Friday, August 27, 2010

squidgy podgy pudgy splodgy dodgy

Looking for something easy to blog about, I was reading through old email requests from back in the days when I was in (the) hospital, waiting for Grover to be born.  Grover's going to be three in December, so there's a little insight into just how untidy that email inbox is and how many unblogged-about topics might be lurking there.

At any rate, then-reader (are you still out there?) Catnap in the US wrote to me about some British recipes she'd been reading, including one for brownies.  She correctly surmised that brownies are not the institution in the UK that they are in the US--but they've become much better known/loved in the decade that I've lived here.  (I've never known a British non-professional-baker person to actually make brownies.  One tends to get 'gourmet' brownies here--and they can be incredible.  Like the raspberry ones made by Prosperity Brownies. Ooh, I'm getting palpitations just thinking about them.)  It's all part of this craze for importing and "fancifying" American baked goods

At any rate, the BrE word that Catnap noted in the recipe was squidgey, which the OED and I spell squidgy.  The older sense of this word in OED, from the 19th century, is 'Short and plump; podgy' And here we pause to note that BrE prefers podgy, but AmE uses pudgy almost exclusively.

The second sense of squidgy is the brownie sense:
Moist and pliant; squashy, soggy. Esp. of food.
The definition doesn't sound very appeti{s/z}ing, but squidgy can definitely be a positive trait in a brownie. 

This sense of squidgy is only noted since the 1970s, but squdgy, a word that looks like a typo, has been around and meaning 'soft and moist or yielding' starting with Kipling:
1892 KIPLING Barrack-Room Ballads 51 Elephints apilin' teak In the sludgy, squdgy creek.  1919 W. DEEPING Second Youth xvii. 145 He made haste to shake Joseph Bluett's squdgy hand and escape. 1959 M. STEEN Woman in Back Seat I. v. 97 ‘Don't you like babies?’ Lavinia shook her head... ‘They're so squdgy, and they haven't got any shape!’
Looking for other -dgy adjectives that might differ, I find splodgy. OED defines it as 'Full of splodges; showing coarse splotches of colour.'  In AmE, this would be splotchy (and 'full of splotches').  The OED doesn't mark splotchy as 'chiefly American', but there are no instances in the British National Corpus, as opposed to three instances of splodgy. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, it's 78 instances of splotchy and zero splodgy.

The only other differing -dgy adjective I can think of is dodgy, which the OED has as:  
Brit. colloq. Of poor quality, unreliable; questionable, dubious.
One hears it in contexts like I have a dodgy knee or He's selling some dodgy goods on the internet.

The Lesson of the Post is thus: BrE likes adjectives ending in -dgy more than AmE does!

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Grover (now two-and-a-half) continues on merrily acquiring British English. Her first language, but not her mother('s) tongue.  I was caught off guard the other day when she sounded so exactly like her father, saying That's a pity, when told that it was too late to go to the park.  I'm also keenly aware of her Britishness whenever she urges me to follow her, for she never says C'mon without following it with then.

Sticking a then onto the end of a sentence is very much a spoken British English thing to do.  It is not the use of then about distant time (I had it then, but I haven't got it now) nor the use that's about logical consequences (If 1+3=4, then 3+1 must equal 4 too), which are universal uses of then--though BrE uses the latter twice as much as AmE does (see below). These might also occur at the end of a sentence, but they're not what I'm talking about.   Instead, let's look at some examples from the British National Corpus (BNC).
If you write to them and drop it in that's fine then .
Let's let's get straight what we are talking about then .
So that is it then .
It means something like 'in that case'.  But to use it in that way in AmE (to me at least) communicates an impatience or accusation. 

Come on then and Go on then are things one hears all the time in England, clearly talking about 'the now', rather than 'the then'.  Go on then is used for all sorts of things.  In this one, it means something like 'give it a try, I dare you':
- Yeah. I could scare you, Auntie June.
- Could ya.
- Yeah.
- Go on then
 But in this one it accepts an offer: 
- This tastes lovely! Want a taste?
- Go on then .
 In that case it means something like 'Oh, I know I shouldn't accept your offer, but yes, please'. 

In the spoken part of the BNC, question-final then occurs nearly as much as statement/request-final then (since I'm just searching by punctuation, I can't tell the difference between declarative and imperative sentences).  For example (from BNC):
What pub is that then ?
So What about this then ?
Now, I know some Americans will be reading this and saying "but I say things like that", and I don't doubt it.  It's not that Americans never put then at the end of a sentence--it's that they don't use it in all the same ways that BrE speakers do, and therefore they can misinterpret BrE intentions.  As I said above, when I hear a non-temporal then at the end of a question (or statement), it implies to my American ears an impatience or accusation--or mistrust.  But that's not what (in most cases like the above), a BrE speaker would hear.  And Americans wouldn't tend to use then in completely sympathetic sentences like the following (from the Mike Leigh film Happy-Go-Lucky):

- How was your weekend?
- Crap.
- Oh, no, why's that, then?

As for numbers, we can start with Algeo's British or American English (I've deleted his source citations for examples, since they're abbreviated to opacity).
In all positions, then as a linking adverb is nearly twice as frequent in British conversation as in American; on the other hand, so in the same use is half again as frequent in American conversation as in British. A distinctive British use of then is in terminal position: Who's a clever boy then? Well, there you are then.
For sentence-final (or "terminal") position, I've got the following figures of occurrences per 100 million words by searching BNC and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

   BrE   AmE
then .  5824   3173
then ?  4741   1196
go on then .   142         2
come on then .   105         3
As you can see, it's not that AmE doesn't put then at the end of a sentence or question, it's that it's done a lot more in BrE.  The commonest ground between BrE and AmE is the temporal use like She was happier then, See you then, and What did you do then ('next')?  When we search in a context where the temporal meaning is much less likely (in the last two rows), we see the BrE uses of then outnumbering the AmE ones by very large margins indeed.

What do you think then?

p.s.  I know some of you haven't got(ten) into Twitter, but that's where I'm hanging out between blog posts.  I've added a Twitter feed gadget to the left, where you can see my most recent tweets, which may include the Difference of the Day.

Monday, August 02, 2010

River X, X River

We start this post with an email from former (non-linguist) colleague Andy:
I discovered my Railroad Tycoon 3 DVDs today. [...]
This is an American game, so it's not surprising that it uses AmE usage. Even on European maps. In particular, it's really odd seeing "Thames River" or "Severn River" or for that matter (on the France map) "Seine River".

BrE usage is always "River x". Same in French, Italian, I can't for the moment think of the usage in German - though I bet it's a compound.

AmE is "x River". Why the change? The only countercase I can think of is the Gospel songs referring to "That Jordan River" which I suspect are actually AmE originally in any case.

In any case all of these uses sound really wrong to my BrE ear. About the only exception I can think of is "East River", but then the river's not actually called "East", is it?

An AmE countercase is of course the classic Standells track, "Dirty Water", which refers to the "River Charles". But then, it's Boston, so I guess that doesn't count as proper AmE.
Let's start at the beginning, or near enough to it.  Before the late 17th century (according to the OED), the normal way to refer to rivers was the River of X.  Here are some of the OED's examples from around that time:
1548 Hall's Vnion: Henry V f. xxxiii, Borne at Monmouth on the Riuer of Wye.
1565 in R. G. Marsden Sel. Pleas Admiralty (Selden Soc.) II. 55 Honnefleur and Rouen and other ports in the revere of Seine. a1616 SHAKESPEARE Antony & Cleopatra (1623) II. ii. 194 She purst vp his heart vpon the Riuer of Sidnis. 1652 M. NEDHAM tr. J. Selden Of Dominion of Sea 218 Those words concerning the River of Rhine. 1710 J. CHAMBERLAYNE Present State Great Brit. II. I. 323 It's watered with the pleasant River of Clyde.
From the late 17th century, the of started to be dropped, so then we get the River X, as in the River Thames, the River Clyde, the River Cam, etc.  But what else was going on in the 17th century?  Oh yeah, the English coloni{s/z}ation of North America.  So this is about the time when we'd expect to see transatlantic differences starting to develop.  If linguistic changes are happening in England, then they'll mostly stay in England, while the English speakers in America are off on their own linguistic path.

One possible scenario then, would be that BrE would come to have River Thames while AmE would still have the of: the River of Mississippi, say.  But the loss of of had already started by the time most of the colonists would have come over, so perhaps it's not surprising that it got lost in the soon-to-be US too.

It might seem odd that the loss of of would cause the nouns to swap/(BrE alternative spelling)swop places, resulting in X River, but I can think of some reasons why it isn't too odd:
  • First, consider the possessive use of of, as in a friend of my mother('s). Get rid of the of and we have to move my mother before the friend (and add a case marker, 's): my mother's friend.  So, there is an existing relation between grammatical constructions of the forms X Y and Y of X.   
  • Second, English generally puts grammatically simple modifiers before the nouns they modify.  So, unlike French, for instance, we say red chair, not chair red.  Since river is the 'head noun' in the river-name construction, it would seem most natural to put river after its descriptor.
  • A clear exception to the last generali{s/z}ation is what often happens with names of lakes and mount(ain)s: Lake Superior, Lake Titicaca, Lake Geneva; Mount Everest, Mount Rushmore.  But still, there are plenty of geographical features that put the name first: roads, streets, and lanes; seas and oceans; islands, deserts and so forth.
  • Some of what would become the original 13 colonies were first coloni{s/z}ed by Sweden and the Netherlands.  Swedish puts 'river' (älv) after the name.  Dutch (modern Dutch, at least) seems to not have a word for 'river' (rivier) as part of the name at all: it's just de Rhône, de Maas, etc.  I don't know how much linguistic influence these colonial powers might have had (not much, in the case of the Swedes, though they certainly named some things), but they're at least worth mentioning as a counterbalance to Andy's observation that the Romance languages put the 'river' first.
 The Wikipedia article on AmE/BrE differences lists some exceptions to each dialect's rules:
Exceptions in BrE include the Fleet River, which is rarely called the River Fleet by Londoners outside of official documentation, and also where the river name is an adjective (the Yellow River). Exceptions in the US are the River Rouge and the River Raisin, both in Michigan and named by the French. This convention is mixed, however, in some Commonwealth nations, where both arrangements are often seen.
Incidentally, the River Charles that Andy refers to is much more usually called the Charles River.

Another thing that might be considered an exception in BrE is what happens when the name of the river is used as a modifier for another noun.  One sees quite a few Thames Rivers in things like Thames River Authority, Thames River Police, Thames River Valley, and Thames River Cruises. Now, of course, we have the option here (especially in the last two cases) of parsing this so that Thames River is not a constituent phrase.  That is, is it:
[Thames River] Authority        or        Thames [River Authority] ?
I would suspect that most BrE speakers would vote for the latter, though that's not how I'd parse the American equivalents.

One also sees Thames River in BrE when it's plurali{s/z}ed, as in Thames Rivers Restoration Trust, which works to improve the Thames and its tributaries.  In this case, Rivers Thames would not be appropriate, since the tributaries are generally not named Thames, so in this case Thames is descriptive (like East or Yellow), describing the locations of the rivers, rather than just naming them.  Usually when referring to more than one river by name in BrE, the river+name order is maintained with river marked as plural, as in "The Environment Agency runs the rivers Thames, Nene, Great Ouse, Medway, Welland, Glen and Ancholme" (

BrE speakers generally use the American word order when referring to American rivers. One doesn't hear the River Mississippi much (though Julian Barnes uses it in Flaubert's Parrot), and this seems to extend to the rest of the new world--BrE prefers Amazon River (7 British National Corpus hits) over the River Amazon (2 hits), but really prefers just the Amazon (over 300 hits).   For European and African rivers, it's River X all the way.  So Germany has the river Main in BrE, but the Main river in AmE--and it's the latter that the local tourist board goes for.  Whether that's because the Germans have more affinity for AmE/American tourists or whether it's because that ordering is more natural to German I'm not sure--the German version of the website refers to it only as Der Main.  German speakers?

I've had a quick look for rivers in the US and UK that have the same name, but haven't succeeded in finding any--but we can see what happened when the English River Avon went to Canada and Australia. According to Wikipedia, the New World versions are Avon Rivers.