the best language books I read in 2021

I am an inveterate life-logger. At the end of a calendar year, I like to review what I've done, what I've liked, what I've been grateful for, etc. This includes reviewing the books I've read. This year I've had the thought: why not do the languagey bits of that on this blog? So here we are.

In keeping with the life-logging, I take new year's resolutions very seriously. In 2021, I (uncharacteristically) made only one resolution: to read more books than I acquired. This was an attempt to counter two problems:
  • I have to do so much reading at work, I can lose sight of reading as a leisure activity.
  • I accidentally acquire a lot of books. 
It took active concentration to ensure I didn't acquire more books than I could read. I was careful not to mention any books to my loved ones, so as to not get any as birthday/Christmas presents (it almost worked). I (almost) only allowed myself to buy books that related to my current writing project. I only picked up books from neighbo(u)rhood giveaways (our neighbo(u)rs got very into sharing over lockdown) if they were books I could have imagined myself paying money for. 
I got a little serious about finding time for reading by (re)instituting 'family reading time' for 20 minutes after dinner each night and by having a two-person reading group with a friend as we slowly made it through one book together. (My friend is named Friend and we read a book called Friends together. It had to be done.) Family reading time went through better and worse patches. It got harder the later we had dinner—and the more 'normal' 2021 became, the later dinner got pushed by work and other activities. But the 20-minutes-per-day works well when it's working. 

In the end, I acquired 22 books: two that I count as 'reference' books (i.e. you wouldn't try to read them front-to-back), thirteen others about language, and the rest assorted non-fiction. Eight were free from publishers (for review, for inspection, or as payment for services), two were gifts and three were neighbo(u)hood (orig. AmE) freebies. So I bought 10 books. And kept myself from buying 100.
I read 21 books (not necessarily ones I acquired in 2021) and used both the reference books, so I'm cheatingly counting my 'read' count as 23. It's not the resounding success I wanted it to be, but I'm counting it as success. I'm renewing the resolution for 2022. 
I did more refereeing (peer-reviewing) this year than usual (including some for book manuscripts) and tons of article-reading for my book-in-progress and for a related new class I taught ("Small Words"). So, though my pile of to-be-read books has not shrunk, I've more than justified the investment in varifocal reading glasses.

That's the end of the accounting (BrE accountancy).

I'm going to start out with the best three books about language that I read in actual book form. Then I'll say something about two 2021 books that I read in manuscript and appreciated enough to provide a blurb for. Then I might tell you a bit about writing.

My best language reads of 2021

1. Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self Julie Sedivy (Harvard UP, 2021)

Let's start at the end of my year, with the book I've just finished. Julie Sedivy's Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self. Sedivy, a Czech-born and (mostly) Canada-raised linguist,  uses her personal experience as the starting point for exploring the psychological, social, and emotional aspects of being multilingual and of losing one's childhood language to attrition (then recovering it). 

I found this book absolutely perfect. The six long chapters (Death, Dreams, Duality, Conflict, Revival, Home) have none of the furniture that academic writers tend to lean on—like titled subsections,  blocks of quotation, and clunky referencing (though for those of us who want to see the research basis, the notes section is a treasure trove). Instead, the paragraphs just flow, phrase by gorgeous phrase. At one point, she's discussing her relationship with her Czech-speaking father or her French-speaking schoolmates, at another she's explaining fascinating studies on such subjects as how bilingual immigrants' languages interact with personality and memory. This includes the research supporting her observation that "it is healthy to be as hyphenated a citizen as possible, hazardous to be a cultural amputee." By the end, she's learning an indigenous language of Canada and witnessing firsthand the efforts made to revive dying languages, but only after returning to her father's home village to rekindle the language that had retreated from her as she grew up (with the help of relatives who were "about as fluent in spoken English as they were in spoken algebra"). Sedivy proposes the term homelanguage as a sister to homeland, since we live in our languages even when we or they have moved geographically.

The book is written with an empathy that never dumbs the subject down, but that constantly made (mostly monolingual) me think "I never thought of that. Of course it must feel that way." People who grew up with more than one language are likely to value the insights into the psychology of their multilingualism and the kinship across languages with other multilingual folk. But it's got to be even more valuable for those of us who grew up monolingual as part of a linguistic majority, letting us in on the meanings, consequences, and feelings of multilingualism and potentially complicating our views of what it means to know a language.

As I read Memory Speaks, I was surprised that it was a book from a university press. That probably means it's not going to be on as many bookshop or public library shelves as it should be. Please seek it out and read it. (I hope it's being translated into other languages. Especially Czech! I'm sure that would be an interesting challenge.)

Full disclosure: the publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book.

2. A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed my Brain and my Life by Lauren Marks (Simon and Schuster, 2017)

I bought Lauren Marks' A Stitch of Time in the hope that it would give me some interesting facts and (someone else's) anecdotes for the book I'm writing on now. And it did. But like Sedivy's book, it also gave me some inkling of what it would be like to have a different mind/brain than I have (and by extension, it gave me a greater awareness of how my own mind/brain shapes my experience). And like Sedivy's book, it is a tale and exploration of language loss and recovery.
The author was the subject of probably my favo(u)rite episode of The Allusionist podcast—which was how I learned about the book. Marks was 27 when a burst aneurysm deprived her of almost all language. The book tells the story of her linguistic (and personal) recovery—though perhaps rediscovery is a better word than recovery. The book is so well written that you might at times doubt that she still has aphasia (certainly, not to the same extent that she did at first), but then it might occur to you: perhaps her distance from English contributes to her vivid language, just as it contributes to her appreciation for its complexity and (related) silliness.

Months later, I'm still thinking about her description of her time without language or inner monologue. She calls it The Quiet and presents it in such appreciative detail that I had to fight feeling jealous of a brain injury.

Marks' website includes some of the journals she wrote in the early stages of recovery and shows how they were translated into the prose of the book. But read the book. It's wonderful.

3. Lingo: A Language Spotter's Guide to Europe by Gaston Dorren (Profile Books, 2015) 

In 2020, I bought, read, and loved Gaston Dorren's book Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, so when his Lingo showed up in a book-rehousing post on our neighbo(u)rhood Facebook page, I became the thorn in the poster's side, checking up repeatedly on when I could come collect it from her. (Thank you, dear book-rehousing person!) 
Dorren's two books have similar structures. Each chapter magnifies a corner of a particular language—a corner that makes that language particular. Babel counted down the 20 most spoken languages in the world, while Lingo tours 60 languages of Europe, including the big (English), the little (Gagauz), and the made-up (Esperanto). It also connects the languages to English, giving for each (where possible) an example or two of words English has borrowed from the language and words that English might do well to borrow—because it lacks such a word. I'll share here (from the publisher's website's sample) the Lithuanian links (PIE = Proto-Indo-European, the focus of the Lithuanian chapter):

Dorren is a polyglot who knows his way around a language but also knows how to describe the most abstruse grammatical issues in clear, engaging language for those without his language gifts. While great as a cover-to-cover read, Lingo (like Babel) is a book you could dip into now and again when you need a little lift. (I spent a lot of time in [BrE] car parks/[AmE] parking lots while medical waiting rooms were closed over during lockdowns. Served me well!)

Books I blurbed

I read manuscript versions of these very good books for which I was happy to provide a quote. I'm getting tuckered out at this point in this blog post, so I'm mostly just going to give the blurbs!


Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever by John McWhorter (Penguin, 2021)

“Call me old-fashioned, but goshdarnit this book has an in-freaking-credible shipload of fizzy information. McWhorter’s delicate linguistic ear is put to indelicate and delectable use in this deep dive into the linguistic muck.”

McWhorter's book covers some classic 'swearwords' (I particularly enjoyed the demonstration of taboo words becoming pronouns), but also the N-word, whose taboo status is soundly demonstrated by the necessity to circumlocute it.

Jumping Sharks and Dropping Mics: Modern Idioms and Where They Come From by Gareth Carrol (John Hunt, 2021)

"Gareth Carrol gives us an expert's tour of the hotspots where popular culture meets etymology. A rich dive into the wheres, whys, and hows of linguistic memes."

You'd be surprised how deep the stories go for very recent idioms. Great research!


Enough about reading. What about writing?

The blog has been rather silent for much of the year. This little burst of writing (Two posts in one week! Another planned soon!) is courtesy of a holiday/vacation made much less social/busy by the Covid in the air.

My writing energies these days are concentrated on the aforementioned book about 'small words'. I decided to write it as a challenge to myself, which is either a very good or a very stupid reason to write a book. I am enjoying it (as much as one can enjoy the very painful process of writing), but it is going much more slowly than the last book, since it's not on a topic I'd been blogging about for years.

The other main thing I accomplished in 2021(besides being head of department in crisis time, teaching new and old modules, living in a building site, and having a family life) was acclimating to my new (voluntary) job of editing Dictionaries: The Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America and getting two issues into publication.

Because of all that I've done little other writing—but for a few commissions:

One big help in 2021 was the opportunity to supervise students in work-placement positions in our department (a way of dealing with work placements while many businesses were shut down). I'm grateful to Tess Blakeway, for her help with book-related fact-checking and editorial work, and Summer Raselma for largely taking over my Difference of the Day posts on Twitter for a few months.


So that's my year in reading and writing. I do hope this post might direct some readers to the excellent books I've mentioned!

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Baking and baked goods are a perennial source of US/UK miscommunication—in large part because most of our current baking/eating habits were only invented after the split between American and British English. We eat different baked goods with newish names and we often use the same old words in different new ways. 

While I've written many posts that have mentioned cake (see links below), I've come to feel the need for a much bigger one about cake. This one has been several (very busy) months in the making.

cake itself

The word cake came into English from Old Norse (or another Scandinavian source) in around the 13th century. Way back then it was a word for a round loaf of bread that was a bit flattened by having been turned over while baking. These days we associate it more with sweet baked goods, usually (but not necessarily) those leavened with something other than yeast. But its round, bready roots come through in things like (Scottish) oatcake (which refers to something more like modern crackers than like modern cakes) and northwestern England's barm cakes, one of the many regional names for the kinds of bread rolls with which you might make a sandwich (in the American sense). Later, cake came to mean any round, flattened food, and thus we have fish cakes and crab cakes and rice cakes and the like. 

People only started using cake as a mass noun referring to the substance (rather than the loaf as a whole) in the 16th century, and from then it increasingly referred to fancy or sweet bread-like things. 

Cake v dessert/pudding

Many Americans would think of cake as a rather normal dessert. But those who've watched the Great British (orig. AmE) Bake Off (GBBO) will have seen that cake and dessert are treated as different things. Such is the case in English culture (at least) more generally. Cake is something you'd have with coffee or tea as a break, not something you'd immediately think of preparing for the final course of a meal. (Though you will find the occasional cake on a UK dessert menu.) As we've already seen in the dessert/pudding post, puddings are another matter. Some look and feel like cakes (e.g., my fave sticky toffee pudding), but are not usually considered cakes in BrE. (Please do go to the pudding post, linked above, if you want to comment on puddings.)

Cake(s) as sweet baked snacks

On the other hand, in certain contexts, all sorts of things can loosely count as cake in England that would not be so called in AmE. Say you went to a coffee shop with your friend. If you were English you might ask them "Which cake do you want?" And your English friend might say "A (orig. AmE) brownie" or "The apple turnover, please" or "The carrot cake, please". If you were American, and you wanted the brownie or the turnover, you'd probably answer that question with "I'm not in the mood for cake, but I'd like that brownie/apple turnover." For Americans, cakes are cakes and other baked goods are other baked goods. For the English, cake can be an umbrella term for sweet baked goods eaten in the situations where one usually eats cakes in the narrower sense. (NB: I'm saying English rather than British because not enough Scottish or Welsh people have offered to buy me cake in coffee shops. More fieldwork needed.)

If I were Americanly asking someone which thing they wanted in the coffee shop, I'd probably say "Which kind of cake do you want?" because "which cake" doesn't really sound right in AmE, where it more usually refers to a big thing that you slice and not an individual serving of it. If a BrE speaker had a cake with their tea, it would fit on a small plate (under which the server will have inexplicably placed a paper napkin as if it's a doily, rendering the napkin useless—a coffee-shop peeve of mine). If an American had a cake with their coffee, they'd be an incredible glutton, eating enough for a dozen people.

AmE snack cake refers to the overly processed small cakes that are packaged for putting in lunch boxes. Twinkies are a famous example, but there are lots of other kinds as well (here's a guide). You can get such individually wrapped cakes in the UK too, e.g. Cadbury Mini Rolls are pretty much the equivalent of a Hostess Ho-Ho and the Mr Kipling brand offers a variety of such products, but I don't know of a generic BrE term for them. But again, we'd call them a snack cake but probably not a cake.

Update, 16 Feb: Here's a great illustration of the BrE cakes = 'sweet baked snacks' meaning. I took this photo at a campus cafĂ©, where they were trying to offload baked goods before the weekend. The sign reads "All cakes £1.00" and all those things in the picture counted as cakes for the purposes of the £1 promotion. These include (if you can't see them): cookies, flapjacks, millionaire's shortbread (and possibly some other tray bakes [see below]), (American-style) muffins, and filled and unfilled croissants. In AmE,  you'd need to say "all baked goods" or something like that, rather than "all cakes". 

Types of cake

A very noticeable thing if you watch GBBO is the constant reference to sponge. Americans can use the term sponge cake (emphasis on the cake) but don't use it often because that's the prototypical cake type—and you don't need to specify the most typical type. (I've discussed the psycholinguistic concept of prototypes here.) It'd be like saying cloth shirt—almost redundant. 

[Update: see the comments for some more-informed American takes on sponge, which seem to indicate that for AmE sponge is a method (making with egg whites, not butter) and for BrE it's a result (a spongy texture). This fits beautifully with other examples of Americans naming things in reference to the form of the ingredients (pre-assembly) and British using names relating to the form of the result. See previous discussions of mashed potato(es) and scrambled egg(s) and burgers and hot dogs for other examples.]

But BrE speakers are more likely to call it sponge than to call it sponge cake, if that's the kind of cake they're talking about. A Victoria sponge (aka Victoria sandwich) is a two-layer cake with jam (and often cream) in the middle (no icing/frosting on top)—a very common cake in England. On GBBO they talk about lots of different types of sponge, like genoise or joconde, but that's specialist jargon that you don't tend to hear elsewhere. If you want more about those, see this Wikipedia entry.

from Meg Rivers Bakers

A reason that BrE speakers need to talk about sponge is that it's not necessarily the default cake type. Fruit cakes are very traditional and (get ready for a shocker, Americans) even loved in England. You cannot imagine my disappointment the first time I was handed a slice of English wedding cake and discovered it wasn't a nice, white sponge cake like I was expecting, but a fruit cake as in the photo to the left. When I got married in England, I had to insist that one of our cake's layers was not fruit. I didn't care what it was, as long as it wasn't fruitcake. 

(A note on spelling: AmE prefers fruitcake and BrE goes both ways: fruit cake or fruitcake.)

The traditional English Christmas cake is also a fruit cake. This has been adopted to a small degree in the US, where there is some tradition of giving fruitcakes as Christmas gifts. (When/where I was a kid, the local Lions Club sold them as Christmastime fundraiser. It seems they still do in New Zealand.) But Americans also have the tradition of mocking fruitcakes as the worst cake and the worst gift, starting with Johnny Carson in 1973: "The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other." American fruitcakes are generally unfrosted/uniced, whereas English Christmas cakes have white royal icing (see link) and decoration.

American wedding cakes are often made of white cake, which is a kind of sponge made with only the whites of the egg (here's a recipe—notice how it Americanly never uses the word sponge). Americans also talk about yellow cake, where the yolks are left in. Yellow cake with chocolate frosting is a well-known combination. I could link to another recipe, but I'll instead show a picture of a very typical American cake mix—these, like many things, come in many more varieties in the US than in the UK. 

While there aren't as many cake mixes in the UK, there are a lot of long-life ready-made cakes in boxes. (Something that surprised me when I moved to England.) The popularity of one supermarket chain's Colin the Caterpillar cake (the birthday cake for one side of my UK family) gave rise to the 'generification' of the caterpillar cake, which gave rise to lawsuits and news stories last year. (Click on the last link for pictures.)

Another cake type I've tweeted about a lot is coffee cake:

Other US cake types include (links are to Wikipedia):

  • angel food cake (a very light sponge made with egg whites and cream of tartar—an ingredient that seems to show up in US baking a lot more than UK baking)  
  • devil's food cake, which would probably be called chocolate fudge cake in BrE
  • pound cake, which isn't necessarily American, but it's much more common in the US—and thus shows up nearly seven times as much in AmE as BrE in the GloWbE corpus.

On the UK side, one runs into lemon drizzle cake a lot, while in the US one mostly gets lemon cake or lemon bars.

Image from Wikipedia
No discussion of the BrE meaning of cake is complete without mention of the Jaffa cake, which Americans would call a cookie. It is a little disc of sponge cake with a bit of orange jam/[AmE] jelly on top and dark chocolate on top of that. [I'd originally written BrE jelly/AmE gelatin here, which it might well be, but I went with what Wikipedia said.] There was a famous court case about whether such things should be taxed, since there is (or was?) VAT ('value-added tax', approximately AmE sales tax) on chocolate-covered (BrE) biscuits (AmE cookies), which are a luxury item, but no VAT on cakes, which are, apparently, a necessity. Part of the decision to label them as cakes was based on the appraisal that cakes go hard when they get stale, whereas (British) biscuits go soft when they're stale (thus demonstrating a main difference between BrE biscuit and AmE cookie).

cake accoutrements & shapes

The utensil with which you lift a slice of cake is a cake slice (BrE 1810s) or a cake server (AmE ?1890s).

The shape of a cake depends on what you bake it in—in AmE a cake pan and in BrE a cake tin. Into the pan/tin you put AmE cake batter or BrE cake mixture. BrE reserves batter for really thin mixtures (and British cakes often seem to have thicker mixtures than American ones).

Ring-shaped cakes made in fluted pans/tins are common in Europe, but it's in the US that they came to be known as Bundt cakes, after the trademarked name of a pan sold by the Nordic Ware company. (See Wikipedia for more.) 

Sheet cakes also seem to be an AmE invention—these are unlayered, frosted (and often decorated) sponge cakes made in a rectangular pan. People talked about them a bit more after Tina Fey went onto Saturday Night Live to propose "sheet caking" as a method of dealing with far-right demonstrations.

(I must say, though, that her sheet cake seems tall enough that it must be layered.)  

In BrE I've seen a sheet cake referred to as a tray bake, but tray bake is used for all sorts of things that are baked in a low, rectangular pan/tin/tray, including the things Americans would call bar cookies. (For past posts about cookies, see here.)

I've written before about AmE cupcake v BrE fairy cake. In BrE today, cupcake has been imported for bigger, fancier ones.

[Late addition, 27 Dec]: I'd thought I'd written here about BrE loaf cakes v American quick breads, but my memory played tricks on me—I must have been remembering writing about it in The Prodigal Tongue. In the book, I use two banana bread recipes as illustration of how many levels AmE and BrE can differ on, and one of the differences is that at one point in the British recipe, the banana bread is called "the cake". Many sweet, loaf-shaped things that Americans bake and might well slice and butter (banana bread, zucchini (BrE courgette) bread, pumpkin bread, ) turn up as [ingredient] loaf cake in UK coffee shops. (When transferred to BrE cake status, they often have icing drizzled over.) Here's a bit of what I wrote in The Prodigal Tongue:

American baking has a traditional category called quick breads, that is, breads leavened without yeast. Quick breads include banana bread, zucchini (= UK courgette) bread, and my mother’s famous pumpkin bread, as well as American biscuits (which look a bit like British scones, but don’t feel or taste like them) and what the British call American-style muffins, including blueberry muffins and bran muffins (though they’ve proved so popular in the UK that the American-style is usually left off these days). In an American cookbook, these recipes are located in the bread chapter. Banana breads and blueberry muffins are relatively new to Britain, and they came over without the larger quick bread category. They thus fell into the cake category.

This isn't the only American baked good that gets re-classified in BrE. When I've made snickerdoodles  for UK folk, I've been congratulated on my "little cakes". (The way I make them—with cream of tartar—gives them a nice cakey texture.) While the cake category is broad in BrE, it's the cookie category that's broad in AmE.

cake expressions

a piece of cake comes from AmE in the 1960s and means 'easy'. BrE has borrowed it and added a more vulgar version: a piece of piss.

that takes the cake (AmE 1830s) versus that takes the biscuit (BrE 1880s)  = 'it is the best/it wins' (though these days it's mostly used ironically to indicate something that "wins" at being the worst).

off one's cake (BrE informal)  = deranged [1880s]; extremely intoxicated [1980s]

bake sale (AmE 1890s) v cake stall (BrE 1600s, but then a more formal business) v cake sale (now more BrE than AmE, but Irish & AmE evidence precedes BrE evidence) = selling donated baked goods as a fundraiser

more links

Before commenting on this post with comments suggesting or asking questions about other baked goods, please see these past blog posts. Comments are welcome on those old posts—conversations on this blog keep on going.

baked goods (misc., includes the usual suspects)

(more on) cookie, (more on) biscuit

icing & frosting


molasses, treacle, golden syrup, caramel, toffee (and see the comments there for more on gingerbread)

types of: flour, cream, milk, eggs (that last one's less baking orient(at)ed)


candy & sweets

P.S. It's the time of year when I declare the US>UK and UK>US Words of the Year and nominations have been very, very thin this year. Please let me know if you have any nominations for these categories!

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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.) 

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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!

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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.

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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:

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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.

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