US-to-UK Word of the Year 2021: "doon"

 Click here for the preamble to the 2021 Words of the Year and the UK-to-US word.

As I discuss in the post at that link, 2021 was a dry year for US-to-UK borrowings. Some might say that's because BrE is already saturated with them. But it feels to me like the UK is feeling a bit more insular these days, and paying less attention to Biden's USA than to his predecessor's, possibly because it was more fun to pay attention to another country when one could pretend their government was messier than one's own, possibly because everyone was watching Korean and French tv.

So, I don't really have a US>UK Word of the Year this year. None were nominated. But I do have a pronunciation.

US-to-UK Word Pronunciation of the Year: Dune

In most BrE dialects (the notable exception being Norfolk—and now probably more older, more rural Norfolk), the spelling du (and tu and su) involves a palatal on-glide, which is to say a 'y' sound before the u. People with this pronunciation would have different pronunciations for dune and doon, whereas for Americans they are generally the same. I've written about this difference before,

The 2021 film Dune had everyone talking, though, and sometimes BrE speakers were using the AmE pronunciation. It's a proper name, after all, and proper names can defy spelling–pronunciation rules. It's kind of like how many BrE speakers do not pronounce the title of Kevin Smith's film Clerks as "clarks". It would feel weird to pronounce the word differently from the people in the film. 

Emma Pavey nominated this pronunciation on Sunday, when I had just heard my London-born sister-in-law say "doon" in reference to the film. And so it is thanks to her that we have any US-to-UK 'of the year' for 2021. She says:

People kept calling the movie by its full name 'Dune or doon or however we're supposed to say it'.
This Australian YouTuber gets pronunciations from the film's cast and director:



Meanwhile, Americans tend not to understand what the fuss is about. 


A US-in-UK friend said pretty much the same thing in the Facebook thread where Emma nominated the pronunciation. If you're not sensiti{s/z}ed to the 'u' versus 'oo' distinction, it just passes you by. But for many BrE speakers, dune isn't just "dyune", it's "June". That's what happens when that d-sound and that y-sound mix. 

I doubt that this will have much effect on the word dune. (I can't say I've been around any BrE speakers who've needed to say it in some time.) But at least some BrE speakers are looking forward to the next instal(l)ment of Denis Villaneuve's Doon

That's it for 2021. Send me your nominations, as you encounter them, for 2022!

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UK-to-US Word of the Year 2021: university

The annual preamble  (you can make that rhyme if you try hard enough)

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. 

This year's WotY posts are a bit later than usual. Had I had strong ideas about which words to crown, I might have written the posts during my Christmas (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation, but I didn't, so I thought I'd wait till I was on the plane back home on New Year's Day. Except that I didn't get on a plane on New Year's Day, and the travel woes got more and more complicated after that. A few days' recovery was needed. So I'm taking the opportunity to announce my Words of the Year on the Zoom programme/show That Word Chat on 11 January, and this post will post at that time.

During the 2020 WotY season, I was very interested in the variability of the language for our universal experiences of the early pandemic. Isolation, lockdown, and quarantine were Words of the Year from different English-speaking nations, but generally referred to the same thing. (In the latest issue of the journal Dictionaries, which I am hono(u)red to edit, Wendalyn Nichols and Lewis Lawyer tell the tale of how the WotY process led Cambridge Dictionary to record new senses for quarantine.)  By the end of the year, there was hope of a vaccine, a word that ended up being or inspiring several dictionaries' 2021 Words of the Year. But BrE jab had already poked its head into the US in December 2020,  thanks to Oxford-Astra Zeneca's early vaccine successes, so it was my 2020 WotY. Since then the transatlantic vocabulary traffic has seemed rather calm. With all of us glued to our computers and our streaming services, you'd think that words would be happily travel(l)ing while we stayed (at) home. But no. It was really difficult to find clear candidates for the 2021 SbaCL WotYs. 

Eligibility criteria:

  • 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.
And as we shall see this year, I'm even willing to go sublexical. So without further ado...


The UK-to-US Word of the Year: university (= AmE college)

Now, of course, the word university is general English and has been in use in the US for a very long time. (The University of Pennsylvania has been so called since 1779.) So rather than talking about the importation of a word, we're talking about AmE adopting a BrE sense/usage for a word form it had already. (We've certainly had WotYs like that before, including jab, ginger, and bump.)

What's changed is that US people are talking about their higher education place/experience as university more than they used to. Back in my day (I hope you read that with a suitably wavering voice), we always called it college, no matter whether the institution had college or university or institute or maybe something else in its name. And, of course, that's what Americans mostly still do.

But some Americans seem to be saying university in some of those contexts, particularly after the preposition in. The News on the Web (NOW) corpus has three US examples of in university for 2011 (from just two sources), but over 20 for 2021. The turning point seems to have been 2019, but 2021 showed us it wasn't going anywhere. Here's a poorly formatted sample (I'll try to fix it later): 

21-12-01 US

Houston Chronicle

  focused on earning money and started his journey during his academic years in university .

21-11-03 US

Human Rights Watch

  community support officer also showed him the process of enrolling in university

21-11-02 US

for-profit educational products aimed at students not yet in university .

21-10-18 US


  was founded by Neo Zhizhong and Alicia Cheong, who met while they were in university .

21-09-16 US

in-game inspiration combined with his background studying English literature in university .

21-08-29 US

. The tale centers around two former friends who knew each other in university .

21-07-30 US


none of the knowledge I needed was taught in university .

21-07-14 US

  West Berlin fell on November 9, 1989, when Erpenbeck was twenty-two and in university .

21-06-25 US


  guy now, I've learned more outside of university than I ever did in university .

21-06-13 US


  , I'd heard the word " Hittite " before. I studied history in university .

21-05-25 US

  divorce, both of them travel back in time to when they first met in university .

21-04-30 US


  get the whole preamble, I started in this sort of Blockchain space back in university .

21-03-28 US

East Tennessean

  and clubs are a great resource for people who are struggling with their faith in university .

21-03-20 US


  And so I was encouraged to cook more. I cooked for my friends in university .


But in BrE, it would be at university in most of those contexts:

GloWbE corpus GB section: At university 707, in university 55

Rather than borrowing the BrE expression at university, AmE is using that BrE sense of university in the same prepositional contexts as AmE uses college:

In GloWbE corpus US, 'in college' outnumbers 'at college' 1195:113.
One does find some relevant examples of at university in AmE, but there something interesting is happening. Note the capitali{s/z}ation in this tweet:


Forbes magazine has a couple of 2020 uses, both by non-Americans about non-American subjects—but what's interesting is the American-seeming capitalization—probably not how the BrE/AusE-speaker authors would have written it.  

Her father also passed away from testicular cancer during her second year at University
There seems to have been some sense in 2020 that University was in some way an abbreviated name or title of the place. I was trained in AmE to capitali{s/z}e the 'u' when referring to a particular institution as an institution, but in those cases (in AmE) it was always preceded by the. For example, my employment contract would be between me and the University. But in the more BrE-like usage, it's not preceded by a the and so Americans don't quite know what to do with it. In AmE, you would study at the University of Pennsylvania, but when you do so you're in college. We're not quite ready for at university, even though we're happy with at school.

[See this old post for discussion of the different meanings/uses of school, college and university in the two countries, which will cover at least half of the things that you might be itching to mention right now.]

As well as familiarity with BrE university, I wonder if part of the motivation for this change-in-progress is a new division of labo(u)r between community colleges and universities. When I went (BrE-from-AusE) to uni, it was usual to apply to a four-year college/university and go for four years (or so). But changes to the costs of higher education have led many Americans to take their first year or two at a community college (see that old post again) and transferring their credits to a bachelor-degree-granting institution after taking their (AmE) general education courses at a cheaper, more local place. Maybe the distinction between a place where you get some tertiary-level credits and where you can get a bachelor's degree seems more relevant now. This is just supposition, but it could be investigated...

This WotY was inspired by Ben Yagoda's posts on his Not One-Off Britishisms blog and his tweets on the topic. As well as noticing preposition+university, he's also been tracking university students, as a synonym for college students in AmE.  I don't want to repeat all his good work, so please see his posts on related topics here. When I asked him yesterday what he'd pick if this were his WotY decision, he chose university. Luckily, I'd already started writing this post! 

Thanks to Ben for all his great, year-round Britishism-in-America tracking, to Mark Allen at That Word Chat for letting me announce my WotYs at his (orig. AmE) shindig, and thank you for reading!  To read part 2 (UK>US) click here.



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the best language books I read in 2021

I am an inveterate life-logger. At the end of a calendar year, I like to review what I've done, what I've liked, what I've been grateful for, etc. This includes reviewing the books I've read. This year I've had the thought: why not do the languagey bits of that on this blog? So here we are.

In keeping with the life-logging, I take new year's resolutions very seriously. In 2021, I (uncharacteristically) made only one resolution: to read more books than I acquired. This was an attempt to counter two problems:
  • I have to do so much reading at work, I can lose sight of reading as a leisure activity.
  • I accidentally acquire a lot of books. 
It took active concentration to ensure I didn't acquire more books than I could read. I was careful not to mention any books to my loved ones, so as to not get any as birthday/Christmas presents (it almost worked). I (almost) only allowed myself to buy books that related to my current writing project. I only picked up books from neighbo(u)rhood giveaways (our neighbo(u)rs got very into sharing over lockdown) if they were books I could have imagined myself paying money for. 
I got a little serious about finding time for reading by (re)instituting 'family reading time' for 20 minutes after dinner each night and by having a two-person reading group with a friend as we slowly made it through one book together. (My friend is named Friend and we read a book called Friends together. It had to be done.) Family reading time went through better and worse patches. It got harder the later we had dinner—and the more 'normal' 2021 became, the later dinner got pushed by work and other activities. But the 20-minutes-per-day works well when it's working. 

In the end, I acquired 22 books: two that I count as 'reference' books (i.e. you wouldn't try to read them front-to-back), thirteen others about language, and the rest assorted non-fiction. Eight were free from publishers (for review, for inspection, or as payment for services), two were gifts and three were neighbo(u)hood (orig. AmE) freebies. So I bought 10 books. And kept myself from buying 100.
I read 21 books (not necessarily ones I acquired in 2021) and used both the reference books, so I'm cheatingly counting my 'read' count as 23. It's not the resounding success I wanted it to be, but I'm counting it as success. I'm renewing the resolution for 2022. 
I did more refereeing (peer-reviewing) this year than usual (including some for book manuscripts) and tons of article-reading for my book-in-progress and for a related new class I taught ("Small Words"). So, though my pile of to-be-read books has not shrunk, I've more than justified the investment in varifocal reading glasses.

That's the end of the accounting (BrE accountancy).

I'm going to start out with the best three books about language that I read in actual book form. Then I'll say something about two 2021 books that I read in manuscript and appreciated enough to provide a blurb for. Then I might tell you a bit about writing.

My best language reads of 2021

1. Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self Julie Sedivy (Harvard UP, 2021)

Let's start at the end of my year, with the book I've just finished. Julie Sedivy's Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self. Sedivy, a Czech-born and (mostly) Canada-raised linguist,  uses her personal experience as the starting point for exploring the psychological, social, and emotional aspects of being multilingual and of losing one's childhood language to attrition (then recovering it). 

I found this book absolutely perfect. The six long chapters (Death, Dreams, Duality, Conflict, Revival, Home) have none of the furniture that academic writers tend to lean on—like titled subsections,  blocks of quotation, and clunky referencing (though for those of us who want to see the research basis, the notes section is a treasure trove). Instead, the paragraphs just flow, phrase by gorgeous phrase. At one point, she's discussing her relationship with her Czech-speaking father or her French-speaking schoolmates, at another she's explaining fascinating studies on such subjects as how bilingual immigrants' languages interact with personality and memory. This includes the research supporting her observation that "it is healthy to be as hyphenated a citizen as possible, hazardous to be a cultural amputee." By the end, she's learning an indigenous language of Canada and witnessing firsthand the efforts made to revive dying languages, but only after returning to her father's home village to rekindle the language that had retreated from her as she grew up (with the help of relatives who were "about as fluent in spoken English as they were in spoken algebra"). Sedivy proposes the term homelanguage as a sister to homeland, since we live in our languages even when we or they have moved geographically.

The book is written with an empathy that never dumbs the subject down, but that constantly made (mostly monolingual) me think "I never thought of that. Of course it must feel that way." People who grew up with more than one language are likely to value the insights into the psychology of their multilingualism and the kinship across languages with other multilingual folk. But it's got to be even more valuable for those of us who grew up monolingual as part of a linguistic majority, letting us in on the meanings, consequences, and feelings of multilingualism and potentially complicating our views of what it means to know a language.

As I read Memory Speaks, I was surprised that it was a book from a university press. That probably means it's not going to be on as many bookshop or public library shelves as it should be. Please seek it out and read it. (I hope it's being translated into other languages. Especially Czech! I'm sure that would be an interesting challenge.)

Full disclosure: the publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book.

2. A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed my Brain and my Life by Lauren Marks (Simon and Schuster, 2017)

I bought Lauren Marks' A Stitch of Time in the hope that it would give me some interesting facts and (someone else's) anecdotes for the book I'm writing on now. And it did. But like Sedivy's book, it also gave me some inkling of what it would be like to have a different mind/brain than I have (and by extension, it gave me a greater awareness of how my own mind/brain shapes my experience). And like Sedivy's book, it is a tale and exploration of language loss and recovery.
The author was the subject of probably my favo(u)rite episode of The Allusionist podcast—which was how I learned about the book. Marks was 27 when a burst aneurysm deprived her of almost all language. The book tells the story of her linguistic (and personal) recovery—though perhaps rediscovery is a better word than recovery. The book is so well written that you might at times doubt that she still has aphasia (certainly, not to the same extent that she did at first), but then it might occur to you: perhaps her distance from English contributes to her vivid language, just as it contributes to her appreciation for its complexity and (related) silliness.

Months later, I'm still thinking about her description of her time without language or inner monologue. She calls it The Quiet and presents it in such appreciative detail that I had to fight feeling jealous of a brain injury.

Marks' website includes some of the journals she wrote in the early stages of recovery and shows how they were translated into the prose of the book. But read the book. It's wonderful.

3. Lingo: A Language Spotter's Guide to Europe by Gaston Dorren (Profile Books, 2015) 

In 2020, I bought, read, and loved Gaston Dorren's book Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, so when his Lingo showed up in a book-rehousing post on our neighbo(u)rhood Facebook page, I became the thorn in the poster's side, checking up repeatedly on when I could come collect it from her. (Thank you, dear book-rehousing person!) 
Dorren's two books have similar structures. Each chapter magnifies a corner of a particular language—a corner that makes that language particular. Babel counted down the 20 most spoken languages in the world, while Lingo tours 60 languages of Europe, including the big (English), the little (Gagauz), and the made-up (Esperanto). It also connects the languages to English, giving for each (where possible) an example or two of words English has borrowed from the language and words that English might do well to borrow—because it lacks such a word. I'll share here (from the publisher's website's sample) the Lithuanian links (PIE = Proto-Indo-European, the focus of the Lithuanian chapter):

Dorren is a polyglot who knows his way around a language but also knows how to describe the most abstruse grammatical issues in clear, engaging language for those without his language gifts. While great as a cover-to-cover read, Lingo (like Babel) is a book you could dip into now and again when you need a little lift. (I spent a lot of time in [BrE] car parks/[AmE] parking lots while medical waiting rooms were closed over during lockdowns. Served me well!)

Books I blurbed

I read manuscript versions of these very good books for which I was happy to provide a quote. I'm getting tuckered out at this point in this blog post, so I'm mostly just going to give the blurbs!


Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever by John McWhorter (Penguin, 2021)

“Call me old-fashioned, but goshdarnit this book has an in-freaking-credible shipload of fizzy information. McWhorter’s delicate linguistic ear is put to indelicate and delectable use in this deep dive into the linguistic muck.”

McWhorter's book covers some classic 'swearwords' (I particularly enjoyed the demonstration of taboo words becoming pronouns), but also the N-word, whose taboo status is soundly demonstrated by the necessity to circumlocute it.

Jumping Sharks and Dropping Mics: Modern Idioms and Where They Come From by Gareth Carrol (John Hunt, 2021)

"Gareth Carrol gives us an expert's tour of the hotspots where popular culture meets etymology. A rich dive into the wheres, whys, and hows of linguistic memes."

You'd be surprised how deep the stories go for very recent idioms. Great research!


Enough about reading. What about writing?

The blog has been rather silent for much of the year. This little burst of writing (Two posts in one week! Another planned soon!) is courtesy of a holiday/vacation made much less social/busy by the Covid in the air.

My writing energies these days are concentrated on the aforementioned book about 'small words'. I decided to write it as a challenge to myself, which is either a very good or a very stupid reason to write a book. I am enjoying it (as much as one can enjoy the very painful process of writing), but it is going much more slowly than the last book, since it's not on a topic I'd been blogging about for years.

The other main thing I accomplished in 2021(besides being head of department in crisis time, teaching new and old modules, living in a building site, and having a family life) was acclimating to my new (voluntary) job of editing Dictionaries: The Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America and getting two issues into publication.

Because of all that I've done little other writing—but for a few commissions:

One big help in 2021 was the opportunity to supervise students in work-placement positions in our department (a way of dealing with work placements while many businesses were shut down. I'm grateful to Tess Blakeway, for her help with book-related fact-checking and editorial work, and Summer Raselma for largely taking over my Difference of the Day posts on Twitter for a few months.


So that's my year in reading and writing. I do hope this post might direct some readers to the excellent books I've mentioned!

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Baking and baked goods are a perennial source of US/UK miscommunication—in large part because most of our current baking/eating habits were only invented after the split between American and British English. We eat different baked goods with newish names and we often use the same old words in different new ways. 

While I've written many posts that have mentioned cake (see links below), I've come to feel the need for a much bigger one about cake. This one has been several (very busy) months in the making.

cake itself

The word cake came into English from Old Norse (or another Scandinavian source) in around the 13th century. Way back then it was a word for a round loaf of bread that was a bit flattened by having been turned over while baking. These days we associate it more with sweet baked goods, usually (but not necessarily) those leavened with something other than yeast. But its round, bready roots come through in things like (Scottish) oatcake (which refers to something more like modern crackers than like modern cakes) and northwestern England's barm cakes, one of the many regional names for the kinds of bread rolls with which you might make a sandwich (in the American sense). Later, cake came to mean any round, flattened food, and thus we have fish cakes and crab cakes and rice cakes and the like. 

People only started using cake as a mass noun referring to the substance (rather than the loaf as a whole) in the 16th century, and from then it increasingly referred to fancy or sweet bread-like things. 

Cake v dessert/pudding

Many Americans would think of cake as a rather normal dessert. But those who've watched the Great British (orig. AmE) Bake Off (GBBO) will have seen that cake and dessert are treated as different things. Such is the case in English culture (at least) more generally. Cake is something you'd have with coffee or tea as a break, not something you'd immediately think of preparing for the final course of a meal. (Though you will find the occasional cake on a UK dessert menu.) As we've already seen in the dessert/pudding post, puddings are another matter. Some look and feel like cakes (e.g., my fave sticky toffee pudding), but are not usually considered cakes in BrE. (Please do go to the pudding post, linked above, if you want to comment on puddings.)

Cake(s) as sweet baked snacks

On the other hand, in certain contexts, all sorts of things can loosely count as cake in England that would not be so called in AmE. Say you went to a coffee shop with your friend. If you were English you might ask them "Which cake do you want?" And your English friend might say "A (orig. AmE) brownie" or "The apple turnover, please" or "The carrot cake, please". If you were American, and you wanted the brownie or the turnover, you'd probably answer that question with "I'm not in the mood for cake, but I'd like that brownie/apple turnover." For Americans, cakes are cakes and other baked goods are other baked goods. For the English, cake can be an umbrella term for sweet baked goods eaten in the situations where one usually eats cakes in the narrower sense. (NB: I'm saying English rather than British because not enough Scottish or Welsh people have offered to buy me cake in coffee shops. More fieldwork needed.)

If I were Americanly asking someone which thing they wanted in the coffee shop, I'd probably say "Which kind of cake do you want?" because "which cake" doesn't really sound right in AmE, where it more usually refers to a big thing that you slice and not an individual serving of it. If a BrE speaker had a cake with their tea, it would fit on a small plate (under which the server will have inexplicably placed a paper napkin as if it's a doily, rendering the napkin useless—a coffee-shop peeve of mine). If an American had a cake with their coffee, they'd be an incredible glutton, eating enough for a dozen people.

AmE snack cake refers to the overly processed small cakes that are packaged for putting in lunch boxes. Twinkies are a famous example, but there are lots of other kinds as well (here's a guide). You can get such individually wrapped cakes in the UK too, e.g. Cadbury Mini Rolls are pretty much the equivalent of a Hostess Ho-Ho and the Mr Kipling brand offers a variety of such products, but I don't know of a generic BrE term for them. But again, we'd call them a snack cake but probably not a cake.

Types of cake

A very noticeable thing if you watch GBBO is the constant reference to sponge. Americans can use the term sponge cake (emphasis on the cake) but don't use it often because that's the prototypical cake type—and you don't need to specify the most typical type. (I've discussed the psycholinguistic concept of prototypes here.) It'd be like saying cloth shirt—almost redundant. 

[Update: see the comments for some more-informed American takes on sponge, which seem to indicate that for AmE sponge is a method (making with egg whites, not butter) and for BrE it's a result (a spongy texture). This fits beautifully with other examples of Americans naming things in reference to the form of the ingredients (pre-assembly) and British using names relating to the form of the result. See previous discussions of mashed potato(es) and scrambled egg(s) and burgers and hot dogs for other examples.]

But BrE speakers are more likely to call it sponge than to call it sponge cake, if that's the kind of cake they're talking about. A Victoria sponge (aka Victoria sandwich) is a two-layer cake with jam (and often cream) in the middle (no icing/frosting on top)—a very common cake in England. On GBBO they talk about lots of different types of sponge, like genoise or joconde, but that's specialist jargon that you don't tend to hear elsewhere. If you want more about those, see this Wikipedia entry.

from Meg Rivers Bakers

A reason that BrE speakers need to talk about sponge is that it's not necessarily the default cake type. Fruit cakes are very traditional and (get ready for a shocker, Americans) even loved in England. You cannot imagine my disappointment the first time I was handed a slice of English wedding cake and discovered it wasn't a nice, white sponge cake like I was expecting, but a fruit cake as in the photo to the left. When I got married in England, I had to insist that one of our cake's layers was not fruit. I didn't care what it was, as long as it wasn't fruitcake. 

(A note on spelling: AmE prefers fruitcake and BrE goes both ways: fruit cake or fruitcake.)

The traditional English Christmas cake is also a fruit cake. This has been adopted to a small degree in the US, where there is some tradition of giving fruitcakes as Christmas gifts. (When/where I was a kid, the local Lions Club sold them as Christmastime fundraiser. It seems they still do in New Zealand.) But Americans also have the tradition of mocking fruitcakes as the worst cake and the worst gift, starting with Johnny Carson in 1973: "The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other." American fruitcakes are generally unfrosted/uniced, whereas English Christmas cakes have white royal icing (see link) and decoration.

American wedding cakes are often made of white cake, which is a kind of sponge made with only the whites of the egg (here's a recipe—notice how it Americanly never uses the word sponge). Americans also talk about yellow cake, where the yolks are left in. Yellow cake with chocolate frosting is a well-known combination. I could link to another recipe, but I'll instead show a picture of a very typical American cake mix—these, like many things, come in many more varieties in the US than in the UK. 

While there aren't as many cake mixes in the UK, there are a lot of long-life ready-made cakes in boxes. (Something that surprised me when I moved to England.) The popularity of one supermarket chain's Colin the Caterpillar cake (the birthday cake for one side of my UK family) gave rise to the 'generification' of the caterpillar cake, which gave rise to lawsuits and news stories last year. (Click on the last link for pictures.)

Another cake type I've tweeted about a lot is coffee cake:

Other US cake types include (links are to Wikipedia):

  • angel food cake (a very light sponge made with egg whites and cream of tartar—an ingredient that seems to show up in US baking a lot more than UK baking)  
  • devil's food cake, which would probably be called chocolate fudge cake in BrE
  • pound cake, which isn't necessarily American, but it's much more common in the US—and thus shows up nearly seven times as much in AmE as BrE in the GloWbE corpus.

On the UK side, one runs into lemon drizzle cake a lot, while in the US one mostly gets lemon cake or lemon bars.

Image from Wikipedia
No discussion of the BrE meaning of cake is complete without mention of the Jaffa cake, which Americans would call a cookie. It is a little disc of sponge cake with a bit of orange jam/[AmE] jelly on top and dark chocolate on top of that. [I'd originally written BrE jelly/AmE gelatin here, which it might well be, but I went with what Wikipedia said.] There was a famous court case about whether such things should be taxed, since there is (or was?) VAT ('value-added tax', approximately AmE sales tax) on chocolate-covered (BrE) biscuits (AmE cookies), which are a luxury item, but no VAT on cakes, which are, apparently, a necessity. Part of the decision to label them as cakes was based on the appraisal that cakes go hard when they get stale, whereas (British) biscuits go soft when they're stale (thus demonstrating a main difference between BrE biscuit and AmE cookie).

cake accoutrements & shapes

The utensil with which you lift a slice of cake is a cake slice (BrE 1810s) or a cake server (AmE ?1890s).

The shape of a cake depends on what you bake it in—in AmE a cake pan and in BrE a cake tin. Into the pan/tin you put AmE cake batter or BrE cake mixture. BrE reserves batter for really thin mixtures (and British cakes often seem to have thicker mixtures than American ones).

Ring-shaped cakes made in fluted pans/tins are common in Europe, but it's in the US that they came to be known as Bundt cakes, after the trademarked name of a pan sold by the Nordic Ware company. (See Wikipedia for more.) 

Sheet cakes also seem to be an AmE invention—these are unlayered, frosted (and often decorated) sponge cakes made in a rectangular pan. People talked about them a bit more after Tina Fey went onto Saturday Night Live to propose "sheet caking" as a method of dealing with far-right demonstrations.

(I must say, though, that her sheet cake seems tall enough that it must be layered.)  

In BrE I've seen a sheet cake referred to as a tray bake, but tray bake is used for all sorts of things that are baked in a low, rectangular pan/tin/tray, including the things Americans would call bar cookies. (For past posts about cookies, see here.)

I've written before about AmE cupcake v BrE fairy cake. In BrE today, cupcake has been imported for bigger, fancier ones.

[Late addition, 27 Dec]: I'd thought I'd written here about BrE loaf cakes v American quick breads, but my memory played tricks on me—I must have been remembering writing about it in The Prodigal Tongue. In the book, I use two banana bread recipes as illustration of how many levels AmE and BrE can differ on, and one of the differences is that at one point in the British recipe, the banana bread is called "the cake". Many sweet, loaf-shaped things that Americans bake and might well slice and butter (banana bread, zucchini (BrE courgette) bread, pumpkin bread, ) turn up as [ingredient] loaf cake in UK coffee shops. (When transferred to BrE cake status, they often have icing drizzled over.) Here's a bit of what I wrote in The Prodigal Tongue:

American baking has a traditional category called quick breads, that is, breads leavened without yeast. Quick breads include banana bread, zucchini (= UK courgette) bread, and my mother’s famous pumpkin bread, as well as American biscuits (which look a bit like British scones, but don’t feel or taste like them) and what the British call American-style muffins, including blueberry muffins and bran muffins (though they’ve proved so popular in the UK that the American-style is usually left off these days). In an American cookbook, these recipes are located in the bread chapter. Banana breads and blueberry muffins are relatively new to Britain, and they came over without the larger quick bread category. They thus fell into the cake category.

This isn't the only American baked good that gets re-classified in BrE. When I've made snickerdoodles  for UK folk, I've been congratulated on my "little cakes". (The way I make them—with cream of tartar—gives them a nice cakey texture.) While the cake category is broad in BrE, it's the cookie category that's broad in AmE.

cake expressions

a piece of cake comes from AmE in the 1960s and means 'easy'. BrE has borrowed it and added a more vulgar version: a piece of piss.

that takes the cake (AmE 1830s) versus that takes the biscuit (BrE 1880s)  = 'it is the best/it wins' (though these days it's mostly used ironically to indicate something that "wins" at being the worst).

off one's cake (BrE informal)  = deranged [1880s]; extremely intoxicated [1980s]

bake sale (AmE 1890s) v cake stall (BrE 1600s, but then a more formal business) v cake sale (now more BrE than AmE, but Irish & AmE evidence precedes BrE evidence) = selling donated baked goods as a fundraiser

more links

Before commenting on this post with comments suggesting or asking questions about other baked goods, please see these past blog posts. Comments are welcome on those old posts—conversations on this blog keep on going.

baked goods (misc., includes the usual suspects)

(more on) cookie, (more on) biscuit

icing & frosting


molasses, treacle, golden syrup, caramel, toffee (and see the comments there for more on gingerbread)

types of: flour, cream, milk, eggs (that last one's less baking orient(at)ed)


candy & sweets

P.S. It's the time of year when I declare the US>UK and UK>US Words of the Year and nominations have been very, very thin this year. Please let me know if you have any nominations for these categories!

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