UK-to-US Word of the Year 2023: if I'm honest

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.  The question this year raises is: does 2023 deserve SbaCL Words of the Year?

The eligibility criteria remain:

  • 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. I've also been known to declare a pronunciation the Word of the Year.

The UK > US WotY was nominated by Nancy Friedman and endorsed by Ben Yagoda. It is most definitely a phrase:

if I'm honest

In Ben's post the phrase is associated with Great British Bake-Off (AmE: Great British Baking Show) judge Paul Hollywood. When I looked for it on YouGlish, there were a whole slew of examples from the British (BrE) motoring show Top Gear, on which they review cars. In both program(me)s, the phrase is useful in softening criticisms (which both shows have a lot of) by framing them as a truths expressed with some reservation. If I'm honest marks something as an admission of some sort. It's similar to to be honest, which has long been said in the US (and the UK) for much the same reason. (And then there's honestly, which I'll come back to.)

Here are some recent American uses of the phrase:
  • Ryan Gosling, on being cast as Ken in Barbie:  "I just decided I was going to Ken as hard as I can. I Kenned in the morning; I Kenned at night. If I’m honest, I’m Kenning a little right now.”
  • A Real Housewife of Potomac, on getting divorced: "I've just been a little bit complacent about it, if I'm honest, because there are benefits to being married."
  • A Manhattanite writing about an experiment in sustainable living: "If I’m honest, part of me hoped to find the challenge untenable so I could say the cure was worse than the disease and give up."
  • A Chicago police officer commenting on the city's mayoral race: “If I’m honest, I think Catanzara may have some blame here”

These kinds of phrases are discourse markers. They do not add factual meaning to the sentence they're in, but rather make a comment on the speaker's attitude, or stance, toward(s) what they're saying. 

Is it a British phrase? Yes. Here is if I *m honest (i.e., if I'm honest or if I am honest) in the 2012 data of the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, where it occurs 7.6 times more often in BrE than in AmE. (Click on the images to embiggen them.)

GloWbE shows 1.84 per million words in BrE, 0.24 per million words in AmE

And here it is in British sources in the News on the Web Corpus: 

bar chart shows UK rate of 'if I'm honest' increasing since 2000

In the 2012 data, the phrase occurs at a much higher rate in GloWbE than in NOW—the NOW number only reaches GloWbE's rate (1.8 per million words) in 2023—because the types of texts in the two corpora are different—there's more variety and informal language on GloWbE. That's something worth keeping in mind when we look at the US numbers. Speaking of which, here they are:

bar chart shows "if I'm honest" increasing in US since 2000, rising particularly in 2015 & 2016, then down again, then rising again in the past three years
album cover: Blake Shelton, If I'm honest (black and white picture of white man's face with mustache)

A few things to notice here:
  • Yes, the phrase is going up in AmE news, from 0.08 per million words to 0.19 over the past 13 years. 
  • But it's still below the 2012 GloWbe number (0.24 pmw). One would imagine that if we had current data that was collected in the same way as GloWbE, we'd see a lot more there. 
  • And it's wayyyyyy below the British numbers.
  • A country music album had the title If I'm Honest in 2016, which helps (to) account for the higher number then.

Here's a view of the Google Books numbers, comparing If I'm honest with To be honest (though keep in mind that to be honest here is not necessarily the discourse marker. It could be in any number of sentences about honesty.)
graph showing 'to be honest', low in the 1900s, rising in the 2000s, more in UK than US. "If I'm being honest' lines are very low by comparison

And a comparison of it with the equivalent if I'm being honest, which is less common, but making a move in AmE.

graph shows UK 'if I'm honest' rising steeply in past 20 years. In US, it is rising but at a slower rate. "If I'm being honest" is much lower in both countries

The pictures (and numbers) tell the story of a British expression that's become more and more common in BrE, and that has raised American exposure to (and use of) it. But note that it's rising far faster in BrE than in AmE. So, does it meet the first of my eligibility criteria? Maybe not. But it's what I've got for this year!

P.S.  Honestly

Honestly, used as a discourse marker in a sentence seems to be more common in AmE. But as a stand-alone expression of exasperation, it seems more common in BrE (Honestly!). It's definitely more common from the BrE speakers in my house than from me, but maybe I'm just more exasperating to live with than they are. Here are searches with punctuation from GloWbE:

Will there be a US-to-UK WotY?  To be honest, it's unclear at this point! 


  1. Happy New Year! What is the American equivalent of "motoring", which you flag up as British?

    1. I'd call Top Gear 'a show about cars'.

    2. Ye-es, but it was (it's been discontinued) as I understand it (I didn't watch it very often), definitely more about motoring than about cars!

    3. I guess the equivalent would be 'driving', but saying 'a driving show' would be unhelpfully ambiguous.

  2. Motoring programme?

  3. I'd have gone with "Wait for it", meaning "Here comes a joke which you will find highly amusing".
    That one's got pretty popular over here lately.

  4. "If I'm honest" was a catch-phrase of the Welsh characters in Gavin & Stacey.

  5. I was on a UK jury. One defendant kept using the phrase "If I'm honest..." before every statement. It made him sound really dishonest :)

  6. Ryan Gosling is not American.


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