the maddest in the room


Headlines were made when Wikileaks, in their recent targeting of Hillary Clinton, released a transcript of a private speech by Bill Clinton. British news outlets (orig AmE) zeroed in on a particular passage from the speech for their headlines:




It looks, especially if you speak BrE, like Clinton was making a claim about the sanity level of Jeremy Corbyn (current leader of the UK Labour Party). This is a bit of headline evil.

Three things conspire here to give Clinton's statement an 'insane' interpretation in the headlines and many of the articles:
  1. AmE uses mad to mean 'angry', but BrE doesn't so much. 
  2. The maddest is before the noun.
  3. Some of British newspapers seem to be withholding the American meaning from their readers.
 So let's take those in turn.

1. The difference in mad

Mad can mean 'insane' or 'angry' in AmE, but is not as often used to mean 'angry' in BrE.

It's one of those word-uses that America preserved and Britain threw away. Originally mad was used of animals to mean 'rabid'. By the middle ages, it was used of (non-rabid) people, describing behavio(u)rs like those of a rabid animal: aggression (as if one is angry) or loss of the senses and frenzied behavio(u)r (as if one is crazy). Both senses were brought to America, but by the turn of the 19th century, BrE had mostly stopped using the ‘angry’ sense of mad. It was still around, though, for instance in the King James Bible: “And being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities” (Acts 26:11).

Mad 'angry' was thus one of the first Americanisms that British folk started complaining about. If you think it means 'insane', then using it to mean 'angry' could seem a bit simple, like you couldn’t tell the difference between feeling angered and losing your senses altogether. 

Mad isn't "American for angry", though. Angry is how Americans say angry. The words are near-synonyms, but mad tends to be used in less formal settings. That it's not completely equivalent to angry can be seen in their different grammatical behavio(u)rs, which brings us to...

2. The position of maddest
An adjective can go before a noun (attributive use) or on the other side of a verb from the noun it modifies (predicative use), as in:
  • She's a happy baby.  (attributive)
  • The baby is happy.   (predicative)
Not all adjectives go in both places. We can say the baby is glad (about something), but it's weirder to say she's a glad baby. What you can see from the baby examples is that the predicative use makes happy a less intrinsic property of the baby. She's happy now, but she might not have been two minutes ago and might not be two seconds from now. She's a happy baby seems to say something more general about the baby: she has a good disposition.

Now let's try that with mad:
  • He's a mad person.   (attributive)
  • That person is mad.  (predicative)
In BrE, the 'insane' meaning comes to the fore in both cases, since the 'angry' sense isn't in very active use. In AmE, you're very likely to get the 'insane' meaning in the attributive, but the 'angry' sense in the predicative context. (The 'insane' meaning is also possible--but Americans tend to say crazy when they mean that kind of mad.) This goes along with the point I was making about happy in these positions: the more stable trait ('insane') is more likely to go before the noun than the more fleeting emotion ('angry').

In AmE, like BrE, we're used to a range of mad='insane' phrases with attributive mad: a mad man,  mad scientist, the Mad Hatter and so forth.  MAD Magazine has a "crazy" kind of humo(u)r, (AmE) mad libs is a game of crazy word combinations,  and (AmE) mad money is money that you're free to spend in a crazy way [well, it is now--see first comment for further back!].

Typically, it's easy to disambiguate mad because the 'angry' meaning is directed at something. You are mad at someone or about something. (If you're American and felt that That person is mad meant 'insane', it's because there was no "something" to be mad at in the context I gave you.) We could call it a "two-place adjective": it has a "subject" (the one who is mad) and (loosely speaking) an "object" (the thing that's causing the anger). The 'insane' meaning generally isn't directed--you're insane or you're not insane, but you're not insane at something. That's connected to the attributive/predicative difference as well: you can fit the 'about/at' information into the predicate position (I'm mad at the newspapers), but it's harder to do in the attributive position: The mad-at-the-newspapers linguist is writing this blog.

You can see a similar thing going on with other "two-place adjectives". He's a proud parent is interpreted as 'He is proud of his child(ren)' because parent sneaks in the information about the thing that's causing pride. But in He's a proud person, we get a different interpretation (either 'arrogant' or 'stoic'), because it doesn't tell us what he's proud of

3. Clinton didn't mean 'insane', but the headlines were meant to make you think he did
So, what's going on with Clinton's the maddest person in the room? It looks like it means 'craziest', but...in the full context of Clinton's speech, it clearly doesn't. Here's the relevant passage:
If you look all over the world – the British Labour Party disposed of its most [inaudible] leader, David Miliband, because they were mad at him for being part of Tony Blair’s government in the Iraq War.
And they moved to the left and put his brother in as leader because the British labour movement wanted it.
When David Cameron thumped him in the election, they reached the interesting conclusion that they lost because they hadn’t moved far left enough.
And so they went out and practically got a guy off the street to be the leader of the British Labour Party, who I saw in the press today said that he was really a British citizen and had real British [inaudible].
But what that is reflective of – the same thing happened in the Greek election – when people feel they’ve been shafted and they don’t expect anything to happen anyway, they just want the maddest person in the room to represent them.

Clinton has set up mad as being 'mad at the powers that be', and he's repeating it in maddest to signal that angry people are looking for an angry leader.

The Guardian and Huffington Post UK both used the clickbait phrase "maddest in the room" in their headlines, but at least had the decency to point out in their articles that mad can mean 'angry' in American English (and probably meant so here). The Telegraph and the Independent (which, I'm sorry to say, gets more and more clickbaity by the minute now that it's no longer a print newspaper) used the headline but did nothing to challenge the impression that Clinton had called Corbyn "the insanest".

Wikileaks has been aiming to sow a particular kind of (clearly partisan) chaos. With headlines like these, the newspapers are only helping them to do it rather than taking a responsible position.


And the guy off the street
While we're here... Clinton's guy off the street probably also sounds worse in BrE than in AmE. In AmE the man on the street is the averagely informed person. If you call the person on the street away from the street, they would be a 'man off the street'. That doesn't work quite the same in BrE, where that person is the man in the street. Here's Noam Chomsky using man off the street to mean 'averagely informed Russian':
I don’t know much about Russian public opinion, but I imagine if you picked a man off the street, he would be surprised to hear a reference to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
A couple of UK readers have suggested to me that they'd interpret guy off the street as meaning 'homeless man', which clearly (to this AmE reader) wasn't what Clinton intended. The news sites didn't help readers to interpret this one either.


And a few notes before I go
I'd been doing well at blogging on a weekly basis, but the US election results threw me off my routine--and not just because it's left me waking in the middle of the night questioning what kind of world I've brought a child into. I'd been asked by the BBC to go up to Media City to be on The Verb with Ian McMillan that week. The brief had been to talk about words of 2016--but not politics because everyone would be sick of politics after the election. I prepared some materials and was on my way up north the day after the election, when the producer called to say "given what's happened, we can't not talk about politics now". So, instead of writing a blog post, I ended up preparing twice for The Verb. If you're interested in hearing it, it's available for listening here for 17 more days.

John Kelly wrote a piece on Slate about how we were talking about the election in the days after it, and he quotes me reflecting on what it was like talking to people at the BBC about it that day.

I've been thinking about what to choose for my US>UK and UK>US Words of the Year. There's a definite frontrunner for UK>US, and there was a frontrunner for US>UK: till I discovered that dog-whistle (nominated by a couple of you) was first (as far as the OED knows) used in Canada, and then made it big in Australia before going to the US. Now, I've little doubt that the UK media/politicians picked it up from the US, so it might still qualify as US>UK WotY. But if you have better nominations, I'd love to hear them. The criteria are that it should be a word from the US that made it big in the UK this year. That usually means that it made a splash in the media somehow. It should be a long-standing word in the US, not one that was invented this year--so that it's really an Americanism that has shown up in the UK, rather that just "a new English word". Please feel free to post suggestions in the comments.
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choirs and preaching to them

I'm feeling a bit of pressure to put nice pictures at the start of my blog posts because the new homepage layout features whichever picture is first. Corpus tables make boring pictures, so I am using this as an excuse to share with you a delightful animation, Choir Tour:


CHOIR TOUR from Atom Art on Vimeo.

So, with that out of the way, @gwynf has asked me about preach to the choir versus preach to the converted, which was a nice coincidence because I'd recently looked it up myself. Either phrase means 'pointlessly make an argument to those who already agree with your point of view'. I felt like I've always said converted and that I'd learned choir in the UK. I think the first of those feelings is accurate (I do believe converted is what my mom said and it is what I say), the second probably isn't, since choir is clearly the preferred American phrasing:
From GloWBE corpus

Preach to the congregation is also found in BrE, but in much, much smaller numbers. (In this corpus: three!) A related BrE expression is sing from the same hymn sheet i.e. 'share an opinion or position'. Both AmE and BrE also have sing the same song/tune. (Thanks for pointing that out @UnexpectedBag.)

Maybe (and I know I'm going to make enemies here) I like converted better because I mostly really don't care for choral music. (Sometimes it's less the music that's the problem than the choir.) I don't want to preach to the choir because if I pay them too much attention they might guilt me into going to their charity concert at Christmastime and sitting miserably through it, thinking "I could die later today and I will have wasted my last hours here." I know I shouldn't admit to not liking choirs. They're like mobs. They could (orig. AmE) beat me up.

Anyhow, the word choir is worth discussing too. In BrE there are choirs all over the place. Many of my friends (who will soon be beating me up) are in them. And many, many of them are non-religious. Community choirs they're called, and they do everything from classical to indie music to gospel (for the music, not necessarily for the gospel). BBC (BrE) programmes Last Choir Standing, The Choir, and The Naked Choir give an inkling of the popularity of choral singing as a secular activity.

In the US, choir is more associated with church-affiliated groups and maybe some classical ones. My school didn't have a choir, it had a chorus. Other terms like chorale and glee club give a sense that the group is singing works that are not necessarily choral in origin. (At least, that's the sense they give me--but there's nothing to stop a chorus from singing non-choral works either. My school chorus memories are of a bunch of kids belting out cheesy Christmas songs at the tops of our lungs with no attention to cooperation or harmony.) Various websites out there argue about the differences between these various terms. The fact that they have to argue probably means that the terms aren't being used in any consistent way. I would take chorale and glee club to be much more old-fashioned terms.

A look at statistically-strongly-American (pay attention to the green ones) versus statistically-strongly-British words before choir in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English shows that choir gets more of a (orig. AmE) workout in BrE:


But then there's (AmE) show choir, a type of non-religious school singing-and-dancing group that was brought to the world's attention by the television (AmE) show Glee. I've written about that before--so please see/discuss at that old post.

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Before I (AmE) go hide (BrE/some AmE go and hide) from the angry singing mobs, I'll just note that I'm on BBC Radio 3's The Verb this Friday (11 Nov) at 22.00 (UK time). It's available online for a month afterward. I think we'll be talking about words for the generations, so to speak.

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Untranslatables VI: the summary

As previously announced, this was the 6th October during which I tweeted an 'British–American untranslatable' (that is, item lexicalized in one national dialect and not the other) on each weekday. If you'd like to complain that any of these does not qualify as 'untranslatable', please first read my provisos about what's meant by untranslatable in this context.

This year's was a bit British-heavy, though in looking back on previous years, I noticed that some had more American ones, so perhaps it all works out in the end. 

BrE rough sleeper  'homeless person who's sleeps outside, as opposed to in a shelter or other temporary accommodation'.  Suggested by John Kelly (@mashedradish)

BrE gongoozler originally, 'an idler who watches canal activities', now more broadly, 'a person who stares for long periods'.  Suggested by Andy M. (on Facebook)
source

AmE to t-bone '(for a motor vehicle) to crash into another vehicle perpedicularly'.  Suggested by Rhonda (on blog). (This one has started to have currency in UK--but the steak cut that it's named after is not traditional in UK butchery.)

BrE busman’s holiday 'leisure time spent doing something very much like what you do at work'. There are some variants used (a little) in the US, but the ultimate source is this phrase. See World Wide Words. Suggested by

AmE to kick the tires 'to determine the worth or "health" of something by testing it'. Suggested by @SimonKoppel. This has spread beyond the US, with some people (Australians, in my correspondence) interpreting it specifically as something done by people with no intention to buy. I liked the OED entry that says it's orig. U.S. Not with that spelling, it's not!


BrE (to give someone a) backie (also backy)  '(to give someone a) ride on the BrE parcel shelf of a bicycle'. Suggested by @formosaphile. Responses to this tweet brought up a lot of variants: Australian dink, dinky, New Zealand dub, and a number from the UK, which Moose Allain has put together into a slide show. But none from the US, as far as I've heard.

AmE third base (etc.) as measures of sexual accomplishment. Covered previously here.  Suggested by @Mburked

BrE love rat tabloid term for a male adulterer. Here's Collins Dictionary on it. (Sorry, someone suggested this, but I failed to note who!)

AmE candy striper a usually female, usually teen-aged hospital volunteer. Suggested by @CityMelzer A bit more on the term from Wikipedia.

BrE to blot one's copybook  'to do damage to one's own good reputation'. Here's the discussion of it at World Wide Words.

BrE Johnny Foreigner '[pejorative] personification of non-Britishness', often used satirically. Here's the Collins entry for it.

AmE big box store 'box-shaped single-company retail building at the edge of town'. Possible BrE translations discussed at Wikipedia.  Ta

BrE for in, for example, 7:00 for 7:30, which means 'come after 7, but by 7:30, when things will get started'. Or, as Andrew Caines defined it: "You'll be rude if you arrive up to and including 7:00, or any time after 7.29". 

AmE condo(minium) 'building consisting of residential units that are individually owned' or 'an individually-owned unit within such a building'. In AmE condo generally contrasts with apartment (building)--the former is rented, the latter owned. In UK, they're called (blocks of) flats regardless of owned/rented status. In some parts of the US, there are also co-ops. The difference between condos and coops is explained here. I'd tried to conceptualise this in terms of the difference between flat ownership with a leasehold versus a share of the freehold in England, but that's not right (see comments). Suggested by @RebelePublisher 

BrE I’ll be mother 'I'll serve the tea [or other food/drink that needs serving-out]'  Suggested by Rhonda on the blog.

BrE graunch used as a verb or noun onomatopoetically for a grinding/crunching sound, as when gears in a car grind. (OED lists this as [UK] dialectal & New Zealand.) Suggested by April23rd on blog.

AmE (esp. Californian) lookie-loo (and spelling variants) 'nosy person who goes to (AmE) real-estate open houses with no intention of buying'. It's also used (esp. in other parts of the country) as a synonym for (orig. AmE) rubber-necker. Suggested by Michèle, seconded by @cynderness.

BrE paddle 'go into water (especially the sea) without swimming, particularly walking in up to the knees or so'. In AmE, I'd just say wade, which isn't specifically about getting your feet wet for fun. Suggested by @simonkoppel.

AmE Monday morning quarterback 'person who criticizes others using hindsight the others couldn't have had'

BrE ready reckoner 'quick-reference table that gives solutions to simple calculations'. AmE has things like cheat sheet, quick reference, but those could be, say, lists of definitions, rather than a table of calculations.

BrE glamour model euphemistic expression for 'woman who poses topless' (particularly for certain UK newspapers and BrE "lads' magazines").

Will I find enough for a seventh year in 2017? I've already started the list, so maybe.  Feel free to keep suggesting them! Thanks to everyone who's helped this time.
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dandelion clock

Grover and I like to play a bit of (BrE) cod-Pictionary, using the cards from a UK edition of Cranium. She's 8 now, and I've been pretty impressed by her ability to communicate in pictures. So recently we were playing and she drew these two things (here kindly re-drawn for your benefit, as I misplaced the original).




Have you got(ten) it? I recogni{s/z}ed the first thing as a dandelion with its seeds blowing away and the second thing as a clock face. So I just kept saying "Dandelion time?", to Grover's increasing frustration, until the timer ran out. 

The answer was dandelion clock, leading me to ask: "What's that supposed to mean?" 

Turns out that's a British name for the head of a dandelion once it's gone to seed. It's also the name of a game played with such dandelions. To quote Wiktionary:
A children's amusement in which the number of puffs needed to blow the filamentous achenes from a dandelion is supposed to tell the time.
 (Bet you weren't planning to read the phrase filamentous achenes today.)

Grover and her dad and the makers of Cranium all knew the expression, but this was the first I'd met it (though I now see it's also the name of a wallpaper that I see often). But though I knew exactly the thing that dandelion clock refers to, I had no expression for it.

Since we're in Untranslatable October, this was exciting, but then I asked my US friends whether they had a word for dandelion clock and some did--either dandelion puff or dandelion puffball. As many American friends had no word for the thing. I'd probably say white dandelion head or dandelion that's gone to seed or something like that. There didn't seem to be a regional pattern to having a name for it or not--some who had a name grew up in the same town as me and still live nearby.

The words don't seem to be all that common--probably the kind of thing that stays on the playground. There are 4 BrE dandelion clock(s) on the Corpus of Global Web-Based English. The only dandelion puff was in the British section, but written by a North American in a comments section of a blog. (Why you can't always trust nationalities on GloWBE.) In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are 9 dandelion puff(s) and 2 dandelion puff(-)ball. There are also two dandelion clock(s) in COCA--one by a British author (AS Byatt) and one with someone using it as if it means the individual seeds, rather than the head.

So I got to learn three new words (for I do consider compounds to be words even if they've got a space within them) from two countries for one thing. Not bad for a day's pictionary.

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Forgot to mention last time: I'm on the Talk the Talk podcast, chatting with the hosts about the language of the 2nd US presidential debate (after Dan Everett talking about Universal Grammar). The Quartz piece I did on Trump's the continues to get a lot of attention, including from Vox.
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yankee in GDoS

I was reading the print version of Ernest (No. 4, I think, which I received a while ago as a gift for speaking at Brighton's Catalyst Club) and one of the short bits at the front was about a Yankee dodge. This was what British surgeon Robert Liston called the use of ether as an an(a)esthetic. Yankee because the method was developed in the US.

First use of ether in dental surgery,
from the Wellcome Collection
Within the US, yankee can mean more specifically "New Englander" or at least "northerner". Was this a yankee dodge in both the regional and national senses of the word? The first published-about use of inhaled-ether-as-an(a)esthetic was in Boston, Massachusetts in 1846 by William T. G. Morton (pictured right), and that's what got the attention of Liston. Morton was a Yankee for sure, in all senses of the word. But he spent the rest of his life defending his reputation as the "inventor" of an(a)esthesia because Crawford Long, a surgeon from Madison County, Georgia, had been using ether for some time. He just hadn't published about it. Long is less yankee than Morton from an American perspective, but from a British perspective, it's all yankee enough.

Anyhow...this got me thinking about the email in my inbox announcing the online publication of Green's Dictionary of Slang, which includes all the material from Jonathan Green's 2010 book of the same title plus further additions. Green also does fantastic slang timelines, which show the richness of the slang for topics like sex, drunkenness, and death over the ages. Green's work is especially thorough on underworld slangs, and while he's based in London, his attention does envelop other countries as well. So, I wondered: what comes up for yankee there?

This is just the (first) noun entry for yankee. The sub-entries vary in place of origin: (unmarked) British, US, and Australian. There may be some British association of yankee with cheating or taking a shortcut (cf. Yankee dodge), but in Australia, the stereotype used is miserliness, which in the US is more specifically a stereotype of New Englanders (found later Green's verb entry for to yankee 'to cheat'. 




SE here means 'standard English'. So, the first compound uses a slang sense to make a slang compound, and the later ones use the standard-English meaning of yankee 'American' to make further slang compounds.

Above is what you can see if you don't subscribe. If you subscribe (or better yet, get your library to subscribe), you get timelines and quotations as well that make the whole experience a lot richer.



Pretty! Not to mention: Informative!

I won't reproduce all the Yankee/yank entries here, but there are more for the exploring at the site.


In the interest of balance (and entertainment), here is some of the adjective entry for English. (A nickname like Brit would have been more balanced with yankee, but there were no particularly US senses there. Actually, limey would have been a good one to look at, but a reputation for vitamin-C deficiency isn't as amusing as a reputation for spanking).

This all might seem like a paid-for ad(vert) for Green's dictionary. It's not. It's a sincere appreciation of a thing of beauty and a celebration that modern technology makes such things more available and adaptable. It's also a little reminder that this kind of work deserves support. Labo(u)rs of lexicographical love shouldn't be taken for granted.
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lewd

The news around Donald Trump's rapey caught-on-tape comments has seen the word lewd bandied around quite a bit, and I've seen a fair amount of complaint about its use to describe what Trump said. It didn't really occur to me that this might be a transatlantic problem when Alan Rew kindly pointed this tweet in my direction:
Photo via CNN.
Sorry, I needed a picture.



...because I'm sympathetic to the idea that lewd is not bad enough a word for something that actually suggests and promotes sexually assaulting women. It seemed not-right-to-me in either dialect. But then Garrett Wollman pointed out:

And that pushed me to think: Is there actually a difference? Do American newspapers and broadcasters use the word because it is a legally correct word in the US for something like this?

Hoping for some insight, I checked the kinds of authorities American news organi{s/z}ations might use: the AP Style Guide and Garner's Modern Usage. Neither says a thing about lewd, so I don't know that newswriters are getting any particular instruction to use that word.

Is it used more in American law? These things are hard to compare country-to-country because so much of American law is at the state level. Searching the US Legal Code at the House of Representatives site, I found 19 federal laws using the word lewd, including the phrase lewd acts, which is at times contrasted with the more serious sexual acts, which seem to be more precisely defined. In other cases, lewd is used to refer to pornography (or a subset thereof). Choosing a state to search, I used California. Currently there are 50 laws on the books with the word lewd in them.

Looking at UK law was harder (maybe there are easier ways to do it than I know). Legislation.gov.uk is searchable, but it includes all laws back to the 13th century, including out-of-date material, and I don't see a way to limit the search to only current laws (though it does let you search particular dates). So I got 50 hits for lewd, but the results are crowded with legislation that's been replaced by other legislation that may or may not include many of the same words.

But it does seem to be the case that lewd is used more in Scottish law than other UK places. For example, in the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 [pdf link], lewd occurs once, but only in a listing of Sexual Offences in Scotland, this one being "Lewd, indecent or libidinous behaviour or practices". The England and Wales listing has no lewd crime. (Lewdly also occurs in the document, but then it's just noting that the current law is removing that word from a 19th-century law "as it extends to Northern Ireland".)

As for how lewd is used in non-legislative text, the Corpus of Global Web-Based English shows that Americans are more likely than Britons to talk about the lewdness in terms of things that are done (lewd behavior, lewd conduct) and Britons tend more (but not as much more) to associate lewd with things that are said (lewd comments).  (The darker the green, the stronger the statistical difference.)

I would assume that this is related to the prevalence of lewd acts (the phrase, not the deeds) in American legislation.  But I'd welcome any insight from those in the legal know.

And speaking of the Donald, I've written a piece for Quartz on Trump's use of the in contexts like the African-Americans. You can say one thing for Trump. He's keeping the linguists busy.

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comma, vocative: a birthday experiment

Last week, Allan Metcalf wrote about commas disappearing from around vocatives. A vocative is a direct address to a person, such as the reader in the following examples:
Reader, let me tell you something about commas.
Let me tell you something about commas, reader.
If you think, reader, that I'm not going to tell you about commas, think again.
I used commas here to separate reader from the rest of the sentence, because reader isn't a grammatical part of the sentence. It floats on a different plane from the subject and predicate.

Metcalf was noticing that many people were not using commas, and I got a good dose of noticing that today when I received birthday messages on social media. What I wondered was: do British people use the comma less?

I have good reason for asking the question with that particular bias. Americans use a lot more commas than Brits do. Like that first comma in the blog post (Last week, ). Americans are much more likely to put a comma after an adverbial phrase at the start of the sentence. In the Corpus of Global Web-based English, the American texts have about 10% more commas than the British ones.

So here's my little experiment.

Research question: Is there a national difference in vocative comma usage?

Hypothesis: American birthday greetings have more vocative commas than British ones.

Data and Method: I went through the birthday greetings I received today on Facebook, Twitter, and email and looked for ones that were:
  • from an American or a Briton (I discounted any that were by people who were originally from another country)
  • with a vocative: Happy birthday(,) Lynne was the most common form. 
I then counted how many did and did not have commas from each country.

Results: My hypothesis is supported. Though the comma is at risk in both places, it seems stronger in the US, where 61% of the vocatives had commas, versus 27% in the UK.
  


comma none
UK 8 22
US 14 9


Caveats: I have not accounted for age, level of education, or profession here. I'd guess that my British friends on Facebook are younger on average, just because I'm friends with more former students from the UK and they were students more recently than any US students I've had. That said, there weren't all that many former students using vocatives.



You know the birthday celebrations are getting rowdy when someone starts counting the commas.



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Announcing Untranslatable October VI

On Twitter, I usually post a 'Difference of the Day' between British and American English every weekday. But for the past five Octobers, I've done the Untranslatable of the Day.
The moment I start tweeting about 'untranslatables' I expect to receive tweets and emails complaining about the concept, particularly that 'nothing is untranslatable'. That's why I write this self-plagiarizing introductory blog post each year. 
Yes, 'untranslatable' is not a very useful concept. I use it because it's shorter and more familiar than what I really mean: 'Lexicalized in a particular variety of English, but not another' That is, the concept may be expressable in the other English, but it hasn't been packaged as a lexical item--i.e. a word or an idiom--in every variety of English.

Comparing which concepts warrant lexicalized (belongs-in-a-dictionary) expressions in a language can be interesting from a cultural perspective. They tell us things about working conditions, social relations, and other good stuff. Sometimes they make us think "yeah, I need a word for that!" and there the word is to borrow. 
So, I repeat again the clarifications about Untranslatable October that I've given before:
  • I'm only talking about the relationship between British and American English here (as is my theme). These expressions may well have equivalents in other languages or dialects.  
  • By Untranslatable I mean that there is no lexicali{z/s}ed equivalent in the other dialect. And by lexicali{z/s}ed I mean that the expression is a word or an idiom--something that language users learn through hearing others say it, rather than something that has been made up anew.
    One can translate things by making up new sentences or phrases that describe the same thing, sure. But it's special when a language has lexicali{z/s}ed an  expression for something--it tells us something about the culture that invented and uses that expression.
  • Many of these have started to be borrowed between the dialects--and that's natural. If it's a useful expression and the other dialect doesn't have it, it's a prime candidate for international migration.
  • If you have not heard of the word before (even though I've said it comes from your country), then I hope that you might celebrate that you've learned a new expression, rather than complain to me that it's not 'really' American or British. Please know that I'm not posting them without some research, and none of us has a complete vocabulary. That said, if you can improve on my definitions, challenge the 'untranslatability' or give other insight into the untranslatables, please let me know!
  • If it's a word for a thing that isn't found in the other country, it doesn't count. That is, it's not Americans don't have a word for Eccles cake, it's that Americans don't have Eccles cakes
  • I'm grateful for suggestions of additional untranslatables (though they may not make UotD status until next year), but I won't repeat any expressions that have been used in previous Octobers. The lists for each October are accessible by clicking on the 'untranslatable' label in the right margin, the bottom of this post, or, conveniently, here: untranslatable.
    There are also search boxes at the top and in the right margin of this blog. (The one in the margin works much better.) So please have a quick search before making suggestions, in order to cut down on the time that I spend responding to suggestions. (This is all voluntary on my part, please remember!)

Each year I've wondered: can I really keep this up for a(nother) month? Are there that many concepts that are put into words or idioms in Britain or the U.S., but not the other country? Well, we've come up with more than 100 so far, and this year, I kept a file of UotD suggestions all through the year and can say with confidence that there are enough for a sixth go-round. But unlike in other years, I've not been able to balance the number of British and American untranslatables. I've got lots of British ones. Please feel free to send more American ones my way! 
Untranslatables (like Differences of the Day) will appear at 3pm British time (10am US east coast) each weekday on Twitter till the 31st. If you don't use Twitter, you can see them in the Twitter feed to the right here, or wait for the summary at the end of the month. In any case, I hope you enjoy them! 
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black()currants

Grover was off (AmE from) school yesterday (because of a (BrE) dodgy tummy, and we had the following exchange:

G: Is there a fruit called currant?
Me: Yes, there's blackcurrant and redcurrant.
G:  No, but is there any such thing as a currant?
Me: Yes. Black and red.
G:  But is anything called currant?
Me: Yes, black currant and red currant.*

G: But I'm talking about currant.
Me: OK. There are berries called currants. And they come in different types. And one is black and the other is red.
G: Ohhhh. OK.
*I'm not even getting into white currants here, which are from redcurrant bushes. The conversation is confusing enough.

The problem in our conversation became clear to me the fourth time she asked her question. In BrE blackcurrant and redcurrant are compound nouns. Since they're one word, they only have one primary stress (i.e. syllable you emphasi{s/z}e most in speaking). You can hear a compound/non-compound stress difference in She was a greengrocer versus The martian was a green grocer. In our house (among[st] the Englishpeople) it's the first syllable that's stressed in the currant compounds:  BLACKcurrant and REDcurrant. But the pronunciation guides in UK dictionaries tend to give it as blackCURrant'. At any rate, not BLACK CURrant, which is what they'd be as separate words.

So G wasn't necessarily recogni{s/z}ing them as separable words. To her, asking this question was like hearing about (AmE) automobiles and (AmE) bloodmobiles and wanting to know if there are vehicles called mobiles (MO-beelz).

For me, it seemed evident that there must be currants. Of course, I have more life experience than the eight-year-old. And, perhaps relevantly, I came to currants as an American.

Earlier this week, Kathy Flake pointed out an article answering the question "Why does the purple Skittle taste different outside America?" Both of us had wondered (as I'm sure many other transatlantic types have done): why is everything blackcurrant flavo(u)red in the UK, and never grape flavo(u)red? To quote the article:

Most American mouths have never tasted the sweet yet tart tang of the blackcurrant berry. There’s a big reason for that: in the early 20th century, the growing of blackcurrants was banned on a federal level in the U.S. after legislators discovered that the plants, brought over from Europe, had become vectors for a wood-destroying disease known as white pine blister rust.
During the 1960s, the federal ban on the berry was relaxed in favor of state-by-state jurisdiction, and most states now allow it to be grown. But the damage had already been done—the blackcurrant jams, juices, pastries and cakes that are standard throughout Europe are nowhere to be found stateside.
Americans use the Concord grape, developed in the US and used in juices, (AmE) jellies [discussed in the comments in the linked post], grape pies (a local special[i]ty where I'm from), and grape flavo(u)ring. It turns out that these grapes are very susceptible to another plant disease, so it's probably best not to export those either. The main thing the grapes and blackcurrants have in common is that they're purple--necessary if you want people to "taste the rainbow".

So when I moved to the UK, I knew about currants in the way I know about lutefisk. It's something other people eat somewhere else, about which I have only secondhand knowledge. 
Did I know that they came in black and red types? Could I imagine what a fresh one looked or tasted like? I can't remember now what I didn't know then. But the knowledge was vague. I certainly didn't know that the black and red types were represented by joined-up compound nouns. I'd have imagined them more like red grapes and white grapes, where they're separate words. And if they're two separate words, then the stress pattern for saying them may well be less compound-like. But not necessarily. We often don't close up compounds, even when they do follow the compound stress pattern--e.g. ICE cream. But when they are closed, how to pronounce them is less ambiguous.

And I've only just this minute learned that the dried fruit currant is not the same as the currants I've met here (see the Merriam-Webster definition below). I may have to revise my answer to Grover.



So that's what's in currant buns. Seriously, I just thought they used some kind of low-quality currant berries in currant buns. So, my answer to G was not particularly helpful. Yes, there are currants, but in BrE, they're rarely the same thing as blackcurrant


After my day mostly home with Grover, this tweet was thrown my way:
...and the congruence of currant-related events led me to write this post. Why is an American organi{s/z}ation asking a British newspaper for spelling advice? Perhaps because they (very reasonably) don't trust Americans to know anything about currants. But because currants have a different place in the culinary lives of Americans and Brits, they also have different linguistic places.

The closed (i.e. no space) compound noun status of blackcurrant tells you a lot about the centrality of that thing as a thing unto itself in British culture. British English famously (if you count 'famous among a few of my linguist friends' as famous) resists closing compounds more than American does. But when compounds are closed in writing, it signals that they have that compound stress pattern. And when they get that stress pattern, it's a signal that the concept represented by the compound is now a familiar unit in the language.

Side note: John McWhorter has recently done a Lexicon Valley podcast with the title 'Word Sex' ("How words [orig. AmE] hook up and make new ones") in which he looks at how that compound stress works and what it means. I very much recommend it, but British listeners will think he gets the stress wrong on half of his examples. At the end does discuss an AmE/BrE difference.  McWhorter's been doing that podcast since early summer, and he's really made something of it. If you've tried LV before and didn't like it, it's worth trying again.

But back to the A.V. Club's problem. Is there a space or not? In BrE, no. Dictionaries (Oxford, Collins, Chambers) close the compound. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English has 166 UK blackcurrant(s) to only 11 black currant(s).

The American data is a different matter: 16 without the space, 21 with. You can see how little Americans write about the fruit. When they do write about it, they haven't got a firm agreement on how to spell it. Red( )currant is much the same. American dictionaries that have the word (Merriam-Webster and American Heritage) have the space:  have a space in black currant. Webster's New World Dictionary (not a Merriam-Webster product) doesn't even bother to define it--but does have it as two words in the definition for creme de cassis.

Because the American dictionaries give it as two words, they don't bother giving a pronunciation guide--they rely on the pronunciation in black and currant to be enough. The Cambridge dictionary gives different American and British pronunciations (listen here), but I've been burnt before by their American pronunciations. The Oxford Learner's dictionary gives both compound pronunciations (stress on first or second syllable) for both countries (listen here). And all three UK pronouncers on Forvo put the stress on the first syllable (listen here), but no Americans have bothered to offer a pronunciation of it.

So, how do Americans pronounce it? It seems they mostly don't.
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Poem competition winner!

I feel bad moving the frown post from the top spot on the blog, seeing as it has been AMAZING. In one week, it's had 11,000 more hits than the math(s) post has had in nine years! (And that one is one of my most popular posts!) "Reviews" of the frown post include "mind BLOWN" and "I am FREAKED OUT". It is indeed so very weird that such a big meaning difference could be hidden from so many people for so long, when the evidence of the difference is all around us. Huh! (To comment on frowns, please go to that post.)

But I have a solemn and happy duty today: to announce the winner of the poetry competition to win a copy of  Oliver Kamm's Accidence will happen: the non-pedantic guide to English. The winner, by my studied judg(e)ment and popular acclaim is: MJ Simpson
Here are the winning words.

In suspenders and pants and a vest,
Looking nerdy - but smart - I impressed.
In the States that was fine
But a Brit friend of mine
Thought me kinky and quite underdressed.

Thank you MJ--please get in touch so that I can (AmE) mail/(BrE) post your prize to you.

And thanks to everyone who submitted a poem or (orig. AmE ) rooted for the poems of others. 

Changes are a-coming. I'm working with a web designer to improve various aspects of the blog. The current question: which font for the title? Life is hard. In a good way.
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Abbr.

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