belly and tummy

I picked up a free copy of the Financial Times's FT Magazine in the airport, and was interested to read this bit in an article about body-part names and communication between doctors and patients.

Technically speaking, the anatomical structure the consultant was looking at was the abdomen, which is schematically divided by doctors into a three-by-three grid. From top right to bottom left the squares are named: right upper quadrant, epigastric, left upper quadrant, right flank, umbilicus, left flank, right iliac fossa, hypogastric, left iliac fossa. The organs are clustered in each square – the liver and the gallbladder reside in RUQ, for example. When a patient has RIF pain, you know to think of appendicitis.

But what doctors in England haven’t quite solved yet is how I should ask you to show me this space. The medical word, “abdomen”, is not used by many people. But “stomach” is factually wrong. (Your stomach – LUQ – is the springy bag in which your food first lands to be churned before it continues on through your intestine; most “stomach ache” is felt nowhere near the real stomach – what most people point to is their umbilicus, underneath which lies the small bowel.) “Belly” is American. “Tummy” is a nursery term, but English doctors use it in parallel with the anatomical terms. You learn to say “poo” for faeces, too. But if questions such as “Have you had your bowels open?” and “Have you passed any stool?” are met with blankness, there is not much alternative.

Belly is American?  That didn't sit right with me, as if a doctor asked me to show her my belly, I'd find it very strange--though I might suspect that the doctor spoke a different dialect from mine. I use tummy (or the anatomically-incorrect stomach).  To me, belly particularly signals a round tummy--hence (orig. AmE) beer bellyBabies have bellies, Buddha statues have bellies, I have a belly--but let's not go there. One also hears people saying, typically while pinching more than an inch, I'm getting a belly.  In all these uses, it's not the same as tummy or non-technical stomach.  It describes a paunch (which, incidentally, used to just mean 'abdomen', without the negative connotations), but with rounder connotations.

The doctor writing in the magazine is not alone in this assumption that belly is American.  In fact, this amateur (and very defensive about it, while not trying very hard*) BrE/AmE word-lister assumes that tummy is exclusively BrE.

But, while I had my doubts about the BrE/AmE tummy/belly divide, I've often heard tummy-button in the UK (though mostly from antipodean yoga/Pilates instructors), and never in the US. So, I decided to check it out.

First, the history. Belly goes all the way back to Old English, where it originally meant a bag, but from at least as early as the 13th century, it's used to mean a human or animal stomach and from at least the 14th century, it's used for the abdomen.  So, it certainly did not originate in AmE.  Tummy (a baby-talk simplification of stomach), in contrast, is only seen in print from the 19th century.

Next, the usage.  I looked up stomach, belly, and tummy in British and American corpora of writing and speech, and calculated the percentage of the total number of instances of any of those words that was represented by any one of those words. Here are my results:

BNC BrE 70%20%10%
COCA AmE      63%33%4%

From this we can tell (a) belly is used quite a bit in BrE as well as AmE, and tummy is more frequent in BrE than AmE.  I don't think this can just be due to differences in formality across the corpora, since if the AmE corpus had more formal writing in it, we'd expect the stomach percentage to be higher.

Now, within belly in either corpus, many instances do not refer literally to human abdomens.  There are lots of instances of idioms like in the belly of the beast or a fire in one's belly.  There are also lots of belly-dancing.  To see whether the AmE bellies might be more specifically fat tummies, I looked at paunch, to see if AmE didn't need it as much--but that's not the case. In both corpora, paunch occurs between 5 and 6 times per million words.

As for the hypothesis that belly is more 'round', I note that I and my UK friends do say I'm getting/I've got a bit of a tummy, but looking in the corpora, there are a couple of instances of get/getting/got a belly in each corpus but tummy only occurs in that context in the AmE corpus.  So, in BrE, belly is used for the 'rounded abdomen' meaning, just as in AmE, and AmE uses tummy in that context too.

What about bellybutton and tummy-button? OED has the former dated to the 19th century, but the latter only in the mid-20th century.  COCA has zero instances of tummy-button, tummybutton, or tummy button.  BNC has just one.  Belly(-)button seems to be the default colloquialism for 'navel' in either dialect. In a strange turn of orthography, the joined-up bellybutton is by far the most common spelling in the BNC, but two-word belly button is very strongly the favo(u)red spelling in COCA.  This is in contrast to another observation that I've made here, that AmE joins up compound words in writing more readily than BrE does.  In that post, I noted that the Shorter Oxford Dictionary recommends pot belly, while the American Heritage Dictionary likes potbelly.

I'm writing this in the Helsinki airport, so am limited to dialect resources that are on-line--and I'm not finding them to be helpful at the moment. While the evidence does show American English using belly much more than modern British English, I still have the feeling that there is some  regional variation at work here, since it's not a word that I would use for a human abdomen outside the 'paunchy' and 'baby' experiences.  But that's my western New York State perspective.  How would you feel if your doctor asked to look at your belly? (Don't forget to tell us where you're from!)


*In discouraging corrections to his list, he says 'life is too short to worry'--about accuracy, presumably.  Life is also too short to spend on writing word lists without caring to do it right, I'd say.
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yuck and yuk

Reader Martyn wrote to me back in January with the following:
Ricky Gervais's presentation at the Golden Globes caused some discussion at the Guardian - - around the meaning of "yuk", which seemed to be taken by Americans as meaning "laughter" and by Britons as meaning disgust. Wordorigins discussed it here , again revealing an apparent US/UK split. It would perhaps be interesting to see what your commentators thought …
Indeed, I'm interested to see what you think as well.  But first, I'll subject you to what I think--which is backed up by some dictionaries, so I think they're thoughts worth reporting.  However, we're talking about (a) an interjection and (b) onomatopoeia/slang, and neither of those is really within the realm of truly standardi{s/z}ed language, so we should expect a lot of variation.  (Remember the problem of whoa/woah!)

So, to my American eye, there are two things here that are pronounced the same, but should be spel(led/t) differently.  The interjection of disgust is, to me, yuck, as in: Yuck! Who put Brussels sprouts in the stir fry?!  The slang, onomatopoetic term for laughter is yuk, as in: We had some yuks at the Prime Minister's expense.  (It can also be a verb, but I wouldn't tend to use it that way.) The American Heritage Dictionary allows that the spellings could be reversed, but agrees with me that the default is for the laughter one to be c-less and the interjection to be c-ful.

BrE has the disgust interjection--but often spells it yuk, as illustrated by these two British-authored children's books.  The OED lists the laughter meaning, marking it as chiefly N. Amer., but spells it yuck.  Better Half tells me he knows the meaning from The Beano (British comic book institution*)--I think he's talking about the character Baby Face Finlayson.  Wikipedia says that this character  rode around in a motorised pram [baby carriage], stealing everything that wasn't tied down, whilst shouting 'Yuk Yuk!'"  It's not actually clear to me that that's laughter--can a Beano boy elucidate?

So, even if both uses of yu(c)k are known in both countries, there's still potential for miscommunication because of reverses in spelling.

American has a couple of other yuck/disgust synonyms: ick and ew (often ewwwwww!Ick also gives us the adjective icky (just as yuck gives yucky).  Ick(y) and yuck(y) are often interchangeable, but have slightly different connotations.  I'd prefer ick(y) for something that was disgusting in some sweet or sticky way. Or something that gave me the (orig. AmE) heebie-jeebies, whereas yuck(y) is more likely for something that's just plain disgusting, such as poo(p)Ew is listed by OED as 'originally' AmE, but it's still American enough for a blogging student of mine to remark upon it during a stay in Chicago this summer.  Click on the link to his BrE equivalents...but I must admit not knowing his English leeeeer. Is it something like bleugh?  BrE has ugh, which is usually pronounced just as a vowel but can be pronounced with a back-of-the-mouth fricative.  This won't be unfamiliar to AmE readers, but I think most AmE speakers would think of it as being pronounced 'ugg' and being an expression of exasperation more than disgust.

*Incidentally, The Beano is the home of the British comic book character Dennis the Menace--not to be confused with the much gentler American comic book character Dennis the Menace.  BH & I were just wondering the other day which came first, and it turns out (thanks, Wikipedia) it was the American--by five days!  I think we can put that down to coincidence, then.
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bags, dibs, shotgun

So, you're 10 years old, playing with your best friend.  Simultaneously you both spot a single gorilla mask abandoned on a park bench. Running toward(s) it, you shout the recogni(s/z)ed word for signal(l)ing a claim on desired objects. What is that word?

Chances are that there are dozens and dozens of ways to answer that question. The thing about childhood rituals is that they are passed among children, who tend to operate very locally--with their siblings, their schoolmates, their neighbo(u)rs.  Words are invented, misheard, re-invented, borrowed and those changes don't travel far, but may be passed down to the children who are just a little younger, who later pass it down to the ones who are just a little younger, and so on.

Which is all to say, in the American idiom: Your mileage may vary when it comes to the playground terminology I'm discussing today.

But with that feat of (AmE) ass-covering out of the way, here's how you might have answered the question.  In AmE, you'd probably shout dibs.  In BrE, at least down here in the South, bagsy would do, though it might just be bags.  (To get a feel for possible dialectal boundaries of this, see this thread at Wordwizard.) To put this in the verbal form, you can bags or bagsy something, but, as you can see from the OED examples, the spelling is hard to pin down:
[1946 B. MARSHALL George Brown's Schooldays xxi. 89 ‘What about you doing the gassing instead of me?’ ‘But I bagsed-I I didn't’, Abinger protested. 1950 B. SUTTON-SMITH Our Street i. 25 [They] would all sit..‘bagzing’. I bagz we go to the zoo.] 1979 I. OPIE Jrnl. 28 Mar. in People in Playground (1993) 129 I'm second, I just baggsied it! 1995 New Musical Express 28 Oct. 28 (caption) Mark Sutherland baggsys a window seat. 1998 C. AHERNE et al. Royle Family Scripts: Ser. 1 (1999) Episode 2. 52 Mam. I think I'll do chicken. Antony. Bagsey me breast.
A verbal form of dibs is also widely reported (I dibsed it!), but I'd be much more likely to say I've got dibs on it or I called dibs on that

But when I posted dibs/bagsy as the 'Difference of the Day' on Twitter, some BrE speakers questioned my translation, as they had understood (AmE) shotgun to mean the same as bags(y). But just as happens when words are borrowed from another language, the non-native users of the word have changed the meaning when they've adopted the word.  And they have adopted the word, to some extent.  Here's an example from a Twitter feed I follow:
timeshighered We hereby shotgun the rights to the phrase "I survived Twitocalypse 2010" - this time next year, we'll be millionaires!
In fact, if I had read this tweet without already having had the discussion with BrE speakers about dibs and bagsy, I doubt I would have been able to make sense of it.  What's happened? The BrE speakers have heard Americans say shotgun in a place in a situation in which they would have said bags(y), and didn't reali{z/s}e that there's more meaning to shotgun than just 'I stake a claim on something'.   Shotgun very specifically means: 'I claim the right to sit in the front passenger seat of a vehicle.'

You can see this in another tweet:
 I bet Zombies don't call shotgun on road trips.
An AmE speaker immediately knows which valuable commodity the Zombies are not interested in.  In fact, because the claimed thing is understood, it would be redundant (not to mention ambiguous) to say call shotgun on the front seat. Note also that it's not a verb.  To me, to shotgun something would be like to machine-gun something.  One calls shotgun. And once one gets the seat, one rides shotgun, which originally meant (and still can mean) 'To travel as a (usually armed) guard next to the driver of a vehicle; (in extended use) to act as a protector' (OED).

Calling shotgun could be extended and used metaphorically, as in this Canadian tweet:
Can I call shotgun on the yoga cd pls?
...but this usually is done as a sly reference to the childhood car-seat experience.

Or, at least, that's how it is for an AmE speaker of my generation.  We have a special word for that sweet seat, with its status and its anti-emetic properties, because it was a central part of our lives in childhood.  With the exception of a few urban cent{er/re}s, you'd expect any family to have a car--and more than one child to fight over the best seat in that car.  Americans can also get a (AmE) driver's license/(BrE) driving licence by age 16 in most states (as compared to 18 17 at the earliest [see comments] in the UK). So, gangs of teenagers also need ways to establish pecking orders.  But I have to wonder whether shotgun will go the way of the library card catalog(ue), since riding in a car is a completely different experience for children today than it was for children in my day.  No more cramming ten kids into the back of a (AmE) station wagon/(BrE) estate car; everyone's in car seats now, and the law determines which of those are allowed in the front seat.  While I think that's a good thing safety-wise, I'm getting rather nostalgic thinking about, for example, climbing in and out of the back seat of a moving car or cramming myself down in the foot-well when I felt like it.  So maybe the kids in America have lost or are losing the true meaning of shotgun.  *sob* You in the States can let me know whether this is the case.

By the way, I've left the Twitter window with the 'shotgun' search going. In the last hour, 50 people have used the word shotgun, often prefaced by I wish I had a.  I'll sleep less well tonight.
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)