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!

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!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 UK-to-US Co-Word of the Year: gap year

Finally, the last of my Words of the Year. I declared two US-to-UK words this year because both (awesome and bake-off) seemed very much 'of 2014'. In the case of the UK-to-US words, I also gave up on deciding between two excellent nominations, though the case for '2014ness' is not quite as strong. We've been seeing a lot more Britishisms in the US for some years now.  The other UK-to-US Word of the Year (dodgy) and today's have been nominated before. (I'm grateful to Nancy Friedman for making both these apt and informative nominations.) They are worming their way in rather than making a big splash. But in both cases it seems to be time to acknowledge them. So the UK-to-US Noun of the Year is:

gap year

That is, a year off from education between school and (AmE) college/(BrE) university. (If your first reaction is 'but that's not a word!', please go straight to the bottom of this post for a linguistic schooling.)

Why is this worthy of the title UK-to-US Word of the Year? Well, first of all, it passes the 'UK-to' criterion by being very British in origin. Here's the OED's record of it:
Secondly, it's definitely made its way into the US. From Nancy Friedman's nomination of it:

Ben Yagoda wrote about it in his Britishisms blog in November 2012 (, but 2014 was the year it went mainstream in the pages of Time (May 14) and USA Today (Oct. 28). The American Gap Association ("Integrity in Gap Years") was founded in 2012.
The trajectory of gap year in UK (red) and US (blue) books from Google Ngrams shows its progress up to 2012:

Americans started to notice the word around the times that Princes William (2000) and Harry (2004) took their gap years, but it was the financial crisis that really helped it along. In lean times it makes more sense for young people to spend time out of education before the very expensive undertaking of higher education. By taking a year off, they can work to save money to finance their studies or just use the time to make sure that they really want to go to college/university. And that's what's been happening more and more in the US. Wikipedia says:
Some 40,000 Americans participated in 2013 in sabbatical programmes, an increase of almost 20% since 2006, according to statistics compiled by the American Gap Association 
As someone who teaches in higher education, I'm all for it. The students who come to us after some time off from education are generally more mature and ready for serious study. They also have more varied experiences to reflect on when taking part in classroom discussions (which is very relevant to me when I teach Intercultural Communication).

Perhaps this should have been a Word of the Year in 2012 (instead of bollocks), since that's when it really seemed to be institutionali{s/z}ed in the US. But Nancy's evidence of how 'mainstream' it's gone in the US is enough to convince me that it needs to be ceremoniously marked as a successful UK-to-US import. So, all hail gap year, my final Word of the Year for 2014. My thanks to all who got involved in the nominations.

Again, some may protest that this is not a possible word of the year, because it is more than one word. And to this I say, as I have said before, that a space in a string of letters is not what makes expressions into words. Language is a spoken thing prior to being a written thing, so the evidence of writing is not the strongest type of evidence when it comes to language. Gap year fits linguistic criteria for being a word (an open compound) because:
  1. It has a single part-of-speech (noun).
  2. It has a meaning that is more than the sum of its parts. (In linguist lingo, it's non-compositional.) Thus, it's the kind of thing that dictionaries record.
  3. It is indivisible. You can have an enjoyable gap year but you can't have a gap enjoyable year. You can have several gap years but not several gaps year or gaps years. You could talk about how you feel pre-gap year or post-gap year, but not gap pre-year. Nothing (with the exception of profanity, English's only infixes) can go in that space between gap and year.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 US-to-UK Co-Word of the Year: 'bake-off'

As we've already established, this was an indecisive year for me, and I've already announced two Words of the Year, both adjectives:  US-to-UK awesome and UK-to-US dodgy. Of course, many words go back and forth between the two countries each year, and these have been building up usage in their non-native lands for years, but they felt 'of 2014' for various reasons discussed in their posts.

Another word with American origins was bigger than ever in the UK in 2014, and a UK-to-US noun had a very good case made for it for timeliness. So to the adjectives we add the Nouns of the Year. First off, the US to UK:


As in the BBC's:

Before you say "but that's two words", I refer you to the hyphen above.  On every linguistic test, it is one word, a noun. But the British establishment has a higher tolerance than Americans do for what we in the word business call 'open compounds' (as alluded to in this old post).

As Nancy Friedman wrote, when she nominated the word:

The term has been common in the US since at least 1949, when Pillsbury introduced its national Bake-Off contest; it was later adopted [...] as programmer lingo to mean a contest between competing technologies.
She also noted that Collins dictionaries short-listed it as one of their Words of the Year.  Here's what it looks like in the OED (note the hyphen!):

The cook-off to which the entry refers is an earlier Americanism (dating to 1936), and that entry refers to play-off as another American inspiration for nouns ending in off. Play-off derived from the phrasal verb play off (as in They played off for the championship), but bake-off and cook-off look like they were formed as nouns first, on ([BrE] an) analogy with the noun play-off.

But (I hear you muttering) the Great British Bake Off had its fifth television (AmE) season/(BrE) series in 2014, so why make it a Word of the Year now? I'll quote Wikipedia on its ratings:

The series started with its highest ratings for its opening episode after its move to BBC One, with over 7 million tuning in according to overnight figures.[40] This is adjusted to 8.5 million for its 7-day final viewing figure, making this its second most-watched episode after previous year's final.[41] In the fourth episode, 8.1 million watched the original broadcast,[42] but the "sabotage" controversy gained the show a further 2 million viewers on the BBC iPlayer catch-up service, giving the show the biggest ever audience with 10.248 million viewers for the episode.[43][44] The final of the show gained an overnight viewing figure of 12.29 million, then the highest viewing figure for a non-sporting event of the year on UK TV.[45] Series 5 had a consolidated average of 10,039,400 viewers.
The controversy mentioned above was also known as "bingate" (mixing the BrE bin with the orig. AmE -gate suffix) involved a contestant getting fed up with his Baked Alaska and throwing it away, then showing the judges the (BrE) rubbish bin when asked to display his work. It was alleged that another contestant had moved his ice cream from the freezer to make room for her own.

It was all over the papers. I liked this review of the phenomenon from Stuart Heritage in the Guardian:
Pity the historians of the future. They’re the ones who will have to put the hysteria surrounding last week’s episode of The Great British Bake Off into some kind of context. And that’ll be much harder than it sounds, because the main trajectory of the news this summer has basically been: horror, horror, misery, horror, misery, man putting a pudding in a bin, misery.

“Why did everyone lose their minds about a man putting a pudding in a bin?” they’ll wonder. “Why, with everything else going on in the world, did that make the Sun’s front page? Why did the Guardian devote 11 separate news stories to it? It was just a man putting a pudding in a bin”. Finally, exasperated at their ridiculous ancestors and exhausted from trying to figure out what the hell a “bincident” is, they’ll give up, cut their losses and simply torch the archives. It’ll be the Library of Alexandria all over again.
The irony of the Americanism in a "Great British" institution is not something that's regularly pointed out, but it's becoming a great British tradition too: note the Americanism in BBC's The Great British Sewing Bee.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 UK-to-US (co-)Word of the Year: dodgy

So the other day, when I decided to avoid difficult questions and not decide between my top two US-to-UK words of the year, I laid the groundwork for general indecisiveness. So, I might as well not be decisive about the UK-to-US words either. It works out well (I re(-)assure myself) because in the end I will have a Noun of the Year and an Adjective of the Year in both directions. (Orig AmE) Tough luck, verbs.

And the UK-to-US Adjective of the Year is:


...which was nominated by Gina the Great, Anonymous in New Jersey, and Peter Mork (in a previous year). It is timely because this is the year that Ben Yagoda at Not One-Off Britishisms declared that "Dodgy is ensconced" in response to this headline in the Wall Street Journal:

When asked which British words I now can't live without, I usually mention dodgy. What did I say before? It's got such a feeling to it, and has to be translated by different words for different contexts in AmE. Take, for example, these British collocates (i.e. words that go next to it) for dodgy:

 dodgy knee, dodgy memory, dodgy ticker:  unreliable because falling apart
dodgy internet connection, dodgy CGI: unreliable, not very good--probably because it's done on the cheap
dodgy statisticsdodgy accounting, dodgy refereeing: questionable; unreliable and possibly dishonest
dodgy business practices, dodgy characters, dodgy suburb: disreputable and probably dangerous/criminal
dodgy photos: either poorly taken or picturing dodgy activities
...and so on.
So, my question is: Is dodgy  used in the same way in AmE as in BrE?  One way to check on this is to look in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE). GloWBE collects about 387 million words from each of these dialects, and the basic numbers show that the word is still definitely BrE and only marginally AmE: 491 AmE examples to 3970 BrE ones.

You can ask GloWBE which collocates of dodgy are most typical of AmE and BrE--that is, not just which ones occur most in each, but which ones are statistically over- or under-represented in each. This bit of statistics is a bit dodgy, since the number of AmE dodgys is so small. But let's do it anyhow. We get a table like this, with AmE on the left:

The darker green indicates collocates that are very particular to that dialect. So, in the right column, we can see that BrE has lots and lots of nouns that go with dodgy a lot that are not much found in AmE. In the left column, we see that dodgy energy, dodgy theology, and dodgy scientists are found more in AmE than in BrE. However, that looks fairly suspicious, and sure enough the AmE dodgy energy examples are just repetitions of the same text (a problem for internet corpora is that a lot of internet content is mirrored or quoted on different sites), the AmE dodgy theologies are really two rather than three different examples, etc. The pink/red ones are over-represented in British compared to American.

The white ones are comparable in the two dialects--and bloke is a funny one here. Not only is it a BrE word, it's a BrE word (like bloody) that Americans probably overuse when 'doing' British English. I'd say this tells us that dodgy is generally perceived as British in AmE. And it's the number one collocate for dodgy in AmE. (The numbers here are slightly different from the above since I searched for nouns within one word above and within two words below.)

There are a lot of businessy collocates throughout the AmE list. There are in the BrE list too--after all, we're getting a lot of news stories here and there's been a lot of dodginess in that realm in the past few years. But there aren't many body parts on the American list. At number 58 on the list there are two instances of dodgy stomach, whereas on the BrE list, numbers 11 and 12 are knee and knees. The vaguely-criminal/dishonest meaning of dodgy seems to be coming through stronger in AmE than the 'unreliable/poorly constructed' sense.

This may be underscored by a US example from a novel by a Texan author (found via the Corpus of Contemporary American English), which wouldn't mean in BrE what it seems to be meaning here:

They'd need dodgy breaking-and-entering skills to get the journal (having somehow first discovered its existence), an impressive knack for wordplay, and access to Mission Impossiblestyle office products to obliterate all superfluous words into mind-blowing nonexistence.
What seems to be intended by the author is '(slightly?) criminal breaking-and-entering skills'. But say dodgy breaking-and-entering skills in BrE and it sounds like it means 'not-very-good breaking-and-entering skills'. BrE just wouldn't use dodgy to mean 'criminal' before something that is actually criminal.

And so it goes when words are imported. You can call them 'misunderstood' or you can call them 'subject to semantic change'.

Next up in the Words of the Year...nouns!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014 US-to-UK (co-)Word of the Year: awesome

Thanks to all who have nominated US-to-UK and UK-to-US words for the annual Words of the Year (AmE) fest. The decisions were difficult, and so I am going to cheat and have two US-to-UK words. I can do that, because I'm the (orig. AmE) boss. And the first one is:


And in a coincidence that you probably won't believe (it's true!) my BrE-speaking child has just looked up from her (arguably orig. AmE) video game to say "That was awesome. I cooked an egg!"

Of course, awesome is not a new word in any English. It's been used to mean either 'full of awe' or 'inspiring awe' for centuries. But its use as enthusiastic praise of any little (or big) thing is originally American; the earliest [alleged] example of it in the OED is from 1961 in the now-defunct women's magazine McCall's:
He looked up to see Mrs. Kirby, awesome in a black-and-yellow polka-dotted slicker, bearing down on him.
This use of awesome really came into its own (in the US) in the 1980s. As Robert Lane Greene reminisces:

...change was happening to “awesome”. It was defined in 1980 in the “Official Preppy Handbook”, a bestselling semi-satirical look at well-heeled American youth: “Awesome: terrific, great.” It had a bit of California surfer-dude and Valley Girl, too. By 1982, the Guardian was mocking the West Coast with “It’s so awesome, I mean, fer shurr, toadly, toe-dully!”

Soon the word needed no definition. “Awesome” became the default descriptor for anything good. In 1982, I was seven and I swallowed it whole. It stayed with me for decades. In 2005, I remember meeting a girl when I had just seen “Batman Begins”, the moody psychological picture that reinvigorated a tired franchise. “It’s awesome,” I told her. “Awesome. Just awesome.” She wondered, she later said, what kind of journalist had just one adjective in his vocabulary. Somehow, she married me all the same.
“Awesome” has been with my generation in America so long that it now has a whiff of retro.
And it's been in BrE for a while now too. My colleague Justyna Robinson studies the sociolinguistics of word-meaning variation and change, and awesome is one she's followed in British English. This means that she gets to write things with titles like "Awesome insights into semantic variation". (I am jealous.) In that 2011 book chapter, she reports on a study in which she asked Yorkshire residents of different ages and backgrounds to name something awesome and to tell her why it was awesome. Older respondents said things like "The Grand Canyon. Because it takes your breath away." The under-30s said things like "a salad, because it was really good".
Robinson (2011; see Awesome title link above)

But it's not just teenagers using it. Robert Lane Greene reports that "The Guardian, the paper that mocked “awesome” in 1982, had used it in 6,457 articles by July 2011, with one or two being added each day"(see link above).

So, why make it Co-Word of the Year for 2014? One reason is that it was all over the news when the first findings of the Spoken British National Corpus 2014 came out. Here's a selection in which this particular word made the headline.

In the Guardian:
There are several (press-release-inspired?) with this title (this one from

And more:

And more:

The Daily Mail headline alludes to the other reason this is a Word of 2014. The Lego Movie and its theme song 'Everything is Awesome'.

Before 2014, I heard British teenagers saying awesome. I heard my English child saying it only when she had just been visiting her American cousins. But now, it's the (AmE) go-to positive evaluation word for the under-10s too. This is part of the landscape of their language now--not an Americanism that they've ironically decided to adopt, but just how they talk. The makers of The Lego Movie were surely cognizant of the word's "retro" feeling when choosing it for their theme, making a bit of an in-joke for the US parents who used it (and Lego(s)) when they were young. But the irony is lost on young British children. It's just a (orig. AmE in this sense) cool word for them.

Its WOTY status was sealed for me when I overhead this conversation between mother and pre-school son about how he should be playing with his baby sister:

Mother: Reuben, Isabella is much smaller than you. When you play with her, you have to be extra....
[Reuben ignores her]
Mother: When you play with her you have to be extra.....
[Reuben ignores her some more]
Mother: You have to be extra...
Reuben: Awesome!

The other US-to-UK and the UK-to-US WotYs will be revealed in the next few days.