Showing posts with label sex. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sex. Show all posts

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Untranslatables month: the summary

Still buried deep beneath teaching. For your amusement, here are the 'untranslatables of the day' posted on Twitter last month, as promised in my last post. Where there's only a link, it's an expression that I've already written about in some detail. Please click through to see (or take part in) further discussion of those expressions.
  1. BrE punter

  2. AmE pork : "Government funds, appointments, or benefits dispensed or legislated by politicians to gain favor with their constituents" (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edn)
  3. BrE kettling :  Police practice of surrounding protesters and holding them in a restricted area. Starting to be borrowed into AmE.
  4. AmE trailer trash : Because the social significance of trailers in US is very different from that of static caravans in UK.  (Mentioned in this old post.)
  5. AmE snit : American Heritage 4 says: "state of agitation or irritation', but that's way too imprecise. It's a tiny fit of temper.  (Discussed a bit back here.)
  6. BrE secondment : temporary transfer to work in another part of a company/organi{z/s}ation, e.g. for a special project.  Pronounced with the stress on the second syllable.
  7.  BrE to skive off, skiving.
  8. AmE to jones, jonesing : To suffer withdrawal symptoms and crave. Originally used in relation to heroin. Increasingly heard in BrE. The verb 'to Jones' is from AmE drug slang noun Jones, a drug habit. Then later, a craving: I have a Jones for Reese's peanut butter cups. > I'm jonesing for some Reese's peanut butter cups.
  9. BrE git : Collins English Dictionary says "contemptible person, often a fool". Closest equivalent probably bastard. Git is originally related to bastardy: it comes from beget.
  10. AmE rain check : A promise for something postponed (the check = BrE cheque). For example, I'll have to take a rain check on lunch = 'Although you invited me to lunch, I can't make it today, but I'll take you up on your offer at another time'. Rain check was claimed by Matthew Engel to 'abound' in BrE in his complaints about Americanisms, but it's also the case that it's widely misunderstood in the UK.
  11. BrE jobsworth : "a person who uses their job description in a deliberately uncooperative way, or who seemingly delights in acting in an obstructive or unhelpful manner" (Wikipedia)
  12. AmE potluck : a shared meal (bring a dish to pass), but culturally a different kind of ritual in US and UK.  I discussed it back here.
  13. BrE Oi! : Kind of like hey, you! but with a sense that the addressee is doing something that impinges upon you.  Not to be confused w/ Yiddish oy (vey), heard in AmE.
  14. BrE naff : Means approximately 'uncool' but with particular overtones of 'dorky', 'cheesy' and probably others. Contrary to widespread folk etymology, there's no evidence that naff comes from Not Available For F--ing. Origin is unknown.
  15. AmE nickel-and-dimed : 'Put under strain by lots of little expenses'.  E.g. I thought the house was a bargain, but all the little repairs are nickel-and-diming me to death.
  16. BrE  jammy.
  17. AmE hazing : OED has "A species of brutal horseplay practised on freshmen at some American Colleges".
  18. BrE to come over all queer : to suddenly feel "off"--physically or emotionally. Queer meaning 'feeling odd' (ill or upset) is much more common in BrE than in AmE.  Also: come over all funny, come over all peculiar.
  19. AmE to nix (something) : Generally, to do something decisively negative to something. Specifically: cancel/refute/forbid/refuse/deny (OED).  It's not unheard of in UK, but it's a borrowed AmEism. This is true of many of the AmE 'untranslatables'. They fill a gap.
  20. BrE oo er missus : Humorously marks (maybe unintended) sexual innuendo. See here for some history.
  21. AmE (from) soup to nuts : absolutely inclusive; from absolute start to absolute end or including every related thing.
  22. BrE taking the piss / taking the mickey : Explained at Wikipedia.
  23. AmE inside baseball : requiring rarefied insider knowledge. William Safire discussed it here.
  24. BrE moreish 
  25. BrE ropey or ropy : Of a thing, inferior, unreliable. Of a person, feeling vaguely unwell.
  26. AmE mugwump : Covered recently on World Wide Words.
  27. BrE lurgi or lurgy
  28. AmE 101 (one-oh-one) : the basics of subject. E.g. saying 'please' is Etiquette 101. From the traditional US university course numbering system. The Virtual Linguist wrote about this one.
  29. BrE faff.  See Oxford Dictionaries on this one.
  30. AmE squeaker : Competition or election won by tiny margin.
  31. BrE gutted.

Goodbye Untranslatables month!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

spunk and spunky

It's our last full day in the US after a (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation of nearly a month.  I'd thought I'd catch up on blogging during this downtime, but I started to enjoy actually being on holiday/vacation. Imagine that!

As we rushed to get everything done before leaving my parents' house and my hometown, I asked Better Half to run across the street/road to the (AmE) drug store/(BrE) chemist's to buy a (AmE & BrE) greeting/(BrE) greetings card for my soon-to-be nine-year-old niece. He came back with a very (orig. AmE in this sense*) cute card that was arguably marketed at a younger age group, explaining (with alarm in his voice) that he couldn't bear to buy a (orig. AmE) tweenie-appropriate (not his words) card addressed to 'a spunky girl'.

An hour or so later, we searched with desperation for a place to have lunch with my parents. We'd checked in at the airport, but there is now nowhere in ROC to have anything but a cookie or a pretzel outside (of) the security zone, and our usual diner across the road had closed down. (We found later that JFK is no better--couldn't find a 'proper' restaurant in which to eat after collecting our luggage/before going to our foodless hotel. I blame Homeland Security. And, America, why don't you put sensible things in your airports after security? Like a drug store/chemist's where one could buy baby food and sunscreen in order to get around the 3-oz./100 ml rule? UK airports [orig. AmE i.t.s] rule, oh yeah!)  We ended up at a local (orig. AmE i.t.s) chain restaurant about which the less said, the better. But it thrilled by being in the same (orig./chiefly AmE i.t.s) plaza (i.e. set of retail businesses sharing a [AmE] parking lot/[BrE] car park) as this gym:

And this had BH clamo(u)ring** for a blog post on spunk

Spunk came up, so to speak, in my last post, because the American Heritage Dictionary gave it as a synonym for gumption. And there I had the footnote:
* I've no doubt that some readers will find this definition humorous, as spunk is BrE slang for 'semen'. But the primary meaning in AmE (also found in BrE, and originating from a Scots/northern England dialect for 'spark') is 'Spirit, mettle; courage, pluck' (OED).
In the comments, a couple of US readers claimed familiarity with the 'semen' sense of spunk, but its use in US business names indicates that it is the 'spirit, mettle; courage, pluck' sense that is called to mind first in AmE. (My research has, however, led me to an adult entertainment business in Australia called "Spice and Spunk Strippers". You're welcome.) In BrE, the 'seminal fluid' meaning has been around since at least 1890, and the other meanings (of which there are many) have been around longer, but many of the other meanings (e.g. 'a spark', 'a match', 'a lively person') seem to be more rooted in northern dialects and may not have had much currency down south when the 'semen' meaning took off. Two meanings that aren't marked as dialectal in the OED are 'tinder' and 'One or other of various fungi or fungoid growths on trees, esp. those of the species Polyporus, freq. used in the preparation of tinder'--and perhaps it is that sense from which the 'semen' sense comes (here's a photo of the fungus, you can judge).

Spunky meaning 'Full of spunk or spirit; courageous, mettlesome, spirited' is not marked as dialectal in the OED, but some of the earliest citations seem to be Scottish. (Well the first one, Burns, definitely is, and the second one has the word lassie in it. For some reason the links to the OED sources aren't working for me.) There is no 'semen-y' meaning in the OED, but it certainly exists. The OED does include a 'US & dial' meaning 'Angry, irritable, irascible', but that's not a sense that I hear used, and the citations are all from the 19th century.

At any rate, the semen sense seems to have taken over British minds--or at least the minds of the under-50s, as far as I can tell. I'd be interested to hear whether people in other parts of the UK have the same impression of the spunk(y) situation. Americans, meanwhile, mostly use the word in with positive connotations--and with a definite feminine bias. Here are the top nouns that follow spunky in the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

So, this is yet another example of Americans innocently using words that sound "dirty" in BrE. And before you comment, please note that there is a £5 tax on this blog for typing fanny pack.***

Oh--and before I go:
If you've ever wondered what a Lynneguist sounds like (after 12 years of anglification), wonder no more! Patrick Cox's latest World in Words podcast is an interview with me about all sorts of things, like how my immigrant vowels have shifted, criticism-softening devices in BrE, and language and social class. He promises a part 2 after his holiday. I had a lovely time (that's me all Britified) speaking with him, as we have converse experiences--he's an Englishman living in the US. I hope it might be of interest to some of you too...

*There are several 'in this sense' originally-AmE items here, so henceforth I abbreviate 'in this sense' as 'i.t.s'.
** Quote: "You could blog about that."
*** Payable to:

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Eek!  The Wordnik List of the Day yesterday was titled "Hugonyms" and was explained as "Anything hugging related".  The Facebook announcement of this included several people excited about learning the new-to-them BrE (though not marked as such) word snog.  One went so far as to comment:
I'm gonna go snog my kids.........*snog* (love it!)
Eek!  Eek!  Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek!  Eeky eekness!

Because it's a BrE slang word, it's not in most of the dictionaries that American-based Wordnik uses.  So, if one clicks on snog in the "Hugonym" list, the only "definition" one gets is from WordNet. But WordNet is not a dictionary--it's a lexical database that is closer to being a thesaurus.  It links words together into "synsets"--i.e. synonym sets.  So the "definition" that we get for snog is essentially a definition for the central word in its synset, kiss
touch with the lips or press the lips (against someone's mouth or other body part) as an expression of love, greeting, etc.
But one would not snog a person in greeting.  Well, I wouldn't, and I'm betting most of you wouldn't either.  (Did I mention eek?!)

Snog happened to be fodder for my Valentine's Day Difference of the Day tweet:
Difference of the day: (orig. & chiefly) AmE 'make out' vs. BrE 'snog'. Happy Valentine's Day!
Commenters on that tweet differed on whether making out required activities other than deep, passionate kissing (which, eek, is the meaning of snog).  But compare Urban Dictionary definitions:
make out the act of swapping spit with your significant other... or perhaps just some hottie you met at a party, but anyway, you just sit there sucking at each other's faces for an extended period of time and if you're lucky there might even be a little romming around of the hands if ya get my drift :p
snog  1. verb; to interface passionately with another being, creating a field of physical obsession and focused arousal +centered+ on the lips, mouth and tongue.
2. verb; to play tonsil hockey
Parents:  please do not snog your children.  Or announce that you will do so on the internet.

Lessons of the day:
  1. a little knowledge is a dangerous thing
  2. WordNet should not be used as a dictionary
 I'm going to go wash my eyeballs now.

Monday, September 08, 2008


I looked at my collection of e-mails from readers that request coverage of this or that Americanism or Briticism. The collection contains just those that I've not blogged about yet and that I think have at least a little potential to be an interesting post. At my current rate of one post a week, it'll take me a year to get through them--that is, if each e-mail has only one request in it. Maybe a year and a half, then. And they just keep coming in! If you ever thought I'd be out of bloggable ideas by the third year in, you were wrong. (And we're not even counting the topics on my own lists of questions I want answered, gripes I want to air, and little jigs I want to dance on your computer.)

With such a backlog (the ones that I consider answerable go back a year now), it seems a bit unfair that I'm going to write about the one that arrived today. Blame my mother. Whenever my brother didn't get into trouble when any reasonable person could see he was guilty as sin (He really was on my side of the car seat! And besides, HE'S LOOKING AT ME FUNNY!), my mother would explain "Life isn't fair." I took logic (AmE) in college/(BrE) at university, so I figure/reckon: Life isn't fair, and I'm alive, so I don't need to be fair. Right?

Regular reader/requester Jackie wrote today to request coverage of the BrE use of partner (since some of the requests I'm ignoring in order to do this one are hers, it's not that unfair, is it?) . She sums up the situation:
When I lived in London I was forever getting confused by people referring to their heterosexual partners as their partner. In the U.S., when someone refers to his or her "partner," it usually means the other person is the same gender. Or that they are in business together, a source of frequent confusion here. I don't know if it's worth discussing, but do you know how the words acquired the narrower meaning in the U.S. (or the broader reading in the U.K.)?
I am going to come out of the closet and tell you that I LOVE partner! In the UK, it is the unmarked--which is to say normal, usual-- way to refer to the person you share your life with (but usually aren't married to). It's gender-free, works as well for gay and straight relationships, doesn't infantali{s/z}e either party. It's wonderful. In fact, I love it so much, that it's still how I refer to Better Half, even though the law has intervened and I could call him my husband now. It's just such a grown-up, practical word, and I feel grown-up saying it. (I think I'll be at least 70 before I stop getting a kick out of being an adult.)

Jackie asks how it came to be this way. How? Hard to tell without a lot of etymological research, which I haven't the wherewithal to do now. But I can tell you this: the OED has examples of partner meaning 'spouse' going back to Milton (17th century). The business sense goes back a to the 15th century. In between, the word was extended to include dancing partners and bridge partners, etc. The OED comments:

Now increasingly used in legal and contractual contexts to refer to a member of a couple in a long-standing relationship of any kind, so as to give equal recognition to marriage, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, etc.
But it doesn't say when that 'now' started. Milton notwithstanding, it does have the feeling of a modern use. I've heard older BrE speakers expressing discomfort with the term ("that's what they all call it nowadays, isn't it?"), although I think the real discomfort isn't the word partner but the fact that their children are (chiefly AmE) shacking up instead of getting married.

Why don't Americans use it so generally? Probably because gay and lesbian folk started using it, and no one wanted to be mistaken for gay/lesbian, so they avoid it--though the official story is that it 'sounds too business-y'. What do Americans use instead? All sorts of things--there just isn't an unproblematic and widely accepted equivalent. They use boyfriend/girlfriend, significant other, lover and write articles like this.

The fact that it sounds 'business-y' is part of its appeal to me. It doesn't traipse into the emotional or bedroom details of your relationship. It acknowledges that you have to work together with anyone who's such a deep part of your life, that you share goals and assets and responsibilities. And I suspect that is a reason it's found popularity in the UK--it talks about a personal part of your life without getting into the private details. That and the fact that co-habiting relationships (including same-sex relationships) are treated with more seriousness and respect in British law these days, so they require a term that can be used in officialdom as well as by someone wanting to mention the person who picks their dirty socks up off the floor (with only the pleasure of self-satisfied eye-rolling as payment).

Generally (in BrE), if your refer to someone as your partner, people will assume that you live together. But I can think of at least two committed pairs I know who don't live together but who use the term for each other. That's how I can tell when my friends have become serious about the people they're seeing--they start calling him/her 'my partner'.

By the way, I'm retiring the Canadian Count. I've had a few lately, but I've lost count and I think it was only amusing me--and less and less so.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


While it would be great if (BrE) pupils/(AmE) students in schools could read this blog, I am fairly certain that I've already run afoul of any nanny software worth its code, what with my repeated references to f(a)eces and genitalia. So I might as well report today's SbaCL moment.

We were in a restaurant (BrE) car park/(AmE) parking lot with the Ginger Nut and her family, and had just pointed out that her 15-year-old daughter had a fair amount of her dinner on her (AmE) tank top/(BrE) vest. GN suggested that her daughter ride with us in order to direct us to our next destinations. Better Half teasingly shouted "We don't want that slutty teenager in our car!"

I don't think he'd finished the sentence before I rushed to inform everyone in earshot: "That means 'slovenly' in British English!" (Though the OED tells us that it's now dialectal.) Nowadays, of course, it can also be a not-nice way of describing someone as promiscuous, and that's the only meaning I've ever experienced in the US. The OED has only added that sense in 2004, with examples going back only to 1970--as opposed to c.1400 for the 'slovenly' sense.

The noun on which this adjective is based, slut, was originally used of "A woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance" (OED), but the "woman of a low or loose character" sense came hot on its heels. While I've not heard women called sluts for being unkempt, I have heard the adjective slutty used to convey that meaning within BH's London-born family. And the next time they come to America, I'll warn them against shouting that other people's children are slutty.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


I've avoided doing a post on how BrE pudding is used to mean (AmE) dessert because it's one of those AmE/BrE differences that is known by most people with any interest in the two countries. (And way back in the beginning, I said that this blog wasn't about those things that are well-covered in lists of AmE/BrE differences. This has led me to drag my feet, or perhaps my knuckles, in responding to requests for this topic from American readers Cathy and Jacqueline.) The pudding/dessert equation has been mentioned in passing here and there on the blog. But there are angles on this issue that deserve further discussion. So what the hell, here are some observations on them.

This comes up naturally, since I'm in the US at the moment, and the first 'new' AmE/BrE difference we taught my linguistically insightful five-year-old niece on this visit was "dessert is called pudding in England". Her immediate question was the same as reader Cathy's:
If any dessert can be called pudding, what is [AmE] pudding called [in BrE]?
But before I get to that, let's start with a fine-tuning of the general American understanding of the meaning of pudding in BrE. Yes, it can be used to refer to the sweet course of a meal, served after the main course. But in addition to referring to a course, it can also refer to a particular kind of dish, as it does in AmE. But there's still a translational problem, in that it doesn't refer to the same type of dish in the two dialects. In BrE, the dish-sense of pudding is:
A baked or steamed sponge or suet dish, usually sweet and served as a dessert, but also savoury suet puddings (e.g. steak and kidney). Also milk puddings, made by baking rice, semolina, or sago in milk. (Bender & Bender, A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition, Oxford UP, 1995)
Here's a photo of a Christmas pudding, from Cumbria Rural Enterprise Agency. It's kind of like a fruit cake, but it's cooked by steaming. I know Anglophiles who buy and eat Christmas puddings in the US, but other such puddings are very rare in the US. My personal favo(u)rite is Sticky Toffee Pudding, and I consider it my duty to sample as wide a variety of STPs as possible in order to try to identify the best. Nominations on a postcard, please! (AmE speakers should usually mentally translate toffee in BrE contexts to caramel.)

In AmE, pudding nowadays refers particularly to creamy, custard-like desserts. Wikipedia treats this better than other dictionaries I've consulted (BrE translations in brackets are mine):
The second and newer type of pudding consists of sugar, milk and a thickening agent such as cornstarch [=BrE corn flour], gelatin, eggs, rice or tapioca to create a sweet, creamy dessert. These puddings are made either by simmering on top of the stove [=BrE on the hob; AmE stove = BrE cooker] in a saucepan or double boiler or by baking in an oven, often in a bain-marie. They are typically served chilled, but a few types, such as zabaglione and rice pudding, may be served warm.
As the Wikipedia bit indicates, the steamed, cake-ish kind of pudding is older than the 'milk pudding' sense, but it's not the oldest. Originally pudding referred to more sausage-like things. Hence black pudding, a blood sausage that is far more common in Britain (especially in the north of England--at breakfast time, for godsakes) than in the US.

On the grammatical angle, note that the BrE dish-sense of pudding is often a count noun (e.g. I made enough sticky toffee puddings to feed an army) because the puddings are items with well-defined boundaries, whereas in AmE it's usually a mass noun (e.g. I made enough pudding [not puddings] for everyone) since it refers to a substance. (Throughout English, we have the ability to make count nouns out of mass nouns and vice versa, so in this case I'm talking about the natural state of these words when referring to the food as it is prepared, rather than the senses "a portion of X" or "a smear of X", etc.)

So, what do BrE speakers call the creamy stuff that Americans call pudding? I think the best answer is that they don't call it anything in particular. There is no such thing as Jell-o pudding (the form in which most Americans encounter this substance) in the UK. The closest thing to that, although it's more 'mousse-like' is probably Angel Delight. A baked custard is a kind of pudding-y thing that is found in both countries (though not very popular in either place now, I think, except in the more exotic Spanish/Mexican incarnation, flan--which Kevin in the comments reminds us is usually called crème caramel in BrE. See the comments for more on what flan means). But in the UK custard usually refers to pouring custard, which Americans might occasionally come across under its French name crème anglaise. (This was discussed before, back here.) Both countries have rice pudding and the less creamy bread pudding.

(Incidentally, Better Half and I were grocery-shopping here the other day, and we happened down the Jell-o [US trade name, used generically to mean 'flavo(u)red gelatin', i.e. BrE jelly] aisle. BH was flabbergasted by the range of little boxes to be found there, which included two brands (Jell-o and Royal) and both gelatin/jelly and (AmE) pudding mixes. The Kraft Foods website lists 20 flavo(u)rs of regular Jell-o, 12 of sugar-free Jell-o, 17 of instant regular Jell-o pudding, 9 of instant diet Jell-o pudding, and 9 of the regular and diet cook-and-serve pudding mixes. So that's 67 products before we even start counting the ones that Royal makes. I've lived abroad long enough that instead of celebrating such a range of products, I am exhausted by the thought of it and look forward to getting back to a more sensible shopping experience. But only after I've loaded up my suitcase with A1 sauce, low-calorie microwave popcorn and New York State maple syrup.)

Returning to the course-sense of pudding, the term dessert is heard in BrE. The first sense below from the OED has been around in BrE since the 17th century at least, while the second, more general sense is noted as more American, but increasingly found in BrE:

1. a. A course of fruit, sweetmeats, etc. served after a dinner or supper; ‘the last course at an entertainment’ (J.).
b. ‘In the United States often used to include pies, puddings, and other sweet dishes’ (Cent. Dict.). Now also in British usage.
Other BrE terms for this course are the more colloquial afters and sweet, which is often found in lists of 'non-U' terms. Pudding is the least socially marked of these terms.

I believe that the pudding/dessert course is the one that diverges most, food-wise, in the two countries. That is to say, there are lots and lots of British puddings that aren't found in the US and American desserts that aren't found in the UK. And, of course, some of these are sources of amusement--particularly the name of the British dish spotted dick.

Finally (and not entirely unrelatedly), pudding is sometimes clipped to pud (rhymes with wood), which disturbs me when I see it in writing since I first learned pud as a slang term for a woman's genitals that rhymes with bud and is derived from pudendum. But BrE also has a genital-slang pud, which means 'penis'. This one rhymes with wood, since it is derived from pudding. (The OED notes that this is chiefly used in the masturbatory phrase pull the/one's pud.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

johns, punters and ponces

Grover and I went out for a lovely lunch with our friend Maverick the other day, and now I find that her pseudonym creates a linkage problem. Do I link to her blog (as is my usual courtesy to people-I-mention-who-have-blogs) or to our previous discussion of AmE/BrE differences in the use of the word maverick? The solution of course is to make a roundabout way of doing both, as I have in this paragraph, but I'll have to (chiefly AmE) figure out a less verbose way of doing it before she points out something else to blog about...

So, Maverick got some good deal on magazine subscriptions and has started reading Time magazine. Though she receives the European edition, she finds that it doesn't make much allowance for the fact that its readers won't necessarily be speakers of American English. So, she was confused by the following sentence (or one like it--not sure if the on-line edition is exactly the same) in an article about recently shamed New York governor Elliot Spitzer:
Just last year, Spitzer had signed a law that lengthened jail time for johns from three months to as much as a year.
Maverick had assumed that john meant 'pimp', and so she was led astray, as it actually means 'prostitute's client'. Now, I think this means that Maverick doesn't watch Law and Order or CSI or any of the other 'gritty' American murder mysteries that are on (UK) Channel Five all the time. The OED marks this meaning of john (there are many more that I don't want to get into here) as 'orig. U.S.', meaning that it has made inroads into BrE.

Maverick and later Better Half tried to think of a BrE word for a man who pays for sex and came up dry. I've heard (BrE) punter used in this way, and there are thousands of examples of it on the web, including:
Meanwhile, lads' magazines continue their assault on British women with articles that aggressively blur the line between girlfriend/boyfriend and prostitute/punter relationships. -- Katherine Viner in the Guardian

The trio all use a website where "punters" - the men who visit prostitutes - go to discuss their encounters. -- Finlo Rohrer in BBC News magazine

Better Half and Maverick both protested, "But punter really means 'gambler'." Yes, I've heard that before, but it's a tough word to (orig. AmE) get a handle on (especially as a newcomer to these isles) because its meanings slide all over the place. The first sense that the OED (draft revision Sept 2007) has for it, dating back to the 18th century, is 'A person who plays against the bank at baccarat, faro, etc.' It then was generali{s/z}ed (as early as the 19th century) to mean any type of gambler and from there to mean someone who pays for something, and particularly a man who pays for a prostitute's services. As a side note, in AmE punter is one who (AmE) punts (drop-kicks the ball) in (American) football, and in the UK another kind of punter is one who propels a punt (a kind of flat-bottomed boat) down a river. The latter kind of punter is not marked as BrE in dictionaries, but much more punting goes on in the UK than in the US.

Back to john, in the OED, it defines the prostitute-client sense as:
A ponce; the client of a prostitute. slang (orig. U.S.).
Now, ponce is another difficult word. But according to the self-same OED (draft revision Mar 2007), it means 'pimp', not 'client':
derogatory slang (chiefly Brit.).
1. A man who lives on money earned by another person (esp. a woman); a kept man. Also: a person (usually a man) who lives off a prostitute's earnings; a pimp.
But I've only heard it used to mean:
2. depreciative. An effeminate or affected man or boy; (also) a male homosexual.
Searching for ponce + prostitute on, I can only find evidence of it meaning 'pimp', and not 'john/punter'. So, it looks to me like a bad AmE-to-BrE translation in the OED--they haven't got(ten) to the Js yet in the current revision--but I expect this will be changed!

Postscript (1 April--but not an April Fool's joke!): Here's another example of punter, and how easy it is for a newcomer to misinterpret it. It's from The Guide (The Guardian's entertainment listings section, 29 Mar-4 Apr 2008), in a listing for Lucy Porter's stand-up show:
As she said of one of her younger punters, "I want to rip his clothes off -- but only so I can wash and iron them."
Now, they are not claiming that Porter turns tricks, though I originally thought that it meant someone she'd taken home (since they'd just said that "her specialist subject is relationships"), but Better Half was quick to dispel this impression by explaining to me that the 'younger punter' is a member of her audience.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

smacking and spanking

A Guardian headline on Friday read:
Ministers defy charities to uphold parents' right to smack
(The on-line version has a different title.) The article goes on:

The government yesterday reasserted parents' right to smack their children despite overwhelming opposition from charities.

Kevin Brennan, the children's minister, said there was no reason to change the law introduced three years ago permitting smacking if it does not leave visible bruising, scratches or reddening of the skin.

After a review of the legislation, he told MPs: "Smacking is becoming a less commonly used form of discipline. While many parents say they will not smack, a majority say smacking should not be banned outright."

As can be gleaned from the prevalence of the word smack in the article (and more generally in the national debate on the topic), this is the normal BrE way to refer to striking a child as a disciplinary measure. As the OED defines smack:
5. a. To strike (a person, part of the body, etc.) with the open hand or with something having a flat surface; to slap. Also spec. to chastise (a child) in this manner and fig.
Smack is generally not used in this way in AmE, as can be seen from the American Heritage Dictionary definition:
1. To press together and open (the lips) quickly and noisily, as in eating or tasting.
2. To kiss noisily.
3. To strike sharply and with a loud noise.
Of course, the final sense there could be used to describe hitting children with an open hand, but it's just not used that way as routinely in AmE as it is in BrE. In BrE, the Guardian headline seems clear. In AmE, I might misunderstand it as 'parents' right to kiss noisily' or 'parents' right to heroin.' (Smack = 'heroin' is originally AmE slang.)

In AmE, one speaks more naturally of spanking children, but of course spank≠smack, since spank (at least in AmE) specifies that it is the bottom that is hit (typically with an open hand, but possibly with a paddle or other instrument), whereas smacking doesn't (although it may be the case that most--or at least the most prototypical--child-smacking is on bottoms). I asked Better Half whether he'd usually refer to bottom-smacking as spanking or smacking, and he felt that he'd tend to use smack to talk about hitting children because spank (to his BrE ear) has sexual overtones. (The first thing he said upon hearing spank was spank the monkey. What a naughty boy.) The OED lists spank as 'dialectal or colloquial', and does not specify that it has to be on the bottom:
1. a. trans. To slap or smack (a person, esp. a child) with the open hand.
This UK site has spank as 'slang', but it is not slang in AmE--and not sexual unless clearly used in a sexual context.

Searching for spank on the Guardian website, I find that it doesn't occur in the current articles on the 'smacking debate' but that it does occur in articles on sport, music (due to a hiphop group called Spank Rock) and sex. So, there's little evidence that the AmE usage of spank for child-bottom-hitting is making its way into BrE. But since the OED entries have not been updated since 1989, it'll be interesting to see if they pick up on any changes in their next updates.

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.)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Words of the Year 2006

Ta-da! Here are the results of the first annual SbaCL Words of the Year Awards, celebrating the words that demonstrated a lessening of the separation of our common language in 2006. I thank readers of this blog for their nominations. My selections from among those nominations have been based upon the timeliness of the nomination (in other words, if the word enjoyed a particular surge in popularity this year) and the success of the word in the relevant dialect--i.e., whether people are actually using the word.

The first category is Most Useful Import from American English to British English. This is a difficult category because of the regularity with which words travel from AmE to BrE these days. Nominations included Size 00, through when used to describe an inclusive range (e.g. the numbers 1 through 5), and cookie. Only the first of these meets the timeliness criterion, but I think it must be disqualified on two counts. First, its lack of nativi{s/z}ation in BrE is evident from the fact that no one seems to be able to agree how to pronounce it. Second, it remains a name for an American thing. American size 00 is equivalent to British size 2. The term size 00 was in the news a lot, but it is regularly noted as an American phenomenon.

So, the winner of best AmE import to BrE is...

muffin topthe roll of fat that bulges over the waistband of (BrE) trousers/(AmE) pants that are too tight and too low
Muffin top is found almost as often in the UK news as size 00 this year, but when it is used, it's usually to refer to British muffin tops--thus clearly filling a gap in the BrE lexicon. Here we must take issue with Hadley Freeman at the Guardian who incorrectly (a) confuses a muffin top with a double hip (a phenomenon that is not dependent on tight jeans) and (b) claims that muffin top is a British coining. As I've pointed out here before, the term depends on an understanding of American muffins that few BrE speakers have--since it's rare to see an "American-style muffin" in the UK that has an actual muffin top, as illustrated at the right here. And it's been popular in AmE slang for several years now, while it's still used somewhat tentatively in BrE. The majority of my 19-year-old students did not know the term at the start of the Autumn (AmE prefers Fall) term this year, but few Americans who have recently survived high school would have missed the term.

On to our next category: Most Useful Import from British English to American English. Here there is a clear winner, with no other nominations meeting the timeliness criterion. And the WotY goes to:

wanker (and its derivatives)
a detestable person, a loser, a self-aggrandi{s/z}ing person
The meaning of wanker is difficult to make precise, but it derives from the BrE verb to wank, i.e. to masturbate. Wanker has been sneaking into American popular culture under the radar for some years (e.g. Peggy Bundy's maiden name on television's Married with Children [1987] was Wanker, which was certainly meant as a joke that could make it past the censors' noses--though it would have more trouble doing so on British television). But it came into its own in AmE this year, especially, it seems, in political blogging, where many variants on the term are found, including: wankiest (in American Prospect), wankerism (quoted on Firedoglake), wank-fest (in a letter to, wankery (on Brendan Calling from the Underground). Though some of these don't include the -er suffix, I'm treating this as backformation from wanker rather than derivation from wank because of my hunch that wanker was the vanguard word in the move from BrE to AmE. In other words, the British had the word wank and made wanker out of it, wanker travel(l)ed to America, then lost its -er. Notice that all of the above words are derogatory, but there is at least one positive member of the wank(er) family: wankalicious. According to the Urban Dictionary (never the most reliable source), this describes something "so good it compares with masturbation". My understanding of the term, however, is that it's something so good that it inspires masturbation. This one definitely derives from wank without involving wanker.

Finally, our last category of the evening, Best Word Coined by a Reader of this Blog. And the WotY goes to:
"the way in which pundits' past pontifications can now come back to haunt them"

Regular reader/commenter Paul Danon created the word, after Andrew Sullivan created the definition (and an ill-fitting word) on his blog, which was forwarded to this blog by M.A.Peel during the nomination stage. Sullivan then noted Paul's word on his blog, leading more than 9500 of his readers to this blog (and the entry in which Paul coined the term) in two days. While I'm sure many of you have created new words this year, and we even witnessed monetary exchange for a new word on this blog, Googleschaden was definitely the one that got the most attention this year. Tip for next year's WotY contest: make sure your word has a good PR machine behind it.

Thanks again to everyone who's played a role in making the first SbaCL WotY happen!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

running the bases

I promised a 'part two' on local fauna expressions, which I've written, but don't want to post until I've checked a source in the office. So, I hope to post that tomorrow, and in the meantime I will provide a public service to the British television-watching public.

Better Half and I tonight watched (on DVD) the last three episodes (ever! Aiiiigggghhh!) of Arrested Development. Luckily for BH, he had the remote control and a native speaker of American English sitting next to him--and he knows how to use them. This time he used them to ask: "What is second base?" Of course, this is a baseball term, and also a metaphor for sexual activities, but there's some dispute/lack of clarity about which bases stand for which activities. The (probably most) standard progression is:

first base

second base
touching above the waist
third base
touching below the waist
home run
sexual intercourse

Back in my more innocent days, before all the facts of life had presented themselves to me, my friends and I believed that first base was holding hands and second base was kissing and third base was kissing with tongues--and I have no idea what we thought a home run was. For others, second is touching outside the clothes, and third is getting inside the clothes. I'm sure there are all sorts of other permutations these days. Wikipedia has an article that includes many other baseball metaphors about sex, some of which probably have little currency outside the Wikipedia article.

Now, go forth and enjoy the final (and truncated) (BrE) series/(AmE) season of Arrested Development! (Though it seems to have been bounced off the air by snooker this week, thus postponing its tragic end.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

arse, ass and other bottoms

Howard at the UK/US forum e-mailed to request discussion of BrE arse and AmE ass. It seems Howard has come across at least one American wondering why the British "put an /r/ in ass", when, of course, the real question is why Americans have taken the /r/ OUT of arse. There are many useful discussions of arse/ass available, so I'll lazily quote Wikipedia:
Until the late eighteenth century, "ass" presumably had no profane meaning and simply referred to the animal now mostly called donkey. Because of the increasingly non-rhotic nature of standard British English, "arse" was often rendered "ass". However indirect evidence of the change from arse to ass traces back to 1785 (in euphemistic avoidance of ass "donkey" by polite speakers) and perhaps to Shakespeare, if Nick Bottom transformed into a donkey in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1594) is such a word-play. This usage was also adopted in America, which is why the word "arse" is not usually used in the United States. The age of Victorian propriety resulted in the rechristening of the horse-like animal, changing the name to "donkey" (not recorded in English before 1785, slang, perhaps from dun "dull grey-brown," the form perhaps influenced by monkey, or possibly from a familiar form of Duncan, cf. dobbin) to avoid any improper inferences. Some people in Britain have adopted the American version in writing. Although before World War I they were similar, the British pronunciations of "ass" /æs/ and "arse" /ɑːs/ are now quite different. While arse is commonly used in Atlantic Canada, west of the Ottawa river, ass is more idiomatic.
So, the /r/ in arse used to be pronounced, but now it's not pronounced as an /r/ in many (particularly southern English) British dialects, including Received Pronunciation. Nevertheless, it's spel{led/t} with an r no matter which British dialect one speaks. So why do some Americans think that the /r/ has been added in, rather than taken out?

My hypothesis is that it's because most Americans are familiar with dialects that add /r/s after certain vowels, even though the r is not present in the spelling. They're used to seeing the written form without an /r/, and so figure/reckon that any other form is a corruption, just as they consider it a corruption when people pronounce idea as idear and washing as warshing. Some British dialects have an intrusive r, so it's not unreasonable to guess that the word that is familiar as ass is the victim of /r/-adding.

Adding or dropping /r/s is a definite marker of geography and social class. In the US, people often consider added /r/s to be a mark of a hick or "white trash". (It's done in many parts of the country, including rural Pennsylvania and the Ozarks.) Thus in one on-line discussion one participant said "English people are cute. They say 'arse' instead of 'ass'", to which another American hotly replied:
"Arse" is not cute. "Arse" just makes me think of welfare moms living in low-rental housing and wearing sweatpants, running babysitting operations out of their ghetto apartments and threatening the kids into behaving themselves by shrieking "I'll tan yer arse!" with a Virginia Slim hanging out the side of their mouth.

Arse. So not cute.
So, here we have an American judging BrE arse in much the same way that many Britons judge the American pronunciation of herb. Even though it's the older pronunciation and the one that is natural to the dialect, it's judged on the basis of class-based assumptions that don't translate over international borders.

In BrE, arse can also a verb. Can't be arsed to means 'can't be bothered to'. I see that another blogger (Troubled Diva) is promoting an acronym to be used when you want to admit you're too lazy to back up the claims you're making on your blog: CBATG, or 'Can't Be Arsed To Google'. Another verbal use of arse, to arse about is vaguely equivalent to AmE goof off. The OED includes some examples of ass being used as a verb in ass about, but this just isn't a common usage in the US. I actually could be arsed to Google that, but the results were contaminated with lots of examples of give a rat's ass about, and I couldn't be arsed to sort those out.

And while we're on our rear-ends, a few other sources of international confusion over the gluteus maximus:

Perhaps I just had a poor vocabulary in my pre-passport days, but it was only after leaving the States that I learn{ed/t} that pratfall literally means 'falling onto the rear-end'. In BrE, prat is known to mean 'buttocks', but is mostly used as an epithet for a dolt or a (orig. AmE) jerk--much as ass is used in AmE.

Americans should be warned strongly against referring to one's fanny while in proximity to British persons. In the UK (and other parts of the English-speaking world), fanny means a woman's genitals. Either hilarity or deep embarassment (depending on the company) ensues when American tourists refer to their fanny packs. In the UK, these items are known as bum bags. Bum is, of course, another BrE word for the buttocks, which is a bit less crude than AmE butt. Thank goodness that Americans gave up on naming babies Fanny in the 1940s, but the Swedish still love it (though they pronounce the 'y' as a fronted 'u'; see Think Baby Names).

Bottom only means 'buttocks' in AmE, and while it can be used in the same way in BrE, a distinction can be made between the front bottom (i.e. the [female] genitals) and the back bottom.

Since I've just hit bottom, I'll make this the end (ha-ha) of this instal(l)ment.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

chatting up and pulling

This week's The K Chronicles comic has Keith of the Chronicles listing the great things about his experience at a comics convention, including:

This American use of chat up, meaning 'chat with' is new to me, but Jonathan Lighter, author of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, says that it's been in AmE slang for a few years.

I can think of two possible routes by which this might have come into AmE. One is that it's just another case of putting up after a verb, as in eat up, drink up, call up, smarten up, etc. This up usually has a 'completive' effect--e.g. drink up involves and focus(s)es on the finishing of the drink. It seems unlikely that up has this effect in AmE chat up, since there's no clear point at which chat can be completed--one can always move on to another topic and chat some more. (Incidentally, my students claim that Americans use VERB+up constructions like eat up more than the British do. I think they may just be reacting to the artificiality of the example sentences I use in class, but maybe they're right.)

The other possibility is that this chat up came in some convoluted way from BrE. Here's the scenario I imagine. Some Americans hear British people saying chat up. They think it sounds cool (as British things often sound cool to Americans), so they start saying chat up too. The only problem is that they didn't appreciate what chat up meant in its original context, so they start using it just to mean 'chat with'. This kind of thing happens often when words are borrowed from one language/dialect to another. If you don't know the meaning of a word, there are usually several things in the context that it could mean--so you go for the one that makes most sense to you. If you then start using the word with that misapprehended meaning to people who don' t know that it means something else in the source language, then the word comes to have the new meaning in the target language. In the case of chat up this would be easily done. Here's the scene. Some friends are in a nightclub. One friend rejoins the group and a British friend teases him with:
I saw you chatting up that girl
The meaning 'chatting with' makes perfect sense in this context, but the British friend would have really meant 'I saw you hitting on (or flirting with) that girl.' Hence BrE chat-up line = AmE pick-up line.

Sounds like a good story to me, at least. But very difficult to prove.

I can't mention chat up without mentioning a related piece of BrE, pull, i.e. to get the desired effect of one's chat-up line. The verb pull can be used transitively or intransitively, and it can also be used as a definite noun, especially in the phrase on the pull:

Cilla's not best pleased that she didn't pull a fella when she was away on honeymoon with Yana. She reckons she's got 'married woman' written all over her and that's what's scaring them off. --Corrie Blog
Kareena implores Tariq to come clean about their relationship. She won't let Ash dictate who she can see. He's not keen, so suggests that they keep it quiet for now. She has no idea that he's planning to pull at the party. --Eastenders episode guide
And over in Mike’s apartment, Mike is confused at Leanne being in his home. She is dressed in just a towel and is on her way to have a shower, when Mike calls a friend and asks if he was out on the pull last night. Mike believes that he has had a one night stand with Leanne and makes a move on her. She recoils in horror and tries to explain that she is his son’s girlfriend, but poor Mike is left more confused than ever. --Corrie Blog

In BrE, one can also pull a pint (= 'fill a pint glass with beer/ale from a tap') or pull a face (=AmE make a face). There are a lot of pull phrasal verbs that were originally American--for example pull out, as in Should we pull out of Iraq?. Most of these are used in the UK now, so not so interesting to us here. Have any readers noticed AmE uses of pull that are more mysterious to non-AmE speakers?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

bills, notes

At the post office today, I needed to pay 64p for stamps, but only had 63p in change. The following conversation ensued:

Me: I'm afraid I'll have to give you a big bill. A really big bill.
PostOfficeMan: That's ok, we like big bills.
Now, hearing an Englishman call £20 a bill rather than a note made me
reali{s/z}e that I'd said the wrong word:
Me: I mean, a large note!
POM: I know what you mean. We call them notes, but they tend to call them bills in America--oh, and Canada, Canada.
I took his eagerness to mention Canada as further evidence of the aforementioned fear of Canadians going bonkers when assumed to be American. (I should say that while I find these conversations amusing, I don't blame Canadians at all for resenting being assumed to be American. However, since Canadians don't seem to leave their country without maple leaf flags sewn onto all of their outerwear, it is hard to mistake them for Americans.)

But a few words on money. Americans (and Canadians!) have particular words for their coins: penny (1¢), nickel (5¢), dime (10¢), quarter (25¢), and in Canada loony for the $1 coin. The British mostly don't have names for the coins. Presumably this is because they had nice names for units of currency that almost all became obsolete with the introduction of decimali{z/s}ation in the early 1970s. So, don't go looking here for sixpence and guineas, they don't exist anymore. One might say that a nickname for the pound coin is quid, but that is really a nickname for the amount (on a par with American buck for dollar), rather than for the coin.

The copper coins (collectively known as coppers, which is also slang for policemen--by a different etymology) do have names, presumably because these units survived decimali{s/z}ation: penny (1p) and tuppence (2p) (although they were worth different amounts in the decimal system, so were, for a time, called new penny/pence). Pence is the plural of penny, so it's technically incorrect to say 1 pence, but more and more people do. The ha'penny (pronounced hay-p'nny), or half-penny, is no longer in circulation as a coin, but remains in circulation in some idioms and place names. My friends' mothers coached them: Keep your hand on your ha'penny--that is, don't let anyone in your knickers (US: panties).

On the other hand, the British have names for two notes/bills, the self-explanatory fiver and tenner. I tend to remember to use the British term too late and say things like "Have you got a five...R?" I'd call these the names of the notes/bills, rather than slang terms, as they are not at all stylistically marked in the way that saying a fin (=$5) or sawbuck ($10) would be in the US. There are no similar names for larger bills--i.e. no *twentier. While US bills/notes are sometimes called by the name of the person (usually president) pictured on them, all the UK Bank of England notes have the reigning monarch on the front, and the people on the back change from time to time, and thus aren't so firmly associated with a particular denomination.

Here's a site on British money slang that may be of interest, if you like that sort of thing.