Showing posts with label spelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spelling. Show all posts

czar, tsar

 Having seen an article about the UK's new "domestic abuse tsar", I tweeted

As you may have noticed from my 'mental health' diatribes, I have a particular sensitivity to compound nouns that rely on the reader/hearer to discern from context/cultural knowledge that the compound means sort of the opposite (another obsession) of what it is supposed to indicate.

This led Shane Street to ask: "Is there an AmE/BrE split over the use of czar/tsar?"

The answer is YES. The following GloWBE corpus table also shows that two countries particularly like to use Russian autocratic titles for government advisors:

The GloWBE data is mostly from 2012. A search on the News on the Web corpus indicates that tsars/czars have been getting less common since 2010, when that ever-renewing corpus starts (despite Russian autocrats seeming more popular than ever with certain politicians).

Multiple spellings are often available in English for words that have been transliterated from another alphabet, in this case the Cyrillic Russian царь. It's not uncommon for different spelling variants to catch on in different places, as we've seen for yog(h)urt, for example.

The OED entry for this word has not been fully updated since 1915, but they did add the new government advisor meaning in 2001, noting that it is "Originally U.S."

Originally U.S. A person appointed by a government to recommend and coordinate policy in a particular area and to oversee its implementation. Usually with modifying word denoting the area of responsibility.
1933   S. Walker Night Club Era 167   There are several versions of why Mulrooney quit the job to become the state beer ‘Czar’.
1942   Amer. Observer 2 Feb. 8/1   From June 1940 until the recent appointment of Donald M. Nelson as war production czar, the American defense effort was best described in terms of red tape, delay, buck passing, and lack of authority.
1959   Madison (New Jersey) Eagle 30 Apr. 1/1   New Jersey's newly-created ‘czar’ of transportation..announced Thursday night that he expected to have a solution to the commuting crisis worked out in from six months to a year.
1977   Time Jan. 35/1   The job as energy czar will be Schlesinger's fifth Government post.
1989   Economist 25 Mar. 47/2   Bennett's first move, after he was sworn in as his country's drug tsar, was to select Washington, its capital, as a test case for his new crusade.
2001   Observer 25 Mar. i. 2/3   Equal pay ‘tsars’ will shame sexist employers into giving women a fair wage under a government action plan to root out workplace discrimination. 

While some of the US examples are very early, it did seem to make its biggest splash in the 1970s, continuing into the 80s and 90s. The Corpus of Historical American English shows a lot of czars in the 1950s, but almost all of them are from historical fiction. During/right after the Russian Revolution, the tsar spelling seemed to do very well in AmE.

 In the OED's examples, all the AmE spellings of the non-Russian sense are czar and, from the first BrE sighting in 1989, the BrE spellings are tsar

To avoid the Russian referents, we can look for tsar/czar preceded by a noun. The corpora I'm looking at here are not strictly comparable. COHA is American English from lots of different sources (the Grampa Czars there are all from a piece of fiction), while the Hansard is the UK parliamentary record.  But at least they show what the two countries have had czars/tsars for and the recency of the UK's use of the term. 

You can also see there the BrE use of -s plurals in noun modifiers (drugs tsar, pensions tsar, streets tsar), which AmE doesn't allow (drug czar).

Why czar/tsar? Why not king/queen or some other title? I'd assume that some of the reason is that the term is no longer in use for actual governors. King/queen are also very much used (at least in AmE) in commercial contexts, e.g. the Mattress King or Dairy Queen. This article (for which thanks, Tony Thorne) notes that tsar is "media shorthand". Perhaps the 'foreignness' and 'long-ago-ness' of czar/tsar also helps with the disconnect within the compound. A Mattress King is decidedly pro-mattress, so maybe a "Drug(s) King" would be too. Less familiarity with czars/tsars makes it easier not to read "Drug(s) Tsar" as "King of the Drugs".

One wonders, given the metaphors of the war on drugs and the war on terrorism that the leaders of the charges weren't called generals or admirals or field marshals or something. 

Anyhow, I shall not be calling Nicole Jacobs the Domestic Abuse Tsar.  Her official title is worse, though: Domestic Abuse Commissioner. Like she COMMISSIONS DOMESTIC ABUSE. Please, no! Can we think of any better titles to offer her?

PS: answering questions from the comments, here's what happens when you look for "Russian czar/tsar" in the 2012 data:

And here's looking for czar/tsar with Ni* to get the name of a famous one:


So, Americans (at that point at least), are using the ts- spelling more than the cz- spelling for actual monarchs. Perhaps it seems like a "more foreign" spelling so it's used for more foreign things—though you think any word starting with cz- would be seen as very foreign. But the cz- spelling is definitely AmE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

In the end, this is not a very common word, and many people will have experienced it either in print or in speech but not both, allowing for a lot of variation in how people assume it should be pronounced or spel{led/t}. I'd expect that a lot of you will have different experiences of what you think the most common pronunciation where you are is. You can hear a lot of them at YouGlish (be sure to click the 'forward' button to advance to the next pronouncer) and draw your own conclusions.
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solder (and a bit about calm)

I've had requests from Andy J and (long ago) Doug Sundseth to cover this one. Here's an excerpt from Andy's recent email on the topic:

I watch a lot of Youtube videos which feature people who self-describe as makers (part DIYers and part semi-professional craftsmen and women). I have noticed that also without exception those based in the USA and Canada pronounce the word solder as sodder, whereas we BrE speakers would invariably sound the L in both the noun and the verb solder.
The North American variation seems at odds with the similar phonic construction in soldier or for example folder which, to my ear based on film and TV utterances, seem to be pronounced in a largely similar way to BrE, ie the L is sounded.

Before I go into the history of the word, I want to do a little bit of "here's how a linguist thinks".  Andy's got(ten) us started along the right lines here, in that (a) he talks about variation, rather than deviation, and (b) he looks for broader patterns. It's important to look for the broader patterns because we know that:
  • Where spelling clashes with pronunciation (that is, where spelling is not phonetic), the spelling often gives clues for finding an earlier pronunciation.
  • Linguistic sound changes are very often regular. That is to say, they apply across all words that would be susceptible to that change. 
(A bit on how linguists write: putting a letter between / / means I'm using the International Phonetic Alphabet —or a simplified version of it in this case— and talking about sounds. Where I'm talking about spelling, I'm using italics.)

We can illustrate those two points with the /r/ after vowels. In my inland northern American accent, I would pronounce the -er in solder with an /r/. In my spouse's London accent, he would pronounce it as an unstressed vowel /ə/ —no /r/.  That difference carries on to every word that ends in -er (and every other r that follows a vowel, actually). If we look at that spelling and those pronunciations, we are well justified in thinking that earlier English pronounced the /r/ there, and the English of southern England later stopped pronouncing it. Otherwise, why would all those r's be there in the spelling? And indeed, that's the case.

Pic from (AmE) Jewelry Making Daily
But in this case, as Andy notes, there is no evidence of a regular sound change. Most Americans don't pronounce an /l/ in solder, but if there had been a sound change that got rid of /l/ after a vowel or before a /d/, then Americans should pronounce folder as "fodder" and soldier as "sodyer", and Americans just don't do that.

In the absence of evidence for a regular sound change, we have two possibilities:
  1. the /l/ is not an original part of the pronunciation, but people started pronouncing an /l/ because they saw it there in the spelling. This happens often enough that we have a name for this kind of sound change: spelling pronunciation.
  2. the /l/ is an original part of the pronunciation, but for some idiosyncratic reason, someone started pronouncing it without the /l/ and that caught on. That can happen too.
So our question is: which of those is it?  (And does it have to be just one of those?) Here's where we have to look at the evidence from the past.

The OED gives the following historical spellings of the word (the numbers indicate the centuries in which you see those spellings):
α. ME soudur, ME soudure, soudour, sowdur, sowdowre; ME soudre, ME–15 souder, ME–16 (18 dialect) sowder (ME sowdere, 15 soweder); 18 dialect sowther. β. ME sawdur, sawdyr, 15 sawyer; ME sawd(e)re, 15 sawder (16 sawter), 15–16 saudre, 16 sauder. γ. 15–17 soder (16 soader, sodar), 16– sodder; 15 sother, 16 soather. δ. ME souldour, 15–16 soulder (15 sowl-). ε. 16 soldure, 16– solder
I've highlighted the five paths that the spelling seems to follow (indicated by the Greek letters). Why five paths? Because language is a moveable, social thing. The word shows up in English in the period when English was getting a lot of vocabulary from France (after the Norman Invasion and all that). But words don't have to just show up once. And once they do show up, they don't stay the same.And when they change, they can change in different ways in different places.

The Old French word that solder comes from is represented in the OED etymology as:
< Old French soud-, saud-, soldure (compare Italian saldatura ), < souder , etc.,
Three of the paths are  L-less (and these are the paths for which the OED has more examples—so the L-less spellings were more widespread. That's because it came into English without an /l/ sound because it mostly didn't have one in French. The Italian comparison word that has an L tells us that there's a fair chance that the French came from a Latin word with an /l/, which the French subsequently lost. And that's indeed what we find: the Latin etymon is solidare 'to make solid'. Both French and Italian dropped the Latin word's second syllable, but French did it by losing a consonant and Italian by losing a vowel.

So what about the two L-ful paths? There are (again) two possibilities (plus the possibility that it is both of these to different degrees/in different places):
  1. Maybe some of the people who brought the word to England did pronounce an /l/ in it, and so the spelling reflected that. Note the soldure spelling that existed in Old French.
  2. Maybe some scribes started inserting an L because they knew the word came from Latin and they wanted to hono(u)r its Latin roots. 
If the answer is (1), then it is possible that the minority pronunciation was what came to be standard in the spelling, and eventually that pronunciation became standard across England.  Maybe the word travel(l)ed to the US between those two standardi{s/z}ation events.

But (2) is more likely, judging from the clear history of sentimentality for Latin affecting English spelling. Here's an article by Arika Okrent on weirdly spelt words, and indeed she includes solder in the same category as debt and receipt, as victims of re-Latini{s/z}ing in the 15th and 16th centuries. The L got added into the spelling, and then later, people started pronouncing it as a spelling pronunciation.

We've seen a similar story for herb: the spelling got Latini{s/z}ed, and the English (eventually) went for a spelling pronunciation, but Americans carried on with the old pronunciation.

When did the spelling-pronunciation shift happen? After America had had its English from England (mostly).  The OED notes that Smart's 1840 pronouncing dictionary (from England) included only the /l/-less pronunciation, but it looks like this was very much a 'live' problem in the 18th and 19th centuries (when Englsih had been burbling along in America for over 100 years). The 1824 edition of Walker's Critical Pronouncing Dictionary said this:

Click to embiggen
If you can't read that: the key point is that Johnson's dictionary of 1755 preferred spelling it without the L, but the L spelling was already well established. It acknowledges differences in opinion about the pronunciation among orthoepists [pronunciation prescribers] and that the L-less pronunciation was used by workmen, but "workmen ought to take their pronunciation from scholars and not scholars from workmen".  (Ah, social class in England...)

Solder does seem to be exactly the kind of thing whose spelling would revert to older form in AmE, so it's a little surpising we don't spell it sodder.  Noah Webster did try to change it. At solder in his 1828 dictionary there is a cross-reference to soder, which reads:

click to embiggen

It's no wonder soder didn't catch on, since it looks like it should have the same first syllable as soda. If only Webster had doubled the d.

While I've been known (to myself) to misspell it as sodder, that spelling hasn't had much traction in AmE, and neither has Webster's, as can be seen in numbers from the Corpus of Historical American English. (The Soders in the 2000s here are all someone's name.)

Interestingly, for those who find such things interesting, the addition of L to an L-less French borrowing is also why we have an L in salmon (French saumon, Latin salmo(n)), but there's been no big movements toward(s) pronouncing that L in English. This just goes to show that spelling pronunciation changes are not regular changes.

And I expect someone will have calm on their mind now. That one's pronounced with no /l/ in England but some Americans do have an /l/ in it. The vowels differ in these cases, but then most of our vowels differ, don't they? I believe my own calm varies from pronunciation to pronunciation (and probably did so even before I moved to the UK). Calm differs from solder in that it came into English from French with its L. However, it looks like not everyone was pronouncing it, since there are some caume/cawme spellings in the 1500s and 1600s.

This seems to be a case of the /l/ being lost because it's in a phonetically complicated place—between two other sonorous elements. An /l/ after a vowel/at the end of a syllable is pronounced differently than one at the front, and that back-of-the-syllable "dark /l/" often does strange things, especially in combination with other consonants. You can see (or hear) in Irish and Scottish English the evidence that /l/+consonant combinations often feel a bit unnatural. Those Englishes often sort out /l/+consonant by inserting a vowel between the consonants, which "un-darkens" the /l/.  Filmfi-lum, Colm Co-lum (you can hear that at 1:50 in this Derry Girls clip, and any excuse to watch Derry Girls should not be snubbed). English English (and French before it, it seems) has sorted this out by just not pronouncing the /l/. Whether some Americans have added it back in as a spelling pronunciaiton, or whether the /l/ came over as the original pronunciation and stayed, I'm not sure.

I've been careful to say "England" and not "BrE" in this post, since we're talking about pronunciations and they can vary more than spellings.  I've only gone with the pronunciations in the OED, so your mileage may vary. It would be interesting in particular to hear about Scottish and Irish pronunciations in the comments, since they do interesting things with /l/+consonant combinations. But also please let me know if you know of variations within England or elsewhere.

P.S.  Yes, the vowels are different too. Vowels change very easily, so that wasn't as interesting to me here. A consonant change is more of a mystery! BrE solder rhymes with folder and AmE rhymes with fodder. YouGlish is a great resource for hearing words pronounced. You can set it for AmE or BrE, and then use the 'forward' button to skip to the next pronunciation.
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curb / kerb

pic from
(AmE) What's up with the spelling kerb? This is one of those topics that I *thought* I had blogged about. But no!

BrE has kerb for the edging alongside a road or path and curb for the 'restraint' verb (as in curb your enthusiasm). AmE uses curb for both.

In general, there are more homophones for which BrE differentiates spellings and AmE doesn't than the other way (a)round. This is not particularly surprising, since spelling differences are generally in the direction of AmE being easier to learn than BrE (that was Noah Webster's first priority in promoting new spellings).

But the point I try to highlight when I talk about spelling differences is: most American spellings were not invented in the US. There have always been spelling variations. And that's well illustrated by this case.

Spelling the 'edge' noun

Kerb is the newer spelling—albeit, still hundreds of years old. The first c- spellings for the noun are from the 1400s, following the spelling of the French word from which it ultimately derives: courbe, for 'curved'. Before paving was so common, there were lots of other uses of curb, including some that referred to different kinds of curved edges around things. Occasionally (from the 1700s), these were spelt with a k, but the c was much more common. It's only in the 1800s that the k spelling becomes firmly associated with 'an edging of stone (etc.) along a raised path'. In the age of industriali{s/z}ation, such edgings would have become more commonplace.

The OED's entry for kerb gives the etymology as 'variant of CURB, n., used in special senses'.  This looks an awful lot like what happened with tyre. Tire had become the usual spelling for wheel-related meanings (though tyre had been around too), but when the pneumatic variety became available, BrE started using a less-common spelling for the word, in order to differentiate the old kind of thing from the new kind of thing.

Since the spelling changed after AmE and BrE had parted ways (and before the advent of fast communication between the two), there was no particular reason for Americans to experience the new spelling much or to use it. There was a perfectly good spelling already.

Verbs and nouns and nouns and verbs

A covered curb chain on a horse
The 'restrain' verb is always curb in both countries, and that came from a noun curb. Both were originally about restraining horses with a chain or strap that goes under its jaw. Metaphorically, that extends to other things you'd like to 'rein in'. So you can curb your appetite or ingest something that will act as a curb on your appetite, but you'd never spell those as kerb (unless spelling isn't your strength).

But another verb meaning for curb has come up in AmE, which takes advantage of the homography of  the 'restrain' verb and the 'stone edging' noun.  I first recall being aware of these signs in the late 1970s,  when New York City's first (orig. AmE) pooper-scooper laws were in the news.

snapped in NYC in 2013

But Curb Your Dog signs go back to the 1930s. Back before anyone had to pick up their dogs' poo(p), owners were encouraged (or required) in NYC to make dogs "do their business" at the edge of the (AmE) sidewalk (or maybe in the gutter) so that the mess would be out of pedestrians' (and plants') way. (There's a nice little explainer here.) In this case, you are taking your dog to the curb/kerb, but also curbing their tendency to relieve themselves in inconvenient places.

Bonus vocabulary

Not something I knew till Simon Koppel pointed it out to me, but there are technical terms for those places in the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk where the curb/kerb is lower to make it easier to cross the road/street, especially for those using wheels to do so.  In AmE these are curb cuts and in BrE dropped kerbs. 

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coronavirus and COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. Since I'm talking about newspaper uses, I haven't considered pronunciation—but that discussion is happening in the comments. 
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geez, jeez!

As with many of my discoveries about English, this one happened during a Scrabble game. I had played GEEZ and my opponent challenged it, stating that she thought I needed a J rather than a G. When British people think I've got English wrong, I make a note of it, go home, and look it up. And about half the time, it is because there is a national/dialectal difference to be found. (The rest of the time, it's down to some weird beliefs about language. And most of the things we believe about language are weird, and little to do with reality. This has been the main thesis of my research career.)

Geez/jeez is originally AmE, a way of not-taking the name Jesus in vain. I was probably an adult before I reali{s/z}ed that. To me, it was just some thing people said, and I didn't make the connection, just like a lot of people probably don't reali{s/z}e (till someone tells them) that (BrE) crikey is a way to avoid saying Christ or (BrE) cor, blimey stared as an avoidance of God blind me.

Whether people spelled it with a G because they didn't see the relationship to Jesus or whether using the G was a way to keep it one more step removed from Jesus, I don't know. What I do know is that the G is the more common spelling in AmE, but it's rarely used in BrE, where the expression has caught on (not least in imitations of Americans). I suspect that when it entered BrE people could see its minced-oath nature, and so assumed it was spel{led/t} with a J.

Click to embiggen.
 As we've seen before, there's a lot of spelling variation in interjections, which start their lives in speech and mostly stay there. They never get tested in school spelling quizzes, you just do what you want with them.  It will be interesting to see whether there's more standardization of the spelling of speech-like bits as an effect of the more speech-like writing we do online.  (If anyone knows of such research, I'd be interested to hear about it. I had a quick look and didn't find anything super-relevant, but there must be some out there.)

Jack Grieve has made a word-mapper tool for seeing where particular words are tweeted most in the USA. You might enjoy his maps of Sweary USA. I tried it for geez/jeez to see if there's any variation in the US. As you can see, saying {g/j}eez is not a regional thing. It's all over. But spelling it with the J, while less common overall (note the different colo[u]r scales for the maps), is more common in 'the North', i.e. the northeast and northern midwest.

What struck me about the jeez map is how the jeez area seems to echo Yankeedom in Colin Woodard's American Nations. Woodard's book posits that different regional subcultures of the US derive from its migration histories, with value systems travel(l)ing westward from the east coast (and then dispersing in different ways when migration patterns become less linear and sparser in the 'west'. Woodard's maps look much like maps of major dialect areas in the US.
Perhaps BrE has the jeez spelling because of greater contact with the northeast—though I doubt that is the relevant issue, since exposure to the word is probably mostly through speech. Perhaps Yankeedom and the UK have in common a feeling that the oath does not need so much mincing, and so they are more apt to spell it in line with its etymology.

If you're interested similar speaking/spelling problems, you be interested in these other posts. Please comment about those ones at their posts and keep those parties going:

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practice and practise

I now do not remember where I took this photo of a museum label. Some museum I've been to in the UK in the last couple of years.  It's been sitting on my computer desktop to remind me to blog about practice and practise. Maybe it's for the best that I don't remember, as to mention them would feel like naming and shaming, since practise there is spel{led/t} wrong.

Let's start with the spelling facts:
  • In standard British spelling, the noun is practice and the verb is practise (in that picture it's a noun, and therefore should have a 'c'). If you need to remember which is which, think of advice and advise: the noun has 'c' and the verb has 's'. What's different, of course, is that advice and advise are pronounced differently. The letter 'c' usually doesn't represent the /z/ sound that you get in 'advise' (but the letter 's' often does). Practi{c/s}e is confusing because they're both pronounced the same, even though they're spel{led/t} differently. That is to say, they're homophones.
    Historical aside from the OED:
    The word was originally stressed on the second syllable [...], and this is still the case in some regional varieties, especially in Scots (hence such spellings as practize, practeeze, practeese). The stress was subsequently shifted to the first syllable, with devoicing of the final consonant, probably by association with practice n.
  • In standard American spelling, they're both practice. Noah Webster promoted dropping practise in his 1828 dictionary (and probably elsewhere), arguing that "[t]he orthography of the verb ought to be the same as of the noun; as in notice and to notice.]" But, like most of Webster's spellings, it didn't really take off in the US until after he was gone—in the late 19th century. 
Now, the reason I wanted to write about this is that the UK spelling seems to be going a bit buggy [orig. AmE]. People claim to me that American spellcheckers are making everyone write practice. But what I tend to see is a lot of practise where BrE should have practice, as in the photo above and this request from a UK-based copy editor's client::
Hi Lynne  I hope you're well. I wondered if you could verify something for me.  A client has asked for a "US spelling" of "community of practice" to be "community of practise".  I think this is incorrect, and I'd love to know what you think.
These kinds of experiences have led me to suspect that instead of American spelling taking over, we have another case like -ize/-ise (which, if you want to read some interesting facts about those, I have a book to sell you). That is, because one of the spellings (and not the other) is known by British people to be unacceptable in American English, that spelling is now perceived as"the British spelling" and then applied willy-nilly. In the case of practice/practise, this means that errors are introduced into the British spelling, while Americans (BrE) tootle along with one spelling. 

So, to test what's happening, I looked, as I like to do, for objective evidence—not filtered through my (or anyone else's) biased attention for one type of error or the other in everyday life. To do that, I looked up practice and practise in the British portion of the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), asked it to give me a random sample of 200 passages with each spelling, and then read each and identified any spelling errors (using the British rules). That is, I looked for nouns in the practise data and verbs in the practice data.

The result:

Of 200 British cases of the spelling practise, 65 were misspelled nouns.
Of 200 British cases of the spelling practice, 23 were misspelled verbs.

At the bottom of this post, I'll stick in screenshots of the data so you can see some examples.

Now, I am not convinced that people were ever good at keeping these spellings straight. Some people were, sure, but homonyms have given people trouble since people started standardi{s/z}ing spelling. We'd need some more historical data to see if this is the pattern of error has always been this way. But at least now, at least in this web-based data, there's less evidence of Americani{s/z}ation of British spelling and more evidence of counter-Americani{s/z}ation—people using the spelling they perceive as not-American, even though it's not the right spelling for standard British English.

Before I go: Some people say to me "I didn't know you were in my town! I would have come to see you talk if I'd known!" I keep my talk schedule posted here. If you're in Brighton or London (UK) in the next few weeks or the DC/Maryland area in August, have/take a look at the schedule and see if you can join us! 

Some noun practises on UK websites (click to enlarge)

Some verb practices on UK websites (click to enlarge)

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Hello from the Fifth Conference of the International Society for the Linguistics of English, or #ISLE5, as all the cool kids are tweeting it.  We have an afternoon for touristic activities, but since we're in London, I'm feeling a combination of (orig AmE) 'been there, done that' and 'I could do that any time'. What's not available any time is a bit of quiet to blog. So, yay for everyone else going to Samuel Johnson's House (been there, got the postcards) and for my lovely hotel lounge and wifi. Today's post was started possibly years ago (I've lost track), when Lauren Ackerman asked me about British chilli versus American chili.

I went to my usual first stop: the Oxford English Dictionary. And I am sad to say that the entry for this item has not been fully updated since the first edition in 1889—which is to say, look at those spellings!  (Not blaming them, just sad for my post that they haven't got(ten) to this one yet!)

Yes, chilli is still the BrE spelling for piquant peppers--but giving chilly as the alternative spelling and not the standard AmE chili reads very odd in the 21st century. Chili is acknowledged there as a historical spelling, and is present in the quotation evidence in the entry.  And it's consistently been the more common spelling in the US:

(click to enlarge)

At the conference, I've been at two sessions where someone's called into question the OED tagline, visible at the top of the dictionary screenshot: 'The definitive record of the English language". That's marketing talk, not lexicographical talk, and it's unfortunate. There can be no definitive record of the English language, because there is no definitive English language. It's always varying and changing and you can never know if you've found the first instance of a word or the last one, etc. So here's a little plea (in the form of advice) to the Oxford University Press: If you put most before definitive it would be an accurate tagline. And it would have a marketing-department-friendly superlative in it! Win-win!

As a side-note, there's this little bit of puzzling prescriptivism in the run-on to the entry (i.e. the additional defined items at the end), which seems to have been added later—or at least I'm assuming so, given the AmE spelling (it's hard to tell, though, the link to the previous edition includes none of the run-ons).

I've been trying to figure out what that 'erron.' is referring to. I believe what it's saying is that the "real" meaning of chili pepper is 'pepper tree' and it's an error to use it to refer to chil(l)is, but why does it only have the US spelling? It's not clear to me when this chili pepper was added to the entry, as the link to the 2nd edition does not include all the compounds that are in the run-on entries. But it must be old, as it's not marked as a post-2nd-edition addition.  But it's interesting to see how recent it is to say "chil(l)i pepper":

Anyhow, back to the word itself: it comes ultimately from Nahuatl, with an /l/ sound in the middle. We pronounce it with a 'short i' sound (like in chill). You can see, then why BrE likes the double-L spelling: without a double consonant, it looks like it should have a a different vowel: we say wifi differently than we'd say wiffi; fury versus furry, etc.

So why does AmE have a single L? My educated guess would be because Americans have had more consistent contact with Spanish. When the Spanish went to spell it, they used a single L, because double consonants don't do the same thing in Spanish spelling that they do in English. If you pronounce chilli in Spanish, there's no L sound. (What sound is there depends on your dialect of Spanish, but I learned in my US Spanish classes to pronounce the LL like a 'y' sound.) It stayed Spanish-ish in American, while getting a more English-ish spelling in Britain.

Now, I think that back in the mists of time when Lauren requested a post on chil(l)i, she meant the stew, rather than the fruit. I am not going to wade into the debates about what "real" chil(l)i (con carne) should have. But I will say this: every American I've seen to order the dish in the UK has had a moment of "Whaaaa?" when it was served with rice. Not something we're used to. But nice when you get used to it.

There is another spelling issue here, though. The pepper almost always ends with an i, but the stew sometimes ends with an e. But not much anymore, according to my corpus searches:

And on that note, I'll post this before my battery dies!

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Grover was off (AmE from) school yesterday (because of a (BrE) dodgy tummy, and we had the following exchange:

G: Is there a fruit called currant?
Me: Yes, there's blackcurrant and redcurrant.
G:  No, but is there any such thing as a currant?
Me: Yes. Black and red.
G:  But is anything called currant?
Me: Yes, black currant and red currant.*

G: But I'm talking about currant.
Me: OK. There are berries called currants. And they come in different types. And one is black and the other is red.
G: Ohhhh. OK.
*I'm not even getting into white currants here, which are from redcurrant bushes. The conversation is confusing enough.

The problem in our conversation became clear to me the fourth time she asked her question. In BrE blackcurrant and redcurrant are compound nouns. Since they're one word, they only have one primary stress (i.e. syllable you emphasi{s/z}e most in speaking). You can hear a compound/non-compound stress difference in She was a greengrocer versus The martian was a green grocer. In our house (among[st] the Englishpeople) it's the first syllable that's stressed in the currant compounds:  BLACKcurrant and REDcurrant. But the pronunciation guides in UK dictionaries tend to give it as blackCURrant'. At any rate, not BLACK CURrant, which is what they'd be as separate words.

So G wasn't necessarily recogni{s/z}ing them as separable words. To her, asking this question was like hearing about (AmE) automobiles and (AmE) bloodmobiles and wanting to know if there are vehicles called mobiles (MO-beelz).

For me, it seemed evident that there must be currants. Of course, I have more life experience than the eight-year-old. And, perhaps relevantly, I came to currants as an American.

Earlier this week, Kathy Flake pointed out an article answering the question "Why does the purple Skittle taste different outside America?" Both of us had wondered (as I'm sure many other transatlantic types have done): why is everything blackcurrant flavo(u)red in the UK, and never grape flavo(u)red? To quote the article:

Most American mouths have never tasted the sweet yet tart tang of the blackcurrant berry. There’s a big reason for that: in the early 20th century, the growing of blackcurrants was banned on a federal level in the U.S. after legislators discovered that the plants, brought over from Europe, had become vectors for a wood-destroying disease known as white pine blister rust.
During the 1960s, the federal ban on the berry was relaxed in favor of state-by-state jurisdiction, and most states now allow it to be grown. But the damage had already been done—the blackcurrant jams, juices, pastries and cakes that are standard throughout Europe are nowhere to be found stateside.
Americans use the Concord grape, developed in the US and used in juices, (AmE) jellies [discussed in the comments in the linked post], grape pies (a local special[i]ty where I'm from), and grape flavo(u)ring. It turns out that these grapes are very susceptible to another plant disease, so it's probably best not to export those either. The main thing the grapes and blackcurrants have in common is that they're purple--necessary if you want people to "taste the rainbow".

So when I moved to the UK, I knew about currants in the way I know about lutefisk. It's something other people eat somewhere else, about which I have only secondhand knowledge. 
Did I know that they came in black and red types? Could I imagine what a fresh one looked or tasted like? I can't remember now what I didn't know then. But the knowledge was vague. I certainly didn't know that the black and red types were represented by joined-up compound nouns. I'd have imagined them more like red grapes and white grapes, where they're separate words. And if they're two separate words, then the stress pattern for saying them may well be less compound-like. But not necessarily. We often don't close up compounds, even when they do follow the compound stress pattern--e.g. ICE cream. But when they are closed, how to pronounce them is less ambiguous.

And I've only just this minute learned that the dried fruit currant is not the same as the currants I've met here (see the Merriam-Webster definition below). I may have to revise my answer to Grover.

So that's what's in currant buns. Seriously, I just thought they used some kind of low-quality currant berries in currant buns. So, my answer to G was not particularly helpful. Yes, there are currants, but in BrE, they're rarely the same thing as blackcurrant

After my day mostly home with Grover, this tweet was thrown my way:
...and the congruence of currant-related events led me to write this post. Why is an American organi{s/z}ation asking a British newspaper for spelling advice? Perhaps because they (very reasonably) don't trust Americans to know anything about currants. But because currants have a different place in the culinary lives of Americans and Brits, they also have different linguistic places.

The closed (i.e. no space) compound noun status of blackcurrant tells you a lot about the centrality of that thing as a thing unto itself in British culture. British English famously (if you count 'famous among a few of my linguist friends' as famous) resists closing compounds more than American does. But when compounds are closed in writing, it signals that they have that compound stress pattern. And when they get that stress pattern, it's a signal that the concept represented by the compound is now a familiar unit in the language.

Side note: John McWhorter has recently done a Lexicon Valley podcast with the title 'Word Sex' ("How words [orig. AmE] hook up and make new ones") in which he looks at how that compound stress works and what it means. I very much recommend it, but British listeners will think he gets the stress wrong on half of his examples. At the end does discuss an AmE/BrE difference.  McWhorter's been doing that podcast since early summer, and he's really made something of it. If you've tried LV before and didn't like it, it's worth trying again.

But back to the A.V. Club's problem. Is there a space or not? In BrE, no. Dictionaries (Oxford, Collins, Chambers) close the compound. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English has 166 UK blackcurrant(s) to only 11 black currant(s).

The American data is a different matter: 16 without the space, 21 with. You can see how little Americans write about the fruit. When they do write about it, they haven't got a firm agreement on how to spell it. Red( )currant is much the same. American dictionaries that have the word (Merriam-Webster and American Heritage) have the space:  have a space in black currant. Webster's New World Dictionary (not a Merriam-Webster product) doesn't even bother to define it--but does have it as two words in the definition for creme de cassis.

Because the American dictionaries give it as two words, they don't bother giving a pronunciation guide--they rely on the pronunciation in black and currant to be enough. The Cambridge dictionary gives different American and British pronunciations (listen here), but I've been burnt before by their American pronunciations. The Oxford Learner's dictionary gives both compound pronunciations (stress on first or second syllable) for both countries (listen here). And all three UK pronouncers on Forvo put the stress on the first syllable (listen here), but no Americans have bothered to offer a pronunciation of it.

So, how do Americans pronounce it? It seems they mostly don't.
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jail, gaol and prison

Gemma wrote some time ago to ask about jail and prison, starting with:
I would (as a British person) use them interchangeably (is this the norm in the UK, or is it just me?) but I've had the impression on several occasions that an American author has expected me to understand that one (jail?) is used for a regional facility for lesser offenders, and the other for a federal facility. Or perhaps you can set me straight? And who (if anyone) uses the spelling "gaol"?

There is indeed a US-UK difference here, almost as Gemma has stated it.

Attica Correctional Facility (Wikipedia)
In the US, jails are where people are taken when they are arrested, and it may be where they stay for a very light sentence. The jail will be run by the county or municipality.  If, after sentencing, the person is to be incarcerated for any significant amount of time, they will be sent to prison.

An American prison is not necessarily federal,  there are state prisons as well. Which one you go to depends on whether you committed a federal offen{c/s}e or broke a state law. (This is complicated by the fact that many crimes are both. So, probably the more relevant issue is whether you were tried in a federal court or not.)  Personal note: I'm originally from the town whose name is synonymous with 'deadly prison riot', Attica. My grandmother (long before the rioting) had been the warden's secretary.

In the UK, as Gemma noted, people tend to use the two words interchangeably, though the actual places today are called prisons, since they are part of Her Majesty's Prison System. The things I know of that are called gaols are no longer in use. If you're arrested, you'll be held in police custody--in a cell at the police station or a central remand centre, run by the police, not the prison service.

As for the spelling: the two spellings go way back. Gaol came into Middle English from Old Northern French gaiole (or gayolle or gaole) and jail came into Middle English from Old French jaiole (or jaole or jeole). They're ultimately related and they're (now) pronounced the same, but English was lucky(?) enough to get both. The OED says the Old Northern French version
remains as a written form in the archaic spelling gaol (chiefly due to statutory and official tradition); but this is obsolete in the spoken language, where the surviving word is jail, repr. Old Parisian French and Middle English jaiole, jaile. Hence though both forms gaol, jail, are still written, only the latter is spoken. In U.S. jail is the official spelling.  
Looking on the GloWBE corpus, it seems Australia is very fond of the gaol spelling, even using it as a verb in significant numbers (though still only about 10% of the rate of jail as a verb).

Of course, there are lots of other terms. On the formal side, we have penitentiary and correctional facility. Penitentiary comes from ecclesiastical practice, but these days it means a non-religious prison, and the OED marks it as 'originally and chiefly North American'. American facilities are more likely to have words like these in their names because the names can vary by state. In the UK, the official names are all "HM Prison [place name]", e.g. HM Prison Manchester, or HMP Manchester. (That's a gratuitous, if indirect, Smiths reference.)

Much slang regarding prisons is going to be different in the two countries. Given that I'm working from dictionaries, these are going to be rather dated, but...

American-origin slang for jails/prisons includes: the pokey, the big house, the cooler, and others.

In the UK you're in the nick, choky (from Indian English), quod, the glasshouse and others. Or you might be at her Majesty's pleasure or doing porridge. 

I'm just going to go ahead and assume that you can google those if you want more information about them.
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)