Wednesday, April 09, 2014

hire and rent

I promised @matthewddsg weeks ago that this would be the next blog entry. Then I did another one instead and had to write other things for other places. So here it is, not quite a month since I promised it. For me, that's pretty good!

The upshot: in BrE one hires things (and sometimes places), employs people, and rents places; in AmE one hires people and rents things or places. That said, one hears hire for people in BrE too, but just not as much as one does in AmE. And employ is not particularly non-American, it's just overwhelmed by hire there. Both have let for what the landlord might do and lease for certain things (e.g. long-term non-ownership of cars, I think). It'll probably be easiest if I go through these verbs one at a time.

rent
Rent can refer to the act of letting something to someone (I rented some land to him) or to the act of paying someone to use their something (I rented some land from him). This is old news--since the Middle Ages when it came into English from French. The OED notes one sense that is 'chiefly North American' which means 'To be hired out for or let at a certain rate', as in (their example):
1992   Albuquerque (New Mexico) Monthly Oct. 37/2 (captionThe tux, suitable for any performance in Albuquerque's doubtful performing arts center, rents for $55 and sells for $425.
But why does AmE use rent for things besides (now particularly AmE) real estate and BrE doesn't so much? The first examples the OED has of non-real-estate rented things are American: a guide in 1817, boats in 1895 and pianos in 1903. Comparing rent a boat with hire a boat in American English via Google Ngrams, one can see how recent this change is:



So, use of rent for non-real-estate seems to be an American innovation, possibly motivated by more limited use of hire and/or by the advent of so-called rent-a-car companies in the 1920s. 

I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for nouns that came one or two words after rent a. The top 10 are: car, room, house, movie, boat, bike, video, place, canoe, kayak. Further down the list we get tuxedo, horse, harp and grandchild. Compare this to the British National Corpus, where the top 5 (because it is a smaller corpus) are: room, house, place, car, villa. (And half of the six rent a car examples are in the names of American companies.)

Americans can even rent time, for example (from the San Francisco Chronicle, via COCA):
He pays $10 an hour to rent studio time and pays to rent equipment when he goes on remote
While one can find British examples of rent studio time, the more common phrase would be to book studio time, using the much-more-BrE-than-AmE sense of book to mean 'reserve'. Book in this sense often gets extended beyond the action of reserving the room/time so as to include the using of the thing that was reserved.

A particularly British use of rent is noted by the OED (my emphasis):
In various extended and humorous (typically derogatory) uses, suggesting the temporary acquisition or instant availability of the person or thing specified, usually for an expedient or mercenary purpose; spec. (chiefly Brit.) denoting a faction of regular, esp. violent, participants in public protests, in rent-a-crowd, rent-a-mob, etc. See also rent-a-cop n., rent-a-quote adj. and n.
But note that it's only rent-a-mob/crowd that is British. Rent-a-cop is label(l)ed as 'N. Amer. depreciative', and all of these humorous extensions have the American rent-a-car (BrE car hire) to thank for their existence.

hire
Hiring people and hiring things both go back to at least the 13th century. So this is not a case of either nation making up new meanings, but of the 'thing' meaning dying out in AmE and gaining prevalence in BrE.

I searched the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) for nouns that occurred one or two words after hire a*. The * there allows it to be 'a' or 'an' (or 'any' or 'all' or anything else that starts with a-; other words are less likely to be frequent and therefore influence the outcome--but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened; see below). This is my way of looking for direct objects of hire. The software on the website calculates which words co-occur (or collocate, to use the jargon) with the search string in higher-than expected rates for each dialect. Here are the strongest collocates:


AmEBrE
employeecar
Americansbike
bunch[fire]
attorney
person
lawyer
contractor
consultant

This is not to say that it's not real British English to 'hire a person', just that such uses don't stand out in the data. Hire in BrE is not a magnet for the word person like it is in AmE.

To give a broader sense of the kinds of things one can hire in BrE, the top 10 nouns after hire a in the (20ish-year-old) British National Corpus are: car, video, house, boat, bike, minibus, van, room, plane, helicopter.  There's a distinction to be made here between hiring a room and renting a room. One hires a room for an event; one rents a room to live in.

In the case of fire in the BrE list, it seems to be that the verb fire has been mislabel(l)ed as a noun by the software that automatically tags words for part of speech. In this case, it represents the phrase hire and fire. So, that one is about doing something to people, but it seems to be part of a nearly-set phrase (it's used much more in the BrE part of the corpus than the AmE part).

employ
Because hire is used so much, employ (orig. AmE) loses out in AmE. Searching GloBWE for employ a *man (which would capture employ a woman/a man/a postman, etc. but conveniently leaves out employ a metaphor or anything like that), I found 16 BrE examples and 0 AmE ones.

let
I've already covered this one briefly. Both AmE and BrE have this word with the meaning 'to rent out', but BrE has developed an intransitive sense that means 'to be let'. Thus one sees UK properties advertised as 'to let' where US ones would be 'for rent'. Click on the link to see what happens to 'to let' signs (if you can't imagine it).

lease
To lease is the same in AmE & BrE. But I can't leave this post without mentioning that the British may get a new lease of life, while Americans get a new lease on life. Not a verb there, but if I hadn't mentioned it, someone would have asked for it in the comments, I'm sure.

postscript
Wrote this late at night, so glad to see a lot of good info on the fine points of employ/hire in the comments!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Pullum's 'Undivided...'

Several people have asked for my reactions to Geoffrey Pullum's piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog in which he claims the US and UK are 'Undivided by a Common Language'. So apologies to the person to whom I promised a post on rent versus hire (next week!), I'm following fellow UK/US language blogger Ben Yagoda unto the breach.

For those who don't know, Pullum is currently Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. He's a dual UK-US citizen, who was born and educated in the UK, but spent much of his working life in the US. He's also prominent beehive-stirrer-upper at Language Log as well as a regular blogger for Lingua Franca.  I [orig. Aus/NZE] have a lot of time for Pullum's ideas and his style, though I know some of my readers complain about what they perceive as pompousness or rudeness in his blogging. I see that as a humorous blog persona — not because I know the man (we've been in the same room; that's about it), but because my first rule of blogging is to read everything with the rosiest tint possible. That rule serves me well 99.5% of the time.

Pullum starts with:
It probably won’t make me popular on either side of the Atlantic when I say that I think the differences have been wildly, insanely overstated. To cite just one example, I once met a British woman in Edinburgh who told me loudly and confidently that Americans had completely abandoned the use of adverbs.
That woman gets around, doesn't she? I meet her all the time and sometimes she's a man. This kind of behavio(u)r is rooted in cognitive biases. We have a bias toward(s) noticing things that are unusual: so if someone phrases something in a way that wouldn't be heard in your locale, you notice it. If they phrase it in a way that you'd also phrase it, then (as usual) you mine the phrasing for information, then delete the phrasing from your short-term memory. This means you won't later be able to recall how the typically-phrased information was phrased. So, linguistic differences stand out, and linguistic similarities don't stick with us. This means that if one American says real good (and you don't), you may not remember the 40,000 times before that you('ve) heard Americans say really good.

Because of the out-group homogeneity bias, we tend to recogni{s/z}e the variety within the groups we belong to, but not in the groups we don't belong to. So you're much more likely to hear an exasperated woman say "Men! they're all the same!" than to hear an exasperated man say "Men! We're all the same!" In the same way, Americans don't think of Americans as 'all the same', but they think of 'the English' as a more homogenous group, often based on stereotyping. (Don't get smug, English people; you do the same about Americans. Don't I know it.) There's also a bias in intercultural communication (whose name I've forgotten and can't find--help!), by which we tend to over(-)estimate the importance of culture when we deal with people from a culture different from our own; so if someone from another culture does something that strikes us as odd, we might conclude that is a cultural difference between us, rather than that this individual is a bit odd. Or, in the case of language, we tend not to assume that the not-from-our-dialect person just made a speech error or a typo.

So, yes, all of these things lead people to make wildly inaccurate claims like those of the woman in Edinburgh. And the general public eats those up. I talked with two British (one in US, one in UK) journalists last week about the use of the heretofore-British word queue in American English. Both wanted to believe that Americans didn't use queue to mean a line of people until Netflix came along and Britishi{s/z}ed them. I pointed them both to Ben Yagoda's post on the subject, showing a rise of queue in AmE since the 1950s. I believe I also pointed out that queue would not be used by the majority of Americans to talk about a line of people. (The evidence they had seemed to be a few anecdotal uses from elite sources.) Did they cite any of that? No. It's more fun to believe the Netflix story. (How Americans made the jump from virtual lines on Netflix to lines of people waiting and only that jump and not other possible semantic extensions goes unexplained. It's not a trivial matter, and it is an argument for believing that the Americans who use queue to mean 'line of people waiting' have heard British/Commonwealth people using it that way, not that Netflix made them do it.)

So far, so sympathetic to Pullum's point.

In the rest of the article, he dismisses most differences as being in pronunciation or in vocabulary. This is something that most non-syntacticians wouldn't dismiss. On the pronunciation front, fair enough: there's probably as much variation in pronunciation within either country as between them. It's why I don't write a lot about pronunciation on this blog.

On the vocabulary front, he claims the differences are 'mostly nouns'. Well, most of English vocabulary is nouns, so that's not a very interesting thing to say. As (mostly, but not exclusively) a syntactician, Pullum is apt to be dismissive of nouns--they're just names. Easily replaced one for the other, not much effect on the grammar. But certainly an effect on comprehensibility, I'd say.

But let's see what I've got as word-class labels on the 432 blog posts I've published here so far.  I don't use noun as a label because noun posts are easily categori{s/z}ed in more interesting semantic ways (food words, clothing words, etc.). But for the other content-word categories, I've got:
26 on adjectives
18 on adverbs
67 on verbs
That doesn't mean, of course, that I've noticed only 26 adjectival differences--many posts cover more than one difference and I certainly haven't written posts on everything I've noticed. It also doesn't mean that the other 321 posts are about nouns, since not all posts are about vocabulary-level differences. Please also keep in mind that my label(l)ing is not very scientific: there are labels I used later that might've applied as well to posts I'd written earlier; sometimes I forget to label; sometimes I judge that the post isn't cent(e)red enough on a verb difference that I mention for it to merit the verb label; etc.

Other word classes I've label(l)ed:
6 on auxiliary verbs
4 on conjunctions
4 on determiners
10 on numbers
22 on prepositions
6 on pronouns/proforms
Many of those cover what could be categori{s/z}ed as grammatical differences--depending on your definition of grammatical. So, for instance, can you write someone or do you have to write to them? Is it menopause or the menopause? Do you need an and when you say 2007 out loud?

Looking at grammatical labels, there are:
22 on grammar
20 on morphology [and 11 on count/mass distinctions, e.g. do you say Lego or Legos for a bunch of them; most of these are also label(l)ed morphology, though]
The grammar-label(l)ed ones don't include every little difference in which preposition goes with which verb (do you protest something, or protest at it?), so if you count that as grammar (depends on your theoretical bent if you're a linguist, I'd say), then the '22' here is severely under-representative.

What Pullum is counting as grammatical differences seems to be strictly things that are allowed  in one dialect but not in the other. But another kind of difference is found in the tendencies in phrase structure that are more typical of one dialect than the other. For example, temporal adverbs are more likely to occur in the middle of a sentence in BrE. It's not that they can't in AmE, but it sounds more British to put your adverbs there. If you're a novelist trying to write believable dialogue for a character from another country, it's handy to know about these things, as your readers in that country will notice them right away if you get them wrong.

That's not even getting started on the idioms (43 label[l]ed posts), interjections (9), onomatopoeia (2), punctuation (7), or most importantly, I'd say, the pragmatic differences between the two. Is thank you used for the same purposes in the two countries? (Not always.) Do we foreground the same information in sentences? (Not always.) Are polite things in one country impolite in the other? (Oh yeah.)

So, 432 blog posts, most recording several differences, and a (rarely repetitive) Twitter Difference (or Untranslatable) of the Day for at least five days a week since 2009. I think there are a lot of differences.  And several people have made whole books out of the differences, most notably (and academically and grammatically) Algeo's British or American English? and the edited collection One Language, Two Grammars?

Are the differences exaggerated due to cognitive biases and prejudices? Absolutely. Are we still mostly able to communicate easily? Yes, certainly.  But that doesn't make the differences that are there any less interesting to me. And the fact that there are so many biased perceptions about national differences makes me feel like this blog provides a public service in countering the myths. I hope you do too. I even hold out a little hope that Pullum might.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Exclamations!


Welcome to guest-blogger Tim Gorichanaz, whose ScratchTap blog explores aspects of written language. Thanks, Tim, for sharing some reflections on the BrE/AmE aspect!



When we consider the graphemicthat is, visualdifferences between BrE and AmE, we likely first think of the numerous spelling differences. Next, perhaps, the differences in punctuating quotations (single versus double [AmE] quotation marks / [BrE] inverted commas) may occur to us, and maybe we even notice that BrE doesnt put full stops after contractions such as Mr and Mrs (which, in AmE, are considered abbreviations and are treated with a following period). It seems that all these differences are the fruit of concerted reform efforts: In the United States Noah Webster shook up the world of spelling, and we have Henry Watson Fowler to thank for a more logical punctuation scheme in BrE.

Of course, such efforts account for a petty minority of the differences between BrE and AmE; this blog has chronicled countless differences that sprang up of their own accord, due only to the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean. Today Id like to point out another one of these: the exclamation (AmE) point / (BrE) mark. We may be past the ca. 2007 exclamation craze, but even in 2012 they were evidently still sufficiently heavily (over)used to merit an article in The Wire, and theres no indication that Americans love for exclamations has at all receded.

Anecdotally speaking, exclamation points/marks seem to be much more eagerly employed in American than in Britain. More than one ESL student has told me that their BrE teachers had remarked that Americans use exclamations far more than Brits.

To test this a bit more rigorously, I compared customer reviews for the 2013 book The Orphan Masters Son on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. In the first three pages of reviews, the Americans used 13 exclamation points, while the Brits used only 2 exclamation marks. A search on the Google Books likewise suggests a remarkable effect: A search for ! in the AmE corpus reports a density of 0.050% in the year 2000, while the BrE corpus returns 0.040% (though we can note a general decline in both dialects since the 1800s).

Of course, this brief investigation doesnt consider texts, emails and other types of written communication, so Ill defer to you, readers: Who do you think uses more exclamations?

Somehow I managed to make it through this entire post without a single gratuitous exclamatory, but thats about to change!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Attitudes to dictionaries and the written word

I've written a new blog post, but it's not here. So if you're interested in thinking about whether dictionaries (and the written word in general) play different roles in the US and UK, then follow this link to OxfordWords, the Oxford dictionaries blog.

Also, as long as I'm here, I've got another springtime talk to add to the list I gave last time. On Tuesday 11 March, I'll be speaking on Sussex University campus as a part of One-World Week on cross-cultural politeness (especially US/UK, but I'd expect we'll go beyond that).  Information here.

And I might as well also mention that we've got a new blog for announcing events put on by Sussex linguists.  So, if you're in the Brighton area and care about these things, have a look at
sussexlinguists.blogspot.co.uk  (though there's not much on there yet.  More to come!).


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

shone, shined, and a digression re dictionaries

This post is getting so out-of-hand long that I'm going to put in section headings. You can take the academic to the blog, but you can't make her brief.

pronouncing shone

I had an interesting Difference of the Day (what I do on Twitter) request, regarding the pronunciation of shone, the past tense and past participle of shine. To cut to the chase: the standard pronunciation of shone in AmE rhymes with bone and the usual pronunciation in BrE  rhymes with on. (We have to keep in mind here that British pronunciations of the on vowel are different from American ones. It's not a vowel sound that American English has; I've discussed it before here.) 

Tracing the history of pronunciations is difficult, but one of the ways it's done is to look at rhymes in poetry. So if you're lucky enough to find a shone at the end of a line, you might learn something. What it looks like to me is that the pronunciation of the word has only gradually come to be uniform (if indeed it is) in the two countries. 

For instance, Englishman William Cowper way back in the 18th century was rhyming shone with alone:
No voice divine the storm allayed, No light propitious shone; When, snatched from all effectual aid, We perished, each alone: - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19364#sthash.PqsOl5fd.dpuf
No voice divine the storm allayed,
    No light propitious shone;
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
    We perished: each alone:
In an appendix to his dictionary of 1780, Sheridan gives a list of "rules to be observed by the Natives of Ireland in order to attain a just Pronunciation of English", which includes pronouncing shone as 'shon' rather than 'shoon'.  (His preface on the general decline in the pronunciation of English since the court of Queen Anne is rather precious.) 

So around the same time we have English Cowper saying shoan, Irishman-in-England elocutionist Sheridan saying shon and the rest of the Irish, as Sheridan would have it, saying shoon. It's in those kinds of instances that I'm not too surprised to find that American and British pronunciation have standardi{s/z}ed in different directions.

shined v shone

What about shined? The 'authorities' will tell you that the past form of the intransitive verb is shone (The sun shone bright) but the transitive verb is shined (She shined her shoes). But there's plenty of evidence that people have been saying both shined and shone for the intransitive for a long time-- in the simple past tense (It shone/shined bright) more than the participle (It has shone/shined bright). Motivated Grammar has a nice blog post on this, so I won't repeat all the history.  What I will say is that America has moved toward shined more decisively than the UK has. I searched for shined bright and shone bright in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), and found that BrE preferred shone 20:1, whereas AmE had almost as many shineds (4) as shones (5). 

and a digression on dictionaries

Back to the tweets that started this all:
No voice divine the storm allayed, No light propitious shone; When, snatched from all effectual aid, We perished, each alone: - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19364#sthash.PqsOl5fd.dpuf




I was interested in the implication that dictionaries are not covering the pronunciations very well. So, I (BrE) had/(AmE) took a look.

In the 'covers only their own nation's pronunciation' camp, we have:
UK: The Oxford English Dictionary ("Pa. tense and pple. shone /ʃɒn/") and  Chambers.
US:  American Heritage and New Oxford American Dictionary

In the 'provides no pronunciation guide for the past tense' category, we have:
UK: Oxford Dictionary of English.
US: n/a (but see below)

It's a bit weird for a UK dictionary not to list the pronunciation, since the UK pronunciation does not follow English spelling conventions; that is, the silent E (my daughter's learning to call it 'bossy E' at school) after a single consonant should signal that the preceding vowel is 'long'. Such irregular pronunciations are the kind of thing that people need explicit information about. Shone here is like another -one verb form gone, which rhymes with 'on' in both AmE and BrE. But we can't really call that a regular pattern: they come from very different base verbs (go, shine), and while shone is a simple past tense form, gone is only a participle (which is to say; The sun shone but it didn't gone). [And then there's done, which has another vowel sound altogether.] The only other '-one' word I can think of with an 'on' pronunciation is scone, and that's only for about 2/3 of British speakers. An aberrant spelling-pronunciation association like that should really be mentioned in a dictionary. 

And in the 'helpfully provides both and tells you the difference' category, we have:
UK: Collins
US: Merriam-Webster and Random House (both the hard copy of RH Webster's College Dictionary and the version you can see at dictionary.com)

Contrary to my list above, @fanf in his tweet claims Webster makes no mention of it, and he's half right (assuming he was looking at Merriam-Webster; keep in mind that the Webster name is not a trademark, so anyone can use it).  M-W provides no pronunciation guidance on their page for shone, except to provide a list of rhyming words that starts with blown. But on their page for shine they give "\ˈshōn, especially Canada & British ˈshän\. The clickable audio file just gives the American pronunciation.

A central problem for lexicographers (dictionary writers) has always been: what to put in and what to leave out. The number of things one can say about a word has no real limits, and when one starts to take into consideration variant pronunciations, it could get ridiculous. This is less a problem in the electronic age than it was when one needed to keep dictionaries affordable (and liftable) in the printed form. So, print dictionaries tend to have entries for shone that just point you to shine. They don't tend to give pronunciations at such cross-references and they don't tend to spell out the pronunciation of every tensed form of every verb. In the electronic age, the limits on dictionary contents are more limited by labo(u)r costs and time than by space (although formatting a lot of information on the web in a user-friendly way is another problem), and so what we mostly have online are entries that were written and formatted in the days of print-only. So, I humbly point out irregular verb forms as things that might be afforded greater lexicographic attention in electronic dictionaries.

Something I'd like you to notice above is the range of variation in the dictionaries published by Oxford University Press. You might find the same for other publishers if you look. But the point I want to make here is: there is no such thing as the Dictionary and there is no such thing as the Oxford Dictionary. Every title and most every edition has different information. (I had a little rant about this at The Catalyst Club in November, and I'll be ranting about it again soon in The Skeptic.) So, if you don't find the information you need in one dictionary, look in another. If you don't understand one, try another.

(But a little grumpiness about Oxford Dictionaries website: The 'on' pronunciation is the only one listed in on the page that's called "British and World Englishes" and the 'bone' pronunciation is the only one at "US English". As if US English is not an English of the world.)

Oxford (AmE baseball metaphor) steps up to the plate in their dictionary for learners. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, like other learner-orient(at)ed dictionaries (Cambridge, Longman) has good recordings of both pronunciations.  (Macmillan is an odd one. You can't get to the pronunciation through the dictionary entry, but by googling 'Macmillan pronunciation shone' it takes you to an American pronunciation page; no equivalent page for British.) So another moral of the dictionary story: if you want clear information about your language, sometimes it's good to seek out the dictionaries for second-language learners.

and a bit of shameless self-promotion

Yes, it's been a long time since I've blogged. I've now declared Tuesday evenings "Blog Evenings", but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll see a weekly post here since (a) I'll be blogging for some other sites, and (b) long things like this take me more than an evening. But I'm hoping I'll at least have more posts here in spring than I had in autumn (my deadly semester). 

But if you're interested in the kinds of things I do here, you may also be interested in some of the other ways that I'm doing those things.  

Upcoming talks (all welcome; follow links for more info):
In print:
This year I'm writing a series of short pieces on British idioms for Focus magazine (for expats in the UK). Follow the link for more info. (The one with teacups on the cover also has a little linguistic autobiography of me.)  I'll also be writing for The Skeptic (at least once, maybe twice) this year.

In the classroom:
Since GCSE/A-level students are typically too young for the pub-based talks I tend to do, I'm taking the material into English Language classrooms in southeastern England. (I'd be happy to take it further afield, but you'd have to pay for my travel!)  The first outing is to a sixth-form college in March, where we'll look (a bit!) at how American and British English got to be different, how they affect each other now, how this gets distorted in the media, as well as what it's like to do English Language/Linguistics (BrE) at university. So, teachers, let me know if this might interest you and your school/college (see email link in the right margin). Parents and students, let your teachers know. (And Americans, if you want translations for some of that educational jargon, see this old post.)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

UK-to-US Word of the Year: bum

This is part 2 of my 2013 WotY posts, the UK-to-US part. Part 1 is here.

I get a bit embarrassed when I tell journalists about the UK-to-US Words of the Year, as there are too many "naughty" ones (2012: bollocks, 2006: wanker). 2013's is considerably milder, but still in the tee-hee range, if not the nudge-nudge, wink-wink range.

So the 2013 UK-to-US Word of the Year is:

bum

This is certainly not new to Americans. Mike Myers was saying it a lot on Saturday Night Live in his 'Simon' sketches in the early 90s:

 

And it was noted as a "Not One-Off Britishism" in Ben Yagoda's blog in 2011. There he shows this Google n-gram showing a steady increase of bums in American books in the 20th century (his bum, her bum and my bum are the search terms).



Ben's blog and the media attention to Briticisms in American English
this past summer give plenty of indication that lots of BrE words are making their way into America these days. But for Word of the Year, I try to find something that had some particular impact in that year, and all I could think of was being faced with this media campaign when I visited the US this summer:



This is television presenter (mostly on BBC Three "lifestyle documentaries") Cherry Healey (BrE informal) flogging Cottonelle "bum wipes". Cottonelle is the American version of Andrex, both made by US-based Kimberly-Clark and advertised with the same puppies:
 








But now Cottonelle is using a pretty British lady to try to convince Americans in airports that the British are all using a two-stage bum-cleaning routine that is far superior to the "dry treatment".



Since flushable wipes were available in the US when I last lived there 14 years ago, I'm not sure why the airport-Americans find this to be a new and exciting product (ok, I probably do know: they want to be on television). They may be more popular in the UK (sales up 15% this year), but they are implicated in serious sewer problems, as has been discovered in the US too.  Perhaps the UK Word-of-the-Year should have been fatberg, since one the size of a bus was found under London this summer. The UK dictionaries' Words of the Year went for less nauseating choices (Collins went for originally-British-dialectal-but-lately-mostly-AmE geek and Oxford for seemingly-Australian selfie.)

But anyhow, with all too much #letstalkbums on social media this year, I'm going with bum and hoping for a less toilet-related WotY next year.

2013 US-to-UK Word of the Year: Black Friday

Long-time readers will know that every year I pick (with some helpful suggestions from readers) words of the year with a twist: they must be American words that made a splash in the UK, or British ones that found fame or infamy in the US. Or something like that. As I did last year, so here is the first one!

The 2013 US-to-UK Word of the Year is:

Black Friday

While we're at it, we might as well declare this the most annoying import in the seven years of this endeavo(u)r. But let's not blame America or Americans in general. Let's look at this WotY in a bit more detail. Then let's blame capitalism.

First, a definition: Black Friday is the Friday after American Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday of November), which is the popularly acknowledged start of the American Christmas-shopping season. Many people in the US have the day off work (or school) and retailers put on big sales, so the (AmE) malls/(BrE) shopping centres are heaving with people and unseemly behavio(u)r.


Why is this the US-to-UK Word of the Year? Because it was all over the UK media in the week of (and the week after) American Thanksgiving. (Three readers contacted me to nominate it--the only nomination I had this year.)  Here, for instance, are stories from The Telegraph, BBC News, The Mirror... (I would go on, but I'm sure you can google "Black Friday UK" yourself.) As well as 70% discounts, there was bad behavio(u)r (which you can find easily enough by googling "Black Friday UK bad behaviour"). 
Now, I know that some people will be wanting to complain "but it's not a word, it's a phrase". I've answered that objection before, since previous WotYs have also had spaces in them. To recap: there are many ways to define word, and perhaps the least interesting way, as far as linguists are concerned, is whether their written version has  a space in it. Grammatically, Black Friday acts like a word and it's the kind of thing that could be a headword in a dictionary--because its meaning is not directly derivable from its parts. So, it is word enough for me.
It is an annoying import because there is no logic to the importance of this day in the UK; it is a regular work/school day and the Christmas shopping season is already well underway in the UK by that time. For instance, the Christmas lights were ceremoniously turned on in Birmingham city centre (AmE downtown) on 9 November, on 14 November in Brighton and London's Oxford Street, and on 21 November in Guildford. (I could go on, but you can google "Christmas light switch-on UK" too.) 

What has brought "Black Friday" to the UK are US-owned retailers, notably Amazon and Walmart-owned Asda (site of much bad behavio[u]r--click the link for a story about that). These retailers are partial to some bad behavio[u]r themselves, such as union-busting (quelled at Asda, I should say), tax-evasion, and (particularly at Amazon) poor working conditions. So, American phrase, but please don't blame the average American. If you don't like it, then I recommend doing all your Christmas shopping for the following year in the very British Boxing Day sales and avoiding this whole sordid Black Friday business.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The third 'Untranslatables' month summary

This was the third year that I (kind of) declared October Untranslatables Month on my Twitter feed. (Here's 2011 and here's 2012.) Instead of offering a 'Difference of the Day', I offered an 'Untranslatable of the Day'. Except that I started on the 7th of October and occasionally I forgot to do it. (And I don't do 'of the Day' posts on weekends anymore either.) So maybe month is a bit of an exaggeration.

[Now that my union is on strike, I've finally got(ten) (a)round to writing up the summary. If it weren't for the fact that I'm not supposed to be doing work today, my work would be preventing me from blogging still. Next term should be better in terms of not drowning in (BrE) marking/(AmE) grading and quality control exercises all the time, and so there is hope that I will blog again, even if the academic pay dispute is settled.]

Now, before the complaints start, here are the Untranslatables Month facts:
  • I'm only talking about the relationship between British and American English here (as is my theme). These expressions may well have equivalents in other languages or dialects.  
  • By Untranslatable I mean that there is no lexicali{z/s}ed equivalent in the other dialect. And by lexicali{z/s}ed I mean that the expression is a word or an idiom--something that language users learn through hearing others say it, rather than something that one makes up anew. One can translate things by making up new sentences or phrases that describe the same thing, sure. But it's special when a language has lexicali{z/s}ed an  expression for something--it tells us something about the culture that invented and uses that expression.
  • Many of these have started to be borrowed between the dialects--and that's natural. If it's a useful expression and the other dialect doesn't have it, it's a prime candidate for international migration.
In some cases, I've discussed the expressions before on this blog, so I provide links to those posts. I also include here the links I provided with the tweets and I try to give credit to those who suggested them as untranslatables.



  • BrE chugger: Disparaging term for person whose job is stopping people on the street to ask for donations to a cause. It's a blend of charity and mugger. Chuggers are usually asking people to sign up for a Direct Debit to their charity (which is much more common in UK than US).

  • AmE to make nice: To try to be friendly/cooperative (with someone)--often because you've been told to do so. [Collins definition]

  • BrE in old money: in pre-decimalized currency and now also 'in non-metric measures' or in any other 'old' kind of measurement.  For example,  'What's 16°C in old money?'. [Down the Lane blog's post]
  • BrE the curate's egg: something bad in parts, good in parts, often euphemistically used: [Wikipedia entry] Suggested by Alan.

  • AmE through when used to link two time-designations and means 'to the end of', e.g. May through July. Suggested by @maceochi. But @AntHeald reminded us that there's a UK dialectal equivalent in while, which was discussed in the comments at this old post on whilst.
  • AmE furlough, which is discussed at Philip Gooden's blog  from a UK perspective. (Gooden translates furlough into BrE as unpaid leave, but that seems too broad. So we'll call it an untranslatable.) Suggested by @timgrant123
  • BrE adjectival sprung: 'having springs'. You can translate it into AmE with a prepositional phrase, but that's not the same as having a word for it. E.g. BrE sprung mattress (AmE innerspring mattress), BrE sprung saddle (i.e. a bike seat with springs). 
  • BrE to fancy: 'to like someone romantically/physically; to have a bit of a crush on'. Snaffled from @btransatlantic's blog post
  • AmE kick the can down the road: 'defer conclusive action by means of a short-term fix'. [Grammarist's post on this] Compare BrE kick into the long grass, which means to put something aside, hoping it'll be forgotten.  Suggested by @patricox
  • BrE (though sure many USers know it) plummy: 'having a "posh" accent'. Speaks volumes about accent and social place in the UK.
  • AmE howdy: suggested by DL, who says there's no BrE equivalent "in terms of exuberance".

  • BrE jolly hockey sticks: adjective used to describe a female of high social class who is enthusiastic in a way that annoys people. For example, this television review describes a coroner's "jolly-hockey-sticks attitude towards death". My definition owes much to Cambridge Dictionaries Online. The OED has an appeal for information about its origins. Suggested by @philviner

  • AmE to eyeball (it): 'to estimate a measurement without a measuring tool'. My 2008 post on it
And slightly cheating, since this one I posted in November:
  • AmE to take the fifth: to not speak because to do so may incriminate you. From the 5th amendment of US constitution. Suggested by @SamAreRandom

Each year I say I won't do an Untranslatable Month again, so maybe this will be the last one.  Or maybe not!