leafy

David Cameron and his house in 'leafy' Holland Park
Daily Express




Brits sometimes tell me that the problem with American politics is that the system of checks and balances, with the separate executive and legislative branches, means that changes are hard to make. My experience of politics in the UK since 2010 leaves me feeling that changes are too easy to make. Have an election and the next thing you know, things that have been built up over years can be thrown away. Get a new cabinet and within the year school curricula may change, departments of the civil service are closed, public properties are sold off. Because it's so much easier to destroy than to build, the recent Conservative (and coalition) governments (approx. AmE administrations) have wreaked change that undoes generations' worth of work and that will affect many generations beyond the current decade. But perhaps the most surprising thing for Americans watching the news is how quickly David Cameron had to move out of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's official residence. On the 8th of July, there were two candidates to replace Cameron, and the winner of their contest would be decided on the 9th of September.  Three days later, one of the candidates dropped out, and so the remaining candidate was (almost) automatically appointed head of the ruling party, and therefore the next prime minister. She could have been made prime minister that day, but the queen was out of town, and you can't become prime minister without the monarch's ceremonial say-so*.  So two days later, on Wednesday, Theresa May was made Prime Minister, which meant she got to move into 10 Downing Street right away. None of this two months' warning that residents of the White House have.

But that's all just preamble for this tweet from Tony Thorne:

Sounded right to me, but I had a quick look.

My first question was: Which things are described as leafy in AmE and BrE? This result from GloWBE shows us just nouns after leafy for which there are sufficient numbers for some statistical analysis.

 My second question was, if Americans don't say leafy suburb, what do they say?



The software isn't searching for meanings, it's just searching for any adjectives right before suburb. As it happens it's given us some near-synonyms, for leafy in BrE is code for 'affluent'. Tony clarifies:



It works as code better in the UK than in the US for geographical reasons. The UK has far fewer trees than the US, and the way cities are built means that there are few trees within them. In the US, the poor neighbo(u)rhoods in a medium-sized city may well have trees (of course denser cities have fewer).  I live in a nice part of town in Brighton and our street/road has almost no trees. And of course, no lawns. And little in the way of (BrE) front gardens/(AmE) front yards. (It would have had a few more trees in the past, but Brighton lost many to the Great Storm of 1987 and to Dutch Elm disease.)

The numbers for leafy suburb in the US are not zero, as Julie Lawson notes:

I noted in reply that the Washington Post is a hotbed of Britishisms. (It's been coming up a lot as I do the research for my book.) None of the six in the GloWBE corpus are from the Post but at least three are from DC-area writers/sources, so it may be fairly local to the area.

The semantics of suburb are not quite the same in the US and UK. (But I'm going to have to leave that for another day.)  I've just shown suburb in the table above because if you search for suburb* with a wild-card at the end, you get suburban and suburbanite and it all gets a bit messy. But if we look at the plural alone, we're informed a bit more about American society...





*Interesting side note: say-so has been around since the 1600s, but OED says "In 19th cent., chiefly U.S. and Eng. regional (midl.)." It now seems to be general English again. 

33 comments

  1. Thanks for clarifying, Lynne, especially as I rather cherish the word while suspecting it. I live in the authentically leafy but relatively obscure London suburb of Teddington, once a poor backwater but on its way to 'desirability', though not on a Cameronian scale.

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  2. While in general you're right about the leafiness, Liverpool has a surprising amount of trees (and the highest proportion of urban parkland in the UK). Some of the parks are in swankier bits of town, some are right by some of the roughest bits.

    The main bit of Toxteth, where the rioting occurred in the early 1980's wasn't a suburb, but was certainly a leafy boulevard. It's also right in the middle of one of the most deprived bits of the city and in 2000 when the Blair government was funding IT outreach to the 2,000 most deprived council wards in the country, the second most deprived ward after one in inner city Birmingham. (There were definitely arguments about how the list was compiled and the final rankings and the top 2,000 made sure every council area could apply for funding which was convenient, but being in the top 100 was still a good indicator of real deprivation.)

    On a different note, is there a US indicator of affluence like that? Not necessarily for suburbs but for some sort of residential area? I was reading something about a gated community in a piece of fiction which I have no experience of, and I realised on reading this piece I emotionally read "gated community" as equivalent to "leafy suburb + security guards and gates"

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  3. I always feel wary of commenting, as I don't have a background in linguistics, but in my mind "leafy" connects to the garden cities movement of Ebenezer Howard at the turn of the 20th century. In London, such locations in Bedford Park and Hampstead Garden Suburb have become very desirable, and expensive, places to live.

    There's also Metro-land, and idea of rural tranquility in a 1930s London suburb. Wikipedia's article on Metro-land mentions leafy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metro-land#Town_v._country):

    "With similar ambiguity, Metro-land combined idyllic photographs of rural tranquillity with advertising spreads for new, though leafy, housing developments."

    It quotes Country Life: "...in its early days, it offered a rose-tinted view of the English countryside ... idyllic villages, vernacular buildings and already dying rural crafts. All were illustrated with hauntingly beautiful photographs. They portrayed a utopian never-never world of peace and plenty in a pre-industrial Britain."

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  4. I remember visiting Brighton in 1987, the day after the great storm. I passed that green area next to the big church to the east of the station. The number of felled large trees was astonishing.

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    1. Funny how that day is etched. I was living in very leafy Winbledon at the time and every road was blocked.

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  5. "Leafy" does appear in AmE, frequently associated with the concept of "suburb," if not the word. And it connotes "expensive" and "genteel" (and often "white") over here, too.

    A quick search of recent NY Times articles brings up "leafy refuge" (in Los Angeles), "leafy and upscale enclave" (Staten Island), "leafy backyard" (Paris), "leafy Fifth Avenue" (New York), "leafy Cairo suburb," and "leafy Chicago suburb" -- all since May.

    In U.S. journalese, the converse of "leafy" in city descriptions is "gritty." Today's news stories have many references to Nice being a "gritty metropolis." My city, Oakland (California), is also frequently described as "gritty," which sometimes means something about poor people and other times means something about brown people.

    (In AmE "leafy" often collocates with "greens" -- e.g., spinach, kale, chard.)

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    1. My neighborhood has been described as leafy more than once but I suspect it's because it's alliterative too.

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  6. I'm sure I remember a column by John McIntyre bemoaning the fact that, as Nancy Friedman says, American newspapers use 'leafy suburb' to indicate a certain kind of affluent place that was usually contrasted with the 'gritty streets' of the inner city -- the kind of place where people lead hardscrabble lives.

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  7. I've seen "tony suburb" used in Canadian English with the same connotations. It took me ages to work out what it meant and I don't know the derivation (I'm a UK expat).

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  8. Yes, Nancy, I didn't say it doesn't occur in AmE, but the numbers do tell a story. There's also a huge influence of BrE in US journalism at the moment, and so the recentness of those 'leafy' citations doesn't dissuade me that it's predominantly British and of British origin. Ben Yagoda (on Twitter) suggested it was general journalese, but then the example he gave (the leafy glade of a cemetery) definitely connoted 'green' rather than 'affluent'.

    Looking at the Corpus of Historical AmE, there are 4 examples of 'leafy suburb' in the 2000s: two from the Christian Science Monitor, which is another American source that I've noted in my research this past week as being very BrE-influenced. Those two collocate with things that make one think 'affluent'; the other two are from TIME and less clearly so, e.g. "Two more decrepit buildings came down in June in Weinbergweg, a leafy suburb of the dismal industrial city of Halle in the former East Germany." The two examples from before 2000 are in literary sources.

    In contrast, the British National Corpus, collected in the late 80s-1990 (where we have 2 instances from COHA) has 11 cases of 'leafy suburb/s/ia'. The BNC is 4x smaller than COHA, but really all that's relevant is the data from COHA from particular decades and right now the link that tells you the amount of data for each decade is not working--so I can't figure out what the numbers mean. But unlike the 2 literary uses in 80s-90s COHA, the BNC has 'leafy suburbs' in a wide range of text types--which does say something.

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  9. A report from leafy non-suburbia: The NYC Parks Department has been running a census of all our street trees. Since 2015 they have counted almost 600,000 of them, and expect to find about another 100,000 when they're finished. That's not counting all the trees in the parks, nor does it count feral Ailanthus altissima (the iconic "tree that grows in Brooklyn") that grow wild in empty lots and such. Looking at satellite footage shows just how densely leafy this major city actually is.

    Greater London has 8 million trees, but that counts both park trees and street trees, as well as regions that are much more suburban than most of NYC.

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  10. I'm always surprised by how green London is - if you look at an aerial map (Google Earth will do!), almost every street has trees of some kind. Even the inner-city area where I live has trees in the non-shopping streets, and a fair few green spaces.

    But yes, "leafy" probably does equate to the US "tony" (and, like Unknown above, I'd love to know the etymology of that word).

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  11. Eloise, your reading of gated community is accurate, though of course some gated communities are extremely affluent and exclusive areas full of mansions, and others are more for the common person. For example, I've known people who have lived in gated communities that take the form of a neighborhood that includes a private golf course: the houses themselves are priced similarly to a comparable house in a different neighborhood (though I think there are extra fees associated with the home ownership, kind of like a condo), but the "gated" part affords them access to the golf course and clubhouse, as well as restricted access to their neighborhood. Sometimes it helps create a certain demographic as well, such as a retirees-only community.

    Anonymous, I don't think "tony" is as common in Canadian English as it seems "leafy" is in BrE. In context, I understand what it means, but I can only think of one or two times that I've ever seen or heard it used. I hear lots of descriptors for wealthy neighborhoods (upscale/swanky/wealthy/affluent/desirable/prestigious/exclusive, etc), but I can't think of a commonly used coded word like "leafy". People describe nice older neighborhoods as "tree-lined", but it's not the default coded word. Perhaps "heritage"? If I heard someone lived in a heritage home, or a neighborhood with heritage, it would connote wealth to me.

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  12. Tony is (North) American English and has been around since 1877. It's from the earlier form high-tone(d) 'dignified', and means 'claiming or pretending to social elegance'.

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  13. I (UK) have never heard "tony" but I immediately thought of Georgette Heyer's novels replicating early 19th century English. She often refers to "the ton" meaning fashionable society, and presumably pronounced in the French way.

    In the middle-class suburb where I live the local council have felled several street trees recently, presumably because the roots were making the (BrE) pavements uneven.

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  14. Regarding AE equivalents of leafy, my daughter and I have a standing joke. We both watch a lot of true crime shows, and if the victim is middle- or upper middle-class, they are always described as living in an "enclave." A secluded enclave, an opulent enclave, an exclusive enclave--white homeowner victims always live in enclaves.

    I don't remember ever hearing this term in actual conversation, but trust me, if you ever move back to the US and have the bad luck to get murdered, you'll have been living in an enclave.

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  15. John Cowan said:

    A report from leafy non-suburbia: The NYC Parks Department has been running a census of all our street trees. Since 2015 they have counted almost 600,000 of them, and expect to find about another 100,000 when they're finished.

    As a NYC resident I was sure John was going to finish this little summary by mentioning that New York has been on a mission to plant one million trees and its Million Trees NYC website claims it's already reached this goal.

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  16. To Eloise's question: I would not say that "gated community" maps onto "affluent (or leafy) suburb" in quite the way she imagines. To my (US, east coast, raised in a genuinely leafy and also metaphorically leafy neighborhood of the sort Julie Lawson mentions) ears, "gated community" connotes an enclave of McMansions with no trees (because it's been clear-cut for development and/or is in a drought-ridden area) where people are trying to protect themselves from the wasteland around them, usually in an exurban context. Whereas really comfortably wealthy (and leafy) suburbs or suburb-like city neighborhoods are insulated by all kinds of less visible barriers (the price of entry, zoning, transport(ation), histories of segregation, etc.).

    To Julie's point about leafy Upper NW Washington, the map in this post shows how the density of tree cover aligns with historical race and class boundaries in DC.

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  17. In a news item on ARM, the computer-chip company being sold to the Japanese, the reporter described its Cambridge site as leafy.

    Sot the word is not so much associated with suburbs as with not inner city — of which the suburbs are a residential subset.

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  18. I stand corrected about "leafy" not being as common in Can/AmE -- the first sentence of an article in The Atlantic this week begins, "In leafy, liberal Park Slope and the Brooklyn neighborhoods nearby...". Interesting!

    http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/the-great-middle-school-divide/491483/

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  19. Be careful there, Laura. One instance does not equal 'as common'.

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  20. Cameron had much longer than usual. Major was out of number ten before noon on the Friday. About twelve hours after polling closed. We don't faff around.

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  21. You allude to the semantics of "suburb" and hold it for another day -- leaving me wondering on a really basic question: might UK English today use the word "suburb" more than American English does? Would that bias the results of your analysis?

    I wonder this based on my visits to friends in Australia, where I noticed much greater use of the word "suburb" in the singular than seemed typical in the U.S. I suspect it's partly a result of the way Australian cities are structured -- the "City of Melbourne," for example, is a tiny jurisdiction correlating only to the central business district. Everything else is a "suburb." So, a US publication refers to "leafy, liberal Park Slope," a neighborhood of Brooklyn, that in an Australian context would probably be a "suburb." Is British usage closer to Australian?

    Indeed, Laura's example from the Atlantic might show that "leafy" carries the same connotations in AmE, but in use with a specific town/neighborhood/region name. "Leafy suburb" as a set phrase may be rare, but "leafy Grosse Pointe/Westchester/Brentwood/Jamaica Plain" may happen all the time and be maddeningly hard to search for.

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  22. You allude to the semantics of "suburb" and hold it for another day -- leaving me wondering on a really basic question: might UK English today use the word "suburb" more than American English does? Would that bias the results of your analysis?

    I wonder this based on my visits to friends in Australia, where I noticed much greater use of the word "suburb" in the singular than seemed typical in the U.S. I suspect it's partly a result of the way Australian cities are structured -- the "City of Melbourne," for example, is a tiny jurisdiction correlating only to the central business district. Everything else is a "suburb." So, a US publication refers to "leafy, liberal Park Slope," a neighborhood of Brooklyn, that in an Australian context would probably be a "suburb." Is British usage closer to Australian?

    Indeed, Laura's example from the Atlantic might show that "leafy" carries the same connotations in AmE, but in use with a specific town/neighborhood/region name. "Leafy suburb" as a set phrase may be rare, but "leafy Grosse Pointe/Westchester/Brentwood/Jamaica Plain" may happen all the time and be maddeningly hard to search for.

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  23. Christian: The programm used takes into account the word frequencies, and 'suburbs' in AmE is about twice as frequent as BrE. As you can see from the tables, AmE 'suburb' co-occurs with lots of other words--it's not in any way an infrequent word. And 'leafy' co-occurs with other words a great deal in AmE, but not with any geographical ones.

    If I look at just 'leafy' to see what nouns come after it (not relying on the stats function that requires above a certain threshold of co-occurrences), then I get the following geographical terms, where the interpretation might be 'affluent':

    Street/s: US 4 UK 21
    Part/s (of town, etc.): US 1 UK 11
    Lane/s: US 3 UK 16
    Avenue/s: US 0 UK 7
    Area/s: US 1 UK 7
    Campus (which is a more AmE word): US 3 UK 3
    Boulevards (a more AmE word): US 1 UK 1
    Park/s: US 0 UK 5
    Grounds: US 1 UK 3
    Town: US 1 UK 2
    Suburbia: US 1 UK 2
    Village: US 0 UK 2

    'Neighbo(u)rhood(s)' does have more in US (but they are very small numbers), but that's not surprising because it's a very American word--UK would more normally use 'area' or 'part of [city]', etc.

    Neighbo(u)rhood/s: US 6 UK 4

    And in the other cases, it's clearly about greenness rather than affluence: leafy forests, glades, etc.

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  24. Ah, I see I omitted a point from my post that I meant to underscore: my question is about the incidence of "suburb" singular, not "suburbs." That was the difference I noticed in Australia, where an area or town would be called a "suburb" far more often than would be familiar in AmE. But the generic "suburbs" is really common, at least in the parts of the US I've lived in. I'd be much more likely to say that I grew up in "the suburbs" than in to describe the area I grew up in as "a suburb" -- even though, as an unincorporated area in Maryland, it really couldn't be described as anything else. That's the reason for my suspicion that we might not see "leafy" before "suburb" in American sources -- and instead would see "leafy [specific placename]" of the type Laura mentioned for Park Slope. But it'd be pretty tedious to try to search for "leafy" in front of every wealthy area in the US...

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  25. There's no real difference in number of 'suburb' in US and UK data, and there are no instances of a single-word city name after 'leafy' in the corpus. There are also no 'leafy Park Slopes' because there are no 'leafy Park' in the data. Yes, you can find some examples of those if you look on Google, but the form is not prevalent enough to make any mark on the Global Web-Based English corpus.

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  26. As always, your commenters beat me to nearly every point, but of course I was just about to protest that I grew up in the US and "leafy" was a familiar synonym for "tony" to describe a neighborhood (though more specific, insofar as it connotes streets canopied with old growth trees, whereas you could describe a suburb like Paradise Valley, Arizona as very tony but -- given its location in the middle of a barren desert -- not at all leafy). However, I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of DC, as did Christian Johnson above, and you seem to have a "DC exception" here.

    But I would still note emphatically that it isn't the Washington Post trying to "be international," that I've heard "leafy" since the 1980's, certainly, in American usage, and that we would rarely call something a "leafy suburb" but rather a "leafy neighborhood" or, as Christian says, we'd say "leafy Cleveland Park," "leafy Potomac," "leafy Winnetka," etc.

    Maybe most wealthy American suburbs are too new (1950's +) to have gained the old-growth trees associated with wealth in the Northeast Corridor!

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  27. And this leaves (leafs?) me to wonder if we would describe a tony neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest or British Columbia as "needly" if it were shrouded in evergreens!

    Certainly, in Southern California if not elsewhere in warm climes, you could connote a well-off part of town by calling it "palm-fringed" or "palm-lined." (Just a quick Google search reveals a 1997 New York Times article referring to an American expat living in a "palm-fringed neighborhood" of Hermosillo, Mexico, presumably the wealthiest one.)

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  28. There's no reason the Washington Post couldn't be trying to be international since the 80s. :)

    As I replied in another comment, the corpus has zero instances of any leafy + place name, so it can't be all that common. This is not to say that it doesn't exist--of course it exists But the fact that it is more common in British English is just a fact.

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  29. ANOTHER TEST

    I'm still posting on old threads to test whether my subscription is working.

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Abbr.

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