named after/for and miscellaneous verbs

Finally dipping into my inbox to respond to one of the many requests that have filled it.  English reader DBT wrote a while ago to ask:
I have always said that a person or a place is 'named after' someone or something else. Boston Mass is 'named after' Boston in Lincolnshire. Just in the last years or so, particularly in written material, I've suddenly started encountering 'named for' in stead, such as 'Boston Mass is named for Boston in Lincolnshire. This sounds to my ears both odd and counterintuitive. Is it a dialectical difference or an age one, or is it simply a mark  of poor grammar?
It's a dialectal difference.  John Algeo's British or American English reports that in the Cambridge International Corpus BrE texts have 6.5 times as many afters as fors and AmE texts have 1.3 times as many fors as afters.  This goes along with my experience that both named after and named for are fine in AmE, but that named for is not used much in BrE. 

DBT's email continues:
I do not know whether people who say 'named for his father' would also say 'called for his father' meaning 'called after' rather than 'came to the door to collect him'.
I can't speak for all AmE speakers, but I would not say either called after or called for to mean 'called the same thing as'.  I'd use the verb name in this instance, or, if the name is a nickname, then might say called the same thing as or some such circumlocution.  It's also worth noting here that collecting a person has a distinctly BrE ring to it.  An American would more normally pick up someone (if said American taking said someone somewhere) or just come to get someone. Call in senses meaning 'come to, visit' is also less often used in AmE (where it sounds rather old-fashioned to me) than in BrE.  Algeo's book notes call into, as in Call into your local Post Office branch, as BrE.  Meanwhile, BrE doesn't use call as much with reference to telephones.  Americans call their mothers (on the phone), the British ring their mothers.  I'm sure neither do it as often as the mothers would like.

And as long as I've mentioned pick up...  Oh, how hilarious it is when BrE speakers express their amazement at Americans' feat of strength when they have picked up the house before guests arrive.  (That, my dear friends, is an instance of American sarcasm.)  Americans in Britain, learn fast: it's called tidying here.  That verb is not absent from AmE, but it somehow sounds too fussy.  So, we pick up or clean, but we almost never tidy.


  1. Lynne, are you saying that Americans sometimes use 'clean' to mean 'tidy'? As a British speaker, I see those as two distinct activities. Cleaning involves getting out the hoover/vacuum cleaner, or at least a duster, and maybe squirting something into the toilet (yes, I am a bad housekeeper). Tidying just involves putting stuff in cupboards or in neater piles on the desk (or in neater piles on the floor, see above re. my housekeeping standards), and so on.

  2. I'd say we (or at least my folks) sometimes do when speaking casually, but that usually we'd make the distinction between 'picking up' and 'cleaning'. But, if I said that I'd cleaned the house before guests came, I'd be including picking up/tidying under that umbrella term.

  3. Absolutely (at least some) Americans use "clean up" to mean tidy (verb). Cleaning the house could mean vacuuming and scrubbing as well as simply straightening things out, but "cleaning up" the house is the same as "picking up" or I suppose BrE "tidying". As a native AmE speaker, I vouch for my anecdotal evidence.

  4. @Ros: I think "clean up" would be better for "clean" in the sense Lynne gives. For me "to clean up" = "to tidy": no dangerous chemicals involved, just painful bending, lifting, and sorting. Maybe a quick vacuum, too.

  5. I see Lynne is sticking to her guns. That's OK. I do see a difference between "cleaning the house" and "cleaning up the house".

  6. @Marc, I'm not sticking to my guns. You and Lauren are right. I'd had 'up' there, and then took it out in a moment of tin-earedness.

  7. On the question of "collecting" people, I would point out the Subaru funder (which is sort of like an advertisement except that public broadcasting can't have advertising so they have to call it something different) that runs on the US version of "Antiques Roadshow" has the tag line "for people who love to collect, and collect what they love" (where the clear implication from the video is that "collect what they love" means "bring the kids home from soccer practice"). "AR" runs about six times a week here, so that particular ad^Wunderwriting announcement is aired quite a lot. (One station also carries five-year-old episodes of the BBC original -- although they have to run two of them back-to-back since they run in an hour time slot.)

  8. In my AmE, I recognise "pick up" meaning to put things into their places, but what I have said all my life is "straighten up".

    "I'll straighten up the living room tonight, and then tomorrow we can start in on the cleaning." (meaning that tonight I'm putting things away that are out of place, and tomorrow activities like dusting, wiping, sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming will happen)

  9. Oh, and the quintessential AmE use of "clean" where BrE uses "tidy" is "The kids have to clean their rooms every Saturday or they don't get their allowance", or even more quintessentially, from parent to child: "Get in there and clean your room right now!"

  10. I recently read 'Making History' by Stephen Fry, in which there's a lot of stuff about British/American differences. This pointed out the fact that apparently 'named for' is American. I'm British and that made me realise that I usually only ever hear 'named for' on American TV programmes (and it also happens to be in the British version of the last Harry Potter book). But after having heard it quite a lot, it still seems weird to me!

  11. I think I would go further and say "collect" for "pick up" may be more English than British. IN Scotland there is also "uplift" for collecting goods or rubbish, though not people.

    I like AmE "swing by". "Call (into/by)" meaning visit are now pretty old-fashioned in British English. I reckon most people below a certain age wouldn't never imagine that "John called" meant he (BrE?)came round in person.

    For some reason the British phone companies seem to prefer American telephone terms: the line is "busy" rather than engaged, and I'm pretty sure they say call rather ring or phone. Is it my imagination or is "ring" just beginning to be slightly dated as well? For calling a number, it used to be "dial" ("if you see an accident, dial 999") but I bet most people would now "call" 999 to summon the emergency services.

    If there hasn't already been one, perhaps there might be scope for a posting on telephone language? An obvious newish one is BrE "mobile (phone)" for AmE "cell(phone)", but what about speed dial? The semi-figurative use, to have so-and-so "on speed dial", meaning to use their servies often, has entered BrE I think. Does he like fast food? He has Pizza Hut on speed dial! What about 1471 (now a commonly used verb), what's that called in America?

  12. Thanks, Harry, but can you use the email address for requesting new topics? Those requested here don't make it into my filing system, and they risk putting the discussion here rather than somewhere searchable.

  13. @lynneguist Sorry, it was really just a thought that cropped up in the discussion of the use of "to call" and got slightly out of hand. Point taken.

    My editing was as bad as ever: I can't believe I ended up posting "wouldn't never imagine"!

  14. Alistair Cooke said that using "called" rather than "named" was regarded by Americans as a shibbolethic Briticism. My understanding is that, for Americans "A boy named Sue" is unmarked, while "a man called Horse" is marked, suggesting that "Horse" is not his real name; whereas in British English, the two are interchangeable, with "named" being somewhat more formal.

    If this is so, then I imagine no American would say "he is called John for his uncle" where Brits could well say "he is called John after his uncle".

  15. My mother was always "picking up after" us. It was not a vacuous idiom for me, whatever about her; it created the image of her stooping to gather the debris we wantonly scattered in our wakes.

  16. I (franco-anglophone Louisianian) would never say "pick up", but rather "tidy" or perhaps, when things are merely disordered due to a task, "put things away". The vacuum and dusting would likely be involved as well -- it's only when the mop or any form of water-based cleansers comes into play that one would say "cleaning".

    Due to television, I can see someone asking one to "pick up one's things" (although I recall hearing the phrase "straighten up" more often), but to "pick up" something to me still implies a request from one's mother when one goes to the market to "make groceries" (shop).

  17. AmE also say Straighten up instead of pick up or tidying (I have never used Tidying before) My Mom used to tell me to straighten my room.

  18. Ah -- how about "redd up?" This is an expression used in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and only there in the U.S., as far as I know. It is said to have been brought to the area by its myriad Scots immigrants. It means "tidy." If I redd up a room before guests arrive, I do a 90-degree clean-up: papers in their stacks, cushions upright on the sofa (couch), chairs tilted just so, *stuff* put away or thrown away.

  19. Like Mollymooly I have memories of my mother complaining that she was always picking up after me and/or my father.

    Actually, those memories may not be accurate. The phrase was so commonly used by so many women that I may have just imagined that my mother said the same.

    As Mollymooly said, it wasn't a vacuous idiom. I would say that it wasn't an idiom at all. It meant literally picking up things that had been discarded. If ever the phrase was used to imply more general tidying, it was simple a matter of referring to the most obvious action involved in tidying.

    Picking up in this sense often lacks an explicit object, but it's perfectly possible to say I'm always picking up clothes and stuff after you.

    (The only constraint is that the sound of the object phrase must be 'heavy' i.e. long and/or stressed.)

    Whether explicit or 'understood' the object in BrE must be the untidily abandoned things, never as in AmE the untidy place where they were left.

    I looked up pick in the COBUILD Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs. I was surprised at the number of two-word and three-word verbs listed. As far as I can see, none of them are transitive with objects that are not literally or metaphorically picked — selected or removed or prodded. The AmE idiom with the house as a beneficiary does seem to be a real anomaly.

    An afterthought...
    Picking up after people isn't really the same as tidying or cleaning. Not in the context of making a place presentable, that is. The latter is a completed act with a desired result. The former is a Sisyphean never-completed activity which makes the house or flat less untidy for the moment, but not actually and definitively presentable.

  20. I would not say either called after or called for to mean 'called the same thing as'. I'd use the verb name in this instance

    I'd say there a difference in every instance between name and call meaning 'assign/use a name'.

    We can ask When will he/she/it be named? but When will he/she/it be called? means something quite different.

    The verb call in the naming sense demands to be collocated with an actual name or an expression referring to a name. Thus

    I've been called many things, but never a 'dude'.

    He was called Jim after his father.

  21. In my part of Scotland we'd say "tidy" meaning putting things away properly. We'd say "clean" to actually remove dirt, e,g, hoovering (not vacuuming!), dusting, scrubbing etc. We'd also use "clean up" for a specific cleaning job, such as a spillage or a single item. E.g. I'd clean up spilt milk, or clean up an old bike to sell. But I'd "clear up" broken glass or anything else that was being binned.

    On the naming front, we'd say called rather than named, but an older form still occasionally used is "cry". It sounds weird to hear some one say, "He's cried John, efter his faither", but it's still around.

  22. BrE (Scot, 60+, originally South Ayrshire). Like the previous commenter, I would us d “cried” instead of called or named. I would also use “redd up” for tidy up, as they do in Pittsburgh. But I’ve been in the Deep South (of England) for 40+ years, so I can’t swear to the currency of the terms. Incidentally, I would always use “tidy up”, never just “tidy”. When I was growing up, I could “ask after” somebody, meaning to enquire about the health and well-being if an absent third party.

  23. In my part of NY State, we have a strange expression for "picking up" someone for a car ride (e.g. I'll pick you up to go to the doctor). They say, "I'll ride you to the doctor" meaning they will give them a ride. My family never used it but my husband still uses it (although it is not as common anymore).


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