it's rude to...

One of the fun things that you can do with the GloWBE (Global Web-Based English) corpus is ask it to compare collocations (words that regularly go together) across varieties of English. The software does a statistical evaluation so that you can see which collocations are most typical of a particular variety of English in comparison to another. So for instance, if you ask it about words that come before tea in the British and American parts of the corpus, you learn that the top-three most American (and least British) collocates are GOP ('Grand Old Party', i.e. the Republican party), Republicans, and conservatives (because of the Tea Party movement), and the three most British/least American are cream, cuppa and vintage.
All that explanation is just prelude to the difference I want to point out.

I'd seen Susan Waters' paper in Journal of Pragmatics "It's rude to VP [verb phrase]: the cultural semantics of rudeness", in which she looked at which verbs follow rude in Australian English (gathered via Google searches). You'd have to collect data that way to get enough for any real study of what's considered rude in a culture, as there aren't enough examples in existing corpora to make solid conclusions about such things. Nevertheless, I read Waters' paper and immediately went to GloWBE to see what's rude in the UK and US.

I asked GloWBE to compare which words come immediately after rude to in  British and American web-based writing. While I'm really interested in the verbs, I couldn't just search for verbs after rude to because the software said there was too little data. So, here are the words that come after rude to in AmE (left) and BrE (right).

In the columns, TOKENS 1 = the number found in American websites, TOKENS 2 in British. PM stands for 'per million', so the first row of the left table says that there are .06 examples of rude to him per million words in the American data, but .03 per million in the British.  Green ones disproportionately belong to that dialect, and red (or pink) are found less than would be statistically expected. White are found frequently but not statistically differently in both dialects.

We can debate whether there's anything worth saying about the hims and hers--it might just be an accident of the corpus. The words her and him are not found at particularly different rates in the two corpora, so it's not that British people talk about women more than Americans do. The you is  interesting, because it's usually used sympathetically and/or in giving people (possibly uninvited) advice (e.g. If he IS a jerk and rude to you and everyone around you, get out of there). A more American thing to do? Very possibly.

But what I'm really interested in are the two verbs in these tables. According to this data set, the most British-and-not-American rude thing to do is to ask something and the most American-and-not-British rude thing to do is to say something. This goes along with some stereotypes (and even serious analyses) of British and American differences in what is considered 'polite', and so I found it interesting.

In British culture, much more information is considered 'private' and 'personal' than in American, so you don't ask people about themselves or tell them about yourself at anything like the rate that Americans would. (Recall this earlier post about giving or asking for names.) Here are some examples from the GloWBE data:

He'd never talk about his work and it felt rude to ask.
is it just plain rude to ask if a child is disabled?
I wouldn't say it was rude to ask why someone is a vegetarian
Is it rude to ask Koreans if they're from North or South Korea?

Of the 21 British rude to ask examples, at most three or four are asking for things or favo(u)rs (e.g. rude to ask to borrow a tool). The others are about asking for personal information. The American rude to ask examples (11 unique examples--plus one duplicate) are also mostly about information (two favo(u)rs). In a couple of the American information-asking cases, it's not rude to ask something, but it's rude to ask it in front of an audience (rude to ask personal questions in public).

Meanwhile, in the typically-American rude to say examples, we have:

it would be rude to say " white people,

I think it was really rude to say that people who liked it have low standards

If you have something rude to say about it keep it to yourself

it's rude to say non-curvy women look like little men.
...which gives the impression that Americans feel that people should rein in their opinion-giving or their pigeonholing of people in order to not make anyone feel different or bad. There were 25 American and 15 British rude to says with two of the British ones being rude to say no and another one being rude to say you don't want something. The American data didn't have any such 'rude to refuse' examples.

So that amused me. How about you? It would be rude not to comment on this blog post.


  1. For me, the verbs that immediately spring to mind are

    It's rude to point.
    It's rude to stare

  2. As an Australian I'm unfamiliar with the term "cream tea", and was puzzled as to why those words would collocate in Britain. So I looked it up.

    Years ago I took a university topic on cross-cultural differences etc, taught by a French lecturer. One time she made a point about French not having any true equivalent of English "rude", relying instead on words with negative morphemes (like English "impolite", "inconsiderate", etc). But this was an aside in the lecture so I never understood exactly what the significance was.

    Back to tea: As a child I coined the term "sneakanoon". By analogy with afternoon tea, which is a standard snack time, sneakanoon tea is what you steal from the chocolate cupboard while your parents aren't looking. But the word didn't last long; only until the next time I was caught.

  3. One possible complication (and forgive me if you've covered this elsewhere) is the fact that in BrE it is rude to use "she" and "her" in the presence of the person described. So you would end up with "don't be rude to xxx" not "don't be rude to her". I don't think the equivalent is true, or not nearly so strongly, for using "him". This might account for the lack of "rude to her"s in the BrE column.

    I remember the first time I was at a conference with AmE speakers and the shock I felt at hearing "I agree with what she said".

  4. Corrected 'reign in' even before I saw your comment, Paul. (OK, someone else pointed it out on Twitter. It was late!)

    Rachel, I don't see why that would produce a gender difference, since isn't it rude to use pronouns in that way generally?

    David, all the typical ones, like 'point', 'stare', and 'interrupt', are there in the corpora, but didn't show up as significantly different across the countries. So say/ask are special in that way. (Though on one variant of the search--looking at just verbs, but more words after the 'rude to'--'stare' did come up as 'more American'.)

  5. For me, growing up, I remember the stricture against "she" and "her" as much stronger than that against "he" and "him". "Who's 'she', the cat's mother?" was the retort.

  6. Rachel - is it? Blimey, I've been going around being unintentionally rude to women for over 40 years. But then again, as a rude boy fan of 2Tone & ska, I am undoubtedly "ruder than you".

  7. Lynne

    My point is that after the formula It's rude to ... I would rarely use any other verb. With the concept of saying something, I might well say That's a rude thing to say although even that doesn't sound comfortably familiar. I'd happily say That was a rude thing to say, though.

    When it's a question of normal rules rather than censure of a particular act, I would normally use impolite, not rude. If that isn't the right word I might say offensive or perhaps inconsiderate.

    Like Rachel, I was brought up with the censure She is the cat's mother. In my mother's estimation, it had become a universal taboo. I suspect that it may have originally have been a protest by women — no, make that 'ladies' — when she was used in their presence to refer to them. Just as [whatever polite word is supposed to have replaced disabled] people object to Does he take sugar? — the title of a BBC Radio Four show not long ago.

  8. I thought it'd be interesting to see the converse of this - the difference in what's rude NOT to do - so I went to the GloWbE to look it up. Well, it turns out that my corpora-fu is not strong enough to figure out how to compare the different constructions (rude not to *), but it looks like the base phrase 'rude not to' comes up at 5 times the frequency in BrE that it does in AmE. If I did it right.

  9. Nice catch, Grace.

    The reason for that is in part that 'It would be rude not to' is a British jocular way of accepting something without shame. So, someone offers you a calorific cake and you justify having some by "it'd be rude not to". I think this *may* have come up in another comments thread before, but it probably deserves its own post at some point.

  10. I was going to say - one of the nicest bits of modern vocabulary that I have adopted is "It would be rude not to", or "Rude not to, really!" when something has been (for example) reduced in the sales and you've bought it.... "I bought that dress in (BrE)T K Maxx/T J Maxx(AmE). It was only £25 - rude not to, really!"

    And I remember, many years ago, there was a cartoon strip in the London Evening Standard called Augusta, and one day the eponymous heroine was looking at pictures in an art gallery and came across some nudes, and she shouted "Rude!"

  11. Adrian

    I think your French lecturer may have had speakers like me in mind, but it seems we're no longer in the majority — if, indeed, we ever were.

    For me at least, the concept of rudeness was learned in childhood, and retains some childish connotations. The French negativ-morpheme words and their English equivalents are (for me) adult words expressing adult concepts. They relate your actions (including speech) to the effect they have on other people.

    In childhood, to be rude is to transgress a rule of behaviour, whether or not it affects anybody else.

    Rude words don't offend anyone. Well, some hearers may take offence, but not because the words are addressed to them. And in childhood the religious objections to some 'rude words' is incomprehensible.

    Many so-called rude words transgress that arbitrary rule of obscenity, so rude is in may ways a childish word for 'obscene', often meant to be humorous. In the old days when strip shows were illegal but staged nude tableaux were permitted the joking slogan was If it moves it's rude

  12. Mrs Reboots

    one day the eponymous heroine was looking at pictures in an art gallery and came across some nudes, and she shouted "Rude!"

    I was still composing my post when you posted this. We're both addressing rude as a word that's not serious.

    Your cartoon caption is actually funny. If it moves it's rude was unserious, slightly amusing. Rude not to isn't intrinsically funny, but it begins to sound amusing in the context of snapping up a bargain, and the little really finishes it off as a bon mot.

  13. I'm posting a comment only because, as Lynne said at the end of her post, it would be rude not to.

    But speaking of it would be rude not to as an amusing negative locution intended to permit a dieting transgression (as when offered an enticing piece of cake), there's something of a Jewish equivalent in the response I wouldn't say no.

    I've always found this double negative expression amusing if not charming. However, I used it once on my wife when she offered me something to eat, and her gruff response made it clear that, in the absence of the proper sociocultural context, it came across as nothing more than an exasperating prevarication.

    In other words, I suspect she thought I was just being rude.

  14. Rachel: but it's British that has more uses of 'her' in this case, so it can't be polite feminine-pronoun-avoidance that's causing it. It would have to be the opposite.

  15. Interesting, the ask/say distinction. I'd assume it's something to do with British habits of obliqueness/indirection in the face of social unease. So anything with the risk of rudeness might well involve some sort of indirect question rather than flat-out statement.

  16. Might there be an imbalance between American/British English of phrases along the lines of "he was being rude to her mother" or "she was rude to his sister", where the possessive forms of the pronoun are being lumped in with the accusative forms for 'her' but not 'his'/'him'?

  17. There might be, but again, I can't see any reason why that should differ across dialects, and it would still be a matter of Brits seemingly talking about women (who have mothers) and Americans more about men (who have mothers).

  18. "Who's she? The cat's mother?" was something I heard a lot as a kid (in Australia), but never questioned until now why there wasn't a similar prohibition on "he"!

  19. I'm also Australian though I have heard of "cream tea" its not a term I would use (instead using "devonshire tea" or simply "scones with jam and cream" to express a similar concept).

    I read the article referenced in this blog post in 'The journal of pragmatics' and then also several more in the volume. Did you know this blog was referenced in one of them? "‘Early interactions’ in Australian English, American English, and English English: Cultural differences and cultural scripts" - I thought that was pretty cool!

  20. @Dick Hartzell I've never thought of "I wouldn't say no", as a Jewish expression. I've definitely heard it quite frequently as a response to an invitation have something to eat or drink and not in otherwise known to be Jewish circles.

  21. RWMG: you could well be right. I can only say that here in NYC, where there are more Jews than there are in Jerusalem, I definitely associate the locution with (an older generation of) Jewish people.

    And to be honest, I'm not sure it's a true equivalent to it would be rude not to -- at least not here. To my way of thinking it is instead something of a coy feint, suggesting that the person who utters it (and I believe it's used almost exclusively about food) was neither planning nor hoping to be offered a snack, meal, or treat. Instead, he or she wishes to convey the notion that "I wasn't expecting this offer, but now that you've brought it up it does sound lovely."

    Though it's equally possible that, as my Mom used to say, I'm talking through my hat.

  22. "Who's she? The cat's mother?"
    I was often rebuked like this (in Kent, 1940s).
    One thing that was rude was to ask, or even know, the age of a grown-up. To this day I am affronted when asked my date of birth, which people are always doing.
    (Nobody has asked: what on earth is "vintage tea"? Or have I misread your article?)

  23. @Dick Hartzell
    I think you're right that "I wouldn't say no" is used almost exclusively for food and drink, but I agree with RWMG that it's not particularly Jewish.

    And in addition to the usage you mentioned - a coy way of accepting an offer of food - it can also be used as a way to make a suggestion:

    [Getting out of some event}
    What do you want to do now?
    Well, I wouldn't say no to some lunch!
    [Go off and find a restaurant]

  24. 'Vintage tea' is just series of words that is more likely in BrE than AmE. It's not tea.

    It occurs in contexts like:
    vintage tea rooms
    vintage tea cups
    vintage tea party
    vintage tea dance
    vintage tea parlour
    vintage tea tray
    vintage tea table
    vintage tea van
    vintage tea pot

    Before I looked that up, I would have bet that it would have been 'vintage tea towel' or 'vintage tea cosy', but neither of those were among the 35 examples in the corpus. Lots of parties--presumably where one wears vintage clothing.

  25. "One thing that was rude was to ask, or even know, the age of a grown-up. To this day I am affronted when asked my date of birth, which people are always doing."

    As a child I thought it strange when my godfather, who was Norwegian, said he was having a 40th birthday party, as British adults didn't publicise their ages. Nowadays, of course, it's quite common here to celebrate reaching a round number.

  26. A very interesting post -and comments. I'd never considered the point before.
    As for the 'cat's mother' that several people have mentioned, in our family it was "Who's she, the cat's aunt?".

  27. Turning to a phrase mentioned in passing in your post - I've always read "GOP" as "God's own party". I'm guessing that the phrase you use: "Grand old party" was the original, and that the theological form is in the process of replacing it. Is that correct?

  28. Well, I can't imagine anyone other than the religious and Republican referring to it as 'God's Own Party'.

    In the Corpus of Contemporary AmE, there are 37 instances of 'Grand Old' and 0 of 'God's Own'. In the GloWBE web-based data there are 97 and 2, respectively.

  29. I offended an Englishman (as told) because I said, "You're not going to believe this!" He replied, "Why would you assume I am not going to believe you?" Cute.

  30. I offended an Englishman (as told) because I said, "You're not going to believe this!" He replied, "Why would you assume I am not going to believe you?" Cute.

    Cute, maybe, but also a little baffling. After all, you didn't say "You're not going to believe me!, you said "You're not going to believe this!" Seems to me there's quite a difference.

    Are you serious about this guy being offended, or are you being facetious?

  31. Dick, I'm a little baffled that you're baffled. In my BrE speech there's practically no difference between You're not going to believe this! and You're not going to believe me! Each implies the other. The only difference is that the former is more idiomatic.

    In interactive speech it must surely function as a warning a pre-notifying signal by the speaker that he/she is about to say something incredible. It's most decidedly not intended to function as a prediction.

    For example

    You're not going to believe this! Fred says he didn't know the gun was loaded!

    The incredible thing foreshadowed is that Fred made that statement. It's not the content of the statement. One could equally well say

    You're not going to believe this! Fred says 'Hello'.

    I for one could never say

    You're not going to believe this and I don't believe it either.

    Well OK, it's possible to make a prediction out of these words by stressing ↘THIS. But it's very hard to imagine a context for it. The way we say it is

    You're not going to be↘LIEVE this!

  32. This, then is how I read Anonymous's anecdote

    1. Anonymous uttered the words, intending them to function as a warning

    2. The Englishman pretended to misconstrue the utterance as a prediction.

    This is the sort of joke that's only funny when you relate the exchange to somebody else who happens to be on your wavelength. The classic is

    AMERICAN Have a nice day!
    ENGLISH(WO)MAN Don't tell me what sort of day to have!

    The English-of-England speaker pretends to misconstrue the valediction as a command.

    Over the years, I've heard several people claim to have said this, but I have my doubts,

    3. Friends of Anonymous recognised that the Englishman was pulling his/her leg. But rather than explaining, they decided to pull the other one. They invented a BrE politeness rule that allegedly turned You're not going to believe this! into some sort of accusation.

    For connoisseur of jargon, there's a technical term for the intended function of your words when you utter them: illocutionary force. It leads to the somewhat more attractive term illocutionary uptake.

    The English(wo)man speakers in the two anecdotes affect to perform the wrong illocutionary uptake.

  33. This clip from a British regional news programme shows that referring to a woman as "her" in the person's presence is not regarded as rude, (at 27 secs):

  34. Andy JS

    1. It's the word she, not her, that my mother (among others) considered rude.

    2. if a word isn't considered rude on one occasion, that doesn't mean that it's never considered rude.


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