Help me with my next book! Small words

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

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.


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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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:

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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.

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(out) in the country(side)

In the hope of having a weekend, I wasn't going to write a long blot post this week. This really has taken over my Sundays the last few weeks. But then I started writing another monster post. About 1/3 into it, I reali{s/z}ed I'd need to explain this little thing about country and countryside. So, I've pivoted to writing this shorter thing and am ahead of the game for next week's post too. Yay.


Country is a polysemous word—it has multiple meanings. And those meanings can create real ambiguities. For instance:

Lynne has lived in the country for 20 years.

That sentence is true on the 'national territory' meaning of country, but false on the 'rural area' meaning of country, since I have lived in a particular national territory (the UK) for 20 years, but I've lived in a city (Brighton) for all of those 20 years (well, technically it was a town when I moved here).

Most of the time, such ambiguities don't bother us. If Sid goes for a walk in the country, we assume the 'rural' meaning is in play; we don't feel the need to ask "Which country was it? Was it Norway?". 

The word countryside serves to make it clear that we're talking about the 'rural' kind of country. It exists in both AmE and BrE, but it is used several times more in BrE than in AmE and the uses are a bit different.
the British countryside
according to Fur Feather and Fin

A straight comparison of countryside in the two Englishes is not very helpful because of the existence in the UK of the Countryside Alliance, a lobbying group that gets in the news a lot for its promotion and defen{c/s}e of "countryside activities", which include the very controversial practice of fox-hunting. Statistics for the word countryside on its own will be biased by that name.

So instead, here's a look at "[verb]ing in the countryside", which gives a clear picture that countryside is common in BrE in contexts in which it's not in AmE. (Click on images if you'd like them bigger.)

I grew up in a small town in a rural county of New York state. When we talked about where our classmates lived, we'd never have said in the countryside, we'd say out in the country. The out there is doing the same kind of work the -side in countryside can do:

When I looked at AmE uses of countryside, a lot seemed to be about tourism to other places— visiting the Italian countryside and such. It's in those kinds of contexts where AmE use of countryside starts to equal BrE use:

In a recent post about birds, I mentioned that the country(side) occupies very different place in British and American lives and self-mythologies. Countryside in both Englishes (I think, but I could be wrong)— has the feel of a more idealized kind of place—with green hills and farmhouses, whereas out in the country for me is more neutral in terms of what the scenery is—we just used it to mean 'not within the village boundaries' (in my area of NYS, could be woods, could be farm, could an out-of-town [AmE] trailer park). The US has more types of non-urban landscape than the UK, much more wilderness, and a relatively recent history of even more (and more dangerous) wilderness. It's inevitable, really, that talking about the country(side) will bring up different connotations depending on where you're from. I haven't included an illustration for AmE 'out in the country' because the image search mostly brought up pics of small towns and highways. Looking for rural scenery, there's just too much variation to pick something 'typical' of American experience.

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more birds and birdy things

As promised last time, here's more about birds. See the previous post for more about garden birds and some other bird-related things and for information about Cecil Brown's categories of BrE-AmE bird-name relationships. The last instal(l)ment was called garden birds, though there are some birds there that might be found prevalently elsewhere (I stuck parakeets in with garden birds, just to be able to say something about parakeets in gardens) and there might be some here that are found in your (BrE) garden or (AmE) backyard.

If you have already read the garden birds post, you might want to have another look at it as I have made late additions to it (marked as such) to cover "gardeny" birds that I'd missed in the first (AmE) go-round. And if I come across more that belong in the categories here, I'll add them.

(Immediately after I first posted this, Jim Martin pointed out more. I've not marked these as 'late additions' because they've come before most people have had a chance to read the post, but I have credited Jim.)

As before, all images are from Wikipedia and are of adult male birds, unless otherwise noted.

birds of prey

buzzard and hawk

In the US, buzzard is another name for the turkey vulture (so-called because it looks a bit turkey-ish). In BrE it is for birds of the genus Buteo.
(BrE) buzzard

Turkey vulture/(AmE) buzzard

Americans call members of the Buteo family hawks, and so sometimes have to distinguish members of the Accipitrinae sub-family true hawks, though your average American (like me) probably wouldn't be able to tell you the difference between them.

sea birds

skua / jaeger

AmE uses jaeger (from the German for 'hunter) for the smaller species of skua and BrE doesn't.  (Via Jim Martin)

Pomerine jaeger/skua


Another one from Jim. I'm going to let Wikipedia do the work for this one:
Guillemot is the common name for several species of seabird in the Alcidae or auk family (part of the order Charadriiformes). In British use, the term comprises two genera: Uria and Cepphus. In North America the Uria species are called "murres" and only the Cepphus species are called "guillemots".

Guillemot comes from the French name Guillaume (as we saw last time, naming birds after men is not uncommon).  Murre came from the UK, originally. It might be imitative, and might be related to Welsh morra or Cornish murr.


Jim Martin points out that mew gull (onomatopoetic for their call) is more used in AmE for the species called common gull in BrE, though these particular gulls are not all that common in UK. Wikipedia points out that there are broader and narrower meanings of mew gull, but I'll let them tell you about it.

Gulls in the UK are serious birds. The herring gulls common on much of the coastline are the size of ducks or geese. They are not shy about stealing food right out of your hands, which (given their size and stealth) can be very disconcerting. My worst herring gull memory (i.e. best herring gull story) was when we were at a park with our then-toddler and saw a herring gull with a pigeon halfway down its throat. Spouse chased it with an umbrella till it dropped the pigeon—the pigeon was too big for it to fly off with.



Members of the genus Gavia are called loons in AmE and divers in BrE. The OED notes that loon is probably derived from loom, a Shetland dialect name for the bird, which probably came from Old Norse. Loon as a name for a type of person (orig. a worthless person, rogue) existed separately from the bird-name, though it's possible that the existence of the person-insult affected the transition from loom to loon. Loony has a different etymology still: shortened from lunatic. All of this was kind of surprising to me—I'm sure many people have folk etymologies that conflate bird loon and person loon and adjective loony. And now of course, loonie is also slang for a Canadian $1 coin, because it has the bird-loon on it and Canadians generally have more linguistically in common with the US than with the UK. (Sorry, Canadians, but it's true.) 

NAmE loon / BrE diver


(From Jim Martin). The common merganser is in BrE the goosander. Goosander has an obscure etymology. The first part is goose and the second part is probably from the Old Norse plural for 'duck'. (Merganser is the Latin name.)

Domesticated birds

cock, rooster, cockerel

Male chickens are traditionally called cock in BrE and rooster (which probably came from an English dialect) in AmE. In The Prodigal Tongue I write about the fact that cockerel is used more and more in BrE where cock used to be the right word. A cockerel was a young cock, but nowadays people feel less comfortable saying cock, so they fancy it up with an -erel. So if you want to know more about that, and more about taboo-avoidance in BrE and AmE more generally, I have a book to recommend!

Country(side) birds


If I'd been smarter/cleverer, I'd have label(l)ed the last post "passerine (perching) birds" and not "garden birds", as that would've made for a clearer division between one bird-type and all others. But I didn't, and so I'm putting larks here, because they're more likely to be found on farms or mountains than in gardens. Anyhow, there is only one lark in North America, and Americans call it the horned lark, but the same species in Europe is called the shore lark. That particular species doesn't seem to extend to the UK, where there are other larks with their own not-needed-in-the-US names.

AmE horned lark
elsewhere shore lark

observing birds

the hobby

Bird-watching is a term that seems more popular among people who don't do it as a hobby than people who do. The (more specialist—and often dismissive) BrE term for a bird-watcher who "collects" sightings of birds is twitcher (see comments for more info). Its use has spread beyond Britain, but is still heard a lot more in BrE, and it's more informal than "official". The OED's first example of it is from 1974, but they note a claim that it was coined in the 1950s and relates to the person twitching with excitement. The noun twitch thus came to be an expedition or gathering of bird-watchers. The intransitive verb twitch subsequently came to be used for serious bird-watching and a transitive version for spotting a rare bird. Here's an example of each (in that order) from the OED:
  • 1977   New Society 17 Nov. 341/2   Those now in their thirties have been twitching for maybe 20 years.
  • 2009   Birdwatch Winter 6/3   We can hope that in 20 years, birders won't feel compelled to charter flights to ‘twitch’ the lone, singing Canada Warbler.

Another term in the OED quotations is tick-hunter, which would mean you're searching for birds to 'tick' off your list, using the BrE sense of 'tick' (AmE 'checkmark'). These days, that sounds more like you're looking for small blood-sucking arachnids in the hope of preventing Lyme disease. There were no instances of it in the corpus I searched (see below).

In AmE, the specialist term has been birder, with bird becoming a related intransitive verb. OED's first citation for this is 1945. The word has spread beyond the US now.

In the GloWBE corpus, the clear winner for international word-of-choice is birder (the white here indicates it's not now especially AmE or BrE), and there are AmE/BrE differences in preferred hyphenation of bird(-)watcher, not necessarily in the order I might have predicted.

Green = more particular to that country. Pink = less


People who research birds often mark wild ones with a little thing{ie/y}* around a bird's leg. The thing{ie/y} is called a band in AmE and a ring in BrE. The verb goes the same way. In AmE the birds are banded and in BrE the are ringed. If you do that to a bird, you are a (AmE) bird-bander or (BrE) bird-ringer. For more, see Wikipedia.

* Sidenote: The OED tells me that thingy is 'originally and chiefly Scottish'. Thing(ie)s may have changed since that entry was updated in 2008—as the word seems widespread now. There is a spelling difference, though, in that Americans are more likely to style it as thingie.


And, denizens of the internet, I want to end with an important semantic question: When is a bird a birbThe Audubon Society has been looking into it.
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garden birds

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

The naming of birds in North America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackbird (late addition)

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


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

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

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

                        Black-capped chickadee
Tufted titmouse (N Am)

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

Google image search


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

A bit about cardinals and jays

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

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

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

Eurasian jay

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

Black-naped oriole (OW)

Starling (late addition)

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

 Sparrow (late addition)

I had just assumed that sparrow meant the same in both countries because the sparrows I know in the two places look pretty much the same. But as I was preparing to write the next instal(l)ment of this bird series, I noticed that Brown marks sparrow as category D—applying the British name to a different family of birds. It turns out that I think they're the same because, like the starling, the European house sparrow (Passer domesticus, family Passeridae) is a successful transplant to the Americas. But before that happened, English-speakers in North America had applied the name to birds from another widespread family, Passerellidae
These are what birdwatchers call LBJs 'little brown jobs' or sometimes LBBs 'little brown birds', because they're all over the place and hard to distinguish. (I can't find where LBJ originated, though the job in it is probably closest to a the sense 'A thing of a type specified or evident from the context', which the OED marks as 'orig. U.S.'.)  So it's not entirely surprising I hadn't noticed the differences. There are a lot of different species with different looks, but

European house sparrow

American tree sparrow



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

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

AmE parakeet; BrE budgie
Feral parakeet in London

Bird-related vocab

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

Google image search for "bird table"

The dawn chorus

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

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

Final fun fact

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

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