Showing posts with label blends. Show all posts
Showing posts with label blends. Show all posts

2016 US-to-UK Word of the Year: gerrymander

In a year like this year, it's no surprise that most of the Word-of-the-Year nominations related to politics, either directly or indirectly (like the 2016 UK-to-US WotY). Several of my correspondents have been noticing Americanisms in British political talk and Britishisms in American political talk. Partly, I put this down to the internationality of journalism. American reporters are in London, trying to make sense of British politics for American readers/listeners, and British reporters are in Washington doing the reverse. And there is cachet going both ways: using a bit of the other country's jargon makes you sound more cosmopolitan--at least that's why I think backbencher made it to the US last year.

This year, the US-to-UK Word of the Year was not just a stylish synonym of an existing BrE word, but a word with no native BrE equivalent. The word is (ta-da!):


To give a 19th century definition of the US-origin term (cited in the OED) a gerrymander is:
a method of arranging election districts so that the political party making the arrangement will be enabled to elect a greater number of representatives than they could on a fair system, and more than they should have in proportion to their numerical strength (National Encyclopedia, 1868)

The name is a blend (or 'portmanteau') of the name Gerry and salamander--as another OED quotation explains:

In 1812, while [Elbridge] Gerry was governor [of Massachusetts], the Democratic Legislature, in order to secure an increased representation of their party in the State Senate, districted the State in such a way that the shapes of the towns, forming such a district in Essex [County], brought out a territory of singular outline. This was indicated on a map which Russell, the editor of the Centinel, hung in his office. Stuart, the painter, observing it, added a head, wings, and claws, and exclaimed, ‘That will do for a salamander!’ ‘Gerrymander!’ said Russell, and the word became a proverb. (Henry Cabot Lodge, 1881)

Though gerrymander started as a noun, today the -ing form is often seen as a noun describing the process. In fact, the first instance of the verb in the OED is an -ing form used as a noun:
1812   Salem Gaz. 22 Dec. 2/4   So much..for War and Gerrymandering.

In the UK, the setting of constituency boundaries is done by a non-partisan commission, so it is supposed to be immune to gerrymandering. But the proposals for 2018 (submitted to the public for review this year) mean that the Labour party is expected to lose a number of seats and the Conservatives gain some. The word came to mind when I looked at the changes to the Brighton and Hove boundaries. It looked to me like it was designed to make it more difficult for Labour and the Green Party to keep their seats in the city. Hove (which goes back and forth between Labour and Conservative) had been  split up so that it swooped over into the part of Brighton that is a Green mainstay. (Just my gut reaction at the time, not trying to make any real claims about the Commission's intention.)

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock called the proposals "a bare-faced gerrymander", resulting in lots of responses also using the term:

The word gerrymander has popped up into British English with some regularity since the late 19th century--whenever boundaries are being re-set. The UK "gerrymanders" are considerably less amphibian-like than, say, the districts of North Carolina. It struck me this year that the word was easily used in headlines, newspaper articles, and blog posts with no explanation--it has become a word that British people are just expected to know.

Given its now-native-but-non-native status in BrE, the dictionary treatments of it are interesting (to me, at least). The OED online still marks it as "U.S.", but Oxford Dictionaries (the same publisher's more 'general dictionary' website) doesn't. Cambridge has gerrymander as a U.S. word only, but has gerrymandering in British. Macmillan has gerrymandering without marking it as U.S., but anti-etymologically has gerrymander as a word deriving from it. Then again, in BrE that might be what happened--the -ing form coming in from America and only later back-formed into gerrymander.

The Google Books ngram chart above gives data only from books, only to 2008. The News on the Web corpus (2010-yesterday) shows that the Google books chart is misleading in terms of how much people actually run into these words in each country:

The .049 per million in British news is steady across time in that corpus, and many if not most of the UK usages of the term are talking about US events. But since many this year are specifically talking about the Boundary Commission Review, with many news and opinion pieces boldly using the word, I'm comfortable making gerrymander the US-to-UK word of the year for 2016. I can't say "Welcome to the UK" to it, but I can say "Nice to see you in Britain".
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The third 'Untranslatables' month summary

This was the third year that I (kind of) declared October Untranslatables Month on my Twitter feed. (Here's 2011 and here's 2012.) Instead of offering a 'Difference of the Day', I offered an 'Untranslatable of the Day'. Except that I started on the 7th of October and occasionally I forgot to do it. (And I don't do 'of the Day' posts on weekends anymore either.) So maybe month is a bit of an exaggeration.

[Now that my union is on strike, I've finally got(ten) (a)round to writing up the summary. If it weren't for the fact that I'm not supposed to be doing work today, my work would be preventing me from blogging still. Next term should be better in terms of not drowning in (BrE) marking/(AmE) grading and quality control exercises all the time, and so there is hope that I will blog again, even if the academic pay dispute is settled.]

Now, before the complaints start, here are the Untranslatables Month facts:
  • I'm only talking about the relationship between British and American English here (as is my theme). These expressions may well have equivalents in other languages or dialects.  
  • By Untranslatable I mean that there is no lexicali{z/s}ed equivalent in the other dialect. And by lexicali{z/s}ed I mean that the expression is a word or an idiom--something that language users learn through hearing others say it, rather than something that one makes up anew. One can translate things by making up new sentences or phrases that describe the same thing, sure. But it's special when a language has lexicali{z/s}ed an  expression for something--it tells us something about the culture that invented and uses that expression.
  • Many of these have started to be borrowed between the dialects--and that's natural. If it's a useful expression and the other dialect doesn't have it, it's a prime candidate for international migration.
In some cases, I've discussed the expressions before on this blog, so I provide links to those posts. I also include here the links I provided with the tweets and I try to give credit to those who suggested them as untranslatables.

  • BrE chugger: Disparaging term for person whose job is stopping people on the street to ask for donations to a cause. It's a blend of charity and mugger. Chuggers are usually asking people to sign up for a Direct Debit to their charity (which is much more common in UK than US).

  • AmE to make nice: To try to be friendly/cooperative (with someone)--often because you've been told to do so. [Collins definition]

  • BrE in old money: in pre-decimalized currency and now also 'in non-metric measures' or in any other 'old' kind of measurement.  For example,  'What's 16°C in old money?'. [Down the Lane blog's post]
  • BrE the curate's egg: something bad in parts, good in parts, often euphemistically used: [Wikipedia entry] Suggested by Alan.

  • AmE through when used to link two time-designations and means 'to the end of', e.g. May through July. Suggested by @maceochi. But @AntHeald reminded us that there's a UK dialectal equivalent in while, which was discussed in the comments at this old post on whilst.
  • AmE furlough, which is discussed at Philip Gooden's blog  from a UK perspective. (Gooden translates furlough into BrE as unpaid leave, but that seems too broad. So we'll call it an untranslatable.) Suggested by @timgrant123
  • BrE adjectival sprung: 'having springs'. You can translate it into AmE with a prepositional phrase, but that's not the same as having a word for it. E.g. BrE sprung mattress (AmE innerspring mattress), BrE sprung saddle (i.e. a bike seat with springs). 
  • BrE to fancy: 'to like someone romantically/physically; to have a bit of a crush on'. Snaffled from @btransatlantic's blog post
  • AmE kick the can down the road: 'defer conclusive action by means of a short-term fix'. [Grammarist's post on this] Compare BrE kick into the long grass, which means to put something aside, hoping it'll be forgotten.  Suggested by @patricox
  • BrE (though sure many USers know it) plummy: 'having a "posh" accent'. Speaks volumes about accent and social place in the UK.
  • AmE howdy: suggested by DL, who says there's no BrE equivalent "in terms of exuberance".

  • BrE jolly hockey sticks: adjective used to describe a female of high social class who is enthusiastic in a way that annoys people. For example, this television review describes a coroner's "jolly-hockey-sticks attitude towards death". My definition owes much to Cambridge Dictionaries Online. The OED has an appeal for information about its origins. Suggested by @philviner

  • AmE to eyeball (it): 'to estimate a measurement without a measuring tool'. My 2008 post on it
And slightly cheating, since this one I posted in November:
  • AmE to take the fifth: to not speak because to do so may incriminate you. From the 5th amendment of US constitution. Suggested by @SamAreRandom

Each year I say I won't do an Untranslatable Month again, so maybe this will be the last one.  Or maybe not!

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Words of the Year 2009: staycation and go missing

My thanks to everyone who has engaged in the nominations and debate on Words of the Year for 2009. Here's a reminder of the rules (I'm a Libran with Virgo rising/ascendant, I've gotta have rules):
We have (at least) two Words of the Year here at SbaCL, and 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 2009, 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.
And now, without further ado...

The 2009 SbaCL Best American English to British Import is...


Yes, the recession has hit the UK and it's become both stylish and necessary to forgo a (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation in Thailand or Morocco and instead brave the British weather in a seaside town or scenic valley. But wait...what's that you say? That's not what it originally meant in American English? All the better for proclaiming it the best AmE to BrE import of the year!

The word is eminently American--the British do not use vacation to refer to something that one can 'go on'. (They do use it to refer to the time in which, say, university is out of session--but not for the non-work activities that one does while free from one's term-time duties. That's your holiday.) And while more British alternatives, like home-iday and holistay have been proposed, they have not caught on:

CoinageGoogle hits
on .uk sites

Word Spy's early AmE citations have it squarely as staying in your own home during one's time off--making a vacation/holiday of being at home (which may include doing the local touristy things or indulging oneself in other ways). WordNik's more current quotations show its use as being more 'vacationing/holidaying close to home'. In BrE it generally has the latter sense, and one's staycation might not be all that close to home, as long as it's in the UK. (Then again, many US states take longer to cross than the longest journeys in the UK, so 'close' is always relative...)

Why did it catch on? First, there was definitely a need for it. The British discuss holidays/vacations a lot more than Americans do, since they generally get a longer vacation/holiday period from their employment. And many of them use that time to go abroad. Abroad is pretty close, for one thing, and many people are keen to get some sun. (They ought to be. Did you know that "in the UK, the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in all adults is around 14.5%, and may be more than 30% in those over 65 years old, and as high as 94% in otherwise healthy south Asian adults"?) Second, the euro strengthened while the pound weakened and other financial calamities. Third, the papers still had their travel sections and supplements to fill and, boy, do they like portmanteau words (or blends, as we linguists tend to call them).

But all of this doesn't tell us why the AmE one was preferred over the BrE equivalents. This may be a matter of taste, but I would say that it's just because staycation sounds better. Unlike home(l)iday, there's no unclarity about how to spell or pronounce it. Unlike holistay it doesn't sound like it should have TM after it. And unlike Broliday, you can immediately recogni{s/z}e the ingredients in the blend.

Thanks to Emmet for nominating this, and to the commentators on the nomination, who helped to seal its fate as AmE-to-BrE Word of the Year.

So, on to the BrE-to-AmE WotY. It's not a particularly new borrowing, but it generated a fair amount of discussion this year. Ladies and germs, I give you:

go missing

And now I brace myself for the complaints that "It's not a word!" Well, that depends on how you define word, and "Lexical Item of the Year" just doesn't have the same ring to it. And I make up the rules, so why am I having to answer to you, Little Commenter Voice in My Head?

At the Dictionary Society of North America conference this year, Garrison Bickerstaff of the University of Georgia gave a paper on the rise of go missing and its various forms (went, gone, going, etc.). His research, based on newpaper data from the past 10 years, shows that the form has steadily gained momentum in US newspapers. Meanwhile, it's also increased in frequency in UK newspapers--indicating that it is less and less seen as 'too informal' for the news. Here are some numbers from the first and last year in Bickerstaff's study. Each represents the number of forms of went missing (the most common form) per ten million words of his corpus:


So, while it is still not used in AmE at anything like the rate at which it's used in BrE, we can see that it has made definite inroads.

Bickerstaff was not the only academic type to ruminate on go missing this year--it was the subject of quite a bit of discussion on the American Dialect Society e-mail list. Another academic discussion was by Anya Luscombe of the Netherlands, who gave a paper on BBC Style at the Poetics and Linguistics Association conference [warning: link is a pdf file]. Luscombe discusses four 'pet hates' of BBC writers, one of which is 'Americanisms' and another is go missing. While her work clearly isn't about the phrase in AmE, it's interesting to see how attitudes to it have changed in the BBC style guides. Luscombe quotes these editions:
Prior to 1992: no mention
1992: ‘“Gone missing” was originally Army slang. It now has wider use, and has become journalese.’
2000: ‘People do not “go missing”. They are missing or have been missing since.’
2003: ‘Go missing is inelegant and unpopular with many people, but its use is widespread. There are no easy synonyms. Disappear and vanish do not convince and they suggest dematerialisation, which is rare.’
And going further, a current BBC webpage says:
Perhaps it's to time to admit that further resistance against "go missing" is in vain. The problem comes when you are writing about the event in the past. " Mr Childers disappeared last Tuesday" is as improbable as "Mr Childers went missing" is ugly. ".....was last seen" is an acceptable alternative.
What I love about the importing of go missing into AmE is that American peevologists don't like it in spite of the fact that it is British! While Americans often suffer a verbal inferiority complex when they encounter a British English (standard or not), grumpy Americans are standing their ground on this one. Perhaps they don't realize that this phrase comes from the Mother Country?

Went missing was Grammar Girl's pet peeve of the year 2008. Another example comes from Peevologist-at-Large Robert Hartwell Fiske's Silence, language and society (reproduced by the eminently reasonable Mr Verb on his blog in June):
"Gone" or "went" missing is dreadfully popular today. Everyone from reporters on "CNN" to detectives (or their writers) on "Without a Trace" now prefer it.

People are so dull-witted and impressionable that, today, in this country, the popularity of "gone" or "went missing" has soared. Words like "disappeared," "vanished," "misplaced," "stolen," "lost," "deserted," "absconded" are seldom heard today because "went missing" has less meaning, or less exact meaning, than any of them, and people, especially the media, perhaps, are afraid of expressing meaning. What's more, "went missing" sounds willful or deliberate, and, indeed, sometimes that connotation is accurate, but the child who has been kidnapped is hardly agreeable to having been so.

Now, that kind of language grumpiness is just precious (and published regularly in Mr Fiske's publication, the Vocabula Review)--language is changing because people are afraid of meaning anything. My goodness, I do hope Mr Fiske is wearing his tin foil hat because the media are probably right now trying to suck meaning directly from his brain so that they can club baby seals with it.

Go missing
is beautifully meaningful--giving us some nuances not available in other words. It's not the same as vanish or disappear--and that's what makes it so useful. When something is said to go missing, it makes it seem like a less mysterious event than 'disappearing' or 'vanishing' which have a whiff of the supernatural about them. One can use it as a way to avoid blame--including self-blame: My phone went missing rather than I lost my phone. If a person 'goes missing', then there's a sense that although we don't know where they are, they do.

For more on this, I point you to another language commentator who picked up on this phrase this year, Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe (and not just because she quotes me!). It was her research on the phrase earlier in the year that put it in my mind as the frontrunner for the WotY crown, and it wears it well, I think.

Happy New Words!
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bloviate and brunch

My posts are so long these days. Can I do a short one? I'll try writing about a single word and see what happens.

My friend Maverick (an Englishwoman) was talking to an American friend via Skype, and the following happened:
There was some banter as I had accused of him of pontificating (as opposed to going out and doing research!) He said no, he was 'bloviating'. I had not come across this word before and when I looked it up on google during our conversation I saw that it is used in USA. Is it ever used on this side of the pond?
It's not the most common word in America, either, but it is AmE. To quote the OED (draft 2004) definition, it means "To talk at length, esp. using inflated or empty rhetoric; to speechify or ‘sound off’." Searching for it on .uk sites, one commonly finds comments about it being American, or in 'expand your vocabulary' sites, or in (BrE) inverted commas/(AmE) quotation marks, indicating its newness or foreignness. Some examples:
The verb "to bloviate" is one I learnt in America, and it sums up what Clinton excels at: an effortlessly congenial form of self-promotion. (Times Online, 2004)

The Concise also says croeso (welcome) to some Welsh words with bore da (good morning) and iechyd da (good health) joining thousands of words from all around the English-speaking world: dicky (car boot) and batchmate (classmate) from India, spinny (mad, crazy) from Canada, and bloviate (talk at length in an inflated or empty way) from America. (about the Concise Oxford English Dictionary on
It's not all that new, however. The OED has found it as far back as 1845, in an Ohio newspaper. In linguistic terms, it seems to be a blend, also known as a portmanteau word--that is, a word that smashes (new technical term) together the form and meaning two words. The OED suspects that it came from blow + -viate as in deviate.

Another blend that I like is brunch--or maybe I'm confusing liking the meal for liking the word. Now, I had assumed that this was an AmE word, since the concept of brunch (particularly the institution of Sunday brunch--see, for example, the site of San Diego's Sunday Brunch Master) is fairly undeveloped in the UK (because everyone's saving their appetites for Sunday lunch). Whenever I suggest to Better Half that we should host a Sunday brunch, his reaction is something like Huh? But it's my favo(u)rite meal of the week, especially when (AmE) coffee cake is involved. That's another one that puzzles BH. He thinks (as do all the caf├ęs (a)round here) that coffee cake means 'cake flavo(u)red with coffee', whereas in AmE it's a type of cake that goes well with a cup of coffee--particularly "in the U.S., a breakfast bread of yeast dough enriched with eggs, butter, and sugar, baked in a sheet topped with streusel [etc.]..and glazed with melted sugar" (OED). (See previous posts on baked goods and weird things people do with them, if you're interested.) So, I had a hard time believing that brunch could have originally been blended anywhere but America.

But how wrong I was! The OED lists it as 'orig. University slang' and its first published example of the word comes from Punch in 1896. Imagine that...

But before you imagine that, observe how pathetically I failed at writing about just the one word I meant to write about!
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)