top-ups and refills

Christmas is a time for dealing with family, and when you have a transAtlantic family, many dialectal conversations arise.  But this time, it wasn't my family.  Grover's little best friend is a little girl who lives in our (very AmE-sounding) neighbo(u)rhood/(more BrE-sounding) area with her American parents, and they came to our Christmas eve do with the mother's (French) mother and her Brooklynite beau.  Many Briticisms were commented upon during the course of the party, but the one that stuck with me was top-up,  to which I've become so inured that I wouldn't have immediately thought of it as a Briticism.

The context was mulled-wine serving--about which we must first have an aside.  You don't get it as much at Christmastime in the US--probably because we have our standard Christmas drink, egg nog, instead.  But when I moved to the Midwest, home of many Scandinavian-descended peoples, I did come to know it well.  And, whenever we served it (back in the days when I was living with a Scandinavian-descended person), we served it in hot drink vessels--coffee mugs or the like.  In restaurants, it might be in the kind of glass mug in which you'd be served a caffe latte.  But whenever it is served in the UK (in my now-extensive experience of southern English Christmas parties), it is served in wine glasses.  Is this a universal difference between the US and the UK, I wonder?

But back to our party: Better Half asked whether anyone would like a top-up (of mulled wine) and the Brooklynite commented (something like): "Now there's a linguistic difference.  We'd say refill."  

And I thought, "Oh yeah, we would, wouldn't we?"  Americans refill drinks, the British top them up.  In the UK, the common American experience of (orig. and chiefly AmE) bottomless coffee (i.e. free refills) is not common at all, but in the US, the (AmE, often jocular) waitron will flit from table to table, coffee pot in hand, asking "Can I get you a refill?" or "Can I warm that up for you"?  If this were to happen in the UK, it would be most natural to ask if the customer would like a top-up. 

But the other common use of top-up these days is what you do to a pay-as-you-go (BrE) mobile/(AmE) cell phone.  (The picture is a common site in the windows of (BrE) corner shops and (BrE) petrol/(AmE) gas stations in the UK.) Which led me to wonder: what do Americans say for that?  Pay-as-you-go phones are much more common in the UK than in the US, but from what I can gather from the interwebs, refill is used in this context too.  Here's a 2004 news release about an American "prepay" phone service:
As always, Verizon Wireless prepay service allows customers to refill their minutes over the phone, at a Verizon Wireless Communications Store, online, as well as at RadioShack, Circuit City and other authorized agents.
You could also in the UK use top(-)up for a number of other things that are refreshed by the addition of more of something.  For instance, you could get a top-up loan (well, maybe not in the current economic climate), a top-up dose of an(a)esthetic and you can top up your tank with petrol/gas.  The phrasal verb top up is only cited from 1937 in the OED, and the noun top-up only from 1967, explaining why it's not as common in AmE.  American readers, what would you use in these contexts?
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icing and frosting

In the meat post, I mentioned making Nigel Slater's recipe for 'ginger cake with clementine frosting'--which appropriately raised the question of why I hadn't marked frosting as AmE. I've changed it now to 'orig. AmE'; since Slater is a BrE speaker one can see that frosting has made inroads here.

But the AmE frosting = BrE icing equation is one of those things that is more complicated than one might assume. That's because icing is AmE too--it just refers to something more specific (at least for me and some others, as we'll see below). To illustrate, here are the ingredients lists (though I have abbreviated the measurements) from two recipes in my Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

Creamy White FrostingPowdered Sugar Icing
1 cup shortening
1.5 tsp vanilla
.5 tsp lemon extract
4.5 to 4.75 cups sifted powdered sugar
3 to 4 Tbsp milk
1 cup powdered sugar
.25 tsp vanilla

First thing to note is powdered sugar, which is also called confectioner's sugar in AmE, but is called icing sugar in BrE. (I'd say powdered if it were on a doughnut, but confectioner's if I were using it in a recipe. According to the British Sugar website, powdered sugar is not as fine as icing sugar.) Second thing to notice is that the frosting recipe has a big hunk of fat in it (butter is usually used, cream cheese is another option), and the icing recipe doesn't. Now, I do not claim that this is always the case in every AmE speaker's use of icing and frosting, but it is the distinction the (orig. AmE) cookbook (BrE cookery book) seems to make, as neither of the icing recipes has any fat other than some in the milk. Without investigating the recipe, I can tell the difference between frosting and icing (in my dialect, at least) in that frosting (due to its fat content, no doubt) isn't hard or smooth. A glaze would have to be an icing, not a frosting, and the kind of stuff they put on wedding cakes in the UK--called royal icing fondant icing--would be icing in my dialect as well.

CakeSpy has an excellent article on the topic in which they take issue with the many (even expert) claims out there that frosting = icing. Here's an excerpt--remember, this is referring to American English:
This idea is backed up in a Williams-Sonoma release simply entitled Cakes, in which it is noted that icing is "used to coat and/ or fill a cake...similar to a frosting, and the terms are frequently used interchangeably"...but ultimately "an icing is generally thinner and glossier" than frosting, which is "a thick, fluffy mixture, such as buttercream, used to coat the outside of a cake." Of course, the book even goes on to even differentiate a glaze from the two as being "thinner than either a frosting or an icing"...which makes the slope all the more slippery--but does further define the difference between these sweet toppings.

I think that frosting the word is making its way into BrE because frosting the (fatty) thing is making its way in too. The standard cake topping in AmE is a buttercream frosting--but not so in BrE, where one of the most 'classic' cakes, the Victoria sponge, has jam and whipped cream in the cent{er/re}, but just some sugar on top. Christmas cake has royal icing, which is made with egg whites. The UK has taken to many American treats in recent years, such as the (orig. AmE) cupcake (click on the link if you want to bemoan the fate of the (BrE) fairy cake) and cream cheese frosting on carrot cake. I think that the more frequent use of frosting on these shores reflects an appreciation that it's a different kind of thing from icing, and therefore deserves a different name.

Before I go (to bed), a few items of 'any other business':
  • I'm finally making use of my Twitter account (lynneguist), which I'm going to use for linguisticky/cultury kinds of reflections/observations/incidents (saving the other stuff for Facebook). Having followers means something much more mundane these days than it did a decade ago, doesn't it? At any rate, you're welcome to become one...
  • My tweets today were about the fact that I was on (AmE) tv/(BrE) the telly--BBC One, no less--for a few minutes in the context of an hour-long documentary on Scrabble. If you're in the UK and interested, it's one of the better representations of Scrabble on the screen and can be seen on BBC iPlayer for the next week. (Of course I have my quibbles, particularly that they couldn't spell my name right. Sigh. But it was possible for even Scrabble scenesters to learn something from the international perspective in this one.) Rest of World readers, I'm afraid the site won't let you watch, as you don't pay into the BBC pot. (When are they going to stop linking (BrE) Television Licences to television ownership, I wonder?)
  • A sweet side note on Grover's linguistic development: She's a big fan of Cookie Monster, and sings 'C is for Cookie' with gay abandon, but it only struck me the other day how English my little girl is. She helped me cut out Christmas cookies, and when they were baked was eager to have one. She took her first bite and said with wonder '(BrE) Biscuit!' I don't know what she thought cookies were before this point, but now she's able to translate it into her own dialect. (Second birthday coming up in four days--wayhey!)
  • Merry/happy Christmas!
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Words of the Year 2009: staycation and go missing

My thanks to everyone who has engaged in the nominations and debate on Words of the Year for 2009. Here's a reminder of the rules (I'm a Libran with Virgo rising/ascendant, I've gotta have rules):
We have (at least) two Words of the Year here at SbaCL, and nominations are open for both categories as of now:
1. Best AmE to BrE import
2. Best BrE to AmE import
The word doesn’t have to have been imported into the other dialect in 2009, but it should have come into its own in some way in the (popular culture of the) other dialect this year. I retain the editor's privilege of giving other random awards on a whim.
And now, without further ado...

The 2009 SbaCL Best American English to British Import is...


Yes, the recession has hit the UK and it's become both stylish and necessary to forgo a (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation in Thailand or Morocco and instead brave the British weather in a seaside town or scenic valley. But wait...what's that you say? That's not what it originally meant in American English? All the better for proclaiming it the best AmE to BrE import of the year!

The word is eminently American--the British do not use vacation to refer to something that one can 'go on'. (They do use it to refer to the time in which, say, university is out of session--but not for the non-work activities that one does while free from one's term-time duties. That's your holiday.) And while more British alternatives, like home-iday and holistay have been proposed, they have not caught on:

CoinageGoogle hits
on .uk sites

Word Spy's early AmE citations have it squarely as staying in your own home during one's time off--making a vacation/holiday of being at home (which may include doing the local touristy things or indulging oneself in other ways). WordNik's more current quotations show its use as being more 'vacationing/holidaying close to home'. In BrE it generally has the latter sense, and one's staycation might not be all that close to home, as long as it's in the UK. (Then again, many US states take longer to cross than the longest journeys in the UK, so 'close' is always relative...)

Why did it catch on? First, there was definitely a need for it. The British discuss holidays/vacations a lot more than Americans do, since they generally get a longer vacation/holiday period from their employment. And many of them use that time to go abroad. Abroad is pretty close, for one thing, and many people are keen to get some sun. (They ought to be. Did you know that "in the UK, the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in all adults is around 14.5%, and may be more than 30% in those over 65 years old, and as high as 94% in otherwise healthy south Asian adults"?) Second, the euro strengthened while the pound weakened and other financial calamities. Third, the papers still had their travel sections and supplements to fill and, boy, do they like portmanteau words (or blends, as we linguists tend to call them).

But all of this doesn't tell us why the AmE one was preferred over the BrE equivalents. This may be a matter of taste, but I would say that it's just because staycation sounds better. Unlike home(l)iday, there's no unclarity about how to spell or pronounce it. Unlike holistay it doesn't sound like it should have TM after it. And unlike Broliday, you can immediately recogni{s/z}e the ingredients in the blend.

Thanks to Emmet for nominating this, and to the commentators on the nomination, who helped to seal its fate as AmE-to-BrE Word of the Year.

So, on to the BrE-to-AmE WotY. It's not a particularly new borrowing, but it generated a fair amount of discussion this year. Ladies and germs, I give you:

go missing

And now I brace myself for the complaints that "It's not a word!" Well, that depends on how you define word, and "Lexical Item of the Year" just doesn't have the same ring to it. And I make up the rules, so why am I having to answer to you, Little Commenter Voice in My Head?

At the Dictionary Society of North America conference this year, Garrison Bickerstaff of the University of Georgia gave a paper on the rise of go missing and its various forms (went, gone, going, etc.). His research, based on newpaper data from the past 10 years, shows that the form has steadily gained momentum in US newspapers. Meanwhile, it's also increased in frequency in UK newspapers--indicating that it is less and less seen as 'too informal' for the news. Here are some numbers from the first and last year in Bickerstaff's study. Each represents the number of forms of went missing (the most common form) per ten million words of his corpus:


So, while it is still not used in AmE at anything like the rate at which it's used in BrE, we can see that it has made definite inroads.

Bickerstaff was not the only academic type to ruminate on go missing this year--it was the subject of quite a bit of discussion on the American Dialect Society e-mail list. Another academic discussion was by Anya Luscombe of the Netherlands, who gave a paper on BBC Style at the Poetics and Linguistics Association conference [warning: link is a pdf file]. Luscombe discusses four 'pet hates' of BBC writers, one of which is 'Americanisms' and another is go missing. While her work clearly isn't about the phrase in AmE, it's interesting to see how attitudes to it have changed in the BBC style guides. Luscombe quotes these editions:
Prior to 1992: no mention
1992: ‘“Gone missing” was originally Army slang. It now has wider use, and has become journalese.’
2000: ‘People do not “go missing”. They are missing or have been missing since.’
2003: ‘Go missing is inelegant and unpopular with many people, but its use is widespread. There are no easy synonyms. Disappear and vanish do not convince and they suggest dematerialisation, which is rare.’
And going further, a current BBC webpage says:
Perhaps it's to time to admit that further resistance against "go missing" is in vain. The problem comes when you are writing about the event in the past. " Mr Childers disappeared last Tuesday" is as improbable as "Mr Childers went missing" is ugly. ".....was last seen" is an acceptable alternative.
What I love about the importing of go missing into AmE is that American peevologists don't like it in spite of the fact that it is British! While Americans often suffer a verbal inferiority complex when they encounter a British English (standard or not), grumpy Americans are standing their ground on this one. Perhaps they don't realize that this phrase comes from the Mother Country?

Went missing was Grammar Girl's pet peeve of the year 2008. Another example comes from Peevologist-at-Large Robert Hartwell Fiske's Silence, language and society (reproduced by the eminently reasonable Mr Verb on his blog in June):
"Gone" or "went" missing is dreadfully popular today. Everyone from reporters on "CNN" to detectives (or their writers) on "Without a Trace" now prefer it.

People are so dull-witted and impressionable that, today, in this country, the popularity of "gone" or "went missing" has soared. Words like "disappeared," "vanished," "misplaced," "stolen," "lost," "deserted," "absconded" are seldom heard today because "went missing" has less meaning, or less exact meaning, than any of them, and people, especially the media, perhaps, are afraid of expressing meaning. What's more, "went missing" sounds willful or deliberate, and, indeed, sometimes that connotation is accurate, but the child who has been kidnapped is hardly agreeable to having been so.

Now, that kind of language grumpiness is just precious (and published regularly in Mr Fiske's publication, the Vocabula Review)--language is changing because people are afraid of meaning anything. My goodness, I do hope Mr Fiske is wearing his tin foil hat because the media are probably right now trying to suck meaning directly from his brain so that they can club baby seals with it.

Go missing
is beautifully meaningful--giving us some nuances not available in other words. It's not the same as vanish or disappear--and that's what makes it so useful. When something is said to go missing, it makes it seem like a less mysterious event than 'disappearing' or 'vanishing' which have a whiff of the supernatural about them. One can use it as a way to avoid blame--including self-blame: My phone went missing rather than I lost my phone. If a person 'goes missing', then there's a sense that although we don't know where they are, they do.

For more on this, I point you to another language commentator who picked up on this phrase this year, Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe (and not just because she quotes me!). It was her research on the phrase earlier in the year that put it in my mind as the frontrunner for the WotY crown, and it wears it well, I think.

Happy New Words!
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buying meat

My latest book deadline is now behind me, and while I desperately try to catch up on the work that's piled up while I've been editing-editing-editing, I've also finally found the opportunity to catch up a bit on entertaining, and so had friends over for lunch yesterday. I go back and forth about whether I "should" use American or British recipes when I cook. The American ones have familiar foods and familiar measurements (cups, ounces) but force me to make substitutions for the many basic ingredients that are just not basic here, whereas the British ones are new-to-me recipes that require (AmE) a kitchen scale/(BrE) kitchen scales (since the measurements are often weights) and figuring out whether the cake will be moist enough if I leave out the sultanas (AmE [near-equivalent] golden raisins). (For me, the hardest part of Christmas in the UK is not the lack of snow, but the presence of dried fruit in all the baked goods. I like dried fruit. I like baked fruit. But I do not like baked dried fruit, and I miss [AmE] Christmas cookies.)

Yesterday I compromised: British baking recipe (ginger cake with clementine (orig. AmE) frosting), American main course (chicken and dumplings). Since it's hard to get shortening (tip for American expats: Trex or white Flora are the closest things to Crisco--look for them next to the margarine) and lots of other baking-type products, it seemed like the British cake was the safer way to go. But the first ingredient on the chicken recipe brought home the fact that no recipe is safe from trans-Atlantic opacity. It called for a fryer. This is AmE for 'a chicken suitable for frying' (OED), but what it really means is a 'a small chicken'. Larger are broilers and larger still are roasters. Now, I don't know off-hand how big any of these chickens are supposed to be, as in the US, I'd just go to the supermarket and buy the one label(l)ed 'fryer'. So, I have to add a bit to the recipe:
  • Preheat wireless modem to 24 Mbps.
  • Google 'fryer chicken lbs'
  • Translate pounds to kilograms
  • Log on to internet grocer
  • Order 1.5 kg chicken
But at least I was just buying a whole chicken. Butchered meats are a shopping minefield. Sam wrote recently to ask:
how do American names for different cuts of steak translate into English names?
"They don't always translate" is the answer to this question. It's not that the cuts of beef have different names in the two places, it's that they are different cuts of meat. Here's the picture of British beef cuts from Wikipedia:

And here's the American:

Then, once you get into particular cuts of steak, there is plenty of room for other differences. I've not found a good source on UK versus US on this, and it's my impression that AmE just has a lot more words for steak types. Here's a helpful guide from someone on (with the misspellings corrected and all AmE terms in bold):
... rib steak which has bone in or rib eye which is boneless, same cut of meat different name because of bone removed. very good with lots of marble. porterhouse from the hind half with bone in and tenderloin on other side of bone, take bone out and it's a new york strip, t-bone [orig. AmE, now used in BrE too--ed.] same but smaller tenderloin. tenderloin itself lies right under the back bone as is the most tender steak on the cow, because there is no movement of any part of it, therefore it lies there doing nothing, all 3 are very good. sirloin comes from the hip and is the most unpredictable piece of meat, sometimes very tender other times not,it is right above the rump section.
We've discussed the pronunciation of fil(l)et here before, but another one to mention is that in BrE one sees fillet steak on menus, but in AmE one tends to see filet mignon as a rough equivalent.

Meanwhile, on the pig:

And the British ones:

I've already discussed bacon briefly elsewhere. The other main pork difference that I can think of is gammon, a word I'd never heard in English until moving to the UK. According to someone else at (again, spelling is corrected):

[Ham and gammon] are both pork but ham is usually a leg of pork that has been aged, cured, smoked or cooked. Usually in the UK, its wet cured in a brine (salt) solution, then it's cooked. Gammon is the hind leg cut from a side of bacon, so it's cured (again in brine) but it's not cooked before you get it.
Basically, if you're served a roasted ham in the UK, they call it gammon, as far as I can tell. (I've also discovered that you can bake a ham in AmE but not BrE.)

And that's what I can tell you about meat. My education in such things has been curtailed by Better Half's vegetarianism. I am ardently plotting my next opportunity to lure friends and acquaintances into our home on the pretext of entertaining them, but with the true motive of cooking meat for myself.
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)