Barbados & the Caribbean

The scene behind the KFC near my Barbadian hotel
is rather unlike the scene behind the KFC near my Brighton home
As I mentioned in the last post, and as I have been wont to mention at any opportunity, I got to go to Barbados recently. It was my first time in the West Indies and it was fabulous—even if I did spend much of it in a windowless conference room.

In the weeks before I went there, I was wont to mention at any opportunity that I was going to Barbados soon. And this is when my (obviously jealous) English friends started pointing out (or was it mocking?) that I didn't say Barbados like they say Barbados. I (in my American way) say the last syllable as if it is the word dose. Theirs sounds like (BrE) doss  or the acronym for 'disk operating system': DOS. In saying it they use the 'rounded short o' vowel that Americans like me don't have.

I was gratified to learn, in the welcoming speeches at the conference, that Barbadians pronounce the last vowel in Barbados like I do, more like the Spanish number dos than like doss. I tweeted about this discovery, and one of my longtime blog correspondents emailed to note (as others had) that in olden times it was often Barbadoes in English, suggesting the "long", or more accurately "tense" o pronunciation that I use. She added "the modern spelling suggests the '-oss' ending".

To which I had to respond—well, the modern ending might suggest '-oss' for you, but not for me. Barbados is part of a partial pattern of difference between BrE and AmE. For my American English, I see the -os in kudos or pathos and I say it with the tense /o/. They rhyme with dose, not doss. But the standard pronunciation of these in Britain is with the -oss sound. And that kind of pronunciation has bled into Barbados. The name Barbados comes from either Portuguese or Spanish for 'bearded ones' (probably because of a tree with beard-like foliage). It's not related to the Greek-derived words pathos and kudos, but the spelling leads us to treat them similarly.

This varies in the US, though. Merriam-Webster gives the doss-type pronunciation first for kudos and pathos (though, of course, with the kind of short-o that Americans use, see link above). American Heritage's first choice for kudos rhymes with doze. But my kudos rhymes with dose. That pronunciation is in both dictionaries, but further down their lists. They both give the dose-type first for Barbados, though. (And they don't give a 'doss' type, but do give a schwa pronunciation more like "Barbaduss".) I suspect that the dose pronunciation for Barbados is preserved in the US because it looks like Spanish, and Americans are used to pronouncing the Spanish o in the tense/long way. (For more on AmE/BrE approaches to Spanish words, see this old post & its comments.)


Thanks to previous UK comment on/mockery of my pronunciation, I went to Barbados also nervous about saying Caribbean. Natural-me says caRIBbean. English people (and now me-when-I'm-speaking-to-English-people-and-wanting-to-avoid-mockery) say caribBEan.  I again heard "my" pronunciation during the opening speeches of the conference. Professor Jeannette Allsopp, co-namesake of the Richard and Jeannette Allsopp Centre for Caribbean Lexicography, put her stress on the -rib-. I thought if she does it, I can do it too. Then I noticed other staff and students from the University of the West Indies (UWI) putting their stress on the -be-. This is what Oxford Dictionaries says on the matter:
There are two possible pronunciations of the word Caribbean. The first, more common in British English, puts the stress on the -be-, while the second, found in the US and the Caribbean itself, stresses the -rib-
The 'first' in this quotation is made especially weird by the fact that it's the rib-stressed pronunciation that is listed first in their entry for the word. Phonetician (and frequent travel[l]er to the Caribbean) John Wells tells me that indeed the rib-stressing pronunciation is traditionally the more common in the area. The fact that I heard a lot of younger UWI folk using the more BrE pronunciation is an interesting counterexample to the oft-heard claims that English is being Americanized all over the world. In this case, decades after Barbadian independence, a British pronunciation seems to be making inroads.

The competition between these pronounciations comes from the fact that Caribbean has two possible etymologies. It's either Carib(b)+ean or Caribbee+an. Both Carib and Caribbee are apparent anglici{s/z}ations of the Spanish Caribe (which is probably an adaptation of an Arawak word). Caribbee has pretty much died out now, but it and Carib are both found in the earliest days of European reporting on "the New World". 


So, I'm happy now to say Barbados and Caribbean in my natural way even with British friends who might mock me because (a) they're not wrong, and (b) I GOT TO GO TO BARBADOS AND THEY DIDN'T. ­čśÄ
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Review: Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

I'm just back from a FABULOUS time at the Dictionary Society of North America conference. Fabulous not just because it was hosted by the University of the West Indies in Barbados (wheeeeee!), but because dictionary people are just the best people. No offen{c/s}e academic linguists, cognitive scientists, parents of 9-year-olds, Scrabblers, Murphys, and other folk I'm apt to hang out with, but lexicographers (orig. AmE) have the edge.

I have (for a couple of years, part-time) been an actual English-dictionary lexicographer, for the Encarta World English Dictionary. (Among my job titles were "Americanizer", "Compiler", and "Specialist Lexicographer: Languages and linguistics".) I loved it. (I also loved that the publisher, Bloomsbury, sent me some random book with each payche{ck/que}. I got my best soup [orig. AmE] cookbook that way.)

But the job I REALLY wanted, the one that would have kept me out of academia, was a job with Merriam-Webster of Springfield, Massachusetts. Having finished my BA in Linguistics and Philosophy at a just-up-the-road university, I wrote to them in 1987 to ask if they might be hiring. They weren't. And so I had to go get two more degrees and (BrE-ish) move continents three times in order to follow my second-best option after lexicographer: becoming a lexicologist.

Kory Stamper was lucky. She came along a few years later when Merriam was hiring—and she got the job. And now she has written a wonderful, detailed,  funny book about life as a Merriam-Webster lexicographer: Word by Word: the secret life of dictionaries. The kind people at Pantheon sent me a review copy a few months ago, but I wasn't able to read the whole thing during term time/before my own book deadline had passed/before I had written my paper for the Dictionary Society.* So, I read it on the beach in Barbados. Maybe that can be something that makes Kory a tiny bit envious of me as a counter to my incredible envy of her job, since she wasn't at the conference this year. But getting to know her a bit from the book, I kind of suspect that Kory's not the lounging-in-the-hot-sun type.

Because I'm a bit late, you language-loving readers of mine may well have read other reviews of this book. They all said it was fantastic, right? Well, I'm not going to deviate from that line, because I honestly cannot. This is a great book for anyone who is interested in dictionaries and the people that make them. (And since I've already established that they're the best people, why wouldn't you be interested?)

Kory (I'm using her first name because we're Twitter-acquaintances) covers all aspects of being a lexicographer—from the mysterious coffee in orange foil to the threatening emails. But most importantly, and most richly, she covers what it is to define a word. How you capture the difference between a (orig. AmE) sex pot and a (orig. BrE?) sex kitten. How you define the (AmE) pantyhose/(BrE) tights sense of nude without sounding racist. And why it took one lexicographer nine months to revise the Oxford English Dictionary entry for run.

The lexicographer (and also the lexicologist's!) secret weapon is Sprachgef├╝hl: an intuitive feeling for the nuances of language. This is something that comes more naturally to some than to others, but I think it can be grown in a person—to some extent, at least. Kory tells the story of her training in defining and shares the stories of other lexicographers who agree that experience counts in lexicography. She gives so many engaging examples of definitions-gone-wrong and definitions-gone-right that some of that experience will probably rub off on you.

I hope it does rub off, because I plan on assigning the chapter on defining (which cent{er/re}s on the example of surfboard) to my first-year students next year. Undoubtedly, there will be a few in need of a bit more Sprachgef├╝hl.

The book gives insight into the history of dictionary publishing generally and American dictionary publishing (which is its own beast) particularly, the role dictionaries play in (American especially) society, and a sense of what it is like to be a working lexicographer (right down to the fear of [AmE] layoffs/[BrE] redundancies). It also makes you feel like you're in the presence of an extremely likeable person. So, I thank Kory for this book, and I encourage you to read it and buy it for the dictionary-lovers in your lives.

It seems to be published in North America only, but of course these days one can order anything anywhere. The ££ prices don't look bad. If you're more (or also) interested in the British lexicography scene, you might want to get your hands on another book, published a few months before Kory's: former OED editor John Simpson's The Word Detective. I've only read a few pages of it so far, but it seems very good too. Since I didn't get a review copy of that one (actual money was spent!), I will probably not get around to doing a formal review of it here.



* If you're wondering what I talked about at the DSNA conference, it all got started with a blog post I wrote for Oxford Dictionaries a few years ago.  That was the start of me thinking about differences in the "dictionary cultures" of the UK and the US. My DSNA paper was about the differences in content and tone I found in historical advertising for Merriam-Webster and Oxford. When that becomes a published paper (or papers), I'll be sure to let you know. I cover aspects of it in chapter 8 of my book-to-be, which will be published next spring. You can be sure that I'll let you know about that (a. lot.) as the publication date nears. In the meantime, I want to thank the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant program(me) for allowing me to travel to dictionary archives in the past year, and to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funded the book project.
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in/with hindsight

Before our irregularly scheduled blogpost, a couple of announcements:
First, I'm on a (BrE) one-off Radio 4 program(me) tomorrow morning (10:30): Americanize! Why the Americanisation of English is a good thing, presented by Susie Dent. It should be available on iPlayer Radio after that.

    Top Language Lovers 2017
Second, this blog has been nominated for the annual bab.la Top Language Lovers award 2017. If you'd like to support it (or even if you wouldn't) you can click on the logo and vote:








 And now on to the show. What preposition goes before hindsight?

This was a recent Twitter Difference of the Day, and a conveniently simple thing to blog about during (BrE academic) marking season. I'd asked an American lexicographer to (BrE) have/(AmE) take a look at the chapter about (among other things) lexicography in my book manuscript. I had written with hindsight in my book manuscript and he queried whether I'd "gone native" with my preposition. Indeed, it seems I had. As you can see in the screenshot, the GloWBE corpus shows that AmE prefers in hindsight.





I'd say that BrE prefers in too, since with 929 hits, in is the 'winning' preposition before hindsight in BrE. But add of and with together, and they've got 952 hits. I'd say they probably should be added together because the of number actually stands for the longer with-ful phrase: with the benefit of hindsight.

Using hindsight in this kind of prepositional phrase meaning 'in retrospect', seems to be a mid-20th-century thing. No preposition here is the 'original', as far as I can tell, but the in is probably affected by the expression in retrospect. There's less hindsight used in this way in AmE, but AmE has more in retrospect (about 1.5x more).
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squint, cross-eyed

If you have any interest in the doctor-patient relationship, I very much recommend Dariusz Galasiński's blog. He writes thought-provokingly about various things that he and I have in common: being immigrant linguist patients or linguist immigrant patients or immigrant patient linguists. But probably not patient linguistic immigrants. Anyhow, we're rather different in how we are/do all those things, but I am really enjoying the commonalities and the thought-provocations.

He wrote recently about a term that's always struck me when I've heard it in BrE. Here's a snippet from the relevant blog post, On 'medical language':
...I was asked about ‘the history’ and told about my strabismus. The optometrist (or doctor) responded with something like:
OK, so you had a squint.
I didn’t react the first time, but after a second time, I politely but firmly said I hadn’t – it was strabismus, to which she said, it was one and the same thing. And I somewhat more firmly said it wasn’t and that I would rather she used medical language. She looked at me with a sort of ‘What’s your problem, man?’ look. I so didn’t care.
You see, there is nothing ‘squinty’ about my strabismus. It’s not a squint, it’s not ‘strab’. No, it’s strabismus. For me (and I only speak for myself) when you use colloquial language to refer to my eyes, you make light of all the sh…I had to take when I was a boy....
In AmE, it's said that a person with strabismus is cross-eyed or more rarely that they have a crossed eye. I was told when I was young that cross-eyed means the eye (or eyes) points toward(s) the nose and wall-eyed means it/they point away from the nose. That wasn't the original meaning of wall-eye (no, that was having a very light iris). I imagine that the strabismus meaning came from folk-etymology: the eye is looking at the wall. (Also, there's a fish called a wall-eye and fish generally do look to the side.) But in everyday US usage, cross-eyed seemed to be applied indiscriminately for any off-target eye.

In young children, who were treated with an eye patch, the term lazy eye was used, and though there seems to be a technical difference between that and strabismus, I don't think anyone in my circle was observing the difference. This term seems to be used in both countries.

But I had never heard of squint to refer to strabismus till I came to the UK.

In AmE squint generally means narrowing your eyelids, as you do when the sun's in your eye. This meaning is only a bit more than a century old (three hundred years younger than the strabismus sense). Despite its newness, it's a widespread meaning, which has definitely arrived in the UK. This is what you get if you google "Squint emoji":



The scrunched-eyelid meaning is mostly used as a verb (she squinted in the sun), whereas the  strabismus meaning is mostly used as a noun, following the verb to have: he had a squint.

While US dictionaries have the older meaning (though maybe not listed first), squint does not seem to be used much in the US in this way. There are nine British examples of ha* a squint in the GloWBE corpus, and though it initially looks like there are three "American" examples, one is the narrow-eyed meaning and the other two aren't by Americans.
Why did the strabismus meaning die out in the US? Probably because of the success of the narrowing-your-eyes meaning, connected to the fact that cross-eyed had come along (late 18th c) to do the strabismus job.

Back to Dariusz's post, the tendency of UK medical folk to use colloquialisms--some of which I might classify as 'baby talk' or 'euphemism' is something that's come up here before. (Here's a link to the medicine/disease tag, where related things come up.) It depends on the ailment, but by my tally, the UK does more colloquial terms, the US more medical jargon. Whether BrE medical personnel perceive squint as colloquialism or just "the normal (non-medical) word" for the condition, I don't know.

The point of Dariusz's post (as I read it) is not "people shouldn't use this word", but more "medical personnel shouldn't assume that colloquialisms are the best way to talk to all patients" and "using colloquialisms with some patients may make them feel talked-down-to"—particularly in this case where the patient had used one kind of word and the practitioner had "dumbed-down" the patient's language—that seems dismissive. This is an issue I've had trouble with in dealing with a few UK doctors (and different medical issues) myself--simplifications that are oversimplifications or insistent use of euphemism where I'm using medical terminology.

But I don't want to end on a sour note about UK doctors. (I love the NHS!) American doctors have their own communication problems with patients. A major theme of Dariusz's blog is that doctor-patient/patient-doctor communication should be human-human communication. The problem with that wonderful idea, of course, is that some people on both sides of the pond are trying to make medicine profit-driven. Human relationships hardly stand a chance in those conditions. But let's not stop trying.

[Late addition] A Twitter correspondent offers boss-eyed. Oxford Dictionaries lists it as 'British informal', and the not-updated-since-1933 OED entry lists it as 'dialect slang' and referring to just one eye out of alignment. 


****
By the way, I'm happy to report that I have submitted the manuscript for the book that this blog inspired. I will let you know publication details when they are available (you know I will)--but the book won't be out till some point Spring 2018. Yay! And thank you to the (US) National Endowment for the Humanities for making it possible.
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-ousness

We've been having some problems with people starting to (jocular Linguist English) peeve about unrelated topics in the comments section. This has upset some readers (and also me, but I'm hardened by 11 years of blogging). More importantly it is against the comments policy, so I've had to resume being a police-y person about it. If you'd like to request a topic for the blog, please feel free to email me (see contact page). If you'd like to just let off opinion-steam, there are lots of places on the web for that. Here, we're trying to get away from the opinions and into the facts.

So, in the interest of the comments policy, I've just deleted a comment on a previous post. Having already checked out whether the assumptions in the comment were fact or fiction, I might as well make it into a blog post. I know that this is a bad idea. I don't want to set up the precedent that topic-changing comments will get immediate blog-treatment. But, it's Saturday morning and my resistance is low.

So, Rob commented on the last blog post:
It's My first time on this blog and as an amateur aficionado of grammar, I love what you've done to the place. I just wanted to share my biggest AmE-BrE bugbear:

My teeth are set a-grinding when I hear the words "tenaciousness", "ferociousness" or any word where there is an "ousness" added, largely by North Americans (to include Canada to a certain extent). I find myself shouting at the screen when I heard it for the first time.

It's not even that "ferociousness" gives a deeper description of the property. You can BE ferocious but should you exhibit ferociousness or display ferocity? I know which one I would rather hear. The same for tenacity. It suggests a certain rawness (I know. Ironic, right?) that "tenaciousness" just detracts from, yet I know the "ousness" phenomenon is grammatically legal. It just sounds lazy to me.

At the risk of inciting a blaze - what does everyone else think?

First, thanks for the compliment, Rob, and I hope we'll see more of you around here. But now I'm a-gonna get grumpy. What people think about language doesn't tell us much about language. It does tell us a lot about identity (and the role of language in forging it) and about cognitive biases in thinking about language and people. This is the theme of the book I'm sending off to the publishers at the end of April (which is not planned for publication till 2018, so [orig. AmE] don't hold your breath!).

As Rob notes, -ness is a productive suffix in English. which means it's legal to put with adjectives, even those Latin/French-derived ones that might be associated with other suffixed noun forms. Plenty of -ous adjectives are mainly nominalized (made into nouns) with -ness -- for example, consciousness, callousness, and righteousness (though that one isn't French/Latin in origin, just French-affected). Then there's suspiciousness--which generally means something different from the related noun suspicion. Those nouns are normal in British and American English, so there's nothing bad about ousness in itself.

In other cases, as Rob notes, there are other, usually French/Latin-derived, nouns that don't use -ness and that often are quite (BrE) different in form to the -ous adjective. But contrary to Rob's presumption, adding -ness to these things does not seem to be a particularly American activity. In the GloWBE corpus, we find similar rates in BrE and AmE for anxiousness (rather than anxiety) and pretentiousness (rather than pretension), for instance.

So what about Rob's examples of tenaciousness and ferociousness? For each of these, GloWBE has a statistically insignificant difference between the two national dialects--5 and 7 in AmE, 6 and 8 in BrE, respectively (raw numbers, from a collection of about 450 million words from each of those countries). These--in both countries--are outnumbered at least 100-fold by their counterparts tenacity and ferocity. In the News on the Web (NoW) corpus, there are 0.4 ferociousnesses per million words (pmw) in AmE, 0.3 in BrE (but .15 in Pakistan, by far the most). For tenaciousness it's 0.2 in AmE and 0.1 in BrE. (Sri Lanka "wins" with 0.4.)

Image from here
What's a bit interesting is that all of the related words (tenacious, tenacity, tenacously, ferocious, etc.) are found (sometimes significantly) more in the British data than the American. For example in NoW, ferocity occurs 1.05 pmw in AmE and 1.71 in BrE, and ferocious 2.29 in AmE and 4.62 in BrE. Americans use the words a fair amount, but Brits use them much more. Lower numbers set up a situation where using a more transparent morphological (i.e. suffixation) process is more likely to happen. (We see that even more strongly in newer Englishes as in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.) But the UK/US differences in occurrence in ferocity and tenacity are very small, if they're there at all.

The -ity forms sound more "learn├ęd" because they are generally learn{ed/t} through exposure, rather than derived (orig. BrE slang) on the fly. People like those -ity nouns because they are a sign of a big vocabulary. But they're also a bit of a (BrE) faff. That is to say, they come at a cognitive cost. You have to keep them in your mental dictionary and understand that they are related to the adjective forms even though they have different vowels (compare the a and o in tenacious/tenacity, ferocious/ferocity). The -ness forms can be derived at the spur of the moment. Anyone has access to them. They are, I'd say, a bit more democratic.
The low, low numbers for the -ousness versions of these nouns mean that you'll hear the -ity versions more in any accent. The similar numbers of -ousness versions probably mean that if you regularly hear one accent more, you're more likely to have heard the -ousness form in that accent. But when we hear something unusual in an accent that isn't ours (and especially in a variety of English that's regularly accused of [AmE] messing with English), we notice it more. There's a lot of confirmation bias going on in people's (orig. AmE) peeves or bugbears about other people's language.


On a final note (oh, I can't believe I've spent the hour I was supposed to spend on something else this morning!), I was surprised to learn that US and UK use precocity at similar rates and much more than precociousness. I always feel like I'm using a joke-word [like the AmE ridiculosity] when I say it.


(P.S. for Rob:  I haven't preserved the link to your Google page from the original comment--but if you want to be identified, let me know and I'll stick a link in.)
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submitting slavishly...

 Please reserve the comments section for topics related to this post. 


Lately, I've been super-aware of people saying that British English "slavishly" copies American English. Like this:
 the UK slavishly adopts Americanisms !! (from an email to me this week)
“To be snooty about Americans, while slavishly admiring them; this is another crucial characteristic of being British.”  (From the Economist, but quoted this week in Toni Hargis's reflection on the recent Word of Mouth on English)
It's an interesting choice of words, and I was reminded of it this morning when I read the television critic Mark Lawson writing about BBC4 (my emphasis added):
The original 2002 mission statement also included “international cinema”, and this was expanded to include foreign television, which could be regarded as BBC4’s most lasting legacy. Its screening of Mad Men was formative in changing the UK’s attitude to US drama from dismissiveness to submissiveness.
Why slavishly? Why submissive? Lawson was probably pleased with his rhyme, but why not dismissiveness to enjoyment or appreciation? In this case, it's not even that it's a torrent of US drama that the viewer cannot avoid, as BBC4 doesn't broadcast very much American drama. The paragraph goes on:
Its imported Swedish and Danish hits – including The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen – established that subtitled stories could find a British audience, encouraging other channels to shop from Scandinavian suppliers, and also to adopt the slower rhythms of Scandi-drama in homegrown series such as Broadchurch and The Missing.
What, the homegrown series didn't submit to the Scandinavian rhythms, but adopted them? Don't you mean they slavishly copied them? 

Now, of course, slavish isn't the same thing as enslaved. The relevant OED sense is defined  as

Servilely imitative; lacking originality or independence.

Available here
But it's an interesting word and image. The adjective slavish is used to similar degrees in AmE and BrE.  Most often it's followed by the noun devotion in both countries, but in the UK it's about as likely to be followed by adherence while in the US, the next most frequent noun is fear. Slavish fear involves a very different interpretation of slavish than slavish devotion does. It calls more directly on literal slavery, with the existence of a fear-inspiring master.

The adverb slavishly is found nearly twice as much in BrE (in the GloWBE and NOW corpora). Google Books corpus shows that the two countries used to use it at similar rates, but it's been falling off in the US since the 1960s. Perhaps Americans find it a bit more distasteful since the civil rights movement. (Maybe that accounts for my reaction to it.)

For me, the weird thing about the use of slavishly in the 'copying American English' context is that you can't have a slave without a master. And being a master has to be intentional. But American English isn't trying to have a slave.

Yes, Americans want to export stuff. But they don't care a lot about exporting American English--at least, not as much as the British establishment cares about exporting (and enforcing?) British English. (The reasons for this American lack of interest are complex, but contributing factors are that the British are already doing the work and the feelings that any English is good enough and that British might even be superior.)  Exporting the language is a bigger industry in the UK-- most of the dictionaries for learners of English as a foreign language come from the UK (in fact, that's the only kind of dictionary that some UK publishers work on). The government funds the British Council (which also makes a lot of its own money through the IELTS language test). The US has been much later to that parade--and half(-)hearted about joining it.

The language continues to be Britain's empire--and imperialism seems to be the frame through which many Britons frame relationships with "bigger players", like the US and the European Union. Once the British were the imperialists, and now other relationships of interaction and dependency are framed as if they are the coloni{s/z}ed. There is often a disconnect between the complaint that American English is "taking over" and fact that it all started when Britain took over. Not to mention that Britain has benefited hugely from American English's role in keeping their language relevant to the rest of the world.

I compare this to thinking about British English and French. About how in the 19th century the British added the -me on programme in imitation of the French spelling.* How the British couldn't sell zucchini (the particular hybrid was originally Italian), but ate up courgettes. How they're partial to French-inspired spellings like colour and centre. British English is often deferential to French--after all, for a long time the aristocracy spoke French. But although French speakers were, at points in English history, literally the overlords (and then they had two centuries' worth of wars with them) I don't hear complaints that English has slavishly copied French. (Well, I do hear them from myself sometimes. Those [heavily tongue-in-cheek] complaints were recorded for a podcast that'll be released in July.)

All of this is related to the themes from two posts ago. These things are at the forefront of my mind as I write the conclusion for my book, so I'm testing out ideas here. But the slavishly/submissiveness wordings also resounded particularly this week after Ben Carson's comments about "involuntary immigrants" and also reading about another "unpopular invader" from America, the gr{a/e}y squirrel. Not comparing these things, you understand, just hyper-aware of how 'migration' and 'slave'-related words are being used these days.

So, are the British brainwashed by American English into slavish submission? Have you other thoughts on these metaphors and their use?


* The earlier spelling program has come back from the US and is now used in Britain as computing jargon. The Americanness of computer jargon spelling (program, dialog box, disk) is taken by some as an unwelcome American incursion. But in my experience British computer types use these spellings as (more AmE?) shibboleths. Those who know not to use the general-purpose British spellings for the computer-related meanings are accepted as reasonably knowledgeable. Those who don't might be in for some instruction on the topic.
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sure, affirmative

This is one of those posts where I'm going to let someone else do most of the writing. I got this message from Justin a couple of weeks ago:

I’m from Malaysia, where BrE dominates in schools but AmE is prominent in pop culture (so too CanE and AusE). I was British educated there, before moving to the UK for boarding school and my undergrad. So I’d like to think of myself as pretty much a BrE speaker.

My girlfriend is American. A born-and-bred Wisconsinite. I’m currently living with her in Illinois as I pursue my Masters. This is partly the reason we so enjoy your blog, as it has helped clear up a number of differences we’ve come across.

One difference that gets me every time is the use of the word sure as an affirmative. When I use sure as an agreement, it is usually in response to a suggestion. I feel I am deferring to that suggestion, as if I am saying ‘I’ll go along with what is invariably your point’.

My girlfriend, however, uses sure as a simple ‘yes’ - whether or not it is in response to suggestion or a more general yes/no question.

So a typical interaction might go:

GF: ‘I’m feeling like having Chinese food tonight.’

*time passes*

Me: ‘So do you still want to have Chinese food tonight?’

GF: ‘Sure.’

To her, she is just saying 'yes' to the question. But, no matter how much I am reminded of her usage of the word, I am still thrown off every time because it seems as if she has turned her own suggestion into mine. It feels as if she’s deferring the responsibility of the suggestion to me. I don’t mean to say that I accuse her of this - she knows how this throws me, and we laugh about it - that's just my gut reaction based on my own usage of the word.

So my question - and I do apologise for the wall of text - is whether this is a BrE / AmE difference? What scant sources I can find online - due to all the context I need to unload before asking the question - seem to hint this. However, could it be that my own usage of the word is limited through my strange background? Is this a uniquely Midwestern AmE trait (my girlfriend’s family all so seem to use ‘sure’ in this way)? Or is it a case-by-case notion, where one’s personal circumstances lead to one usage or the other?


I have to thank Justin for typing that all out because it is a scenario that plays out in my house on a weekly basis. Spouse suggests something to do, somewhere to go, something to eat, and I say Sure and he (at this point, one feels, just to be difficult, because we've been through this many times) says "That means no, then." 

Vibrantmedia.com
I don't think it's just Midwestern. I've lived in the Midwest, New England, Texas, and upstate New York, and my Sures never caused a discernible problem till I moved to England.

This a hard thing to look up in a (orig. AmE) run-of-the-mill corpus, because so much about a Sure  depends on how it's said. There are 198 Yea(h), sure in the AmE part of the GloWBE corpus and 91 in the British, but that's an internet corpus, not spoken interaction, and it's far more likely there that the Yeah, sure is a sarcastic expression of doubt than a casual agreement to a suggestion. While I have access to some corpora with spoken language, they're pretty bad for this kind of thing (as I discovered when I tried to use them to study please). The transcripts in those corpora are overloaded with people having conversations about topics, but in real life we spend much less time debating the issues of the day or recounting a childhood memory and more on negotiations about what to eat or veiled accusations that the dishwasher has been loaded wrong.

There are some discussions of affirmative sure online, often from English learners who have noted it as something Americans do. This Huffington Post blog has a Connecticut mother of (orig. AmE) teenagers (so, probably close to my age) noting that people are now taking her sures as unenthusiastic. But her sures were delivered by text or social media, so the intonations weren't available for the readers to hear--making it a riskier place to use sure. So was it the medium, or do younger Americans use sure less? The trend might be toward(s) more exaggerated responses needed to show enthusiasm--e.g. great, awesome, or the  less (BrE) OTT cool. And we might be pretty far down the road of that trend.

(I've done a brief search for academic papers on sure, but had no luck finding much on this affirmative usage. If anyone knows of any, please let me know.)

In our house, as in Justin's relationship, sure miscommunications remain a problem we're aware of, but haven't managed to fix. The spouse thinks I should say something else, while I wonder why he can't just mentally translate it when he hears it from me, as he would for any other Americanism that slips out. If it sounds unenthusiastic, can't an Englishman just interpret it as a case of understatement (which Brits seem so eager to claim for their own)?

But sure is harder than a problem like sidewalk/pavement or tomayto/tomahto, since it's not a referential word (one that stands for things in the world), but more context- and relationship-dependent. The differences are less obvious and the usage/interpretation is more automatic. We're creatures of our own gut-reactions.
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Is Americanization speeding up?

Today I got to hear myself on BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth talking with host Michael Rosen and anti-Americanism-ist Matthew Engel.

This is just a picture. Click HERE for the program(me)!
Biggest regret: that I completely blanked on the fact that sidewalk is originally a British word. Had to go home and read about it in my own book manuscript. I also regret that they cut a bit I said about British music artists singing in their own accents. (So please read this instead. I think the producer/editor might have thought that the reference to grime music would be too much for the Radio 4 [orig. AmE] listenership.)

But listening now to Engel repeatedly saying that American English influence on British is constantly increasing, I wish I'd pointed out this:

The 20th Century is often called "The American Century". The 21st Century is looking a lot less American. To be sure, it's not looking like the British century either. That came the century before.

American culture (and words) could easily spread in the 20th century because it was hard to produce and distribute recorded entertainment, but the US had the capacity and the economy and the marketing savvy to do so [And I mustn't forget the Marshall Plan, which my colleague just mentioned to me.] America was inventing and manufacturing all sorts of things and putting names on them and selling them everywhere. Two world wars and the cold war had Americans stationed all over the world using their slang in the presence of young recruits from other countries. The 21st century is looking rather different.

The 20th century brought us talking pictures and television. Radio, the most affordable form of broadcast, remained a more local proposition--though the recorded music could be imported. (Though the word radio, well that's an Americanism.) The 21st century is the time of the internet and of personali{s/z}ed entertainment. The popular songs are less universally popular, because people have more access to more different kinds of music on download. Instead of two or three or four choices on television, there are hundreds. And if you don't like what you're seeing you can go on YouTube or SoundCloud (or other things I'm too old and [orig. AmE] uncool to know about) and find all sorts of people doing all sorts of things. People go on the internet and meet each other and talk to each other, meaning that there's more opportunity than ever for there to be exchange of words between people, rather than just reception of words from the media. The slangs that young people use are sometimes local to their school or area and sometimes particular to an international online gaming community or music fandom. The notion of community, for many people, has internationali{s/z}ed. Language is moving in different ways now than it ever had the chance to move in the 20th century.

In the meantime, all indications are that the US is becoming politically more isolationist and more of an international pariah. Are its words going to flow so freely abroad? Will there be a taste for them?

The American century has happened. I don't know whose century this will be (please, please not Putin's), if indeed it will be any nation's century. (Better a nation's century than a virus's century, though.) American words will continue to spread to other parts of the world, but I can't see the evidence of Engel's strong claim that the imbalance between US and UK word-travel is increasing faster than ever.

At the start of the 21st century, British words seem to be entering America in greater numbers than they were a few decades ago. Much of this has to do with journalism and how international that's become. The online versions of the Daily Mail and the Guardian are extremely popular in the US. There are more US fans of Doctor Who now than in its Tom Baker days. Harry Potter is the single most important thing that's happened to children's publishing in the English-speaking world in my lifetime, and though the editions sold in the US are translated into American to some extent, it's actually only a small extent. Americans are reading and hearing more British English than they have in a long time.

The scale(s) is/are still tipped in American vocabulary's favo(u)r. But as far as I can see, there's not a lot of reason to believe that the degree of the imbalance is rapidly increasing. Yes, the number of American words in British English constantly increases, but there's more westward traffic now, more UK coining of managementspeak, and new local youth cultures making their own words in Britain. The tide hasn't turned, but there is (mixed metaphor alert) (orig. AmE) pushback.

And if English continues to be popular as a global lingua franca (due to its momentum, rather than the foreign and cultural policies of the UK and US), then more words may be coming from other places altogether.
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poo, poop

As I mentioned in the last post, I was at the BBC (on) Monday recording a Word of Mouth episode with Man Who Cries "American English is ruining Britain" Matthew Engel. One of his examples of Americanisms taking over was people in the UK saying poop instead of poo. I wish I'd known then what I just looked up in the OED.

My answer at the time was, basically, words for f(a)eces are the type of thing that would change often, because of what Steven Pinker calls "the euphemism treadmill". "Polite" words for a taboo subject become impolite once they have been associated with the taboo for too long. Some Americans are using poo more now because it sounds "less dirty" than poop, and perhaps poop sounds a bit more "fun" and a bit less graphic in for some BrE speakers. (Or maybe not. If you've switched your poo(p) word, let us know why.)

I doubted whether poo had been around long enough for Engel and Michael Rosen (the host) to have used it in their own childhoods (Rosen concurred), and therefore concluded that its loss was hardly a blow to British traditionalism. If British people are saying poop now (they're still mostly saying poo, I should note), that might be a short-lived trend. 

So, tonight I thought: "I wonder if I was right about poo being so new in BrE." And so I looked it up. And what I found was great:

Poo to mean 'f(a)eces' is first recorded in American English in the OED (1960 Dictionary of American Slang). Green's Dictionary of Slang found it in 1950 in Walter Winchell's 'On Broadway' column. (He does have an 1830s citation too, but suspects it's a misprint for pee.)
Late addition (next day)
: I now see there's a 1937 UK usage of poo-poo that I missed in Green's dictionary (the timeline interface is a bit tricky).

The next few examples in the OED and GDoS are mostly Australian. In the 1980s we start really seeing poo in British English--which was pretty much what I'd thought. The count-noun use (a poo, rather than some poo) is recorded in the OED as 'chiefly British' (indeed it is).

This seems like a good time to share with you a favo(u)rite song of the Lynneguist household, Kid Carpet's 'Doing a poo in the forest' (so that it gets stuck in your head too):




I would bet that the current usage of poo came to the UK as an Australianism, though, since there's more evidence of its popular use there--and plenty of Australians (and at some points, Australian television) in the UK.

[Note that if you want to look these things up for yourself in the OED, they're under the spelling pooh. I've sent a message to the OED suggesting that poo should be a co-headword there, so that it's searchable.]

But it gets better!

Poop was used in British English long before poo was. If poop is coming back (not a nice image, sorry), it's more of a resurgence (the images are getting worse) than a new immigrant.

The verb to poop while 'now chiefly US' goes back to the 16th century in English--though then it was more about farting. The 'defecating' sense is recorded in a dictionary of Cornwall dialect in 1882.

The early noun uses of poop in the 'solid' sense are American, with a single 19th century example, then more from the 1920s. But poop catches on in Britain in the 1940s.

So poop is older than poo in British English, and both were may have been American first.
[I've edited this to reflect the correction above.]

I wish I'd known that on Monday, but there you have it now! Not sure whether the poo discussion will make the editing cut (we'll find out in a couple of weeks, probably), but this blog post can stand as supplementary reading in any case
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hit and/or miss

I have a little file of things I've looked up and should blog about some day, and in it is this:



...as you can see, BrE has hit and miss, but AmE is more hit or miss.

But while that was mo(u)ldering away in my desktop folder, Lauren Gawne aka Superlinguo actually did something about it. You can read her blog post on the subject here, but here's an extract.
Google n-gram confirmed variation in UK and US English, with and being the preferred form in the UK these days, and or found in US English. This didn’t appear to always be the case - hit or miss was also more common in UK texts in Google’s corpus until a couple of decades ago. [see her blog for the picture!]
The OED has hit or miss going back to at least the early 1600s, while the earliest hit and miss is 1897, which also fits with the n-gram viewer.
I wish I'd been thinking about this yesterday, when I recorded an episode of BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth with Matthew Engel, who is writing a book about the American "conquest" (his word) of the British language. It's such a clear example of British English changing something and American not. Contrary to the fear that American English is 'taking over' British English, British is very happily doing its own thing without regard for Americans in this case (and many others).

I will post a link to the 'events and media' page when I know the date of the Word of Mouth broadcast. (I'm told it's probably the last one in February.) And I'll put a link to the podcast version when that's available.
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Abbr.

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