Untranslatable October VII summary

Better late than never (I hope) here is the summary of the SEVENTH 'Untranslatable October'—my
annual tweeting of an 'British–American untranslatable' (that is, item lexicalized in one national dialect and not the other) on each weekday. If you'd like to complain that any of the following does not qualify as 'untranslatable', please first read my provisos about what's meant by untranslatable in this context. Yes, it's an imperfect word for the situation. But so is nearly every other word in nearly every situation.

BrE safeguarding legalistic processes for protecting vulnerable people. See Wikipedia for description. (Starting to be seen in US, but nowhere as prevalent/broad.) Suggested by @Gnorrn

AmE podunk (adj.) - There are lots of words for small towns or remote places, but podunk is interesting for its use as an adjective, describing to a place of little importance, as in: Her degree is from some podunk college.  Suggested by @kirkpoore.

The 2016 gurning competition winner
at the Egremont Crab Fa
BrE to gurn - to make (or BrE pull) a grotesque face. (In Scotland the word also means 'complain peevishly'.) Gurning competitions are a long-held tradition, particularly in Cumbria.

AmE shut-in (n.) - a person confined to their own home due to (physical or mental) infirmity.

BrE health and safety - it refers to safety regulations, but the phrase's cultural importance goes far beyond what a phrase like OSHA regulations would do in the US. Sometimes mocked as Elf and Safety, a joke that takes advantage of two Londony dialect features: h-dropping and th-fronting (th->f).

AmE blue-ribbon - as in blue-ribbon panel. Not the same meaning as winning a prize, it's about people who are chosen on the basis of their high reputation for some other activity. See Wikipedia.

BrE fry-up - a breakfast of separate, mostly fried foods, usually including eggs, sausages, bacon, some starch, and, around here, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans. Now, this is a debatable inclusion, as it could be argued that the fry-up itself doesn't exist in the US. We'd never put some of those things on a breakfast plate. I took the position here that a full English (breakfast) (which is sometimes treated as a synonym of fry-up) would not be a legal untranslatable for my purposes, because it assumes certain types of ingredients and breakfasts with those ingredients are not found in the US (so the US doesn't have the expression because it doesn't have the thing). But since fry-up is more ambiguous about what's on the plate, and Americans do eat fried, separate foods on a plate for breakfast (especially in diners) and we don't have a word for it (other than listing the things on the plate), it counts as something that could be an expression there but isn't. Suggested by @mhanson62 

AmE recuse - to challenge in a legal context on the grounds of conflict of interest. Hence to recuse oneself: to remove oneself from discussion or position so as to avoid conflict of interest. I got complaints about this one because Englishfolk thought "but it's a word we use all the time". But really, it wasn't until recently a word that Brits (except for Scottish legal types) had much exposure to.  I know because I wrote a blog post about it 10 years ago.
Hanging out on the stoop in NYC. Image from here.

BrE parp - an onomatopoetic word for (as opposed to a straight imitation of) the noise of a fart (unlike raspberry, refers only to the fart-noise, not to the imitative lip-noise)

AmE stoop - the front steps of a (porchless) house. Used especially in northeastern US, borrowed from Dutch

BrE lock-in - a time when customers are locked in a pub (by their agreement!) to continue drinking after legal drinking hours. Suggested by @lilyglowember

AmE lock-in - an event in which teens are locked into a church/school/community cent{er/re} for a night of wholesome fun, study, or fundraising. wiseGEEK has more.  (Suggested by many people after the BrE lock-in.)

BrE break one's duck - (of an individual, usually) to score a first point. Explained further by World Wide Words. Suggested by @lawwife2005

AmE padiddle Also: pediddle, or as we said it in my family, perdiddle. It's a game in which you call out the word and possibly kiss or punch (depending on whether it's with your sweetheart or siblings) the person next to you when you see a car with a headlight out. (In my family, it was perdiddle for a headlight, padaddle for a tail light. By extension, it becomes a name for a car with a faulty light (and that's the meaning I'm deeming the Untranslatable). Here's Wikipedia on it.  Suggested by @sethadelman

BrE a good degree - an undergraduate degree that is easily 'usable' for employment or (post)graduate study. Which is to say, a first or 2:1 (pronounced 'two-one') in the English degree classification system. US degrees are not classified, but instead students' transcripts, with grade-point averages, are used as evidence of academic success. There's no cut-off between the 'good' and the 'bad'.

AmE chicken scratch - cramped, illegible handwriting. Some discussion as to whether BrE spider scrawl is the same. To me they bring up different images of the type of writing, but maybe they are close enough to count as translatable. Several correspondents pointed out that there are chicken-related expressions for bad handwriting in many languages.

BrE well that’s me told then - a passive-aggressive response given when the responder finds their interlocutor patroni{s/z}ing. On Twitter we discussed whether AmE That'll teach me! is the same, but there was some agreement that, as @xtnjohnson put it, "that’ll teach me implies some genuine self-reproach — this [BrE} phrase deftly shifts focus to the other party". But thinking further on it now, I think the usage is translatable as:  I stand corrected.

AmE bully pulpit - a position of political power from which one can 'inspire or moralize' World Wide Words covered it here.

BrE fall between two stools - to either not be or not take one of two good alternatives

AmE to go stag - (for a man) to go to an event without a date. Suggested by @SimonKoppel

BrE the family home - a legalistic term that's become common in journalism. The Shelter charity offers a definition and discussion here.  Suggested by @cococoyote.   pointed out that primary residence might serve as a US legal equivalent, but that doesn't have the traction or connotations that family home has beyond the courtroom.

Of course, on the first of November, I started having ideas for next year's list--but I am pretty sure I'll reduce to a week then. It is definitely more work than my usual Differences of the Day.

Today is the last day of the Term from Hell. I should be posting more regularly in the new year. (Thank you to a few people who expressed concern for my well-being because of the lack of posts!) Next up will be the Word of the Year posts, for US-to-UK and UK-to-US words that have made a splash in 2017. Nominations still welcome!


  1. well that’s me told then
    This immediately reminds me of Ma Rainey's use of told in

    You Hear Me Talkin' To You (Click)

    This YouTube file slightly cuts off the final verse, which in full goes:

    Grandpa got grandma told
    He said her jelly roll was most too old

    Non-metaphorically, AmE jelly roll = Br swiss roll — but that's not what Ma was singing about.

    Note also the use of fetch which is certainly not BrE. In AmE is it non-standard?

    You hear me talking' to you, I don't bite my tongue
    You want to be my man, you got to fetch it with you when you come

    1. John Sebastian used this as the basis for a Lovin' Spoonful song:

      Wild about my lovin',
      I like to have my fun.
      If you want to be a girl of mine
      You got to bring it with you when you come.

    2. This chorus is taken from Jim Jackson's 1928 record:

      I'm Wild About My Lovin' (Click)

      John Sebastian essentially covered Jackson's song, adopting his chorus, two of his verses, and even his guitar introduction.

      At the start of the twentieth century Jim Jackson was performing in touring medicine shows (providing background entertainment to the pitches of quack doctors), while Ma Rainey was starring in the larger tented shows attached to circuses. Both songs belong to the same early Black popular idiom preceding the Blues.

      From a language point of view, it's interesting to see an apparent updating of fetch it with you to bring it with you.

      Jim Jackson's song took on a folk character and was recorded with entirely different verses by an even more old-fashioned singer-banjoist. The phrase bring it with you when you come was usefully non-specific for comic purposes. A song of that title put the words in the mouth of a preacher demanding that his congregation come up with a substantial collection — for his benefit, of course.

    3. the old use of fetch where we would today say bring is strange to me in exactly the same way as AmE 'Can I get a coffee?' was when I first heard it. (It's catching on in BrE now.) To me, it suggested 'Can I go and fetch a coffee?'

  2. to gurn
    I was surprised at the spelling, and the citation as a verb. The noun is familiar enough to me but I've never heard the verb used. Still, the OED allots both to Frequency Band 2 (the second rarest).

    I've never seen the noun in written form, and just assumed it was spelled girning. But I see from the OED that girn is an older spelling, whereas gurn is more usual for the contest sense.

    I also discover that the events are sometimes called grinning contests.

    For anyone puzzled by the writing either side of the winner's neck, it isn't an inflated scarf or a life-jacket. Gurning is performed through a horse-collar.

    1. The UotD was really 'gurning' and I made a last minute decision to use an infinitive form here because defining it as a gerund was a pain. Probably should've put up with the pain.

    2. I wonder, how standardized is the spelling of "gurn"? Here's a reminiscence by Joni Mitchell about the great jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius:

      "Jaco was a self-proclaimed mutt. He had so many different bloodlines running through him. But one of them was Irish and I always felt that was fairly evident. Maybe it was an Irish spirit that the best of our communication went out on. Jaco, you know, was a gerner. A gerner is a funny-face maker. They have competitions in England. They pull their lips over their noses. A lot of the best gerners have no teeth—they can collapse their whole face. It's a folk art, and in rural places like the north of England, maybe Wales, they have contests where these hideous contortions are adjudicated. And Jaco was a master at it. He did all sorts of obscene things with his face. He'd say, 'Do you want to see me make my face like a woman's pussy?' I swear! I don't know if I want to say this & but he'd do it. He'd turn his mouth so it went sideways, pull his lips into obscene shapes and I'd say, 'Oh my God!' He was so much fun to be with."

      source: from Musician magazine, December 1987

      Possibly Mitchell (who is Canadian) or the American magazine editor had never seen "gurn" in writing, and just guessed at the spelling?

  3. I don't think I have ever heard an AmE equivalent to 'a good degree'. I have often heard 'liberal arts degree' used to connote the opposite, though. As in, 'I have a liberal arts degree, btw, would you like fries with that order?'

  4. heath and safety
    This forms a pair with political correctness. Both are frequently tagged gone mad to constitute an accusation.

    The accusation may be a serious (though sometimes misguided) complaint by socially conservative harking back to a golden age when you don't need to agonies over potentially provoking words or risky behaviour. But it may also be an ironic comment on how the words/behaviour might be seen by a Daily Mail reader.

    Professionals who really are employed to enforce health and safety regulations are constantly dismayed. Anecdotes of things banned because of health and safety are — more often than not— either events that never actually happened or else paranoid cancellations motivated by fear of being sued.

    1. Comedian Stewart Lee does a good bit about his nan conflating the two: https://youtu.be/99s19HBs-6A?t=2m55s

  5. "Bully pulpit" is an interesting one, in that the phrase is still used in AmE even though the original meaning of 'bully' is pretty much lost. I wonder if most people today connect 'bully' with the average schoolyard thug, and think that a 'bully pulpit' is something whose occupier is in a position to push people around.

    In Teddy Roosevelt's day, 'bully' meant splendid, jolly good, just-what-the-doctor-ordered, or something like that.

    1. The OED marks the 'term of endearment' sense of bully with the dagger-sign and tag obsolete except as an archaism.

      Before narrowing down to 'average schoolyard thug' a bully was

      'a blustering ‘gallant’; a bravo, hector, or ‘swash-buckler’ (OED).

      This persisted in Teddy Roosevelt's day in the then popular Bully Song later known as Looking for the Bully of the Town.

      (A 1907 recording can be heard on YouTube, but it's not for sensitive ears of today — replete with the then acceptable n-word.)

    2. I remarked above on Grandpa got Grandma told. Coindentally, the final word of the Bully Song lyrics were

      When I walked that levee round
      I was looking for that bully and I got him found.

    3. Well, bully for you! Don't people still say that?

  6. Speaking of Elf and safety, I saw a picture of the lobby of a company in California where they have a Christmas tree surrounded by big orange cones.

    Safety first, I guess.

  7. Never heard of "parp" before despite being British. But then I'm not a fan of new words unless they've really proved themselves.

    1. I've mostly really seen it used in the Beano, and other comics using similar styles that I've since forgotten the names of.

    2. Terry Pratchett uses "parp" somewhere... As the sound of a machine, if I remember correctly.

  8. Blue Ribbon Panel and Royal Commission are similar.

    1. Both composed of 'the Great and the Good'.

  9. I thought "I stand corrected" was sincere, if a bit pompous. I didn't think it was sarcastic or critical like "That's me told."

    1. I agree (BrE) that ‘I stand corrected’ is a sort of apology for being factually incorrect in conversation.
      Another British version of ‘being told’ is ‘well, that’s put me in my place’ - implying a correction that reinforces the superiority of the other person or of their argument. And the remark is also passive-aggressive.

    2. I'm American, and have heard the phrase "Well, I guess I've been told" used in the passive-aggressive way described for "That's me told."

      I agree that "I stand corrected" is different - it expresses with humility that the user realizes they were mistaken.

    3. I've certainly heard (and possibly used) "I stand corrected" in a passive aggressive fashion (AmE), often in response to mansplaining.

    4. I've heard, "I guess you schooled me" in Canada as an equivalent sarcastic and passive aggressive retort although I've also heard, "schooled!" as something your friends say after someone has told you off.

    5. In my wife's family (American) they use the term "guess he/she told me!" in a way that I think is similar to "That's me told." It's a sarcastic response that conveys a possible lack of acceptance of what was said or a mild rebuke of the manner in which it was said, but either way marks an end to the exchange.

    6. That last one is definitely one I've heard and does have the same feel. So, not so untranslatable after all!

  10. 'Parp' suggests an old-fashioned motor horn to me (like Mr. Toad's 'poop-poop').
    Shakespeare's Nick Bottom is sometimes addressed as 'bully Bottom' meant in a favourable sense.

    1. David Crystal in Shakespeare's Words glosses bullyas a term of address amounting to 'dear' or 'excellent' and expressing encouragement and/or warm companionship.

      It appears as a blokish/laddish address twice used to Bottom, The Host in in Merry Wive of Windsor uses it profusely. And Pistol uses it in Henry V addressing a stranger in disguise who is actually King Henry.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Curiously (or not?) the BrE usage that most corresponds with the example you cite for "podunk" (somehow onomatopoeia tells you roughly what it means, btw) would itself be US in origin - you will hear people speak of a "Mickey Mouse university" (or in the classic line Victoria Wood gave to her most Daily Mail character: "Tony Blair? Stick two poems up in a bus shelter and call it a university!")

    1. Actually, I would argue that Podunk University and Mickey Mouse University aren't quite the same thing. Mickey Mouse University implies a lack of inherent rigor, something worth less (not worthless) and easy to skate through (possibly "rinky-dink"). Podunk implies in the middle of nowhere, small, underfunded, and surprising when something of quality comes out of it (location is definitely part of the definition). ITT Tech was Mickey Mouse. Bemidji State is Podunk (apologies to any Beavers out there - but both of those can be googled for the reference). Larry Bird was another great example. It would make perfect sense to say that "the hick from French Lick" was from "some Podunk town in Indiana."

    2. I'm with you on that, Amanda.

      Mickey Mouse = non-rigorous, possibly popular.
      Podunk = rural; you've never heard of it.

    3. Doesn't Britain have "Wigan" to mean the same as "podunk"?

  12. I'm surprised to see "recuse" defined as primarily meaning "to challenge in a legal context on the grounds of conflict of interest," as opposed to "to remove oneself on the grounds of conflict of interest." I see that the OED has meaning 2.a. as "To reject or renounce (a person, authority, judgment, etc.); (Law) to object to (a judge or other legal officer) as prejudiced," but I (being chiefly N. Amer.) had only ever encountered the reflexive version until this very minute.

    1. Yes but 2b reads

      2 b. refl. Law (chiefly N. Amer. and S. Afr.). Of a judge, juror, etc.: to disqualify oneself from adjudication on the grounds of a possible conflict of interest. Also occasionally intr.

      Lynne's posting ten years ago preceded the latest OED amendment to recuse. The online entry now shows the 2009 Third Edition version.

      The observation rare now applies only to the general non-legal senses 1a 'reject something offered', 1b 'reject an ordinary appeal'. Sense 3 'refuse to do something' is marked as obsolete.

      2a as referred to by Maddy above speaks of challenges essentially to people:

      2a. To reject or renounce (a person, authority, judgment, etc.); ( Law) to object to (a judge or other legal officer) as prejudiced. Also occasionallyintr.,

      This sense is not geographically restricted — unlike the reflexive 2b, whichis rare in the English jurisdiction. (I can't speak for the Scottish.)

  13. family home
    This doesn't feel at all 'legalisti'c to me. The OED defines it thus:

    family home n. a home belonging to or lived in by a (particular) family, esp. over several generations; (now also) a home suitable or designed for use by a family.

    One of the three quotes must surely have been written by an American:

    1914 Princeton Alumni Weekly 20 May 671/2 Gaston P. Philip '96 died suddenly on October 11, 1913, at his family home at Claverack, N.Y.

    1. That OED definition combines more than one usage. That is, 'his family home' is not 'the family home', so it isn't the same as the legalistic one that is BrE-particular. The 1914 example is how I'd use 'family home' in AmE, but 'the family home' as used in the context of, say, a UK child-custody case, does not have the 'over several generations' connotation that I'd expect in AmE. I believe that's why it struck my American lexicographer correspondent.

    2. I see no difference between his family home and the family home. The difference lies between the family home and a family home. The two uses are:

      1. the home of the/his/her/my etc family

      2. a home suitable for a family

      The fact that a phrase may be used in a child custody case doesn't necessarily mean that it's confined exclusively to legal usage. the OED's third example is:

      2007 J. Mansell Thinking of You xlvi. 332 Six bedrooms, sea views... It's the house of our dreams, a proper family home.

      In a family court, the compound might be used either way:

      • the place which up to now has been the home of the child

      • a place where the child should be able to enjoy family life

    3. Since I've copied two of the OED quotes, let' see the remaining (and earliest) one. To me, it seems to denote the 'home of the family' usage — without any connotations of 'over generations'.

      1816 H. G. White in Speech Charles Phillips Guthrie versus Sterne (ed. 4) Introd. 10 The ties of conjugal affection are the slavery of the will, and the family home a prison-house of the inclinations.

      Even if this was delivered by a lawyer in court, it doesn't sound remotely legalistic (to me).

    4. I've finally spotted your link to Shelter Scotland. As I see it, the page explores how a phrase meaning 'the home of the family' is narrowed down to something more precise in Scottish Law and administrative practice.

      In effect, it defines what officials and lawyers will understand by family and home in a range of circumstances.

      The link they give to English Shelter suggests that there is no similar effort to narrow the term outwith (ScE) Scotland.

    5. OK, it turns out there is one use of the family home in the Shelter England website.

      But in the short-term, those of us who fall on hard times need early advice and support to avoid losing the family home.

      To me that's entirely non-legalistic — meaning simply 'the place that has up to now been the home of the family'.

    6. "the family home" shows up more than 5 times more in BrE than AmE (GloWBE and News on the Web corpora), and often does so in texts about divorces, bequeathals, police reports, bankrupcies--that's what I mean by 'legalistic'.

      If it doesn't strike you as different from 'his family home' but does strike US lexicographers as different is probably further evidence of a transatlantic difference!

    7. texts about divorces, bequeathals, police reports, bankruptcies

      In other words, contexts where the erstwhile home is in doubt though e.g. disputed ownership, loss of ownership, the absence any more of of a family.

      When the status is not in doubt, we call it simply a home.

      We might also use the term to distinguish a new domicile from the place where we recently lived with the rest of our family, and to which we still feel some attachment. The new might be our home, the other our family home.

  14. 'Elfin safety' is most commonly used. It adds a little to the humour and more closeley relates to how it is spoken in certain parts of the U.K.

    1. I have never seen "elfin safety", whereas I see "elf & safety" all the time, so I don't think the former is more common, though it is certainly charming.

    2. "most common" is easily checked. In the Corpus of Global Web-Based English there are 3 instances of 'Elfin Safety' and 41 of 'Elf & Safety' (with various spellings of the '&').

  15. I think Padiddle is uniquely AmE as it is often learned as a game on long road trips, best played especially in the Midwest on straight flat roads (or it may just be that I played it growing up along I-57 - also similar to, but distinct from "slug-bug", another car game involving punching people).

    I would also argue that "going stag" is genderless these days. "Is your husband here?" "No, I'm here stag."

    Finally, and this is a question inspired by the comments (and apologies if addressed anywhere already, I didn't look), is "a Daily Mail reader" like "does it play in Peoria" - meaning appealing to or an exemplar of the everyday working man, or does it have a different connotation?

  16. Amanda, the stereotype I had in mind is male, right-wing, middle-brow, middle-class, middle-aged or older, socially conservative (to put it mildly,) assertive, outspoken, and supremely confident.

    1. Ah - FoxNews (except that doesn't assume middle-class). Thanks.

  17. Hmmm. I consider "fall between two stools" a perfectly good American expression. See it used all the time.

  18. On 'fry-up', I've also heard the phrase a 'breakfast-all-day' used to mean much the same thing, transposed from the practice of some cafés - particularly (BrEng) 'greasy-spoons' of offering their café version of a cooked breakfast, eggs, bacon, beans, etc. etc. etc. all high on the cholesterol all day as well as just at breakfast time. It counts as comfort food (is that a geographically limited expression or does everyone use it?)

    On 'recuse' meaning 'to excuse oneself because others might think your personal circumstances might make you biased, that has come into English usage, but it may not have been as recent as this year. More like sometime over the last five.

    The word, 'recuse' has another derivative in Br. English which is a bit old fashioned. If you're my age (60s) and did any sort of history at school, a 'recusant' was a person who remained Roman Catholic after the Reformation. It has still been used into recent times to distinguish Catholics from that background, often aristocratic, from those descended from more recent arrivals, e.g. from Ireland or Europe, or converts. I suspect Jacob Rees-Mogg would like people to think he is one, but his family was as Protestant as the rest of us until one or them married an American Catholic a generation or two ago.

    It used to be pronounced with the stress on the first, not the middle syllable but this seems to be changing.

  19. If we're talking little farts, surely 'trump' is a more appropriate word than 'parp' this year?

    I really hope that makes it as next year's UK-to-US WOTY. I'm sure many Americans would be grateful for it - it certainly makes the headlines more bearable on this side of the Atlantic.

  20. Could falling between two stools = stuck between a rock and a hard place?

    Also, I’ve never heard falling between two stools used by anyone here in the States in person or on TV/in movies. Maybe it’s regional since another American commenter said it was familiar to them.

    1. No, kadycee. On two counts:

      1. Falling expresses a result, generally of a decision, while stuck expresses an impasse, generally leading to indecision. More often than not, the former described action and the latter inaction.

      2. When you fall between two stools, both missed alternatives are more acceptable than the mess you've landed in. But between a rock and a hard place, both the alternatives are equally unacceptable;e.

  21. I would say the use of 'a good degree' was used differently growing up in England.

    It would be used as an abstract measure of something. "I found her to be a good degree nicer to me this time".

    Or "she ran the distance a good degree faster than before".


The book!

View by topic



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