Word of the Year 2020: Nominations and EVENT

Since 2006, I've proclaimed UK>US and US>UK Words of the Year and if I have anything to do with it, I will do so for 2020 too. You have to be careful about making plans in 2020, but at least these plans are in the internet and not in closed public spaces. I will declare my 2020 WotYs on 19 December.

I usually wait till after Christmas to do this, but this year is (if you haven't noticed!) different, and one of the differences is that Atlas Obscura  has/have  asked me to work with them in creating an online linguistic event. They're usually a company that takes people out around the world to experience things, but, as you can imagine, they've had to find other ways to connect (with) people this year.

I'm in a similar position. I was supposed to be speaking in a lot of places in 2020. It was to be my first trip to Florida and I had agreed to a whole tour of places I'd not been to in the US as well as a bunch of talks in England. I would have been selling and signing books at those events, but now I find myself with a whole lot of books stored under a bed and a travel voucher for an airline that I just pray will be flying out of the UK again after all this is over. Minor inconveniences in the big scheme of things, but still I am looking forward to this event because it will involve some INTERACTION WITH PEOPLE.


But before I say more about that, let's do the important business of opening nominations for the Separated by a Common Language Words of the Year!  As ever, the categories are:

  • UK-to-US import
  • US-to-UK import

And as ever, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • 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

Please nominate WotYs in comments to this blog post, where it'll be easier for me to keep track of them than if they show up on different social platforms.  To see more past winners, click here.

There is a clear (orig. AmE) front-runner at the moment for the US>UK WotY (which I'm sure some of you will nominate!), but I am less certain about UK>US (and anything could change in the next couple of weeks). So please let me know your thoughts! 

And now a bit more about the Atlas Obscura event. The 19 December timing is so that we can have something of a post-mortem (<much more common in BrE) on the various English words of the year, including the dictionary ones (mostly announced now) and the American Dialect Society's (to be announced). We'll also be looking at Words of the Year from other parts of the world, within particular industries, and so forth. I'll use those words as a springboard for looking at how the experience of 2020 differed and similar-ed (<now there's a word we need) for different people and also for looking at the history and processes of Word-of-the-Yearing.

I'll do some talking and presenting, but the event will also be interactive. We'll have some (orig. AmE in this sense) quizzing and opportunity for people to put forward their own words of the year. 

So to sum up, your missions, should you choose to accept them, are:

  • Nominate transatlantic words for 2020 in the comments.
  • Book in for the Atlas Obscura event
  • Share that link to people you think should know about it. You could get a whole bunch of your friends to come and you could gang up on me and tell me all my WotYs have always been wrong.
  • And if you haven't already given The Prodigal Tongue to every anglo-/amero- -phile/-phobe and language lover you know, please consider doing so!
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czar, tsar

 Having seen an article about the UK's new "domestic abuse tsar", I tweeted

As you may have noticed from my 'mental health' diatribes, I have a particular sensitivity to compound nouns that rely on the reader/hearer to discern from context/cultural knowledge that the compound means sort of the opposite (another obsession) of what it is supposed to indicate.

This led Shane Street to ask: "Is there an AmE/BrE split over the use of czar/tsar?"

The answer is YES. The following GloWBE corpus table also shows that two countries particularly like to use Russian autocratic titles for government advisors:

The GloWBE data is mostly from 2012. A search on the News on the Web corpus indicates that tsars/czars have been getting less common since 2010, when that ever-renewing corpus starts (despite Russian autocrats seeming more popular than ever with certain politicians).

Multiple spellings are often available in English for words that have been transliterated from another alphabet, in this case the Cyrillic Russian царь. It's not uncommon for different spelling variants to catch on in different places, as we've seen for yog(h)urt, for example.

The OED entry for this word has not been fully updated since 1915, but they did add the new government advisor meaning in 2001, noting that it is "Originally U.S."

Originally U.S. A person appointed by a government to recommend and coordinate policy in a particular area and to oversee its implementation. Usually with modifying word denoting the area of responsibility.
1933   S. Walker Night Club Era 167   There are several versions of why Mulrooney quit the job to become the state beer ‘Czar’.
1942   Amer. Observer 2 Feb. 8/1   From June 1940 until the recent appointment of Donald M. Nelson as war production czar, the American defense effort was best described in terms of red tape, delay, buck passing, and lack of authority.
1959   Madison (New Jersey) Eagle 30 Apr. 1/1   New Jersey's newly-created ‘czar’ of transportation..announced Thursday night that he expected to have a solution to the commuting crisis worked out in from six months to a year.
1977   Time Jan. 35/1   The job as energy czar will be Schlesinger's fifth Government post.
1989   Economist 25 Mar. 47/2   Bennett's first move, after he was sworn in as his country's drug tsar, was to select Washington, its capital, as a test case for his new crusade.
2001   Observer 25 Mar. i. 2/3   Equal pay ‘tsars’ will shame sexist employers into giving women a fair wage under a government action plan to root out workplace discrimination. 

While some of the US examples are very early, it did seem to make its biggest splash in the 1970s, continuing into the 80s and 90s. The Corpus of Historical American English shows a lot of czars in the 1950s, but almost all of them are from historical fiction. During/right after the Russian Revolution, the tsar spelling seemed to do very well in AmE.

 In the OED's examples, all the AmE spellings of the non-Russian sense are czar and, from the first BrE sighting in 1989, the BrE spellings are tsar

To avoid the Russian referents, we can look for tsar/czar preceded by a noun. The corpora I'm looking at here are not strictly comparable. COHA is American English from lots of different sources (the Grampa Czars there are all from a piece of fiction), while the Hansard is the UK parliamentary record.  But at least they show what the two countries have had czars/tsars for and the recency of the UK's use of the term. 

You can also see there the BrE use of -s plurals in noun modifiers (drugs tsar, pensions tsar, streets tsar), which AmE doesn't allow (drug czar).

Why czar/tsar? Why not king/queen or some other title? I'd assume that some of the reason is that the term is no longer in use for actual governors. King/queen are also very much used (at least in AmE) in commercial contexts, e.g. the Mattress King or Dairy Queen. This article (for which thanks, Tony Thorne) notes that tsar is "media shorthand". Perhaps the 'foreignness' and 'long-ago-ness' of czar/tsar also helps with the disconnect within the compound. A Mattress King is decidedly pro-mattress, so maybe a "Drug(s) King" would be too. Less familiarity with czars/tsars makes it easier not to read "Drug(s) Tsar" as "King of the Drugs".

One wonders, given the metaphors of the war on drugs and the war on terrorism that the leaders of the charges weren't called generals or admirals or field marshals or something. 

Anyhow, I shall not be calling Nicole Jacobs the Domestic Abuse Tsar.  Her official title is worse, though: Domestic Abuse Commissioner. Like she COMMISSIONS DOMESTIC ABUSE. Please, no! Can we think of any better titles to offer her?

PS: answering questions from the comments, here's what happens when you look for "Russian czar/tsar" in the 2012 data:

And here's looking for czar/tsar with Ni* to get the name of a famous one:


So, Americans (at that point at least), are using the ts- spelling more than the cz- spelling for actual monarchs. Perhaps it seems like a "more foreign" spelling so it's used for more foreign things—though you think any word starting with cz- would be seen as very foreign. But the cz- spelling is definitely AmE.

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off of, redux

I’ve written about off of on this blog before, in reaction to British complaints about it as a horrid Americanism. In my day job, I’m writing about it again from different angles, so I was thrilled to see that some researchers in Helsinki and Stockholm have undertaken much more wide-ranging and in-depth research about it than has ever been attempted: 
Vartiainen, Turo, and Mikko Höglund. 2020. How to make new use of existing resources: tracing the history of geographical variation of off of. American Speech 95: 408–40. 
Their paper, as the title hints at, is very much about getting around the problems of studying the history of and variation within the English language, given the impoverished nature of the data we have. There’s lots of English out there, but it’s not always easy to get a balanced view of it. For example, it’s not enough to know where a work was published, you need to know where its author was from. For another example, if all the evidence you have from Sussex is from farmers and all that you have from Yorkshire is from school teachers, then your regionality conclusions are going to be tarnished by other contrasts. Sometimes data sets give this info. More often you either have to go hunting for it and/or the information doesn't exist.

Vartiainen and Höglund have come to their conclusions by triangulating evidence from a number of corpora, each with their own limitations, but together rather convincing. At one chronological end, they’re using the Early English Books Online (EEBO, 1470s–1690s) corpus and, at the other end, a corpus that is updated daily in the present, News on the Web (from which they only use regional UK news sources). They’ve also included a range of sources for American English.  
Off of only really takes off in the 17th century. (I won’t go into why that’s so interesting because I have to save things for my book!) In the 19th century, prescriptivists start saying how horrible it is. British prescriptivists have been more damning of it (“vulgarly superfluous”, “a Cockneyism and incorrect”), but American style guides advise against it too (“much inferior to off without the preposition”). The authors suggest that prescriptive attitudes have colo(u)red linguistic description of the term, and there’s pretty clear evidence of this, I’d say, in a lot of the British writing about it, where off of is presented as something from America. Huddleston and Pullum’s (generally excellent) Cambridge Grammar of the English Language claims off of is only used in AmE. Vartiainen and Höglund show that this just isn’t true, and moreover it never was.  
Off of originates in England and has consistently been used there. What’s striking is how regional it’s stayed. Here are their maps of where it was most used before 1700 and in the 21st century. It is very much a southern thing.

This gives a big clue about the presence of off of in AmE: 
Importantly, much of the EEBO data predates the Great Puritan Migration to America that took place between 1620 and 1640 (…). Considering that many of the early colonies were founded by people from East Anglia (…), it is likely that they took this form with them. (p. 428) 
They go on to cite examples of off of in the Salem Witchcraft Trials: 
Since then, off of use declined in the US until the 1970s, when it started to go up—possibly as a result of a general tendency toward(s) colloquiali{s/z}ation in written English. It remains mostly a spoken form but has been on the increase in edited text like magazines and newspapers (though not in academic texts). 
…the older generations may have noticed the increased frequency of off of in public texts (a recency effect), while the younger generations may be sensitive to the form’s high frequency in American English when compared to the other varieties of English. (p. 428) 
While it’s certainly possible that the off of surge in AmE could affect current BrE, the evidence from the British data is that it has always been used there. If AmE is having an effect, perhaps it’s just providing a kind of linguistic mirror that makes the form feel less non-standard to those who are already hearing and/or using it in their regional Englishes. The authors conclude that: 
…when it comes to regional variation, we have seen that off of is frequently attested in so many parts of England that the whole idea of its being a “regional form” should be questioned. Indeed, based on the results of this study it would seem that in many cases the perceptions that British speakers have of their avoidance of off of [as a regional and/or American form] are due to highly entrenched prescriptive attitudes instead of their actual usage patterns, although we have no doubt that the form is rare enough in some regions, particularly in the West and Northwest of England, to genuinely affect acceptability judgments. (pp. 434–5) 
There remain problems in making direct comparisons of English from different times and places. For example, the AmE corpora include no casual conversation, but the BrE data do. The authors therefore have to be cautious in comparing rates of usage in the two countries, There is some indication that off of is far more widespread in AmE than in other Englishes. In the GloWBE corpus of web-based English (written, but often not as formal as published English), AmE has 26.2 off of per million words versus 21.5 in Canadian English and 8.7 in British. (That data set has not seen the same care as their main data sets, though. It may contain false hits,  probably contains duplications and can’t give a regional picture.) 
The paper includes research on the variants offen and offa. I won’t cover them here, but just mention them to say: oh it’s all so complex and transatlantic. 
In all, a fascinating read for someone who’s always thinking about function words and transatlantic linguistic comparisons. (That’s me!) I thank the authors for it and American Speech for publishing it. 

Related reading 
If you're interested in out of, it's covered at the original off of post
. You're welcome to leave comments there and keep that conversation going.

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the language of bridge

On occasion, I invite people whose insights I trust to contribute guest posts for the blog. On rare occasions, they deliver the goods! I hope you enjoy this one on terminology in the game of contract bridge.


My mother could never understand how I was allowed a (AmE) college/(BrE) university degree without learning to play bridge, but I was educated in the decade of Trivial Pursuit. I tried to rectify this gap in my education in the early 2000s. After maybe three lessons, the couple who were teaching me had a fight and that was the end of that! Maybe learning to play bridge be my retirement project. One of the dozens I have in mind. At any rate, I am not the person to tell you about bridge terminology, but here’s someone who is.


Simon Cochemé is an English bridge writer and is a regular contributor of light-hearted articles to bridge magazines. He has recently published a collection of the best of them in a book, Bridge with a Twist (Master Point Press). ‘Destined to be ranked as a classic, alongside its prequel, Oliver Twist.’


There are seven chapters on the language of bridge – vocabulary and idioms from (a)round the world. This post is an edited version of the chapter on American terminology – written with American spelling.



The Language of Bridge III


In which we look across the Atlantic at what the Americans have to say


George Bernard Shaw (or possibly Oscar Wilde) said that England and America were two nations separated by a common language. Bridge terminology certainly proves the point. We say protect, they say balance; we say switch, they say shift; we say dummy, they [sometimes] say board; we say peter, they say echo; we say tomahto, they say tomayto; we say finesse, they say hook; we say singleton, they say stiff; we say discard, they [often] say pitch.


There’s more. They say push instead of flat board, down one instead of one down, ace-fourth instead of ace-to-four, set for beating the contract, and drawing trump rather than drawing trumps, as though they always played in twelve-card fits. You will still occasionally read deuce for the two of a suit, although the quaint trey for the three has all but disappeared.


There are some words that have yet to cross the Pond: tight, meaning doubleton, as in ‘He held king-queen tight’ and swish, meaning passed out, as in ‘The bidding went 2♠, swish’. I have also heard (but not seen in print) ‘Four hearts in the East’ where the British would say ‘Four hearts by East’.


Things get even more confusing with the word tap. Where we say force (as in force declarer), they say tap; but where we say tap (in plumbing), they say faucet

The most extreme of American phrases is ruff ‘n’ sluff for ruff-and-discard. I haven’t seen sluff or slough used anywhere else in bridge literature, so presumably the lure of the rhyme was too hard to resist, as it was with surf ‘n’ turf.


Americans like variety in the presentation of their sports results: ‘The Red Sox downed the 49ers’, for example, or ‘The Chipmunks whupped the Bears’. The English tend to stick to the ‘Chelsea beat Liverpool’ formula, with the occasional ‘Villa lost to Spurs’ thrown in. Americans [tend to] put the winning team first, whereas the English usually put the home team first. Either way, the English results are a bit boring. 


Sporting metaphors abound in American writing, and I have seen bridge articles where a player covers all bases, or makes a clutch shot, or plays a shut-out. I have no idea what slam-dunk means; it sounds as though you had twelve tricks on top but went one down. I have yet to find mention of a triple-double (basketball) or pass interference (American football), but I’m sure they’re out there.


We must fight fire with fire; difficult contracts must be played on sticky wickets and small slams hit for six Declarer must play a blinder, and overbidders should be caught offside or shown the red card.


There is a nice expression that I have seen American teachers use, encouraging their pupils to draw trumps before the defenders can ruff something: Get the kids off the streets.


The French have names for the kings on their cards (David (from the Bible), Charles (after Charlemagne), Caesar (Julius), and Alexander (the Great). I understand the Americans have noted it and like the idea. They don’t have any real kings of their own, so the debate is whether to reuse the Mount Rushmore quartet, or to go with four from the shortlist of Martin Luther, Stephen, Billie Jean, Burger, Kong and Elvis. [jk—ed.]


Let’s have a deal. This one features Zia Mahmood, who was (AmE) on (BrE in) the USA team against Italy in the final of the World Championships in 2009.


[The chapter goes on to describe a bridge deal, the bidding and play, in great detail using the American terms. It will be completely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t play bridge. If you want to see whether the USA team wins or loses, you will have to buy the book …]




Lynne says: For good measure, here’s a corpus search of that last difference, in/on the team, which goes far beyond bridge:




Bridge with a Twist (RRP £14.95) is available at a number of online sites.




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Unused epigraphs


I love epigraphs, so I use them as often as possible in books I write. The Prodigal Tongue has one for each of its subsections. I do think I chose very good ones for in the book (buy/borrow it just for the epigraphs!), but I still have a file full of quotations that I didn't have space for.

So, in the spirit of "reuse and recycle", behold the remaining contents of that file, collected during the years of research for the book. If you don't see it here (Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, The Simpsons...), then it probably made the cut and is in the book. What I've not done here (because I cannot be spending that much time on it) is give the full bibliographic info for each quote.

Please note that I collected these to illustrate various ideologies that I'd be discussing in the book. None should be taken as my point of view.  If you want to quote them, I'd recommend you first read up  on any unfamiliar authors before you do so!

Here will be an old abusing of God's patience and the king's English.

        —William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor

The semanticist's dilemmas

This is one of the disadvantages of wine, it makes a man mistake words for thoughts.
        ― Samuel Johnson

It is one of the most mysterious penalties of men that they should be forced to confide the most precious of their possessions to things so unstable and ever changing, alas, as words.
        ― Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest

Using words to talk of words is like using a pencil to draw a picture of itself, on itself.
    ― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words.
        ― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84


Language marches on

A word is dead
When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

        ― Emily Dickinson

'Words aren't made — they grow,' said Anne.
        ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice

        ― T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets   

Don't gobblefunk around with words.
     ― Roald Dahl, The BFG


Americans on transatlantic differences/relations

the harmony between Great Britain and the United States may be as lasting as the language and the principles common to both
        — John Quincy Adams

the body of the language is the same as in England [...] it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness, yet some differences must exist
        — Noah Webster, 1828

It offends them [the English] that we are not thoroughly ashamed of ourselves for not being like them.
        — Dr Henry W. Boynton, 1908   

I think we are all Anglophiles…How can we fail to be Anglophiles? Unless we hate ourselves.
        — the Librarian of Congress, 1985 

American grammar doesn’t have the sturdiness of British grammar (a British advertising man with a proper education can make magazine copy for ribbed condoms sound like the Magna goddamn Carta), but it has its own scruffy charm.
Stephen King, On writing

whether British commentators applauded or disdained Americans’ English, they all assumed it as their prerogative to make such appraisals
        — Paul Longmore, 2005

Britons on transatlantic differences/relations

I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.
        — Samuel Johnson

The Americans generally improve upon the inventions of others; probably they may have improved our language.
— Captain Frederick Marryat, 1839

I do not believe there are, on the whole earth besides, so many intensified bores as in these United States. No man can form an adequate idea of the real meaning of the word, without coming here
        — Charles Dickens 

I do not know the American gentleman, god forgive me for putting two such words together. 
        — Charles Dickens 

 The English and the American language and literature are both good things, but they are better apart than mixed.
H. W. & F. G. Fowler, The King’s English, 1906

Americanisms are foreign words, and should be so treated
         H. W. & F. G. Fowler, The King’s English, 1906

Every time Europe looks across the Atlantic to see the American eagle, it observes only the rear end of an ostrich
        — H. G. Wells

American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.
W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge, 1943

The enjoyment of a common language was of course a supreme advantage in all British and American discussions
Winston Churchill, The Second World War  

You can get far in North America with laconic grunts. ‘Huh’, ‘hun’, and ‘hi’ in their various modulations, together with sure, guess so, that so? and nuts! will meet almost any contingency
Ian Fleming

American is the language in which people say what they mean as Italian is the language in which they say what they feel. English is the language in which what a character means or feels has to be deduced from what he or she says, which may be quite the opposite    
— playwright John Mortimer, 1989

I don't have an English accent because this is what English sounds like when spoken properly.
        — James Carr, on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

 The difference between English and American humour is $150 a minute.
        — Eric Idle

It only takes a room full of Americans for the English and Australians to realize how much we have in common
        — Stephen Fry

I shouldn’t be saying this – high treason, really – but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren’t fooled by our accent into detecting brilliance that may not really be there.
          — Stephen Fry

To be snooty about Americans, while slavishly admiring them; this is another crucial characteristic of being British.
        — 'Bagehot', in The Economist, 2014 

When it comes to language we have nothing to learn from a nation that uses the word "randy" as a first name.
    — commenter at The Sunday Times, 2015

Americans have different ways of saying things. They say elevator, we say lift…they say President, we say ‘stupid psychopathic git’
Alexei Sayle

See also: the whole song Two Nations by The Streets



I have heard in this country, in the senate, at the bar, and from the pulpit, and see daily in dissertations from the press, errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms which hardly any person of the same class in point of rank and literature would have fallen into in Great Britain.
        — John Witherspoon (coiner of the word Americanism), 1781

For America in her infancy to adopt the present maxims of the old world would be to stamp the wrinkle of decrepit age upon the bloom of youth
Noah Webster

In no country in the world does the law hold so absolute a language as in America, and in no country is the right of applying it vested in so many hands.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 

What you write to me about American situations is no surprise to me. Without ever having been there I can give you a picture of the country as accurate as if I had been there.
        — Friedrich Hebbel, in a letter to Amalie Schoppe, 29 Dec 1855

An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven't been done before.
Mark Twain

The Americans are going to be the most fluent and melodious-voiced people in the world—and the most perfect users of words.
Walt Whitman

It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations are in a conspiracy to under-value them. 
        — Henry James

The American language differs from the English in that it seeks the top of expression while English seeks its lowly valleys.
        — Salvador de Madariaga, 1928

I sometimes marvel at the extraordinary docility with which Americans submit to speeches.
        — Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.  

because American companies are so successful — because American ideas are so successful — they get the blame for the horrible fact of world homogenisation; for the unbearable notion that people around the world might get what they want and might want roughly the same things.
        — Justin Webb, 2008


The English (sometimes 'the British')

But Lord! to see the absurd nature of Englishmen, that cannot forbear laughing and jeering at everything that looks strange
Samuel Pepys

The English instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it.
        — James Agate 

The English never smash in a face. They merely refrain from asking it to dinner.
        — Margaret Halsey, With Malice Toward Some, 1938

Let us pause to consider the English.
Who when they pause to consider themselves they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish,
because every Englishman is convinced of one thing, viz;
that to be an Englishman is to belong to the most exclusive club there is

        — Ogden Nash

We English are good at forgiving our enemies; it releases us from the obligation of liking our friends.
        — P. D. James

The world still consists of two clearly divided groups; the English and the foreigners. One group consists of less than 50 million people; the other of 3,950 million people. The latter group does not really count.
        — George Mikes, How to be a Brit

Bloody foreigners are rarely called bloody foreigners nowadays, some say because the English have become more polite; my own feeling is that the word ‘bloody’ has changed its meaning and is no longer offensive enough.
 — George Mikes, How to be a Brit

It has still never occurred to one single Englishman that not everybody would regard it as a step up, as a promotion, to become English.
        — George Mikes, How to be a Brit

England is a land that lives by myths. And one of the greatest of the national myths is that the English are a polite race. They are nothing of the kind. Indeed, the English, never known to do anything by halves, have developed impoliteness into an art form of great sophistication and complexity.
John Algeo, 1990

Britain really is an immense lunatic asylum. That is one of the things that distinguishes us among the nations...we believe in the right to eccentricity, as long as the eccentricities are large enough... Woe betide you if you hold your knife incorrectly, but good luck to you if you wear a loincloth and live up a tree.
Louis de Bernieres, Notwithstanding, 2009


The French

you must hate a Frenchman as you hate a devil
        — Horatio Nelson

Southerners are snobs and condescending but it's not their fault the smell from France is starting to affect them.
        — Jack Carter (Leeds, UK)


The English language

In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people, than all the other dialects of the language.
        — Noah Webster, 1806

The most common expedient employed by democratic nations to make an innovation in language consists in giving some unwonted meaning to an expression already in use. This method is very simple, prompt, and convenient; no learning is required to use it aright, and ignorance itself rather facilitates the practice; but that practice is most dangerous to the language. […] This is a deplorable consequence of democracy.
        —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The English Language is grandly lawless like the race who use it,—or, rather, breaks out of the little laws to enter truly the higher ones. It is so instinct with that which underlies laws and the purports of laws it refuses all petty interruptions in its way.
Walt Whitman  

Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?
        — Clarence Darrow

Others may speak and read English—more or less—but it is our language not theirs. It was made in England by the English and it remains our distinctive property, however widely it is learnt or used
Enoch Powell, speech to the Royal Society of St George, April 1988

The English language was carefully, carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary.
        — cartoonist Dave Kellett

Goodbye RP
Let our words go free
Coo and howl
Lay flat your vowels
Ah ay ee
Goodbye RP
Tongue uncross your t's
Slang and slur
Bah and burr
They thy thee
Goodbye RP Teachered tyranny
Speed this end
Our ows to bend...
Who were he wi'? 

speakers of English […] tend to divide into two camps: those who suspect that they themselves misuse the language and feel insecure about it and those who think they do not misuse the language and feel rather irritated by those who do
        — Ammon Shea, Bad English

English is a global language because English speakers have been global conquerors. It’s not about the quality of English nouns and verbs, it’s about the quality of English guns and money.
        — Gretchen McCulloch


And finally, the linguist's dilemma...

There is a general conviction that language is not a matter for experts. We all know about language because we all use language. No similar conclusion is drawn from the fact that we all use kidneys, nerves, and intestines.
Anthony Burgess, Language made plain, 1975

[L]inguistics does have one thing in common with prostitution. In neither field can the professional hope to compete with the amateur.
        — Morris Halle

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 I have a note above my desk that says "Next blog post: roast(ed)". It's been there for three years, since Melissa L wrote to say:

Dear Lynne,

I teach English in Germany and enjoy your blog.

I am a native speaker of American English. Most of my teaching material uses British English. I spend a lot of time thinking about and paying attention to the differences between AmE and BrE (though maybe not as much as you).

Anyway, in an exercise about dishes on the holiday table, there was roast turkey and roast potatoes.

I would say roasted potatoes.

Roasted is an adjective made out of the participial form of a verb. We make such modifiers all the time—as we say in linguistics, it's a productive morphological process. You could have a written resignation letter, a fried dumpling, a worn path. So, roasted vegetables or roasted turkey don't need much explanation: we're just using the tools that English gives us.

The question more is: what's going on with roast? Is roast beef a compound noun? It's a roast and it's beef. No, that also seems to be a past-participle of the verb, one that goes back to Middle English. These days, it seems only to be used as an adjective. People generally don't things like "I have roast a turkey" or "A turkey has been roast" these days.
So, we've ended up with two participial adjectives meaning 'having been cooked by roasting', and we have preferences for which foods we use each with. It's pretty much always roast beef in all Englishes. Roast turkey and roast chicken and roast lamb are preferred over roasted, but not as strongly as for beef. (I've kept the chart to three meats for viewability.) (Note that I've put the in the searches to make sure that the roast is not a verb.)

So it looks like roast is generally preferred over roasted with meats, but (except for beef), this looks stronger in BrE than AmE. So while roast is common with turkey and chicken in both, there are more roasteds in AmE than in BrE. (It looks like Canadian English really likes roasted turkey, but all of the examples come from a single source.)

What else can be "roast"? I asked the GloWBE corpus interface to give me the nouns after roast that differ most between US and UK. Remember: the tables below do not show the most common nouns after roast (that would be beef). They're for showing the ones that differ most. So green in the UK (right) side, means that those expressions are strongly British. The darker the green, the stronger the difference. Pink/red means NOT associated. The white ones in the table are very similar in the two.
(GloWBE doesn't seem to tag the adjective roast as an adjective, so I can only ask for the word roast, which means that some of the roasts in these numbers are the verb, as in They roast coffee for a living. Nevertheless, digging into the data shows that these roast+noun combinations mostly have roast as an adjective.)
Roast dinner stands out in the UK data. This is a meal (traditionally a Sunday roast) with some roast(ed) meat or vegetarian alternative, roast(ed) potatoes, lots of different vegetables, gravy and often a Yorkshire pudding. (I'm shocked to see that I didn't mention Yorkshire puddings in my pudding post. So there's a Wikipedia link if you need one.) A big part of the BrE roast dinner is the potatoes, which also show up strongly in the UK side of the table. I won't go further into the institution of roast dinners just because I want to get back to the adjective, but I will note that it's my husband's favo(u)rite meal despite his having been a vegetarian for 35 years. The vegetarian main might be a nut roast, but it also might be some kind of vegetable Wellington or a stuffed squash or (BrE) all sorts. The (orig. AmE) sides are at least as important as the "main" part of the meal, and roast(ed) potatoes are key. The person who takes the last roast potato is a stereotype of bad manners in these parts. People have very strong feelings about roasted potatoes. They are so well loved that they have a nickname: roasties. (Yorkshire puddings sometimes get the same treatment, so if someone says they want a roast dinner with Yorkies, they're probably not talking about eating or dining with terriers. Context matters.)
Back to roasted. Here's are the US/UK differences, where we can see the converse of the previous tables—more expressions that are strongly American.

Some of the highlighted expressions here are less about the form of roast(ed) and more about what things tend to be eaten in each place. I think it's fair to say that Americans like roasted garlic more and that Britons come across more roasted chestnuts. 
My main conclusions: BrE seems to prefer roast over roasted for any meats and for potatoes. AmE isn't 100% won over by roast for things other than roast beef. The two Englishes come together for vegetables and peanuts, for which roasted does well. 
Why are certain things roast rather than roasted in BrE? I wonder if it does have something to do with the roast dinner. Here's my thinking:
  • If we think of roast in Sunday roast as the roasted meat (after all, we do call roasted meat "a roast"), then 
  • The roast in roast dinner probably is too. A dinner that features a roast. (Both expressions go back to early 19th century, with Sunday roast first.)
  • But then people start thinking of roast there as an adjective, rather than a noun modifying a noun: a dinner with the quality 'roast' rather than a dinner of a roast.
  • The components of the roast dinner get the modifier roast rather than roasted, because roast now indicates that kind of dinner. 
  • Hence: roast potatoes.

To test this, I looked at carrots and parsnips, two typical roast dinner vegetables that are roasted. (Not all roast dinner (BrE) veg is roasted. For instance, there's often cabbage.) The parsnips seem to support my hypothesis. The carrots, not so much. (I did check these for stray verb-rather-than-adjective roast(ed)s. There were none.)

The moral of the story: send me an email request for a blog post, and I may eventually get to it! 

Some related links/points:
  • On the AmE sense of roast for a ceremonial (orig. AmE) ribbing
  • On skim(med) milk (which trends the opposite way)
  • Note that BrE calls mashed potato(es) mash, but BrE speakers generally don't use mash as an adjective mash potato(es), and it's not common for AmE speakers either (in the GloWBE data). There's a different morphological difference, as indicated by my parentheses here—so click through for that link.
  • You find the occasional corn beef in AmE, but that's faaaaar outweighed by the corned beefs. But remember that this refers to different things in AmE & BrE!
  • I had intended to write about ice(d) tea in this post too, but it turned out that the numbers didn't support the idea that AmE and BrE treat this differently. Iced tea is pretty standard in both, with some products marketed as ice tea.


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