Monday, December 24, 2012

2012 US-to-UK Word of the Year: wonk

As I noted in the UK-to-US WotY post, this hasn't been a particularly 'big' year for American imports to Britain. Those that were nominated were mostly things that were not clearly American before they were British; that is (in many cases), though an American may have been first to use them, they immediately entered general English. Other nominations didn't seem to have anything particularly "2012" about them--they'd been steadily climbing in BrE for 10 or 20 years, with no particular notice or peak in 2012. But one nomination, by reader Joe, stood out for me.  Ladies and germs, the 2012 US-to-UK Word of the Year is

wonk in policy wonk.  I'll let Joe's nomination start the talking:
My nomination for AmE to BrE WOTY is "Wonk" as in "Policy Wonk".

Google searches of pages from the UK show a number of examples, and Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries online both list the AmE sense of the word (the Oxford also has the British Naval slang sense).

The clincher for me though was to hear “(Policy) Wonk” used on BBC Radio 4 by Jane Garvey during the 12 November broadcast of “Woman’s Hour” in a segment where she was debating “who are the women who matter in UK politics?” with Allegra Stratton, the political editor of BBC Two’s “Newsnight”. If it's on "Woman's Hour", surely that's a sign it's moving out from the "Chattering Classes / West Wing fans" and into the mainstream?

The American Heritage entry for wonk marks it as slang and defines it as:
1. A student who studies excessively; a grind.
2. One who studies an issue or a topic thoroughly or excessively
I have not seen the first meaning in BrE, which has its equivalent in the BrE noun swot. It's the second meaning that has been imported (showing once again that borrowings from one language/dialect to another are rarely "complete" or "faithful").

In addition to Joe's noticing it on Woman's Hour, the thing that makes this a word for 2012 is the fact that Ed Miliband (the leader of the Labour Party) flew his wonk flag at the Labour Party Conference:

That the newspaper had to provide a footnote translation of wonk (using another Americanism that's come into BrE, geek) is evidence of its relative newness in BrE.*

Wonk's entry into BrE is complicated a bit by the BrE word wonky (which is currently making inroads in AmE), which means 'unsteady; apt to malfunction; not quite right'. But that doesn't seem to be holding it back. Hail to the wonks!  And to wonk!

* This recency is not necessarily the picture you'll get if you try to find evidence of wonk's use in BrE.  Collins English Dictionary doesn't bother marking wonk as AmE and includes two Sunday Times examples from 2002. Other early examples seem more tricky to identify as BrE. There's one policy wonk in the British National Corpus, way back in 1990, but it's from The Economist, in an article about US politics--so it was probably written by someone in the US, and perhaps someone American. Google Ngram viewer shows an increase in policy wonk in "British English" books since the 1990s, but click on the link to the books, and you'll find that most seem to be American books by American authors, including the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (by Grant Barrett) and a collection of William Safire's 'On Language' columns from the New York Times Magazine. I've said before that Google Ngram Viewer is not to be trusted as a source on AmE/BrE differences, and I feel the need to say it again: Google Ngram Viewer is bad at identifying American English versus British English, even though it gives you the option of choosing between them. Lastly, when I do a custom search on plain old Google, searching for the word on sites last updated in a particular period, it doesn't given me the number of hits, for some reason. (What's up with that, Google?)  

Sunday, December 23, 2012

2012 UK-to-US WotY: bollocks

For the first time in six years, I feel spoil{t/ed} for choice in deciding on a UK-to-US Word of the Year, but have a hard time thinking of even one good candidate for US-to-UK. After the 2011 UK mediafrenzy of anti-Americanismism, 2012 was the year of hoopla about Britishisms in America. There were many to choose from, and before announcing my less printable choice, I’d like to give special mention to stockist, which Nancy Friedman (Fritinancy), an excellent observer of commercial language, has noted on the rise in US contexts.

In many ways, I regret my choice of UK-to-US Word of the Year. In other ways, I felt I didn’t have a choice: the word kept coming up in American contexts this year. And it is:

…which has a good AmE equivalent in bullshit. At least, the use that has come into AmE has that equivalent. In BrE the word means ‘testicles’, and by some extension it is used to mean ‘nonsense’. But as is often the case for loanwords, the people borrowing it are not always aware of its other meanings, including the anatomical one. Another use that doesn't seem to be  making its way across is the phrase the dog’s bollocks, which means something good—a cruder, stronger and less dated version of other animal metaphors like (orig. AmE) the bee’s knees or (now AmE) thecat’s meow. 

In support of bollocks as WotY we have Newcastle Brown Ale’s US (and not UK) advertising campaign:

We also have Richard Hammond of Top Gear promoting its use in the US, before admitting that it’s already started making its way into AmE:

Sightings in AmE start before 2012, of course. The Corpus of Historical American English, which has materials from 1810 to 2009 shows this trend in the last few decades (each column stands for a decade and each number is per approximately 25 million words).

The reason I’m not too excited about having bollocks as my WotY, despite feeling compelled to have it, is that it joins 2006’s wanker on my list of WotYs, which means that now one third of my UK-to-US WotYs are rather crude. SbaCL continues to secure its place in the list of websites banned in schools.

Are Americans really so crude that all we want is vulgar words from the UK? Absolutely not. But if you’ve ever been around exchange students, you’ll have discovered that it’s much easier to swear in one’s second language. British vulgarities are perceived as fun and quaint in American English. They are also perceived as fun and enjoyable by many British English speakers—swearing is a major British pastime.  

But it’s not seen as quaint, and the British are more aware of contexts in which these words should not be used. As I noted in a previous post, The Advertising Standards Authority's 'Deleting Expletives' [link is pdf] report of 2000 put bollocks as the 8th most offensive word according to the British public. Words lower in the 'severity of offence' list than bollocks include arsehole, twat and shit. Most British people I know would contest that ordering of offensiveness, with bollocks feeling pretty mild these days. But still, it's not something that would easily make its way onto a billboard.
So, the UK-to-US WotY for 2012 is bollocks. In so many ways. There’s still a little time to get a last-minute US-to-UK word nomination in. I hope to post it tomorrow.