Monday, March 23, 2015

by cash

A(n) historian I know has taken to calling me his favo(u)rite linguist. I have a suspicion I'm the only linguist he knows. Nevertheless, flattery gets you a blog post. And a flattering pseudonym.

So, Generous Historian, when he emailed me about Important University Business, included this:
P.S. A little piece of English-language usage that has struck me a couple of times lately and made me think "Lynne might be interested in that", is that people in shops and cafes now invariably say "are you paying by cash", whereas they would have said "are you paying cash" until recently. The ubiquity of card (and, soon, phone) payments is doubtless to blame, but I was interested by the addition of the pointless "by" because it seems characteristic of US-English (where you "beat on" someone, instead of beating them; "meet with", instead of simply meeting, etc.). Any thoughts?
This historian is English, as you might be able to tell. But he's married to an American so I'm not about to let him off lightly for this (AmE) rookie mistake (=beginner's error).

Note that I didn't say that flattery gets you a flattering blog post.

This is how I chided him:*
You notice more prepositions in AmE because they're new info where you weren't expecting it.  But BrE has an awful lot of prepositions where AmE doesn't--e.g. in expressions of time (on Tuesday), with certain verbs (protest at the decision), etc. I submit, as attachment, data to indicate that this is one not an Americanism. :)

The attachment was this screenshot from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), showing who says pay by cash:
The darker the blue, the stronger the strength of the expression in the particular nation. Since the Irish sub-corpus is about 1/3 of the size of the US or UK (GB) ones, Ireland uses pay by cash not 3 more times than Britain, but three times more.

So, it looks like BrE is getting by cash from Ireland--where it probably arose on analogy with pay by card. (Or maybe BrE is inventing it separately--that can happen with analogies.) I was particularly taken with this example from the Irish data (from the Garda [police] website):
You can pay by cash, cheque, bank draft, or laser card.
Laser card? They have cards with lasers in Ireland? Let me in!!** 

Incidentally, pay cash, which GH says he would say, is the most strongly American of the alternatives (according to GloWBE). Pay with cash is the most neutral on the US-UK comparison, but has the strongest showing in Canada.

* I once got to see a letter of recommendation that had been written about me, which said "She writes devastating footnotes". This remains the best compliment I have ever received. Nevertheless, I fear my epitaph will be "She wrote chiding emails".

** Apparently laser card means 'debit card' in Ireland, based on the name of the first company to offer them. False alarm. Everyone back to normal, please. Don't mind me; I'm just weeping with disappointment.

Monday, March 09, 2015

it's rude to...

One of the fun things that you can do with the GloWBE (Global Web-Based English) corpus is ask it to compare collocations (words that regularly go together) across varieties of English. The software does a statistical evaluation so that you can see which collocations are most typical of a particular variety of English in comparison to another. So for instance, if you ask it about words that come before tea in the British and American parts of the corpus, you learn that the top-three most American (and least British) collocates are GOP ('Grand Old Party', i.e. the Republican party), Republicans, and conservatives (because of the Tea Party movement), and the three most British/least American are cream, cuppa and vintage.
All that explanation is just prelude to the difference I want to point out.

I'd seen Susan Waters' paper in Journal of Pragmatics "It's rude to VP [verb phrase]: the cultural semantics of rudeness", in which she looked at which verbs follow rude in Australian English (gathered via Google searches). You'd have to collect data that way to get enough for any real study of what's considered rude in a culture, as there aren't enough examples in existing corpora to make solid conclusions about such things. Nevertheless, I read Waters' paper and immediately went to GloWBE to see what's rude in the UK and US.

I asked GloWBE to compare which words come immediately after rude to in  British and American web-based writing. While I'm really interested in the verbs, I couldn't just search for verbs after rude to because the software said there was too little data. So, here are the words that come after rude to in AmE (left) and BrE (right).

In the columns, TOKENS 1 = the number found in American websites, TOKENS 2 in British. PM stands for 'per million', so the first row of the left table says that there are .06 examples of rude to him per million words in the American data, but .03 per million in the British.  Green ones disproportionately belong to that dialect, and red (or pink) are found less than would be statistically expected. White are found frequently but not statistically differently in both dialects.

We can debate whether there's anything worth saying about the hims and hers--it might just be an accident of the corpus. The words her and him are not found at particularly different rates in the two corpora, so it's not that British people talk about women more than Americans do. The you is  interesting, because it's usually used sympathetically and/or in giving people (possibly uninvited) advice (e.g. If he IS a jerk and rude to you and everyone around you, get out of there). A more American thing to do? Very possibly.

But what I'm really interested in are the two verbs in these tables. According to this data set, the most British-and-not-American rude thing to do is to ask something and the most American-and-not-British rude thing to do is to say something. This goes along with some stereotypes (and even serious analyses) of British and American differences in what is considered 'polite', and so I found it interesting.

In British culture, much more information is considered 'private' and 'personal' than in American, so you don't ask people about themselves or tell them about yourself at anything like the rate that Americans would. (Recall this earlier post about giving or asking for names.) Here are some examples from the GloWBE data:

He'd never talk about his work and it felt rude to ask.
is it just plain rude to ask if a child is disabled?
I wouldn't say it was rude to ask why someone is a vegetarian
Is it rude to ask Koreans if they're from North or South Korea?

Of the 21 British rude to ask examples, at most three or four are asking for things or favo(u)rs (e.g. rude to ask to borrow a tool). The others are about asking for personal information. The American rude to ask examples (11 unique examples--plus one duplicate) are also mostly about information (two favo(u)rs). In a couple of the American information-asking cases, it's not rude to ask something, but it's rude to ask it in front of an audience (rude to ask personal questions in public).

Meanwhile, in the typically-American rude to say examples, we have:

it would be rude to say " white people,

I think it was really rude to say that people who liked it have low standards

If you have something rude to say about it keep it to yourself

it's rude to say non-curvy women look like little men.
...which gives the impression that Americans feel that people should rein in their opinion-giving or their pigeonholing of people in order to not make anyone feel different or bad. There were 25 American and 15 British rude to says with two of the British ones being rude to say no and another one being rude to say you don't want something. The American data didn't have any such 'rude to refuse' examples.

So that amused me. How about you? It would be rude not to comment on this blog post.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


I'm sure that more than one person has asked me to cover likely, but at this point I can only find an email from Richard B (so apologies to anyone else who feels they should be credited with noticing this one!).  Richard writes:
I've noticed a difference in the way Americans and British use 'likely', as an adverb and an adjective (I think) as in 'I will likely visit at the weekend' vs 'It is likely that I will visit at the weekend'. However, in Britain you'll hear 'I will probably visit at the weekend' and even 'I will most likely visit at the weekend'
You can tell Richard is not American by the (BrE) at the weekend in his example, but that's stuff for another post. This is the kind of thing that Brits are more likely (ho-ho) to notice because they don't use likely to mean 'probable'/'probably' in ways that Americans couldn't, but Americans use it in a way that sticks out like a sore thumb in Britain.

In the American He'll likely visit this weekend, likely is indeed an adverb. Probably is another adverb that might go there, but for me likely sounds more likely than probably, tautologically enough.

In the American and British She is likely to win the Nobel prize, likely is an adjective. How can I tell? The technical answer is because it's the semantic predicate in this clause, following a copula. The less technical demonstration is to notice that you can't substitute the adverb probably in this case:
*She is probably to win the Nobel Prize
(Linguists use * before an example to say it's not a possible expression in the language.) 

But you can substitute the right kind of adjective (i.e. one that can take an infinitive verb after it):
She is happy to win the Nobel Prize
 Adverbs go in adverb places, adjectives go in adjective places. This likely is an adjective.

So far it looks like AmE has likely as an adverb or adjective and BrE has only the adjective. But wait! What's likely doing after most in Richard's other example I will most likely visit...?  It's being an adverb in British (and American) English, that's what! As the OED says, the adverb likely is:

Now chiefly most likely, very likely; otherwise rare exc. Sc. dial., or (freq.) N. Amer.

Yet another usage that has become extinct in (most of) the UK, but has been preserved in AmE.

Going back to adjectives, likely also works in both countries as a pre-nominal ('before the noun') adjective, as in a likely reason for her magnetism is her diet of iron filingsBut there are certain uses of it that the OED claims as more country-specific. First, this one [earliest examples omitted]:

(Now chiefly U.S.) Of young persons (occas. of animals): Giving promise of success or excellence; promising, hopeful.

1793   G. Washington Lett. in Writings (1891) XII. 381,   I am very sorry to hear that so likely a young fellow..should addict himself to such courses.
1863   Advt. in Dicey Federal St. I. 254   He [a fugitive slave] is..stout and well built; very likely.
1883   J. Gilmour Among Mongols xviii. 226   Chinamen go to Mongolia in spring, buy up likely animals.
The most recent example they have of this is from 1883 (but the entry has not been fully updated since the first edition in 1903). I must say, it's not something I'd say.

Next we have:

Of seemly or comely appearance; good-looking, handsome. ? Now U.S. and dial.

I can't say I have that one either, though it has some similarity to the fifth sense in the American Heritage Dictionary. The likely spot example sounds fine to me, but I'd put it with sense 3. Better Half doesn't like the example in 5 though (he says it sounds 'very old-fashioned and Enid Blyton'), so maybe it is different from sense 3 and more American.  
1. Possessing or displaying the qualities or characteristics that make something probable: They are likely to become angry with him. See Usage Note at liable.
2. Within the realm of credibility; plausible: not a very likely excuse.
3. Apparently appropriate or suitable: There were several likely candidates for the job.
4. Apt to achieve success or yield a desired outcome; promising: a likely topic for investigation.
5. Attractive; pleasant: found a likely spot under a shady tree for the picnic.
 On the other side of the Atlantic, we have The Likely Lads. (I'd embedded a YouTube video here, but within hours, embedding had been disabled for that video. So, you'll have to go to YouTube to see it.)

According to Wikipedia (the OED is not as clear for this one):

The word "likely" in the show's title is somewhat ambiguous. In some dialects in Northern England it means "likeable", but it may be derived from the phrase the man most likely to, a boxing expression in common use on Tyneside, hence, in Geordie slang, "a likely lad". Another possible meaning is the ambiguous Northern usage of "likely" to mean a small-time troublemaker.

And that's likely all I have to say on the matter. Until you point out in the comments what I've missed.

Friday, January 30, 2015

change / shift gears

@arnoldgoldman has just suggested shift gears versus change gears for today's Twitter Difference of the Day. I've noticed this one before without being able to put my finger on which one belonged to which dialect. It turns out there's good reason for my confusion--you hear both in both dialects. So what's the story? Is one 'an Americanism'?

Looking in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, I found more of both in American and more of shift in both dialects. 

change shift
American 98 153
British 42 53

Using a web-based corpus is possibly a bit funny for this, since authorship isn't known and they might be writing for an international audience (among other reasons). So, what happens when we look at books published in US and UK? I checked out Google Books--which also has a lot of problems in classifying data, but we hope that the sheer amount of well-classified data limits the effect of the poorly classified examples. (E.g. I once found that because a publisher put its founding date in the 18th century on its title pages, Google books thought that its books were written in the 18th century. Including the ones about television.)

The books data seems to explain things better. (NB: Firefox doesn't seem to be able to handle the dates on the bottom line, but other browsers can. But if you're on Firefox, scrolling over the chart should show dates. Or maybe this is just my Firefox.).

Here's the American:

And here's the British:

What we have here is that both shift and change are earlier in American than British (though the first  change gears are pretty close to one another--so that's just a matter of new technology needing new expressions). Then shift was introduced in the US in the 1910s, and fairly steadily rose until it overtook change in the early 1960s. The Americanness of the introduction is confirmed in the OED where all examples for its first several decades are American--though the OED does not label it as an AmE (or 'orig. U.S.') usage. When shift got to be used more than change in AmE, it started to be really noticed in BrE and now we have a situation where both dialects tend to use the newer verb shift, but haven't forgotten the older one--though change is still more common in BrE than AmE.

Now back to marking!

Postscript 3 March: I promised ages ago in the comments that I'd address the number of gear(s)--something that the original post should have done! So here are the numbers from the Global Web-Based English corpus.

For AmE, gears is definitely the winner, no matter the verb.
US gear gears
shift 1 98
change 3 24

But in British English, the older change goes with singular gear more, and the more American shift goes with the more American plural gears.
UK gear gears
shift 5 24
change 59 19
Incidentally, there are both automotive and figurative uses in both singular and plural in BrE.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Have been very taken up with marking/grading/marking/grading/marking/grading/marking/grading/marking/grading...yes, it seems interminable to me too. Not finished yet, so just dipping my toe back into Tuesday night blogging with a short one.

Liz B in the UK emailed to ask me how to interpret English cucumber in an American recipe. And I replied with something like (but I've edited it now):
an English cucumber is just the kind you'd buy normally in a British supermarket as 'a cucumber'. They differ from the ones usually sold in the US, which are shorter, thicker- and smoother-skinned, and have bigger seeds.

So, here's what's called a cucumber in the UK and an English cucumber or seedless cucumber or even burpless cucumber in the US:


And here's what's called a cucumber in the US, which I've never seen in Britain so I don't know that it's called anything in the UK:

Before anyone asks, neither of these are BrE courgettes/AmE zucchini, which were discussed back at the Big List of Vegetables.  And if you want to know about pickled cucumbers [if you want to read my RANT about pickled cucumbers], click on those lovely, often misleading words. Oh, and the clipping cuke is an Americanism. We must be very fond of them to give them a nickname.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Word of the Year round-up

Since I presented four Words of the Year in four posts, I thought it might be useful to have one post that lists all four. Then I thought: why not have a look at all of the US-to-UK and UK-to-US Words of the Year since I started doing them in the first year of the blog?  Yeah, why not?  So here's a (orig. AmE) round-up of the words to date, followed by some reflection/critique of my picks to date.

From US to UK I've declared these Words of the Year (click on them to be taken to the original post):
2006: muffin-top
2007: cookie
2008: meh
2009: staycation
2010: shellacking
2011: for the win - FTW
2012: wonk
2013: Black Friday 
2014 (adjective): awesome
2014 (noun): bake-off

From UK to US I've declared these Words of the Year:
2006: wanker 
2007: (baby) bump
2008:  to vet (e.g. a candidate)
2009: to go missing 
2010: ginger (redhead)
2011: kettling
2012: bollocks
2013: bum
2014 (adjective): dodgy
2014 (noun): gap year

My thoughts on these:
  • I think I've got better at it over the years. The first year is a bit of an embarrassment, because muffin top is probably originally Australian. It may have been reinforced in the UK by use from the US--at least that was my perception at the time--but I would not have picked it today.
  • We see more 'naughty' words in the UK-to-US direction. The only time I've been tempted to have a 'naughty' one in the US-to-UK direction was in 2012 when my British brother-in-law (and various students of mine) took on the AmE use of douche as an insult (short for douchebag). As discussed in those posts, when people take on words for taboo things from other languages or dialects, they often use them in ways and contexts that they wouldn't in their native dialect. This is especially the case of wanker (and derivatives) in AmE, where it just sounds like a funny thing to say and probably does not (for most US users) give rise to images of male masturbation. Americans often find British words for taboo things 'quaint'. At the same time some British folk find Americans prudish in their reactions to our shared taboo words. 'The c-word' has far more currency in the UK and the social barriers involved in the use of 'the f-word' differ considerably. That's a topic for another post. Possibly on this new blog.
  • A number of the US-to-UK words feel rather dated. This is in large part due to the necessity that the word be 'of the year' in some way. British English speakers use lots of Americanisms, but in order to be WotY, I look for active discussions of them or use of them in the news, etc. Meh.
But I don't feel too bad about some of these seeming like weak choices in retrospect. I'm very happy with some of them. And other Word of the Year declarers, including the one I get most excited about, the American Dialect Society, have had misfires too. In the end, it's a bit of fun. And in the words of T. S. Eliot:  "last year's words belong to last year's language/And next year's words await another voice."

I'm sure you'll let us know what you think!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 UK-to-US Co-Word of the Year: gap year

Finally, the last of my Words of the Year. I declared two US-to-UK words this year because both (awesome and bake-off) seemed very much 'of 2014'. In the case of the UK-to-US words, I also gave up on deciding between two excellent nominations, though the case for '2014ness' is not quite as strong. We've been seeing a lot more Britishisms in the US for some years now.  The other UK-to-US Word of the Year (dodgy) and today's have been nominated before. (I'm grateful to Nancy Friedman for making both these apt and informative nominations.) They are worming their way in rather than making a big splash. But in both cases it seems to be time to acknowledge them. So the UK-to-US Noun of the Year is:

gap year

That is, a year off from education between school and (AmE) college/(BrE) university. (If your first reaction is 'but that's not a word!', please go straight to the bottom of this post for a linguistic schooling.)

Why is this worthy of the title UK-to-US Word of the Year? Well, first of all, it passes the 'UK-to' criterion by being very British in origin. Here's the OED's record of it:
Secondly, it's definitely made its way into the US. From Nancy Friedman's nomination of it:

Ben Yagoda wrote about it in his Britishisms blog in November 2012 (, but 2014 was the year it went mainstream in the pages of Time (May 14) and USA Today (Oct. 28). The American Gap Association ("Integrity in Gap Years") was founded in 2012.
The trajectory of gap year in UK (red) and US (blue) books from Google Ngrams shows its progress up to 2012:

Americans started to notice the word around the times that Princes William (2000) and Harry (2004) took their gap years, but it was the financial crisis that really helped it along. In lean times it makes more sense for young people to spend time out of education before the very expensive undertaking of higher education. By taking a year off, they can work to save money to finance their studies or just use the time to make sure that they really want to go to college/university. And that's what's been happening more and more in the US. Wikipedia says:
Some 40,000 Americans participated in 2013 in sabbatical programmes, an increase of almost 20% since 2006, according to statistics compiled by the American Gap Association 
As someone who teaches in higher education, I'm all for it. The students who come to us after some time off from education are generally more mature and ready for serious study. They also have more varied experiences to reflect on when taking part in classroom discussions (which is very relevant to me when I teach Intercultural Communication).

Perhaps this should have been a Word of the Year in 2012 (instead of bollocks), since that's when it really seemed to be institutionali{s/z}ed in the US. But Nancy's evidence of how 'mainstream' it's gone in the US is enough to convince me that it needs to be ceremoniously marked as a successful UK-to-US import. So, all hail gap year, my final Word of the Year for 2014. My thanks to all who got involved in the nominations.

Again, some may protest that this is not a possible word of the year, because it is more than one word. And to this I say, as I have said before, that a space in a string of letters is not what makes expressions into words. Language is a spoken thing prior to being a written thing, so the evidence of writing is not the strongest type of evidence when it comes to language. Gap year fits linguistic criteria for being a word (an open compound) because:
  1. It has a single part-of-speech (noun).
  2. It has a meaning that is more than the sum of its parts. (In linguist lingo, it's non-compositional.) Thus, it's the kind of thing that dictionaries record.
  3. It is indivisible. You can have an enjoyable gap year but you can't have a gap enjoyable year. You can have several gap years but not several gaps year or gaps years. You could talk about how you feel pre-gap year or post-gap year, but not gap pre-year. Nothing (with the exception of profanity, English's only infixes) can go in that space between gap and year.