garden birds

This was going to be a post where I tried to cover the many different bird names between US and UK that I've covered on Twitter, but I now reali{s/z}e that I don't have enough blogging hours in a day to do that, so consider this Part One in a series of bird-related posts. This one focus(s)es on (BrE) garden birds—i.e. songbirds and the like. The kind of thing that might nest in a tree, near you. (Note that yardbird is not AmE for garden bird!) Photos are from Wikipedia, unless otherwise stated, and are generally of adult male birds.

The naming of birds in North America

North America and Europe differ in their native bird species a fair amount, and so there are different birds to name. But when English-speakers first encountered birds in America, they often used familiar words for the unfamiliar species.

A great source on AmE/BrE bird-name differences is British Names for American Birds by Cecil H. Brown in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 2 (June 1992). If you want to read it, but find a paywall, then do contact your public (or school/university) library, which might have access through JStor , you should be able to register to read it without paying. (See vp's comments below for info.)

Brown discusses four main patterns of application of British names to American birds:
  • A. A British monomial [i.e. single name] or base name [i.e as part of a compound] for British species X is used to label the same species occurring natively in America.
  • B. A British monomial or base name for British species X is used to label species Y occurring natively in America when (1) species X does not occur natively in America, and (2) species X and Y are of the same genus.
  • C. A British monomial or base name for British species X is used to label species Y occurring natively in America when (1) species X does not occur natively in America, (2) the genus to which species X belongs does not occur natively in America, and (3) species X and Y are of the same family.
  • D. A British monomial or base name for British species X is used to label species Y occurring natively in America when (1) species X does not occur natively in America, (2) the genus to which species X belongs does not occur natively in America, (3) the family to which species X belongs does not occur natively in America, and (4) species X and Y are of the same order. (Brown 1992: 33)
In other words, A-named birds have the most similarity between the places, and D birds the least.  We'll notice the differences most between the names for the C and D categories.

Of the 87 British bird names that Brown studied (for all kinds of birds, not just the types in this blog post), 52 were in category A (i.e. same bird, same name + expansions of the name ), 15 in B, 10 in C, 3 in D, and 7 were exceptions to these categories. 

BrE robin
AmE robin
American robins and European robins are both brown with red breasts, but otherwise they look very different. The robin found in UK is Erithacus rubecula (left). The one in US is a type of thrush: Turdus migratorius (really; pictured right). Brown categorised this as type C, but this doesn't seem to take into account that the British robin is no longer considered a thrush, but a type of Old-World flycatcher.

It must be said: the UK robin is much (orig. AmE in this sense) cuter. They can also be quite sociable—probably because they're very keen on asserting territorial rights, so they will come and sit quite near you if you're relatively still. I'm sure when I read The Secret Garden as a child, I imagined the American type, but it's much more realistic to imagine the British type.

Both serve as symbols in their cultures, but of different things. In the UK, robins appear on Christmas cards. This is not because you see them more at Christmas(time). It seems that Victorian postmen were called 'robins' because of their uniforms, and so early Christmas cards had red-breasted birds with letters in their beaks as a kind of adorable visual metaphor. 

In the US, the robin is known as a first sign of spring, but it seems that's a bit of a myth too, since they don't actually migrate all that far during the winter. 

from Bizarro Comics—the joke doesn't work in UK

The bird is named after people—Robin being a variant of Robert. Originally, the British bird-name was redbreast, and one often hears robin redbreast as if it's the bird's first and last name.

In the US, Robin is usually a girl's name now (which might be spel{led/t} in different ways), whereas in the UK, Robin is more usually a boys' name and Robyn the female variant. 

Blackbird (late addition)

Commenter Bardiac notes that that word is used differently in AmE & BrE. Indeed, UK blackbirds are thrushes, often not all that black.  They thus look like AmE robins, fairly drab. New World blackbirds are of the same family as New World orioles, about which see below, and often more spectacular looking. Click on links for pics. 


Blue tit (UK)
The UK has many types of titmouse, which have often been called tit. The name is probably from Scandinavia, where the birds have similar names, and it is thought to be in imitation of the birds' chirp. Earlier and dialectal forms include chit and tomtit—again from the trend of giving birds human-like names. Calling them tits is a bit newer-fangled than calling them titmice. The OED says:

In Britain ‘tit’ has largely superseded the earlier name of titmouse, though the latter is still used for several American species. Most tits were traditionally placed in the genus Parus, but this has recently been split into several other genera.

One of the American species is more commonly called the (black-capped) chickadee, again an onomatopoetic name, after its alarm call. Some people assume that Americans don't call these birds tits because of alleged prudery, but this is almost certainly not the case, since Americans do call other birds titmice — the shortened tit form would not have been so common when colonists were originally naming these things. The chickadee naming could have come about because (a) it was seen as being different enough from European tits to warrant a new name, (b) the name was more evocative, or (c) it seemed silly to call a bird a titmousesimilar to AmE preferring ladybug over (BrE) ladybird for description's sake.  Nevertheless, as I say, there are other species called titmouse in the US like the tuffed titmouse below, so I think it was just that the name chickadee appealed more. Titmouse counts as Brown's category B.

                        Black-capped chickadee
Tufted titmouse (N Am)

Speaking of Christmas cards, American ones are sometimes illustrated with the black-capped chickadee or the cardinal, neither of which are found in the UK/Europe. The cardinal, of course, is red and cheery. I don't know if the chickadee is particularly Christmassy, or if it's just a cute bird that allows American cards to imitate the British robin ones (since the US got the Christmas-card tradition from the UK in the Victorian age). (See comments for further info.)

Google image search


If someone says they have a goldfinch in their garden, it'll be the left one in the US (Spinus tristis) and the right one in the UK (Carduelis carduelis). This is Brown's category C.

A bit about cardinals and jays

The (northern) cardinal lives in the eastern half (and a bit) of the US. A recent Twitter discussion I
Cardinal (NAm)
saw questioned whether Catholic cardinals were so-called because they wear red like the bird. Worth noting that this is backwards. Americans often don't reali{s/z}e that their wildlife isn't everyone's wildlife (as another Twitter discussion about raccoons reminded me last week). The birds were so-named (originally cardinal-bird) because they're red like a cardinal's robe, not the other way (a)round.

Bluejay (NAm)
I always think of cardinals and bluejays together, as they are always a welcome flash of crested colo(u)r in our northeastern US (AmE) backyard/(BrE) garden.

I didn't know what the bird was when I snapped the picture below in Brighton, but it turns out it is also a jay, a Eurasian jay, which has some blue in it. So perhaps when Europeans hear Americans talk about bluejays, some imagine this. Jay belongs to Brown's category C.

Eurasian jay

Here is Brown's category D. New-World orioles [right] belong to the blackbird family. As Wikipedia says: "Unrelated to Old World orioles of the family Oriolidae, they are strikingly similar in size, diet, behavior, and strongly contrasting plumage, a good example of convergent evolution." There are a lot of different kinds and they're all pretty, so click through to Wikipedia to see more pics.
Baltimore oriole (NW)

Black-naped oriole (OW)

Starling (late addition)

I'm slipping this one in even though the name doesn't mean different things in the two places, just because I want to note that starlings were imported to the US from Europe, reputedly as part of an effort to ensure that all birds mentioned by Shakespeare lived in the US. While starlings do very pretty things on our local sea front in Brighton, in the US they turned out to be a big pest that ousted native species. This is a great fact for Americans to be armed with when asked to answer for the problem of grey squirrels in Britain.


Ok, parakeets are generally not thought of as garden birds, but I'll include them here because there are plenty in English gardens. They're especially numerous around south London (and so they're sometimes called Kingston parakeets), but they've been spreading out—even into Scotland, it seems. I love watching them in my mother-in-law's garden.

But there is a meaning difference for parakeet. AmE uses that name for the little birds that are kept as pets, what BrE (and some US pet bird enthusiasts) call budgerigars or budgies, for short. The ones in London are rose-ringed parakeets, or ring-necked parakeets. These would also be called parakeet in AmE, because that's what they are, but Americans have less need to talk about them, as they are not living in public parks. See the comments for info about areas of the US where feral parakeets are found.

AmE parakeet; BrE budgie
Feral parakeet in London

Bird-related vocab

Bird table is used in BrE to describe some kinds of bird feeder where seed lies on a flat surface. One doesn't find this term so much in AmE—they're just listed as 'bird feeders' in online shopping hubs.

Google image search for "bird table"

The dawn chorus

Recently one of my Twitter Differences of the Day involved the BrEism the dawn chorus, meaning 'early morning birdsong'. Someone asked me why I thought the British invented a special term for this and AmE apprarently didn't, and I flippantly replied "Sentimentality". But there is probably more to it than that.

It is pretty hit-{and/or}-miss which concepts get lexicali{s/z}ed in a language/dialect, but in this case, I think Britain has two things going for it. First, its relative geographical homogeneity: no deserts, temperate climate throughout, no one more than 70 miles from the coast, and no one higher than about 1500m above sea level. (It's even more homogeneous if we only consider England, where most of the media discussed below comes from.) Some birds will be more common in some places than other places, but the particular sound of birds singing at dawn is not going to be a very local phenomenon. Second, there's a lot of nature programming on television and radio. These two facts together make for a lot of garden programming and other kinds of national attention to nature-in-your-immediate area. And so if they talk about something like the dawn chorus, it'll be (a) immediately familiar to anyone paying much attention and (b) spread very easily around the country. In the US, I'd expect there's a lot more variation in what the morning sounds like. We are not 'a nation of gardeners'—which is not to say that Americans don't garden, but there's less of a national identity built around it. And the US is in general less sentimental about local nature—probably because nature is often less cuddly and Beatrix-Potterish in the US. To my mind, there is nothing cuter than the North American chipmunk, but Americans have to hold nature at more of a distance, because some of it is deadly in its own right (rattlesnakes, crocodiles, grizzly bears), some of it is unpleasant (skunks), and much of it can carry rabies. And it's so populous. If we in my part of New York State were to stop and say "Look! A squirrel!" every time we saw one like my in-laws (and now my child) do here in the southeast of England, we'd never get out of our own (AmE) driveways.

Final fun fact

When I was researching The Prodigal Tongue, I was really struck by how much influence publishing laws (and their circumvention) have had on life. Here's an example. Audubon's Birds of America (1827–1838) had no text in its first edition just pictures, because if there were text (and they distributed it in the UK), they'd be required to provide free copies to public libraries in England. The text was printed in a separate book, so that the relatively inexpensive all-print books could be provided separately from the expensive-to-print pictures.

P.S. Apologies for some formatting problems here. Blogger has changed its interface and (a) a lot of things that used to be easy are now harder, (b) the html-editing page is considerably harder to read, (c) captions seem to easily come unfixed from their images. I might fix some things later, but I've already spent FAR TOO LONG on this post today!
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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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    AmE = American English
    BrE = British English
    OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)