Showing posts with label WotY. Show all posts
Showing posts with label WotY. Show all posts

2015 UK-to-US Word of the Year: backbencher

It seemed a relatively quiet year for transatlantic words (after last year's two-words-per-country madness). As ever I'm very grateful to readers who make nominations for the title--especially those in the US who have a better eye on what's going on there than I do these days.  And so for UK-to-US Word of the Year, I've gone with one that was nominated by Irene C. and supported by Anonymous and Kagi Soracia:


Here's what Irene said about it: 
I've seen the word used this year (singular and plural, but more commonly plural, it seems) by US print media (with some TV mentions) to refer to the members of a certain congressional caucus who were first elected in the elections of 2010/2012/2014, and so at this point can't all be referred to as "freshmen", the usual term for first termers. But the point of the caucus is that they are influential as a bloc but aren't leadership, and are in fact opposed to their own partisan leadership. Ironically, the caucus' primary grievance with that leadership has been the way in which congressional procedure has been altered along Westminsterian lines (centralizing power in the speakership, making the position partisan, tightening party influence over committees, the Hastert Rule) since Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995.

I'm not quite sure the term quite fits as a description of this caucus' position in terms of power, but the term has been used to refer to its members in 2015.
It was news to me, and struck me as somewhat odd, since the term has a particular meaning in BrE that doesn't really migrate to a non-partliamentary system. To quote the BBC UK Politics site (with added emphasis):
The vast majority of parliamentarians do not hold ministerial or shadow ministerial office and are known as backbenchers. They are so-called because they sit on the back benches of the Commons or Lords - ministers and their opposition counterparts sit on the front benches.
In the US system, members of the legislature are not members of the cabinet (which is part of the executive branch of government) and there's no such thing as a shadow cabinet in the US system. There's also no assigned seating in the House of Representatives, so no one has to be 'on the back benches'. For those reasons backbencher struck me as a strange travel(l)er. And yet--this is what words do; they travel and they change. Semantic change is a common theme in this blog's Words of the Year.  In this case, backbencher has gone from being a literal description in the UK to being a metaphorical one in US politics. It seems to refer generally to members of Congress without particular standing (e.g. as Speaker or Whip--and maybe also chairs of important committees?), but particularly to those who like to cause a bit of trouble by not necessarily following the party line.

Ben Yagoda, on his Not One-Off Britishisms blog, wrote about US use of backbencher in 2013. As Yagoda notes, the term goes back to 1910 in UK politics. The first US use to refer to US politicians he's found is from 1988 in the New York Times, quoting Newt Gingrich. Ben has noted elsewhere that Gingrich seems to like Britishisms:
If Jim Wright were a backbench member, I probably wouldn’t have done anything…. But he’s the Speaker, and everything he could have done all his life as a backbencher becomes self-destructive when he becomes third in line to be President of the United States.
I've found an earlier one in The New Republic via the Corpus of Historical American English: 1987. It again refers to Republicans:
It's understandable how Republican backbenchers in the House can come to view politics as a form of warfare
But it wasn't too long before it was also being used to refer to Democrats, as in this 1991 article about Senator Tom Harkin--again in the New Republic, via Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):
The congressional leadership eyes with wariness the contentiousness of the Iowan senator [Tom Harkin]. But breaking through the niceties of bipartisan etiquette to savage the opposition is essential to the backbencher's appeal. He practices a deeply rooted politics of frustration, still echoing with the populist oratory of William Jennings Bryan, that has been suddenly galvanized again.
(The first article is by 'The Editors', the second by Sidney Blumenthal. It's possible Blumenthal wrote both.)

Why is backbencher WotY for 2015?  Has its use risen lately?  I can't easily tell,* but it certainly seems that people are noticing it these days. As the US gears up for elections, perhaps it will be heard more. In other words, it seems topical enough for the title.

Thanks again to the nominators!

For the US-to-UK WotY, please see the next post!

* It's difficult to investigate whether its use for US politicians on the rise because that involves clicking through and reading every single context it occurs in to determine whether it's referring to an American or reporting on parliamentary politics elsewhere. It's also hard to find corpora that go all the way up to 2015. COCA ends in 2012, and it has no uses of backbencher after 2010. Of the five uses of singular backbencher in COCA from after 2000, four are about Americans. Of the 11 plural uses, five are about Americans. Searching for it on US newspaper websites gives me a smattering of usages since 2010.
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Words of the Year nominations?

It's that time of year again. Dictionary publishers are already starting to announce their words of 2015, ignoring anything interesting that might happen in November and December. Poor November and December.
The twist on Words of the Year on this blog is that I choose the most 'of the year' borrowings from US-to-UK and from UK-to-US. For past WotYs, see this old post. (And from that post you can click further to read the reasons for various WotY choices.)

I go into this WotY season with no favo(u)rites. What do you think? Are there any US-to-UK or UK-to-US borrowings that are particularly 2015-ish? They don't have to have first come to the other country this year, but they should have had particular attention or relevance in the other country this year. Please nominate them in the comments below (not by email or Twitter, please--it makes more work for me to keep track of many different streams).

I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on the matter!

Miscellaneous news and shameless self-promotion

I'm giving two talks this month:
  • Wed 25 November (13.00), University of Sussex campus: 'Separated by a Common Politeness formula: please in American and British English' Click here for more details. All welcome!
  • Fri 27 November, Thanksgiving lunch, English-Speaking Union, West Sussex chapter, Chichester: 'Separated by a Common Language'. Click here for more details
I have also started a new blog, and have quickly populated it with some posts. When I started this here blog, I was working on antonyms in the day job and blogging about British and American English as a hobby. Now I'm writing about British and American English as part of my day job, so I've made myself a little outlet for antonym thoughts. That blog is not intended to work like this one--I won't be taking requests for posts, for example, and I'll mostly be using it to keep track of things that amuse or intrigue me, rather than to try to educate people about lexicology. But if it's of any interest to you, it's called Who Shall Remain Antonymous.

And it occurs to me that (BrE-ish) I've not said anything on this blog (at least I don't think I have) about my good news. For 2016, I will be one of the inaugural recipients of the National Endowment for the Humanities' Public Scholar award. What this means is that I will finally have the time to write the book that this blog has threatened to spawn for some time. (The book is actually a closer relation to the How America Saved the English Language talk that I've given many times in England. That is to say, it's more the grandspawn of the blog than the spawn.) I've also been fortunate enough to receive a small grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust to do some work in dictionary archives, which will continue the train of thought I started with this blog post, and contribute research for part of the book.

The blog has also spawned a series of four articles for English Today, to be published starting with the first issue of 2016.

So, that's the bloggy blog spawn for the moment. And as soon as I finish marking these essays (which this very post was a procrastination measure against), I'll have another proper post for you here.

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Word of the Year round-up

Since I presented four Words of the Year in four posts, I thought it might be useful to have one post that lists all four. Then I thought: why not have a look at all of the US-to-UK and UK-to-US Words of the Year since I started doing them in the first year of the blog?  Yeah, why not?  So here's a (orig. AmE) round-up of the words to date, followed by some reflection/critique of my picks to date.

From US to UK I've declared these Words of the Year (click on them to be taken to the original post):
2006: muffin-top
2007: cookie
2008: meh
2009: staycation
2010: shellacking
2011: for the win - FTW
2012: wonk
2013: Black Friday 
2014 (adjective): awesome
2014 (noun): bake-off

From UK to US I've declared these Words of the Year:
2006: wanker 
2007: (baby) bump
2008:  to vet (e.g. a candidate)
2009: to go missing 
2010: ginger (redhead)
2011: kettling
2012: bollocks
2013: bum
2014 (adjective): dodgy
2014 (noun): gap year

My thoughts on these:
  • I think I've got better at it over the years. The first year is a bit of an embarrassment, because muffin top is probably originally Australian. It may have been reinforced in the UK by use from the US--at least that was my perception at the time--but I would not have picked it today.
  • We see more 'naughty' words in the UK-to-US direction. The only time I've been tempted to have a 'naughty' one in the US-to-UK direction was in 2012 when my British brother-in-law (and various students of mine) took on the AmE use of douche as an insult (short for douchebag). As discussed in those posts, when people take on words for taboo things from other languages or dialects, they often use them in ways and contexts that they wouldn't in their native dialect. This is especially the case of wanker (and derivatives) in AmE, where it just sounds like a funny thing to say and probably does not (for most US users) give rise to images of male masturbation. Americans often find British words for taboo things 'quaint'. At the same time some British folk find Americans prudish in their reactions to our shared taboo words. 'The c-word' has far more currency in the UK and the social barriers involved in the use of 'the f-word' differ considerably. That's a topic for another post. Possibly on this new blog.
  • A number of the US-to-UK words feel rather dated. This is in large part due to the necessity that the word be 'of the year' in some way. British English speakers use lots of Americanisms, but in order to be WotY, I look for active discussions of them or use of them in the news, etc. Meh.
But I don't feel too bad about some of these seeming like weak choices in retrospect. I'm very happy with some of them. And other Word of the Year declarers, including the one I get most excited about, the American Dialect Society, have had misfires too. In the end, it's a bit of fun. And in the words of T. S. Eliot:  "last year's words belong to last year's language/And next year's words await another voice."

I'm sure you'll let us know what you think!
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2014 UK-to-US Co-Word of the Year: gap year

Finally, the last of my Words of the Year. I declared two US-to-UK words this year because both (awesome and bake-off) seemed very much 'of 2014'. In the case of the UK-to-US words, I also gave up on deciding between two excellent nominations, though the case for '2014ness' is not quite as strong. We've been seeing a lot more Britishisms in the US for some years now.  The other UK-to-US Word of the Year (dodgy) and today's have been nominated before. (I'm grateful to Nancy Friedman for making both these apt and informative nominations.) They are worming their way in rather than making a big splash. But in both cases it seems to be time to acknowledge them. So the UK-to-US Noun of the Year is:

gap year

That is, a year off from education between school and (AmE) college/(BrE) university. (If your first reaction is 'but that's not a word!', please go straight to the bottom of this post for a linguistic schooling.)

Why is this worthy of the title UK-to-US Word of the Year? Well, first of all, it passes the 'UK-to' criterion by being very British in origin. Here's the OED's record of it:
Secondly, it's definitely made its way into the US. From Nancy Friedman's nomination of it:

Ben Yagoda wrote about it in his Britishisms blog in November 2012 (, but 2014 was the year it went mainstream in the pages of Time (May 14) and USA Today (Oct. 28). The American Gap Association ("Integrity in Gap Years") was founded in 2012.
The trajectory of gap year in UK (red) and US (blue) books from Google Ngrams shows its progress up to 2012:

Americans started to notice the word around the times that Princes William (2000) and Harry (2004) took their gap years, but it was the financial crisis that really helped it along. In lean times it makes more sense for young people to spend time out of education before the very expensive undertaking of higher education. By taking a year off, they can work to save money to finance their studies or just use the time to make sure that they really want to go to college/university. And that's what's been happening more and more in the US. Wikipedia says:
Some 40,000 Americans participated in 2013 in sabbatical programmes, an increase of almost 20% since 2006, according to statistics compiled by the American Gap Association 
As someone who teaches in higher education, I'm all for it. The students who come to us after some time off from education are generally more mature and ready for serious study. They also have more varied experiences to reflect on when taking part in classroom discussions (which is very relevant to me when I teach Intercultural Communication).

Perhaps this should have been a Word of the Year in 2012 (instead of bollocks), since that's when it really seemed to be institutionali{s/z}ed in the US. But Nancy's evidence of how 'mainstream' it's gone in the US is enough to convince me that it needs to be ceremoniously marked as a successful UK-to-US import. So, all hail gap year, my final Word of the Year for 2014. My thanks to all who got involved in the nominations.

Again, some may protest that this is not a possible word of the year, because it is more than one word. And to this I say, as I have said before, that a space in a string of letters is not what makes expressions into words. Language is a spoken thing prior to being a written thing, so the evidence of writing is not the strongest type of evidence when it comes to language. Gap year fits linguistic criteria for being a word (an open compound) because:
  1. It has a single part-of-speech (noun).
  2. It has a meaning that is more than the sum of its parts. (In linguist lingo, it's non-compositional.) Thus, it's the kind of thing that dictionaries record.
  3. It is indivisible. You can have an enjoyable gap year but you can't have a gap enjoyable year. You can have several gap years but not several gaps year or gaps years. You could talk about how you feel pre-gap year or post-gap year, but not gap pre-year. Nothing (with the exception of profanity, English's only infixes) can go in that space between gap and year.
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2014 US-to-UK Co-Word of the Year: 'bake-off'

As we've already established, this was an indecisive year for me, and I've already announced two Words of the Year, both adjectives:  US-to-UK awesome and UK-to-US dodgy. Of course, many words go back and forth between the two countries each year, and these have been building up usage in their non-native lands for years, but they felt 'of 2014' for various reasons discussed in their posts.

Another word with American origins was bigger than ever in the UK in 2014, and a UK-to-US noun had a very good case made for it for timeliness. So to the adjectives we add the Nouns of the Year. First off, the US to UK:


As in the BBC's:

Before you say "but that's two words", I refer you to the hyphen above.  On every linguistic test, it is one word, a noun. But the British establishment has a higher tolerance than Americans do for what we in the word business call 'open compounds' (as alluded to in this old post).

As Nancy Friedman wrote, when she nominated the word:

The term has been common in the US since at least 1949, when Pillsbury introduced its national Bake-Off contest; it was later adopted [...] as programmer lingo to mean a contest between competing technologies.
She also noted that Collins dictionaries short-listed it as one of their Words of the Year.  Here's what it looks like in the OED (note the hyphen!):

The cook-off to which the entry refers is an earlier Americanism (dating to 1936), and that entry refers to play-off as another American inspiration for nouns ending in off. Play-off derived from the phrasal verb play off (as in They played off for the championship), but bake-off and cook-off look like they were formed as nouns first, on ([BrE] an) analogy with the noun play-off.

But (I hear you muttering) the Great British Bake Off had its fifth television (AmE) season/(BrE) series in 2014, so why make it a Word of the Year now? I'll quote Wikipedia on its ratings:

The series started with its highest ratings for its opening episode after its move to BBC One, with over 7 million tuning in according to overnight figures.[40] This is adjusted to 8.5 million for its 7-day final viewing figure, making this its second most-watched episode after previous year's final.[41] In the fourth episode, 8.1 million watched the original broadcast,[42] but the "sabotage" controversy gained the show a further 2 million viewers on the BBC iPlayer catch-up service, giving the show the biggest ever audience with 10.248 million viewers for the episode.[43][44] The final of the show gained an overnight viewing figure of 12.29 million, then the highest viewing figure for a non-sporting event of the year on UK TV.[45] Series 5 had a consolidated average of 10,039,400 viewers.
The controversy mentioned above was also known as "bingate" (mixing the BrE bin with the orig. AmE -gate suffix) involved a contestant getting fed up with his Baked Alaska and throwing it away, then showing the judges the (BrE) rubbish bin when asked to display his work. It was alleged that another contestant had moved his ice cream from the freezer to make room for her own.

It was all over the papers. I liked this review of the phenomenon from Stuart Heritage in the Guardian:
Pity the historians of the future. They’re the ones who will have to put the hysteria surrounding last week’s episode of The Great British Bake Off into some kind of context. And that’ll be much harder than it sounds, because the main trajectory of the news this summer has basically been: horror, horror, misery, horror, misery, man putting a pudding in a bin, misery.

“Why did everyone lose their minds about a man putting a pudding in a bin?” they’ll wonder. “Why, with everything else going on in the world, did that make the Sun’s front page? Why did the Guardian devote 11 separate news stories to it? It was just a man putting a pudding in a bin”. Finally, exasperated at their ridiculous ancestors and exhausted from trying to figure out what the hell a “bincident” is, they’ll give up, cut their losses and simply torch the archives. It’ll be the Library of Alexandria all over again.
The irony of the Americanism in a "Great British" institution is not something that's regularly pointed out, but it's becoming a great British tradition too: note the Americanism in BBC's The Great British Sewing Bee.

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2014 UK-to-US (co-)Word of the Year: dodgy

So the other day, when I decided to avoid difficult questions and not decide between my top two US-to-UK words of the year, I laid the groundwork for general indecisiveness. So, I might as well not be decisive about the UK-to-US words either. It works out well (I re(-)assure myself) because in the end I will have a Noun of the Year and an Adjective of the Year in both directions. (Orig AmE) Tough luck, verbs.

And the UK-to-US Adjective of the Year is:


...which was nominated by Gina the Great, Anonymous in New Jersey, and Peter Mork (in a previous year). It is timely because this is the year that Ben Yagoda at Not One-Off Britishisms declared that "Dodgy is ensconced" in response to this headline in the Wall Street Journal:

When asked which British words I now can't live without, I usually mention dodgy. What did I say before? It's got such a feeling to it, and has to be translated by different words for different contexts in AmE. Take, for example, these British collocates (i.e. words that go next to it) for dodgy:

 dodgy knee, dodgy memory, dodgy ticker:  unreliable because falling apart
dodgy internet connection, dodgy CGI: unreliable, not very good--probably because it's done on the cheap
dodgy statisticsdodgy accounting, dodgy refereeing: questionable; unreliable and possibly dishonest
dodgy business practices, dodgy characters, dodgy suburb: disreputable and probably dangerous/criminal
dodgy photos: either poorly taken or picturing dodgy activities
...and so on.
So, my question is: Is dodgy  used in the same way in AmE as in BrE?  One way to check on this is to look in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE). GloWBE collects about 387 million words from each of these dialects, and the basic numbers show that the word is still definitely BrE and only marginally AmE: 491 AmE examples to 3970 BrE ones.

You can ask GloWBE which collocates of dodgy are most typical of AmE and BrE--that is, not just which ones occur most in each, but which ones are statistically over- or under-represented in each. This bit of statistics is a bit dodgy, since the number of AmE dodgys is so small. But let's do it anyhow. We get a table like this, with AmE on the left:

The darker green indicates collocates that are very particular to that dialect. So, in the right column, we can see that BrE has lots and lots of nouns that go with dodgy a lot that are not much found in AmE. In the left column, we see that dodgy energy, dodgy theology, and dodgy scientists are found more in AmE than in BrE. However, that looks fairly suspicious, and sure enough the AmE dodgy energy examples are just repetitions of the same text (a problem for internet corpora is that a lot of internet content is mirrored or quoted on different sites), the AmE dodgy theologies are really two rather than three different examples, etc. The pink/red ones are over-represented in British compared to American.

The white ones are comparable in the two dialects--and bloke is a funny one here. Not only is it a BrE word, it's a BrE word (like bloody) that Americans probably overuse when 'doing' British English. I'd say this tells us that dodgy is generally perceived as British in AmE. And it's the number one collocate for dodgy in AmE. (The numbers here are slightly different from the above since I searched for nouns within one word above and within two words below.)

There are a lot of businessy collocates throughout the AmE list. There are in the BrE list too--after all, we're getting a lot of news stories here and there's been a lot of dodginess in that realm in the past few years. But there aren't many body parts on the American list. At number 58 on the list there are two instances of dodgy stomach, whereas on the BrE list, numbers 11 and 12 are knee and knees. The vaguely-criminal/dishonest meaning of dodgy seems to be coming through stronger in AmE than the 'unreliable/poorly constructed' sense.

This may be underscored by a US example from a novel by a Texan author (found via the Corpus of Contemporary American English), which wouldn't mean in BrE what it seems to be meaning here:

They'd need dodgy breaking-and-entering skills to get the journal (having somehow first discovered its existence), an impressive knack for wordplay, and access to Mission Impossiblestyle office products to obliterate all superfluous words into mind-blowing nonexistence.
What seems to be intended by the author is '(slightly?) criminal breaking-and-entering skills'. But say dodgy breaking-and-entering skills in BrE and it sounds like it means 'not-very-good breaking-and-entering skills'. BrE just wouldn't use dodgy to mean 'criminal' before something that is actually criminal.

And so it goes when words are imported. You can call them 'misunderstood' or you can call them 'subject to semantic change'.

Next up in the Words of the Year...nouns!
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2014 US-to-UK (co-)Word of the Year: awesome

Thanks to all who have nominated US-to-UK and UK-to-US words for the annual Words of the Year (AmE) fest. The decisions were difficult, and so I am going to cheat and have two US-to-UK words. I can do that, because I'm the (orig. AmE) boss. And the first one is:


And in a coincidence that you probably won't believe (it's true!) my BrE-speaking child has just looked up from her (arguably orig. AmE) video game to say "That was awesome. I cooked an egg!"

Of course, awesome is not a new word in any English. It's been used to mean either 'full of awe' or 'inspiring awe' for centuries. But its use as enthusiastic praise of any little (or big) thing is originally American; the earliest [alleged] example of it in the OED is from 1961 in the now-defunct women's magazine McCall's:
He looked up to see Mrs. Kirby, awesome in a black-and-yellow polka-dotted slicker, bearing down on him.
This use of awesome really came into its own (in the US) in the 1980s. As Robert Lane Greene reminisces:

...change was happening to “awesome”. It was defined in 1980 in the “Official Preppy Handbook”, a bestselling semi-satirical look at well-heeled American youth: “Awesome: terrific, great.” It had a bit of California surfer-dude and Valley Girl, too. By 1982, the Guardian was mocking the West Coast with “It’s so awesome, I mean, fer shurr, toadly, toe-dully!”

Soon the word needed no definition. “Awesome” became the default descriptor for anything good. In 1982, I was seven and I swallowed it whole. It stayed with me for decades. In 2005, I remember meeting a girl when I had just seen “Batman Begins”, the moody psychological picture that reinvigorated a tired franchise. “It’s awesome,” I told her. “Awesome. Just awesome.” She wondered, she later said, what kind of journalist had just one adjective in his vocabulary. Somehow, she married me all the same.
“Awesome” has been with my generation in America so long that it now has a whiff of retro.
And it's been in BrE for a while now too. My colleague Justyna Robinson studies the sociolinguistics of word-meaning variation and change, and awesome is one she's followed in British English. This means that she gets to write things with titles like "Awesome insights into semantic variation". (I am jealous.) In that 2011 book chapter, she reports on a study in which she asked Yorkshire residents of different ages and backgrounds to name something awesome and to tell her why it was awesome. Older respondents said things like "The Grand Canyon. Because it takes your breath away." The under-30s said things like "a salad, because it was really good".
Robinson (2011; see Awesome title link above)

But it's not just teenagers using it. Robert Lane Greene reports that "The Guardian, the paper that mocked “awesome” in 1982, had used it in 6,457 articles by July 2011, with one or two being added each day"(see link above).

So, why make it Co-Word of the Year for 2014? One reason is that it was all over the news when the first findings of the Spoken British National Corpus 2014 came out. Here's a selection in which this particular word made the headline.

In the Guardian:
There are several (press-release-inspired?) with this title (this one from

And more:

And more:

The Daily Mail headline alludes to the other reason this is a Word of 2014. The Lego Movie and its theme song 'Everything is Awesome'.

Before 2014, I heard British teenagers saying awesome. I heard my English child saying it only when she had just been visiting her American cousins. But now, it's the (AmE) go-to positive evaluation word for the under-10s too. This is part of the landscape of their language now--not an Americanism that they've ironically decided to adopt, but just how they talk. The makers of The Lego Movie were surely cognizant of the word's "retro" feeling when choosing it for their theme, making a bit of an in-joke for the US parents who used it (and Lego(s)) when they were young. But the irony is lost on young British children. It's just a (orig. AmE in this sense) cool word for them.

Its WOTY status was sealed for me when I overhead this conversation between mother and pre-school son about how he should be playing with his baby sister:

Mother: Reuben, Isabella is much smaller than you. When you play with her, you have to be extra....
[Reuben ignores her]
Mother: When you play with her you have to be extra.....
[Reuben ignores her some more]
Mother: You have to be extra...
Reuben: Awesome!

The other US-to-UK and the UK-to-US WotYs will be revealed in the next few days.

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Nominate 2014 Words of the Year!

While being interviewed today (which I'll let you know more about at some point), I was asked what the front-runners are for UK-to-US and US-to-UK Words of the Year. And I had no idea.

So: what do you think? Nominations are open for both categories as of now:

1. Best AmE-to-BrE import
2. Best BrE-to-AmE import
The word doesn’t have to have been imported into the other dialect in 2014, but it should have come into its own in some way in the (popular culture of the) other dialect this year. I retain the editor's privilege of giving other random awards on a whim.

Please nominate your favo(u)rites and give arguments for their WotY-worthiness in the comments to this post. It might be helpful to see my reasoning on why past words were WotY-worthy and other nominations weren't. Click on the WotY tag at the bottom of this post in order to visit times gone by.

Vote early and often! I plan to announce the winners in the week before Christmas.

And in other news...
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UK-to-US Word of the Year: bum

This is part 2 of my 2013 WotY posts, the UK-to-US part. Part 1 is here.

I get a bit embarrassed when I tell journalists about the UK-to-US Words of the Year, as there are too many "naughty" ones (2012: bollocks, 2006: wanker). 2013's is considerably milder, but still in the tee-hee range, if not the nudge-nudge, wink-wink range.

So the 2013 UK-to-US Word of the Year is:


This is certainly not new to Americans. Mike Myers was saying it a lot on Saturday Night Live in his 'Simon' sketches in the early 90s:


And it was noted as a "Not One-Off Britishism" in Ben Yagoda's blog in 2011. There he shows this Google n-gram showing a steady increase of bums in American books in the 20th century (his bum, her bum and my bum are the search terms).

Ben's blog and the media attention to Briticisms in American English
this past summer give plenty of indication that lots of BrE words are making their way into America these days. But for Word of the Year, I try to find something that had some particular impact in that year, and all I could think of was being faced with this media campaign when I visited the US this summer:

This is television presenter (mostly on BBC Three "lifestyle documentaries") Cherry Healey (BrE informal) flogging Cottonelle "bum wipes". Cottonelle is the American version of Andrex, both made by US-based Kimberly-Clark and advertised with the same puppies:

But now Cottonelle is using a pretty British lady to try to convince Americans in airports that the British are all using a two-stage bum-cleaning routine that is far superior to the "dry treatment".

Since flushable wipes were available in the US when I last lived there 14 years ago, I'm not sure why the airport-Americans find this to be a new and exciting product (ok, I probably do know: they want to be on television). They may be more popular in the UK (sales up 15% this year), but they are implicated in serious sewer problems, as has been discovered in the US too.  Perhaps the UK Word-of-the-Year should have been fatberg, since one the size of a bus was found under London this summer. The UK dictionaries' Words of the Year went for less nauseating choices (Collins went for originally-British-dialectal-but-lately-mostly-AmE geek and Oxford for seemingly-Australian selfie.)

But anyhow, with all too much #letstalkbums on social media this year, I'm going with bum and hoping for a less toilet-related WotY next year.
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2013 US-to-UK Word of the Year: Black Friday

Long-time readers will know that every year I pick (with some helpful suggestions from readers) words of the year with a twist: they must be American words that made a splash in the UK, or British ones that found fame or infamy in the US. Or something like that. As I did last year, so here is the first one!

The 2013 US-to-UK Word of the Year is:

Black Friday

While we're at it, we might as well declare this the most annoying import in the seven years of this endeavo(u)r. But let's not blame America or Americans in general. Let's look at this WotY in a bit more detail. Then let's blame capitalism.

First, a definition: Black Friday is the Friday after American Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday of November), which is the popularly acknowledged start of the American Christmas-shopping season. Many people in the US have the day off work (or school) and retailers put on big sales, so the (AmE) malls/(BrE) shopping centres are heaving with people and unseemly behavio(u)r.

Why is this the US-to-UK Word of the Year? Because it was all over the UK media in the week of (and the week after) American Thanksgiving. (Three readers contacted me to nominate it--the only nomination I had this year.)  Here, for instance, are stories from The Telegraph, BBC News, The Mirror... (I would go on, but I'm sure you can google "Black Friday UK" yourself.) As well as 70% discounts, there was bad behavio(u)r (which you can find easily enough by googling "Black Friday UK bad behaviour"). 
Now, I know that some people will be wanting to complain "but it's not a word, it's a phrase". I've answered that objection before, since previous WotYs have also had spaces in them. To recap: there are many ways to define word, and perhaps the least interesting way, as far as linguists are concerned, is whether their written version has  a space in it. Grammatically, Black Friday acts like a word and it's the kind of thing that could be a headword in a dictionary--because its meaning is not directly derivable from its parts. So, it is word enough for me.
It is an annoying import because there is no logic to the importance of this day in the UK; it is a regular work/school day and the Christmas shopping season is already well underway in the UK by that time. For instance, the Christmas lights were ceremoniously turned on in Birmingham city centre (AmE downtown) on 9 November, on 14 November in Brighton and London's Oxford Street, and on 21 November in Guildford. (I could go on, but you can google "Christmas light switch-on UK" too.) 

What has brought "Black Friday" to the UK are US-owned retailers, notably Amazon and Walmart-owned Asda (site of much bad behavio[u]r--click the link for a story about that). These retailers are partial to some bad behavio[u]r themselves, such as union-busting (quelled at Asda, I should say), tax-evasion, and (particularly at Amazon) poor working conditions. So, American phrase, but please don't blame the average American. If you don't like it, then I recommend doing all your Christmas shopping for the following year in the very British Boxing Day sales and avoiding this whole sordid Black Friday business.
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2012 US-to-UK Word of the Year: wonk

As I noted in the UK-to-US WotY post, this hasn't been a particularly 'big' year for American imports to Britain. Those that were nominated were mostly things that were not clearly American before they were British; that is (in many cases), though an American may have been first to use them, they immediately entered general English. Other nominations didn't seem to have anything particularly "2012" about them--they'd been steadily climbing in BrE for 10 or 20 years, with no particular notice or peak in 2012. But one nomination, by reader Joe, stood out for me.  Ladies and germs, the 2012 US-to-UK Word of the Year is

wonk in policy wonk.  I'll let Joe's nomination start the talking:
My nomination for AmE to BrE WOTY is "Wonk" as in "Policy Wonk".

Google searches of pages from the UK show a number of examples, and Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries online both list the AmE sense of the word (the Oxford also has the British Naval slang sense).

The clincher for me though was to hear “(Policy) Wonk” used on BBC Radio 4 by Jane Garvey during the 12 November broadcast of “Woman’s Hour” in a segment where she was debating “who are the women who matter in UK politics?” with Allegra Stratton, the political editor of BBC Two’s “Newsnight”. If it's on "Woman's Hour", surely that's a sign it's moving out from the "Chattering Classes / West Wing fans" and into the mainstream?

The American Heritage entry for wonk marks it as slang and defines it as:
1. A student who studies excessively; a grind.
2. One who studies an issue or a topic thoroughly or excessively
I have not seen the first meaning in BrE, which has its equivalent in the BrE noun swot. It's the second meaning that has been imported (showing once again that borrowings from one language/dialect to another are rarely "complete" or "faithful").

In addition to Joe's noticing it on Woman's Hour, the thing that makes this a word for 2012 is the fact that Ed Miliband (the leader of the Labour Party) flew his wonk flag at the Labour Party Conference:

That the newspaper had to provide a footnote translation of wonk (using another Americanism that's come into BrE, geek) is evidence of its relative newness in BrE.*

Wonk's entry into BrE is complicated a bit by the BrE word wonky (which is currently making inroads in AmE), which means 'unsteady; apt to malfunction; not quite right'. But that doesn't seem to be holding it back. Hail to the wonks!  And to wonk!

* This recency is not necessarily the picture you'll get if you try to find evidence of wonk's use in BrE.  Collins English Dictionary doesn't bother marking wonk as AmE and includes two Sunday Times examples from 2002. Other early examples seem more tricky to identify as BrE. There's one policy wonk in the British National Corpus, way back in 1990, but it's from The Economist, in an article about US politics--so it was probably written by someone in the US, and perhaps someone American. Google Ngram viewer shows an increase in policy wonk in "British English" books since the 1990s, but click on the link to the books, and you'll find that most seem to be American books by American authors, including the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (by Grant Barrett) and a collection of William Safire's 'On Language' columns from the New York Times Magazine. I've said before that Google Ngram Viewer is not to be trusted as a source on AmE/BrE differences, and I feel the need to say it again: Google Ngram Viewer is bad at identifying American English versus British English, even though it gives you the option of choosing between them. Lastly, when I do a custom search on plain old Google, searching for the word on sites last updated in a particular period, it doesn't given me the number of hits, for some reason. (What's up with that, Google?)  
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2012 UK-to-US WotY: bollocks

For the first time in six years, I feel spoil{t/ed} for choice in deciding on a UK-to-US Word of the Year, but have a hard time thinking of even one good candidate for US-to-UK. After the 2011 UK mediafrenzy of anti-Americanismism, 2012 was the year of hoopla about Britishisms in America. There were many to choose from, and before announcing my less printable choice, I’d like to give special mention to stockist, which Nancy Friedman (Fritinancy), an excellent observer of commercial language, has noted on the rise in US contexts.

In many ways, I regret my choice of UK-to-US Word of the Year. In other ways, I felt I didn’t have a choice: the word kept coming up in American contexts this year. And it is:

…which has a good AmE equivalent in bullshit. At least, the use that has come into AmE has that equivalent. In BrE the word means ‘testicles’, and by some extension it is used to mean ‘nonsense’. But as is often the case for loanwords, the people borrowing it are not always aware of its other meanings, including the anatomical one. Another use that doesn't seem to be  making its way across is the phrase the dog’s bollocks, which means something good—a cruder, stronger and less dated version of other animal metaphors like (orig. AmE) the bee’s knees or (now AmE) thecat’s meow. 

In support of bollocks as WotY we have Newcastle Brown Ale’s US (and not UK) advertising campaign:

We also have Richard Hammond of Top Gear promoting its use in the US, before admitting that it’s already started making its way into AmE:

Sightings in AmE start before 2012, of course. The Corpus of Historical American English, which has materials from 1810 to 2009 shows this trend in the last few decades (each column stands for a decade and each number is per approximately 25 million words).

The reason I’m not too excited about having bollocks as my WotY, despite feeling compelled to have it, is that it joins 2006’s wanker on my list of WotYs, which means that now one third of my UK-to-US WotYs are rather crude. SbaCL continues to secure its place in the list of websites banned in schools.

Are Americans really so crude that all we want is vulgar words from the UK? Absolutely not. But if you’ve ever been around exchange students, you’ll have discovered that it’s much easier to swear in one’s second language. British vulgarities are perceived as fun and quaint in American English. They are also perceived as fun and enjoyable by many British English speakers—swearing is a major British pastime.  

But it’s not seen as quaint, and the British are more aware of contexts in which these words should not be used. As I noted in a previous post, The Advertising Standards Authority's 'Deleting Expletives' [link is pdf] report of 2000 put bollocks as the 8th most offensive word according to the British public. Words lower in the 'severity of offence' list than bollocks include arsehole, twat and shit. Most British people I know would contest that ordering of offensiveness, with bollocks feeling pretty mild these days. But still, it's not something that would easily make its way onto a billboard.
So, the UK-to-US WotY for 2012 is bollocks. In so many ways. There’s still a little time to get a last-minute US-to-UK word nomination in. I hope to post it tomorrow.
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2011 US-to-UK Word of the Year: FTW

Many thanks to the intrepid readers who have nominated words and phrases for SbaCL Words of the Year this year. Yesterday, kettling was announced as the BrE-to-AmE WotY. Tonight's post does the other (AmE-to-BrE) half of the job.  Unusually, both Words of the Year come from readers' nominations. Am I getting less bossy and opinionated and more generous in my old age? We can only hope so.

And so the AmE-to-BrE Word of the Year is (you're going to hate this):


Yes, you are going to hate it. And you will hate it for one or more of the following reactions:
  1. "WTF does it mean?"
  2. "That's internet-speak, which is border-crossing by nature. Why should we think of this as inherently AmE?"
  3. "That's not a word! It's an alphabetism [or initialism]! At best, it's a phrase!"
  4. "My nomination was so much better."

Let's take these objections one by one: 

First, get your mind out of the gutter. The F stands for for.  As in For The Win. If I read it aloud, I read it as that phrase, not as the letters. (I'd be interested to hear if anyone does just pronounce the letters for this meaning.)  It's usually used as a post-nominal (after a noun) modifier in order to indicate enthusiastic approval of something--especially something that has 'come through' and 'won' for you.  Here are some recent tweets that have used it (and while I typed the last sentence, 59 more twitterers used it):

god, love sophia grace and rosie, essex girls ftw!

Big bang theory FTW!

What I need is a 'Labour Insider' (unhappy SpAd will do) who has same axe to grind & can repeat himself every week. Journalism job FTW!

This made me laugh.… Catholics FTW
[Editor's note: it made me laugh too. Go ahead, (BrE) have/(AmE) take a look!)

The first two of these seem to be by young people watching television. The third writes for The Guardian. The last is a Member of Parliament. So, you might not know FTW...but a lot of people do.

Now, its Americanness:  Once upon a time there was a television (AmE) game show/(BrE) quiz show called Hollywood Squares. In it, nine entertainers sit in a giant (AmE) tic-tac-toe/(BrE) noughts-and-crosses array, and two contestants try to get Xs and Os into the boxes. During X's turn, for example, Contestant X chooses which square to attempt. The host, Peter Marshall (who hosted it 1966–1981) then asks the (orig./chiefly AmE) celeb a question, and the celeb says funny things and eventually gives an answer. The contestant then has to decide whether to accept the answer or not. If contestant X makes the right choice, then "X takes the square", as Marshall would say.  When a contestant chose the square that could give them their three Xs or Os in a row, Marshall the contestant would name the celebrity and say "[insert name of celebrity] for the win!"  The game was later adapted for UK television as Celebrity Squares, but without that catchphrase.

The catchphrase then, as catchphrases do, made its way into non-televised discourse. And in the age of the 140-character limit, it's been initiali{s/z}ed. The full version exists too, even in BrE. A young tweeter in Sussex, whom I won't link to because he's both underage and apparently doing something illegal, has just tweeted "VIDEO PIRACY FOR THE WIN". 

I see that the (AmE) show/(BrE) programme was back on the air with Tom Bergeron as host 1998-2004, and while I've watched a couple of wins on YouTube now, I've not heard anyone utter the phrase.  If the more recent incarnation hasn't breathed new life into the phrase, then would expect that most young Americans have no idea where FTW comes from. (And even if he did say it and it's being repeated on the Game Show Channel, I'd still not be surprised if young Americans have no idea where it came from.) But knowing the origin of an expression is no prerequisite for using it, so young people, British people, and, according to my Twitter research, an awful lot of German people are using it. I'd expect most Americans of my generation (let's just leave it as 'old enough', ok?) to remember it (maybe not immediately. We're old, you know.  I mean, 'old enough'.).

On the "that's not a word" argument. Well, that's been going on very loudly about Oxford Dictionaries' WotY, (BrE) squeezed middle. (Here's a peek at the pro and the con.)    If we're considering FTW as an alphabetism, then I point you to just about any introduction to linguistics or morphology text that lists word-formation processes of English. If it's attempting any kind of completeness, it will list 'alphabetism' or 'initialism' as a word-formation process. (Here are some examples.) And if it's a word-formation process, then, well, you must form words.

If you think it's not a word because it's a phrase, I've already ignored you by having a phrase as AmE-to-BrE WotY in 2009 (go missing). For the win (like go missing) is word-like in that it is a bit of language that is learn{ed/t} as a whole, with meaning and usage constraints that go beyond the sum of its parts. That makes it [in my professional usage of the term, at least] a lexeme--something that you'll store in your mental lexicon--the dictionary in your head.* And I'm a lexicologist. We [the three or so people in the world who call themselves lexicologists] mostly deal with words, but, you know, we usually don't see a very important distinction between words and other types of lexemes when thinking about things like lexical borrowing between dialects. 
* (Or we could think of it as a lexicali{s/z}ed construction--and I like to think of things that way. But let's not try to squeeze too much of a linguistics degree into this post. It's already way past anybody's bedtime.)

It all comes down to your definition of word. We can fight about it, but I'll just phone in my part of the fight because 'word' is not a terribly useful linguistic concept.  Most people think of words as bits of writing with spaces on either side, but that doesn't work.  Less masochistic readers might want to skip this bit, but here's is part of the entry on 'Words' that I wrote for the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences:
In English orthography, word is easily defined as a unit of language that is written contiguously, with a space on each end. The notion of orthographic word is, however, circular since spaces were introduced into the written code in order to mark the boundaries between words. A more satisfying definition would help explain why such boundaries are perceived in the flow of language. Orthography is also an unreliable indicator of wordhood. Some languages do not have a written form, some orthographies
(e.g., Chinese, Lao) do not mark word boundaries, and any orthographical system is subject to fossilization and arbitrary fashions. For example, on most linguistic criteria, the compound noun ice cream is a single word, in spite of the space within it.
There is no clear linguistic definition of word, however. The most theoretically useful definitions are based on grammatical or phonological criteria [...], but their usefulness is limited by the fact that a) grammatical word and phonological word do not delimit the same set of expressions and that b) no grammatical or phonological criteria for wordhood are applicable to all types of words in all languages.

So: is it a word? Isn't it a word? It's a bit of language whose meaning is more than the sum of its parts and whose form-meaning association has to be learn{ed/t} by, and stored in the memory of, competent speakers of the language. That's good enough for me.

If you object to this word because you didn't nominate it, then you only have Ian Preston to blame for getting there first, arguing his case and attracting support.  (BrE Teacherese) Must try harder.

[added: 22 December lunchtime] But why is this the word of 2011?  In part it's because 2011 seemed to be the year of win.  We had BrE speakers complaining about AmE use of winningest (here, among other places), Charlie Sheen all over the news with Winning! (which has not caught on as much over here--nor has Two and a Half Men), lots of use of win as a mass noun.  For evidence of that, I just searched for of win use by tweeters within 50 miles of London and got a lot of results, including:
Actually - this whole site is full of win:
Samantha Halford

My graze box for tomorrow is made of win. And sadly I'll have to nom the whole thing due to the hols. What a shame :D 
[Ed: This one might need some translation. Nom was last year's runner-up for the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year. Hols is BrE informal for 'holidays'. If you want to know what a graze box is...]
But among these, it was FTW that was nominated, and since it has a long history in AmE and a shorter one in BrE, it seemed a clearer instance of dialectal borrowing than the others. Why this year? Because this year is when I noticed my students using it. In fact, it was because of  Erin McKean (amazing to discover you know people with their own Wikipedia entries) and one of my English former students using it on social media on the same day that I looked it up--reali{z/s}ing that the F was probably not as bad as it sounded...

WotY signing off for another year!

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