Sunday, September 30, 2007

salt beef, corned beef

So, was there a crossword today that required a military slang word for bread? About a fifth of this blog's hits today came from people looking for such a word. I don't think they found what they were looking for here...but I hope they found something else of interest.

I'd said that I was going to try to get through April's backlog of queries before term starts. Well, term starts tomorrow, and I have more than one April query left, so it's looking unlikely. But here's one. Philip, the man responsible for my shot at Saturday night television fame, wrote back in the spring to ask:
If you want to order a salt beef sandwich in the US, what do you ask for?
My reply was that you order a corned beef sandwich. Both countries have a beef called corned beef, but they tend to be a bit different, with American corned beef being more spiced than the British kind and not usually prised from a (BrE) tin/(AmE) can. As Wikipedia said (back in April when I first checked it on this subject): "In Britain, corned beef is almost always found in trapezoid cans and imported from South America."

In the US, corned beef is associated mainly with two ethnic subcultures, starting with the Jews. Corned beef, like pastrami, is a major element of Jewish delicatessen fare in the US. (See this menu, for example.) It is the meat of one of the most archetypal deli sandwiches, the Reuben: rye bread, corned beef, Swiss cheese (more commonly referred to in BrE as Emmental--which is what 'Swiss cheese' usually is; it's just not usually called that in American), sauerkraut and Russian dressing -- an American condiment that has little to do with Russia. This is in contrast to the Reuben at a Brighton delicatessen, which is a bagel with pastrami, Swiss cheese, (AmE) dill pickles/(BrE) dill cucumbers (though they do use the more AmE name on the menu), tomatoes and mild (i.e. American-style yellow) mustard. I am always tempted to accuse that deli of misusing the name Reuben, but since (not being a sauerkraut fan) I like that kind of Reuben better than the AmE kind, I figure I should put up and shut up (playing on the primarily AmE phrase, put up or shut up).

The other American ethnic group associated with corned beef is the Irish-Americans, who eat it boiled with cabbage and potatoes as a St Patrick's Day tradition (and at other times too). On this Wikipedia comments:
According to the History Channel, while cabbage has become a traditional food item for Irish-Americans, corned beef was originally a substitute for Irish bacon in the late 1800s. Irish immigrants living in New York City's Lower East Side sought an equivalent in taste and texture to their traditional Irish bacon, and learned about this cheaper alternative to bacon from their Jewish neighbors. A similar dish is the New England boiled dinner, consisting of corned beef, cabbage, and root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, and potatoes, which is popular in New England and parts of Atlantic Canada.

The Saint Patrick Day tradition caused controversy among American Catholic dioceses in 2000 and 2006, when the holiday fell on a Friday during Lent. Lenten custom dictates that no meat be consumed on Fridays during Lent, but some bishops granted dispensations to their dioceses for eating corned beef on St Patrick's Day.
And that's what I remember eating every St Patrick's Day during my childhood (although some of those must have fallen on Fridays, and my parents weren't the kind of Catholics who would put Irish-American tradition ahead of Lenten custom, so we might've had it on St Patrick's Eve sometimes...).

The OED doesn't give salt beef its own entry, so I don't have a lot of information about the term's history, though since beef has been salted for centuries, it goes back some way. But what's interesting for Americans is to go into delis in the UK that claim to be 'Authentic New York Delicatessen' and find that the sandwiches are filled with a meat with some mysterious (to us) name. I would assume that British "New York-style" delis stick with salt beef because corned beef has such negative associations with unsavo(u)ry (BrE) tinned/(AmE) canned meat, also known in the UK as Bully beef. I don't care what it's called, so long as I can get a good corned/salt beef sandwich in the event of a hangover. I don't know that it has any curative properties, but it's only when I'm in a rough state that I can justify the calories to myself.

Friday, September 28, 2007

bloviate and brunch

My posts are so long these days. Can I do a short one? I'll try writing about a single word and see what happens.

My friend Maverick (an Englishwoman) was talking to an American friend via Skype, and the following happened:
There was some banter as I had accused of him of pontificating (as opposed to going out and doing research!) He said no, he was 'bloviating'. I had not come across this word before and when I looked it up on google during our conversation I saw that it is used in USA. Is it ever used on this side of the pond?
It's not the most common word in America, either, but it is AmE. To quote the OED (draft 2004) definition, it means "To talk at length, esp. using inflated or empty rhetoric; to speechify or ‘sound off’." Searching for it on .uk sites, one commonly finds comments about it being American, or in 'expand your vocabulary' sites, or in (BrE) inverted commas/(AmE) quotation marks, indicating its newness or foreignness. Some examples:
The verb "to bloviate" is one I learnt in America, and it sums up what Clinton excels at: an effortlessly congenial form of self-promotion. (Times Online, 2004)

The Concise also says croeso (welcome) to some Welsh words with bore da (good morning) and iechyd da (good health) joining thousands of words from all around the English-speaking world: dicky (car boot) and batchmate (classmate) from India, spinny (mad, crazy) from Canada, and bloviate (talk at length in an inflated or empty way) from America. (about the Concise Oxford English Dictionary on
It's not all that new, however. The OED has found it as far back as 1845, in an Ohio newspaper. In linguistic terms, it seems to be a blend, also known as a portmanteau word--that is, a word that smashes (new technical term) together the form and meaning two words. The OED suspects that it came from blow + -viate as in deviate.

Another blend that I like is brunch--or maybe I'm confusing liking the meal for liking the word. Now, I had assumed that this was an AmE word, since the concept of brunch (particularly the institution of Sunday brunch--see, for example, the site of San Diego's Sunday Brunch Master) is fairly undeveloped in the UK (because everyone's saving their appetites for Sunday lunch). Whenever I suggest to Better Half that we should host a Sunday brunch, his reaction is something like Huh? But it's my favo(u)rite meal of the week, especially when (AmE) coffee cake is involved. That's another one that puzzles BH. He thinks (as do all the cafés (a)round here) that coffee cake means 'cake flavo(u)red with coffee', whereas in AmE it's a type of cake that goes well with a cup of coffee--particularly "in the U.S., a breakfast bread of yeast dough enriched with eggs, butter, and sugar, baked in a sheet topped with streusel [etc.]..and glazed with melted sugar" (OED). (See previous posts on baked goods and weird things people do with them, if you're interested.) So, I had a hard time believing that brunch could have originally been blended anywhere but America.

But how wrong I was! The OED lists it as 'orig. University slang' and its first published example of the word comes from Punch in 1896. Imagine that...

But before you imagine that, observe how pathetically I failed at writing about just the one word I meant to write about!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

pro-predicate do and verb phrase ellipsis

Have you read past the scary title of this post? Glad you're still with us! The phenomenon in question is how AmE and BrE speakers differ in their preferences for avoiding repetition of complex verb phrases in main clauses. (Still here?) So which of the following would you say?
(1) I ate all the chocolate, even though I shouldn't have done.
(2) I ate all the chocolate, even though I shouldn't have.
If you answered "(1)", then I'd be willing to bet that you're not American. Kevin of Berkeley, California wrote to me about this back in April, saying:
I particularly wonder if the American formulation is as jarring to British ears as theirs is to mine.
(I'll leave it to people with British ears to answer the 'jarring' point.) Since this type of construction was one of those things that I had in mind when starting this blog, I'm fairly surprised that I haven't given it proper coverage yet. I guess I've put it off because I feel the need to go over some basic grammatical concepts first. And then I got slowed down by an obsession with using sentence trees to do so. But while walking home from yoga class tonight (with my mind all open to startling truths), I reali{s/z}ed that one rarely makes new friends by presenting sentence trees to them. So, let's see how well I do without.

First, a little sentence anatomy. Both sentences (1) and (2) above are made up of two sentences (clauses) joined by a conjunction (but). The two clauses are: I ate all the chocolate and I shouldn't have (done). The second clause in both cases means 'I shouldn't have eaten all the chocolate', and in both cases the speaker is avoiding the awkward repetition of a form of the verb eat plus its complement (which in this case is a direct object) all the chocolate. So, eat all the chocolate is old information that doesn't bear repeating, but we have new information to impart, the feeling that the chocolate-eating was in some way a bad thing to do. So, we want to say the clause while leaving out the old information shown in brackets here:
(3) I shouldn't have [eaten all the chocolate].
The usual AmE solution to this problem is just not to say the bit in the brackets. (Bit is such a BrE noun to use, but not so exclusively BrE that I feel comfortable marking it as BrE.) This leaves a sentence without a full verb phrase (or predicate in traditional grammar terms). We have the modal verb, the negative marker and an auxilliary verb have, which gives tense and aspect information, but no main verb (the heart of any complete sentence) or complements (elements that the verb requires in order to make a complete verb phrase). The continuation of the verb phrase is just understood from context. This leaving-understandable-but-grammatically-important-things-out business is called ellipsis, and we are left with an elliptical construction.

In BrE, however, there is a preference for having a complete clause in these situations, with a main verb included. So, how do you do that without repeating a lot of already-heard, understandable-from-context words? You use a pro-verb (not the same as a proverb! Sometimes hyphens are important!) or a pro-predicate.

You might not have heard of a pro-verb or pro-predicate before, but you've probably heard of their cousin, the pronoun. All of these are pro-forms, that is to say, words that stand for a word/phrase whose meaning is recoverable from context. (English also has pro-adverbs.) If we wanted to use a pronoun to solve our problems with the 'eating all the chocolate' sentence, we could say (4)...
(4) I ate all the chocolate, but I shouldn't have eaten it.
...with it standing for the phrase all the chocolate. But that's still pretty repetitive.

What BrE speakers typically do here is to use do as a pro-predicate that stands for the main verb and its complements (at least). So done in (1) above stands for eat(en) all the chocolate.

Why does this grate on the ears of some AmE speakers, like Kevin? Because we just don't like using a pro-predicate with auxiliary or modal verbs in main clauses (see below for when we do use it). We (and BrE speakers too) are able to use do as a pro-verb, as in (5) where it stands for the main verb eat and nothing else, or as a pro-predicate that stands for an entire verb phrase (without modal or auxiliary verbs--we refer to these collectively as support verbs) as in (6).
(5) I ate all the chocolate, but I shouldn't have done it. [do= 'eat']

(6) I ate some chocolate, and Better Half did too. [do = 'eat some chocolate']
But most AmE speakers cannot use pro-predicate do for a main clause with support-verbs in it, as in (1) above. (Note that do has other non-"pro" uses too, and so may be used with modals and auxiliaries in those cases.) There are some AmE dialects that are more tolerant of mixing support-verbs. See this article from American Speech by Mariana di Paolo for an example.

BrE uses support verbs with pro-predicate do very freely. So any of the following could be your answer to the question Have you sent Lynne any chocolate yet?
I have done.
I haven't done.
I will do.
I might have done.
I could do.
I could have done.
I should do.
I should have done.

(Note that the correct answer to that question should be the first one. Otherwise, go for the third one.)

On a(n) historical note, the aforementioned di Paolo article says:
Butters (1983 ["Syntactic change in British English propredicates" Journal of English Linguistics 16:1-6]) adds that pro-do was possible as long ago as Middle English although it was not common in England until about the 1920s in the written sources which have been examined. Butters also presents historical evidence suggesting that pro-do spread from subordinate clauses to main clauses in the early part of this century. Most dialects of present-day English, including American English, probably preserve the conservative forms in dependent clauses, as in the following example:
[...] I usually kinda take a back seat, which I know I shouldn't DO but...
So, we AmE speakers, like BrE speakers, can use pro-predicate do with support verbs in some clauses that are, like the above example, not complete sentences on their own (in this case the dependent clause is: which I know I shouldn't do). I'd have no problem (grammatically speaking) in saying the 'back seat' sentence, with pro-predicate do. But it's not quite as straightforward as 'propredicate do is good in AmE dependent clauses' because examples (1) and (2) above involve the subordinating conjunction even though, putting the shouldn't have (done) in a dependent clause. And I can't (in my native dialect) say that one, or include the do in this one:
(7) I usually take a back seat, even though I know I shouldn't do.
There might be a cline of 'subordinateness' operating here, with even though clauses 'feeling' more independent than which clauses, and therefore less likely to allow a pro-predicate do in AmE. (Or else the 'dependent clause' explanation of the exception is just too general/simplistic.)

Pro-predicate do is one of those Briticisms that I find myself using every once in a while, but I retain a certain self-consciousness about it. As well I should (do).

Sunday, September 23, 2007

if need(s) be

Still putting off writing the post that requires a lot of sentence-tree work--in favo(u)r of something that, like yesterday's topic, (a) concerns archaic forms that survive in modern English as set phrases, (b) involves adding/deleting apparent suffixes, and (c) came up in reading this weekend's Guardian (which, I must say, is living up to its reputation for typos and editing errors this week, including a sub-headline that starts "If you weigh more then when you started your course..." in the 'Graduate' section--directed at (BrE) university/(AmE) college students. I'm losing hope for language knowledge and spelling standards in the age of spell-checking. I'm also setting records for long, pointless parenthetical comments.)

So, as I was saying, before I so rudely interrupted myself, I was reading the Guardian--this time the 'Work' section--and in an article about lottery millionaires who continue to hold jobs, I read:
Elaine: "If needs be, you'll find me doing the dishes or mopping the floors..."
I've seen/heard if needs be before, and Better Half confirms it's what he'd say, but I'd say if need be. Back to Algeo's British or American English?, which says:
CIC [Cambridge International Corpus] indicates that if need be is the usual form in both British and American, with 7.6 and 7.1 [instances per ten million words], respectively. However, if needs be has 1.8 British and no American tokens [per ten million].
I did, however, find this claim on
If you're in Wyoming and you're not sure which direction you're going, wait until you start picking up radio stations again and listen to the ads. If they're all about corn, you're entering Nebraska. If they're all about parenting, Utah. Also, for whatever reason, people on Utah radio keep saying "if needs be" instead of "if need be." Not sure what's up with that.
Nor am I/Me neither.

Now, this is just some idle wondering, but I have two hypotheses as to why needs has been growing this -s, particularly in BrE. They're not mutually exclusive--both reasons could be conspiring against if need be:
  1. If need be is a set phrase involving a subjunctive verb form (be), and the subjunctive has survived much better in AmE than in BrE. (Another of those topics that I will write a separate post about!) Since the phrase therefore makes a bit less grammatical sense in a dialect without the subjunctive, maybe some speakers are more comfortable using it with a plural verb. Note that the past tense of the phrase is if need were (OED, 2003 draft)--i.e. the subjunctive [singular or plural] past tense form looks like the indicative (non-subjunctive) plural past tense. So, that could make people feel like the subjunctive should go with a plural subject.

  2. There is another set phrase with a similar meaning, needs must, which has plural marking on the need and an odd verb, so they might influence each other. For example:
    a1902 F. NORRIS Pit (1903) ii. 51 Then needs must that Laura go with the cook to see if the range was finally and properly adjusted.
    1991 B. WHITEHEAD Dean it was that Died (BNC) 132 She sighed again. Today she would have to go back home, making out that she'd been in London staying with a friend... Well, needs must. [OED, draft entry 2003]

    World-Wide Words discusses needs must and related phrases here, and although it's not noted as AmE or BrE, I have the impression that I only started hearing/reading needs must after I moved to the UK, so perhaps it is more common/influential here.
Worth noting here is that [all of the evidence that I can find for if needs be post-dates any evidence for if need be]. So this seems to [could] be a case where BrE has deviated from an older phrasing--i.e. BrE has [might have] an innovation that AmE (except maybe in Utah!) doesn't have. Of course, that's only worth noting because so may people assume that BrE forms are older than AmE...and that's just not how language works.

[Bracketed parts of the last paragraph are later edits--see comments for, um, commentary.]

Saturday, September 22, 2007


I started to write a long post this morning, but have been undone by my inability to produce a sentence tree that I can post on Blogger. I was hoping to make one in MS-Word, then find a way to export it as a .gif or other picture file. (Saving the Word file as html didn't preserve all the drawing features.) If one of you more tech-savvy folk can (and has the time to) give some advice on that problem, please drop me an e-mail. (I'm on a Mac, if it matters.) [Update: I've received many suggestions now, and will try one or some of them. Thanks!!]

So, in place of the big, long grammatical post, here's a little quickie, inspired by reading the following line in the Weekend magazine in today's Guardian:
She believes, tragically, that she's done this unbeknown to him. (from 'What Women Don't Understand about Men' by Anonymous, a column whose raison d'être has never been evident to me)
This was the second time in the past month or so that I've read unbeknown to [someone]. The first time, I thought it was an error, because as an AmE native, I'm used to the phrase being unbeknownst to [someone]. (The ever-mysterious, mostly AmE spell-checker on Blogger likes only unbeknown. But it also doesn't recogni{s/z}e blog--which takes it beyond mysterious to pathetic.)

John Algeo discusses this phrase in his book British or American English? Searching the Cambridge International Corpus, he found 3.0 instances of unbeknown but only 0.9 instances of unbeknownst per ten million words in BrE texts. On the other hand, he found 4.1 per ten million of unbeknownst and only 1.0/10,000,000 of unbeknown in AmE texts.

Unbeknownst has shadowy beginnings. It was originally 'colloquial and dialectal' (OED), but has increased in commonality (versus unbeknown) since the 19th century. While unbeknown is the negated form of the archaic term beknown (= modern-day known), the OED has no entry for the non-negated form beknownst. These days, it seems to be used as a back-formation from unbeknownst:
Only beknownst to me, however, was the fact that my threats were idle. [Center for Conflict Resolution, Abilene Christian University]

Little beknownst to the modern day assembler of packaged components is that somewhere buried deep in the recesses of these objects are the well chosen instructions to order and index data. [from a post on]
(Using such usually-negated words without their negative prefixes is a fertile area for word-play, as in this little essay.) Interestingly (well, if you're me, it's interesting, at least), both of these non-negated examples have not-exactly-positive modifiers: only and little. One might say that modern-day beknown(st) carries with it some negative semantic prosody--i.e. 'the way in which certain seemingly neutral words can come to carry positive or negative associations through frequently occurring with particular collocations' (Wikipedia).

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

bogy, bogey, boogie, booger

I had a house-guest this week, and since I'm a bit behind in things, I was thinking I'd answer a really simple query. So, heading back to the April correspondence, I found Doug of Colorado writing about boogers in my inbox. I thought, 'oh, I'll do bogy and booger, that'll be quick!' But even as I began to write the title for this post, I reali{s/z}ed that this is going to get out-of-hand very quickly.

So, we start with snot. (Which just reminds me of Chiffon margarine ads from my American childhood: When you think it's butter, but it's not, it's Chiffon! That jingle writer did not have a good ear for potential mondegreens. We eight-year-olds thought it was hilarious.) Bits of fairly dry nasal mucus (you know what I mean) are colloquially called bogies (or bogeys) in BrE and boogers in AmE. The first vowel in the AmE version is generally pronounced like the oo in book. This is also the vowel that is found in the usual AmE pronunciation of the originally-AmE word boogie ('to [disco] dance'), though many BrE speakers pronounce it with a long /u/ sound, so that the first syllable is like the sound that a cartoon ghost would make (Boo!). In fact, the OED has only the boo! pronunciation, while the American Heritage has both, with the book-vowel one listed first. The long /u/ is also used for both oos in the usual BrE pronunciation of (orig. AmE) boogie-woogie, while AmE uses the book vowel for both.

It was only when I looked up bog(e)y in the OED that I discovered that one of the golf senses for bogey, 'a score of one stroke above par for a hole' (OED), is (or possibly was) AmE. The first (BrE) definition in the OED, 'The number of strokes a good player may be reckoned to need for the course or for a hole', seems to me to mean 'par'. I don't know a lot about golf (and I count myself lucky for that), but I only knew the AmE meaning. (American golfers, do you know the more 'par-like' meaning?) For the verb bogey ('to complete (a hole) in one stroke over par'), the OED lists this as 'orig. U.S.' It's a bit hard to believe that the verb has come over here, but not the noun. UK golfers, what's your experience?

(Apparently bogey is also Australian slang for a bath, and bogie is a Northern English--particularly Newcastle--dialectal word for 'A kind of cart with low wheels and long shafts'. But now I'm just getting distracted by the OED.)

And then there's the bogeyman. American Heritage lists four alternative spellings for this: bogeyman, boogeyman, boogyman, boogieman. OED has only bogyman (listed under bog(e)y) plus an example with the e: Bogey man. The capital B in some examples reflects bog(e)y's origin as a 'quasi-proper name' (OED) for the Devil. The AmE variations in spelling reflect the fact that it has many pronunciations in the US (probably regional in nature). In the order the AHD presents them, they are:
  1. with the book vowel: bʊg'ē-măn'
  2. with the long /o/, as in the golfing term bogey
  3. with the long /u/, as in boo! or BrE boogie
Myself, I grew up (in western New York state) with the first pronunciation, and would naturally use the last AmE spelling, but somewhere along the line I became conscious of bogeyman as the 'correct' spelling. That didn't affect my pronunciation of it.

I have a tangentially related (because there's an oo involved) anecdote from this week. Our house-guest was an American linguist who lives in Japan. Predictably, there were BrE/AmE conversations, particularly about water. But the best part (for me, at least) was when she noted that the café called Moorish Brighton wasn't particularly 'Moorish'. I'd claimed before we went there that it was Moroccan, but we found that it had all sorts of Mediterranean foods. It was only when she pronounced the café's name that I reali{s/z}ed it was a pun. I'd been pronouncing the oo with a /u/-ish vowel (which is typical in BrE or AmE) and just not getting the joke. She pronounced it with an /o/-like vowel (which the OED lists as a BrE alternative, oh well). Eureka! Moorish Brighton is (BrE) moreish!

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Well, I was correct in my prediction that the Ant & Dec appearance would be a blink-and-you-miss-me affair. Although we spent more than an hour giving them spelling and Scrabble tips, my contribution was edited down to "Hi, I'm Lynne" and "Yes, that's a word" (or something like that). I don't have a good history with ITV.

But the show had a wealth of jokes that wouldn't work in AmE, so I amused myself with noticing them--for instance, Dec's double-entendre at the start about about having it off--where "it" could have been his leg, or (BrE) he could have been claiming to have had sex with the "nurses" who accompanied him on stage. Then there was the skit/game called Court in the Act, which works much better as a pun in BrE than it would in AmE.

But the richest bit (from my perspective) was Dec almost losing the spelling bee (forcing the competition into 'sudden death') because he used the AmE spelling of diarrhea. Susie Dent, the dictionary expert (of Countdown fame), merely told him that the 'correct' spelling was diarrhoea, without mentioning the AmE connection. A lost opportunity, I thought. But still, at least it's topical as far as this blog is concerned. Also did you (who watched it) notice that Ant and Dec are both haitch-sayers? Is this a Geordie (Newcastle-dialect) thing, do you think, or Catholic upbringing? (Only Dec went to Catholic school, though, according to this source.)

posted, post and mail

On to April's queries--with the goal of getting through them before the term starts.

On a visit to Colorado, Chris was puzzled:
Lining the roads were expanses of trees, and every so often I'd see a sign nailed to a tree that said "Posted."

Nothing else.
We have signs like this in my native New York state, too, and many, if not most, other states--though whether they can get away with just saying Posted might vary. The longer form of the sign would say Posted: No Trespassing, and we could refer to the area of land with these signs at its borders as posted land. In other words, the sign is saying that the land is privately owned (or at least not open to the public) and that you are not allowed to be on the land without the owner's permission, and that because signs have been 'posted' you have been warned of this fact. These kinds of signs, in my experience, are particularly used in wooded areas of countryside. This is the landowner's way of keeping away hunters, anglers, dog-walkers, (AmE) hikers/(BrE) ramblers, (orig. N. Amer. E) snowmobilers, others' livestock, etc. This also gives rise to the transitive verb: to post land--that is, to declare it off-limits by posting signs at specific intervals, as specified by state law. When I was a child, I was told that landowners were allowed to shoot trespassers if they'd posted their land. This, of course, was not true (though it could well have been true a longer time ago). These days, the penalties are fines or short jail stints and/or loss of hunting/fishing licen{c/s}es, depending on the state and whether the trespasser has hunted or has previous convictions. Click for miscellaneous examples from Kansas, Florida and North Dakota.

The trend in (at least northern) Europe is toward public access to private land. The UK recently implemented the Countryside and Right of Way Act (2000), informally known as the right to roam, which allows anyone the right to (BrE) ramble/(AmE) hike on uncultivated land (but not to ride horses, camp, etc.). (Hunting privileges are another matter, about which I have no clue.) For other European countries, see this Wikipedia article.

The Posted signs are pretty opaque in their meaning in the first place, but probably even more foreign to BrE speakers, since the related adjectival meaning of posted is used less in the UK:
2. Set up or fixed in a prominent place; displayed so as to provide information; advertised, made public. Now chiefly N. Amer. [OED: Mar 2007 draft revision]
As in:
1975 N.Y. Times 29 Oct. 28/1 There was ample time to peruse the posted menu of the day's cuisine minceur.
In BrE, one might be more likely to interpret posted menu as a menu that had been sent through the (BrE-preferred) post /(AmE-preferred) mail. (Mailed menu sounds a little odd to me in AmE--I'd probably say menu that had been sent in the mail.) When I worked in South Africa, in the days before widespread e-mail availability, I lived for the post/mail, even though it largely consisted of recitations by my mother of who-ate-what when they went out to dinner last. All of my letters were sent to my work address, so every afternoon, I could be heard to be wondering whether the mail was here yet. One of my colleagues could always be counted on to offer himself as "the male". That trained me into saying post fairly quickly.

Of course, the organi{s/z}ation that delivers the (BrE) post in the UK is the Royal Mail, demonstrating that mail isn't an AmE word, but that the senses and usage of the word varies across the two places. In BrE, it's more likely to be the mail when it is in transit in large bunches, and more likely to be the post when it is on its way from the post office to your door. Hence this entry in the OED (2004 draft revision):
2. a. A bag or packet of letters or dispatches for conveyance by post (more fully [Obs.] mail of letters). In later use chiefly: the postal matter (or a quantity of letters, packages, etc.) conveyed in this manner; all that is conveyed by post on one occasion. With definite article or without article. Also (chiefly in N. Amer.) in pl., and (chiefly S. Asian) with indefinite article.
The plural use mentioned here for AmE, the mails isn't used all that much, and sounds fairly outdated to me. (Something that the Pony Express might deal in, but not the modern-day USPS.) But the 'In later use chiefly' bit in the above definition is more true of BrE than AmE, since the following use is equally dominant in AmE:
c. orig. U.S. The letters, packages, etc., delivered to or intended for one address or individual.
The OED goes on to note that mail in AmE and AusE is also used to refer to the 'system of delivery and conveyance of letters, etc., by post', and notes:
The term mail (as distinguished from post) is currently dominant in North America and Australia, both for the system itself and the material carried. New Zealand retains post for the postal system, but mail otherwise. Britain favours post in both contexts. However, this pattern is not necessarily maintained in historically fixed collocations, such as Royal Mail, Post Office, Canada Post, Australia Post, parcel post, junk mail, etc. In the United Kingdom the word was formerly limited in ordinary use to the dispatch of letters abroad, as the Indian mail, etc., or as short for mail-train.
And thus AmE speakers tend to talk about mailmen--or the less gendered letter carriers--while BrE speakers tend to talk about postmen--but I note that the Royal Mail jobs website uses postperson where space is at a premium, and postman/postwoman elsewhere. Postal worker is used more generically to include people who work in the post office or sorting office, as well as deliverers, and of course some high-profile cases of postal workers (orig. BrE, I think) going mental and shooting people resulted in the AmE colloquialism to go postal.

Of course, postman is also known and used in AmE, as evidenced by The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Postman. This sounds a little old-fashioned to me in AmE, and I think Costner used postman in his title because it sounds a little more exotic than mailman. J. Robert Lennon's book title Mailman, on the other hand, carries with it a more quotidian feel. (Is it perverse to use such an exotic word to mean 'everyday'?)

I suppose we can't leave this subject without touching on e(lectronic)-mail. Much of the history of e(-)mail is situated in US Department of Defense (= BrE Defence) projects, which is probably why we call it e(-)mail, rather than e-post. This, of course, led to the AmE coinage of snail mail, but in BrE, of course, one can distinguish between the two types of communication by referring to e(-)mail versus post.

And with that, I'll post this blog post!

Friday, September 14, 2007

on/in the playground

(December 2010 updates in red)

Once upon a time, Grant Barrett forwarded to me the following item from issue 343 (29 March 2007) of Popbitch:
Confessions of an 80s pop fan
ishouldhaveknownbetter writes:
"I met Simon Le Bon at a house party. Everyone was playing it really cool so when he came to say goodbye I just exchanged air kisses, but then as he turned away for some reason I blurted out, 'Simon, I just want you to know that when I was younger I had a whole wall covered in posters of you at jaunty angles'. He went quiet. So I continued, 'And once I had a dream that you and Roger Taylor came to call for me on horses and then we all went out and played on the climbing frames.'
He left the party immediately."
Grant thought a girl [*ahem*] of my generation would appreciate the Duran Duran reference (I never actually bought any of their albums, but did bother to have an opinion on which was the [orig. AmE] dreamiest). He also pointed out the non-Americanness of climbing frame, which he ably figured out is equivalent to (orig. AmE) monkey bars and/or (orig. AmE) jungle gym. Monkey bars is used in the UK now too, and in both dialects it can refer specifically to a contraption like the one below, from US company ChildLife, with a ladder-like structure several feet above the ground.

But in both dialects monkey bars is also used more loosely sometimes to refer to any kind of structure built for children to climb on--i.e. a climbing frame/jungle gym.

Most of the other amusements on a playground have the same names in both dialects, although swing set, to refer to the apparatus involving swings and the frame that they're suspended from, seems to be more popular AmE. Better Half says he'd just call the whole apparatus swings [although the OED does not mark swing set as AmE--see comments]. See-saws are see-saws, but teeter-totter is a dialectal AmE word for the same thing. (I grew up with both terms.)

And those round things that one kid pushes (a)round and (a)round while the kids on it get sick--well, as a child in New York State we called these things merry-go-rounds or roundabouts, but the American Heritage tells me that roundabout in this meaning is 'chiefly' BrE. As a child, I preferred roundabout, because I liked to reserve merry-go-round for the kind of powered thing with horses, also known as a carousel. (Let's ignore the traffic-related meaning of roundabout. That deserves its own post.) Oxford dictionaries like to claim that carousel is spelt carrousel in AmE ('frequently' in OED2, but simply presented as the AmE spelling in my [admittedly out-of-date] Concise). I don't recall seeing it spelt that way anywhere but in an Oxford Dictionary--and, now that I've looked, in the American Heritage, which lists it as an alternative spelling, but not the predominant spelling. The OED also says that attributive use (i.e. placed in front of another noun, to modify it) of carousel, as in carousel music, is chiefly AmE. Nevertheless, their most recent (2007) addition to the carousel entry in the OED On-line is BrE carousel fraud (a kind of scam to reclaim [BrE] VAT/[AmE] sales tax)--indicating that BrE speakers use it attributively too.

Going through my mental playground inventory, the only other dialectal difference that I can think of is AmE sandbox versus BrE sand-pit. But I suppose that this is as good a place as any to mention BrE bouncy castle versus (in my day) AmE moonwalk (or today) bounce house, even though they're generally not found on playgrounds everyday. The naming difference reflects the different ways in which these things are decorated and marketed. The bouncy castle is a big inflated thing that is usually shaped like a castle. Moonwalks tend to have space themes. I've found inflatable castle as an AmE term for the castle shaped ones as well. Apparently, there's some controversy about whether these things were invented first in the UK or the US.

Other business:
  • This is it! I've finally got to the end of the answerable queries from March! Now I'm only five months behind!
  • As for tomorrow's appearance on Ant & Dec, it might be a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of affair. We spent at least an hour together taping yesterday (charming young men!), but I have no idea what they'll edit it down to. But here's the evidence that we have breathed the same air:

Ant, Lynne, fellow Scrabbler Kat, and Dec
(thanks to Stewart for the photo!)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


JHM, American reader of the Financial Times (UK), sent this query in March. (Yes, I'm still on the March queries!)
...the usage that has caught my eye today was the use of the word 'crock.' Americans, if they are anything like me (not meaning to offend) will be uncomfortable using an unmodified 'crock.' 'crock-pots' are fine, as are earthen crocks et cetera, but a "crock of gold," as I read recently in a FT headline, or, worse "private equity is a crock of gold," from the article itself seems at best an oxymoron, and perhaps suggests gold of a less than aureate odour.

Is my mind in the gutter, or is the phrase 'crock of s***,' and its shortening to just plain 'crock' less common in the UK?
I suppose I should start out by pointing out that (BrE) crock of gold is not's got of gold telling you about that crock. Half the reason why crock of gold sounds odd to AmE ears is that the AmE phrase is pot of gold. So, BrE and AmE speakers have different ways of describing the container at the end of the rainbow.

The other half of the reason is that crock in AmE can mean 'foolish talk; nonsense' (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.), which derives from its use in the phrase crock of shit, which means much the same thing. In fact, crock can also be used as a mass noun, in the same sorts of constructions as (bull)shit is used (emphasis added below):
Crocs? Just A Load of Crock --blog headline (after my own sartorial heart), on Oh for the love of me!

The repetitively, diluted story is full of crock with many implausible situations and it doesn't leave too much up to the imagination. [review of Jaws: The Revenge on IMDb]
One can also use a crock to mean 'a story full of nonsense', 'a scam' or (AmE) a load of baloney. For example, this Men's Health story ('Cure or Crock?') passes judg(e)ment about different therapies: 'when it's a cure' and 'when it's a crock'.

So, all this shittiness is originally AmE, but crock of shit is now well-known in BrE (1640 Google hits on .uk sites), and the briefer crock=shit seems to have made it too. In fact, the only Internet cases of stop talking crock, a logical step from the above 'shit' examples, are to be found on a UK student discussion forum (interestingly enough, discussing whether the word retarded can be used in a clinical setting--which we've touched on on this blog too).

BrE (and apparently AusE, from the internet examples) has its own crock, which comes from Scottish (so, historically unrelated to the above meanings), meaning 'a broken-down or worn-out person, animal or vehicle' and as a verb (transitive or intransitive) meaning 'to break down or collapse'. Many internet examples of this use have to do with racing horses:
"This has all the elements of a fairytale like that of Seabiscuit, who was a supposed crock who became a legend" [quote from a bookmaker in The Telegraph]
Finally, if I'm going to be complete (or at least as complete as I can be) about dialectal uses of crock, there's another meaning in New England AmE, 'soot' (etymology unknown).

Sunday, September 09, 2007

ae, oe, and e

Still making my way through the backlog of queries I've received, and still in March. It must be said that while I'm trying to get through the backlog in chronological order, some luckier souls have their queries answered more immediately. It just depends on what else is going on at the time. Anyhoo (that's an AmE and extremely colloquial, allegedly humorous version of anyhow), the_sybil wrote back then to say:
Had you ever considered writing about the way in which the spelling of words with vowel groups originating from Latin dipthongs (oesophagus/esophagus, oestrogen/estrogen) have been simplified in AmE usage? Don't know whether there's anything of interest to say about them or not.

I got thinking about it because the other day I came across the spelling "Edipal" in an online text about psychology - and being a BrE speaker rather than an AmE speaker, I had to do some googling to be certain it was an error rather than an acceptable alternative spelling.
Let's start with some history. As Oedipal hints, most of these can be traced back to Greek, then to Latin, then to English. Greek oi became Latin œ (with a ligature between the letters) became, more commonly, oe in contemporary (post-typewriter) English. In Latin and English, oe and ae are pronounced as a single sound (which sound is another matter, and can vary from case to case), rather than as two vowel syllables or as diphthongs, i.e. a combined vowel sound. (Still, because they're written as two vowels, many people refer to them as diphthongs--but they should be calling them digraphs instead.) The simplification of ae and oe to e is present in Noah Webster's dictionaries (late 18th/early 19th c.), but I'm not sure whether the shift (like many others) originated with him or not, as it's not mentioned in any of his spelling reform documents that I've found.

It's tempting to believe the kind of advice given below from Ask Oxford's Better Writing guide (as well as other sources on BrE/AmE differences), that:
British English words that are spelled with the double vowels ae or oe (e.g. archaeology, manoeuvre) are just spelled with an e in American English (archeology, maneuver).
But as the_sybil has discovered, there are cases in which ae and oe are not reduced to e in AmE, including:
  • many names and derivatives of them, whether from Greek/Latin or not (Disraeli, Michael, Caedmon, Aelfric, Caesar/Caesarean, Oedipus/Oedipal)
  • a few ae words that are not from Greek/Latin (at least not directly) and in which ae is usually pronounced as a diphthong (maelstrom, maestro)
  • some recent-ish borrowings from French and other languages with oe: oeuvre, hors d'oeuvres, trompe l'oeil
  • the Latin feminine, plural suffix -ae, as in (predominantly AmE) alumnae, lacunae, ulnae, etc.
  • words with aer(o)- as a prefix or root: aerial, aerosol, aerodrome (but, of course, aeroplane is almost always airplane in AmE).
  • some Scottish English words, and words from Gaelic: Gaelic, nae, brae, etc.
  • (Probably not worth mentioning, but words that end in oe like toe and shoe are never reduced to e in AmE, since the vowel sound here is /o/ or /u/or similar. And, of course, the oe that straddles a morpheme boundary in 3rd person verbs and plurals like goes and potatoes are not reduced to e.)
Edward M Carney in A survey of English spelling estimates that the BrE ae is e in AmE in 89% of words and 63% of names. (I was a bit puzzled that the name claim was so high, as I have a hard time thinking of names that are spelt differently in the two dialects. The only one I can come up with is Rachel, which I'd never seen spelt Rachael until I moved to the UK--but now I notice that an American cooking celebrity has that name.)

Still, there are some Greek/Latin ae/oe words that I learned to spell with the ae/oe back in America, and which are often spelt like that, regardless of the 'rule'. For example, aesthetics is taught in most American university philosophy departments, not esthetics. In fact, aesthetic gets 28.9 million Google hits, while esthetic gets only 3.5 million. (Compare a more reliable AmE/BrE distinction favor/favour in which the AmE form gets 243 million hits and the BrE form only 39.3 million.) Still, in lists of spelling differences, esthetic is frequently cited as the AmE equivalent of BrE aesthetic, with no further qualification. In spite of this AmE strongly prefers anesthetic over (BrE) anaesthetic.

This can result in some difficulties in finding information in the Information Age. Last week, I tried to look up haemolysis in the index of the British-i{s/z}ed edition of an originally American book. It wasn't there, and I just couldn't believe it. Only later did I accidentally stumble upon it, and all of the other haemo- words, between HELLP and hepatitis. Once they changed the spelling from hemolysis, they forgot to re-alphabeti{s/z}e that bit of the index, apparently. (They did manage for foetal, though, which comes between fluid and folic acid.) Another problem occurs when I suggest that my students use encyclop(a)edias of linguistics as sources of background material and ideas for their research projects. They come back to me and say that our library is (BrE) crap and no such books are there. I point out that there are, if you remember to use both spellings of encyclop(a)edia as your key words in the electronic catalog(ue) search.

The divide between BrE and AmE spelling may be narrowing, according to some sources:
Even in British English there is a slow trend toward simplification: For example, the form encyclopedia is now much more common than encyclopaedia. (from English Toolbox)

foetus vs fetus: In American English, foetus is usually not used. In British English usage is divided. In academic literature, fetus is preferred. (Wikipedia Manual of Style)
The OED notes that (usually AmE) eon is preferred over (usually BrE) aeon in Geology. So, there seems to be a tendency toward regulari{s/z}ation in international academic fields.

Most AmE/BrE spelling differences reflect no particular differences in pronunciation, and most of the ae/oe cases are the same, but some have come to be pronounced differently. (O)estrogen is one such case. In AmE, the first syllable in estrogen rhymes with west. In BrE, the first syllable of oestrogen typically sounds like east. However, many BrE speakers pronounce (o)esophagus with a short vowel, like the Americans do. [This last claim edited since original post.] Another case is p(a)edophile. In BrE, the first syllable is usually pronounced like peed, and in AmE it more usually (though not exclusively) ped. But both dialects pronounce p(a)ediatrician with a 'peed', regardless of the different spelling.

Other business

  • I've been trying to keep the sidebar relatively uncluttered by just listing a couple of language-related blogs, but I was starting to feel guilty about the number of blogs that have me on their blogroll for which I don't return the favo(u)r. So, my way around long blogrolls here has been to provide links to entries on a new blog, SbaCL Blogroll (listed as 'Language Commentators' in the left margin column). These are all language-related links, organi{s/z}ed by the country of origin, and all are in English.

    I'm not keeping separate lists of expats' blogs or friends' blogs, though they tend to link to me too. But I do link to two expat services. So, if you're an expat with a blog, don't forget to register with Expat Blog Directory to let others know about it.

    I do try to link to readers'/friends' blogs when I answer their queries in my posts. So, if you do want to see your link on this blog, include your URL when you send me an e-mail.

  • I don't know if cross-Atlantic spelling differences will come up, but I'm going up to London this week to appear on Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway. It seems they'll be doing a spelling challenge and want to be trained by some serious Scrabble players. Should be a (BrE colloq/jovial) larf.

  • JHM: I've been trying to respond to your latest query, but your server is rejecting all e-mails from both my addresses, saying that there's a permanent error.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

ish and moreish

Do we have our first contender in the soon-to-be-annual SbaCL Word of the Year awards? The two main WotY categories are:
  • a heretofore BrE word that's found success in AmE
  • a heretofore AmE word that's found success in BrE
In the first of those categories, we seem to have ish. Peter in the UK wrote to ask about the suffix -ish some months ago:
Do Americans use the informal suffix "ish" to indicate vagueness.? "She was wearing a yellowish dress":"He was tallish" etc.. We also use it with time e.g. "What time shall we call round?" "Oh,make it around eightish". I have even heard a double "ish" to indicate even greater flexibility "Oh make it eightishish".
To which I privately replied:
Yes, -ish is used in AmE too [...] What is British is the use of ish as a word.
For example, a Scottish blogger writes that s/he's 'temporarily working, ish'--meaning that s/he's kind of working or working a bit. When it's used in this way, it serves as an adverb--usually modifying an entire sentence/proposition. Ish is also a useful answer to questions, as in the following OED example (draft entry, 2003) from a Northern Irish writer:
1995 C. BATEMAN Cycle of Violence vi. 94 ‘Trust Davie Morrow.’ ‘You know him?’ ‘Ish. He's a regular across the road.’
So there it's modifying the (un-uttered) proposition 'I know him'.

Of the OED examples so far, the first (1986) is English (well, it's the Sunday Times--I don't know who the author was), the second (1990) I can't tell (does anyone know Petronella Pulsford?), the next two are Irish (North and South). (Note that just because its first example is from an English --or at least national UK-- source doesn't mean that it didn't start out in Ireland...the OED has to rely on printed sources, and it would have existed in speech for a while before print.) In 2002, we get to one in an American publication, but it's spoken by someone in London, and the apparent foreignness of the expression is clear from the fact that the NYT has to explain it:
2002 N.Y. Times (National ed.) 5 Sept. D8/5 Mr. Langmead, speaking by telephone from London, hesitated. ‘Ish,’ he said, employing the international shorthand for slight hedge.
But today I was reading Mr. Verb's post on degrammaticali{s/z}ation (i.e. affixes become independent words) and found that his (an American's) primary example was ish, indicating that it must have more currency in the US now. I certainly hadn't experienced it before I moved to the UK in 2000. Is it popular enough to qualify as BrE-to-AmE Word of the Year? You will have to be the judge of that. I'll formally open nominations in December.

But as long as we're on ish, a BrE word that really fills a gap for me is moreish (sometimes more-ish) as in These chocolate biscuits are really moreish--i.e., they make you want to eat more of them. Here's a real example from a review of Tia Maria creme liqueur in Scotland on Sunday:
Tia Maria has blended a winner here. It is a moreish mix of Jamaican coffee, rum and cream that slides down so easily it should be served in an iced glass - pint-sized.
As my mother likes to say: "'To each his own', said the old woman as she kissed the cow."

For a more amusing example, watch this bit of Peep Show. (And if you don't know what Blue Peter is, see here.)

Monday, September 03, 2007

diapers, nappies and verbal inferiority complexes

I was tracking back to sites where visitors to this site have come from (as you do, if you're a nosy procrastinator like me), and was taken to the blog of an American surgeon, Orac, and his[?] post on linguistics differences, particularly in signs, that he noticed on a recent trip to London. Those of you (particularly the American yous) who like signage discussions will probably enjoy it.

But there was a comment in the post that got me a bit down. Orac shows a photo of a sign for a "Baby Nappy Changer Unit" in a public toilet/restroom (which funnily uses the more Canadian washroom in the sign--it's at the Tower of London, so perhaps they're going for the most transparent term, given the tourists). About this sign, Orac says:
It sounds so much more civilized that [sic] "diaper."
And my question is why? Nappy, the modern BrE equivalent to (AmE) diaper, is a baby-talk version of napkin--though no one these days calls the things that you put on babies napkins.* So, nappy, etymologically speaking, is on a par with other baby-talk words like doggy, horsie, and choo-choo. The OED's (draft 2003 definition) first citation for it in print comes from 1927, and it's hardly complimentary of the word:
1927 W. E. COLLINSON Contemp. Eng. 7 Mothers and nurses use pseudo-infantile forms like pinny (pinafore), nappy (napkin).
Diaper, on the other hand comes from a Latin, later French, with a root meaning 'white'. The first citation for it is from the 14th century, where it refers to a type of cloth, and it has its place in Shakespeare (probably not referring to a baby's napkin in that case, but to a napkin or towel). So, why does a babyfied word sound more 'civilized' to an educated AmE speaker than a good, old latinate word? Methinks that this is a symptom of American Verbal Inferiority Complex.

AVIC strikes Americans from all walks of life. It's why my mother thinks that it's "pretty" when an Englishperson rhymes garage with carriage. It's why Americans think people with English accents are more intelligent than they are. It's why I get e-mails from Americans who despair of their fellow citizens' diction and thank me for championing the 'correct ways'. (I e-mail back and explain that I'm doing no such thing and that their reasoning on the matter is flawed. I wonder why they never send a reply...) Of course, there's a similar syndrome affecting some BrE speakers: British Verbal Superiority Complex; however, I've not found this to be quite as evenly distributed through the population as AVIC is in the US.

Now, there are times to think that some (uses of) language is(/are) better than others. One thing that Orac and commentators on his blog praise is the directness and honesty of certain signs. I don't always agree with their examples, but directness and honesty are admirable qualities in signs. (One that is pictured on the blog, but that I've never understood, is the BrE convention of putting polite notice at the top of a sign that orders people around. What's wrong with please?) Other things that make some (uses of) language arguably better than others are consistency within the system (e.g. in spelling) and avoidance of ambiguity. But these are issues about the use of the language, and both BrE and AmE can be (and often are) used in clear, consistent, direct, honest ways.

So, back to my old mantras:
  • 'Different' doesn't mean 'better' or 'worse'.
  • 'British' doesn't necessarily mean 'older' or 'original'.
  • 'Older' doesn't mean 'better' either!
  • Let's enjoy each other's dialects AND our own!

(One can be obnoxiously preachy in either dialect too.)

Happy Labor Day to the Americans out there. (I won't re-spell it Labour, since it's a name.) And I will admit my prejudice that American Monday-holidays generally have better names!

* I can't resist a few side-notes on nappy and napkin.
  • AmE uses sanitary napkin for a feminine hygiene product, while BrE uses sanitary towel.
  • Then there's the AmE meaning of nappy, which derives from the more general sense of 'having a nap'--as fabric can (BrE: can have). In AmE this also refers to the type of tightly curled hair that is (pheno)typical of people of sub-Saharan African ancestry--particularly when said hair is not very well cared for. This was the meaning in play when (orig. AmE) shock-jock Don Imus called the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos". When the news story was reported in the UK, there was some confusion (see, for example the comments here), with some people thinking that Imus was claiming that the women wore diapers or napkins on their heads (à la Aunt Jemima).
  • Then there's the old napkin versus serviette drama in BrE and related Es. In some (e.g. South African and some BrE speakers), the former is reserved for cloth table napkins, and the latter for paper. Elsewhere, serviette just marks you out as being 'non-U'--i.e. not upper class. Serviette is virtually unknown in AmE.
Postscript (8th September): Found a lovely example of AVIC (and its cure, in this case) in last week's Saturday Guardian Review section, in an article by AM Homes about American writer Grace Paley:
Grace often retold the story of how, at 19, desperate to be a poet, she took a course taught by WH Auden. When she used the word "trousers" in a poem, Auden asked why she was writing in British English - why didn't she just say "pants"? Paley explained that she thought that was just what writers did, and then never did it again.