Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 UK-to-US (co-)Word of the Year: dodgy

So the other day, when I decided to avoid difficult questions and not decide between my top two US-to-UK words of the year, I laid the groundwork for general indecisiveness. So, I might as well not be decisive about the UK-to-US words either. It works out well (I re(-)assure myself) because in the end I will have a Noun of the Year and an Adjective of the Year in both directions. (Orig AmE) Tough luck, verbs.

And the UK-to-US Adjective of the Year is:


...which was nominated by Gina the Great, Anonymous in New Jersey, and Peter Mork (in a previous year). It is timely because this is the year that Ben Yagoda at Not One-Off Britishisms declared that "Dodgy is ensconced" in response to this headline in the Wall Street Journal:

When asked which British words I now can't live without, I usually mention dodgy. What did I say before? It's got such a feeling to it, and has to be translated by different words for different contexts in AmE. Take, for example, these British collocates (i.e. words that go next to it) for dodgy:

 dodgy knee, dodgy memory, dodgy ticker:  unreliable because falling apart
dodgy internet connection, dodgy CGI: unreliable, not very good--probably because it's done on the cheap
dodgy statisticsdodgy accounting, dodgy refereeing: questionable; unreliable and possibly dishonest
dodgy business practices, dodgy characters, dodgy suburb: disreputable and probably dangerous/criminal
dodgy photos: either poorly taken or picturing dodgy activities
...and so on.
So, my question is: Is dodgy  used in the same way in AmE as in BrE?  One way to check on this is to look in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE). GloWBE collects about 387 million words from each of these dialects, and the basic numbers show that the word is still definitely BrE and only marginally AmE: 491 AmE examples to 3970 BrE ones.

You can ask GloWBE which collocates of dodgy are most typical of AmE and BrE--that is, not just which ones occur most in each, but which ones are statistically over- or under-represented in each. This bit of statistics is a bit dodgy, since the number of AmE dodgys is so small. But let's do it anyhow. We get a table like this, with AmE on the left:

The darker green indicates collocates that are very particular to that dialect. So, in the right column, we can see that BrE has lots and lots of nouns that go with dodgy a lot that are not much found in AmE. In the left column, we see that dodgy energy, dodgy theology, and dodgy scientists are found more in AmE than in BrE. However, that looks fairly suspicious, and sure enough the AmE dodgy energy examples are just repetitions of the same text (a problem for internet corpora is that a lot of internet content is mirrored or quoted on different sites), the AmE dodgy theologies are really two rather than three different examples, etc. The pink/red ones are over-represented in British compared to American.

The white ones are comparable in the two dialects--and bloke is a funny one here. Not only is it a BrE word, it's a BrE word (like bloody) that Americans probably overuse when 'doing' British English. I'd say this tells us that dodgy is generally perceived as British in AmE. And it's the number one collocate for dodgy in AmE. (The numbers here are slightly different from the above since I searched for nouns within one word above and within two words below.)

There are a lot of businessy collocates throughout the AmE list. There are in the BrE list too--after all, we're getting a lot of news stories here and there's been a lot of dodginess in that realm in the past few years. But there aren't many body parts on the American list. At number 58 on the list there are two instances of dodgy stomach, whereas on the BrE list, numbers 11 and 12 are knee and knees. The vaguely-criminal/dishonest meaning of dodgy seems to be coming through stronger in AmE than the 'unreliable/poorly constructed' sense.

This may be underscored by a US example from a novel by a Texan author (found via the Corpus of Contemporary American English), which wouldn't mean in BrE what it seems to be meaning here:

They'd need dodgy breaking-and-entering skills to get the journal (having somehow first discovered its existence), an impressive knack for wordplay, and access to Mission Impossiblestyle office products to obliterate all superfluous words into mind-blowing nonexistence.
What seems to be intended by the author is '(slightly?) criminal breaking-and-entering skills'. But say dodgy breaking-and-entering skills in BrE and it sounds like it means 'not-very-good breaking-and-entering skills'. BrE just wouldn't use dodgy to mean 'criminal' before something that is actually criminal.

And so it goes when words are imported. You can call them 'misunderstood' or you can call them 'subject to semantic change'.

Next up in the Words of the Year...nouns!


Dick Hartzell said...

Dodgy entered my consciousness permanently (though I didn't know it at the time) when my wife and I took our daughter to see Finding Nemo when it was released in 2003.

The word dodgy is used by Bruce the shark in the scene where he forces Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) to attend his AA-style meeting for sharks guilty of overindulging their appetite for fish:


It also occurs to me that there's a related word -- a noun, actually -- in American English, though dodge is used most often in the phrase tax dodge and is obviously not nearly as versatile as British English dodgy, which is to my way of thinking an, uh, awesome word.

David Crosbie said...

For me, dodgy has the central meaning 'unreliable', and is often synonymous. Even when the two words aren't mutual substitutes, dodgy is a facetious counterpart to earnest unreliable.

David Crosbie said...

Dick Hartzell

It also occurs to me that there's a related word -- a noun, actually -- in American English

Dodge is Br E too. And don't forget the Artful Dodger.

Nancy Friedman said...

I once used dodgy in a funeral eulogy. (Not in reference to the deceased, I hasten to add.)

That said, except for the first set of collocates (knee, memory, ticker), many AmE speakers--especially those under, say, 35--would probably substitute sketchy, which in this context has a similar meaning of unreliable, disreputable, or potentially dangerous.

I wrote about this relatively new sketchy a few years back:

Anonymous said...


In BrE, "sketchy" means "incomplete". How very confusing. A perfect example of why this blog is so named.

David Crosbie said...

Dick Hazell

On second thoughts, maybe our use of the other dodge cognates does differ from yours.

For me, and I suspect for other BrE speakers, all the dodge words apart from dodgy have the sense of evasion. So a tax dodge is a ruse for tax-evasion.

This must have been true of AmE in the years when you spoke of draft-dodgers. In BrE, the same idea goes back to the ironic, nay sarcastic, phrase D-Day Dodgers. Whatever the truth, every serviceman who served in Italy believed that Lady Astor had used the term to criticise them.

Wikipedia article here. The named author is believed to been a disguise for Hamish Henderson, then a major and serving in Italy. That's certainly what they thought at this tribute to Hamish.

Dick Hartzell said...

As long as we're trotting out Dickens' Artful Dodger I feel compelled to mention the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. In a previous incarnation they were the Brooklyn Dodgers (the team decamped to LA after the 1957 season, to the outrage of Brooklyn fans) -- a shortened form of the nickname Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers they took on in 1913. (According to Wikipedia, trolley dodger was a pejorative Manhattanites used to describe Brooklyn residents. As a Manhattanite myself I hadn't known that, though I'm not surprised. Today, of course, Brooklyn has trumped Manhattan as the hip place for New Yorkers to live. I guess whatever goes around comes around.)

I second Nancy Friedman's mention of sketchy as an (admittedly inferior) American substitute for dodgy. But it's true that even if dodgy enters the vocabulary of Americans it probably won't ever be used to describe one's own physical limitations -- dodgy knee and the like. And no, I have no idea why I believe that use won't succeed ... unless it's because of Americans' comfort level with dodge to describe a shady practice.

There's another word in the same vein in American English, though I rarely hear anyone use it in conversation: hinky. Merriam-Webster.com defines it as 1) slang : nervous, jittery and 2)
slang : suspicious. The dictionary claims its first known use was in 1956, which surprised me. No idea it was such a neologism.

Anyway, dodgy is the clear winner here!

Nick Rowe said...

I use 'dodgy' quite a lot, in all meanings. And I do have a dodgy knee (replaced anterior cruciate ligament thanks to 5-a-side footie). Probably agree that 'unreliable' is closest single word substitute, but dodgy has far more flavour. Finally, I must point out that there was a reasonable nineties ('BritPop') band called Dodgy - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodgy

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile FWIW I reckon that the AusE equivalent of dodgy (in all its senses) is shonky. But I speak as a Brit so I can't claim to have an innate feeling for Australian vocabulary (someone somewhere must have a Br/Aus blog in the same vein as this one).

vp said...

IIRC, Bruce the shark in "Finding Nemo" was Australian (see Dick hartzell's comment above). Do Australians not say "dodgy"?

Anonymous said...

@vp: I was going to say "no, they don't", but thought a little research was called for first. Googling for "dodgy site:au" produces a few results suggesting that it is in use with a number of nuances. I can't say I've ever heard it but no doubt I will start noticing it now! Still, my point was that there is a uniquely Australian word for it, and I think that is still true.

Autolycus said...

To my mind, the core concept underlying "dodgy" is indeed unreliability and perhaps a flexible relationship with the truth - if criminal, then mostly petty, with overtones of some 1950s caper movies.

As a footnote to a footnote, BrE speakers may more likely speak of a "dicky ticker", thanks to M. Alphonse in Allo!Allo!

Sam C said...

@Nancy - I think "sketchy," as you sort of pointed out in your comment, is the reason dodgy just hasn't made that much headway in the US, & isn't likely to. Dodgy still has a cutesy feel to my American ear - like someone mimicking a Cockney character in an old movie, or who has decided to refer to their "flat" and "GAR-age" to sound "fancy."
Sketchy fits most of the uses (though not all as you pointed out). I'll use it for unreliable/cheap things ("this iPad case from China is a little sketchy"), potentially dishonest business practices ("I'm not sure about this sketchy public wifi connection" or "that costume store that popped up is a little sketchy") and photos can be sketchy in the same as dodgy, though less often maybe than its other uses. With malfunctioning body parts, I'm more likely to use "wonky."
I mostly use "sketchy" to show that I'm uncomfortable with something or a situation. I don't want to walk down that alley - it looks sketchy. This deal is too good to be true; it seems sketchy to me. That guy is so sketch - don't go out with him.
[If it helps, I'm mid-twenties, college-educated, from Atlantic US]

Dark Star in the Morning said...

The first time I heard sketchy was about 5 years ago from a much younger person who was about 20 years old at the time, living in the Toronto area of Canada. I've always thought of it as a word peculiar to Canada for that reason, but perhaps it's more one that belongs to the (north-?) eastern part of North America, since various of the US speakers from the Eastern seaboard (and Great Lakes region?) seem to use it also.

The word my mother always used and I usually use is iffy which I think carries the same connotations as the UK usage of dodgy. If you substitute iffy in that paragraph which was used for an example with dodgy it doesn't work either because the sense of unreliability comes through. Iffy is like chancy, it may work but it may not, and the sense of people being iffy, being unreliable, is where the sense of being purposely no good starts to come in because they've made a conscious choice to be questionable and a bit dishonest, as you put it, whereas the weather being iffy -- well, that's just weather for you....

For some reason sketchy has stuck in my head, but I connect it with that meaning of questionable and somewhat dishonest, not quite on the up-and-up, and that's the first thing I think of with dodgy, also. I do think that comes with the sense of evading something, but the Artful Dodger really does help cement that meaning in one's head -- he was sketchy, iffy, and dodgy all at the same time nicely rolled up into one neat package. He's pretty unforgettable.

Dick Hartzell said...

Interesting to think that the screenwriters at Pixar, who undoubtedly thought they were lending a certain authenticity to their dialogue in Finding Nemo by adding the British English dodgy to Bruce the Shark's lines may have failed because as an Australian Bruce would have used shonky instead. FWIW, Bruce also refers to Dory as a sheila, so his language is at least somewhat authentically Australian. Of course, since Pixar is making movies primarily for Americans it risks incomprehensibility if it pursues linguistic authenticity with abandon. This past summer I was more than a little flummoxed by the regional British English spoken in The Full Monty. Ironically, turning on the DVD subtitles in English was an enormous help.

John Cowan said...

This AmE use of sketchy must be relatively recent. I'm in my mid-fifties and Northeastern, and I don't use it natively, though I understand it. For me sketchy means only 'incomplete' (in the manner of a sketch compared to a full painting or drawing), just as for BrE-speaking Anonymous at 9:54.

John Cowan said...

Shonky is apparently also in use in New Zealand.

David Brown said...

[Perth, Western Australia]
Since there has been some mention of Australian usage of some of these words, allow me to put in my two bob's worth. [http://www.dagree.net/aussieslang/slang_b2.html]

"dodgy" vs "shonky"

These terms overlap, but are not entirely equivalent. Conveniently, my wife and I were cleaning out a cupboard just this morning and found an expired tin of coffee - my wife remarked that it looked dodgy, and should not be used. In this context "shonky" would not have been appropriate, but differences between the terms are not easy to pin down.

The Australian consumer organisation Choice gives out annually its "Shonky Awards", for products, services or people that are misleading, dangerous, bad value, or just generally, well, dodgy.

Apart from in the context of these awards, "dodgy" is perhaps used more commonly than "shonky".

In the 1980s and 1990s some Australian comedy shows featured the "Dodgey Brothers"; for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH_3qXnZgHs, from 9:50.

To round off the discussion, I should mention that this is a sketch comedy show - but if you are from the USA or Canada, there is no danger in going there.

Nancy Friedman said...

Anonymous and John Cowan: In current AmE parlance, sketchy can mean either incomplete or shady/unreliable. I discuss both meanings in my 2011 Visual Thesaurus column: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/candlepwr/sketchy-branding/

Unknown said...

@Anonymous : Anecdotal evidence, but as a native Australian I believe I use and hear 'dodgy ' far more often than 'shonky', which to my mind has an older, more ocker feel to it (and as pointed out by David Brown, does not have exactly the same connotations). In my experience, 'dodgy' in AusE overlaps almost precisely with its use in BrE, and is widespread and widely understood.

'sheila', on the other hand, is a really old-fashioned term; incongruous in the mouth of anyone urban or under 50 - to me it reeks of foreigners trying too hard to sound authentic. So I'd agree with you that Pixar had something of a misfire, but for opposite reasons!

Chao said...

Dodgy has a particular nuance to it that I think needs to be mentioned to really understand its usage but at the same time also helps pull together what you point out as seemingly varied usages.

At the risk of bringing a colloquialism in to this dodgy could quite comfortably be replaced with "a bit off". To expand on this "off" could be considered a contextual modifier to whatever the dodgy thing is, perhaps from a platonic ideal of what that thing should do thus explaining the varied things it can be used to describe. "A bit" is important for the level, it's imperfect from this ideal but not outright broken or failing, comparing it with the not dodgy but bad equivalent is helpful.

With this view of it your examples all come together, all of your descriptions hedge on the strength of their description, "unreliable", "not very", "questionable", "possibly".

"A dodgy [medical]" mostly performs its function but unreliably so. Knees are a great example here, a dodgy knee means you can walk about but either slowly due to low level but constant discomfort. Alternatively it might be fine but on occasion will buckle causing significant problems walking. A broken knee, torn ligaments on the knee etc that provide a constant strong problem walking would not be considered dodgy.

On people or practices it's all low level stuff too. With regards to person it reflects mostly on their moral charecter. Someone who is flakey or unreliable isn't dodgy, neither is a murderer or a thug. Someone who does low level scamming, sells knock offs or COULD (there's that hedging) cause you personal injury if you cross them would all be dodgy.

Dodgy statistics aren't outright lies but are either poorly formed or presented dishonestly.

A small business that fiddles their tax by not declaring some cash in hand jobs is doing dodgy accounting. One that pushes income and outgoing across financial years is doing dodgy accounting. One that has million pound holes in their accounts isn't dodgy, they are committing fraud.

After a night out you have have a cheap kebab. If the next day you feel a bit queasy (a dodgy stomach for those keeping track), have the runs (is that a BrE thing or does AmE have it too?) or throw up a bit and are fine after you had some dodgy chicken. If you spend the next morning throwing up and unable to consider having anything to eat you got food poisoning.

Of course it wouldn't be the BrE we love without a further caveat. If you prefix it with "pretty", "very", "really" or similar then you drop the "a bit" qualification though that is more a reflection of the British approach to understating things as much as anything else.

David Crosbie said...

Today (Wed 9th Jan) the word came up in the British Parliament. Ed Miliband accused David Cameron of being

"a dodgy prime minister surrounded by dodgy donors"

The BBC radio news magazine PM wondered whether this was close to the worst sort of abuse (known as 'unparliamentary language'. They discussed this with the head of a body supervising standards in public life.

OK, if it's bad enough to be considered unparliamentary the Speaker (or his Deputy) would have made Ed withdraw. And public conduct guy just considered it symptomatic of normal (though regrettable) debating style. Still, eyebrows were raised and questions asked.

Maybe the word is becoming more serious.

(BBC News report here.)

David Crosbie said...

Today (Wed 9th Jan) the word came up in the British Parliament.

Sorry! I must have seen that on the BBC page I was reading. The phrase dodgy donors was launched on Wednesday 11th February.

A semantic knock-on cropped up a day later (Thurs 12th Feb) on the Sky News Paper review, where dodgy found a new niche — more serious still, I would say.

The discourse is all about the bank HSBC (Swiss Division) helping clients to arrange their affairs so as to pay less tax. UK citizens/residents with Swiss bank accounts are (with few exceptions) very rich indeed, and many of them are alleged to be friends of the Tories (Conservative Party) — indeed a few have donated millions to the Party.

This is not the commonplace that many US readers might take it to be. That's why the tag dodgy donors has stuck — if only for the time being.

How to speak of paying less tax is currently a bit of a problem in BrE. We all see a vague spectrum with two unambiguous extremes. At one extreme is tax fraud. At the other extreme are the tax breaks (which I take to be AmE in origin —I think we used to call them rebates), offered by the government to encourage us to do something specific with our money: a certain form of saving, investment in cinema, charity donations etc.

But we crave a dichotomy, so we can blame some people and exonerate others. There is a legal distinction which is becoming more and more familiar, although often used with an explanation. The terms are tax evasion which covers any illegal measure and tax avoidance which covers anything else.

This is not much use when we want so much to blame people. When churchmen and other (mostly left-wing) moralists say that tax avoidance is not illegal but it's immoral, the answer is often to point at government-approved schemes for charity donation, saving gets, So we're trying to divide tax avoidance into villainy and the rest.

Our Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) and the Treasury (Finance Ministry) coined the term aggressive tax avoidance. This seems to be aimed at procedures devised by tax lawyers. It doesn't seem to have caught on with the public. To me it suggests that the harm lies lies in trying too hard.

The splendidly named Lord Fink tried some new terminology. He had one of those accounts, and he also donated millions of pounds to the Tories, and then became Party Treasurer. He was named by Ed Miliband in Parliament — which doesn't count as libel — and challenged Ed to repeat it outside Parliament, so that he could sue. But then he spoilt the effect by admitting that he had practised tax avoidance. His defence was that we all do it, and his was at the vanilla end of the scale. The term vanilla tax avoidance rather than catching on has met with bemusement and/or ridicule.

Then last night a TV press-reviewer (her day job is film-making) offered a new distinction:

People know the difference between (observing) the spirit of the law and dodgy tax avoidance.

If this catches on, dodgy will have shifted to 'not actually illegal but highly reprehensible'.

David Crosbie said...

I discovered a recording of the Sky News press review. It turns out that i confused it with the BBC News press review. Still, both had picked up on dodgy donors.

On Sky, Julia Hartley Brewer expressed surprise that the phrase had not been condemned as unparliamentary by the Speaker. So one widely-heard/read journalists now considers dodgy as a term of extreme disapproval.

On BBC, I now recall that the comparison was actually

the difference between the spirit of the law and dodgy donors

So Jenny-the-film-maker associates dodgy with political corruption (through legal loopholes) as well as financial delinquency — precisely the effect that Ed Milliband was aiming for.

The association is aided by an existing popular term of disapproval tax-dodgers. This is a category that makes no distinction between legal and illegal schemes. It even takes in tax exiles, who don't engage in any tax-reducing schemes; they simply move abroad to live.

[Unlike the US, Britain does not tax the income of citizens who are not 'resident'. This is defined (or used to be) as not spending more than a certain numbers of be days per year in the UK.]

We also speak of fare dodgers. Not kindly.

Roberta Davies said...

Resurrecting this slightly zombie thread to comment on the Australian word "shonky". This has spread into BrE usage, but -- as far as I'm aware -- only in the context of video games. I hear it commonly in game reviews, but have never heard it elsewhere.

"This is a decent game, but it suffers from shonky combat controls" would be a typical use. In other words, the controls work, kind of, but don't have the smoothness or rapid reaction that one would expect. Maybe there's a lag between pressing the button and the character reacting, or maybe the movement is jerky or sloppy, something like that.

David Crosbie said...

The late Terry Pratchett adopted the word — at least in the coining shonky shop. By contact this is clearly meant to denote
an extremely cheap shop selling extremely shoddy good.

Perhaps he picked the word up from his daughter Rhianna, who is big in the video games world.

bruce said...

Americans must use words because of the sound, for example they would have to say "dah-jee" for dodgy, "sketchy" just sounds better to them. Same as we say words with softer sounds in the middle like "numerous", where you like harder sharper sounds, "multiple". I came across the word, "be-donky-donk". You say "okay" where we might say "alright". You like harder sounds because they are less ambiguous when you say them. "alright or a Right?", "numerous, new Merous?"...