UK-to-US Word of the Year: bum

This is part 2 of my 2013 WotY posts, the UK-to-US part. Part 1 is here.

I get a bit embarrassed when I tell journalists about the UK-to-US Words of the Year, as there are too many "naughty" ones (2012: bollocks, 2006: wanker). 2013's is considerably milder, but still in the tee-hee range, if not the nudge-nudge, wink-wink range.

So the 2013 UK-to-US Word of the Year is:


This is certainly not new to Americans. Mike Myers was saying it a lot on Saturday Night Live in his 'Simon' sketches in the early 90s:


And it was noted as a "Not One-Off Britishism" in Ben Yagoda's blog in 2011. There he shows this Google n-gram showing a steady increase of bums in American books in the 20th century (his bum, her bum and my bum are the search terms).

Ben's blog and the media attention to Briticisms in American English
this past summer give plenty of indication that lots of BrE words are making their way into America these days. But for Word of the Year, I try to find something that had some particular impact in that year, and all I could think of was being faced with this media campaign when I visited the US this summer:

This is television presenter (mostly on BBC Three "lifestyle documentaries") Cherry Healey (BrE informal) flogging Cottonelle "bum wipes". Cottonelle is the American version of Andrex, both made by US-based Kimberly-Clark and advertised with the same puppies:

But now Cottonelle is using a pretty British lady to try to convince Americans in airports that the British are all using a two-stage bum-cleaning routine that is far superior to the "dry treatment".

Since flushable wipes were available in the US when I last lived there 14 years ago, I'm not sure why the airport-Americans find this to be a new and exciting product (ok, I probably do know: they want to be on television). They may be more popular in the UK (sales up 15% this year), but they are implicated in serious sewer problems, as has been discovered in the US too.  Perhaps the UK Word-of-the-Year should have been fatberg, since one the size of a bus was found under London this summer. The UK dictionaries' Words of the Year went for less nauseating choices (Collins went for originally-British-dialectal-but-lately-mostly-AmE geek and Oxford for seemingly-Australian selfie.)

But anyhow, with all too much #letstalkbums on social media this year, I'm going with bum and hoping for a less toilet-related WotY next year.


  1. The TiVo system includes "native" advertising integrated into the user interface. For the past few days, mine has been advertising (on the main menu, no less) "Charmin tailgating potties". I wonder what BrE speakers would make of that.

  2. A hint at how rude the word bum is — and how serious — is captured by Michael Flanders and Donal Swan in the song which begins

    Ma's out Pa's out, lets talk rude

    YouTube has only this version adapted for American audiences. The published version with British references can be seen here.

  3. BBC America may be to blame. People at work here in DC use "bum" when just a few years ago they would have said "butt."

  4. I've always used "bum" on and off. I'm pretty sure I used it as a child, and I still do use it with kids when I don't want to be more crass and use "butt." Kids say "butt" enough as it is. "Bum" just seems like a softer word to me.

  5. Do American theatrical folk speak of getting bums on seats meaning 'attracting a sizeable audience'?

    This is sometimes extended to the problem that churches have in getting bums on pews.

  6. I'm not sure from your mention of Mike Myers whether you are implying he is an American who uses the word bum. He is in fact Canadian. "Bum" in the sense of "buttocks" is one of the words that Canadians have traditionally shared with British English, though we share many more lexical items with American English.

  7. When you try on jeans in a shop, don't you turn to the mirror (or a friend) and say 'does my bum look big in this?'. Perhaps it's only (British) women who worry about this!

  8. Privately I call these wipes "ass wipes." I have always been responsible and put them in the trash instead of in the toilet. But I developed a big itch that took me a long time to diagnose (and my doctor was no help): I'm allergic to commericial wipes! A damp half-sheet of soft paper towel works just as well, and no allergic reaction.

    I had never heard "bum" meaning backside/gluteus maximus/butt/buttocks till I was teaching in elementary school soon after moving to Alberta, Canada, from the US Southwest in 1968. I heard lots of giggles every time I used the word "bum" with other meanings.

    Although I use "ass" and "butt" in a few specific contexts, "bum" is now my preferred word for that part of the anatomy. However, in all the ngram searches I could think of, it comes in third of those three.

  9. I think that most British expressions that involve "bum" have a American version with "butt" instead. "Butts in seats," "Does this make my butt look big?" etc.

  10. unrealisticdialogue

    Bum is essentially a childish word. In adult use, it's always informal, often slightly comic, and seldom if ever aggressive. Am I wrong in hearing butt as less comic and more aggressive?

    Does my bum look big in this? is a phrase popularised by a TV comic sketch show. I can't speak as a woman, but I sense that as a genuine question it's confined to friends. I doubt that a customer would put the question to a sales assistant. I think it's also used with an echo of the sketch show implying — ironically — 'Look at me being shallow and obsessed with my appearance!'

    Bums on seats is used in all but the most formal styles, often quite seriously. Unlike the word bum in isolation, it's heard on radio and TV and in public discourse generally. Would theatrical actors, directors and managers use butts in seats in serious public discussion?

  11. Just to reinforce the comedic overtones of the word:

  12. David Crosbie - no, "butt" is a little more vulgar, in polite contexts you'd more likely hear "Does this make me look fat?" and "getting people in seats". The first is pretty much a set phrase, the second isn't.

  13. Autolycus

    I'd forgotten about Bum! as an interjection. It wasn't part of my childhood, but I've heard it used much as Victoria Wood uses it — with imitation-childish, resigned exasperation.

    As with the noun use, the speaker invites us to think it's the rudest word he or she could think of when he or she was a child.

  14. While on this subject, am I right in assuming that everyone in the US knows that over here 'ass' means 'donkey'? The corresponding rude word for bottom is 'arse' pronounced with a long 'a' (+ the 'r' in rhotic areas only). I get the impression it is slightly more emphatically below the politeness threshold than 'ass'.

  15. Dru

    And, by extension, ass is extended to a humans who has no thoughts but may make a lot of noise about that intellectual void. That's a (braying) ass. There's a somewhat passé expression usually equating to upper-class twit which replaced it, namely silly ass.

    It was a favourite expression of my mother's, which was unfortunate in someone who had paid an elocution teacher to replace her Swansea accent with RP.

    I'm not sure whether it was a Welsh thing or whether it was the difference between early-acquired and late-acquired RP or, indeed, whether all RP speakers of that generation spoke thus, but it came out as (non-rhotic) silly arse.

    1. I still recall my feeling of scandalised shock when my RP-speaking English teacher called the 14-year-old me a "silly ass", which I heard as "silly arse". This was in 1958.

  16. David and Dru,
    There was a movement towards greater refinement of language in the 18th century, and it's my understanding that we started calling asses 'donkeys' around that time to avoid using a word that sounded like 'arse'.
    'Bum' was a normal word in the 16th-17th centuries (a bum-roll was a padded roll tied round a woman's hips to hold out her skirts). After going out of polite use it's been revived as part of the modern tendency to use childish words for indelicate subjects, like 'poo'.

  17. Katie Bunting

    The earliest quote for donkey in the OED is from 1785, when a dictionary explained to polite speakers that it was a slang name for a male ass. The OED speculates that it may have been created to rhyme with monkey.

    So your explanation would seem plausible as to motivation, but maybe half a century too early in its timing.

  18. Lynne, I have to tell you what a great laugh I got from the fatberg links you provided. Visions of Ed Norton in a diving suit with an underwater blow torch, trying to split the thing into manageable pieces, completed the picture. And to know that they are valuable biofuel for some people: goodness, wouldn't you like to live next door to the guy who's rendering those down in his garage! : )

  19. As an afterthought to my comment above regarding Ed Norton, it would probably help non-American readers and younger readers for me to clarify that I mean the character that actor Art Carney played on the old U.S. 1950s TV show, The Honeymooners. Ed worked in the New York City sewers and his job provided endless humor for the show.

  20. Dru, ass and donkey are synonyms in the US. Ass may be less commonly used than donkey, but it doesn't need defining as an animal name.

  21. Growing up in Boston, 'bum' was always the word used to describe one's bottom. When my sister was a toddler and would escape without clothes after her bath (pronounced with a long 'a'), my parents would refer to her as a 'bare-bum brewster' as they chased her down. Family expression, I assume. I started hearing 'butt' used, maybe in the 90s, more on TV and from people from elsewhere in the U.S. So for me, 'bum' was never a briticism, just maybe a Massachusetts or even eastern Mass, southern NH, RI(?)-ism, if I thought about it. To this day, I don't really say 'butt' to speak of.

    1. Indeed. It is a Rhode Island-ism as well. The word "butt" was always considered slightly more vulgar, while "bum" was a word that could be used around babies and grannies.

    2. Indeed. "Bum" is used in Rhode Island. "Butt" has always been seen as slightly more vulgar, while "bum" is a word that can be used with babies and grannies.

  22. David Crosbie,
    Yes, you are right. I've tracked down the quotation I had in mind (for the tendency, not that particular word) and find it's from a collection of satire published in 1805, but purporting to date from 1798. A mother tells her daughter to say "she-dogs" and "small-clothes" instead of "bitches" and "breeches". I had thought the quotation was earlier than that.

  23. Is it better or worse that the word of the year isn't "arse"?

    Interesting post, thanks for sharing.

  24. I'm American and as kids we always used bum as a slightly "nicer" version of butt. I remember my aunt had a jacket made by B.U.M. Equipment, which we thought was hilarious.

  25. Both words stem from different sources,bum from bottom as its pronounced and butt is a large barrel used for storing items in.And hence has allusions to size.

  26. mrdreadley

    The OED disagrees. They list no less than fourteen different butt nouns and four different butt verbs.

    The 'cask' sense is their butt n2.

    The sense of 'buttocks' and 'cigar end' come under their butt n3 — along with other 'thick ends'.

    butt n1 means 'flatfish' as in halibut.

  27. My wife's carers referred to her bum, as more definite than bottom. One of them said her own waistline tattoo was on her back.


The book!

Follow by email

View by topic



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