Sunday, June 04, 2006

reckon and figure

Something that my American visitors often find surprising about British English is the copious use of the verb reckon, as in:

Well, here's what I reckon. I reckon that Rowling wasn't a fat teenager herself. And I reckon that her older daughter (the baby is too young to be considered) isn't remotely fat herself.
I reckon these things because, when I was 10, I ballooned almost overnight from being quite a slim child into a very fat one."


Last 3 in the house are never the ones I want there, so I reckon it'll be Craig, Derek and Kemal.

Since my American visitors have all, like me, come from the Northeast, the use of reckon is noticeable because it's a word we associate with the Southern US or with rural dialects. Americans tend to think of the British as speaking "better" English, and Americans from the North tend to think of the English of Southerners as being "worse" English. So, if one has those attitudes as background, hearing the word in a British accent can be a little disorient(at)ing.

In a Voice of America interview, Dileri Borunda Johnston, author of Speak American: A Survival Guide to the Language and Culture of the U-S-A, seems to express that surprise:

JOHNSTON: You know, like in England, it's quite common to say 'reckon,' which in American English is quite unusual, or you might here it in the South perhaps or in more old-fashioned contexts."

AA: "Like, 'I reckon I'll go in when the sun gets too hot.'"

JOHNSTON: "Yeah, and people in England say it sort of quite seriously, without meaning it to be funny or ironic or anything like that."

(Johnston goes on to discuss the perils of being an American parent in the UK: "A lot of the grammar is slightly different, so you would have things in British English that perhaps you wouldn't want an American child to learn because it might sound slightly incorrect. Like you wouldn't say 'I haven't got any more.' You would rather an American kid would learn to say 'I don't have any more.'" Gosh, it's hard to be a parent these days, what with drugs and internet porn and variant auxillary verbs...)

The nearest US equivalent to reckon, in most contexts, is figure, as in I figure I'll go for a walk soon. Better Half says: "That sounds sooo American."

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

In Finland, when I was a child back in the seventies and the eighties, we learnt a rather bland or sanitized variety of British English. However, I never heard or read the word "reckon" at school. I picked it up from Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings", when I took the great pains of reading it in the original, at the advanced age of seventeen years. At that time, I thought it was a fine archaism.

lynneguist said...

Not an archaism at all, I reckon!

Jon said...

An alternative to figure is the verb "think", which works in most cases.

"I think I'll take a walk tonight."

"You know what I think? I think she's out to get me."

Anonymous said...

Although I do use reckon quite a bit (Brit), I used to go out with an Aussie girl and she "reckoned" far more - e.g. using "I reckon!" in the style of "Ya-huh!"

Ken Broadhurst said...

In my dialect of American English (coastal North Carolina), "reckon" means either "think" or "guess", as in.

I reckon/guess/think I'll go on home now.

I reckon/guess/think so.


I don't think we would ever use "reckon" in a question as it is used in BrE. I never heard anybody say "Do you reckon...?" until I met British people. We would say "Do you think...?"

Paul said...

I saw this post linked from the (h)erbs and (h)aitches post.

I never knew that Americans thought this about the word "reckon".

I just assumed Americans didn't use "reckon", not that they thought it had connotations of being unsophisticated.

The comment from the fellow with the Australian girlfriend made me laugh. You still hear people saying "D'ya reckon?!" as a way of saying "Really?!" -- sort of like the American "Ya think?!" we seem to hear a lot on TV.

clerambault said...

My impression, based unscientifically on English novels of the first part of the 20th century, was that English people believed that Americans used "guess" in every third sentence, incidentally displacing any possible use of "reckon."

disccodoris said...

So I'm assuming that you don't get American financial modelling tools and tables referred to as 'ready reckoners' either - where the reckoning is actually a calculation? In fact, that leads on to what such things ARE called in the US?

lynneguist said...

Some US dictionaries have 'ready reckoner', but at least one marks it as 'U.K.' I can't think of an AmE equivalent.

Anonymous said...

hanging out with people from australia, i hear "reckon" a lot, and i think it is more frequent in aussie english than in is in british english. just like it is more common to hear "mate" in the UK but way more in Oz (to american ears).
love your blog btw, much love from italy.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this...
Come to Western Oklahoma or the Texas Panhandle... We say 'reckon' all day.

Was only when I moved to Boston that I discovered how many words I use that are practically never heard outside my old stopping ground. A few big ones: 'savvy' for 'do you understand' .... 'divan' instead of 'couch' or 'sofa' .... And ' breakfast, dinner, supper' instead of ' breakfast, lunch, dinner'

Mindy said...

I am even later to this post, but I post anyway.
In the Midwest you tend to her reckon or figure from the older people like my grandparents who would be in their 70's. But to my ears it sounds very more hickish, or low class whe said wit a southern accent, but just old fashioned when said by my Grandparents.