Saturday, December 26, 2009

top-ups and refills

Christmas is a time for dealing with family, and when you have a transAtlantic family, many dialectal conversations arise.  But this time, it wasn't my family.  Grover's little best friend is a little girl who lives in our (very AmE-sounding) neighbo(u)rhood/(more BrE-sounding) area with her American parents, and they came to our Christmas eve do with the mother's (French) mother and her Brooklynite beau.  Many Briticisms were commented upon during the course of the party, but the one that stuck with me was top-up,  to which I've become so inured that I wouldn't have immediately thought of it as a Briticism.

The context was mulled-wine serving--about which we must first have an aside.  You don't get it as much at Christmastime in the US--probably because we have our standard Christmas drink, egg nog, instead.  But when I moved to the Midwest, home of many Scandinavian-descended peoples, I did come to know it well.  And, whenever we served it (back in the days when I was living with a Scandinavian-descended person), we served it in hot drink vessels--coffee mugs or the like.  In restaurants, it might be in the kind of glass mug in which you'd be served a caffe latte.  But whenever it is served in the UK (in my now-extensive experience of southern English Christmas parties), it is served in wine glasses.  Is this a universal difference between the US and the UK, I wonder?

But back to our party: Better Half asked whether anyone would like a top-up (of mulled wine) and the Brooklynite commented (something like): "Now there's a linguistic difference.  We'd say refill."  

And I thought, "Oh yeah, we would, wouldn't we?"  Americans refill drinks, the British top them up.  In the UK, the common American experience of (orig. and chiefly AmE) bottomless coffee (i.e. free refills) is not common at all, but in the US, the (AmE, often jocular) waitron will flit from table to table, coffee pot in hand, asking "Can I get you a refill?" or "Can I warm that up for you"?  If this were to happen in the UK, it would be most natural to ask if the customer would like a top-up. 

But the other common use of top-up these days is what you do to a pay-as-you-go (BrE) mobile/(AmE) cell phone.  (The picture is a common site in the windows of (BrE) corner shops and (BrE) petrol/(AmE) gas stations in the UK.) Which led me to wonder: what do Americans say for that?  Pay-as-you-go phones are much more common in the UK than in the US, but from what I can gather from the interwebs, refill is used in this context too.  Here's a 2004 news release about an American "prepay" phone service:
As always, Verizon Wireless prepay service allows customers to refill their minutes over the phone, at a Verizon Wireless Communications Store, online, as well as at RadioShack, Circuit City and other authorized agents.
You could also in the UK use top(-)up for a number of other things that are refreshed by the addition of more of something.  For instance, you could get a top-up loan (well, maybe not in the current economic climate), a top-up dose of an(a)esthetic and you can top up your tank with petrol/gas.  The phrasal verb top up is only cited from 1937 in the OED, and the noun top-up only from 1967, explaining why it's not as common in AmE.  American readers, what would you use in these contexts?

47 comments:

Shaun Clarkson said...

I'd agree that top-up would generally come more naturally to me as a British English speaker, but the key distinction for me would be I'd top-up something that wasn't empty but refill something that was.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I think I agree with Shaun - we would have a "top-up" of coffee (or mulled wine) if my mug wasn't quite empty, but a refill if it was. But one always tops up one's phone, no matter how empty it may be!

Paul Danon said...

Pay-as-you-go is a super misnomer. If it's one thing you don't do with PAYG is pay as you go. You actually have to pay before you go otherwise you don't go at all. Another myth of mobiles/cellphones is the so-called free texts and minutes. These are actually texts and minutes you pay for. Texts aren't to be confused with instant messages, sent between computers through systems such as MSN (another misnomer). These IMs have engendered "messaging" and "messenging". I've not only heard "message me" but also "messenge me". Minutes, BTW, are units of talk-time on cellphones/mobiles, the latter being known in German by the pseudo-Englishism of "Handy".

Zhoen said...

I've certainly heard top-up for coffee or gas, as in, I'm not empty, but might as well top it off, or top it up. I would not use that if I was empty, in which case I would be filling or refilling. (Am/E)

I wouldn't use either expression for anything but a fluid in a container.

Aliceq said...

As an AmE speaker, I might use "top up" for my gas tank or the propane tank for my gas grill, assuming that they are not completely empty. A refill on a drink implies to me that the glass/cup/mug is empty, or nearly so. As "warm up" is server-speak to me, I'm not sure what I'd say in reference to adding coffee to a half-(full|empty) cup.

conuly said...

In my family we're just as likely to say re-up as refill, but we can't noun re-up. You can "re-up my coffee", but if you want to refer to the process of re-upping you'd have to say "I got a refill" or "It's a refill".

I don't know if this is limited to my family or not. Most families have some words that they use that others don't, don't they? (I remember how shocked I was to find out that people besides my mother and sister use the word "confab"!)

conuly said...

And yes, what Aliceg said as well. If I have a water bottle that's 75% full but decide to fill it up the rest of the way at a water fountain so as to be sure of having water later, I might say I topped it up. I might as easily say I refilled or re-upped it, and not make any distinction, but "topped up" wouldn't strike me as strange or foreign or dialectical in that context.

If the bottle was about empty, though, I'd only say refilled or maybe re-upped, depending.

(Actually, in practice, if I'm refilling my water bottle at a fountain I'm dumping all the old water out anyway, so whatever.)

Sophie Sofasaurus said...

I completely agree with what other BrE speakers have said: a partially filled glass would be topped up, an empty glass would be refilled.
Though (as Mrs Redboots said) a PAYG phone would always be topped up, even if it had 0 pence credit on it. I think that the distinction is that a mobile phone has no "maximum" equivalent to a glass's being full.

Tulsa Gentleman said...

I concur with your readers that refill is proper for an empty container although I might also ask the waiter to refill my coffee or ice tea when it is not completely empty. I would top-up a go-cup if I wanted to take it with me when I leave. If I wanted to start a trip with the maximum gasoline on my car's gas tank I would probably say I wanted to top-up my tank. Top-up is when I want to leave witha full container.

Tim Walters said...

This American has always said "top off" (without hyphen), rather than "top-up," in the partial-refill case. Google finds lots of examples.

Mo said...

We serve mulled wine in mugs in our house, but I think you're right that glasses are more prevalent in the UK. Maybe because Alpine gluhwein is normally served in glass? -- I suspect modern-day British mulled wine descends mostly from that, rather than from our own wassail tradition.

lynneguist said...

I think that I could ask for or get a refill on a coffee or a soft drink that's not completely empty, myself... Rather than 'top up', I think (in AmE life) I'd say 'fill it up'.

But in the context of a party in the UK, BH wasn't only asking people with partially full glasses whether they needed more wine--people with empty glasses would say 'yes, please' when offered a top-up. So...it might not be the thing you'd say if you knew you had an empty glass, but it's not completely inconsistent with having an empty glass. In party-speak, I think it's a bit more polite--you're just topping them up a bit, not implying that they're lushes.

Fritinancy said...

"Freshen that drink for you, hon?"

alai said...

Fritinancy gets my favorite expression down perfectly (through we New Orleanians would say "dawl'" or "darling" rather than "hon'").

If we were talking about drinks amongst family, we'd probably ask first whether one would want "a gout" (usually referring to coffee/cafe au lait) and then ask whether one'd like "another gout" if they need to be "topped off".

Here in HK (with our not-quite-Britishisms), we would call those "prepaid sims" which need to be "recharged" with "prepaid phone cards" or "prepaid phone minutes" (which one can purchase in card or receipt form at a convenience store or corner shop). I left the U.S. well before those things became common, so PAYG sounds off to me.

ellarien said...

I have an PAYG phone in the US for which the "top-up" terminology is definitely used. On the other hand, it's Virgin Mobile USA, and one might expect Virgin as a UK-originated outfit to have a more BrE flavor. I'm a native BrE speaker myself, and until seeing this post I hadn't even thought about it as a difference.

Fern said...

Another for the distinction between full and empty. Looking at what you said about offering top-ups for empty glasses, though, I think it's worth mentioning that you could use 'top-up' to mean a tiny bit, especially when talking about alcohol - it implies a tiny bit more, rather than another full glass.

Paul Danon said...

Mr T Gentleman mentions a "go-cup" which is new to BrE me and, I expect, AmE for a type of container that folks can have their coffee put in so they can leave the place where they bought it. BTW, when drinking scalding-hot coffee while driving and using a cellphone, it's vital to keep both knees on the wheel.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I think I, along with most British people, would refer to a "take-away" cup, but then, "take away" is more prevalent here than either "to go" or "take out".

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Oh, and @Paul Danon, if you use Virgin Mobile, as I do, it really can be Pay-as-you-go, since you can set up to pay monthly by direct debit, so you just pay for what you've used at the end of the month. Brilliant!

Paul Danon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mollymooly said...

@alai: I also heard "recharge" being used instead of "top up" in Australia, so maybe HK got it from there. I dno't like this sense, because "recharging" a phone already means recharging the battery, so it's confusing to use it for the credit as well.

@Paul Danon: "free" texts etc are called "bundles" in the industry. The semantic drift from "no charge" to "no extra charge" to "no separate charge" is irresistible.
I find your objection to "pay as you go" pedantic: I can't think of any context where "pay as you go" does or could involve one literally paying at each instant of consumption, rather than in small advance increments.

Robbie said...

Was "top up" used for mobile phones before the coming of the My Top-Up alliance? Or did different companies use different terms?

Paul Danon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Danon said...

No pedantry from me (for once) on pay-as-you-go. If you pay in advance you're not paying as you're going, any more than if you pay at the end. A coin-operated payphone is pay-as-you-go, as is buying a chocolate-bar across the counter at your local shop using cash. If I ask you to give me £20 so that I can progressively release goods or services to you, then you're paying in advance. I may tell you how much of your money I'm still holding as credit but you paid me already, not as you went along.

Paul Danon said...

Mrs Redboots kindly writes: "if you use Virgin Mobile, as I do, it really can be Pay-as-you-go, since you can set up to pay monthly by direct debit, so you just pay for what you've used at the end of the month." and I must politely beg to differ. If one pays at the end of the month, one isn't paying as one goes any more than if one pays before consumption. In an English pub, you buy each round of drinks as you get them (in), which is paying as one goes. In other countries you get a bill/check at the end. At wedding-receptions the bride's father sometimes puts money behind the bar, meaning that a certain value of drinks is already paid for. Some time after his recklessly doing this (in my experience little more than half an hour), startled guests begin to be asked to pay (as they go!).

Of course, usage is what matters in semantics so pity the poor lexicographer who has to explain that PAYG really means coughing-up the dosh before you've even been and gone.

Maggie said...

My experiences align with Tim Walters'. I'm American - originally from New England, and would say and have heard "top-off" in that situation. Or maybe "top it off". Meaning fill it to the top when there is still some in it (coffee in mug, gas in tank, what have you).
Cheers!

Paul Danon said...

Of course, it's actually very bad form to imply that your guests are consuming anything at all. Etiquette dictates that the right way to ask someone if they want a third helping of spotted Dick is: "Would you care for some pudding?"

Anne-Marie Bowery said...

In India, the waiters would ask if I wanted "more wines?" Loved it. Still cracks me and my sister up.

John Cowan said...

ObIrrelevant: I think it's an extremely bad idea to add to a partly-empty alcoholic beverage under any circumstances, as it makes it impossible for people to track how many they've had, and therefore how much they can rely on their own judgment at present.

Sonya said...

As a Canadian I would say top-up as well. We also serve mulled wine at Christmas (and Hallowe'en for chilly trick-or-treating), although I tend to serve it in ceramic wine glasses.

With respect to your last post, we have icing sugar (made without any flour or additives), that is extremely fine, which we use to make icing. I don't think I have ever used the term frosting. I might clarify "cream-cheese icing" if I was to make icing for a carrot cake.

mollymooly said...

@Paul Danon
A coinphone is also pay-in-advance; it's just a smaller increment.

Andy J (not to be confused with Andy JS) said...

An visiting American friend (male, mid forties, from NJ) recently asked me (BrE) what mulled wine was. Knowing that he was of German immigrant origins, I began by saying it was similar to gluhwein, but alas this part of his cultural heritage was missing also. I wonder if Californians are familiar with mulled wine.

Ken Broadhurst said...

I think "mulled" wine is often called "spiced" or "hot spiced" wine in the U.S. In French it's vin chaud, or "hot wine."

I'm from North Carolina, lived in Illinois, D.C., and California, and I say top it "off" rather than "up." I'd certainly understand if somebody asked to top up my coffee in a diner, but if I initiated the request I'd say "can I have a little more" rather than "can I have a refill."

Ken Broadhurst said...

Oh and when you write: "The picture is a common site in the windows of (BrE) corner shops and (BrE) petrol/(AmE) gas stations in the UK.)", I think you mean "sight." I see that more and more now that web "sites" are so frequently consulted and commented upon.

holly said...

I agree with many that a refill is for an empty container.

I live in the western U.S. and we typically top-off (not sure of the hyphenation). With coffee and possibly mulled wine, I'd ask if you wanted 'a warmer'. Not sure if i'd use this phrase for tea, since even though we make a pot of tea before work, it is a beverage that isn't so much topped off as refilled, if that makes sense. Possibly because it is often made in single-servings.

Roger Owen Green said...

US: I never heard the term "top up" until I heard it on my Virgin Mobile phone as an option. The faux friendliness of the recording makes me want to grind my teeth.

Refill an empty, top off a partially empty.

I've had mulled wine, never at my own house, only at parties at this time of the year (i.e., winter). I think John Cowan is right; topping off an alcoholic beverage makes it terribly hard to keep track of one's consumption.

ros said...

Happy New Year(BrE)s(AmE)!

Anonymous said...

Happy Hogmanay! (ScE)

Paul Danon said...

@mollymooly, hi! A payphone is no more pay-in-advance than is buying a Mars-bar at a shop. Sure, there's perhaps an infinitesimal time-lag between when my coin hits the assistant's hand and when he hands me the candy, and the bar may take me some time to eat, but I'm getting what I pay for as I pay for it. With the pay-phone, I'm connected pretty well as soon as my money is taken. If payphones were truly pay-in-advance, I could go next door to Oval tube-station here in London, put a pound in the slot and expect somehow to use that credit in a week's time. I can't. By contrast, I can put a pound of credit on my mobile/cellphone and use it next month. That's not pay-as-I-go; it's pay-before-I-use. This is why PAYG, though widely used and understood without any problem, is a misnomer.

the_sybil said...

Here in Southern California I always got blank looks from the waiters at my local coffee shop if I asked for a "top-up" of hot water in my tea: now I ask for a refill like everybody else.
I can also confirm that the expression "mulled wine" is not greatly understood here: when we have our annual pre-Christmas drinks party we end up explaining what it is more often than not. But, contrary to stereotype, we serve it in insulated cups or ceramic mugs.

Julie said...

If I heard "top-up," at least till now, I would assume I'd misheard and think it was "top off," which is what you normally hear in California. If your drink is empty, you'd ask for a refill. But if your half-drunk cup of coffee is cold, you might ask to have it topped off.

The signs at gas stations say not to top off your tank, but the meaning there is slightly different (to fill the tank above the level where the pump shuts off).

bklynharuspex said...

I'm just an (Am) statistic here: I'd top up a drink only if it were not entirely empty and the term "Top Up" for "add money" to my Virgin Mobile phone has always struck me as a Britishism.

And I'd say New Yorkers have no trouble with the linked concepts of spiced wine, mulled wine, and gluhwein, and, in fact, it's 19F here and furiously windy and, well, is nine-fifteen in the morning too early?

Ginger Yellow said...

"But whenever it is served in the UK (in my now-extensive experience of southern English Christmas parties), it is served in wine glasses. Is this a universal difference between the US and the UK, I wonder?"

You clearly go to fancier parties than I do. It's almost always served in a plastic/paper cup when I have it.

biochemist said...

At parties in the UK (at least, the kind that I attend) unlimited top-ups of mulled wine can be deadly because the wine and spices may be cut/mixed with either orange juice or a spirit such as brandy - it's important to find out the recipe before it's too late!

darcherd said...

Weighing in as an AmE speaker, I definitely would say "top off" when asking for more coffee in a restaurant, particularly if the cup were still more than half-filled (at a lower level than that, I might start to ask for a "refill"). "Top off" is also used at (BrE)petrol / (AmE) gas stations to refer to the practice of squeezing a few additional squirts of fuel into the filler tube after the automatic hose shut-off has clicked (a practice discouraged due to the environmental hazard from increased risk of fuel spillage, but which is nevertheless rather common).

And I concur with John Cowan that (BrE) topping up / (AmE) topping off alcoholic beverages is a recipe for drunkenness. In my youth I attended a reception hosted by the officers of the local Fijian Army base for the officers from my U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker where every American guest had a glass and every Fijian host had a pitcher of beer, and every time we took a sip one of the Fijians would "top it off". I have only cloudy memories of wandering the streets of Suva in an alcoholic fog subsequently.

Ryan said...

I was raised in a Dutch area of Michigan and had never heard of mulled wine until I met my British (now ex) girlfriend. She would say 'top-up' in reference to her Oyster card or phone, where I probably would have said 'reload.' I had never heard 'top-up' before that, but it's a far more interesting term than 'refill' or 'reload'

Chris said...

In my experience and usage, one tops off the gas tank, the drink, etc, but only if there's already some of what was originally in there left. If it's empty (or very nearly empty), then it's a refill.

Incidentally, I stumbled upon this blog today because my wife and I are traveling to London next week, and I was looking for pages with slang and colloquialisms that I could brush up on. Being a self-proclaimed word nerd, I find this blog to be a very fun read!