Sunday, November 18, 2012

Nominate WotYs & Untranslatables Month II

Two matters for this belated blog post:  Words of the Year nominations and the Untranslatables Month summary.

WotY Nominations
Long-term readers will know that we have (at least) two Words of the Year here at SbaCL, and nominations are open for both categories as of now:

1. Best AmE-to-BrE import
2. Best BrE-to-AmE import
The word doesn’t have to have been imported into the other dialect in 2012, but it should have come into its own in some way in the (popular culture of the) other dialect this year. I retain the editor's privilege of giving other random awards on a whim.

Please nominate your favo(u)rites and give arguments for their WotY-worthiness in the comments to this post. It might be helpful to see my reasoning on why past words were WotY worthy and other nominations weren't. Click on the WotY tag in order to visit times gone by.

Vote early and often! I plan to announce the winners in the week before Christmas.

Untranslatables II
Last year, as a birthday treat to myself, I declared October to be Untranslatables Month, which meant that I tweeted an expression that was unique to one dialect or another, in that its meaning was not captured by an expression in the other dialect. This year, I did it again, but made the job easier on myself by deciding not to tweet on weekends. Here's a summary of the 'untranslatables' I tweeted. In some cases, you can follow links to places where I (or someone) have discussed them in more detail.
  • BrE lie-in (noun). The act of staying in bed later in the morning than usual. Sleeping not required, but lazing is. Example: 'The family was away, so I had a lie-in on Saturday as an early birthday treat.'  (AmE & BrE both have sleeping in for when one sleeps late.)
  • AmE cater-corner, kitty-corner, catty-corner (regional variations), adj & adv, meaning 'diagonally opposite to'. Example: 'I live kitty-corner to the bordello'.
  •  BrE builder's tea. Very strong (hot, of course), basic (i.e. not a special cultivar/flavo[u]r) tea with milk and lots of sugar. The 'lots of sugar' part is in most definitions for it, but some of my correspondents don't consider 'sweet' to be a necessary feature.
  • AmE Nielsen rating. The television rating system that determines advertising rates, used figuratively as a measure of popularity. Example: 'When you give babies a choice of what to listen to, a kind of baby Nielsen rating, they choose to listen to mothers talking to infants' (from The Scientist in the Crib).
  • BrE It's not cricket. 'It shouldn't happen because it's not fair/proper'. Occasionally heard in AmE too.
  • AmE poster child. Figuratively, an emblematic case of something, esp. a cause. Originally a child on posters promoting a charity. This one has come into BrE--as untranslatables often do (because they're useful). In the US, it's especially associated w/the (US) Muscular Dystrophy Association, which is also responsible for the US's longest-running charity telethon. It's interesting how different diseases are 'big' in terms of fundraising in different countries...
  • BrE overegged describes something that is ruined by too much effort to improve it. From the expression to overegg the pudding.
  • AmE hump day. Wednesday, but with the recognition that it's a milestone on the way to the weekend. Though it's heard a bit on the radio in the UK, I'm not sure it'd work well in BrE because of interference from BrE get the hump (='get annoyed, grumpy'). (The sexual meaning of hump is present in both dialects.)
  • BrE bumf = a collective term for loose printed material/paperwork (forms, pamphlets, letters) that's deemed to be unnecessary. It comes from old slang for 'toilet paper': bumfodder.  Example: 'The hallway is littered with election bumf that's come through the door.'
  • AmE earthy-crunchy (noun or adj), Having 'hippie', 'tree-hugging' tendencies. Synonym = granola.
  • BrE white van man. I mentioned it on the blog here, but there's more about it here.  Though I've read of white van man making it to the US, white vans are much more common and much more associated with skilled manual trade in UK. Some American correspondents had assumed it meant serial killer or child molester, which is not usually the intended meaning in BrE. 
  • AmE antsy. 1. fidgety and impatient, 2. nervous, apprehensive. Has been imported to UK somewhat, but mostly in sense 1.
  • AmE visit with. To chat with someone, especially if you're having a good catch-up.
  • BrE for England. To a great extent. Example: 'He can talk for England'. There's no for America in this sense, but in South Africa, for Africa is used in the same way. And perhaps elsewhere. So, 'untranslatable' to AmE.
  • AmE soccer mom or hockey mom (regional). A (middle-class) mother who spends much time ferrying kids to practice.
  • BrE sorted (adj & interjection): Most basically, it means something like it's all sorted out. 'My blog post? It's sorted!' But its meaning has extended so that can mean, of a person, basically 'having one's shit together'. Example: 'With all my new year('s) resolutions, I'm certain I'll be fit and sorted by April'. Collins also has it as meaning 'possessing the desired recreational drugs'. Deserves a blog post of its own.
  •  AmE freshman/sophomore/junior/senior. Names of the people in the 1st/2nd/3rd/4th years of secondary (high) school and undergraduate degrees. Fresher is used somewhat for university 1st years in UK, but generally the university years do not have (universally applied) special names in the UK.
  • BrE gubbins. To quote the Collins English Dictionary:
    1. an object of little or no value
    2. a small device or gadget
    3. odds and ends; litter or rubbish
    4. a silly person
  • AmE to tailgate. To have a party where food/drink served frm a vehicle's tailgate. Mentioned in this old post. (Both dialects have the meaning 'to drive too closely behind a car'.)
  • BrE for my sins = 'as if it were a punishment'. Often used to mark a 'humblebrag'. Example (from the British National Corpus): 'I happen for my sins to have been shadow Chancellor since the last election in 1987.'
  • AmE the (academic) honor code. Ethical guidelines that students must follow. Of course, UK univeristies have ethical guidelines for students, but there's not really a term that covers them all, like honor code does. Also, US honor codes typically require that students turn in other students whom they know to be cheating. This does not seem to be as frequently found in UK academic conduct rules.
  • BrE locum. Someone who stands in for someone else in a professional context, particularly doctor or clergy member. This is a shortened form of locum tenens, which one does see a bit in AmE medical jargon these days (but not just locum, and not in general use).
Whether I do Untranslatables Month again next year remains to be seen...

Don't forget to leave your WotY nominations in the comments!


John Cowan said...

I'm sure you have corpus evidence otherwise, but for my sins seems quite AmE to me.

Terry Collmann said...

Three (or four) untranslatable AmE expressions I don't believe you've touched, Lynn forgive me if otherwise, I haven't spotted them

1) downtown "city centre, business district", and its opposite, "uptown", which I really don't know how to translate - the OED says "the residential or more prosperous areas", but nobody, surely, would talk about "uptown London", or "uptown Brighton". (Or even "downtown Brighton"). I'm guessing, much of the untranslatableness is to do with British cities and towns being more amorphous than US ones, so while "downtown" might be approximately equivalent to "town centre" or "city centre", there's no "uptown" to be contrasted with.

2) storied, "historic, celebrated in history" - the OED records 19th century BrE uses with this meaning - in Tennyson, for example - but its entry was last updated in 1917: as far as I am aware, this sense of "storied" is now restricted, at least in regular use, to AmE.

3) tony,"stylish" - totally AmE. Wouldn't think one in a thousamnd Britons has ever heard it used, although they could probably guess that it has something to do with "having tone".

John Cowan - to me, as a Briton, "for my sins" sounds upper-middle/upper class British, rather than American, probably because of its tone of self-deprecation, but I haven't checked any corpuses either.

Terry Collmann said...

Argh, grovelling apologies for misspelling 'Lynne' - curse you, Blogger for not having an 'edit comment' function.

ella said...

Dunno about Cater-corner, but cater-wise is well attested in Sussex regional dialect. Source: Sussex as She Wus Spoke: a guide to the Sussex dialect by Tony Wales. I got my copy at the Worthing museum years ago.

Zoe said...

I (an American) hear the term "soccer mom" with a lot more meaning behind it than you give. A soccer mom not only spends a large amount of time ferrying her kid(s) to and from practice, but is aggressively (sometimes violently) competitive about team sports and obsessed with her kids' lives overall. It has a definite negative connotation regarding the mother's mental health, and "soccer mom" can be used to describe any middle-class woman who's overly obsessive and competitive.

lynneguist said...

Lots of kibbitzing on the Untranslatables, but it's WotY nominations I asked for! :)

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I disagree with your definition of "soccer mom" - they are not the parents who just drive their kids everywhere (aren't those "helicopter parents" - now, there's a WOTY from AmE to BrE for you!), but the kind who promote little Charley's and Angela's sporting achievements above all else, even and including little Charley's and Angela's own wishes.
You see it very much in tennis (look at Richard Williams for a classic example of a tennis dad) and also in ice-skating. I once had a T-shirt that read "If more mothers skated there would be fewer skating mothers!"

Unknown said...

Your mention od "earthy-crunchy" reminds me of the BrE "crusty". Have you covered that?

Just to throw in a real curve ball (AmE), my favourite Untranslatable isn't even in English, but I stil love it: The French "L'Esprit de l'escalier" means that sensation when you think of the perfect thing to say just after it would do any good (metaphorically when you've left the room in shame and already got downstairs). A concept that greatly needs a term in (either) English, I'm sure you'll agree.

mollymooly said...

@Terry Collmann: If "tony" were imported into BrE, it would probably be respelt "toney": cf phon(e)y; also ag(e)ing, etc.

Sam Are Random said...

Hi Lynne - long time reader, first time commenter!

WotY Nomination AmE to BrE - "totes". When it showed up in the UK I thought is was purely a British thing but I've since noticed it on some old American podcasts. Looks like it might come from Valley girl slang but it's very hard to pin down.

Maybe you'll have better luck than I did trying to work out where this came fro. That would be totes amaze.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@ Sam are random: don't you meant "totes amazeballs"?

lynneguist said...

@Mrs Redboots: I have to disagree re 'soccer mom'. A soccer mom is a typically suburban housewife whose family concerns are central, sure, but the term itself does not mean 'helicopter parent'. When we mean that, we say 'helicopter parent'. The term 'soccer mom' came to prominence in the 1996 presidential election, when everyone was courting her vote--these being people who are not necessarily party-line voters and yet who are very likely to vote. You can read more about it here (i.e. Wikipedia).

lynneguist said...

My pronouns are fairly confused in that comment, but I hope it's understandable!

One thing to note here: I can see why a British person would think it means 'helicopter parent'. In the UK, people who drive their (especially older) children everywhere would be considered helicoptery. But in suburban America, there's generally no choice. It's too far to walk to soccer practice (or to all the [AmE]games/[BrE] matches) and there is no public transport(ation) to speak of.

m.m. said...

re: for england; in the states we have for days, originating in northern california afaik "she can twerk for days"

totes and amaze[balls] are definitely both oldish in the states. trying to imagine them said in brEng sounds a bit quaint xD

i feel silly for never having heard tony before though.

Cygnus said...

I think "for my sins" became more widespread in AmE after Russell Brand said it in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." :-)

Dru said...

This is a bit of a tangent, on 'honor(sic) code'. Is it really correct that students are expected to shop (grass on) one another? (Sorry, I don't know whether either or both those expressions are understood in the US or what the equivalent phrases are). For most people in the UK, whether there is any circumstance in which it can be honourable to do that, and if so how extreme does the circumstance have to be, is in itself a serious ethical dilemma.

rushingtoread said...

Dru, some equivalent phrases are possibly "tattle" or "tell on" or "rat out," although the first two, at least, are more juvenile than what you would typically use at college age! As a (grade school) teacher, I never expected my students to inform on (another possible term!) one another in that way (and if they did, I verified it myself before pursuing the matter), and I think most college students probably use their best judgment in deciding when to share concerns about cheating. It would certainly have to be a blatant and serious, possibly wide-spread (rather than one person), issue, and the impact of the cheating would need to be significant before most people would speak up for just the reason you stated.

David Crosbie said...

I've always understood He can talk for England to mean 'He could represent England in an international talking match'.

It means 'to a great extent' because that's the only way talking could be measured for scoring the contest.

I could say Our dog smells for England (Well I could if I still lived in England and had a dog) implying intensity rather than extent.

empty said...

To me a helicopter parent is not who transports the child a lot but rather one who hovers over the child.

Lucy said...

We use 'soccer mum' in Australia. But it's not necessarily used to describe a person. For instance, I bought a Toyota Camry wagon and my friends (mid-20s to 30s) teased me, describing it as 'soccer mum,' even though I have no children and was going to use the boot to carry a hipster bike. It describes a conservative aesthetic.

Roger Owen Green said...

Helicopter parents DO tend to hover too much over the child. Sometimes it's because they fear they'll be abducted, and they do drive them even short distances for that reasons, as I noted here recently.

A soccer mom may drive the kids, but in the suburbs of the US, where you find them, mass transit is usually not an option.

When it as first coined, politicians courted this group, feeling that they may vote in a bloc over issues that involve children's well-being, a wide array that might range from food safety to national defense.

I suppose one can be both an HP AND a SM, but thy are very different notions.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Going back to "Soccer moms" for a moment, then what is the American expression for the type of parent who desperately wants their kid to succeed in a given sport, to the point of home-schooling them so they can train at quiet times, supervising their practices (and often appearing to know better than the coach), even sometimes getting angry with said kid if they don't get on a national squad or team, or if they perform less well than they are capable of? You hear people talking of "tennis fathers" and "Skating mothers" and, indeed, "Stage mothers" over here.... but it seems to mean something different in the US, so what would be the term for what I'm describing there?

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I'd always thought bumf was an abbreviation of bumfluff (the light coloured hair that appears on a teenaged boy's face).

Autolycus said...

Builder's tea: I think the distinctive thing about it (at least the way I use it) is that it has to be strong (to the point of being almost stewed to death) - and probably not with much milk.

Bumf: The key point is that it relates to an excess of paper, usually unwanted though possibly with a grudging acceptance that it might be bureaucratically necessary. Something says to me it's military in origin, though on no expertise at all (copies in triplicate on flimsy paper might well have come in useful for additional purposes in the WW1 trenches perhaps; or it might just have been a qualitative judgement on its content). AFAIK, "bumfluff" was always referred to as such rather than abbreviated.

PS: "Flimsy" used sometimes to appear on its own as a noun meaning a copy of some bureaucratic message: "We've had a flimsy about your next posting", or some such phrase.

Anonymous said...

@Mrs Redboot:

"Stage mother" is actually closer to the term you are looking for. We use that one here, too. And we use it to mean one of those parents "who [so] desperately wants their kid to succeed in a given [activity]" that they push the kid, plan for the kid, deprive the kid kid (of anything not to do with said activity), and overload the kid (with more activities in support of succeeding at said activity) to a point that others might see as ridiculous, or perhaps even abusive.

Still Anonymous in NJ

Anonymous said...

I guessed "tony" came from the concept of the "ton", to describe the English upper class who spent the season in London. But maybe I just made this up to explain an unusual word!

WOTY: Us to UK - two cents. I see variations of "just my two cents'" all over the web in comments sections and forums from people of different nationalities. My parents would (and do) say "two penneth" or "two penneth worth" but I've never seen this on the web.

mollymooly said...

Re "could VERB for England": the obvious analogue "could VERB for Ireland" is also current; a quick google finds instances for VERB = talk, eat, bitch, bore, mumble, and self-deprecate.

John McKee said...

Further to mollymooly's point (which I was going to make), 'for England' is generally used in an adverbial sense, while 'for Africa' is more adjectival, relating to vast quantities - "There was food for Africa at the party". Of course they can afford it. They've got money for Africa!". Can't comment on South African usage, but that's the way it is in NZ, at least.

Nancy Friedman said...

BrE-to-AmE nomination: "stockist." It's showing up on the websites of tony (heh) US boutiques like Mishka NYC, The Hundreds, Billy Kirk, Fiel Shoes (Los Angeles), and RGB Cosmetics; I also saw it on the site of a Brooklyn-based magazine, Remedy Quarterly.

As recently as a few years ago "stockist" would have seemed very exotic over here. Most US companies still say "Where to Buy" or "Retailers," but "stockist" is definitely gaining ground.

Ben Yagoda featured it in January on his Not One-Off Britishisms blog (quoting, ahem, me):

biochemist said...

My parents would (and do) say "two penneth" or "two penneth worth"

This usage seems to have gone with the old non-decimal currency in the UK, although we still still use (new) pennies.
I remember my mother referring to people (well, me) as a 'daft aypeth' and it took me a while to cotton on to its origins, strictly (but pedantically) a half-penny-worth, where the coin was a 'hay-penny'.

Anonymous said...

The correct spelling is "two penn'orth", as it's a contraction of "pennyworth". (For some reason the singular "penny" largely fell out of use after the introduction of decimal coinage; the new penny is commonly referred to as "one pence" or "one pee".)
As a child, I used to think that the expression "daft ha'p'orth" must be spelled "apath" and be something to do with apathy!

Kate (Derby, UK)

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous Kate

I don't think it's quite right to say the penny 'fell out of use'. At the time of decimalisation we used the word exclusively for 1d 'in old money', and distinguished it from 1p one new pence or one pee.

The use of penny for 1p is a revival — one that hasn't completely caught on in the last forty years. Personally, I never say one penny or a penny — except to describe something in the pre-decimal past.

It might have been different if we'd spoken of the new 1p coin as a penny coin. I suppose it was the novelty that made us say a one new penny coin. Nowadays, I think most people say Have you got a one?.

Mindy said...

David, how do UK coins come? I have heard you do not have names for different worths, like in America we have a penny (1 cent piece), a nickle (5 cent piece), a dime (10 cent piece),and a quarter (25 cent piece)

do you have similar pieces but without the separate names for them?

David Crosbie said...


This page (click) has a decent picture of the standard set. We pronounce them the way the abbreviation is written:- "one pee" etc.

Some of us rememberer the old coins, but their names were not all that special.
• The ½d coin and its value were written halfpenny but pronounced HEIGH pni.
•The 2/- (two shilling) coin was also known as a florin. But the value was simply two shillings. (The coin and its name were invented for a Victorian project to decimalise the currency, which was quickly forgotten.)
• The 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) coin was know as half a crown or a half crown because five shillings was the value of an old coin called a crown, which was still minted occasionally for special occasions. The value could be either half a crown or two and six.
• The 3d (three pence — often written threepence and pronounced THREPP-uhns or THROOP-uhns) coin was always called a threepenny bit.
• When I was a little boy, we had a ¼d coin called a farthing and the name for the value ¼d was also a farthing or one farthing. The value ¾d was always three farthings, never three-quarters of a penny.
• Apart from florin the only unpredictable name for a coin was a tanner (value 6d or sixpence — pronounced SIX-puhns).
• The slang name for 1/- (one shilling, both coin and value) was a bob, and we still have slang names for various notes (bills).
• We did speak of a copper, which usually (not always) meant a penny coin.
• The non-slang name for a 6d coin was usually a sixpence, occasionally a sixpenny piece, never a sixpenny coin. We sometimes also said a shilling piece and a two shilling piece, never (I think) a half a crown piece.

Nowadays we say a [VALUE] coin. the term piece has disappeared.

p = (new) pence
d (from Latin denarius = old penny/pence.
s (solidus)
L (librum) slightly altered to £,
that gave
LSD, which we still use to mean 'money' (as well as that acid, of source). For example, What will that mean in (terms of) LSD? = 'How expensive will that be?'

mollymooly said...

"Nowadays, I think most people say Have you got a one?." -- Interesting! Ireland has the euro (for now at least) but I never heard such a thing when we had pounds and pence; my recollection is that "penny" for "1p coin" was common, though "a two pee" was far more common than "a tuppence". I distinctly remember the sole time I head "a fippence".

Thisby said...

I agree with anonymous at 20:48 about the origin of "tony." On this side of the pond, specifically in New York in the heyday of society, "tony" came from "high-toned," meaning upscale, upmarket, high society, and such. This was an Americanization of "haute ton," referring indeed to the British "ton." Only a couple of hundred years of evolution to become nearly untranslatable!

I notice also that I placed all of my commas and periods inside of double quotations marks. That's an American editor for you!

Picky said...

And, David, half a crown could also be called (possibly just in London?) half a dollar, presumably from the Golden Age when there were four US dollars to the pound.

Anonymous said...

I meant that the word "penny" fell out of use, i.e. people seemed to forget that it was the singular of "pence" and started to talk about "one pence".

Kate (Derby, UK)

Mindy said...

Thanks David Crosbie!

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous Kate

Yes, that's what I thought you meant.

My point was that the word penny was never forgotten. People like me kept on saying penny to talk about 'old money'. I suppose I might have occasionally said one new penny referring to the coin, but I think I generally said what I say now: a 1p (one pee) coin.

When finally we dropped the word new, there was still the memory of what a penny and a halfpenny were. It seemed inappropriate to use the names for those very different objects.

This seems to suggest that (for me) penny was never fully the singular of pence. More like person and people — two distinct words with singular and plural meanings.

Another factor, perhaps, is that in other measurements we tend to use one form irrespective of number. For the older measures it's the singular form: five pound note, eight ounce packet, two litre bottle, Five Mile Island etc. The pair penny and pence was an exception — almost an anomaly.

David Crosbie said...

For the older measures it's the singular form

I have the most ferocious spellchecker. What I meant to type was:

For the other measures it's the singular form.

biochemist said...

Come on everybody, how about some WotY nominations!
Here in the UK, the word omnishambles has gone into the dictionary, having been coined by the writers of 'The Thick of it' - it then had a short vogue in the autumn in the form of Romneyshambles. Has it made its way into the AmE corpus?
My impression is that politics and business - oh, perhaps showbiz too - are the best sources for these Atlantic-crossing words - any comments?

David Crosbie said...

Kate and I were both forgetting that penny had a 'real' and regular plural. The word is (or was) pennies.

We used the word for a plurality of 1d coins, rather than in expressions for a sum of money. There was the occasional expression along the lines of for pennies — 'for a pittance' — but these were rare uses.

Nowadays we seldom see, let alone speak of, a collection of 1p coins. We don't speak of (new) pennies, so we have little use for the corresponding singular.

Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe said...

Another “Untranslatable” for you (but I promise my next posting will be a “WOTY”)

My “Untranslatable” is “hitch”. Many senses of this word are translatable, but the sense I think is untranslatable is the one that the American Heritage Dictionary lists as:

b. To move or walk haltingly: He hitched along on his painful ankle.

At least, the first time I read: “as surely as the hitch in your walk turns to pain in your hip” (from the prologue of “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama”) I found "the hitch in your walk" untranslatable and had to resort the American Heritage Dictionary.

lynneguist said...


I regret putting these two items in the same blog post because it seems to be confusing. I'm asking for nominations for Words of the Year (which must have moved from one dialect to another)--not for untranslatables. Untranslatables month is over, but WotY season is upon US! I really need more AmE>BrE nominations--usually that's the easy direction, but this year it's proving harder.

Pitch said...

It's not cricket sounds like it could be translated into AmE, at least here on the East Coast and other places where Jewish culture has had an influence (California, Florida, Arizona, etc), as it's not kosher. In the NY metro area I hear this all the time from Jews and non-Jews alike, to be exactly what you gave it's not cricket as meaning.

lynneguist said...

It's not exactly the same, though. "Cricket" is absolutely about fairness.
"Kosher" is about 'properness'.
They can overlap to a great degree, but I've had this conversation a few times and I remain convinced they're different enough to be considered untranslatables.

biochemist said...

Well, can I suggest a WotY from AmE to BrE - 'perfect storm'. This is derived from the 1990s title of a book and movie about a storm off the coast of New England - three unlikely meteorological phenomena combined to make it a terrifyingly fierce storm.
We now seem to hear the phrase all the time in the UK 'the mess in the NHS/economy/banks/newspapers is caused by a perfect storm'. Why not say 'several unfortunate circumstances have combined to make things worse' - at least listeners won't have to work out what the metaphor is.
The Wikipedia entry quotes earlier British examples where the two words are combined, but here I think the word 'perfect' is used where we might use 'absolute/ly' nowadays. As in:
'My dear, your hat is perfectly delightful (aside: what a perfect fright!)'

biochemist said...

And can I suggest 'pukka' as a BrE alternative to 'kosher', especially for those of us with little contact with Jewish culture.

Mindo14 said...

I know plenty of non Jewish people using the word Kosher. It us usually used to mean not "cool" or "not allowed", when used outside of the Jewish faith.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Thinking about this post while cleaning my teeth yesterday - like you do - I was wondering whether "poster child" is as untranslatable as all that - surely the equivalent BrE word would be "archetype" or "archetypal"? An acquaintance of mine has several degrees and an excellent job, however 30 years or so ago she was the archetypal single mother on benefits, and I remember saying to her that "you were the poster child for single mothers on benefit!"

Anonymous said...

I've noticed references to hail mary passes or plays a few times in the last year in british contexts, although I have no way of knowing if the authors were americans writing for british publications or on british websites, or if it's not at all a recent import. (I'm in the US.)

Joe said...

My nomination for AmE to BrE WOTY is "Wonk" as in "Policy Wonk".

Google searches of pages from the UK show a number of examples, and Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries online both list the AmE sense of the word (the Oxford also has the British Naval slang sense).

The clincher for me though was to hear “(Policy) Wonk” used on BBC Radio 4 by Jane Garvey during the 12 November broadcast of “Woman’s Hour” in a segment where she was debating “who are the women who matter in UK politics?” with Allegra Stratton, the political editor of BBC Two’s “Newsnight”. If it's on "Woman's Hour", surely that's a sign it's moving out from the "Chattering Classes / West Wing fans" and into the mainstream?

Joe said...

re: "tony"

This has perhaps only become "untranslatable" in the last sixty years.

In 1996, Alistair Cooke re-read his first "Letter From America" from fifty years earlier, and the recording is available on the BBC Website (possibly restricted to the UK due to licensing). In discussing the shortages caused by black marketeering and its effects on markets in the US unregulated (unlike those in the UK at the time) by the Government, he refers to Americans’ horror at the prospect of having, due to shortages, to eat brown bread and says: "in both countries it seems, white bread has, for a very long time, been thought of as tonier".

His emphasis on the word "tonier" could perhaps mark it as a word with which he thought his 1996 audience might be unfamiliar, but even though Cooke had lived in the US since 1937 and had a reputation for not allowing his "letters" to be edited, I can’t imagine that he would have used a word unfamiliar to his (original) 1946 BBC audience.

Ed said...

The pronunciation of p for pence as in 20p as "pee" has always struck me as ignorant and the explanation I have heard is that people became confused when the coinage was decimalised as the symbol was changed from d to p.

Certainly I can't think of any other monetary symbol that is spoken as the name of the letter, or any other symbol for that matter.

No-one in South Africa or any country that uses cents would say "10 see" for 10c.

It seems that decimalisation was a more confusing and traumatic experience for Britain than other countries.

This brings me to for Africa/England. I always understood them to have different meanings. For England means to represent England ie as a sport etc. A person who could talk for England talks so much they could represent England if talking were a sport. For Africa implies a vast quantity, the implication being enough for a vast number of (needy) people in Africa.

David Crosbie said...


the explanation I have heard is that people became confused when the coinage was decimalised as the symbol was changed from d to p.

We were confused about the money for a while — as is any society that adopts a new coinage. But we were never confused about the names. Penny was just an inappropriate term for the new-fangled tiny coin. There was nothing confusing is the very clear distinction between old d and new p.

I'm sure you didn't mean to insult us by using the the term 'ignorant'. Still, it's puzzling. We knew what p meant. We know how radically different it was from d. What do you suppose we didn't know?

Joe said...


Perhaps you didn't live through decimalisation, but people didn't become confused, they didn't say "pee" out of ignorance, we simply used it as another (shorter) way of making it clear that we were talking about "new pence" (as opposed to "pennies / pence / old pence" during the changeover period.

a666 said...

WotY AmE -> BrE nom (...if it's not too late):
'to break someone out' in the sense of to cause someone to develop acne.
Like "My new moisturiser broke me out."
When on beauty forums/blogs use of that phrase used to be a sure fire way to predict it was an American writing, but lately I've heard it more and more from British people, both online and in real life.

Re: coinage, I don't think the use of the word "piece" is as dead as David Crosbie suggests. I was born twenty years after decimalisation, but phrases like "ten/twenty/fifty p piece" are perfectly idiomatic to me (not for the lower denominations though).

lynneguist said...

I've never heard 'broke someone out' in AmE, let alone BrE!

Anonymous said...

Saying "One pee" may not be ignorant but I still maintain that "one pence" is, because "pence" is a plural word.

I'd vote for "perfect storm" too, though I'm not sure that it's only become common in Britain this year.

Kate (Derby, UK)

Anonymous said...

Examples from google: "Lemon juice broke me out", "Will Jojoba Oil break me out?", "I Think Biotin Broke Me Out", "Make-up brands that don't break you out", "Can a new face wash break you out?".

But maybe it's just an acne-sufferer specific slang word whichever side of the Atlantic you're on.

David Crosbie said...


I was born twenty years after decimalisation, but phrases like "ten/twenty/fifty p piece" are perfectly idiomatic to me (not for the lower denominations though).

Interesting. I use the word coin exclusively for all denominations. If anyone has said piece in my hearing, I haven't noticed.

In 'old money' I used piece mostly with two shilling, less often with shilling and sixpenny, rarely with half-crown, and never at all with other coins (or hardly ever).

I've just remembered how often I would say two-bob bit rather than two shilling piece. Otherwise bit was confined to threepenny bit.

All of this also reminds me how we used singular shilling and penny in a quasi-adjectival way. In the case of 2d, 3d and 6d there was a formal difference — pni rather than peni — relected in the spellings twopenny, threepenny, sixpenny. We also said Give him a fourpenny one! meaning 'Hit him!' , but I for one never used that adjective elsewhere.

Jill said...

Going back to a very early comment:

>downtown "city centre, business district", and its opposite, "uptown", which I really don't know how to translate - the OED says "the residential or more prosperous areas"

In the part of Michigan I originally come from we talk about going uptown for some milk or to visit with someone. It means to the center of town. In this case the town is small enough that that consists of about six small shops. I've always considered 'uptown' and 'downtown' to be synonymous, and I'm interested to find that this might be a nonstandard usage.

Jill said...

>'to break someone out' in the sense of to cause someone to develop acne.
Like "My new moisturiser broke me out."

When I was an adolescent in Denver that would have been ungrammatical but we used a similar phrase: 'to break out', meaning to develop acne, or as I've heard people say here in England, to come out in spots. This phrase was strictly intransitive, so it was used like "my new moisturiser made me break out" or "I want the chocolate, but I know if I eat it I'll break out."

n0aaa said...

Problematic is an AmE coinage (or is it?) that drives me nuts. How is "probelmatic" not "a problem"? Is there a hidden meaning here, somewhere? The other in both AmE and BrE is "ahead of" in place of "before". Occasionally is a stylistic variant. All the time gets old, very quickly.

Joe said...

re: I still maintain that "one pence" is [ignorant, because "pence" is a plural word.

It was a plural, but now apparently it's singluar too - isn't English wonderful :-)

re: Give him a fourpenny one!

I had forgotten that one! Always a source of amusement to the conductors on my bus to school (the fare from my stop being 4d).

vp said...


"Problematic" dates back to around 1600. English-speakers in North America were pretty thin on the ground then (although they would probably have had plenty of problems).

vp said...


I still maintain that "one pence" is, because "pence" is a plural word.

"Truce" and "bodice" were likewise originally plural. Many people use "dice" (originally plural) as singular: perhaps you do too.

Joe said...

For word of the year, I'd like to nominate "derecho", meaning "widespread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm." I had never heard it before this year, when one knocked out my power for close to a week.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@ vp - and David Crosbie, for that matter. I still hear "penny" 90% of the time in shops and so on. I wonder if it is a regional thing, as I do not expect to hear "one pence", although I do hear "one p".

This, incidentally, is not ignorance, as a previous commentator speculated, but because, at decimalisation, the government of the day dinned it into us that from henceforth "p" would be the abbreviation for a new penny, rather than the "d" we used for old ones, so that it was natural that people began to say "p", and it has stuck. Pre-decimalisation we had a rich history of nicknames for our coins; it is sad that "p" is the only one to have emerged from decimalisation.

I would certainly speak of a 10-pence piece, although, oddly, it would be a 10 p coin! Don't ask why, as I don't know!!!

John said...

How about 'knickers!' in the sense of an expression of frustration? In the USA I've never heard anyone say 'underpants!' in exasperation.

Dru said...

I've never heard of the expression " hail mary passes". What does it mean? And is it alleged to be AmE or BrE? Although the UK has a significant RC population, it's traditionally Protestant. So the expression would naturally sound Irish to me.

I've also never heard of, "derecho", meaning "widespread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm". The normal BrE word by the way, assuming I've guessed the meaning correctly, would not be 'windstorm' but 'gale'. Would a 'straight-line' gale be one that blows from the same direction with a constant intensity without sudden bursts, gusts, squalls and lull? If so, climatically, that would be unusual here.

Incidentally, another usage that was new to me, which I heard recently, but which I don't think has transferred, is 'jumping rope' which I think means what we (BrE) would call 'skipping'.

David Crosbie said...


I don't think either the Spanish derecho or English straight-line can be applied to any weather phenomenon that can happen in Britain.

The words are like prairie — except that the prairie doesn't come and go, and there's a long history of taking and singing about it in our shared culture. As a little boy, I had only the vaguest idea what the prairie was, but the cowboy association gave it a reality of sorts. A derecho is just unimaginable from this side of the Atlantic.

Anonymous said...

Dru - a "hail mary pass" in American football is a long-shot attempt to win the game in the final seconds. The quarterback says a prayer and launches the ball towards the end zone, and the opposing team usually catches it. I thought I'd seen it used metaphorically in a british newspaper (probably the guardian?) But as I said, I don't know if the writer was american, or if the readers understood the phrase.
A derecho has the same intensity and causes the same damage as a tornado, only it's not funnel shaped, i.e. "straight-line". It's climatically unusual here, too.
Jump-rope is the normal american word for the object, jumping rope or jump-roping for the action. Would "skipping rope" be both in BrE?

Anonymous said...

Skipping is the activity, a skipping-rope the equipment.

vp - Yes, I know that "dice" is really plural, though I do use it in the singular so as to make myself understood.

Kate (Derby, UK)

Dru said...

'Skip', 'skipping' and 'skipping rope' are the usual expressions in BrE. Skip is the verb and you don't add 'rope'. 'Skipping' is the activity and a 'skipping rope' is the thing you skip with. It's really an activity for small girls in school playgrounds, but sports trainers are keen to get athletes to do it because it is good for them.

'Skip' is also used idiomatically to mean deliberately not go to something one should attend, 'I skipped the first class this morning'.

I think the 'skip' builders put rubble in is a different word altogether, possibly vaguely related to 'ship'. I get the impression it spread into general use about 40 years ago, possibly from either a regional or trade dialect.

I suspect even most Grauniad readers would have been mystified by 'hail mary pass' but being Grauniad readers wouldn't have wanted to admit it.

vp said...


In rugby, "hospital pass" is a BrE equivalent of AmE "Hail Mary pass": the pass will take to long to arrive that the opposition will have time to tackle the recipient (possibly causing injury).

David Crosbie said...


According to the OED a skip was used in mining and quarrying to draw materials up or let them down. The term then spread to containers that stand around longer. But the principle is similar: a filled skip is lifted up and emptied elsewhere.

The earliest OED quote is from 1815: Some colliers were descending into a coal pit,..five in one skip and four in the other.

They give the etymology as a variant of skep meaning 'basketful'.

Katherine W. Hirsh said...

My vote is for "sorted." Great list, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the currency issues;

Part of the problem is that in done English dialects, it's normal to elide or outright omit the word for the numbers, especially when dealing with the coins themselves.

Thus, nobody will say "a one penny coin". It's just "a penny".

"Pennies" then becomes the plural form if the penny coin, while "Pence" is the term for cash values expressed as multiples of the value of a penny.

So "Five Pennies" describes five penny coins, while "fivepence" describes either a cost, or the coin with that value.

The term "piece" is still used for some coins, typically the 50p & 20p. "Bit" is archaic for the most part, although some older people will still use "tuppenny bit" for two pence. Generally, anything smaller than a twenty pence piece is described as however many pence it is in value. So, perhaps pence has replaced bit as the general term for "small coin"?

On a side note, as far as untranslatables go, is the phrase "spend a penny", which is a euphemism for urination, particularly in a public convenience. Sadly, due to inflation most of these now cost far more than a single penny to use!

Lastly, the phrase "sorted" as a usage for "having enough drugs" occurred in the 90s, as a deniable term. As it was neither yes nor no, it was a flimsy way of dealing with pushy dealers wanting you to buy, and suspicious ones that might be undercover police.

It was undoubtedly popularized by the 1995 Pulp song "Sorted for E's and Wizz"'s_%26_Wizz

Wizz, for reference, is amphetamine sulphate, aka Speed

Anonymous said...

For 30 years - 1950's to 80's - the (US) Muscular Dystrophy Association literally selected an ill child to serve as its Poster Child, who was pictured on posters and fund-raising literature for a year. It sounds gruesome now, but in that era children with diseases like MD were hidden away as if they were shameful or disgusting. The Poster Child idea was to show an identifiable cheerful, smiling child who could be helped.

You can read the obit of the first Poster Child here,

David Crosbie said...


Part of the problem is that in done English dialects, it's normal to elide or outright omit the word for the numbers, especially when dealing with the coins themselves.

Thus, nobody will say "a one penny coin". It's just "a penny".

I fail to see the 'problem'.

And I for one never say 'a penny'. (Unless I'm looking at an old 1d coin, of course.) For me, it's 'a one pee coin'. In the appropriate context, it's 'a one' I wouldn't object to 'a one pence coin' — though I know that may British speakers hate it.

Yes, in the old days we didn't say 'a one penny coin', but we did sometimes say 'a one-pound note'.

What you seem to be referring to is the omission of the word coin (or piece or bit) rather than the number. The only number that can be omitted is one. Yes, I would usually say 'a shilling', but I could easily have said 'Is it a one-shilling piece or a two shillings/ a florin?'

The reasons we use one nowadays for 1p coins are twofold:
1. They've become pretty uncommon.
2. They're so similar to 2p coins — and so unlike all others.

I would be amazed to hear anybody say tuppence for 2p or a tuppeny bit for the 2p coin. I can only guess that you've come across the odd group of older speakers that use it among themselves. On the whole, those of us who remember the word tuppence also remember 2d — which was never a coin (well, not in modern times), but was a fixed weight of copper coins, whether pennies, halfpennies or farthings.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I do think, David, that it is your local variety of English that doesn't call a 1p coin a "penny".

Thinking about it, I'd say that I have too many 1p coins in my purse, not pennies, but if I was paying a bill in Tesco's or Lidl for £3.61 and had the exact change, I might well say "and a penny!" when counting it out. Or if I had to give £3.62, I would not at all be surprised to hear the checkout operator (forget what the American word for that is) say "And a penny change!"

Anonymous said...

My nomination for WotY is "mansplaining", as defined by Wiktionary: "(colloquial, chiefly Internet) To explain (something) condescendingly (to a female listener), especially to explain something the listener already knows, presuming that she has an inferior understanding of it because she is a woman."

This has been a year I've noticed more and more gender issues being acknowledged in mainstream media, which I believe is fuelled by the strength of Internet communities that promote gender equality. Mansplaining is a phenomenon that's relatable and observable, particularly as some retaliate against the threat of women being equal to men.

You might also like:

Kevin said...

L (librum) slightly altered to £

I always thought the word in question was libra (fem.). Is there, in fact, such a word as librum in Latin?

The reasons we use one nowadays for 1p coins are twofold:
1. They've become pretty uncommon.
2. They're so similar to 2p coins — and so unlike all others.

I can't see why either of those reasons would lead us to call a 1p coin a one -- but, aside from that

- 1p coins are not at all uncommon! The Royal Mint estimates that 39% of all the British coins in circulation are one-penny pieces, and certainly, when I empty my pockets at the end of each day, I generally have more "one pees" than any other single denomination. Perhaps I shop too often in 99p stores!

- The only similarity I can see between between 1p and 2p coins is in their composition, and therefore colour. A two-penny piece has twice the mass of a one-penny coin and a diameter more than a quarter greater.

BTW, the term "penny" is by no means obsolete in shoppping situations:

"That'll be four pounds and a penny, please."
(Customer tenders a five-pound note)
"You wouldn't happen to have the penny, would you?"

Anonymous said...

"with bells on" (a superlative, meaning certainly) is definitely a BrE phrase that doesn't exist in AmE.

"Are you coming to my party tonight?"
"Yeah, we'll be there with bells on!"

Anonymous said...

Absolutely not true that "with bells on" is unheard of in American English.

It's not common, but it exists and is used, particularly among the 50+ crowd.

Anonymous said...

I definitely call 1p pieces "pennies". David Crosbie seems to be arrogant/uninformed in thinking that his way of speaking is the correct one, rather than one of many possibilities.

"One pence coin" or "One pee coin" sound wrong to my ears, people where I live would call them "One pence piece(s)". "One pee piece" doesn't sound right either.

Using "piece" for coins is definitely not unusual to me, and no-one has ever commented on it when I say it. If I needed 50p, I'd either ask "Have you got 50 pee/pence" (if I just needed the amount) or "Have you got a 50 pence piece" (if I needed that specific coin). I definitely wouldn't say "Have you got a 50 pence coin?".

Pee/pence are interchangeable for me when talking about prices. "It's 99 pee" is just as likely to come out of my mouth as "It's 99 pence".

John Cowan said...

Although we have not had pence in American money since 1789 or earlier, the coins are still one penny, two pennies, even though the legend on the coin is "ONE CENT". The word is tough, to have survived so long.

Kevin said...

Anonymous at 18.06 on 23 December:

My experience of current usage in this regard agrees with yours, BUT...

to be fair to Mr Crosbie, I don't think he's ever said that his way of speaking is "the correct one". He's simply told us what he says and reported what he believes those around him say -- and that, in my opinion, is all any of us can do (or indeed, ought to be doing) on Separated by a Common Language.

Season's Greetings, everyone -- or, as many (most?) in the New World say, "Happy Holidays".*

Kevin (English Midlands / South Wales)

*PS. Now, referring to Christmastide as "the holidays": THERE'S something that's slightly creeping its way into British English, in my experience, but as of yet only in the mouths of a few broadcast journalists. To me "the holidays" still happen in July and August!

PPS New Year's Resolution: in 2013 I will try to stay on topic in SbaCL.

David Crosbie said...


I wouldn't dream of saying that my way of speaking is 'correct'. All I'm saying is this:

1. I personally just can't use penny for 1p — whether coin of sum of money.

2. I don't hear anybody else use it either. I hear one pee all the time. I hear one pence quite often. Gordon Brown caused a minor stir by using it in a Budget Speech.

I know why I don't say penny. It seems reasonable to conclude that it might be relevant to why penny is not the common word it used to be.

Most speakers are younger than me, and don't have a vivid memory (or, for the most part, any memory at all) of 1d. I supposed that there was a disconnect while my generation removed penny from our speech, and younger speakers picked up our one pee and one pence.

1p coins are things we seldom talk about — unlike 1d coins, which we used to talk about all the time. It seems there are pockets of penny-sayers, but I never seem to come across them.

chris y said...

Regarding English coinage, there are a few expressions left over from the old money which seem to have survived, at least among the older generation.

Colloquially a 6d coin was known as a "tanner"; a shilling as a "bob"; and a pound as a quid (still is). So one heard, and occasionally still hears "A tanner to a quid he'll be late" meaning "I'll give you odds of 20 to 1 on (Do Americans say 20 to 1 on, meaning 19 chances in 20?) that he's late." Also, someone who was thoroughly dishonest might even today be described as "bent as a 9 bob note" - the lowest denomination bill being 10 shillings.

Kevin said...

The word "quid" (invariable as to number *: "a quid", "two quid", "fifty quid" etc.) - the pound itself having been unaffected by decimalization -- is still very much alive. So much so that I believe that in Ireland it's even been transferred to the euro in popular speech: a hundred quid = a hundred euro.

* except in the expression "quids in" (you'll be quids in = you'll make a lot of money on that deal)

starwefter said...

The American equivalent expression is "phoney as a three dollar bill." There is no such thing, and never has been -- a $1, a $5, occasionally a $2, but never a $3.

We also say "20 to 1," but we leave out the "on."

I'm not sure about "for my sins" being only British English -- I use that expression rather regularly, and I'm in South Dakota. I have no idea when I started using it, or where I picked it up.

Skip can mean not going to class, meetings, etc. when you are supposed to -- "I skipped class today." -- but it also refers to skipping down a sidewalk, which I can only explain as sort of the hopping motion you would make jumping (skipping) rope minus the rope, as you move forward. It does seem to be connected with young girls.

Poster child I think has a slightly disparaging feel to it? For instance, it seems like I see it in sentences like "So and so is the favorite poster child of the _______ political party," when someone is talking about the party they dislike, never the one they favor.

I think Soccer Mom also occasionally can have that sense of slight insult, but this term really depends on the context. Soccer Mom and Yuppie are the only words I think I could use to adequately translate the feel of bourgeoisie because depending on the context they can mean simply a neutral economic classification of upper middle / professional / middle management or small business ownership class or they can imply a contempt for the (supposed) values associated with such. On the one hand you could say "we need the soccer mom vote" implying we need to appeal on core issues such as education, police and fire protection, and fixing the potholes in the street in front of your house, to "the other soccer moms will talk" as a car ad did a few years back implying their car was sporty rather than merely practical, to "Dear god, she's dating a guy in a band! What will the soccer moms think?" -- sort of implying they are all uptight and uncool. You see what I mean by shades of meaning depending on the context?

The most difficult phrase I ever had to explain was "time to punt" as slang to someone from Wales. Most of the online slang dictionaries didn't give me a good definition to link to because they explained it in terms of specialized computer jargon as "time to give up and quit," which isn't how it is used by the general public. I finally found the official definition in a dictionary of (American) football terms which was: "Watch for a "punt" when an offense cannot score a touchdown or a field goal. The team punts when it is too far away to score any points and wants to make the other team's offense work harder by placing the ball far down the field. The ball is snapped to the punter who kicks the ball down the field. This is different from a field goal because the ball never touches another player or the ground until it is kicked." -- in other words your team is about to get caught (and stuck) farther away from your goal line than you started at the beginning of your turn and the other team will be closer to theirs; you've made no forward progress, you've gone backwards instead. There isn't a thing you can do about it, you've run out of time and options, but you can make it harder on the other guy by placing the ball father down the field so that when it flips over to their turn they at least are farther away from their goal line than they would be otherwise. From this it has become general slang for making the best of a bad situation, basically "It's time to regroup and try something else, pretty much on the fly, because whatever we're doing is failing miserably." And it took me about all that to explain the short three word phrase after I'd used it.