stodgy and claggy

I have been asked many times if I've written about stodgy, and I always think I have, because I wrote a post about other BrE -odgy adjectives. I have no idea why stodgy didn't make it into that post, but I'm here to rectify the stodgelessness of this blog.

I remember (early in my time in England) asking an English friend what she meant when she said she looked forward to a bit of stodge. She meant 'a carbohydrate-heavy meal'. It was new to me, and this chart from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE) lets you know why: most Americans don't talk about stodge:

stodge in the GloWbE corpus

But stodgy is a different matter:

stodgy in the GloWbE corpus

So how could I not figure out from context what stodge meant, if stodgy be a relatively common word in AmE?

Because Americans typically don't use stodgy to mean 'carb-heavy'.  We mostly use it to refer to someone or something that is so conventional or inactive as to be dull. You can see this in the typical nouns following stodgy in the News on the Web corpus. Here are the top 3:

1 stodgy food    stodgy industry
2 stodgy performance    stodgy incumbents   
3 stodgy comfort food    stodgy reputation   

Stodgy performance (in sport[s]) in the BrE column shows that it can also mean 'dull' in the UK. It's a negative thing when it comes to things other than food, and it can be negative regarding food too. You might feel unpleasantly heavy after eating stodgy food. But stodgy food can also be nice, as I know all too well.

 reminds me a bit of stodgy, and it came up recently when I baked some banana bread for a gathering then overheard a participant describe it as claggy. This again, is a BrEism, which might have become somewhat familiar in the US due to the popularity of the Great British Bake Off (aka the Great British Baking Show: see this old post about that). It means 'having a tendency to clot'—so when it is used in reference to baked goods, it means something like 'so moist or undercooked as to feel gummy or clumpy'. 

My thought on having my moist banana bread called claggy: Those who come empty-handed shouldn't throw baking insults, [IrE/AmE] bucko!

I reali{s/z}e I haven't given any AmE equivalents. That's because I felt like these words filled a gap in my vocabulary when I learned them. But if any Americans out there have some good words for these things, do let us know in the comments! 

P.S. See the comments re the original 'muddy' sense of claggy. It's also made an appearance in the NYT Spelling Bee: an archive of disallowed BrE words post.

P.P.S. I dealt with this a bit more in my newsletter, including a less-used synonym of claggy, clatty. Related, there is also clarty ('smeared/covered with sticky mud'), which didn't make it into the newsletter, but is discussed in the comments below.

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Bedfordshire, the hay, and the sack

Inspired by Anatoly Liberman's Take My Word for It: A Dictionary of English Idioms (which I've reviewed for the International Journal of Lexicography), here's a quick dip into some ways of saying one's going to bed, where they've come from and who uses them now.

to Bedfordshire

Bedfordshire, a county north of London, has been a humorous synonym for bed since the 17th century.

Here's what the OED has (in an entry last edited in 1887):

Humorously put for bed.
    Each one departs to Bedford-shire And pillows all securely snort on.
    C. CottonScarronnides 19
  1. 1738
    Faith, I'm for Bedfordshire.
    J. SwiftComplete Collection of Genteel Conversation 214

This seems not to have made any inroads to AmE.  Here are go to Bedfordshire and off to Bedfordshire in Google Books. Of course some of them might literally be about going to the county where Luton Airport is, but it's pretty likely that most are the idiom.

Hit the hay

From Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (via Bad Robot)
Liberman says "the phrase seems to be an Americanism". The OED defines hit the hay and roll in the hay but its earliest citation for hay in this sense is crawl into the Hay (1903); the first hit the hay they have is from 1912 (though, of course, it probably existed in speech much earlier).  They also have leaving the hay (P. G.Wodehouse, 1931—English, but a great user of Americanisms) and being great in the hay (Norman Mailer, 1959). This all gives the sense that the hay might have been a more agile synonym for bed than it is today, when most of us are not so used to thinking of hay as mattress material.

Though still more used in AmE, hit the hay is no longer foreign to BrE. 

Hit the sack

Sack was a synonym for bed much earlier than hay (1829 first citation). The OED says of sack: 

(a) A hammock; a bunk; (b) a bed; frequently as the sackto hit the sack: see hit v. II.11cslang (chiefly U.S.; originally Navy).

Hitting the sack doesn't show up in citations till 1943, though, so it was probably influenced the use of hit in other expressions like hitting the hay. Its US/UK usage pattern looks much like hit the hay's: 

And others?

I was interested to learn that turn in is from the 17th century and, it seems, originally nautical slang. It comes from a time when sailors slept in hammocks rather than bunks—not sure if that's related. Going that far back, it's common to both Englishes. (Go to) beddy-bye(s) is also found in both Englishes in similar numbers. The first OED citation is from Australia in 1901.  

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colo(u)rful sauces

In 2009, my parents came over from the US and we took a trip to Italy: Florence, Pisa, and Rome. The food, of course, was gorgeous, but often clashed with what my mother thought of as "Italian" food—the type that one gets in the northeastern US, where Italian immigrants brought over a lot of southern Italian dishes, which were then adapted as tastes and ingredients changed. Because of this, she repeatedly asked "Is it in a red sauce?" Many of the waiters found this a strange question, but they could deal with strange questions from paying foreigners. My British spouse, however, found it too annoying: "What do you MEAN?" And Mom would say "You know, a red sauce. Like [AmE] spaghetti sauce". But he didn't necessarily know, because naming sauces by colo(u)r seems to be a peculiarly monocultural thing. 

red sauce

Red sauce was only added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 2005, so its definition is pretty up-to-date and shows the American sense:

(a) n. Any of various sauces that are red in colour, esp. (in the United States) a tomato-based sauce of southern Italian origin; (b) adj. (attributiveU.S. of or designating a type of Italian American cuisine characterized by the use of tomato-based sauces.

Wikipedia tells us:

Red sauce may refer to:

That list demands a translation and a synonym. Marinara sauce in AmE refers to a rather plain tomato sauce for pasta—the default pasta sauce in the US. It is so-called because it was reputedly the kind of simple sauce made or eaten by Neapolitan sailors. In the UK, one sees the word marinara on Italian menus referring to seafood sauces.

An Australian ketchup
An American passata
As far as red sauce referring to ketchup in the UK, I have heard it, but not often. Ketchup is the most common word for it in both countries, though Britons are six times more likely than Americans to call it by the full tomato ketchup (six times more likely in the 2012–13 GloWbE corpus, eight times more likely in the more recent NOW corpus). You sometimes hear in BrE the more AusE tomato sauceIn AmE, that doesn't mean 'ketchup', but is the equivalent (more or less: see comments) of the stuff that in BrE is usually called passata.

brown sauce

The British have brown sauce, of which HP Sauce is the original and most famous example. It's a condiment one buys in a bottle, made with vinegar, fruits, and some form of sugar. It is most often used with breakfast, and we've seen it before in my opus about bacon sandwiches.

Wikipedia's photo at brown sauce

In this vein, Americans have A.1. Sauce, which we never call brown sauce. Since the 1960s, it's been marketed as A.1. Steak Sauce—which points to another American sauce term. Steak sauce, Wikipedia tells us, is:
a tangy sauce commonly served as a condiment for beef in the United States. Two of its major producers are British companies

That last bit was news to me. I import A.1. from the States because I love it so. (I find it spicier and less treacly than HP sauce. It's also much darker.) In the UK, I've only ever seen it in Fortnum and Mason (extremely chichi shop), where they charged in the double digits for a bottle, apparently imported from the US. But A.1. (in some formulation) may still be being made in the UK for export to Asia! (The most recent reference to this I've found is 2018.)

Back to brown sauce. The OED definition has not been updated since 1888, and it has only the French-cuisine inspired meaning, akin to gravy: "A brown-coloured savoury sauce, esp. one made with browned fat and flour." When I was a(n American) child in the 1970s–80s learning about cooking, I learned this among other sauce terms—though I can't say I've ever heard it in my adult life. 

But brown sauce was another bit of my mother's terminology that didn't help when travel(l)ing: she'd talk about her Chinese food preferences in terms of preferring brown sauce over white sauce, and British Spouse didn't understand what she meant. But, she knew what she was talking about. has a story about a sauce master at a Chinese restaurant which includes (with recipes): 

Two basic sauces are the brown sauce and white sauce. Brown sauce is mainly for meat dishes; beef, lamb, duck, yet he also used it in his Chendu Fish dish, to bind together moo shu and one of his tofu dishes. The white sauce was for fish and seafood, chicken and vegetable dishes. Other ingredients such as black beans, chili with garlic, preserved vegetable, ginger and garlic were added as items cooked and then his sauces were added, seconds before service to bind everything into a flavorful dish. 

From the spelling of flavorful, we can guess that this Chinese restaurant was in the US, and from a little knowledge of Chinese food in the anglosphere, I would guess that (a) this might be based in some specific regional Chinese cuisine, and (b) the term is not much used in British Chinese cuisine. Having had a lot of Chinese takeaways/takeout in the US, UK and South Africa, I can report that even if you're ordering a dish of the same name (chicken in garlic sauce, sweet-and-sour pork, General Tso's chicken etc.), they are very different in different places. (Let's just say: my English family always makes a point of having Chinese food when we're in the US.) has many recipes for Chinese brown sauce, but, despite the 'uk' in its URL, all the brown-sauce recipes I checked there have American terminology (cornstarch, scallions, chicken broth/bouillon etc.). If there were any urge to call Chinese sauce base brown in British English, it would probaby be blocked by the clash with the breakfasty condiment. 

white sauce

White sauce has at least the following meanings: 
  • In (US, at least) Chinese cuisine, it's the opposite of brown sauce. (This site says it's typical of Cantonese cooking.)
  • A sauce base made of "roux of butter and flour combined with milk or cream" (OED). 
The OED's (2015 updated) entry includes only the last of these, which is often used in French cooking. It's also what my mother used as the opposite of red sauce in Italian cooking, so an Alfredo or similar. 

Speaking of white sauces in Italian cooking—I grew up hating (AmE) lasagna/(BrE) lasagne because I couldn't stand the ricotta cheese. Well, it turns out, British people don't make lasagne with ricotta (nor do many in Italy). Instead it has a b├ęchamel sauce. Meanwhile, I've outgrown my hatred of ricotta. Still, lasagn{a/e} is the last thing I'd order on any pasta menu.


for the fun of it, a Venn diagram of sauces by Zoe Laughlin,  recently discussed on BBC Radio 4 and pointed out to me by one of my writing group pals:

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young woman head & shoulders, hand on chin, surrounded by question marks; Text: The Confidence Catalyst Podcast, How to stop second-guessing yourself
Image from here

At the Bavard Bar in St Leonard's a few months ago, a Bavardier asked me if I'd noticed the difference between the US and UK meanings of second-guess. I hadn't! She felt that the US meaning was overtaking the UK meaning, but whose meaning is really whose? 

Here's what Oxford Languages says: 

Dictionary Definitions from Oxford Languages · Learn more second-guess verb 1. anticipate or predict (someone's actions or thoughts) by guesswork. "he had to second-guess what the environmental regulations would be in five years' time" 2. NORTH AMERICAN criticize (someone or something) with hindsight. "juries are often reluctant to second-guess doctors"

But more than the one meaning is North American. The Oxford English Dictionary lists it, in any meaning, as 'originally and chiefly North American', with evidence of the 'anticipate' sense form 1941 and of the 'judge' sense from 1946. 

It looks like only the first of those meanings ('anticipate by guesswork') initially went to the UK, while that meaning perhaps lost steam in the US. The American Merriam-Webster dictionary lists the 'criticize' meaning first

For me, 'judge with hindsight' doesn't capture how I use second-guess. Here's me using it in The Prodigal Tongue, talking about the acts of faith we need to take in communicating:

when you’re talking with people from other places, you cannot second-guess every noun and verb you utter.

If we use a substitution test to see which of the definitions above fits with it, it's not very satisfying. 

  1. you cannot anticipate every noun and verb you utter
  2. you cannot judge with hindsight every noun and verb you utter

Neither seems to me to capture what I meant, which was something more like:

  • you cannot spend time doubting and re-thinking every noun and verb you utter

This sense of 'doubt' seems to come through when second-guess is used with a reflexive (-self) pronoun, as in I spend too much time second-guessing myself and, it turns out, there are about 2.5 times more second-guessing of oneself in the American part of GloWbE corpus as in the British part:

Results table from GloWbE corpus shows 48 US instances of 'second-guess* *self', 19 GB instances

Wiktionary's definition might be more in line with my intuitions of the meaning. 

  1. (idiomatic) to vet or evaluate; to criticize or correct, often by hindsight, by presuming to have a better ideamethod, etc. quotations ▼
    Please don't try to second-guess the procedure that we have already refined and adopted.
    Once she began listening to her instincts and didn't second-guess herself the entire time, her artwork improved noticeably.

Their use of the originally BrE verb to vet seems to capture what I meant in my sentence: 'One cannot vet every noun or verb for its dialect-appropriateness before it comes out of one's mouth.'  I'm betting this usage has arisen by 'contamination' from a similar, but centuries-older phrase: have second thoughts about.

That's not to say I always use it in the 'vetting' way. Here's an example from an email I sent, replying to a question of whether students would like to join the staff in a reading group:

I don't think we should second-guess whether students would want to do it; I think we should just invite them.  

This one has more the 'anticipate' sense. I don't think I picked that up in the UK. Rather, I think the phrase does more than one thing for AmE speakers. 

So, is my fellow Bavardier right that things are changing in the UK?  Let's look in the News on the Web corpus, since that covers the past 14 years, whereas the GloWbE data were from 2012.  Using the same search string as I used in GloWbE (second-guess* *self), there is still 2.5 times more in the US subcorpus than in the British subcorpus. If we just search for second-guess* (without the *self), it's 2.2 times more in the US. 

But we can see it really picking up in BrE since 2017:

Now corpus results table shows single-figure 'second-guess* *self' results until 2017, low double figures after.

So it feels kind of 'new' in BrE. But while it's older in AmE, there's certainly a great increase in its use in the past few years. Perhaps it's that increase in the US that's allowed it to be picked up in the UK:

Rather than me second-guessing your thoughts on this, why don't you just tell us in the comments?

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US-to-UK Word of the Year: OK

See here for the UK-to-US WotY post.

Time for the 2023 US-to-UK Word of the Year. Before people complain that this word has been in British English too long for it to count as a word of 2023, let me remind you of the criteria for SbaCL WotYs: 

  • Good candidates for SbaCL WotY are expressions that have lived a good life on one side of the Atlantic but for some reason have made a splash on the other side of the Atlantic this year. 
  • Words coined this year are not really in the running. If they moved from one place to another that quickly, then it's hard to say that they're really "Americanisms" or "Britishisms". They're probably just "internetisms". The one situation in which I could see a newly minted word working as a transatlantic WotY would be if the word/expression referenced something very American/British but was nevertheless taken on in the other country.
  • When I say word of the year, I more technically mean lexical item of the year, which is to say, there can be spaces in nominations. 
This word did make something of a splash in the British news this year. Here's a tweet from the Daily Mail:

Daily Mail March 2023: This common American word will make you sound less smart. Use this British one instead.

And what was that American word?  *fanfare* The 2023 US-to-UK Word of the Year is 


(Also spelled okay, but we'll get to that!)

Though it has appeared in BrE since at least the late 19th century (originating in AmE earlier in that century), OK took a while to make its way into everyday speech in the UK. (Click on images to enlarge them.) Here's its trajectory in books (via Google Books Ngram Viewer). 

ngram graph shows gentle rise in British 'okay' from 1960s, then sharp increase in 2010s

OK is underrepresented in earlier years in this graph because it was spelled/spelt O.K. with (BrE) full stops/(AmE) periods until and into the 20th century. As far as I know, there's no way to search for a word with that punctuation in it in Google Ngram Viewer, so I'm a bit stuck in showing more of the historical picture. 

One of American English's great observers/collectors/analysts, Allan Walker Read put significant effort into the study of OK, tracing its origins to a humorous spelling of all correct. Then people forgot about the joke and it went on to become "the English language's most successful export" according to this Merriam-Webster post, about a book by another late, great American English linguist, Allan Metcalf, relating Read's research. 

Getting back to the UK news in 2023, here's the headline of the Daily Mail's story:

Americans believe British people are smarter because of their habit of saying 'right' instead of 'ok' - which makes them sound like they understand more than they do headline.
Not linking to them because they don't need the traffic

That headline came from a particular interpretation of work by Galina B. Bolden, Alexa Hepburn, and Jenny Mandelbaum published in the Journal of Pragmatics on differences in US and UK usage of right, about which they conclude:

[I]n American English, right conveys the speaker's knowing stance and, in certain environments, the speaker's claim of primary knowledge. In contrast, in British English, right registers provided information as previously unknown, informative, and relevant to the current speaker's ongoing project. 


[S]ome UK usages of right—such as registering of potentially consequential information and projecting a transition—are quite similar to US okay in comparable positions [...]. This suggests a possibility that, in US English, okay took over some of the right usages and/or, in UK English, right took over some of the okay usages."

Their research was inspired by this interaction between BrE-speaking "AB" and AmE speaker "GA":

GA: so that’s when Christie’s team stepped in and turned everything alround. AB: Right. GA: Wait. You knew this already? AB: No?

So, essentially, the British use of right in that context leads GA to think that AB is confirming (rather than acknowledging receipt of) the information. If AB had said OK, then GA would have understood it as acknowledgement rather than confirmation.

Even though the researchers note differences in usage between BrE and AmE okay (though keep in mind that their research is about right), it seems like a fitting US-to-UK WotY because (in whichever usages), it's used more than ever in the UK. Here it is in the British section of the News on the Web corpus, where it shows OK and okay climbing in the last couple of years.

Something to notice about the spelling is that in the news corpus, the OK spelling outnumbers the okay spelling, but in the books okay outnumbers OK. I think this tells us something about spelling style in different kinds of publications. I checked whether it also told us something about adjective (an okay/OK word) versus interjection use (OK! Okay!), but did not find a great difference between the spellings in the different uses.

Since this was a year of warning Britons against it, OK is the 2023 Separated by a Common Language US-to-UK Word of the Year! 

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UK-to-US Word of the Year 2023: if I'm honest

Each year since 2006, this blog has designated Transatlantic Words of the Year (WotY). The twist is that I choose the most 'of the year' borrowings from US-to-UK and from UK-to-US.  The question this year raises is: does 2023 deserve SbaCL Words of the Year?

The eligibility criteria remain:

  • Good candidates for SbaCL WotY are expressions that have lived a good life on one side of the Atlantic but for some reason have made a splash on the other side of the Atlantic this year. 
  • Words coined this year are not really in the running. If they moved from one place to another that quickly, then it's hard to say that they're really "Americanisms" or "Britishisms". They're probably just "internetisms". The one situation in which I could see a newly minted word working as a transatlantic WotY would be if the word/expression referenced something very American/British but was nevertheless taken on in the other country.
  • When I say word of the year, I more technically mean lexical item of the year, which is to say, there can be spaces in nominations. Past space-ful WotYs have included gap year, Black Friday, and go missing. I've also been known to declare a pronunciation the Word of the Year.

The UK > US WotY was nominated by Nancy Friedman and endorsed by Ben Yagoda. It is most definitely a phrase:

if I'm honest

In Ben's post the phrase is associated with Great British Bake-Off (AmE: Great British Baking Show) judge Paul Hollywood. When I looked for it on YouGlish, there were a whole slew of examples from the British (BrE) motoring show Top Gear, on which they review cars. In both program(me)s, the phrase is useful in softening criticisms (which both shows have a lot of) by framing them as a truths expressed with some reservation. If I'm honest marks something as an admission of some sort. It's similar to to be honest, which has long been said in the US (and the UK) for much the same reason. (And then there's honestly, which I'll come back to.)

Here are some recent American uses of the phrase:
  • Ryan Gosling, on being cast as Ken in Barbie:  "I just decided I was going to Ken as hard as I can. I Kenned in the morning; I Kenned at night. If I’m honest, I’m Kenning a little right now.”
  • A Real Housewife of Potomac, on getting divorced: "I've just been a little bit complacent about it, if I'm honest, because there are benefits to being married."
  • A Manhattanite writing about an experiment in sustainable living: "If I’m honest, part of me hoped to find the challenge untenable so I could say the cure was worse than the disease and give up."
  • A Chicago police officer commenting on the city's mayoral race: “If I’m honest, I think Catanzara may have some blame here”

These kinds of phrases are discourse markers. They do not add factual meaning to the sentence they're in, but rather make a comment on the speaker's attitude, or stance, toward(s) what they're saying. 

Is it a British phrase? Yes. Here is if I *m honest (i.e., if I'm honest or if I am honest) in the 2012 data of the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, where it occurs 7.6 times more often in BrE than in AmE. (Click on the images to embiggen them.)

GloWbE shows 1.84 per million words in BrE, 0.24 per million words in AmE

And here it is in British sources in the News on the Web Corpus: 

bar chart shows UK rate of 'if I'm honest' increasing since 2000

In the 2012 data, the phrase occurs at a much higher rate in GloWbE than in NOW—the NOW number only reaches GloWbE's rate (1.8 per million words) in 2023—because the types of texts in the two corpora are different—there's more variety and informal language on GloWbE. That's something worth keeping in mind when we look at the US numbers. Speaking of which, here they are:

bar chart shows "if I'm honest" increasing in US since 2000, rising particularly in 2015 & 2016, then down again, then rising again in the past three years
album cover: Blake Shelton, If I'm honest (black and white picture of white man's face with mustache)

A few things to notice here:
  • Yes, the phrase is going up in AmE news, from 0.08 per million words to 0.19 over the past 13 years. 
  • But it's still below the 2012 GloWbe number (0.24 pmw). One would imagine that if we had current data that was collected in the same way as GloWbE, we'd see a lot more there. 
  • And it's wayyyyyy below the British numbers.
  • A country music album had the title If I'm Honest in 2016, which helps (to) account for the higher number then.

Here's a view of the Google Books numbers, comparing If I'm honest with To be honest (though keep in mind that to be honest here is not necessarily the discourse marker. It could be in any number of sentences about honesty.)
graph showing 'to be honest', low in the 1900s, rising in the 2000s, more in UK than US. "If I'm being honest' lines are very low by comparison

And a comparison of it with the equivalent if I'm being honest, which is less common, but making a move in AmE.

graph shows UK 'if I'm honest' rising steeply in past 20 years. In US, it is rising but at a slower rate. "If I'm being honest" is much lower in both countries

The pictures (and numbers) tell the story of a British expression that's become more and more common in BrE, and that has raised American exposure to (and use of) it. But note that it's rising far faster in BrE than in AmE. So, does it meet the first of my eligibility criteria? Maybe not. But it's what I've got for this year!

P.S.  Honestly

Honestly, used as a discourse marker in a sentence seems to be more common in AmE. But as a stand-alone expression of exasperation, it seems more common in BrE (Honestly!). It's definitely more common from the BrE speakers in my house than from me, but maybe I'm just more exasperating to live with than they are. Here are searches with punctuation from GloWbE:

Will there be a US-to-UK WotY?  To be honest, it's unclear at this point! 
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)