UK-to-US Word of the Year 2021: university

The annual preamble  (you can make that rhyme if you try hard enough)

Each year since 2006, this blog has designated Transatlantic Words of the Year (WotY). The twist is that I choose the most 'of the year' borrowings from US-to-UK and from UK-to-US. 

This year's WotY posts are a bit later than usual. Had I had strong ideas about which words to crown, I might have written the posts during my Christmas (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation, but I didn't, so I thought I'd wait till I was on the plane back home on New Year's Day. Except that I didn't get on a plane on New Year's Day, and the travel woes got more and more complicated after that. A few days' recovery was needed. So I'm taking the opportunity to announce my Words of the Year on the Zoom programme/show That Word Chat on 11 January, and this post will post at that time.

During the 2020 WotY season, I was very interested in the variability of the language for our universal experiences of the early pandemic. Isolation, lockdown, and quarantine were Words of the Year from different English-speaking nations, but generally referred to the same thing. (In the latest issue of the journal Dictionaries, which I am hono(u)red to edit, Wendalyn Nichols and Lewis Lawyer tell the tale of how the WotY process led Cambridge Dictionary to record new senses for quarantine.)  By the end of the year, there was hope of a vaccine, a word that ended up being or inspiring several dictionaries' 2021 Words of the Year. But BrE jab had already poked its head into the US in December 2020,  thanks to Oxford-Astra Zeneca's early vaccine successes, so it was my 2020 WotY. Since then the transatlantic vocabulary traffic has seemed rather calm. With all of us glued to our computers and our streaming services, you'd think that words would be happily travel(l)ing while we stayed (at) home. But no. It was really difficult to find clear candidates for the 2021 SbaCL WotYs. 

Eligibility criteria:

  • Good candidates for SbaCL WotY are expressions that have lived a good life on one side of the Atlantic but for some reason have made a splash on the other side of the Atlantic this year. 
  • Words coined this year are not really in the running. If they moved from one place to another that quickly, then it's hard to say that they're really "Americanisms" or "Britishisms". They're probably just "internetisms". The one situation in which I could see a newly minted word working as a transatlantic WotY would be if the word/expression referenced something very American/British but was nevertheless taken on in the other country.
  • When I say word of the year, I more technically mean lexical item of the year, which is to say, there can be spaces in nominations. Past space-ful WotYs have included gap year, Black Friday, and go missing.
And as we shall see this year, I'm even willing to go sublexical. So without further ado...


The UK-to-US Word of the Year: university (= AmE college)

Now, of course, the word university is general English and has been in use in the US for a very long time. (The University of Pennsylvania has been so called since 1779.) So rather than talking about the importation of a word, we're talking about AmE adopting a BrE sense/usage for a word form it had already. (We've certainly had WotYs like that before, including jab, ginger, and bump.)

What's changed is that US people are talking about their higher education place/experience as university more than they used to. Back in my day (I hope you read that with a suitably wavering voice), we always called it college, no matter whether the institution had college or university or institute or maybe something else in its name. And, of course, that's what Americans mostly still do.

But some Americans seem to be saying university in some of those contexts, particularly after the preposition in. The News on the Web (NOW) corpus has three US examples of in university for 2011 (from just two sources), but over 20 for 2021. The turning point seems to have been 2019, but 2021 showed us it wasn't going anywhere. Here's a poorly formatted sample (I'll try to fix it later): 

21-12-01 US

Houston Chronicle

  focused on earning money and started his journey during his academic years in university .

21-11-03 US

Human Rights Watch

  community support officer also showed him the process of enrolling in university

21-11-02 US

for-profit educational products aimed at students not yet in university .

21-10-18 US


  was founded by Neo Zhizhong and Alicia Cheong, who met while they were in university .

21-09-16 US

in-game inspiration combined with his background studying English literature in university .

21-08-29 US

. The tale centers around two former friends who knew each other in university .

21-07-30 US


none of the knowledge I needed was taught in university .

21-07-14 US

  West Berlin fell on November 9, 1989, when Erpenbeck was twenty-two and in university .

21-06-25 US


  guy now, I've learned more outside of university than I ever did in university .

21-06-13 US


  , I'd heard the word " Hittite " before. I studied history in university .

21-05-25 US

  divorce, both of them travel back in time to when they first met in university .

21-04-30 US


  get the whole preamble, I started in this sort of Blockchain space back in university .

21-03-28 US

East Tennessean

  and clubs are a great resource for people who are struggling with their faith in university .

21-03-20 US


  And so I was encouraged to cook more. I cooked for my friends in university .


But in BrE, it would be at university in most of those contexts:

GloWbE corpus GB section: At university 707, in university 55

Rather than borrowing the BrE expression at university, AmE is using that BrE sense of university in the same prepositional contexts as AmE uses college:

In GloWbE corpus US, 'in college' outnumbers 'at college' 1195:113.
One does find some relevant examples of at university in AmE, but there something interesting is happening. Note the capitali{s/z}ation in this tweet:


Forbes magazine has a couple of 2020 uses, both by non-Americans about non-American subjects—but what's interesting is the American-seeming capitalization—probably not how the BrE/AusE-speaker authors would have written it.  

Her father also passed away from testicular cancer during her second year at University
There seems to have been some sense in 2020 that University was in some way an abbreviated name or title of the place. I was trained in AmE to capitali{s/z}e the 'u' when referring to a particular institution as an institution, but in those cases (in AmE) it was always preceded by the. For example, my employment contract would be between me and the University. But in the more BrE-like usage, it's not preceded by a the and so Americans don't quite know what to do with it. In AmE, you would study at the University of Pennsylvania, but when you do so you're in college. We're not quite ready for at university, even though we're happy with at school.

[See this old post for discussion of the different meanings/uses of school, college and university in the two countries, which will cover at least half of the things that you might be itching to mention right now.]

As well as familiarity with BrE university, I wonder if part of the motivation for this change-in-progress is a new division of labo(u)r between community colleges and universities. When I went (BrE-from-AusE) to uni, it was usual to apply to a four-year college/university and go for four years (or so). But changes to the costs of higher education have led many Americans to take their first year or two at a community college (see that old post again) and transferring their credits to a bachelor-degree-granting institution after taking their (AmE) general education courses at a cheaper, more local place. Maybe the distinction between a place where you get some tertiary-level credits and where you can get a bachelor's degree seems more relevant now. This is just supposition, but it could be investigated...

This WotY was inspired by Ben Yagoda's posts on his Not One-Off Britishisms blog and his tweets on the topic. As well as noticing preposition+university, he's also been tracking university students, as a synonym for college students in AmE.  I don't want to repeat all his good work, so please see his posts on related topics here. When I asked him yesterday what he'd pick if this were his WotY decision, he chose university. Luckily, I'd already started writing this post! 

Thanks to Ben for all his great, year-round Britishism-in-America tracking, to Mark Allen at That Word Chat for letting me announce my WotYs at his (orig. AmE) shindig, and thank you for reading!  To read part 2 (UK>US) click here.




  1. It will be interesting to see what happens to our references to that second or third shot/jab. When I googled it, I found that you say you've been boosted. I've heard "boostered." "Boosted" sounds a lot to me like being helped into a toddler's high chair.

    1. Last week the American Dialect Society chose "boosted" as its 2021 pandemic-related word of the year.

    2. My favourite variation on that is "emboostened".

    3. Not that it matters, but in American English boost is also a (likely by now obsolete) slang term for steal.

    4. In Massachusetts the joke is that "booser" is spelled "Borcester". (Following how we pronounce the city of Worcester as "woosta")

  2. This is my comment-catching comment.

  3. I think "university" is a good choice here; as a Brit, I've also noted its increasing US usage with some degree of surprise.

    Your sample of and commentary on AmE use of "in university" is interesting. My American friends find it amusing and/or perplexing when they hear me say someone is "in hospital" rather than "in the hospital". Yet here were have examples of AmE speakers using "university" in much the same way that BrE speakers use "hospital" — almost as a kind of mass noun, rather than designating a specific establishment.

    1. The 'the' can go missing when you're playing a certain role with respect to the thing. I've written more about it here, and written about it better in The Prodigal Tongue.

    2. (That was not my most articulate comment, so click the link, please! Glad you liked the choice!)

    3. Thanks for the link! Your explanation works, I think, but I remain intrigued as to why BrE and AmE differ on this. (Especially since, as one commenter points out, AmE has "in prison" where one might expect it to have "in the prison".)

    4. May I suggest The Prodigal Tongue? As I say, that's where I properly discuss it. AmE says 'in prison' for inmates because it fits the same pattern as in school, at church, etc. Where we differ and how (and possibly why) the pattern falls down is in the book.

    5. I'll check it out. Thanks.

  4. >I was trained in AmE to capitali{s/z}e the 'u' when referring to a particular institution as an institution

    Do you know what guidebook recommended this? It's against Chicago and seems to be province of marketing departments trying to make their institutions sound important. The marketing folks at my employer always call us "the Press," but the editorial side folks would lowercase this on the interior text of any of the books and journals we publish.

    1. I don't know which one, sorry.

    2. Capitalizing "University" in a contract may be a legal writing style issue. It's normal for the parties in a contract to be capitalized even in the short form. I see lots of "Consultant will" in contacts I review.

  5. British students (undergraduates) will tell you they are ‘at Durham’ or ‘at Sussex’ when asked which university they attend. Would US students tell you they are ‘at Harvard/CalTech’ or ‘in college at UofT’?

    1. They would say at Harvard.

    2. Perhaps they would if they are at Harvard. I daresay students at another university would say, "I go to .." in response.

    3. I use "he is at Stanford", eliding "studying" (or "teaching") the same as I would say "when he was at Facebook", eliding "worked".

  6. This distinction between Americans saying in university and Brits saying at university made me think of an ad/advert I hear on the public radio station I listen to in NYC. During the week the station, WNYC, plays the BBC News Hour from 9 AM to 10 AM, but the ad, delivered by a BBC newsreader, publicizes the weekend edition of the News Hour by noting that "news happens at the weekend, too." Every time he makes this observation I quietly say to myself "No, news happens on the weekend, too."

    BTW, Lynne: I guess it's not especially important to your post that you've chosen to show a picture of John Belushi in the "college" movie Animal House. Perhaps your readership on both sides of the Atlantic is of a certain age and thus, like me, familiar with both.

  7. Slightly off-topic, but any thoughts on "uni" ? My impression is that it's a borrowing by the Brits from/via Aussie soaps, but i) is this correct ? and ii) does the US use it ?

    1. It's come up here:


The book!

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