Thursday, February 04, 2016

might of, would of, could of, should of

A few years ago, The Telegraph ran an article about Americanisms on the BBC--or rather, an article about complaints about Americanisms on the BBC:
Nick Seaton, Campaign for Real Education, said: “It is not a surprise that a few expressions have crept in but the BBC should be setting an example for people and not indulging any slopping Americanised slang.”
(Tangent: I had to look up slopping, which doesn't seem to be used much as an adjective. Is he using the British slang 'dressing in an informal manner' or the American slang for 'gushing; speaking or writing effusively'? Or is slopping here being used as a euphemistic substitution for another word that ends in -ing?)

But (of course!) half of the 'Americanisms' in their closing list of 'Americanisms that have annoyed BBC listeners' weren't Americanisms. One (face up) was first (to the OED's knowledge) used by Daniel Defoe, the Englishman. Another (a big ask) is an Australianism. But one that really bothered me was this:
  • 'It might of been' instead of 'It might have been'
 Three reasons it bothered me:
  1. Shouldn't it might of been be corrected to it might've been rather than it might have been? That is, of is a misspelling of the similar-sounding 've here. Might've is perfectly good contraction in BrE as well as AmE. Is the complaint that people should say have because they shouldn't be contracting verbs on the BBC, or are they complaining about spelling 've wrong?
  2. We're talking about broadcast television and radio, which are spoken media. You can't see the spelling of what the presenters are saying. So how do they know the presenters said might of and not might've?  Of course, they could have seen it on the (orig. NAmE) closed-captioning/subtitles. But BBC subtitles usually make so little sense that I can't believe anyone would take them as an accurate record of what's been said. (Here's a Daily Mail collection of 'BBC subtitle blunders'.)
  3. I read of instead of 've a lot in my British students' essays. A lot. There's no reason to think they're getting it from American influence, because they'd have to read it and they probably don't get the chance to read a lot of misspel{ed/t} American English. The American books or news they read will have (we hope) been proofread. I suspect that errors like this aren't learn{ed/t}from exposure at all: they are re-invented by people who have misinterpreted what they've heard or who have a phonetic approach to spelling, sounding out the words in their minds as they write.
This particular Telegraph list is one of the things that I mock when I go around giving my How America Saved the English Language talk.  But so far, when I've talked about it, I've just said those three things about it. I have never looked up the numbers for who writes of and who writes 've after a modal verb. I think I've been afraid to, in case it just proved the Telegraph right that it's a very American thing.

I need not have feared! Not only was I right that I see it a lot in the UK, I was also right to feel that I probably see it more in the UK, because --you know what?-- the British spell (at least this bit of English) worse than Americans.

Here are the numbers from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English. The numbers stand for how many times these variations occur within about 387 million words of text from the open internet.

non-standard of American British
might of 392 672
would of 926 1634
could of 458 821
should of 442 683
standard 've American British
might've 506  277
would've 4921 3121
could've 2379 1502
should've 1685 1140

I've put the higher number in each row in blue bold in my table in order to reflect how it shows up in GloWBE. The blue-bold indicates that those numbers showed up in the darkest blue in the GloWBE search results, like the GB column here:

(The Canadian numbers are distracting--they're not based on as much text as GB and US.)

The darker the blue on GloWBE, the more a phrase is associated with a particular country. So, it's not just that the of versions are found in BrE--it could be said (if we want to be a bit hyperbolic) that they are BrE, as opposed to AmE.

In both countries, the 've version is used more than the misspelling. Nevertheless, the American numbers were darkest blue for these spellings--indicating the correct spellings are more "American" in some way--though note that the British 've versions are just one shade of blue lighter--the difference is not as stark as in the previous table.

The moral of this story  

It looks like the BBC complainers and the Telegraph writer assumed MODAL+of was an Americanism because they disapprove of it. But remember, kids:

Not liking something is not enough to make it an Americanism.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda

When I discovered these facts, I immediately tweeted the would of (etc.) table to the world, and one correspondent asked if the American way of misspelling would've isn't woulda. The answer is: no, not really. Americans might spell it that way if they're trying to mimic a particular accent or very casual speech (I coulda been a contenda!). It's like when people spell God as Gawd--not because they think that's how to spell an almighty name, but because they're trying to represent a certain pronunciation of it. No one accidentally writes theological texts with Gawd in them. But people do write would of in formal text 'accidentally'--because they don't know better, not because they're trying to represent someone's non-standard pronunciation. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, 75% of the instances of coulda occur in the Fiction sub-corpus; authors use it when they're writing dialog(ue) to make it sound authentic. 

But you do get coulda, shoulda and woulda in an AmE expression, which accounts for about 10% of the coulda data. I think of it as shoulda, coulda, woulda, but there does seem to be some disagreement about the order of the parts:

The phrase can be used to mean something like "I (or you, etc.) could have done it, should have done it, would have done it --but I didn't, so maybe I shouldn't worry about it too much now". (A distant relative of the BrE use of never mind.) Sometimes it's used to accuse someone of not putting in enough effort--all talk, no action. 

The English singer Beverley Knight had a UK top-ten single called Shoulda Woulda Coulda, which  may have had a hand in populari{s/z}ing the phrase in BrE (though it's still primarily used in the US).

Another shoulda that's coming up in the GloWBE data is If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it. And I can't hear that now without thinking of Stephen Merchant, so on this note, good night!

Postscript, 5 Feb 2016: @49suns pointed out that I haven't weeded out possible noise from things like She could of course play the harmonica. Good point. British people do write could of course (etc) more than Americans do because they use commas less. Americans would be more likely to write could, of course, play the harmonica--and with the commas it wouldn't be caught by the search software. As well as of course, there's of necessity and other things 'noising up' the data.

I'm not going to re-do all the tables because I've posted this now and many have commented on it.  But the good news (for this post) is that the conclusions about of is pretty much the same if we limit the search to modal + of + verb; it's still more frequently British--especially when preceding been, the case that was complained about in The Telegraph. Here's a sample.

An interesting case at the bottom is should of known, which reverses the pattern. This is just because should [have] known--often in should [have] known better -- is a much more common phrase in AmE than in BrE. Searching should * known, we get:

Looking more closely at that group, I found that 6 of the 21 American should of knowns were from song lyrics (none of the UK ones were), and one was using it as an example in telling people that they shouldn't write should of

The online interface doesn't like me searching for modal+of+verb, so I've had to search for *ould+of+verb, leaving out might and in the post I also left out must.  But having re-searched those, I can tell you: still dark blue in British, not in American.

The other thing I haven't done, which someone (or someones) else has suggested is what happens after negation. That is a lot more complicated, since there are more variations to consider (since both the n't and the have can be contracted).  I'm really interested in that, so I'm going to write a separate post on it next week. Till then!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

theatre / theater

The most obvious difference in American and British theat{er/re} is the spelling, but on top of that there are a number of meaning differences. And then the meanings interfere with the spellings again. Much fun, but this is why I can't write short blog posts. Here we go...

the spelling

Theater is one of those American spellings that is attributed to Noah Webster.* But like most of successful American spelling reforms, it wasn't made up by an American. It was a long-standing spelling in England, and the predominant spelling at the time when the English colonies in America were first being settled. The OED says:

The earliest recorded English forms, c1380, are theatre and teatre; from c1550 to 1700, or later, the prevalent spelling was theater (so in Dictionaries from Cawdrey to Kersey), but theatre in Holland, Milton, Fuller, Dryden, Addison, Pope; Bailey 1721 has both, ‘Theatre, Theater’: and between 1720 and 1750, theater was dropped in Britain, but has been retained or (?) revived in U.S.
The word started as theatrum in Latin, and in French it lost its -um. The French pronunciation makes sense with the -re spelling, but the modern English pronunciation does not. However we pronounce that syllable, in whichever English accents we have, it is the same syllable that is spel{led/t} -er in words like butter or later. It's thus no wonder that English writers preferred the -er for some time (and Americans have preferred it for most times), since it is the more Englishy spelling, if by 'Englishy spelling' we mean (as I do) 'spelling that reflects English pronunciation'.

The fashion (for these things are fashion) of using the French spelling has won out in Britain for this and many other words of its ilk: centre, calibre, litre, lustre, sombre, etc. But the fashion is not consistent. Cloister, coriander, and disaster (among others)  have -re spellings in French from -rum spellings in Latin, but -er spellings in all standard contemporary Englishes. And then there's metre and kilometre but perimeter and thermometer, etc. Note, though, that despite their common Latin/Greek etymology (metrum), they have different vowels in the me syllable in BrE. American pronunciation of kilometer as 'kill LAH mitter' drives some Brits I know batty, as it obscures the relation between the met{er/re} and the kilomet{er/re}. They prefer 'KILL-o-meetah'. (I just tried to get Better Half to say it. He said 'kill LAH mitter' and explained 'I'm disarmingly transatlantic'.)

This particular difference has a lot in common with the -or/-our difference: variant spelling in early modern English, then American English settling on the more phonetic spelling, and British English settling on the more French spelling. I've more to say about that, but that's going in the book.

(By the way, I'm trying to get into the habit of listing BrE/AmE variants alphabetically. I may not always succeed, but it's why the ones in this post are listed in those particular orders. I'm also trying to alternate which goes first in British/American, US/UK, BrE/AmE, etc. )

the meanings

Let's be quick and put them in a table.
place where you... What Americans usually say What the British usually say
watch a play theater*  theatre
watch a film/movie (movie) theater* cinema

hear a (university) lecture
lecture hall, auditorium lecture theatre
have surgery operating room; OR (operating) theatre

There are of course other uses of theat{er/re} that extend from the 'drama place' use--e.g. political theat{er/re}. They are generally the same in both countries, but for spelling.

spelling again!

Photo by Kevin Dooley (Flickr)
While theater is the general American spelling, one does see theatre in the US in place or organi{s/z}ation names, like the Signature Theatre Company in Arlington, Virginia. The same happens with centre in American place names (but never for the 'middle' meaning of center), such as Robinson Town Centre, a (AmE) outdoor mall, or power center/(BrE) retail park in Pittsburgh.  The namers of these places are taking advantage of the fact that you can spell names however you like, and using the British spelling to make the place sound ‘classy'. Needless to say, we don’t see the reverse in the UK.

I particularly like the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, which just mixes it all up. And movie theatres like the one above are to be congratulated for combining a British spelling and an American meaning. Crazy fun.

* This post originally said theater was in Webster's 1828 dictionary, but, as David Crosbie points out in the comments, it was not, though center and caliber and maneuver (vs. BrE manoeuvre) are there. (Sorry--I'd depended on and possibly overinterpreted someone else's work. You can consult the 1828 dictionary here.) The word does not occur at all in Webster's 'Blue-backed speller'.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

looks like Xing

One of my new year's resolutions is to read all the unread newspapers in the house before buying another. It is a Very Big Task. I started before Christmas and thought I'd have it done before New Year's Day, but I still have a substantial pile. We only buy the Saturday Guardian, but it has lots of sections and I can read at most two over the weekend--then the rest pile up.

So there I was reading the front section from 19 December, and I came across this (emphasis added):
After at tidal wave of hype, promotion and anticipation, Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks like justifying even the most optimistic box office predictions over its first weekend on general release.
I read that several times, then read it to Better Half several times. He kept insisting it was completely fine. I kept being incredulous--not so much that looks like justifying could be said in someone's English, but that I'd been here 16 years and never noticed it.

Then I went to link to the article in order to write this post, and found that the on-line version is different.
After a tidal wave of hype, promotion and anticipation, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has finally gone on general release. It debuted in the UK, most of Europe and parts of Asia and South America on Wednesday and Thursday, while Friday sees the first public screenings in the US. And all the indications are that even the most optimistic predictions of its box office performance will turn out to be justified.
The change to the text may have come about because the Guardian has a large international readership, particularly in the US, and so they employ their own production team who translate BrE to general English when needed. And American English just doesn't really do looks like VERBing. If the rest of the paragraph hadn't changed, I would have translated it as:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks like it will justify even the most optimistic box office predictions
In other words, if you say look like in British English, you can follow it with a verb phrase* headed by an -ing form in order to indicate a prediction. In American English, you can't, so we have to use a full sentence as a complement for looks like (this is also available in BrE). This isn't the first time that we've seen differences in linking verbs with like in AmE and BrE.

Of course, I couldn't take it for granted that this is widespread in BrE, just on the basis of the film editor of the Guardian and BH. So, I looked in the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English for 'looks like *ing' (where * stands for any string of letters). The list of results is telling (keeping in mind that COCA is 5.2 times larger than BNC):



Of the top five -ing words following looks like in the British corpus, three are verbs. The top four in the American corpus are pronouns that happen to end in -ing (these are further down the list in the BNC). Since COCA is 5.2 times bigger than BNC, the rate of looks like being in BrE:AmE is 364:1. And of the five looks like beings in COCA, two do not involve this particular type of structure (and are fine in my AmE), as in:
If somebody strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. That looks like being weak.
The looks like justifying structure makes a prediction. The looks like being weak example doesn't make a prediction, but instead describes something in a more timeless way. We can tell that they're different because they can't be paraphrased using the same grammatical structures.

looks like construction comparison paraphrase prediction paraphrase
it looks like justifying the prediction (BrE only) ≠ it looks like what justifying the prediction looks like it looks like it will justify the prediction
(general English)
that looks like being weak (general English?) that looks like what being weak looks like
(general English)
≠ that looks like it will be weak

I went through the 70 BNC examples of looks like being and 69 could be paraphrased as a prediction, for example:
  • She looks like being one to watch > She looks like she will be one to watch. (in a future race)
  • the Boogie Night on Dec 8 looks like being another worthwhile event > the Boogie Night on Dec 8 looks like it will be another worthwhile event
  • Yellow looks like being this year's colour > Yellow looks like it will be this year's colour
  • it looks like being a wet day tomorrow. > it looks like it will be a wet day tomorrow. 
(Though I didn't find it the first time I looked it up, I could have saved myself a lot of time this morning by just citing Algeo's British or American English, where he says that in the Cambridge International Corpus, BrE has 12.5 looks like being per ten million words, and AmE has 0.1. Note to indexer: I looked up like, but it's only under look like.)

This -ing complementation seems to only work with look like. Its synonym seem doesn't do it (*It seems [like] justifying the prediction). As for other sensory linking verbs, BH says he could accept It sounds like justifying the prediction (though it looks like is much better), but not It feels like justifying the prediction--but I can find no evidence of the prediction interpretation for these verbs in BNC. 

* If you remember grammar terminology from school, you might want to say "that's a gerund!" But gerund is a term from Latin grammar that just gets kind of confusing in English. They'll tell you that a gerund is an -ing form used as a noun, but we can tell the -ing word isn't a noun here because it has an object in the way that a verb has an object: just following justifying. If justifying were a noun here, it would act like justification (another noun) would have to act in the sentence: it could only have an object if linked by a preposition. So:
  • verb:   justifying the predictions 
  • noun:  the justifying of the predictions

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 US-to-UK Word of the Year: mac and cheese

And now...the US-to-UK Word of the Year!

Nominated by Rosemary, and supported by Simon K and my spouse, I'm sure this is going to be met with a chorus of "Bah, humbug! I've never heard that" (as was said in the nominations discussion). But these things happen. We are not each the cent{er/re} of the universe, so we don't all experience everything. This one will, however, be known to those who go to trendy foodie pubs--because what the trendy foodie pubs are into at the moment is Americana. There are two near my house that serve (AmE in this sense) barbecue, boasting their own smokehouses. Another now speciali{z/s}es in Buffalo wings (serving them, somewhat incongrously, with hush puppies, which are associated with the cuisine of the American South, not northeastern Buffalo, NY--but I'm sure that any Chinese person looking at a US or UK Chinese restaurant menu sees greater horrors than this). All the other pubs are serving pulled pork, in paninis, in burritos, in soups...  Now that I think of it, I can think of more pubs in my area that are serving American food now than those serving bangers and mash.

And as part of this trend, fancy dishes of pasta with cheese are making it onto menus. This dish has a name in the UK, and that name is macaroni cheese, but when it shows up in these new milieus, served as a side dish or with often other 'gourmet' ingredients, it is increasingly given its slangy American name. And this name is the 2015 US-to-UK Word of the Year:

mac and cheese

Or possibly mac'n'cheese or mac n'cheese, depending on the menu or recipe you're reading. (I'll just use & to stand for all these variations.) The BBC food website uses it for "glam mac and cheese"and the Daily Mail uses it in several articles. (I enjoy mentioning these two for their hypocrisy: they regularly publish items bemoaning the 'Americani{s/z}ation' of BrE.) There seem to be two London catering companies dedicated to variations on the dish. The sandwich-shop chain EAT has it, but its competitor Pret-a-Manger sticks to the traditional macaroni cheese. (Warning: the one called Macaroni Cheese Prosciutto has cauliflower in it!)

Now, it must be mentioned here that the traditional AmE for this dish is macaroni and cheese--mac & cheese is a recent-ish and informal variation. Until this recent invasion of gourmet versions, I would have only used mac & cheese to refer to the kind that comes from a box, particularly the Kraft brand: an orange staple of many American childhoods.

The and-ful AmE and and-less BrE names for the dish seem to have developed independently in the 19th century. The lack of and (or with or any other connector) in the BrE is kind of interesting. One sees it also in  cauliflower cheese, i.e. cauliflower with cheese sauce. It seems to follow the Romance-language structure of identifying the type of sauce after the main ingredient (e.g. spaghetti bolognese, a much-used term in BrE--but one that came into the language much later than macaroni cheese). This may be French influence in the kitchen, but note that it differs from similar French food descriptions, in that cheese is not an adjective. French can't have noun+noun without a preposition to link the nouns--there is no macaroni fromage, it's macaroni au fromage.

So, mac & cheese is a very current import into certain eating cultures of the UK and a good WotY on that criterion. It also arguably displaces a native BrE term, which makes it interesting in another way. It seems that the reason for its import is to make it more exciting--an import from another food culture. Much like when, for a while, we started using pashmina instead of shawl. It's a matter of exotic style.

I can imagine another objection to mac & cheese as Word of the Year. There will be someone who will complain that "it's not a word".  To them I say: it is only "not a word" on the most primitive definition of word--a written stretch of language with no spaces. The problem with that definition is that it is entirely circular: Why is it a word? Because it has no spaces. Why does it have no spaces? Because it is a word. Written language exists to make spoken language more permanent, and sometimes it reflects the linguistic facts better than others. As a linguistic unit, mac & cheese counts as a word because it has a part of speech: it is a noun. If we make it plural, we do so once at the end: I'll have three mac and cheeses. And it refers to a single (though complex) thing--which has more than just macaroni and cheese in it; so it's not just a descriptive phrase, it's the name for a particular kind of dish. But, really, if you're going to complain that this Word of the Year is "not a word", I'd like to direct your energies toward(s) Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year--which has no part of speech and can't even be pronounced.

Thus ends the SbaCL WotY activities for 2015! For the UK-to-US WotY, see my previous post.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 UK-to-US Word of the Year: backbencher

It seemed a relatively quiet year for transatlantic words (after last year's two-words-per-country madness). As ever I'm very grateful to readers who make nominations for the title--especially those in the US who have a better eye on what's going on there than I do these days.  And so for UK-to-US Word of the Year, I've gone with one that was nominated by Irene C. and supported by Anonymous and Kagi Soracia:


Here's what Irene said about it: 
I've seen the word used this year (singular and plural, but more commonly plural, it seems) by US print media (with some TV mentions) to refer to the members of a certain congressional caucus who were first elected in the elections of 2010/2012/2014, and so at this point can't all be referred to as "freshmen", the usual term for first termers. But the point of the caucus is that they are influential as a bloc but aren't leadership, and are in fact opposed to their own partisan leadership. Ironically, the caucus' primary grievance with that leadership has been the way in which congressional procedure has been altered along Westminsterian lines (centralizing power in the speakership, making the position partisan, tightening party influence over committees, the Hastert Rule) since Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995.

I'm not quite sure the term quite fits as a description of this caucus' position in terms of power, but the term has been used to refer to its members in 2015.
It was news to me, and struck me as somewhat odd, since the term has a particular meaning in BrE that doesn't really migrate to a non-partliamentary system. To quote the BBC UK Politics site (with added emphasis):
The vast majority of parliamentarians do not hold ministerial or shadow ministerial office and are known as backbenchers. They are so-called because they sit on the back benches of the Commons or Lords - ministers and their opposition counterparts sit on the front benches.
In the US system, members of the legislature are not members of the cabinet (which is part of the executive branch of government) and there's no such thing as a shadow cabinet in the US system. There's also no assigned seating in the House of Representatives, so no one has to be 'on the back benches'. For those reasons backbencher struck me as a strange travel(l)er. And yet--this is what words do; they travel and they change. Semantic change is a common theme in this blog's Words of the Year.  In this case, backbencher has gone from being a literal description in the UK to being a metaphorical one in US politics. It seems to refer generally to members of Congress without particular standing (e.g. as Speaker or Whip--and maybe also chairs of important committees?), but particularly to those who like to cause a bit of trouble by not necessarily following the party line.

Ben Yagoda, on his Not One-Off Britishisms blog, wrote about US use of backbencher in 2013. As Yagoda notes, the term goes back to 1910 in UK politics. The first US use to refer to US politicians he's found is from 1988 in the New York Times, quoting Newt Gingrich. Ben has noted elsewhere that Gingrich seems to like Britishisms:
If Jim Wright were a backbench member, I probably wouldn’t have done anything…. But he’s the Speaker, and everything he could have done all his life as a backbencher becomes self-destructive when he becomes third in line to be President of the United States.
I've found an earlier one in The New Republic via the Corpus of Historical American English: 1987. It again refers to Republicans:
It's understandable how Republican backbenchers in the House can come to view politics as a form of warfare
But it wasn't too long before it was also being used to refer to Democrats, as in this 1991 article about Senator Tom Harkin--again in the New Republic, via Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):
The congressional leadership eyes with wariness the contentiousness of the Iowan senator [Tom Harkin]. But breaking through the niceties of bipartisan etiquette to savage the opposition is essential to the backbencher's appeal. He practices a deeply rooted politics of frustration, still echoing with the populist oratory of William Jennings Bryan, that has been suddenly galvanized again.
(The first article is by 'The Editors', the second by Sidney Blumenthal. It's possible Blumenthal wrote both.)

Why is backbencher WotY for 2015?  Has its use risen lately?  I can't easily tell,* but it certainly seems that people are noticing it these days. As the US gears up for elections, perhaps it will be heard more. In other words, it seems topical enough for the title.

Thanks again to the nominators!

For the US-to-UK WotY, please see the next post!

* It's difficult to investigate whether its use for US politicians on the rise because that involves clicking through and reading every single context it occurs in to determine whether it's referring to an American or reporting on parliamentary politics elsewhere. It's also hard to find corpora that go all the way up to 2015. COCA ends in 2012, and it has no uses of backbencher after 2010. Of the five uses of singular backbencher in COCA from after 2000, four are about Americans. Of the 11 plural uses, five are about Americans. Searching for it on US newspaper websites gives me a smattering of usages since 2010.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Words of the Year nominations?

It's that time of year again. Dictionary publishers are already starting to announce their words of 2015, ignoring anything interesting that might happen in November and December. Poor November and December.
The twist on Words of the Year on this blog is that I choose the most 'of the year' borrowings from US-to-UK and from UK-to-US. For past WotYs, see this old post. (And from that post you can click further to read the reasons for various WotY choices.)

I go into this WotY season with no favo(u)rites. What do you think? Are there any US-to-UK or UK-to-US borrowings that are particularly 2015-ish? They don't have to have first come to the other country this year, but they should have had particular attention or relevance in the other country this year. Please nominate them in the comments below (not by email or Twitter, please--it makes more work for me to keep track of many different streams).

I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on the matter!

Miscellaneous news and shameless self-promotion

I'm giving two talks this month:
  • Wed 25 November (13.00), University of Sussex campus: 'Separated by a Common Politeness formula: please in American and British English' Click here for more details. All welcome!
  • Fri 27 November, Thanksgiving lunch, English-Speaking Union, West Sussex chapter, Chichester: 'Separated by a Common Language'. Click here for more details
I have also started a new blog, and have quickly populated it with some posts. When I started this here blog, I was working on antonyms in the day job and blogging about British and American English as a hobby. Now I'm writing about British and American English as part of my day job, so I've made myself a little outlet for antonym thoughts. That blog is not intended to work like this one--I won't be taking requests for posts, for example, and I'll mostly be using it to keep track of things that amuse or intrigue me, rather than to try to educate people about lexicology. But if it's of any interest to you, it's called Who Shall Remain Antonymous.

And it occurs to me that (BrE-ish) I've not said anything on this blog (at least I don't think I have) about my good news. For 2016, I will be one of the inaugural recipients of the National Endowment for the Humanities' Public Scholar award. What this means is that I will finally have the time to write the book that this blog has threatened to spawn for some time. (The book is actually a closer relation to the How America Saved the English Language talk that I've given many times in England. That is to say, it's more the grandspawn of the blog than the spawn.) I've also been fortunate enough to receive a small grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust to do some work in dictionary archives, which will continue the train of thought I started with this blog post, and contribute research for part of the book.

The blog has also spawned a series of four articles for English Today, to be published starting with the first issue of 2016.

So, that's the bloggy blog spawn for the moment. And as soon as I finish marking these essays (which this very post was a procrastination measure against), I'll have another proper post for you here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Untranslatables Month 2015: the summary

One thing that was particularly rewarding about Untranslatable October this year was that fans started discussing my tweeted offerings in the comments of the blog post that introduced the month.  They've made it clear that at least one of the 'untranslatables' is fairly translatable. Here they are, in the order they were posted on Twitter, with some commentary:

1. BrE marmite: something that people either love or hate, as in ‘Big Brother is television marmite’. After a famous yeast extract spread.

2. AmE redeye: a long-distance overnight airline flight, as in 'I flew to NY on the redeye'. Not all UK dictionaries still mark this as 'North American'. (There's a bit more discussion at the earlier post, where commenters question whether this only applies where there is choice of other times for the flight.)

3. BrE blag: to obtain by trickery/guile, as in 'He blagged a 1st-class ticket'. AmE score is similar, but seems less underhanded. Suggested by @laurelspeth.

4. AmE your mileage may vary: = 'you may have a different experience/opinion'. The abbreviated form YMMV is now known more widely on the internet, but I don't hear it offline and have had to explain it in UK. It comes from the way in which American car manufacturers had to qualify their miles-per-gallon claims in advertisements.

5. BrE plonk: inexpensive (but generally drinkable) wine (i.e. not rotgut). For example, 'you order the pizza and I'll bring the plonk'. Suggested by @AuditorsEditor.

6. AmE to bus (a table): to clear dirty dishes (etc.) from a table at a restaurant. For example, 'please bus your own table'. Also busboy, busgirl: person employed to clear tables at a restaurant/cafe. This is different from 'clear the table' because it can't be used of a table at home. Suggested by @tjathurman

7. BrE horses for courses: means something like 'everyone has different skills, so choose right one for job'.

8. AmE columbusing: explained here. This one may have been premature, since it's a pretty new term, but it is used in circles I belong to.

9. BrE to faff: 'to act unproductively, with elements of dithering and procrastinating'. I find dictionary definitions of this wholly inadequate, and the indecisive element makes it for me rather different from fart around. But there's further discussion at the comments here.

10. AmE leaf-peeping: tourism for the purpose of looking at autumn foliage, done by leaf-peepers.  Suggested by @mwnciod.

11. BrE assessment: collective term (but also sometimes a count noun) for any and all work that contributes to the final mark for a course. That is, exams and/or coursework, considered together.

12. AmE to put in face time: I defined it as 'to make an appearance at social/family event for *just* long enough to meet obligation', but others say they use it for business/networking. The face time is the same, but in my experience the verbs are different--I want to get some face time with people I network with, but I have to put in some face time at a grandnephew's christening. Suggested by @Word_chucker.

13. AmE squirrelly: having a kind of nervous dementedness, hence untrustworthy (pronounced 'skwirly'). Suggested by @tonythorne007.

14. BrE throw a wobbly: This is a bit of a cheat, as it's originally Australian--but it is used liberally in the UK. Means something like 'to lose self-control (in anger or panic)'. I suggested freak out as a close AmE relative, but commenter @niblick_iii felt that 'throwing a wobbly has more connotations of being unnecessary or unreasonable than freaking out' (I'd agree). Also suggested by @tonythorne007.

15. AmE weekend warrior: someone who does an activity (especially a strenuous one) only on the weekend (originally used in relation to weekend military training). Suggested by Simon C.
16. BrE sticky wicket: Simon C (suggester) defines it: ‘tricky situation we can get out of if we really concentrate’. Closest AmE is probably in a pickle, but doesn't have that 'we can get out of it' connotation.

17.  AmE -grader: e.g. '5th grader'. For child of certain school year. In the BrE English and Welsh school system of the moment, there's no word that is different from the word for the year: e.g. the year 5s are going on a field trip. But perhaps not-so-different is -former, still heard in sixth-former, but previously heard with a broader range of 'forms'. See this old post for more on how school years work in the two countries. Suggested by @libraryjamie.

18. AmE klatch or klatsch, particularly coffee klat(s)ch: from German kaffeeklatsch: a group that meets informally for coffee and cake in someone's home. There is a long discussion of whether this is equivalent to BrE coffee morning in the comments at the previously mentioned post. The upshot is: it probably was equivalent in certain settings at one point, but these days coffee morning has a strong whiff of 'charity fundraiser' and may apply to larger events outside the home.  Suggested by @SamAreRandom.

19. BrE boffin: essentially egghead with positive connotations. (See this for more discussion.) Suggested by @n0aaa For copious use of it, see the Mitchell and Webb 'Big Talk' sketches.

20. AmE kibitz: (from Yiddish) 'to give unwanted advice (especially to players of a card game)

21. BrE santa’s grotto: a place where kids visit someone dressed as Santa (usually receiving a small gift). Of course, Americans have Santas in shopping malls, and such, but there you 'go see Santa', there's not a universal name for the nook where Santa sits. As a Twitter commenter noted, Americans (of a certain age) are more likely to associate grotto with Hugh Hefner.

22. BrE gubbins: Its individual senses may be translatable, but taken as a whole, it has so many that no one word will do. Here's Merriam-Webster's Unabridged entry for it:

And that is it! The fifth Untranslatable month finished. I'm collecting as if there will be a sixth, but we'll see...