Monday, January 30, 2012

graft

JL in New York wrote recently with this observation:
Last week's Economist included an article ("Executive Pay: Money for Nothing?", in the Britain section) that begins:

Hard work builds character, and should be rewarded. But many Britons believe the link between graft and gain has broken down.

The word that struck me was "graft" -- in my AmE usage, it can only mean "corruption", not "hard work".  (Other than horticulturally.)

The link between graft (AmE) and gain has, sadly, not broken down, of course.


My first thought was that certainly AmE has the 'hard work' sense of graft, since the phrase hard graft is known there. But is it the case that AmE and BrE are divided by graft

The corruption sense of graft is listed in the OED as 'colloq. (orig. U.S.)'. Their first published citation for it is from an 1865 New York-based police gazette. West's Encyclopedia of American Law defines it as:
A colloquial term referring to the unlawful acquisition of public money through questionable and improper transactions with public officials.
Graft is the personal gain or advantage earned by an individual at the expense of others as a result of the exploitation of the singular status of, or an influential relationship with, another who has a position of public trust or confidence. The advantage or gain is accrued without any exchange of legitimate compensatory services.
Behavior that leads to graft includes Bribery and dishonest dealings in the performance of public or official acts. Graft usually implies the existence of theft, corruption, Fraud, and the lack of integrity that is expected in any transaction involving a public official.
This sense of graft may or may not come from the 'work' sense of graft; the OED lists them separately and doesn't have an etymology it trusts for the 'work' sense either. The 'work' sense is also listed as 'slang' and the first citation is in the phrase hard graft in 1853. An 1890 Glossary of Words of County Glouster lists it as meaning 'work', so perhaps it has dialectal origins there. Neither of these senses of the word, then, seems to be terribly old, but because they're colloquial and dialectal, they'll have unwritten histories going back further.

So, how well-known are the senses in AmE and BrE? A quick look at our (chiefly AmE) go-to corpora, the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus (via Mark Davies' interface) can give some indication.  First I looked at how much of the use of the noun graft in either corpus consisted of the phrase hard graft. For AmE it was only 6 of 640 (less than 1%), for BrE 28/145 (19%).

Taking a sample of 100 sentences containing a noun graft from each corpus, the use of particular senses breaks down as:




SenseBNC (BrE)COCA (AmE)
work332
corruption1429
tissue4262
spade/shovel70
proper name06
??43

So, the first thing to notice is that the 'work' meaning is indeed much more common in BrE. Both cases in the AmE sample were hard graft. Most of the 'work' uses in BrE were also modified by an adjective, but in addition to hard, there was honest, sheer, real, tireless etc. 

Second thing to notice: the 'corruption' sense is hardly unknown in BrE--but about half as frequent as in AmE. In both corpora, tissue grafts (on trees, skin, veins, bones, etc.) are the most common kind of graft.

Third, the 'spade/shovel' sense is particular to BrE. The OED defines it as 'a narrow crescent-shaped spade used by drainers', and its only citation is from a 1893 Worcestershire dialect glossary. One of the corpus examples mentioned it as a Norfolk term--these are not particularly close to each other, but who knows what was really happening dialectally 100 years ago or what changed in the 100 years till the BNC. (I mention shovel because of the American tendency to use the term instead of spade, discussed back here.)

And then there are more people or at least more famous people named Graft in the US than the UK (probably the former, it's a German name).

The ?? cases were those that I couldn't really tell the meaning of in the little bit of text I was given (e.g. in the BNC: His father quarrelled with the Colonels over some detail of graft). I didn't go to the effort of looking at the larger contexts, which might have helped. But what this 3-4% of ambiguous cases tells us is that even though graft has lots of meanings, they don't cause too much difficulty in understanding the language. The people who originally heard/read those seven ambiguous cases in full context probably had no problem with it at all.

So, my initial reaction 'Americans know about 'work' graft' might only (or particularly) be true of Americans like me who hang around a lot of British people and are able to separate the word from the phrase hard graft. And it just goes to show, you shouldn't trust your memories of words and meanings you've "always" known, as those kinds of memories just aren't very good. Can anyone tell me: is there a name for that kind of false memory/familiarity? It's the opposite of the Recency Illusion, but I've not found a particular name for the 'I've always said it that way' illusion.

Wait, wait! A little message to Arnold Zwicky, and I have the answer: the Antiquity Illusion. I feel like there should be a corollary of it for the effect when one moves from dialect to dialect--i.e. the 'it is old, but not old for you' illusion. The 'native-speaker illusion', perhaps.

Friday, January 13, 2012

just about

Continuing on the backlog of emailed requests, Ron Shields writes (well, wrote--in August) with:
I have noticed football commentators in Britain using the phrase just about when a player is successful as in "He just about made that pass". In AmE just about would mean "close but no cigar".
Indeed, for the 'did make it, but only by a small margin' meaning, AmE could just use just: He just made it into the goal. But we might even avoid that, since that could also mean 'a moment ago'. This ambiguity is probably more of a problem in AmE than in BrE because of the differences in past-tense marking. I'd probably say only just in this context, but I'm fairly contaminated by BrE at this point. The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms gives only the meaning 'very recently' for only just. The two instances of only just made it in the Corpus of Contemporary American  English (COCA) are 'very recently' and the eight in the much smaller British National Corpus all mean 'barely'. I think this has firmly diagnosed my BrE contamination. I'll have to tell my American family to wear protection around me.

I must admit, I'm held back a bit* in my discussion here by a couple of things. First, finding examples of particular meanings of just about is not exactly easy. If you search for the two words in a corpus or on the web, you will find huge numbers of examples, most of them irrelevant--it's just about how common the words are (see what I did there?). So I've had to look for bigger stretches of text, like just about made it, in order to limit the results to useful ones. That means that anything interesting that I didn't think of, I didn't find. Second, we were supposed to (AmE/BrE) move/(BrE) move house this week. We discovered Monday that we were not moving (house) this week, or indeed next week, or indeed this  month. So all my books are packed (not the greatest of the current  inconveniences!), and therefore I can't consult a couple of things that might have been helpful. I will blog about English (BrE) estate agents/(AmE) real estate agents and the horrors (and vocabulary!) of  buying/selling property in England after this nightmare is over.

At any rate, the translation problem in just about isn't just about just.  Let's think about about. The (UK) Collins English Dictionary gives us this sense-definition, which is not to be found in the American Heritage Dictionary or Merriam-Webster:

about
7. used in informal phrases to indicate understatement I've had just about enough of your insults it's about time you stopped

Aha, the famous British understatement. Rather than saying I've had enough, you put an about in to soften the blow. And then a just to soften it more.

But one would say I've had just about enough of your insults in AmE too.  In fact, in COCA, there are 35 instances of about had it, including 16 just about had it. There might be a difference in perception here. To my AmE ear, I've just about had it is not an understatement. It means, if things don't change right away, I will have had it, and it's thus used as a warning. Whether BrE ears perceive that particular example as understatement is something that the mouths (or the typing fingers) that  share a brain with those ears will have to tell us. At any rate, the UK dictionary did feel the need to mention it as an understatement-marker and the US ones did not, and I think there's something to that.

Ron's example is a much clearer case of understatement. The claim is that the pass was made, but it is stated as if the pass was not quite made in order to communicate that it almost wasn't made.

To give a few more examples, found by Google-searching "just about made  it" (plus 'British' and 'American', because I originally searched with the  hope that I'd find some dialect commentary):

We just about made it through Christmas. (Temple Audio, Ltd)

Well, I just about made it to hunt out some British talent for you all  this week. I've tried to include more variety this time... (Road Runner Records)

I think you just about made it to the studio in time for your show!  (commenter on Simon Mayo's BBC Radio 2 blog)
There are also examples of the (orig. AmE) 'close but no cigar' type on this search and (of course) some that are ambiguous. But the above examples all come from the first page of results, clearly describe events that did happen (rather than ones that almost happened), and are all related (at least) to the UK. (The second is located in the US, but is a music scout who seems particularly Europe-focused, so one can only guess about his nationality or his linguistic contamination level.)

 And on that note, I'm about finished.


 * My ubiquitous bits are further evidence of my contamination. And yes, that is a double entendre. But don't think about it too much, please.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

haste makes waste / more haste, less speed

Robert W. M. Greaves wrote to me (in July 2010--my [seemingly orig. AmE] backlog is huge!):
I was somewhat surprised yesterday to be asked by an American woman (mid 70s from Montana) what more haste, less speed meant. She had never heard the expression before. I checked with another American friend (woman from Kentucky, in her late 50s) who also didn't really know what it meant but was aware of some younger people occasionally using it.

For me (and I would have thought most people in the UK) this is a piece of folk wisdom parents and grandparents use to admonish children. (In case you haven't come across it before either, the idea is that if you do something in too much of a hurry you'll be careless or make mistakes and have to go back and do it again, so it's actually faster to work more slowly and carefully and get it right first time.)

Have I just happened to hit the only two people in America who don't know the expression?
No, you've hit two members of the majority, Robert.  More haste, less speed (and less frequent variants, like less haste, more speed and more haste, worse speed) is mainly a BrE expression. The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary marks it as UK, and it does not occur at all in the 425-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (but three times in the 100-million-word British National Corpus).  

Americans, on the other hand, say haste makes waste, which is not unknown in the UK, but it's not in the British National Corpus and only 9 times on the guardian.co.uk site (versus 140 for more haste, less speed).  Many people treat it as if Benjamin Franklin first said it, as it occurs in his Poor Richard's Almanack. But look look up haste in the OED and one finds this (my emphasis added):

 6. In proverbs and phrases: chiefly in sense 2.

a1525  (1500)    Sc. Troy Bk. (Douce) l. 1682 in C. Horstmann Barbour's Legendensammlung (1882) II. 275   Of fule haist cummis no speid.
1546    J. Heywood Dialogue Prouerbes Eng. Tongue i. ii. sig. Aiii,   Haste maketh waste.
1546    J. Heywood Dialogue Prouerbes Eng. Tongue i. ii. sig. Aiiiv,   The more haste the lesse spede.
That is, by 1546 both of these phrases were familiar enough to be recorded as English proverbs. The source of these is often attributed to a similar Latin phrase, Festina lente ('make haste slowly'). But if he wasn't the originator of Haste makes waste, Franklin was at least a great populi{z/s}er of the phrase.

Looking a bit more at the history,  the Corpus of Historical American English has two instances of more haste, less speed (in 1869 and 1920) and 11 of haste makes waste--seven of those before 1860. The early 19th-century boom for haste makes waste might have been a Franklin (orig. AmE in this sense) boom, but what's happening around 1860? Something, for sure:


That's a Google Ngram for more haste less speed and haste makes waste in English books generally.  This is American English:

And this is British English:

In each case, more haste, less speed increases in frequency around 1860--where the phrase was used in the name of a story (1856) and in other books.Why the fashion in the UK turned so dramatically in favo(u)r of the longer phrase, I do not know. Perhaps because it's closer to the Latin, perhaps because the rhyming version was perceived as Americanism, perhaps because someone really stylish and influential was using it. I don't know.

What is clear from all of this is that Americans invented neither phrase.  What is suggested from it is that the relative lack of more haste, less speed in AmE could be due to its lack of popularity in English when the AmE was getting going, since it seems to have been rather (orig. AmE) under-the-radar in the early 19th century.  The missing link here is what was happening in the pre-Richard's Almanack 18th century.