Friday, May 08, 2015


In case you weren't paying attention, the UK had a general election yesterday, and the exit polls and final results were a surprise, given that the previous day's polls had indicated a much closer result. Because this is a language blog, I'm going to stick with a language observation, however tempting it is to do otherwise...

David S in the US emailed me with the following this morning:
Some time within the last year or so I started noticing the distinctive usage of the phrase "shock poll" in the British news media; since then it seems to have migrated to the US, though apparently not in major news outlets. It appears so far as I can tell to mean simply "poll with startling results", with adjectival "shock". Some googling shows that "shock survey" and "shock study" are out there as well.

Is this use of "shock" as an adjective in fact coming out of British newspaperese, and is its usage spreading beyond a delimited set of nouns?
Are British readers surprised to know this is a Britishism? Indeed it is. The dictionaries I've checked have no separate entry for shock as noun premodifier meaning 'surprising', but it's very much there in the language, as can be seen in this screenshot from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English.

The columns of numbers are: TOTAL || US Canada UK Ireland Australia.

This list of words comes a good way down the list of [shock + noun] items in the corpus (hence the lack of column label(l)ing) because there are other premodifying uses that don't mean 'surprising', but have to do with more physical senses of shock, such as shock absorber, shock treatment and shock wave. These are General English, not specific to any country.

Another premodifying shock means 'intending to shock', as in shock rock (theatrical rock music, intended to shock/offend) and shock jock (i.e. a radio DJ who expresses unpopular opinions in order to gain attention and responses). The OED lists these as American in origin, but shock jock now has a much stronger showing in Australia in GloWBE--and it's known and used in BrE too. Some of the examples that are showing as British in the table above could also be interpreted as 'intending to shock' --particularly shock tactic. But for most of them, what is meant 'a [noun] that the media didn't see coming'. Shock value, which also indicates 'intention to shock' is not American in origin, as far as I can tell. The OED's first example of that phrase is from the UK in the 1930s.

Though the OED doesn't list this the 'surprising' sense of shock, it does have a 1974 example of shock news, which seems to be of the same ilk:  
1974   Times 3 Apr. 1/1 (heading)    Shock news is broken to EEC ministers.
Like David S, I blame British media. British headlines are notorious for "noun piles", and shock poll is a two-word noun pile that is conveniently (for headline writers) shorter than shocking poll result.  I recommend reading Language Log on the subject of noun piles, but here's an example (without a shock):

The OED does, though, cover another 'shocking' BrEism: shock horror. This is used as a compound noun on its own or in a premodifying position, as in these OED examples:

1977   Gay News 7 Apr. 15/3   The message must have got through: certainly there were no shock-horror reactions and fun was had by all.
1980   Times Lit. Suppl. 31 Oct. 1240/4   The shock-horror world of the media men.
1981   Brit. Med. Jrnl. 18 Apr. 1312/2   The shock-horror TV Eye of recent weeks.

For some of us, the news today is less shock and more shock-horror. Oops, I got political. 


Emilio Márquez said...

I have found the following in Oxford Collocations Dictionary (Oxford, 2009):

Shock + noun: […] defeat, departure, exit (all BrE, sports) – United suffered a shock defeat to Norwich. | result, victory, win (all BrE, sports) | announcement, decision, resignation (all BrE)

Eloise said...

You know, until you posted this, I didn't even realise it was grammatically incorrect. I mean, it obviously is, now it's been pointed out, but to this BrE speaker it's just in such common usage it doesn't sound wrong enough to be a problem.

And, I guess on the same basis, I wouldn't say it's an Americanism. I wouldn't use it in formal writing, at least I don't think so, but I'd happily use it chatting to my friends or in informal writing.

lynneguist said...

Eloise--what makes you say it's grammatically incorrect? All I said was that it's British! :) English puts nouns in front of nouns all the time, there's no grammar problem here.

(Thanks for the dictionary info, Emilio.)

David Crosbie said...

How does AmE like surprise premodification?

All the shock collocations in Lynne's post and Emilio's are equally idiomatic in BrE — with the exception of *surprise horror.

And isn't shock jock AmE in origin?

lynneguist said...

Yes, I believe it does say that about 'shock jock'...

David Crosbie said...

Sorry Lynne, I was in the process of reposting without the shock jock question, prior to deleting the original. Not much point now.

Rowan Collins said...

Huh, it had never occurred to me that that was newspaperese or anything particularly, um, shocking.

I'm not sure headline noun pile love explains it though, or certainly not in current usage. While it does sound fairly informal, I wouldn't blink at all at seeing it in the middle of a verbose sentence, e.g.:

"In a shock result, David Cameron has returned to Number 10 Downing Street"

And "meanwhile, in a shock move" is pretty much a formulaic paragraph opener, but not exactly concise. I think the OED is simply out of date, and it has long since become an accepted usage.

Eloise said...

I'm a bit tired (I stayed up listening to too many election results) but I think I'd expect shocking result, with an adjective form, if I was thinking of other situations where I try to jam nouns together. There are a few exceptions - I can happily put any noun before shop say - but I couldn't say bore book, bore result etc. I have to go for boring, so why is shock ok rather than the perfectly acceptable shocking? Shocking book works quite well whereas I don't think shock book does. Shock result and shocking result seem like they're saying the same thing though, but with fewer letters in the first case.

Anonymous said...

@Eloise "shocking" often implies "shockingly bad" though ("He's a shocking dancer", "That was a shocking attempt on goal", etc.)

For me "shocking result" is more...subjective than "shock result". "shocking result" is like saying "I was shocked by the result, and you might well be too", whereas "shock result" is more "absolutely everyone is shocked"

For "book", I agree that "shock book" doesn't sound great but I could possibly use it where the existence of the book itself is the shock. "JK Rowling announces shock new Harry Potter book" for instance. Whereas a "shocking book" would relate to the content of the book, and would be more of an opinion. And could be just the negaive meaning "It's a shocking book, I don't know who told him he could write."

Rowan Collins said...

@Anonymous I think that last example is very telling actually - "shocking book" qualifies the *content* of the book, "shock book" qualifies the very *existence* of the book.

Autolycus said...

Ah yes, the famous noun pile headline (the key point, though, is that they're short nouns) - as in the ideal - if implausible- tabloid headline ROYAL CORGI IN SHOCK SEX-CHANGE MERCY DASH.

David Crosbie said...

Nobody answered my question about surprise.

Unless I hear otherwise, I take it that AmE seekers find nothing strange in

surprise poll, surprise survey, surprise results, surprise victory, surprise departure, surprise exit, surprise resignation, surprise decision, surprise tactic, surprise resistance, surprise defeats, surprise news, surprise defeat, surprise result, surprise win

Try as I might, I can't think of a comparable noun that combines in precisely this

'NOUN is/was a NOUN-from-TRANSITIVE- VERB -of-emotion'


I have a suspicion that the potential for shock expressions are essentially an extension of the potential for surprise expressions.

The OED doesn't feature shock as a compounding item, but it so for surprise. Interestingly, the quotations are (with one more recent exception) dated 1891-1900.

David Crosbie said...

Oops! The spellchecker strikes again!

For AmE seekers read AmE speakers.

lynneguist said...

David: To me, a 'surprise poll' would be like a 'surprise party'. You didn't know anyone was going to ask you a question, but then they did.

Looking in GloWBE, things like 'surprise decision' are much more common in BrE than AmE. AmE has larger numbers of things like 'surprise attack', where the occurrence is a surprise, not the outcome. AmE is strong on 'surprise ending' and 'surprise twist', but BrE has more 'surprise inclusion', 'surprise choice'...

David Crosbie said...


To me, a 'surprise poll' would be like a 'surprise party'.

To me it's genuinely ambiguous in bald isolation. It certain could (for me) mean 'a poll with surprising results', but only in the right context.

Anonymous said...


I'm with Lynne: I'd also think "surprise poll" meant "I didn't expect to participate in the poll", but I think "surprise defeat" and "surprise win" would work for me... in a newspaper or from an (AmE?) anchorperson. I think it would sound weird in conversation. Except at my last workplace, a newspaper.

The rest sound off to me. (Although, I suppose "surprise victory" might work. I suspect most of my former editors would substitute it with "surprise win".)

– AiNJ

Alec said...

I suspect that in BrE "shock" has a more negative connotation than in AmE - to be shocked is not just to be to be surprised, but to be surprised by something that you find unpleasant or reprehensible. Thus as a BrE speaker I could say "I was shocked by his rudeness" but I could not say "I was shocked by his generosity".

David Crosbie said...

Lynne, Anonymous (AiNJ),

On reflection, although I could take a surprise poll to be like a surprise party, it wouldn't be my default. For that concept I'd say (and expect to hear) snap poll or unexpected poll. And even then, the latter is (for me) ambiguous.

There are three extraneous complications:

1. Poll can denote a number of opinion-eliciting processes.

2. Poll has come to denote also the results or findings of a poll.

3. We've had so many of the things in the last few weeks that it would be almost impossible be surprised that a poll was being held.

It's therefore not impossible to say that

• The General Election was a shock poll.

• The exit poll announced just after ten o'clock was a surprise poll at the time.

Jay said...

You can also have something being a 'shocker'. I heard more than one person last Friday morning say something along the lines of 'that result last night was a bit of a shocker!'.

David L said...

@David Crosbie: most of the 'surprise' things you list would strike me as odd in American English. I would prefer to say to say 'unexpected results.' 'surprising victory,' or just 'upset' (particular in sports, but also in politics). Etc.

I think AmE in general prefers an adjective rather than a noun in such constructions.

David L said...

@David Crosbie:

"The General Election was a shock poll"

I'm betting most Americans wouldn't know what to make of this, for several reasons:

'Poll' is associated almost exclusively with opinion sampling We get pre-election polling, but to call the election itself a poll doesn't work.

'Poll' as a noun meaning the results of a poll is unknown.

'shock poll' or 'surprise poll' are unfamiliar and likely to be misinterpreted. How can a general election be a surprise? They forgot to tell everyone it was happening?

Anonymous said...

"Shock horror" is a piece of tabloidese that Private Eye has often used ironically and can now be used in this way in conversation.

cris said...

When I (western CdnE) read 'shock poll' I thought along the lines of a 'pop quiz' or perhaps someone polling me with questions designed to shock me, (do you condemn the single mom who left her baby alone in hot car during a job interview?!?!).

Also shock doesn't have negative automatically associated in it for me, being shocked by someone's generosity sounds completely valid.

Indeed I'd usually use a modifier to express a negative, "shocked and appalled" comes to mind.

David Crosbie said...

David L

'Poll' is associated almost exclusively with opinion sampling ... to call the election itself a poll doesn't work.

Here too poll usually implies 'opinion poll' and on specific occasions 'exit poll'. But politicians confronted with unfavourable results of intention-to-vote surveys invariably say The only poll I'm interested in is the one on [DATE OF NEXT ELECTION]'.

This usage is boosted by the terms we use for the location where we go to vote Polling Station or Polling Place.

Probably more common that the politician's the only poll ... is the expression go to the polls.

'shock poll' or 'surprise poll' are unfamiliar and likely to be misinterpreted. How can a general election be a surprise?

That's exactly why they're crystal clear for us, and would be so even if we hadn't heard the collocation before. Because a general election in itself can't possibly be a surprise, it must be some feature other than its occurrence that constitutes the shock/surprise.

Buzz said...

@David Crosbie: In America, we talk about "polling places" too. (I'm not sure about "polling station"; the term would be easy to understand in an election context, but it feels unidiomatic.) And we certainly refer to "going to the polls."

However, we would never speak of the election itself (or its results) as a "poll." The more I think about that, the weirder it seems, but that's the usage nonetheless.

Dark Star in the Morning said...

It may just be that my mind goes odd places today, or it may be that I recently saw the beginning of the sketch on another show, but the first thing I connected with "shock poll" was Monty Python's "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" (Apparently I, too, connect it with someone unexpectedly asking you questions.)

No matter how many times I reread the BBC noun pile example headline, I can't make head nor tail of it. This may be due to that I can't tell if "row" is supposed to be like "an argument, a fuss" or like "stand in a straight row" -- but the fact that I can't tell from the context speaks to how unintelligible the headline is to me.

I suspect that Americans' association of shock with occurrence rather than outcome may be influenced by the US military referring to the tactics at the beginning of the 2003 invasion of Iraq (specifically the bombing of Baghdad) as "shock and awe". The media repeated the phrase continually, and it has probably become stuck in our heads.

Buzz said...

@Dark Star in the Morning: I don't think repetition of "shock and awe" is likely to have been a cause of anything. My perception of how "shock" is used has almost certainly not changed since before 2003. Moreover, I interpret the "shock" in "shock and awe" as referring to outcome anyway. It had never occurred to me that it could be otherwise.

lynneguist said...

Yes, it's not a matter of Americans failing to use something that was at any time general (or 'natural' if one believes in such things) to the language. It's a matter of the British introducing a new usage.

Anonymous said...

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition was my first association for the phrase "shock poll", too. (US)

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

"Shock! Horror" has become a cliché, from overuse in the tabloids (like "Phew! What a scorcher!" when the temperature goes above 25 C).

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

"Shock! Horror" has become a cliché, from overuse in the tabloids (like "Phew! What a scorcher!" when the temperature goes above 25 C).

Boris Zakharin said...

AmE here (NJ). Not liking
surprise poll, surprise survey, surprise results, surprise resistance, or surprise news. The others are fine.

Is "surprise defeats" different from the plural of "surprise defeat"?