of the ASCII standard. It was much more commonly used before computers (although this could also be because there were more items costing less than one dollar back then!). By the time Unicode came to its rescue, most people had learned to do without it.

Values smaller than pennies do exist - half-penny coins existed at one time, and some prices are given with fractional pennies. Most notably, automobile (generally "car" in the US) gasoline (usually just "gas") is always sold at $x.yy9/gallon for obvious psychological reasons. (Note, in the U.S., the 9/10 of a cent is the product of a federal tax on gasoline; this is why "farm diesel" - which is untaxed - is sold in whole-dollar prices.) This is the remaining significance of the 'mill,' the term for a thousandth of a dollar, or a tenth of a cent.

Stock prices used to be given in 'negative powers of two' of a dollar (i.e., successive halvings, which were expressible by hand gestures on the noisy stock exchange floor) - subdivisions as fine as 1/64 existed - but went decimal in 2001 (actually something like 'vigesimal' - based on a twentieth of a dollar).

For a look at our bills, see

Slang terms for a dollar: "buck", "greenback", (others?) In the nineteenth century, there were all kinds of barnyard or hunting terms for money, even in Britain, but these are obsolete. "Hog" was a five-dollar bill. Dead President(s) can refer to any assortment of bills, including dollar bills. Added to Webster's Dictionary in 2003 I believe.

Sure, how about:

We Americans say "five-spot", similar to the Brits' "fiver" for a 5 dollar bill. Anyone ever heard a slang term for a 50 dollar bill?

Extreme slang: a 'Fitty'. This is mostly African-American slang... I can think of a few situations where it's use would be inappropriate. Also a 'teener' for a $10 bill, a 'hundy' for a $100 bill

Another common bit of slang is to refer to money, especially larger-denomination notes, by the dead politician whose face is plastered thereon. A "Ben Franklin" (or "Benjamin") is thus a 100-dollar note, a "General Grant" is a 50-dollar note, a "George Washington" is a 1-dollar note, an "Abe Lincoln" is a 5-dollar note, etc. This can also be done for coins; which can be a problem because the dead presidents are then overloaded. Lincoln is also pictured on the penny; so context is required to determine if an "Abe Lincoln" is a 1-cent coin or a 5-dollar note.

We also shorten hundred and thousand dollar denominations when discussing things costing large and even larger sums of money. For instance, we'll say, "That satellite receiver cost me a buck and a half," meaning $150. Or, we'll say, "The new house is gonna set me back 350 dollars," meaning $350,000. Don't ask why, we're just not too very bright over here.

I've never heard "350 dollars" mean anything other than what it says, US$350. Now, "The new house is gonna set me back 350" I hear all the time, where the context (purchasing a home) indicates that the omitted units are thousands of dollars.

-- ScottJohnson

 "2 bits" = 25c
 "4 bits" = 50c
From the days when the USD was = to a Mexican silver coin, which was scored into 8 bits for making change (pieces of eight!)

The two-dollar bill still exists, but it is used extremely rarely. The bill has a portrait of America's third President, Thomas Jefferson. In Jefferson's honor, it is given in change for the entrance fee at the museum his old home, Monticello, has become. -- EricJablow

I read once that in the US 2-dollar bills were considered unlucky, and people used to tear the corners off to banish the ill luck. Also, that this may have been because they were sometimes referred to as deuces. Of course in Canada we have a $2 coin - referred to as a two-nie, after the $1 coin which is a loonie, from the loon on its reverse. Both coins have completely replaced their paper equivalents here. -- PaulMorrison

More on the Two Dollar Bill: At the beginning of the last century, before the prairies were plowed up and fenced off, cattle ranching was the focus of all business. Cowboys would regularly blaze into the nearest town at the end of the work week with pockets full of two-dollar bills to use as "exact change" at the local whorehouse, as one "spin" with a Lady of the evening was two dollars at that time. Eventually, being seen in public with a two-dollar bill in your possession became associated with participation in debauchery.

Other money-related slang:

When is "Labor Day Weekend"? It's the first Monday in September (nobody works on that day), and became a holiday well before the socialists' May 1 became a holiday in Britain or any European country. That day commemorates violence against workers in Chicago, by the way. (Note "socialist" is used as a quasi-insult in the US; not elsewhere. Note also the Celts were celebrating Beltane on May 1 centuries before Columbus.)

What is a "mid-size" automobile? An ordinary car, fairly large by European standards but not too ridiculous. Shall we say a four-door sedan, probably with separate front seats but possibly a bench, with approximately 100 (+/- 15%) cubic feet of combined passenger and cargo space? In the US, this car will probably be front-wheel drive and have an automatic transmission, with power steering, windows, and locks, and air-conditioning. Examples would include the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, VW Passat, Nissan Altima, Ford Taurus, and Chevy Malibu.

More auto slang: Four on the floor = manual transmission (was usually four speed, but not necessarily). Three on the tree = Automatic transmission steering column mounted shifter, probably in a bench seat, usually derogatory (toward the automobile). Both of these have mostly fallen out of usage now that manual transmissions are more than 4 speed, and automatic transmissions are center console mounted. They also don't really make cars with bench seats anymore.

"Bench seats"? Back seats that aren't shaped for a certain number of passengers? <-- No, front seats that aren't shaped for a certain number of passengers.

Use yards and quarts if you have to, but please think twice before you describe something in terms that can't be easily looked up.

In the U.S:

 1 gallon = 4 quarts = 128 fluid ounces = 231 cubic inches ~ 3.785 liters
 1 quart  = 2 pints  = 4 cups
 Unfortunately, a fluid ounce of water has a mass of ~ 1.043 dry ounce.
 What "fluid" has a density of ~ 0.9586 g/cc?
But remember that American pints and gallons are 20% smaller than English ones. First time you get a pint of beer in US, you'll think you've been given short measure. Then you'll realize that the word "Beer" has a different meaning. - But then, if you're from Spain, and order a coffee, you'll get a LOT more than you bargained for. Until you taste it.


Address organization

In most American cities, addresses in the first block north or south of the north-south dividing street are 0, in the second block 100, and so forth, while addresses in the first block east or west use the same convention relative to the east-west line. 5200 SE 32nd in Portland is of course in the 53rd block south of Burnside (if it's a Portland, Oregon address) on 32nd street. All addresses on one side of the street or avenue are odd, on the other are even. Increments close to 5 are commonly used.

"Chicago Style"

Places are numbered from the intersection of Madison and State, Madison running east-west the 0 point for north-south traveling and State the opposite. Blocks are 100 apart and each block is 1/8 of one mile, which means that 800 in the numbering system is one mile. So, if you're at 100 W Madison you are one block west of State Street. If you're at the corner of Ashland (1600 W) and North (1600 N) you are exactly 2 miles north, 2 miles west of downtown. House numbers are in the odd-even style with odd being the east/south and even being the north/west.

"New York Style"

There's a system:

Other Places

British Street Numbering

Some streets are numbered in the "odds-and-evens" style. 1 3 5 7 9 11 ... on one side, and 2 4 6 8 10 12 ... on the other. Also, you have random street numbers. On one street on which I once lived, the numbers ran (a..b implies all valid numbers a to b inclusive) 2..14 36 46{,A,B} 48..52 56..74 84 86 88 100 114A* 114 116..136 along the even side, and the odd side kicked off at 43 again with numbers skipped regularly. (59..73 93..143). [* Interestingly enough, 114A was between 100 and 114, yet was actually closer to 100. Until they put the sign up, we all honestly thought it was going to be 102.]

Some are numbered in the "up-and-down" style. On one side you see 1 2 3 4 5 6 ... and on the other you see the street end on (say) ... 162 164 165 166 167 168. Yet again, there are bizarre omissions all over the place. At home, I have to put up with 1A 3A 5A 1..63 66..76 on one side, and a fairly continuous 87..15something on the other. This is all well and good in a cul-de-sac - at least you can follow the numbers around at the end. However, this happens on normal streets with two ends. More worryingly, it happens on long streets too. It's not comforting to see 37 on one side and 1363 on the other. :-/

Some are numbered in the "what-the-fsck" style. The numbering is totally confused, and has left you with absolutely no clue as to where you are. Take the instance not far from the halls in which I reside. Along one side are the numbers 1 2 3 ... 47. Along the others are the numbers 1 2 3 ... 47. This is actually three streets on the same physical stretch of road. 1..47 along one side is one street. 1..16 on the other forms a second, and a third picks up from 17..47. Worryingly, two of these streets have similar names (1..47 is an Avenue, 17..47 are Gardens. 1..16 has a different, distinguishable name. This doesn't stop Post Office staff getting confused, though).

Canada (Toronto)

Toronto and its surrounding environs use what I heard described as "military" style numbering - the first address on any given street, no matter its location, is 1. In most US cities; address numbers are relative to some fixed line; so a side street that starts at 52nd street would have its first address at 5200 or thereabouts.

Japanese Style

Japanese streets are not named - addresses identify a block, then a number within the block. Within blocks, addresses are numbered in order of creation, starting at 1.

Norwegian Style

Norwegian Addresses have street name preceding house number. This can make sense in the sense that once you find the street, you then want to look for the house number. Then again, every other part of the address is backwards with regards to granularity (country, city, street, name).

Spanish Style

Spanish street numbering is sequential, odds on one side and evens on the other. Number 1 is placed in the end closest to the center-of-town point. Places are named in finer to coarser fashion: street & number, city & zip.

@ (geometrical/historical centre of town)

  1. 3 5 7 9 ...
X================================================X (street)
  1. 4 6 8 10 ...

Mexican Style

Like Spanish style but usually in the four digits and with random increases. The first address of a street can be 3360, the next 3374, the next 3378, then 3400 and so on. Longer avenues are split into sections (e.g. North, Central, South...) each with their separate numbering. Sometimes, due to bad urban planning, numbering is completely random; I have seen instances of house number sequences such as 6710 - 6717 - 6730 - 450 - 455 - 3588. To help address this issue, some people ask for the two streets ahead and behind the address, and sometimes they also ask for a nearby landmark.

Address format is:

 [Personal or trade name]
 [Street] [House number] [Secondary number (apartment, building, floor)] col. [Neighborhood]
 [Zip code] [Municipality] [State]

Example from a college-owned cultural center:

 Casa ITESO Clavigero
 José Guadalupe Zuno 2803 col. Americana
 44610 Guadalajara, Jalisco

New Zealand Style

Numbering is much like the Spanish style, odd numbers on one side, even on the other. Number 1 is at the end nearer the central post office (even if it's thirty-odd kilometres away) on the right (when you're at that end looking down the street).

Usually. Later property development can wreak all sorts of merry havoc. And the location of the CPO might change.

Italian Style

Almost all streets have an even/odd numbering scheme for their whole length; orientation varies. A few squares are numbered circularly; nameless alleys are numbered as part of the main street they open into. Usually every building has a single number and different entrances have subdivisions like 3, 3a, 3b, 3c; 6,6/1, 6/2 or even worse. Gaps and incoherence in subdivisions are to be expected, but every n-something number is between the n-2 something and the n+2 something. Addresses include city, province if the city is obscure, street name and number. Zip codes are used only for mailing purposes; for large residential complexes stairwells or buildings are indicated, but apartments are never numbered.

Venice Style

This one is the world's oldest street address system, invented during the Italian Renaissance. A single numeration for the whole city starts from 1 (St. Mark) and increases outwards with moderate coherence. Since canals, streets and places are mostly short, looking at every building to find a random number in the thousands isn't too bad.

Swiss Style

A very efficient house numbering system. You get the name on the first line, street and number on the second, and post code and town on the third. That's it. So the address for the US embassy is:

 Embassy of the United States of America
 Jubiläumsstrasse 93
 3001 Bern
Simple eh? But, it also means that if you live in a block of flats, and you don't have your name on the post boxes, you don't get any mail.

So do such people just relinquish their privacy?


See the FAQ by Marcus Kuhn on International Standard Paper Sizes, Some people consider A4 ugly, however. See the TuGBoat [TeX Users Group] article by Stefan Revets, -- EricJablow For "Some people consider" read "At least one person considers"

If you had gone to Kinko's, you'd have found copiers that automatically selected the appropriate paper size. :-)

I love the European system. It makes so much sense. A4 is half the size of A3 is half the size of A2. It means that if you buy a frame you know it will fit and you don't have to carry a measuring tape with you.


American drafting paper sizes:

The most useful thing about the A paper sizes is, however, that each one has the same width/height ratio - sqrt(2)/2. The unique thing about the sizes listed above is that when folded appropriately they maintain a 8 1/2 by 11 inch form. That's only as unique as the 8.5/11 ratio itself. And what does "appropriately" mean (in the case of, in particular, B and D, which seem only to exist so that there are sheets as wide as others are long). What I want to know is: which paper size, folded appropriately, makes the best paper dart? << Paper dart? Is that like a paper plane?

Metric Paper size

There is another very useful thing about the lovely A paper sizes: A0 is exactly 1 square metre. This leads to A1 being half a square metre etc., s. o. Now if you're going to send a letter and just happen to have no letter balance handy, you may just take the paper weight per square metre printed on the package (German culture assumption?), and divide it by 2 to power A-Value. So an 80 g/m^2 A4-leaf weights 80 / 2^4 = 5 g.

In addition, our A4 leave will fit smoothly in a C4 envelope or, folded once, in a C5 envelope.

Are German postal regs so strict that you need such precision?

No, but it looks good, which is nice for the recipient.

'Actually, 8.5 x 11 inch is much older than A4 - which is a metric approximation of the original version. 8.5 x 11 is one fourth of a piece of foolscap size paper [no, foolscap is 13.25-13.5 x 16.5-17. you're probably thinking of "demy" (C16), which is about 15.5-17.5 x 20-22.5. "Demy quarto" is therefore about 8.5 x 11.''], which is what people used to have to buy. Then they would cut it into fourths to write letters on, since 17 x 22 is too big. This is also why another American paper size is 11 x 17, though it is used less often. The only reason for the European system is that after Britain went metric, it needed a metric paper size. It makes more sense, but then again, England gave us 16.5 feet to the rod, and other StupidMeasurements, so who are you to complain?'

So did the U.S., in the same year.

Hogwash. A4 and the rest of the bunch have been around since the 1920's (see below), while England started going to metric (but still hasn't switched over completely, see in 1965.

Actually, the US has 'officially' been metric since 1866, it's just that the various laws stipulating its use never required it as the only standard. The law passed in 1975 was intended to phase out non-metric measurements, but still didn't force the issue; another law passed in 1988 required metric measurements for Federal government internal use, but not for public reports or signs, nor does it apply to state or local governments,private citizens or non-government organizations. See for details. -- JayOsako

There are two basic sorts of measurement: bulk and precision instruments. In the nineteenth century, just about every firm in every country had its own precision measurements. Standardized Metric threaded fasteners (usable in France, Germany, and Japan) didn't come into existence into after WWII. There were tens of thousands of sizes of nails produced in the world before standardization. So it was mainly bulk produce that was metricized. Cloth and carpets used to be sold in ells, and tailors or carpeters would complain if they were tried to be sold material only a metre wide, for example. Restaurants would want supplies according to their recipes, too. And the A4-and-what-have-you paper system did not come into existence until the 1920's, and in Germany, not in France. -- Sobolewski

Are the A-standards just a metric approximation of the original version? Does anyone know, when foolscap derived paper sizes emerged? [in the 17th century] The A-sizes passed August 18th, 1922 as DIN 476 in Germany and became ISO 216 in 1975. Letter is however a valid special size in ISO 216 (but maybe marked as deprecated ;-).

The A-series of paper sizes and its cognates (B, C, etc.) have always been defined in terms of Le Syst�me International d�Unit�s. While the series may have been designed so that the 210mm x 297mm A4 is roughly the size of the 215mm x 279mm US Letter, it seems that it was more of a coincidence than anything. The base size of the system is A0, and the proportions were chosen so that if such a sheet were cut in half crosswise the result would be a sheet (of half the area) with the same proportions. Once those requirements are specified, then both the dimensions (rounded down to the nearest mm) and the proportion (1:sqrt(2)) are fixed. Do it once and you have the 594mm x 841mm of A1. Do it three more times and you have A4. So if A2 is an approximation of foolscap [it's not; it's approximately the same size as demy] (which by construction I presume is 17 x 22 inches), what is the significance of 374 square inches? Could it be there was once some notional paper size with an area of one square yard and other sizes were cognates of that? A0 is 1 square meter (not exactly because it's rounded to a whole number of millimeters); the other Ax sizes are repeatedly halved; Bx and Cx sizes are selected to fill the gaps and serve as folders etc. of other sizes.

So where does Legal paper fit into all of this? That terrible long stuff which you can't fit into that ThreeRingBinder without mangling it? ["Legal cap" is half of "foolscap".]

Legal size paper is 8 1/2 x 14 inches [8 x 13.5].

Phrases taken from Sports

I have no idea what a 'curve ball' is, nor why it is so cool to get one. Getting a curve ball isn't a cool thing, but bad news, since it's hard to hit. [Having a curve ball thrown at you is bad news - actually HITTING a curve ball when thrown at you by surprise, that *is* cool. See below: it presents unexpected difficulty, and you'd look good if you did hit it. The medical analog is a zebra: when you hear hoofbeats in the night, do you think of horses or zebras? In medicine, having a tricky case that looks like something easy and common is getting a zebra. Spotting it for a zebra and not deciding in error that it's a horse by the beat of its hooves is making a good hit on a curve ball.]

For the morbidly curious, it is a baseball pitch which is thrown so that the ball's path actually curves - due to a slight wing effect caused by the stitches. It is cool because it is very difficult. It's also hard to hit because it changes course in a way you didn't expect, which makes it a good metaphor for some unexpected difficulty:

Viewed from above, the ball makes a clean arc from the pitcher to the batter.

Viewed from the batter's perspective, however, the ball appears to be coming straight at you until it abruptly veers off at the last moment.

It curves because the pitcher (using the grip afforded by the stitches) is able to put a spin on the ball.

The Bernoulli effect is responsible for the curve: on a rotating ball the relative airspeed on one side (the side rotating away from the pitcher) is greater than on the other (the side moving toward the pitcher). Therefore, just like a wing, the lower air pressure caused by the higher airspeed causes the ball to curve in that direction.

I have seen some evidence that it is the lack of spin which causes it to curve or wobble. A spin is normal. Lack of spin is harder. A lack of spin is a knuckleball (see below)

This effect is known as the MagnusEffect?:

See The Physics of Baseball, by Robert Adair. ISBN 0060084367 .

Is that something like a "googly" in cricket - a fairly slow ball, IIRC? -- PaulMorrison

More like swing-bowling, I think, although the shape of the stitching and the lack of a rough side make it harder to do in baseball than cricket.

Pitches in American baseball:

I suspect a "googly" maps most closely to a changeup, or maybe a knuckleball.

Outside of baseball, a changeup is something different from the usual, often created deliberately and without warning.

There are also (naturally) combinations and variations of almost all of these. There are at least 3 different kind of fastballs: 2-seam and 4-seam fastballs, named for the number of seams around the axis of rotation, and also a split-fingered fastball (sometimes called a splitter... not to be confused with a spitter (spitball) which has been banned since the 1920s). A 2-seam fastball has more movement than a 4-seamer, but isn't as fast since the pitcher has less leverage on the ball. A split-fingered fastball is gripped with the fingers spread wide apart, almost on opposite sides of the ball. It looks like a fastball when thrown, but spins more slowly and drops sharply or "falls off the table" as it crosses home plate.

The other variations are usually exclusive to a pitcher, who originated it (or claims to have) and makes it a featured part of his repertoire. Mike Mussina for example, threw a knuckle-curve, which was a curveball with less spin. The split-fingered fastball was originated by Bruce Sutter in the '80s.


American legal system and Constitution

see UnitedStatesConstitution

See EnglishOrBritish for a more extensive discussion of some of the complexity of this.

Political parties and Election Systems

Democrats? Republicans? Primaries?

The two major political parties in the USA are the Democratic Party and Republican Party. No other party (collectively known as "third parties") is anywhere close to as popular and politically powerful as these two. Each party may submit one set of candidates for available offices, e.g. for President and Vice-President of the USA each party may offer one candidate for each position (collectively the offerings from a single party are that party's "slate" of candidates). Primary elections are those in which registered party members may select which party member they wish the party to present in the subsequent general election. Each party may have their own rules about whether only party members may vote for which candidate the party should present for the general election, or whether anyone may vote (in an "open primary"). At the time of the primary election, other matters may also be placed before the voters - perhaps elections for local positions such as school board representative or local council, regional bond measures or the like. Of course members of any party as well as those not affiliated with any party ("Independents") could vote on every item on the ballot other than the closed per-party selection of candidates.

While the third parties make a big deal out of there being more than two choices, the actual election system plays into the hands of two parties as the results of several of the last presidential elections show. Since a candidate need only have more votes than all opponents to win (not a majority of the actual votes cast) we get interesting effects where a credible third party candidate can't win, but can cause the loss of the Rep/Dem which is closest to their ideology. Hence, Perot siphoned off votes from George senior allowing Clinton to win, and Nader siphoned off votes from Gore allowing George junior to win (that and Daddy's stuffing of the Supreme Court). This effect can cause voters to not vote for the third party candidate they might prefer for fear it will cost the Rep/Dem they could more easily tolerate, the election.


To be more precise, general elections in the US are won by the candidate with a plurality of the vote, while primary elections can and do have run-offs, depending on the office and locality. Except for the Presidential election. A Presidential election really is a collection of 50 State elections (and the District of Columbia election). Each state votes for a slate of electors in the Electoral College. Each state receives a number of votes there equal to its total number of representatives and senators. Thus, the smallest states (and the District of Columbia) have 3 votes in the EC, while California has many more. And, except for 2 states, each state chooses its electors in a winner-take-all process.

So, small states have disproportionate power in the Electoral College. And, it is possible for a candidate to win the plurality of popular votes, but to have the minority of electoral votes. (Note, it is possible for the electors, those chosen by popular vote in the several states to take part in the electoral college, to "break pledge" and vote in a manner that is inconsistent with the popular vote of their state; this was intended to allow the electoral college to prevent the election of someone who - though very popular - is utterly unqualified. This has only occurred on one occasion after an election similar to that of 2000; however, the dispute was settled via bribes and other debauchery by both major parties, instead of abusive media coverage.)

Whether the system is a good one is still argued. The 2000 election certainly had a lot of people wishing for changes. -- EricJablow

Note: There may be a time when the sentiment for change becomes more than wishful thinking, and when a more equitable system is devised, but for the time being, it is the way thing are constituted.

Food Expressions

When I was in the States, I had a great time trying to get some things across. Like when I go into a shop and ask for a Jam Donut, the shop assistant looks at me like I've got two heads. It took an intervention from my sister before I realized what I had said. Same for Chips vs French Fries, Crisps vs Chips, Biscuit vs Cookie (What do Americans call Cookies? Why, "cookies", of course. What do you call cookies? ;->), Jam vs Jelly, Jelly vs Jello, etc....

In the United States, "jelly" refers to a spreadable food made from fruit juices, while "jam" is made from crushed fruit. "Jell-O" is the brand name for a product the British might call a "jelly". So why the shop assistant's reaction described above? What should they have been asked? For a jelly donut. They aren't called jam donuts, even though they logically could be; they just aren't. <<Maybe this is regional, but nobody in the Northeast US calls anything "jam"; it's just printed on the jar label. In practice any kind of sugary fruit goo is "jelly".

... the classic for me was "Is that to go?" Go where? Go in a bag? Go in the bin? ... oooohh. You mean to "take away!"

Hold on a sec - if you're in the States, why shouldn't a local assume you are also local? Or were you wearing a badge that said I'm not from this country???

It was probably the two heads. We don't get a lot of that outside ThreeMileIsland.

The best one I've come across was when I mentioned Squash, which to a United States resident is a type of pumpkin, but a drink concentrate here in the UK.

Actually, in American parlance, the pumpkin is a member of the squash family, not the other way around.

Submarine Hoagie Grinder

Remember, the USA is a big country. So, some foods have wildly disparate names. Even in adjacent states, some foods will be named differently. The sub (short for submarine sandwich) in NY is the hoagie in central NJ and PA, the grinder in other areas, etc. The name of the 'Hoagie' comes from 'Hog Island,' a shipyard near Philadelphia. In NYC it's a "hero". According to WikiPedia, "sub" originated in Boston.

Grinder is almost exclusive to Connecticut, Vermont, western Massachusetts, and parts of eastern New York. See Question 64 at

National Cheerleader Competitions - Are they for real???

What's wrong with cheerleading competitions? They perform the same function as little league, pop warner football, soccer leagues, etc....!!!!!!! Please discuss!

And those Junior Beauty Pagents, like 5 years old? They go even younger - there are now pageants for infants in arms!

And putting your hand over your heart when they play the national Anthem?

Sorry I'm not just seppo bashing (this time), I guess it's a big country but how could John Coltrane have been born in the country that has the above? The same way Shakespeare could be born in the same country as the Daily Mail. :)

I'm not sure if I was or wasn't - but I just spent an amazing two hours watching "Bring It On" shown for the first time today on UK TV. Can those girls jump - or can they jump?

It's all real, and, yeah, it's a big country. The same country also has: snake handlers, NAMBLA, Hell's Angels, and fat advocacy groups. God bless it!

Two I've wondered about. Despite being an American Football fan, I've never worked out what a nickelback and a nickel defense [sic] are. The commentators assume you already know. Someone want to enlighten me?

Sure. A nickel formation in football has five defensive backs instead of the usual four. A nickel back is the 5th defensive back. There is also a dime formation which has six defensive backs.

Ta. "Nickel" because 5 cents, "Dime" because..., aah. Oh well :-)

... because it's more than a nickel, and "6 cents" takes too long to say. Actually, because it consists of "two nickels" (two extra defensive backs). And two nickels makes up a dime. The dime package is pretty much the "prevent" defense, used near the end of the game when one team is willing to give up field position but not the big play. They stick 6 really fast guys (defensive backs) way downfield and give up yards while (hopefully) running out the clock. In a fair number of cases, the trailing team actually scores, leading to the phrase "A prevent defense only prevents you from winning."

It gets used occasionally on very-obvious-passing downs (3rd and 25, for example), where the offense has little choice but to attempt a deep forward pass, so the defense loads up to stop it. (Of course, a well-disguised running play can often fool such a defense, and sometimes even turn into a large gain.)

In recent years football teams have employed a "quarter" defense where yet another linebacker is replaced with an extra defensive back. These formations also come in handy when the offense uses formations with three, four, or even five wide receivers, or when the offensive backs are also usable receivers.


I'm pretty sure The Good Ol' US of A is the only nation where somebody might call you "dog" as a term of endearment. Only an affectionate term for males, though, so be careful.

I've heard the phrase I've fallen and I can't get up. in several sitcoms and cartoons (For instance BeavisAndButthead?, in a sperm bank: Look Beavis, he's fallen and he can't get it up. - Huhhuhhuh). Usually, just saying this is enough for getting a laugh, so it probably refers to some very funny original, which everybody is assumed to have seen. However, I've never seen the original, so please someone, tell me. -- AalbertTorsius

It's from an old commercial for LifeCall, infamous because of its cheesiness. Just listen: This was a device allowing people to call for help. An elderly woman falls and, well, can't get up. Of course, the device met a serious and real need, but the commercial was rather laughable.

Scheme - in U.S. usage, a 'scheme' often has a connotation of being a disreputable plot (except in a few constrained uses, like a 'color scheme'). I was taken aback when I visited the U.K.'s ManchesterUnited? web site and was invited to join "One United", the "Official Manchester United Membership Scheme." To American ears, a membership scheme sounds like a way to dupe unsuspecting passers-by into joining, or to defraud them once they have...

So if say a color ink-jet cartridge company does something deceitful with their cartridges in the US, could the caper still be called a "color scheme"? Only as a pun? Yes, and it would be hilarious. --MarkLaBarbara

If America was named after the cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, why was the feminine form of the name adopted? Did he have a daughter and change the annotation to refer to her instead? Or did someone back in Europe accidentally change the name?

Viva Vespuccia!

I think it's just people being obsessed with continent names starting and ending with A (well, except Europe).

I heard an interesting comment on the radio just last week. On a sports show, callers were commenting on the best and worst performances of the US national anthem at sporting events. One caller said he only like to hear the anthem played by an armed forces band "the way Francis Scott Key intended." Key wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" and suggested singing it to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven" when it was published. Why is it considered correct to refer to the tune without words as "The Star-Spangled Banner"? -- WillGray

It's become correct because the tune and words are considered a single song by those (almost everyone) without detailed knowledge of the songs origin. That said, the caller was simply being a arrogant git. Like almost everywhere else, there's no shortage of those in America.

Re: Let somebody else take the arrows in the back

The first visitors or settlers of unexplored land often were attacked by Indians or wild animals. Only after the natives or animals were "flushed out" by the first wave could the area be settled by the next wave. (Of course the Indians and bears were not very happy about this, but that is another topic.) In technology the analog is "early adoptors", who often love technology for the sake of technology and help find bugs so that the next (minor) release has fewer problems.

The one that really infuriates me is when (North) Americans say Bring when they mean Take.

In Britain there is a differentiation between bringing something towards the observer and taking it away from the observer. When my US friend tells me about visiting his mother he brings his boys - even though the movement is away from where I am standing. In the UK we would take them. If I was at his Mother's house then it would be correct to say Bring as they would be coming towards me.

Except... As a North American (both Canadian & U.S. citizenship) living in Britain, it is annoying to hear folks in the Midlands say they're "going up to London". Look at a map, you bastards! London is down from the Midlands.

In fact in railway terms (where I think the phrase 'to go up/down to <place>' originated), London is the uppermost place in the the UK, as trains heading on the line towards London were considered to be going in the 'up' direction, away from London being 'down'.

However, in Oxford and Cambridge are sometimes regarded as being "up" from London by locals, extending the common practice at universities of going to the university as "going up" and (more commonly) leaving (say, for summer) as "going down" (or, when chucked out, being "sent down", which tends to imply misconduct rather than incompetence).

re the original comment on "bring vs take" - how do you know that the movement is away from you unless you know where your friend lives and where his mother lives? He might well be "bringing" the boys closer to you when he visits his mother?

See if your friend is qualifying "bring" with "along". Typical usage would be "I'm bringing my boys along", which means they're accompanying him in any direction. "I'm bringing my boys" sans "along" would generally mean he's approaching you, or you're included in some manner, whereas "I'm taking my boys" generally means he's travelling, but either not toward you or not including you in any manner.

If you are writing for a cross-nation audience, it's generally best to be as explicit as possible if you there are some "problem words" so that such nuances don't throw the whole dialog off. Thus, say "I'm traveling from X to Y, and will be carrying Z with me on the journey."

Also, there is a consistent problem of people from outside the USA that jump all over someone's writings from the USA, when they are the ones with the cultural deficit. It is rude, and they must be reminded that they are visiting outside of their culture. "American" is not quite correct for this page, as that takes in all countries of North and South America, as all are Americans.

You are demonstrating your AmericanCulturalAssumption. In the UK, and probably elsewhere (Canadians, for example, never refer to themselves as "Americans" except as a joke), it is conventional usage to refer to Mexico as Mexico, Canada as Canada, North America as North America, and South America as South America. North, South, and Central America are known, collectively (and very rarely) as "The Americas". However, "America" (or, quite commonly, "the States") is invariably a reference to the USA; "USA", however, is recognised but rarely used. The only citizens of The Americas referred to as "Americans" are those from the good ol' US of A.

By the way, I'm not sure what you mean by some writers here "visiting outside of their culture". This is not an American (or USA) Wiki; it draws international participation. It is merely hosted in the USA. As we know, geography is irrelevant on the Internet.

Everyone has a cultural deficit. Yours is different from mine. If you want to reduce mine by interesting me in your culture, you need to share a bit more about it instead of telling me it is my fault. If your pages are not intended for everyone, then it matters less if we don't understand them. Several people have made positive suggestions. You seem to believe in DisagreeByDeleting, which if you read that page, is disapproved of.

A note for the confused, as I was, about the the expression Novus Ordo Seclorum. It is a Latin motto on the great seal of the USA, and therefore part of the AmericanCulturalAssumption which needs explanation for those from elsewhere. I also escaped(!) having to learn Latin and therefore didn't even know what it meant - 'New Order of the Ages' is given as the translation. -- JohnFletcher


See also: AmericanComputingAssumption, HiddenAssumption, UnitedStatesCulturalAssumption, IfYouCallYourselfAmerican, CulturalAssumptions, CaliforniaCulturalAssumption?


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