“Stand for (election)”

Top NOOBs scout Nancy Friedman alerted me back in September to U.S. news host Rachel Maddow’s use of a certain Britishism:

… standing for re-election as president in 1972, Richard Nixon was due to make history. He was going to match FDR`s record for being on the national ticket for his party in five different elections. FDR had stood for vice president once. Of course, he stood for president four times…

The Britishism is “stand”–the exact Americans equivalent is “run.” I mentally filed away the example and planned to eventually write a post on it. I expected that I would find that it was a true one-off from the mouth of Maddow, who studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and is quite fond of British expressions.

Well, it’s at least a two-off, as Nancy has detected another use, in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine: “… Jeff Flake, in a speech announcing he would not be standing for re-election…”

The author of the article, Sasha Chapin, is Canadian. Following a Twitter discussion, ace Anglo-American linguist Lynne Murphy kindly searched a corpus of Canadian English. She found three hits for “run for election” and six for “stand for election.”

Still, even if it was normal for Chapin, the usage got by the Times copy editors. Oh, I forgot, the Times has eliminated the position of copy editor.

Anyway, such is the press’s need for elegant variation, I expect to see “stand for election” pop up again.



Is “Feeling a …?” a thing?

A while back, I discussed Donald Trump tweeting that his political enemy Bob Corker “was made to sound a fool”–the Britishism being the omission of the word  “like” after “sound.”

Soon afterwards, my friend and neighbor Nanette Tobin alerted me to this sign in our town grocery store:


Nanette wondered if the first line were a similarly British elision–the meaning being “Feeling like having a treat?” (Obviously, the more common way of expressing this on the other side of the Atlantic would be “Fancy a treat?”) I tend to think that it sounded British to the signmakers, but it actually isn’t. What do you lot have to say?

British English “in rude health”

I started this blog in large part because its topic–British words and expressions becoming popular in America–runs counter to the far more popular narrative of Americanisms taking over British English. This supposed subjugation, which has been lamented for a couple of centuries, is the subject of a new book by Matthew Engel, That’s the Way It Crumbles: The American Conquest of English. In it he argues that so many Americanisms have taken hold in Britain — including “cookie” instead of the traditional “biscuit” — that within a century, quite possibly, American English will “absorb the British version completely.”

When he was researching the book, Engel decided to interview me, as the NOOBs phenomenon was obviously relevant to his thesis. In the book, he describes me as “an affable and hospitable man” but dismissed the blog as more or less inconsequential, with the subjects of many entries  either “passing fads” or “so well camouflaged that their ancestry is largely forgotten.” (The latter would seem proof of the influence of British English in the U.S., but never mind.)

“When comparing the indignities with those heaped on British English,” Engel writes of me, “he can sound a bit like a White House spokesman threatening nuclear retaliation for an outrageous and provocative attack launched by the armed forces of Rutland.” (Rutland being a county in England.)

No comment on that analogy. I’ll just move on to observe that the reality is rather more complicated than Engel’s jeremiad suggests. As “Johnson” (Lane Greene) observed in The Economist:

It is true that America is influencing British usage. “Smart” is increasingly describing the intelligent as much as the well dressed. (Never mind that “smart” first was used this way in Britain in 1571.) Many Britons prefer “movies” to “films”. And “fries” and “cookies” are now appearing alongside “chips” and “biscuits”. But are they always replacing them?

No: “smart” is savvy, whereas “clever” is swotty. “Fries” are thin and crispy, and “cookies” are American styles like chocolate-chip, notes Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at Sussex University writing her own book about the relationship between British and American English. “Movies” tend to come from Hollywood; “film” is still preferred for the latest gritty cinema from Europe. In other words, these Americanisms are not an impoverishment of British English. They are additions to it.

Johnson concluded that British English is “in rude health.”

I’ll add that when I was in London recently, I found that a common menu item was “skinny fries,” emphasizing the distinction from the fatter, still thriving “chips,” as in fish and.

A new academic study that crunched 30 million tweets and 15 million digitized books published between 1800 and 2010 found that, in the worldwide use of English, spelling and vocabulary are indeed trending toward American versions. However, the trend is most pronounced in countries where English isn’t the primary language, and, in all the world, is seen least in Britain.

The Guardian did a nice graphic illustrating these findings, and suggesting that Americanisms are just slightly more prevalent in Britain than Britishisms are in America. The green bar indicates spelling and the blue bar vocabulary. A score of -1 means thoroughly British, and +1 thoroughly American.

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 9.29.37 AM

That’s consistent with what I found in a book I just finished reading, Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head Is Really Up To, by Dean Burnett, published in London in 2016. Burnett, a neuroscientist at Cardiff University, in Wales, is a sort of poster boy for the survival of British English. On page 1 alone, he does these distinctively British things:

  • Spells the words “apologise” (American: “apologize”) and “behaviours” (“behavior”).
  • Refers to a little boy “dribbling” (the more common American word word is “drooling”).
  • Uses logical punctuation and single quotation marks (the American practice is double quotes) when he refers to ‘something people say’.

Page 1 is not an aberration. From beginning to end, the book is packed with Britishisms. Most apparent are the different spellings, including “sceptical” (U.S.: “skeptical”), “aeons” (“eons”), “”travelling” (“traveling”), “tyre,” “pyjamas,” “foetal” (“fetal”), “centre” (“center”) and “hippy” (“hippie,” as in the flower child of yore, not an adjective meaning wide around the middle. If you’re skeptical or sceptical on the British-American difference see this Google Ngram chart). Burnett probably somewhere wrote “programme,” but I didn’t catch it.

As far as vocabulary goes, in this 302-page book, I counted 44 distinctively British terms, including “dribbling.” Here are the others, in order, with American equivalents in parenthesis. For ease of reading, I’ve dispensed with quotation marks except where Burnett uses them. And the links are to Not One-Off Britishisms posts, indicating that term has had at least some penetration in the U.S.

Without any bother (without any trouble), petrol (gas), worrying (troubling), mum (mom), crisps (chips or potato chips), she used to live in the street next to us (on the street), well done (good job), “Not now, mate” (buddy), here’s the clever bit (smart part), massive (not exclusively British but used massively more often there than here), turning up drunk (showing up), at university (in college), row (argument), chap (guy), knock-on consequences (no real equivalent, hereafter abbreviated NRE), queue (line), maths (math), have a look (take a look), “you were crap” (NRE), boffin (NRE), sport (sports), daft (crazy), games consoles (game), trainers (sneakers), estate agent (real-estate agent), check your emails (email), goal-orientated (oriented), different to (from), a bit of fun (some fun), cut you up (cut you off, in the motoring sense), down to you (up to you), waiting staff (wait staff), I went to the shops (I went shopping), shop (store), forecourts (NRE), noughts and crosses (tic tac toe), heard it from some bloke down the pub (heard it from some guy at the bar), carry on (continue, go on), messes about (messes around), lift (elevator).

And how often does Burnett use American lingo? I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here, since presumably I wouldn’t necessarily recognize an Americanism as such; it might just seem normal to me. So bear that in mind when I say I counted only four terms that appear to be Yank imports: “up for grabs,” “fans” (in a sports context — the more common British word is “supporters”), “smart” (Burnett alternates it with “clever”), and the cowboy-movie “pronto.” (There were a few others that initially struck me as Americanisms but turned out not to be: “hubbub” came from Ireland, as early as 1555: “a big ask,” meaning a large or important request, is an Australianism, according to the OED; and the dictionary’s first cite for “the middle man,” meaning an intermediary, is from Edmund Burke in 1797.)

I would guess there’d be about the same number of Britishisms in a comparable American book, most likely coming from a relatively short list of the most popular NOOBs: “bits,” “clever,” “go missing,” “one-off,” “kerfuffle,” and a few more.

And that’s the way the biscuit crumbles.


There is really no excuse for Quartz, an American-based publication, to use “university” rather than “college” in this headline. For one thing, “university” is three words letters longer.


What a cock-up

In an interview with CNN, Tom Hanks commented on Donald Trump’s handling of a condolence call to the widow of a US. soldier killed in action:

“I’m only knowing what I read in the newspapers and what have you, and it just seems like it’s one of the biggest cock-ups on the planet Earth, if you ask me.”


The question came from Lynne Murphy via Twitter: “Have you been hearing any ‘sectioned’ in US?”

Me: “No. What’s it mean?”

Her: “Committed, in the ‘institutionalized’ sense.”

The reason she asked was that one of her Twitter informants, who goes by the handle @ahab99, had heard the word coming out of the mouth of American characters on the American-set Netflix series “Mindhunter.” And sure enough, in Episode One, the wife of a hostage-taker says, “I tried to get him sectioned on Sunday” An FBI agent, apparently hard of hearing, follows up, “You tried to get him sectioned?”

The OED definition of the verb is, “To cause (a person) to be compulsorily detained in a psychiatric hospital in accordance with the provisions of the relevant section of the Mental Health Act of 1983 or (formerly) that of 1959.” All the citations are from British sources, including the first one, from a 1984 article in a medical journal: “Before the 1983 Act came into being no social worker ever refused my request to come and see a patient with a view to sectioning the patient under the old section 29.”

I would venture to say that, until now, the word has never been used in an American context.

And how did “sectioned” get into “Mindhunter”? The answer turns out to be simple. The writer of the episode, Joe Penhall, was raised in Australia but has done all his previous work in British theater and film.

That’s all well and good, but it’s pretty odd, as @ahab99 observed, that “apparently nobody in production or on set said ‘wait, what’s “sectioned”?’”



“On the day,” again

I last discussed the British expression “on the day”–AmE equivalent: “on the day of the event,” or “on the day in question”–because it was used by an American writer who turned out to have spent twenty years in the U.K. Two years later, it’s shown up again, this time in a quote by since-departed U.S. football manager Bruce Arena, after his team failed to qualify for the World Cup:

“This game in my view was perfectly positioned for the US team and we failed on the day.”

Arena has never coached anywhere but in the U.S., but, as has been discussed here in several posts, many Britishisms have made their way into American soccer. “On the day” hasn’t achieved broad acceptance, but it’s a useful expression, and Arena’s use of it makes me elevate its status from “outlier” to “on the radar.”