Wednesday, September 17, 2014


This is the kind of blog topic I love -- like the soup or bacon sandwich ones -- where I'm reporting on my slowly acquired reali{s/z}ation that there are subtle UK/US differences in meanings of certain familiar words. The meanings are so similar that they often refer to the same things. What's different is where the cent{er/re} and periphery of the meaning are. Because these differences are hard to tease out, we may go through conversations not reali{s/z}ing that we're not quite communicating. Of course, it's loving these kinds of things that got me to be a lexical semanticist in the first place.

It all started with the World in Words podcast three years ago, in which I was Patrick Cox's guest. Here's how he titled the segment:

Patrick had asked me about how my speech is received in England (I can't remember if this bit is actually in the podcast), and I'd remarked that it disconcerts me when it's said that I have a twang. To me, people from Kentucky have twangs. I have an accent (of course, we all do), but it's not anything I'd describe as twangy. My accent is (among other things) mumbly. I don't see 'mumbly' and 'twangy' as going together.  (Regarding mumbly: I liked Ben Yagoda's post this week about new -y adjectives.) I expect a twangy accent to sound like a country (AmE jocular) gee-tar.

Patrick went along with my puzzlement at being called 'twangy' in his blog post, but the twangs kept coming my way, and I kept hearing twang applied to accents that I don't consider to be 'twangy'. The final straw came (on) Thursday when the Guardian referred to Peter Capaldi's accent as a 'Scottish twang'. I thought: what in the world does twang mean if it applies to Peter Capaldi?  (If you're reading this aloud, note that in my accent 'Peter Capaldi' comes out as Peter Capaldi Swoooon.)

Some discussion on Twitter started to lift the scales from my eyes, and a little on-line survey I've done has confirmed: BrE has a meaning for twang that's not found in AmE, nor in its own dictionaries (e.g. Oxford, Collins).  Have/take a look:

Both AmE and BrE have the sense 'a strongly nasal quality in a person's speech, esp in certain dialects' (as Collins puts it). That is reflected in the light green bar in the chart.  The orange 'neither of the above' bar may be populated by people who didn't like that I didn't say 'nasal' or something similarly specific in my definitions. The teal bar represents 'has a hint of an accent', and that is much more strongly BrE than AmE--just edging out the (presumably) older meaning. Similar numbers of Americans (107) and British (103) are represented in the results.

The 'hint of an accent' meaning explains the cases where people say that I or Peter Capaldi have a twang--we're not speaking with the full force of the accents associated with our regions. I think this use is probably found in Ireland too, or else I can't explain this sentence about the X-Men character Magneto, as played by Sir Ian McKellen (who once had a sip of my Coke when we were marching in the Johannesburg Pride parade; oh, and I like to [orig. AmE] name-drop):

At least he does sound German when he speaks German, but you'd think that he might have had a slight German twang when he was speaking English, what with him being RAISED BY NAZIS AND ALL. (from GloBWE)

German? Twang? This does not compute, given the meaning of twang that I use, but it works fine if what you mean by twang is not 'having a certain kind of accent' but 'having a bit of an accent of some kind'. One of the British respondents described it as "the hint of a weird or unusual accent that jars with the listener's expectations". 

I also asked which accents people think are twangy, but since I didn't do that with a multiple-choice question, I can't give you a nice chart. When talking about other countries, the British mostly said the US (especially south and midwest). Some said Australia. When asked about twangs in their own country, the West Country was mentioned most often.

People from the US strongly associated it with the US South (from Appalachia to Texas) and often said they would not use the word of non-American accents.

Lots of people from both countries mentioned banjos. 

I know people from other countries would like to a breakdown of results from those, but there weren't very big numbers from any other country. Still, 11 out of 14 Canadians preferred the 'definite regional accent' meaning, as did 10 of 11 Australians. So, the 'hint of accent' looks particularly British.

And this makes a lot of sense. British people are generally highly sensitive to and about accents. As famously written by G. B. Shaw, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. Britain's diversity of accents in its small geographic space means that the accents can communicate a lot about geographical, educational and social status--reflecting and contributing to the famous British class system. Since many British people (including one I live with) form immediate and lasting  impressions of others based on their accents, it's not surprising that they're interested in not just "accents", but hints of accents.

I can't go without saying a little something about nasal. Nasal is a word that people apply to all kinds of accents, even those that are anything but nasal from a physiological perspective. Allan Metcalf has discussed this on the Lingua Franca blog, which he closes with "And don't get me started about twang..."

Many thanks to all 252 of you who so kindly responded to the survey. I was particularly touched that some used the comments space to write nice things about this blog or my Twitter feed. I feel like the luckiest linguist on the internet.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Typically, as we've discussed before, two-syllable words from French are stressed on their first syllable in BrE and on the second in AmE -- BALlet versus balLET, BAton versus baTON, etc. (Please see and comment on the linked post if that's the issue you're interested in.)

photo from:

This led me to wonder about shallot because it looks like a French borrowing (so many food words are), but the stress pattern is makes it look like it isn't:  BrE shalLOT versus AmE SHALlot or shalLOT. (You can hear them both in an American accent here.)  American dictionaries tend to list the second-syllable stress version first--apparently considering that as most "correct". But I've always said SHALlot and can't recall hearing an American say shalLOT. For example, here's video of an American editor at a cooking magazine saying it the way I say it. (American and British vowel qualities in the word differ in predictable ways: we are firmly divided by the 'lot' vowel--or vowels, taking into account the variety found. Here I'm just going to focus on the stress pattern.)

So why doesn't it follow the two-syllable French-borrowing pattern? Probably because it's not a two-syllable French word. The French eschalotte has lost its first vowel in its journey into contemporary English.

Eschalotte was borrowed into English with the e at the beginning (at least in writing), though it lost the one at the end. The OED has citations for eschalot(t) in English from 1707 into the 19th century. But was that first e ever pronounced? One of the OED's citations is from Johnson's dictionary:

1755   Johnson Dict. Eng. Lang.,   Eschalot. Pronounced shallot.
The citations for shal(l)ot go earlier than those for the more French-looking version--back to 1664, making it look even more like that first e has been ignored from the (AmE) get-go.

Nevertheless, English seems to have some kind of sense-memory that we shouldn't treat it like ballet or beret or other French two-syllable words, because it isn't one. Nevertheless I see it and my reptilian high-school brain wants me to say 'shalLO' because that -ot reminds me of things like escargot and Margot.

The OED gets a bit judg(e)mental about the spelling:
The spelling shallot, though inferior to shalot because it suggests a wrong pronunciation, is now the more common.
Now, if they want me to come down hard on the 'lot' (as I know they do), I don't really understand that comment. Perhaps they mean that people might say SHALL-ot because they see shall in it. Well, that is what Americans do, but I can't imagine that we'd pronounce it like the dictionaries (and the British) tell us to if it had only one 'l'. I see shalot and I want to say it like chalet with an o.

If you're an American who says shalLOT, let us know--and please tell us where you got it from (i.e. what part of the country you learn{ed/t} the word in, or whether you've been influenced by BrE).

Meanwhile, I'm taking comfort in the fact that eschalotte shares history with (mostly AmE) scallion, since when I want a shallot I usually have to take a few moments to remember that scallion isn't the word for it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


When I started this blog, I wrote short little posts about things I noticed in British and American English. Few read them, and I usually managed to write three a week.  Since then, many more readers and commenters have appeared ([AmE] howdy! thank you!). As I imagine this larger audience responding to posts about X with "But what about Y?", I try to fit the Ys in.  Sometimes the Ys are other expressions that I could discuss; sometimes they are beliefs about language that may or may not have basis in reality. As a result, my posts have got(ten) much longer and less frequent. (The latter is also due to parenthood and more responsibility at work. But [BrE] hey-ho.) I now look back on old posts and think: I can do better! So I'm going to have [more BrE than AmE] another go at the pronunciation of herb, which I first dedicated six sentences to in the second month of this blog.

I've more sentences about it because I (BrE) go about/(AmE) go around discussing it in my talk: "How America Saved the English Language". It's one of a long list of differences for which the folklore is faulty, with people like comedian David Mitchell (below) assuming and repeating that Americans don't pronounce the 'h' in herb because we think we (or the word) are French. (The implication here is that the British are not under the illusion that they are French. Except of course that they eat aubergine rather than eggplant and increasingly use -ise instead of -ize and spell centre with the letters in a very French order. And so on. And so forth.)

Mitchell went to Cambridge University, apparently (according to his Wikipedia bio) because he was rejected by Oxford. I can only assume this has caused him some sort of allergy to the Oxford English Dictionary and that this caused him not to research the claims he made here about herb as well as tidbit/titbit. Had he just looked it up, he would have found the following information.

From the Middle Ages, the word in English was generally spelled (or spelt, if you prefer) erbe, from the Old French erbe--but sometimes it was spelled with an h, after the Latin herba. From the late 15th century the h was regularly included in the spelling in English, but it continued not to be pronounced for nearly 400 years. This was not a problem for English, of course. We often don't pronounce written h, for example in hour and honest and heir, and our ancestors didn't pronounce it in humo(u)r, hospital, or hotel. Change and confusion about these things leads to the oddity of some people insisting that some (but not other) words that start with a pronounced h should nevertheless be preceded by an, not a, as if the h weren't pronounced. (AmE) To each his/her own/(BrE) each to his/her own...

The h in herb finally started being pronounced in the 19th century in Britain. By this time, the US was independent and American English was following a separate path from its British cousin. Why did the English start pronouncing it then? Because that's when h-dropping was becoming a real marker of social class in England. If you wanted to be seen as literate (or at least not Cockney) you had to make sure that people knew you lived in a house, not an 'ouse. This 1855 cartoon from Punch (reproduced as a postcard for the British Library's Evolving English exhibition) illustrates:

The result seems to have been more self-consciousness about pronouncing h where it was in the spelling, and some h's got louder where they had not previously been heard. Why did this happen to herb and hotel but not honest or heir? I don't know.

So, pronouncing herb without the h is the Queen's English, if we're talking Elizabeth I, rather than Elizabeth II.

And in case you were wondering:  Americans pronounce the h in the name Herb, which has a different history from the plant herb.

Friday, August 01, 2014

off-piste, off the beaten track/path, off base

Thought I'd dip into the 'to-be-blogged' e-mailbox and click randomly for the next topic, and wouldn't you know it: the thing I clicked on, a five-month-old note from Jan Freeman, is about off-piste, which I used in the last post, leading to some off-piste (and off-piste) discussion in the comments there.

So, here I am discussing it again, but that's (orig. AmE) okay because I like things to have their own posts and because it leads me to a few other off- expressions.

Off-piste has both literal and figurative uses in BrE. A piste (pronounced 'peest') was originally the path beaten by a horse or mule, but was extended to the area of play in fencing and to prepared/designated ski paths. Piste has other uses in French, but English has taken those particular meanings.

The English-French hybrid off-piste usually refers to skiing*; skiing off-piste means leaving the designated path. [Though the UK isn't a great skiing destination, that doesn't keep Brits from skiing--remember: they get a lot more holiday/vacation time than Americans, many go on package holidays where they (AmE) rent/(BrE) hire the equipment, and the Alps are just over there...] I won't say that American skiers never say (off-)piste, but the ones I know don't. They talk of ski runs, not pistes. I assume that the skiing terminology differences between the US and UK stem from the fact that the British rarely ski in their own country and so the terms they use are sometimes borrowed from other European languages. Meanwhile, Americans tend to ski in the US and have come up with their own English words for things. So Americans wear ski bibs (or overalls), while UK skiers have salopettes, from French. Americans do cross-country skiing, but my English in-laws call it langlauf (from German) and others in the UK (more officially) call it Nordic skiing (but also cross-country skiing).

The figurative meaning of off-piste is very British and seems to be relatively recent (the OED doesn't cover the figurative meanings). So, figuratively, off-piste is any deviation from what is expected. Some examples from the interwebs, courtesy of GloBWE:
  • I'm a fan of wine from off-piste regions. 
  • tell them exactly what you want, while still remaining open to any slightly off-piste suggestions 
  • Goldie's debut looked to slick jazz-funk and soul for off-piste inspiration
As you can see here, off-piste works well as an adjective, but it's also used adverbially:
  • To the rescue Domaine Guenault Touraine Sauvignon 2011 (7.99), from the Bougrier's own property -- the conversation was much better, though one of our number went off piste and really rated the Muscadet with it, especially the cockles. 
So in this case one drinker didn't follow the path set by others and had a different wine. (That's an informal BrE use of rated -- to mean 'rated highly'.  I really thought I'd covered that before, but it seems not.)

Similar to off-piste, but not as useful as an adjective, is the phrase off the beaten [noun].  The choice of noun in that phrase differs by continent. The US and Canada prefer off the beaten path at a rate of about 3:1, while the UK and Ireland prefer off the beaten track by about 5:1 (again using GloWBE).

In all these figurative expressions, going off the path gives the connotation of trail-blazing excitement (reminding me of the AmE use of maverick) or, at least, interesting idiosyncrasy.  This is in contrast to another sport(s)-related figurative off- adverbial: (orig.) AmE off base. This comes from baseball, where a player (on the batting team) is safe while on a base. If you're not on a base, a member of the fielding team can put you out by tagging you with the ball (or by some other means). So, in the figurative sense, something that is off base is not where it should be; it's misguided and wrong and may put you in a position where you (or your idea) can be disregarded, as in (still from GloBWE):
  • Dawkins was way off base. He is so busy being the leader of the New Atheism that he has no idea what is going on behind him. 
  • your predictive powers and knowledge of the economy have thus far proven to be so far off base that it's a whole new game in another stadium
The phrase is known in BrE, but much less used, and certainly not with the extension of the baseball metaphor as in the last example.

In the American corpus data, many uses of off base try to pre(-)empt judg(e)ment, as in:
  • feel free to correct me if I'm off base...
  • I may be off base here but...
One can use off-base as an adjective, as in off-base assertions, but it's far more often used as the adverbial phrase. The hyphenated adjective is more common in its literal use for 'off (of) a military base' (e.g. an off-base apartment).

And with that, I'm off...

*It seems only fitting that in a post about off-piste, I should go off piste. And so I will, to share a harrowing tale of third-grade injustice. We were playing a game in class where two teams had to challenge each other to think of and spell words with double letters.  I challenged my opposite to come up with a word with double-i.  The teacher said I couldn't do that unless I could think of a word that had double-i. So I whispered "skiing" in her ear and she said I couldn't use that because it was not an English word. (She was a Norwegian immigrant and claiming it for her language. Never mind the -ing.) When it was my turn again, I challenged my opponent to find a double-u word. Again, the teacher challenged me. Again I had a word in mind (vacuum). But this time she wouldn't let me use it on account of me being a (orig. AmE in this sense) show-off. Look where that's got(ten) me. Forty years of bitterness.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

America and Americans (p.s. England, Britain & UK!)

Here's an argument that doesn't fit well in 140 characters, but I'm constantly being confronted with it on Twitter (and in real life), so I hope you'll excuse me getting it out of my system so that I can just send people a link from now on.

This is the kind of thing I get:

I suggest you stop calling yourselves American. It is arrogant of people from the United States to call themselves Americans because America is a whole continent. They should be called [insert long-winded or whimsical epithet here].

So, let's break that argument down...

I suggest... It is arrogant...
Individuals from the USA call themselves American because that's the word we have. They typically don't have an imperialist agenda intent on taking over or obliterating other people in the western hemisphere, they're (we're) just using the word that's at hand. But let's unpack this a bit more.

Let's say I meet a young man named Tom Jones. Would it be appropriate for me to say to them "It is arrogant of you to call yourself Tom Jones because there's another one who's older and a much better singer than you!"?  Or "How arrogant of your parents to name you Tom Jones when there already was one!"?

That is, you're telling people from another country what to call themselves, and you think they're the arrogant ones?

America is a whole continent
On the model of continents generally taught in English-speaking nations, America is two continents: North America and South America.  In today's English, these are typically referred to collectively as the Americas. (And loosely, the term Western Hemisphere is sometimes used to refer to the same set of continents, though technically parts of Europe are in that hemisphere too.) There are some contexts in which American is used to refer to people/things from the Americas, as in the Organization of American States--but even they use the plural when referring to the continents: "Today, the OAS brings together all 35 independent states of the Americas" on their English site and (interestingly--is this just because of translation from English?) similar plurals on the Spanish, Portuguese and French pages.

All this is based on the seven-continent model that is generally used in the English-speaking world (and some other places too), but other models are taught in other countries. Another more geologically motivated six-continent model joins Europe and Asia into Eurasia, but still holds North America and South America to be different because they are on different tectonic plates.  The use of models that are more regional, perhaps, than geological, probably accounts for why it's often people from other European countries who write to me to complain about my use of America. (I had wondered why they had so much invested in it.) Wikipedia clarifies:
North America and South America are treated as separate continents in the seven-continent model. However, they may also be viewed as a single continent known as America. This viewpoint was common in the United States until World War II, and remains prevalent in some Asian six-continent models. This remains the more common vision in Latin American countries, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Greece, where they are taught as a single continent. From the 19th century some people used the term "Americas" to avoid ambiguity with the United States of America.

If the word refers to continent(s), it can't also refer to a country
Most words have more than one meaning. For instance day can mean a 24-hour period or the part of that 24-hour period when the sun is up. We don't insist that people use it in only one way, because it rarely causes us trouble and when there is trouble we have ways around it. Similarly, thinking of other place names, there are two New Yorks, a state and a city. When it matters, we distinguish between them. When it doesn't, we don't. Upstaters like me sometimes get annoyed when people say New York to mean the city and not the state, but we mostly get over it.

(When I travel, and people ask where I'm from, I say New York. They believe city; I mean state.  They don't mess with me; I don't make them listen to a geography lesson. No one suffers.)

So while there's nothing wrong with America or American having more than one meaning, we should acknowledge the fact that it has a dominant meaning, associated with a particular country. (And there are good reasons why that's the dominant meaning. We need to talk about the country more often than we need to talk about the two continents together, at least in English. And also, it's the name of the country--see below.)

Thus, the following uses of America/n are weird in English:

A: I went to America last summer.
B: Oh really? Where?
A: Venezuela.
B: ??
Brazil has a population of over 200 million people, almost all of them American.

People from the USA should be called...
This statement is usually concluded with something that no one knows how to pronounce, like USan or USAn or States(i)an or something. More importantly, it's a word or phrase that no one uses, so it'll be hard for anyone to understand your meaning if you start using it to avoid using American. On Twitter, because I need to pack a lot of meaning into a few characters, I do use the abbreviations USer and UKer, which I say in my head as 'you-ESS-er' and 'you-KAY-yer', but I have yet to say them outside my head. (And I sometimes get a little grief for it on Twitter.) I'm more tempted by UKer because of the geographical problems presented by British (see below).

The problem with all this is...
that the name of the country is America to the same extent that the name of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is Luxembourg and the name of the Republic of South Africa is South Africa. That is, official country names are generally the country's name + some description of the political organi{z/s}ation of the country. The description usually (in the English renderings of the name) precedes the country name, so I'll call it a 'prefix'. 

The US and the UK are a bit odd in that the prefixes to the country names are commonly used as names for the countries. So we hardly ever refer to Egypt as the Arab Republic of Egypt and we never refer to it just as the Arab Republic; we call it Egypt. But we do that kind of prefix-only reference to the United States and the United Kingdom. If anything's not fair, I'm going to say it's that. Mexico is also a United States. And United Kingdom is just plain sexist. But we'll muddle through because people understand what we mean when we use those terms (and the UK's proper name is just too much of a mouthful).

(I won't go into the States because I've blogged about that already.)

So I've gone (BrE) off piste in that this is not a US-UK difference. It's not even a bit of American usage that I hear British complaints about. (In fact,  Americans chastise me about it more than Brits do.) I could have just sent you to this Slate post about the same kind of thing. But thank you for letting me get it off my chest. 

P.S.  I'm sure someone would like to point out American misuse of England, British, etc. I'll just pause first to say: there are an awful lot of misuses of British and English in the UK as well and certainly a lot of misuses from countries other than America too. It's complicated. When these issues come up, I send folks to this video:

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

anti-clockwise and counterclockwise

I had to take/make a decision on how to hyphenate the title of this post--it could have been
anti-clockwise and counter-clockwise
anticlockwise and counter-clockwise
anticlockwise and counterclockwise
but I went with (BrE) anti-clockwise and (AmE) counterclockwise because, as we've seen before, Americans are a bit more apt to close up prefixed words when given the chance to. 

@jaynefox requested this one as a Twitter 'Difference of the Day', but since it's been a month since my last post (shock! horror! marking/grading!), I'm easing myself back into blogging with something that can't get too out-of-hand, I hope.

So why do we have different words for going in a circle as if going backward(s) on a clock?  The earliest instance of clockwise in the OED is from 1888 (and it's clock-wise, adding all sorts of hyphenation possibilities). This tells us that its opposite is a good bet for transatlantic differences: the British colonists could not have taken it to America, so each nation was free to come up with its own version. It's not so clear that their origins really were in different countries, though.

The OED's first instance of counter-clockwise is in the same quote as the clock-wise one, from the Times (of London).  Their first for anti-clockwise is from 1898. But should we trust the OED on this one? Probably not. These entries have not been updated in a long, long time and the OED's use of American sources was pretty limited in the early years.

Merriam-Webster has a first attestation date of 1879 for anticlockwise, but doesn't give the source. Its counter-clockwise date is also 1888.

So, I've turned to Google Books. Do you know what? Google Books is a pain. Search for counterclockwise in 19th century books, and you'll find that a lot of books that Google Books thinks were published in the 19th century weren't.  So, searching 12 pages into the results, I've found a few cases of counter(-)clock(-)wise antedating:
I could not find anything before 1880 for anti-clockwise (there's a nautical almanac that Google's dated as 1858, but that particular almanac didn't start publication till 1877, according to Wikipedia...and there are other such mis-datings).  

So, anti-clockwise is looking mostly British, but counterclockwise seems to have been used in England as early as it was being used in the US.  No obvious first coinage here, so we can't tell a tale of different national origins. All we can say is that anti-clockwise never caught on in the US, and counterclockwise quickly fell out of favo(u)r in the UK.

Oh, I suppose I can't leave without saying something about pronunciation.  In BrE the second syllable of anti-clockwise is pronounced like tea. Americans often (but not always) pronounce anti- with a second syllable like tie, which can help in distinguishing it from ante-. Some discussion of the variation in AmE pronunciation of anti- can be found here. For me, it's partly on a word-by-word basis: 'tea' in anticlimax, but 'tie' in anti-Communist.  I think if I form a new word with it (say, if I'm anti-pigeon), I'd pretty regularly use 'tie'. But that's what I think. And we're all pretty bad rememberers of what we do say and we're often bad judges of what we would say.  So, unless someone records me unawares saying antipigeon, we may never know...

Friday, June 06, 2014

'the newspaper' and more on the written word

Tonight (22:00/10pm) people in the UK (and maybe abroad?) will be able to hear a new instal(l)ment of The Verb "Radio 3's cabaret of the word". [It's downloadable for the next 7 days.]  I was invited to talk about a piece I'd written a few months ago about American attitudes to dictionaries and, by extension, the written word. And it was a lovely time. The other guests were Nathaniel Mann (with his collaborator, violinist Daniel Merrill) and Nicholson Baker, whose writing I've long admired (and who was contributing over the phone from Maine; as a friend of mine pointed out, I was on the phone with the inventor of phone sex). The host, Ian McMillan, is not only a great radio host and performer, but also a great actual host, as were the rest of the staff there. Who knew we'd get apples before and cake after?

But, of course, one prepares for such events and then one is a bit disappointed when one misses the opportunities to say every fascinating (to oneself, at least) thing that one's thought of. In particular, that I've thought of. So, I'm typing this on the train back from the recording. L'esprit de railway.

The original essay and the radio piece both make a big thing out of what may be a very little thing: some evidence of differences in attitude to the written word in the US and UK. My contention is that Americans like written authorities, while the British tend not to turn to the written word as authority as much. On the program(me) I talk about dictionaries, the Bible, supreme courts, and constitutions, as I did in the original essay. In the course of it, I get a Winston Churchill quotation wrong (he actually said: "The English never draw a line without blurring it.") and miss the opportunity to point out a couple of things I had enjoyed discovering this week. So I'll tell you about them now.

The Supreme Court strikes (some dictionaries) again!
On the topic of U.S. Supreme Court use of dictionaries, a particular example of it arose this week. The case, Bond v. United States, involved the question of whether a wife putting caustic powders on her husband's pregnant lover's doorknobs could be prosecutable under the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act. The Court unanimously said 'no', and the opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, cites seven different dictionaries — from Johnson's to the 3rd edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (why not the 4th or the 5th?) — in defining weapon and treaty. The two cited definitions of weapon define them as instruments of combat, and Roberts then shifts from dictionary evidence to evidently out-of-his-hat proclamations about "natural parlance", i.e. 'But no speaker in natural parlance would describe Bond's feud-driven act of spreading irritating chemicals on Haynes's door knob and mailbox as "combat."' American Heritage (4th edn) defines combat as 'To oppose in battle; fight against.'. Was Bond fighting against Haynes? Does this mean that, say, the Sarin was not a chemical weapon when it was used in a Tokyo train because the passengers weren't in a battle? Heck, does it mean that a gun used in domestic violence is not a weapon? We can see that court usage of dictionary definitions is a bit wobbly. Or scary, if you prefer. I'm not saying that the use of a rash-inducing caustic powder in a domestic dispute should be subject to international treaties about chemical weapons. But I am saying that if you're going to use a dictionary to support your opinion, you shouldn't hop back and forth between using it and ignoring it. And you probably shouldn't be using it that much at all. (By the way, Slate magazine hails the Chief Justice's "comic stylings" in this case. Yes, Americans can do irony.)

the newspaper?
While thinking further about how we talk about the dictionary even though there are many dictionaries, I wondered about use of the newspaper.  People say things like I read the newspaper every day or I read about that in the newspaper. But, of course, it's a particular newspaper title that they read every day, and it was a particular issue of a particular title that they read a particular fact in. (There's a reason why newspaper is the word that I use to teach first-year students about polysemy.) Saying the newspaper in these contexts, like when people say the dictionary, gives the impression that it's immaterial whether there is more than one possible newspaper that you could be referring to, since it is the news they're telling you. (In contrast, people don't talk generically about how to read the book or say that they read a fact in the book, unless it's clear from context which book they're talking about.) I wondered: do we see a difference in this use of the in AmE and BrE?  Well, I wouldn't be feeling the need to tell you about it if we didn't.

Using the Corpus of Global Web-Based English again, I looked at various newspaper phrases. British websites were about as apt as the American to have the phrases read a newspaper and read in a newspaper. But when we put a the in there, the scale(s) tip(s) to the American, with 106 American instances of read the newspaper to 45 British ones, and 23 American read in the newspaper to 9 British.  (I also didn't get to note that fellow-guest Nicholson Baker has an essay called 'Reading the paper' about newspaper-reading [in his case the New York Times] in his collection The Way the World Works.) This difference is probably much to do with the fact that American newspapers are meant to be 'objective' and 'impartial', while British ones wear their political positions more obviously.  If one believes that all the news is impartially reported in all the newspapers, then, the thinking might go, the news in the papers is interchangeable. (The fact that any news above the local level is likely to be coming from a wire service makes this almost true in some cases.) The American ideal of impartial print media (and until Fox News, broadcast media were held to the same standards) seems tied up with the value of the printed word in American culture.

Iain in the comments mentions 'in the papers" (note: I did newspaper rather than  paper because of the ambiguity of the latter--both are used in AmE & BrE). The plural there acknowledges that there is not a single paper, so more use of the plural would go along with the claim I'm making above (which, I must underscore, is a thought-experiment, like the original dictionary piece. I'm seeing how far I can go with it. And then I might go somewhere else with it!).  Looking at GloBWE again, each country (US, CA, UK, IE, AU, NZ) has only one instance of read it in the newspapers.  But for read the newspapers there are 33 US and 63 UK examples, making it reasonably more frequent in BrE. So the plural form doesn't undermine the thought-experiment.  But keep experimenting!