Showing posts with label verbs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label verbs. Show all posts

Untranslatables Month 2015: the summary

One thing that was particularly rewarding about Untranslatable October this year was that fans started discussing my tweeted offerings in the comments of the blog post that introduced the month.  They've made it clear that at least one of the 'untranslatables' is fairly translatable. Here they are, in the order they were posted on Twitter, with some commentary:

1. BrE marmite: something that people either love or hate, as in ‘Big Brother is television marmite’. After a famous yeast extract spread.

2. AmE redeye: a long-distance overnight airline flight, as in 'I flew to NY on the redeye'. Not all UK dictionaries still mark this as 'North American'. (There's a bit more discussion at the earlier post, where commenters question whether this only applies where there is choice of other times for the flight.)

3. BrE blag: to obtain by trickery/guile, as in 'He blagged a 1st-class ticket'. AmE score is similar, but seems less underhanded. Suggested by @laurelspeth.

4. AmE your mileage may vary: = 'you may have a different experience/opinion'. The abbreviated form YMMV is now known more widely on the internet, but I don't hear it offline and have had to explain it in UK. It comes from the way in which American car manufacturers had to qualify their miles-per-gallon claims in advertisements.

5. BrE plonk: inexpensive (but generally drinkable) wine (i.e. not rotgut). For example, 'you order the pizza and I'll bring the plonk'. Suggested by @AuditorsEditor.

6. AmE to bus (a table): to clear dirty dishes (etc.) from a table at a restaurant. For example, 'please bus your own table'. Also busboy, busgirl: person employed to clear tables at a restaurant/cafe. This is different from 'clear the table' because it can't be used of a table at home. Suggested by @tjathurman

7. BrE horses for courses: means something like 'everyone has different skills, so choose right one for job'.

8. AmE columbusing: explained here. This one may have been premature, since it's a pretty new term, but it is used in circles I belong to.

9. BrE to faff: 'to act unproductively, with elements of dithering and procrastinating'. I find dictionary definitions of this wholly inadequate, and the indecisive element makes it for me rather different from fart around. But there's further discussion at the comments here.

10. AmE leaf-peeping: tourism for the purpose of looking at autumn foliage, done by leaf-peepers.  Suggested by @mwnciod.

11. BrE assessment: collective term (but also sometimes a count noun) for any and all work that contributes to the final mark for a course. That is, exams and/or coursework, considered together.

12. AmE to put in face time: I defined it as 'to make an appearance at social/family event for *just* long enough to meet obligation', but others say they use it for business/networking. The face time is the same, but in my experience the verbs are different--I want to get some face time with people I network with, but I have to put in some face time at a grandnephew's christening. Suggested by @Word_chucker.

13. AmE squirrelly: having a kind of nervous dementedness, hence untrustworthy (pronounced 'skwirly'). Suggested by @tonythorne007.

14. BrE throw a wobbly: This is a bit of a cheat, as it's originally Australian--but it is used liberally in the UK. Means something like 'to lose self-control (in anger or panic)'. I suggested freak out as a close AmE relative, but commenter @niblick_iii felt that 'throwing a wobbly has more connotations of being unnecessary or unreasonable than freaking out' (I'd agree). Also suggested by @tonythorne007.

15. AmE weekend warrior: someone who does an activity (especially a strenuous one) only on the weekend (originally used in relation to weekend military training). Suggested by Simon C.
16. BrE sticky wicket: Simon C (suggester) defines it: ‘tricky situation we can get out of if we really concentrate’. Closest AmE is probably in a pickle, but doesn't have that 'we can get out of it' connotation.

17.  AmE -grader: e.g. '5th grader'. For child of certain school year. In the BrE English and Welsh school system of the moment, there's no word that is different from the word for the year: e.g. the year 5s are going on a field trip. But perhaps not-so-different is -former, still heard in sixth-former, but previously heard with a broader range of 'forms'. See this old post for more on how school years work in the two countries. Suggested by @libraryjamie.

18. AmE klatch or klatsch, particularly coffee klat(s)ch: from German kaffeeklatsch: a group that meets informally for coffee and cake in someone's home. There is a long discussion of whether this is equivalent to BrE coffee morning in the comments at the previously mentioned post. The upshot is: it probably was equivalent in certain settings at one point, but these days coffee morning has a strong whiff of 'charity fundraiser' and may apply to larger events outside the home.  Suggested by @SamAreRandom.

19. BrE boffin: essentially egghead with positive connotations. (See this for more discussion.) Suggested by @n0aaa For copious use of it, see the Mitchell and Webb 'Big Talk' sketches.

20. AmE kibitz: (from Yiddish) 'to give unwanted advice (especially to players of a card game)

21. BrE santa’s grotto: a place where kids visit someone dressed as Santa (usually receiving a small gift). Of course, Americans have Santas in shopping malls, and such, but there you 'go see Santa', there's not a universal name for the nook where Santa sits. As a Twitter commenter noted, Americans (of a certain age) are more likely to associate grotto with Hugh Hefner.

22. BrE gubbins: Its individual senses may be translatable, but taken as a whole, it has so many that no one word will do. Here's Merriam-Webster's Unabridged entry for it:

And that is it! The fifth Untranslatable month finished. I'm collecting as if there will be a sixth, but we'll see...
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known them (to) and help them (to)

Yesterday, The Syntactician was asking me questions about semantic terminology in relation to particular uses of the verb know, as one does. And so, as one does, I looked for know in the indices of various books about verbs that I have, hoping to find a term that would suit her particular purposes. In doing so, I came across something that was completely new to me in F. R. Palmer's A linguistic study of the English verb (1965):

In case you can't read the photo, it says that you can 'help someone do something' or you can 'help someone to do something'.  So far, so familiar to me.

But then it goes on to say that know has the same pattern with  
(1)  Have you ever known them come on time?
(2)  Have you ever known them to come on time?

Now, if I have ever seen sentences of type (1) in the wild, I must have assumed them to have typos, because if I want to know someone/thing + verb, I must have the the to-infinitive form of the verb. Yes to (2), no to (1). Absolutely, no question.

So, I turned to the (English) Syntactician, who said that yes, (1) is good in her BrE, "but old-fashioned". I then went onto Twitter to proclaim my ignorance/learning/disbelief, and many English people (many of whom are probably not terribly old-fashioned) replied to say "Yes, that's fine. I can say that."  No US people replied to say they could say it, and now that I look in Algeo's British or American English?, I see that he records this as a British form.

Palmer hasn't mentioned the big restriction on this, however. Algeo does, but I learned the restriction  the hard way: by tweeting "Can you really know someone do something?" The answer there is 'no'--British English speakers can only use the to-less version in the perfect aspect (the 'have/had verbed' forms). So:
  • General (BrE or AmE) perfect: I have known them to frequent dark alleys.
  • BrE-only perfect:   I have known them frequent dark alleys.
  • General English present:  I know them to frequent dark alleys.
  • Nobody's English present:  *I know them frequent dark alleys.
(Overly academic side point. Skip this unless can name at least two theories of grammar!
I'm wondering how you get a [say, Chomskyan] theory of grammar to account for a complementation structure that is particular to a certain aspect of a certain verb. Maybe all theories are now so lexical that it's  possible--though you'd have to treat known and know as different lexical items, I guess. Would be easier to account for in a Construction Grammar, but still seems like a very heavy--or at least fiddly--cognitive load for a language to bear. If you know about such things, let me know in the comments, please!)

I should also say a bit about that help (to). As I said above, both of these are fine in AmE and BrE:

(3)   I helped them escape.

(4)  I helped them to escape.
 ...but what's interesting for us is that AmE prefers (3) [in 75% of the cases in the Brown corpus] and BrE prefers (4) [73% of the cases in the LOB corpus] (both figures from Algeo, p. 228).

And that, my friends, is how you write a blog post of less than 1000 words. When was the last time you had known me do that?  :)
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it's rude to...

One of the fun things that you can do with the GloWBE (Global Web-Based English) corpus is ask it to compare collocations (words that regularly go together) across varieties of English. The software does a statistical evaluation so that you can see which collocations are most typical of a particular variety of English in comparison to another. So for instance, if you ask it about words that come before tea in the British and American parts of the corpus, you learn that the top-three most American (and least British) collocates are GOP ('Grand Old Party', i.e. the Republican party), Republicans, and conservatives (because of the Tea Party movement), and the three most British/least American are cream, cuppa and vintage.
All that explanation is just prelude to the difference I want to point out.

I'd seen Susan Waters' paper in Journal of Pragmatics "It's rude to VP [verb phrase]: the cultural semantics of rudeness", in which she looked at which verbs follow rude in Australian English (gathered via Google searches). You'd have to collect data that way to get enough for any real study of what's considered rude in a culture, as there aren't enough examples in existing corpora to make solid conclusions about such things. Nevertheless, I read Waters' paper and immediately went to GloWBE to see what's rude in the UK and US.

I asked GloWBE to compare which words come immediately after rude to in  British and American web-based writing. While I'm really interested in the verbs, I couldn't just search for verbs after rude to because the software said there was too little data. So, here are the words that come after rude to in AmE (left) and BrE (right).

In the columns, TOKENS 1 = the number found in American websites, TOKENS 2 in British. PM stands for 'per million', so the first row of the left table says that there are .06 examples of rude to him per million words in the American data, but .03 per million in the British.  Green ones disproportionately belong to that dialect, and red (or pink) are found less than would be statistically expected. White are found frequently but not statistically differently in both dialects.

We can debate whether there's anything worth saying about the hims and hers--it might just be an accident of the corpus. The words her and him are not found at particularly different rates in the two corpora, so it's not that British people talk about women more than Americans do. The you is  interesting, because it's usually used sympathetically and/or in giving people (possibly uninvited) advice (e.g. If he IS a jerk and rude to you and everyone around you, get out of there). A more American thing to do? Very possibly.

But what I'm really interested in are the two verbs in these tables. According to this data set, the most British-and-not-American rude thing to do is to ask something and the most American-and-not-British rude thing to do is to say something. This goes along with some stereotypes (and even serious analyses) of British and American differences in what is considered 'polite', and so I found it interesting.

In British culture, much more information is considered 'private' and 'personal' than in American, so you don't ask people about themselves or tell them about yourself at anything like the rate that Americans would. (Recall this earlier post about giving or asking for names.) Here are some examples from the GloWBE data:

He'd never talk about his work and it felt rude to ask.
is it just plain rude to ask if a child is disabled?
I wouldn't say it was rude to ask why someone is a vegetarian
Is it rude to ask Koreans if they're from North or South Korea?

Of the 21 British rude to ask examples, at most three or four are asking for things or favo(u)rs (e.g. rude to ask to borrow a tool). The others are about asking for personal information. The American rude to ask examples (11 unique examples--plus one duplicate) are also mostly about information (two favo(u)rs). In a couple of the American information-asking cases, it's not rude to ask something, but it's rude to ask it in front of an audience (rude to ask personal questions in public).

Meanwhile, in the typically-American rude to say examples, we have:

it would be rude to say " white people,

I think it was really rude to say that people who liked it have low standards

If you have something rude to say about it keep it to yourself

it's rude to say non-curvy women look like little men.
...which gives the impression that Americans feel that people should rein in their opinion-giving or their pigeonholing of people in order to not make anyone feel different or bad. There were 25 American and 15 British rude to says with two of the British ones being rude to say no and another one being rude to say you don't want something. The American data didn't have any such 'rude to refuse' examples.

So that amused me. How about you? It would be rude not to comment on this blog post.
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change / shift gears

@arnoldgoldman has just suggested shift gears versus change gears for today's Twitter Difference of the Day. I've noticed this one before without being able to put my finger on which one belonged to which dialect. It turns out there's good reason for my confusion--you hear both in both dialects. So what's the story? Is one 'an Americanism'?

Looking in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, I found more of both in American and more of shift in both dialects. 

change shift
American 98 153
British 42 53

Using a web-based corpus is possibly a bit funny for this, since authorship isn't known and they might be writing for an international audience (among other reasons). So, what happens when we look at books published in US and UK? I checked out Google Books--which also has a lot of problems in classifying data, but we hope that the sheer amount of well-classified data limits the effect of the poorly classified examples. (E.g. I once found that because a publisher put its founding date in the 18th century on its title pages, Google books thought that its books were written in the 18th century. Including the ones about television.)

The books data seems to explain things better. (NB: Firefox doesn't seem to be able to handle the dates on the bottom line, but other browsers can. But if you're on Firefox, scrolling over the chart should show dates. Or maybe this is just my Firefox.).

Here's the American:

And here's the British:

What we have here is that both shift and change are earlier in American than British (though the first  change gears are pretty close to one another--so that's just a matter of new technology needing new expressions). Then shift was introduced in the US in the 1910s, and fairly steadily rose until it overtook change in the early 1960s. The Americanness of the introduction is confirmed in the OED where all examples for its first several decades are American--though the OED does not label it as an AmE (or 'orig. U.S.') usage. When shift got to be used more than change in AmE, it started to be really noticed in BrE and now we have a situation where both dialects tend to use the newer verb shift, but haven't forgotten the older one--though change is still more common in BrE than AmE.

Now back to marking!

Postscript 3 March: I promised ages ago in the comments that I'd address the number of gear(s)--something that the original post should have done! So here are the numbers from the Global Web-Based English corpus.

For AmE, gears is definitely the winner, no matter the verb.
US gear gears
shift 1 98
change 3 24

But in British English, the older change goes with singular gear more, and the more American shift goes with the more American plural gears.
UK gear gears
shift 5 24
change 59 19
Incidentally, there are both automotive and figurative uses in both singular and plural in BrE.
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The fourth 'Untranslatables' month summary

This was the fourth year that I declared October Untranslatables Month on my Twitter feed. (Here's 2011 , 2012, and 2013.) Instead of offering a 'Difference of the Day', I offered an 'Untranslatable of the Day' every weekday.  Last year, I swore that I wasn't going to do it again. In part I doubted that I could find another month's worth, but also in part, I was tired out from people arguing with me online about elements of the project. You can probably guess their complaints from the defensive bullet points that appear below. 

About my Untranslatables:
  • I'm only talking about the relationship between British and American English here (as is my theme). These expressions may well have equivalents in other languages or dialects.  
  • By Untranslatable I mean that there is no lexicali{z/s}ed equivalent in the other dialect. And by lexicali{z/s}ed I mean that the expression is a word or an idiom--something that language users learn through hearing others say it, rather than something that has been made up anew.
    One can translate things by making up new sentences or phrases that describe the same thing, sure. But it's special when a language has lexicali{z/s}ed an  expression for something--it tells us something about the culture that invented and uses that expression.
  • Many of these have started to be borrowed between the dialects--and that's natural. If it's a useful expression and the other dialect doesn't have it, it's a prime candidate for international migration.
  • If you have not heard of the word before (even though I've said it comes from your country), this is not cause for complaint. It is cause for celebration that you have this opportunity to enrich your vocabulary! 
That all said, I wasn't given much of a hard time this year. And I certainly was not subject to abusive rants, as happened for a while last year. (Phew.)

My rules for choosing the untranslatables are:
  • They can't repeat items from the previous Untranslatables Months.
  • It should be the expression that's missing from the other country, rather than the thing. So, for instance Page 3 Girl was suggested, but there is no American newspaper that puts topless young women on page three every day (thank goodness). There's no word for it in the US only because there's nothing for it to refer to in the US, so it doesn't belong in this particular list.
  • I try to alternate American and British expressions (but that doesn't always work out).

With the words below, I've given the content of the Untranslatable of the Day tweet, expanded and re-formatted from the necessary abbreviations of 140 characters. If I've discussed the expressions before on this blog, I provide links to those posts. I also include here the links I provided with the tweets and I try to give credit to those who suggested them as untranslatables. Here we go.

  • BrE snug: a small, comfy room in a pub. Occasionally  extended to other comfy personal (orig. ScotE) hidey-holes. Here's a Wikipedia description. [I learned this during the year while reading an article that I now can't find. I had to look the word up, and then spent the rest of the year waiting for untranslatables month to come round again.]
  • AmE to jaywalk: to cross the street/road against the light or where there's no crossing. Thanks to @SimonKoppel for the suggestion. As I noted in a later tweet, this word is known by many in the UK, but generally only used to refer to people doing it in the US. Some British twitterers objected that this couldn't count because the thing doesn't exist in the UK. They were under the impression that one cannot jaywalk in the UK because it's not illegal to cross in the middle of the (orig. AmE) block here.  But notice that there's nothing about legality in the definition I've given. I grew up in a place where (I was told, I've never actually checked) jaywalking wasn't illegal. But we still called it jaywalking. (Remember: laws--including many traffic laws--vary by state in the US.)
  • BrE Billy No-Mates: a friendless person. Here's a history of the phrase. (Can't find who suggested it, but thanks!) Several people sent variations on this like Johnny No-mates, Norma No-Mates and Norman No-Mates, but Billy seems to be the original (and the one I hear most--the others may be a bit more spread around the anglophone world).
  • AmE backwash: saliva/mouth contents that go back into a bottle that's been swigged from. (Urban Dictionary's take on it.) Several Brits told me they knew this from childhood, but it's still not (in my experience) widespread in the UK. Of course, the word-form is used in both dialects for other kinds of washing-back in rivers and plumbing.
  • BrE garden(ing) leave: Explained in this old post.  Thanks again to @SimonKoppel.
  • BrE to plump for: to choose suddenly after much dithering. Thanks for the suggestion to @rwmg.
  • AmE will call: [of tickets] to be collected at the box office. Wikipedia says COBO ('care of box office') is the BrE equivalent, but it's not in general use. In a US theat{er/re} you might have to go to the will-call desk/counter/box office to get the tickets. COBO isn't used like that. Yet another one suggested by @SimonKoppel. I might have to put him in charge of Untranslatables month next October.
  • BrE to decant: to transfer people temporarily to another location. See sense 1.1 in Oxford Dictionaries Online. Thanks to Diane Benjamin for this suggestion.
  • AmE to stop on a dime: to come to a halt quickly and neatly in exactly the right spot. Many complained that this has a BrE equivalent in stop on a sixpence. Fair enough. Though I will note that turn on a sixpence seems to be more common than stop on...
  • BrE three-line whip: Party instruction to Members of Parliament that they must vote with the party on some matter. (Here's more explanation from a Stack Exchange.) There is a question here whether it should count: is there an equivalent three-level structure of whips in the US? Well, there could be, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Thanks to @JanetNorCal for the suggestion.
  • AmE loaded for bear: well prepared (and probably eager) for a forthcoming confrontation. Thanks to @sethadelman for the suggestion.
  • BrE gazunder: [for a buyer] to reduce an agreed-upon price for a house/property just prior to signing contract.  Here's Word Spy on it.  
  • BrE gazump. To obtain a property by offering more for it than an already-accepted offer. Here's Oxford Dictionaries Online on it.
  • AmE layaway (= AusE lay-by). Instal(l)ment purchasing, where the item's not received until it's paid off. There was some discussion about whether this should count because it's unclear that the equivalent exists in the UK. British hire-purchase is the equivalent of AmE rent-to-own or rental-purchase, in which case you take the thing home and make payments on it. I allowed it because I think one could argue that certain Christmas schemes in the UK (like this one) are kind of like layaway. Thanks to @smylers2 for the suggestion.
  • BrE U and non-U: (Non)-upper class, with particular reference to words that "should" or "shouldn't" be used. Here's the Wikipedia article on it. And here are places where the distinction has been mentioned on this blog.
  • AmE charley horse. A cramp in the leg. Here is Merriam-Webster's definition. Thanks to @meringutan for the suggestion. There were some suggestions for British-dialectal equivalents of this. Hard to tell if they're really equivalent. You can discuss amongst yourselves in the comments.
  • BrE WAGs: wives and/or girlfriends of (BrE) footballers as a type of celebrity. Discussed on this blog here. Thanks to @meringutan.
  • AmE snow day: a day when schools and businesses are closed due to snow. (Longman definition). Sometimes heard in UK now, but no local lexical equivalent. Thanks for the suggestion, @laurelspeth.
  • BrE chav. This is a word for a stereotyped type of person. Here's Wikipedia's take on it. Suggested by @kearsycormier (thanks!). This one I was most uneasy about including, because I think it is the case of it being more the referent (in this case people rather than things) rather than the word that the US lacks. It's all about the UK social class system, which operates in different ways, with different emblems, than the US class system.  Many years ago I wrote about an attempt to import chav to the US. It hasn't worked.
  • AmE family-style: adjective or adverb describing the serving of food at restaurant in dishes that are to be passed (a)round and taken from, like at home. (Oxford's definition)
  • BrE scrumping: stealing apples from an orchard. Thanks to @beardynoise for the suggestion.
  • AmE palimony: (humorous) alimony-style payments made after the break-up of a non-marital relationship. 
  • BrE dodgy: with its many shades of meaning, it's hard to think of an exact equivalent: Here's Oxford Dictionaries Online on it. Once one learns this word, it soon becomes a necessary part of one's vocabulary, so it's not surprising that there are US sightings of it. Thanks to  @tonythorne007 for the suggestion.
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hire and rent

I promised @matthewddsg weeks ago that this would be the next blog entry. Then I did another one instead and had to write other things for other places. So here it is, not quite a month since I promised it. For me, that's pretty good!

The upshot: in BrE one hires things (and sometimes places), employs people, and rents places; in AmE one hires people and rents things or places. That said, one hears hire for people in BrE too, but just not as much as one does in AmE. And employ is not particularly non-American, it's just overwhelmed by hire there. Both have let for what the landlord might do and lease for certain things (e.g. long-term non-ownership of cars, I think). It'll probably be easiest if I go through these verbs one at a time.

Rent can refer to the act of letting something to someone (I rented some land to him) or to the act of paying someone to use their something (I rented some land from him). This is old news--since the Middle Ages when it came into English from French. The OED notes one sense that is 'chiefly North American' which means 'To be hired out for or let at a certain rate', as in (their example):
1992   Albuquerque (New Mexico) Monthly Oct. 37/2 (captionThe tux, suitable for any performance in Albuquerque's doubtful performing arts center, rents for $55 and sells for $425.
But why does AmE use rent for things besides (now particularly AmE) real estate and BrE doesn't so much? The first examples the OED has of non-real-estate rented things are American: a guide in 1817, boats in 1895 and pianos in 1903. Comparing rent a boat with hire a boat in American English via Google Ngrams, one can see how recent this change is:

So, use of rent for non-real-estate seems to be an American innovation, possibly motivated by more limited use of hire and/or by the advent of so-called rent-a-car companies in the 1920s. 

I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for nouns that came one or two words after rent a. The top 10 are: car, room, house, movie, boat, bike, video, place, canoe, kayak. Further down the list we get tuxedo, horse, harp and grandchild. Compare this to the British National Corpus, where the top 5 (because it is a smaller corpus) are: room, house, place, car, villa. (And half of the six rent a car examples are in the names of American companies.)

Americans can even rent time, for example (from the San Francisco Chronicle, via COCA):
He pays $10 an hour to rent studio time and pays to rent equipment when he goes on remote
While one can find British examples of rent studio time, the more common phrase would be to book studio time, using the much-more-BrE-than-AmE sense of book to mean 'reserve'. Book in this sense often gets extended beyond the action of reserving the room/time so as to include the using of the thing that was reserved.

A particularly British use of rent is noted by the OED (my emphasis):
In various extended and humorous (typically derogatory) uses, suggesting the temporary acquisition or instant availability of the person or thing specified, usually for an expedient or mercenary purpose; spec. (chiefly Brit.) denoting a faction of regular, esp. violent, participants in public protests, in rent-a-crowd, rent-a-mob, etc. See also rent-a-cop n., rent-a-quote adj. and n.
But note that it's only rent-a-mob/crowd that is British. Rent-a-cop is label(l)ed as 'N. Amer. depreciative', and all of these humorous extensions have the American rent-a-car (BrE car hire) to thank for their existence.

Hiring people and hiring things both go back to at least the 13th century. So this is not a case of either nation making up new meanings, but of the 'thing' meaning dying out in AmE and gaining prevalence in BrE.

I searched the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) for nouns that occurred one or two words after hire a*. The * there allows it to be 'a' or 'an' (or 'any' or 'all' or anything else that starts with a-; other words are less likely to be frequent and therefore influence the outcome--but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened; see below). This is my way of looking for direct objects of hire. The software on the website calculates which words co-occur (or collocate, to use the jargon) with the search string in higher-than expected rates for each dialect. Here are the strongest collocates:


This is not to say that it's not real British English to 'hire a person', just that such uses don't stand out in the data. Hire in BrE is not a magnet for the word person like it is in AmE.

To give a broader sense of the kinds of things one can hire in BrE, the top 10 nouns after hire a in the (20ish-year-old) British National Corpus are: car, video, house, boat, bike, minibus, van, room, plane, helicopter.  There's a distinction to be made here between hiring a room and renting a room. One hires a room for an event; one rents a room to live in.

In the case of fire in the BrE list, it seems to be that the verb fire has been mislabel(l)ed as a noun by the software that automatically tags words for part of speech. In this case, it represents the phrase hire and fire. So, that one is about doing something to people, but it seems to be part of a nearly-set phrase (it's used much more in the BrE part of the corpus than the AmE part).

Because hire is used so much, employ (orig. AmE) loses out in AmE. Searching GloBWE for employ a *man (which would capture employ a woman/a man/a postman, etc. but conveniently leaves out employ a metaphor or anything like that), I found 16 BrE examples and 0 AmE ones.

I've already covered this one briefly. Both AmE and BrE have this word with the meaning 'to rent out', but BrE has developed an intransitive sense that means 'to be let'. Thus one sees UK properties advertised as 'to let' where US ones would be 'for rent'. Click on the link to see what happens to 'to let' signs (if you can't imagine it).

To lease is the same in AmE & BrE. But I can't leave this post without mentioning that the British may get a new lease of life, while Americans get a new lease on life. Not a verb there, but if I hadn't mentioned it, someone would have asked for it in the comments, I'm sure.

Wrote this late at night, so glad to see a lot of good info on the fine points of employ/hire in the comments!
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shone, shined, and a digression re dictionaries

This post is getting so out-of-hand long that I'm going to put in section headings. You can take the academic to the blog, but you can't make her brief.

pronouncing shone

I had an interesting Difference of the Day (what I do on Twitter) request, regarding the pronunciation of shone, the past tense and past participle of shine. To cut to the chase: the standard pronunciation of shone in AmE rhymes with bone and the usual pronunciation in BrE  rhymes with on. (We have to keep in mind here that British pronunciations of the on vowel are different from American ones. It's not a vowel sound that American English has; I've discussed it before here.) 

Tracing the history of pronunciations is difficult, but one of the ways it's done is to look at rhymes in poetry. So if you're lucky enough to find a shone at the end of a line, you might learn something. What it looks like to me is that the pronunciation of the word has only gradually come to be uniform (if indeed it is) in the two countries. 

For instance, Englishman William Cowper way back in the 18th century was rhyming shone with alone:
No voice divine the storm allayed, No light propitious shone; When, snatched from all effectual aid, We perished, each alone: - See more at:
No voice divine the storm allayed,
    No light propitious shone;
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
    We perished: each alone:
In an appendix to his dictionary of 1780, Sheridan gives a list of "rules to be observed by the Natives of Ireland in order to attain a just Pronunciation of English", which includes pronouncing shone as 'shon' rather than 'shoon'.  (His preface on the general decline in the pronunciation of English since the court of Queen Anne is rather precious.) 

So around the same time we have English Cowper saying shoan, Irishman-in-England elocutionist Sheridan saying shon and the rest of the Irish, as Sheridan would have it, saying shoon. It's in those kinds of instances that I'm not too surprised to find that American and British pronunciation have standardi{s/z}ed in different directions.

shined v shone

What about shined? The 'authorities' will tell you that the past form of the intransitive verb is shone (The sun shone bright) but the transitive verb is shined (She shined her shoes). But there's plenty of evidence that people have been saying both shined and shone for the intransitive for a long time-- in the simple past tense (It shone/shined bright) more than the participle (It has shone/shined bright). Motivated Grammar has a nice blog post on this, so I won't repeat all the history.  What I will say is that America has moved toward shined more decisively than the UK has. I searched for shined bright and shone bright in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), and found that BrE preferred shone 20:1, whereas AmE had almost as many shineds (4) as shones (5). 

and a digression on dictionaries

Back to the tweets that started this all:
No voice divine the storm allayed, No light propitious shone; When, snatched from all effectual aid, We perished, each alone: - See more at:

I was interested in the implication that dictionaries are not covering the pronunciations very well. So, I (BrE) had/(AmE) took a look.

In the 'covers only their own nation's pronunciation' camp, we have:
UK: The Oxford English Dictionary ("Pa. tense and pple. shone /ʃɒn/") and  Chambers.
US:  American Heritage and New Oxford American Dictionary

In the 'provides no pronunciation guide for the past tense' category, we have:
UK: Oxford Dictionary of English.
US: n/a (but see below)

It's a bit weird for a UK dictionary not to list the pronunciation, since the UK pronunciation does not follow English spelling conventions; that is, the silent E (my daughter's learning to call it 'bossy E' at school) after a single consonant should signal that the preceding vowel is 'long'. Such irregular pronunciations are the kind of thing that people need explicit information about. Shone here is like another -one verb form gone, which rhymes with 'on' in both AmE and BrE. But we can't really call that a regular pattern: they come from very different base verbs (go, shine), and while shone is a simple past tense form, gone is only a participle (which is to say; The sun shone but it didn't gone). [And then there's done, which has another vowel sound altogether.] The only other '-one' word I can think of with an 'on' pronunciation is scone, and that's only for about 2/3 of British speakers. An aberrant spelling-pronunciation association like that should really be mentioned in a dictionary. 

And in the 'helpfully provides both and tells you the difference' category, we have:
UK: Collins
US: Merriam-Webster and Random House (both the hard copy of RH Webster's College Dictionary and the version you can see at

Contrary to my list above, @fanf in his tweet claims Webster makes no mention of it, and he's half right (assuming he was looking at Merriam-Webster; keep in mind that the Webster name is not a trademark, so anyone can use it).  M-W provides no pronunciation guidance on their page for shone, except to provide a list of rhyming words that starts with blown. But on their page for shine they give "\ˈshōn, especially Canada & British ˈshän\. The clickable audio file just gives the American pronunciation.

A central problem for lexicographers (dictionary writers) has always been: what to put in and what to leave out. The number of things one can say about a word has no real limits, and when one starts to take into consideration variant pronunciations, it could get ridiculous. This is less a problem in the electronic age than it was when one needed to keep dictionaries affordable (and liftable) in the printed form. So, print dictionaries tend to have entries for shone that just point you to shine. They don't tend to give pronunciations at such cross-references and they don't tend to spell out the pronunciation of every tensed form of every verb. In the electronic age, the limits on dictionary contents are more limited by labo(u)r costs and time than by space (although formatting a lot of information on the web in a user-friendly way is another problem), and so what we mostly have online are entries that were written and formatted in the days of print-only. So, I humbly point out irregular verb forms as things that might be afforded greater lexicographic attention in electronic dictionaries.

Something I'd like you to notice above is the range of variation in the dictionaries published by Oxford University Press. You might find the same for other publishers if you look. But the point I want to make here is: there is no such thing as the Dictionary and there is no such thing as the Oxford Dictionary. Every title and most every edition has different information. (I had a little rant about this at The Catalyst Club in November, and I'll be ranting about it again soon in The Skeptic.) So, if you don't find the information you need in one dictionary, look in another. If you don't understand one, try another.

(But a little grumpiness about Oxford Dictionaries website: The 'on' pronunciation is the only one listed in on the page that's called "British and World Englishes" and the 'bone' pronunciation is the only one at "US English". As if US English is not an English of the world.)

Oxford (AmE baseball metaphor) steps up to the plate in their dictionary for learners. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, like other learner-orient(at)ed dictionaries (Cambridge, Longman) has good recordings of both pronunciations.  (Macmillan is an odd one. You can't get to the pronunciation through the dictionary entry, but by googling 'Macmillan pronunciation shone' it takes you to an American pronunciation page; no equivalent page for British.) So another moral of the dictionary story: if you want clear information about your language, sometimes it's good to seek out the dictionaries for second-language learners.

and a bit of shameless self-promotion

Yes, it's been a long time since I've blogged. I've now declared Tuesday evenings "Blog Evenings", but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll see a weekly post here since (a) I'll be blogging for some other sites, and (b) long things like this take me more than an evening. But I'm hoping I'll at least have more posts here in spring than I had in autumn (my deadly semester). 

But if you're interested in the kinds of things I do here, you may also be interested in some of the other ways that I'm doing those things.  

Upcoming talks (all welcome; follow links for more info):
In print:
This year I'm writing a series of short pieces on British idioms for Focus magazine (for expats in the UK). Follow the link for more info. (The one with teacups on the cover also has a little linguistic autobiography of me.)  I'll also be writing for The Skeptic (at least once, maybe twice) this year.

In the classroom:
Since GCSE/A-level students are typically too young for the pub-based talks I tend to do, I'm taking the material into English Language classrooms in southeastern England. (I'd be happy to take it further afield, but you'd have to pay for my travel!)  The first outing is to a sixth-form college in March, where we'll look (a bit!) at how American and British English got to be different, how they affect each other now, how this gets distorted in the media, as well as what it's like to do English Language/Linguistics (BrE) at university. So, teachers, let me know if this might interest you and your school/college (see email link in the right margin). Parents and students, let your teachers know. (And Americans, if you want translations for some of that educational jargon, see this old post.)
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The third 'Untranslatables' month summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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untangle and disentangle

So, there I was, enjoying a nice evening of nothing while on (AmE) vacation/(BrE) holiday, when Dave Summers of Ohio tweeted me to ask:
Heard "disentangle" the other day. Is that perhaps BrE for "untangle"?
To which I replied, "No, it's AmE too". But then I wondered whether the rates of their use were different and I found that they were. Voilà! A Difference of the Day for my Twitter feed (which has been very sporadically updated while I've been on holiday/vacation as it gets hard to tell where one day starts and another ends). So, I tweeted:
AmE and BrE have both 'disentangle' and 'untangle'. But disentangle:untangle ratio = 2:3 in AmE and 3:1 in BrE.  (Source = COCA and BNC at Mark Davies' Corpora site.)
And I was all ready to call it a night when Gordon Hemsley of Georgia tweeted to say:
I actually think those words mean different things to me. Disentangle implies more than one thing; untangle can be 1.
...and while I thought he was probably right, I also know that it's very often the case that the stories we tell ourselves about how the differences between synonyms are often very different from how we actually use them. So, here I am researching this little thing at 1 in the morning instead of any of the other two things I have to do before bed or the opportunity to sleep that I really should take before restarting the academic term. Sigh-di-sigh-sigh-sigh.

Dictionaries don't tell us of any dialectal differences between these words, nor do they really mark Gordon's division of labo(u)r for the two words. The dictionaries I've looked at give two meanings for disentangle (or if not two meanings, then examples of both of these meanings): (1) to free something from its entanglement with something else, (2) to bring out of a tangled state, unravel.

I've started my investigation by looking at cases where the word from occurs within five words after the base forms of the verbs (untangle, disentangle). If you're removing the tangle in one thing, you probably wouldn't have a from--we don't untangle a knot from itself, we just untangle a knot.  So the from examples can be assumed to involve removing a tangle of two things (the first sense of the word, above). An example from COCA:

He managed to disentangle himself from his kayak before it was pulled into the hole.

In both dialects, there is a strong preference for using disentangle with from. So, more than 1/3 of  disentangles are closely followed by a from, and far fewer untangles have a from after them.

disentangle ... from36% [76/210]37% [28/103]
untangle... from11% [35/319]15% [4/26]

So far AmE and BrE aren't looking very different. The next question is how they act when only one thing is involved, and a tangle is removed from it. To look at that, I've looked at all the forms of each verb (i.e. untangle, untangled, untangling, etc.) followed by a/an/the and then a singular noun.
per 100 million wordsCOCA (AmE)BNC (BrE)
disentangl* a(n)/the sg-N 820
untangl* a(n)/the sg-N2612

This is far from a thorough investigation of these two words, but what the numbers here seem to be saying is that AmE has a strong preference for untangle with singulars and that this isn't shared by BrE. This is to say that Gordon's hunch was right in terms of how these words work in AmE and that the BrE use that Dave heard probably struck him as strange because it wasn't obeying the untangle-goes-with-singulars preference. Note that these differences are about preferences and probabilities of the uses of two senses of the words, not about one word (or even one sense of a word) being 'British' or 'American'. But they're still differences.

You know, this was an awful lot like work! I've only got three more days off.* Enough of this!**

* Vacation/holiday is, of course, irrelevant, since the blog isn't part of the job that I'm taking a break from. As my hobby, the blog is, I suppose, what I should be doing on my holiday/vacation. You know, instead of getting sleep or spending time with my family. Priorities, eh?

** Except to tell you that the 'fight with' sense of tangle is originally AmE. Just because I can't stop telling you things.

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Nominate WotYs & Untranslatables Month II

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

WotY Nominations
Long-term readers will know that we have (at least) two Words of the Year here at SbaCL, and nominations are open for both categories as of now:

1. Best AmE-to-BrE import
2. Best BrE-to-AmE import
The word doesn’t have to have been imported into the other dialect in 2012, but it should have come into its own in some way in the (popular culture of the) other dialect this year. I retain the editor's privilege of giving other random awards on a whim.

Please nominate your favo(u)rites and give arguments for their WotY-worthiness in the comments to this post. It might be helpful to see my reasoning on why past words were WotY worthy and other nominations weren't. Click on the WotY tag in order to visit times gone by.

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

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

Don't forget to leave your WotY nominations in the comments!
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I've been doing 'Untranslatables October' on Twitter for the second time (made slightly easier this year by the fact that I've given up tweeting on weekends). I'll do a summary at the end of the month.

An American 'Untranslatable' was visit with, which had been suggested by Ros Clarke. I defined it as 'to pay a social call and chat with someone, esp. if you're having a good catch-up.'

Ros then asked "do you think that paying the social call is an important part of visit with?" No and yes, I would say. For instance, one could say

We visited with each other for a while after we met on the pathway.

But if there is a social call, it is the caller who is doing the visiting. At least, that's my intuition:

He came over and visited with me.      Sounds normal to me.
He came over and I visited with him.  Sounds weird to me.
I went over and he visited with me.     Sounds really weird to me. 

But one could also say:
He came over and we visited with each other.

It's always worth mentioning when things that Americans say are actually British in origin, and the 'pay a social call' sense of visit with is one of them. The OED marks it as Now U.S.  Interestingly, it's apparently not from the days before the British settled in the 'new world'. In other words, it's evidence that Americans didn't just start importing newfangled Britishisms (see my last post!) in the 21st century. The first example is from a letter in 1850, the second is from a major piece of British literature:
1871   ‘G. Eliot’ Middlemarch (1872) I. i. i. 8   The small group of gentry with whom he visited.

Besides visiting with there's also with-less intransitive visit, which is 100% American and just about chatting. In that sense, you and your friend could visit for hours, meaning that you talked with each other for a long time. If the subject of this 'chat' visit is just one of the chatting parties, then you can have a with in order to identify who you're talking with.

I searched for examples of visited with in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. There are 282 of them, though some are not this visited with, but things like the town he visited with his mother or visited with great interest. I looked at the first page of them (100). Most of the examples do involve someone coming to where someone else is and talking with them:
And the White House made a surprise stop for barbecue in Washington, but left the restaurant a surprise when lunch finished on Wednesday, an unpaid tab. President Obama visited with service members and local barbers...
There's only one example in the 282 with a reciprocal pronoun (each other; no cases of one another).

But there's one case where the visited-with person is the one who moved:
We're speaking with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe. We visited with him on his visit to the United States.
 ...though in this case, it may very well be that the radio people (we) visited the place where Tsvangirai was staying, and therefore were the 'movers'. They area also the 'movers' in that they are the ones who sought the interview. The sentence certainly gives me the image that the NPR reporter went to Tsvangirai's hotel or the Zimbabwean embassy or something, though it could be the case that they talked on the phone. In other words, when visit with is used non-reciprocally, I do get the image that the subject of the sentence acted in order to get the conversation started--either by moving to where the other person is or by setting up the meeting. Perhaps I've got that connotation more strongly than other Americans do.

Finally, a note on the noun visit. Most uses of the noun visit are general English (i.e. not UK- or US- or anywhere-specific). But one can shift the 'chat' verb visit into a noun, and get things like We had a nice visit over dinner/the phone/coffee. This is not something one would hear in the UK. Instead you might (informally) have a good natter (which Collins English Dictionary defines as 'prolonged idle chatter or gossip').
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)