the language of bridge

On occasion, I invite people whose insights I trust to contribute guest posts for the blog. On rare occasions, they deliver the goods! I hope you enjoy this one on terminology in the game of contract bridge.


My mother could never understand how I was allowed a (AmE) college/(BrE) university degree without learning to play bridge, but I was educated in the decade of Trivial Pursuit. I tried to rectify this gap in my education in the early 2000s. After maybe three lessons, the couple who were teaching me had a fight and that was the end of that! Maybe learning to play bridge be my retirement project. One of the dozens I have in mind. At any rate, I am not the person to tell you about bridge terminology, but here’s someone who is.


Simon Cochemé is an English bridge writer and is a regular contributor of light-hearted articles to bridge magazines. He has recently published a collection of the best of them in a book, Bridge with a Twist (Master Point Press). ‘Destined to be ranked as a classic, alongside its prequel, Oliver Twist.’


There are seven chapters on the language of bridge – vocabulary and idioms from (a)round the world. This post is an edited version of the chapter on American terminology – written with American spelling.



The Language of Bridge III


In which we look across the Atlantic at what the Americans have to say


George Bernard Shaw (or possibly Oscar Wilde) said that England and America were two nations separated by a common language. Bridge terminology certainly proves the point. We say protect, they say balance; we say switch, they say shift; we say dummy, they [sometimes] say board; we say peter, they say echo; we say tomahto, they say tomayto; we say finesse, they say hook; we say singleton, they say stiff; we say discard, they [often] say pitch.


There’s more. They say push instead of flat board, down one instead of one down, ace-fourth instead of ace-to-four, set for beating the contract, and drawing trump rather than drawing trumps, as though they always played in twelve-card fits. You will still occasionally read deuce for the two of a suit, although the quaint trey for the three has all but disappeared.


There are some words that have yet to cross the Pond: tight, meaning doubleton, as in ‘He held king-queen tight’ and swish, meaning passed out, as in ‘The bidding went 2♠, swish’. I have also heard (but not seen in print) ‘Four hearts in the East’ where the British would say ‘Four hearts by East’.


Things get even more confusing with the word tap. Where we say force (as in force declarer), they say tap; but where we say tap (in plumbing), they say faucet

The most extreme of American phrases is ruff ‘n’ sluff for ruff-and-discard. I haven’t seen sluff or slough used anywhere else in bridge literature, so presumably the lure of the rhyme was too hard to resist, as it was with surf ‘n’ turf.


Americans like variety in the presentation of their sports results: ‘The Red Sox downed the 49ers’, for example, or ‘The Chipmunks whupped the Bears’. The English tend to stick to the ‘Chelsea beat Liverpool’ formula, with the occasional ‘Villa lost to Spurs’ thrown in. Americans [tend to] put the winning team first, whereas the English usually put the home team first. Either way, the English results are a bit boring. 


Sporting metaphors abound in American writing, and I have seen bridge articles where a player covers all bases, or makes a clutch shot, or plays a shut-out. I have no idea what slam-dunk means; it sounds as though you had twelve tricks on top but went one down. I have yet to find mention of a triple-double (basketball) or pass interference (American football), but I’m sure they’re out there.


We must fight fire with fire; difficult contracts must be played on sticky wickets and small slams hit for six Declarer must play a blinder, and overbidders should be caught offside or shown the red card.


There is a nice expression that I have seen American teachers use, encouraging their pupils to draw trumps before the defenders can ruff something: Get the kids off the streets.


The French have names for the kings on their cards (David (from the Bible), Charles (after Charlemagne), Caesar (Julius), and Alexander (the Great). I understand the Americans have noted it and like the idea. They don’t have any real kings of their own, so the debate is whether to reuse the Mount Rushmore quartet, or to go with four from the shortlist of Martin Luther, Stephen, Billie Jean, Burger, Kong and Elvis. [jk—ed.]


Let’s have a deal. This one features Zia Mahmood, who was (AmE) on (BrE in) the USA team against Italy in the final of the World Championships in 2009.


[The chapter goes on to describe a bridge deal, the bidding and play, in great detail using the American terms. It will be completely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t play bridge. If you want to see whether the USA team wins or loses, you will have to buy the book …]




Lynne says: For good measure, here’s a corpus search of that last difference, in/on the team, which goes far beyond bridge:




Bridge with a Twist (RRP £14.95) is available at a number of online sites.




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Unused epigraphs


I love epigraphs, so I use them as often as possible in books I write. The Prodigal Tongue has one for each of its subsections. I do think I chose very good ones for in the book (buy/borrow it just for the epigraphs!), but I still have a file full of quotations that I didn't have space for.

So, in the spirit of "reuse and recycle", behold the remaining contents of that file, collected during the years of research for the book. If you don't see it here (Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, The Simpsons...), then it probably made the cut and is in the book. What I've not done here (because I cannot be spending that much time on it) is give the full bibliographic info for each quote.

Please note that I collected these to illustrate various ideologies that I'd be discussing in the book. None should be taken as my point of view.  If you want to quote them, I'd recommend you first read up  on any unfamiliar authors before you do so!

Here will be an old abusing of God's patience and the king's English.

        —William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor

The semanticist's dilemmas

This is one of the disadvantages of wine, it makes a man mistake words for thoughts.
        ― Samuel Johnson

It is one of the most mysterious penalties of men that they should be forced to confide the most precious of their possessions to things so unstable and ever changing, alas, as words.
        ― Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest

Using words to talk of words is like using a pencil to draw a picture of itself, on itself.
    ― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words.
        ― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84


Language marches on

A word is dead
When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

        ― Emily Dickinson

'Words aren't made — they grow,' said Anne.
        ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice

        ― T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets   

Don't gobblefunk around with words.
     ― Roald Dahl, The BFG


Americans on transatlantic differences/relations

the harmony between Great Britain and the United States may be as lasting as the language and the principles common to both
        — John Quincy Adams

the body of the language is the same as in England [...] it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness, yet some differences must exist
        — Noah Webster, 1828

It offends them [the English] that we are not thoroughly ashamed of ourselves for not being like them.
        — Dr Henry W. Boynton, 1908   

I think we are all Anglophiles…How can we fail to be Anglophiles? Unless we hate ourselves.
        — the Librarian of Congress, 1985 

American grammar doesn’t have the sturdiness of British grammar (a British advertising man with a proper education can make magazine copy for ribbed condoms sound like the Magna goddamn Carta), but it has its own scruffy charm.
Stephen King, On writing

whether British commentators applauded or disdained Americans’ English, they all assumed it as their prerogative to make such appraisals
        — Paul Longmore, 2005

Britons on transatlantic differences/relations

I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.
        — Samuel Johnson

The Americans generally improve upon the inventions of others; probably they may have improved our language.
— Captain Frederick Marryat, 1839

I do not believe there are, on the whole earth besides, so many intensified bores as in these United States. No man can form an adequate idea of the real meaning of the word, without coming here
        — Charles Dickens 

I do not know the American gentleman, god forgive me for putting two such words together. 
        — Charles Dickens 

 The English and the American language and literature are both good things, but they are better apart than mixed.
H. W. & F. G. Fowler, The King’s English, 1906

Americanisms are foreign words, and should be so treated
         H. W. & F. G. Fowler, The King’s English, 1906

Every time Europe looks across the Atlantic to see the American eagle, it observes only the rear end of an ostrich
        — H. G. Wells

American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.
W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge, 1943

The enjoyment of a common language was of course a supreme advantage in all British and American discussions
Winston Churchill, The Second World War  

You can get far in North America with laconic grunts. ‘Huh’, ‘hun’, and ‘hi’ in their various modulations, together with sure, guess so, that so? and nuts! will meet almost any contingency
Ian Fleming

American is the language in which people say what they mean as Italian is the language in which they say what they feel. English is the language in which what a character means or feels has to be deduced from what he or she says, which may be quite the opposite    
— playwright John Mortimer, 1989

I don't have an English accent because this is what English sounds like when spoken properly.
        — James Carr, on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

 The difference between English and American humour is $150 a minute.
        — Eric Idle

It only takes a room full of Americans for the English and Australians to realize how much we have in common
        — Stephen Fry

I shouldn’t be saying this – high treason, really – but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren’t fooled by our accent into detecting brilliance that may not really be there.
          — Stephen Fry

To be snooty about Americans, while slavishly admiring them; this is another crucial characteristic of being British.
        — 'Bagehot', in The Economist, 2014 

When it comes to language we have nothing to learn from a nation that uses the word "randy" as a first name.
    — commenter at The Sunday Times, 2015

Americans have different ways of saying things. They say elevator, we say lift…they say President, we say ‘stupid psychopathic git’
Alexei Sayle

See also: the whole song Two Nations by The Streets



I have heard in this country, in the senate, at the bar, and from the pulpit, and see daily in dissertations from the press, errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms which hardly any person of the same class in point of rank and literature would have fallen into in Great Britain.
        — John Witherspoon (coiner of the word Americanism), 1781

For America in her infancy to adopt the present maxims of the old world would be to stamp the wrinkle of decrepit age upon the bloom of youth
Noah Webster

In no country in the world does the law hold so absolute a language as in America, and in no country is the right of applying it vested in so many hands.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 

What you write to me about American situations is no surprise to me. Without ever having been there I can give you a picture of the country as accurate as if I had been there.
        — Friedrich Hebbel, in a letter to Amalie Schoppe, 29 Dec 1855

An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven't been done before.
Mark Twain

The Americans are going to be the most fluent and melodious-voiced people in the world—and the most perfect users of words.
Walt Whitman

It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations are in a conspiracy to under-value them. 
        — Henry James

The American language differs from the English in that it seeks the top of expression while English seeks its lowly valleys.
        — Salvador de Madariaga, 1928

I sometimes marvel at the extraordinary docility with which Americans submit to speeches.
        — Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.  

because American companies are so successful — because American ideas are so successful — they get the blame for the horrible fact of world homogenisation; for the unbearable notion that people around the world might get what they want and might want roughly the same things.
        — Justin Webb, 2008


The English (sometimes 'the British')

But Lord! to see the absurd nature of Englishmen, that cannot forbear laughing and jeering at everything that looks strange
Samuel Pepys

The English instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it.
        — James Agate 

The English never smash in a face. They merely refrain from asking it to dinner.
        — Margaret Halsey, With Malice Toward Some, 1938

Let us pause to consider the English.
Who when they pause to consider themselves they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish,
because every Englishman is convinced of one thing, viz;
that to be an Englishman is to belong to the most exclusive club there is

        — Ogden Nash

We English are good at forgiving our enemies; it releases us from the obligation of liking our friends.
        — P. D. James

The world still consists of two clearly divided groups; the English and the foreigners. One group consists of less than 50 million people; the other of 3,950 million people. The latter group does not really count.
        — George Mikes, How to be a Brit

Bloody foreigners are rarely called bloody foreigners nowadays, some say because the English have become more polite; my own feeling is that the word ‘bloody’ has changed its meaning and is no longer offensive enough.
 — George Mikes, How to be a Brit

It has still never occurred to one single Englishman that not everybody would regard it as a step up, as a promotion, to become English.
        — George Mikes, How to be a Brit

England is a land that lives by myths. And one of the greatest of the national myths is that the English are a polite race. They are nothing of the kind. Indeed, the English, never known to do anything by halves, have developed impoliteness into an art form of great sophistication and complexity.
John Algeo, 1990

Britain really is an immense lunatic asylum. That is one of the things that distinguishes us among the nations...we believe in the right to eccentricity, as long as the eccentricities are large enough... Woe betide you if you hold your knife incorrectly, but good luck to you if you wear a loincloth and live up a tree.
Louis de Bernieres, Notwithstanding, 2009


The French

you must hate a Frenchman as you hate a devil
        — Horatio Nelson

Southerners are snobs and condescending but it's not their fault the smell from France is starting to affect them.
        — Jack Carter (Leeds, UK)


The English language

In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people, than all the other dialects of the language.
        — Noah Webster, 1806

The most common expedient employed by democratic nations to make an innovation in language consists in giving some unwonted meaning to an expression already in use. This method is very simple, prompt, and convenient; no learning is required to use it aright, and ignorance itself rather facilitates the practice; but that practice is most dangerous to the language. […] This is a deplorable consequence of democracy.
        —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The English Language is grandly lawless like the race who use it,—or, rather, breaks out of the little laws to enter truly the higher ones. It is so instinct with that which underlies laws and the purports of laws it refuses all petty interruptions in its way.
Walt Whitman  

Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?
        — Clarence Darrow

Others may speak and read English—more or less—but it is our language not theirs. It was made in England by the English and it remains our distinctive property, however widely it is learnt or used
Enoch Powell, speech to the Royal Society of St George, April 1988

The English language was carefully, carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary.
        — cartoonist Dave Kellett

Goodbye RP
Let our words go free
Coo and howl
Lay flat your vowels
Ah ay ee
Goodbye RP
Tongue uncross your t's
Slang and slur
Bah and burr
They thy thee
Goodbye RP Teachered tyranny
Speed this end
Our ows to bend...
Who were he wi'? 

speakers of English […] tend to divide into two camps: those who suspect that they themselves misuse the language and feel insecure about it and those who think they do not misuse the language and feel rather irritated by those who do
        — Ammon Shea, Bad English

English is a global language because English speakers have been global conquerors. It’s not about the quality of English nouns and verbs, it’s about the quality of English guns and money.
        — Gretchen McCulloch


And finally, the linguist's dilemma...

There is a general conviction that language is not a matter for experts. We all know about language because we all use language. No similar conclusion is drawn from the fact that we all use kidneys, nerves, and intestines.
Anthony Burgess, Language made plain, 1975

[L]inguistics does have one thing in common with prostitution. In neither field can the professional hope to compete with the amateur.
        — Morris Halle

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 I have a note above my desk that says "Next blog post: roast(ed)". It's been there for three years, since Melissa L wrote to say:

Dear Lynne,

I teach English in Germany and enjoy your blog.

I am a native speaker of American English. Most of my teaching material uses British English. I spend a lot of time thinking about and paying attention to the differences between AmE and BrE (though maybe not as much as you).

Anyway, in an exercise about dishes on the holiday table, there was roast turkey and roast potatoes.

I would say roasted potatoes.

Roasted is an adjective made out of the participial form of a verb. We make such modifiers all the time—as we say in linguistics, it's a productive morphological process. You could have a written resignation letter, a fried dumpling, a worn path. So, roasted vegetables or roasted turkey don't need much explanation: we're just using the tools that English gives us.

The question more is: what's going on with roast? Is roast beef a compound noun? It's a roast and it's beef. No, that also seems to be a past-participle of the verb, one that goes back to Middle English. These days, it seems only to be used as an adjective. People generally don't things like "I have roast a turkey" or "A turkey has been roast" these days.
So, we've ended up with two participial adjectives meaning 'having been cooked by roasting', and we have preferences for which foods we use each with. It's pretty much always roast beef in all Englishes. Roast turkey and roast chicken and roast lamb are preferred over roasted, but not as strongly as for beef. (I've kept the chart to three meats for viewability.) (Note that I've put the in the searches to make sure that the roast is not a verb.)

So it looks like roast is generally preferred over roasted with meats, but (except for beef), this looks stronger in BrE than AmE. So while roast is common with turkey and chicken in both, there are more roasteds in AmE than in BrE. (It looks like Canadian English really likes roasted turkey, but all of the examples come from a single source.)

What else can be "roast"? I asked the GloWBE corpus interface to give me the nouns after roast that differ most between US and UK. Remember: the tables below do not show the most common nouns after roast (that would be beef). They're for showing the ones that differ most. So green in the UK (right) side, means that those expressions are strongly British. The darker the green, the stronger the difference. Pink/red means NOT associated. The white ones in the table are very similar in the two.
(GloWBE doesn't seem to tag the adjective roast as an adjective, so I can only ask for the word roast, which means that some of the roasts in these numbers are the verb, as in They roast coffee for a living. Nevertheless, digging into the data shows that these roast+noun combinations mostly have roast as an adjective.)
Roast dinner stands out in the UK data. This is a meal (traditionally a Sunday roast) with some roast(ed) meat or vegetarian alternative, roast(ed) potatoes, lots of different vegetables, gravy and often a Yorkshire pudding. (I'm shocked to see that I didn't mention Yorkshire puddings in my pudding post. So there's a Wikipedia link if you need one.) A big part of the BrE roast dinner is the potatoes, which also show up strongly in the UK side of the table. I won't go further into the institution of roast dinners just because I want to get back to the adjective, but I will note that it's my husband's favo(u)rite meal despite his having been a vegetarian for 35 years. The vegetarian main might be a nut roast, but it also might be some kind of vegetable Wellington or a stuffed squash or (BrE) all sorts. The (orig. AmE) sides are at least as important as the "main" part of the meal, and roast(ed) potatoes are key. The person who takes the last roast potato is a stereotype of bad manners in these parts. People have very strong feelings about roasted potatoes. They are so well loved that they have a nickname: roasties. (Yorkshire puddings sometimes get the same treatment, so if someone says they want a roast dinner with Yorkies, they're probably not talking about eating or dining with terriers. Context matters.)
Back to roasted. Here's are the US/UK differences, where we can see the converse of the previous tables—more expressions that are strongly American.

Some of the highlighted expressions here are less about the form of roast(ed) and more about what things tend to be eaten in each place. I think it's fair to say that Americans like roasted garlic more and that Britons come across more roasted chestnuts. 
My main conclusions: BrE seems to prefer roast over roasted for any meats and for potatoes. AmE isn't 100% won over by roast for things other than roast beef. The two Englishes come together for vegetables and peanuts, for which roasted does well. 
Why are certain things roast rather than roasted in BrE? I wonder if it does have something to do with the roast dinner. Here's my thinking:
  • If we think of roast in Sunday roast as the roasted meat (after all, we do call roasted meat "a roast"), then 
  • The roast in roast dinner probably is too. A dinner that features a roast. (Both expressions go back to early 19th century, with Sunday roast first.)
  • But then people start thinking of roast there as an adjective, rather than a noun modifying a noun: a dinner with the quality 'roast' rather than a dinner of a roast.
  • The components of the roast dinner get the modifier roast rather than roasted, because roast now indicates that kind of dinner. 
  • Hence: roast potatoes.

To test this, I looked at carrots and parsnips, two typical roast dinner vegetables that are roasted. (Not all roast dinner (BrE) veg is roasted. For instance, there's often cabbage.) The parsnips seem to support my hypothesis. The carrots, not so much. (I did check these for stray verb-rather-than-adjective roast(ed)s. There were none.)

The moral of the story: send me an email request for a blog post, and I may eventually get to it! 

Some related links/points:
  • On the AmE sense of roast for a ceremonial (orig. AmE) ribbing
  • On skim(med) milk (which trends the opposite way)
  • Note that BrE calls mashed potato(es) mash, but BrE speakers generally don't use mash as an adjective mash potato(es), and it's not common for AmE speakers either (in the GloWBE data). There's a different morphological difference, as indicated by my parentheses here—so click through for that link.
  • You find the occasional corn beef in AmE, but that's faaaaar outweighed by the corned beefs. But remember that this refers to different things in AmE & BrE!
  • I had intended to write about ice(d) tea in this post too, but it turned out that the numbers didn't support the idea that AmE and BrE treat this differently. Iced tea is pretty standard in both, with some products marketed as ice tea.


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Book review: The Language Lover's Puzzle Book

It's not often that I review a book in the same week that it comes into my house, but I'm happy to go directly to recommending this one. It's The Language Lover's Puzzle Book by Alex Bellos. You can probably think of someone who needs a present for these "Oh my god it's getting dark early and the world is full of germs" times. This is it!

Alex Bellos writes a puzzle column for the Guardian and has written a few other puzzle books, with mathematical puzzles a particular special(i)ty (among other things he writes). For this book, he has mined the riches of the Linguistic Olympiad movement, a great program(me) through which secondary school teams compete nationally and internationally on linguistic problems. One thing I love about the book is how responsible Bellos is in giving credit where credit is due.

The puzzles are of many types. There are straightforward vocabulary quizzes, some word games that you might have seen in newspapers (like word chains and crosswords), and the kinds of problems that get assigned in linguistics classes. Some are about English and many are about other languages. His website lists the following:


Armenian, Babylonian, Breton, Burmese, Chalcatongo Mixtec, Chinese, Dothraki, Dutch, Esperanto, Faroese, German, Georgian, Hawaiian, Hindi, Italian, Kwak’wala, Latin, Limburgish, Maltese, Manx, Maori, Navajo, Nuku Hiva, Oscan, Quechua, Sami, Samoan, Sumerian, Swahili, Tajik, Tok Pisin, Toki Pona, Twi, Warlpiri.

And not forgetting: Blazon, Blissymbolics, Braille, Old Norse runes, Lovers’ Communication System, N’ko, Ogham, Pig Latin, Stenography, Transcendental Algebra and Visible Speech.

The book has been our after-dinner entertainment for four nights now. I'm not any better than the rest of the family at the vocabulary quizzes, whose questions play to a range of different strengths among our family. The 12-year-old is loving the puzzles. (She also loves doing homework I set for my students. She might have something of an advantage over the average 12-year-old.) The puzzles tickle my brain in nice ways too, though if it were a race between me and the rest of the family, I'd be trouncing them. I just keep that knowledge in my back pocket and keep my mouth shut till the kid has found the solution. Ah, the sacrifices of parenthood. 

Here are a couple of examples. Puzzle 1 asks you to come up with grammatical English sentences in which these two-word strings occur with no punctuation separating them. 

  1. could to
  2. he have
  3. that that
  4. the John
  5. that than

(The order of problems usually doesn't go from easier-to-harder. I like that. I'd say 'could to' is much more challenging than some of the others.)

Later in the book you get this puzzle, which I'm not going to try to re-type:


As well as providing puzzles, Bellos gives background about the languages, linguistic and related fields. You're not just solving puzzles. You're learning a lot. Such fun.

The book is out in the UK on the 5th of November (remember, remember), but if you plan to buy it, pre-order it! Pre-ordering is an especially kind thing you can do for authors, as (in a kind of perverse way) pre-order numbers often determine which books get reviewed. Pre-ordering from a local bookshop is a nice thing you can do for all of us who want bookshops to survive the nasty times.

I'm afraid I don't know whether it will be published in North America.

About my book reviews

I receive some free books because of this blog, including this one. Thanks to Alex (whom I've never met) and the publisher for this one. These days, I choose to only review the ones I like, as I don't see the point of giving negative attention to others' work. If I don't like the book, I just don't mention it. So, please believe that I would have liked this book even if I'd paid for it. I am off to pre-order some for Christmas!

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British words (most) Americans don't know

This is part 2 of an examination of the words that were very country-specific in Brysbaert et al. (2019)'s study of vocabulary prevalence. For more detail on the study, please see part 1, on American words Britons don't tend to know. This half-table shows the words that British survey respondents tended to know and American ones didn't:

All of the terms will be discussed below, but not necessarily in the order given in the table. Instead, I'll group similar cases together. The unknown items from AmE were overrun with food words—that's less true here, though there are some.

Stationery items

The first two items are generici{s/z}ed brand names for office supplies. Tippex is correction fluid, known in AmE by brand names Wite-Out and Liquid Paper. Tippex is used as both noun (for the fluid) and as a verb for the action of covering things over—literally with correction fluid or figuratively. Here are a few examples from the GloWBE corpus that show some range:

  • Her contact details had been TippExed over a number of times. 
  • make-up, hair extensions, fake tan and tippexed teeth
  • But one series of game Tippexed over the old rules   

Biro is an old trade name for a ball-point pen, based on the name of the inventor László Bíró. The first syllable is pronounced like "buy" (not "bee").


Pic from here
A tombola is a kind of raffle, where numbers are pulled out of a revolving drum-type container, and also a name for that container. The game is often found at school fairs, (BrE) village fetes, etc. The OED tells us tombola comes to English "partly from French, partly from Italian", which might mean the French got the game from Italy. The Italian game seems more like bingo. While bingo is called bingo in BrE, you might use a tombola (the drum-thing) for playing it, so it's not surprising that tombola was adopted as the name of a UK-based online bingo company.

Dodgems (or dodg'ems) are (orig. AmE) bumper cars. The BrE has the look of a brand name turned to a generic, though it's unclear to me if that name was ever trademarked. The cars were first called dodgems by their inventors, the Stoeher brothers of Massachusetts. This isn't the first time we've seen an American product name become the generic name for the product type in BrE—but I'll let you sort through the trade names posts for others.

Abseil might not quite belong in the amusement category, as it seems more like hard work, but let's put it here. It's a verb from German for a means of descending a mountain (etc.) using a rope affixed on a higher point. Americans use the French word for the same thing: rappel. The idea comes from the Alps, where both German and French are to be found, so it looks like Americans and Brits might go to different areas of the mountain range. (This is a counterexample to my usual claim that the English will take any opportunity to use a French word.)


Chipolata is a kind of small sausage. They've been mentioned already at the pigs in blankets post. The name comes from French, which got it from the Italian name for an onion dish.

Plaice is a kind of flatfish that's common at British fish-and-chip shops. The OED says "European flatfish of shallow seas, Pleuronectes platessa (family Pleuronectidae)", but some other fish (esp. outside the UK) are sometimes called plaice. The name came from French long ago. It shows up in *many* punny shop names. 

Korma is a type of very mild curry typically made with a yog(h)urt-based sauce. BrE speakers generally have large vocabularies of the types of curry that are popular at UK Indian take-aways and restaurants, which often have menus with headings based on the curry type, like this at the right. It (orig. BrE) flummoxed me at first when English friends invited me over for a take-away and I was expected to already know this vocabulary and be able tell them what I'd like without reading the fine-print descriptions of the curry ingredients. The OED tells us korma comes from an Urdu word for 'cooked meat', which itself derives from a Turkish word.

Escalope takes us back to French, and the French influence on UK menus. OED defines it as "Thin slices of boneless meat (occasionally of fish), prepared in various ways; esp. a special cut of veal taken from the leg." It's found in menu phrases like veal escalope or an escalope of chicken.
P.S. Thanks to Cathy in the comments we have an AmE equivalent for this, the Italian scallopini. Another case (like courgette/zucchini) of a French-derived food word in BrE and an Italian one in AmE. (The Prodigal Tongue covers this a bit more.)



Yob is an example of back slang. It's the word boy backwards, and it's used particularly for young men/boys who engage in anti-social behavio(u)r. Hooligans, etc.

Naff is a word that's hard to translate exactly, which is why it has been one of my 'untranslatables' in the past. It's an adjective that refers to a certain kind of 'uncool', or as Jonathon Green defines it: "in poor taste, unappealing, unfashionable, bad" and more recently it's also meant "second-rate, workaday".  I've seen Americans get this word very wrong, so best not to attempt it until you've been in the UK for a some time. Some Brits will tell you it stands for 'not available for f***ing', but, as with almost all such acronymic slang tales, that is almost certainly false. Green's Dictionary of Slang gives this for etymology:

[? north. dial. naffhead, naffin, naffy, a simpleton; a blockhead; an idiot or niffy-naffy, inconsequential, stupid or Scot. nyaff, a term of contempt for any unpleasant or objectionable person; however note Polari etymologist WS Wilcox in a letter 25/11/99: ‘I have long believed that naff may well derive from Romany naflo, a form of nasvalo – no good, broken, useless. Since several other Parlary words derive from Romany this is not impossible’; in this context note also 16C Ital. gnaffa, a despicable person]

Brolly isn't in the same slang league as the previous examples. It's a kind of (orig. AmE) cutesie way of referring to an umbrella. As I discuss in some detail in The Prodigal Tongue, this is what BrE speakers say instead of (AmE) bumbershoot, an Americanism that Americans often erroneously believe to be British. That bit of my book is excerpted at Humanities magazine. Have a read and if you like it, maybe buy or borrow the book? (Please?)

Bolshy is an adjective derived from bolshevik, and as such it originally meant 'left-wing, Communist', but these days it's more often used to mean 'uncooperative, obstructive, subversive' (thanks again Mr Green) or 'Left-wing; uncooperative, recalcitrant' (OED). Don't get bolshy in the comments, OK? 

The rest

The other items on the list are just too miscellaneous to fit together under meaningful subheadings.

Gazump (and its sister gazunder) have been treated in an Untranslatables post already, so you can read about it there. It's about underhanded (BrE) property/(AmE) real-estate -buying behavio(u)r.

Kerbside is just (AmE) curbside in BrE spelling. Here's the old post about curb/kerb

Judder is an onomatopoetic verb. Like shudder, but used more often of mechanical things, like engines that aren't working well. Here's an example from the GloWBE corpus: "the bus juddered over potholes".  The OED's first citations of it are in the 1930s, so it came into English long after AmE & BrE separated.

Chiropody is used as AmE (and more and more BrE) would use podiatry, though some specialists try to force a difference in meaning between the two (see this, for example). You'll find other sites telling you there is no difference, and that, for the most part is true. The word podiatry was coined in the US and there covered the same things that chiropody covered in the UK. Chiropody comes from the Greek for 'hands' and 'feet', and you can see the similarity with chiropractor, who uses their hands to treat people. What's a bit funny about chiropody/chiropodist is that the pronunciation is all over the place. Some use the /k/ sound for the ch, following the Greek etymology. That's how dictionaries tend to show it. Others use a 'sh' sound as if it comes from French. You can hear both on YouGlish.

Quango stands for 'quasi-autonomous non-governmental organi{s/z}ation'. I remember learning about non-governmental organi{s/z}ations, or NGOs, when I lived in South Africa in the 90s. Apparently NGO has taken off as a term in the US in the meantime (see comments), but not quango. A quango is an NGO that gets public funds to do something that the government wants and maybe has government participants. Google says the word quango is 'derogatory', but I think that depends a bit on your political persuasion. Here's a BBC fact sheet on quangos.

A pelmet is a decorative window-covering that doesn't cover a window—it covers the top of the window and maybe the curtain rail. It can be a little curtain or a kind of box or board. Here's a selection of those that come up on a Google Image search:

The curtainy type of pelmet would be called a valance in AmE—which we've seen before because it has a bed-related use in BrE. I honestly do not know what the boxy things would be called in AmE. I've never had one in an AmE house, and my efforts to find them on US websites have not (orig. AmE) panned out. If you have the answer, say so in the comments and I'll update this bit.

P.S. Thank you commenters! Grapeson offers cornice as an AmE possibility. Usually (and in BrE too) this is a thing at the joint of the wall and the ceiling (often decorative). But Wikipedia has a little section on 'Cornice as window treatment' that confirms this usage. Then Diane Benjamin offers box valance as an AmE alternative. The Shade Store says this:

The primary difference between a curtain valance and a cornice is that valances are made out of drapery or fabric, while cornices are typically made out of wood.

Thanks to the commenters for helping out!

Finally, chaffinch is a bird species (which didn't come up in the recent bird posts). The Wikipedia map to the right makes it easy to see why Americans didn't recogni{s/z}e the word (the green areas are where chaffinches typically live). Wikipedia does say "It occasionally strays to eastern North America, although some sightings may be escapees."

So, that's that! Words that most British folk know and most Americans don't. If only I'd had Brysbaert et al.'s list when I was trying to make very difficult AmE/BrE quizzes.

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American words (most) British folk don't know

Some years ago a survey went (a)round from the University of Ghent on English vocabulary knowledge. I recall doing the survey and I believe I shared it on social media. Perhaps you did it too. Last week I read the published results: Word prevalence norms for 62,000 English lemmas by Marc Brysbaert and colleagues.

The point of the research was to establish how well known various words are in order to help psychologists (etc.) choose words for experiments. I was pleased to see that it included a table showing words that differed most for AmE and BrE speakers. So, my plan is to write two blog posts where I go through the lists of unevenly known words and see what I can say about them (or what I have already said about them). I'm starting with the words that were much more familiar to Americans and I'll put them into categories, rather than going down the list as published.

Here's the (half) table. (Sorry it's not very clear. All the words will be mentioned below.) The unfortunate headings 'Pus' and 'Puk' mean 'prevalence for US respondents' and 'prevalence for UK respondents'. These are not the prevalence scores that one can find in the data files from the paper (which are z-scores with positive and negative values), though, so I think they are just percentages—i.e. 90% of US respondents knew manicotti, but only 16% of UK ones did. The main point about them is that the scores are much higher for American respondents than British ones. 


Many of these words are relatively unknown in the UK because they refer to things that are not common in the UK. So, less linguistic difference than cultural difference. Many reflect the US's ethnic diversity.

Glorious food

The Italian American angle

The first two are pasta-related. Manicotti are a kind of large tube pasta, which are stuffed, usually with ricotta, to make the dish pictured to the right. The name is used both for the empty pasta and for the dish. It comes from the Italian for 'little sleeves', but is, according to Wikipedia, "an Italian-American dish". BrE speakers are more likely to know the very similar pasta/dish canneloni, which is also found in the US and Italy. The difference? "Manicotti tubes are ridged, larger and slightly thicker. Cannelloni tubes are smooth, a touch smaller and slightly thinner."*
Ziti is a smaller tubular pasta. Size-wise it is between penne (popular in both countries) and rigatoni. Rigatoni is what my family traditionally had for Christmas Eve dinner, and I usually have to explain that word to BrE speakers as well. (The study confirms that Americans are much more likely to know rigatoni.)  Wikipedia notes that "Ziti in the US is most commonly associated with the Italian-American dish of baked ziti. In Sicily it is traditionally served at a wedding feast." For more on pasta more generally, click through to this old post.
Provolone is an Italian cheese that you can get in the UK, but you just don't see as much as in the US. I like it on hot pastrami sandwiches, but it's usually in Italian dishes. Whether you pronounce the e at the end (when using the word in English) is a matter of personal preference—or possibly regional affiliation.

Fresh-water foods

Tilapia is a fresh-water fish that is apparently easy to farm. Its popularity in the US is fairly recent—I only learned it on a trip back to there maybe 15 years ago. Wikipedia says: "Tilapia is the fourth-most consumed fish in the United States dating back to 2002". It's originally from Africa, and the name is a Latini{s/z}ation of a Setswana word for 'fish'. Apparently you can get tilapia in the UK, but it's just not as common. My guess is that an island nation has less need of fresh-water fishes to eat.
Crawdad is a synonym for crayfish (or crawfish), which are abundant and popular as a food in some parts of the US. The word crayfish is used in both UK and US, and crawfish will have come over from the UK. The OED's etymology is helpful:
Etymology: Middle English crevice , -visse , < Old French crevice (13–15th cent. in Littré); compare crevis (masculine), crevicel diminutive in Godefroy; in Old French also escrevisse , modern French écrevisse , Walloon grèvèse , Rouchi graviche (Littré); < Old High German crebiȥ Middle High German krebeȥ , a derivative of stem *kraƀ- in krab-bo crab n.1
In Southern Middle English the second syllable was naturally confounded with vish (written viss in Ayenbite), ‘fish’; whence the corrupted forms [...], and the later crey-, cray-fish. The variants in cra- go back to Anglo-Norman when the stress was still on second syllable, and the first liable to vary between cre- and cra-; they are the origin of the modern craw-fish, now used chiefly in U.S.
So, the craw- came from the UK and later was mostly forgotten there. The -dad seems to have been added in the US as a "fanciful" variation, according to Oxford. Their example sentence includes more synonyms:
‘Whether you know them as mudbugs, ditch bugs, river lobsters, crawlybottoms, crawdads, or crawfish, anyone who has spent time in streams is familiar with crayfish.’

The Mexican-Spanish angle

I've covered (AmE) garbanzo bean versus (BrE/AmE) chick pea in the Big List of Vegetables.
Tomatillos are a member of the physalis family that look kind of like green tomatoes with husks. (Wikipedia gives Mexican husk tomato as an alternative name. The GloWBE corpus only has that one in South Asian countries.) You don't see these much in UK.  For the type of physalis you frequently see in the UK, here are some old tweets of mine

A tamale consists of a leaf wrapped around a filling—often a corn husk around a maize dough called masa.

Other foods, other cuisines

Kabob is simply a different spelling from what BrE speakers are used to. In BrE it's usually kebab. Since it comes from Arabic (and other languages that got it from Arabic), it's not surprising that the spelling varies—that happens easily when different people are moving a word from one alphabet to another. The cultural place of this food is very different, though. Americans tend to think of shish kabobs—little pieces of food (especially meat) on a stick, typically cooked over fire. In the UK, one often thinks of doner kebabs, which AmE speakers might call gyros, getting the idea from Greek rather than Turkish. That's the compacted meat cooked on a big spit, then sliced off for putting in a pit(t)a bread or similar. In the UK, that kind of kebab is stereotypically found at the end of a night of binge drinking. 
(Late addition: here's a corpus view. Note that K-Bob is not a spelling of this food. It's a prolific commenter's handle on a political website. Kubab and Kibib are names of other things as well.)

In AmE hibachi is usually a tabletop (AmE) grill/(BrE) barbecue or a kind of iron hot plate used in Japanese restaurants. The word comes from Japanese, but has shifted in meaning. Wikipedia can tell you more. 

Kielbasa means 'sausage' in Polish, but in AmE it refers to a specific type of sausage, which Wikipedia tells me "closely resembles the Wiejska sausage". You can find the word kielbasa in the UK in Polish shops, but it remains to be seen how many of these will survive Brexit.

Goober (or goober pea) is a regional (mostly southern) word for
the peanut. It came into English from a Bantu language (perhaps Kikongo or Kimbundu), brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans. Americans who don't use this as a word for peanuts will still know it as a brand name for chocolate-covered peanuts—a mainstay of (AmE) movie theater/(BrE) cinema concession stands.
Goober can also refer to a foolish person—but that might have a different etymology. (Goober Pyle was a kind but simple character on The Andy Griffith Show—which still shows in repeats on US television.)

Medicine / disease

Two of the items in the list are generic drug names. I've written about acetaminophen (BrE paracetamol) in another post. Albuterol is a bronchodilator (asthma inhaler) known in the UK as Salbutamol, but I'd bet most BrE folk are more familiar with the trade name Ventolin. In the UK, this comes in a blue inhaler, while preventative inhalers' sleeves are mostly brown, so they're often referred to by colo(u)r: take your brown inhaler twice a day and your blue inhaler as needed.
Staph is short for Staphylococcus bacterium. Americans worry about getting staph infections. I'm sure British people do too, but they haven't obsessed about this particular germ enough to it a nickname. (At least, not until MRSA came along. That's is a very severe kind of antibiotic-resistant staph infection, but Americans talked about staph infections long before that was in the news.) I remember staph being mentioned a lot in relation to gym mats at school. A partner to staph is strepwhich (looking at the data file) is also much, much better known in AmE than BrE. Now I see I've written about both of these germs before. So please have a look at the post on infections for more info!
I'll stick chiggers in this category. They're not a disease, but they feel like one. Chiggers are the larvae of a kind of mite. They burrow under the skin and it itches LIKE HELL. They exist in the UK and some people call them chiggers here, but the word comes up a lot less. Where I'm from, you get chigger "bites" from walking around in grass with bare ankles. There is less cause for walking around in grass with bare ankles in the UK, thanks to fewer lawns and colder weather, so I assume that's why people talk about them less. Wikipedia lists other names for them, which I've looked for in the GloWBE corpus. I give the US/UK (in that order) numbers after the names: berry bugs (1/0), harvest mites (1/2), red bugs (4/1), scrub-itch mites (1/0), and aoutas (0/1). Chigger is the most common name for them in both countries, but with 48 hits in AmE and just 7 in BrE.

Other cultural references

Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday that takes place between Christmas and New Year. I assume that's what Americans were recogni{s/z}ing in kwanza, rather than the Angolan currency

A sandlot is a piece of undeveloped land. The word is used especially when such land is used as a playing field, e.g. sandlot baseball.
A luau (or lūʻau) is a traditional Hawaiian party with food and entertainment. 

And all that's left is...

Conniption.  Origin unknown. It means a tantrum, hysterics, a fit of rage, and the like. It's often used in the phrase conniption fit (which means the same thing). Here are a few examples of its use from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:
  • They had a conniption when he starred in a movie
  • Your mom'd have a conniption fit if she heard you talkin' like that. 
  • wealthy Americans have conniptions at the possibility of a tax increase 
So that's that! I'll do the words from other side of the table, known by Brits and not by Americans, in the next post. I won't promise it'll be next week. I might take the weekend off for my birthday!

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The book!

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