Showing posts with label more complicated than you might think. Show all posts
Showing posts with label more complicated than you might think. Show all posts

transfers and decals

John Wells recently asked me if he was right in thinking "that BrE consistently uses transfer and AmE decal for the same thing". That's the kind of question that is perhaps best answered with a rhetorical question: Is any English vocabulary used consistently?

We're talking about ways of putting images onto other things. In that semantic area, I have both the words transfer and decal in my AmE vocabulary, so I was tempted to say "No, decal means something different from transfer in AmE." But then I thought I should find out if that's just me. It's not just me. But it is complicated. 

 The word decal is definitely more AmE than BrE. 

GloWBE corpus

But what are decals? Some possibilities: 

1.  Images that can be ironed on to fabrics. E.g. on (orig. AmE) t-shirts or (orig. AmE) tote bags.

2.  Images on paper that can be transferred to other things when wet.

  • This was what John was thinking of—he recalled ones from his youth for decorating skin. These days, in both AmE and BrE, those are often called temporary tattoos. But decal in this sense is not limited to the skin ones. They might be images that are put onto, say, model airplanes, as in the top right photo here, from a how-to video.

3.  Images on vinyl (or similar material) that have sticky material on the image side, so that they can be stuck onto glass (or similar) and show through.  The companies I can find that sell them seem to call them reverse-cut vinyl [stickers/transfers/decals].

Image from

 4.  Vinyl or other high-quality stickers of any sort, intended for use on glass, vehicles, etc.  I.e. not just the reverse-cut type, but anything of the type you'd stick onto a car window, say. 

  • In this case, we can see a phenomenon called lexical blocking. Bumper stickers should be counted under this definition as decals, but since we have a special term for bumper stickers, i.e. (orig. & mainly AmE) bumper sticker, we don't tend to call them anything else. The vinyl stickers on cars that are called decals are different enough from typical bumper stickers (in size, shape, or placement) that they don't meet the criteria for that term.

In my idiolect, decal can be any one of types 2–4, but not the iron-on type. I would call those iron-ons or iron-on transfers. But when I looked up decal in dictionaries, I found the iron-on type potentially included in some definitions, like this one from Collins COBUILD, which gives transfer as the BrE equivalent.

(However, since it says that a decal is a piece of paper, it's not clear that the vinyl type (3-4) would be included. In all except type 2, the design itself isn't paper, so it's perhaps not the greatest definition. The paper on those is a disposable part, not the decal itself.)

Other dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster and Cambridge, limit decal to types of stickers and don't mention heat-transfer, so more like how I use it. 

But then I started asking my American friends—all from my generation, but different parts of the country—what they called the things they might iron onto a t-shirt, and one (she's originally from Kansas, but has more time in Wisconsin/Illinois) immediately offered decal. The others, generally from more eastern parts of the country, said iron-on or iron-on transfer or just transfer

And so I did a Twitter poll. The problem with polls is that you usually only want to hear from some people, but other people will want to do the poll. I don't know if those other poll-takers care that I throw away their data, but I do know that I have to give them the chance to give it to me because otherwise they pretend they're part of the target group and will thereby mess up my numbers. But after a bit of math(s), we can see (a) that Americans are fairly split on whether iron-ons are included under decal and (b) that my iron-on-excluding usage has slightly more users among my Twitter followers. Keep in mind that my followers may skew older (it's Twitter) and eastward (because of time zone issues).

This all provides more fuel for the idea that we shouldn't talk about what "the American" or "the British" term for something is. (Though I'm sure you'll catch me doing that sometimes.) There's a lot of variation in both, so it's better to think of most expressions as representing an American or a British way of saying things. 

Because of the limitations of Twitter polls, I could only ask about one facet of the word's potential meaning: whether or not iron-ons are included. Some followers responded with more specific meanings for decal than I have, for example, one said that he'd only use decal for type 2, in model-making.

For transfer, it's clearly an exaggeration to call it 'British-only' in all of the senses, since Americans do seem to use it for (at least) sense 1. Yet that's what some dictionaries do.

This definition from Lexico has an example that would be at home in AmE:

I am tempted to say that transfers have a reverse-print image that is pressed onto a surface, whether that be skin, fabric, glass, etc. (so uses 1-3 above). But there are enough companies out there selling non-reverse-print "vinyl transfers" that reverse-ness is not at this point a necessary condition for many people's understanding of transfer.

To sum up: 

  • Decal is a fairly American word, but Americans vary in how they define/use it.
  • Transfer as a noun for a type of image printing/attaching occurs in British English, but is also available in AmE, especially for the iron-on type.

PS: there is variation in how decal is pronounced in AmE, particularly which syllable gets the stress. You can hear more on YouGlish. In my experience, it's more common to put the stress on the first syllable. Thanks to Adonis in the comments for raising this.

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Trying to sound cool & British: bollocks!

We've seen other cases before of Americans trying to use "cool" British words--especially slightly "colo(u)rful" words, and getting it wrong ([more used in BrE] viz. wanker, snog). Here's a lovely example from the New York Daily News (which I saw via Oliver Burkeman):

There's a pile-up of Britishisms here: arse (=AmE ass), Mummy (=AmE Mommy), footy (=AmE soccer--or whatever informal equivalent of soccer there is. Socky?). But the sore thumb sticking out here is bollocks (click link to see its Word of the Year discussion). Yes, bollocks sometimes--sometimes--is an equivalent to AmE bullshit in the sense of 'nonsense, (BrE) rubbish'  But calling bullshit on (something/someone) is an American idiom, and you just can't stick new words (especially new words with not-quite-the-same-feel) into idioms. Kicking the pail is not the same as kicking the bucket; a bird in the hand is not worth two in the shrub, etc.

Who knows, maybe call bollocks on will catch on among the readers of the Daily News, and then we'll have yet another case where borrowing a word from one dialect to another brings a reduction in meaning and a change in usage with it. But I'm betting that British readers are hoping otherwise...

P.S. my arse! or my ass! also qualifies as an idiom, but the two dialects share it, albeit with different forms of the word. (See the link at arse above for more of the arse–ass story.)

P.P.S. Yes, there are a few examples of it on the internets. In those cases, taking the US idiom and replacing 'bullshit' with 'bollocks'. But the facts that (a) Urban Dictionary hasn't noticed it, and (b) two Brits on Twitter pointed it out to me as a bad translation underscore that it's a weird usage. 
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playing (the) musical instruments

John Wells wrote to ask:
Have you discussed BrE playing the piano/violin vs. AmE playing piano/violin?
Not really, John, and it turns out that it's one of those things that's (all together now!) more complicated than you might think! 

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has 689 play* the piano to 309 play* piano. (The * there used as a wildcard in corpus searches; so play* gets us play, playing, played, etc.) That's more than two arthrous (fancy word for having a the) cases for every anarthrous (fancy word for not having a the) one--in American English.

But those numbers need a bit more checking because any dialect would have playing piano music without a the. To get a better comparison, I looked at cases where piano is followed by an adverb (e.g. play [the] piano beautifully/well/loudly/tonight...) so that we can be sure that piano is a noun on its own and not a noun modifying another noun. Doing that, there are 53 arthrous cases and 23 anarthrous ones in COCA. So, pretty much like it was when I didn't take those sane, linguisticky precautions. The British National Corpus, in comparison, has 14 arthrous cases and 1 anarthrous. (But keep in mind that the data from BNC is 20 years older than that in COCA.)

The moral of that part of the story: it would not be right to say that  play piano is AmE for BrE play the piano. Instead, play piano is a lesser-used AmE variant of General English play the piano. The image here, from, illustrates both variants living happily together.

Personally, I could say either, but prefer it with the the.  A bit more rooting around in the Corpus of Historical American English shows a bit of anarthrous piano-playing throughout the 20th century, but it really gets going in the 1970s, when the proportions are like those in COCA.

But hold your horses. If we look at other instruments, it gets more complicated.  (I'm rounding the numbers, unless they're <2 .="" comment-2--="">
  • Violin: In COCA, the is favo(u)red 3:1.  In BNC, 5:1.
  • Harp: In COCA, the 4:1. BNC 8:0.
  • Guitar: Ziggy played guitar. Maybe the Spiders from Mars made him do it without the the, but in 1990s UK, the British were following suit and, like 2010s Americans, using play guitar twice as much as play the guitar. 
  • Bass: Looks like a reversal! COCA 2:1.  BNC: 1:5.
    I tried discounting cases like playing (the) bass line/notes, but taking them out made no real difference.
  • Trumpet: COCA1.4:1. BNC 5:2. 
  • Flute: COCA 4:1. BNC 8:1.
  • Drums: Play drums outnumbers play the drums in both dialects. Is it because it's plural? But what about...
  • Spoons: Tiny numbers, but more the in AmE and equal numbers of both in BrE.
I could go on looking for more instruments, but I won't. (Report your findings in the comments if you wish.) It looks like BrE eschews the more often for stereotypical rock instruments than for others -- guitar, bass, drums (Bowie's fault? American rock'n'roll's fault?). I don't see a clear pattern to the US preferences--but in general it's not completely unusual to have anarthrous ones. Bass is the interesting one for its anarthrousness in BrE.

Is it just with play, though? No. Going back to sticking with piano, COCA has half as many practic(e*) piano as practic(e*) the piano. BNC has four practis(e*) with the and one without.

On piano is also common in COCA (about 1/3 as many as on the piano). BNC has 20 on piano to 73 on the piano--very much the same. In this case, some of the on the pianos will have been about particular, physical pianos, as in I stubbed my toe on the piano. There's no possibility of I stubbed my toe on piano. But if a singer were giving credit to her band, she could say ...and Lynne Murphy on piano! or ...and Lynne Murphy on the piano!  (Not me, of course, I only had a year of lessons.) I'm waiting for one of you to go out and listen to dozens of concerts with British and American singers to tell me if they all say on drums! on bass! 

Finally, the why questions.

Why do we put a the before instruments? It's a funny thing. If I lie and say I play the piano, it's not a particular piano that I am playing. It's that I have the potential to play any piano. (Whereas if I say I've draped myself over the piano, it is a particular piano.) It's kind of like the bus in I ride the bus to work. In that case, it's not the particular physical bus we're talking about--that can vary. It's the whole package that goes with bus-riding. I ride a bus that travels along the route between my street/road and my workplace. There's a package that goes along with pianos too. I'm not just playing the instrument, I'm playing music on the instrument. The music that I know how to play on any "the piano" is kind of like the routes that I travel on any "the bus".

In spite of all that, there's no pressing semantic reason for the the. We don't play the cards or play the dominoes even though similarly, if I say I know how to play dominoes, I'm saying that I know the rules for playing on any instrument of that type (any set of dominoes). [Yes, dominoes are the instrument, not the game--though people who only know one domino game tend to call it 'dominoes'. I am particularly fond of Mexican Train.] So why do we usually have a the with musical instruments, but not with game equipment? (The answer: because that's what we learned to do.)

The arthrous version is unhelpfully ambiguous, so maybe that is a contributor to the rise of the anarthrous alternative. If I say I play the piano I could be trying to point out that I know how to play a piano (so invite me to play at your wedding), or it could be saying that I play a particular piano habitually (so don't get rid of it). I play piano doesn't seem to have that ambiguity, so could be seen as more communicatively efficient. The play + bare-noun construction is familiar, since we say things like I play tennis, I play jazz, I play goalie.

If you want to carry the conversation toward(s) other cases of (an)arthrous variation in AmE and BrE, have a look at the past posts with the 'determiners' label. I've written about some of the famous ones already, and your comments on them would be most welcome at those old posts (which are still regularly read). And you're most welcome to carry on the conversation about musical instruments (and games) on this post, of course!
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Jane Setter recently asked me about noodles. Her take on them was that Americans can call spaghetti noodles and the British can't. My take, as ever, is: it's complicated.

Let's start with the British. In my experience (and, I think, Jane's) noodle in the UK is associated with Asian food. This is indeed what my English (and American, she would tell you) 7-year-old means when she says that her favo(u)rite food is noodles (various types and dishes but especially pad see ew and yaki soba. I've come to reali{z/s}e that on some days I eat nothing that I ate as a child).

Noodle is used for Asian types of noodles and noodle dishes in the US too. But I would suspect that the default understood ethnicity of noodle will vary by the speaker's age, location and ethnicity in the US.

Let's start with me, because that's easy (for me). If someone in my family asked me to go to Wegman's and buy some noodles, I would pick up a bag of these:
And once I got them home they would be used in a dish like this (but less fancy):
...most probably made with a can of Campbell's condensed cream-of-mushroom soup, like our household's other main noodle dish, that perennial Lenten horror, tuna noodle casserole (UK's drier version: tuna pasta bake).

(You don't get condensed soups in the UK, so you don't get condensed soup recipes.) [see comments for more on this]

Now, in my childhood, I would not have called those noodles pasta. I'm grown up now and I've come to tolerate much, so maybe I could bear to now. But to me, as a child, pasta was what you had in Italian food, noodles were what you had in the "less ethnic" dishes. But, of course, the other foods were ethnic too, and I suspect that my default understanding of the word noodle may be more common in the parts of the US that had more northern-European settlement. (I come from a rather Dutch part of New York state, and my parents from the more westerly more German part. The word noodle comes from German Nudel. My hometown also has a lot of Italian-Americans, so maybe that helped the pasta/noodle distinction become meaningful in my mind.)

Now, the OED defines noodle as:
A long stringlike piece of pasta or similar flour paste cooked in liquid and served either in a soup or as an accompaniment to another dish; (more generally in U.S.) any style of pasta. [...]
For me, that's not quite right. In my mind, a noodle is prototypically ribbon-like, rather than string-like. Once I started to get my head (a)round Italian pasta being noodles, I could admit that fettuccine and linguini were noodles, but spaghetti was a more borderline case. I'd not use noodle for macaroni or shells (which in the UK are harder to come by and are often called by the Italian name, conchiglioni).  (By the way, there's discussion of the BrE/AmE difference in the pronunciation of pasta back here.)

My childhood understanding of a pasta/noodle divide seems to be in tune with the National Pasta Association:
According to the standards published by the National Pasta Association, noodles must contain at least 5.5% egg solids by weight. Noodles can be added to soups and casseroles while pasta can be made a complete meal with addition of a few vegetables. Pasta is much lighter and, under Italian law, can only be made with durum wheat. []
Still, I am betting that (a) younger Americans (maybe especially in certain areas) are more likely to have 'Asian'  as the default ethnicity of 'noodle', and (b) ethnicity/region might make a difference for older people. Unfortunately, I can't find any dialect maps for noodle meanings—so what do you say/mean? Would any of you mean 'spaghetti' if you said "We're having noodles for dinner"? Please give an approximation of age and where you're from with your answer.

And then there is spaghetti noodle (the lead character in a series of Hyperbole-and-a-Half cartoons—which has macaroni noodle too). For me, this is a way of getting around the problem of spaghetti having become a mass noun when it was borrowed into English. Actually, I wrote about this in my textbook, so I might as well quote myself at length (with a little extra explanation in red). This is part of an explanation of Anna Wierzbicka's argument that the 'countable' or 'uncountable' grammatical status of a word is not arbitrary:

[...] cultures may differ in how they interact with, and thus conceptualize, the denotata [i.e. things that words refer to].  For example, although people rarely bother to count it, in Italian spaghetti is a plural count noun (1 spaghetto, 2 spaghetti).  In English spaghetti is treated as a mass noun. This is not just because English speakers do not know that spaghetti is a plural; we could very easily add our own plural marking to it to make it a count noun (two spaghettis), but we don’t. It also is not because spaghetti is too small to be counted in English, since noodle, which denotes practically the same thing as spaghetti, is a count noun. Wierzbicka (in a lecture given in the early 1990s) has pointed out that English speakers have a very different relationship to spaghetti than Italians do. First, Italians are more connected to how spaghetti is made — historically it was made at home, where the individual strands would have to be handled. On the other hand, spaghetti generally entered English speakers’ consciousness as something that gets poured out of a box into boiling water — with no need to handle individual pieces.  Second, pasta is eaten differently in Italy and English-speaking countries. Spaghetti in English often refers to a whole dish, which is presented as a mass of pasta beneath an opaque tomato sauce.  In Italy, pasta is traditionally a first course or side dish, where it may be eaten with just a bit of oil and garlic.  In this case, the strands are more perceptible as individuals. Furthermore, some English speakers cut their spaghetti, destroying the integrity of the individual strings, whereas Italians instead wrap the strings around a fork or slurp them up without cutting them.
The way I understand spaghetti noodle is that it's an AmE way of making spaghetti countable. I'd say a piece of spaghetti or three strands of spaghetti. BrE seems to prefer counting spaghetti in strings.  In those cases, we're the counting with a noun that indicates a 'unit of', but spaghetti noodle (and macaroni noodle, if you're so inclined) does the job too, with noodle being a unit of spaghetti. Looking it up in Google Books, there are only spaghetti noodle(s) after the 1960s, and most of the hits are false—having a punctuation mark between spaghetti and noodle(s). This is the earliest instance I found, from 1964, where the emphasis is on the forming of the pasta:
After 1980, there are more examples in recipes. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English (from the 2000s), there are only 8 instances, 5 of them singular as in "Sure enough, a long spaghetti noodle had entangled itself in my reddish-brown hair." 

I'm adding this bit (between the lines) the day after the original post, because I forgot to say these things:

"German"-style noodle dishes are much less common in the UK than they are in the US (which is to say: I've never seen one!), but I also get the feeling that pasta felt 'foreign' more recently in the UK than in the US. Here are some thoughts related to that. 

  1. My English sister-in-law (in about 2003?) made a pasta dinner of some sort for her future (English) mother-in-law, who was in her early 70s. The woman had never had pasta before in her life (and was rather unimpressed). I cannot imagine meeting her American counterpart (i.e. 70s, non-immigrant, suburban) who had never eaten pasta. I tell this story to other English people and they say 'unusual, but certainly not unimaginable'. On a slightly related note, the perceived 'foreignness' of garlic bread seems to sustain Peter Kay's career.
  2. As discussed in the comments, many British people of middle age think of their childhood spaghetti as coming out of a (BrE) tin (and then often served on toast—I try not to judge. I try very hard.). But the other way that people ate spaghetti in the UK in the 70s (and continue to) was spag bol—i.e. spaghetti bolognese—i.e. spaghetti with meat sauce. (In my experience, you can barely see the spaghetti.) Americans in the 70s were probably not a lot less rigid in their spaghetti habits, but our thing was spaghetti with meatballs. But at least we didn't make an ugly name for it. (Oops. Judgy again.) 
  3. Americans, of course, had mass Italian immigration in the 19th century, and there are Italian restaurants there that were started in the 1800s that are still running now. The oldest Italian restaurant in the UK (the internet tells me) was founded in 1922 in Aberdeen—and it might be the first—this market-research history of Italian restaurants has nothing earlier. It might be interesting to know if the Scottish experience of pasta is different from the (southern-)English one, since there's been a good deal of Italian immigration to Scotland.
  4. Even before mass Italian immigration, pasta was not unknown in the US. Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of macaroni (which was treated then as a cover-term for pasta) and had macaroni-making equipment imported from Naples. The dandies of England may have too—the word macaroni was used to make fun of them (thus the macaroni line in Yankee Doodle).
Just in case you want to get even by judging me for failing to not-judge spaghetti on toast, know this: my family eats Kraft macaroni (AmE: and) cheese with (Dad's homemade) strawberry jam on top.  And I'm not going to apologi{z/s}e for that. It's great. (I've no idea how this started. Could there be any link to having a German grandma—sweet noodle dishes? Dan Jurafsky's The Language of Food says that macaroni was originally a sweet almond pasta—but I can't imagine that a 14th century Italian dish affected my family's eating habits.)

Now I'm going to try to leave this post alone and not add any more! 


I suppose I should say something about the other noodle. This is older than the food word and unrelated to it, coming from an old word noddle for 'the back of the head'. This has two meanings that have taken root in different ways in the UK and US.

The first meaning is 'a stupid or silly person'. I don't think I hear that in the US, but I do hear in the UK. (I know a couple of parents who affix noodle to the ends of their children's N-starting names, which seems kind of like calling a William Silly Billy.) 

The second meaning is 'head', as in use your noodle or got hit in the noodle. Cambridge Dictionary lists this meaning as 'US old-fashioned informal', but it has a history in the UK. The first use in the OED is from Tristram Shandy: "
What can have got into that precious noodle of thine?"
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Are these British expressions British?

It seems to happen once a week that I'm talking or listening to someone and some interesting new combination of morphemes (meaningful word-parts) is uttered. The conversation will go something like this:
A:  Ooh, this cake has real taste-itude. 
B: Ha! Taste-itude, is that even a word?
Lynne: It is now.
People are saying it, people are understanding it. It's made out of morphemes and it's not a phrase. It's a word. It might not be a word that's going anywhere, but it's a word. And I'd go so far as to say it's an English word, since it's made of English word-parts according to English rules, pronounced with English sounds, and understood by English speakers.

Recently someone on Twitter took me to task for giving BrE versus AmE uses of tortilla as my Difference of the Day, protesting that tortilla isn't even an English word; that the difference is between European and Mexican Spanish, not British and American English. My response was: yes, the word(s) came from those Spanishes, but you can find tortilla in English dictionaries and how English speakers use tortilla can differ from how Spanish speakers use it. So, is tortilla an English word? It is now.

This isn't to say that any non-English word in an English sentence automatically becomes English. If I wrote "My favo(u)rite Swedish institution is fika, the social coffee break", a lexicographer would look at it and say: we don't need to put fika in our English dictionary because (a) it's been marked as foreign (with italics), (b) the writer felt the need to define it, indicating that it's unfamiliar in English, and (c) it describes something in another non-English-speaking culture. When the glorious time comes that English-speaking cultures embrace fika, we'll say things like "I'm just going to fika with Jo. Care to join us?" and the lexicographers will put it in English dictionaries.

All of this is preamble to thinking about what a "British word" is and what happens when an American word "becomes British". When words/meanings/expressions move from one dialect to another, it's not so easy to tell that they're foreign, because we don't tend to get those markers of 'foreignness' that we got in the fika example. The words are generally made out of English parts, and often their meaning is recoverable from the context. If we say that an American expression has 'become British' (or the reverse--but let's stick with one scenario) we could mean:
  • the expression has become less specific to America, and therefore British people say it as well as American people because it is now 'general English'.
  • the expression used to be American, but now British people say it and Americans don't. Thus, it is not 'general English', but 'British English'. 
This kind of thing has come up on the blog before when British media have distributed complaints about "Americanisms" coming to Britain, and people like me point out "Many of your so-called 'Americanisms' came from Britain, but the British forgot about them". (A nice example of that is now-AmE expiration versus more-recent-BrE expiry.)

This week, we can analy{s/z}e whether the same happens when Americans talk about Britishisms. (Of course, what's different is that Americans are likely say "That's so cute! I'm going to start saying that!" rather than "Those people are ruining our language with these silly expressions!")
Here's a list of "British expressions" that has been going (a)round the web:

Like many things on the interwebs, there's no source-citing here. Judging from the 'we say' at zed, it's by an American who knows a bit about Britain. Some of the translations are fairly poor and some of it is fairly dated (chap illustrates both these charges).

What struck me about the list was that I was pretty sure that some of these were American English (originally, if not currently). And at least one I knew to be an Australianism. So, since I have finished my external-examining (it's a British academic thing, and it's a lot of work), I am celebrating by looking into all the items on the list. I won't bother to say "yes, that's originally British" about the majority that are. (Some of them have been discussed already on this blog; you can use the search box on the right to look for them.) But let's think about the ones that aren't.

(the) bee's knees This is 1920s American slang, and as far as I can tell it has never been more popular in the UK than the US. Yes, some British people say it, but Americans are saying it more. And whoever is saying it, they're probably elderly or affecting a vintage style.

know your onions Another old US phrase (the first two OED citations - 1908 and 1922 - are American; first British one comes in 1958). It is definitely used more in the UK now than in the US. World Wide Words has a nice post on it.

wicked to mean 'good, cool' is something that may have been re-invented in the UK (negative words have a way of being made positive in slangs), but it was certainly something I said in the 1980s in the US, earlier than it was being used in UK. OED lists it as 'orig. U.S.' and cites F. Scott Fitzgerald for its first recorded use:
1920   F. S. Fitzgerald This Side of Paradise i. iii. 119   ‘Tell 'em to play “Admiration”!’ shouted Sloane... ‘Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf.’
(a) tad To quote the OED: "colloq. (orig. and chiefly N. Amer.)." The 'chiefly' there is out-of-date; it's well used in BrE now (new ways of achieving understatement are always helpful in BrE). But it's never gone out of use in AmE, so its presence on the list is a puzzle.

(a) shambles To mean 'a scene of disorder or devastation', the OED says 'orig. U.S.' And yet it is in the list twice. (It is used more in the UK, but it's not unused in the US.)

skive Now, I've written about this word before (great word--didn't know it before coming to the UK), but in doing so I failed to mention that it started out in America, seemingly derived from French esquiver. Again, from the OED:
 1. intr. U.S. College slang. At the University of Notre Dame: to leave the college campus without permission. Also in extended use with reference to other disciplinary matters. Freq. with away, out, etc. Cf. skiver n.3 1. Now disused.
 2. trans. orig. U.S. College slang. To avoid (work or a duty) by leaving or being absent; (now) esp. to play truant from (school). Now chiefly Brit. colloq.
nosh comes from Yiddish and is "Originally: to nibble a snack, delicacy, etc. (chiefly N. Amer.)" (OED). Nowadays, in BrE it refers any food, not just a snack or delicacy. Use of the word in the US is particularly New-Yorkish (as Yiddish-derived words often are), and the verb is not used so much in BrE.

uni Here's the Australianism. BrE speakers above a certain age will tell you it came into Britain through the soap opera Neighbours in the 1980s. BrE speakers of university age now probably have no idea it came from Australia. It is used a lot in the UK.

So, about 12% of the lists are expressions used by the British, but not invented by the British. So, they're British expressions in the sense that British people say them.

Some are not invented by the British and not exclusively said by the British. Seems a bit odd to call those ones British expressions.

These not-so-British expressions on the list probably indicate that the writer fell into an old trap: if you don't know an expression and then you hear someone with a different accent say it, it's easy to conclude that the expression is a regionalism that is particular to people with that accent. I fall into the trap too, like when I assumed station stop was a Britishism because I had only heard it in Britain (but then, I take trains more in Britain).  It's our duty as people who care about language to try to resist those easy conclusions, because we have to admit that our individual experience of vocabulary is an imperfect, biased, and ahistorical view of the language.

The other problem with the phrase British expressions (and one that plagues this blog) is what's "British enough" to be British. For something to be called a British expression is it enough that it is used in Britain? Is a Yorkshireism or a bit of slang from Multicultural London English a British expression? Or, for an expression to be British does it have to be used across the whole country (or at least the whole island)?

So, what do you think: should we call the originally-not-British items on this list British expressions? The next time a British person says Can I get a latte? and someone else says "That's not British!" should we say "It is now!"

Postscript: I just can't resist mentioning what I've learn{ed/t} about a British-British item on the list:

arse-over-tit is British through and through, but it was originally arse-over-tip. Its current form lends support to my belief that British English will find any excuse to say tit as often as possible.

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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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tape measure / measuring tape

Emma, an English friend now living in Canada, asked me:
Have you ever looked at measuring tape/tape measure for UK/US? A Canadian friend said she uses the first for the bendy fabric kind and the second for the more rigid, retractable builders' kind.
And I said 'That's how I do it too. What do you do?'  Since this was on Facebook, I now know that I know four Englishpeople who say tape measure for both. Everyone who's commented so far follows the English/North American division that Emma and her Canadian friend observed.

In other words, I learned to call this a measuring tape:

Photo by Ben Watkins:

and this a tape measure:

Photo by redjar:

...and my BrE-speaking friends call them both tape measure.

What's interesting is that neither the North American semantic distinction nor the North America/UK difference is recorded in most dictionaries. They (both UK and US ones) tend to say measuring tape is another word for tape measure (Merriam-Webster [learner's dictionary], Oxford). Collins has measuring tape as an alternative for tape measure in its British English listings, but doesn't include it at all in American English. The American Heritage Dictionary doesn't have measuring tape at all. (The OED's first record for measuring tape is in 1805. Tape measure is 1873.)

Now, before you say 'maybe the distinction is a regional Americanism', note that Emma's friend is from western Canada, I'm from New York state and another Californian friend has reported that he makes the same distinction. There doesn't seem to be anything else similar among us either--male and female, people who sew and people who don't. Searching on, the distinction is not solid, but it's a tendency--one sees more of the metal things if searching 'tape measure' and more of the cloth things when searching 'measuring tape'. (The corpora just tell us that both terms are used in both countries.)

What the dictionaries do tend to tell us is that tape line is an American alternative for tape measure--but this is a term that's completely new to me. There is only one US example in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, and in that one the author felt the need to clarify that they meant 'some kind of measuring tape of some sort'. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, only one of the eight examples of tape line (as part of surveyors' tools) might be relevant--most are about making a line of tape (e.g. on a floor). And in the Corpus of Historical American English, the most recent relevant example is from the 1930s. The original citation in the OED is from Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1847), and it seems to have just been repeated in dictionaries ever since. So this looks much less current than the measuring tape/tape measure distinction. Attention lexicographers!
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This is the kind of blog topic I love -- like the soup or bacon sandwich ones -- where I'm reporting on my slowly acquired reali{s/z}ation that there are subtle UK/US differences in meanings of certain familiar words. The meanings are so similar that they often refer to the same things. What's different is where the cent{er/re} and periphery of the meaning are. Because these differences are hard to tease out, we may go through conversations not reali{s/z}ing that we're not quite communicating. Of course, it's loving these kinds of things that got me to be a lexical semanticist in the first place.

It all started with the World in Words podcast three years ago, in which I was Patrick Cox's guest. Here's how he titled the segment:

Patrick had asked me about how my speech is received in England (I can't remember if this bit is actually in the podcast), and I'd remarked that it disconcerts me when it's said that I have a twang. To me, people from Kentucky have twangs. I have an accent (of course, we all do), but it's not anything I'd describe as twangy. My accent is (among other things) mumbly. I don't see 'mumbly' and 'twangy' as going together.  (Regarding mumbly: I liked Ben Yagoda's post this week about new -y adjectives.) I expect a twangy accent to sound like a country (AmE jocular) gee-tar.

Patrick went along with my puzzlement at being called 'twangy' in his blog post, but the twangs kept coming my way, and I kept hearing twang applied to accents that I don't consider to be 'twangy'. The final straw came (on) Thursday when the Guardian referred to Peter Capaldi's accent as a 'Scottish twang'. I thought: what in the world does twang mean if it applies to Peter Capaldi?  (If you're reading this aloud, note that in my accent 'Peter Capaldi' comes out as Peter Capaldi Swoooon.)

Some discussion on Twitter started to lift the scales from my eyes, and a little on-line survey I've done has confirmed: BrE has a meaning for twang that's not found in AmE, nor in its own dictionaries (e.g. Oxford, Collins).  Have/take a look:

Both AmE and BrE have the sense 'a strongly nasal quality in a person's speech, esp in certain dialects' (as Collins puts it). That is reflected in the light green bar in the chart.  The orange 'neither of the above' bar may be populated by people who didn't like that I didn't say 'nasal' or something similarly specific in my definitions. The teal bar represents 'has a hint of an accent', and that is much more strongly BrE than AmE--just edging out the (presumably) older meaning. Similar numbers of Americans (107) and British (103) are represented in the results.

The 'hint of an accent' meaning explains the cases where people say that I or Peter Capaldi have a twang--we're not speaking with the full force of the accents associated with our regions. I think this use is probably found in Ireland too, or else I can't explain this sentence about the X-Men character Magneto, as played by Sir Ian McKellen (who once had a sip of my Coke when we were marching in the Johannesburg Pride parade; oh, and I like to [orig. AmE] name-drop):

At least he does sound German when he speaks German, but you'd think that he might have had a slight German twang when he was speaking English, what with him being RAISED BY NAZIS AND ALL. (from GloBWE)

German? Twang? This does not compute, given the meaning of twang that I use, but it works fine if what you mean by twang is not 'having a certain kind of accent' but 'having a bit of an accent of some kind'. One of the British respondents described it as "the hint of a weird or unusual accent that jars with the listener's expectations". 

I also asked which accents people think are twangy, but since I didn't do that with a multiple-choice question, I can't give you a nice chart. When talking about other countries, the British mostly said the US (especially south and midwest). Some said Australia. When asked about twangs in their own country, the West Country was mentioned most often.

People from the US strongly associated it with the US South (from Appalachia to Texas) and often said they would not use the word of non-American accents.

Lots of people from both countries mentioned banjos. 

I know people from other countries would like to a breakdown of results from those, but there weren't very big numbers from any other country. Still, 11 out of 14 Canadians preferred the 'definite regional accent' meaning, as did 10 of 11 Australians. So, the 'hint of accent' looks particularly British.

And this makes a lot of sense. British people are generally highly sensitive to and about accents. As famously written by G. B. Shaw, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. Britain's diversity of accents in its small geographic space means that the accents can communicate a lot about geographical, educational and social status--reflecting and contributing to the famous British class system. Since many British people (including one I live with) form immediate and lasting  impressions of others based on their accents, it's not surprising that they're interested in not just "accents", but hints of accents.

I can't go without saying a little something about nasal. Nasal is a word that people apply to all kinds of accents, even those that are anything but nasal from a physiological perspective. Allan Metcalf has discussed this on the Lingua Franca blog, which he closes with "And don't get me started about twang..."

Many thanks to all 252 of you who so kindly responded to the survey. I was particularly touched that some used the comments space to write nice things about this blog or my Twitter feed. I feel like the luckiest linguist on the internet.
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On Pullum's 'Undivided...'

Several people have asked for my reactions to Geoffrey Pullum's piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog in which he claims the US and UK are 'Undivided by a Common Language'. So apologies to the person to whom I promised a post on rent versus hire (next week!), I'm following fellow UK/US language blogger Ben Yagoda unto the breach.

For those who don't know, Pullum is currently Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. He's a dual UK-US citizen, who was born and educated in the UK, but spent much of his working life in the US. He's also prominent beehive-stirrer-upper at Language Log as well as a regular blogger for Lingua Franca.  I [orig. Aus/NZE] have a lot of time for Pullum's ideas and his style, though I know some of my readers complain about what they perceive as pompousness or rudeness in his blogging. I see that as a humorous blog persona — not because I know the man (we've been in the same room; that's about it), but because my first rule of blogging is to read everything with the rosiest tint possible. That rule serves me well 99.5% of the time.

Pullum starts with:
It probably won’t make me popular on either side of the Atlantic when I say that I think the differences have been wildly, insanely overstated. To cite just one example, I once met a British woman in Edinburgh who told me loudly and confidently that Americans had completely abandoned the use of adverbs.
That woman gets around, doesn't she? I meet her all the time and sometimes she's a man. This kind of behavio(u)r is rooted in cognitive biases. We have a bias toward(s) noticing things that are unusual: so if someone phrases something in a way that wouldn't be heard in your locale, you notice it. If they phrase it in a way that you'd also phrase it, then (as usual) you mine the phrasing for information, then delete the phrasing from your short-term memory. This means you won't later be able to recall how the typically-phrased information was phrased. So, linguistic differences stand out, and linguistic similarities don't stick with us. This means that if one American says real good (and you don't), you may not remember the 40,000 times before that you('ve) heard Americans say really good.

Because of the out-group homogeneity bias, we tend to recogni{s/z}e the variety within the groups we belong to, but not in the groups we don't belong to. So you're much more likely to hear an exasperated woman say "Men! they're all the same!" than to hear an exasperated man say "Men! We're all the same!" In the same way, Americans don't think of Americans as 'all the same', but they think of 'the English' as a more homogenous group, often based on stereotyping. (Don't get smug, English people; you do the same about Americans. Don't I know it.) There's also a bias in intercultural communication (whose name I've forgotten and can't find--help!), by which we tend to over(-)estimate the importance of culture when we deal with people from a culture different from our own; so if someone from another culture does something that strikes us as odd, we might conclude that is a cultural difference between us, rather than that this individual is a bit odd. Or, in the case of language, we tend not to assume that the not-from-our-dialect person just made a speech error or a typo.

So, yes, all of these things lead people to make wildly inaccurate claims like those of the woman in Edinburgh. And the general public eats those up. I talked with two British (one in US, one in UK) journalists last week about the use of the heretofore-British word queue in American English. Both wanted to believe that Americans didn't use queue to mean a line of people until Netflix came along and Britishi{s/z}ed them. I pointed them both to Ben Yagoda's post on the subject, showing a rise of queue in AmE since the 1950s. I believe I also pointed out that queue would not be used by the majority of Americans to talk about a line of people. (The evidence they had seemed to be a few anecdotal uses from elite sources.) Did they cite any of that? No. It's more fun to believe the Netflix story. (How Americans made the jump from virtual lines on Netflix to lines of people waiting and only that jump and not other possible semantic extensions goes unexplained. It's not a trivial matter, and it is an argument for believing that the Americans who use queue to mean 'line of people waiting' have heard British/Commonwealth people using it that way, not that Netflix made them do it.)

So far, so sympathetic to Pullum's point.

In the rest of the article, he dismisses most differences as being in pronunciation or in vocabulary. This is something that most non-syntacticians wouldn't dismiss. On the pronunciation front, fair enough: there's probably as much variation in pronunciation within either country as between them. It's why I don't write a lot about pronunciation on this blog.

On the vocabulary front, he claims the differences are 'mostly nouns'. Well, most of English vocabulary is nouns, so that's not a very interesting thing to say. As (mostly, but not exclusively) a syntactician, Pullum is apt to be dismissive of nouns--they're just names. Easily replaced one for the other, not much effect on the grammar. But certainly an effect on comprehensibility, I'd say.

But let's see what I've got as word-class labels on the 432 blog posts I've published here so far.  I don't use noun as a label because noun posts are easily categori{s/z}ed in more interesting semantic ways (food words, clothing words, etc.). But for the other content-word categories, I've got:
26 on adjectives
18 on adverbs
67 on verbs
That doesn't mean, of course, that I've noticed only 26 adjectival differences--many posts cover more than one difference and I certainly haven't written posts on everything I've noticed. It also doesn't mean that the other 321 posts are about nouns, since not all posts are about vocabulary-level differences. Please also keep in mind that my label(l)ing is not very scientific: there are labels I used later that might've applied as well to posts I'd written earlier; sometimes I forget to label; sometimes I judge that the post isn't cent(e)red enough on a verb difference that I mention for it to merit the verb label; etc.

Other word classes I've label(l)ed:
6 on auxiliary verbs
4 on conjunctions
4 on determiners
10 on numbers
22 on prepositions
6 on pronouns/proforms
Many of those cover what could be categori{s/z}ed as grammatical differences--depending on your definition of grammatical. So, for instance, can you write someone or do you have to write to them? Is it menopause or the menopause? Do you need an and when you say 2007 out loud?

Looking at grammatical labels, there are:
22 on grammar
20 on morphology [and 11 on count/mass distinctions, e.g. do you say Lego or Legos for a bunch of them; most of these are also label(l)ed morphology, though]
The grammar-label(l)ed ones don't include every little difference in which preposition goes with which verb (do you protest something, or protest at it?), so if you count that as grammar (depends on your theoretical bent if you're a linguist, I'd say), then the '22' here is severely under-representative.

What Pullum is counting as grammatical differences seems to be strictly things that are allowed  in one dialect but not in the other. But another kind of difference is found in the tendencies in phrase structure that are more typical of one dialect than the other. For example, temporal adverbs are more likely to occur in the middle of a sentence in BrE. It's not that they can't in AmE, but it sounds more British to put your adverbs there. If you're a novelist trying to write believable dialogue for a character from another country, it's handy to know about these things, as your readers in that country will notice them right away if you get them wrong.

That's not even getting started on the idioms (43 label[l]ed posts), interjections (9), onomatopoeia (2), punctuation (7), or most importantly, I'd say, the pragmatic differences between the two. Is thank you used for the same purposes in the two countries? (Not always.) Do we foreground the same information in sentences? (Not always.) Are polite things in one country impolite in the other? (Oh yeah.)

So, 432 blog posts, most recording several differences, and a (rarely repetitive) Twitter Difference (or Untranslatable) of the Day for at least five days a week since 2009. I think there are a lot of differences.  And several people have made whole books out of the differences, most notably (and academically and grammatically) Algeo's British or American English? and the edited collection One Language, Two Grammars?

Are the differences exaggerated due to cognitive biases and prejudices? Absolutely. Are we still mostly able to communicate easily? Yes, certainly.  But that doesn't make the differences that are there any less interesting to me. And the fact that there are so many biased perceptions about national differences makes me feel like this blog provides a public service in countering the myths. I hope you do too. I even hold out a little hope that Pullum might.
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)