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

just about

Continuing on the backlog of emailed requests, Ron Shields writes (well, wrote--in August) with:
I have noticed football commentators in Britain using the phrase just about when a player is successful as in "He just about made that pass". In AmE just about would mean "close but no cigar".
Indeed, for the 'did make it, but only by a small margin' meaning, AmE could just use just: He just made it into the goal. But we might even avoid that, since that could also mean 'a moment ago'. This ambiguity is probably more of a problem in AmE than in BrE because of the differences in past-tense marking. I'd probably say only just in this context, but I'm fairly contaminated by BrE at this point. The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms gives only the meaning 'very recently' for only just. The two instances of only just made it in the Corpus of Contemporary American  English (COCA) are 'very recently' and the eight in the much smaller British National Corpus all mean 'barely'. I think this has firmly diagnosed my BrE contamination. I'll have to tell my American family to wear protection around me.

I must admit, I'm held back a bit* in my discussion here by a couple of things. First, finding examples of particular meanings of just about is not exactly easy. If you search for the two words in a corpus or on the web, you will find huge numbers of examples, most of them irrelevant--it's just about how common the words are (see what I did there?). So I've had to look for bigger stretches of text, like just about made it, in order to limit the results to useful ones. That means that anything interesting that I didn't think of, I didn't find. Second, we were supposed to (AmE/BrE) move/(BrE) move house this week. We discovered Monday that we were not moving (house) this week, or indeed next week, or indeed this  month. So all my books are packed (not the greatest of the current  inconveniences!), and therefore I can't consult a couple of things that might have been helpful. I will blog about English (BrE) estate agents/(AmE) real estate agents and the horrors (and vocabulary!) of  buying/selling property in England after this nightmare is over.

At any rate, the translation problem in just about isn't just about just.  Let's think about about. The (UK) Collins English Dictionary gives us this sense-definition, which is not to be found in the American Heritage Dictionary or Merriam-Webster:

7. used in informal phrases to indicate understatement I've had just about enough of your insults it's about time you stopped

Aha, the famous British understatement. Rather than saying I've had enough, you put an about in to soften the blow. And then a just to soften it more.

But one would say I've had just about enough of your insults in AmE too.  In fact, in COCA, there are 35 instances of about had it, including 16 just about had it. There might be a difference in perception here. To my AmE ear, I've just about had it is not an understatement. It means, if things don't change right away, I will have had it, and it's thus used as a warning. Whether BrE ears perceive that particular example as understatement is something that the mouths (or the typing fingers) that  share a brain with those ears will have to tell us. At any rate, the UK dictionary did feel the need to mention it as an understatement-marker and the US ones did not, and I think there's something to that.

Ron's example is a much clearer case of understatement. The claim is that the pass was made, but it is stated as if the pass was not quite made in order to communicate that it almost wasn't made.

To give a few more examples, found by Google-searching "just about made  it" (plus 'British' and 'American', because I originally searched with the  hope that I'd find some dialect commentary):

We just about made it through Christmas. (Temple Audio, Ltd)

Well, I just about made it to hunt out some British talent for you all  this week. I've tried to include more variety this time... (Road Runner Records)

I think you just about made it to the studio in time for your show!  (commenter on Simon Mayo's BBC Radio 2 blog)
There are also examples of the (orig. AmE) 'close but no cigar' type on this search and (of course) some that are ambiguous. But the above examples all come from the first page of results, clearly describe events that did happen (rather than ones that almost happened), and are all related (at least) to the UK. (The second is located in the US, but is a music scout who seems particularly Europe-focused, so one can only guess about his nationality or his linguistic contamination level.)

 And on that note, I'm about finished.

 * My ubiquitous bits are further evidence of my contamination. And yes, that is a double entendre. But don't think about it too much, please.
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Are these British expressions British?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After the recent discussion of signs you wouldn't see in America, Amy in San Francisco e-mailed to say:
I recently obtained a few stick-on signs when last in the UK that I prize (for our hazard-ridden basement): "Mind the step" and "Mind your head." It occasioned some talk around here---the very same UK company ( through their US branch only sells "Watch your step" and "Watch Your Head" signs. My [British] husband said he always found it somewhat nonsensical to tell someone to watch their own head. I like the signs because they remind me pleasurably of being in UK pubs full of uneven floors and low ancient beams.
Of course, the most famous British warning signs/announcements are in the London Underground (= AmE subway--but note that BrE subway usually means 'pedestrian underpass' (orig. AmE)) and other (BrE) railway stations (=AmE train stations): MIND THE GAP, or sometimes more explicitly: MIND THE GAP BETWEEN THE TRAIN AND THE PLATFORM EDGE. Click here to hear one version of that announcement, by voice artiste Emma Clarke. One hears different versions of the announcement on different lines. (Incidentally, one hears artiste much more in BrE than in AmE.) You can read more about minding the gap on Annie Mole's guide to Underground Etiquette, from which the photo at the right comes. See also her fantastic London Underground blog.

Amy's husband's observation, that you can't watch your own head, struck me as fairly sensible, but, of course, American English happily allows us to watch with senses other than sight. For instance if you're told to watch your mouth (i.e. don't be impudent), you don't run for a mirror. This sense of watch, meaning 'take care to pay attention to' is also present in BrE, but it is more common in such contexts in AmE. A BrE equivalent of watch your mouth is mind your language. (This was also the title of a British sitcom in the 1970s, which was, by most accounts, fairly horrid. Better Half has just read this and accused me of wild understatement. He says it was "excrement in visual form". Which brings us back to overstatement.)

Now, mind has many obsolete, obscure and dialectal (especially Scottish and Caribbean) senses that I won't go into here, but for me one of its most salient meanings is 'be obedient to'. That sense is listed in the OED as "Now regional (chiefly N. Amer. and Irish English)". So, one must mind one's parents and mind the teacher. Since Americans often hear imperative mind in this sense, hearing mind the gap or mind your head can sound to us like we're meant to obey the gap or head, rather than to (orig. AmE) watch out for it.

The prominence of the 'obey' sense of mind in AmE also makes BrE child-minder (kind of like [orig. AmE] babysitter, but more usually used to refer to refer to semi-formal day care arrangements) sound ambiguous, as it could mean 'one who obeys a child' as well as 'one who takes care of a child'. Of course, if we want our words to be 'sensible', then babysitter deserves to be mocked, since one needn't sit when one (AmE) babysits. (Note that the sitting here is sitting with the baby, not on the baby.) But, then again, life would be a lot less interesting if languages were 'sensible' all the time.

Both dialects use mind to mean something like 'to be bothered about' in contexts like Do you mind if I smoke? But, as we've seen before, BrE and AmE use never mind in different kinds of contexts and for different kinds of purposes.

[Finally found the problem with comments on this post and have corrected it. For those with an RSS feed, I apologi{s/z}e if this meant that you got this post a half dozen times while I tried and tried again!]
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I am often asked to cover the differences between AmE and BrE use of quite as an intensifier (i.e. a modifier of adjectives that tells you 'how much'). When asked, I point people to this post. When they write back and say "I meant how it means opposite things in BrE and AmE", I reply "Read the post. All the way. To the bottom." (Go ahead and picture me at the front of a classroom. I have them quaking in their boots, I do.)

Actual Russell Howard
But I just have to share with you this little item that came through the door yesterday. It's from a man who looks like an over-coiffed Russell Howard who wants to be my MP (Member of Parliament). Me, I'm waiting for Russell Howard to run. Our Howard-wannabe (a member of the Conservative Party) has been "out and about on the streets of Brighton meeting as many people as possible and listening to residents' views and opinions". But he didn't meet me, so he had his lackeys litter my front hallway instead. He wants to know:
How concerned are you about the proposed NHS changes and their effects on the Royal Sussex County Hospital?

Very [] Quite [] Not at all []
So there we have it. An illustration of how BrE quite differs from AmE quite. In BrE it means 'not so much', in AmE it means 'very much'. So while it's the middle ground in this BrE survey, for an AmE speaker, the first two choices are way on one side of the scale, so no moderate choice seems to have been offered. Better Half thinks that the question is (BrE) cheeky, because the interpretation of quite depends a lot on context, in that understatement with quite can be used as a forceful statement, given the right intonation. And the influence of AmE has probably muddies the waters as well. What a politician! I look forward to seeing how the results are interpreted.

P.S. A kind reader and fellow blogger has started a page for this blog using the Blog Networks feature on Facebook. It needs more readers to confirm that it's my blog before it will take feeds from the blog, etc. So, if you want to identify with this blog on Facebook, please come by and give us a click!
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I'm not being funny, but...

Of course, I can't exactly remember the conversation that inspired this post. But as we were leaving a café, Better Half said  I'm not being funny, but Costa's coffee has really gone downhill.† And I thought: that's the British idiom I'm going to cover next, because there is just so much Britishness in it.

In fact, in a 2009 paper in Discourse & Society, Judith Baxter and Kieran Wallace describe a particular use of it as:
the typically British idiom ‘I’m not being funny’ [used] to downplay the effect of a sensitive or non-politically correct comment
The phrase I'm not being funny but occurs five times in the 100-million-word British National Corpus (BNC) and zero times in the 425-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (both at The material in the BNC is 20+ years old, and since the phrase seems to be on the rise, I would expect it to occur more often these days. In 2008, it made a BBC list of 20 most hated clichés. There, a 'Rosie Spectacle' comments that it's "usually followed by a highly irritating and officious remark." Let's see if that's true.

All the BNC examples come from the 17.8-million-word spoken part of the corpus:
  1. I 'm not being funny but she can't stick up for herself, that girl can't
  2. Giles won't tell me but he definitely knows the two people that've laid her. Oh aren't they lucky gits. And I think that I 'm not being funny but I think that Jim did one.
  3. I 'm not being funny but I think that's actually maybe quite important, 
  4. The contract sorry is very specific. I 'm not being funny but we're nitpicking now at the difference between [...] site instructions and V Os
  5. And I 'm not being funny but when Malcolm did it, we would do that [a physical recount] almost two or three days after the stock taking if there were odd counts
Is I'm not being funny but preceding "sensitive", "irritating" or "officious" comments in each case? Well, it depends on what you are sensitive about. In some of these cases, there is clearly the potential for causing offen{c/s}e--for instance, in (1) the person might be saying something critical about a friend. In others, it's not clear that anyone would disagree with the statement, as in BH's comment about coffee, or in (3), a context in which all the interlocutors seem to be agreeing that it's important to be sensitive to the needs of the visually impaired at some event. In my experience, the minimal requirement for an I'm not being funny but prologue is that the speaker is expressing an opinion. The optimal contexts for using it are those in which the statement (a) could be interpreted as a complaint or a criticism or (b) might not be shared by everyone. In the coffee example, it was hardly the type of thing that would have offended me, so I was amused that he'd bothered to preface it in this way. But he still said it, he says, "So you won't think I'm petty. Out of some insecurity." It expresses a strange kind of plea to be taken seriously along with what seems like an implicit apology for having had an opinion.

This relates to various things that Kate Fox discusses in Watching the English. There are the "modesty rules"--i.e. cultural rules that enforce the appearance (but not necessarily the reality) of modesty and the importance of not seeming earnest, but instead always being ready to keep things light with humo(u)r. So, you have an opinion, but the need to appear modest means that you have to avoid sounding self-important. The avoidance of earnestness means that people are always ready to assume that you're joking if you seem het up* about something. So, what do you do if you want to state an opinion? You try to disguise it as a small fact ("she can't stick up for herself"), preface it with I'm not being funny but to signal that something controversial is coming, then let the listener fill in a lot of the opinion (e.g. 'she is weak and probably deserves what she gets if she won't stick up for herself'), so that you don't have to earnestly or controversially say it. 

I should say, one doesn't absolutely need the but in the phrase, but it's very often there. And we can say I'm not being funny to sincerely mean just that--for instance, as a protest when someone starts laughing after you've told them something sad. That's not the pre-emptive use--the 'let me put this negative opinion here' use--that one hears so much in the UK. That said, I think that in AmE, at least, one would be more likely in those more literal cases to say I'm being serious rather than the negated I'm not being funny. 

Blogger is acting very strange these days...I hope you'll be able to post comments below!

Postscript, the next morning:
I blogged in a rush last night, which isn't the best thing for working on something pragmatic.  Let me just add--the funny in I'm not being funny but can indeed (as some people have written to say) be read as the 'queer, peculiar' sense of the word. But that meaning is not unrelated to the 'humorous' meaning. It's best translated, I think, as 'I'm not trying to be difficult, but...'. But I do believe that the choice of funny in this phrase plays on this ambiguity--it's saying both 'I'm not making a joke' and 'I'm not being eccentric'. (Glad to see some comments are getting through--I know some others haven't. What's up with Blogger, eh**?)

† I belatedly found where I'd written down what BH said, so I've replaced my earlier 'the coffee is really disgusting' with the much more British understatement 'has gone downhill'. 'Has become disgusting to me' is what he meant though. This means I've also changed some further references to his statement. And, for the record, I like Costa's coffee and BH has been complaining about everyone's coffee lately...
* orig. BrE dialectal & AmE, now more common in BrE
** The eh is prevalent in Canadian English but also in my not-so-far-from-Canada AmE dialect.
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shameful self-promotion

It's just too embarrassing to ask, so I'll just put this here:

What you do with that is your business.

It's been a problematic week (Britishoid understatement), so haven't had a chance to post, but did see an old (17 April 1996) Steve Bell If... cartoon in the Guardian that made me think of (AmE) you-all. I can't reproduce it here (can't find it on the web, and fear that people who break copyright rules might not get blog awards), but the dialogue goes like this:
Her Majesty the Queen out on a walk with her corgi "Geraint" [emphasis as in original]

HM: Tell me Geraint Do you think I'm middle clawss? I pay
, I live in inner London, I wear sensible claythes. My children aren't very bright and my husband's unemployed!

G: You'll always be my little bit of rruff maaajesty!

Some quick notes on the sounds here, courtesy of Upton and Widdowson's Atlas of English Dialects:
  • The pronunciation of a before [s], [f] or [θ] as 'aw' is a distinctly Southern pronunciation. This was due to a couple of fashionable sound changes in the South. In the 17th century, people here started lengthening this vowel, and in the 18th it moved further back in the mouth (hence the 'aw' quality). This later became part of 'Received Pronunciation' (RP).
  • Pronouncing tax as tex: This is an exaggeration of the conservative form of Received Pronunciation, which U&W describe as 'a with a flavour of e'. They note that 'to many Northerners southern [ae] sounds like [ɛ], and it is not hard to see how this pronunciation at times slips over in to the full [ɛ] to which it is so close.'
  • U&W don't cover claythes (i.e. variant pronunciations of o in the middles of words), and the RP pronunciation of this sound is typically [əʊ], which gives it a bit of a Frenchish sound. I've found a few uses of claythes on the web. One is from a man in Teesside wondering about a woman in a play (Does she get her claythes off?). But other evidence is in favo(u)r of this being a northern thing as well, as there are historical spellings of clothes with a or ai in the OED, such as clathes and clais, which are marked as Northern and Scottish, respectively. (Well, she does spend a lot of time at Balmoral...). Any other thoughts on why the Queen is depicted as saying claythes?
cheating postscript: I was sitting in the theat{re/er} tonight, watching a show, and suddenly reali{s/z}ed that I forgot to end this post in the manner I'd intended--which was to point out the study that's shown how the Queen's English has become decidedly more "middle clawss" over the years. So now I have.
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sure, affirmative

This is one of those posts where I'm going to let someone else do most of the writing. I got this message from Justin a couple of weeks ago:

I’m from Malaysia, where BrE dominates in schools but AmE is prominent in pop culture (so too CanE and AusE). I was British educated there, before moving to the UK for boarding school and my undergrad. So I’d like to think of myself as pretty much a BrE speaker.

My girlfriend is American. A born-and-bred Wisconsinite. I’m currently living with her in Illinois as I pursue my Masters. This is partly the reason we so enjoy your blog, as it has helped clear up a number of differences we’ve come across.

One difference that gets me every time is the use of the word sure as an affirmative. When I use sure as an agreement, it is usually in response to a suggestion. I feel I am deferring to that suggestion, as if I am saying ‘I’ll go along with what is invariably your point’.

My girlfriend, however, uses sure as a simple ‘yes’ - whether or not it is in response to suggestion or a more general yes/no question.

So a typical interaction might go:

GF: ‘I’m feeling like having Chinese food tonight.’

*time passes*

Me: ‘So do you still want to have Chinese food tonight?’

GF: ‘Sure.’

To her, she is just saying 'yes' to the question. But, no matter how much I am reminded of her usage of the word, I am still thrown off every time because it seems as if she has turned her own suggestion into mine. It feels as if she’s deferring the responsibility of the suggestion to me. I don’t mean to say that I accuse her of this - she knows how this throws me, and we laugh about it - that's just my gut reaction based on my own usage of the word.

So my question - and I do apologise for the wall of text - is whether this is a BrE / AmE difference? What scant sources I can find online - due to all the context I need to unload before asking the question - seem to hint this. However, could it be that my own usage of the word is limited through my strange background? Is this a uniquely Midwestern AmE trait (my girlfriend’s family all so seem to use ‘sure’ in this way)? Or is it a case-by-case notion, where one’s personal circumstances lead to one usage or the other?

I have to thank Justin for typing that all out because it is a scenario that plays out in my house on a weekly basis. Spouse suggests something to do, somewhere to go, something to eat, and I say Sure and he (at this point, one feels, just to be difficult, because we've been through this many times) says "That means no, then."
I don't think it's just Midwestern. I've lived in the Midwest, New England, Texas, and upstate New York, and my Sures never caused a discernible problem till I moved to England.

This a hard thing to look up in a (orig. AmE) run-of-the-mill corpus, because so much about a Sure  depends on how it's said. There are 198 Yea(h), sure in the AmE part of the GloWBE corpus and 91 in the British, but that's an internet corpus, not spoken interaction, and it's far more likely there that the Yeah, sure is a sarcastic expression of doubt than a casual agreement to a suggestion. While I have access to some corpora with spoken language, they're pretty bad for this kind of thing (as I discovered when I tried to use them to study please). The transcripts in those corpora are overloaded with people having conversations about topics, but in real life we spend much less time debating the issues of the day or recounting a childhood memory and more on negotiations about what to eat or veiled accusations that the dishwasher has been loaded wrong.

There are some discussions of affirmative sure online, often from English learners who have noted it as something Americans do. This Huffington Post blog has a Connecticut mother of (orig. AmE) teenagers (so, probably close to my age) noting that people are now taking her sures as unenthusiastic. But her sures were delivered by text or social media, so the intonations weren't available for the readers to hear--making it a riskier place to use sure. So was it the medium, or do younger Americans use sure less? The trend might be toward(s) more exaggerated responses needed to show enthusiasm--e.g. great, awesome, or the  less (BrE) OTT cool. And we might be pretty far down the road of that trend.

(I've done a brief search for academic papers on sure, but had no luck finding much on this affirmative usage. If anyone knows of any, please let me know.)

In our house, as in Justin's relationship, sure miscommunications remain a problem we're aware of, but haven't managed to fix. The spouse thinks I should say something else, while I wonder why he can't just mentally translate it when he hears it from me, as he would for any other Americanism that slips out. If it sounds unenthusiastic, can't an Englishman just interpret it as a case of understatement (which Brits seem so eager to claim for their own)?

But sure is harder than a problem like sidewalk/pavement or tomayto/tomahto, since it's not a referential word (one that stands for things in the world), but more context- and relationship-dependent. The differences are less obvious and the usage/interpretation is more automatic. We're creatures of our own gut-reactions.
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british overstatement

The British are masters and mistresses of understatement, one is told. Yeah, well, maybe.

For your consideration, my current list of most hated, painfully overused words:
  • essential
  • fanatical
  • excellence
I've grumped about excellence once before, and I'm sure that it's come in from US corporate-speak. So let's concentrate on the adjectives, which seem to represent the full extent of many advertising copywriters' adjectival vocabularies.

The bus that goes past my house says that it offers Essential Travel for our City. If I weren't boycotting the word, I could shop at Essential Records or Pet Essential or let (AmE prefers rent) property at Time Essential and listen to The Essential Mix on Radio 1 or read the dozen or so publications that say they are the essential guide to the city and what's going on in it before heading over to the Essential Festival, essentially.

If fanatical is less used, it's only because there seems to be a rule that it must only be used in alliterative phrases. The Odeon cinema (AmE prefers movie theater) chain is Fanatical About Film. Upper Crust sandwich shops are Fanatical about Freshness. And everyone else is Fanatical about Football.

Another relevant example is brilliant (informally, brill), which in recent years was the overstater of choice among young people. Now it's amazing, which I hadn't noticed until a Swedish colleague pointed it out. We were in my office when a student came and asked to borrow a book. Our interaction went something like this:
Me: Here you go.

Student: Amazing! Thanks!

Me: You can give it back to me at seminar.

S: You're amazing! Thanks!

SwedCol: [muffled giggles]

These are not the words of an understating culture--and yet they are so repetitively and unimaginatively used. One can't really find too much fault with the young people, as youth everywhere get infected by the buzzwords of their age. But the advertisers? Aren't they supposed to make us want to buy their product, rather than wanting to track them down in their offices and bludgeon them with thesauruses?

Could it be that overstatement is so foreign to British culture that those who try to do it cannot help but do it badly? Perhaps overstatement should be left to Americans, who do it so effortlessly. Mission Accomplished!
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The book!

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)