Friday, April 17, 2015

an appreciation

I'm overdue for blogging here (I have a few topics lined up and partially researched) in part because I spent a very, very long time on US taxes and FATCA. This is definitely worthy of a rant. The US treatment of its expatriated citizens is absurd. But lots of other people are doing that rant. And I come here not to rant, but to appreciate.

I feel extremely privileged that writing this blog has led to so many interesting, polite, cooperative, informative, entertaining and just plain rewarding interactions--mostly online, occasionally in real life. Last week, a reader, correspondent and virtual friend died unexpectedly. I'm finding it strange to realise that you can miss someone you've never met. But the fact that the world is missing such a funny, interesting/interested, and generous person is difficult knowledge to have. That's before one even starts to consider that there are people who loved him closely who will be affected far, far more than internet acquaintances like myself. My heart goes out to them, though I do not know them.

Writing for the internet public about language is hard. It's also fun and has lots of perks. But it is hard because it's risky. There's always someone there to tell you that they think you're wrong, that they think you're unqualified, that you didn't talk about what they wanted you to talk about. It's hard because you can't always tell if people who respond to you are joking or talking down to you, if they're exasperated or just brief. And there are certainly people out there who haven't yet figured out how to tell when I'm any of those things. My strategy is to always try to read anything sent to me in the most positive way possible--to imagine a kind smile on their imagined faces and to try to have a sincere smile on mine when I reply. If I can't do that, it's better not to reply at all. I don't always succeed in not-replying to perceived rudeness, but with practice it gets easier.

Anyhow, that all said, my life on the web has been easy. (Which is good because the grief I do get is plenty enough!) Even though there is no shortage of people willing to be very rude on the internet about the national dialects I write about, they don't seem to come here (or to my Twitter feed or Facebook page) very often. Or maybe they do, but they behave themselves when they come here. If so, I'm very grateful to them for that restraint.

But more generally, the people who hang around this blog and virtually interact with me seem to be lovely people. If we knew each other in real life, we might well drive each other bonkers, but maybe not.* There have been readers/commenters who were active for a while and then faded away; I'll never know if they're just lost to the blog or lost to the world. There are others who've been the blog's constant companions for years. And I'm sure the majority drop in for a word then forget about the blog. Whichever one you are, I just want to take a moment to appreciate the interactions we've had and will (I hope) continue to.

At any rate, here's to Marc Naimark. He is missed. As a tribute, here are some of the blog posts he inspired:
finger-tip search
write (to) someone
the big list of vegetables

* Marc and I got to know each other on a more personal level than some of us have, because we became Facebook friends in the early days when I accepted friend requests from names I recogni{s/z}ed from the blog. I now rarely accept friend requests from people I've not met in person. Sometimes I think I should do so, knowing how valuable I found those interactions with Marc, but on the other hand there were other requests that I accepted, then later became uncomfortable at having let those strangers into my family life. I'm sticking with that anti-social social-media policy (and directing people I don't know to interact with me on the Lynneguist page or Twitter feed) not because I don't want to get to know you better, but because my child's privacy is my priority. That said, perhaps we'll meet...

Monday, March 23, 2015

by cash

A(n) historian I know has taken to calling me his favo(u)rite linguist. I have a suspicion I'm the only linguist he knows. Nevertheless, flattery gets you a blog post. And a flattering pseudonym.

So, Generous Historian, when he emailed me about Important University Business, included this:
P.S. A little piece of English-language usage that has struck me a couple of times lately and made me think "Lynne might be interested in that", is that people in shops and cafes now invariably say "are you paying by cash", whereas they would have said "are you paying cash" until recently. The ubiquity of card (and, soon, phone) payments is doubtless to blame, but I was interested by the addition of the pointless "by" because it seems characteristic of US-English (where you "beat on" someone, instead of beating them; "meet with", instead of simply meeting, etc.). Any thoughts?
This historian is English, as you might be able to tell. But he's married to an American so I'm not about to let him off lightly for this (AmE) rookie mistake (=beginner's error).

Note that I didn't say that flattery gets you a flattering blog post.

This is how I chided him:*
You notice more prepositions in AmE because they're new info where you weren't expecting it.  But BrE has an awful lot of prepositions where AmE doesn't--e.g. in expressions of time (on Tuesday), with certain verbs (protest at the decision), etc. I submit, as attachment, data to indicate that this is one not an Americanism. :)

The attachment was this screenshot from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), showing who says pay by cash:
The darker the blue, the stronger the strength of the expression in the particular nation. Since the Irish sub-corpus is about 1/3 of the size of the US or UK (GB) ones, Ireland uses pay by cash not 3 more times than Britain, but three times more.

So, it looks like BrE is getting by cash from Ireland--where it probably arose on analogy with pay by card. (Or maybe BrE is inventing it separately--that can happen with analogies.) I was particularly taken with this example from the Irish data (from the Garda [police] website):
You can pay by cash, cheque, bank draft, or laser card.
Laser card? They have cards with lasers in Ireland? Let me in!!** 

Incidentally, pay cash, which GH says he would say, is the most strongly American of the alternatives (according to GloWBE). Pay with cash is the most neutral on the US-UK comparison, but has the strongest showing in Canada.

* I once got to see a letter of recommendation that had been written about me, which said "She writes devastating footnotes". This remains the best compliment I have ever received. Nevertheless, I fear my epitaph will be "She wrote chiding emails".

** Apparently laser card means 'debit card' in Ireland, based on the name of the first company to offer them. False alarm. Everyone back to normal, please. Don't mind me; I'm just weeping with disappointment.

Monday, March 09, 2015

it's rude to...

One of the fun things that you can do with the GloWBE (Global Web-Based English) corpus is ask it to compare collocations (words that regularly go together) across varieties of English. The software does a statistical evaluation so that you can see which collocations are most typical of a particular variety of English in comparison to another. So for instance, if you ask it about words that come before tea in the British and American parts of the corpus, you learn that the top-three most American (and least British) collocates are GOP ('Grand Old Party', i.e. the Republican party), Republicans, and conservatives (because of the Tea Party movement), and the three most British/least American are cream, cuppa and vintage.
All that explanation is just prelude to the difference I want to point out.

I'd seen Susan Waters' paper in Journal of Pragmatics "It's rude to VP [verb phrase]: the cultural semantics of rudeness", in which she looked at which verbs follow rude in Australian English (gathered via Google searches). You'd have to collect data that way to get enough for any real study of what's considered rude in a culture, as there aren't enough examples in existing corpora to make solid conclusions about such things. Nevertheless, I read Waters' paper and immediately went to GloWBE to see what's rude in the UK and US.

I asked GloWBE to compare which words come immediately after rude to in  British and American web-based writing. While I'm really interested in the verbs, I couldn't just search for verbs after rude to because the software said there was too little data. So, here are the words that come after rude to in AmE (left) and BrE (right).

In the columns, TOKENS 1 = the number found in American websites, TOKENS 2 in British. PM stands for 'per million', so the first row of the left table says that there are .06 examples of rude to him per million words in the American data, but .03 per million in the British.  Green ones disproportionately belong to that dialect, and red (or pink) are found less than would be statistically expected. White are found frequently but not statistically differently in both dialects.

We can debate whether there's anything worth saying about the hims and hers--it might just be an accident of the corpus. The words her and him are not found at particularly different rates in the two corpora, so it's not that British people talk about women more than Americans do. The you is  interesting, because it's usually used sympathetically and/or in giving people (possibly uninvited) advice (e.g. If he IS a jerk and rude to you and everyone around you, get out of there). A more American thing to do? Very possibly.

But what I'm really interested in are the two verbs in these tables. According to this data set, the most British-and-not-American rude thing to do is to ask something and the most American-and-not-British rude thing to do is to say something. This goes along with some stereotypes (and even serious analyses) of British and American differences in what is considered 'polite', and so I found it interesting.

In British culture, much more information is considered 'private' and 'personal' than in American, so you don't ask people about themselves or tell them about yourself at anything like the rate that Americans would. (Recall this earlier post about giving or asking for names.) Here are some examples from the GloWBE data:

He'd never talk about his work and it felt rude to ask.
is it just plain rude to ask if a child is disabled?
I wouldn't say it was rude to ask why someone is a vegetarian
Is it rude to ask Koreans if they're from North or South Korea?

Of the 21 British rude to ask examples, at most three or four are asking for things or favo(u)rs (e.g. rude to ask to borrow a tool). The others are about asking for personal information. The American rude to ask examples (11 unique examples--plus one duplicate) are also mostly about information (two favo(u)rs). In a couple of the American information-asking cases, it's not rude to ask something, but it's rude to ask it in front of an audience (rude to ask personal questions in public).

Meanwhile, in the typically-American rude to say examples, we have:

it would be rude to say " white people,

I think it was really rude to say that people who liked it have low standards

If you have something rude to say about it keep it to yourself

it's rude to say non-curvy women look like little men.
...which gives the impression that Americans feel that people should rein in their opinion-giving or their pigeonholing of people in order to not make anyone feel different or bad. There were 25 American and 15 British rude to says with two of the British ones being rude to say no and another one being rude to say you don't want something. The American data didn't have any such 'rude to refuse' examples.

So that amused me. How about you? It would be rude not to comment on this blog post.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


I'm sure that more than one person has asked me to cover likely, but at this point I can only find an email from Richard B (so apologies to anyone else who feels they should be credited with noticing this one!).  Richard writes:
I've noticed a difference in the way Americans and British use 'likely', as an adverb and an adjective (I think) as in 'I will likely visit at the weekend' vs 'It is likely that I will visit at the weekend'. However, in Britain you'll hear 'I will probably visit at the weekend' and even 'I will most likely visit at the weekend'
You can tell Richard is not American by the (BrE) at the weekend in his example, but that's stuff for another post. This is the kind of thing that Brits are more likely (ho-ho) to notice because they don't use likely to mean 'probable'/'probably' in ways that Americans couldn't, but Americans use it in a way that sticks out like a sore thumb in Britain.

In the American He'll likely visit this weekend, likely is indeed an adverb. Probably is another adverb that might go there, but for me likely sounds more likely than probably, tautologically enough.

In the American and British She is likely to win the Nobel prize, likely is an adjective. How can I tell? The technical answer is because it's the semantic predicate in this clause, following a copula. The less technical demonstration is to notice that you can't substitute the adverb probably in this case:
*She is probably to win the Nobel Prize
(Linguists use * before an example to say it's not a possible expression in the language.) 

But you can substitute the right kind of adjective (i.e. one that can take an infinitive verb after it):
She is happy to win the Nobel Prize
 Adverbs go in adverb places, adjectives go in adjective places. This likely is an adjective.

So far it looks like AmE has likely as an adverb or adjective and BrE has only the adjective. But wait! What's likely doing after most in Richard's other example I will most likely visit...?  It's being an adverb in British (and American) English, that's what! As the OED says, the adverb likely is:

Now chiefly most likely, very likely; otherwise rare exc. Sc. dial., or (freq.) N. Amer.

Yet another usage that has become extinct in (most of) the UK, but has been preserved in AmE.

Going back to adjectives, likely also works in both countries as a pre-nominal ('before the noun') adjective, as in a likely reason for her magnetism is her diet of iron filingsBut there are certain uses of it that the OED claims as more country-specific. First, this one [earliest examples omitted]:

(Now chiefly U.S.) Of young persons (occas. of animals): Giving promise of success or excellence; promising, hopeful.

1793   G. Washington Lett. in Writings (1891) XII. 381,   I am very sorry to hear that so likely a young fellow..should addict himself to such courses.
1863   Advt. in Dicey Federal St. I. 254   He [a fugitive slave] is..stout and well built; very likely.
1883   J. Gilmour Among Mongols xviii. 226   Chinamen go to Mongolia in spring, buy up likely animals.
The most recent example they have of this is from 1883 (but the entry has not been fully updated since the first edition in 1903). I must say, it's not something I'd say.

Next we have:

Of seemly or comely appearance; good-looking, handsome. ? Now U.S. and dial.

I can't say I have that one either, though it has some similarity to the fifth sense in the American Heritage Dictionary. The likely spot example sounds fine to me, but I'd put it with sense 3. Better Half doesn't like the example in 5 though (he says it sounds 'very old-fashioned and Enid Blyton'), so maybe it is different from sense 3 and more American.  
1. Possessing or displaying the qualities or characteristics that make something probable: They are likely to become angry with him. See Usage Note at liable.
2. Within the realm of credibility; plausible: not a very likely excuse.
3. Apparently appropriate or suitable: There were several likely candidates for the job.
4. Apt to achieve success or yield a desired outcome; promising: a likely topic for investigation.
5. Attractive; pleasant: found a likely spot under a shady tree for the picnic.
 On the other side of the Atlantic, we have The Likely Lads. (I'd embedded a YouTube video here, but within hours, embedding had been disabled for that video. So, you'll have to go to YouTube to see it.)

According to Wikipedia (the OED is not as clear for this one):

The word "likely" in the show's title is somewhat ambiguous. In some dialects in Northern England it means "likeable", but it may be derived from the phrase the man most likely to, a boxing expression in common use on Tyneside, hence, in Geordie slang, "a likely lad". Another possible meaning is the ambiguous Northern usage of "likely" to mean a small-time troublemaker.

And that's likely all I have to say on the matter. Until you point out in the comments what I've missed.

Friday, January 30, 2015

change / shift gears

@arnoldgoldman has just suggested shift gears versus change gears for today's Twitter Difference of the Day. I've noticed this one before without being able to put my finger on which one belonged to which dialect. It turns out there's good reason for my confusion--you hear both in both dialects. So what's the story? Is one 'an Americanism'?

Looking in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, I found more of both in American and more of shift in both dialects. 

change shift
American 98 153
British 42 53

Using a web-based corpus is possibly a bit funny for this, since authorship isn't known and they might be writing for an international audience (among other reasons). So, what happens when we look at books published in US and UK? I checked out Google Books--which also has a lot of problems in classifying data, but we hope that the sheer amount of well-classified data limits the effect of the poorly classified examples. (E.g. I once found that because a publisher put its founding date in the 18th century on its title pages, Google books thought that its books were written in the 18th century. Including the ones about television.)

The books data seems to explain things better. (NB: Firefox doesn't seem to be able to handle the dates on the bottom line, but other browsers can. But if you're on Firefox, scrolling over the chart should show dates. Or maybe this is just my Firefox.).

Here's the American:

And here's the British:

What we have here is that both shift and change are earlier in American than British (though the first  change gears are pretty close to one another--so that's just a matter of new technology needing new expressions). Then shift was introduced in the US in the 1910s, and fairly steadily rose until it overtook change in the early 1960s. The Americanness of the introduction is confirmed in the OED where all examples for its first several decades are American--though the OED does not label it as an AmE (or 'orig. U.S.') usage. When shift got to be used more than change in AmE, it started to be really noticed in BrE and now we have a situation where both dialects tend to use the newer verb shift, but haven't forgotten the older one--though change is still more common in BrE than AmE.

Now back to marking!

Postscript 3 March: I promised ages ago in the comments that I'd address the number of gear(s)--something that the original post should have done! So here are the numbers from the Global Web-Based English corpus.

For AmE, gears is definitely the winner, no matter the verb.
US gear gears
shift 1 98
change 3 24

But in British English, the older change goes with singular gear more, and the more American shift goes with the more American plural gears.
UK gear gears
shift 5 24
change 59 19
Incidentally, there are both automotive and figurative uses in both singular and plural in BrE.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Have been very taken up with marking/grading/marking/grading/marking/grading/marking/grading/marking/grading...yes, it seems interminable to me too. Not finished yet, so just dipping my toe back into Tuesday night blogging with a short one.

Liz B in the UK emailed to ask me how to interpret English cucumber in an American recipe. And I replied with something like (but I've edited it now):
an English cucumber is just the kind you'd buy normally in a British supermarket as 'a cucumber'. They differ from the ones usually sold in the US, which are shorter, thicker- and smoother-skinned, and have bigger seeds.

So, here's what's called a cucumber in the UK and an English cucumber or seedless cucumber or even burpless cucumber in the US:


And here's what's called a cucumber in the US, which I've never seen in Britain so I don't know that it's called anything in the UK:

Before anyone asks, neither of these are BrE courgettes/AmE zucchini, which were discussed back at the Big List of Vegetables.  And if you want to know about pickled cucumbers [if you want to read my RANT about pickled cucumbers], click on those lovely, often misleading words. Oh, and the clipping cuke is an Americanism. We must be very fond of them to give them a nickname.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Word of the Year round-up

Since I presented four Words of the Year in four posts, I thought it might be useful to have one post that lists all four. Then I thought: why not have a look at all of the US-to-UK and UK-to-US Words of the Year since I started doing them in the first year of the blog?  Yeah, why not?  So here's a (orig. AmE) round-up of the words to date, followed by some reflection/critique of my picks to date.

From US to UK I've declared these Words of the Year (click on them to be taken to the original post):
2006: muffin-top
2007: cookie
2008: meh
2009: staycation
2010: shellacking
2011: for the win - FTW
2012: wonk
2013: Black Friday 
2014 (adjective): awesome
2014 (noun): bake-off

From UK to US I've declared these Words of the Year:
2006: wanker 
2007: (baby) bump
2008:  to vet (e.g. a candidate)
2009: to go missing 
2010: ginger (redhead)
2011: kettling
2012: bollocks
2013: bum
2014 (adjective): dodgy
2014 (noun): gap year

My thoughts on these:
  • I think I've got better at it over the years. The first year is a bit of an embarrassment, because muffin top is probably originally Australian. It may have been reinforced in the UK by use from the US--at least that was my perception at the time--but I would not have picked it today.
  • We see more 'naughty' words in the UK-to-US direction. The only time I've been tempted to have a 'naughty' one in the US-to-UK direction was in 2012 when my British brother-in-law (and various students of mine) took on the AmE use of douche as an insult (short for douchebag). As discussed in those posts, when people take on words for taboo things from other languages or dialects, they often use them in ways and contexts that they wouldn't in their native dialect. This is especially the case of wanker (and derivatives) in AmE, where it just sounds like a funny thing to say and probably does not (for most US users) give rise to images of male masturbation. Americans often find British words for taboo things 'quaint'. At the same time some British folk find Americans prudish in their reactions to our shared taboo words. 'The c-word' has far more currency in the UK and the social barriers involved in the use of 'the f-word' differ considerably. That's a topic for another post. Possibly on this new blog.
  • A number of the US-to-UK words feel rather dated. This is in large part due to the necessity that the word be 'of the year' in some way. British English speakers use lots of Americanisms, but in order to be WotY, I look for active discussions of them or use of them in the news, etc. Meh.
But I don't feel too bad about some of these seeming like weak choices in retrospect. I'm very happy with some of them. And other Word of the Year declarers, including the one I get most excited about, the American Dialect Society, have had misfires too. In the end, it's a bit of fun. And in the words of T. S. Eliot:  "last year's words belong to last year's language/And next year's words await another voice."

I'm sure you'll let us know what you think!