Tuesday, April 22, 2014

common or garden, garden-variety, bog-standard, regular

It's Tuesday night! I'm supposed to be blogging! It's already 10! What will be quick to write about?!

Let's go with the item in a recent email exchange with the famous (if you read the comments section here) David Crosbie. But before I do that: thanks to David and to all the other commenters here who add so much to this blog. I'm (orig. AmE) taking a back seat on comment-replying these days, and I'm really grateful to all of you who fill in so much great information from so many different perspectives here.

So, anyway, we were having a conversation about certain comments on the site and I said "I think it's just (AmE) garden-variety spam", which he pointed out would be common or garden spam in BrE, which the OED lists as "a jocular substitute for 'common' or 'ordinary'". The same description works for garden-variety. They're descriptions that would be used for a variety of plant or animal that is the 'ordinary' kind that you would find in your garden, extended to a more general use. Both have had this kind of figurative use since about the beginning of the 20th century.

David also reminded me of an arguably more coarse (but more frequent) BrE synonym, bog-standard. That's come up in passing here because it's always used in my house when Better Half offers people tea: 'Do you want Earl Grey or bog-standard?' (The usual reply: 'bog-standard'.)  Keeping with my aim to blog quickly tonight, I'm going to let the OED tell you about the etymology:

Origin uncertain; perhaps an alteration of box-standard adj. (although this is first attested later), after bog n.4

Differing theories of the origin of bog-standard have been proposed, but none proven. An immediate association with bog n.1 seems unlikely on semantic grounds. The most commonly held view is that the transition from box to bog resulted from a mishearing or misunderstanding of box-standard n.
Others have suggested a derivation < bog-wheel, former Cambridge slang for a bicycle, though ultimately also related to bog n.4: see P. Beale Conc. Dict. Slang (1989) 47/2, 48/1.

The  bog n.4 they're referring to is the BrE slang use of the term for a latrine (which I somehow failed to mention in the toilet post). Bog n.1 is the 'swamp' [orig. AmE] meaning.

I can't think of a similarly slangy AmE equivalent, but what AmE does have is regular to mean 'ordinary'.  The OED (again) lists it as:
6 a. Having the usual, typical, or expected attributes, qualities, parts, etc.; normal, ordinary, standard. Now chiefly U.S.
That meaning has given rise to other AmE meanings:
 d. Chiefly N. Amer. Of food and drink: having the usual or typical constituents, as distinguished from some other defined category of the same foodstuff; unmodified; not distinguished by any peculiarity of quality, preparation, presentation, etc.
 e. orig. U.S. Normal, average, or standard with reference to a predetermined scale or system of categorization; belonging to the category or class considered to be standard.
 The last of these has come into BrE with McDonald's and Starbucks, and one sees it often in non-US-owned coffee shops now. And it's one of those things that some BrE speakers like to complain to me about. In fact, an American David who works at Sussex with me emailed me a few months ago about his run-in with a 'regular' correcter:
[H]ave you ever covered "regular" which, in AmE, can mean something like the bog standard or ordinary, but, in BrE seems to never have that meaning?  I asked for "regular flavour" crisps at the Bridge Cafe, some years ago, and a perky, apparently British woman informed me that "regular" is a frequency. She was probably one of your linguistics colleagues.  :-)

So, I managed a blog post in less than an hour by quoting liberally from dictionaries and emails. Score!

Before I go, some dates and places where I'll be speaking about linguistic stuff for general audiences:

And if you're interested in what goes on in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sussex (woo hoo!!), check out our new events blog. (You can also follow us on Twitter @SussexLinguist.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

hire and rent

I promised @matthewddsg weeks ago that this would be the next blog entry. Then I did another one instead and had to write other things for other places. So here it is, not quite a month since I promised it. For me, that's pretty good!

The upshot: in BrE one hires things (and sometimes places), employs people, and rents places; in AmE one hires people and rents things or places. That said, one hears hire for people in BrE too, but just not as much as one does in AmE. And employ is not particularly non-American, it's just overwhelmed by hire there. Both have let for what the landlord might do and lease for certain things (e.g. long-term non-ownership of cars, I think). It'll probably be easiest if I go through these verbs one at a time.

Rent can refer to the act of letting something to someone (I rented some land to him) or to the act of paying someone to use their something (I rented some land from him). This is old news--since the Middle Ages when it came into English from French. The OED notes one sense that is 'chiefly North American' which means 'To be hired out for or let at a certain rate', as in (their example):
1992   Albuquerque (New Mexico) Monthly Oct. 37/2 (captionThe tux, suitable for any performance in Albuquerque's doubtful performing arts center, rents for $55 and sells for $425.
But why does AmE use rent for things besides (now particularly AmE) real estate and BrE doesn't so much? The first examples the OED has of non-real-estate rented things are American: a guide in 1817, boats in 1895 and pianos in 1903. Comparing rent a boat with hire a boat in American English via Google Ngrams, one can see how recent this change is:

So, use of rent for non-real-estate seems to be an American innovation, possibly motivated by more limited use of hire and/or by the advent of so-called rent-a-car companies in the 1920s. 

I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for nouns that came one or two words after rent a. The top 10 are: car, room, house, movie, boat, bike, video, place, canoe, kayak. Further down the list we get tuxedo, horse, harp and grandchild. Compare this to the British National Corpus, where the top 5 (because it is a smaller corpus) are: room, house, place, car, villa. (And half of the six rent a car examples are in the names of American companies.)

Americans can even rent time, for example (from the San Francisco Chronicle, via COCA):
He pays $10 an hour to rent studio time and pays to rent equipment when he goes on remote
While one can find British examples of rent studio time, the more common phrase would be to book studio time, using the much-more-BrE-than-AmE sense of book to mean 'reserve'. Book in this sense often gets extended beyond the action of reserving the room/time so as to include the using of the thing that was reserved.

A particularly British use of rent is noted by the OED (my emphasis):
In various extended and humorous (typically derogatory) uses, suggesting the temporary acquisition or instant availability of the person or thing specified, usually for an expedient or mercenary purpose; spec. (chiefly Brit.) denoting a faction of regular, esp. violent, participants in public protests, in rent-a-crowd, rent-a-mob, etc. See also rent-a-cop n., rent-a-quote adj. and n.
But note that it's only rent-a-mob/crowd that is British. Rent-a-cop is label(l)ed as 'N. Amer. depreciative', and all of these humorous extensions have the American rent-a-car (BrE car hire) to thank for their existence.

Hiring people and hiring things both go back to at least the 13th century. So this is not a case of either nation making up new meanings, but of the 'thing' meaning dying out in AmE and gaining prevalence in BrE.

I searched the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) for nouns that occurred one or two words after hire a*. The * there allows it to be 'a' or 'an' (or 'any' or 'all' or anything else that starts with a-; other words are less likely to be frequent and therefore influence the outcome--but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened; see below). This is my way of looking for direct objects of hire. The software on the website calculates which words co-occur (or collocate, to use the jargon) with the search string in higher-than expected rates for each dialect. Here are the strongest collocates:


This is not to say that it's not real British English to 'hire a person', just that such uses don't stand out in the data. Hire in BrE is not a magnet for the word person like it is in AmE.

To give a broader sense of the kinds of things one can hire in BrE, the top 10 nouns after hire a in the (20ish-year-old) British National Corpus are: car, video, house, boat, bike, minibus, van, room, plane, helicopter.  There's a distinction to be made here between hiring a room and renting a room. One hires a room for an event; one rents a room to live in.

In the case of fire in the BrE list, it seems to be that the verb fire has been mislabel(l)ed as a noun by the software that automatically tags words for part of speech. In this case, it represents the phrase hire and fire. So, that one is about doing something to people, but it seems to be part of a nearly-set phrase (it's used much more in the BrE part of the corpus than the AmE part).

Because hire is used so much, employ (orig. AmE) loses out in AmE. Searching GloBWE for employ a *man (which would capture employ a woman/a man/a postman, etc. but conveniently leaves out employ a metaphor or anything like that), I found 16 BrE examples and 0 AmE ones.

I've already covered this one briefly. Both AmE and BrE have this word with the meaning 'to rent out', but BrE has developed an intransitive sense that means 'to be let'. Thus one sees UK properties advertised as 'to let' where US ones would be 'for rent'. Click on the link to see what happens to 'to let' signs (if you can't imagine it).

To lease is the same in AmE & BrE. But I can't leave this post without mentioning that the British may get a new lease of life, while Americans get a new lease on life. Not a verb there, but if I hadn't mentioned it, someone would have asked for it in the comments, I'm sure.

Wrote this late at night, so glad to see a lot of good info on the fine points of employ/hire in the comments!