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

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

Here's what Oxford Languages says: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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US-to-UK Word of the Year: OK

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The eligibility criteria remain:

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

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

if I'm honest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S.  Honestly

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

Will there be a US-to-UK WotY?  To be honest, it's unclear at this point! 
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Smylers got in touch recently with this observation:

I found myself being surprised by the word “mobility”, and was wondering if there's a BrE/AmE difference? Enterprise Rent-a-Car emailed to say they're introducing a new brand: Enterprise Mobility

That made me think of vehicles adapted for wheelchair users, or those who otherwise have limited personal mobility. But apparently it's the overall brand for various transport services; “mobility” is being used to mean “travelling in a vehicle”, rather than “travelling on foot”.

There's no reason why the unqualified word should have one or the other meaning. But to my British brain, “mobility” makes me think of “mobility scooters” or “mobility aids” — such as those provided by Mobility People, whom you linked to in 2008:

It's an interesting one. 

The word mobility seems a bit more common in BrE in the the News on the Web corpus: you find about 11 mobility per million words in the US, versus about 13 per million in the UK. Those British uses tend to relate to a couple of domains: physical (dis)ability and social class.

It's not that Americans don't use mobility in that way. You can definitely find phrases like mobility scooter (as can be seen at this US electric wheelchair retailer) in AmE. (Though when I asked my brother what those things are called, he didn't use the word mobility, just scooter.) Nevertheless, this (dis)ability-related use of mobility used a lot more in BrE:

The (dis)ability-related uses of mobility really take off in this corpus after 2021. For instance, mobility issues (which could refer to different kinds of mobility, but mostly doesn't) had only 0.30 per million (across countries) in 2019, but 0.85 per million in 2022. 

Both AmE and BrE use mobility for metaphorical movement, as in social mobility. 

Why so much more talk of social mobility in the UK? Because the Tory government had appointed a "Social Mobility Tsar" during the period that this corpus was collected. (The hits for tsar in BrE are similarly out-of-whack.) 

If instead of asking the corpus for particular phrases like these and instead ask it to tell us which combinations with mobility are statistically "most American" and "most British", the results are interesting. On the left are the "most American" ones*—the greener, the more not-British they are.  And vice versa on the right. 
*This doesn't mean that these are the most common phrases with mobility in either country. And it doesn't mean that the other country doesn't use these phrases. It means that one country uses them surprisingly more than the other.

mobility + noun

Noun + mobility

Adjective + mobility

The thing to notice here is how much longer the green lists are on the American side of the second two charts, where mobility is modified by another word. AmE writers seem to have more kinds of mobility than BrE writers do. Where you see something like this, it's reasonable to suspect that more phrases = more meanings, or at least more domains in which the word is used.  

Sure enough, the BrE side is almost entirely characterized by phrases used in talking about physical (dis)ability and social mobility. (Green Mobility there refers to an electric car [BrE] hire /[AmE] rental company in continental Europe.) But the AmE side has other themes coming through: family mobility is about the Massachusetts Work and Family Mobility Act, which is about what kind of paperwork you need to get a (AmE) driver's/(BrE) driving licen{c/s}e. Electrophoretic mobility refers to a chemistry thing that I'm not going to try to understand. Mobility wing mostly refers to sections (Air Mobility Wings) of the US Air Force Reserve. And so forth.

Some of the uses, for example, commercial mobility, refer to means of transport(ation), and that's the use that Enterprise is picking up on in their branding. So there we go! It does look like branding that would work better in the US than the UK. Thanks, Smylers!

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fighting fire

Having spent so many years on Twitter doing "Differences of the Day",  I have a lot of (forgive me the jargon) content that could be moved over here, to the blog. Today, I'm moving over the information from tweets that I did during my "fire week" in March 2018: five days of AmE–BrE differences relating to fire-fighting. This choice has been inspired by Frank Abate, an American lexicographer who regularly sends me the BrEisms he's come across in reading the news.  So, this post is mostly copy-pasted-edited from tweets—the smaller text is info I've added since the tweets.

Ways of referring to people who fight fires as a job:

  • AmE and BrE both use fireman and firewoman (though News on the Web corpus has both of these at higher rates in UK now)
  • orig. AmE fire fighter (or firefighter) is used about twice as much in US
  • BrE fire crew and fire (safety) officer (which is a higher rank) are not much used in US.
Those who investigate fires are BrE fire investigators or AmE fire marshals.
But in BrE fire marshal is a synonym of (also BrE) fire warden, who is a person in a big building who has a little training and is responsible for helping with evacuation in the event of a fire. I've asked American friends what this is called in the US. A British friend in NYC showed me her workplace has fire wardens, but people in other parts of the country were less certain. Floor captain seems to be used in at least some places.

These people make up the BrE fire brigade or fire service or the AmE fire department or (less commonly) fire company. Outside cities, American ones may be volunteer-run.

There are sometimes volunteer fire departments in the UK, but in the US they're common enough to have their own initialism: VFD (Volunteer Fire Department).  See Wikipedia for more. 

(Fire) appliance is much more common in news/officialese in BrE than AmE (and get a look at NZ!). This goes back to mid-1800s, and refers to a fire engine (used in both countries). AmE has fire truck, but that's a more informal term than engine/appliance.

Per million frequencies: US 0, UK .07, NZ .24
Fire appliance in the News on the Web corpus. 

That reminded me of a sign on the fire station near my house in Brighton:

Red sign: CAUTION: Fire Appliances Emerging. Someone has put a green smiley-face sticker on it.

BrE and AmE both use fire station for these places. AmE also has fire house and fire hall. For me, at least, fire hall indicates that it has space for public meetings, etc., reflecting the central role of (often volunteer) fire stations in small-town life. Here's a picture of Fireman's Hall in Alfred, NY (from Wikipedia).

two-story red brick building with a clock tower on top

Finally, fire hydrant was originally an Americanism, but is now used in the UK too. They look rather different, though.

UK hydrants are marked by yellow signs with an H, which tell firefighters that there's access to a pipe nearby. I wish I could remember what I watched on television last week that had an American hydrant in an allegedly UK setting. It's one of those things that will really stand out to those who know. Two points to any commenter who can name the show or film!

UK hydrant sign (pic from here)

US fire hydrant (pic from Wikipedia)

And here's a handy-dandy guide to reading a UK hydrant sign from the Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service.

If you liked this, you might be interested in these earlier posts about:

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so fun, such fun

Long ago, I was asked about so fun versus such fun. Martin Ball, this one's for you! 

So, fun started out in English (1600s) as a verb meaning to 'trick, cheat, deceive'. You could fun someone out of their money. Then by the 1700s, it had become a noun meaning 'light-hearted enjoyment'. At that point, it was very much considered to be slang. Its respectability as a noun has increased over the centuries, but it may still feel a little informal. 

Elephant & Piggie books
= much recommended

When it's a noun, you can modify it for amount with the kinds of amount-modifiers (quantifiers) that go with uncountable nouns:

  1. we had a lot of fun 
  2. The evening wasn't much fun
But these days, it's also used as an adjective. Adjectives modify nouns, and those nouns usually go after the adjective or, as in the second example here, after a linking verb. Adjectives can be modified by adverbs of various types, underlined in the following:

        3.    a very fun evening
        4.    The evening wasn't terribly fun

Examples 2 and 4 look similar (the fun is after a linking verb, was), but we can tell that 2 is a noun because it's modified by a quantifier (much) and 4 is an adjective because it's modified by an adverb (terribly). 

(Merrill Perlman, writing for Visual Thesaurus, notes that: "Nearly everyone... opposes 'funner' and 'funnest' as anything but kid-speak or deliberate irony.)")

Now, I say "these days" fun can be an adjective, but it's been an adjective for quite a while. Here are the first five adjective examples from the OED. The 1853 one is American, the rest are British.

Is there an AmE/BrE difference to be found here? 

Well, let's start with the fact that Americans seem to have more fun. In the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, the American sub-corpus has 151 instances of fun per million words, while the British sub-corpus has 129 per million. Most of that difference is due to greater AmE use of the adjective:

This helps us explain why my friend Martin noticed more so fun in AmE and such fun in BrE. So goes with adjectives, such with nouns, and AmE uses fun more as an adjective and BrE more as a noun.

What also helps explain it is that AmE (these days) uses more so modification of adjectives. (There's a study on the effect of the tv show Friends on so. Given that Friends has been obsessively watched in the UK for decades now, you'd think there'd be as much so here. But no.)

Still, the modifiers of adjectival fun are not too different in US and UK. Really is the most common modifier in both. Number 2 in the US is so and in the UK is quite. But number 3 in the UK is so (the American #3 is very).

For the noun, such fun is heard about twice as much in the UK as the US. This doesn't seem to be because such is more common in BrE generally. Such fun is just such a British thing to say.

When fun is a noun, it's common to talk about so much fun. What strikes me about such fun is it is so much fun minus the 'o m'.  And so fun is so much fun minus the much

Anyway, it's been so/such fun writing about this. Get in on the fun by leaving a comment! 

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sir, miss (at school)

In my last newsletter, I reacted to this news story:

Guardian headline: London school drops ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ honorifics to fight cultural misogyny

The article is about addressing teachers as sir or miss, which happens in American schools too (I'm sure there's a lot of variation in that across schools and regions). But in the newsletter I mentioned BrE referential use of the words when talking about the teacher (rather than talking to the teacher). I said: "I’m often taken aback when my child (like any ordinary English child) refers to her teachers as Sir and Miss"—which she often does.

My former colleague David replied to say that he found this odd, since as "a moderately ordinary English child in the north of England in the 1960s," he addressed his (all male) teachers as Sir, but would refer to them by name or description (e.g., our English teacher). He concluded that "referring to teachers as Sir and Miss may be either more recent or more southern."

While the usage may have been new in the 1960s, it definitely existed then, apparently even in the north.

The OED's first citation for that use of Sir is from 1955 in a novel by Edward Blishen, who hailed from London: "‘The cane,’ said Sims vaguely. ‘Sir can't,’ said Pottell...’" A few other quotations can be seen in the OED snippet below (note their nice new layout!)  

On to MissThe first referring-to-(not addressing)-a-teacher citation for Miss is from 1968 in a book by an author from Salford (in the northwest). (You'll spot another Miss example from that book in the Sir examples above. I've reported the error.)

Did Miss really only appear a decade after referential Sir? I doubt it. We have to rely on written records, usually published ones, and there aren't a lot of written records in the voice of schoolchildren. Fiction helps, but it has its biases and gaps. 

And then, of course, there was the 1967 British film To Sir, with Love, in which Sir is used as if it is the name of the teacher played by Sidney Poitier. Is it a term of address there, or referential?  Well, the title always seemed weird to me—certainly not a way I'd address a package. This Sir seems halfway between address and reference. We could label packages with the second-person pronouns that we usually used to address people, i.e., "To you", but we tend to use the third person: "To David". Rather than addressing the recipient, it seems to be announcing the recipient. 

This past academic year, for the first time, I was addressed as Miss a fair amount (no name, just Miss). This came from a new student who apparently was carrying over school habits to university, and so my colleagues were all Miss as well. I thought often about saying something about it to the student, but I also thought: I know what they mean, so why bother? I get to correct people enough in my job, I don't have to take every opportunity to do so and certainly don't need to make a big deal out of what I'm called. (Just don't call me late for dinner.) One picks one's pedantic battles. It's not a million miles from how I feel about my students calling a lecture or seminar a lesson, which I've written about back here.

If you're interested, here's more I've written on:
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The book!

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