September 07, 2007

Guess the meaning: a British English quiz question

If you're a speaker of American English with no experience of life in the United Kingdom, here's a quiz question (this is not for you if you live in Britain; to you it will seem absurdly easy).

Choose the correct meaning for the phrase white goods from the following list of potential meanings:

  1. Goods of any sort that are white in color — flour, paper towels, lilies, emulsion paint, toothpaste, ermine fur, milk, eggs, refined sugar, button mushrooms, etc.
  2. Goods that carry no duty and can thus be freely imported and carried through customs without officials needing to be in any way concerned with them.
  3. Garments typically or traditionally made with undyed white cotton, such as plain dress shirts, underwear, tennis shorts, cricket clothes, and so on.
  4. Goods that are fully legal, in the sense of being properly imported with duties properly paid rather than being part of the so-called "black economy".
  5. Office paper, letter envelopes, and similar white paper office supplies.
  6. Household appliances such as washing machines or refrigerators that are often painted white.
  7. Linen household goods such as sheets, pillow cases, and towels.
  8. Goods of a sort determined by market research to be primarily of interest to customers of European rather than African or Asian origins.
  9. Goods deemed by government regulatory agencies to be (unlike an increasing number of toys and other products from the People's Republic of China) free of harmful features and fully fit for sale to the general public.
  10. Milk, buttermilk, yoghurt, and other non-cheese liquid dairy products.

I tell you frankly, after being away from Britain for 25 years, I would not have been able to answer this question.

I've come across the phrase a couple of times since taking up residence in Britain a little over a month ago, and one of those occurrences was in a legal context, so it's not slang, it's a real part of the language now. And as far as I can report, in 1980 it was not.

I'll leave a few days for you to do your own guessing and to test monolingual American friends, relatives, and colleagues to see what percentage of them can guess the correct meaning (they are not allowed to do any Googling or Wikipediery before answering, of course). Then I'll supply the correct answer in an update below. My guess is that there will be quite a range of answers, showing that I was not alone in being unable to guess the meaning this phrase has now taken on in British English.

[Update: The answer has now been given in a subsequent post.] Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 7, 2007 05:30 PM