21 January 2009

Divided by a Common Language in The London Eye

While reading Siobhan Dowd's The London Eye Mystery as a judge for the Cybils middle-grade fiction category, I came across a British term I didn't know. Since I like keeping up with British terms, this both intrigued and annoyed me.

Here's a passage with the word in question. Can you spot it?

Salim slept on the lilo next to my bed that night. I'd hardly ever had to share before. My hand shook itself out. Salim shuffled into a sleeping bag without saying much.
A quick Google search showed me that the word "lilo" has several common meanings--common as far as the internet is concerned: And Wikipedia listed several other possibilities.

None of those was right, obviously. In The London Eye Mystery, the lilo is what teenagers have to sleep on while Aunt Gloria gets a real bed. So it's either a mattress or a cot--but which?

It turns out "lilo" is a British term for what we Americans call an "air mattress." Furthermore, the Brits use the same word to refer to a pool float while we Americans seem to keep those flat inflatable objects in separate mental categories.

So now I'm wondering when the term "lilo" became established--perhaps from the brand name Li-lo. And are there class or regional overtones to its usage that I'm still unaware of?


Michelle Fluttering Butterflies said...

I'm American, but have lived in England for the past 8 years. I've never heard of a 'lilo' at all! How bizarre.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how it's pronounced. If it sounds like "lie low," then maybe the word was originally descriptive? (Of course, it may not sound like that. . .)

J. L. Bell said...

It's good to know I hadn't missed a common term. And the fact that the word is being explained with its own website indicates that it's new to other people as well.

A possible etymology for "lilo" could start with the phrase "lie low," which then inspired the punning brand name "LI-LO" (established for decades), which in turn gave rise to the generic "lilo" for any air mattress.

Andrew Karre said...

I am so glad that this book wasn't Americanized (none of her books have been--good for David Fickling Books). These little details really make the book richer.

Rich said...

It is indeed pronounced as 'lie low' but we Brits tend not to treat them as mattresses - they're used more often to lounge in swimming pools or the sea while on holiday (sorry, vacation!).