Showing posts sorted by relevance for query street road. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query street road. Sort by date Show all posts

talking about streets, roads, etc.

A while ago, I wrote about a difference in AmE and BrE use of street and road, in that in BrE it's more natural to cross the road and in AmE (certainly in a town or city) it's more common to cross the street. (I've also written about in/on the street, so see that post for more on that.) That's common-noun usage, but what about the proper names of vehicular paths?

There's no question that some ways of designating paths are more common in one country or the other. I've never seen a road named [Something] Trail or [Something] Boulevard in the UK (though see the comments for some counterexamples), and in the US there aren't as many Crescents or (BrE) Closes (pronounced with a /s/, not a /z/). But a problem for making generali{z/s}ations about such things is that the naming of streets or roads varies a lot on the local level in both countries, with different names based on regional differences, urban/rural differences, and terrain differences.

The other day Damien Hall (tweeting as @EvrydayLg) pointed out:
Struck since long B4 I lived there by US habit of omitting eg St, Rd in addresses. We don't.
He hypothesi{z/s}ed that it might be because street is more common in the US and therefore the default. But I don't think that's why. Instead, Americans are happy to say things like
go up Main and take the first right onto Union
...because in most cases that will be an unambiguous statement, since there will typically only be one thoroughfare called Main (Street) and one called Union (maybe Avenue) in a town. I often send packages to a friend who lives in Tennessee. I've never bothered to find out if she lives on Woodland Street or Woodland Lane because I only need to put '140 Woodland' (and the city, state and, if I'm nice, the zip code) on the package and it gets there. As you can see from this (AmE) yard sale sign, the practice of not saying street or road is common. (Where there is more than one with the same name, you'll hear the street/road/lane/whatever more regularly.)

(Side note on codes: Five-digit US zip codes only say which town or which part of a city the address is in, unlike six-or-seven-letter/number UK post codes, which generally indicate the town/part-of-city in the first half (letter-letter+1- or 2-digit number) and which street or part-of-street in the second half (number-letter-letter). Nine-digit US zip codes, called ZIP+4, are a more recent addition* that do indicate street, but which I don't actually use. I couldn't tell you what mine is at the US address I use. 
*It says how old I am that I consider something from 1983 a 'recent addition'. )

'Street'-less street names are so unambiguous that most Americans would immediately recogni{z/s}e that the film title State and Main refers to a corner in a town--mostly likely in the cent{er/re} of the town, since those are common street names in American towns and because we refer to (AmE) intersections or the corners at those intersections in that way. 

(I'm sure I've mentioned before that Main Street is a likely street to have in a town as the main street. It is also metaphorically used to refer to 'the inhabitants of small US towns considered as having a narrow-minded or materialistic worldview' (AHD5). So, politicians might worry about 'what will fly on Main Street'. The High Street is the proverbial main street in a British town (it may or may not be named High Street) and is used metaphorically to refer to the commercial market--i.e. 'what will fly on the high street' is what the masses are likely to want to buy.)

British roads need the street or road (etc.) because little is unambiguous when it comes to British road names.

Take my former (more common in AmE) neighbo(u)rhood as an example:

There is a Buckingham Road, which meets Buckingham Place. Buckingham Street runs parallel to Buckingham Road, but doesn't meet Buckingham Place because halfway through it changes its name to Clifton Street. Off the map are Clifton Road, Clifton Hill, Clifton Street, Clifton Place and Clifton Terrace. But we don't need to leave this map to see that there's also a West Hill Street, West Hill Road and West Hill Place. I also feel bad for the people who live on the parallel Albert Road and Alfred Road who probably get each other's (AmE) mail/(BrE) post all the time.

Once I found an unconscious man on Buckingham Place.  Except I didn't know which Buckingham it was. The ambulance people were (BrE) well (orig. AmE) pissed off at me.

If that weren't bad enough, I now live on a road that shares its entire name with another road in the same city. When I tell taxis where to take me I have to say "X Street, off Y Road". We always tell plumbers and such which one to go to (we even give them our post code) and then when they don't show up, we text them to say "no, it's the other one".

A famous exception to the 'one pathway per name' rule in the US is New York City, which has both a 3rd Street and a 3rd Avenue. Except that it doesn't really have a '3rd Street', since you need to put East or West in front of it in order for the house number to be meaningful--so if someone says they live on East 5th, you know it's East 5th Street. In New York and the US more generally Avenue is often abbreviated in speech (as well as writing) to its first syllable (written as Ave. or Av.). 

And so onto the Easts and Wests. In the US, you can reasonably expect that East Main Street and West Main Street are the same thoroughfare, but that house numbering starts from the where they join (or divide, depending how you think of it). East Main Street will run to the east from that (AmE) intersection/(BrE) junction.

In some cities they put the compass-points after the name and that can mean something different. In Washington, DC, it indicates quadrant of the city that that part of the road is in. So, 7th Street NW and 7th Street SW are one long road that runs north/south, but the parts of it in different quadrants of the city. On the other side of the capitol building, the street numbering starts over, and so 7th Street SE and 7th Street NE run parallel to the other 7th Street NW/SW.

So, the other day, I had to find Brunswick Street East in Hove (UK). Somehow (¡Apple Maps!) I ended up on Brunswick Street West. I knew that Brunswick Street East would not be a continuation of West (after all, the road was running north-south), but I hoped it would be the next street eastward. It was not. At least it was eastward. (I hadn't been willing to trust even that.) But I did get to see Brunswick Place, Brunswick Square and Brunswick Terrace in my explorations.

Finding street names is its own challenge. In the US, street signs tend to be affixed to poles at the corners of roads. At some big intersections, they may hang over the road on the wires that hold the (AmE) stop lights/(BrE/AmE) traffic lights. In the UK, they tend to be on buildings or walls near the end of the road. This may require some searching since some are high and some are low. Here's one of my favo(u)rites from Brighton:

House-numbering, of course, is another nightmare. In the US, it's pretty predictable that even numbers will be on one side of the road and odd ones on the other. In the UK, it might be that way (though you've no guarantee that 92 will be across the street from 93--it might be many houses further down). Another UK way is to have consecutive numbering up one side of the road (1, 2, 3, 4,...) to wherever the road ends and then down the other side, so that, say, 52 and 53 may be across the road from one another, but 1 will be across the road from 104. Another way it might be is that the name of the road on one side is different from the name on the other side--so, for example, the people at 15 Vernon Terrace in Brighton live across from the people at 17 Montpelier Crescent. (And Vernon Terrace only lasts for one (AmE) block, after which its name changes and house numbers re-start twice before you get to the sea, which has pleasantly few thoroughfare names.)

I've talked about differences in house numbering on Numberphile, so (BrE) have a look at the video if you are (orig. AmE) nerdy enough want to hear more about house-numbering:

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crossing the street/road

My father and Brother Number 2 were giving Better Half walking directions to somewhere or other today, when they said that he'd have to cross the street. BH replied that if he were to do it, it'd be (BrE) crossing the road. Which led Dad and BN2 to expatiate on the AmE difference between streets and roads. They agreed that they could cross the street in town, but would cross the road in the country. In general, the term road is found much more often for street names in towns in the UK than it is in the US, where it tends to be reserved for either country roads or sometimes biggish thoroughfares in cities (e.g. Rochester, NY has a Winton Road within the city, but I don't think there are any streets named road within the village limits of my hometown). This led me to create a new joke:
-Why did the chicken cross the street? -Because she lived in town.

You're not going to tell me that jokes have to be funny, are you?


P.S. for more on this topic, see this more recent post: Talking about streets and roads

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in the middle of our street/block

When I don't know what I want to blog about, I stick a virtual pin into the email inbox and choose the first do-able request/suggestion that I find. This is supposed to be a fair method, though perhaps not as fair as 'first come, first served'. Truth be told, many of the oldest ones in the inbox are in the 'may not be doable' or 'may not be a real difference' category, so I have come to avoid them a bit. At any rate, my 'fair' method might not seem fair this time, since the suggestion I've clicked on is from the same requester as the last blog post.

So, thank you Ben Zimmer for putting another interesting and pop-culture-related suggestion in my inbox. Ben noted the use of in the middle of our street in the Madness song 'Our House', and asked: "Have you talked about this one? I don't think it's possible in AmE for a house to be in the middle of a street."

Yes, that's an interesting one.  But so is the rest of the song.  It's Saturday night--let's do the whole thing!

I should start by noting that this is the only Madness song that made it to the Top 20 singles chart in the US, whereas in the UK they were HUGE, having 20 singles in the Top 20 in the 1980s (more if you count re-issues). So, for British people of my generation, mention Madness and they're as likely (if not more likely) to wax nostalgic about 'Baggy Trousers' or 'House of Fun' as about 'Our House'. Still 'Our House' has had  a lot of attention in the UK. It won the 'Best Song'  in the Ivor Novello Awards, became part of the advertising campaign for Birdseye frozen foods (video) with frontman Suggs, and was the title of a Madness-based West End musical. Unlike some other pop/rock-band-based musicals, like Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You, the Madness musical did not transfer to Broadway or tour the US.

I loved 'Our House' as an American teenager, particularly for its wordplay, but I have to wonder how much I missed in my pre-UK days.  So, for the benefit of my teenage self, here's a stanza-by-stanza playback:

Father wears his Sunday best
Mother's tired she needs a rest
The kids are playing up downstairs
Sister's sighing in her sleep
Brother's got a date to keep
He can't hang around
In my day job, antonyms are my special(i)ty, so I am particularly fond of the juxtapositon of up/down here. However, I don't think that in my youth I understood that this wasn't just a little lyrical nonsense.  To play up is informal BrE for behaving irritatingly or erratically. One's lumbago can play up, the computer might play up, and certainly one's children can play up.  (Late addition: BZ has pointed out the AmE equivalent: act up.)
Our house, in the middle of our street
Our house, in the middle of our ...
The chorus, and the point of BZ's original query. To my young American ears, this sounded intentionally funny.  The house is in the middle of the street! Like where the manholes should be! No, no, no.  This is the BrE equivalent of in AmE in the middle of our block. This is a originally AmE use of block to mean 'the length of a street between cross-streets' or 'one side of a square of land with buildings, bounded by four streets'. This sense is not often found in BrE, though most BrE speakers I know are aware of it. Still, they find it odd when Americans apply it to British places since (a) there are rarely regular blocks in British towns ([BrE] Have/(AmE) take a look at this map of Camden Town, London [home of Madness], for instance) and (b) block has a more prominent residence-related BrE sense: 'a building separated into units', e.g. an office block or a block of flats. This sense of block is not marked as dialectal in the American Heritage Dictionary, but do Americans actually say it much? In AmE, I'd always say office building or apartment building.  (For another difference in UK/US use of street, see back here.)

But even if it weren't in the middle of the street, 'our house' would still be in our street, because in BrE addresses can be in the street or road. John Algeo, in British or American English?, writes:
For specifying the position of something relative to a street, British generally uses in and American on. When the street in question is noted as a shopping location, British uses on or in.
Algeo's corpus has equal numbers of in/on the High Street (i.e. the main shopping stree—akin to AmE Main Street, at least, before the Walmartification of American towns). A Google search of British books shows a clear preference for in in this case, however.  (Click here to see the ngram view.)
Our house it has a crowd
There's always something happening
And it's usually quite loud
Our mum she's so house-proud
Nothing ever slows her down
And a mess is not allowed
House-proud is the piece of BrE I remember learning through this song. The meaning is fairly transparent. To be house-proud is to take particular pride in the upkeep and decoration of one's house.  The expression reminds me of Kate Fox's discussion of the English relationship to their homes in her book Watching the English. A related newspaper piece by Fox can be found here—but I really recommend the book. Again.  (Click on the link for mum—I've discussed it on an earlier occasion.)
Father gets up late for work
Mother has to iron his shirt
Then she sends the kids to school
Sees them off with a small kiss
She's the one they're going to miss
In lots of ways

This verse has no glaringly specific BrEisms, but does allow us to note British male predilection for comedic cross-dressing, evident in the video above.

The last unrepeated verse has nothing particularly non-AmE about it either, but I include it here for completeness, and because I like how I can hear the words being delivered as I read them.
I remember way back then when everything was true and when
We would have such a very good time such a fine time
Such a happy time
And I remember how we'd play simply waste the day away
Then we'd say nothing would come between us two dreamers

The song ends with the chorussy bit repeated, with variations, including this one: 
Our house, was our castle and our keep
Our house, in the middle of our street
We can't say that castle and keep is non-AmE; if we needed to talk about castles and keeps, those are the words we'd use. But since we don't have medi(a)eval castles, many Americans might not know this sense of keep. Call me a philistine (you probably won't be the first), but I  didn't know it (despite hearing it in the song repeatedly) or other castle-part terms until I moved to England and started visiting castles. Here's a guide to castle parts for those who want to know.

And in case I haven't already thoroughly shown my age, I'll say this: I was so lucky to be a (orig. AmE) teenager and (AmE) college/(BrE) university student in the 1980s.* At least when I'm going senile and just want to sing songs from my prime, I'll be ok. Oh wait, I just had a Lionel Richie flashback. I'm doomed.

*Whether it was cool to like Madness in the 1980s is another matter, especially for my English generation-mates, such as Better Half. At the time, he tells me, one couldn't like both the ska-inspired London music that included Madness (though Madness were definitely ska-lite) and the New Romantics. But age works wonders on taste, and now we find ourselves nostalgic for music that we were too cool for then. But I am still embarrassed to have done so much dancing to Lionel Richie.
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pavement, sidewalk, and the stuff thereof

I'm essentially an idealistic and optimistic person, if one can judge by thoughts that go through my head like "Sure, I can work on the blog tonight and still meet all my other deadlines." But I have a very healthy morbid streak (as the hypochondriac child of a funeral home should have), as evidenced by the following train of thought, which stopped at several stations in my head this afternoon while I was pushing Grover in her (BrE) pushchair/(AmE) stroller across the (BrE) car park/(AmE) parking lot at the (AmE) train station/(BrE) railway station:
"Oh look, that car is (AmE) backing up (= BrE-preferred reversing).
"Maybe I ought to get on the (BrE) pavement. That way, if they hit me, it'll be the driver's fault and I'll have a moral victory.
"Hm, if you said to an American 'the pedestrian was on the pavement when she was killed', they'd probably think it was the pedestrian's fault.
"That'll disappoint my parents when the police come to tell them about my tragic demise. (Of course, Grover, being on wheels, will be pushed to safety. )"
Now, one point of interest (at least to me) is the fact that I seem to be thinking in a mix of dialects. That's probably not as clear in reality as it is when I type out the thought process. When I saw the car's movement, I probably thought "!!!" rather than "Oh look, that car is backing up." But the word pavement definitely made it through my head, since otherwise the subsequent thoughts wouldn't have come hot on its asphalt heels. But that's not the reason I've stopped to blog about it.

People frequently note that AmE sidewalk = BrE pavement, but it's rarer to see the AmE use of pavement explained in those ubiquitous lists of simple AmE/BrE lexical differences. In BrE, if you're on the pavement, then you're not on the road, but for Americans, this can be confusing because the road is paved, and therefore pavement. The OED gives the following:
2. a. The paved or metalled part of a road or other public thoroughfare; the roadway. Now chiefly N. Amer. and Engin.The main sense in N. America.
But the more common sense in BrE is:
b. A paved footpath alongside a street, road, etc., usually slightly raised above the level of the road surface. See also foot-pavement n.
I've seen one person on the web claiming that we use pavement in this way in the US--i.e. to distinguish the pedestrian path from the road. That's not my experience at all--so it may be that that it's regional--the writer doesn't indicate where she's from.

Incidentally, sidewalk (originally side walk or side-walk) is one of those things that was originally British English, but which faltered here while gaining favo(u)r in America. So, next time you see/hear a British person showing distaste for the word, you can ask them to thank their ancestors for it. Let's start with these charming folk:

Sir David Attenborough would never say 'sidewalk', he speaks English (properly). [poster PEB at the ITV football (=AmE soccer) forum]

i find myself using more and more American English, in an effort for smoother understanding, as i come into contact with so few Brits here. i say ’apartment’ and ’soccer’ and ’line’ instead of ’queue’ - which is all pretty bad - i commit to never say ’sidewalk’, though - and hope that if i ever did, even in jest, anyone who thought of themselves as a friend would have the common decency to punch me in the face. square in the face. repeatedly. [a gareth egg's myspace page; I don't consider him a friend, but I would consider punching him square in the face. Maybe not repeatedly, as that would ruin my pacifist cred.]

But all that wasn't the reason I've stopped to blog about my morbid thought train either. No, the reason I'm blogging about it is that I have a modicum of guilt about the fact that I've used so few of the good ideas sent to me by readers these days, and thinking of pavement made me think of an e-mail sent to me by my emeritus colleague Max (since he uses his own name when he comments here, I won't do my usual pseudonymi{s/z}ing). He's just read Jane Smiley's Ten days in the hills (which I won't be reading because I've given her two chances and she's driven me [BrE] mad/[AmE] crazy each time), and he sent me a list of Americanisms that were new to him. Among them was
He went down the front steps and walked toward the aviary across Mike's pavers, set in an elaborate pattern of interlocking arches.
which, as he correctly worked out, is equivalent to BrE paving stones, though I had to look it up to know that, as it's not a word I'd ever use. In fact, it's not in many has to go to the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction for it, so it might just be trade jargon. That's not the only place in Smiley's novel where Max found a term that I had to go to a specialist glossary for (true-divided-light windows, anyone?), which gives a little hint as to why I find her writing too gristly to chew.

Of course, these days, paving is done with just about anything that can be used to harden an area of ground. Where I grew up, we called the black stuff that's used on roads tar or blacktop (one could also, more dialect-neutrally, call it asphalt) but in BrE, it is more likely to be called tarmacadam--a word I'd never heard in America--or its abbreviation tarmac. In AmE, tarmac (originally Tarmac, a trade name) is reserved for the surfaces that (AmE) airplanes/(BrE) aeroplanes drive on at airports--as in "I once had to sit on the tarmac for five hours at JFK." (Not that my bottom came into contact with the tarmac, but that my bottom made contact with a plane that made unmoving contact with the tarmac.) In the OED definition above, we see metalled (AmE would prefer metaled), which refers to road metal, a term that I've never come across before, but refers to "broken stone used in making roads", as is found in these tarmacky, asphalty things. If you'd like to know the technical differences between tarmac and asphalt, I recommend that you look them up because although I've just read all about it, I just can't build up the enthusiasm to tell you about it.

I can't leave this subject without mentioning crazy-paving, which I have only heard in BrE contexts--the first of which (in my American circumstance) was in Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' song Rattlesnakes:
her heart, heart's like crazy paving
upside down and back to front
she says ooh, it's so hard to love
when love was your great disappointment*
Getting to hear that live was the first and only reason we've had to find someone to (orig. AmE) babysit in the evening so far. Did not disappoint--in fact, Mr Cole appointed very well. But getting back to language and away from the little (orig. AmE) crushes of mine that Better Half bears so well, crazy paving is the use of paving stones in a 'crazed' non-pattern. Although, as far as I know, the term crazy paving is mostly used in the UK, it is based (according to the OED) on the originally AmE collocation crazy quilt, for a patchwork quilt with irregularly shaped/placed patches.

* These are the published lyrics, but I've always heard this as 'love was sure a great disappointment'. Click on the link above to watch the video and tell me I'm not wrong!
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David Cameron and his house in 'leafy' Holland Park
Daily Express

Brits sometimes tell me that the problem with American politics is that the system of checks and balances, with the separate executive and legislative branches, means that changes are hard to make. My experience of politics in the UK since 2010 leaves me feeling that changes are too easy to make. Have an election and the next thing you know, things that have been built up over years can be thrown away. Get a new cabinet and within the year school curricula may change, departments of the civil service are closed, public properties are sold off. Because it's so much easier to destroy than to build, the recent Conservative (and coalition) governments (approx. AmE administrations) have wreaked change that undoes generations' worth of work and that will affect many generations beyond the current decade. But perhaps the most surprising thing for Americans watching the news is how quickly David Cameron had to move out of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's official residence. On the 8th of July, there were two candidates to replace Cameron, and the winner of their contest would be decided on the 9th of September.  Three days later, one of the candidates dropped out, and so the remaining candidate was (almost) automatically appointed head of the ruling party, and therefore the next prime minister. She could have been made prime minister that day, but the queen was out of town, and you can't become prime minister without the monarch's ceremonial say-so*.  So two days later, on Wednesday, Theresa May was made Prime Minister, which meant she got to move into 10 Downing Street right away. None of this two months' warning that residents of the White House have.

But that's all just preamble for this tweet from Tony Thorne:

Sounded right to me, but I had a quick look.

My first question was: Which things are described as leafy in AmE and BrE? This result from GloWBE shows us just nouns after leafy for which there are sufficient numbers for some statistical analysis.

 My second question was, if Americans don't say leafy suburb, what do they say?

The software isn't searching for meanings, it's just searching for any adjectives right before suburb. As it happens it's given us some near-synonyms, for leafy in BrE is code for 'affluent'. Tony clarifies:

It works as code better in the UK than in the US for geographical reasons. The UK has far fewer trees than the US, and the way cities are built means that there are few trees within them. In the US, the poor neighbo(u)rhoods in a medium-sized city may well have trees (of course denser cities have fewer).  I live in a nice part of town in Brighton and our street/road has almost no trees. And of course, no lawns. And little in the way of (BrE) front gardens/(AmE) front yards. (It would have had a few more trees in the past, but Brighton lost many to the Great Storm of 1987 and to Dutch Elm disease.)

The numbers for leafy suburb in the US are not zero, as Julie Lawson notes:

I noted in reply that the Washington Post is a hotbed of Britishisms. (It's been coming up a lot as I do the research for my book.) None of the six in the GloWBE corpus are from the Post but at least three are from DC-area writers/sources, so it may be fairly local to the area.

The semantics of suburb are not quite the same in the US and UK. (But I'm going to have to leave that for another day.)  I've just shown suburb in the table above because if you search for suburb* with a wild-card at the end, you get suburban and suburbanite and it all gets a bit messy. But if we look at the plural alone, we're informed a bit more about American society...

*Interesting side note: say-so has been around since the 1600s, but OED says "In 19th cent., chiefly U.S. and Eng. regional (midl.)." It now seems to be general English again. 

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numbers, numbers and more numbers

Eric in Chicago wrote to ask about some numbers, and there are other numbers that I've been meaning to write about too. So let's have a numberfest!

Let's start with Eric's question:
I just read that the term "billion" in AmE is different than BrE. In AmE it refers to a one with nine zeros following or 1,000,000,000 but in BrE it refers to a one with twelve zeros following or 1,000,000,000,000, or a "trillion" in AmE. Do they not have a trillion in BrE? and what do they say for 1,000,000,000? one thousand million?
Historically yes, Eric: AmE billion = BrE thousand million = 1,000,000,000. However, the effect of AmE and AmE media
is definitely beinghas been felt in BrE, and the use of billion to mean 1,000,000,000 is
becoming more prevalentnow widespread. For most people, these numbers are so hard to imagine that they probably just think of it as a one followed by lots and lots of zeros. Or, as one is more apt to say in BrE (than in AmE), a one followed by lots and lots of noughts.
About trillion, the OED says:
The third power of a million; a million billions, i.e. millions of millions. Also, orig. in France and local U.S., a thousand ‘billions’, or 1012 (i.e. the traditional English billion: see BILLION): this sense is now standard in the U.S. and is increasingly common in British usage.
Of the less definite -illions, OED lists zillion as 'chiefly U.S.' (although the Wikipedia article on such numbers uses a Terry Pratchett quotation in order to attest the word's existence). Squillion is not marked as U.S., although the OED's earliest citations for it are by Americans. Nevertheless, it sounds a little more BrE to me. Then there are lots of other variations (I tend to say kajillion, but that's not in the OED yet)--see the Wikipedia link for more on that subject.

Shifting to smaller numbers, there are (as we've seen before) differences in how BrE and AmE speakers express multi-digit numbers. It's definitely a more AmE trait to express four-digit numbers in hundreds:
2300 =
thousand, three hundred (BrE or AmE)
hundred (chiefly AmE)
Often, when I say things like 23 hundred, I can see the cogs turning behind my BrE-speaking interlocutors' eyes as they try to visuali{s/z}e what that expression means. Sometimes they ask for a translation. Sometimes they express annoyance! And other times, they marvel at the fact that American addresses sometimes involve four-digit house numbers. Meanwhile, my family used to think it curious that I used to live at number 7. You see, where I come from, there are no house numbers with fewer than three digits. The first house on the street is number 100. Don't ask me why. (Then, there's the fact that British streets sometimes, like in America, have odd house numbers on one side of the street and even numbers on the opposite side. But other times --like on my current street-- they start at 1, continue 2, 3, 4, up one side of the road, then when it gets to the end, the numbers continue down the other side of the road, so that a road with 50 houses would have number 50 directly across from number 1, and on the other end 25 across from 26. But I'm getting away from language, am I not?)

Another number difference that Better Half often remarks upon is the expression of the years of this decade. BrE speakers tend to include an and between the two thousand and the unit number, while AmE speakers tend not to:
2007 =
BrE typical: two thousand and seven
AmE typical: two thousand seven
Because these tend to be written as Arabic numerals instead of words, it's difficult to 'prove' the extent of these tendencies without access to a recent, well-transcribed spoken corpus of both dialects, which I don't have. However, it has been noted elsewhere. If anyone else has any facts and figures to back up these observations, by all means, let us know about them!

Postscript: I've now had the chance to discuss this on camera!

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spunk and spunky

It's our last full day in the US after a (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation of nearly a month.  I'd thought I'd catch up on blogging during this downtime, but I started to enjoy actually being on holiday/vacation. Imagine that!

As we rushed to get everything done before leaving my parents' house and my hometown, I asked Better Half to run across the street/road to the (AmE) drug store/(BrE) chemist's to buy a (AmE & BrE) greeting/(BrE) greetings card for my soon-to-be nine-year-old niece. He came back with a very (orig. AmE in this sense*) cute card that was arguably marketed at a younger age group, explaining (with alarm in his voice) that he couldn't bear to buy a (orig. AmE) tweenie-appropriate (not his words) card addressed to 'a spunky girl'.

An hour or so later, we searched with desperation for a place to have lunch with my parents. We'd checked in at the airport, but there is now nowhere in ROC to have anything but a cookie or a pretzel outside (of) the security zone, and our usual diner across the road had closed down. (We found later that JFK is no better--couldn't find a 'proper' restaurant in which to eat after collecting our luggage/before going to our foodless hotel. I blame Homeland Security. And, America, why don't you put sensible things in your airports after security? Like a drug store/chemist's where one could buy baby food and sunscreen in order to get around the 3-oz./100 ml rule? UK airports [orig. AmE i.t.s] rule, oh yeah!)  We ended up at a local (orig. AmE i.t.s) chain restaurant about which the less said, the better. But it thrilled by being in the same (orig./chiefly AmE i.t.s) plaza (i.e. set of retail businesses sharing a [AmE] parking lot/[BrE] car park) as this gym:

And this had BH clamo(u)ring** for a blog post on spunk

Spunk came up, so to speak, in my last post, because the American Heritage Dictionary gave it as a synonym for gumption. And there I had the footnote:
* I've no doubt that some readers will find this definition humorous, as spunk is BrE slang for 'semen'. But the primary meaning in AmE (also found in BrE, and originating from a Scots/northern England dialect for 'spark') is 'Spirit, mettle; courage, pluck' (OED).
In the comments, a couple of US readers claimed familiarity with the 'semen' sense of spunk, but its use in US business names indicates that it is the 'spirit, mettle; courage, pluck' sense that is called to mind first in AmE. (My research has, however, led me to an adult entertainment business in Australia called "Spice and Spunk Strippers". You're welcome.) In BrE, the 'seminal fluid' meaning has been around since at least 1890, and the other meanings (of which there are many) have been around longer, but many of the other meanings (e.g. 'a spark', 'a match', 'a lively person') seem to be more rooted in northern dialects and may not have had much currency down south when the 'semen' meaning took off. Two meanings that aren't marked as dialectal in the OED are 'tinder' and 'One or other of various fungi or fungoid growths on trees, esp. those of the species Polyporus, freq. used in the preparation of tinder'--and perhaps it is that sense from which the 'semen' sense comes (here's a photo of the fungus, you can judge).

Spunky meaning 'Full of spunk or spirit; courageous, mettlesome, spirited' is not marked as dialectal in the OED, but some of the earliest citations seem to be Scottish. (Well the first one, Burns, definitely is, and the second one has the word lassie in it. For some reason the links to the OED sources aren't working for me.) There is no 'semen-y' meaning in the OED, but it certainly exists. The OED does include a 'US & dial' meaning 'Angry, irritable, irascible', but that's not a sense that I hear used, and the citations are all from the 19th century.

At any rate, the semen sense seems to have taken over British minds--or at least the minds of the under-50s, as far as I can tell. I'd be interested to hear whether people in other parts of the UK have the same impression of the spunk(y) situation. Americans, meanwhile, mostly use the word in with positive connotations--and with a definite feminine bias. Here are the top nouns that follow spunky in the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

So, this is yet another example of Americans innocently using words that sound "dirty" in BrE. And before you comment, please note that there is a £5 tax on this blog for typing fanny pack.***

Oh--and before I go:
If you've ever wondered what a Lynneguist sounds like (after 12 years of anglification), wonder no more! Patrick Cox's latest World in Words podcast is an interview with me about all sorts of things, like how my immigrant vowels have shifted, criticism-softening devices in BrE, and language and social class. He promises a part 2 after his holiday. I had a lovely time (that's me all Britified) speaking with him, as we have converse experiences--he's an Englishman living in the US. I hope it might be of interest to some of you too...

*There are several 'in this sense' originally-AmE items here, so henceforth I abbreviate 'in this sense' as 'i.t.s'.
** Quote: "You could blog about that."
*** Payable to:

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the floor

Since Better Half and I both lived with each other's dialects for some time before meeting each other, there aren't too many times when our linguistic differences get us into trouble. But one thing that hasn't stopped confusing me is when he calls the ground outside the floor. For instance, we might be walking along the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk and he'll say "Mind the poo on the floor there" or "Look at all the chewing gum on the floor!" (He's just come up with those two examples himself, reminding me of my mother's recurrent surprise at the 'uncleanliness' of England. Of course, my mother lives in a small town in a rural area in the US, so her comparisons to cities in England aren't really fair.)

Anyhow, BH's exclamations about things on the floor almost always knock me for a loop, because to me the floor is something inside a building. Of course, in AmE I can also talk about the forest floor, but I think of that as being a very speciali{s/z}ed usage; it doesn't just mean the ground in the forest, it means all the ferns and mosses and things that one finds on the ground in a forest. Similarly for the ocean floor--to me, it's about an ecosystem, not just a surface.

I've asked various BrE-speaking friends whether they use floor to mean ground, and their replies have been mixed. (But it also should be said that I usually don't think that asking people whether they say X is a very productive or accurate way of finding out if they say X. What we do when speaking is a largely subconscious process, and when we reflect on that process, all sorts of things, not least ideas about how we 'should' speak, get in the way.) Looking in the OED, I find that it lists the sense 'the ground' as obsolete, except in dialects.

Now, as a Saaff Lundun boy descended of a long line of South Londoners, I kind of doubt that BH is hanging on to some old ways that the OED compilers thought of as 'dialectal'. So, my hypothesis is that this usage has been re-introduced to the general language through cricket. (This would contribute to explaining why BH uses it more than most of my girlfriends.) As the OED notes, floor is the ground of a cricket ground--that is to say, the dirt/grass part of the cricket field (too many senses of ground in that last clause). So, the OED also lists
to put a catch on the floor as a colloquial way to say 'to fail to hold a catch' in cricket.

I was reminded of the whole floor issue while watching the quiz celebrating Channel 4's 25th anniversary last night. (For certain reasons, I'm watching way too much television lately.) They showed a clip of a program(me) in which Derren Brown gets 'normal' people to hold up an armo(u)red bank car. And in that, in the out-of-doors, the robber demands that the bank guy get 'down on the floor' (i.e. on the street/road). You can see a clip from that (BrE) programme/(AmE) show here on YouTube, but to hear people saying floor, skip to about 7:24. Here, of course, there's the possibility that the speakers have been affected by seeing lots of dramati{s/z}ed robberies that take place inside banks, and so the thing that one says in that condition is Get down on the floor. But it still sounds really unnatural to me--I can't help but think that I'd say Get down on the ground. Next time I rob an armo(u)red vehicle, I'll have to have someone tape me.

So--can you refer to the surface of a road as the floor?
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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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blinkers and indicators

Better Half, Grover and I were waiting to cross the street/road yesterday. BH and I were both annoyed when the oncoming car that was making us wait suddenly turned left instead of passing us. Simultaneously, we made sarky (BrE informal, = sarcastic) comments. The funny thing about our comments was that each of us had accommodated the other's dialect. That is to say, BH used an AmE term and I used BrE:
BH: Nice use of your (AmE) blinkers! (=BrE indicators)
Me: Nice (BrE) indicating! (=AmE signal(l)ing)
In AmE, the more formal term for blinkers is turn signals.

Is dialect accommodation the definition of true love?
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playing (the) musical instruments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, the why questions.

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

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

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

If you want to carry the conversation toward(s) other cases of (an)arthrous variation in AmE and BrE, have a look at the past posts with the 'determiners' label. I've written about some of the famous ones already, and your comments on them would be most welcome at those old posts (which are still regularly read). And you're most welcome to carry on the conversation about musical instruments (and games) on this post, of course!
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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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bags, dibs, shotgun

So, you're 10 years old, playing with your best friend.  Simultaneously you both spot a single gorilla mask abandoned on a park bench. Running toward(s) it, you shout the recogni(s/z)ed word for signal(l)ing a claim on desired objects. What is that word?

Chances are that there are dozens and dozens of ways to answer that question. The thing about childhood rituals is that they are passed among children, who tend to operate very locally--with their siblings, their schoolmates, their neighbo(u)rs.  Words are invented, misheard, re-invented, borrowed and those changes don't travel far, but may be passed down to the children who are just a little younger, who later pass it down to the ones who are just a little younger, and so on.

Which is all to say, in the American idiom: Your mileage may vary when it comes to the playground terminology I'm discussing today.

But with that feat of (AmE) ass-covering out of the way, here's how you might have answered the question.  In AmE, you'd probably shout dibs.  In BrE, at least down here in the South, bagsy would do, though it might just be bags.  (To get a feel for possible dialectal boundaries of this, see this thread at Wordwizard.) To put this in the verbal form, you can bags or bagsy something, but, as you can see from the OED examples, the spelling is hard to pin down:
[1946 B. MARSHALL George Brown's Schooldays xxi. 89 ‘What about you doing the gassing instead of me?’ ‘But I bagsed-I I didn't’, Abinger protested. 1950 B. SUTTON-SMITH Our Street i. 25 [They] would all sit..‘bagzing’. I bagz we go to the zoo.] 1979 I. OPIE Jrnl. 28 Mar. in People in Playground (1993) 129 I'm second, I just baggsied it! 1995 New Musical Express 28 Oct. 28 (caption) Mark Sutherland baggsys a window seat. 1998 C. AHERNE et al. Royle Family Scripts: Ser. 1 (1999) Episode 2. 52 Mam. I think I'll do chicken. Antony. Bagsey me breast.
A verbal form of dibs is also widely reported (I dibsed it!), but I'd be much more likely to say I've got dibs on it or I called dibs on that

But when I posted dibs/bagsy as the 'Difference of the Day' on Twitter, some BrE speakers questioned my translation, as they had understood (AmE) shotgun to mean the same as bags(y). But just as happens when words are borrowed from another language, the non-native users of the word have changed the meaning when they've adopted the word.  And they have adopted the word, to some extent.  Here's an example from a Twitter feed I follow:
timeshighered We hereby shotgun the rights to the phrase "I survived Twitocalypse 2010" - this time next year, we'll be millionaires!
In fact, if I had read this tweet without already having had the discussion with BrE speakers about dibs and bagsy, I doubt I would have been able to make sense of it.  What's happened? The BrE speakers have heard Americans say shotgun in a place in a situation in which they would have said bags(y), and didn't reali{z/s}e that there's more meaning to shotgun than just 'I stake a claim on something'.   Shotgun very specifically means: 'I claim the right to sit in the front passenger seat of a vehicle.'

You can see this in another tweet:
 I bet Zombies don't call shotgun on road trips.
An AmE speaker immediately knows which valuable commodity the Zombies are not interested in.  In fact, because the claimed thing is understood, it would be redundant (not to mention ambiguous) to say call shotgun on the front seat. Note also that it's not a verb.  To me, to shotgun something would be like to machine-gun something.  One calls shotgun. And once one gets the seat, one rides shotgun, which originally meant (and still can mean) 'To travel as a (usually armed) guard next to the driver of a vehicle; (in extended use) to act as a protector' (OED).

Calling shotgun could be extended and used metaphorically, as in this Canadian tweet:
Can I call shotgun on the yoga cd pls?
...but this usually is done as a sly reference to the childhood car-seat experience.

Or, at least, that's how it is for an AmE speaker of my generation.  We have a special word for that sweet seat, with its status and its anti-emetic properties, because it was a central part of our lives in childhood.  With the exception of a few urban cent{er/re}s, you'd expect any family to have a car--and more than one child to fight over the best seat in that car.  Americans can also get a (AmE) driver's license/(BrE) driving licence by age 16 in most states (as compared to 18 17 at the earliest [see comments] in the UK). So, gangs of teenagers also need ways to establish pecking orders.  But I have to wonder whether shotgun will go the way of the library card catalog(ue), since riding in a car is a completely different experience for children today than it was for children in my day.  No more cramming ten kids into the back of a (AmE) station wagon/(BrE) estate car; everyone's in car seats now, and the law determines which of those are allowed in the front seat.  While I think that's a good thing safety-wise, I'm getting rather nostalgic thinking about, for example, climbing in and out of the back seat of a moving car or cramming myself down in the foot-well when I felt like it.  So maybe the kids in America have lost or are losing the true meaning of shotgun.  *sob* You in the States can let me know whether this is the case.

By the way, I've left the Twitter window with the 'shotgun' search going. In the last hour, 50 people have used the word shotgun, often prefaced by I wish I had a.  I'll sleep less well tonight.
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)