solder (and a bit about calm)

I've had requests from Andy J and (long ago) Doug Sundseth to cover this one. Here's an excerpt from Andy's recent email on the topic:

I watch a lot of Youtube videos which feature people who self-describe as makers (part DIYers and part semi-professional craftsmen and women). I have noticed that also without exception those based in the USA and Canada pronounce the word solder as sodder, whereas we BrE speakers would invariably sound the L in both the noun and the verb solder.
The North American variation seems at odds with the similar phonic construction in soldier or for example folder which, to my ear based on film and TV utterances, seem to be pronounced in a largely similar way to BrE, ie the L is sounded.

Before I go into the history of the word, I want to do a little bit of "here's how a linguist thinks".  Andy's got(ten) us started along the right lines here, in that (a) he talks about variation, rather than deviation, and (b) he looks for broader patterns. It's important to look for the broader patterns because we know that:
  • Where spelling clashes with pronunciation (that is, where spelling is not phonetic), the spelling often gives clues for finding an earlier pronunciation.
  • Linguistic sound changes are very often regular. That is to say, they apply across all words that would be susceptible to that change. 
(A bit on how linguists write: putting a letter between / / means I'm using the International Phonetic Alphabet —or a simplified version of it in this case— and talking about sounds. Where I'm talking about spelling, I'm using italics.)

We can illustrate those two points with the /r/ after vowels. In my inland northern American accent, I would pronounce the -er in solder with an /r/. In my spouse's London accent, he would pronounce it as an unstressed vowel /ə/ —no /r/.  That difference carries on to every word that ends in -er (and every other r that follows a vowel, actually). If we look at that spelling and those pronunciations, we are well justified in thinking that earlier English pronounced the /r/ there, and the English of southern England later stopped pronouncing it. Otherwise, why would all those r's be there in the spelling? And indeed, that's the case.

Pic from (AmE) Jewelry Making Daily
But in this case, as Andy notes, there is no evidence of a regular sound change. Most Americans don't pronounce an /l/ in solder, but if there had been a sound change that got rid of /l/ after a vowel or before a /d/, then Americans should pronounce folder as "fodder" and soldier as "sodyer", and Americans just don't do that.

In the absence of evidence for a regular sound change, we have two possibilities:
  1. the /l/ is not an original part of the pronunciation, but people started pronouncing an /l/ because they saw it there in the spelling. This happens often enough that we have a name for this kind of sound change: spelling pronunciation.
  2. the /l/ is an original part of the pronunciation, but for some idiosyncratic reason, someone started pronouncing it without the /l/ and that caught on. That can happen too.
So our question is: which of those is it?  (And does it have to be just one of those?) Here's where we have to look at the evidence from the past.

The OED gives the following historical spellings of the word (the numbers indicate the centuries in which you see those spellings):
α. ME soudur, ME soudure, soudour, sowdur, sowdowre; ME soudre, ME–15 souder, ME–16 (18 dialect) sowder (ME sowdere, 15 soweder); 18 dialect sowther. β. ME sawdur, sawdyr, 15 sawyer; ME sawd(e)re, 15 sawder (16 sawter), 15–16 saudre, 16 sauder. γ. 15–17 soder (16 soader, sodar), 16– sodder; 15 sother, 16 soather. δ. ME souldour, 15–16 soulder (15 sowl-). ε. 16 soldure, 16– solder
I've highlighted the five paths that the spelling seems to follow (indicated by the Greek letters). Why five paths? Because language is a moveable, social thing. The word shows up in English in the period when English was getting a lot of vocabulary from France (after the Norman Invasion and all that). But words don't have to just show up once. And once they do show up, they don't stay the same.And when they change, they can change in different ways in different places.

The Old French word that solder comes from is represented in the OED etymology as:
< Old French soud-, saud-, soldure (compare Italian saldatura ), < souder , etc.,
Three of the paths are  L-less (and these are the paths for which the OED has more examples—so the L-less spellings were more widespread. That's because it came into English without an /l/ sound because it mostly didn't have one in French. The Italian comparison word that has an L tells us that there's a fair chance that the French came from a Latin word with an /l/, which the French subsequently lost. And that's indeed what we find: the Latin etymon is solidare 'to make solid'. Both French and Italian dropped the Latin word's second syllable, but French did it by losing a consonant and Italian by losing a vowel.

So what about the two L-ful paths? There are (again) two possibilities (plus the possibility that it is both of these to different degrees/in different places):
  1. Maybe some of the people who brought the word to England did pronounce an /l/ in it, and so the spelling reflected that. Note the soldure spelling that existed in Old French.
  2. Maybe some scribes started inserting an L because they knew the word came from Latin and they wanted to hono(u)r its Latin roots. 
If the answer is (1), then it is possible that the minority pronunciation was what came to be standard in the spelling, and eventually that pronunciation became standard across England.  Maybe the word travel(l)ed to the US between those two standardi{s/z}ation events.

But (2) is more likely, judging from the clear history of sentimentality for Latin affecting English spelling. Here's an article by Arika Okrent on weirdly spelt words, and indeed she includes solder in the same category as debt and receipt, as victims of re-Latini{s/z}ing in the 15th and 16th centuries. The L got added into the spelling, and then later, people started pronouncing it as a spelling pronunciation.

We've seen a similar story for herb: the spelling got Latini{s/z}ed, and the English (eventually) went for a spelling pronunciation, but Americans carried on with the old pronunciation.

When did the spelling-pronunciation shift happen? After America had had its English from England (mostly).  The OED notes that Smart's 1840 pronouncing dictionary (from England) included only the /l/-less pronunciation, but it looks like this was very much a 'live' problem in the 18th and 19th centuries (when Englsih had been burbling along in America for over 100 years). The 1824 edition of Walker's Critical Pronouncing Dictionary said this:

Click to embiggen
If you can't read that: the key point is that Johnson's dictionary of 1755 preferred spelling it without the L, but the L spelling was already well established. It acknowledges differences in opinion about the pronunciation among orthoepists [pronunciation prescribers] and that the L-less pronunciation was used by workmen, but "workmen ought to take their pronunciation from scholars and not scholars from workmen".  (Ah, social class in England...)

Solder does seem to be exactly the kind of thing whose spelling would revert to older form in AmE, so it's a little surpising we don't spell it sodder.  Noah Webster did try to change it. At solder in his 1828 dictionary there is a cross-reference to soder, which reads:

click to embiggen

It's no wonder soder didn't catch on, since it looks like it should have the same first syllable as soda. If only Webster had doubled the d.

While I've been known (to myself) to misspell it as sodder, that spelling hasn't had much traction in AmE, and neither has Webster's, as can be seen in numbers from the Corpus of Historical American English. (The Soders in the 2000s here are all someone's name.)

Interestingly, for those who find such things interesting, the addition of L to an L-less French borrowing is also why we have an L in salmon (French saumon, Latin salmo(n)), but there's been no big movements toward(s) pronouncing that L in English. This just goes to show that spelling pronunciation changes are not regular changes.

And I expect someone will have calm on their mind now. That one's pronounced with no /l/ in England but some Americans do have an /l/ in it. The vowels differ in these cases, but then most of our vowels differ, don't they? I believe my own calm varies from pronunciation to pronunciation (and probably did so even before I moved to the UK). Calm differs from solder in that it came into English from French with its L. However, it looks like not everyone was pronouncing it, since there are some caume/cawme spellings in the 1500s and 1600s.

This seems to be a case of the /l/ being lost because it's in a phonetically complicated place—between two other sonorous elements. An /l/ after a vowel/at the end of a syllable is pronounced differently than one at the front, and that back-of-the-syllable "dark /l/" often does strange things, especially in combination with other consonants. You can see (or hear) in Irish and Scottish English the evidence that /l/+consonant combinations often feel a bit unnatural. Those Englishes often sort out /l/+consonant by inserting a vowel between the consonants, which "un-darkens" the /l/.  Filmfi-lum, Colm Co-lum (you can hear that at 1:50 in this Derry Girls clip, and any excuse to watch Derry Girls should not be snubbed). English English (and French before it, it seems) has sorted this out by just not pronouncing the /l/. Whether some Americans have added it back in as a spelling pronunciaiton, or whether the /l/ came over as the original pronunciation and stayed, I'm not sure.

I've been careful to say "England" and not "BrE" in this post, since we're talking about pronunciations and they can vary more than spellings.  I've only gone with the pronunciations in the OED, so your mileage may vary. It would be interesting in particular to hear about Scottish and Irish pronunciations in the comments, since they do interesting things with /l/+consonant combinations. But also please let me know if you know of variations within England or elsewhere.

P.S.  Yes, the vowels are different too. Vowels change very easily, so that wasn't as interesting to me here. A consonant change is more of a mystery! BrE solder rhymes with folder and AmE rhymes with fodder. YouGlish is a great resource for hearing words pronounced. You can set it for AmE or BrE, and then use the 'forward' button to skip to the next pronunciation.
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curb / kerb

pic from
(AmE) What's up with the spelling kerb? This is one of those topics that I *thought* I had blogged about. But no!

BrE has kerb for the edging alongside a road or path and curb for the 'restraint' verb (as in curb your enthusiasm). AmE uses curb for both.

In general, there are more homophones for which BrE differentiates spellings and AmE doesn't than the other way (a)round. This is not particularly surprising, since spelling differences are generally in the direction of AmE being easier to learn than BrE (that was Noah Webster's first priority in promoting new spellings).

But the point I try to highlight when I talk about spelling differences is: most American spellings were not invented in the US. There have always been spelling variations. And that's well illustrated by this case.

Spelling the 'edge' noun

Kerb is the newer spelling—albeit, still hundreds of years old. The first c- spellings for the noun are from the 1400s, following the spelling of the French word from which it ultimately derives: courbe, for 'curved'. Before paving was so common, there were lots of other uses of curb, including some that referred to different kinds of curved edges around things. Occasionally (from the 1700s), these were spelt with a k, but the c was much more common. It's only in the 1800s that the k spelling becomes firmly associated with 'an edging of stone (etc.) along a raised path'. In the age of industriali{s/z}ation, such edgings would have become more commonplace.

The OED's entry for kerb gives the etymology as 'variant of CURB, n., used in special senses'.  This looks an awful lot like what happened with tyre. Tire had become the usual spelling for wheel-related meanings (though tyre had been around too), but when the pneumatic variety became available, BrE started using a less-common spelling for the word, in order to differentiate the old kind of thing from the new kind of thing.

Since the spelling changed after AmE and BrE had parted ways (and before the advent of fast communication between the two), there was no particular reason for Americans to experience the new spelling much or to use it. There was a perfectly good spelling already.

Verbs and nouns and nouns and verbs

A covered curb chain on a horse
The 'restrain' verb is always curb in both countries, and that came from a noun curb. Both were originally about restraining horses with a chain or strap that goes under its jaw. Metaphorically, that extends to other things you'd like to 'rein in'. So you can curb your appetite or ingest something that will act as a curb on your appetite, but you'd never spell those as kerb (unless spelling isn't your strength).

But another verb meaning for curb has come up in AmE, which takes advantage of the homography of  the 'restrain' verb and the 'stone edging' noun.  I first recall being aware of these signs in the late 1970s,  when New York City's first (orig. AmE) pooper-scooper laws were in the news.

snapped in NYC in 2013

But Curb Your Dog signs go back to the 1930s. Back before anyone had to pick up their dogs' poo(p), owners were encouraged (or required) in NYC to make dogs "do their business" at the edge of the (AmE) sidewalk (or maybe in the gutter) so that the mess would be out of pedestrians' (and plants') way. (There's a nice little explainer here.) In this case, you are taking your dog to the curb/kerb, but also curbing their tendency to relieve themselves in inconvenient places.

Bonus vocabulary

Not something I knew till Simon Koppel pointed it out to me, but there are technical terms for those places in the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk where the curb/kerb is lower to make it easier to cross the road/street, especially for those using wheels to do so.  In AmE these are curb cuts and in BrE dropped kerbs. 

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(at) home

One of the things I've found most useful during lockdown is to have routines that distinguish the days. The routines have become most distinct on weekends: Saturday is Cleaning Day and No-Laptop Day; Sunday is Blogging Day. After the last topical blog post, I planned to do another topical one this Sunday, regarding a UK government slogan. But then on my no-laptop Saturday, THEY CHANGED THE SLOGAN. They timed it just to make me look untopical. Grrr.

Anyhow, here's the graphic that we've been seeing on our televisions for the past seven weeks:

And too-many-to-mention people have got(ten) in touch with me to ask whether (or complain that)  stay home is a rather American phrasing for Her Majesty's government. Indeed, it is. Both AmE and BrE can say stay at home, but AmE is very comfortable with the at-less version, while BrE isn't.

These GloWBE data are from about 7-8 years ago. Here's what it's looked like in the News on the Web corpus for 2020 so far.

So, despite the prominence stay home slogan in the UK (and its news), it remains more usual to have the at in BrE, in edited news text. AmE really doesn't mind, though the phrase stay at home brings to my mind its use as a hyphenated modifier, as in stay-at-home parent. Such adjectival use, if properly hyphenated, would not appear in the above figures.

Presumably, the slogan is Stay home because it parallels the cadence of Save lives. (Fritinancy has pointed out that stay home/save lives is a World Health Organization slogan, so that's probably how it got to the UK. The govenment could have translated it, but didn't.) The parallelism becomes clearer when the NHS line is left out or where the parallel Stay–Save lines are graphically linked, as in:

But even Her Majesty's Government is not consistent in using the at-less version:

Enough of the sloganeering, what about the grammar?

Home can be a noun, as it is in sentences like:
  • You have a beautiful home
  • My home is wherever I lay my laptop.
You can tell it's a noun (for sure) in those places because it's part of a noun phrase, introduced by determiners (a, my), with optional adjectives (beautiful) or possibly other modifiers (e.g. ...that I'd like to visit).

It can also be an adverb. Now, I have to pause here and say that, as far as I'm concerned, adverb is a garbage grammatical category. It is used to cover all sorts of things that behave in very different grammatical ways—from very (which modifies adjectives), to lazily (which might modify a verb phrase), to undoubtedly (which generally modifies a whole sentence), to well (which does all sorts of weird things and is an adjective too), to not (which modifies sentences or other phrases in much more grammatically restricted ways). Home is not an adverb in any of those ways. It's an adverb in the way that here or away are adverbs—indicating 'where' and often 'to where'.

Both BrE and AmE use home as an adverb. You can see it with various verbs of motion—and how it differs from a more nouny-noun like house, which has to have the trappings of a noun phrase and might need a preposition to connect it to the verb phrase. Compare these, where * is the linguistics signal for 'ungrammatical string of words'.
  • We're going home versus We're going to our house.   (*We're going house)
  • I have to get home by 10  versus I have to get back to my house by 10 (*I have to get house)
But in lots of cases, it's hard to tell if home is a noun or an adverb. In the first few examples, with things like your beautiful home, noun use sometimes rubs people the wrong way. "Why say home when you mean house?" they say. It sounds like advertising-speak, especially as used by (AmE real) estate agents. But I used those examples because home is very definitely a noun there. In other cases like the following, it could be a noun, but it doesn't have to be interpreted as that:
  • Home is where the heart is.  (subject of the sentence)
  • There's no place like home.   (object of preposition like)
Noun phrases can be subjects of sentences and objects of prepositions, and so home can be interpreted as a one-word noun phrase, which is a perfectly fine kind of noun phrase to be if we're treating the noun as non-countable. And it works to treat home as a non-countable noun if we're thinking of it as some kind of abstract state, rather than as just a house. Notice how other abstract nouns like imagination or love are very naturally used all on their own: Imagination opens doors; Love will keep us together.

But it's also the case that the places where we tend to use home as a bare noun are also places where we could use a prepositional phrase, and prepositional phrases can do adverb jobs:
  • At my house is where I like to be.
  • There's no place like under the duvet
Which is all to say that saying what part of speech a word is can be difficult—even in context. (Though I'll put my cards on the table and say I would count home as an abstract noun in the last two examples.) The parts of speech that we traditionally use for English may not be (more BrE) up to the job.
(SIDEBAR: This is not an excuse for not teaching grammar in school. This is evidence that grammar needs to be taught more like physics, where we can look at the evidence, admit we don't have all the answers, and evaluate different possible solutions.)

A n y h o w . . . 
We've got this funny word that can be a noun or an adverb—and it's been like this for as long as English has existed. The adverb originally and still incorporates a 'toward(s)' element: going home is 'going to one's home'. So the adverbial 'at home/in one's home' meaning that we get in stay home is a deviation from the original meaning. But it's a deviation that's been around for centuries. Consider these examples from the OED:
In the 1587 example, the ships are docked at their home. In 1615, true zeal loves to keep (at) home. Most of the examples with the verb to be would pass unnoticed in BrE (and certainly in AmE) these days. But the be home examples in BrE in the OED seem to have a bit of a hint of motion to them, in that they are about the future or the past: will be home and have been home. Movement to/from home is implied because person isn't at home at the time that the sentence was written.

All of the OED adverb examples with stay are American, though, including the one from Emily Dickinson (above) and Judy Blume's, which has the familiar stay home shape:
With stay, home loses its 'toward(s)' sense. It's acting like other spatial adverbs like here and away, and perhaps it's the opposite relation with away that has encouraged home to grammatically imitate away in AmE: stay away/stay home. But the adverb home hasn't fully made that trip in BrE, and so if you want to use home with stay, you need the preposition at to hook the noun home onto the sentence. Since home is also a noun in AmE, AmE can use the at home just as easily. A somewhat similar case is what happens with on and days of the week (click the link to read about it), but I would not want to call these cases "the same thing". AmE has lost some prepositions where BrE hasn't, but BrE is losing some where AmE doesn't. In some UK dialects, for example, people can go pub, as University of Kent linguist Laura Bailey has been exploring.

Back to the slogans. The new slogan is "Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives".

It's presented with green rather than red, to give us a signal that we can "go" a bit more. Maybe. Or something. The comedian Matt Lucas summari{s/z}es Boris Johnson's speech on the matter:

The new slogan is being mocked relentlessly on UK social media within a day of its announcement. Here's what comes up top in my google image search for "stay alert":

The comedian Olaf Falafel has made a Government COVID Slogan Generator (play the video and click on it to stop it on a new slogan):


As many have pointed out, it's unclear what we're supposed to stay alert for when we can't see the virus or tell who's carrying it. The UK government seems to love to direct its public with three-part  slogans, as we've seen before with "See it, say it, sorted". One reason that the "stay home" message was heeded was its appeal to protect the National Health Service—and the NHS's absence from the new slogan comes at the same time as many are worrying about backdoor machinations to sell off the NHS to private companies. There is the possibility, though that the "stay home, protect the NHS" message needed to be replaced because it had backfired and endangered people by making them reluctant to use NHS services for non-COVID-related problems.

Much more heartening than government messages is the outpouring of NHS-love in the front windows of the UK, where many are putting up pro-NHS messages and messages for other (BrE) key/(AmE) essential workers, with rainbows to cheer us all up. Here's a Google Image search result for "rainbow windows". On the windows, the more common slogan is stay safe.


Here's how we did our front window. No slogans, just rainbow:
Stay safe.

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coronavirus and COVID-19

A retired colleague contacted me with this query:
Has a dialect difference emerged between US novel coronavirus/new coronavirus and UK COVID-19, do you think? Novel coronavirus/new coronavirus is favoured by Reuters, but I don't know whether that counts in the dialect balance.

I hear plenty of COVID-19 from US sources, so that didn't strike me as quite right, but I had a look (on 29 April) at the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, which (so far this year) had 226 covi* (i.e. words starting with covi-) per million words in US and 49 per million in UK. For coronav* it's 362 US v 92 UK. (I searched that way so that I'd get all variations, including COVID without the -19, without the hyphen, coronaviruses, etc.).

Now, I don't trust the geographical coding on the NOW corpus very much, because you have things like the Guardian showing up in the US data because it has a US portal that has US-particular content, but also all the UK content—and that doesn't do us much good in sorting out AmE from BrE. I really don't know why the per-million numbers are so much higher in the US sources, since the news in both places is completely taken over by the virus and stories related to it. But anyway, about 38% of the (named) mentions of the disease are COVID in the US and 35% in the UK, so there is no notable difference in preference for COVID. I found it interesting that the two newspaper apps on my phone (Guardian [UK] and New York Times) prefer coronavirus in headlines, even though COVID-19 is shorter.

But my colleague is right that there is a lot more new/novel coronavirus in US than UK. About 12% of AmE usages are prefaced by an adjective that starts with N, while only about 3% of BrE coronaviruses are. Distribution is fairly even between novel (from medical usage) and new. It's worth noting that since I'm only searching news media,  new/novel is probably far more common in this dataset than it would be in everyday interactions.

Including the definite article (the coronavirus) seems to be more common in AmE. If I just look for how many coronavirus occurrences are preceded by the, the proportion is 45% for AmE and 37% for BrE.  this search hits examples like the one in the 'middle school' story on the left: the coronavirus lockdown where the the really relates to the lockdown. So, to try to avoid this problem, I searched for (the) coronavirus [VERB] and (the) coronavirus [full stop/period]. In those cases, then AmE news media have the the about 50% of the time, while BrE ones have it less than 30% of the time. That misses the new/novel coronavirus (because of the adjective between the and coronavirus), so the real difference in the before coronavirus is probably more stark.

The media's style guides are supposed to guide the choices journalists and editors make in phrasing such things, but how strictly they follow their own guides is another matter. I had a look at a couple:

The Guardian Style Guide (UK) says:
coronavirus outbreak 2019-20
The virus is officially called Sars-CoV-2 and this causes the disease Covid-19. However, for ease of communication we are following the same practice as the WHO and using Covid-19 to refer to both the virus and the disease in our general reporting. It can also continue to be referred to as the coronavirus.  [I've added the bold on the latter]

The Associated Press (US) gives similar advice, though it goes into more particular rules for science stories.
As of March 2020, referring to simply the coronavirus is acceptable on first reference in stories about COVID-19. While the phrasing incorrectly implies there is only one coronavirus, it is clear in this context. Also acceptable on first reference: the new coronavirus; the new virus; COVID-19.
In stories, do not refer simply to coronavirus without the article the. Not: She is concerned about coronavirus. Omitting the is acceptable in headlines and in uses such as: He said coronavirus concerns are increasing.
Passages and stories focusing on the science of the disease require sharper distinctions.
COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2. When referring specifically to the virus, the COVID-19 virus and the virus that causes COVID-19 are acceptable. But, because COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus, it is not accurate to write a new virus called COVID-19. [bold added]
In comparing the two passages you can see one predictable difference between them. AP writes COVID in all caps, Guardian has Covid with the initial capital only. There is a widespread preference in BrE (and generally not in AmE) to differentiate between initalisms and true acronyms. (There's been a bit in the Guardian about it, here.)

In an initialism, you pronounce the names of the letters: the WHO stands for World Health Organization and it is pronounced W-H-O and not "who". It's spel{led/t} with all caps (or small caps), no matter where you live. (AmE styles are more likely than BrE styles to insist on (BrE) full stops/(AmE) periods in these: W.H.O.—but styles do vary.)

Acronyms use the initial letters of words to make a new word, pronounced as a word. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's short name is pronounced "nasa", making it a true acronym. All AmE styles that I know of spell it with caps: NASA. Many BrE styles spell it like any other proper name, with just an initial capital: Nasa.

This disease name provides a slightly different case because it's doesn't just use initial letters: COronaVIrusDisease. That's probably why I'm seeing some initial-only Covid in AmE, for instance in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where they spell other acronyms (like NASA) in all caps.

Other variants, like CoViD and covid are out there—but they are in the minority. COVID and Covid rule.While some other UK sources, like the Guardian, follow the initial-cap style (Covid), many UK sources use the all-cap style, including the National Health Service and the UK government.

And on that note, I hope you and yours are safe.

P.S. Since I'm talking about newspaper uses, I haven't considered pronunciation—but that discussion is happening in the comments. 
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loose end

Thomas West was responsible for last week's post topic, and here he is again, having tweeted: Reading that, I first thought "I think that's a mark of my Britification—the singular is probably what I'd say now." I then wasted some time searching things I'd written (on Twitter, on this blog, on my hard drive) that used the expression, and found none. What else are lockdown Sunday mornings for?

But then I thought more and thought "But do at a loose end and at loose ends always mean the same to me?"

Loose ends, of course, need to be metaphorically tied. Both Englishes talk about, say, a project having loose ends, which need to be tied off or tied together to give us something finished—that won't unravel. Here I'm just interested in the at expression, which has more particular uses, and in which the metaphor gets a little more buried. No one says I'm at loose ends, so I'm going to tie them or I'm at a loose end, so I'm going to tie it/myself up. Maybe when you're at a loose end, you can get the image of hanging idly, or when you're at loose ends you have a sense that you have "ends" that you don't know what to do with.

The Collins Dictionary website can be useful for looking into such things as it has a whole bunch of dictionaries together: the Collins COBUILD (meant for English learners, BrE-based but more apt to cover American variants), Collins English Dictionary (which is BrE-based), and Webster's New World Dictionary (WNW; AmE-based).  COBUILD presents at a loose end as a feeling of boredom, and simply states that at loose ends is the American equivalent. (Collins English Dictionary defines it as "without purpose or occupation".)

Where Collins has one definition for the singular (and by extension, the plural) phrase, WNW gives three senses for the plural phrase:


Now, all of those senses are very similar, and so this looks like a difference in lexicographical style—whether you lump similar uses together or split them into definitions that describe more specific situations where the phrase is used. The Collins "without purpose or occupation" could be mapped onto senses 2 ('without anything definite to do') and 3 ('unemployed') in WNW. It's the 'unsettled, disorganized' bit that feels a bit different from COBUILD's 'bored'.  What's unclear from that definition is whether it's people or situations that are unsettled and disorganized—that is, "I am at loose ends" versus "We left the project at loose ends".

So, I had a little look in the GloWBE corpus, to see if I could find differences in how the singular phrase is used in BrE (42 unique usable examples) versus the plural phrase in AmE (20). There are few enough of these that I can look at all the examples. (The four "AmE" examples for the singular phrase were actually from British sources, so I won't consider them.)

All of the examples in both countries are talking about people, rather than situations. Some seem to be in the 'disorganized, confused' sense—and I had to wonder in some of these cases if the writer was thinking of the phrase at [someone's] wit's end. These 'confused" examples were there in small numbers in both countries, so it is looking like the expressions really are equivalent in AmE and BrE, it's just a matter of different dictionaries splitting the senses more or less.

  • BrE source: any advice will help as im at a loose end surely there is something i can do to sort this out??? 
  • AmE source: As a former (public school) teacher I was at loose ends how to educate my daughter  (in context, this meant: didn't know which choice to make) Otherwise, most of the examples in both places signify 'having nothing particular to do' or 'idle'.
Merriam-Webster, another US dictionary, gives only one definition, which seems to combine all three of WNW's senses, and makes it clearer that this expression is used of people, rather than of their situations: 
not knowing what to do : not having anything in particular to do 

But I found two things in the data interesting:
    1.  As someone with both phrases in my repertoire, I felt like I'd have to use the plural with a plural subject. That is, I [singular] may be at a loose end, but my friends [plural] would be at loose ends, because they each have their own loose end. The data had five British plural at loose ends and 3 of those had plural subjects, but the BrE singular at a loose end was also used with  plural subjects.  This might be like collective noun agreement, in that the BrE speaker might be considering the semantic number more than the grammatical number: we are at loose ends if we're separately loose, but we are at a loose end, if we're reacting to a singular situation. That said, I don't think the data really show this in most cases. In the first example below, we get a BrE plural verb with a grammatically singular (BrE) football club name, but their loose end is singular.  (Note that the collective plural in BrE isn't as semantically driven as some people—even me in the linked-to blog post—claim. I discuss that in chapter 6 of The Prodigal Tongue.)
      • BrE singular end, plural subject: 
        • AC Mill Hill were at a loose end  and started to play the hopeful long balls.
      • BrE plural ends, plural  subject:
        • tens of thousands of men with military training are put at loose ends each year
    2.  AmE has a few examples of at loose ends with [one]self, which seems to have a particular sense of feeling 'lost' and 'purposeless'. BrE doesn't seem to have at a loose end with:
      • AmE: Years ago I had a client who always seemed to be at loose ends with himself.

    None of this has addressed Thomas's question "why?"  "What's the difference?" questions are answerable. "Why do they differ" questions are often not, both because the evidence is not available and because change in idioms is rarely a simple straight line. Things that change don't simply change once, they change thousands of times in small and diverse ways before they arrive somewhere else.

    The thing to keep in mind here is that things had loose ends centuries before people did. People were talking about loose ends in other kinds of contexts, so if the expression as applied to people started in the singular (and it probably did), then it would be unsurprising if the plural (about things) noun phrase (loose ends) affected the singular (about people) prepositional phrase (at a loose end). When I searched for the at phrases in Google Books, there were lots of loose ends in the early 1800s, but the OED only notices the 'idle person' meaning from the 1850s onward. So, I put an am in front of the at in my searches (in order to make sure that the loose ends belonged to people) and got this (there are no British hits for am at loose ends). That seems to confirm that the plural expression came later, with the singular having some presence in AmE, then falling out in the first half of the 20th century:

    But the other thing to note about origins is that the phrase was not originally at a loose end in BrE either. The at took a long time to settle down. Early examples in the OED have after a loose end and on a loose end, and the OED also notes another expression from more than 100 years earlier than at a loose end: at the loose hand.

    • 1742   R. North & M. North Life F. North 77   He was weary of being at the loose hand as to company.
    So perhaps the metaphor was originally one of idle hands rather than fraying rope? Is that why we don't talk about tying up our loose ends, because the expression didn't evolve from a nautical rope metaphor?  At any rate, as idioms evolve, they often influence each other and that could have happened here.

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    on the up and up

    Thomas West recently asked:

    I hadn't really noticed this before, but it looks like it's probably a case of an American phrase coming
    to Britain and being re-interpreted (which happens now and again—I talk about a few other cases in The Prodigal Tongue and elsewhere on this blog).

    The expression originated in AmE in or before the 1860s. It is often hyphenated: on the up-and-up. The OED entry for it starts:
    a. Honest(ly), straightforward(ly), ‘on the level’. Originally and chiefly U.S.

    1863   Humboldt Reg. (Unionville, Nevada) 4 July 2/1
       Now that would be business, on the dead up-and-up.
    But then it continues with a second definition that it does not mark as U.S.:
     b. Steadily rising, improving, or increasing; prospering, successful.
    1930   Sun (Baltimore) 18 Aug. 6/1   From now on, we are led to believe, law and order will be on the up and up, as the current phrase is.
    1937   G. Heyer They found him Dead xiii. 265   He certainly wasn't on the up-and-up when I knew him. He was picking up a living doing odd jobs for any firm that would use him.
    1959   Encounter Oct. 25/2   Private travel is on the up and up.
    Just the first example in sense b is from an American source—but I really can't tell why they think that either of the first two examples has sense b and not sense a. I would have thought that the first one is saying that the police are going to be less corrupt or disorgani{s/z}ed, and, in the second, I would think that they were saying that he was taking money under the table. But you can see how the two senses can overlap and therefore sense a could morph into sense b, which it definitely has done by the 1959 example.

    Sense b comes 50 or 60 years after the first sense, during a time when the UK is getting a lot more exposure to AmE, so it does seem reasonable to think that the phrase came from the US and changed in the UK. The data from Google Books also seem to support this hypothesis:

    The b sense is definitely the primary sense in BrE. The (UK-based) Collins COBUILD Idiom Dictionary marks sense a as American but not sense b, and the BBC World Service's Learning English pages give only the 'successful' meaning in their list of up idioms:
    To be on the up and up: to be getting increasingly successful.
    His life has been on the up and up since he published his first book. Now, he's making a film in Hollywood.

    One of the sources on explicitly marks the b sense as British:

    But all that said, a few commenters on Thomas's original post seem to be Americans saying that they use the 'successful' sense. (I suspect they are younger Americans.) As we've seen above, it's not always clear which one people mean. Looking at a sample in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, though, the sense a meaning predominates:

    Click picture to enlarge

    Some of the BrE speakers responding to Thomas said that they assumed that on the up and up is an extension of a phrase on the up, meaning 'rising, being successful'. The OED doesn't record that, but there are plenty of examples in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English. (I searched for them followed by a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period, so that I could be sure there wasn't another and up after the first up.)

    The examples in this data are often along the lines of "the numbers of X are on the up", so they are clearly about rising numbers and (by extension, often) success.

    Now, there is no expression on the down to mean 'decreasing' and the OED hadn't yet noticed the on the up expression, so I have to wonder whether the phrase on the up and up came from the US, got reinterpred in BrE, and then got shortened to on the up (rather than the latter being expanded from the former).  It's harder to get information for on the up in a place like Google Books, because one can't do the punctuation trick and rule out all the examples like on the up grade or on the up line. I had a quick look at the Hansard corpus, the record of UK Parliamentary speech, as that gives a more reasonable amount of data to comb through. None of the examples of on the up before the first appearance of on the up and up (1946) are on the up to mean 'improving'—they are all on the up [noun], using up as a modifier for the noun. The 1946 Hansard example of up and up is used to mean 'growing, successful' (the b sense), as are the subsequent examples (33 of them). The first example of on the up in that meaning is in 1978. So, that is making it look like the phrase was cut rather than expanded in BrE.

    Thanks to Thomas for pointing this one out!

    And thanks to Jan Freeman and Ben Yagoda for noticing it earlier. I'd forgotten about Ben's post here.

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    'X's Y' versus 'the Y of X'

    [I had said I'd be blogging weekly, but that didn't happen when I had to travel for family reasons. I have got(ten) back to it, not that you'll always notice. I've decided that my goal is to *write* for the blog each week, but not necessarily to publish. So, I started writing this one last week, finished this week.]

    I'm doing a lot of reading about the genitive case at the moment. Grammatical case is some kind of marking (e.g. a suffix) that shows what 'job' a noun is doing in a sentence. You might know a lot about case if you've studied German or Latin or Finnish (or some other languages), which have case suffixes on nouns. You'll know a little about case from being an English speaker who knows the differences between they, them, and theirs. Modern English marks pronouns for case, but not other nouns, except...

    Old English (Anglo-Saxon) had a robust case system, which it got from the ancestor it shared with German. The case suffixes pretty much died during Middle English. (English lost a lot of other kinds of suffixes over the centuries too, in part because suffixes are the kinds of things that get swallowed up in speech and in part becuase they're the kind of thing that become vulnerable when different languages come into contact—as happened for English and Norman French nearly 1000 years ago.) But one English case suffix, rather than disappearing, morphed into something else, and that something is the scourge of English spelling, the apostrophe-s: 's

    So in the Old-English poem Beowulf, you can read about Grendles guðcræft. That -es on the name of the monster Grendel is the forebear of 's. We can translate it as something like 'Grendel's power' or 'Grendel's warcraft'. That (masculine, singular) genitive case marker says that there's a very close relation between Grendel and the guðcræft. Grendel is the power's source or its possessor.

    But when that poem gets translated into Modern English, the translators sometimes translate the -es as an 's and sometimes not:
    the might of Grendel (Francis Gummere)  
    Grendel's power of destruction (Seamus Heaney)
    That's because something else happened in Middle English: English started using of in the way that French uses de to express genitive relations—because French got all up in English's business at that point. Because of that change, of occurs only 30 times in Beowulf (where it has its original meaning of 'away from' or 'off'*), but over 900 times in Gummere's translation of it (where it means next to nothing).

    So English has ended up with two ways of expressing those kinds of relations. We tend to talk about them as being 'possessive' relations and of the X in X's Y or the Y of X as 'the possessor'.  But the relation is not necessarily possessive. Think about something like the theft of the bicycle and the bicycle's theft: the bicycle doesn't possess the theft. The relations between the nouns in 's/of expressions are varied and hard to pin down (but they are very close relationships, covering a lot of the same ground as the genitive in Old English).

    We don't exactly use 's and of interchangeably, though, and even where we can use both we often have preferences for one or the other. One of the strongest predictors of whether it'll be 's  or of is the animacy of the thing in the X position (the 'possessor'). Linguists often talk about an animacy hierarchy in which expressions that refer to  animate things are preferred in certain positions in sentences over non-animate things. In terms of what's animate, humans (the teacher, Heidi) come above animals (the badger, the parrot) and collectives (the company, the union), which come above objects (the table, the book).  All of the below noun phrases are "grammatical" but the higher up the list we go, the more apt people are to use the 's instead of the of phrase, all other things being equal:
    the teacher's size        the size of the teacher
    the badger's size         the size of the badger
    the union's size           the size of the union
    the table's size            the size of the table
    A lot is going on in that 'all other things being equal' (a phrase used in both AmE and BrE, but AmE also likes all else being equal). Some other things that swing a possessive in favo(u)r of 's phrasing rather than of phrasing are:
    • heavier (more syllables/more complex syntax) possessed NPs rather than lighter ones
      (the table's dirty and worn-out alumin(i)um edge vs the dirty and worn-out alumin(i)um edge of the table)
    • the need for denser texts, as in newspaper headlines 
    • speech (rather than writing)
    • informal writing style (rather than more formal writing styles)
    • the dialect being spoken
    So, on the last point: English in general used to be a much stronger avoidance of 's on inanimate object names. Inanimate possessors have become more and more accepted in English over the last 200 years or so. But that change has been happening faster in American English than British. This is like a lot (but not all!) of other changes in English (see The Prodigal Tongue, or if you really like to read about statistical methods, Paul Baker's book)—the change has roots deep in English's history, but goes faster/slower in different places. In this change's case (like some others), the "newer" form ('s on inanimates) is perceived as less formal and it's more condensed (and therefore quicker to say/read). Both of these properties might characteri{s/z}e some differences between the cultures that maintain the "standard" versions of English in the two countries. AmE tolerates more informality and more brevity in more situations.

    So, having been thinking about all this, I did a Difference of the Day on Twitter, showing these two charts:

    Here you can see that North Americans are much more happy than others to say the book's cover or the book's title or the table's edge or the table's width (or whatever other nouns might go after book's and table's). Here's the flipside, the of versions, which I didn't post on Twitter.

    The table chart goes with what we'd expect to see: BrE doing a lot more with of than AmE. But the book table has AmE doing more of the book than BrE. You know why? Because American talk about books more. No, really:

    So that's a lot more detail than you needed in order to see the AmE/BrE difference, but, hey, reading is good for you!

    *Why does off look like of? Because they used to be the same word!

    Some of the things I've been reading that influenced this post:
    Carlier, Anne and Jean-Christophe Verstraete. 2013. Genitive case and genitive constructions: an introduction. In Carlier and Verstraete (eds.), The genitive. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Carlier, Anne, Michèle Goyens and Béatrice Lamiroy. 2013. De: a genitive marker in French? Its grammaticalization path from Latin to French. In Carlier and Verstraete (eds.), The genitive. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt and Lars Hinrichs. 2008. Probabilistic determinants of genitive variation in spoken and written English: A multivariate comparison across time, space, and genres. In Terttu Nevalainen, IrmaTaavitsainen, Päivi Pahta, and Minna Korhonen (eds.), The Dynamics of Linguistic Variation: Corpus Evidence on English Past and Present. Amsterdam : John Benjamins.

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    geez, jeez!

    As with many of my discoveries about English, this one happened during a Scrabble game. I had played GEEZ and my opponent challenged it, stating that she thought I needed a J rather than a G. When British people think I've got English wrong, I make a note of it, go home, and look it up. And about half the time, it is because there is a national/dialectal difference to be found. (The rest of the time, it's down to some weird beliefs about language. And most of the things we believe about language are weird, and little to do with reality. This has been the main thesis of my research career.)

    Geez/jeez is originally AmE, a way of not-taking the name Jesus in vain. I was probably an adult before I reali{s/z}ed that. To me, it was just some thing people said, and I didn't make the connection, just like a lot of people probably don't reali{s/z}e (till someone tells them) that (BrE) crikey is a way to avoid saying Christ or (BrE) cor, blimey stared as an avoidance of God blind me.

    Whether people spelled it with a G because they didn't see the relationship to Jesus or whether using the G was a way to keep it one more step removed from Jesus, I don't know. What I do know is that the G is the more common spelling in AmE, but it's rarely used in BrE, where the expression has caught on (not least in imitations of Americans). I suspect that when it entered BrE people could see its minced-oath nature, and so assumed it was spel{led/t} with a J.

    Click to embiggen.
     As we've seen before, there's a lot of spelling variation in interjections, which start their lives in speech and mostly stay there. They never get tested in school spelling quizzes, you just do what you want with them.  It will be interesting to see whether there's more standardization of the spelling of speech-like bits as an effect of the more speech-like writing we do online.  (If anyone knows of such research, I'd be interested to hear about it. I had a quick look and didn't find anything super-relevant, but there must be some out there.)

    Jack Grieve has made a word-mapper tool for seeing where particular words are tweeted most in the USA. You might enjoy his maps of Sweary USA. I tried it for geez/jeez to see if there's any variation in the US. As you can see, saying {g/j}eez is not a regional thing. It's all over. But spelling it with the J, while less common overall (note the different colo[u]r scales for the maps), is more common in 'the North', i.e. the northeast and northern midwest.

    What struck me about the jeez map is how the jeez area seems to echo Yankeedom in Colin Woodard's American Nations. Woodard's book posits that different regional subcultures of the US derive from its migration histories, with value systems travel(l)ing westward from the east coast (and then dispersing in different ways when migration patterns become less linear and sparser in the 'west'. Woodard's maps look much like maps of major dialect areas in the US.
    Perhaps BrE has the jeez spelling because of greater contact with the northeast—though I doubt that is the relevant issue, since exposure to the word is probably mostly through speech. Perhaps Yankeedom and the UK have in common a feeling that the oath does not need so much mincing, and so they are more apt to spell it in line with its etymology.

    If you're interested similar speaking/spelling problems, you be interested in these other posts. Please comment about those ones at their posts and keep those parties going:

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    pigs in blankets

    This keeps coming up on Twitter and in the comments at other posts, so let's talk about (BrE) pigs in blankets/(more common in AmE) pigs in a blanket (singular for both: pig in a blanket).

    Recipe at BBC Good Food
    British pigs in blankets are small sausages wrapped in bacon (and cooked!). They are delicious. They're traditionally served alongside turkey as part of Christmas dinner. (For me, they almost make up for the fact that Brussels sprouts are also a traditional part of Christmas dinner in England.) The usual sausage involved is a chipolata, which we could call a BrE word because it's hardly heard in the US (16 UK hits on the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, but zero US ones). But then again, it's not that there's another word for it in AmE, so better to call it a UK-and-not-US thing, rather than a BrE word. Basically, all the non-imported sausages (and even some of the imported ones) are different in the UK and US.

    These are (increasingly, I think) found in US cooking, but I haven't heard them called pigs in blankets in the US. My brother, with no prodding from happy me, has started serving them as pre-dinner snack at Christmas time, and we call them sausages wrapped in bacon. Now that he does that, pretty much the only thing I like better about UK Christmas than US Christmas is the fact that I don't have to travel for my pigs in blankets. (Sorry, mince pie fans.)

    Recipe at
    In AmE, pigs in a blanket are usually small sausages wrapped in dough (and cooked!). They are delicious. When I was a kid, this usually involved (AmE) cocktail franks* (also cocktail wieners, little smokies, and general-English cocktail sausages) wrapped in the kind of Pillsbury dough that comes in a tube. I think that when I was a kid, this usually involved the dinner-roll dough, but nowadays I see most of the recipes online (including Pillsbury's) involve their crescent-roll dough. (Even though I should know better now, I'm still dangerous around a basket of freshly baked Pillsbury crescent rolls. There's no point in calling them croissants, though. A crescent roll is like a croissant that's been photocopied 100 times and then had hydrogenated palm oil added.)
    * Note that on the Oscar Mayer package, the sausages are now wrapped in bacon. Trendy.

    Recipe at BBC Good Food
    The use of crescent-roll pastry, rather than a bread dough, takes American pigs in blankets a step closer to the British sausage roll, which is a sausage (often just the sausage meat) encased in puff pastry. But to my senses, US pigs in blankets and UK sausage rolls are very different things, due to the differences in sausage spicing, sausage/pastry ratios and coverage, shape, etc.). The ones in the photo here are 'mini sausage rolls', but a non-mini sausage roll contains as much sausage as a typical hot-dog-style sausage.

    Recipe at Splendid Table
    The final type of pig in a blanket is an American breakfast food: American-style breakfast links wrapped in an American-style pancake. They are delicious. This is the least common meaning for the expression, but one you used to be able to find on an IHOP menu. The key thing to know about these is that American breakfast sausages are nothing like any breakfast sausage in the UK. They have a lot of sage, are much slimmer than most UK sausages and sometimes casing-less, and are really well complemented by maple syrup. If you order sausage in a US breakfast diner, you may well be asked links or patties? If you've ever seen a Sausage McMuffin, you've seen a sausage (AmE) patty. You get those by slicing them like salami (but thicker!) from a big ol' package of sausage meat.

    (This paragraph added in response to comments) The plural pigs in blankets is more common in BrE, while AmE tends toward pigs in a blanket. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the ratio is about 1:4. That said, I think the plural blankets is found more in print—the COCA examples include a lot of spoken ones and fictional dialogue. Looking at Google Books ngrams, pigs in a blanket seems to be a rather recent plural.)

    Now comes THE BIG TWIST IN THE TALE. The term pig in a blanket is originally AmE, but it  had nothing to do with sausages at the beginning. The OED has its first recorded use of the term showing up in 1882 and referring to oysters wrapped in bacon. This dish shows up slightly earlier in UK cook(ery) books with the name it still has: angels on horseback. The first record of a sausage-related meaning is from 1926, and refers to a sausage in a roll, rather than one baked into dough, and that meaning continues on in the 1940s. (I've found additional examples as well as the OED's up to 1948.)  Apparently, the first known use of it in the "rolled in dough" meaning occurred in 1957 in Betty Crocker's Cooking for Kids. Essentially, it looks like the current AmE meaning coincides with the wide availability of packaged refrigerator doughs.

    As for the BrE meaning, it's not hard to imagine the AmE term coming over to the UK and being re-interpreted. It would not have been needed for oysters-in-bacon, since BrE already had an equally weird term for that. Sausages, usually made of pork in the UK, make a lot more sense as a 'pig' than an oyster does.

    Other sausage-related posts for your information, edification, or appetization: (Is that a word? It is now.)
    on hot dogs
    on red hots
    on baked goods (pigs in blankets briefly mentioned)
    on breakfast
    on bangers
    on pudding (including black pudding)

     PS: Nancy Friedman has shared this glorious picture of the 1957 Betty Crocker's Cook Book for Boys and Girls (Betty Crocker = an American institution), showing (a) that the use of mini sausages was a later thing, and (b) the traditional plural form. I love the hat-tipping wiener and frank—and the explanation of the difference.

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    The book!

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    AmE = American English
    BrE = British English
    OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)