Words of the Year 2010

Thank you to everyone who nominated words for this year's SbaCL Words of the Year.  I needed them more than ever this year, as I had few ideas or preferences of my own on this matter.  But thanks to my kind readers, we have some winners.

Let's start with the more competitive AmE-to-BrE category.  Here we've had some nice suggestions, and the hono(u)r nearly went to primary in the sense of 'preliminary election'. Reader-in-Ireland mollymooly had suggested this at the end of 2009, noting that the Conservative party had an open primary to choose a candidate for the House of Commons seat for Totnes. Perhaps it should have beaten staycation last year--but it came to my attention a little too late.  But it was ousted as frontrunner in the last day of nominations, when SP nominated a gerund that has both been discussed in the news this year and made its way into UK news.  And that gerund, The 2010 American-to-British Word of the Year is:


The word came into the news, of course, when President Obama said that the Democrats had taken a shellacking in the midterm elections. It made enough of an impression in its native US that it came 7th in Merriam-Webster's top 10 words of 2010.  But it required even more looking-up in the UK.  The OED lists it as 'originally and chiefly U.S.', and it also lists the plain verb, shellac (note the lack of k!), as originally and chiefly AmE (while the noun, for the varnish-type substance, is not dialectally marked).  The BBC Magazine ran an article on 'What is a Shellacking?', David Crystal discussed it on Radio 4, Michael Quinion covered it on World Wide Words, and Jenny McCartney in the Telegraph thanked Obama for 'an extremely useful addition to the lexicon'--just to name a few UK commentators on the subject. One does seem to find shellacking in the UK sports press (especially regarding [BrE] football/[AmE] soccer) before Obama brought the word to public attention, but since Obama's statement, it seems as if the frequency of that usage has increased.  For example, in the Guardian, there are seven uses in November and December, but only two in Sept/Oct.  (However, there are five during the World Cup in South Africa and other clumps of them during the year.)  A search for the word in UK political contexts shows up in colloquial contexts such as:

Like, for instance, his [Cameron's] current 'shellacking' (love that word) over a supposed lack of vision and confidence in the recent Guildhall speech. [Skol303 comment on Nick Robinson's blog]

Vince Cable being torn a new one by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight...she got him so rattled he developed a Herbert Lom-like twitch (left eye) halfway though the shellacking by Wark (I kid you not). [samandmai comment on digital spy]

So thank you, SP, for a fantastic nomination!

And on to the BrE-to-AmE winner.  This is always a tougher category--in part, because I live in the UK, but mostly because of the lesser impact that UK news and popular culture makes in the US. The winner is not a particularly 2010 word--instead, it's one that's been making steady progress in AmE over the past decade.  But in hono(u)r of the near-culmination of the Harry Potter film adaptations, the British-to-American Word of the Year is:


...in particular, the adjectival use to describe hair colo(u)r and, to some extent, the noun use to mean 'a red-haired person'. Twice this year I've heard from US parents (including Mark Allen) who have said that their children use ginger in this more British way because of the influence of the Harry Potter stories, which features the red-headed Weasley family, including Harry's sidekick Ron. (Here's my old post on the topic.)  The much-discussed new Google n-gram tool shows 'ginger hair' steadily increasing in American English books since 1995, though Harry Potter was not released in the States till September 1998.  In British English books, however, there's an increase in the Harry Potter days (after some years of decline), but what looks to be a decrease as we come toward(s) the present. It's hard to say if that's meaningful--and unfortunately I don't have access to any British corpus that takes us up to date.  In the more reliable Corpus of Historical American English, there are 8 uses between 1940 and 1979, none in the 1980s, five in the 1990s and 8 in the 2000s, which seems to show the Harry Potter effect.  It's harder for me to find incursions of the noun ginger in the meaning 'red-head' in AmE, since one must search for word strings, not meanings.  All I can think to do is to note that the Urban Dictionary entry for the noun ginger include some contributions that spell color without a u.  Further evidence is welcome in the comments.

Also welcome in the comments are your thoughts on whether I've done an effective or abominable job in choosing this year's Words of the Year.  But if you don't like them and didn't nominate any, I reserve the right to roll my eyes at you.  Through the computer.  Ouch.
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How I've managed to blog through nearly five Christmas seasons without doing this one, I don't know. But here I am, finally tackling (BrE) panto, as suggested by Strawberry Yoghurt (in 2008!) and @MarianDougan via Twitter last week. 

So, you know, there's this thing called pantomime, right? Marcel Marceau did it. Man trapped in an invisible box and all that. Yes, that meaning of pantomime is found across dialects of English, though it's not what usually comes to mind in the UK. 

But it's probably not what a British person means if they say pantomime this time of year.  Instead, they are referring to (and I'm quoting the Oxford English Dictionary here):

Chiefly Brit. Originally: a traditional theatrical performance, developing out of commedia dell'arte, and comprising a dumbshow, which later developed into a comic dramatization with stock characters of Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin, and Columbine; = harlequinade n. a (now chiefly hist.). Now usually: a theatrical entertainment, mainly for children, which involves music, topical jokes, and slapstick comedy, and is based on a fairy tale or nursery story, usually staged around Christmas; this style of performance as a genre. (Now the usual sense.)

The now-traditional English pantomime developed in the 19th cent. and was originally limited to a short opening scene to the earlier harlequinade in which Harlequin was handed his wand. Its popularity led to its extension into a full dramatized story with the harlequinade first relegated to a short scene at the end and then disappearing altogether. This process was accompanied by the development of a new set of conventional characters, typically including a man in the chief comic female role (see pantomime dame n. at Compounds 2), a woman in the main male role (see principal boy n. at principal adj., n., and adv. Special uses, and an animal played by actors in comic costume (see pantomime horse n. at Compounds 2).Recorded earliest in pantomime entertainment at Compounds 1.

This use of pantomime derives from the original sense of the word (again the OED):

Originally: (Classical Hist.) a theatrical performer popular in the Roman Empire who represented mythological stories through gestures and actions; = pantomimus n. Hence, more generally: an actor, esp. in comedy or burlesque, who expresses meaning by gesture or mime; a player in a dumbshow.

The 'man trapped in invisible box' and the 'fairytale play with cross-dressing' senses of the word are distinguished in BrE by the way they are clipped.  The former, as in AmE, is also called mime, while the latter is a pantoPantos are a Christmas tradition. Across the UK, most siz(e)able towns' theat{re/er}s at this time of year are taken up with traditional pantos, such as Cinderella, Aladdin, and Dick Whittington and His Cat.  The panto stories have their own characters above and beyond the traditional tales, for example Buttons in Cinderella and the Widow Twankey in Aladdin. These days, pantos are generally meant for children, but there is a parallel, newer tradition of 'adult panto' full of proper drag queens--this year  Brighton (the 'gay capital of Britain') has Dick Whittington and his Pussy.

Here are a couple of televised examples for the uninitiated.  I've only used television ones because the recording quality is miles ahead of the phone-videos from proper stage shows.
This one is from CBeebies, the television channel for preschoolers, and has a little explanation about pantos at the start.  I think it's a pretty decent example of the genre.
This one is from Paul O'Grady's (orig AmE) talk show/(BrE) chat show, and is a bit more in the 'adult' vein (as much as one can be on daytime television--before the watershed). O'Grady is the performer formerly known as Lily Savage.  It's peopled with a cast of household names in the UK who will be completely unknown in the US (including my university's chancellor) and it's studded with cultural references that will pass unnoticed by a non-UK audience.
The OED entry above gives some of the vocabulary that one needs regarding the traditional roles in a pantomime (particularly the cross-dressing roles of the dame and the principal boy). There is also an unwritten law that any conversation about pantomimes must go something like this, in imitation of some of the traditional audience-participation parts of the panto:

A:  I'm going to a panto.
B: Oh no, you're not!

A: Oh yes, I am!

B: It's behind you!!

Now, it is to my shame that I have never attended a traditional panto, even though there's more than one available to be seen in my area each Christmas time.  (The fact that I spend alternate Christmasses in the US bears some of the blame for this sad situation.)  I have, however, been in two original pantos, staged by my always-up-for-fun colleagues in my former school, COGS (Cognitive and Computing Science).  This was before university reorgani{z/s}ation put Linguistics into the School of English, where their idea of holiday fun is a staff performance of The Waste Land (I kid you not. This was our Christmas party this year. You know, "April is the cruellest month". Just the thing to send you to the bottom of a bottle for the holidays.)  Back in COGS, we did two pantos before we were cruelly torn asunder, with the Blinder as the main creative force, but, being geeks, we had our own ideas about what constituted a "traditional tale".  The first was based on the film A.I. (itself based on the Brian Aldiss story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long").  In that one, I played the love interest, ELIZA, an early chatbot. In the second, Harry Potter and the COGS Phoenix*, I played Gnome Chomsky. I could have had proper career development as a linguistic parodist, had I not been sent to the humanities. I'm only slightly bitter. grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Returning to that other clipping, mime, its use differs somewhat in BrE and AmE as well.  I've been very aware of this lately, as Grover (soon-to-be three years old) is (thanks to her dad) completely obsessed with Singin' in the Rain. For those who don't know the story (which is to say, SPOILER ALERT), it takes place just as the first talking pictures are being introduced, and the (AmE-preferred) movie/(BrE-preferred) film studios are faced with the problem that some of their stars have horrible voices. So, in order to save an already-filmed picture, its soundtrack is recast with Debbie Reynolds' character singing and speaking Jean Hagen's character's parts. At the end of the première, the audience calls for a sung encore, so Reynolds stands behind a curtain and sings 'Singin' in the Rain' while Hagen ______.

How do you fill in that blank?  Better Half (and now Grover) always says mimes, while I would say lip-syncs.  And I see that the OED has the definition:

c. trans. To pretend to sing or play an instrument as a recording is being played; esp. to mouth the words of (a song) in time with an accompanying soundtrack. Also intr., with to, along with, etc.

...while none of the US dictionaries I've consulted have that specific sense.  BrE has lip-sync--in fact my sister-in-law belongs to a choir whose name plays on this term, but in everyday use, the verb mime seems to be preferred. The British National Corpus has 11 definite cases of mime='to mouth words' in its first fifty hits for the verb, and two cases of lip-sync* (*=any characters after), whereas the Corpus of Contemporary American English (which, we must note is 4.1 times bigger) has 179 lip-sync*s and only two mime='mouth words' in the first fifty hits.

Before I go... It's your last chance to nominate words for BrE-to-AmE import of the year or AmE-to-BrE import of the year on the SbaCL Words of the Year page.  I'll be announcing my picks in the next day or two.

* Inside joke: COGS Phoenix was the serious attempt by stalwarts of the school to keep the mission of the school going once it had been wiped out.
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stuffing and dressing

Here's a recipe
Between (US) Thanksgiving and Christmas seems like a good time for addressing the AmE use of the word dressing versus general-English stuffing.  I seem to have three requests for coverage of this. One from a Twitterer who will have to remain anonymous, as I can't find the original tweet (despite spending the entirety of QI XL trying), former-student-now-successful-speech-therapist Jodie, and mostlyharmless in Canada.

Let's start with stuffing because it's simple -- it means pretty much the same thing in BrE and AmE--a mixture of something bready and some flavo(u)rful things, stuffed into and cooked in another food, especially poultry.

Now, dressing is also general English in that it means generally what 'dresses' a food. Here's what the OED has to say:

The seasoning substance used in cooking; stuffing; the sauce, etc., used in preparing a dish, a salad, etc.

So, from this sense we get salad dressing (a general term used in both countries...but the specifics probably deserve their own post. In the meantime, some of it is covered in this old post and especially its comments). But in AmE (and according to mostlyharmless, CanE), dressing can be used specifically to mean 'stuffing'. Many of us have both stuffing and dressing in our vocabularies, which belies the claim that some dialects say one and some the other.  The Corpus of Contemporary American English has nine instances of turkey stuffing and three of turkey dressing, all from national publications.

Some people make a distinction between stuffing and dressing, with stuffing being what is stuffed into the bird (or whatever) and dressing being the same material, but cooked separately.  I've been known to make that distinction myself, but I note that the most famous US for a non-stuffed version of this foodstuff is called Stove Top Stuffing.  And there are plenty of (North American) people who stuff dressing into turkeys--I suspect that the stuffed-stuffing/non-stuffed-dressing distinction has come about because people found themselves with two words for the same thing and had the natural desire to find a distinction. As Alan Cruse once wrote, "natural languages abhor absolute synonyms just as nature abhors a vacuum".
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)