seaside diversions

While it's still seasonal, I should mention a couple of differences that have come up in Grover's first summer of proper playing on the beach.

First there are these things:
[photo and instructions for building it from]

In my AmE dialect, this is called a pinwheel, but in BrE it's called a windmill (because it looks like a 'real' windmill). It may also be called a windmill by Americans as well. Pinwheel in AmE is also extended to other things that resemble including the pinwheel quilt pattern and pinwheel cookies (which resemble the motion more than the thing).

And then there are these things:

[from Open Clip Art Library]

In BrE, this is a bucket and spade. Now, whenever my in-laws discuss these, they put them in that order (bucket and spade), and so I was going to say that this phrase is an irreversible binomial (something we've discussed before) but via Google, I actually find more spade and buckets [see the first comment for vindication of my intuition/experience]. The AmE equivalent (in my dialect, at least) is shovel and pail, which I would put in that order, but for which there are many times more examples of the other order, pail and shovel, online. So, don't listen to me about word orders--apparently I don't know.


  1. "spade and bucket" sounds just as odd as "chips and fish" to me and I find far more "bucket and spade"s using Google than "spade and bucket"s, so I think it is actually one of those "irreversible binomial " things.

    Here's the numbers I get: (bucket and spade, ~70,000) (spade and bucket, ~2400)

    UK sites only: (bucket and spade, ~25,000) (spade and bucket, ~110)

  2. Thanks for that, N. Google must've been having a hiccup when I tried, because the numbers were very different! Will put a note in the entry to lead people to this comment!

  3. an American raised in Arizona and currently living in California, 'pail' sounds odd. I've read it in books, but what I and others around me say is "bucket and shovel".

  4. Good point. Have put a 'my dialect' caveat in the post!

  5. So do you use spade in AmE for any tool? Because I (Oz/NZ) have both spades and shovels in my shed.

    For me, shovels have long handles, and (usually) have a curved blade.

    Spades are short handled, with some sort of end piece on the handle (a cross bar or D shaped grip, usually) and usually have a flatter blade with a straight bottom edge.

    And we don't use pail at all, so that would be a bucket and spade for me, as well.

  6. And do you "call a spade a spade", or do you "call a shovel a shovel"?

  7. I'm in Australia, and I would say either "bucket and spade" or "bucket and shovel", though "bucket" is always first. The Cat Empire song "The Wine Song" has the lyrics "grab your bucket, grab your spade", so even there it's in that order!

  8. In BrE, I think, a spade is a tool shaped for digging, whereas a shovel is shaped for ... shovelling. (Perhaps it depends how much of your beaches are above high water mark. There the sand may lie about in shovelable heaps, perhaps, while in the firm wet sand you have to dig.)

  9. You forgot the most important difference, Lynne. In Ameria, people go to the beach to sunbathe and swim in the sea. In Britain, they go to the beach to shiver and stand on the shoreline looking warily at the sea.

  10. I'll agree with Stephen and Picky. The implement in the picture would be a spade, because its purpose is digging.

    And as it is a small blue spade, its more specific purpose is digging holes to Australia.

  11. In my UK experience, for adult implements, a spade is flat and is for digging, whilst a shovel usually has a slightly larger blade and the blade has curved sides and top end to allow it to hold more when shovelling. Both have long handles.

    Bucket and spade is a phrase that only applies to the children's set used at a beach. I haven't heard bucket and shovel, nor spade and bucket.

  12. What? No picture of a windbreak?

  13. And that dry sand you find, ready for shovelling, above the high water mark is useless for building sandcastles. Moreover you need to be down on the wet sand with a spade if you are to build something with a moat round it which can be flooded when the sea comes in.

  14. OED dates "windmill" in this sense from 1557, and suggests the "paper windmill toy" sense of pinwheel is an extension of the "small Catherine wheel firework" sense -- which I have heard of -- and dates from 1869. So it's not one of the US-is-actually-older instances our hostess enjoys lecturing us with.

  15. As others have said, to my BrEng eyes that's definitely a bucket and spade. The only context I can ever think of using pail is in the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

    Two thoughts on the spade / shovel distinction.

    Firstly the phrase 'call a spade a spade' i.e. speak bluntly has the variation refering to Yorkshire where we 'call a spade a bloody shovel'.

    Secondly while I recognise the idea of a shovel being a long-handled tool for moving e.g. coal, the thing I actually own that I'd call a shovel is a short-handled tool for use when sweeping the path. Same idea as a dustpan and brush, but I'd expect a dustpan to be for indoor use only and nowadays made of plastic whereas the shovel is for outdoors has a metal pan.

  16. As an American, I concur with the distinction others have made between spades and shovels: they are only marginally interchangeable. You can dig with a shovel if you have to, but if you try to move material with a spade, you are very likely to drop the material on the ground, because the spade is too flat.

    When digging serious holes, I use both: a spade to break up the compacted soil and dig out the inevitable rocks (it's AmE to use "rock" in this sense, I think?), and a shovel to bring the loose soil out.

    Unfortunately, the picture shows the implement's business end buried in the sand, so there's no way to tell for sure if it's a shovel or a spade. When my daughter had one, it was a shovel, though.

    As for Google hit counts, the algorithm used is simple-minded and easy to fool; tiny variations can make all the difference, as can the dynamic state of the Google network at the moment you ask. It was never intended as anything but a rough indication.

  17. On to call a spade a spade: this saying goes back to Greek times, but in Greek it was to call a trough a trough. The humanist Desiderius Erasmus mistranslated the word, however, and it got into the modern European languages as spade instead. Americans often avoid the expression, under the mistaken impression that the spade in question is the obsolescent insulting term for African Americans (itself probably from the idiom black as the ace of spades, now also avoided).

  18. For me (AmE), it was "pail and shovel" in production, though hearing "shovel and pail" wouldn't have startled me. That's probably because the two weren't very closely tied in my mind: We used pails (less frequently called buckets) independently of shovels all the time, for collecting berries, putting out campfires, etc. Conversely, we used shovels without pails more often than not (for snow removal, in particular). So the beach toys were a set merely by coincidence of the needs of the moment, not by intrinsic functional relationship, and the terms were no more irreversible than "sand and surf". I imagine everyone has a production bias for many such combinations, but not always a pseudo-grammatical or semantic one.

    I never practiced gardening, but to me "spade" denotes a small, one-handed tool used in the garden. Anything else used for digging or moving heaps is a "shovel", and (except for the miniature toy version) requires two hands.

  19. Trying out the various combinations in my head, I can't identify which is most natural for me. I may be overthinking this though. The only thing I can say with certainty is that I'd call it a bucket not a pail.

    However I have a can of worms to open: various names for different kinds of swimwear. That's always a fun discussion. So what do bathers, swimmers, trunks, broadshorts, etc. mean to you?

  20. Definitely bucket and spade! In fact, I believe the term bucket-and-spade holidays is sometimes used in BrE to describe a seaside holiday, no?

    In my own seaside-holiday days, many years ago now, the spade's blades were made out of cheap tin, and one invariably cut one's toes on them, which stung. Not allowed nowadays....

    Yes, a shovel is a quite different implement; I think of them as coming with a short handle, but that's probably because the only ones I know do. My parents keep one by the back door for removing dog messes from the lawn. It is invariably and inevitably known as the dog-sh**-shovel.

  21. @Rick - the small one-handed digging implement is a trowel.

    I did read a book by an American who now gardens in England (I'm sorry I can't remember either the title or the author's name) who explained that American shovels were more of a hybrid between an English shovel and a spade, and therefore more of an all purpose tool, so it's more than just a linguistic difference

  22. In British English a pinwheel is a firework, as others have said.

    Now, don't tell me you haven't bought any seaside rock?

  23. AmE:

    Agree on pinwheel. I'd understand windmill from context, I suspect, but would not produce it with regard to the toy.

    Pail or bucket: Nearly free variation for me. I don't know which I would produce spontaneously.

    And shovel for the tool.

  24. As an American, I grew up using the term shovel as a broad term for any kind of tool used to move material around or dig a hole, excepting pitchforks and hoes and obvious non-shovel implements, of course.

    A spade, also referred to as a spaded shovel where I'm from, is just one particular type of shovel to me, curved and shaped like the spade on a deck of cards.

  25. CdnE:

    I would definitely call the pair a "pail and shovel", in that order, and the other toy a "pinwheel". When I was young, there was an thumbtack holding the vanes to the stick, but nowadays, the commercially available ones are all plastic, with no sharp parts at all.

  26. @Christopher

    Swimwear - that's a strange one for me, because I moved around a lot and there's regional differences in different parts of Australia, let alone NZ and other places I've been. And I'm not sure where I picked this up.

    My fiancée calls her one-piece bathers, or a swimsuit. However, one of her friends calls the same thing a cossie (cozzie?)

    To me, the general term is togs, unless they're board-shorts, or a bikini, which are specified as such.

    However, other terms in use around here include swimmers, bathers and of course (less common now) budgie smugglers, though that applies only to one particular style.

  27. The windmill/pinwheel is also a whirligig. (See extensive article on Wikipedia, with references.)

  28. I'm an American babysitter who spent a lot of time at beaches (of lakes, not oceans!) this summer. Collectively, we called the buckets and pails and shovels and spades and castle molds and so on the "beach toys." Which solves the problem.

    And although "shovel and pail" sounds more native to me than "bucket and spade," we call the pails "buckets." Weird, huh?

  29. In the northern US, we tend to think of shovels as implements for moving snow. The blades are wide and straight. I agree with mamunipsaq that I'd use spade for something with a pointed end--just because of the similarity with the card suit.

    To me, a whirligig has two blades, not four. But Google Images shows lots of cases of the term used to mean 'pinwheel/windmill'.

    I'm wondering whether my current preference for 'shovel and pail' rather than 'pail and shovel' is influenced by the syllable pattern in 'bucket and spade'.

    I'm not getting into the swimwear discussion as that's too much for a comments section!

    1. I did wonder whether two-syllables + and + one-syllable is more euphonic, possibly sounding more like an indivisible unit, than the reverse. A quickly spoken dactyl + a single stressed syllable: DUM-da-da-DUM, versus a slowly spoken anapest + a single unstressed syllable: daa daa DUM da.

      Some 'irreversible bimomial' (for me) examples involving food: apples and pears, bacon and eggs, sausage and mash, curry and rice, sugar and spice, peaches and cream: all these roll off my tongue more easily than salt and pepper, bread and butter, egg and soldiers. Outside food: pepper-and-salt (hair), Flanders and Swann, nickel-and-dime, Rodgers and Hart, middle and leg (cricket), shampoo and set, rhythm and blues, Calvin and Hobbes, Morecambe and Wise, rabbit and pork (rhyming slang: talk), heaven and earth, mother and child, open-and-shut, trouble and strife. But also noughts and crosses, up-and-coming, hugs and kisses, ball-and-socket, bits and pieces, rough and ready, time and motion, bed and breakfast, belt and braces, cash and carry, free and easy, death and taxes, Marks and Spencer, Queen and country. And of course there are more of both types.

      So possibly a small role for euphony in creating units; but if there is, I haven't supplied the evidence.

  30. Lynneguist: I'm wondering whether my current preference for 'shovel and pail' rather than 'pail and shovel' is influenced by the syllable pattern in 'bucket and spade'.

    Did you notice that in that order, the vowels are almost identical too (at least in AmE)? Interesting coincidence!

  31. On Blue's Clues the characters "Shovel and Pail" are always referred to that way, never as "Pail and Shovel".

    Which is interesting, because I'd never use the word pail even for the sand toy, I'd *always* call it a bucket or (to differentiate) a sand bucket. I wonder if that's typical of NYC, come to think....

  32. Pail seems a rather archaic, literary word in UK English. Perhaps it comes up more in regional dialect.

  33. If you buy a spade or a shovel at a hardware or garden shop in the UK, they will each have a straight end to the blade (and can be fairly sharp!). I was going to remark that I have never seen a blade shaped like the card suit, but perhaps builders use them when making concrete, or mortar on a board? Building sites seem to be less open to view nowadays... Another UK-US distinction is that British spades and shovels almost universally have a cross-piece or a D-shaped handle at the top, while US implements often have a straight shaft only.

    And I have heard 'whirlygig' used for a rotary clothesline - I guess the word covers anything that goes round in the wind.

  34. I'm with biochemist on 'whirligig'. Housewives' term for a rotary clothesline.

    Can we have a new topic for swimwear please Lynneguist? I'm quite intrigued.

    Re: Bucket and Spade, there was a series of English children's books so called based around some sort of seaside establishment (I think it was a village shop/general store) about fifteen-twenty years ago/. Not entirely rleevant, but they may have been a contributary factor in the binominality of the phrase amongst twenty-something BrE speakers. Or, of course, not, as the case may indeed be.

  35. Yes please - something on swimwear. I've only recently (BrE) been exposed to budgie smugglers and am still chortling.

  36. I'm from Minnesota (Upper Midwest American English dialect). I would call the first toy a "pinwheel." I would call the second set a "sandbucket and shovel." For me, a shovel and a spade are pretty much interchangeable, but I prefer "shovel" for some reason. Also, in my dialect, a container that shape made of plastic is definitely a "bucket", but made out of metal it is a "pail." A toy bucket like that is a "sandbucket," just to emphasize that it is a toy, I think.

  37. I just showed my (Minnesotan) roommate the sea-toy image, and she also said it was a "sandbucket and shovel." She also said a difference between buckets and pails is that pails have to have a handle, and buckets do not. The container in the image has no handle, so it "can't be a pail."

  38. ok my last post on the subject- when I googled "sand bucket," I found an advertisement for a "tin pail sand bucket." "Sand bucket" tells us what it is, but we can't call it a bucket because it is made of metal!

  39. Growing up on the U.S. West Coast, we always referred to any digging implement with a two-handed handle as a "shovel" - spade seems arcane to my ears, and there's the previously-noted added sensitivity around its usage being inadvertantly perceived as a racist slur. And we never used the term "pail" except in reciting the Jack & Jill rhyme. So it was buckets and shovels all around, as it were.

    And note to Ginger Yellow: The beach experience in northern California and up through the Pacific Northwest is much more akin to the British experience you cite. The water temperature averages 10 degrees Celsius / 50 degrees Farenheit, so swimming (at least without benefit of a wetsuit) is generally left to the macho and the inebriated.

  40. A long time ago when I was a teenager and gaining an interest in philology (yep! I was *that* geeky, but still managed to go out with girls!) I read a book which explained isoglosses. One example used was the 'pail/bucket' term isogloss running across the island of Britain, north and west of which they tended to find 'pail' as the preferred term (if I remember correctly). [Lynne - perhaps you might know what the book might have been? Could it have been Bodmer/Hogben?]

    Obviously the research that established this isoglottic line must have been done some years before, perhaps in the 1920s, and BrE has moved on since then: I'm guessing that 'bucket' has won the day in Britain.

  41. Just as a note on the racist use of spade (comes from the black of the card suit) - a friend of mine owned a pub in the south of England, decorated with many old ale making implements and memorabilia, including a malt shovel with quite a pointed end which was slung from the ceiling. The building was an old one, hence the ceiling was pretty low, with beams. A very tall coloured gentleman entered the bar and without thinking, the landlord yelled "Mind the spade!" Fortunately the gentleman had a sense of humour and was happy to join in the laughter of the rest of the patrons, as my friend was still sputtering that he was talking about the pointy shovel. I also regard a spade as a flat bladed cutting and digging implement, whereas a shovel is more likely to have a curved blade or curved edges to the blade, to be used for moving stuff.

  42. for what's it worth, to my, (mostly* AmE ears) a pail could be defined as a "small(ish) plastic bucket"
    *=I say mostly because I grew up code switching between American English & Modern Hawaiian Pidgin English.

    PS Ginger Yellow's comment made me laugh.

  43. after thinking it over, I can think of examples of metal pails (ie a milking pail for milking cows), so ignore the plastic bit in my previous comment.

  44. "Bucket and spade" goes back at least to my childhood in the 1950s.

    Someone mentioned "Jack and Jill", but the nursery rhyme that had come to my mind was
    Simple Simon went a-fishing
    For to catch a whale,
    But all the water he could get
    Was in his mother's pail.

    I would normally call the item a bucket, but the word "pail" is perfectly familiar to me.

    Kate (Derby, UK)

  45. As a child in NW England I encountered the word "pail", sometimes in the context of "pail and spade", in books passed on to me by grandparents who had acquired them before WW2 probably from being "in service". When I asked, my parents suggested that the word was used in the south, although I didn't really have much idea of "south" until we moved there when I was 11. Before that I think I believed that going anywhere beyond Chester Zoo would result in falling off the edge.

    Having moved south I never did hear the word pail used, although I got a nasty shock, and the most brutal of elocution lessons form my new contemporaries (it was considered scintillating to get me to say "potato puffs"). I suppose "pail" is a world that just dropped out of BrE usage.

  46. I'm interested in the position of "the beach" as a concept in US culture. It seems to me that the US has very much less shoreline relative to population than Britain has, with a significant chunk of its population a very long way from a beach, so it celebrates beach culture more. Is this so?

    In Britain, most people are within a couple of hours of a beach, so we become blasé about it, and in our usual way make self-deprecating jokes about it: the cold, the rain, the deckchairs and knotted handkerchieves on pink and peeling heads (I'm looking at you, Ginger Yellow!). As it happens I'm a ten-minute cycle ride from my local beach and I love it in all its moods but I especially love it on a warm summer evening when I can go and swim from somewhere along the 15 km of gently-shelving sand with nobody else in sight until gone 11 pm. But hey, I'm weird, you wouldn't like it at all, don't come and spoil it please!

  47. I don't know that it's the location of the beaches that make people blasé about them. I think it's the weather at said beaches. :)

    In the US, don't forget to count the lakes. I didn't grow up near the ocean, but I did go to sandy beaches on the Great Lakes and even in the Finger Lakes (though those tended to be more woodsy shorelines in most places).

  48. Ha! Somewhere (but I'm too tired to look for it (AmE, one of many picked up from my ex) right now I have a photo I took of the lake at Inlet, NY with the lifesaver's chair rising from deep snow with a sign saying "No Swimming when life guard not on duty" (or words to that effect). It was -30°C that day I think, probably the lowest temperature I've ever been exposed to. It was, I admit, a beautiful, still, clear day.

  49. 'The beach' is (or was) a space for 'the family' — a unit comprising adults and pre-adolescent children. Teenagers may still enjoy parts of the wider space that is 'the seaside'.

  50. Massachusetts age 25-

    In my idiolect I'm comfortable with any of the 8 combinations for sand castle equipment. As someone else mentioned, I consider them separate items and not a set. Pail or spade are perhaps a slightly more formal or arched register. Oddly though if you use one to fill the other with sand, it becomes a "bucket of sand", but while it's empty I'm content to call it a pail.

  51. BrE (Scot, 60+). As a kid in Scotland, it was always pail and spade, and always in that order. And like Mrs Redboots, mine were made of painted tin, although the spade had a wooden handle. I can still buy brightly coloured tin pails with plants in them. I have no idea what my nieces/nephews and their king do call these toys.

    Re black as the ace of spades. My mum’s take on this was “black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat”.


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