yankee in GDoS

I was reading the print version of Ernest (No. 4, I think, which I received a while ago as a gift for speaking at Brighton's Catalyst Club) and one of the short bits at the front was about a Yankee dodge. This was what British surgeon Robert Liston called the use of ether as an an(a)esthetic. Yankee because the method was developed in the US.

First use of ether in dental surgery,
from the Wellcome Collection
Within the US, yankee can mean more specifically "New Englander" or at least "northerner". Was this a yankee dodge in both the regional and national senses of the word? The first published-about use of inhaled-ether-as-an(a)esthetic was in Boston, Massachusetts in 1846 by William T. G. Morton (pictured right), and that's what got the attention of Liston. Morton was a Yankee for sure, in all senses of the word. But he spent the rest of his life defending his reputation as the "inventor" of an(a)esthesia because Crawford Long, a surgeon from Madison County, Georgia, had been using ether for some time. He just hadn't published about it. Long is less yankee than Morton from an American perspective, but from a British perspective, it's all yankee enough.

Anyhow...this got me thinking about the email in my inbox announcing the online publication of Green's Dictionary of Slang, which includes all the material from Jonathan Green's 2010 book of the same title plus further additions. Green also does fantastic slang timelines, which show the richness of the slang for topics like sex, drunkenness, and death over the ages. Green's work is especially thorough on underworld slangs, and while he's based in London, his attention does envelop other countries as well. So, I wondered: what comes up for yankee there?

This is just the (first) noun entry for yankee. The sub-entries vary in place of origin: (unmarked) British, US, and Australian. There may be some British association of yankee with cheating or taking a shortcut (cf. Yankee dodge), but in Australia, the stereotype used is miserliness, which in the US is more specifically a stereotype of New Englanders (found later Green's verb entry for to yankee 'to cheat'. 

SE here means 'standard English'. So, the first compound uses a slang sense to make a slang compound, and the later ones use the standard-English meaning of yankee 'American' to make further slang compounds.

Above is what you can see if you don't subscribe. If you subscribe (or better yet, get your library to subscribe), you get timelines and quotations as well that make the whole experience a lot richer.

Pretty! Not to mention: Informative!

I won't reproduce all the Yankee/yank entries here, but there are more for the exploring at the site.

In the interest of balance (and entertainment), here is some of the adjective entry for English. (A nickname like Brit would have been more balanced with yankee, but there were no particularly US senses there. Actually, limey would have been a good one to look at, but a reputation for vitamin-C deficiency isn't as amusing as a reputation for spanking).

This all might seem like a paid-for ad(vert) for Green's dictionary. It's not. It's a sincere appreciation of a thing of beauty and a celebration that modern technology makes such things more available and adaptable. It's also a little reminder that this kind of work deserves support. Labo(u)rs of lexicographical love shouldn't be taken for granted.
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The news around Donald Trump's rapey caught-on-tape comments has seen the word lewd bandied around quite a bit, and I've seen a fair amount of complaint about its use to describe what Trump said. It didn't really occur to me that this might be a transatlantic problem when Alan Rew kindly pointed this tweet in my direction:
Photo via CNN.
Sorry, I needed a picture.

...because I'm sympathetic to the idea that lewd is not bad enough a word for something that actually suggests and promotes sexually assaulting women. It seemed not-right-to-me in either dialect. But then Garrett Wollman pointed out:

And that pushed me to think: Is there actually a difference? Do American newspapers and broadcasters use the word because it is a legally correct word in the US for something like this?

Hoping for some insight, I checked the kinds of authorities American news organi{s/z}ations might use: the AP Style Guide and Garner's Modern Usage. Neither says a thing about lewd, so I don't know that newswriters are getting any particular instruction to use that word.

Is it used more in American law? These things are hard to compare country-to-country because so much of American law is at the state level. Searching the US Legal Code at the House of Representatives site, I found 19 federal laws using the word lewd, including the phrase lewd acts, which is at times contrasted with the more serious sexual acts, which seem to be more precisely defined. In other cases, lewd is used to refer to pornography (or a subset thereof). Choosing a state to search, I used California. Currently there are 50 laws on the books with the word lewd in them.

Looking at UK law was harder (maybe there are easier ways to do it than I know). Legislation.gov.uk is searchable, but it includes all laws back to the 13th century, including out-of-date material, and I don't see a way to limit the search to only current laws (though it does let you search particular dates). So I got 50 hits for lewd, but the results are crowded with legislation that's been replaced by other legislation that may or may not include many of the same words.

But it does seem to be the case that lewd is used more in Scottish law than other UK places. For example, in the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 [pdf link], lewd occurs once, but only in a listing of Sexual Offences in Scotland, this one being "Lewd, indecent or libidinous behaviour or practices". The England and Wales listing has no lewd crime. (Lewdly also occurs in the document, but then it's just noting that the current law is removing that word from a 19th-century law "as it extends to Northern Ireland".)

As for how lewd is used in non-legislative text, the Corpus of Global Web-Based English shows that Americans are more likely than Britons to talk about the lewdness in terms of things that are done (lewd behavior, lewd conduct) and Britons tend more (but not as much more) to associate lewd with things that are said (lewd comments).  (The darker the green, the stronger the statistical difference.)

I would assume that this is related to the prevalence of lewd acts (the phrase, not the deeds) in American legislation.  But I'd welcome any insight from those in the legal know.

And speaking of the Donald, I've written a piece for Quartz on Trump's use of the in contexts like the African-Americans. You can say one thing for Trump. He's keeping the linguists busy.

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comma, vocative: a birthday experiment

Last week, Allan Metcalf wrote about commas disappearing from around vocatives. A vocative is a direct address to a person, such as the reader in the following examples:
Reader, let me tell you something about commas.
Let me tell you something about commas, reader.
If you think, reader, that I'm not going to tell you about commas, think again.
I used commas here to separate reader from the rest of the sentence, because reader isn't a grammatical part of the sentence. It floats on a different plane from the subject and predicate.

Metcalf was noticing that many people were not using commas, and I got a good dose of noticing that today when I received birthday messages on social media. What I wondered was: do British people use the comma less?

I have good reason for asking the question with that particular bias. Americans use a lot more commas than Brits do. Like that first comma in the blog post (Last week, ). Americans are much more likely to put a comma after an adverbial phrase at the start of the sentence. In the Corpus of Global Web-based English, the American texts have about 10% more commas than the British ones.

So here's my little experiment.

Research question: Is there a national difference in vocative comma usage?

Hypothesis: American birthday greetings have more vocative commas than British ones.

Data and Method: I went through the birthday greetings I received today on Facebook, Twitter, and email and looked for ones that were:
  • from an American or a Briton (I discounted any that were by people who were originally from another country)
  • with a vocative: Happy birthday(,) Lynne was the most common form. 
I then counted how many did and did not have commas from each country.

Results: My hypothesis is supported. Though the comma is at risk in both places, it seems stronger in the US, where 61% of the vocatives had commas, versus 27% in the UK.

comma none
UK 8 22
US 14 9

Caveats: I have not accounted for age, level of education, or profession here. I'd guess that my British friends on Facebook are younger on average, just because I'm friends with more former students from the UK and they were students more recently than any US students I've had. That said, there weren't all that many former students using vocatives.

You know the birthday celebrations are getting rowdy when someone starts counting the commas.

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Announcing Untranslatable October VI

On Twitter, I usually post a 'Difference of the Day' between British and American English every weekday. But for the past five Octobers, I've done the Untranslatable of the Day.
The moment I start tweeting about 'untranslatables' I expect to receive tweets and emails complaining about the concept, particularly that 'nothing is untranslatable'. That's why I write this self-plagiarizing introductory blog post each year. 
Yes, 'untranslatable' is not a very useful concept. I use it because it's shorter and more familiar than what I really mean: 'Lexicalized in a particular variety of English, but not another' That is, the concept may be expressable in the other English, but it hasn't been packaged as a lexical item--i.e. a word or an idiom--in every variety of English.

Comparing which concepts warrant lexicalized (belongs-in-a-dictionary) expressions in a language can be interesting from a cultural perspective. They tell us things about working conditions, social relations, and other good stuff. Sometimes they make us think "yeah, I need a word for that!" and there the word is to borrow. 
So, I repeat again the clarifications about Untranslatable October that I've given before:
  • I'm only talking about the relationship between British and American English here (as is my theme). These expressions may well have equivalents in other languages or dialects.  
  • By Untranslatable I mean that there is no lexicali{z/s}ed equivalent in the other dialect. And by lexicali{z/s}ed I mean that the expression is a word or an idiom--something that language users learn through hearing others say it, rather than something that has been made up anew.
    One can translate things by making up new sentences or phrases that describe the same thing, sure. But it's special when a language has lexicali{z/s}ed an  expression for something--it tells us something about the culture that invented and uses that expression.
  • Many of these have started to be borrowed between the dialects--and that's natural. If it's a useful expression and the other dialect doesn't have it, it's a prime candidate for international migration.
  • If you have not heard of the word before (even though I've said it comes from your country), then I hope that you might celebrate that you've learned a new expression, rather than complain to me that it's not 'really' American or British. Please know that I'm not posting them without some research, and none of us has a complete vocabulary. That said, if you can improve on my definitions, challenge the 'untranslatability' or give other insight into the untranslatables, please let me know!
  • If it's a word for a thing that isn't found in the other country, it doesn't count. That is, it's not Americans don't have a word for Eccles cake, it's that Americans don't have Eccles cakes
  • I'm grateful for suggestions of additional untranslatables (though they may not make UotD status until next year), but I won't repeat any expressions that have been used in previous Octobers. The lists for each October are accessible by clicking on the 'untranslatable' label in the right margin, the bottom of this post, or, conveniently, here: untranslatable.
    There are also search boxes at the top and in the right margin of this blog. (The one in the margin works much better.) So please have a quick search before making suggestions, in order to cut down on the time that I spend responding to suggestions. (This is all voluntary on my part, please remember!)

Each year I've wondered: can I really keep this up for a(nother) month? Are there that many concepts that are put into words or idioms in Britain or the U.S., but not the other country? Well, we've come up with more than 100 so far, and this year, I kept a file of UotD suggestions all through the year and can say with confidence that there are enough for a sixth go-round. But unlike in other years, I've not been able to balance the number of British and American untranslatables. I've got lots of British ones. Please feel free to send more American ones my way! 
Untranslatables (like Differences of the Day) will appear at 3pm British time (10am US east coast) each weekday on Twitter till the 31st. If you don't use Twitter, you can see them in the Twitter feed to the right here, or wait for the summary at the end of the month. In any case, I hope you enjoy them! 
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Grover was off (AmE from) school yesterday (because of a (BrE) dodgy tummy, and we had the following exchange:

G: Is there a fruit called currant?
Me: Yes, there's blackcurrant and redcurrant.
G:  No, but is there any such thing as a currant?
Me: Yes. Black and red.
G:  But is anything called currant?
Me: Yes, black currant and red currant.*

G: But I'm talking about currant.
Me: OK. There are berries called currants. And they come in different types. And one is black and the other is red.
G: Ohhhh. OK.
*I'm not even getting into white currants here, which are from redcurrant bushes. The conversation is confusing enough.

The problem in our conversation became clear to me the fourth time she asked her question. In BrE blackcurrant and redcurrant are compound nouns. Since they're one word, they only have one primary stress (i.e. syllable you emphasi{s/z}e most in speaking). You can hear a compound/non-compound stress difference in She was a greengrocer versus The martian was a green grocer. In our house (among[st] the Englishpeople) it's the first syllable that's stressed in the currant compounds:  BLACKcurrant and REDcurrant. But the pronunciation guides in UK dictionaries tend to give it as blackCURrant'. At any rate, not BLACK CURrant, which is what they'd be as separate words.

So G wasn't necessarily recogni{s/z}ing them as separable words. To her, asking this question was like hearing about (AmE) automobiles and (AmE) bloodmobiles and wanting to know if there are vehicles called mobiles (MO-beelz).

For me, it seemed evident that there must be currants. Of course, I have more life experience than the eight-year-old. And, perhaps relevantly, I came to currants as an American.

Earlier this week, Kathy Flake pointed out an article answering the question "Why does the purple Skittle taste different outside America?" Both of us had wondered (as I'm sure many other transatlantic types have done): why is everything blackcurrant flavo(u)red in the UK, and never grape flavo(u)red? To quote the article:

Most American mouths have never tasted the sweet yet tart tang of the blackcurrant berry. There’s a big reason for that: in the early 20th century, the growing of blackcurrants was banned on a federal level in the U.S. after legislators discovered that the plants, brought over from Europe, had become vectors for a wood-destroying disease known as white pine blister rust.
During the 1960s, the federal ban on the berry was relaxed in favor of state-by-state jurisdiction, and most states now allow it to be grown. But the damage had already been done—the blackcurrant jams, juices, pastries and cakes that are standard throughout Europe are nowhere to be found stateside.
Americans use the Concord grape, developed in the US and used in juices, (AmE) jellies [discussed in the comments in the linked post], grape pies (a local special[i]ty where I'm from), and grape flavo(u)ring. It turns out that these grapes are very susceptible to another plant disease, so it's probably best not to export those either. The main thing the grapes and blackcurrants have in common is that they're purple--necessary if you want people to "taste the rainbow".

So when I moved to the UK, I knew about currants in the way I know about lutefisk. It's something other people eat somewhere else, about which I have only secondhand knowledge. 
Did I know that they came in black and red types? Could I imagine what a fresh one looked or tasted like? I can't remember now what I didn't know then. But the knowledge was vague. I certainly didn't know that the black and red types were represented by joined-up compound nouns. I'd have imagined them more like red grapes and white grapes, where they're separate words. And if they're two separate words, then the stress pattern for saying them may well be less compound-like. But not necessarily. We often don't close up compounds, even when they do follow the compound stress pattern--e.g. ICE cream. But when they are closed, how to pronounce them is less ambiguous.

And I've only just this minute learned that the dried fruit currant is not the same as the currants I've met here (see the Merriam-Webster definition below). I may have to revise my answer to Grover.

So that's what's in currant buns. Seriously, I just thought they used some kind of low-quality currant berries in currant buns. So, my answer to G was not particularly helpful. Yes, there are currants, but in BrE, they're rarely the same thing as blackcurrant

After my day mostly home with Grover, this tweet was thrown my way:
...and the congruence of currant-related events led me to write this post. Why is an American organi{s/z}ation asking a British newspaper for spelling advice? Perhaps because they (very reasonably) don't trust Americans to know anything about currants. But because currants have a different place in the culinary lives of Americans and Brits, they also have different linguistic places.

The closed (i.e. no space) compound noun status of blackcurrant tells you a lot about the centrality of that thing as a thing unto itself in British culture. British English famously (if you count 'famous among a few of my linguist friends' as famous) resists closing compounds more than American does. But when compounds are closed in writing, it signals that they have that compound stress pattern. And when they get that stress pattern, it's a signal that the concept represented by the compound is now a familiar unit in the language.

Side note: John McWhorter has recently done a Lexicon Valley podcast with the title 'Word Sex' ("How words [orig. AmE] hook up and make new ones") in which he looks at how that compound stress works and what it means. I very much recommend it, but British listeners will think he gets the stress wrong on half of his examples. At the end does discuss an AmE/BrE difference.  McWhorter's been doing that podcast since early summer, and he's really made something of it. If you've tried LV before and didn't like it, it's worth trying again.

But back to the A.V. Club's problem. Is there a space or not? In BrE, no. Dictionaries (Oxford, Collins, Chambers) close the compound. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English has 166 UK blackcurrant(s) to only 11 black currant(s).

The American data is a different matter: 16 without the space, 21 with. You can see how little Americans write about the fruit. When they do write about it, they haven't got a firm agreement on how to spell it. Red( )currant is much the same. American dictionaries that have the word (Merriam-Webster and American Heritage) have the space:  have a space in black currant. Webster's New World Dictionary (not a Merriam-Webster product) doesn't even bother to define it--but does have it as two words in the definition for creme de cassis.

Because the American dictionaries give it as two words, they don't bother giving a pronunciation guide--they rely on the pronunciation in black and currant to be enough. The Cambridge dictionary gives different American and British pronunciations (listen here), but I've been burnt before by their American pronunciations. The Oxford Learner's dictionary gives both compound pronunciations (stress on first or second syllable) for both countries (listen here). And all three UK pronouncers on Forvo put the stress on the first syllable (listen here), but no Americans have bothered to offer a pronunciation of it.

So, how do Americans pronounce it? It seems they mostly don't.
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Poem competition winner!

I feel bad moving the frown post from the top spot on the blog, seeing as it has been AMAZING. In one week, it's had 11,000 more hits than the math(s) post has had in nine years! (And that one is one of my most popular posts!) "Reviews" of the frown post include "mind BLOWN" and "I am FREAKED OUT". It is indeed so very weird that such a big meaning difference could be hidden from so many people for so long, when the evidence of the difference is all around us. Huh! (To comment on frowns, please go to that post.)

But I have a solemn and happy duty today: to announce the winner of the poetry competition to win a copy of  Oliver Kamm's Accidence will happen: the non-pedantic guide to English. The winner, by my studied judg(e)ment and popular acclaim is: MJ Simpson
Here are the winning words.

In suspenders and pants and a vest,
Looking nerdy - but smart - I impressed.
In the States that was fine
But a Brit friend of mine
Thought me kinky and quite underdressed.

Thank you MJ--please get in touch so that I can (AmE) mail/(BrE) post your prize to you.

And thanks to everyone who submitted a poem or (orig. AmE ) rooted for the poems of others. 

Changes are a-coming. I'm working with a web designer to improve various aspects of the blog. The current question: which font for the title? Life is hard. In a good way.
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A 2010 blog post from the Prosody Lab at McGill University was pointed in my direction last week, and judging by the reaction when I tweeted it, I'm not the only one who was surprised by the should-be-evident-but-nearly-invisible difference between British and American it reported. The post is by a non-native speaker of English, 'chael' (who I assume is Michael Wagner, the lab director) and it starts (with my added highlighting):
Three weeks ago me and a good friend were standing in front a piece of art by Jon Pylypchuck at the museum of contemporary art in Montréal. The exhibition is still on until January 4th, and I recommend checking it out.
 So looking at one of the faces, my friend asked the following question, which to me was very confusing:

“Do you think this is a frown or a moustache?”

Whatever ‘this’ was, it was clearly below the eyes, and also, the facial expression was sad–so how could it be a frown? My understanding of frown was what I later found in Webster’s online dictionary:
1 : an expression of displeasure
2 : a wrinkling of the brow in displeasure or concentration

When I expressed my puzzlement, I learned that frown, in fact, also means the opposite of smile: a downward facing mouth expressing sadness, and that this is in fact the most common/salient meaning of the word, at least to some.
The author goes on to express surprise that in 10 years in North America he hadn't learned that. But I'm 21 years outside North America and a near-lifetime owner of a Merriam-Webster dictionary (what he's cited above), so I'm even more surprised that I hadn't discovered that other people think frowns are on the forehead. For me, a frown has always meant a down-turned mouth. Sure, the rest of the face gets involved, but a frown is what a sad mouth does.

When I tweeted the question "Where is a frown?" British people told me "on the forehead". When I asked the Englishman in my house, he said the same thing. Fourteen years together and only now do I know that he's been frowning much of the time.

And like one of the blog commenters, the Brits I talked with had an epiphany: so that's why Americans say "turn your frown upside down!" to mean 'cheer up!'.

The Brits who responded to my question were mostly northwards of 50, and I do suspect that younger, emoji-centric Britons may have a different perspective, knowing that the above emoji is called 'slightly frowning face' and having been exposed to the upside-down rhyme for more of their lives. (I am tempted to wake up the 8-year-old and ask her.)

I'm fairly surprised that Merriam-Webster does not have the downward-turning mouth definition of frown--the newer meaning. Neither do most of the dictionaries I consulted--only online-only types seem to have it. While the mouth sense is newer, many northwards-of-50 Americans like me just take that meaning for granted. I mean, I'm pretty sure learned it from my mother.

On the Murphy side of my family, we are genetically predisposed to sticking our tongues out in concentration, though I suppose there's some brow-furrowing too. We just call it a furrowed brow rather than a frown. When we're annoyed we might glower.  All of these should be available in British English too--I'm just mentioning them to point out that not having this meaning of frown does not prevent us from talking about the facial expression.

A continuing AmE/BrE divide on this matter is supported by the nominal collocates of frown--fancy linguist-speak for which nouns go near (±3 words in this case) frown in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English.

The green-highlighted words are the "most American" (left) and "most British" (right) collocates of frown. There's all sorts of stuff there, but most relevant to us, the American column has lips and smile (also eyes, it must be said) and the British column has concentration and forehead. (Though it must also be said, the actual numbers of these collocates are tiny.)

I recommend having a look at the McGill blog post. They've done a little digging to try to find the earliest instances of frown as a mouth-move, which seem to be from the mid-20th century.

Meanwhile, I can't seem to find an emoji that gives the essence of the BrE frown. Is it persevering face? 😣 Is it pensive face? 😔 There doesn't seem to be a 'concentration' face. Quick! Someone! Alert the Unicode Consortium!

Postscript, 13 Sept 2016:
I have to add a link to Josef Fruehwald's tweet--click on the links to see American Sign Language and British Sign Language translations of English frown. Quite a stark difference!

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write a poem, win a book!

A few days ago I was heard to tweet:
You can thus tell how sensible I find Oliver Kamm on the matter, since I seem to have accidentally bought two copies of his Accidence will happen: the non-pedantic guide to English. (No publishers' freebies here. Just a poorly organi{s/z}ed bookcase and an eagerness to support my local independent (BrE) bookshop/(AmE) bookstore.)

What's more fun than taking a spare book to the (BrE) charity shop? Having strangers attempt to amuse me in an effort to win a free book, that's what.

I've had a competition before where I asked for limericks on the subject of British/American linguistic differences. You can't beat a rhyme. But that was seven years ago, so I think I can dare to almost repeat myself.

For a chance to win a copy of the paperback edition of Kamm's book, please write a humorous poem on the topic of American/British differences/miscommunication.

Rules of the contest

  1. Entries may be submitted as comments on this blogpost. Poems received by other means will not be considered.
  2. Poems should be no longer than 15 lines. (To repeat what I constantly say to my students: that is a limit, not a goal. I'd rather read 5 good lines on their own than 12 lines with 5 good ones within.)
  3. Be funny, but don't be mean. 
  4. No plagiarism. 
  5. The differences don't have to be strictly linguistic, but considering who the judge is, you might be well advised to address communication in some way.
  6. Please sign your work (whatever handle you use on the internet is fine; I just want to avoid confusing seven Anonymouses). 
  7. Please don't give other personal details (address, etc.) with your poem in the comments, but do check the blog in mid-September to see who's won, as I'll have to have you (orig. AmE in this sense) contact me in order to arrange (for) delivery of the book.
  8. Deadline for submission: 12 September 2016.   
I'll start the judging on my way home from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders conference. If it's very hard to choose, I may pick a shortlist and ask readers to vote. In the meantime, readers are welcome to (politely) express preferences in the comments here.

If you already have a copy of the book, but are good at writing poems, do feel free to enter. It can be you who takes the book to the charity shop. :)
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if I'm honest, to be honest, honestly!

Fellow American-linguist-in-Britain Chris Kim mentioned to me the British use of If I'm honest as a discourse-commentary-type idiom, where she would more naturally say To be honest. By 'discourse-commentary-type idiom', I mean: it's a set phrase that the speaker uses to indicate their stance with respect to what they're saying in the rest of the sentence. As in:
I think to be honest, like most people would be, he was extremely p***** off with the idea of being ill so soon after retiring! [Mirror.co.uk]
"It makes me a bit nervous, to be honest, and I am handling her with little gloves at the moment because I am not sure how far to push.”[Brendan Cole on Victoria Pendleton in The Telegraph]

I reckon I see about one production of it every year. Most of them, if I’m honest, aren’t great. But they keep being staged: audiences can’t seem to get enough of Greek tragedy.  [Natalie Haynes in The Independent]
I'd very much been 'out' as a former geographer. If I'm honest, I'd outed myself many years earlier. [comedian Rob Rouse]

There's also the variant with being:
I'm fairly happy being both English and British. I don't feel that I need to choose.
If I'm being honest, and with apologies to the other nations of this country, I think that's because I see the two identities as very much overlapping - the vast majority of British people are English, and being English and being British have very similar implications. [Comment on a Guardian article]
But if I'm being honest I had never thought about the spear tackle rules. [sporty person talking about a sporty thing in The Independent]
The I'm phrases are sometimes--much less often--found in the full form I am.

The examples above were all found through the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE). Wiktionary defines these phrases as equivalent, and frankly is offered as a synonym. But frankly doesn't sit quite right with me in all of the contexts. In the examples I've given, the first of each pair has the speaker/writer 'being honest' about something other than themselves. There, I might say frankly. In the second examples, they are admitting something about themselves. In those cases, I get a sense of 'I'm ashamed to say', not just 'frankly'. I tend to interpret the BrE ones with I as having more of this personal reading to it, but I'm not a native user of that form, so my intuitions may be off.

Chris is right that Americans say to be honest and not if I'm honest (though it is the name of a country album), but what's interesting is that the British seem to say all of these phrases more.

I searched for to be honest followed by a comma or a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period in order to avoid counting things like I asked you to be honest with me. This might slightly undercount British examples, because Brits are less apt to use commas after sentence pre-modifiers than Americans are, but oh well. (There are some false hits in the numbers with non-idiomatic use of these words, but not many.) The * in the other rows indicates that I've included numbers for I am and I'm. (Keep in mind that this is data from the web, so I expect 15-20% of the data to NOT be by people from the dialect in question.)

to be honest {,.} 2700 5483
if I *m honest 91 713
if I *m being honest 35 99

One has to wonder: why are these such popular idioms in BrE? And then one has to wonder: is it because most of the time people are expected NOT to be honest, so it has to be marked up where people are being honest? There may be something to that--the British, after all, have an international reputation for not saying what they mean. (English Spouse is not impressed with this explanation.)

But: against that hypothesis is the fact that one can kind of say the same thing with the simple adverb honestly, and that's more common as a word in AmE than BrE:

honestly 1860012307

Hidden in the honestly numbers are the use of Honestly! as an exclamation of exasperation--a word that English Spouse uses (it feels like) constantly. He says it when the child hasn't put her shoes on when asked, when Jeremy Hunt is on the radio, when he thinks we're going to be late because I can't find my sunglasses. It's not clear whether he's an easily exasperated man or whether he lives in an excruciatingly exasperating climate (i.e. in a house with me).

This is harder to check in a corpus, because corpora are not particularly rich in situations where children haven't put their shoes on after repeatedly being asked. Where one can find standalone Honestly! in GloWBE, it's hard to tell if it's an assurance of honesty or an exclamation of exasperation. There are cases that look like the Honestly of exasperation in both the American and British data, but the largest number are in the 'hard to tell without hearing the person' category:

Not the Honestly of Exasperation: It is for sure one of the MOST beautiful things I have ever read. Honestly! It is the gospel lived out in its purest form.  (GloWBE-US)
Probably the Honestly of Exasperation:
"Honestly! You can't REALLY expect me to believe that?" (GloWBE-US)
Could easily be read more than one way:
I just started laughing -- honestly! it's been 6+ months since we talked. (GloWBE-GB)
"Style not dynamic enough", the guy said. Honestly!!!  (GloWBE-US)
 'Yuck! Pass me the sick bag I want to vom!? Honestly!' (GloWBE-GB)

 So, this is the kind of thing that I can't tell whether:
(a) It's more common in British English than American
(b) It's not particularly more common in BrE (there's lots of individual variation), but I notice it more in BrE because my spouse (and his mother) are avid users of it.

Nevertheless, there are more standalone Honestly! in the British data than  in the American in GloWBE (86 v 52).


P.S. (the following day)
Commenters are doing a good job of specifying the connotations and contexts of these phrases, so do have/take a look!

One thing some commenters have mentioned is that some would like an adverb before honest in to be honest. Here's what the top 10 adverbs look like (just looking at the phrase followed by a comma):

The list stretches to 40 different adverbs, but many have just one or two hits. In total, with an adverb the AmE (287) & BrE (293) numbers are virtually the same, but as you can see, some adverbs are more nationalistic than others. (Who knew the British were so brutal?)

In related 'honesty' news, @grayspeeks on Twitter asked whether Americans use the expression (no,) I tell a lie when correcting themselves. The answer is 'no' (GloWBE has 22 in UK, 0 in US), but several US tweeters responded that they'd say that's a lie or no, I'm lying for the same thing. It's harder to give accurate numbers for these, because they could be used for other purposes--so I have to look at them with the no in front, and that creates more (punctuation) problems.  Doing that, no, I'm lying has 3 UK hits and 1 US, as does no, I lie. No, that's a lie has 2 UK hits and 1 US one. Those numbers are small enough that I can check by hand: there are no false hits.  Trying without the no gives more false hits than 'good' ones: e.g. people accusing others of lying for that's a lie or people lying down for I'm lying.  I'm not going to go through hundreds of examples to try to count whether AmE is saying these phrases more--just not with no--because there's just too much guesswork in judging them. So, it's not a clear picture, but the evidence we have has BrE using all the lie phrases more than AmE.

One that Americans do seem to use more is to tell (you) the truth , (thanks, Zouk Delors, in the comments). US hits = 366, UK = 188.  

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Last month Linguist Laura wrote a blog post congratulating the students who were graduating from her program(me). She discusses graduate, then moves on to alumni, excerpted below. I've highlighting the bit that was news to me.
My undergraduate alma mater
Go Minutemen! Go Minutewomen!
When the graduands morph into graduates, they also become alumni, another Latin word. It's plural, in that form, and pedants will have know[n] that the singular is alumnus or alumna, depending on whether you're male or female. Again, this is a bit annoying for English speakers who don't really bother that much with gender other than pronouns, [...]

Normal procedure when removing gender distinction is to go with the male for everyone: actors and actresses become actors, lady doctors become doctors, and so on. With alumni, we're taking to using the plural form for everyone. You're an alumni once you graduate. This ever so slightly grates on me but I am a good linguist and a descriptivist and do not go around correcting people. I don't know why we use the plural. We're familiar with this in words like cactus/cacti so we might have used alumnus as the singular; we just didn't. Perhaps it's because we use alumni in the plural way more often than the singular and, as it's not that common a word, that's the one that stuck.
I am not sure who the we is here. Laura's department? English speakers? It seems to me it's British English speakers, as in my experience Americans haven't adopted the plural as a singular.

First, Americans use the gendered singulars. I looked for an alumn* of in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) in order to get only singular instances:

(I checked the one that says alumni* and it's by a graduate of The Open University [UK] who uses the word maths, so I have mentally flipped it into the GB column.)

In AmE singular alumni amounts to about 9% of the total, but in BrE it's about 22% (and in Canadian English, it's 35%). Note the lack of alumna in BrE.

When Americans want to avoid the gendered Latin terms, we often hack off the Latin suffix. I am an alum of the University of Massachusetts. I am friends with many of my fellow alums.

The word looks odd and is hard to pronounce if you don't know that it's a clipped form. It is not a homophone with the astringent chemical alum. The chemical is A-lum, the graduate is a-LUM, following the stress pattern of the suffixed form. I've also seen it spel{led/t} alumn and I kind of like that better. (There are 6 instances of alumn in GloWBE, 5 American and one that is classifed as GB, but when you look it's from an organi{s/z}ation in New York. None of these is in the phrase an alumn of, so they aren't included the numbers below.)

An alum of gets 10 hits in the US and 2 in GB (all legitimate; plus one Canadian hit, for those keeping track). If we add these to the numbers in the chart above, we get the following proportions:

a ___ of AmE BrE
gendered singular alumna/us 81% 75%
plural-form singular
8% 21%
clipped singular
11% 4%
total number 88 52

Now, if you worked at a college/university in the US, I am quite sure that you would hear alum much more than you'd hear singular alumni. I had a quick look in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which showed twice as many an alum of as an alumni of (though the numbers were small--21 in total).

So, a few points of unseemly defensiveness after all this:
  • Americans are able to and do use the Latin gendered suffixes. I mention this because there seems to be some belief that the British know Latin better than Americans do.  One of the interviewees in Jones's book on English expats in the US says she felt "she got to win a lot of arguments" because Americans assume “I [have] this great level of culture [and speak] and read fluent Latin” though of course she didn't. Similarly, I've had it said to me that Americans make barbarous "false" Latin words because we aren't close enough to the language. An British commentator on early American accents wrote that "Americans do not, however, speak or pronounce English according to our standard; [...] probably from a want of any intimate knowledge of Greek or Latin." I can't see much evidence for thinking the contemporary British folk have some access to Latin that contemporary Americans don't. Latin comes and goes in both American and British schools. Yes, the fancy public (i.e. private) schools of Britain do tend to offer Latin, but so did my run-of-the-mill American high school. Very few schools anywhere require it (or even offer it) any more--though apparently it's popular with American home-schoolers.
  • If you see Latin plurals masquerading as singulars, it's not a case of "American political correctness" coming over and "ruining" the language. The British are very capable of being sensitive to gender discrimination and changing the language themselves.  
The other thing to notice is that Americans use these words more. In fact, Americans have a great head start on using them. This is not necessarily a bragging point. The reason Americans needed these words earlier is that American universities have long depended on their graduates' generosity.

That was not an issue for British universities, which until recently were funded mainly through government grants. While I've lived in the UK, I've seen tuition fees go from 0 to over £9000 per year. And it was only once the government stopped directly funding university teaching that universities needed to step up relations with their graduates in the hope of getting donations and bequests. That's when my university got an Alumni Relations Office, something any American university would have had decades earlier.

Americans, I would say, have a keener sense of alumnihood. They have stickers identifying their alma mater in the back windows of their cars. The phrase alma mater is about four times more common in AmE than BrE (in GloWBE). They go to homecoming. They follow their institution's sports teams for the rest of their lives. (The need to keep alumni involved is a big reason for American universities having so much sporty activity.) They might even know their college's/university's song. That's in general, of course. I can't say I do any of those things. But I know many more Americans than Britons who do. 
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)