Saturday, December 28, 2013

UK-to-US Word of the Year: bum

This is part 2 of my 2013 WotY posts, the UK-to-US part. Part 1 is here.

I get a bit embarrassed when I tell journalists about the UK-to-US Words of the Year, as there are too many "naughty" ones (2012: bollocks, 2006: wanker). 2013's is considerably milder, but still in the tee-hee range, if not the nudge-nudge, wink-wink range.

So the 2013 UK-to-US Word of the Year is:

bum

This is certainly not new to Americans. Mike Myers was saying it a lot on Saturday Night Live in his 'Simon' sketches in the early 90s:

 

And it was noted as a "Not One-Off Britishism" in Ben Yagoda's blog in 2011. There he shows this Google n-gram showing a steady increase of bums in American books in the 20th century (his bum, her bum and my bum are the search terms).



Ben's blog and the media attention to Briticisms in American English
this past summer give plenty of indication that lots of BrE words are making their way into America these days. But for Word of the Year, I try to find something that had some particular impact in that year, and all I could think of was being faced with this media campaign when I visited the US this summer:



This is television presenter (mostly on BBC Three "lifestyle documentaries") Cherry Healey (BrE informal) flogging Cottonelle "bum wipes". Cottonelle is the American version of Andrex, both made by US-based Kimberly-Clark and advertised with the same puppies:
 








But now Cottonelle is using a pretty British lady to try to convince Americans in airports that the British are all using a two-stage bum-cleaning routine that is far superior to the "dry treatment".



Since flushable wipes were available in the US when I last lived there 14 years ago, I'm not sure why the airport-Americans find this to be a new and exciting product (ok, I probably do know: they want to be on television). They may be more popular in the UK (sales up 15% this year), but they are implicated in serious sewer problems, as has been discovered in the US too.  Perhaps the UK Word-of-the-Year should have been fatberg, since one the size of a bus was found under London this summer. The UK dictionaries' Words of the Year went for less nauseating choices (Collins went for originally-British-dialectal-but-lately-mostly-AmE geek and Oxford for seemingly-Australian selfie.)

But anyhow, with all too much #letstalkbums on social media this year, I'm going with bum and hoping for a less toilet-related WotY next year.

2013 US-to-UK Word of the Year: Black Friday

Long-time readers will know that every year I pick (with some helpful suggestions from readers) words of the year with a twist: they must be American words that made a splash in the UK, or British ones that found fame or infamy in the US. Or something like that. As I did last year, so here is the first one!

The 2013 US-to-UK Word of the Year is:

Black Friday

While we're at it, we might as well declare this the most annoying import in the seven years of this endeavo(u)r. But let's not blame America or Americans in general. Let's look at this WotY in a bit more detail. Then let's blame capitalism.

First, a definition: Black Friday is the Friday after American Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday of November), which is the popularly acknowledged start of the American Christmas-shopping season. Many people in the US have the day off work (or school) and retailers put on big sales, so the (AmE) malls/(BrE) shopping centres are heaving with people and unseemly behavio(u)r.


Why is this the US-to-UK Word of the Year? Because it was all over the UK media in the week of (and the week after) American Thanksgiving. (Three readers contacted me to nominate it--the only nomination I had this year.)  Here, for instance, are stories from The Telegraph, BBC News, The Mirror... (I would go on, but I'm sure you can google "Black Friday UK" yourself.) As well as 70% discounts, there was bad behavio(u)r (which you can find easily enough by googling "Black Friday UK bad behaviour"). 
Now, I know that some people will be wanting to complain "but it's not a word, it's a phrase". I've answered that objection before, since previous WotYs have also had spaces in them. To recap: there are many ways to define word, and perhaps the least interesting way, as far as linguists are concerned, is whether their written version has  a space in it. Grammatically, Black Friday acts like a word and it's the kind of thing that could be a headword in a dictionary--because its meaning is not directly derivable from its parts. So, it is word enough for me.
It is an annoying import because there is no logic to the importance of this day in the UK; it is a regular work/school day and the Christmas shopping season is already well underway in the UK by that time. For instance, the Christmas lights were ceremoniously turned on in Birmingham city centre (AmE downtown) on 9 November, on 14 November in Brighton and London's Oxford Street, and on 21 November in Guildford. (I could go on, but you can google "Christmas light switch-on UK" too.) 

What has brought "Black Friday" to the UK are US-owned retailers, notably Amazon and Walmart-owned Asda (site of much bad behavio[u]r--click the link for a story about that). These retailers are partial to some bad behavio[u]r themselves, such as union-busting (quelled at Asda, I should say), tax-evasion, and (particularly at Amazon) poor working conditions. So, American phrase, but please don't blame the average American. If you don't like it, then I recommend doing all your Christmas shopping for the following year in the very British Boxing Day sales and avoiding this whole sordid Black Friday business.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The third 'Untranslatables' month summary

This was the third year that I (kind of) declared October Untranslatables Month on my Twitter feed. (Here's 2011 and here's 2012.) Instead of offering a 'Difference of the Day', I offered an 'Untranslatable of the Day'. Except that I started on the 7th of October and occasionally I forgot to do it. (And I don't do 'of the Day' posts on weekends anymore either.) So maybe month is a bit of an exaggeration.

[Now that my union is on strike, I've finally got(ten) (a)round to writing up the summary. If it weren't for the fact that I'm not supposed to be doing work today, my work would be preventing me from blogging still. Next term should be better in terms of not drowning in (BrE) marking/(AmE) grading and quality control exercises all the time, and so there is hope that I will blog again, even if the academic pay dispute is settled.]

Now, before the complaints start, here are the Untranslatables Month facts:
  • I'm only talking about the relationship between British and American English here (as is my theme). These expressions may well have equivalents in other languages or dialects.  
  • By Untranslatable I mean that there is no lexicali{z/s}ed equivalent in the other dialect. And by lexicali{z/s}ed I mean that the expression is a word or an idiom--something that language users learn through hearing others say it, rather than something that one makes up anew. One can translate things by making up new sentences or phrases that describe the same thing, sure. But it's special when a language has lexicali{z/s}ed an  expression for something--it tells us something about the culture that invented and uses that expression.
  • Many of these have started to be borrowed between the dialects--and that's natural. If it's a useful expression and the other dialect doesn't have it, it's a prime candidate for international migration.
In some cases, I've discussed the expressions before on this blog, so I provide links to those posts. I also include here the links I provided with the tweets and I try to give credit to those who suggested them as untranslatables.



  • BrE chugger: Disparaging term for person whose job is stopping people on the street to ask for donations to a cause. It's a blend of charity and mugger. Chuggers are usually asking people to sign up for a Direct Debit to their charity (which is much more common in UK than US).

  • AmE to make nice: To try to be friendly/cooperative (with someone)--often because you've been told to do so. [Collins definition]

  • BrE in old money: in pre-decimalized currency and now also 'in non-metric measures' or in any other 'old' kind of measurement.  For example,  'What's 16°C in old money?'. [Down the Lane blog's post]
  • BrE the curate's egg: something bad in parts, good in parts, often euphemistically used: [Wikipedia entry] Suggested by Alan.

  • AmE through when used to link two time-designations and means 'to the end of', e.g. May through July. Suggested by @maceochi. But @AntHeald reminded us that there's a UK dialectal equivalent in while, which was discussed in the comments at this old post on whilst.
  • AmE furlough, which is discussed at Philip Gooden's blog  from a UK perspective. (Gooden translates furlough into BrE as unpaid leave, but that seems too broad. So we'll call it an untranslatable.) Suggested by @timgrant123
  • BrE adjectival sprung: 'having springs'. You can translate it into AmE with a prepositional phrase, but that's not the same as having a word for it. E.g. BrE sprung mattress (AmE innerspring mattress), BrE sprung saddle (i.e. a bike seat with springs). 
  • BrE to fancy: 'to like someone romantically/physically; to have a bit of a crush on'. Snaffled from @btransatlantic's blog post
  • AmE kick the can down the road: 'defer conclusive action by means of a short-term fix'. [Grammarist's post on this] Compare BrE kick into the long grass, which means to put something aside, hoping it'll be forgotten.  Suggested by @patricox
  • BrE (though sure many USers know it) plummy: 'having a "posh" accent'. Speaks volumes about accent and social place in the UK.
  • AmE howdy: suggested by DL, who says there's no BrE equivalent "in terms of exuberance".

  • BrE jolly hockey sticks: adjective used to describe a female of high social class who is enthusiastic in a way that annoys people. For example, this television review describes a coroner's "jolly-hockey-sticks attitude towards death". My definition owes much to Cambridge Dictionaries Online. The OED has an appeal for information about its origins. Suggested by @philviner

  • AmE to eyeball (it): 'to estimate a measurement without a measuring tool'. My 2008 post on it
And slightly cheating, since this one I posted in November:
  • AmE to take the fifth: to not speak because to do so may incriminate you. From the 5th amendment of US constitution. Suggested by @SamAreRandom

Each year I say I won't do an Untranslatable Month again, so maybe this will be the last one.  Or maybe not!