In case you weren't paying attention, the UK had a general election yesterday, and the exit polls and final results were a surprise, given that the previous day's polls had indicated a much closer result. Because this is a language blog, I'm going to stick with a language observation, however tempting it is to do otherwise...
David S in the US emailed me with the following this morning:
Some time within the last year or so I started noticing the distinctive usage of the phrase "shock poll" in the British news media; since then it seems to have migrated to the US, though apparently not in major news outlets. It appears so far as I can tell to mean simply "poll with startling results", with adjectival "shock". Some googling shows that "shock survey" and "shock study" are out there as well.Are British readers surprised to know this is a Britishism? Indeed it is. The dictionaries I've checked have no separate entry for shock as noun premodifier meaning 'surprising', but it's very much there in the language, as can be seen in this screenshot from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English.
Is this use of "shock" as an adjective in fact coming out of British newspaperese, and is its usage spreading beyond a delimited set of nouns?
The columns of numbers are: TOTAL || US Canada UK Ireland Australia.
This list of words comes a good way down the list of [shock + noun] items in the corpus (hence the lack of column label(l)ing) because there are other premodifying uses that don't mean 'surprising', but have to do with more physical senses of shock, such as shock absorber, shock treatment and shock wave. These are General English, not specific to any country.
Another premodifying shock means 'intending to shock', as in shock rock (theatrical rock music, intended to shock/offend) and shock jock (i.e. a radio DJ who expresses unpopular opinions in order to gain attention and responses). The OED lists these as American in origin, but shock jock now has a much stronger showing in Australia in GloWBE--and it's known and used in BrE too. Some of the examples that are showing as British in the table above could also be interpreted as 'intending to shock' --particularly shock tactic. But for most of them, what is meant 'a [noun] that the media didn't see coming'. Shock value, which also indicates 'intention to shock' is not American in origin, as far as I can tell. The OED's first example of that phrase is from the UK in the 1930s.
Though the OED doesn't list this the 'surprising' sense of shock, it does have a 1974 example of shock news, which seems to be of the same ilk:
1974 Times 3 Apr. 1/1 (heading) Shock news is broken to EEC ministers.Like David S, I blame British media. British headlines are notorious for "noun piles", and shock poll is a two-word noun pile that is conveniently (for headline writers) shorter than shocking poll result. I recommend reading Language Log on the subject of noun piles, but here's an example (without a shock):
The OED does, though, cover another 'shocking' BrEism: shock horror. This is used as a compound noun on its own or in a premodifying position, as in these OED examples:
1977 Gay News 7 Apr. 15/3 The message must have got through: certainly there were no shock-horror reactions and fun was had by all.1980 Times Lit. Suppl. 31 Oct. 1240/4 The shock-horror world of the media men.1981 Brit. Med. Jrnl. 18 Apr. 1312/2 The shock-horror TV Eye of recent weeks.
For some of us, the news today is less shock and more shock-horror. Oops, I got political.