change / shift gears

@arnoldgoldman has just suggested shift gears versus change gears for today's Twitter Difference of the Day. I've noticed this one before without being able to put my finger on which one belonged to which dialect. It turns out there's good reason for my confusion--you hear both in both dialects. So what's the story? Is one 'an Americanism'?

Looking in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, I found more of both in American and more of shift in both dialects. 

change shift
American 98 153
British 42 53

Using a web-based corpus is possibly a bit funny for this, since authorship isn't known and they might be writing for an international audience (among other reasons). So, what happens when we look at books published in US and UK? I checked out Google Books--which also has a lot of problems in classifying data, but we hope that the sheer amount of well-classified data limits the effect of the poorly classified examples. (E.g. I once found that because a publisher put its founding date in the 18th century on its title pages, Google books thought that its books were written in the 18th century. Including the ones about television.)

The books data seems to explain things better. (NB: Firefox doesn't seem to be able to handle the dates on the bottom line, but other browsers can. But if you're on Firefox, scrolling over the chart should show dates. Or maybe this is just my Firefox.).

Here's the American:

And here's the British:

What we have here is that both shift and change are earlier in American than British (though the first  change gears are pretty close to one another--so that's just a matter of new technology needing new expressions). Then shift was introduced in the US in the 1910s, and fairly steadily rose until it overtook change in the early 1960s. The Americanness of the introduction is confirmed in the OED where all examples for its first several decades are American--though the OED does not label it as an AmE (or 'orig. U.S.') usage. When shift got to be used more than change in AmE, it started to be really noticed in BrE and now we have a situation where both dialects tend to use the newer verb shift, but haven't forgotten the older one--though change is still more common in BrE than AmE.

Now back to marking!

Postscript 3 March: I promised ages ago in the comments that I'd address the number of gear(s)--something that the original post should have done! So here are the numbers from the Global Web-Based English corpus.

For AmE, gears is definitely the winner, no matter the verb.
US gear gears
shift 1 98
change 3 24

But in British English, the older change goes with singular gear more, and the more American shift goes with the more American plural gears.
UK gear gears
shift 5 24
change 59 19
Incidentally, there are both automotive and figurative uses in both singular and plural in BrE.


  1. Rosalind Mitchell30 January, 2015 10:56

    It was "driving stick" that threw me when I was over there.

  2. In me Br E, I would always say shift gears if I was doing it in relation to an acceleration, but would use change gear if it was any other change in gear.

    Similarly it would be "shift up a gear" but "change down a gear". There may also be a difference between gears in a car and a bike.

  3. The British chart certainly chimes with my experience. When I was young shift a gear was an exotic novelty. The earliest I remember remembering is

    She may be old : ninety year
    She ain't too old : for to shift them gears

    She got the bottle up and go
    She got the bottle up and go
    Now them high-powered women
    Sure got the bottle up and go

    I'm sure I first heard that around 1960, when shift is still well below change in that graph. I'm almost sure I didn't then understand it. The lliteral sense, that is — the metaphorical sense is pretty obvious.

    (I can no longer search the Taft Blues Concordance for other records I might have heard then. It's not online any more.)

  4. Actually I think you need to look at singular vs plural gear too, because in British English we usually "change gear" in the singular!

    Google ngram shows that for current BrE "change gear" > "shift gears" > "change gears" > "shift gear"
    compared with AmE "shift gears" >> "change gears" > "change gear" > "shift gear"

    The graphs showing all four variants trend quite differently too.

  5. I think (FWIW) that I say change gears for figurative uses, and shift gears only for transmissions. As a non-driver who spends very little time in cars, I don't use the latter too much.

  6. Very good point, John W! This is why I shouldn't attempt quick/short posts. Must get back to marking, but might update the post with more graphs later.

  7. Rosalind Mitchell, is "over there" the UK or US for you? I'm Canadian, and we are known to flip-flop with our linguistic allegiances, so I'm not sure which one "stick" comes from! :P

    We definitely talk about knowing how to drive stick/stick-shift here, though it's interchangeable with "standard". Based on my totally unscientific gut feeling, I think I've started to hear standard more than stick in recent years, but I could be imagining that. To my knowledge, "manual" is not commonly used in Canada.

  8. I, BrE, Southern, would always say "Change gear", never "shift", which sounds horribly American to me. I understand my American friends talk about a "shift stick", where I would say "gear lever".

    But isn't it all obsolescent on the far side of the Pond, anyway, as I understand automatic transmission is the norm there?

  9. This one surprises me quite a lot, because to me in Australia, "change gears" sounds like a normal sort of thing people say, and "shift gears" sounds mildly pretentious.

  10. > I once found that because a publisher put its founding date in the 18th century on its title pages, Google books thought that its books were written in the 18th century.

    This is not correct. I know this for a fact. I worked for five years in Google Books.

    Admittedly, it might look like so. But this is not what is happening. Google Books never ever "looks at the title page" and decides based on that when the book is published.

    How can these things then happen? Well, to simplify an awfully complex story short: Google gets two main sources of information on books:

    (1) the book content - either by scanning (from libraries or publishers) or electronic (from publisher)

    (2) the book metadata - from libraries, publishers, national libraries

    Yes, the books are scanned. Yes, text is extracted from the scans via OCR. But this text is never used to fill in the metadata like title, authors, publisher, publication year. The metadata arrives in reasonably sane structured formats. Not guessed from OCRed text.

    The problems of metadata are many. Firstly, rarely a book is presented only by a single source. And almost never they agree. And they are filled in by humans, who make mistakes. Metadata gets migrated between databases, and errors happen. And so forth.

    Yes, one can search by the book content. Yes, one can search by the book metadata. But again, the streams do not cross.

    So, in conclusion, if Google Books thought the book was published in the 18th century, some of the records (sometimes dozens for a single book) claimed the 18th century, and through a complex chain (really, net) of decisions, the 18th century won.

  11. Another variable to be considered is the subject of the verb change/shift.

    I don't think I could say 'The driver shifted gear' but I could well say The excitement shifted up a gear.

    For me the driver (always) changes gear and the gearbox (possibly) shifts gear.

  12. Oddly, the device used to change/shift gears in the States is a "stick shift," not a "shift stick."

    Also, here one speaks of "driving a stick," not "driving stick." For example: "Can you drive a stick?" "No, I'm a wimp."

  13. My impression is that nobody in Britain says anything but gear lever (rhyming, of course, with cleaver, not clever).

  14. @Mrs Redboots:

    But isn't it all obsolescent on the far side of the Pond, anyway, as I understand automatic transmission is the norm there?

    Automatics still have a lever/shift/stick/whatever, and while most drivers probably never bother with anything other than P, N, D and R, there are often positions for specific gears as well. On top of that, while the car normally changes/shift gear itself, you can decide when to make it happen by judicious use of the accelerator / gas pedal.

    Incidentally, @lynneguist, my Firefox copes quite happily with the graph labels (which is saying something because its idea of decent layout can often be quite wacky).

  15. @Mrs Redboots
    It's not obsolescent in the US. Automatic is perhaps the norm, but there's a sizable minority of stick shifts here.

    @Diane Benjamin
    I've got to disagree. "Can you drive stick?" is a perfectly common way to phrase it.

    @David Crosbie
    I don't think I've ever heard the phrase to mean increase/decrease in intensity before. Your meaning is apparent, but it's not something I'd ever say. In the US, I've only heard it (when speaking metaphorically) to mean changing topics or tactics. 'Then the moderator shifted gears, and the housing debate was left behind.' In the metaphorical context I think I'd use change/shift gears fairly interchangeably, maybe with a slight preference for shift. When talking literally, however, I have a heavy preference for shifting.

  16. @Grace: Interesting! I've never heard "drive stick" without the article. Which area of the country are you in? I am from the Mid-Atlantic region, but now I'm in Atlanta.

  17. Contrary to John Cowan, my experience (Washington DC area) is that shift gear is used both in the literal and metaphorical senses, and change gear hardly at all.

    As for what Americans would call the device known to Brits as the gear lever, I think it would be gear shift. Although the phrase drive a stick seems fine to me, calling the implement in question a stick doesn't.

  18. @Grace Here in the UK we don't drive a stick, we drive a manual! In fact, that is our default, so we tend to specify if the car in question is an automatic.

  19. Here's a bit of serendipity: Tomorrow's Washington Post has a brief interview with the cartoonist Roz Chast about her new book. The interviewer asks if it was a relief to work on a funny book, after her last one, which was about death of her parents. She replies:

    "Yes. It was really nice to change gears and shift into a different kind of book."

  20. @Diane Benjamin
    I'm from the Northeast US. I've heard it both with and without the article, but to my mind 'driving stick' always refers to the general ability or practice, whereas 'driving a stick' can also refer to a particular car (mine, yours, the neighbor's).

    @Mrs Redboots
    Good to know! 'Driving a stick' must sound kind of odd to non-Americans. We can of course drive a manual as well, but to drive stick is a bit more colloquial.

    Incidentally, and totally irrelevant to anything, it kind of tickles me that this is an example of synecdoche in everyday life.

  21. Salutations, Dr. Murphy !

    Speaking as one who was born in 1950, grew up and lived most of my life in the Philadelphia suburbs, and was somewhat of a car enthusiast in my younger years:

    Most American cars of the 40's, 50's and early 60's had front bench seats and the gearshift / gearshift lever / shift lever - either for automatic or manual transmission - on the steering column.

    I learned to drive on an automatic - even by '66 that was the 'default'.

    From 60's on, most US manual transmission cars were sports cars, compacts (both US and foreign), and US sporty 'muscle' cars. These usually had front 'bucket' seats and the 'stick' on the floor or console. I would say that, in that era, 'stick' referred _only_ to floor / console mounted 'gear selector levers'

    Often they were equipped with 4-speed manual transmissions instead of the 3-speed manual transmissions found in average cars of that era - "She's got a competition clutch and a 4-on-the-floor" ("Little Deuce* Coupe" by the Beach Boys (*Deuce = 1932 Ford - a popular model for 'hot-rod' conversions)). Other instances can probably be found in lyrics of the mid-60's.

    So, in today's AmEng "to drive a stick" could be loosely translated "to be knowledgable / sophisticated enough about automobiles to operate an out-of-the-ordinary vehicle, with manual transmission"

    When discussing driving an automobile, I'd definitely say 'shift'. 'Change gears', to me, sounds like something said in a committee meeting.

  22. Here in the UK, I think a majority of people still drive a (BrE)manual/stick(AmE), although plenty of people do drive automatics. If you pass your driving/drivers'(?) test on a manual/stick, you can drive an automatic, but not vice versa.

    I know sometimes my American friends have worried about hiring/renting a car over here, because of the manual transmission thing, but you can always specify that you need automatic transmission.

  23. I have a question about driving a car with a manual transmission in the UK: does gear shift pattern stay the same for cars with left-hand drive, or is it the mirror image? In other words, is first gear in the upper left position of the H, or is first gear on the upper right position if a car has right-hand drive?

    Also, I think it's interesting that we shift "into" a specific gear, not onto it. When we press the clutch and change gears, the shifter linkage actually connects the driveshaft to a different gear in the transmission. It seems like changing "onto" a gear would make more sense. Apparently we drivers focus more on the labelled detents in the shifter gate than what is going on in the transmission, even though most of us have ridden a 10-speed bike with visible gears.

  24. It stays the same. I have never driven a left-hand drive car, as since I learnt to drive, quite late in life, we have always taken our own car abroad, but my husband, who has, says one gets used to changing gears with the right hand. I am sure I wouldn't.... I think, if i ever drive a left-hand car, it will have to be an automatic!

  25. @Diane: Also, I think it's interesting that we shift "into" a specific gear, not onto it. When we press the clutch and change gears, the shifter linkage actually connects the driveshaft to a different gear in the transmission. It seems like changing "onto" a gear would make more sense.

    I think of it as the gear teeth meshing anew, in which case "into" makes more sense to me.

    Apparently we drivers focus more on the labelled detents in the shifter gate

    Detent? Gate? You've opened up two whole new cans of worms there :-)

  26. Oh and if you really to get confused about where the gears are, google images of Ferrari gear knobs.

  27. Diane, Joe

    I don't think BrE usage reflects any idea of gear as a physical mechanism. It certainly doesn't for me.

    Gear without article or modification or possibility of plural form
    This denotes a condition. the transmission is engaged. The car is either in gear or in neutral (whether or not the car is moving, whether or not the engine is running). So changes are into gear or into neutral.

    SOMETHING gear still without article but with a numerical modifier (first gear etc) or another rank modifier (top gear, bottom gear).
    This is a choice from a series , but still a condition. Thus in third gear, change into top gear.

    The grammar of this echoes the way we speak of other progressions. In BrE students speak of being in first year (without article), and moving into third year. Teams in a league can be in second place and rise into first place or fall into last place.

    COUNTABLE gear that is to say a gear, another gear, the other gears, a higher gear, a lower gear, this gear, that gear etc. Grammatically with an ARTICLE or one of the broader group known as DETERMINERS.

    This is still a condition but not a specific condition. We don't say the first gear or a third gear. I don't think we even say the first and second gears — personally I'd say first and second gear.

    With an ADJECTIVE it's still in and intoin a low gear, change into a lower gear etc.

    Countable gear is frequent with up and down (change up a gear, change down a gear). But we can also say change up/down into second gear.

  28. Diane

    Having the gear lever on the 'wong' side doesn't affect your hand movements because they involve moving the knob along the same trajectory— which breaks down into movements forwards, backwards, left, right.

    What is confusing to a driver like me with little European experience as yet is position of the gear lever itself. My left hand instinctively reaches for a non-existent lever. Fortunately, it's a gesture that's quickly and easily rectified. It's comforting to hear that Mr Redboots did get used to it with practice.

  29. @David:

    in third gear, change into top gear.

    Grammatically and contextually this could equally well be "to" rather than "into". And that could morph (I suppose) into "onto".

    In BrE students speak of ... moving into third year.

    We do not!. Well I've never heard anyone say "into third year". The very phrase makes me gag and splutter into my cocoa.

    We can only agree to conclude that usage varies widely, sometimes or often more widely inside the UK/US than between them.

  30. @David et al,

    You don't need to drive on the continent to get confused about sides. Just switch between European and Japanese cars, and you'll find the indicator/wiper/etc stalks have swapped sides. IMHO that takes more getting used to because you lack the overall driving-on-the-wrong-side cue. I wonder what convention US cars follow?

  31. And I wouldn't say (or expect to hear) "I'm in first year" either. More like "I'm in my first year" or "I'm a first-year". Maybe this is all down to specific university idioms?

  32. j0egreen

    you'll find the indicator/wiper/etc stalks have swapped sides

    Yes that happened to me many years ago. I've long since got over the confusion, so my memory is hazy. But I seem to remember that reaching for the wrong control was less upsetting because it was a far less frequent gesture than reaching for the gear lever.

    As for years of study, to me in my first year suggests personal experience whereas in first year suggests shared status.

    Do you really say 'move up into the third year'?

    There are echoes here of I'm going to bed, which in Scotland is usually phrased as I'm going to my bed.

  33. Is "top gear" a mostly British expression? I don't recall having heard it before, except in relation to the BBC TV show.

  34. Yes, I was going to say that it is strange that Americans, who tend not to talk about gears, like that ghastly programme/show Top Gear!

    Yes, one would talk of "going into top gear", or "fifth gear" as appropriate....

  35. @David Crosbie - if you are talking of school years, a child is more likely to speak of "going into Year 8" than 8th year.... university is different - don't Americans have special names for their years, which we don't here?

  36. @ David Crosby: I think I love you.

    @ Mrs. Redboots: Most American universities call students in their first year "freshmen," second year "sophomores," third year "juniors," and fourth year "seniors." The outlier would be the University of Virginia, where first year students are called "first year," second year students are called --wait for it-- " second year," and so on.


  37. Though before we get too far off-topic, perhaps we should refer those interested back to the post on school years.

  38. Mrs Redboots

    if you are talking of school years, a child is more likely to speak of "going into Year 8" than 8th year

    Not having children — or even nephews/nieces — I've never got the hang of this new-fangled Year X. I was indeed thinking of university years.

    (My old school is no guide. They clung to the old term form.)

    Of those four American college-year terms, we do share one in the form of freshman (or variations thereon). In my speech, I was a freshman can be the exact equivalent of I was in my first year. However, I would say This topic is less suitable for first years (meaning 'first-year students') — rather than This topic is less suitable for freshmen and freshwomen.

    Actually, in my day we stopped thinking of ourselves as freshers long before the year was out.

  39. @David:

    But I seem to remember that reaching for the wrong control was less upsetting because it was a far less frequent gesture than reaching for the gear lever.

    For you, no doubt. But it's been years since I drove a manual, so for me it's easily the most frequent gesture (even more so than the ones I give other drivers...)

    Do you really say 'move up into the third year'?

    I was mulling over this when I posted, and have done since, and I'm not sure I have a phrase to describe the transition. But then I'm not sure I ever needed one. "What are you doing next year/in your third year?" Etc.

    I'm with you on new-fangled "year N". I always have to think very hard to translate that into an age, and then back into "third form" etc.

    I was a fresher too. Never a freshman (too American).

  40. @j0egreen,
    Although cars with manual transmission do also come with a gear lever, we (in the US) never call it a stick. In fact, I am not sure what it's called. Gearshift maybe. My manual says "gear lever" for both manual (not "standard" here, not by a long shot) and automatic transmissions.

    Driving a stick (for a particular car) and driving stick (for the knowledge in general) are the only short unambiguous ways to convey these ideas here.

  41. @Boris: where I live (US, Mid-Atlantic), we call it a shifter.

    I can't remember ever saying either "shift" or "change" gears. Usually it's "get into" or "go into"--for example, "OK, we're on the open road, now you can get into 5th."

  42. Um, surely 'Top Gear' is a pun on the high gearing required to drive fast, and an admiring BrE response to someone with 'impressive stuff' such as a flash car.
    Men seem to find them impressive, anyway.

  43. Please, spare us the unthinking and apparently snide stereotyping. This really isn't the place (as if there was one).

    I hadn't thought of the title as having a metaphorical sense, but you're probably right. Meanwhile a quick google reveals that before the TV show there was an unrelated pop music radio show on what was then called the BBC Light Programme. I never knew that, being a bit too young to remember, I suppose.

  44. Boris Zakharin

    Although cars with manual transmission do also come with a gear lever, we (in the US) never call it a stick.

    Amazing! Nobody else has thought to tell us this. Thank you.

    I think I know why I can't think of a gear lever as a stick. Perhaps it's the same with other BrE speakers, and even with AmE speakers like you.

    For me, a stick is essentially a straight length of cylindrical wood
    — not so long that it that can't easily be handled, but long enough to do something with it when reaching out your arm
    — of a thickness produce by or comparable to an immature tree branch

    Yes, there's an extension of meaning to stick-shaped objects of other materials: a stick of celery, a glue stick etc. But for me the materials don't include metal of plastic; for both i would normally use the word rod.

    A gear lever fails on two counts
    — it isn't wood.
    — you can't pick it up and wave it around because it's attached permanently to something.

    Now i (along with other BrE speakers) do allow the term dipstick even though it's made of metal. Well, at least it's unattached and can be waved about at arm's length. And I'm not sure I thought of the word as a compound involving stick until I tried to think of an example.

    Even then I forgot the word joystick — which I really never thought of as a type of stick before.

    Could this be the source of the AmE use of stick to refer to a vehicle with a control similar to the aircraft/computer game thingy?

  45. One thing nobody has yet mentioned is that back in the 1960s, in the UK at any rate, "gear" was slang for clothes, or outfit; it was also used, briefly, as slang for "very good". Paul McCartney's brother, one of the Liverpool poets, calls himself Mike McGear, which dates from that era.

    Was this slang used in the USA?

  46. Clothes or other equipment. I'm familiar with: the other sense of top gear is 'high-quality equipment'. 'Very good', no.

  47. This "stick" variation is, I think, generational. Nowadays 'driving a stick' is seldom heard, but back in the day of muscle cars, it was a very common reference in my corner of AmE. You weren't considered much of a driver if you couldn't drive a standard and keep it stopped on a hill using only the clutch.

  48. David Crosby
    It occurs to me that the source of 'joystick' might be the reverse of your suggestion: 'stick shifts' were around before computers were available, so I would conjecture that any copying done was from shift stick to joystick.

  49. Sorry... David Crosbie! Disengaged brain and tiny tablet that only shows three previous lines above the keypad are my only defense.

  50. dullgirl2.50

    'stick shifts' were around before computers were available

    Yes, but aeroplanes were around considerably earlier.

    Nowadays 'driving a stick' is seldom heard, but back in the day of muscle cars, it was a very common reference in my corner of AmE.

    Somehow this passed the OED by. They did observe:

    10. i. = joy-stick n.. at joy n. Compounds 2. Also occas., a gear lever in a motor vehicle.

    The earliest quote from 1914 is:

    Mr. Strutt, our instructor.., controls the engine switch and covers your hand on the stick.

    The only car-related quote is from 1971

    Pepper threw the gear stick into neutral, applied the handbrake firmly, switched off... She..moved the stick back to first.

    The article for stick is basically its 1916 version with various revisions. No doubt when they get round to a comprehensive revision they'll include drive a stick somewhere.

    I do like their definition of this sense — the one I take to be central:

    4a. A long and relatively slender piece of wood, whether in natural form or shaped with tools, cut or broken of a convenient length for handling.

    The reference to the entry for joystick under joy reads:

    joy-stick n. (a) slang the control-lever of an aeroplane; the controls of another vehicle; also attrib., transf., and fig.; (b) a small lever that can be moved in each of two dimensions to control the movement of an image on a television or computer screen; also Comb.

    The earliest quote is from 1914:

    In order that he shall not blunder inadvertently into the air, the central lever—otherwise the cloche, or joy-stick is tied well forward.

    The earliest clearly referring to comparers is from 1967:

    The system is simply operated by a keyboard and joystick—no computer programming knowledge is needed.

  51. No doubt when they get round to a comprehensive revision they'll include drive a stick somewhere.

    I searched and confirmed that i hadn't missed a reference. What i did find that I'd missed was this:

    stick shift n. N. Amer. a manually operated mechanism for changing gear; a gear lever.

    The earliest quote is from 1960

    ‘Welcome back, standard transmission.’.. A great majority of those who buy sports cars specify the ‘stick shift’ for the fun of it.

  52. Mrs Reboots

    back in the 1960s, in the UK at any rate, "gear" was slang for clothes, or outfit

    Amazingly, this was practically the original meaning of gear. The OED lists it a meaning 1 with earliest quote from c1325:

    Heo glystnede ase gold when hit glemede; nes ner gome so gladly on gere.

    I think this means

    'She glistened like gold when it gleamed; no man was so joyful in his gear'

    There are earlier quotes, but the OED explains away sense 1d 'mental equipment' from 1200 as a metaphorical use of 'personal gear'.

    The other earlier quote is from 1275

    On ich wulle mid mine gæren.
    'On I will with my armour (fighting gear)'

    But the OED decided to make that sense 2 — secondary to 1.'apparel, attire, dress, vestments' — which the describe as

    Now common in colloq. use.

    it was also used, briefly, as slang for "very good".

    Not so very briefly. The OED quotes a book of sailor's jargon from 1925

    Gear, apparatus generally... Also used as a colloquial term for anything giving satisfaction—e.g., ‘That's it, that's the gear!’

    The 'Merseybeat' use of the word seems to have given it a burst of extra life before killing it off.

  53. @dullgirl2.5
    'stick shifts' were around before computers were available, so I would conjecture that any copying done was from shift stick to joystick.

    Except that "joystick" long predates computers - it was, as David Crosbie points out, first used in aircraft cockpits. (And I still wonder, very off-topic, why the term "cockpit" was and is used for the crew cabin in an aircraft, when the phrase comes from cock-fighting!)

    @David Crosbie
    Mrs Reboots Make that Mrs Redboots, if you don't mind! Seriously, though, fascinating that the word was used for clothes before it was used for - er - gears! I wonder whether the etymology of the two uses is the same.

  54. Annabel

    Mrs Reboots Make that Mrs Redboots, if you don't mind!

    Sorry, I blame my spellchecker.

    You asked about the meanings of cockpit. The OED's earliest quoted use is a simile.

    1587 T. Churchyard Worthines of Wales sig. N3v, The Mountaynes stands..In roundnesse such, as it a Cockpit were.

    The actual place for cockfighting is sense 1a. The next is the 'theatre' use 1b in Henry V (a1616)

    Can this Cock-Pit hold
    The vastie fields of France? Or may we cramme Within this Woodden O, the very Caskes
    That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?

    In the 17th century, one theatre called itself The Cockpit —this is the OECD sense 1c(a). It seems to have been a favourite of Samuel Pepys

    Mr. Salsbury..took Mr. Creed and me to the Cockpitt to see ‘The Moore of Venice’, which was well done. (1660)
    To the Cocke-pitt, where we saw ‘Claracilla’, a poor play, done by the King's house. (1663)

    In sense 1c(b) Cockpit came to denote an important block of buildings near where the theatre was (or had been). As late as the mid-nnettenth century, when the theatre must have been long gone:

    1843 C. Knight London V. 291 But to return to the Cock-pit..This is the part of the Treasury buildings which fronts Whitehall.

    Further senses lost any connection with cockfighting.

    • Sense 2 is just
    'a place where a contest is fought out'.

    • Sense 3a is specific enclosed part of a ship
    'The after part of the orlop deck of a man-of-war; forming ordinarily the quarters for the junior officers, and in action devoted to the reception and care of the wounded.'

    • By extension from this:
    — 3b the enclosed bit of a canoe where the canoeist sits
    — 3c aircraft cockpit (the enclosed bit where the originally only the pilot sat, the one person in the craft)
    — 3d racing car cockpit (the enclosed bit where the driver sits)

    • The OED also includes a use from the Maroon Wars in Jamaica — a particular sort of enclosed valley used for a particular purpose.

  55. 20150223 older usage. as amechanical engineer I learned to actually 'change the gear wheel' on older mill machines, a physical replacement of one gear wheel by another, so examing old history I find "change gear" instructionin mill machinery back to early 1790s -1840s, my firm made machinery during this period. 'Change the gear' was user to chnage ratios of belt driven mill machinery in England so usage of change gear is very old. Eion Macdonald

  56. [Apologies for long posting!]
    I think that as well as the noted British difference of "gear" in the singular, a key point is the historical difference in adoption of automatic transmission. Although there had been many different attempts to get a viable system into production, it didn't occur until the 1939 GM (US) Hydra-matic which was the world's first mass-produced automatic transmission. Interestingly, some of the language relating to this subject refers to "automatically shifting gearbox". And 1940 is a big spike in "shift" usage for both US & British, which can't be a coincidence. The Hydra-Matic was subsequently adopted by other companies including Bentley & Rolls-Royce.
    So it appears that "shift" is slightly more of an Americanism because of the language related to the technological developments underway in the US.
    Automatic transmission became the norm in the US while generally perceived as being for lazy or uninterested drivers in the UK.
    Here's some data from Autotrader (UK) and CarMax (US): approx 25% of used cars for sale in the UK are automatics compared with 95% in the US.
    It's only in recent years with the advent of flappy-paddle sequential (no clutch required) transmissions that the auto option has seen to be a bit more fun & involved. And the fact that you have to shift up and down sequentially means that there is a difference to simply "changing" gear.
    Finally, "gear stick" versus "gear lever": I might have called it a 'gear lever' once or twice but it is almost always a 'gear stick' to me (and I'm a car nut from Coventry [the ex-car capital of Britain], with a dad who worked on cars all his life). I also drive a 6-speed Toyota Celica coupe (Br. 'coupay' rather than US 'coop') and frequently 'change' from 4th to 6th (rather than shift through 5th). I can also confirm that modern Japanese cars sold in the EU have European layout for indicators & wipers.
    I think I've finished now. ;-)

  57. Somebody else may be amused ...

    Kiss Me Sweet, a 1924 recording by the blues-type musical comedy Black vaudeville duo Butterbeans and Susie contained this sung exchange:

    Kiss me now. I can't wait no longer
    Seems somehow my love is growin' stronger
    You growing old. I've known you for years

    I can still climb a hill with shifting a gear

    My love ain't complete, honey, till you kiss me sweet


    Oh dear! The joke doesn't work with the typo forced on the text by my spell-checker:

    You growing old. I've known you for years

    I can still climb a hill without shifting a gear

  59. You conclude, When shift got to be used more than change in AmE, it started to be really noticed in BrE and now we have a situation where both dialects tend to use the newer verb shift, but haven't forgotten the older one--though change is still more common in BrE than AmE. Emphasis added.

    Unless I interpret the charts incorrectly, at the year 2000, the usage for "change gears" is more common in AmE than BrE.

    The chart reads for the instance of "change" in BrE: 0.0000010864%.

    For AmE: 0.0000032222%.

    By these stats, "change" is used more in AmE than in BrE, at least as of the year 2000.


  60. Just heard Jeremy Clarkson translate guest star Jeff Goldblum's reference to driving with a "stick" into BrE "gear lever." 2010 Top Gear episode

  61. I've finally added a postscript about the plural issue.

  62. (Yank, here) I can drive a stick, but my wife can't, so we get automatics. I tired of sticks long ago, anyway. Regardless, I would manipulate the "gearshift" not a "stick" and I would only "downshift" if I were going down a steep hill, perhaps; never "upshift" ("shift into a higher gear", perhaps?). "Put it in gear" or "put it in park" are much more likely (and common). Tally ho!

  63. Wow, a lot of confusion here. I hav to wonder how many of you grew up with cars.

    First, I'm an American and backer of spelling reform so you'll see more than a few simplified spellings.

    I'll back n0aaa and someone else abuv who call'd it a 'gearshift'. A gearshift is for both manual/standard and automatics.

    And yes, we do downshift the gears. Upshift is heard but not common since to shift gears in a car is understood to mean shift up.

    As for shift/change … meh. I hear both and say both tho I do think I say shift more than change.

    A few of us here might recall the old manual cars that had the gearshift in the column rather than on the floor. However, many old trucks and cars had it on the floor and the shifter was a long "stick" with a knob on the end. Thus, it was a stickshift and folks would ask if you could drive a "stick".

    Years later, mainly in sports cars (at first), it was on a console between the seat and was much shorter … and became known as a short stick so folks still ask if you can drive a stick. And yes, sticks are common in the US. They almost died out but after the oil embargo of the 70s, they made a comeback.

    Over time, in the world of cars, "stick" has come to mean the same as manual. Thus one will hear folks ask whether a car is an automatic or a stick drive.

    I think someone askt about aircraft. As a pilot I can tell you that there are sticks and yokes. I'v flown both. BTW, if there are two seats side by side, the PIC (pilot in control) sits on the left, the co-pilot (if there is one) sits on the right. Thus you might read or hear talk of pilots going from the right seat to the left seat meaning they were promoted from the first officer to captain.

    The odd thing between a yoke and a stick in a small plane is that the throttle is on the opposit side … right side for a yoke and left side for a stick (which is wontedly tandem seating). There are logical reasons for that but it does feel odd the first time one flies the other.

  64. Gee, there's a bit here about four-on-the-floor; but nobody's said three-in-the-tree...

  65. I know this is a bit of an old thread now, but I thought I'd add that I call the device with which you change gears a 'gear stick' and I always, always 'change gears'. I'm a BrE speaker by the way.

  66. On "top gear":

    As noted previously, "gear" was a slang term for "good" in the merseyside area, just as the Beatles gained fame and spread its use.

    Top gear, obviously, meant "best". It could also refer to clothing.

    In the 60s, BBC Radio was substantially reorganised, partly in response to the challenge set by pirate radio (all private radio being illegal). A brand new BBC station, Radio 1, was set up, broadcasting pop music to young people. In order to compete with the pirate stations, the BBC recruited the best of the DJs from these stations to man Radio 1.

    One of these, John Peel, was given a late evening slot which he called "Top Gear", currently a widely-understood piece of slang. John was from the Wirral, a piece of land over the Mersey from Liverpool, so "top gear" would be a well-known and used phrase to him. The music he played was more obscure, less poppy, than the other programmes and was much loved by many of us.

    John Peel outlasted pretty much all the other DJs who were in at the start of Radio 1, never really fitting in. He became a National Treasure (do you have these in the US?) and was much mourned when he died.

  67. I am extremely surprised that we got so very far into this post before two BrE speakers finally mentioned “gear stick”. In my experience, it’s way and by far the most commonly used term in the U.K. The word gear can also be used interchangeably with kit or tackle, as in fishing gear, or the London expression “get your laughing gear round this”.

    1. I wonder if that's a generational or regional thing? To me, elderly, Southern BrE, the norm is, was, and probably always will be "gear lever", and I've not heard "stick" used at all.


The book!

View by topic



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