Book review: The Language Lover's Puzzle Book

It's not often that I review a book in the same week that it comes into my house, but I'm happy to go directly to recommending this one. It's The Language Lover's Puzzle Book by Alex Bellos. You can probably think of someone who needs a present for these "Oh my god it's getting dark early and the world is full of germs" times. This is it!

Alex Bellos writes a puzzle column for the Guardian and has written a few other puzzle books, with mathematical puzzles a particular special(i)ty (among other things he writes). For this book, he has mined the riches of the Linguistic Olympiad movement, a great program(me) through which secondary school teams compete nationally and internationally on linguistic problems. One thing I love about the book is how responsible Bellos is in giving credit where credit is due.

The puzzles are of many types. There are straightforward vocabulary quizzes, some word games that you might have seen in newspapers (like word chains and crosswords), and the kinds of problems that get assigned in linguistics classes. Some are about English and many are about other languages. His website lists the following:


Armenian, Babylonian, Breton, Burmese, Chalcatongo Mixtec, Chinese, Dothraki, Dutch, Esperanto, Faroese, German, Georgian, Hawaiian, Hindi, Italian, Kwak’wala, Latin, Limburgish, Maltese, Manx, Maori, Navajo, Nuku Hiva, Oscan, Quechua, Sami, Samoan, Sumerian, Swahili, Tajik, Tok Pisin, Toki Pona, Twi, Warlpiri.

And not forgetting: Blazon, Blissymbolics, Braille, Old Norse runes, Lovers’ Communication System, N’ko, Ogham, Pig Latin, Stenography, Transcendental Algebra and Visible Speech.

The book has been our after-dinner entertainment for four nights now. I'm not any better than the rest of the family at the vocabulary quizzes, whose questions play to a range of different strengths among our family. The 12-year-old is loving the puzzles. (She also loves doing homework I set for my students. She might have something of an advantage over the average 12-year-old.) The puzzles tickle my brain in nice ways too, though if it were a race between me and the rest of the family, I'd be trouncing them. I just keep that knowledge in my back pocket and keep my mouth shut till the kid has found the solution. Ah, the sacrifices of parenthood. 

Here are a couple of examples. Puzzle 1 asks you to come up with grammatical English sentences in which these two-word strings occur with no punctuation separating them. 

  1. could to
  2. he have
  3. that that
  4. the John
  5. that than

(The order of problems usually doesn't go from easier-to-harder. I like that. I'd say 'could to' is much more challenging than some of the others.)

Later in the book you get this puzzle, which I'm not going to try to re-type:


As well as providing puzzles, Bellos gives background about the languages, linguistic and related fields. You're not just solving puzzles. You're learning a lot. Such fun.

The book is out in the UK on the 5th of November (remember, remember), but if you plan to buy it, pre-order it! Pre-ordering is an especially kind thing you can do for authors, as (in a kind of perverse way) pre-order numbers often determine which books get reviewed. Pre-ordering from a local bookshop is a nice thing you can do for all of us who want bookshops to survive the nasty times.

I'm afraid I don't know whether it will be published in North America.

About my book reviews

I receive some free books because of this blog, including this one. Thanks to Alex (whom I've never met) and the publisher for this one. These days, I choose to only review the ones I like, as I don't see the point of giving negative attention to others' work. If I don't like the book, I just don't mention it. So, please believe that I would have liked this book even if I'd paid for it. I am off to pre-order some for Christmas!

Read more

British words (most) Americans don't know

This is part 2 of an examination of the words that were very country-specific in Brysbaert et al. (2019)'s study of vocabulary prevalence. For more detail on the study, please see part 1, on American words Britons don't tend to know. This half-table shows the words that British survey respondents tended to know and American ones didn't:

All of the terms will be discussed below, but not necessarily in the order given in the table. Instead, I'll group similar cases together. The unknown items from AmE were overrun with food words—that's less true here, though there are some.

Stationery items

The first two items are generici{s/z}ed brand names for office supplies. Tippex is correction fluid, known in AmE by brand names Wite-Out and Liquid Paper. Tippex is used as both noun (for the fluid) and as a verb for the action of covering things over—literally with correction fluid or figuratively. Here are a few examples from the GloWBE corpus that show some range:

  • Her contact details had been TippExed over a number of times. 
  • make-up, hair extensions, fake tan and tippexed teeth
  • But one series of game Tippexed over the old rules   

Biro is an old trade name for a ball-point pen, based on the name of the inventor László Bíró. The first syllable is pronounced like "buy" (not "bee").


Pic from here
A tombola is a kind of raffle, where numbers are pulled out of a revolving drum-type container, and also a name for that container. The game is often found at school fairs, (BrE) village fetes, etc. The OED tells us tombola comes to English "partly from French, partly from Italian", which might mean the French got the game from Italy. The Italian game seems more like bingo. While bingo is called bingo in BrE, you might use a tombola (the drum-thing) for playing it, so it's not surprising that tombola was adopted as the name of a UK-based online bingo company.

Dodgems (or dodg'ems) are (orig. AmE) bumper cars. The BrE has the look of a brand name turned to a generic, though it's unclear to me if that name was ever trademarked. The cars were first called dodgems by their inventors, the Stoeher brothers of Massachusetts. This isn't the first time we've seen an American product name become the generic name for the product type in BrE—but I'll let you sort through the trade names posts for others.

Abseil might not quite belong in the amusement category, as it seems more like hard work, but let's put it here. It's a verb from German for a means of descending a mountain (etc.) using a rope affixed on a higher point. Americans use the French word for the same thing: rappel. The idea comes from the Alps, where both German and French are to be found, so it looks like Americans and Brits might go to different areas of the mountain range. (This is a counterexample to my usual claim that the English will take any opportunity to use a French word.)


Chipolata is a kind of small sausage. They've been mentioned already at the pigs in blankets post. The name comes from French, which got it from the Italian an onion dish.

Plaice is a kind of flatfish that's common at British fish-and-chip shops. The OED says "European flatfish of shallow seas, Pleuronectes platessa (family Pleuronectidae)", but some other fish (esp. outside the UK) are sometimes called plaice. The name came from French long ago. It shows up in *many* punny shop names. 

Korma is a type of very mild curry typically made with a yog(h)urt-based sauce. BrE speakers generally have large vocabularies of the types of curry that are popular at UK Indian take-aways and restaurants, which often have menus with headings based on the curry type, like this at the right. It (orig. BrE) flummoxed me at first when English friends invited me over for a take-away and I was expected to already know this vocabulary and be able tell them what I'd like without reading the fine-print descriptions of the curry ingredients. The OED tells us korma comes from an Urdu word for 'cooked meat', which itself derives from a Turkish word.

Escalope takes us back to French, and the French influence on UK menus. OED defines it as "Thin slices of boneless meat (occasionally of fish), prepared in various ways; esp. a special cut of veal taken from the leg." It's found in menu phrases like veal escalope or an escalope of chicken.
P.S. Thanks to Cathy in the comments we have an AmE equivalent for this, the Italian scallopini. Another case (like courgette/zucchini) of a French-derived food word in BrE and an Italian one in AmE. (The Prodigal Tongue covers this a bit more.)



Yob is an example of back slang. It's the word boy backwards, and it's used particularly for young men/boys who engage in anti-social behavio(u)r. Hooligans, etc.

Naff is a word that's hard to translate exactly, which is why it has been one of my 'untranslatables' in the past. It's an adjective that refers to a certain kind of 'uncool', or as Jonathon Green defines it: "in poor taste, unappealing, unfashionable, bad" and more recently it's also meant "second-rate, workaday".  I've seen Americans get this word very wrong, so best not to attempt it until you've been in the UK for a some time. Some Brits will tell you it stands for 'not available for f***ing', but as with almost all such acronymic slang tales, that is almost certainly false. Green's Dictionary of Slang gives this for etymology:

[? north. dial. naffhead, naffin, naffy, a simpleton; a blockhead; an idiot or niffy-naffy, inconsequential, stupid or Scot. nyaff, a term of contempt for any unpleasant or objectionable person; however note Polari etymologist WS Wilcox in a letter 25/11/99: ‘I have long believed that naff may well derive from Romany naflo, a form of nasvalo – no good, broken, useless. Since several other Parlary words derive from Romany this is not impossible’; in this context note also 16C Ital. gnaffa, a despicable person]

Brolly isn't in the same slang league as the previous examples. It's a kind of (orig. AmE) cutesie way of referring to an umbrella. As I discuss in some detail in The Prodigal Tongue, this is what BrE speakers say instead of (AmE) bumbershoot, an Americanism that Americans often erroneously believe to be British. That bit of my book is excerpted at Humanities magazine. Have a read and if you like it, maybe buy or borrow the book? (Please?)

Bolshy is an adjective derived from bolshevik, and as such it originally meant 'left-wing, Communist', but these days it's more often used to mean 'uncooperative, obstructive, subversive' (thanks again Mr Green) or 'Left-wing; uncooperative, recalcitrant' (OED). Don't get bolshy in the comments, OK? 

The rest

The other items on the list are just too miscellaneous to fit together under meaningful subheadings.

Gazump (and its sister gazunder) have been treated in an Untranslatables post already, so you can read about it there. It's about underhanded (BrE) property/(AmE) real-estate -buying behavio(u)r.

Kerbside is just (AmE) curbside in BrE spelling. Here's the old post about curb/kerb

Judder is an onomatopoetic verb. Like shudder, but used more often of mechanical things, like engines that aren't working well. Here's an example from the GloWBE corpus: "the bus juddered over potholes".  The OED's first citations of it are in the 1930s, so it came into English long after AmE & BrE separated.

Chiropody is used as AmE (and more and more BrE) would use podiatry, though some specialists try to force a difference in meaning between the two (see this, for example). You'll find other sites telling you there is no difference, and that, for the most part is true. The word podiatry was coined in the US and there covered the same things that chiropody covered in the UK. Chiropody comes from the Greek for 'hands' and 'feet', and you can see the similarity with chiropractor, who uses their hands to treat people. What's a bit funny about chiropody/chiropodist is that the pronunciation is all over the place. Some use the /k/ sound for the ch, following the Greek etymology. That's how dictionaries tend to show it. Others use a 'sh' sound as if it comes from French. You can hear both on YouGlish.

Quango stands for 'quasi-autonomous non-governmental organi{s/z}ation'. I remember learning about non-governmental organi{s/z}ations, or NGOs, when I lived in South Africa in the 90s. Apparently NGO has taken off as a term in the US in the meantime (see comments), but not quango. A quango is an NGO that gets public funds to do something that the government wants and maybe has government participants. Google says the word quango is 'derogatory', but I think that depends a bit on your political persuasion. Here's a BBC fact sheet on quangos.

A pelmet is a decorative window-covering that doesn't cover a window—it covers the top of the window and maybe the curtain rail. It can be a little curtain or a kind of box or board. Here's a selection of those that come up on a Google Image search:

The curtainy type of pelmet would be called a valance in AmE—which we've seen before because it has a bed-related use in BrE. I honestly do not know what the boxy things would be called in AmE. I've never had one in an AmE house, and my efforts to find them on US websites have not (orig. AmE) panned out. If you have the answer, say so in the comments and I'll update this bit.

P.S. Thank you commenters! Grapeson offers cornice as an AmE possibility. Usually (and in BrE too) this is a thing at the joint of the wall and the ceiling (often decorative). But Wikipedia has a little section on 'Cornice as window treatment' that confirms this usage. Then Diane Benjamin offers box valance as an AmE alternative. The Shade Store says this:

The primary difference between a curtain valance and a cornice is that valances are made out of drapery or fabric, while cornices are typically made out of wood.

Thanks to the commenters for helping out!

Finally a chaffinch is a bird species (which didn't come up in the recent bird posts). The Wikipedia map to the right makes it easy to see why Americans didn't recogni{s/z}e the word (the green areas are where chaffinches typically live). Wikipedia does say "It occasionally strays to eastern North America, although some sightings may be escapees."

So, that's that! Words that most British folk know and most Americans don't. If only I'd had Brysbaert et al.'s list when I was trying to make very difficult AmE/BrE quizzes.

Read more

American words (most) British folk don't know

Some years ago a survey went (a)round from the University of Ghent on English vocabulary knowledge. I recall doing the survey and I believe I shared it on social media. Perhaps you did it too. Last week I read the published results: Word prevalence norms for 62,000 English lemmas by Marc Brysbaert and colleagues.

The point of the research was to establish how well known various words are in order to help psychologists (etc.) choose words for experiments. I was pleased to see that it included a table showing words that differed most for AmE and BrE speakers. So, my plan is to write two blog posts where I go through the lists of unevenly known words and see what I can say about them (or what I have already said about them). I'm starting with the words that were much more familiar to Americans and I'll put them into categories, rather than going down the list as published.

Here's the (half) table. (Sorry it's not very clear. All the words will be mentioned below.) The unfortunate headings 'Pus' and 'Puk' mean 'prevalence for US respondents' and 'prevalence for UK respondents'. These are not the prevalence scores that one can find in the data files from the paper (which are z-scores with positive and negative values), though, so I think they are just percentages—i.e. 90% of US respondents knew manicotti, but only 16% of UK ones did. The main point about them is that the scores are much higher for American respondents than British ones. 


Many of these words are relatively unknown in the UK because they refer to things that are not common in the UK. So, less linguistic difference than cultural difference. Many reflect the US's ethnic diversity.

Glorious food

The Italian American angle

The first two are pasta-related. Manicotti are a kind of large tube pasta, which are stuffed, usually with ricotta, to make the dish pictured to the right. The name is used both for the empty pasta and for the dish. It comes from the Italian for 'little sleeves', but is, according to Wikipedia, "an Italian-American dish". BrE speakers are more likely to know the very similar pasta/dish canneloni, which is also found in the US and Italy. The difference? "Manicotti tubes are ridged, larger and slightly thicker. Cannelloni tubes are smooth, a touch smaller and slightly thinner."*
Ziti is a smaller tubular pasta. Size-wise it is between penne (popular in both countries) and rigatoni. Rigatoni is what my family traditionally had for Christmas Eve dinner, and I usually have to explain that word to BrE speakers as well. (The study confirms that Americans are much more likely to know rigatoni.)  Wikipedia notes that "Ziti in the US is most commonly associated with the Italian-American dish of baked ziti. In Sicily it is traditionally served at a wedding feast." For more on pasta more generally, click through to this old post.
Provolone is an Italian cheese that you can get in the UK, but you just don't see as much as in the US. I like it on hot pastrami sandwiches, but it's usually in Italian dishes. Whether you pronounce the e at the end (when using the word in English) is a matter of personal preference—or possibly regional affiliation.

Fresh-water foods

Tilapia is a fresh-water fish that is apparently easy to farm. Its popularity in the US is fairly recent—I only learned it on a trip back to there maybe 15 years ago. Wikipedia says: "Tilapia is the fourth-most consumed fish in the United States dating back to 2002". It's originally from Africa, and the name is a Latini{s/z}ation of a Setswana word for 'fish'. Apparently you can get tilapia in the UK, but it's just not as common. My guess is that an island nation has less need of fresh-water fishes to eat.
Crawdad is a synonym for crayfish (or crawfish), which are abundant and popular as a food in some parts of the US. The word crayfish is used in both UK and US, and crawfish will have come over from the UK. The OED's etymology is helpful:
Etymology: Middle English crevice , -visse , < Old French crevice (13–15th cent. in Littré); compare crevis (masculine), crevicel diminutive in Godefroy; in Old French also escrevisse , modern French écrevisse , Walloon grèvèse , Rouchi graviche (Littré); < Old High German crebiȥ Middle High German krebeȥ , a derivative of stem *kraƀ- in krab-bo crab n.1
In Southern Middle English the second syllable was naturally confounded with vish (written viss in Ayenbite), ‘fish’; whence the corrupted forms [...], and the later crey-, cray-fish. The variants in cra- go back to Anglo-Norman when the stress was still on second syllable, and the first liable to vary between cre- and cra-; they are the origin of the modern craw-fish, now used chiefly in U.S.
So, the craw- came from the UK and later was mostly forgotten there. The -dad seems to have been added in the US as a "fanciful" variation, according to Oxford. Their example sentence includes more synonyms:
‘Whether you know them as mudbugs, ditch bugs, river lobsters, crawlybottoms, crawdads, or crawfish, anyone who has spent time in streams is familiar with crayfish.’

The Mexican-Spanish angle

I've covered (AmE) garbanzo bean versus (BrE/AmE) chick pea in the Big List of Vegetables.
Tomatillos are a member of the physalis family that look kind of like green tomatoes with husks. (Wikipedia gives Mexican husk tomato as an alternative name. The GloWBE corpus only has that one in South Asian countries.) You don't see these much in UK.  For the type of physalis you frequently see in the UK, here are some old tweets of mine

A tamale consists of a leaf wrapped around a filling—often a corn husk around a maize dough called masa.

Other foods, other cuisines

Kabob is simply a different spelling from what BrE speakers are used to. In BrE it's usually kebab. Since it comes from Arabic (and other languages that got it from Arabic), it's not surprising that the spelling varies—that happens easily when different people are moving a word from one alphabet to another. The cultural place of this food is very different, though. Americans tend to think of shish kabobs—little pieces of food (especially meat) on a stick, typically cooked over fire. In the UK, one often thinks of doner kebabs, which AmE speakers might call gyros, getting the idea from Greek rather than Turkish. That's the compacted meat cooked on a big spit, then sliced off for putting in a pit(t)a bread or similar. In the UK, that kind of kebab is stereotypically found at the end of a night of binge drinking. 
(Late addition: here's a corpus view. Note that K-Bob is not a spelling of this food. It's a prolific commenter's handle on a political website. Kubab and Kibib are names of other things as well.)

In AmE hibachi is usually a tabletop (AmE) grill/(BrE) barbecue or a kind of iron hot plate used in Japanese restaurants. The word comes from Japanese, but has shifted in meaning. Wikipedia can tell you more. 

Kielbasa means 'sausage' in Polish, but in AmE it refers to a specific type of sausage, which Wikipedia tells me "closely resembles the Wiejska sausage". You can find the word kielbasa in the UK in Polish shops, but it remains to be seen how many of these will survive Brexit.

Goober (or goober pea) is a regional (mostly southern) word for
the peanut. It's came into English from a Bantu language (perhaps Kikongo or Kimbundu), brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans. Americans who don't use this as a word for peanuts will still know it as a brand name for chocolate-covered peanuts—a mainstay of (AmE) movie theater/(BrE) cinema concession stands.
Goober can also refer to a foolish person—but that might have a different etymology. (Goober Pyle was a kind but simple character on The Andy Griffith Show—which still shows in repeats on US television.)

Medicine / disease

Two of the items in the list are generic drug names. I've written about acetaminophen (BrE paracetamol) in another post. Albuterol is a bronchodilator (asthma inhaler) known in the UK as Salbutamol, but I'd bet most BrE folk are more familiar with the trade name Ventolin. In the UK, this comes in a blue inhaler, while preventative inhalers' sleeves are mostly brown, so they're often referred to by colo(u)r: take your brown inhaler twice a day and your blue inhaler as needed.
Staph is short for Staphylococcus bacterium. Americans worry about getting staph infections. I'm sure British people do too, but they haven't obsessed about this particular germ enough to it a nickname. (At least, not until MRSA came along. That's is a very severe kind of anti-biotic-resistant staph infection, but Americans talked about staph infections long before that was in the news.) I remember staph being mentioned a lot in relation to gym mats at school. A partner to staph is strepwhich (looking at the data file) is also much, much better known in AmE than BrE. Now I see I've written about both of these germs before. So please have a look at the post on infections for more info!
I'll stick chiggers in this category. They're not a disease, but they feel like one. Chiggers are the larvae of a kind of mite. They burrow under the skin and it itches LIKE HELL. They exist in the UK and some people call them chiggers here, but the word comes up a lot less. Where I'm from, you get chigger "bites" from walking around in grass with bare ankles. There is less cause for walking around in grass with bare ankles in the UK, thanks to fewer lawns and colder weather, so I assume that's why people talk about them less. Wikipedia lists other names for them, which I've looked for in the GloWBE corpus. I give the US/UK (in that order) numbers after the names: berry bugs (1/0), harvest mites (1/2), red bugs (4/1), scrub-itch mites (1/0), and aoutas (0/1). Chigger is the most common name for them in both countries, but with 48 hits in AmE and just 7 in BrE.

Other cultural references

Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday that takes place between Christmas and New Year. I assume that's what Americans were recogni{s/z}ing in kwanza, rather than the Angolan currency

A sandlot is a piece of undeveloped land. The word is used especially when such land is used as a playing field, e.g. sandlot baseball.
A luau (or lūʻau) is a traditional Hawaiian party with food and entertainment. 

And all that's left is...

Conniption.  Origin unknown. It means a tantrum, hysterics, a fit of rage, and the like. It's often used in the phrase conniption fit (which means the same thing). Here are a few examples of its use from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:
  • They had a conniption when he starred in a movie
  • Your mom'd have a conniption fit if she heard you talkin' like that. 
  • wealthy Americans have conniptions at the possibility of a tax increase 
So that's that! I'll do the words from other side of the table, known by Brits and not by Americans, in the next post. I won't promise it'll be next week. I might take the weekend off for my birthday!

Read more

Help me with my next book! Small words

I am moving this PS to the top, as I want to be sure it's read!

P.S. I'm happy for everyone to discuss what they're interested in in the comments, but I should emphasi{s/z}e (before I waste anyone's time!) that what I"m looking for are specific anecdotes and witty quotations (etc.) to give  'colo(u)r' to the discussion. I already know what aspects of language the book covers and the relevance of the fields I've mentioned to those aspects. I can't promise that anything offered will be used in the book, but I will be grateful for any stories/quotations/etc. offered.

Please do so in the comments here and not on email, unless there are privacy issues to consider with regard to the story. It's much easier for me to keep track of things if they're all together here.

I hope you will indulge me in an off-SbaCL-topic post. More than that, I hope you will keep me and this post in mind as you go through your days. 

Here's the deal. I'm writing another general-audience (rather than academic) book. It's rather different from The Prodigal Tongue—still about language (and mostly the English language), but without much in the way of nationalism-bashing. Its working title is Small Words and I am so, so fortunate to again have the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award, which gives me time away from my day job to research and write intensively. (This is not a small thing during pandemic times when the day job is 1039% more insane. I thank my colleagues for bearing my absence with such generosity.)

For the purposes of the book, members of the category small words are:

  • linguistic elements that do things rather than mean things 
    • Another way to put this: words with non-referential meaning. They don't "point out" objects or actions or properties in reality or imagination.
    • This includes function words (aka grammatical words, like the and or and in and it and is) and many interjections (like ow or oh or hi or yes).
  • words that have three or fewer phonemes (speech sounds)
    • This often coincides with having three or fewer letters (a, of, the), but not necessarily (that, with, through).

The idea is that there are lots of books that celebrate rare words, big words, dialectal words, forgotten

P.S. I'm happy for everyone to discuss what they're interested in in the comments, but I should emphasi{s/z}e (before I waste anyone's time!) that what I"m looking for are specific anecdotes and witty quotations (etc.) to give  'colo(u)r' to the discussion. I already know what aspects of language the book covers and the relevance of the above fields to those aspects. I can't promise that anything offered will be used in the book, but I will be grateful for any stories/quotations/etc. offered.
words. Some claim to be about words you should know. I want to celebrate the words you already  people take for granted, because they tell us an awful lot about history, psychology, social relations, thinking other words, what it means to have a human mind and a human language.

Many areas of life and work are particularly sensitive to the small words. I can think of lots of people I'd want to interview for the book (and some I already have). In alphabetical order, they include:

  • comedians
  • computer/information scientists
  • editors of various kinds
  • English literature teachers/critics
  • journalists
  • lawyers
  • language (especially English) learners
  • language teachers
  • lexicographers 
  • literacy or (BrE) oracy/(AmE) speech teachers
  • neurologists —and their clients (and their clients' family support)
  • philosophers
  • poets and prose stylists
  • pollsters
  • psychologists
  • psychotherapists
  • Scrabble players—and other word-game aficionados
  • social scientists of various types
  • speech and language therapists —and their clients  (and their clients' family support)
  • translators and interpreters

I'm particularly looking for interesting anecdotes —personal or historical— that hinge on a small-word usage, misunderstanding, argument, insight, etc. 

These are the types of things that serendipity brings me when I'm reading an interesting passage in a  politician's diary, hearing a bit in a stand-up show, or noticing a line in an advertisement. This week I noticed Henrietta Pussycat's use of meow as a "small word". That helped me explain some statistical 'laws' of language. The "hooks" that I can use to explain the science of small words come to me from many avenues. 

I feel very lucky when I run across these things, because the are scattered so far and wide. But, to paraphrase the old adage "the harder I work, the luckier I get", the more I ask for interesting stories, the luckier I am in finding them.

So, please keep me in mind as you go through your days, read your books, watch your entertainment. If you come across quotations, arguments, marvellings, anecdotes about small words, could you drop me a line? If you know of non-academic folk who really should be interviewed about their relationships with small words, let me know. The best way to do that would be to leave a comment at this blog post, where I'll be able to dip back and find what people have sent me. If the information needs to be presented more anonymously, then email works.

This has been my cry for help! Thanks for reading! I'll leave you with this thought about smallness from Bertrand Russell:

There is no need to worship mere size. […] Sir Isaac Newton was very much smaller than a hippopotamus, but we do not on that account value him less.

Read more

transfers and decals

John Wells recently asked me if he was right in thinking "that BrE consistently uses transfer and AmE decal for the same thing". That's the kind of question that is perhaps best answered with a rhetorical question: Is any English vocabulary used consistently?

We're talking about ways of putting images onto other things. In that semantic area, I have both the words transfer and decal in my AmE vocabulary, so I was tempted to say "No, decal means something different from transfer in AmE." But then I thought I should find out if that's just me. It's not just me. But it is complicated. 

 The word decal is definitely more AmE than BrE. 

GloWBE corpus

But what are decals? Some possibilities: 

1.  Images that can be ironed on to fabrics. E.g. on (orig. AmE) t-shirts or (orig. AmE) tote bags.

2.  Images on paper that can be transferred to other things when wet.

  • This was what John was thinking of—he recalled ones from his youth for decorating skin. These days, in both AmE and BrE, those are often called temporary tattoos. But decal in this sense is not limited to the skin ones. They might be images that are put onto, say, model airplanes, as in the top right photo here, from a how-to video.

3.  Images on vinyl (or similar material) that have sticky material on the image side, so that they can be stuck onto glass (or similar) and show through.  The companies I can find that sell them seem to call them reverse-cut vinyl [stickers/transfers/decals].

Image from

 4.  Vinyl or other high-quality stickers of any sort, intended for use on glass, vehicles, etc.  I.e. not just the reverse-cut type, but anything of the type you'd stick onto a car window, say. 

  • In this case, we can see a phenomenon called lexical blocking. Bumper stickers should be counted under this definition as decals, but since we have a special term for bumper stickers, i.e. (orig. & mainly AmE) bumper sticker, we don't tend to call them anything else. The vinyl stickers on cars that are called decals are different enough from typical bumper stickers (in size, shape, or placement) that they don't meet the criteria for that term.

In my idiolect, decal can be any one of types 2–4, but not the iron-on type. I would call those iron-ons or iron-on transfers. But when I looked up decal in dictionaries, I found the iron-on type potentially included in some definitions, like this one from Collins COBUILD, which gives transfer as the BrE equivalent.

(However, since it says that a decal is a piece of paper, it's not clear that the vinyl type (3-4) would be included. In all except type 2, the design itself isn't paper, so it's perhaps not the greatest definition. The paper on those is a disposable part, not the decal itself.)

Other dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster and Cambridge, limit decal to types of stickers and don't mention heat-transfer, so more like how I use it. 

But then I started asking my American friends—all from my generation, but different parts of the country—what they called the things they might iron onto a t-shirt, and one (she's originally from Kansas, but has more time in Wisconsin/Illinois) immediately offered decal. The others, generally from more eastern parts of the country, said iron-on or iron-on transfer or just transfer

And so I did a Twitter poll. The problem with polls is that you usually only want to hear from some people, but other people will want to do the poll. I don't know if those other poll-takers care that I throw away their data, but I do know that I have to give them the chance to give it to me because otherwise they pretend they're part of the target group and will thereby mess up my numbers. But after a bit of math(s), we can see (a) that Americans are fairly split on whether iron-ons are included under decal and (b) that my iron-on-excluding usage has slightly more users among my Twitter followers. Keep in mind that my followers may skew older (it's Twitter) and eastward (because of time zone issues).

This all provides more fuel for the idea that we shouldn't talk about what "the American" or "the British" term for something is. (Though I'm sure you'll catch me doing that sometimes.) There's a lot of variation in both, so it's better to think of most expressions as representing an American or a British way of saying things. 

Because of the limitations of Twitter polls, I could only ask about one facet of the word's potential meaning: whether or not iron-ons are included. Some followers responded with more specific meanings for decal than I have, for example, one said that he'd only use decal for type 2, in model-making.

For transfer, it's clearly an exaggeration to call it 'British-only' in all of the senses, since Americans do seem to use it for (at least) sense 1. Yet that's what some dictionaries do.

This definition from Lexico has an example that would be at home in AmE:

I am tempted to say that transfers have a reverse-print image that is pressed onto a surface, whether that be skin, fabric, glass, etc. (so uses 1-3 above). But there are enough companies out there selling non-reverse-print "vinyl transfers" that reverse-ness is not at this point a necessary condition for many people's understanding of transfer.

To sum up: 

  • Decal is a fairly American word, but Americans vary in how they define/use it.
  • Transfer as a noun for a type of image printing/attaching occurs in British English, but is also available in AmE, especially for the iron-on type.

PS: there is variation in how decal is pronounced in AmE, particularly which syllable gets the stress. You can hear more on YouGlish. In my experience, it's more common to put the stress on the first syllable. Thanks to Adonis in the comments for raising this.

Read more


Hello from my dad's house in New York State. Not only did I survive my hotel quarantine, I (more BrE in this position) quite enjoyed it.  In the three days that I've been out, I've done several things that I haven't done since March (at least), including going into a supermarket and a restaurant. What I really missed in small-town American quarantine was the ability to get things delivered (and to order them over the internet, not phone—which would have been an international call for me). I was almost completely dependent (save one Domino's delivery) on brothers and sisters-in-law to shop or get take-out/take-away for me. The very American hotel room had a fridge/freezer and a microwave, so at least I didn't need help every day.

I was extremely well-suited for the quarantine. First, I love staying in hotels. They don't even need to be fancy hotels—just clean and quiet ones. Second, and more importantly, I had four years of cautious and isolated living in South Africa. I got very good at keeping my own company. Third, I have a book to write. The hotel days flew by for me. 

I'd already been thinking, during lockdown in the UK, that I didn't really mind not being able to go out much. Though I usually have a full social calendar of restaurants and shows and quiz nights and parties, I was generally not missing them. (The only thing I'm really-really missing is writing in coffee shops. I find it very hard to book-write at home. Or hotel.) I also have hypochondriac and germophobe tendencies, so the more I stayed (at) home, the more I feared going out. And so I'd been wondering a lot about whether I'd be ready when restrictions lifted and I could go out. And wondering if this is going to be a widespread problem.

This trip to see my dad is functioning as intensive desensiti{s/z}ation therapy, but I'm not the only one who has worried about agoraphobia, as you can find by googling "coronavirus" and "agoraphobia". Here's a bit from one piece in the British newspaper i:

Fletcher says he’s noticed a huge spike in the number of referrals to his client base of individuals displaying agoraphobic tendencies since lockdown began – as have organisations such as Sane and Anxiety UK, both of which reported a 200 per cent increase in calls to their helplines related to the pandemic.

But the thing that stops me from talking about this matter is the pronunciation. When I say agoraphobia, my British friends either don't understand me the first time or comment on my strange pronunciation. I pronounce it with the o, the word agora ('gathering place, marketplace') plus the word phobia. "aGORaphobia"  When my UK friends say it, it's more like "agraphobia", which to me sounds too much like acrophobia—fear of heights.

Neither my friends nor I are pronouncing it in the way that most dictionaries have it, with the o pronounced as an unstressed vowel (schwa). Agheraphobia. 

But, and I don't know if this will work when you click on it, my pronunciation is the one that Google gives as American


Unfortunately, it's also what they give as the British pronunciation. Don't believe everything that the internet tells you. Audio files of pronunciations are potentially a wonderful plus for online lexicography, but they are the most likely part of a dictionary entry to be wrong, as far as I can tell. You can't do lexicography well without a lot of person power, and these files have often been rushed to the web in some kind of automated way. I recommend a lot of caution on British services' American pronunciations and vice versa.

But another bit of evidence that we can use for pronunciation is spelling, and I have seen agoraphobia represented without the first o in BrE, indicating that some people aren't hearing it there (and maybe don't know the etymology from agora). There's not a lot of this in the GloWBE corpus—but there is a little. As well as evidence that people don't talk about it as much in AmE:

In the end, this is not a very common word, and many people will have experienced it either in print or in speech but not both, allowing for a lot of variation in how people assume it should be pronounced or spel{led/t}. I'd expect that a lot of you will have different experiences of what you think the most common pronunciation where you are is. You can hear a lot of them at YouGlish (be sure to click the 'forward' button to advance to the next pronouncer) and draw your own conclusions.
Read more


Recently I was asked to write a piece for an organi{s/z}ation about whether publications should be in "Global English". You'd think "Global English" would be relevant during a global pandemic. But the pandemic has illustrated that variation is the natural state of English around the globe. So far, I've looked into what people call the disease and the advice to 'stay (at) home'. Today's topic is what we're doing at home. 

Osman Faruqi posted this on Twitter, and Superlinguo Lawren Gawne copied me in:

Lucky for us, there's the Coronavirus Corpus, a wonderfully timely resource from Mark Davies and team at Brigham Young University, who are responsible for most of the corpora I cite on this blog. 

The Coronavirus Corpus is designed to be the definitive record of the social, cultural, and economic impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in 2020 and beyond. 

Unlike resources like Google Trends (which just show what people are searching for), the corpus shows what people are actually saying in online newspapers and magazines in 20 different English-speaking countries.  
The corpus (which was first released in May 2020) is currently about 510 million words in size, and it continues to grow by 3-4 million words each day.

 And thanks to that corpus, we can see that Faruqi's intuitions are (orig. BrE) spot-on.


AusE during iso (which follows a general trend for clipping in informal Australian English) might be common in speech, but since the sources here are news-related, they have only a handful of during iso and about 80 times more during isolation.

It's worth noting here that the island nations don't follow their neighbo(u)rs. New Zealand has lockdown like British — though of course NZ's way of dealing with the pandemic has been very different from the UK way. Ireland looks more like Australia than like GB. (I'm never sure whether Davies' corpora are including Northern Ireland with Ireland. The use of Great Britain rather than United Kingdom indicates that they might, but since some Northern Irish websites are going to end with .uk and not .ie, I don't know how much trust one can put in that. I really should find out about it...)

Now, these expressions are not literally accurate. They're all talking about situations where people are advised to stay at home and some range of public places are required to stay closed. If you live with friends or family in Australia, you're not really 'in isolation', right? I've seen people in the UK saying that we shouldn't call it lockdown because that'll make people feel like they're being imprisoned and punished (and therefore more likely to feel justified in 'escaping'). I've seen Americans complain about this use of quarantine because most Americans are not literally quarantined. (Unlike me. I am writing this in the middle of my 14-day quarantine* after travel to the US. I am staying in a hotel room, dependent on groceries dropped off by my brother, waiting to be 'clear' to visit my dad. I am happily re-connecting with my hermit tendencies and may require careful reintroduction to society when this is over.) 

*Don't tell me that quarantine is literally 40 days. That's its etymology, not its meaning in current English.

But I'd argue that you don't have to worry about the accuracy of these phrases because (a) words can (and usually do) have more than one meaning/usage, and (b) I'd say we're using them more like proper nouns. While we don't spell them with initial capitals, notice how we are treating these words as the name of a particular time period, like Ramadan or October or (AmE) spring break or (BrE) half term. Proper names don't have to describe, as we know from names like Greenland. It's not an accurate descriptor of that place, but we know which place you're talking about if you say Greenland. Quarantine/lockdown/isolation is a particular time period associated with particular activities, just like Christmas(time) describes a particular time period with particular activities.

I'm often asked about my "Difference of the Day", which I've been doing every weekday on Twitter since mid-2009, and the question is always "Haven't you run out yet?" Not by (orig. AmE) a long shot/(BrE) a long way. And I'm never going to run out because we keep finding new ways to differ.



  • I've skipped a few weeks of blogging because of other writing gigs. One of them was to write a blog post for the Speaking Citizens project, which is researching (BrE) oracy education in the UK. My angle on it was to think about the differences in education cultures in the US and UK (related to my thoughts in chapter 8 of The Prodigal Tongue). If you're interested, you can read it here.

  • My big news is that I have been hono(u)red with a Public Scholars grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was a Public Scholars grant that allowed me time off from my day job to write The Prodigal Tongue. I'll have six months off from my university job to continue to work on my current project, which has the working title Small Words. Here's the synopsis:
  • Books about words often concentrate on the dialectal gems, the lost lexicons, the rare and peculiar species of the linguistic world. By contrast our most common words are given scant attention, mumbled in speech and glossed over in reading. We notice the weighty nouns, verbs and adjectives, but miss the slippery mortar holding them together: 'be', 'the', 'not', 'if', 'and', ‘of’, ‘it’. But poke those small words, and each opens up a world of discovery into human minds and cultures. Take ‘the’, as just one example. How can it be the most frequent word in written English, when many of the world’s languages have no need of an equivalent? Why does it cause trouble for Bible translators? Why does it feel different when an American speaks of ‘the Mexicans’ rather than ‘Mexicans’? Why do English writers use it less each year? This book synthesizes research from across the humanities and social sciences, allowing the small words to tell us stories about what it is to speak English and what it is to be human.
  • You'll probably see me blogging more about the little words in the coming months (or just blogging less). Of course, I've already blogged a lot about prepositions, conjunctions, determiners, and interjections here, so it's stuff I've been thinking about for a long time.

Read more


Knickerbocker in English starts out in the US, where it was used to refer to descendants of the early Dutch colonists in Manhattan, formerly New Amsterdam. Knickerbocker (in various spellings) was a common name among those settlers, but the one that inspired the New Yorker nickname was the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, the supposed author of Washington Irving's satirical A History of New York (1809). It seems to get going as a term for such New Yorkers in the mid-19th century.  Irving and some writer contemporaries later became known as the Knickerbocker Group.

But the more famous group of people named after the knickerbocker nickname is the basketball team, the New York Knickerbockers, which these days tends to go by the shortened name, The Knicks.

Baggy trousers

See Fashion History Timeline
for more

In the 1860s, it comes to be used for a style of (orig. AmE in this sense) poofy knee-breeches, which resembled the style worn by the Dutchmen in (Englishman) George Cruikshank's illustrations of Irving's book in the 1850s.

This fashion sense of knickerbockers moved over to the UK too. In the US, it is often shortened to knickers (it's a clipping), but not BrE because...

Women's undies*

After knickers came into BrE, it started to refer to women's underpants. The AmE panties can be given as an equivalent, except that many AmE speakers (including me) find the word panties a bit (AmE) icky, and so we just say underwear. Technically, underwear can refer to more than just those small bottom pieces, but if I say "I need to do laundry. I'm out of underwear", it's specifically those bottoms that I'm talking about. (Bre) knickers is not so icky in its natural environs.

Though knickers is a very clear example of a Britishism now, it's interesting to note its AmE roots, since it is a clipping of knickerbockers. I presume this is because women's undies used to look like knickerbocker breeches. Such undergarments were also called bloomers (in both Englishes), as were the outerwear women's knickerbockers that gained popularity as women started bicycling. (Unrelatedly, bloomer also  happens to be the name of a type of bread loaf in BrE.) In BrE, the word knickers changed with the changes in underwear styles, but the word bloomers didn't.

I've written about knickers a couple of times before: in contrast to men's (BrE) pants and in expressions like red shoes, no knickers.

*Undies appears to be originally BrE (early 20th c), but has long been well-established in AmE too.

Ice cream

This whole post got started because an English friend gave the word knickerbocker as an example of a word with three Ks (in discussion of this tweet) with the aside "as in knickerbocker glory", leading me to think that he only really knew the word in that context.

A (BrE) knickerbocker glory is an ice cream sundae served in a tall glass. The first citation for it in the OED is in a Graham Greene novel in 1936—though the term was clearly well-known at that point since he didn't have to explain it. It only takes off in British books in the 1970s, though, when my friend and our friends were growing up, eating ice cream. 

This is quite a while after Americans invented the word sundae, which was originally Sunday, as in the day of the week when it was (purportedly) served. About this, the OED says:

Evidence suggests that the use of Sunday to designate an ice-cream dish of this kind originates with Chester C. Platt (1869–1934), proprietor of Platt and Colt's Pharmacy in Ithaca, New York, who is said to have served it to Unitarian pastor John M. Scott at his premises after the Sunday church service on 3 April 1892. A letter from a patent attorney dated 24 March 1894 shows that Platt sought advice on trademark protection for the use of ‘Sunday’ for ice-cream novelties a few days earlier.
The motivation for the subsequent respelling of the word [...] is uncertain: it may reflect an attempt by other retailers to avoid a perceived breach of trademark; it may be a reaction to the religious associations of Sunday as a day of abstinence; or it may simply have been intended to be eye-catching.

The knickerbocker glory is a prototypical ice cream sundae, but the word sundae has not caught on so much in BrE as in AmE:

Read more

rambling, hiking and walking on footpaths and trails

We went for a walk with the neighbo(u)rs, and we saw this sign.

The sign reads "Permissive Footpath avoiding Golf Course", and all the adults in our group (2 English, 1 Spanish, 1 American) found the sign amusing. Jokes about what kinds of permissive activities we might find on the path (or that we might find the path doing) resulted, as well as a conversation about what the sign meant and whether it could have been phrased better.

You can tell from this that we're not seasoned country walkers, we're just lockdown people finding new ways to get some exercise. The term permissive footpath is a term of art in the British land-use bureaucracy, and such signs can be found on many paths. It differs from a public footpath in that the land is privately owned. The landowner is permitting people to walk on their path. This explanation of the term offers other expressions like permitted footpath and concessionary footpath, but these seem to be much less common, and we would not have been able to joke as much about them. (For those puzzled by our amusement: permissive usually means 'characteri{s/z}ed by great freedom of behavio(u)r', which can include 'sexually liberated'.)

So, permissive footpath is not something you'd see in AmE, but that's because there's a lot different about leisurely country walks in the two countries. And this is why this post has taken a couple of weeks to write...

walking verbs

Let's start by mentioning (it has come up on the blog before) that to hike is usually considered an Americanism, in the sense that it's widespread and "standard" in American English, but it's only ever been a dialect word in the UK. The OED cites an 1825 dictionary of west-of-England dialects as one of its earliest sources for it.

While it's been coming back to the UK, all of its senses were more common in AmE first, for example the noun use as in go for a hike and the more figurative use in hike up a price. Some of the figurative uses seem more common in BrE corpora now, though. You can see the change in this Google ngram for price hike, where the red line indicates the phrase in AmE books and the blue in BrE. It looks like the kind of pattern you'd see with parents and slang...they start using the word when the kids are already moving on to a new one, then carry on using it at a higher rate than those who made it up.

In BrE, those who hike as a regular pastime are often referred to as ramblers, but it's far more common to talk about walking than rambling. (Rambling and Rambler tend to be used in the names of walking clubs, such as the Essex Area Ramblers, who are responsible for the website that taught me about permissive paths.) Of course, English-speakers everywhere use the verb to walk. But for me (at least) what's different is that I have a town/country divide in my AmE: If I'm walking around town for leisure, I'm going for a walk. If I go out of town to walk (on less even terrain, taking more care with my footwear and supplies), I'm going hiking.  Or maybe it's better characteri{s/z}ed as: if I'm on a paved path/road or the beach, I'm on a walk, and if I'm on less even terrain (fields, woods, mountains, deserts), I'm on a hike.


In its broadest use, any way that's made for walking is a path or a footpath, but the word footpath is much more common in BrE than in AmE. A footpath can be urban or rural, but is usually distinguished from the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk by being narrower, unpaved, or not running parallel to the road. For instance, a marked "public footpath" in my mother-in-law's suburb is a paved path between houses that let people take a shortcut to the (BrE) railway station, but the "permissive footpath" above is a (AmE in this use) dirt path through a wooded area.

Click to enlarge

Path and pathway are a normal things to call places where people can walk in either country. The GloWBE corpus has a bit more path in AmE than BrE, but I'm not going to to through and find out how many of them refer to the PATH (Port Authority-Trans Hudson) trains in New York. Pathway is about the same in both.

For places to hike, trail is more common in AmE. This is again difficult to do a corpus chart for, because there are lots of other uses of trail (what a snail leaves, a trail of clues, etc.).  (It originally referred to things that trailed behind, like the train of a dress or coat.) But if we look at which words occur before trail in the two countries, we can see a real tendency for trails to be walking places. Many of these relate to names of famous places to hike, such as the Appalachian Trail

Click to enlarge

In AmE I'd use trail as a common noun to talk generally about hiking paths. I've just asked the English spouse whether he'd use trail to refer to some of the English ones we know, and he says "No, that's American. That's why we don't understand trail mix.  According to the OED, this sense of trail is:

A path or track worn by the passage of persons travelling in a wild or uninhabited region; a beaten track, a rude path. (Chiefly U.S. and Canadian; also New Zealand and Australian.)

The US has a National Trails System, established in 1968, which includes Scenic Trails and Historic Trails, all of which have Trail in their name. (See the link for the list.)  England and Wales now also have something called National Trails, but that was only founded in 2005, and does look like a case of UK government borrowing an American idea with its language. Most of the "long-distance footpaths" included in the National Trails are named Way: the Cotswold Way, the Pennine Way, the South Downs Way. Some are called Path, e.g. Thames Path, Hadrian's Wall Path. None are called trails.

Scotland has Scotland's Great Trails, formerly known as Long Distance Routes. The rebranding seems to have happened sometime in the past 10 years. Unlike England's National Trails, some are actually named trail, and those names seem to pre-date the national rebranding, raising the question of whether this sense of trail is longer-standing in Scotland.

It's not uncommon to find commonalities between Scotland or Ireland and the US—not necessarily because of more recent Scottish/Irish immigration to the US than English immigration. The similarities can be there if the meaning was formerly widespread in English English, but then went out of fashion in England. However, the OED only has examples of this sense of trail since 1807, which makes it more likely that it might have started in the US and been fed back to the UK. Hard to know without much more work than I can put into this!

Related posts

I've written some other posts that cover related concepts to these ones. If you have comments about those terms, please comment at those posts, where it will be much more useful to their readers.

Read more

The book!

Follow by email

View by topic



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