painting as decorating

We're four months into a major renovation project and the walls (at least) are finished, so we're getting our brains around painting them. So far, one wall is painted so that the radiator can be (more BrE) fitted (in AmE, I'd say installed) this week. I've marked the same space as 'same wall' on the 'before' picture, so you can see the difference, though it's a Ship-of-Theseus question whether it's the same wall...

after before

Because major renovations are not something I've done in any other country, I'm often not sure if the vocabulary I'm learning is (a) trade jargon that lay people don't generally know, (b) words I'd know if I were just a little bit handier, or (c) British words for things that Americans have different (or no) words for. Painting is something I have previous experience of, though, so I'm pretty sure I can make a whole week's worth of Twitter Differences of the Day (#DotD) out of them (#PaintWeek). So, I'm pre-loading the differences on this blog, but I reserve the right to add more painting differences to this post as the week goes on! 


When UK friends see the progress pictures I post on Facebook, many say "It's just the decorating now!" By (BrE) decorating they mean the painting, wallpapering and decorative tiling. They've been saying that for over a month even though we don't have (AmE) countertops/(BrE) worktops, a (BrE) hob/(AmE) range top, bathroom plumbing, or a (finished) kitchen floor and soon we'll be moving everything from the living room into the kitchen, so that another floor can be replaced. Other than the one wall painted so that the radiator can be plumbed in, decorating is mostly (AmE) a ways off yet. But my main point is: my American friends don't say "it's just the decorating now!" and I can't think of an exact AmE equivalent for BrE decorating in this sense.

Similarly, the person you hire to paint interior walls (or to wallpaper them) is a (BrE) decorator. In AmE, you'd call them a painter if they're painting. In AmE decorator is not the name of a manual-labo(u)r job, but a creative one—close to being an interior designer, but more focused on choosing lampshades and pictures for the walls than on . This art/design college site describes the difference between interior design and AmE interior decorating as:

Interior design is the art and science of understanding people’s behavior to create functional spaces within a building, while interior decorating is the furnishing or adorning of a space with decorative elements to achieve a certain aesthetic. In short, interior designers may decorate, but decorators do not design.

(In other words, interior designers are not very good at explaining what interior designers are, but they get paid a lot more than interior decorators.)

Paints and their finishes

The paint term you're most likely to find confusing if you move countries is the name for normal wall paint. In BrE it's emulsion and in AmE latex (paint) or just wall paint.

In terms of finishes (there's a chart below), the dullest one is matt in BrE but spelled matte in AmE, in a rare case of AmE spelling being longer than BrE. AmE also uses flat for this finish. Dulux (UK brand) has flat matt as a 'more velvety' kind of matt.

More popular than matt(e) in the US is eggshell, which is promoted as 'more washable'. You get this in the UK, but people seem to talk about it much less and buy matt paint more. 

Both BrE & AmE have paints with satin finishes, though they may be more popular in UK—or there's the possibility that a meaning difference causes the different numbers in the two places, e.g. if UK satin has less sheen than a US satin or something like that. Then again, some of the number differences in the corpus table below may stem from people writing about such things more in the UK than the US. I remember when Peter Gabriel's song D.I.Y. came out in 1978 and Americans had to be told what the initialism meant. DIY is a national obsession in the UK. 

A finish name I've seen in the UK and not the US is silk, "Dr Dulux" tells me that the term silk is used for woodwork paint, whereas satin is for (plaster) wall paint.

In AmE, I'd talk about paint finishes on wood in terms of gloss, a term well-used in BrE too. But it seems gloss finishes tend to be talked about in more hyphenated ways in AmE: semi-gloss, high-gloss.

(Note that the BrE 'matte finish' examples in the table are mostly about makeup, not wall paint.)

Plaster & paint

Last week we had a classic misunderstanding when Spouse kept saying he'd do the mist coat on a newly plastered wall and I didn't know not to hear that as "missed coat". ("If the plasterers missed a coat," I was thinking, "why aren't we asking them to fix that?") It turns out a mist coat is a coat of diluted paint that's used to prime a newly plastered wall. While I have found mist coat in a US paint company's glossary, it offers sealer coat as an alternative, and that term might be more common in the US (see chart), but it's not clear from the data that the examples have to do with sealing plastered walls, rather than sealing something else that's going to be painted further.

(To see more data on these, click here for a Google Books ngram, which shows mist coat looking not-terribly-different across the countries.)

In both countries, this could be called a primer or priming coat too.

In talking about mist coats with Americans, another reason for our unfamiliarity with the term came up: Americans rarely deal with fresh plaster walls these days, mostly using (AmE) drywall (aka AmE sheet( )rock, wall( )board & BrE plasterboard). I've mentioned some of these terms in another post, and remain very bitter about drywall, because at my first UK Scrabble tournament I played DRYWALLS as a nine-timer (i.e. on two triple-word scores) for 171 points and it was disallowed because it was not in the UK Scrabble dictionary at the time. (Today it would be good for tournament play. Waaaah!!!)

At any rate, watching the plasterers' progress has been really impressive. They are GOOD at their jobs. So smoooooooth.


It's interesting that in our globali{s/z}ed world that paint brands are rather nation-specific (US Benjamin Moore, Sherwin Williams; UK Dulux, Albany...). Perhaps that's because the materials you're painting and conditions under which you're painting can differ from place to place, and therefore the best formulations for one place aren't the best for another. Maybe they're all coming from the same factories somewhere, but they're branded locally because that's where the colo(u)rs are mixed. I could do some research on that, but I've already spent too much of my Sunday on this post. Whatever the reason, the names of the paint colo(u)rs are going to differ.  I've noted in another post that fudge-colo(u)red paint in one country is a strikingly different colo(u)r from in the other.
How you choose a colo(u)r is named differently. In AmE I'd call the things you get from the paint store swatches or paint/color chips. Valdspar Paints from Minnesota has come to the UK and advertises colour chips, but in the main UK paint companies offer colour cards or sample cards.

If everything from our dining room weren't packed up in boxes right now, I'd show you a print  we were given as a wedding present, in which a map of Britain is shaped from paint samples with names based on UK place names, like Dorset Cream and I-don't-remember-what-else.

Dorset Cream, as it happens, is from a paint company that has gone global, trading on its Britishness and therefore sent up in a Saturday Night Live sketch.


A verb or two

And I've just noticed this relevant old Difference of the Day: paint 

Finally (if I don't add more), paint similes seem to be much more common in BrE than AmE. I've run across smart as paint before, and Michael Quinion has written about that and other positive comparisons to paint. With smart as paint, it helps to keep in mind the more BrE sense of smart, i.e. stylish and fresh. (I do recommend Quinion's post.) 

Read more


credit: twistynoodle
Fifteen years! That's how long this blog has been going. Happy anniversary to me! And thank you all coming along with me on this. 

I've just decided, since I really should be going to bed, that a 15th anniversary calls for a blog post, so I thought I'd share with you something I learned today while searching for 20th-century interjections in the Oxford English Dictionary (as one does).

My first surprise was to discover that the leave-taking expression Toodles! is the same age as me. (Which is to say, the OED's first example of its use is from 1965.) But my second surprise was to discover that it's an AmE expression—the first example was from an episode of Gidget, the all-American Sally-Field-on-a-surfboard sitcom.

This was a surprise to me for two reasons:

(1)  the expression it abbreviates, toodle-oo,  is British in origin. The first OED citation is from the magazine Punch in 1907, followed by lots of citations in British Literature (T. E. Lawrence, P. G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Sayers). There's more about it at

(2) I think of abbreviations ending in -s as a much more British than American thing, as I wrote about almost FIFTEEN YEARS AGO.

But what's less surprising to me is that the OED marks it as "U.S. colloquial (frequently humorous)', because what's more amusing to Americans than words that sound British? And what's more British to Americans than words that sound a bit silly?



I tweeted about this yesterday and now I get to surprise all the people who replied to ask if toodles came from the BrE toodle-pip. On the contrary, the evidence of toodle-pip (actually tootle-pip at that point) only starts in 1977. It blends two older slangy goodbyes toodle-oo and pip-pip, both on evidence here in this Wodehouse quote (the first OED citation for pip-pip in the 'goodbye' sense).

1919   P. G. Wodehouse Damsel in Distress x. 125   ‘Well, it's worth trying,’ said Reggie. ‘I'll give it a whirl. Toodleoo!’ ‘Good-bye.’ ‘Pip-pip!’ Reggie withdrew.

Incidentally, a contemporary of toodle-oo and pip-pip is cheerio, whose first citation is from 1914 ("Cheeryo, as we say in the navy", in a letter from the poet Rupert Brooke.) In 2014, a flurry of media stories made a very big deal of the fact that cheerio is not said as much in the early 21st century, framing its downfall as a loss of "Britishness" that was most probably Americans' fault. Well, if the sense of national self is based on Edwardian-era linguistic fads, then why is no one up in arms about pip-pip and toodle-oo? (The cheerio media coverage is something I rant about in The Prodigal Tongue.)

This choice of topic might give the impression that I'm saying goodbye. As if fifteen years was enough? You've got to be kidding. I've got years of blogging in me yet. It's tricky to find time for it, especially since I've taken on even more work responsibilities this year. But just because I'm quiet sometimes doesn't mean I'm not here. Hasta la vista, amigos! Pip pip!

Read more


Sorry, it's been a while. I was back to teaching, which meant my Sunday blogging time went out the window because when teaching is in session, there is no spare time. I wasn't too sorry to go back to it, though. I was feeling a mighty guilt for being on leave from teaching during the pandemic, and I was teaching two topics close to my heart: English in the United States and Semantics. I came to pandemic teaching in its third university term, which meant that my colleagues had already worked out what works best, and I could follow their lead. While it was hard to get good discussions going in the online setting, student attendance and preparation were fantastic. In all, it was very rewarding.

I'm still in recovery from it, though, so I'm trying to write a short-and-simple blog post. (We've heard that one before...). So I'm going to write about the last thing to come (AmE) over the transom. This tweet:

Kirk McElhearn @mcelhearn · 8h @lynneguist  I’m very surprised by the use of the word “sleaze” lately regarding Tory corruption. I thought it was, perhaps, a BrE usage, because in AmE I would never use it in this case. My partner, who is English, is surprised too. Any though?

The adjective sleazy goes back to the 17th century, when it referred to a property of textiles. The OED defines an early meaning as "Thin or flimsy in texture; having little substance or body." More familiar meanings "Dilapidated, filthy, slatternly, squalid; sordid, depraved, disreputable, worthless" only came into being in the 20th century. The OED's earliest citations for such meanings are from Americans in 1941, but quickly after that are UK examples. Green's Dictionary of Slang has some in the 1930s, also from the US. Usages associated with sex come later than those associated with dirtiness or criminality.

Sleaze as a noun doesn't show up until the late 1960s. The earliest OED citations are British and have to do with sordidness, inferior quality and low moral standards. They have a draft addition of a separate sense of 'political corruption or impropriety'. The first of these is from the Washington Post in 1980. Green's Dictionary of Slang's first is from 1981 in Decatur, Illinois. British usage comes soon after and seems to take charge—so much so that some American commenters on social media (like Kirk above) are saying that this sense of sleaze is unfamiliar to them.

AmE, we've seen before, has a 'corruption' sense for graft that BrE doesn't have. A commenter back at that post mentions sleaze as a possible BrE translation. The "sleaze crisis" in the Guardian headline is about money, lobbying, government contracts and the Conservative party.

These days in AmE, the noun sleaze more usually refers to a person—originally a promiscuous woman, but nowadays I'd mostly read it more like (AmE) sleazebag (also sleazeball among other things), which Green's defines as "a distasteful person, with overtones of dirtiness, criminality and sexual excess". In AmE, you'd probably expect a "sleaze crisis" to involve sex.

Sleaze shows up as a noun much more in BrE than in AmE, including in the news, as shown here for the News on the Web corpus. (With the AmE 'person' meaning, using it in the news might constitute libel.) 


For what it's worth, nouns that co-occur (+/- 4 words) most with sleaze in this corpus are:



Interestingly, the sixth most common adjective with sleaze in the American part of the corpus is Tory, indicating how strongly the word is associated with Britain, at least in news contexts. 


Wow, a blog post written in 43 minutes. I kept my promise to myself! 

In dark red are additions/edits from the morning after. Thanks to commenter Zhuang Lemon Duck.

Read more


I have left my leave. In the spring of 2020 I was on university-funded leave. Then I took unpaid leave to go be an NEH Public Scholar for six months. Now I'm returning to my university job six weeks early so that someone else can go on sick leave. (Then I'll go back on unpaid leave in April and finish off the NEH grant.) That leaves me thinking about leave, and how Americans sometimes ask me to explain some BrE uses of it. 

Leave, a noun meaning 'time off from work/service' is general English, but it's used for more kinds of time off in BrE than in AmE. The leave in all of these expressions is not "I'm leaving! Bye-bye!", but that you have been given leave (permission) to go. And so...

Leave of absence is used in both places, but more in North America—and I am guessing that's because using leave on its own is less clear to those who use it less:

To be on leave is general English. The OED says that Americans can also be on a leave, but the corpus data I can find shows that as being more common in Canada than in the US. (On a leave of absence is much more common than on a leave on its own.)

In employment   

Several modifications of ___ leave seem to be used in both countries:

  • paid/unpaid leave
  • sick/medical leave
  • maternity/parental/paternity leave

...though you find all the parental leave expressions above, plus adoption leave much more in the UK because there's just much more of it to be had over here. Maternity leave also pops up as mat leave (and in Canada too) because familiarity breeds abbreviation.

Some BrE kinds of leave that aren't expressed that way in AmE are:

  • annual leave: one's annual (BrE) holiday / (AmE) vacation allowance. It's not uncommon in the UK to get out-of-office email messages that say "I'm on annual leave until [date] and will not be checking my email during this time".  
  • compassionate leave [thanks for reminding me, Biochemist]: time off to deal with some personal crisis, often a bereavement (bereavement leave also shows up in the corpus) or a family illness.
  • research leave: what those in US universities call sabbatical. (Sometimes in the UK, one runs across sabbatical leave.)
  • study leave: time off to do some training or education. I don't know of a US equivalent for this. Is there one?
  • garden(ing) leave: a euphemistic way of talking about some kind of paid suspension of work, often to keep someone out of trouble before they exit a job. This has come up before in this old post and was also an item in one of my Untranslatable Octobers.

Some or many of them might come from the military (see below) via the civil service. 

Some of kinds of leave in the UK might be threatened by post-Brexit degradation of working conditions. (Maternity leave looks ok for the time being, but holiday/vacation pay is a worry. See here.)  

The only ___ leave I can find that is used more in AmE than in BrE is administrative leave. In the news, it's what you see happening to police who shoot people while the shooting is being investigated.  American police do a whole lot more shooting people than (the mostly un-firearmed) British police. It's also used for other kinds of "we can't fire you yet" or "we don't want to fire you, but we need to look like we're doing something". In one British article (about doping in competitive cycling), administrative leave is followed by "sometimes called garden leave". While garden leave might hint at an impropriety, the hint is not as strong as it is for administrative leave. (E.g. some examples of garden leave seem to be about preventing employees from having access to company secrets before they move to another company.)

 In military service

Shore leave is general (military) English. I'd presume most of the military leaves are common to both. Furlough (my 2020 US>UK Word of the Year) is another military term for leave, with more meanings in AmE than BrE.

The military term absent without leave goes back to the 17th century, but the OED also marks it as "U.S. Military" in two senses: the offen{c/s}e of being absent without permission, and a person who is absent without permission. The acronym AWOL is originally AmE in all its senses.

 In immigration

As well as getting permission to go, you can get permission to stay. A BrE phrase every UK immigrant knows well is leave to remain. That is, permission to stay in the country. BrE indefinite leave to remain is equivalent to the AmE green card or general English permanent residence. Leave to remain can also be  temporary or limited (which are not the same thing), and discretionary, which is used in extraordinary circumstances (as for asylum seekers).

Not that kind of leave

And as long as I'm talking about noun uses of leave, take leave of (someone) is general (maybe a bit old-fashioned?) English, but take leave of one's senses ('stop thinking normally') seems rather BrE:


What have I forgotten? Let us know in the comments:

Read more


In The Prodigal Tongue I wrote quite a bit about how differences in prototype structures for word meanings can lead to miscommunication between BrE and AmE speakers, and I've written about such differences here on the blog with reference to soup and bacon sandwiches. This past week I was faced with an example I'd never considered before: fudge

I'm sure I've never considered it because I have no interest in eating the stuff. I don't even really like walking by the fudge shops in Brighton with their sickly smells pouring out onto the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk. But then Welsh-linguist-in-the-US Gareth Roberts ran this Twitter poll and I thought "Oh, yeah. That's true, isn't it?"

f someone said they had a box of fudge for you, would you expect it to (most likely) be chocolate-flavoured?  Where are you from?  Feel free to comment to add nuance. And please retweet if you're interested in the results. Yes; from  Flag of United States / Flag of Canada   44.4% No; from  Flag of United States / Flag of Canada 4.9% Yes; NOT from  Flag of United States / Flag of Canada 7.6% No; NOT from  Flag of United States / Flag of Canada 43.1%

First thing to note: fudge in its food sense is an Americanism, and it seems to have been mostly chocolate at the start. The OED's first citation for it comes from a Michigan periodical in 1896 and reads "Fudges, a kind of chocolate bonbons." Wikipedia notes that a recipe for "Vassar chocolates" (made at the college/university in the 1890s) was actually vanilla fudge—which seems to say that fudge could be considered to be the poor student's chocolate, no matter the flavo(u)r.

At least some of the North American 'no' votes were Canadians laying a claim for maple fudge, but other Canadians agreed with most Americans that in North America fudge can be assumed to be chocolate unless otherwise specified, while BrE respondents mostly said it was vanilla unless otherwise specified. As a result, chocolate fudge turns up more in BrE than in AmE:

I should note that 20 of the 41 UK hits for chocolate fudge are followed by cake and a few more are followed by other nouns like frosting or biscuits. There's only 1 chocolate fudge cake in the AmE data, but if you look for fudge cake there, you get double fudge cake, which (I'm willing to bet) any American would interpret as an extra chocolatey cake. (The BrE data include no double fudge cakes but one double fudge chocolate cake, underscoring that you need to mention chocolate because fudge doesn't mean chocolate in BrE.)

Now, we've seen something like this, but a bit different, before: BrE use of chocolate brownies. In the case of fudge, Americans (like UKers) have many, many flavo(u)rs of fudge these days. But because the prototypical (and original) American fudge is chocolate-flavo(u)red, Americans tend to only specify a flavo(u)r where it's contrary to that prototype. 

For BrE speakers, chocolate is contrary to the prototype, and so needs specification. Looking for fudge recipes on BBC Good Food, the 'classic fudge recipe' (pictured right) and plain ol' fudge are flavo(u)red with vanilla only.

the actual jar, 2014

AmE also has hot fudge, which is a thick chocolate sauce that needs to be heated to make it pourable. One of my best blogger moments was when a US reader came to see me talk in Reading (England) while she was on her holiday/vacation. Knowing she would see me and knowing that I went to college/university in western Massachusetts she brought me a jar of hot fudge from Herrell's, a Northampton, MA ice cream shop that happened (she didn't know this) to be in the same building as where I held my first full-time job. I think I heated up one bit of it for an ice cream (orig. AmE) sundae. The rest I ate spoon by spoon straight out of the fridge over the next few months. Hot fudge is not literally heated fudge, but instead fudge here "Designat[es] sweet foods having the rich flavour and dense consistency associated with (esp. chocolate) fudge". The OED marks that definition as "Originally and chiefly U.S."

Back in the UK, Cadbury Fudge is bar of chocolate-coated fudge in the BrE sense. They typically come in a small size and are the kind of thing that children with not-too-much pocket money might get after school.

This led me to wonder if fudge is used differently as a colo(u)r name in the two places and sure enough, this is what happens when you search for "fudge paint color" in the USA:

I couldn't find as many brands offering fudge-colo(u)red paint in the UK, but the one that does seems to go in the vanilla fudge direction:

So, if you're travel(l)ing to another country and need to describe yourself to the person who'll be picking you up from the airport, I'd advise against saying you'll be the person in the fudge-colo(u)red jacket.

A few more fudge facts:

  • The meaning 'to do in "a clumsy, makeshift, or dishonest manner"' (OED) is over 200 years older than the food meaning. That came from an earlier word fadge, and it's thought that the vowel alteration was symbolic: people fudged the pronunciation to indicate they were talking about something fudged.

    Fudge the food might well get its name from the fact that it was a way to make candy/sweets at home, "fudging" the usual processes for making fancy chocolates and the like.

  • The exclamation Oh fudge! similarly predates the candy/sweet. I'm sure many people these days think of it as a minced way of saying another word that starts with fu, but the first interjection use of fudge in the OED in the 1700s predates their first use of that other word as an interjection (and the one in Green's Dictionary of Slang) by nearly 200 years. The original use of fudge as an interjection meant something more like "Nonsense!"

  • The usual BrE mnemonic for the high notes of the treble clef is Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. In AmE I learned Every Good Boy Does Fine, but a more recent AmE version is Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. Click here for an n-gram chart, showing the rise of fudge.

Read more

2020 UK-to-US Word of the Year: jab

For part 1 of 2020 Words of the Year, click here.

In recent years, I've had a good slate of candidates for UK-to-US Words of the Year, but something seemed to happen to transatlantic word travel in 2020. You might think that an internet-age pandemic would make the world more open to words from elsewhere. We're all in the same boat. We're talking about it on social media. We're watching a lot of the same program(me)s on Netflix. But, as we saw for terminology for isolation/lockdown/quarantine, the pandemic has shown how local linguistic preferences still grow and thrive in the Anglosphere. In fact, those three terms made it as Words of the Year for different dictionaries in different places: the Australian National Dictionary Centre chose iso (for isolation), Collins (UK) chose lockdown, and Lexico (US-UK hybrid) and Cambridge (UK w/ strong US presence) chose quarantine

You'll have already seen in the title that the UK-to-US Word of the Year is:


I thank my friend Paul for sending me this fitting memorial of the moment:

From @birdyword on Twitter

But before I write about why and how jab got the title, I'd like to review the strange year it's been for UK-to-US word transit.

During the year I noted words that I wanted to remember when it came to WotY time. Before Covid became a pandemic, my money had been on rubbish, particularly in its grammatically malleable usage to mean 'not good': e.g. as an adjective a rubbish idea and as a verb: don't rubbish my idea. Americans were using it a lot in 2019. But then, it crashed:

Another one to consider had been reckon, a verb that is present in AmE and BrE, but limited to regional usage (and possibly lower registers) in AmE. Here we're interested in its particular use where other AmE registers might use figure or suppose. The fact that it's not low-register in BrE can be seen in the fact that I reckon has been much-said in recent-ish decades in the UK Parliament: 

Its old-fashionedness in AmE can be seen in how it's lost use since the early 20th century:

Ben Yagoda had blogged about this one twice in 2020 on his Not One-Off Britishisms blog, so it seemed like a good candidate. But was it coming over from BrE or was it coming "up" from American dialects? Yagoda's examples in the press made the BrE argument: lots of Britishisms come in through the New York Times and the Washington Post, etc., because they're written by well-travel(l)ed, cosmopolitan, word-loving, and often foreign people. His reckons looked like that. 

But when I looked at American reckon examples in the News on the Web corpus, I found a lot of cases where Americans, particularly African Americans, were being quoted in relation to local matters. That made me more suspicious of the increasing numbers of reckons in the corpus data. Maybe it wasn't people sounding more British, maybe more speakers of varied dialects were being quoted in the news this year (and there were plenty of reasons for that to happen this year). 

And then there was also the 2020 effect. Reckon was showing up lots in the NOW corpus in 2019, and then it went down in 2020. (Its up-and-downness might well be a product of its regionality.)


So, it ends up looking like AmE is turning away from BrE a bit this year. With all that was going on in the US in 2020, perhaps this is not all that surprising. 

So, we ended up with jab as a very late contender for WotY, showing up in December when the UK approved the first vaccine for Covid. (This is why one shouldn't do one's Words of the Year in November, dictionaries!) It's hard to do a corpus search that includes only the 'inoculation' or (AmE) 'shot' sense of jab and not senses to do with poking and hitting of the manual or verbal type. But the December doubling of jab in American news is clearly due to the BrE sense of the term:


Again, Ben Yagoda covered this one at his blog. Here's what he had to say:

Unsure that I wanted to crown such a late entry as WotY, I ran a vote on the matter at the online event I did for Atlas Obscura on 19 December. I was hoping to show you the vote result, but the Zoom polling screen doesn't show up in the video that AO shared with me. What a pain! So all I can tell you is that jab was the clear winner against rubbish and reckon. Will it remain a word-in-the-news about inoculations elsewhere, or will Americans start using it as a synonym for shot? Remains to be seen.

And thus I close the 2020 SbaCL WotY celebrations. Do keep your eye out in 2021 for the words you'll want to nominate this time next year!

Read more

2020 US-to-UK Word of the Year: furlough

Each year since 2006, I've designated Transatlantic Words of the Year (WotY). This year is a little different in that I declared the US-to-UK WotY at an online event earlier this month. Those attending the event voted on the UK-to-US WotY, which I'll blog about tomorrow. 

For US-to-UK, the choice was clear. Readers had nominated it repeatedly over the last few months. That's not to say there weren't runners-up (so read all the way to the end for those).

The US-to-UK Word of the Year is (dum-tiddy-dum-dum-DUM!):


If you consider a word to be a series of letters, then you could say "that's not new to the UK!" because it's not. The noun goes back to the early 1600s from the Dutch verlof, meaning 'exemption from service'. But words are not just series of letters; a word is bunch of letters (and, more importantly, sounds) that's linked to a conventionally shared meaning. It's a particular meaning in combination with this form that made a splash in the UK this year—one that originated in the US.

The splashy usage this year had to do with a UK government (more BrE) scheme / (more AmE) program that paid employees whose workplaces didn't need them during the pandemic shut-downs: The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. This involved bringing in this sense of furlough from AmE. (Quoted from the OED.)

3. Originally U.S. Dismissal or suspension from employment, usually due to economic conditions; unplanned (and typically unpaid and involuntary) leave; the period of such suspension or leave. Also: an instance of this.

The new usage was striking enough in the UK that the OED added this note to the entry:

Chiefly U.S. until use of the term became more widespread in March 2020 when the U.K. government introduced a furlough scheme in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, under which the government gave grants to employers to pay part of the wages of employees left without work, or unable to work, as a result of the crisis.

The sense has existed in AmE since the 1860s, though, and until recently it was mostly associated with government jobs, undoubtedly due to its military roots. AmE also uses furlough for periods of relief from active duty in the armed forces, especially during wartime or when posted abroad. The OED marks that sense as 'chiefly U.S. or historical'. BrE now mostly uses leave in this case—a word that deserves its own post.

The non-military use of furlough (sense 3 above) got a lot of attention in recent years because of US government shut-downs, when government employees (and contractors) were out of work until the federal budget was agreed. I think it's because of such recent US usage that the word was on UK governmental and/or human-resources minds when needing vocabulary for their pandemic-induced actions. 

Thanks to all who nominated it for this year's US-to-UK WotY.



There were other strong contenders for this year's US-to-UK word, chief among them the word that Collins Dictionary chose for its Word of the Year: lockdown. Originally (1830s at the latest) it was a wooden piece used in the construction of rafts, and later a wooden peg or similar to keep other things in place, but in the 1970s it started to be used in the now-familiar sense of confining prisoners to their cells, usually as a security measure. From there it spread out to use in other places where heightened security might be needed, and finally to our pandemic lives. I've blogged about it previously here.

Whack-a-mole also saw increased BrE usage this year, thanks to the contentious decision to lock down certain areas and not others earlier this year:

Though the Whac(k)-a-mole arcade game is Japanese in origin, the name of it, and its metaphorical use, has till this year been more AmE than BrE:


But in 2020, it was a BrE term:


Finally, I also had my eye on AmE normalcy, which seemed to be showing up in BrE a bit more. For example, it was used a couple of times in this article on my employer's website. Happily I screen-shot this. It seems to have disappeared from the staff news archives—perhaps a signal that we won't be returning to normalcy after all.

"Return to normalcy" was Warren G. Harding's campaign slogan for the 1920 US presidential election, appealing to the public's desire to go back to the way things were before World War I. (The noun normalcy itself goes back some decades more.) It was then and remains a controversial word for those who don't care for language change. Normality remains a 'normal' word in AmE and BrE, though normalcy has become more 'normal' in AmE in recent decades. People tend to talk about it more when things aren't normal and we long for them to be. And so here's how things are going in the news internationally: 


But in BrE, normality still rules (and return to normal is used more in any case):

I'm going to (orig. AmE) root for normalcy for next year's US-to-UK WotY because it's much more pleasant a prospect than furloughed, mole-whacking lockdowns! 

Stay tuned tomorrow for the 2020 UK-to-US WotY.

Read more

Word of the Year 2020: Nominations and EVENT

Since 2006, I've proclaimed UK>US and US>UK Words of the Year and if I have anything to do with it, I will do so for 2020 too. You have to be careful about making plans in 2020, but at least these plans are in the internet and not in closed public spaces. I will declare my 2020 WotYs on 19 December.

I usually wait till after Christmas to do this, but this year is (if you haven't noticed!) different, and one of the differences is that Atlas Obscura  has/have  asked me to work with them in creating an online linguistic event. They're usually a company that takes people out around the world to experience things, but, as you can imagine, they've had to find other ways to connect (with) people this year.

I'm in a similar position. I was supposed to be speaking in a lot of places in 2020. It was to be my first trip to Florida and I had agreed to a whole tour of places I'd not been to in the US as well as a bunch of talks in England. I would have been selling and signing books at those events, but now I find myself with a whole lot of books stored under a bed and a travel voucher for an airline that I just pray will be flying out of the UK again after all this is over. Minor inconveniences in the big scheme of things, but still I am looking forward to this event because it will involve some INTERACTION WITH PEOPLE.


But before I say more about that, let's do the important business of opening nominations for the Separated by a Common Language Words of the Year!  As ever, the categories are:

  • UK-to-US import
  • US-to-UK import

And as ever, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Good candidates for SbaCL WotY are expressions that have lived a good life on one side of the Atlantic but for some reason have made a splash on the other side of the Atlantic this year. 
  • Words coined this year are not really in the running. If they moved from one place to another that quickly, then it's hard to say that they're really "Americanisms" or "Britishisms". They're probably just "internetisms". The one situation in which I could see a newly minted word working as a transatlantic WotY would be if the word/expression referenced something very American/British but was nevertheless taken on in the other country.
  • When I say word of the year, I more technically mean lexical item of the year, which is to say, there can be spaces in nominations. Past space-ful WotYs have included gap year, Black Friday, and go missing

Please nominate WotYs in comments to this blog post, where it'll be easier for me to keep track of them than if they show up on different social platforms.  To see more past winners, click here.

There is a clear (orig. AmE) front-runner at the moment for the US>UK WotY (which I'm sure some of you will nominate!), but I am less certain about UK>US (and anything could change in the next couple of weeks). So please let me know your thoughts! 

And now a bit more about the Atlas Obscura event. The 19 December timing is so that we can have something of a post-mortem (<much more common in BrE) on the various English words of the year, including the dictionary ones (mostly announced now) and the American Dialect Society's (to be announced). We'll also be looking at Words of the Year from other parts of the world, within particular industries, and so forth. I'll use those words as a springboard for looking at how the experience of 2020 differed and similar-ed (<now there's a word we need) for different people and also for looking at the history and processes of Word-of-the-Yearing.

I'll do some talking and presenting, but the event will also be interactive. We'll have some (orig. AmE in this sense) quizzing and opportunity for people to put forward their own words of the year. 

So to sum up, your missions, should you choose to accept them, are:

  • Nominate transatlantic words for 2020 in the comments.
  • Book in for the Atlas Obscura event
  • Share that link to people you think should know about it. You could get a whole bunch of your friends to come and you could gang up on me and tell me all my WotYs have always been wrong.
  • And if you haven't already given The Prodigal Tongue to every anglo-/amero- -phile/-phobe and language lover you know, please consider doing so!
Read more

czar, tsar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Read more

off of, redux

I’ve written about off of on this blog before, in reaction to British complaints about it as a horrid Americanism. In my day job, I’m writing about it again from different angles, so I was thrilled to see that some researchers in Helsinki and Stockholm have undertaken much more wide-ranging and in-depth research about it than has ever been attempted: 
Vartiainen, Turo, and Mikko Höglund. 2020. How to make new use of existing resources: tracing the history of geographical variation of off of. American Speech 95: 408–40. 
Their paper, as the title hints at, is very much about getting around the problems of studying the history of and variation within the English language, given the impoverished nature of the data we have. There’s lots of English out there, but it’s not always easy to get a balanced view of it. For example, it’s not enough to know where a work was published, you need to know where its author was from. For another example, if all the evidence you have from Sussex is from farmers and all that you have from Yorkshire is from school teachers, then your regionality conclusions are going to be tarnished by other contrasts. Sometimes data sets give this info. More often you either have to go hunting for it and/or the information doesn't exist.

Vartiainen and Höglund have come to their conclusions by triangulating evidence from a number of corpora, each with their own limitations, but together rather convincing. At one chronological end, they’re using the Early English Books Online (EEBO, 1470s–1690s) corpus and, at the other end, a corpus that is updated daily in the present, News on the Web (from which they only use regional UK news sources). They’ve also included a range of sources for American English.  
Off of only really takes off in the 17th century. (I won’t go into why that’s so interesting because I have to save things for my book!) In the 19th century, prescriptivists start saying how horrible it is. British prescriptivists have been more damning of it (“vulgarly superfluous”, “a Cockneyism and incorrect”), but American style guides advise against it too (“much inferior to off without the preposition”). The authors suggest that prescriptive attitudes have colo(u)red linguistic description of the term, and there’s pretty clear evidence of this, I’d say, in a lot of the British writing about it, where off of is presented as something from America. Huddleston and Pullum’s (generally excellent) Cambridge Grammar of the English Language claims off of is only used in AmE. Vartiainen and Höglund show that this just isn’t true, and moreover it never was.  
Off of originates in England and has consistently been used there. What’s striking is how regional it’s stayed. Here are their maps of where it was most used before 1700 and in the 21st century. It is very much a southern thing.

This gives a big clue about the presence of off of in AmE: 
Importantly, much of the EEBO data predates the Great Puritan Migration to America that took place between 1620 and 1640 (…). Considering that many of the early colonies were founded by people from East Anglia (…), it is likely that they took this form with them. (p. 428) 
They go on to cite examples of off of in the Salem Witchcraft Trials: 
Since then, off of use declined in the US until the 1970s, when it started to go up—possibly as a result of a general tendency toward(s) colloquiali{s/z}ation in written English. It remains mostly a spoken form but has been on the increase in edited text like magazines and newspapers (though not in academic texts). 
…the older generations may have noticed the increased frequency of off of in public texts (a recency effect), while the younger generations may be sensitive to the form’s high frequency in American English when compared to the other varieties of English. (p. 428) 
While it’s certainly possible that the off of surge in AmE could affect current BrE, the evidence from the British data is that it has always been used there. If AmE is having an effect, perhaps it’s just providing a kind of linguistic mirror that makes the form feel less non-standard to those who are already hearing and/or using it in their regional Englishes. The authors conclude that: 
…when it comes to regional variation, we have seen that off of is frequently attested in so many parts of England that the whole idea of its being a “regional form” should be questioned. Indeed, based on the results of this study it would seem that in many cases the perceptions that British speakers have of their avoidance of off of [as a regional and/or American form] are due to highly entrenched prescriptive attitudes instead of their actual usage patterns, although we have no doubt that the form is rare enough in some regions, particularly in the West and Northwest of England, to genuinely affect acceptability judgments. (pp. 434–5) 
There remain problems in making direct comparisons of English from different times and places. For example, the AmE corpora include no casual conversation, but the BrE data do. The authors therefore have to be cautious in comparing rates of usage in the two countries, There is some indication that off of is far more widespread in AmE than in other Englishes. In the GloWBE corpus of web-based English (written, but often not as formal as published English), AmE has 26.2 off of per million words versus 21.5 in Canadian English and 8.7 in British. (That data set has not seen the same care as their main data sets, though. It may contain false hits,  probably contains duplications and can’t give a regional picture.) 
The paper includes research on the variants offen and offa. I won’t cover them here, but just mention them to say: oh it’s all so complex and transatlantic. 
In all, a fascinating read for someone who’s always thinking about function words and transatlantic linguistic comparisons. (That’s me!) I thank the authors for it and American Speech for publishing it. 

Related reading 
If you're interested in out of, it's covered at the original off of post
. You're welcome to leave comments there and keep that conversation going.

Read more

The book!

View by topic



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