Wednesday, July 16, 2014

America and Americans (p.s. England, Britain & UK!)

Here's an argument that doesn't fit well in 140 characters, but I'm constantly being confronted with it on Twitter (and in real life), so I hope you'll excuse me getting it out of my system so that I can just send people a link from now on.

This is the kind of thing I get:

I suggest you stop calling yourselves American. It is arrogant of people from the United States to call themselves Americans because America is a whole continent. They should be called [insert long-winded or whimsical epithet here].

So, let's break that argument down...

I suggest... It is arrogant...
Individuals from the USA call themselves American because that's the word we have. They typically don't have an imperialist agenda intent on taking over or obliterating other people in the western hemisphere, they're (we're) just using the word that's at hand. But let's unpack this a bit more.

Let's say I meet a young man named Tom Jones. Would it be appropriate for me to say to them "It is arrogant of you to call yourself Tom Jones because there's another one who's older and a much better singer than you!"?  Or "How arrogant of your parents to name you Tom Jones when there already was one!"?

That is, you're telling people from another country what to call themselves, and you think they're the arrogant ones?

America is a whole continent
On the model of continents generally taught in English-speaking nations, America is two continents: North America and South America.  In today's English, these are typically referred to collectively as the Americas. (And loosely, the term Western Hemisphere is sometimes used to refer to the same set of continents, though technically parts of Europe are in that hemisphere too.) There are some contexts in which American is used to refer to people/things from the Americas, as in the Organization of American States--but even they use the plural when referring to the continents: "Today, the OAS brings together all 35 independent states of the Americas" on their English site and (interestingly--is this just because of translation from English?) similar plurals on the Spanish, Portuguese and French pages.

All this is based on the seven-continent model that is generally used in the English-speaking world (and some other places too), but other models are taught in other countries. Another more geologically motivated six-continent model joins Europe and Asia into Eurasia, but still holds North America and South America to be different because they are on different tectonic plates.  The use of models that are more regional, perhaps, than geological, probably accounts for why it's often people from other European countries who write to me to complain about my use of America. (I had wondered why they had so much invested in it.) Wikipedia clarifies:
North America and South America are treated as separate continents in the seven-continent model. However, they may also be viewed as a single continent known as America. This viewpoint was common in the United States until World War II, and remains prevalent in some Asian six-continent models. This remains the more common vision in Latin American countries, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Greece, where they are taught as a single continent. From the 19th century some people used the term "Americas" to avoid ambiguity with the United States of America.

If the word refers to continent(s), it can't also refer to a country
Most words have more than one meaning. For instance day can mean a 24-hour period or the part of that 24-hour period when the sun is up. We don't insist when people use it in only one way, because it rarely causes us trouble and when there is trouble we have ways around it. Similarly, thinking of other place names, there are two New Yorks, a state and a city. When it matters, we distinguish between them. When it doesn't, we don't. Upstaters like me sometimes get annoyed when people say New York to mean the city and not the state, but we mostly get over it.

(When I travel, and people ask where I'm from, I say New York. They believe city; I mean state.  They don't mess with me; I don't make them listen to a geography lesson. No one suffers.)

So while there's nothing wrong with America or American having more than one meaning, we should acknowledge the fact that it has a dominant meaning, associated with a particular country. (And there are good reasons why that's the dominant meaning. We need to talk about the country more often than we need to talk about the two continents together, at least in English. And also, it's the name of the country--see below.)

Thus, the following uses of America/n are weird in English:

A: I went to America last summer.
B: Oh really? Where?
A: Venezuela.
B: ??
or
Brazil has a population of over 200 million people, almost all of them American.


People from the USA should be called...
This statement is usually concluded with something that no one knows how to pronounce, like USan or USAn or States(i)an or something. More importantly, it's a word or phrase that no one uses, so it'll be hard for anyone to understand your meaning if you start using it to avoid using American. On Twitter, because I need to pack a lot of meaning into a few characters, I do use the abbreviations USer and UKer, which I say in my head as 'you-ESS-er' and 'you-KAY-yer', but I have yet to say them outside my head. (And I sometimes get a little grief for it on Twitter.) I'm more tempted by UKer because of the geographical problems presented by British (see below).


The problem with all this is...
that the name of the country is America to the same extent that the name of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is Luxembourg and the name of the Republic of South Africa is South Africa. That is, official country names are generally the country's name + some description of the political organi{z/s}ation of the country. The description usually (in the English renderings of the name) precedes the country name, so I'll call it a 'prefix'. 

The US and the UK are a bit odd in that the prefixes to the country names are commonly used as names for the countries. So we hardly ever refer to Egypt as the Arab Republic of Egypt and we never refer to it just as the Arab Republic; we call it Egypt. But we do that kind of prefix-only reference to the United States and the United Kingdom. If anything's not fair, I'm going to say it's that. Mexico is also a United States. And United Kingdom is just plain sexist. But we'll muddle through because people understand what we mean when we use those terms (and the UK's proper name is just too much of a mouthful).

(I won't go into the States because I've blogged about that already.)

So I've gone (BrE) off piste in that this is not a US-UK difference. It's not even a bit of American usage that I hear British complaints about. (In fact,  Americans chastise me about it more than Brits do.) I could have just sent you to this Slate post about the same kind of thing. But thank you for letting me get it off my chest. 


P.S.  I'm sure someone would like to point out American misuse of England, British, etc. I'll just pause first to say: there are an awful lot of misuses of British and English in the UK as well and certainly a lot of misuses from countries other than America too. It's complicated. When these issues come up, I send folks to this video:

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

anti-clockwise and counterclockwise

I had to take/make a decision on how to hyphenate the title of this post--it could have been
anti-clockwise and counter-clockwise
anticlockwise and counter-clockwise
            or
anticlockwise and counterclockwise
but I went with (BrE) anti-clockwise and (AmE) counterclockwise because, as we've seen before, Americans are a bit more apt to close up prefixed words when given the chance to. 

@jaynefox requested this one as a Twitter 'Difference of the Day', but since it's been a month since my last post (shock! horror! marking/grading!), I'm easing myself back into blogging with something that can't get too out-of-hand, I hope.

So why do we have different words for going in a circle as if going backward(s) on a clock?  The earliest instance of clockwise in the OED is from 1888 (and it's clock-wise, adding all sorts of hyphenation possibilities). This tells us that its opposite is a good bet for transatlantic differences: the British colonists could not have taken it to America, so each nation was free to come up with its own version. It's not so clear that their origins really were in different countries, though.

The OED's first instance of counter-clockwise is in the same quote as the clock-wise one, from the Times (of London).  Their first for anti-clockwise is from 1898. But should we trust the OED on this one? Probably not. These entries have not been updated in a long, long time and the OED's use of American sources was pretty limited in the early years.


Merriam-Webster has a first attestation date of 1879 for anticlockwise, but doesn't give the source. Its counter-clockwise date is also 1888.

So, I've turned to Google Books. Do you know what? Google Books is a pain. Search for counterclockwise in 19th century books, and you'll find that a lot of books that Google Books thinks were published in the 19th century weren't.  So, searching 12 pages into the results, I've found a few cases of counter(-)clock(-)wise antedating:
I could not find anything before 1880 for anti-clockwise (there's a nautical almanac that Google's dated as 1858, but that particular almanac didn't start publication till 1877, according to Wikipedia...and there are other such mis-datings).  

So, anti-clockwise is looking mostly British, but counterclockwise seems to have been used in England as early as it was being used in the US.  No obvious first coinage here, so we can't tell a tale of different national origins. All we can say is that anti-clockwise never caught on in the US, and counterclockwise quickly fell out of favo(u)r in the UK.

Oh, I suppose I can't leave without saying something about pronunciation.  In BrE the second syllable of anti-clockwise is pronounced like tea. Americans often (but not always) pronounce anti- with a second syllable like tie, which can help in distinguishing it from ante-. Some discussion of the variation in AmE pronunciation of anti- can be found here. For me, it's partly on a word-by-word basis: 'tea' in anticlimax, but 'tie' in anti-Communist.  I think if I form a new word with it (say, if I'm anti-pigeon), I'd pretty regularly use 'tie'. But that's what I think. And we're all pretty bad rememberers of what we do say and we're often bad judges of what we would say.  So, unless someone records me unawares saying antipigeon, we may never know...

Friday, June 06, 2014

'the newspaper' and more on the written word

Tonight (22:00/10pm) people in the UK (and maybe abroad?) will be able to hear a new instal(l)ment of The Verb "Radio 3's cabaret of the word". [It's downloadable for the next 7 days.]  I was invited to talk about a piece I'd written a few months ago about American attitudes to dictionaries and, by extension, the written word. And it was a lovely time. The other guests were Nathaniel Mann (with his collaborator, violinist Daniel Merrill) and Nicholson Baker, whose writing I've long admired (and who was contributing over the phone from Maine; as a friend of mine pointed out, I was on the phone with the inventor of phone sex). The host, Ian McMillan, is not only a great radio host and performer, but also a great actual host, as were the rest of the staff there. Who knew we'd get apples before and cake after?

But, of course, one prepares for such events and then one is a bit disappointed when one misses the opportunities to say every fascinating (to oneself, at least) thing that one's thought of. In particular, that I've thought of. So, I'm typing this on the train back from the recording. L'esprit de railway.

The original essay and the radio piece both make a big thing out of what may be a very little thing: some evidence of differences in attitude to the written word in the US and UK. My contention is that Americans like written authorities, while the British tend not to turn to the written word as authority as much. On the program(me) I talk about dictionaries, the Bible, supreme courts, and constitutions, as I did in the original essay. In the course of it, I get a Winston Churchill quotation wrong (he actually said: "The English never draw a line without blurring it.") and miss the opportunity to point out a couple of things I had enjoyed discovering this week. So I'll tell you about them now.

The Supreme Court strikes (some dictionaries) again!
On the topic of U.S. Supreme Court use of dictionaries, a particular example of it arose this week. The case, Bond v. United States, involved the question of whether a wife putting caustic powders on her husband's pregnant lover's doorknobs could be prosecutable under the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act. The Court unanimously said 'no', and the opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, cites seven different dictionaries — from Johnson's to the 3rd edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (why not the 4th or the 5th?) — in defining weapon and treaty. The two cited definitions of weapon define them as instruments of combat, and Roberts then shifts from dictionary evidence to evidently out-of-his-hat proclamations about "natural parlance", i.e. 'But no speaker in natural parlance would describe Bond's feud-driven act of spreading irritating chemicals on Haynes's door knob and mailbox as "combat."' American Heritage (4th edn) defines combat as 'To oppose in battle; fight against.'. Was Bond fighting against Haynes? Does this mean that, say, the Sarin was not a chemical weapon when it was used in a Tokyo train because the passengers weren't in a battle? Heck, does it mean that a gun used in domestic violence is not a weapon? We can see that court usage of dictionary definitions is a bit wobbly. Or scary, if you prefer. I'm not saying that the use of a rash-inducing caustic powder in a domestic dispute should be subject to international treaties about chemical weapons. But I am saying that if you're going to use a dictionary to support your opinion, you shouldn't hop back and forth between using it and ignoring it. And you probably shouldn't be using it that much at all. (By the way, Slate magazine hails the Chief Justice's "comic stylings" in this case. Yes, Americans can do irony.)

the newspaper?
While thinking further about how we talk about the dictionary even though there are many dictionaries, I wondered about use of the newspaper.  People say things like I read the newspaper every day or I read about that in the newspaper. But, of course, it's a particular newspaper title that they read every day, and it was a particular issue of a particular title that they read a particular fact in. (There's a reason why newspaper is the word that I use to teach first-year students about polysemy.) Saying the newspaper in these contexts, like when people say the dictionary, gives the impression that it's immaterial whether there is more than one possible newspaper that you could be referring to, since it is the news they're telling you. (In contrast, people don't talk generically about how to read the book or say that they read a fact in the book, unless it's clear from context which book they're talking about.) I wondered: do we see a difference in this use of the in AmE and BrE?  Well, I wouldn't be feeling the need to tell you about it if we didn't.

Using the Corpus of Global Web-Based English again, I looked at various newspaper phrases. British websites were about as apt as the American to have the phrases read a newspaper and read in a newspaper. But when we put a the in there, the scale(s) tip(s) to the American, with 106 American instances of read the newspaper to 45 British ones, and 23 American read in the newspaper to 9 British.  (I also didn't get to note that fellow-guest Nicholson Baker has an essay called 'Reading the paper' about newspaper-reading [in his case the New York Times] in his collection The Way the World Works.) This difference is probably much to do with the fact that American newspapers are meant to be 'objective' and 'impartial', while British ones wear their political positions more obviously.  If one believes that all the news is impartially reported in all the newspapers, then, the thinking might go, the news in the papers is interchangeable. (The fact that any news above the local level is likely to be coming from a wire service makes this almost true in some cases.) The American ideal of impartial print media (and until Fox News, broadcast media were held to the same standards) seems tied up with the value of the printed word in American culture.

Iain in the comments mentions 'in the papers" (note: I did newspaper rather than  paper because of the ambiguity of the latter--both are used in AmE & BrE). The plural there acknowledges that there is not a single paper, so more use of the plural would go along with the claim I'm making above (which, I must underscore, is a thought-experiment, like the original dictionary piece. I'm seeing how far I can go with it. And then I might go somewhere else with it!).  Looking at GloBWE again, each country (US, CA, UK, IE, AU, NZ) has only one instance of read it in the newspapers.  But for read the newspapers there are 33 US and 63 UK examples, making it reasonably more frequent in BrE. So the plural form doesn't undermine the thought-experiment.  But keep experimenting!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Who is ruining/spoiling/destroying English?

This is NOT a serious post. Nothing here stands up to particularly good academic standards. But I just wasted some time in the corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) and thought I'd share this with you in order to make me feel better about the time-wastage.

I wanted to see who blames whom for 'ruining English language, so I looked in GloBWE because it conveniently divides things into country categories like this:



I looked for the verbs spoil, ruin and destroy (with -s, -ed/t, and -ing endings too) with the word language three words before or seven words after the verb. (I also tried it with English instead of language and all most all the results were about BrE football/AmE soccer, so I gave up on that.)  Then I looked at the texts and (a) reassigned the categories if it was obviously a person from another country writing (a couple of the US ones have British writers) and (b) tried to determine who (or if I couldn't find a who, then what) is responsible for the degradation of the language according to these writers. Most of the results were from US and UK--in part because these parts of the corpus are bigger and in part because people in other countries were often worried about other languages (in these cases it may have been English doing the ruining).

So, here's who ruins the English language, according to various people.
UK US
people who say like a lot people who say like a lot
PC police liberalism
hypothetical Nazi victory the French
reality television immigration
Americans "wretched burn-outs"
Americans southerners
Americans slothful abbreviation

(Australia is the only other country for which I got more than one result. There it's the commercialism of modern literary publishing and feminists who are to blame, apparently.)


For good measure, here's the first things I get when I google the question "who is ruining the English language?". It was interesting that no one blamed technology/texting in the corpus:



Happy Friday!

P.S.  I'm on Radio 3's The Verb on Friday 6 June talking about British and American dictionaries. Should be on iPlayer for a week after.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

sandwiches, more particularly bacon sandwiches

On Fridays, I sit and work in a cafe with a little group of writing friends, and I've got(ten) into the habit of ordering the same thing for lunch each week (just because it makes calorie-counting easier). Giving me what I've ordered has, alas, not become the habit of the (AmE) waitstaff. So, when my special order was agreed-to but not delivered at a new cafe, I grumpily posted the following on Facebook:



To quote myself, from the previous toast post:
Now, I endeavo(u)r to maintain a descriptive rather than prescriptive attitude toward(s) language on this blog, but I have no hesitation in being prescriptive about toast.
That little Facebook post generated more than 40 comments and 2 additional Facebook posts that afternoon. Then I tweeted about it.  All of this was pretty catastrophic for my productivity that day. But, TOAST!

There are two cross-cultural differences that may have triggered my unsatisfactory lunch. The first is a fairly linguistic problem: the on.  The second is a culinary-cultural problem that is linguistic to the extent that it involves the meaning of sandwich.  And appended to that is the bacon sandwich problem.

Problem 1:  on 
The on problem is that I used an AmE meaning for on in my on toast. This usage would be recogni{s/z}ed by a lot of Brits from television, hearing people order a pastrami on rye or some such. (See my past discursion about semantic drift in the naming of pastrami sandwiches here. Note: I've never seen a sandwich on rye bread anywhere but on American television while in the UK.) But on is not what would be said in BrE, especially for toast, because this idiomatic use of on clashes with BrE use of on toast, as in scrambled egg on toast. There, the egg is put on a slice of toast*, but no sandwich is made. (Americans might call it an open-face(d) sandwich--on toast.)

Some overly pedantic British commenters at my FB/Twitter posts (you know who you are) insisted that I had asked for a bacon sandwich placed on top of a piece of toast.* I call them 'overly pedantic' because while I may not always get what I want when I place this order, no one has ever tried to give me a sandwich atop a piece of toast. It is a possible interpretation, but not one that any waiter would go for. To make it known that I wanted the sandwich bread to be toasted, my English friends tell me I should say with toast, but I fear that I might get a side order of toast in this case. I have since had success asking for (and receiving) my sandwich by saying "could the bread be toasted, please?"

If I had said I wanted a toasted bacon sandwich, I would have got(ten) another thing: cooked bacon put between bread and then heated in a (BrE) sandwich toaster/(AmE) [toasted] sandwich maker (or more recently: panini maker). At one of the cafes we work in, such sandwiches are pre-assembled and put in an opaque, label(l)ed bag, which one can select and then hand to the person at the counter, who toasts it for you. It's ok, but not as good as a bacon sandwich on/made with toast. This is my opinion. Or it may be a fact.

Problem 2: the sandwich problem
I've dealt with the sandwich problem before at the baked goods post. Let me just quote myself again:
As an American, I can make a sandwich using sliced bread, a roll, a bagel, whatever. In the UK, sandwiches are made with sliced bread, and anything else is called by the name of the bread it's in--for example, a ham and cheese baguette. A bacon roll is bacon inside a roll that's been sliced in half (usually with ketchup or brown sauce), and is a popular hangover treatment.
Add to the list of things Americans can make sandwiches with: toast. You might think that's the same thing as sliced bread. You might be wrong. (I love this old Calvin & Hobbes comic that recogni{s/z}es that it isn't.)  I have seen British sandwiches toasted (again: the old toastie post), but I can't recall seeing any made with toast. Lots of open-faced things on toast (eggs, sautéed mushrooms, [AmE] canned/[BrE] tinned spaghetti or beans, about which another post must be written), but not with another piece of bread on top.  Americans make lots of sandwiches with toast, particularly when breakfast foods are involved. I couldn't believe it the first time I saw Better Half make a fried egg sandwich with untoasted bread and ketchup.

Of course, when such disagreements occur, one is bound to hear an English person say 'but we invented the sandwich, so we get to say what it is'. I note/ask here (a) putting things between bread was happening a long time before the 4th Earl of Sandwich had the thing named after him, (b) who is this we who invented [or named] sandwiches? You weren't there. The world of foodstuffs-between-bread has changed between the 18th century and now, and you weren't even around for most of that. It's like when football fans (of either type) say "we won!" No, you didn't. You watched someone else win. You may have enjoyed it, but you didn't do it. But there is no doubt that the English are serious about sandwiches. Here's one of three sandwich-filled fridges in a shop in Brighton station. My American food sensibilities generally keep me from buying any of them.




One of my English FB friends responded to my desire for a bacon sandwich on toast with "No such thing. A sandwich is a sandwich, on toast is on toast." To which some Americans replied "but a club sandwich is always on toast". I'm not sure that's always absolutely true (but Wikipedia seems to agree with them), but it is typical. And it's something that's escaped the attention of some dictionary-writers, including the OED:



Problem 2': the bacon butty problem
The other thing that Americans said was: "a BLT is always best on toast". So here is the crux of our problem. Not only do we have different sandwich cultures. We have very specific different bacon sandwich cultures.

To Americans, the prototypical bacon sandwich is the BLT (or bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich).  It's usually made with mayonnaise and the bread is usually toasted. Like so:



To the English, the prototypical bacon sandwich  is the bacon butty aka bacon sarnieJust bacon and optionally ketchup or brown sauce on (usually) buttered, untoasted bread (supposedly brown sauce is the more northern way to have it, but most people I know down south prefer it that way too, as do I). (The Wikipedia entry for this is pretty [BrE] rubbish. C'mon UK Wikipedians! Priorities!) This (orig. AmE in this sense) guy took this photo to celebrate his Father's Day breakfast:





And this picture looks just like what I get in the cafes, but they give me much less bacon (which is good for the calorie-counting, not so good for the sandwich). I must note here that in both the non-toasting cafes, the thing on the menu was bacon butty.  So my whole trying-to-get-toast thing was probably doomed from the start.

   


* According to GloWBE, slice of toast is much more common in BrE (63 instances) than in AmE (8), but both can have a piece of toast. The differences are not so clear if one looks at piece/slice of bread.

P.S. [6 June 2014] I forgot about rounds! In BrE, people talk about rounds of toast and rounds of sandwichesI always find this confusing. Here's the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary definition:

8 (British English) a whole slice of bread; sandwiches made from two whole slices of bread
  • Who's for another round of toast?
  •  two rounds of beef sandwiches
So, if it's toast, it's one slice of bread. But if it's a sandwich it's two. If it's cheese on toast, it's one. If it's a cheese toastie, it's two. Got to get that into my head. Except that I just ordered what is described on the menu at this café as "Toast and jam - a round of white or multi-cereal bread..." And I got two slices.  No wonder I get confused. 

And why rounds of sandwiches? Is there any difference in meaning between two beef sandwiches and two rounds of beef sandwiches?  Answers in a comment, please!








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Until I get my act together and revamp the blog to have this info in a margin, I'm going to continue to commit acts of shameless self-promotion at the ends of posts.

Upcoming talks:
And I'm halfway through my year of providing mini-essays on British idioms to Focus (UK) magazine, if you're interested.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

common or garden, garden-variety, bog-standard, regular

It's Tuesday night! I'm supposed to be blogging! It's already 10! What will be quick to write about?!

Let's go with the item in a recent email exchange with the famous (if you read the comments section here) David Crosbie. But before I do that: thanks to David and to all the other commenters here who add so much to this blog. I'm (orig. AmE) taking a back seat on comment-replying these days, and I'm really grateful to all of you who fill in so much great information from so many different perspectives here.

So, anyway, we were having a conversation about certain comments on the site and I said "I think it's just (AmE) garden-variety spam", which he pointed out would be common or garden spam in BrE, which the OED lists as "a jocular substitute for 'common' or 'ordinary'". The same description works for garden-variety. They're descriptions that would be used for a variety of plant or animal that is the 'ordinary' kind that you would find in your garden, extended to a more general use. Both have had this kind of figurative use since about the beginning of the 20th century.

David also reminded me of an arguably more coarse (but more frequent) BrE synonym, bog-standard. That's come up in passing here because it's always used in my house when Better Half offers people tea: 'Do you want Earl Grey or bog-standard?' (The usual reply: 'bog-standard'.)  Keeping with my aim to blog quickly tonight, I'm going to let the OED tell you about the etymology:

Origin uncertain; perhaps an alteration of box-standard adj. (although this is first attested later), after bog n.4


Differing theories of the origin of bog-standard have been proposed, but none proven. An immediate association with bog n.1 seems unlikely on semantic grounds. The most commonly held view is that the transition from box to bog resulted from a mishearing or misunderstanding of box-standard n.
Others have suggested a derivation < bog-wheel, former Cambridge slang for a bicycle, though ultimately also related to bog n.4: see P. Beale Conc. Dict. Slang (1989) 47/2, 48/1.

The  bog n.4 they're referring to is the BrE slang use of the term for a latrine (which I somehow failed to mention in the toilet post). Bog n.1 is the 'swamp' [orig. AmE] meaning.

I can't think of a similarly slangy AmE equivalent, but what AmE does have is regular to mean 'ordinary'.  The OED (again) lists it as:
6 a. Having the usual, typical, or expected attributes, qualities, parts, etc.; normal, ordinary, standard. Now chiefly U.S.
That meaning has given rise to other AmE meanings:
 d. Chiefly N. Amer. Of food and drink: having the usual or typical constituents, as distinguished from some other defined category of the same foodstuff; unmodified; not distinguished by any peculiarity of quality, preparation, presentation, etc.
 e. orig. U.S. Normal, average, or standard with reference to a predetermined scale or system of categorization; belonging to the category or class considered to be standard.
 The last of these has come into BrE with McDonald's and Starbucks, and one sees it often in non-US-owned coffee shops now. And it's one of those things that some BrE speakers like to complain to me about. In fact, an American David who works at Sussex with me emailed me a few months ago about his run-in with a 'regular' correcter:
[H]ave you ever covered "regular" which, in AmE, can mean something like the bog standard or ordinary, but, in BrE seems to never have that meaning?  I asked for "regular flavour" crisps at the Bridge Cafe, some years ago, and a perky, apparently British woman informed me that "regular" is a frequency. She was probably one of your linguistics colleagues.  :-)

So, I managed a blog post in less than an hour by quoting liberally from dictionaries and emails. Score!


Before I go, some dates and places where I'll be speaking about linguistic stuff for general audiences:


And if you're interested in what goes on in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sussex (woo hoo!!), check out our new events blog. (You can also follow us on Twitter @SussexLinguist.)


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

hire and rent

I promised @matthewddsg weeks ago that this would be the next blog entry. Then I did another one instead and had to write other things for other places. So here it is, not quite a month since I promised it. For me, that's pretty good!

The upshot: in BrE one hires things (and sometimes places), employs people, and rents places; in AmE one hires people and rents things or places. That said, one hears hire for people in BrE too, but just not as much as one does in AmE. And employ is not particularly non-American, it's just overwhelmed by hire there. Both have let for what the landlord might do and lease for certain things (e.g. long-term non-ownership of cars, I think). It'll probably be easiest if I go through these verbs one at a time.

rent
Rent can refer to the act of letting something to someone (I rented some land to him) or to the act of paying someone to use their something (I rented some land from him). This is old news--since the Middle Ages when it came into English from French. The OED notes one sense that is 'chiefly North American' which means 'To be hired out for or let at a certain rate', as in (their example):
1992   Albuquerque (New Mexico) Monthly Oct. 37/2 (captionThe tux, suitable for any performance in Albuquerque's doubtful performing arts center, rents for $55 and sells for $425.
But why does AmE use rent for things besides (now particularly AmE) real estate and BrE doesn't so much? The first examples the OED has of non-real-estate rented things are American: a guide in 1817, boats in 1895 and pianos in 1903. Comparing rent a boat with hire a boat in American English via Google Ngrams, one can see how recent this change is:



So, use of rent for non-real-estate seems to be an American innovation, possibly motivated by more limited use of hire and/or by the advent of so-called rent-a-car companies in the 1920s. 

I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for nouns that came one or two words after rent a. The top 10 are: car, room, house, movie, boat, bike, video, place, canoe, kayak. Further down the list we get tuxedo, horse, harp and grandchild. Compare this to the British National Corpus, where the top 5 (because it is a smaller corpus) are: room, house, place, car, villa. (And half of the six rent a car examples are in the names of American companies.)

Americans can even rent time, for example (from the San Francisco Chronicle, via COCA):
He pays $10 an hour to rent studio time and pays to rent equipment when he goes on remote
While one can find British examples of rent studio time, the more common phrase would be to book studio time, using the much-more-BrE-than-AmE sense of book to mean 'reserve'. Book in this sense often gets extended beyond the action of reserving the room/time so as to include the using of the thing that was reserved.

A particularly British use of rent is noted by the OED (my emphasis):
In various extended and humorous (typically derogatory) uses, suggesting the temporary acquisition or instant availability of the person or thing specified, usually for an expedient or mercenary purpose; spec. (chiefly Brit.) denoting a faction of regular, esp. violent, participants in public protests, in rent-a-crowd, rent-a-mob, etc. See also rent-a-cop n., rent-a-quote adj. and n.
But note that it's only rent-a-mob/crowd that is British. Rent-a-cop is label(l)ed as 'N. Amer. depreciative', and all of these humorous extensions have the American rent-a-car (BrE car hire) to thank for their existence.

hire
Hiring people and hiring things both go back to at least the 13th century. So this is not a case of either nation making up new meanings, but of the 'thing' meaning dying out in AmE and gaining prevalence in BrE.

I searched the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) for nouns that occurred one or two words after hire a*. The * there allows it to be 'a' or 'an' (or 'any' or 'all' or anything else that starts with a-; other words are less likely to be frequent and therefore influence the outcome--but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened; see below). This is my way of looking for direct objects of hire. The software on the website calculates which words co-occur (or collocate, to use the jargon) with the search string in higher-than expected rates for each dialect. Here are the strongest collocates:


AmEBrE
employeecar
Americansbike
bunch[fire]
attorney
person
lawyer
contractor
consultant

This is not to say that it's not real British English to 'hire a person', just that such uses don't stand out in the data. Hire in BrE is not a magnet for the word person like it is in AmE.

To give a broader sense of the kinds of things one can hire in BrE, the top 10 nouns after hire a in the (20ish-year-old) British National Corpus are: car, video, house, boat, bike, minibus, van, room, plane, helicopter.  There's a distinction to be made here between hiring a room and renting a room. One hires a room for an event; one rents a room to live in.

In the case of fire in the BrE list, it seems to be that the verb fire has been mislabel(l)ed as a noun by the software that automatically tags words for part of speech. In this case, it represents the phrase hire and fire. So, that one is about doing something to people, but it seems to be part of a nearly-set phrase (it's used much more in the BrE part of the corpus than the AmE part).

employ
Because hire is used so much, employ (orig. AmE) loses out in AmE. Searching GloBWE for employ a *man (which would capture employ a woman/a man/a postman, etc. but conveniently leaves out employ a metaphor or anything like that), I found 16 BrE examples and 0 AmE ones.

let
I've already covered this one briefly. Both AmE and BrE have this word with the meaning 'to rent out', but BrE has developed an intransitive sense that means 'to be let'. Thus one sees UK properties advertised as 'to let' where US ones would be 'for rent'. Click on the link to see what happens to 'to let' signs (if you can't imagine it).

lease
To lease is the same in AmE & BrE. But I can't leave this post without mentioning that the British may get a new lease of life, while Americans get a new lease on life. Not a verb there, but if I hadn't mentioned it, someone would have asked for it in the comments, I'm sure.

postscript
Wrote this late at night, so glad to see a lot of good info on the fine points of employ/hire in the comments!