institutional verbs

One thing that I like about British English is the range of verbs and phrasal verbs for various interactions with public welfare institutions. I don't know why I have such fondness for them--maybe it's just my fondness for the public welfare institutions. When asked by British folk what I like about living in England, my first two answers are: the National Health Service and the trains. They usually express shock or derision, but then I point out how much healthcare costs (and how unevenly it is distributed) in the US and the fact that in my last American place of residence (a city of about 125,000) the Amtrak passenger train came only TWICE A WEEK and even then you had to drive to a couple of towns away to catch it. After those explanations, my appreciation for what might not be the greatest health and transport services in the world seems a lot clearer. As a (smugly) non-car-owning person with chronic illness, I have very few complaints about the services, and tend to find that the loudest complaints come from healthy folk who drive everywhere. But maybe I should save my prejudices about healthy people for another forum. Some of my best friends are healthy. Well, one of them, at least.

(In case you're wondering what my third favo(u)rite thing about living in England/Britain is, it's: everyone seems to have a hobby or passion [besides sitting in front of the tv/(BrE) telly every night]. What fun! If only everyone in my family had a hobby--it would make Christmas shopping so much easier.)

But enough asides (or since they came first, should I call them atops?). Here are some of the BrE institutional verbs I love:
  • to sign on also known as to go on (BrE) the dole: to register to receive social benefits (AmE: welfare or unemployment insurance). I was going to link you to the episode of Spaced in which Daisy tries to sign on, but no one's uploaded that one to YouTube yet. Just when you start to think that you can depend on the Internet, it goes and disappoints you in a fundamental way.

    One can use sign off to mean 'go off benefits (because one has become employed)', but I'm more accustomed to hearing it used to mean:
  • to sign off: (for a medical doctor) to give a medical certificate (to someone), allowing them medical leave from work. This is usually done by one's (BrE) GP -- general practitioner (AmE: primary care physician [though that's (AmE) HMO-speak] or family doctor). This is often used in the passive--e.g. I've been signed off for the next five weeks. When it's used in the active form, the direct object comes between the verb and the particle: The doctor signed John off, not *The doctor signed off John.
Of course, no welfare system is without its cheats, and BrE supplies some interesting verbs for turning them in:
  • to shop (someone): to turn someone in for some misdeed. This isn't only used for fraud against the government, but it's certainly used for that a lot. The OED has it going back for centuries, but says it's now "only slang or dial". For example:
    Council [AmE: municipal government] launches 'shop your neighbour' dustbin [AmE: trash can] hotline (Daily Mail, 12 Oct 2006)
While it is slang-ish, newspapers and even the government use shop quite easily--although often in (AmE) quotation marks/(BrE) inverted commas in order to signal its 'slanginess'.
  • to grass (up) (someone): again, to inform the police/authorities about someone's misdoings. More likely than shop (in my experience) to be used for non-fraud kinds of crimes. There are also the nouns grass and supergrass, meaning a person who grasses. And once one learns that, the name of the band [warning: link makes noise] makes more sense. AmE alternatives that I can think of for this meaning, such as rat, are also found in BrE.
According to someone in this BBC article (which uses both grass and shop):
Most smokers are law-abiding citizens, and I can't believe people will want to shop smokers. It is not the British way.
That it is perceived as 'not the British way' might go a little way to explaining why (in my experience) British universities tend not to have Hono(u)r Codes, in the American sense. At many US universities, one must sign a document promising not to cheat and to report any cheating one knows about. At my UK university, students have to sign statements that they haven't cheated (when they take an exam or submit and assignment), but (as I found when someone grassed on a fellow student) there is no process in place to allow for the investigation of an accusation of cheating that comes from a student, rather than a faculty member.


  1. Hey Lynne,
    I am a huge Spaced fan and saw all of the episodes for the first time on YouTube before they aired on BBC America.
    Here is a link that I used to get to the entire series. I think that episode is Season/Series 2 episode 1 or 2.

    I can't really connect to Youtube for some reason, so I can't verify if it all is still there or not...

  2. I believe it's episode 2 of that (BrE) series/season. (Episode 1 is about being a drug(s) mule, right?) But when I click on your link, I get 'this account is suspended' no luck. Thanks for trying!

  3. Speaking of Spaced, did you see the rather horrifying news that Fox want to do an American remake? And as if that's not bad enough, McG will be involved?

  4. MCG = the Melbourne Cricket Ground?

  5. "Section" sounds not far removed from the AmE military slang, "Section 8", meaning "nuts", "crazy", etc. While the "Section 8" referred to in the term no longer exists, I think the meaning hasn't changed.

    "Grass", v.: For an AmE-specific term, perhaps "drop a dime"?

  6. I just happened tu surf by and discovered your blog. I love it!
    Expat-to-expat greetings from Germany


  7. So, what kinds of hobbies/passions do British people have? Just curious...

  8. But, Doug, section 8 has never been a verb, has it? Drop a dime isn't actually a phrase I'd know/use. I presume it refers to the former cost of a call from a public phone?

    Canadian, you name it, there are people doing it. Some of the weirder British hobbies are train-spotting and Morris dancing. I don't actually know any aficionados of those, but I do have a good friend who was for a while passionate about railway electric substations and used to travel distances to visit them (and the plastic owls atop them!). Some of the more common British hobbies are gardening and bird-watching. Thinking of my social circle, we have: competitive Scrabble (of course), blogging (of course), running fan clubs, playing music on various instruments, dj'ing, horse riding, choral singing, bridge, table tennis, badminton, lawn bowls, painting/drawing, making mechanical toys, karate, Land Rover rallies, amateur drama/opera, taking language courses, history, collecting various things (milk bottles, pulp novels)--involving lots of time at car boot sales and flea markets, studying various things (theatre history, Sherlock Holmes), comedy and clowning, photography, clock restoration, fishing, darts, going to quiz nights, quilting (not as big as in US, though), book clubs, (o)enology, cinema clubs, running marathons, etc.

    Most of these involve getting together with other people who do this kind of thing. Kate Fox in Watching the English calls this 'the use of props and facilitators' to deal with English social dis-ease...i.e. the hobby is a social lubricator.

    In addition to having more television channels, many Americans have church instead of hobbies--which is a much, much smaller contributor to social life in Britain than in the US.

  9. I would imagine that an AmE equivalent of 'to shop up'/'to grass up' might be 'to narc'? Somehow I assume that 'narc' is chiefly or solely AmE (as it is derived, from what I hear, from narcotics officers in the American 'war on drugs'). Is it found in BrE as well?

  10. Thanks, Anon. Narc is a good one, and 'chiefly N. Amer.' (OED). It comes from well before the 'war on drugs', which I think of happening in the Reagan era. I know it from my earlier-than-Reagan childhood, and OED has it going back to the 1960s.

  11. As what the (BrE) speaking person might call an "anorak" (AmE)"fanboy" of the Sopranos, I'd say the word I'd use is "snitch" as well as the aforementioned "rat"

  12. Nark, "to act as a police informer", goes back to 1859 according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

    nark. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. (accessed: November 02, 2007).

  13. johnb - not the Melbourne Cricket Ground but rather the absurdly monikered American most famous for the Charlie's Angels films.

  14. electric dragon - you will be pleased to know that I have never heard of him, or seen any of his work. :)

    But then - I don't think I have ever seen 'Spaced' either.

    I'm not really much of a TV / Film watcher.

  15. "coughed" could be included here, that is, to admit to something

    "The suspect later COUGHED for a further two burglaries"

  16. ach - it needs

    <_a_> <_/a_>

    (without the underscores)at the end of electric dragon's post. Or at the very begining of the post that follows it. That will force a close to the anchor tag that is generating the hyper link


  17. Dang. Forgot to close it at the begining of the last post.

  18. johnb, I'm just not seeing what the problem is that you're talking about. The link in electricdragon's post works for me.

    Anon, you've not said what dialect you're talking about--but also I think you're getting a bit far from the target!

  19. Lynne - the link works properly - however, it hasn't been closed. That is why all the following posts all link to the same place.

    If you can edit the post put the <_/A> tag at the very end of it. ( without the underscore in the middle)

    If you can't edit that post but can edit my post that follows use <_a_> <_/a_>. (again with out the underscore). It trickes blogger into closing the Anchor code :)

  20. hi - still very much enjoying your posts and these discussions. one quibble: I am a native BrE speaker, reasonably familiar with talk of grassing and shopping; I am used to the construction "he grassed me up" (or "he grassed on me") but I've never heard or read the construction "he shopped me up". or "he shopped on me", for that matter, in case anyone wondered.

    when you shop someone, you usually shop them *to* someone or something, you probably wouldn't hear someone say just "he shopped me". you might hear someone say "he grassed on me" or "he grassed me up" without explaining exactly what had happened.

    and if I think a bit more, my hunch is that you usually shop someone to the *authorities* - the bizzies (= 'busies', aka police, especially in Liverpool), the Social, or whatever; I think you can grass on someone to Big Tony as well as them.



  21. Andi, you're right about shop up. I'd never heard it myself (but hear shop (someone) a lot. I was misled by the OED, which says "Also with up" right after that definition, but the only examples of shop up it has are those where it means shut up. (It was kind of a run-on definition.) I'll take the up out of that bit...

  22. johnb, I can't change someone else's comment, so can't close electricdragon's tag. But the only problem there seems to be that the link continues into the date stamp. Links in subsequent comments work fine--I just put up a test comment with a link (and then deleted it, as it was irrelevant), and it linked as it should have--as do the links to commenters' blogger profiles...

  23. Ach - maybe its me then - But for me, the three posts after electricdragon's all link to the same McG link :)

    I inserted the html to close the anchor in my post starting "Dang ..." and after that everything appears OK to me.

    I was concerned because I thought that something I had done was responsible, and I wanted to fix it. However, I suspect its a failing of blogger. Many web boards insert closures for HTML tags that could be open at the end of each post.

    But I'll leave it alone now. Sorry to have been a nuisance :)

  24. My browser (Internet Explorer 6 SP2 on Windows XP) also shows all of the three posts following electric dragon's to be hyperlinked to the Web page about McG.

    I also have been fortunate enough never to have seen any of the productions listed for McG, so I also had never heard of him.

  25. All the tag stuff is very strange. Blogger won't let me post a comment with an incomplete I don't know how that one happened.

    DTR, to squeal has a different feeling to me. You squeal when you're under interrogation, but you shop someone of your own accord. OED doesn't mark squeal as AmE, but all of its examples of it are from North American sources.

  26. One British verb that has institutional origins and that you have probably not have come accross is "twocking" - a word I came accross in the city of Sheffield, and which may be specific to there. It derives from the acronym TWOC (Taken Without Owner's Consent), which is what gets written on the police report when someone steals a car and goes joyriding. In certain areas of Sheffield the practice of twocking is an example of one of those wonderful British hobbies you mention.

  27. Thanks for the list of hobbies Lynne, that's very interesting. There is actually research showing that "serious leisure" (pursuing something in depth in one's free time) is very beneficial. (A sociologist called Stebbins is the specialist in serious leisure.) I think people with passions of some kind are far more interesting than those who just watch TV, go to a movie occasionally, go to a club/bar/etc, go for a walk now and then, etc. Maybe (North) Americans should follow the British on this one.

  28. Re unemployment, there's also "redundancy" or "make redundant" for US "lay( )off"; and the names of forms UB40 and P45 are used metonymically.

  29. Re: grassing up, I think this passage from Brass Eye may be enlightening.

    David Qunt: "Here you are being grassed up to the filth. How would you feel if you, there, had accidentally grassed yourself?"

    Frankie Fraser: "Well that's me own fault it would be wouldn't it."

    DQ: "So that, that would make you less mad?"

    FF: "Well exactly if you grassed yourself you'd have yourself to blame but how on earth could you grass yourself?"

    DQ: "I don't know, you might have got, drunk or something, you might have given yourself away.."

    FF: "Oh no, no way no, you don't do that, it can't happen - we're too experienced."

    DQ: "Was there ever a time when you weren't experienced -"

    FF: "No, never, no -"

    DQ: "Do you think you were born experienced enough not to grass yourself?"

    FF: "I think so yeah."

  30. Lynneguist: "But, Doug, section 8 has never been a verb, has it?"

    I think it can (or could) be so used, though I think "Give him a Section 8" or "He's a complete Section 8" are/were more common.

    Lynneguist: "Drop a dime isn't actually a phrase I'd know/use. I presume it refers to the former cost of a call from a public phone?"

    Unless I'm mistaken, it's quite an old usage, as you might surmise from the price. But I think it's also currently used pretty commonly in the "hip hop culture". The latter bit I didn't know until I did a Google search to see whether the term was current. (67K GHits, FWIW.)

  31. If you like the verb "section" (and surreal Briish sitcoms) check out Peep Show S2E4 - specifically this clip:

  32. Um, that's the same clip that I linked to in my post.

  33. The Australian English term for informing on someone is "dobbing" (in a school context, not in a police context - the word has strong juvenile connotations). One five-year-old child may refer to another five-year-old child as a "dibber-dobber" - a depreciating term for "one who informs".


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