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.”

“To sound/seem/feel a [noun]”

Usually, my sources for Not One-Off Britishisms are writers for the New York Times or the New Yorker, or some other American publication with aspirations to elegance or class. Imagine my surprise the other day to see our president tweet out what struck me as a palpable NOOB.

Screen Shot 2017-10-13 at 10.41.20 AM

(Some background: Trump is in a fight with Republican Senator Bob Corker, who is slightly shorter than average, hence the “Liddle’.” The “d”s presumably represent an approximation of American flapping. The apostrophe is mystifying.)

What activated my NOObs-dar was “Was made to sound a fool.” It seemed to me that the standard American version of this would be “was made to sound like a fool,” while the “like” might be left out in BrE. To find out if I was right, I consulted my go-to source, American-born Sussex University linguistics professor Lynne Murphy.

She confirmed my sense and pointed me to a blog post she wrote on the subject in 2009. She observed:

I’ll quote [John] Algeo’s British or American English on the topic, “A group of copular verbs (…) have predominantly adjectival complements in common-core English, but also have nominal subject complements in British more frequently than in American.” In other words, in AmE or BrE, you could say I feel old (because my students told me yesterday that Brad Pitt is ‘a sexy old man’). You could also say I feel like an unsexy geriatric case, because the like phrase in that case plays an adjectival role in the sentence. But in BrE, you can also forgo the like and just go straight to the nouny part of the description….

Here are some examples showing more of this pattern:

sound: He sounded a complete mess. [Jeremy Clarke in The Independent]

look: Joey Barton has made me look a fool. [Oliver Holt on]

Was Trump trying to sound an Englishman? I doubt it. Possibly he was echoing a common expression found in Twelfth Night (“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool”) and in the classic 1972 soul song “Everybody Plays the Fool.” It was also suggested when I raised the question on Twitter that the “like”-less construction is common in African-American English and/or in the rural South.

But I think I have a more likely explanation. Using “like” would have put Trump’s tweet at 142 characters. So he ditched it.

“Garden/ing leave”

Friend of NOOBs Ben Zimmer points out a line in a New York Times article about Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s retirement: “His post-Vanity Fair plans involve a six-month “garden leave” (Mr. Carter is fond of Britishisms) and a rented home in Provence.” The link goes to a Wikipedia article saying the expression “describes the practice whereby an employee leaving a job – having resigned or otherwise had their employment terminated – is instructed to stay away from work during the notice period, while still remaining on the payroll.”

The original form was “gardening leave.” The OED gives a 1981 citation from The Times (the British newspaper), the inverted commas indicating it was a recent coinage: “There are too many senior officers on permanent ‘gardening leave’.” The Wikipedia article says that the expression gained popularity through its use in a 1986 episode of the TV series “Yes, Prime Minister.” The OED’s first citation for the shortened “garden leave” is a 1990 Financial Times article. For more background on both variants, see this 2010 post by Nancy Friedman.

All OED citations for both versions come from U.K. sources, but they show up now and again in the New York Times, for example in a 2011 article about a Goldman Sachs executive who had “to take a paid 60-day leave before he could start at Dealbreaker [a satirical blog], a common industry waiting period referred to as a ”garden leave.”’

I was interested to learn about this expression because I’m currently undergoing it myself. I’ve retired from the University of Delaware, which allows prospective retirees to take a sabbatical at reduced pay before walking out the door. UD’s slightly morbid name for this period: “terminal leave.”