dull and blunt

This item ran as a Twitter Difference of the Day back in September, and I've been meaning since then to explore it a bit more. My thanks to Colin Fine, who pointed out a Canadian tale of 'the customer isn't always right' story, in which the writer consistently used dull where (British) Colin would have used blunt. Since gradable adjectives are my favo(u)rite kind of word ever, I've been thinking about it on and off since.

'The most important tool' by Simeon Berg,
shared under a Creative Commons licen{s/c}e
I hadn't noticed that British folk talk about blunt knives and not dull knives because Americans can talk about blunt knives too. Hearing blunt knife hadn't bothered me (and I hadn't noticed the lack of dull knives), because I hadn't (BrE) twigged that it means something different in the UK than it means to my American mind. It's one of those differences that can easily hide.

In AmE, blunt is generally used to refer to things that aren't pointy (though they might have been). So, if I poke you with a stick, you would be better off if it were a blunt stick, rather than a sharp, pointy one. Using that meaning, an AmE blunt knife would be one without a sharp tip.

That 'not-pointy-sharp' meaning works in BrE too. In BrE, I could poke you with the sharp end of a pencil or its blunt end. (Stay away from me. I'm clearly in a poking mood.)

But BrE also allows for blunt to be the opposite of sharp when referring to an edge, not just an end. So, blunt knife in that case means that the knife is not good for cutting (whether it's good for poking people with is another matter).

AmE uses dull for the edge, and thus has lexicali{s/z}ed (i.e. put into words) the contrast between the 'edge' and 'end' ways that something can be not-sharp. The chart below shows the nouns that are statistically 'more American' (left, green) and 'more British' (right, green) in the GloWBE corpus. (These are not the nouns that are used most with dull, but the ones that are not used in the other country much. See the 'ratio' column for the strength of the noun's 'Americanness' or 'Britishness' in this context.)  (Dull Tool is scoring so high because 12 of the 18 hits are the title of a Fiona Apple song, which goes 'you're more likely to get hurt by a dull tool than a sharp one'.) The 'more BrE' uses of dull have to do with its 'boring' or 'not bright' senses, which exist in AmE too, but perhaps aren't used as much.

In both Englishes, sharp is the opposite of both dull and blunt in their literal 'cutting' senses. So if we talk about a sharp knife in either English (or a blunt knife in BrE), then it's ambiguous as to whether we're talking about the edge or the tip, but context often lets us know. If you're talking about cutting vegetables, the edge is more relevant; if you're talking about poking people, you're probably describing the tip. Where the context is not enough, you'll have to use more words to make it clear—e.g. The tip of that knife is really sharp. AmE doesn't have that ambiguity in the 'not-sharp' end of its vocabulary: the choice of dull or blunt disambiguates it.

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2017 UK-to-US Word of the Year: shitgibbon

This is the second of my 2017 Word of the Year posts. For the US>UK winner, see yesterday's post.

A Pinterest page credits this
photo to Josef Gelernter

As I said then, there's always a choice--do I go for the (BrE) slow burner that's been wheedling its way into the other country, or do I go for something that was splashy in the news? I went for the slow burner for US-to-UK because it really did seem to resonate in 2017. But I couldn't find as good a reason to promote any of the UK-to-US slowburners (and there are a lot of them--as Ben Yagoda's been tracking) to special status for 2017. So I'm going way back to February when I tweeted this:
Yes, for its (ok, flash-in-the-pan) newsworthiness, I'm declaring the 2017 UK-to-US Word of the Year to be:


 It made the news because a Pennsylvania senator tweeted:

Leach was apparently inspired to use this term because it had previously been applied to Trump by protesters in Scotland when he visited there in 2016. For example:

Now,  there is some similarity between this winner and yesterday's US>UK runner-up mugwump, in that they are both funny-sounding insults hurled by one politician at another. But mugwump wasn't a winner because people in the UK aren't going (BrE) about/(AmE) around using the word mugwump just because one politician did. Shitgibbon, on the other hand, has stuck. Searching it just now on Twitter, I get it in about a half-dozen American tweets per hour. ([AmE] Your mileage may vary, especially depending on the hour and your timezone.) Mostly, the tweets have noun phrases like orange shitgibbon and refer to the very same person as in Leach's tweet. But the usage does seem to drift a bit, with, for instance, reference to "shitgibbon trolls"—which may be a way of calling the trolls 'Trumpist', or it may just be used generally to insult them.
This post is very indebted to Ben Zimmer's Strong Language/Slate post linked-to in the first tweet above. But do have a look at it for more on the linguistics of the word. At that point Ben had traced the epithet to UK users on music bootlegging sites in 2000. With a little more digging and a little help from UK journalist David Quantick, Ben was able to confirm the word's existence in 1990, when it was used in the pages of the British music magazine NME. His follow-up article is here.

Shitgibbon joins wanker and bollocks in the ranks of UK>US WotYs that help keep this blog banned in schools. Americans do seem particularly attracted to British "bad" words.
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2017 US-to-UK Word of the Year: (television) season

It's that time of year again. The time when everyone's too busy doing fun things in real life to read blogs. Yet I persevere in announcing my Words of the Year here at the butt-end of the year because I don't want to be unfair to December. (And, of course, I'm doing too much teaching to even think about it any earlier.)

As ever, the point of the SbaCL Words of the Year is to note the riches (or rags) that American and British English bring to each other. A SbaCL WotY is not a new word, and it may not even be a newly borrowed word, but it's a word from one of my countries that has been particularly relevant to the other of my countries in that year. Sometimes they're in the news, sometimes they've been building up a presence for years and just needed a little acknowledgement.

The finalists (in my mind) for this year's US-to-UK WotY were of each of these types. The loser is mugwump: a now-obscure Americanism briefly lifted out of the shadows when lexical dilettante (that's the nicest phrase I have for him) Foreign Secretary (that's the most preposterous phrase I have for him) Boris Johnson called the head of the Labour Party "a mutton-headed old mugwump". Since that's not the word I've chosen, I'll leave you to go and read (or watch a video) about it elsewhere.

But the winner, which has been building up some steam for years, will hang around longer than Johnson's antique epithet. It is:


...to refer to a group of broadcast program(me)s released under the same title in a particular time period. It's tricky to define without using the word series, but one must, because that is the word (or one sense of it) that season competes with in BrE.

Now, I have written about the difference between AmE season versus BrE series before, so I won't do it all again and I encourage you to click on the link to read a more detailed post. To cut a long difference short, the British way would be to say "I haven't seen the second series of Stranger Things (so no spoilers, please!)", but in AmE that doesn't quite make sense because Stranger Things is the series, and the part of it that is 'second' is a season of that series. To unnecessarily throw in some terms of my trade, in AmE season is a meronym of AmE series (it is in the 'part-of' relation), whereas in BrE, AmE season is used as a synonym for BrE series.

British television-watchers (that is to say, almost everyone on this island) have long been familiar with the American sense of season—after all, lots of American television program(me)s are imported to UK television. But what's tipped it into WotY territory are the streaming services, especially Netflix, which often releases an entire season/series of a (AmE) show at one time, enabling serious binge-watching. And on Netflix, they are called seasons. Even when they're BBC products like Uncle here.  (Can you see the '2 Seasons' there under the title on Netflix?) Meanwhile on BBC iPlayer, it's on 'Series 3'. (It's also a lovely comedy and if you like lovely comedies you might want to give it a chance.)

The reasons for calling it a season are rather irrelevant in the days of streaming--when 12 episodes show up on a single day, rather than unfolding over months. But the nice thing about season is that it avoids the ambiguity that arises from the two possible interpretations of series.
The AmE term is showing up more and more in British newspapers--including the Telegraph (one of the papers that publishes a lot of complaints about Americanisms). This chart shows how 'ordinal-number+season of' (which, on this corpus's tagging system includes last season of and next season of) has been faring in UK news websites (via the NOW corpus).

The charts look similar for other searches like 'season+cardinal number+of". Of course, there are other types of seasons besides television seasons in these data, but the television ones predominate, as can be seen from this sample of the 2017-B section of the corpus (click to biggify it):

Sports seasons come up once in a while, but the instances of season are mostly about television seasons.

I should note here that Netflix is an equal-opportunity word-spreader. Only a couple of years ago, it was being blamed for Americans saying queue.

So there we go. The first SbaCL WotY of 2017! Many thanks to @eahird for nominating it. Stay tuned for the UK>US WotY. As soon as I decide what it is!

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Untranslatable October VII summary

Better late than never (I hope) here is the summary of the SEVENTH 'Untranslatable October'—my
annual tweeting of an 'British–American untranslatable' (that is, item lexicalized in one national dialect and not the other) on each weekday. If you'd like to complain that any of the following does not qualify as 'untranslatable', please first read my provisos about what's meant by untranslatable in this context. Yes, it's an imperfect word for the situation. But so is nearly every other word in nearly every situation.

BrE safeguarding legalistic processes for protecting vulnerable people. See Wikipedia for description. (Starting to be seen in US, but nowhere as prevalent/broad.) Suggested by @Gnorrn

AmE podunk (adj.) - There are lots of words for small towns or remote places, but podunk is interesting for its use as an adjective, describing to a place of little importance, as in: Her degree is from some podunk college.  Suggested by @kirkpoore.

The 2016 gurning competition winner
at the Egremont Crab Fa
BrE to gurn - to make (or BrE pull) a grotesque face. (In Scotland the word also means 'complain peevishly'.) Gurning competitions are a long-held tradition, particularly in Cumbria.

AmE shut-in (n.) - a person confined to their own home due to (physical or mental) infirmity.

BrE health and safety - it refers to safety regulations, but the phrase's cultural importance goes far beyond what a phrase like OSHA regulations would do in the US. Sometimes mocked as Elf and Safety, a joke that takes advantage of two Londony dialect features: h-dropping and th-fronting (th->f).

AmE blue-ribbon - as in blue-ribbon panel. Not the same meaning as winning a prize, it's about people who are chosen on the basis of their high reputation for some other activity. See Wikipedia.

BrE fry-up - a breakfast of separate, mostly fried foods, usually including eggs, sausages, bacon, some starch, and, around here, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans. Now, this is a debatable inclusion, as it could be argued that the fry-up itself doesn't exist in the US. We'd never put some of those things on a breakfast plate. I took the position here that a full English (breakfast) (which is sometimes treated as a synonym of fry-up) would not be a legal untranslatable for my purposes, because it assumes certain types of ingredients and breakfasts with those ingredients are not found in the US (so the US doesn't have the expression because it doesn't have the thing). But since fry-up is more ambiguous about what's on the plate, and Americans do eat fried, separate foods on a plate for breakfast (especially in diners) and we don't have a word for it (other than listing the things on the plate), it counts as something that could be an expression there but isn't. Suggested by @mhanson62 

AmE recuse - to challenge in a legal context on the grounds of conflict of interest. Hence to recuse oneself: to remove oneself from discussion or position so as to avoid conflict of interest. I got complaints about this one because Englishfolk thought "but it's a word we use all the time". But really, it wasn't until recently a word that Brits (except for Scottish legal types) had much exposure to.  I know because I wrote a blog post about it 10 years ago.
Hanging out on the stoop in NYC. Image from here.

BrE parp - an onomatopoetic word for (as opposed to a straight imitation of) the noise of a fart (unlike raspberry, refers only to the fart-noise, not to the imitative lip-noise)

AmE stoop - the front steps of a (porchless) house. Used especially in northeastern US, borrowed from Dutch

BrE lock-in - a time when customers are locked in a pub (by their agreement!) to continue drinking after legal drinking hours. Suggested by @lilyglowember

AmE lock-in - an event in which teens are locked into a church/school/community cent{er/re} for a night of wholesome fun, study, or fundraising. wiseGEEK has more.  (Suggested by many people after the BrE lock-in.)

BrE break one's duck - (of an individual, usually) to score a first point. Explained further by World Wide Words. Suggested by @lawwife2005

AmE padiddle Also: pediddle, or as we said it in my family, perdiddle. It's a game in which you call out the word and possibly kiss or punch (depending on whether it's with your sweetheart or siblings) the person next to you when you see a car with a headlight out. (In my family, it was perdiddle for a headlight, padaddle for a tail light. By extension, it becomes a name for a car with a faulty light (and that's the meaning I'm deeming the Untranslatable). Here's Wikipedia on it.  Suggested by @sethadelman

BrE a good degree - an undergraduate degree that is easily 'usable' for employment or (post)graduate study. Which is to say, a first or 2:1 (pronounced 'two-one') in the English degree classification system. US degrees are not classified, but instead students' transcripts, with grade-point averages, are used as evidence of academic success. There's no cut-off between the 'good' and the 'bad'.

AmE chicken scratch - cramped, illegible handwriting. Some discussion as to whether BrE spider scrawl is the same. To me they bring up different images of the type of writing, but maybe they are close enough to count as translatable. Several correspondents pointed out that there are chicken-related expressions for bad handwriting in many languages.

BrE well that’s me told then - a passive-aggressive response given when the responder finds their interlocutor patroni{s/z}ing. On Twitter we discussed whether AmE That'll teach me! is the same, but there was some agreement that, as @xtnjohnson put it, "that’ll teach me implies some genuine self-reproach — this [BrE} phrase deftly shifts focus to the other party". But thinking further on it now, I think the usage is translatable as:  I stand corrected.

AmE bully pulpit - a position of political power from which one can 'inspire or moralize' World Wide Words covered it here.

BrE fall between two stools - to either not be or not take one of two good alternatives

AmE to go stag - (for a man) to go to an event without a date. Suggested by @SimonKoppel

BrE the family home - a legalistic term that's become common in journalism. The Shelter charity offers a definition and discussion here.  Suggested by @cococoyote.   pointed out that primary residence might serve as a US legal equivalent, but that doesn't have the traction or connotations that family home has beyond the courtroom.

Of course, on the first of November, I started having ideas for next year's list--but I am pretty sure I'll reduce to a week then. It is definitely more work than my usual Differences of the Day.

Today is the last day of the Term from Hell. I should be posting more regularly in the new year. (Thank you to a few people who expressed concern for my well-being because of the lack of posts!) Next up will be the Word of the Year posts, for US-to-UK and UK-to-US words that have made a splash in 2017. Nominations still welcome!

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optional commas

I was tweet-talking with Lane Greene this morning about whether Americans' love for/Britons' indifference to optional commas can be quantified. And so I did a little experiment. And so I'm going to tell you about it.

For this I'm comparing the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. (They're not 100% comparable, but they'll do.) In the BNC, there's on average 1 comma for every 20 words written. In COCA, it's 1:15. So, there are a lot more commas in the American corpus. (I tried this on the GloWBE corpus too, and got about 10% more commas in AmE than BrE–but it's harder to know in GloWBE that the writers are from the country that they're categori{s/z}ed in.)

That doesn't tell us that Americans like optional commas more, though. That could mean that Americans like the grammatical constructions that require commas more than Brits do. Or it could mean that Americans write longer lists than Brits do. To really know, we need to look in contexts where the comma might occur and see if it's there. I did this for one context last year and found that my American friends were about twice as likely to use a comma (versus not using one) in the phrase "Happy Birthday(,) Lynne", and my British friends patterned in the opposite way.

So here are a few more contexts.

After a short, sentence-initial adverbial: If you want to modify a sentence with 'when, where, why or how', you can use a prepositional phrase or an adverb. Usually, these wouldn't have commas around them, but, at the start of the sentence, they often do, to mark the particular prosodic (intonational) pattern that goes with such phrases and to help the reader know that the subject of the sentence has not turned up yet.

To look at this, I decided to try sentences that start with phrases like "In 1973..." So I searched the corpora for:
. In 19* (,) the
That is to say, a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period followed by in followed by anything starting with 19 (which ended up just being year-names), then a comma or no comma, then the word the. The the ensures that I'm not getting longer phrases at the start. So every hit is something like "In 1973(,) the band released their best album" and not things like "In 190 years of customer service at their Oxford Street branch (,) they'd never before killed a customer". That way, I've got a uniform set of short sentence-initial adverbials. (The longer ones are more apt to have commas in BrE; it's just the short adverbials I'm testing.)

And this is what you get:

comma            none         ratio
UK      495 1095    1:2
US       3445 1449   2:1

In other words, (more than) twice as many commas as not in AmE, and the opposite in BrE—just as we found in the birthday vocatives. (The US corpus is much larger than the UK one, so it works best to compare the ratios between countries.)

On to the next context:
You can visit the Oxford Comma on Twitter
Pic by @rcasinelli

The serial/Oxford comma: I was once one of those people who thought that having a firm stand on the Oxford comma was a good thing. I now think it's pretty silly. We don't need tribalism in punctuation any more than we need tribalism in the rest of life. But oh well. There's a lot of it if you hang out in the part of Twitter that I hang out in.

A quick definition for those outside the punctuation-culture wars: the serial, or Oxford, comma is a comma before the conjunction (usually and or or) in a list of three or more. So:
Oxford:  I like blogs, dictionaries, and world peace.
Non-Oxford:  I like blogs, dictionaries and world peace.

Serial comma is the older (1922), orig.-AmE name for the thing. The term Oxford comma (after the Oxford University Press) is newer (1951) and now the more popular term in the US. Why? Because, as Mary Norris, in her Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, puts it: Oxford “gives it a bit of class, a little snob appeal”. And that's what the punctuation-culture wars are about.  FiveThirtyEight found that Americans who prefer the Oxford comma tend to pat themselves on the back about their grammar knowledge. John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun (quoted at last link) concludes that “Feigned passion about the Oxford comma, when not performed for comic effect, is mere posturing.”

Anyhow, Americans do have a reputation among editors for liking that comma more than Brits do.  
Is the reputation well founded?

I looked in the aforementioned corpora for
butter , [noun] (,) and [noun]       
men , women (,) and children
Why butter? Because if I tried to search for "noun, noun(,) and noun", the computer couldn't cope. I needed to stick a particular noun in there to bring the amount of data down. The second phrase gives me more data to work with, but since it's a set phrase, I didn't want to use just it in case it garbled the results. (In the end, there are apparently fewer discussions of ingredients in the BNC than COCA, so the butter examples didn't do much for the numbers. But I have to leave it at that because I need to get back to work.)

 And I found:

Oxford comma      none          ratio    
UK      4+1124+124     1:10
US       109+310129+434    1:1.3

So, it is true that Americans use the Oxford comma more than Brits do. But it's not true that Americans use the Oxford comma more than not.

And if you grew up in the US at the same time as I did, thinking about lists containing butter might make you think of this Sesame Street gem, now stuck in my head for the rest of the day:

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It's the last morning of my (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation—off to the airport in less than two hours. But Will W just pre-wrote for me most of a blog post, so I'm going to take advantage and get another post up before I land back in work reality.

Here's what Will wrote:

Struggling to see the screen, holding my iPad at arm's length, I looked up 'long sighted' on Wikipedia, and it unexpectedly delivered me to 'far-sightedness'.


Further consults with Dr Google, ignoring variations in spelling or hyphenation, suggested a national tendency to interpret the phrases metaphorically or literally.
And then he put his findings into a table, with ?? in some boxes. I've taken the ??s out and filled in the terms and meanings he didn't know (and made a few other editing changes for my own happiness). I've also added the OED's date of first citation for each of them, so you can see how they relate to one another

British English American English
long-sighted • hyperopic (holds reading matter far away) [1737: not its first meaning] ——
far-sighted anticipates future events correctly [1641] • anticipates future events correctly
• hyperopic [1878]
short-sighted • lacking foresight [1622]
• myopic (has to hold reading matter close) [1641]
lacking foresight
near-sighted —— myopic [1686]
As it happens, it's the 2nd anniversary
of me getting these glasses

Some things to note about these:
  • The more 'figurative' sense of looking into the future precedes the physiological sense in all cases where both exist.
  • All of these terms were invented in Britain. If you do hear long-sighted in AmE it will probably be figurative. But it just doesn't turn up much.
  • The 'hyperopic' sense of far-sighted might have originated in US, but OED does not provide much info about it, as the entry has not been fully updated since 1895. Their only citation for it is from the Encyclopædia Britannica, which at that point was published in Edinburgh. In 1895, the OED's coverage of Americanisms was not what it is today.
  • Will had listed the terms in the table without hyphens. I had to put the hyphens in, because I'm that kind of person. Oxford Dictionaries like the hyphens, Merriam-Webster writes them as one word, no hyphen, e.g. nearsighted.
  • Hyperopia seems to be the more common opposite for myopia today, but in the UK (less so in the US) you also find hypermetropia. The two words have been in competition since the mid-1800s.
If you have any of these conditions, you may need glasses. If you're American, you'll sometimes call them eyeglasses, and if you're British, you may sometimes call them specs (or less often/more old-fashionedly) spectacles. What you call the people from whom and places where you get glasses is a matter for a separate blog post—but at this point I really need to get dressed to go to the airport!

Will also asked about AmE seeing eye dog. In the UK, these are known as guide dogs for the blind. Guide dog is understandable in AmE as well.

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Will Fitzgerald has asked me more than once to cover British use of the adjective sorted. It has made an appearance on the blog before, as part of an Untranslatable October. But that short bit on it does not really give it its due. In the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, the word sorted is found more than three times more frequently in British than in American English. It's definitely a word to know if you interact with British people.

The OED has three UK-particular meanings for it in their 2001 draft additions. I'm going to cheat share the fruits of their defining, with some fresh examples.

The first sense, and by far the most frequent one, is illustrated in a current British Transport Police campaign, with posters like that at the right.

 a. Chiefly Brit. slang. Of a state of affairs, etc.: fixed, settled, secure; arranged, prepared, dealt with. Chiefly used predicatively and (esp. in earlier use) frequently indistinguishable from the past participle of the passive verb (cf. sort v.1 16a(e)). Also as int., esp. used to express assent to a proposal, readiness to act, or to mark the satisfactory conclusion of a transaction.
This sense is perhaps influenced by a British Army slang use of the verb meaning ‘to attack fiercely, to shoot to pieces’
The implication of the "See it. Say it. Sorted." slogan is that if you report suspicious things you see, the police will take care of it. They will (BrE) get it sorted. In AmE and more usually (until recently) in BrE, you'd have to say that the police will get it sorted out. As the entry says, this probably comes from an older (1940s) Army usage, but this more modern sense seems to have got(ten) going in the 1980s. Here are a couple of recent examples from UK news websites, courtesy of the News on the Web corpus.
The EU’s 27 member states have insisted that talks cannot move onto trade and commerce until the three key issues of EU and British citizen residency rights, the UK’s so-called divorce bill and the border with Ireland are all sorted.  (Verdict)

Your entertainment for the rest of the year is sorted with our 2017 guide. (East Anglian Daily Times)
Another example, from the GloWBE corpus, is an interesting case of sorted before the noun it's modifying:
I would make it a nice outing with your son to a well sorted hifi shop where you actually have time to listen. (from a hifi discussion board)

The second meaning comes along in the early 90s (at the latest), and is used particularly of people.
 b. Brit. slang. Esp. of a person: self-assured, emotionally well-balanced; streetwise, ‘cool’.
This one may be a bit dated. I don't feel like I hear it as much as I used to. I'm certainly having trouble finding a clear example of it in the corpora. It's the kind of thing you might read in a (orig. AmE) personal ad. I'm not signing up for a singles site to research this for you, so here's a bit from the Yorkshire Post about the word:
Today, people are perhaps a little more transparent in the language they use to describe themselves in personal ads. But, just as "bohemian", "sporty" and "adventurous" in a woman and "artistic" in a man could be loaded with meaning a century ago, today's more mainstream lonely hearts ads can still require a full glossary of euphemisms, from "sorted" (no weirdos, no baggage) to "creative" (possibly "willing to experiment" or simply "not boring").
You can see that kind of usage in one of the OED examples. 
1993   T. Hawkins Pepper xiv. 268   Thank you so much for replying. You seem really sorted.
The third OED sense is one I'm not sure I would have counted as separate from the first:
 c. Brit. slang. Of a person: supplied with or under the influence of illicit drugs, particularly those associated with the U.K. club subculture.
You sorted? is the kind of thing you'd expect a drug dealer to say. Here's the OED's first example for it:
1991   Independent 23 Dec. 5/2   Are you sorted? It's good stuff, it'll keep you going all night.
So that's sorted sorted. The first sense is the one you're most likely to run into.

Apologies for no blog posts in August. I was very busy with getting the last changes to my book manuscript off to the publisher. Publication date is 10 April, but I'm going to wait to share moreinfo until both publishers (US and UK) are ready to take pre-orders. (It would not be good for my nice UK publisher if British folk were ordering from the US.)  I'm afraid that blogging will probably be sparse in the Autumn as I have my whole year's teaching load in one term. But one of the things I'm teaching is a new (BrE education jargon) module (=AmE course) called Language in the United States. Maybe that'll inspire some bloggy procrastination. Or maybe I'll get some guest posts from my students!
Today, people are perhaps a little more transparent in the language they use to describe themselves in personal ads. But, just as "bohemian", "sporty" and "adventurous" in a woman and "artistic" in a man could be loaded with meaning a century ago, today's more mainstream lonely hearts ads can still require a full glossary of euphemisms, from "sorted" (no weirdos, no baggage) to "creative" (possibly "willing to experiment" or simply "not boring").

Read more at: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/analysis/strictly-personal-behind-the-lines-with-a-history-of-lonely-hearts-1-2334630
Today, people are perhaps a little more transparent in the language they use to describe themselves in personal ads. But, just as "bohemian", "sporty" and "adventurous" in a woman and "artistic" in a man could be loaded with meaning a century ago, today's more mainstream lonely hearts ads can still require a full glossary of euphemisms, from "sorted" (no weirdos, no baggage) to "creative" (possibly "willing to experiment" or simply "not boring").

Read more at: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/analysis/strictly-personal-behind-the-lines-with-a-history-of-lonely-hearts-1-2334630
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thank you very/so much

Last week at Corpus Linguistics 2017, Rachele De Felice and I presented our research on thanking in US and UK corporate emails. We'll be writing that up for publication in the coming months. In the meantime, here's a tiny aspect of what we found, supplemented by some further thoughts.

Our main question was about the relationship between please and thank* (that * is a wildcard, so thank* stands for thanks and thank you). Brits use please much more than Americans; Americans use thank* much more than Brits—both in our email research and in others' research on spoken language. So a big part of what we're looking at is whether thanks in American does some of the work that please does in Britain. (Short answer: it seems so. For my past posts on please, please see/comment-at this post and this one.) That's what our published paper will be about. But while we were in that data, we also looked at other aspects of thanking, including how it's intensified—e.g. thank you very much, thanks so much, etc.

Americans are often stereotyped as effusive and exaggerating—so we might hypothesi{s/z}e that Americans would intensify their thanks more. But our data sample (~1100 emails from each country containing thank* ) shows the opposite: 13% of British thank* are intensified versus 6% of the American ones. When we look within the intensified thanks, we see that different patterns are preferred:
  • In both country's data sets, the most frequent intensified form is many thanks, but this accounts for 56% of the British intensified thank* versus 31% of the American.
  • The second most common intensified form in BrE is thank* very much (29%) and in AmE it was thank* so much (25%). 
    In raw numbers: 42 very much intensifiers in BrE, versus 7 in AmE; 17 so much in AmE versus 3 in BrE.
  • The next biggest AmE intensification category is putting the THANK* in capital letters (18%), and going down the list there are various things like really big thanks and thanks a million in very small numbers.
  • ...which is to say that 85% of BrE intensified thank* are intensified in one of two ways. That's 124 examples, or more than 11% of all the thank* (intensified or not) in the sample.
  • ...whereas the top 2 AmE intensifications account for 56% percent of the intensified thank* data, and that amounts to less than 1% of all the thank* (intensified or not) in the sample. 
When I say I'm studying thankyouverymuch,
people inflict their Elvis impersonations on me.
So, Americans thank more, but Brits put more emphasis on their thanks, though they overwhelmingly do so with just a couple of set phrases. The other thing to notice is that Brits used longer thanking phrases (on average) than Americans do—both using more intensifiers and using thank you at greater rates. (40% of British thank* were thank you, versus only 18% of the American thank*. Americans mostly wrote thanks.)

Now, this is just about email correspondence (and because we're using emails from defunct corporations, they're more than 10 years old). There are a lot of other things going on with thanking in all kinds of other types of interactions. (I discuss British service-encounter thanking on this video.)

After giving our paper, I started to think more about why the numbers for thank you very much (and even thanks very much) were so low in the American data. Part of the reason is probably that thank you sounds too formal and standoff-ish in American business culture, where things tend to be a bit more informal and personal than in British business culture. That goes along with the strong American preference for thanks over thank you.

But another thing that might be going on is the potential for misinterpretation. There are lots of informal ways to emphasi{s/z}e thanks that weren't used in the emails. For instance thanks a lot was not used by the employees of the corporations (but there were a few examples of it from correspondents in India). The reason for its absence seemed to me to be clear: thanks a lot is often used sarcastically, and in email you don't want to take the risk that you will be read as sarcastic if you aren't being sarcastic. (Perceptions of sarcasm may differ here. I've had conversations with an English friend where she tells me thanks a bunch sounds the most sarcastic. For me, thanks a lot is worse. Feel free to discuss among(st) yourselves and we'll see if there's a national pattern.)

Thank you very much is sometimes used as a curt, self-congratulatory comment. In that usage, it's sometimes written as one word: thankyouverymuch. An Urban Dictionary contributor defines it as "a remark one says when one has strong evidential proof of something and wants to rub it in another's face". I know I use it and I've found it a couple of times in the comments of this very blog:
[John Cowan at the icing/frosting post] So what is the happy vs. merry story? AmE has merry, and clearly BrE used to have it too, or AmE wouldn't have inherited it, but AmE speakers are under the impression that BrE uses happy exclusively. And yet the Brits I've talked to deny this, and claim that they use merry personally, thankyouverymuch, even if commercial sources tend to use happy.
[Shelly at the count noun post] Personally, one math is more than enough for me, thankyouverymuch.
US/GloWBE examples of post-sentential thank you very much
UK/GloWBE examples of post-sentential thank you very much
This not-polite usage of thank you very much need not be written as one word, but when it is written that way, it generally has the not-actually-grateful meaning. And that does seem to be more American than British, with 41 American instances of thankyouverymuch versus 12 British in the GloWBE corpus. Written as four words, it can often be found between a comma and a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period. Searching that in GloWBE, I found more hits in American English (264:161), but both countries are using it mainly in the not-very-polite way when at the end of a sentence like this. (For examples, enlarge the tables to the left.)

Thank you so much is not used in that (AmE) snarky way. So, could it be that thank you very much now carries a bit of the stink of the not-polite usage in AmE minds and therefore doesn't sound as nice in AmE emails as thank you so much? Maybe a little. It's probably more the formality of the very that's put it out of favo(u)r. But I like wondering about, thankyouverymuch.

While I'm here: I haven't been pointing out other media gigs in blog posts so much, now that there's an 'events and media' tab on the blog. But do people actually check that regularly? Of course not. (You don't even see the tab in the usual phone interface.) So I'll just point out a few places I've been lately, in case they're of interest.

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"the" Americanization of English?

from the Guardian
Today the Guardian reported on a new study by Bruno Gonçalves, LucĂ­a Loureiro-Porto, JosĂ© J. Ramasco, and David Sánchez (you can get the pdf here) entitled The End of Empire: the Americanization of English. There are interesting things to find in this study, but I'm taken back to a panel that Sandra Jansen, Mario Saraceni and I presented on 'problems in predicting the linguistic future' last week in Newcastle. The focus of our talks was how the media present change in the English language and how linguists  sometimes contribute to skewed presentations of past, present and future—taking part in the very linguistic ideologies that academic linguists should be regarding with a critical eye. We're now working on making our panel contributions into an article, and I think it'll be a good one.

It's perfectly clear that many originally-American words and spelling standards have spread elsewhere. It would be surprising if they hadn't, since the US has a large population that mostly (and mostly only) speaks English, as well as a very big and very international economy. For me, the problem comes
  • (a) when "Americanization" becomes the whole story (because life and language are more complex than that),
  • (b) when the story depends upon informational/logical fallacies, and
  • (c) when that story is pitched as a story of winners and losers (because language doesn't have to be a competition, and because that winner-loser narrative is often heavily dependent on the simplifications of (a)).
Though I've label(l)ed those points as a/b/c, part of the task I have in writing up the paper is that it's hard to pick apart and label those points—they're very interrelated and also they hide a lot of detail. Here was my first draft—a slide from my talk last week. It's called "panic tools" because I am considering how Americani{s/z}ation* news stories might sit within "moral panic" about language change in Britain—a panic that Deborah Cameron wrote about in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene.
Slide from Is the future American? (Murphy 2017)

Anyhow, I was heartened to see that the Guardian article is by a data scientist, Mona Chalabi, and therefore it did something that popular news articles rarely do when talking about linguistic research—it sounded a note of caution concerning the data sources for the research: Google books data and Twitter.

Both are problematic resources in terms of making sure the data is what you think it is (here's one of many Language Log posts about Google Books metadata). This is not a criticism of the paper—we linguists use what we can to find out about language. But then we give caveats about the data, as we should.

But that note of caution is about where they've looked. There's also what you look for. Neither the Guardian article nor the paper give many caveats about that. The Google Books data was used to see what's happening in the US and UK over time, and the Twitter data to see what English is like across the world, and they searched for a specific list of "American" and "British" spellings and vocabulary.

To give just some examples that deserved more caution (from the paper's appendix of the British and American vocabulary that the authors searched for).
  • AmE bell pepper is matched to "BrE" capsicum. But the usual term in British (as in AmE, really) is just pepper or a colo(u)r+pepper (green pepper, etc.) or sweet pepper. Capsicum is primarily Australian English.

Capsicum the GloWBE corpus
  • AmE drug store and drug stores are matched to BrE chemist's. Why just the singular possessive? Why no plural? Looking at the same data set as they used (Google Books), it's clear that it's more common to get things from the chemist than from the chemist's. And often (maybe even usually) in contexts in which Americans would say drug store rather than pharmacist—e.g. The boy from the chemist is here to see you. But then, that leads us to another problem: does chemist's really match with drug store, when it also means pharmacist's and pharmacy?
Click here to be taken to the interactive version

And then there are the problems of polysemy (many-meaninged-ness) and variation, for example (but there are many examples):
  • The polysemy problem: in comparing BrE draughts and AmE checkers, are we sure that they're all about games? Some of the draughts will be AmE drafts (for beers or breezes). Some of the checkers could be checking things. If the frequency of use of any of these meanings changes across time, then that can interfere with answering the question of what people call the game. Elastic band is given as the BrE for AmE rubber band, but in my AmE, elastic band can be a name for the covered kind you make ponytails with (and then in the US there are also regional terms for both the stationery kind and the hair kind).
  • The variation problem: BrE plasterboard is given as equivalent of AmE wallboard, which I can't say I've ever used. It's drywall or Sheetrock to me in AmE. BrE spring onions is compared with AmE green onions (which, since that's the title of a song, might provide a fair amount of data "noise"), but AmE scallions is not included. BrE mobile phones is searched for, but not mobilesbut it looks to me (using GloWBE corpus) that about 1/3 of mentions of such phones have the shorter term. In the US, calling the phone by the shortened name cell looks to be less common than the equivalent shortened British form. So if you compare mobile phones to (AmE) cell phones, you might be missing a lot of BrE. (Then there's the problem of the not-uncommon spelling cellphones, which they didn't search for either.)
  • The vocabulary–spelling problem: AmE license plate v BrE number plate. If BrE or another English borrows license plate, they may very well adapt the spelling to their standard, so why not look for licence plate? What does it mean if that's found? Is it an Americanism or not?
All of this is to say: comparing such things is hard to do well. If it's possible at all.

(If the authors read this and want to correct me on any points in the comments, please do. I may have misread something in my haste.) 

I'd also like to sound a note of discomfort and caution regarding talking about AmE and BrE  "around the world". This involves a leap of thinking that bothers me: that AmE and BrE are used outside the US and UK. To be fair, the authors mostly talk about BrE or AmE forms being used. But for us to claim national ownership of those forms is to take a particular nationalist-political stand on English, I think.

It's a common way to talk about English. People in, say, India or Korea might say "I/we speak British English" or "I/we speak American English". But what people generally mean is "I/we use the British (or American) spelling conventions."

If you're learning English as a foreign language (e.g. in Korea), you may well use learning materials that are from the US or the UK. (Your teacher may well be from somewhere else.) You may aim for a particular kind of accent (though a number of studies show that learners are often not very good at telling the difference between the accent they're aiming for and others). What you speak will be English, but it won't particularly be "American English" or "British English".  You may aim for a certain pronunciation convention, you may get certain vocabulary. But your English has not developed in Britain or America. It's developing right now where you are. It's absolutely related to British and American English. But it is neither of those. (Glenn Hadikin's your linguist if you want to know about Korean English.)

In a place with longstanding English usage, like India, the language has been going in its own direction for some time. The fashions for UK or US spellings may change, and the language will take in new English words from the US and other places, but it also makes up its own, has its grammatical idiosyncrasies, etc. If you look at whether people in India use off-licence or liquor store (as this study did), then you're missing the fact that the Indian English liquor shop is more common than either the American or the British term. (And, interestingly, it looks like a mash-up between American liquor store and the British use of shop for retail places.) I don't know what the alcohol-selling laws in India are, but if they're not like Britain's then the British term off-licence would make no particular sense in India. Instead, Indian English has a nice descriptive phrase that works for India. But what a study like this will find is that there are a few more uses of liquor store in their Indian data than off-licence —who knows, maybe because they're talking to Americans on Twitter or because they're talking about American films in which people rob liquor stores. (Spare thought: are there UK films where people rob off-licences?) The study then completely misses the point that, for this particular word meaning, Indian English is Indianized, not Americanized.

The most interesting thing about the study (for me), but not one that gets a mention, is what happens to their data in the Internet age. After 1990, we see the gap narrowing. This does not come as a surprise to me—this is also the point at which Britain falls out of love with the -ize spelling and starts preferring the -ise one (having allowed them co-mingle for centuries). In the internet age, we also are seeing grammatical changes that set British and American on different paths (you're just going to have to wait some months for my book for those details).

From Gonçalves et al. 2017

This graph is based on Google Books data from the US and UK (or at least, that's what Google Books thinks). The yellow line is BrE vocabulary and the black line is BrE spelling (of the particular vocabulary and spellings they were looking for—which include no words with -ise/-ize). Those lines are fairly steady--though you can see that the two world wars did no favo(u)rs to British book publishing. You can also see dips in the American lines after WWII. The authors attribute this to European migration to the US after World War II.  I'd also wonder about American contact with Britain during the war.

But after 1990, those British lines are going up—the spelling one quite sharply. In the paper I gave last week, I talked about (what I've decided to call) contra-Americanization—British English changing or losing old forms because they look like they might be American. There seems to be a backlash to (perceived and real) Americanization.

I've  congratulated the Guardian author on the note of caution. I don't want to congratulate the headline writer, though. Nor the researchers' title for their paper.

The paper's title, setting the end of Empire against Americanization, implicitly feeds into that "it's a two-way competition" story.

The Guardian headline 'Do you want fries with that? Data shows Americanization of English is rising' includes an Americanism that wasn't part of the study. The implication that Americanization means de-Briticization (which falls out from the competition story) doesn't work for fries. British English now has fries, but it has very Britishly made it mean something different from what it means in America, since in Britain it contrasts with (rather than replaces) chips. But the bigger problem in the headline is that "is rising". Given what we've seen in the post-1990 graph line, is that true?

These kinds of things also raise the question: what is meant by Americanization? Apparently it means non-Americans having the words fries and cookies in their vocabulary. But if those words don't mean the same thing to them that they mean to Americans, what does Americanization mean here?

The moral of this story: talking about "the Americanization" of English makes a lot of assumptions—including that "Americanization" and "English" are each one thing. They ain't.

*I'm too tired to keep up the marking of the s/z contrast here, so I'm going with the z because it's Oxford spelling, good in Britain and America. Don't let any contra-Americanizer tell you otherwise!
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(to) each (to) their own

Today's post, I'm happy to say, is a guest post by Maddy Argy, an A-level student who's doing (BrE) work experience with me at the University of Sussex. I've asked her to find American-British differences that she could research and have introduced her to some of the tools we linguists use. I'm happy to introduce her first post! 

To Each His Own 1946
When reading a blog post written by an American English speaker, I noticed she used the phrase to each their own which didn't sound natural to me. Previously, having lived in Britain all my life, I have primarily used and heard only each to their own.

The phrase is used in both American and British English, however most likely originated from Latin.

In the Corpus of Global Web-Based Englishto each their own is heavily used in American English, with a total of 418 in all its forms. In British English however there is a total of only 105.

Meanwhile here it's clear that each to their own is more commonly used in British English with a much larger total of 365, and only 68 of this form in American English.

So why is there such a significant difference?

In the table above from the Corpus of Historical American English we're looking at 'each to their own', which is most heavily used by speakers of British English. At a stretch it could go back as far as the 1820s, but only seems to be in popular use around the 1860s.

When looking at the American English version, it comes into scarce usage around the 1880s, but seems to gain popularity around the 1940s. After looking into where the phrase was actually used, it was all down to the release of the (BrE) film/ (AmE) movie,  'To Each His Own' in 1946 which might be able to explain the later difference considering this is how the phrase was brought to attention in America early on. 

The older British English version seems to be in most popular use in the US until around the 1980s, at which point it becomes less used and the American English version becomes more common, so this would explain why to each sounded so foreign to me.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)