Showing posts with label medicine/disease. Show all posts
Showing posts with label medicine/disease. Show all posts

2020 UK-to-US Word of the Year: jab

For part 1 of 2020 Words of the Year, click here.

In recent years, I've had a good slate of candidates for UK-to-US Words of the Year, but something seemed to happen to transatlantic word travel in 2020. You might think that an internet-age pandemic would make the world more open to words from elsewhere. We're all in the same boat. We're talking about it on social media. We're watching a lot of the same program(me)s on Netflix. But, as we saw for terminology for isolation/lockdown/quarantine, the pandemic has shown how local linguistic preferences still grow and thrive in the Anglosphere. In fact, those three terms made it as Words of the Year for different dictionaries in different places: the Australian National Dictionary Centre chose iso (for isolation), Collins (UK) chose lockdown, and Lexico (US-UK hybrid) and Cambridge (UK w/ strong US presence) chose quarantine

You'll have already seen in the title that the UK-to-US Word of the Year is:


I thank my friend Paul for sending me this fitting memorial of the moment:

From @birdyword on Twitter

But before I write about why and how jab got the title, I'd like to review the strange year it's been for UK-to-US word transit.

During the year I noted words that I wanted to remember when it came to WotY time. Before Covid became a pandemic, my money had been on rubbish, particularly in its grammatically malleable usage to mean 'not good': e.g. as an adjective a rubbish idea and as a verb: don't rubbish my idea. Americans were using it a lot in 2019. But then, it crashed:

Another one to consider had been reckon, a verb that is present in AmE and BrE, but limited to regional usage (and possibly lower registers) in AmE. Here we're interested in its particular use where other AmE registers might use figure or suppose. The fact that it's not low-register in BrE can be seen in the fact that I reckon has been much-said in recent-ish decades in the UK Parliament: 

Its old-fashionedness in AmE can be seen in how it's lost use since the early 20th century:

Ben Yagoda had blogged about this one twice in 2020 on his Not One-Off Britishisms blog, so it seemed like a good candidate. But was it coming over from BrE or was it coming "up" from American dialects? Yagoda's examples in the press made the BrE argument: lots of Britishisms come in through the New York Times and the Washington Post, etc., because they're written by well-travel(l)ed, cosmopolitan, word-loving, and often foreign people. His reckons looked like that. 

But when I looked at American reckon examples in the News on the Web corpus, I found a lot of cases where Americans, particularly African Americans, were being quoted in relation to local matters. That made me more suspicious of the increasing numbers of reckons in the corpus data. Maybe it wasn't people sounding more British, maybe more speakers of varied dialects were being quoted in the news this year (and there were plenty of reasons for that to happen this year). 

And then there was also the 2020 effect. Reckon was showing up lots in the NOW corpus in 2019, and then it went down in 2020. (Its up-and-downness might well be a product of its regionality.)


So, it ends up looking like AmE is turning away from BrE a bit this year. With all that was going on in the US in 2020, perhaps this is not all that surprising. 

So, we ended up with jab as a very late contender for WotY, showing up in December when the UK approved the first vaccine for Covid. (This is why one shouldn't do one's Words of the Year in November, dictionaries!) It's hard to do a corpus search that includes only the 'inoculation' or (AmE) 'shot' sense of jab and not senses to do with poking and hitting of the manual or verbal type. But the December doubling of jab in American news is clearly due to the BrE sense of the term:


Again, Ben Yagoda covered this one at his blog. Here's what he had to say:

Unsure that I wanted to crown such a late entry as WotY, I ran a vote on the matter at the online event I did for Atlas Obscura on 19 December. I was hoping to show you the vote result, but the Zoom polling screen doesn't show up in the video that AO shared with me. What a pain! So all I can tell you is that jab was the clear winner against rubbish and reckon. Will it remain a word-in-the-news about inoculations elsewhere, or will Americans start using it as a synonym for shot? Remains to be seen.

And thus I close the 2020 SbaCL WotY celebrations. Do keep your eye out in 2021 for the words you'll want to nominate this time next year!

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British words (most) Americans don't know

This is part 2 of an examination of the words that were very country-specific in Brysbaert et al. (2019)'s study of vocabulary prevalence. For more detail on the study, please see part 1, on American words Britons don't tend to know. This half-table shows the words that British survey respondents tended to know and American ones didn't:

All of the terms will be discussed below, but not necessarily in the order given in the table. Instead, I'll group similar cases together. The unknown items from AmE were overrun with food words—that's less true here, though there are some.

Stationery items

The first two items are generici{s/z}ed brand names for office supplies. Tippex is correction fluid, known in AmE by brand names Wite-Out and Liquid Paper. Tippex is used as both noun (for the fluid) and as a verb for the action of covering things over—literally with correction fluid or figuratively. Here are a few examples from the GloWBE corpus that show some range:

  • Her contact details had been TippExed over a number of times. 
  • make-up, hair extensions, fake tan and tippexed teeth
  • But one series of game Tippexed over the old rules   

Biro is an old trade name for a ball-point pen, based on the name of the inventor László Bíró. The first syllable is pronounced like "buy" (not "bee").


Pic from here
A tombola is a kind of raffle, where numbers are pulled out of a revolving drum-type container, and also a name for that container. The game is often found at school fairs, (BrE) village fetes, etc. The OED tells us tombola comes to English "partly from French, partly from Italian", which might mean the French got the game from Italy. The Italian game seems more like bingo. While bingo is called bingo in BrE, you might use a tombola (the drum-thing) for playing it, so it's not surprising that tombola was adopted as the name of a UK-based online bingo company.

Dodgems (or dodg'ems) are (orig. AmE) bumper cars. The BrE has the look of a brand name turned to a generic, though it's unclear to me if that name was ever trademarked. The cars were first called dodgems by their inventors, the Stoeher brothers of Massachusetts. This isn't the first time we've seen an American product name become the generic name for the product type in BrE—but I'll let you sort through the trade names posts for others.

Abseil might not quite belong in the amusement category, as it seems more like hard work, but let's put it here. It's a verb from German for a means of descending a mountain (etc.) using a rope affixed on a higher point. Americans use the French word for the same thing: rappel. The idea comes from the Alps, where both German and French are to be found, so it looks like Americans and Brits might go to different areas of the mountain range. (This is a counterexample to my usual claim that the English will take any opportunity to use a French word.)


Chipolata is a kind of small sausage. They've been mentioned already at the pigs in blankets post. The name comes from French, which got it from the Italian an onion dish.

Plaice is a kind of flatfish that's common at British fish-and-chip shops. The OED says "European flatfish of shallow seas, Pleuronectes platessa (family Pleuronectidae)", but some other fish (esp. outside the UK) are sometimes called plaice. The name came from French long ago. It shows up in *many* punny shop names. 

Korma is a type of very mild curry typically made with a yog(h)urt-based sauce. BrE speakers generally have large vocabularies of the types of curry that are popular at UK Indian take-aways and restaurants, which often have menus with headings based on the curry type, like this at the right. It (orig. BrE) flummoxed me at first when English friends invited me over for a take-away and I was expected to already know this vocabulary and be able tell them what I'd like without reading the fine-print descriptions of the curry ingredients. The OED tells us korma comes from an Urdu word for 'cooked meat', which itself derives from a Turkish word.

Escalope takes us back to French, and the French influence on UK menus. OED defines it as "Thin slices of boneless meat (occasionally of fish), prepared in various ways; esp. a special cut of veal taken from the leg." It's found in menu phrases like veal escalope or an escalope of chicken.
P.S. Thanks to Cathy in the comments we have an AmE equivalent for this, the Italian scallopini. Another case (like courgette/zucchini) of a French-derived food word in BrE and an Italian one in AmE. (The Prodigal Tongue covers this a bit more.)



Yob is an example of back slang. It's the word boy backwards, and it's used particularly for young men/boys who engage in anti-social behavio(u)r. Hooligans, etc.

Naff is a word that's hard to translate exactly, which is why it has been one of my 'untranslatables' in the past. It's an adjective that refers to a certain kind of 'uncool', or as Jonathon Green defines it: "in poor taste, unappealing, unfashionable, bad" and more recently it's also meant "second-rate, workaday".  I've seen Americans get this word very wrong, so best not to attempt it until you've been in the UK for a some time. Some Brits will tell you it stands for 'not available for f***ing', but as with almost all such acronymic slang tales, that is almost certainly false. Green's Dictionary of Slang gives this for etymology:

[? north. dial. naffhead, naffin, naffy, a simpleton; a blockhead; an idiot or niffy-naffy, inconsequential, stupid or Scot. nyaff, a term of contempt for any unpleasant or objectionable person; however note Polari etymologist WS Wilcox in a letter 25/11/99: ‘I have long believed that naff may well derive from Romany naflo, a form of nasvalo – no good, broken, useless. Since several other Parlary words derive from Romany this is not impossible’; in this context note also 16C Ital. gnaffa, a despicable person]

Brolly isn't in the same slang league as the previous examples. It's a kind of (orig. AmE) cutesie way of referring to an umbrella. As I discuss in some detail in The Prodigal Tongue, this is what BrE speakers say instead of (AmE) bumbershoot, an Americanism that Americans often erroneously believe to be British. That bit of my book is excerpted at Humanities magazine. Have a read and if you like it, maybe buy or borrow the book? (Please?)

Bolshy is an adjective derived from bolshevik, and as such it originally meant 'left-wing, Communist', but these days it's more often used to mean 'uncooperative, obstructive, subversive' (thanks again Mr Green) or 'Left-wing; uncooperative, recalcitrant' (OED). Don't get bolshy in the comments, OK? 

The rest

The other items on the list are just too miscellaneous to fit together under meaningful subheadings.

Gazump (and its sister gazunder) have been treated in an Untranslatables post already, so you can read about it there. It's about underhanded (BrE) property/(AmE) real-estate -buying behavio(u)r.

Kerbside is just (AmE) curbside in BrE spelling. Here's the old post about curb/kerb

Judder is an onomatopoetic verb. Like shudder, but used more often of mechanical things, like engines that aren't working well. Here's an example from the GloWBE corpus: "the bus juddered over potholes".  The OED's first citations of it are in the 1930s, so it came into English long after AmE & BrE separated.

Chiropody is used as AmE (and more and more BrE) would use podiatry, though some specialists try to force a difference in meaning between the two (see this, for example). You'll find other sites telling you there is no difference, and that, for the most part is true. The word podiatry was coined in the US and there covered the same things that chiropody covered in the UK. Chiropody comes from the Greek for 'hands' and 'feet', and you can see the similarity with chiropractor, who uses their hands to treat people. What's a bit funny about chiropody/chiropodist is that the pronunciation is all over the place. Some use the /k/ sound for the ch, following the Greek etymology. That's how dictionaries tend to show it. Others use a 'sh' sound as if it comes from French. You can hear both on YouGlish.

Quango stands for 'quasi-autonomous non-governmental organi{s/z}ation'. I remember learning about non-governmental organi{s/z}ations, or NGOs, when I lived in South Africa in the 90s. Apparently NGO has taken off as a term in the US in the meantime (see comments), but not quango. A quango is an NGO that gets public funds to do something that the government wants and maybe has government participants. Google says the word quango is 'derogatory', but I think that depends a bit on your political persuasion. Here's a BBC fact sheet on quangos.

A pelmet is a decorative window-covering that doesn't cover a window—it covers the top of the window and maybe the curtain rail. It can be a little curtain or a kind of box or board. Here's a selection of those that come up on a Google Image search:

The curtainy type of pelmet would be called a valance in AmE—which we've seen before because it has a bed-related use in BrE. I honestly do not know what the boxy things would be called in AmE. I've never had one in an AmE house, and my efforts to find them on US websites have not (orig. AmE) panned out. If you have the answer, say so in the comments and I'll update this bit.

P.S. Thank you commenters! Grapeson offers cornice as an AmE possibility. Usually (and in BrE too) this is a thing at the joint of the wall and the ceiling (often decorative). But Wikipedia has a little section on 'Cornice as window treatment' that confirms this usage. Then Diane Benjamin offers box valance as an AmE alternative. The Shade Store says this:

The primary difference between a curtain valance and a cornice is that valances are made out of drapery or fabric, while cornices are typically made out of wood.

Thanks to the commenters for helping out!

Finally a chaffinch is a bird species (which didn't come up in the recent bird posts). The Wikipedia map to the right makes it easy to see why Americans didn't recogni{s/z}e the word (the green areas are where chaffinches typically live). Wikipedia does say "It occasionally strays to eastern North America, although some sightings may be escapees."

So, that's that! Words that most British folk know and most Americans don't. If only I'd had Brysbaert et al.'s list when I was trying to make very difficult AmE/BrE quizzes.

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American words (most) British folk don't know

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

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

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


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

Glorious food

The Italian American angle

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

Fresh-water foods

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

The Mexican-Spanish angle

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

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

Other foods, other cuisines

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

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

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

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

Medicine / disease

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

Other cultural references

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

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

And all that's left is...

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

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Hello from my dad's house in New York State. Not only did I survive my hotel quarantine, I (more BrE in this position) quite enjoyed it.  In the three days that I've been out, I've done several things that I haven't done since March (at least), including going into a supermarket and a restaurant. What I really missed in small-town American quarantine was the ability to get things delivered (and to order them over the internet, not phone—which would have been an international call for me). I was almost completely dependent (save one Domino's delivery) on brothers and sisters-in-law to shop or get take-out/take-away for me. The very American hotel room had a fridge/freezer and a microwave, so at least I didn't need help every day.

I was extremely well-suited for the quarantine. First, I love staying in hotels. They don't even need to be fancy hotels—just clean and quiet ones. Second, and more importantly, I had four years of cautious and isolated living in South Africa. I got very good at keeping my own company. Third, I have a book to write. The hotel days flew by for me. 

I'd already been thinking, during lockdown in the UK, that I didn't really mind not being able to go out much. Though I usually have a full social calendar of restaurants and shows and quiz nights and parties, I was generally not missing them. (The only thing I'm really-really missing is writing in coffee shops. I find it very hard to book-write at home. Or hotel.) I also have hypochondriac and germophobe tendencies, so the more I stayed (at) home, the more I feared going out. And so I'd been wondering a lot about whether I'd be ready when restrictions lifted and I could go out. And wondering if this is going to be a widespread problem.

This trip to see my dad is functioning as intensive desensiti{s/z}ation therapy, but I'm not the only one who has worried about agoraphobia, as you can find by googling "coronavirus" and "agoraphobia". Here's a bit from one piece in the British newspaper i:

Fletcher says he’s noticed a huge spike in the number of referrals to his client base of individuals displaying agoraphobic tendencies since lockdown began – as have organisations such as Sane and Anxiety UK, both of which reported a 200 per cent increase in calls to their helplines related to the pandemic.

But the thing that stops me from talking about this matter is the pronunciation. When I say agoraphobia, my British friends either don't understand me the first time or comment on my strange pronunciation. I pronounce it with the o, the word agora ('gathering place, marketplace') plus the word phobia. "aGORaphobia"  When my UK friends say it, it's more like "agraphobia", which to me sounds too much like acrophobia—fear of heights.

Neither my friends nor I are pronouncing it in the way that most dictionaries have it, with the o pronounced as an unstressed vowel (schwa). Agheraphobia. 

But, and I don't know if this will work when you click on it, my pronunciation is the one that Google gives as American


Unfortunately, it's also what they give as the British pronunciation. Don't believe everything that the internet tells you. Audio files of pronunciations are potentially a wonderful plus for online lexicography, but they are the most likely part of a dictionary entry to be wrong, as far as I can tell. You can't do lexicography well without a lot of person power, and these files have often been rushed to the web in some kind of automated way. I recommend a lot of caution on British services' American pronunciations and vice versa.

But another bit of evidence that we can use for pronunciation is spelling, and I have seen agoraphobia represented without the first o in BrE, indicating that some people aren't hearing it there (and maybe don't know the etymology from agora). There's not a lot of this in the GloWBE corpus—but there is a little. As well as evidence that people don't talk about it as much in AmE:

In the end, this is not a very common word, and many people will have experienced it either in print or in speech but not both, allowing for a lot of variation in how people assume it should be pronounced or spel{led/t}. I'd expect that a lot of you will have different experiences of what you think the most common pronunciation where you are is. You can hear a lot of them at YouGlish (be sure to click the 'forward' button to advance to the next pronouncer) and draw your own conclusions.
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Recently I was asked to write a piece for an organi{s/z}ation about whether publications should be in "Global English". You'd think "Global English" would be relevant during a global pandemic. But the pandemic has illustrated that variation is the natural state of English around the globe. So far, I've looked into what people call the disease and the advice to 'stay (at) home'. Today's topic is what we're doing at home. 

Osman Faruqi posted this on Twitter, and Superlinguo Lawren Gawne copied me in:

Lucky for us, there's the Coronavirus Corpus, a wonderfully timely resource from Mark Davies and team at Brigham Young University, who are responsible for most of the corpora I cite on this blog. 

The Coronavirus Corpus is designed to be the definitive record of the social, cultural, and economic impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in 2020 and beyond. 

Unlike resources like Google Trends (which just show what people are searching for), the corpus shows what people are actually saying in online newspapers and magazines in 20 different English-speaking countries.  
The corpus (which was first released in May 2020) is currently about 510 million words in size, and it continues to grow by 3-4 million words each day.

 And thanks to that corpus, we can see that Faruqi's intuitions are (orig. BrE) spot-on.


AusE during iso (which follows a general trend for clipping in informal Australian English) might be common in speech, but since the sources here are news-related, they have only a handful of during iso and about 80 times more during isolation.

It's worth noting here that the island nations don't follow their neighbo(u)rs. New Zealand has lockdown like British — though of course NZ's way of dealing with the pandemic has been very different from the UK way. Ireland looks more like Australia than like GB. (I'm never sure whether Davies' corpora are including Northern Ireland with Ireland. The use of Great Britain rather than United Kingdom indicates that they might, but since some Northern Irish websites are going to end with .uk and not .ie, I don't know how much trust one can put in that. I really should find out about it...)

Now, these expressions are not literally accurate. They're all talking about situations where people are advised to stay at home and some range of public places are required to stay closed. If you live with friends or family in Australia, you're not really 'in isolation', right? I've seen people in the UK saying that we shouldn't call it lockdown because that'll make people feel like they're being imprisoned and punished (and therefore more likely to feel justified in 'escaping'). I've seen Americans complain about this use of quarantine because most Americans are not literally quarantined. (Unlike me. I am writing this in the middle of my 14-day quarantine* after travel to the US. I am staying in a hotel room, dependent on groceries dropped off by my brother, waiting to be 'clear' to visit my dad. I am happily re-connecting with my hermit tendencies and may require careful reintroduction to society when this is over.) 

*Don't tell me that quarantine is literally 40 days. That's its etymology, not its meaning in current English.

But I'd argue that you don't have to worry about the accuracy of these phrases because (a) words can (and usually do) have more than one meaning/usage, and (b) I'd say we're using them more like proper nouns. While we don't spell them with initial capitals, notice how we are treating these words as the name of a particular time period, like Ramadan or October or (AmE) spring break or (BrE) half term. Proper names don't have to describe, as we know from names like Greenland. It's not an accurate descriptor of that place, but we know which place you're talking about if you say Greenland. Quarantine/lockdown/isolation is a particular time period associated with particular activities, just like Christmas(time) describes a particular time period with particular activities.

I'm often asked about my "Difference of the Day", which I've been doing every weekday on Twitter since mid-2009, and the question is always "Haven't you run out yet?" Not by (orig. AmE) a long shot/(BrE) a long way. And I'm never going to run out because we keep finding new ways to differ.



  • I've skipped a few weeks of blogging because of other writing gigs. One of them was to write a blog post for the Speaking Citizens project, which is researching (BrE) oracy education in the UK. My angle on it was to think about the differences in education cultures in the US and UK (related to my thoughts in chapter 8 of The Prodigal Tongue). If you're interested, you can read it here.

  • My big news is that I have been hono(u)red with a Public Scholars grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was a Public Scholars grant that allowed me time off from my day job to write The Prodigal Tongue. I'll have six months off from my university job to continue to work on my current project, which has the working title Small Words. Here's the synopsis:
  • Books about words often concentrate on the dialectal gems, the lost lexicons, the rare and peculiar species of the linguistic world. By contrast our most common words are given scant attention, mumbled in speech and glossed over in reading. We notice the weighty nouns, verbs and adjectives, but miss the slippery mortar holding them together: 'be', 'the', 'not', 'if', 'and', ‘of’, ‘it’. But poke those small words, and each opens up a world of discovery into human minds and cultures. Take ‘the’, as just one example. How can it be the most frequent word in written English, when many of the world’s languages have no need of an equivalent? Why does it cause trouble for Bible translators? Why does it feel different when an American speaks of ‘the Mexicans’ rather than ‘Mexicans’? Why do English writers use it less each year? This book synthesizes research from across the humanities and social sciences, allowing the small words to tell us stories about what it is to speak English and what it is to be human.
  • You'll probably see me blogging more about the little words in the coming months (or just blogging less). Of course, I've already blogged a lot about prepositions, conjunctions, determiners, and interjections here, so it's stuff I've been thinking about for a long time.

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coronavirus and COVID-19

A retired colleague contacted me with this query:
Has a dialect difference emerged between US novel coronavirus/new coronavirus and UK COVID-19, do you think? Novel coronavirus/new coronavirus is favoured by Reuters, but I don't know whether that counts in the dialect balance.

I hear plenty of COVID-19 from US sources, so that didn't strike me as quite right, but I had a look (on 29 April) at the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, which (so far this year) had 226 covi* (i.e. words starting with covi-) per million words in US and 49 per million in UK. For coronav* it's 362 US v 92 UK. (I searched that way so that I'd get all variations, including COVID without the -19, without the hyphen, coronaviruses, etc.).

Now, I don't trust the geographical coding on the NOW corpus very much, because you have things like the Guardian showing up in the US data because it has a US portal that has US-particular content, but also all the UK content—and that doesn't do us much good in sorting out AmE from BrE. I really don't know why the per-million numbers are so much higher in the US sources, since the news in both places is completely taken over by the virus and stories related to it. But anyway, about 38% of the (named) mentions of the disease are COVID in the US and 35% in the UK, so there is no notable difference in preference for COVID. I found it interesting that the two newspaper apps on my phone (Guardian [UK] and New York Times) prefer coronavirus in headlines, even though COVID-19 is shorter.

But my colleague is right that there is a lot more new/novel coronavirus in US than UK. About 12% of AmE usages are prefaced by an adjective that starts with N, while only about 3% of BrE coronaviruses are. Distribution is fairly even between novel (from medical usage) and new. It's worth noting that since I'm only searching news media,  new/novel is probably far more common in this dataset than it would be in everyday interactions.

Including the definite article (the coronavirus) seems to be more common in AmE. If I just look for how many coronavirus occurrences are preceded by the, the proportion is 45% for AmE and 37% for BrE.  this search hits examples like the one in the 'middle school' story on the left: the coronavirus lockdown where the the really relates to the lockdown. So, to try to avoid this problem, I searched for (the) coronavirus [VERB] and (the) coronavirus [full stop/period]. In those cases, then AmE news media have the the about 50% of the time, while BrE ones have it less than 30% of the time. That misses the new/novel coronavirus (because of the adjective between the and coronavirus), so the real difference in the before coronavirus is probably more stark.

The media's style guides are supposed to guide the choices journalists and editors make in phrasing such things, but how strictly they follow their own guides is another matter. I had a look at a couple:

The Guardian Style Guide (UK) says:
coronavirus outbreak 2019-20
The virus is officially called Sars-CoV-2 and this causes the disease Covid-19. However, for ease of communication we are following the same practice as the WHO and using Covid-19 to refer to both the virus and the disease in our general reporting. It can also continue to be referred to as the coronavirus.  [I've added the bold on the latter]

The Associated Press (US) gives similar advice, though it goes into more particular rules for science stories.
As of March 2020, referring to simply the coronavirus is acceptable on first reference in stories about COVID-19. While the phrasing incorrectly implies there is only one coronavirus, it is clear in this context. Also acceptable on first reference: the new coronavirus; the new virus; COVID-19.
In stories, do not refer simply to coronavirus without the article the. Not: She is concerned about coronavirus. Omitting the is acceptable in headlines and in uses such as: He said coronavirus concerns are increasing.
Passages and stories focusing on the science of the disease require sharper distinctions.
COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2. When referring specifically to the virus, the COVID-19 virus and the virus that causes COVID-19 are acceptable. But, because COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus, it is not accurate to write a new virus called COVID-19. [bold added]
In comparing the two passages you can see one predictable difference between them. AP writes COVID in all caps, Guardian has Covid with the initial capital only. There is a widespread preference in BrE (and generally not in AmE) to differentiate between initalisms and true acronyms. (There's been a bit in the Guardian about it, here.)

In an initialism, you pronounce the names of the letters: the WHO stands for World Health Organization and it is pronounced W-H-O and not "who". It's spel{led/t} with all caps (or small caps), no matter where you live. (AmE styles are more likely than BrE styles to insist on (BrE) full stops/(AmE) periods in these: W.H.O.—but styles do vary.)

Acronyms use the initial letters of words to make a new word, pronounced as a word. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's short name is pronounced "nasa", making it a true acronym. All AmE styles that I know of spell it with caps: NASA. Many BrE styles spell it like any other proper name, with just an initial capital: Nasa.

This disease name provides a slightly different case because it's doesn't just use initial letters: COronaVIrusDisease. That's probably why I'm seeing some initial-only Covid in AmE, for instance in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where they spell other acronyms (like NASA) in all caps.

Other variants, like CoViD and covid are out there—but they are in the minority. COVID and Covid rule.While some other UK sources, like the Guardian, follow the initial-cap style (Covid), many UK sources use the all-cap style, including the National Health Service and the UK government.

And on that note, I hope you and yours are safe.

P.S. Since I'm talking about newspaper uses, I haven't considered pronunciation—but that discussion is happening in the comments. 
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It's the last morning of my (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation—off to the airport in less than two hours. But Will W just pre-wrote for me most of a blog post, so I'm going to take advantage and get another post up before I land back in work reality.

Here's what Will wrote:

Struggling to see the screen, holding my iPad at arm's length, I looked up 'long sighted' on Wikipedia, and it unexpectedly delivered me to 'far-sightedness'.

Further consults with Dr Google, ignoring variations in spelling or hyphenation, suggested a national tendency to interpret the phrases metaphorically or literally.
And then he put his findings into a table, with ?? in some boxes. I've taken the ??s out and filled in the terms and meanings he didn't know (and made a few other editing changes for my own happiness). I've also added the OED's date of first citation for each of them, so you can see how they relate to one another

British English American English
long-sighted • hyperopic (holds reading matter far away) [1737: not its first meaning] ——
far-sighted anticipates future events correctly [1641] • anticipates future events correctly
• hyperopic [1878]
short-sighted • lacking foresight [1622]
• myopic (has to hold reading matter close) [1641]
lacking foresight
near-sighted —— myopic [1686]
As it happens, it's the 2nd anniversary
of me getting these glasses

Some things to note about these:
  • The more 'figurative' sense of looking into the future precedes the physiological sense in all cases where both exist.
  • All of these terms were invented in Britain. If you do hear long-sighted in AmE it will probably be figurative. But it just doesn't turn up much.
  • The 'hyperopic' sense of far-sighted might have originated in US, but OED does not provide much info about it, as the entry has not been fully updated since 1895. Their only citation for it is from the Encyclopædia Britannica, which at that point was published in Edinburgh. In 1895, the OED's coverage of Americanisms was not what it is today.
  • Will had listed the terms in the table without hyphens. I had to put the hyphens in, because I'm that kind of person. Oxford Dictionaries like the hyphens, Merriam-Webster writes them as one word, no hyphen, e.g. nearsighted.
  • Hyperopia seems to be the more common opposite for myopia today, but in the UK (less so in the US) you also find hypermetropia. The two words have been in competition since the mid-1800s.
If you have any of these conditions, you may need glasses. If you're American, you'll sometimes call them eyeglasses, and if you're British, you may sometimes call them specs (or less often/more old-fashionedly) spectacles. What you call the people from whom and places where you get glasses is a matter for a separate blog post—but at this point I really need to get dressed to go to the airport!

Will also asked about AmE seeing eye dog. In the UK, these are known as guide dogs for the blind. Guide dog is understandable in AmE as well.

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squint, cross-eyed

If you have any interest in the doctor-patient relationship, I very much recommend Dariusz Galasiński's blog. He writes thought-provokingly about various things that he and I have in common: being immigrant linguist patients or linguist immigrant patients or immigrant patient linguists. But probably not patient linguistic immigrants. Anyhow, we're rather different in how we are/do all those things, but I am really enjoying the commonalities and the thought-provocations.

He wrote recently about a term that's always struck me when I've heard it in BrE. Here's a snippet from the relevant blog post, On 'medical language':
...I was asked about ‘the history’ and told about my strabismus. The optometrist (or doctor) responded with something like:
OK, so you had a squint.
I didn’t react the first time, but after a second time, I politely but firmly said I hadn’t – it was strabismus, to which she said, it was one and the same thing. And I somewhat more firmly said it wasn’t and that I would rather she used medical language. She looked at me with a sort of ‘What’s your problem, man?’ look. I so didn’t care.
You see, there is nothing ‘squinty’ about my strabismus. It’s not a squint, it’s not ‘strab’. No, it’s strabismus. For me (and I only speak for myself) when you use colloquial language to refer to my eyes, you make light of all the sh…I had to take when I was a boy....
In AmE, it's said that a person with strabismus is cross-eyed or more rarely that they have a crossed eye. I was told when I was young that cross-eyed means the eye (or eyes) points toward(s) the nose and wall-eyed means it/they point away from the nose. That wasn't the original meaning of wall-eye (no, that was having a very light iris). I imagine that the strabismus meaning came from folk-etymology: the eye is looking at the wall. (Also, there's a fish called a wall-eye and fish generally do look to the side.) But in everyday US usage, cross-eyed seemed to be applied indiscriminately for any off-target eye.

In young children, who were treated with an eye patch, the term lazy eye was used, and though there seems to be a technical difference between that and strabismus, I don't think anyone in my circle was observing the difference. This term seems to be used in both countries.

But I had never heard of squint to refer to strabismus till I came to the UK.

In AmE squint generally means narrowing your eyelids, as you do when the sun's in your eye. This meaning is only a bit more than a century old (three hundred years younger than the strabismus sense). Despite its newness, it's a widespread meaning, which has definitely arrived in the UK. This is what you get if you google "Squint emoji":

The scrunched-eyelid meaning is mostly used as a verb (she squinted in the sun), whereas the  strabismus meaning is mostly used as a noun, following the verb to have: he had a squint.

While US dictionaries have the older meaning (though maybe not listed first), squint does not seem to be used much in the US in this way. There are nine British examples of ha* a squint in the GloWBE corpus, and though it initially looks like there are three "American" examples, one is the narrow-eyed meaning and the other two aren't by Americans.
Why did the strabismus meaning die out in the US? Probably because of the success of the narrowing-your-eyes meaning, connected to the fact that cross-eyed had come along (late 18th c) to do the strabismus job.

Back to Dariusz's post, the tendency of UK medical folk to use colloquialisms--some of which I might classify as 'baby talk' or 'euphemism' is something that's come up here before. (Here's a link to the medicine/disease tag, where related things come up.) It depends on the ailment, but by my tally, the UK does more colloquial terms, the US more medical jargon. Whether BrE medical personnel perceive squint as colloquialism or just "the normal (non-medical) word" for the condition, I don't know.

The point of Dariusz's post (as I read it) is not "people shouldn't use this word", but more "medical personnel shouldn't assume that colloquialisms are the best way to talk to all patients" and "using colloquialisms with some patients may make them feel talked-down-to"—particularly in this case where the patient had used one kind of word and the practitioner had "dumbed-down" the patient's language—that seems dismissive. This is an issue I've had trouble with in dealing with a few UK doctors (and different medical issues) myself--simplifications that are oversimplifications or insistent use of euphemism where I'm using medical terminology.

But I don't want to end on a sour note about UK doctors. (I love the NHS!) American doctors have their own communication problems with patients. A major theme of Dariusz's blog is that doctor-patient/patient-doctor communication should be human-human communication. The problem with that wonderful idea, of course, is that some people on both sides of the pond are trying to make medicine profit-driven. Human relationships hardly stand a chance in those conditions. But let's not stop trying.

[Late addition] A Twitter correspondent offers boss-eyed. Oxford Dictionaries lists it as 'British informal', and the not-updated-since-1933 OED entry lists it as 'dialect slang' and referring to just one eye out of alignment. 

By the way, I'm happy to report that I have submitted the manuscript for the book that this blog inspired. I will let you know publication details when they are available (you know I will)--but the book won't be out till some point Spring 2018. Yay! And thank you to the (US) National Endowment for the Humanities for making it possible.
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mental health

From Cllr James Baker's website
Want to bring out the pedant in me? Invite me to help fight the stigma attached to mental health. Then watch me shout: "There is no stigma attached to mental health! There is a stigma attached to mental illness!"

I have these little shoutings fairly regularly these days--because I live in England, the home of mental health stigma.

From the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE):

It doesn't matter which preposition you use, if it's a stigma and there's mental health nearby, it's probably British:

Yes, yes, some of those mental healths will have nouns after them like problems or professionals, but in BrE, most of them don't. For instance, for the 12 British stigma around mental health examples, only two follow up with problems or issues. For the others, it is just mental health that carries the stigma:

Now, when people ask me to give money for cancer or child abuse, I object that I don't want cancer or child abuse to have my money. Simple pedantry for pedantry's sake, because I'm 100% confident that the people collecting money really mean that it's money to fight cancer or child abuse. And so I thought it was with the British and mental health--they're saying it that way, but they obviously mean 'the stigma about not having mental health' rather than 'the stigma about mental health'. But it's phrased so often in this way in BrE that I wonder: maybe they didn't obviously mean that. Maybe there is a stigma about mental health. There seems to be a stigma about talking about one's own mental health, and there is (relative to American sensibilities) a stigma against pursuing mental health (e.g. seeing a therapist).

I'm being a bit facetious here, but the phrasing does go with the stereotype of the British stiff upper lip. A stigma about admitting to any mental state at all...

When I looked into mental health and mental illness a bit more, I was surprised to find that the number of mentions of mental illness were about even in BrE and AmE (in GloWBE still). But the British mention mental health much more:

Why? A clue is in the number of nouns that follow mental health. The green parts in these tables are the phrases that are statistically much more American (left) or much more British (right):

Many of the BrE ones have to do with how the National Health Service is structured, but also you can see here ways of not saying mental illness: mental health problem(s), mental health difficulties, and even mental health illness(es). AmE has some odd ones (from a pedantic point of view too): mental health symptoms (do we ever talk about symptoms of physical health? No. Illnesses have symptoms, not health) and mental health benefits (if the meaning of benefits here is the same as in disability benefits, then it's a benefit for not being healthy).  (Note stigma shows up again in the BrE list.)

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