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

infections and itises

So last time, I wrote about disease versus infection following the phrase sexually transmitted, and I started thinking (again) about how we talk about medical things--technical or non-technical? In the book I'm writing (for you!), I've touched on it a little with respect to bodily functions:

Sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, I’m amused and a bit astonished to find posters about what to do if there is blood in your pee or poo.* The equivalent American public-service advertisements say urine and stool. In the medical context, America avoids being crude by sounding more scientific, and Britain uses baby-talk.
* Make an appointment with your doctor immediately!
The discussion hits on things like BrE waterworks ('urinary tract') and back passage ('rectum') and  classes given to foreign nurses in the NHS on British slang--aka British euphemism. (It's a bit of the book that looks at the stereotype of Americans as euphemists, so yes, there's a lot of attention in the other direction.)

The "Americans use overly technical terminology" aka "Americans like jargon" stereotype that I contribute to in the quote above is one worth taking apart as well. I've been encouraged in that stereotype when I hear friends talk about their chest infections where I tend to have bronchitis. But then they're also talking about having cystitis (my poor, unhealthy friends), which I hadn't heard of before moving here. An infected cyst? Ew... No, it's a bladder infection. In AmE I'd call it a UTI (urinary tract infection). (The NHS website tells us that cystitis is a common type of UTI, so the terms are slightly different--but that's the case with bronchitis and chest infection too.)

So far, we're tied: Itises: BrE 1, AmE 1. Infections: BrE 1, AmE 1.

So I thought I'd have a look at which things Americans and Brits call infections and which they use Medical Greek -itis names for.

 The tables below are the statistically "most American" (left) and "Most British" (right) nouns that come before infection in the GloWBE corpus. (If you click on the table, it should get bigger.)
"Most American" and "Most British" words preceding infection
What you can notice there (if you can read the small print) is that the "more British" preceding nouns include things that can get infected (wounds, chests, throats), whereas the "more American" ones tend to be the microbes that do the infecting. In AmE, I think I'd say someone has an infected wound rather than that they have a wound infection. And one kind of wound infection you can have is a staph infection (in the US list), which is a very familiar term from my AmE childhood (we were constantly being told that gym mats were very dangerous). I don't know that I've ever heard staph infection in the UK.

In the BrE column you can also see urine infection, another BrE way of saying urinary tract infection. This one names neither the pathogen nor the organ, and always strikes me as a bit odd. Urine might have germs in it, but can urine itself be infected?

BrE has more throat infections because Americans are more likely to say they have strep throat. In my experience, scarlet fever is heard more in BrE these days (which is not to say you never hear it in AmE). When my child was diagnosed with it (in the UK), I really felt like I'd been taken back to Victorian times. She wasn't all that sick. But when I looked it up and found that it's the strep germ, I thought: maybe you hear scarlet fever more often in UK because AmE has strep infection.

Some of the numbers up there, though, are art{e/i}ifacts of the corpus. AmE has 56 instances of HSV infection but all of them come from a single website (, so we shouldn't take too much from that. American, like British, English would typically call that herpes. HBV infection is found on a greater range of sites, but they are mostly medical journals and such. Laypeople would generally say Hepatitis B.

But that does seem to sum up the difference between the AmE table and the BrE table: a lot of the AmE infection cases are use of medical jargon in a medical context--staph infection was the only one I knew as a layperson. Whereas in BrE the body-part+infection cases are terms that non-medical people would use when talking about their maladies.

If we look at the infections that American and British English have in common, we can see  that Americans do talk about infections too, sometimes with body parts, even.

But what about -itises? Is it mostly Americans using the fancy words? No, but there again maybe some effects here of one source being over-sampled in the corpus. Here I'm showing what came up as 'most American' (left) and 'most British' (right), with a bit of the 'neither one nor the other' showing in white. This is going to be very hard to read on a phone (sorry!), but I'll write up the highlights below.

I've given a comment in red if (a) the things are not diseases, but just coincidentally spelled with -itis, or (b) if it's a spelling issue. Though oesophagitis shows up in the British list, it's not because Americans don't use an -itis name for the problem, but because we spell it esophagitis. (Click here for my old post on oe/e spellings.) The British list is lengthened by a misspelling of arthritis and having two spellings for tonsil(l)itis.

After discounting those, the British list is still a lot longer than the American one, but I'm very much suspecting some bad corpus effects here. Tonsillitis, colitis, dermatitis, gastroenteritis, appendicitis, pancreatitis--I or members of my family have had all of these and that's just what they were called in the US. The numbers for these diseases are greater than expected in the British part of the corpus--but they're hardly absent in the American part. For example, note that there are 756 AmE occurrences of meningitis--which is here counting as "rather British", while only 16 AmE hits for phlebitis make it "very American". Some of these cases are going to seem "more British" or "more American" to the software just because the corpus happened to hit on some websites that talked about these things a lot. But I think what we can say from this exercise is that we have no particular evidence for British English avoiding -itis words, despite its greater use of body-part+infection.

Still there are a few itises worth mentioning for BrE/AmE interest. One is labyrinthitis, which I had an unfortunate encounter with this spring. When I described my symptoms (the room going upside-down and inside-out every time I turned my head left), lots of British friends said "Oh, that's labyrinthitis. I've had it. It's horrible!" But it was not a word that my American friends seemed to have at their fingertips--to them it was an inner-ear infection. (Why do Brits seem to get it more often, though?)

Conjunctivitis shows up on the British list, though it is a word that Americans use too. But Americans have another informal term for the problem: pink-eye. That will push the US conjunctivitis numbers down. (There are a few UK hits for pink-eye--with or without the hyphen, but a lot of US hits.)

In the white part of the table--where the numbers are similar for AmE and BrE -- are the two itises that are earlier in this post: cystitis, which I've experienced as more British, and bronchitis, which I've experienced as more American. Because the corpus is imperfect, I'm not going to totally discount my experience on these. But it would be interesting to hear if others (particularly transatlantic others who can compare) think I'm off my rocker...

I was surprised to see only one made-up disease in the list: boomeritis on the AmE side. (It was the name of a book--click on the word to learn more.) I would have bet that (AmE) senioritis would appear. (As it happens, there were only two US examples of it in the corpus--most are Canadian.) To quote Wikipedia:

Senioritis is a colloquial term mainly used in the United States and Canada to describe the decreased motivation toward studies displayed by students who are nearing the end of their high school, college, and graduate school careers.
For a minute there, I was worried that I expected senioritis to be there because I am OLD and UNCOOL. But I'm happy to report that in both the Corpus of Historical American English and in Google Books, the rate of senioritis use has only gone up in the decades since I was a high-school/college senior. Not happy for the teachers who have to teach these seniors, but happy that my vocabulary is not a complete dinosaur--yet.

If you're interested in other disease names, do have a look at the medicine/disease tag--thanks to (a) having a small child and (b) being a complete hypochondriac, quite a few have come up over the years--but there are still many more to cover in future.

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Is a Manchester sexual health clinic
trying to tell me something?
I just feel that I should say this up front: there is nothing autobiographical about this post. There. Got that out of the way. The topic only came up because I was in a conversation that involved an allusion to leaflets in doctors' (AmE) offices/(BrE) surgeries

Those leaflets are sometimes about (AmE, old-fashioned) social diseases. In either country it's possible to find references to  Sexually Transmitted Diseases or STDs or  Sexually Transmitted Infections or STIs. Is there a difference? Not really. To quote one (US) site on the matter:
STI stands for sexually transmitted infection, and many people, mostly the medical community, have begun transitioning from “STD” to “STI” in an effort to clarify that not all sexually transmitted infections turn into a disease. For instance, the vast majority of women who contract HPV (human papilloma virus) will not develop the resulting disease cervical cancer. In fact, most cases of infection will clear up within two years. Additionally, people who use this term believe that it also eliminates some of the shame that’s been associated with the acronym “STD.”
The UK seems to be far ahead of the US in adopting the "new" term.

The GloWBE corpus has about 5 times as many STD(s) in AmE as STI(s), but about 1.2 times as many STIs in BrE as STDs. The numbers for the non-abbreviated forms were not as strongly separated by country, but there were still more sexually transmitted diseases in the US and infections in the UK.

GloWBE is useful because relatively current and country-coded, but  it's counting up phrases from the web and there's no guarantee of the Britishness of someone writing a comment on a British news site (etc.). I wanted to check further because the UK numbers weren't as stark as I had expected. The friend in the aforementioned conversation has a nurse for his partner, a (UK) nurse, and his experience/impression was that in the medical profession it is almost always STI in the UK. That's been my impression too.

So, I searched for the terms on the National Health Service (UK) website and found about 4 times as many sexually transmitted infection(s) as sexually transmitted diseases but similar numbers of STI and STD. This seemed to be because almost whenever the NHS site uses the abbreviation, they use both abbreviations, as in "Sexual health testing for people with symptoms or who have had sex with someone who has a confirmed STI/STD" on a list of clinic services. In some cases, when I clicked through on a hit for STD there was no visible STD on the page, just STI. Which is why, boys and girls, it is generally better to use a corpus rather than Google for getting word-frequency counts. Some SEO magic seems to be going on on there.

On the National Institutes of Health (US) website there are twice as many sexually transmitted diseases as sexually transmitted infections.

Was STI coined in the UK? Not necessarily, but it's hard to tell. Only sexually transmitted disease (first citation, 1962) is in the OED. Searching Google Books, I find instances of sexually transmitted infection going back at least as far, but there's no clear separation between US (red) and UK(blue) books at the start of the term's history.

Why has STI caught on more in the UK? Some possibilities:
  • A more enlightened approach to sexual health? 
  • Better management of terminology due to the dominance of the National Health Service in delivering patient information and treatment?
  • It fits better with other names for illnesses in the dialect?
In terms of the last point, a first thing to wonder is whether STD is more popular in the US because Americans are more used to calling such things diseases, as in venereal disease. The answer seems to be "no". Venereal disease is and was just as well used in BrE, as far as I can tell.

What about the word infection, is that more common in BrE more generally? The answer is complicated, so I've decided to make that a separate post. It's half-written, so it might even be the next one!

And I leave you with what may be my favo(u)rite disease joke, from Cyanide and Happiness:

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hay fever and allergies

I suffer. I do. At this point, the pollen people tell me it's alder trees. But it's always something.
Alder catkins, via Wikipedia

I complained about this on Facebook last night with the status "Hay fever? Already?" and this led a former (British) student, now working in New York to ask:
They don't really say that here do they? More just 'allergies' in general.
I grew up with hay fever in Upstate New York, and much of my family suffers, so I'm used to hearing the phrase in American English. But, of course, I had to look it up.

I found on the Corpus of Global Web-Based English more mentions of hay fever in Britain than America and more of allergies in North America than in Britain. But allergies wins overall in both countries. Of course, allergies can refer to more than just pollen allergies, so that's not totally surprising.

(The darker the blue in these tables the more a phrase is associated with a particular country in this corpus. The raw numbers can't be directly compared because the sizes of the sub-corpora for each country differ, but the US and GB sets are roughly the same size.)

But looking at Google Books gives a different story:

This shows hay fever as peaking earlier in the US (around the 1940s) and later in the UK (1970s), but not more common in BrE than in AmE. It also shows the rise of allergies--earlier in the US than in the UK. I feel like I use allergies a lot these days because I'm never really sure what I'm sneezing out. But I do seem to be sneezing for most of the year.

So, it looks like the US is leading a change to allergies over hay fever, but this little exercise does demonstrate that a lot depends on the make-up of the data you're using.

If it's not hay fever I have, then perhaps it is THE DREADED LURGY
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theatre / theater

The most obvious difference in American and British theat{er/re} is the spelling, but on top of that there are a number of meaning differences. And then the meanings interfere with the spellings again. Much fun, but this is why I can't write short blog posts. Here we go...

the spelling

Theater is one of those American spellings that is attributed to Noah Webster.* But like most of successful American spelling reforms, it wasn't made up by an American. It was a long-standing spelling in England, and the predominant spelling at the time when the English colonies in America were first being settled. The OED says:

The earliest recorded English forms, c1380, are theatre and teatre; from c1550 to 1700, or later, the prevalent spelling was theater (so in Dictionaries from Cawdrey to Kersey), but theatre in Holland, Milton, Fuller, Dryden, Addison, Pope; Bailey 1721 has both, ‘Theatre, Theater’: and between 1720 and 1750, theater was dropped in Britain, but has been retained or (?) revived in U.S.
The word started as theatrum in Latin, and in French it lost its -um. The French pronunciation makes sense with the -re spelling, but the modern English pronunciation does not. However we pronounce that syllable, in whichever English accents we have, it is the same syllable that is spel{led/t} -er in words like butter or later. It's thus no wonder that English writers preferred the -er for some time (and Americans have preferred it for most times), since it is the more Englishy spelling, if by 'Englishy spelling' we mean (as I do) 'spelling that reflects English pronunciation'.

The fashion (for these things are fashion) of using the French spelling has won out in Britain for this and many other words of its ilk: centre, calibre, litre, lustre, sombre, etc. But the fashion is not consistent. Cloister, coriander, and disaster (among others)  have -re spellings in French from -rum spellings in Latin, but -er spellings in all standard contemporary Englishes. And then there's metre and kilometre but perimeter and thermometer, etc. Note, though, that despite their common Latin/Greek etymology (metrum), they have different vowels in the me syllable in BrE. American pronunciation of kilometer as 'kill LAH mitter' drives some Brits I know batty, as it obscures the relation between the met{er/re} and the kilomet{er/re}. They prefer 'KILL-o-meetah'. (I just tried to get Better Half to say it. He said 'kill LAH mitter' and explained 'I'm disarmingly transatlantic'.)

This particular difference has a lot in common with the -or/-our difference: variant spelling in early modern English, then American English settling on the more phonetic spelling, and British English settling on the more French spelling. I've more to say about that, but that's going in the book.

(By the way, I'm trying to get into the habit of listing BrE/AmE variants alphabetically. I may not always succeed, but it's why the ones in this post are listed in those particular orders. I'm also trying to alternate which goes first in British/American, US/UK, BrE/AmE, etc. )

the meanings

Let's be quick and put them in a table.
place where you... What Americans usually say What the British usually say
watch a play theater*  theatre
watch a film/movie (movie) theater* cinema

hear a (university) lecture
lecture hall, auditorium lecture theatre
have surgery operating room; OR (operating) theatre

There are of course other uses of theat{er/re} that extend from the 'drama place' use--e.g. political theat{er/re}. They are generally the same in both countries, but for spelling.

spelling again!

Photo by Kevin Dooley (Flickr)
While theater is the general American spelling, one does see theatre in the US in place or organi{s/z}ation names, like the Signature Theatre Company in Arlington, Virginia. The same happens with centre in American place names (but never for the 'middle' meaning of center), such as Robinson Town Centre, a (AmE) outdoor mall, or power center/(BrE) retail park in Pittsburgh.  The namers of these places are taking advantage of the fact that you can spell names however you like, and using the British spelling to make the place sound ‘classy'. Needless to say, we don’t see the reverse in the UK.

I particularly like the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, which just mixes it all up. And movie theatres like the one above are to be congratulated for combining a British spelling and an American meaning. Crazy fun.

* This post originally said theater was in Webster's 1828 dictionary, but, as David Crosbie points out in the comments, it was not, though center and caliber and maneuver (vs. BrE manoeuvre) are there. (Sorry--I'd depended on and possibly overinterpreted someone else's work. You can consult the 1828 dictionary here.) The word does not occur at all in Webster's 'Blue-backed speller'.
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f(o)etus and f(o)etal —and a bit on sulfur/sulphur

If you're looking for discussion of other (o)e or (a)e words, please click here to see/comment at the more comprehensive post on the topic.

So, as we've seen in that aforementioned blog post, British and American spelling differ sometimes in the use of the ligature (connected letter) œ, or as it's more often written now, the digraph (two letters for one sound) oe. To give a quick summary of the story so far:
  • English took a lot of its œ words from Latin.
  • Latin got them from Greek. œ is Latin's way of representing the Greek .
  • American English (following Noah Webster and other spelling reformers) usually simplifies the Latin/Greek oe to e
But then there's foetus (or fœtus). This is a British spelling of the Latin word fetus. That is to say, the œ might look like it comes from a classical language, but it just doesn't. Sometime in the 16th century, someone (mistakenly, one might say) started spelling it with an œ, and it stuck.

This creates a dilemma for British spellers who know a bit about Latin. Spell it foetus and commit a little etymological crime. Spell it fetus and get accused of Americanization by people who don't know about the Latin—and maybe even by some who do know about it. And if there's one thing worse than committing Latin sins, it's being accused of spelling like an American.

But still, brave British doctors have fought to get rid of the o, mostly by writing letters to the editor of major medical journals. Here's one:

I shall resist to the  last ditch any movement for the general replacement of diphthongs* by single vowels – the American practice. But when, etymologically, the foreigner is correct and we are wrong, it would seem that by adhering obstinately to a false diphthong we are weakening our case for maintaining our justifiable diphthongs in the face of contrary “common usage” by far more than half the English-writing world. (Napier, L. Everard. 1 Nov. 1952. The correct spelling of medical terms [Letter to the Editor]. The Lancet vol. 260, pp. 885-6.)

The Lancet and the British Medical Journal now consider fetus and fetal the ‘correct’ spellings, and the Oxford Dictionaries entry for fetus remarks:
The spelling foetus has no etymological basis but is recorded from the 16th century and until recently was the standard British spelling in both technical and non-technical use. In technical usage fetus is now the standard spelling throughout the English-speaking world, but foetus is still found in British English outside technical contexts

At the foetus entry, it just says: "Variant spelling of fetus (chiefly in British non-technical use)."

How true is this, that it's the accepted technical spelling in the UK? In The Lancet and the BMJ, it's doctors writing for other doctors. What about the rest of the medical professions? What about when medical types communicate with patients?

My first stop was the NHS Choices website, where the readers are would-be patients. A search for foetus brings up 27 hits, but fetus has 7. But, going the other way, foetal has 66 hits and fetal 82. What's going on?

I contacted the website to ask if they had a policy on this and they were extremely helpful (as the NHS always has been for me ♥). They put me in contact with their Head of Editorial Production, who sent me both a link to their style guide (which has fetus as an Americanism to be avoided) and his own document entitled 'Fetality', which he wrote when the Fetal Anomaly Screening Programme (so spelled) asked if the rest of the website could switch to fetal/fetus. In his paper he gives several arguments for retaining foetus/foetal, even on pages where it will conflict with the FASP program(me)'s spelling, but I think this first one is key:
NHS Choices is a ‘British English’ service and, as stated in its Editorial Style Guide, is bound to:
·       Write plain English
·       Avoid medical jargon and technical terms as far as possible
On the basis of those two points, if it is accepted that foetus is the general spelling and fetus the technical-medical, NHS Choices should use foetus.
Bolton, Barry. 2014. Fetality. Internal document, NHS. Received with thanks from the author.)
Looking again at the o-less hits on the NHS Choices site, many of them seem to be in comments from site users—so the house style doesn't apply. Are they misspelling it, or do they know the 'technical' spelling? Why so many more fetals? Possibly because it's in the name of a lot of things, not just the FASP program(me), such as the 'Fetal Medicine Unit team at St George's Hospital', which is indeed how the hospital spells that unit's name.

It's an interesting mixture: the NHS website keeps the traditional British spelling in communication with patients in order to avoid technical language, but the hospitals and such seem quite happy to foist the technical spelling on patients in the names of units and program(me)s.

To investigate this a little further, I did a little survey in which I asked for UK medical personnel to tell me which spelling they would use in a work context: foetus or fetus, sulphur or sulfur and amoeba or ameba. F(o)etus was the only one that respondents disagreed about:

(The 'it depends' person gave that answer for every question and said they'd use the American spelling if they were writing to an American.)

I invited respondents to explain their preferences to me, but unfortunately only four did, and two of those used the space to tell me about words I hadn't asked about. The two relevant comments were:
I am an allied health professional who wouldn't use these words much in my work, but these were how I was taught to spell them at school. I've heard in the past that "foetus" is completely wrong, though I can't quite remember why and I write the word so infrequently that I wouldn't change my spelling of it anyway!
and apparently not knowing about the etymology of fetus:
Homogenisation of the English language to accommodate American English is a pernicious assault on the richness and diversity of English usage. It shouldn't be tolerated!
Unfortunately, I didn't ask for demographic information beyond country of abode, so I can't see whether the people who prefer fetus are in professions in which they need the word more often than the ones who prefer foetus.

But my impression is that fetus/fetal seems to be something of a medical shibboleth in the UK now. Doctors use the e spelling and it sets them apart as 'in the know', and maybe they don't mind that the rest of the country goes about putting the o in it. All the better to tell who the truly educated are. I'd love to hear from people 'in the know' in the comments. Have I got that wrong?

And before I leave, a note about the other false etymological form that readers of The Lancet (well, at least one) have tried to change. Here's another letter to the editor:
SIR,-Spelling is a curious blend of phonetics, etymology, tradition, and nonsense ; we should take care not to let the last preponderate. Dr. Napier (Nov. 1) is to be congratulated on his attack on the absurd o which it is customary now to insert into fetus. I would like to raise support for a similar attack on the ph with which we generally mis-spell sulfur and the other words derived from it. Sulfur comes from a Latin word. Undeniably some Latin authors used the ph form, but there is good reason to think that this was a blunder, and most of the European languages that use the Latin root have not followed the erroneous spelling. The spelling sulfur was common in Britain from the 14th to 18th centuries, and this presumably explains its present day use in the U.S.A. It is in no sense an American innovation.  (Pirie, N.W. 15 Nov. 1952.The correct spelling of medical terms [Letter to the Editor]. The Lancet vol. 260, pp.987-8.)

The argument for sulfur seems not to have been heard—sulphur still rules Britannia absolutely.

*It's a digraph, not a diphthong, but what do doctors know?

In other news...
Votes, please? I failed to be self-promotional enough to make it to the voting round for's Top Language Lovers blog competition this year. (I foolishly assumed being nominated was enough to get to the voting round.) But I did get to the finals for my Twitter feed, under my name (Lynne Murphy), rather than my Twitter handle (@lynneguist). But if you (BrE) fancy helping me out with a vote (or sabotaging me with a vote against!), please click here to go to the voting page.

Cheeky Nando's: Marking season is to blame for many things, including my failure to do a timely, topical post on the Buzzfeed 'Cheeky Nando's' phenomenon. But happily Ben Yagoda has done one at the Chronicle of Higher Education Lingua Franca blog, so now I probably don't have to!  (To discuss cheeky Nando's, I recommend leaving comments at his post.) What I have done a post on is the BrE use of 'a [fast-food type]' to refer to a fast-food meal (a Chinese, a Burger King and, of course, a Nando's).

Thanks for reading to the bottom—this is longer than the (BrE) first-year essays I assign!
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Nominate WotYs & Untranslatables Month II

Two matters for this belated blog post:  Words of the Year nominations and the Untranslatables Month summary.

WotY Nominations
Long-term readers will know that 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 2012, 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 in order to visit times gone by.

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

Untranslatables II
Last year, as a birthday treat to myself, I declared October to be Untranslatables Month, which meant that I tweeted an expression that was unique to one dialect or another, in that its meaning was not captured by an expression in the other dialect. This year, I did it again, but made the job easier on myself by deciding not to tweet on weekends. Here's a summary of the 'untranslatables' I tweeted. In some cases, you can follow links to places where I (or someone) have discussed them in more detail.
  • BrE lie-in (noun). The act of staying in bed later in the morning than usual. Sleeping not required, but lazing is. Example: 'The family was away, so I had a lie-in on Saturday as an early birthday treat.'  (AmE & BrE both have sleeping in for when one sleeps late.)
  • AmE cater-corner, kitty-corner, catty-corner (regional variations), adj & adv, meaning 'diagonally opposite to'. Example: 'I live kitty-corner to the bordello'.
  •  BrE builder's tea. Very strong (hot, of course), basic (i.e. not a special cultivar/flavo[u]r) tea with milk and lots of sugar. The 'lots of sugar' part is in most definitions for it, but some of my correspondents don't consider 'sweet' to be a necessary feature.
  • AmE Nielsen rating. The television rating system that determines advertising rates, used figuratively as a measure of popularity. Example: 'When you give babies a choice of what to listen to, a kind of baby Nielsen rating, they choose to listen to mothers talking to infants' (from The Scientist in the Crib).
  • BrE It's not cricket. 'It shouldn't happen because it's not fair/proper'. Occasionally heard in AmE too.
  • AmE poster child. Figuratively, an emblematic case of something, esp. a cause. Originally a child on posters promoting a charity. This one has come into BrE--as untranslatables often do (because they're useful). In the US, it's especially associated w/the (US) Muscular Dystrophy Association, which is also responsible for the US's longest-running charity telethon. It's interesting how different diseases are 'big' in terms of fundraising in different countries...
  • BrE overegged describes something that is ruined by too much effort to improve it. From the expression to overegg the pudding.
  • AmE hump day. Wednesday, but with the recognition that it's a milestone on the way to the weekend. Though it's heard a bit on the radio in the UK, I'm not sure it'd work well in BrE because of interference from BrE get the hump (='get annoyed, grumpy'). (The sexual meaning of hump is present in both dialects.)
  • BrE bumf = a collective term for loose printed material/paperwork (forms, pamphlets, letters) that's deemed to be unnecessary. It comes from old slang for 'toilet paper': bumfodder.  Example: 'The hallway is littered with election bumf that's come through the door.'
  • AmE earthy-crunchy (noun or adj), Having 'hippie', 'tree-hugging' tendencies. Synonym = granola.
  • BrE white van man. I mentioned it on the blog here, but there's more about it here.  Though I've read of white van man making it to the US, white vans are much more common and much more associated with skilled manual trade in UK. Some American correspondents had assumed it meant serial killer or child molester, which is not usually the intended meaning in BrE. 
  • AmE antsy. 1. fidgety and impatient, 2. nervous, apprehensive. Has been imported to UK somewhat, but mostly in sense 1.
  • AmE visit with. To chat with someone, especially if you're having a good catch-up.
  • BrE for England. To a great extent. Example: 'He can talk for England'. There's no for America in this sense, but in South Africa, for Africa is used in the same way. And perhaps elsewhere. So, 'untranslatable' to AmE.
  • AmE soccer mom or hockey mom (regional). A (middle-class) mother who spends much time ferrying kids to practice.
  • BrE sorted (adj & interjection): Most basically, it means something like it's all sorted out. 'My blog post? It's sorted!' But its meaning has extended so that can mean, of a person, basically 'having one's shit together'. Example: 'With all my new year('s) resolutions, I'm certain I'll be fit and sorted by April'. Collins also has it as meaning 'possessing the desired recreational drugs'. Deserves a blog post of its own.
  •  AmE freshman/sophomore/junior/senior. Names of the people in the 1st/2nd/3rd/4th years of secondary (high) school and undergraduate degrees. Fresher is used somewhat for university 1st years in UK, but generally the university years do not have (universally applied) special names in the UK.
  • BrE gubbins. To quote the Collins English Dictionary:
    1. an object of little or no value
    2. a small device or gadget
    3. odds and ends; litter or rubbish
    4. a silly person
  • AmE to tailgate. To have a party where food/drink served frm a vehicle's tailgate. Mentioned in this old post. (Both dialects have the meaning 'to drive too closely behind a car'.)
  • BrE for my sins = 'as if it were a punishment'. Often used to mark a 'humblebrag'. Example (from the British National Corpus): 'I happen for my sins to have been shadow Chancellor since the last election in 1987.'
  • AmE the (academic) honor code. Ethical guidelines that students must follow. Of course, UK univeristies have ethical guidelines for students, but there's not really a term that covers them all, like honor code does. Also, US honor codes typically require that students turn in other students whom they know to be cheating. This does not seem to be as frequently found in UK academic conduct rules.
  • BrE locum. Someone who stands in for someone else in a professional context, particularly doctor or clergy member. This is a shortened form of locum tenens, which one does see a bit in AmE medical jargon these days (but not just locum, and not in general use).
Whether I do Untranslatables Month again next year remains to be seen...

Don't forget to leave your WotY nominations in the comments!
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Untranslatables month: the summary

Still buried deep beneath teaching. For your amusement, here are the 'untranslatables of the day' posted on Twitter last month, as promised in my last post. Where there's only a link, it's an expression that I've already written about in some detail. Please click through to see (or take part in) further discussion of those expressions.
  1. BrE punter

  2. AmE pork : "Government funds, appointments, or benefits dispensed or legislated by politicians to gain favor with their constituents" (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edn)
  3. BrE kettling :  Police practice of surrounding protesters and holding them in a restricted area. Starting to be borrowed into AmE.
  4. AmE trailer trash : Because the social significance of trailers in US is very different from that of static caravans in UK.  (Mentioned in this old post.)
  5. AmE snit : American Heritage 4 says: "state of agitation or irritation', but that's way too imprecise. It's a tiny fit of temper.  (Discussed a bit back here.)
  6. BrE secondment : temporary transfer to work in another part of a company/organi{z/s}ation, e.g. for a special project.  Pronounced with the stress on the second syllable.
  7.  BrE to skive off, skiving.
  8. AmE to jones, jonesing : To suffer withdrawal symptoms and crave. Originally used in relation to heroin. Increasingly heard in BrE. The verb 'to Jones' is from AmE drug slang noun Jones, a drug habit. Then later, a craving: I have a Jones for Reese's peanut butter cups. > I'm jonesing for some Reese's peanut butter cups.
  9. BrE git : Collins English Dictionary says "contemptible person, often a fool". Closest equivalent probably bastard. Git is originally related to bastardy: it comes from beget.
  10. AmE rain check : A promise for something postponed (the check = BrE cheque). For example, I'll have to take a rain check on lunch = 'Although you invited me to lunch, I can't make it today, but I'll take you up on your offer at another time'. Rain check was claimed by Matthew Engel to 'abound' in BrE in his complaints about Americanisms, but it's also the case that it's widely misunderstood in the UK.
  11. BrE jobsworth : "a person who uses their job description in a deliberately uncooperative way, or who seemingly delights in acting in an obstructive or unhelpful manner" (Wikipedia)
  12. AmE potluck : a shared meal (bring a dish to pass), but culturally a different kind of ritual in US and UK.  I discussed it back here.
  13. BrE Oi! : Kind of like hey, you! but with a sense that the addressee is doing something that impinges upon you.  Not to be confused w/ Yiddish oy (vey), heard in AmE.
  14. BrE naff : Means approximately 'uncool' but with particular overtones of 'dorky', 'cheesy' and probably others. Contrary to widespread folk etymology, there's no evidence that naff comes from Not Available For F--ing. Origin is unknown.
  15. AmE nickel-and-dimed : 'Put under strain by lots of little expenses'.  E.g. I thought the house was a bargain, but all the little repairs are nickel-and-diming me to death.
  16. BrE  jammy.
  17. AmE hazing : OED has "A species of brutal horseplay practised on freshmen at some American Colleges".
  18. BrE to come over all queer : to suddenly feel "off"--physically or emotionally. Queer meaning 'feeling odd' (ill or upset) is much more common in BrE than in AmE.  Also: come over all funny, come over all peculiar.
  19. AmE to nix (something) : Generally, to do something decisively negative to something. Specifically: cancel/refute/forbid/refuse/deny (OED).  It's not unheard of in UK, but it's a borrowed AmEism. This is true of many of the AmE 'untranslatables'. They fill a gap.
  20. BrE oo er missus : Humorously marks (maybe unintended) sexual innuendo. See here for some history.
  21. AmE (from) soup to nuts : absolutely inclusive; from absolute start to absolute end or including every related thing.
  22. BrE taking the piss / taking the mickey : Explained at Wikipedia.
  23. AmE inside baseball : requiring rarefied insider knowledge. William Safire discussed it here.
  24. BrE moreish 
  25. BrE ropey or ropy : Of a thing, inferior, unreliable. Of a person, feeling vaguely unwell.
  26. AmE mugwump : Covered recently on World Wide Words.
  27. BrE lurgi or lurgy
  28. AmE 101 (one-oh-one) : the basics of subject. E.g. saying 'please' is Etiquette 101. From the traditional US university course numbering system. The Virtual Linguist wrote about this one.
  29. BrE faff.  See Oxford Dictionaries on this one.
  30. AmE squeaker : Competition or election won by tiny margin.
  31. BrE gutted.

Goodbye Untranslatables month!
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milk teeth and baby teeth

Mark Liberman at Language Log has saved you from the rant that this weekend's post was to be. Oh, thank you, Mark! His post from earlier today does what needed to be done about journalist Matthew Engel's BBC piece "Why do some Americanisms irritate people?" (Yes, people.) The Language Log post starts by pointing out that only one of the first five 'Americanisms' cited by Engel is, in fact, American in origin. The only fault I can find with Liberman's piece is that it is not entitled "Why do BBC language features annoy linguists?"*

So, instead of a turgid rant about the BBC's continued knack for employing non-experts** to spout nonsense about language, I give you:

babies!!    kittens!!!   dental maiming!!!!

Today's topic was suggested by American-in-Scotland @dialect and inspired by her (first?) visit to a UK dentist. And, actually, it's rather a simple one. But just to make it more complicated, let me throw in a technical term I've just learn{ed/t}: deciduous teeth. Americans tend to call them baby teeth, and the more common term for them in BrE is milk teethFor those who like numbers, the Corpus of Contemporary American English has 100 baby tooth/baby teeth and 18 milk tooth/milk teeth.  The British National Corpus (which is much smaller) has 15 milk tooth/teeth and 3 baby teeth (two of which should actually be Babyteeth the name of an album by Therapy?) and no baby tooth. When I was a child in the US, I only knew milk teeth as a term for kittens' first teeth.

A milk/baby tooth isn't forever, of course, and before it goes it is a loose tooth, but in BrE one also hears wobbly tooth a lot. As far as my Grover is concerned, this is the only term for a loose tooth, since she was first exposed to the concept through the Charlie and Lola episode "I do not ever, never want my wobbly tooth to fall out".  Checking the corpora for loose/wobbly/wiggly tooth, we get 25/1/1 in COCA (AmE) and 3/1/0 in BNC (BrE).

The tooth fairy tradition is alive and well in both the UK and the US. Reading about how much money the tooth fairy tends to leave these days has left me depressed and fearful for a completely spoil(ed/t) generation.

And as a final public service before I go: Parents, if your (orig. AmE) teenager's dentist ever suggests removing a baby/milk tooth in order to "encourage" the permanent tooth to come forward, say "NO", or else your child may spend most of her most awkward years awkwardly trying to hide the big gap where a bicuspid should be. She will have no chance of being invited to (orig. AmE) the prom and you will endanger her respect for medical/dental/parental authority for evermore.

* Very occasionally, the Beeb does allow experts on (rather than just famous users of) language to grace its broadcasts.  For example, I was once on a program(me) about Scrabble. It was good fun, and I thought it great that they involved a Scrabble-playing linguist in the production.  But the best part? They spelled my name wrong.

** At one level, we're all experts on the language(s) we speak--in the sense that we use the language expertly. (This is for the most part subconscious knowledge--and science is only a very small way toward(s) understanding that knowledge.) There are a lot of accomplished users of language out there, and that's who the BBC likes to ask for opinions (God help us, not facts!) about language. I would like to point out that I am an accomplished user of time and space (taking up more of it every year!). Therefore, I would like to be considered for a central role in the BBC's next program(me) on physics.
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prototypical soup

I've been unwell (which is a very BrE way to put it, see this old guest post) a lot this winter, which seems to be the price one pays for procreating. They say that minor illnesses are good for developing children's immune systems, so I try not to resent the germs that infect poor little Grover. But I supposedly have a developed immune system. Shouldn't I be immune to some of these preschool bugs?  At least our norovirus kept us away from the preschool this week, when Erythema infectiosum has been going around. Or, as the note to parents said, slapped-cheek disease. Never heard of it? Neither had I. A little research showed that the more common nickname for it in AmE is fifth disease. That didn't really help either.  All in all, it sounds like a fairly pathetic entry into the childhood illnesses roster. (The child illustrating the infection's Wikipedia page looks like he's having a pretty good time with it!)

Before the stomach bug, it was a bad cold that had downed Grover and me. Both since my last blog post. (Better Half stays curiously well. Maybe I don't have a British-enough immune system.) Pity us!

In fact, you should pity any expat or immigrant with a minor ailment (or [BrE] the dreaded lurgy), because the one thing you want when you're feeling (chiefly BrE) grotty is the comforts of childhood--which are thin on the ground when one is separated from one's childhood by miles, oceans and passport controls, not to mention the decades. When I'm ill, I want two things, which, in my home culture, are known to have magical-medicinal properties: cold, flat ginger ale and chicken soup.

The ginger ale can be achieved. Saint Better Half only had to go to three shops before finding some.  Here, it goes by the BrE name American ginger ale, which I find amusing because (a) where I come from, we think of it as Canadian, (b) I can see no other kind of ginger ale for sale, so why do they need the adjective? One can only guess that it's to distinguish it from ginger beer, a much spicier drink, which is far more common in the UK than ginger ale (which in the UK is thought of as a mixer and not a drink in its own right). I can feel a tangent coming on. Whoops, here we go... Ginger ale consumption in the US is fairly region-specific. I come from the kind of place (the northeast) where it's a drink that you can buy cold in a single-serving bottle from a (orig. AmE) convenience store/(BrE) corner shop, but this isn't true throughout the US. And if there is a down-home 'American' ginger ale, then it's not the stuff that's used as a mixer. The Canadian mixer type is 'pale, dry' ginger ale (like this Schweppes or Canada Dry). But there is also 'golden' ginger ale, which is darker, heavier and gingerier (more like a traditional ginger beer). This is rarer in the US and even more regional. You'll know if you're in one of the regions for it if the names Vernor's or Blenheim mean anything to you (or a few others...see Wikipedia).  At any rate, it's the dry stuff that one wants if one's had a (more BrE than AmE) tummy bug. Because ginger is good for nausea, you know. It should have lots of ice, so that it gets watery and flat and rehydrates you without causing any more gastrointestinal upset.  But I live in England with a man for whom ice trays are one of those mysterious plastic things that come with a fridge yet have no clear connection to it, so I water mine down with water straight from the (BrE) tap/(AmE) faucet. Hey, I'm not well. I'm desperate.

Hm, over 600 words and I haven't even started to get to the point of this post. A record? Probably not.

The point is the soup.

See, we Americans know that chicken soup is the cure for the common cold. And, when you're recovering from a stomach virus, a nice chicken soup is a good second foray (after toast) back into the land of the digesting.  But, of course, you can't make it yourself. You're sick, after all. Stay in bed. And who wants to cook a whole chicken when no one feels much like eating? This is what the (orig. AmE) can-opener was invented for.  

It is perfectly possible to find 'chicken soup' in the UK. The problem is finding the kind that is good for a cold. Send your English (and vegetarian) husband out in the rain to buy a (AmE) can/(BrE) tin, and he will come home with five kinds of wrong before you send him out again whispering cock-a-leekie to himself.  The tins/cans of wrong will include various cream-based, coconut-based, curry-based concoctions--not what an ailing American soul needs.

The problem, I have come to understand, is prototypes.

So here comes the linguistics. Soup in either British or American English will include puréed and strained things like tomato soup, things with lots of cream in them, broths like the cock-a-leekie to the right, with pieces of meat and vegetable. All these things come within the boundaries of the category 'soup' in English. But categories have more than boundaries (and those boundaries are often 'fuzzy'. Yes, that's the technical term). Categories, as represented in our minds, also have peaks...or cent{er/re}s...or cent{er/re}s that are peaks. Pick a metaphor that works for you.  That cent(e)ry peak or peaky cent{er/re} is known as the prototype of the category, and a particular thing (like cock-a-leekie) is deemed to be part of a category (like SOUP) if it is close enough to/has enough in common with the prototype.  To quote a fine reference book on the matter:

According to one view, a prototype is a cluster of properties that represent what members of the category are like on average (e.g. for the category BIRD, the prototype would consist of properties such as ‘lays eggs’, ‘has a beak’, ‘has wings’, ‘has feathers’, ‘can fly’, ‘chirps’, ‘builds nests’ etc.).  Category members may share these properties to varying degrees—hence the properties are not necessary and sufficient as in the classical model, but instead family resemblances.  In the alternative approach, the mental representation of a concept takes the form of a specific, ideal category member (or members), which acts as the prototype (e.g. for BIRD, the prototype might be a representation of a specific robin or sparrow).
In other words, when deciding whether or not something belongs to the BIRD category, one measures its birdiness against some (possibly very abstract) notion of an ideal bird.  Now, it's reasonable to believe that there might be some room for dialectal variation in what the prototype of a particular category is. But we have to be careful here--it's not just a matter of what is more frequent locally that determines what the prototype is.  Chickens and ducks might be the most common birds down on the farm, yet the farmer will not treat them as if they are the prototype against which 'birdiness' should be judged--that hono(u)r stays with the birds that (BrE) tick/(AmE) check more of the 'bird' boxes like 'can fly' and 'chirps'.

As far as I know, not much work has been done on regional variation in prototypes. The only example I can think of is a small study by Willett Kempton (reported in John Taylor's Linguistic Categorization) on Texan versus British concepts of BOOT, showing that even though both groups considered the same range of things to be boots, there was variation in their ideas of what constituted a central member of the BOOT category, with the Texan prototype extending further above the ankle than the British one.

Though I've not done the psychological tests that would tell us for sure, I'm pretty sure that the American SOUP prototype is along the lines of this:
a warm broth with pieces of meat, vegetables, and/or starchy things (e.g. noodles, barley, rice, matzo balls) in it
And the English one is more along the lines of this:
a warm, savo(u)ry food made from vegetables and possibly meat that have been well-cooked and liquidi{s/z}ed
 These are not the definitions of soup, but the core exemplars of what belongs to the SOUP category, from which the 'soupiness' of other foods is measured. So, each culture has soups that don't conform to these ideals, but they nevertheless have enough in common with them (e.g. being liquid, considered food rather than drink, containing vegetables) to also be called soup.  The differences in the prototypes might have some effects on the boundaries of the category. So, for instance, since the English prototype has more emphasis on liquidi{s/z}ation, you'd expect the extension of the word soup to tolerate less in the way of (orig. AmE) chunky pieces than the AmE use of the word, which is stemming from a prototype that likes pieces and therefore will tolerate bigger ones (see point 3 below).

My experiential evidence for the differences in prototype are as follows:
  1. American dictionaries (American Heritage, Merriam-Webster) explicitly mention the likelihood of solid pieces of food in soup, while British ones (Collins, Oxford) don't.
  2. The soup of the day in English restaurants is very often a puree. In US restaurants, that's much more rare--the people want stuff in their soup.
  3. Some of the things I have made and called 'soup' have been met with a puzzled "that's more of a stew, isn't it?" from the Englishpeople I've served it to.
  4. Some of the most common soups in England are generally smooth: leek and potato, tomato (often 'tomato and basil', which to me is like eating pasta sauce with a spoon), carrot and coriander. Whereas American soups are often full of solid things: chicken noodle, beef and barley, vegetable (which brings us to...)
  5. Order 'vegetable soup' in England and it will almost certainly be smooth. Order it in the US and it will almost certainly be a broth with diced vegetables. 
But this could be more rigorously tested, so I mention here that dialectal differences in prototypes might be an interesting area for a student dissertation project to cover.  (Are any of our second years reading this?)

Two more things to cover before I go. (I must be feeling better...I haven't collapsed in a heap yet.)

First, notice that I've been saying 'English' rather than 'British' when talking about the prototype differences. The two most famous Scottish soups, cock-a-leekie and Scotch broth, are broths with (more BrE) bits in them, so the prototype might be different up there.

Which brings us to broth. It's a word found in both AmE and BrE, but in AmE it basically means BrE (but also AmE) stock--that is, a liquid made by cooking things in water, then straining the things out. In BrE, it can be used to mean a stock with stuff in it (hence Scotch broth).  So, when I've expressed my longing for a more American-style soup to an Englishperson, I've been told "oh, you mean a broth". But AmE also has bouillon, which is again broth, but I'd call it bouillon if I were drinking it out of a mug (as I used to have to do in the days when I had to go on clear liquid diets a lot. I'm not the healthiest character), especially if I'd made it with a (AmE) bouillon cube (or powder), which in BrE would be a stock cube (or, more colloquially, an Oxo cube--the dominant brand).

I'm going to stop there and go to bed, trying not to think about how much easier my life would be if I could write this many words in grant proposals in an evening.  That way lies insomnia.
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stammering and stuttering

So, I haven't seen The King's Speech, and yes I'd like to and yes I should, but you've got to find me a (orig. AmE) babysitter and (more difficult) a few hours first. Sometimes these days it seems like my cinephile wedding in England's oldest (BrE) cinema/(AmE) movie theater should be annulled on the basis that I haven't been able to keep up with (more current in BrE) the pictures since becoming a parent. In spite of this and in hono(u)r of the popularity and awardiness of The King's Speech, let's talk about stammering and stuttering.

When Ben Zimmer emailed to suggest it as a timely topic, I'd thought I'd done it. But it turns out that instead I'd commented about it on someone else's blog (as has happened before). The nice thing about getting blog suggestions from a seasoned lexicographer like Ben is that he pretty much does the work for me.

So, let's get the big claim out of the way. BrE stammer  = AmE  stutter. When I have said this before, I have been "corrected" by people who insist that they're different. They get their information from people like the novelist David Mitchell,* whose novel Black Swan Green is quoted on the Engine Room blog (the one I had commented at):

Most people think stammering and stuttering are the same but they're as different as diarrhoea and constipation. Stuttering's when you say the first bit of the word but can't stop saying it over and over. St-st-st-stutter. Like that. Stammering's where you get stuck straight after the first bit of the word. Like this. St...AMmer!

I've quoted Alan Cruse on synonymy before, but I'll do it again: "natural languages abhor absolute synonyms just as nature abhors a vacuum". The words stammer and stutter both exist in both dialects, which is confusing for us. And so we look for differences between them in order to justify the existence of two words. But the differences we "find" for these pairs often have little to do with how people actually use the words. What is different in this case is which one is used as a technical term for a habitual speech impediment in the US or UK. The one that plays the role of non-'technical' term in each dialect can be used for non-pathological speech disfluencies.

Ben Zimmer (has) sent a couple of helpful Google Ngrams. These show stammer (blue line) versus stutter (red line) in American English and British English books between 1800 and 2000.

The British English version:

And the American English version:

If it is the case that stammering and stuttering are different things, then it looks like in the 1960s, they found a cure for stammering in America, and somehow that accidentally brought on more stuttering. Of course that's not what happened. What happened is that stutter took over in AmE as the usual term. In BrE, stammer has always been the more common word, but we can see possible Americani{s/z}ation in recent years--or else what has been label(l)ed as 'British English' in Google Books is not all that reliable in the past decade. That wouldn't surprise me. It's easy to see the unreliability of Google Ngrams in searching for dialect-specific instances of the phrases has a stutter and has a stammer. In these cases,  there is less data (or fewer data, if you prefer), and therefore it is more subject to weirdnesses. The BrE Ngram is unsurprising: it shows just has a stammer. The AmE one is wackier:

But if one clicks on the link to the 'American English' Google Books hits for 1983, one finds that some of the instances of the supposedly American cases of has a stammer come from The New Statesman (UK) and India Today.

If, after all this, you don't believe me that these words are dialectal equivalents, then I ask you to believe the British Stammering Association:


"Stammering" is the same as "stuttering". "Stammering" is more often used in the UK and Ireland. "Stuttering" is usual in the United States.

(The US National Stuttering Association seems to be silent on the matter.) 

Thanks again to Ben for the research contributions to this post. This is my third post of the week, although it must be admitted that one of them wasn't a 'real' post. But I'm going to have to count that one in meeting my promise to blog three times this week--as I've received a shockingly (orig. AmE) humongous pile of (BrE) marking/(more usual AmE) grading that must be finished in the next few days. Back next weekend, I hope!

* The comedian David Mitchell was one of the People Who Are Wrong About American English in my Catalyst Club talk this month. He was metaphorically paraded about in metaphorical handcuffs made out of OED pages for his comments on tidbit and herb. Please find me a David Mitchell who hasn't said unsupported things about BrE/AmE differences, before I develop an unhelpful stereotype about those so named.
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belly and tummy

I picked up a free copy of the Financial Times's FT Magazine in the airport, and was interested to read this bit in an article about body-part names and communication between doctors and patients.

Technically speaking, the anatomical structure the consultant was looking at was the abdomen, which is schematically divided by doctors into a three-by-three grid. From top right to bottom left the squares are named: right upper quadrant, epigastric, left upper quadrant, right flank, umbilicus, left flank, right iliac fossa, hypogastric, left iliac fossa. The organs are clustered in each square – the liver and the gallbladder reside in RUQ, for example. When a patient has RIF pain, you know to think of appendicitis.

But what doctors in England haven’t quite solved yet is how I should ask you to show me this space. The medical word, “abdomen”, is not used by many people. But “stomach” is factually wrong. (Your stomach – LUQ – is the springy bag in which your food first lands to be churned before it continues on through your intestine; most “stomach ache” is felt nowhere near the real stomach – what most people point to is their umbilicus, underneath which lies the small bowel.) “Belly” is American. “Tummy” is a nursery term, but English doctors use it in parallel with the anatomical terms. You learn to say “poo” for faeces, too. But if questions such as “Have you had your bowels open?” and “Have you passed any stool?” are met with blankness, there is not much alternative.

Belly is American?  That didn't sit right with me, as if a doctor asked me to show her my belly, I'd find it very strange--though I might suspect that the doctor spoke a different dialect from mine. I use tummy (or the anatomically-incorrect stomach).  To me, belly particularly signals a round tummy--hence (orig. AmE) beer bellyBabies have bellies, Buddha statues have bellies, I have a belly--but let's not go there. One also hears people saying, typically while pinching more than an inch, I'm getting a belly.  In all these uses, it's not the same as tummy or non-technical stomach.  It describes a paunch (which, incidentally, used to just mean 'abdomen', without the negative connotations), but with rounder connotations.

The doctor writing in the magazine is not alone in this assumption that belly is American.  In fact, this amateur (and very defensive about it, while not trying very hard*) BrE/AmE word-lister assumes that tummy is exclusively BrE.

But, while I had my doubts about the BrE/AmE tummy/belly divide, I've often heard tummy-button in the UK (though mostly from antipodean yoga/Pilates instructors), and never in the US. So, I decided to check it out.

First, the history. Belly goes all the way back to Old English, where it originally meant a bag, but from at least as early as the 13th century, it's used to mean a human or animal stomach and from at least the 14th century, it's used for the abdomen.  So, it certainly did not originate in AmE.  Tummy (a baby-talk simplification of stomach), in contrast, is only seen in print from the 19th century.

Next, the usage.  I looked up stomach, belly, and tummy in British and American corpora of writing and speech, and calculated the percentage of the total number of instances of any of those words that was represented by any one of those words. Here are my results:

BNC BrE 70%20%10%
COCA AmE      63%33%4%

From this we can tell (a) belly is used quite a bit in BrE as well as AmE, and tummy is more frequent in BrE than AmE.  I don't think this can just be due to differences in formality across the corpora, since if the AmE corpus had more formal writing in it, we'd expect the stomach percentage to be higher.

Now, within belly in either corpus, many instances do not refer literally to human abdomens.  There are lots of instances of idioms like in the belly of the beast or a fire in one's belly.  There are also lots of belly-dancing.  To see whether the AmE bellies might be more specifically fat tummies, I looked at paunch, to see if AmE didn't need it as much--but that's not the case. In both corpora, paunch occurs between 5 and 6 times per million words.

As for the hypothesis that belly is more 'round', I note that I and my UK friends do say I'm getting/I've got a bit of a tummy, but looking in the corpora, there are a couple of instances of get/getting/got a belly in each corpus but tummy only occurs in that context in the AmE corpus.  So, in BrE, belly is used for the 'rounded abdomen' meaning, just as in AmE, and AmE uses tummy in that context too.

What about bellybutton and tummy-button? OED has the former dated to the 19th century, but the latter only in the mid-20th century.  COCA has zero instances of tummy-button, tummybutton, or tummy button.  BNC has just one.  Belly(-)button seems to be the default colloquialism for 'navel' in either dialect. In a strange turn of orthography, the joined-up bellybutton is by far the most common spelling in the BNC, but two-word belly button is very strongly the favo(u)red spelling in COCA.  This is in contrast to another observation that I've made here, that AmE joins up compound words in writing more readily than BrE does.  In that post, I noted that the Shorter Oxford Dictionary recommends pot belly, while the American Heritage Dictionary likes potbelly.

I'm writing this in the Helsinki airport, so am limited to dialect resources that are on-line--and I'm not finding them to be helpful at the moment. While the evidence does show American English using belly much more than modern British English, I still have the feeling that there is some  regional variation at work here, since it's not a word that I would use for a human abdomen outside the 'paunchy' and 'baby' experiences.  But that's my western New York State perspective.  How would you feel if your doctor asked to look at your belly? (Don't forget to tell us where you're from!)


*In discouraging corrections to his list, he says 'life is too short to worry'--about accuracy, presumably.  Life is also too short to spend on writing word lists without caring to do it right, I'd say.
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)