American words (most) British folk don't know

Some years ago a survey went (a)round from the University of Ghent on English vocabulary knowledge. I recall doing the survey and I believe I shared it on social media. Perhaps you did it too. Last week I read the published results: Word prevalence norms for 62,000 English lemmas by Marc Brysbaert and colleagues.


The point of the research was to establish how well known various words are in order to help psychologists (etc.) choose words for experiments. I was pleased to see that it included a table showing words that differed most for AmE and BrE speakers. So, my plan is to write two blog posts where I go through the lists of unevenly known words and see what I can say about them (or what I have already said about them). I'm starting with the words that were much more familiar to Americans and I'll put them into categories, rather than going down the list as published.

Here's the (half) table. (Sorry it's not very clear. All the words will be mentioned below.) The unfortunate headings 'Pus' and 'Puk' mean 'prevalence for US respondents' and 'prevalence for UK respondents'. These are not the prevalence scores that one can find in the data files from the paper (which are z-scores with positive and negative values), though, so I think they are just percentages—i.e. 90% of US respondents knew manicotti, but only 16% of UK ones did. The main point about them is that the scores are much higher for American respondents than British ones. 


 

Many of these words are relatively unknown in the UK because they refer to things that are not common in the UK. So, less linguistic difference than cultural difference. Many reflect the US's ethnic diversity.

Glorious food

The Italian American angle

The first two are pasta-related. Manicotti are a kind of large tube pasta, which are stuffed, usually with ricotta, to make the dish pictured to the right. The name is used both for the empty pasta and for the dish. It comes from the Italian for 'little sleeves', but is, according to Wikipedia, "an Italian-American dish". BrE speakers are more likely to know the very similar pasta/dish canneloni, which is also found in the US and Italy. The difference? "Manicotti tubes are ridged, larger and slightly thicker. Cannelloni tubes are smooth, a touch smaller and slightly thinner."*
 
Ziti is a smaller tubular pasta. Size-wise it is between penne (popular in both countries) and rigatoni. Rigatoni is what my family traditionally had for Christmas Eve dinner, and I usually have to explain that word to BrE speakers as well. (The study confirms that Americans are much more likely to know rigatoni.)  Wikipedia notes that "Ziti in the US is most commonly associated with the Italian-American dish of baked ziti. In Sicily it is traditionally served at a wedding feast." For more on pasta more generally, click through to this old post.
 
Provolone is an Italian cheese that you can get in the UK, but you just don't see as much as in the US. I like it on hot pastrami sandwiches, but it's usually in Italian dishes. Whether you pronounce the e at the end (when using the word in English) is a matter of personal preference—or possibly regional affiliation.
 

Fresh-water foods

Tilapia is a fresh-water fish that is apparently easy to farm. Its popularity in the US is fairly recent—I only learned it on a trip back to there maybe 15 years ago. Wikipedia says: "Tilapia is the fourth-most consumed fish in the United States dating back to 2002". It's originally from Africa, and the name is a Latini{s/z}ation of a Setswana word for 'fish'. Apparently you can get tilapia in the UK, but it's just not as common. My guess is that an island nation has less need of fresh-water fishes to eat.
 
Crawdad is a synonym for crayfish (or crawfish), which are abundant and popular as a food in some parts of the US. The word crayfish is used in both UK and US, and crawfish will have come over from the UK. The OED's etymology is helpful:
Etymology: Middle English crevice , -visse , < Old French crevice (13–15th cent. in Littré); compare crevis (masculine), crevicel diminutive in Godefroy; in Old French also escrevisse , modern French écrevisse , Walloon grèvèse , Rouchi graviche (Littré); < Old High German crebiȥ Middle High German krebeȥ , a derivative of stem *kraƀ- in krab-bo crab n.1
In Southern Middle English the second syllable was naturally confounded with vish (written viss in Ayenbite), ‘fish’; whence the corrupted forms [...], and the later crey-, cray-fish. The variants in cra- go back to Anglo-Norman when the stress was still on second syllable, and the first liable to vary between cre- and cra-; they are the origin of the modern craw-fish, now used chiefly in U.S.
So, the craw- came from the UK and later was mostly forgotten there. The -dad seems to have been added in the US as a "fanciful" variation, according to Oxford. Their example sentence includes more synonyms:
‘Whether you know them as mudbugs, ditch bugs, river lobsters, crawlybottoms, crawdads, or crawfish, anyone who has spent time in streams is familiar with crayfish.’

The Mexican-Spanish angle

I've covered (AmE) garbanzo bean versus (BrE/AmE) chick pea in the Big List of Vegetables.
 
 
Tomatillos are a member of the physalis family that look kind of like green tomatoes with husks. (Wikipedia gives Mexican husk tomato as an alternative name. The GloWBE corpus only has that one in South Asian countries.) You don't see these much in UK.  For the type of physalis you frequently see in the UK, here are some old tweets of mine

A tamale consists of a leaf wrapped around a filling—often a corn husk around a maize dough called masa.


Other foods, other cuisines

Kabob is simply a different spelling from what BrE speakers are used to. In BrE it's usually kebab. Since it comes from Arabic (and other languages that got it from Arabic), it's not surprising that the spelling varies—that happens easily when different people are moving a word from one alphabet to another. The cultural place of this food is very different, though. Americans tend to think of shish kabobs—little pieces of food (especially meat) on a stick, typically cooked over fire. In the UK, one often thinks of doner kebabs, which AmE speakers might call gyros, getting the idea from Greek rather than Turkish. That's the compacted meat cooked on a big spit, then sliced off for putting in a pit(t)a bread or similar. In the UK, that kind of kebab is stereotypically found at the end of a night of binge drinking. 
 
(Late addition: here's a corpus view. Note that K-Bob is not a spelling of this food. It's a prolific commenter's handle on a political website. Kubab and Kibib are names of other things as well.)



In AmE hibachi is usually a tabletop (AmE) grill/(BrE) barbecue or a kind of iron hot plate used in Japanese restaurants. The word comes from Japanese, but has shifted in meaning. Wikipedia can tell you more. 

Kielbasa means 'sausage' in Polish, but in AmE it refers to a specific type of sausage, which Wikipedia tells me "closely resembles the Wiejska sausage". You can find the word kielbasa in the UK in Polish shops, but it remains to be seen how many of these will survive Brexit.

Goober (or goober pea) is a regional (mostly southern) word for
the peanut. It's came into English from a Bantu language (perhaps Kikongo or Kimbundu), brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans. Americans who don't use this as a word for peanuts will still know it as a brand name for chocolate-covered peanuts—a mainstay of (AmE) movie theater/(BrE) cinema concession stands.
Goober can also refer to a foolish person—but that might have a different etymology. (Goober Pyle was a kind but simple character on The Andy Griffith Show—which still shows in repeats on US television.)

Medicine / disease

Two of the items in the list are generic drug names. I've written about acetaminophen (BrE paracetamol) in another post. Albuterol is a bronchodilator (asthma inhaler) known in the UK as Salbutamol, but I'd bet most BrE folk are more familiar with the trade name Ventolin. In the UK, this comes in a blue inhaler, while preventative inhalers' sleeves are mostly brown, so they're often referred to by colo(u)r: take your brown inhaler twice a day and your blue inhaler as needed.
 
Staph is short for Staphylococcus bacterium. Americans worry about getting staph infections. I'm sure British people do too, but they haven't obsessed about this particular germ enough to it a nickname. (At least, not until MRSA came along. That's is a very severe kind of anti-biotic-resistant staph infection, but Americans talked about staph infections long before that was in the news.) I remember staph being mentioned a lot in relation to gym mats at school. A partner to staph is strepwhich (looking at the data file) is also much, much better known in AmE than BrE. Now I see I've written about both of these germs before. So please have a look at the post on infections for more info!
 
I'll stick chiggers in this category. They're not a disease, but they feel like one. Chiggers are the larvae of a kind of mite. They burrow under the skin and it itches LIKE HELL. They exist in the UK and some people call them chiggers here, but the word comes up a lot less. Where I'm from, you get chigger "bites" from walking around in grass with bare ankles. There is less cause for walking around in grass with bare ankles in the UK, thanks to fewer lawns and colder weather, so I assume that's why people talk about them less. Wikipedia lists other names for them, which I've looked for in the GloWBE corpus. I give the US/UK (in that order) numbers after the names: berry bugs (1/0), harvest mites (1/2), red bugs (4/1), scrub-itch mites (1/0), and aoutas (0/1). Chigger is the most common name for them in both countries, but with 48 hits in AmE and just 7 in BrE.
 

Other cultural references

Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday that takes place between Christmas and New Year. I assume that's what Americans were recogni{s/z}ing in kwanza, rather than the Angolan currency

A sandlot is a piece of undeveloped land. The word is used especially when such land is used as a playing field, e.g. sandlot baseball.
 
A luau (or lūʻau) is a traditional Hawaiian party with food and entertainment. 

And all that's left is...

Conniption.  Origin unknown. It means a tantrum, hysterics, a fit of rage, and the like. It's often used in the phrase conniption fit (which means the same thing). Here are a few examples of its use from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:
  • They had a conniption when he starred in a movie
  • Your mom'd have a conniption fit if she heard you talkin' like that. 
  • wealthy Americans have conniptions at the possibility of a tax increase 
 
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So that's that! I'll do the words from other side of the table, known by Brits and not by Americans, in the next post. I won't promise it'll be next week. I might take the weekend off for my birthday!

49 comments

  1. That was Gomer Pyle, I believe, not Goober Pyle. Not that I watched it...

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    1. I'd recommend clicking on the link!

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    2. Goober Pyle was Gomer's brother. Both were on the Andy Griffith Show before Gomer was spun off onto his own show.

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  2. Goober Pyle (played by Goerge Lindsey) was the cousin of Gomer Pyle (played by Jim Nabors). Nomen est omen. Both names sound like a goofus!

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  3. Where I live in Western Canada there are a lot of "Donair" restaurants. I don't see "Doner" here much, and "gyros" might be on the menu at a Greek restaurant but not in the restaurant's name. From a brief scan of the web it looks like the "donair" spelling originated in Halifax and spread across the country.

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  4. Based on my experience, those US words are just as unknown (or at least unused) in Australia. I'll be interested to see your next article on this topic, and see how many of the UK-and-not-US words are unknown in Australia.

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    1. I've seen the British list and did the quizz a few weeks ago. Background, I'm an AusMerican (30 years in Oz, 29 yrs in California, in that order). I fared equally on both lists with about 80% correct. The food words, specifically for sausage varieties, on both stumped me. But we shall see what your experience is when the British list is posted and explained by Lynne.

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  5. I'm British and have never been to the USA (or wanted to), but I know most of these words.

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    1. I'm British and have never been to the USA (but would like to one day); every word in that list is new to me.

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  6. Something has changed at blogger, and I no longer get notified of comments on my blog (at least, not until they go into the moderation period). So, I'm leaving a comment in hopes of being notified like a regular commenter!

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    1. Just FYI - I can't click to enlarge the table. It's just an image, not a link.

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    2. How weird—all the other images enlarge with a click! Will try to fix.

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    3. Well, now it's a link, but it doesn't really help. I've changed the text accordingly. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  7. I know "crawdad" from the writing of HP Lovecraft, who, despite his much-professed love of British English, filled his stories with New England dialects. I recall some backwoods resident in one of his stores describing a monster as looking like a "crawdad", which sent me to the dictionary to find out what was going on!

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    1. I am afraid you must be thinking of some other author. I just checked the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft, and not once does he use the word “crawdad.”

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    2. Huh. I thought it was either "The Whisperer in Darkness" or "The Dunwich Horror" but perhaps not.

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    3. I think of crawdad as a Southern US word. You rarely see crawfish/creyfish/crawdad in New England (seafood is usually clams, mussels, lobster, shrimp, or scallops).

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  8. In Ireland "conniption" is moderately well known, while "Crawdaddy" was a leading nightclub of Celtic-Tiger Dublin; I think the name was just vague American branding.

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    1. In the early sixties the Rolling Stones and later the Yardbirds were the house bands at the Crawdaddy Club in London.The name was based on a Bo Diddley song.

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    2. Crawdaddy was an early and influential US rock magazine, published from 1966--one year before Rolling Stone's launch--to 1979.

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  9. These aren't so much USA words unrecognised in UK as loan words from different languages: zucchini from Italian as opposed to courgette from French is a common example.

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    1. All words come from someplace. That doesn't make them less a part of our language. And since some of the meanings are different in English than in the source language, that's makes them even more American English words.

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  10. Goober also means booger, particularly one that is hanging from the nose.

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    1. I laughed when I saw the word on the list! It can be anything handing from your nose!

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  11. Doner kebabs sound a bit like the spiedies I grew up with in Binghamton, NY. Also, "conniption fit" is used in a very funny gag in the 1966 film "The Wrong Box," with Michael Caine, John Mills, and a host of others.

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    1. Doner kebabs have slices of mystery meat. Spiedies are chunks of chicken. I don't think they're very similar.

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    2. I have never heard of brochetter for things stuck together on a skewer. (UK) that would be a kebab. You can also have vegetarian kebabs. I offer a current Waitrose search as evidence (https://www.waitrose.com/ecom/shop/search?&searchTerm=kebab)

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    3. brochette - damn all non-editable posts

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    4. You're right. I think I've just been to a lot more French restaurants in the UK than in the US. I've deleted that line.

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  12. I knew (having lived in America around 1980) that acetaminophen is the US name for the drug known as paracetamol in the UK.
    I hadn’t realised it was only recently introduced until I re-read a Kate Fansler mystery - Poetic Justice, by Amanda Cross, published in 1970 - where a ‘new’ drug from Britain, paracetamol BP, is mentioned as a painkiller preferred over aspirin.
    Looking forward to seeing the UK list!

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  13. I dimly remember 'goober' from a childhood reading of Br'er Rabbit (which I found largely unintelligible), and I had always vaguely assumed that it meant 'gooseberry'! I was familiar with fewer than half of those words.

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  14. BrEng speaker 70s, I've only heard of two of those words before, and only those for odd reasons.

    'Tilapia', this is a type of fish found in lakes in Africa. I only know that because in the early 1970s I lived there. I did not know it was used in North America as well, and

    'Kwanza', that was mentioned in a document I encountered when I was working about multicultural festivals, but without your note, I wouldn't have known when it was and I'm not sure whose or which religion it is. Likewise, I didn't know it was North American. It sounds African but it wasn't part of the calendar of the part of Africa I knew.

    I don't think most people here would have encountered either.

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  15. I am American, but I've never ever heard of "chiggers."

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    1. I am from Michigan and never heard of them until I moved to Texas and got bit by them whenever I mowed my lawn. Perhaps they are more often in warm weather.

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    2. I'm in western South Dakota, inside a small city, and have never been bit by one here. My dad's people were from a farm in the northwest corner of Missouri, just south of the Iowa line, and every time we went to visit we got bit. Chiggers especially love to get you anywhere you have elastic, so especially around bands of your underclothing, which makes their bites doubly horrendous. And yes, they are HELL, twice as itchy and twice as long lasting as a mosquito bite.

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  16. Lynne, re Difference of the Day, June the 10th: Your reading 'plough' as 'pluff' is correct, though that pronunciation is now only familiar to perhaps 3 to 4 million Brits. Read the 8th or 9th answer on this Quora page:

    https://www.quora.com/profile/Daniel-Walker?__filter__=all&__nsrc__=1&__sncid__=8355816448&__snid3__=12363226229


    The southeast of England is not all of the UK, but even there many of your neighbours will pronounce 'dough' as 'duff' - every time they say 'plum duff' for example (also 'up the duff' - pregnancy like dough rising).

    This Polish band probably learnt this song in the north of England - 'Sally's in the kitchen and she's baking the duff' (2.30 to 3.20) - 'duff' rhymed with 'chuff', also more common in the North.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=902X7u7JaL0

    Naturally I agree with you about the Londonisation of British English; we have nothing to fear from American English.

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  17. I have read most of those words, but was unsure of the meaning of many of them.

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  18. I would have expected more Spanish words or Mexican foods on the list.

    A goober is also a booger or any little glob of something, especially something that is where it shouldn't be or is sticky, like a little rolled up bit of glue or adhesive. Or eye goobers (mucus). Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

    I have always wondered whether crawdads are the same as what we in Wisconsin called "crayfish." Crayfish look like tiny lobsters, and the few I saw were so small that I doubt anyone would eat them. Less than two inches. You could find crayfish in the "crick" (creek), but if crawfish or crawdads came up, you were probably at a Cajun restaurant.

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  19. Thanks for this. I have a comment and a question. I had no idea conniption was predominantly US usage, as it seems very familiar to me. The question concerns a word I assumed I'd find in this list: copacetic. I only ever seem to come across that in books written by US authors. Would you be able to do a post on it some time?

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    1. And while you are at it, "zaftig", please.

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    2. Zaftig is a Yiddish word derived from the German word saftig meaning “juicy.” It is used by older men to describe a woman who is voluptuous. It comes off as a bit sexist and old fashioned but men over 70 can get away with it. I would probably say “curvy” if I needed to describe such a woman today.

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  20. Regarding the pronunciation of Provolone, dropping the final vowel in Italian words is regional to New York and New Jersey. It comes from Southern Italian dialects spoken by immigrants to the region and is not standard Italian.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/20/nyregion/you-say-prosciutto-i-say-proshoot-and-purists-cringe.html

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  21. I always said the final E, but my son and the local Subway Restaurants don't (as well as I think everyone else I've heard pronounce it), which gave me the impression that I was wrong. I'm glad to know that both pronunciations are used and that mine was acceptable after all. I'm going to go back to using it.

    For the record, this is in western South Dakota -- far, far away from NY and NJ. No clue why we seem to drop the final E out here along with those states, we don't have a lot else in common.

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  22. I (Brit, 61) had come across all but “Sandlot”, though I couldn’t have told you exactly what type of parasitic bug a “Chigger” was I only knew the “foolish person” meaning of “Goober”. I look forward to seeing the second list where I suspect the food words that Americans don’t know will be of French origin just as Brits struggle with those of Spanish and Italian origin. Confession time: I only realised Provalone was a “real” Italian cheese while on holiday in Tuscany a few years ago. I had only encountered it previously in the US as an ingredient in deli sandwiches, cheesesteaks, etc, and, foolishly, assumed it was an American invention; a sort of homage to Italian cheese.

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  23. Amusingly, I've just been watching this week's episode of the sitcom Ghosts and the ghost of the Edwardian Lady Button said she'd been having a conniption fit. Of course, whether that is authentic rather depends on how well the writers did their research.

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  24. While researching Chiptle UK's menu for my comment on the British words American don't know post, I noticed that they call the tomatillo salsa tomato salsa on the menu (but use the "tomatillo" in the ingredient list). It makes me wonder if that was intentional since they don't think their customers know what tomatillos are or a mistake by the person who wrote the menu copy.

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    1. I think I've only come across the word tomatillo once before, in a crossword, and that was about a year ago.

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  25. Gomer Pyle, not Goober Pyle.

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    1. The existence of Gomer does not cancel out the existence of Goober: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goober_Pyle

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Abbr.

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