smacking and spanking

A Guardian headline on Friday read:
Ministers defy charities to uphold parents' right to smack
(The on-line version has a different title.) The article goes on:

The government yesterday reasserted parents' right to smack their children despite overwhelming opposition from charities.

Kevin Brennan, the children's minister, said there was no reason to change the law introduced three years ago permitting smacking if it does not leave visible bruising, scratches or reddening of the skin.

After a review of the legislation, he told MPs: "Smacking is becoming a less commonly used form of discipline. While many parents say they will not smack, a majority say smacking should not be banned outright."

As can be gleaned from the prevalence of the word smack in the article (and more generally in the national debate on the topic), this is the normal BrE way to refer to striking a child as a disciplinary measure. As the OED defines smack:
5. a. To strike (a person, part of the body, etc.) with the open hand or with something having a flat surface; to slap. Also spec. to chastise (a child) in this manner and fig.
Smack is generally not used in this way in AmE, as can be seen from the American Heritage Dictionary definition:
1. To press together and open (the lips) quickly and noisily, as in eating or tasting.
2. To kiss noisily.
3. To strike sharply and with a loud noise.
Of course, the final sense there could be used to describe hitting children with an open hand, but it's just not used that way as routinely in AmE as it is in BrE. In BrE, the Guardian headline seems clear. In AmE, I might misunderstand it as 'parents' right to kiss noisily' or 'parents' right to heroin.' (Smack = 'heroin' is originally AmE slang.)

In AmE, one speaks more naturally of spanking children, but of course spank≠smack, since spank (at least in AmE) specifies that it is the bottom that is hit (typically with an open hand, but possibly with a paddle or other instrument), whereas smacking doesn't (although it may be the case that most--or at least the most prototypical--child-smacking is on bottoms). I asked Better Half whether he'd usually refer to bottom-smacking as spanking or smacking, and he felt that he'd tend to use smack to talk about hitting children because spank (to his BrE ear) has sexual overtones. (The first thing he said upon hearing spank was spank the monkey. What a naughty boy.) The OED lists spank as 'dialectal or colloquial', and does not specify that it has to be on the bottom:
1. a. trans. To slap or smack (a person, esp. a child) with the open hand.
This UK site has spank as 'slang', but it is not slang in AmE--and not sexual unless clearly used in a sexual context.

Searching for spank on the Guardian website, I find that it doesn't occur in the current articles on the 'smacking debate' but that it does occur in articles on sport, music (due to a hiphop group called Spank Rock) and sex. So, there's little evidence that the AmE usage of spank for child-bottom-hitting is making its way into BrE. But since the OED entries have not been updated since 1989, it'll be interesting to see if they pick up on any changes in their next updates.
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putting the boot in

I haven't much time this evening, so I'll take advantage of the fact that reader Frank Pennycook (of Salisbury, UK) practically wrote an entry for me back in August, when he wrote to ask:
Is it correct that the phrase to put the boot in is not used in the US? If so, is there an equivalent?
Yes, it's correct that that is a BrE phrase. The Collins Cobuild Dictionary defines it as:
If someone puts the boot in, they attack another person by saying something cruel, often when the person is already feeling weak or upset.
Frank helpfully supplied some examples:
Mr Brown deployed a number of rehearsed lines against his two "rivals", the suggestion being that it will do him no harm to crush the left. But up against Mr Meacher - surprisingly hapless - and Mr McDonnell, there seemed little point, and each time he put the boot in I wanted to shout 'please don't hurt them'. The audience was overwhelmingly with the Chancellor. [Benedict Brogan, Daily Mail, 13 May 2007]

But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has rejected the proposal in the strongest possible terms. Just seconds after the foreign secretary sat down he put the boot in, calling the proposal "unacceptable". [Mark Mardell, BBC News, 05 December 2005]
In answer to Frank's second question, I can't think of an equivalent that is just AmE, but Frank describes it rather well as:
metaphorically kicking one's adversary while they are on the ground
So, to kick [someone] when [they're] down is a close alternative, though not exclusively AmE or BrE. Another near-equivalent is to twist (or turn) the knife, which again is not exclusively AmE or BrE.

So, as far as I can tell, BrE has at least one more idiom than AmE does for attacking someone in a weakened state. No comment. Unless you can think of a strictly AmE idiom for this sentiment?
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to hyphenate or not to hyphenate?

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary (6th edn) recently made the news for deleting a lot of hyphens that had been in the previous edition. According to the AskOxford website:
Drawing on the evidence of the Oxford Reading Programme and our two–billion–word Oxford English Corpus, we removed something like 16,000 hyphens from the text of the Shorter. So it's double bass, not double–bass, ice cream not ice–cream, makeover instead of make–over, and postmodern rather than post–modern. [Italics added because it was driving me crazy that Oxford hadn't marked the self-referential use of these words!]
Now, I neither have the two editions of the Shorter Oxford, nor would I have the time to look up all of the de-hyphenated words if I did have them, but it's long been my impression that British dictionaries (and possibly BrE speakers--we'll come back to this below) and American dictionaries (and speakers?) differ in their relationships with hyphens. When the Association of British Scrabble Players switched over to the international dictionary (including the former US and UK Scrabble dictionaries), one thing that struck a lot of players was how many more verbs could take the re- prefix. (As in relocate or reassemble. I'm afraid I don't still have my old dictionary to tell you which ones weren't allowed.) This was in part because of the BrE tendency to put hyphens between the prefix and the base verb, especially in cases in which not to do so would involve the same letter repeated twice at the end of the prefix and the beginning of the base word. So, BrE prefers re-elect, which is happy without a hyphen in AmE: reelect. The same thing happens with the prefix co-, especially before another o, so that BrE tends to prefer co-ordinate and co-operate, whereas AmE prefers coordinate and cooperate. So, I wondered, do the changes in the Shorter Oxford reflect more AmE-like use of hyphens? I found the following examples of de-hyphenated words in the Shorter Oxford 6 from news items and commentaries about the change: this BBC article, this New York Times article, World Wide Words and the aforelinked OUP press release. Then I compared them to the American Heritage Dictionary, which happens to be on my desk.

Shorter Oxford 5 (2002)Shorter Oxford 6 (2007)American Heritage 4 (2000)
fig-leaffig leaffig leaf
pot-bellypot bellypotbelly
double-bassdouble bassdouble bass
ice-creamice creamice cream
hobby-horsehobby horsehobbyhorse
fire-drillfire drillfire drill
water-bedwater bedwaterbed
test-tubetest tubetest tube

The bold entries in the table show the three cases in which the change in SOED6 is a change in the opposite direction from the AHD4 entry. (And I have to take issue with the AHD's one-word status for hobby horse. Not how I would spell it. I'm less-than-sure about potbelly too.)

Does this mean that BrE is becoming more like AmE?
These changes probably have at least as much to do with the SOED looking more carefully at how these words appear in printed language as they do with any actual language change. After all, there have been only five years between the editions--that's an awful lot of hyphens to bite the dust in such a short time. The NYT article notes, "That ice cream and bumblebee ever had hyphens to begin with suggests an excess of fussiness on the part of older lexicographers" and BrE-speaker Michael Quinion at World-Wide Words says, "The new SOED lists many hyphenless words such as leapfrog, bumblebee, crybaby, pigeonhole, lowlife, and upmarket, which will be a relief to those of us who have been spelling them like that all along."

I do get the feeling, however, (and this is just a feeling) that BrE favo(u)rs keeping words more separate. We can describe a hierarchy of 'one-wordiness' or 'joined-up-ed-ness' of English compound nouns, like this:
fully integrated: lifeboat, prejudge
semi-integrated: sit-in, semi-integrated
not integrated: ice cream, throw up
Using this hierarchy, I'd suppose that BrE writing tends toward(s) non-integration--that is to say, keeping words separate, or at least hyphenated, whereas AmE is happier to have more fully integrated compounds. It's just a hypothesis, though, and you're welcome to test it. (Hey, final-year students! There's a project!) Part of the reason I've formed this hypothesis is the widespread habit in BrE writing of treating some prefixes as separate words. Here are some examples, in which in AmE I'd have to have at least a hyphen, if not a single word, but which one sees not infrequently as separate words in BrE:
over- as a verb prefix
On the other hand, children are very good at expressing what motivates them in a learning context but perhaps over egg the custard a little when it comes to saying that what they find boring. --Scaife & Rogers, 'Kids as Informants'

post- as a prefix meaning 'after'
Public Health Advice ? Post Flood
Before re-occupying your home
The flood water affecting your home or other property may have been contaminated with sewage and other contaminants... --Bridgnorth District Council

as a prefix meaning 'below'
Sub normal growth rate (usually a height velocity below the 25th centile usually. equates to less than 5 cm per year in a pre pubertal child). --from an NHS [Wales] diagnostic guide
And so forth. This is the kind of thing I find myself 'correcting' constantly in student work in the UK (never as much of a problem in the US), so much so that I started to wonder whether I was the one in the wrong in my new dialect-land (as has happened before). But no, my New Oxford Dictionary of English treats all of these as prefixes, requiring hyphens or full integration with the base word. Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd edn) doesn't mention the writing of prefixes as separate words, and in its entry on hyphens recommends the use of hyphens with prefixes--as opposed to full integration--in the cases where the prefix joins to a proper name (anti-Darwin) or where the same letter is repeated (re-elect) or an ambiguity ensues (as in the pro-verb/proverb case that I mentioned a while ago).

But before you go any further in thinking about this, I give you the following cautionary quotation, cited on the American Dialect Society e-list recently:
If you take hyphens seriously you will surely go mad.
--John Benbow, Manuscript and Proof, 1937

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can I help who's next?

This is just a little parable about making dialectal assumptions.

For some time, I've been bothered by a phrase I've been hearing a lot in shops and caf├ęs in Brighton. It happens where there is one (BrE) queue/(AmE) line for several (BrE) tills/(AmE) cash registers (note that BrE and AmE have both of these terms, but use them slightly differently, as discussed a bit back here). The (BrE) shop assistant/(AmE) clerk, upon finding him/herself customerless, calls out: Can I help who's next?

Now, this just sounds weird to me, and I don't recall ever hearing it in my native land. I'd have to say Can I help whoever is next? or Can I help the next person? So, I brought this up at dinner the other night with Better Half, lazybrain and the Poet. All insisted that I shouldn't call this 'British English' because it's 'ungrammatical' and 'lazy'. But, of course, that doesn't make it not British. Certainly not Standard BrE, but there are at least some English people who are saying it.

So then I decided to have a look on the web for the phrase, and what is the first hit that Google gives me? Why, it's a British linguist (Geoff Pullum), then living in the US, who'd noticed its use in American establishments, and therefore discussed it at Language Log. So, some of you may be thinking "Ha! I knew that such ungrammaticality must be an American aberration imported into the youthspeak of Britain!" But by Pullum's account, this is not a new construction, but an old use of who that had been thought to be extinct for at least 150 years. So, what's going on here? Is it that:
  1. this use of who died out in most places but survived in little pockets of AmE and BrE and may be making a comeback?
  2. this use of who is a natural development in English grammar that has erupted on two continents at vaguely the same time after going out of fashion for a while?
  3. the phrase can I help who's next? is an idiom that was (re)invented in one country and found its way to the other?
In the UK, I'm mostly hearing it from younger people (say, in their teens/20s). That doesn't mean that the youth are Americani{s/z}ed...I can't imagine that that many Marks and Spencer assistants/clerks spend a lot of time in the US picking up phrases that seem to be used by a minority of AmE speakers (not necessarily in the touristy areas). And it's not the type of phrase one would expect to hear a lot on The O.C., or whatever's replaced it. But the fact that I'm associating it with youth makes me lean against hypothesis (1). I'm liking (2), but really have no empirical evidence for it. (After all, my impression that it's younger people saying it may just be due to the fact that there are more younger people than older people working in such service industry jobs in Brighton.)

See Pullum's Language Log post for the grammatical gore. (Won't be answering comments this weekend, so please amuse yourselves with the topic!)

Postscript (25 October): Ben Zimmer at Language Log has posted a great clip about whoever versus whomever from the US version of The Office. See comments here for more discussion...
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putting the U in endeavo(u)r

Frequent commenter (or commentator, if we want to use an -or ending!) JHM sent me a news item back in July (when I was up to my ears in other things--hence its unnewsiness* now) about NASA misspelling the name of its own space shuttle, Endeavour.

The news source was so (AmE) persnickety ('picky, snobbish'--see comments for BrE version) about letting others repeat its content that I've decided to give my link to a blogger who's written on the topic, so see here for before and after photos and more of the story. (This 'before' photo by John Raoux, AP.)

Of course, what's happened here is that whoever made the sign relied on AmE spelling of the word endeavor, not appreciating that the shuttle was named after Captain James Cook's ship. When it comes to names of individuals (including ships!), spellings should stay the same, regardless of whether an American or a British person is writing the name. Of course, when it's being used as a common noun (not a name) or verb, then the spelling changes. 'U'-ful in BrE and related spelling systems, 'U'-less in AmE.

We've discussed a lot of spelling differences here lately, but unlike many of the others that have come up, this one actually has to do with American spelling reformer Noah Webster, who's usually blamed for or credited with (depending on your point of view) many of the spelling differences between AmE and BrE. Webster's spelling changes were not only motivated by the desire for a closer link between pronunciation and spelling (the usual argument for spelling reform), but also by the political motivation that American English should be differentiated from British. In reflecting on American versus European values, he wrote (apparently--I got this from Wikipedia and it only gives a secondary reference):
America sees the absurdities—she sees the kingdoms of Europe, disturbed by wrangling sectaries, or their commerce, population and improvements of every kind cramped and retarded, because the human mind like the body is fettered 'and bound fast by the chords of policy and superstition': She laughs at their folly and shuns their errors...
So, feeling free to shun the 'absurdities' of traditional English spelling, he proposed many changes to the system. Here's a bit from the preface of his Essays and fugitiv writings (1790; quoted in Ford 1912:295) that illustrates some of the changes that he would have liked to have made, but which didn't make it into standard AmE:
In the essays, ritten within the last yeer, a considerable change of spelling iz introduced by way of experiment. This liberty waz taken by the writers before the age of queen Elizabeth, and to this we are indeted for the preference of modern spelling over that of Gower and Chaucer. The man who admits that the change of housbonde, mynde, ygone, moneth into husband, mind, gone, month iz an improovment, must acknowledge also the riting of helth, breth, rong, tung, munth to be an improovment. There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force ; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it will proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors.
But some of the changes that made it into Webster's dictionary did take hold in AmE, particularly the loss of 'u' in (mostly French-derived) words ending in -our (where that -our is pronounced similarly to -er or -or): labo(u)r, colo(u)r, hono(u)r, endeavo(u)r, ardo(u)r, clamo(u)r, humo(u)r. The Merriam-Webster website has a nice little table illustrating some of Noah Webster's proposals and whether they succeeded in AmE.

Are these matters yet settled? Weirdly, the OED does not list the spellings endeavor and glamor, although it does list both versions of the spelling for the other -our/-or words. And BrE does not include the 'u' in certain derivations of these words, as explained at the humo(u)r entry in the OED:
The English formations, humoured, humourless, humoursome, are here spelt like the n. and vb.; but the derivatives formed on a Latin type, as humoral, humorist, humorous, are spelt humor- as in L. hum{omac}r{omac}sus, etc. (This agrees with Johnson's use.)
Given the need to remember when to put the 'u' in BrE (humour, yes; humorous, no), it's not terribly surprising to me that this 'u'-loss was one of Webster's more successful reforms. There's a certain logic and consistency to another of his successful reforms (discussed back here): the use of a single 'l' in words like travel(l)ing. But it doesn't take a lot of 'skil' to see some of the illogicalities and inconsistencies in the spellings introduced in his essay preface, quoted above...

And lest you think that Americans (not me!) are the only people bent on reforming English spelling, note that the Simplified Spelling Society is a UK-based organi{s/z}ation!

Footnote (hey, look how academic I am!)
* This is a Lynneism, not an Americanism.

Ford, Emily Ellsworth Fowler (compiler). 1912. Notes on the life of Noah Webster, vol. 1. New York: Burt Franklin.
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for those of you making gingerbread...

That's what I'm up to tonight. I do like to bake with old, familiar recipes, which means using my American cookbooks. As we've seen before, this can get you into trouble. So, for those of you making gingerbread in the wrong country tonight, here's a public service announcement:
(BrE) golden syrup = (more or less) (AmE) light molasses
(BrE) treacle = (more or less) (AmE) dark molasses
Back to the kitchen...

Postscript (the next day): The gingerbread went down well with the Sunday lunch crowd (though next time I'll double the ginger in it), and happily there are two pieces left for Better Half and me to eat at our leisure. But I shouldn't have been surprised when the stuff that I called caramel sauce was requested by the English lunch guests as toffee sauce.
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agentive suffixes: -er and -or, and a little on grey/gray

A member of our Psychology Department wrote the other day to ask about distractor and distracter. In her experience, the former is AmE, but BrE can have either (as she found in the OED). But this isn't quite true. Look up distractor in the American Heritage Dictionary and you'll find "Variant of distracter". Both variants are available in both dialects, but is there more to it than that?

I was intrigued by this query because of other niggling (for me, at least) -er/-or distinctions. Here, I'm talking just about the use of these letter combinations as agentive suffixes--i.e. endings that turn verbs into nouns meaning 'someone who VERBS'. Of course, there are other -er and -or endings that differ in AmE and BrE (centre/center, color/colour), and those are what you find if you try to look up AmE versus BrE differences in spelling -er and -or words. But that's an unrelated issue that we'll just ignore for now.

So, both -er and -or are agentive suffixes. The -or suffix is only primarily found in words derived from Latin, whereas -er can be put on the end of just about any verb that involves an agent (a 'doer' of the 'action'). But Latin-derived words differ in how strongly they are associated with the -or suffix. Latin-derived verbs that end in -ate, for example, almost always take the -or suffix. So we have dictator, but not a variant *dictater, alternator but not *alternater.

Things are less clear-cut with other Latin-derived verbs. For example, in my job, I advise students and convene courses, and when I spell out those roles, I'm an advisor and a convenor, but when my UK university spells them, I'm often an adviser (which just looks wrong to me) and a convener. (Incidentally, Blogger's allegedly AmE spellchecker likes the -er forms.)

So, is this a dialectal difference, or just personal perceptions? (It's not a pronunciation difference, except in those cases in which one exaggerates the pronunciation in order to give a clue to the spelling.) I've searched for advisor and adviser on a range of university websites from the UK and the US, and here's what I found:

US Universities
adviser advisor
U of Massachusetts (Amherst)10%90%
U of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign)27%73%
Baylor University31%69%

UK Universities

U of Sussex38%62%
U of Manchester36%64%
U of Edinburgh49%51%

So, it's probably not my imagination that the -or form is stronger in the US than the UK, though there's considerable variation within each country. The fact that I started out at the university with the strongest preference for -or might account for my strong preference for it. There's also the question here of whether this distinction can be attributed to regional differences within the countries. We see the strongest -or preference in the US in a northeastern university. Did I get that strong preference because of my university experiences, or had it already been inculcated in me by growing up and learning to spell in the northeast? In the UK, we see the weakest -or preference in a Scottish university. Does that extend to other Scottish universities? I'm not going to spend my Saturday finding out! But you're welcome to!

Before we leave this topic, let's raise the question of whether these spelling differences are meaningful. There's a general principle at work in language (sometimes called the Principle of Contrast) that if there are two different forms, they must have some different significance. This is why it is difficult to find exact synonyms in a language--once you introduce a new word for something, people start to assume that it must give some different information from that given by the old word for that thing (otherwise, why bother to coin or borrow the new word?). The Principle of Contrast (and avoidance of synonymy) is so strong that it can be extended to spelling variations. So, for example, I was once party to an American discussion of grey versus gray (the latter being the more common AmE spelling, but the former being acceptable as well), with people discussing whether grey or gray was a darker colo(u)r. (The discussion began here; search the American Dialect Society archives for 'grey and gray' to get the whole string). Because there are different forms, and because people like to look for differences in meaning and maybe because they have been exposed to one form more in one type of context than another (e.g. grey in clothing catalog(ue)s, but gray in a box of crayons), people often believe that the words have different definitions. This discussion has happened (for about 100 years!) at the OED, too, where there's a note at the 1989 grey/gray entry that reads:
With regard to the question of usage, an inquiry by Dr. Murray in Nov. 1893 elicited a large number of replies, from which it appeared that in Great Britain the form grey is the more frequent in use, notwithstanding the authority of Johnson and later Eng. lexicographers, who have all given the preference to gray. In answer to questions as to their practice, the printers of The Times stated that they always used the form gray; Messrs. Spottiswoode and Messrs. Clowes always used grey; other eminent printing firms had no fixed rule. Many correspondents said that they used the two forms with a difference of meaning or application: the distinction most generally recognized being that grey denotes a more delicate or a lighter tint than gray. Others considered the difference to be that gray is a ‘warmer’ colour, or that it has a mixture of red or brown (cf. also the quot. under 1c below). In the twentieth century, grey has become the established spelling in the U.K., whilst gray is standard in the United States.
So, do advisor and adviser mean different things to you? Or does one just seem misspelt?
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to table

Ooh, I'm cruising through the backlog of requests now. We're in June now, with Simon writing to request treatment of the verb table, an example of a Janus word in BrE and AmE meeting lingo.

In the US, meetings are often held according to Robert's Rules of Order, a popular guide to 'parliamentary procedure'. (We may not have a parliament, but we have the procedures! The Congress has its own set of rules.) In the parlance of Robert's and AmE generally, if a motion has been made and is up for discussion, it is on the floor, as in the following quotation from the Princeton Union Eagle:
After a few minutes, Weisenburger said to Girard, "There's a motion on the floor, it's been seconded. Do something."
If you want to remove the motion from the floor--that is, to postpone discussion of it until a later time, you can put it on the table, or table the motion. (You'd then say that the motion is or has been tabled.) So, a tabled motion is not on the floor--it cannot be debated. Here are some examples from the minutes of the 2002 Annual General Meeting of the International Thunderbird Class Association (which may be international, but they seem to be based in Washington state, and they use table in an AmE way):

There was considerable discussion on the issue of the mast weight. Most had to do with the question of whether the matter could be taken off the table and voted upon at the current AGM. It was concluded that it could not, due to the failure of proper notification of the membership about such an action.

If a member wishes to have this motion taken from the table it would require a majority vote of those at the AGM, assuming proper advance notification - distribution to the fleet captains as part of the agenda two months prior to the meeting date. [...]

Currently, the motion is on the table, sine dei. There is no specific date upon which it is to be brought back before the AGM.

In BrE (where parliamentary procedure--or Standing Orders--seems to differ depending on the type of bill being debated and in which House), a motion that is being discussed is on the table. So, you table a motion when you want to bring it up for debate. You can also table questions (bring them up for discussion), according to the House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business:
Notices of questions shall be given by Members in writing to the Table Office in a form determined by the Speaker. [...] a Member may not table more than five such questions on any one day
Both systems speak of the floor, but it seems to me that there are some differences in its use. This guide to the business of the House of Lords makes the distinction between work done on the floor--i.e. in a House of Lords session, with all members able to examine and discuss the matter at hand, and off the floor--i.e. in committee. In my experience of American government, on the floor would be used in a similar way, but I wouldn't say that work in committee is off the floor, really...I'd limit my use of that phrase to describing more informal behind-the-scenes deal-making (or whatever). Perhaps insiders into either government can give us more insight.

Click on the tag below for more Janus words...including the somewhat related moot.
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fingertip search

I've had a couple of requests (from Dennis in May and Marc in June) for coverage of the BrE phrase fingertip search, and more specifically for the AmE equivalent of the term. It's a term that comes up a lot in the news and in one of the UK's great cultural exports, the murder mystery novel, and thus there are some other available discussions of it on the Internet, for example on Language Log and in this discussion forum for translators.

Let's start with the meaning. Fingertip search (or, more rarely, finger-tip search) is a search carried out by people (rather than technology, like a scanning device) for something that probably needs careful attention in order to be noticed. It is most often used to describe, the goings-on at a crime scene, especially a place where a corpse has been found. This leads to the question, is it a search for fingertips, or a search with the fingertips? The common assumption (in our household, at least!) is that it's the latter. This photo from a 2002 BBC story illustrates the point. It's captioned: 'A fingertip search took place in atrocious weather conditions'.

While/Whilst one mostly finds fingertip search in discussions of crime scene investigations, it's not exclusively used in such contexts. For instance, the Language Log post linked above has an example of a fingertip search for newts and other amphibians, as part of a conservation effort. It does, however, connote an official search. For example, you don't typically hear people saying that they conducted a fingertip search of the bedroom carpet for a lost contact lens, and if you do, it's probably meant to be a little humorous.

Finger(-)tip search
is not to be found in the OED at this point, but we shouldn't conclude too quickly that it's a new term. It's rarely explained in the BrE news contexts in which it is printed, which seems to indicate that the writers feel that they can assume BrE speakers' familiarity with the term. Using Google Book Search, I've found an example in Blackwell's Magazine from 1945.
I remember an age-long fingertip search of a vast sweep of recreation- ground ;
I remember finding a mine balanced weirdly and precariously on its nose
That's as much as I'm allowed to see via Google, but note that even back then, the term is used without explanation--so it must have been a somewhat familiar term by then. It also may not be a crime scene, but the scene of a bombing. (We could consider that a crime scene, I guess.)

As for the question of what the AmE equivalent is, I don't think there is a noun phrase that sums up this meaning in the same way. And there doesn't need to be, since the activity is very describable (e.g. the police searched the scene with a fine-tooth[ed] comb) without a specific noun phrase equivalent. While it's convenient, if you need to talk about something a lot, to have a specific lexicali{s/z}ed expression for a particular concept, there are always other possible ways to describe it too.
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some light verbs

On to the May queries! Only 5 months behind!

Marian wrote back then to ask:
Can you tell me why some people make decisions and others take them?
The reason, of course, is that some people speak some dialects and other people speak other dialects. AmE speakers generally make decisions and BrE speakers can also take decisions.

Make and take in these contexts are light verbs. Light verb is defined by the Lexicon of Linguistics as "thematically incomplete verb which only in combination with a predicative complement qualifies as a predicate". In other languages, this usually means a fairly semantically-empty verb that occurs with another verb in a sort of compound-verb (Japanese and Korean have lots of these). In English, the term usually refers to verbs that add very little to the sentence but occur with nouns (usually) that have been derived from verbs. So, in this example's case, one could decide with a regular old verb, or make/take a decision with a light verb plus a nominali{s/z}ation of the verb decide: decision.

Since the light verb doesn't actually add much to the sentence (other than giving it a verb, which every English sentence needs), it doesn't matter much to the meaning of the sentence that we use different verbs, and light verb patterns often vary among dialects. Here are some other variations (from my own experience and John Algeo's book), but note the numbers next to them, to be explained below...

AmE - not-so-AmE

make a copy (38)take a (carbon) copy (31)
take a vacation (/holiday 219)have a holiday (123)
take a look (1841)have a look at (1607)
take a shower/bath (106/86)have a shower/bath (102/114)
take a nap (41)have a nap (36)
get exercise (15)take exercise (71)
The way to think of these is probably not that the left column is (exclusively) AmE and that the right column is BrE, but that the right column includes items that are more at home in BrE than in AmE, and the left column has items that may be found in BrE as well as AmE. The OED shows us, for example, that Caxton (1490) had make with decision and Dickens (1837) used take with bath.

The numbers in the table indicate the number of hits that I got when I searched the (UK) Guardian website for each of these phrases, and as you can see there are many, if not more, of the left-column phrasings on that UK site. Of course, some of those may be by AmE speakers (in quotations) or writers. Some may be from American wire stories, etc. But it's at least good evidence that the AmE versions are not as unfamiliar or 'foreign' sounding in BrE as the right-column versions are likely to be in AmE (from my own and Marian's judg(e)ment, at least).

In fact, I just gave London-born-and-bred Better Half the following fill-in-the-verb quiz:
  1. I need to _____ a copy of that.
  2. I need to _____ a holiday.
  3. You should ____ a look at that document.
  4. You need to ____ a shower!
  5. I want to _____ a nap.
  6. I really should _____ some exercise.
He answered out of the AmE column above for everything but number 6. A fault of the experiment is that he may have been primed to say take for 3-5 after saying take for 2. But mix up the sentences and try them on your better half, friend, child or passers-by and see what they say!
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special(i)ty, newspaper editing jargon and dogpile

As the title reveals, this post is a (AmE) hodgepodge/(BrE) hotchpotch of unrelated topics, which will serve the purpose of (a) finishing up the queries from April, and (b) writing a quick entry in a really busy week. (It's both Lynneukah [the joyous festival of Lynne] and week 1 of the university term. One of those is more entertaining than the other.)

Terry wrote back in April, pointing out that I'd failed (as I'm sure I often do) to mark a BrE/AmE difference that I'd used in passing: (AmE) specialty versus (BrE) speciality. There's not much more to say about that, except that in BrE specialty is used in the field of medicine, at least according to the Oxford Dictionary of English.

But in the ensuing correspondence, Terry called my attention to quite a bit of newspaper editing jargon that differs between the US and the UK. Terry is a (BrE) sub-editor/(AmE) copy editor, and the differences do not stop at the job title. Here are the ones he listed--and as far as I can tell, the American versions come first in this list:
... there's a surprising amount of difference in terminology between US papers and Brtitish ones: "slot" and "rim" (from where people sit at the horseshoe-shaped copy desk) versus "chief sub" and "down-table sub" for example, indicating American and British newspapers used differently shaped tables; "hed" versus "headline" and "lede" versus "intro" (ie opening sentence - a "lead" (pronounced [in the same way as] "lede") in BrE journalism, would mean the whole main story on a page, not just its intro); "cutline" for "caption", "graf" instead of "par" for paragraph, "refer" for "cross-ref", the line at the foot of a story that cross-refers to another story elsewhere in the paper, "slug" for "catchline", the short name given to a story for tracking purposes; "soft strip" for "strapline", a long subsidiary headline.
Terry's the expert (compared to me, at least!), so I'll leave it at that. I should add that of course headline is an AmE word too--it's what most people would call a headline. His inclusion of hed here should be taken only as jargon use, not as general AmE. Similarly, as a layperson speaking AmE, I'd refer to captions, not cutlines, so again this is about the jargon that copy/sub-editors use, not what newspaper readers use. Are there other copy/sub-editors reading who'd like to add anything else?

Finally, Terry made the following request:
If you ever do a(nother) piece on words common in the US that not one in a thousand Britons would understand, can I nominate dogpile? I never heard the word until coming across the search engine of the same name, and it was another five or six years before I learnt what a dogpile was - BrE scrum - and realised why the search engine designers had given it that name, because it piles results from other search engines up together ...
As you can see, I'm relying on Terry to write the bit on dogpile. The thing is...I don't know how many AmE speakers know the word either. I certainly had never heard it before I came across the search engine. Perhaps it's something that all (American) football fans know (I exclude myself from that category), but I've never heard it used in my Buffalo Bills-loving family. The OED added an entry on it earlier this year:

1. A disordered mass or heap of people, formed around an individual on whom others jump. Also fig. Cf. PIG PILE n.

1921 Nebraska State Jrnl. 19 Nov. 3/1 Purdy tucked the pigskin under his elbow and cantered over a dog-pile for a tally. 1948 Los Angeles Times 21 Nov. I. 20/2 The bottom man of a ‘dog pile’ in a fraternity house scuffle is in a hospital with a neck dislocation. 1993 Toronto Star (Nexis) 25 July E1 The AL West is a dog-pile similar to the AL East. Several teams can win. 2003 A. SWOFFORD Jarhead 20 The half-speed fight degenerates into a laughter-filled dog-pile... This is fun, plain mindless fun.
It's not clear to me that scrum is used in the same extended ways as dog-pile. The OED's second sense for scrum is: 'A confused, noisy throng (at a social function or the like)', which could involve a lot of standing people:
1976 Eastern Daily Press (Norwich) 19 Nov. 1/4 Cindy, as the new Miss World likes to be called, was surrounded by the traditional scrum of over 100 press photographers.

Thus I believe (though I'm not a rugby person either) that scrums are more 'vertical' than dog-piles. Here's a picture of a scrum from the MIT women's rugby site:

And here's a picture of a dog-pile (full of baseball players, not football players!) from the Santa Barbara Independent:

Scrums seem to have people on their feet more often than dog-piles do.

According to About Football Glossary, another (presumably less slangy) term for dog-pile is piling on, and it's a punishable offen{c/s}e in the game.

Finally, one has to question the wisdom of naming a search engine Dogpile, since the second (AmE) meaning for dog-pile is given in the OED as: 'A piece of dog excrement.' So, you can go with the metaphor of the search engine piling on results from other search engines, or you can substitute the metaphor that the Internet is full of this stuff.

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