Friday, July 22, 2011

Please contribute your favo[u]rite Americanisms here!

There's a challenge below - please post comments with words and phrases that, unlike rock'n'roll, haven't made it to Britain yet!

The BBC just produced a reader-contributed list of most noted Americanisms. Dismal stuff - "take away" is correct and "take out" makes me want to faint without a scrap of a reason, film is better than movie because it's the language of Beowulf, and "gotten", with its couple of dozen appearances in the King James Bible and at least a handful in Shakespeare, is a cringeworthy American neologism. The Economist, bless its heart, has already published a scholarly debunking of many of these Anti-Americanisms.

Come on, folks, let's do something more fun! Britain's done really well from the New World in terms of music, entertainment, and crazy oversized consumer goods. Calling a movie after the film that used to be in the projector, or shortening refrigerator to fridge, these things just don't upset us here in the New World, and if the folks back in Blightly decided to call a big-ass TV a big-arse TV or even a big-bum TV, well, that would make us smile not grimace. And every time American music gets exported to the British Isles, it comes back with interest - we could fill a book with the wealth of blues and rock'n'roll guitar licks that have become cornerstones of British popular culture and returned to America as big hits. We couldn't be happier to share, we benefit enormously, e pluribus unum and all that.

But if the blokes and blokesses back in Blighty think modern British English is complete enough for Chaucer so it's complete enough for anyone, we should help them out. Many many of my friends and nearly all of my family have one time or another lived on both sides of the Atlantic. We know that sometimes there's a perfect word for something in Britain and there just isn't in the New World, and sometimes it's the other way round.

So please, all you transatlantic travelers out there, lend a hand! Instead of listing 50 words and phrases we hate without reason, let's try to gather a list of words and phrases we enjoy in North America that they might enjoy back in Britain, if only they knew! Just post them as comments below for now, email me if you have trouble, and in the unlikely event that this gets popular I'll try to find a more sustainable structure.

I'll start with a few to get the ball rolling and will add more as I think of them. Please please, if you think of anything send it in!


Blogger Dominic said...

Growler. I recently saw a sign in a pub in Wales offering a "4 pint refillable container". They don't have a word for a growler in Britain - really? Geez, can you imagine struggling to the bar just before closing time, you've already had a few, and you're hoping for a couple of after hours beers with your good friends - and you ask in a slurrrrrd voice "Could I get a 4 pint refillable container of Boddington's, please?"

7:48 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Kittycorner. If Neil Young had wanted to say "kittycorner from the bank" in Britain, he'd have had to say "diagonally opposite from the bank".

7:51 AM  
Blogger Edward said...

(to) Gun it. as in to perform an action with great haste or in an especially short amount of time.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Yield. On road signs. The British version is "Give Way", and the French "Vous n'avez pas la priorité" is even less direct. I like "Yield", it sounds like something from King Arthur or Ivanhoe.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Hellywelly said...

Growler is a gud un! however, that word already applies to a proper pork pie in some parts of Blighty - could lead to confusion!

11:40 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

I don't know, even 8 out of 10 drunks can tell the different between a jug of ale and a pork pie, surely? And if they ask for one and get both, they'll just be happier!

11:51 AM  
Blogger Gay Canuck in the Capital said...

An Americanism that I find delightful is 'cook out'. It captures a big American event so much better than BBQ, which is used in Canada.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Riding shotgun, which means to ride in the front passenger seat of a car. Comes from the Wild West days when whoever wasn't holding the reins on was looking out for danger. Like at the beginning of The Magnificent Seven when Steve McQueen says to Yule Brynner, "I never rode shotgun on a hearse before!"

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Frances said...

Hike: I really like that North Americans don't just go for walks... They go hiking! Sounds much more adventurous... They go on a hike down a trail to the lake... We go for a walk on the path around the reservoir... We short-sell ourselves. We even go 'walking' in the Lake District (which surely IS hiking). We should HIKE more!

1:57 PM  
Blogger Leon said...

Here's a brief heads up: in Britain, "growler" is slang for the female genitalia. A four pint refillable growler?

4:09 PM  
Blogger Dominic said...

But if Britain already has to figure out whether "growler" refers to female genitalia or a pork pie, surely adding a container of beer to the mix can't make it that much harder?

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Gillian said...

Awesome. It must have started on that side of the pond, I heard it first in the Backyardigans. Strange to me at first but is is the right word on some occasion.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

This might be too regional to be a true North Americanism, but I'm very fond of the Texan-ism "I'm fixin to ..." (as in I'm preparing to).

I'm fixin to eat this burrito
I'm fixin to go out
I'm fixin to watch TV

And if you want to be King of the Americans, you could say ...

I'm fixin to open up a can of whup-ass on you.

That's as American as it gets I would say. :)

3:41 PM  
Blogger Adam Kilgarriff said...

I do love 'shotgun!' but it's established itself on the east of the pond, I learnt it a couple of years ago from my kids. Exactly the same syntax semantics and pragmatics (if not etymology) as 'bagsy' which is what we brits used to say.

Ornery is pretty good.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Can you call 'shotgun' as generally as you can 'bagsy' something? We used bagsy for a lot more than car seats, but probably nothing as emotive!

Regionalisms are great, that way we all learn something fun. I like the willfulness of "fixin' to" a lot. Thanks so far, folks!

8:08 PM  
Blogger Dominic said...

(to) Redd up. Yinzer for "ready up", it means to make ready, make presentable, clean up, decorate. ("Yinzer" is Pittsburghese for "Pittsburghese".)

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Justin Washtell said...

What you call a "growler", I would call a "flagon". I don't think flagons were originally re-sealable, but the modern sort that scrumpy is sold in are. I do like "growler" though. I also like "Applejack" and "Moonshine" :-)

5:04 AM  
Anonymous Eric Atwell said...

I want Kool-Aid to arrive in Britain! You might think this is a product name rather than an "American word", but it's evolved into a generic American term for drink-powders, like "hoover" means any vacuum-cleaner. We can see the Kool-Aid man jumping out on Family Guy, but Brits don't understand the concept as we don't have anything like this in our supermarkets

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Eric Atwell said...

I thought the Yield road-sign was an Irish invention! I remember being impressed by this the first time I drove on Irish roads.

7:59 AM  
Blogger Jon Tayler said...

Autumn feels cold and grey and damp to me. Fall is all bright colours.

8:50 PM  
Blogger Assaf said...

Slightly off topic, but speaking of Irish roads - what I liked best there were the words painted on the road when approaching "Yield" sign: First "SLOW", then "SLOWER". I kept hoping to see "SLOWEST"!

3:01 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

"Flagon" is good. Certainly knocks the socks off "4 pint refillable container". So maybe we should just campaign for flagon to get the usage it so richly deserves on that front. Thanks!

5:30 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

(to) nickel and dime (someone). To negotiate over unreasonably small amounts of money, often in a situation where much more is at stake. (E.g., "We're paying these people thousands of dollars and they're still nickel and diming us for each postage stamp!")

Britain has lots of coinage-related idioms, but many of them precede decimalization e.g., "turn on a sixpence" (translates as "turn on a dime"). You certainly can't "5p and and 10p someone", and I'm not sure there's really any modern British equivalent to nickel and diming someone.

6:32 AM  
Anonymous Tom Lokovic said...

Regarding "fixing to", there's an even slangier contraction, "finna", which I only heard in the last few years. "Ah'm finna knock you down, boy" means "I'm fixing to knock you down, boy" or, as I would say it, "Scallywag, my knocking-down of you is imminent!" But finna is a regional variant of a regional idiom, so I wouldn't call it an Americanism per se.

6:47 AM  
Anonymous said...

After reading these posts, I must express my admiration for the word "growler." A word that can mean these three essentials (female genitalia, a large container for beer, a hearty food) is certainly an indication of advanced civilization.

An Americanism I, as an American, enjoy is "humongous." I did not research this, but I don't think I ever heard a Brit use this word. Another fine American expression is "shoot fire" which is an inoffensive exclamation which often substitutes for a profane or obscene exclamation.

4:33 PM  
Anonymous LisaMc said...

"Bless your (her/his) heart." Used to express pity for someone or to precede something not-nice said about someone. "Donna, bless her heart, is still on crutches after that car accident." "That boy, bless his heart, cannot do math to save his life." "That was you who lost your dog? Well, bless your heart." I learned how to properly use this phrase from my Texan mother-in-law, but my Illinois mom says it occasionally as well.

And I learned something new today -- the other meanings of "growler."

6:03 PM  
Blogger monkleyakimbo said...

America has some great idioms: horse around (play around); string along (deal dishonestly with someone); blow it (fail); raise a stink (protest strongly); wet blanket (dull or boring person who spoils happiness of others); squeaky wheel (loudest one gets the attention).

7:06 PM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Thank you for "bless your heart", that's a lovely one! I couldn't resist writing it back into one of the introductory paragraphs, I hope nobody minds.

We had "bless his/her little heart" a lot in Yorkshire growing up, said of children with nice fancy dress costumes, or who sang a song in the school play or choir. It was nice but a bit belittling. Mind you, many things sound belittling when you're small!

7:12 PM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Talking of things said to small people, there's pumpkin and peanut, in phrases like "she's such a cute little peanut". Calling babies after foodstuffs as a compliment is still somewhat funny to me, though it's part of the fabric here.

Some international exposure comes from the Peanuts comic strip. Wikipedia says it originated in a comic called Li'l Folks, and that the name may also have been influenced by "peanut gallery", from which an audience may bombard an unappreciated performer. There are probably more good Americanisms with "nut" in them, they grow more here.

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Nancy said...

@Dominic: "Li'l Folks" was Charles Schulz's first comic strip; it evolved into "Peanuts."

As for Americanisms, "Sure as shootin'!" is, unfortunately, highly representative.

I'm a native Californian; I'd never heard of growler = beer vessel until earlier this year. I'm pretty sure (but not sure as shootin') the term originated elsewhere in the country.

8:15 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Thomas said...

"off of" - we Americans will say something like "the restaurant is off of the side of the road", where as Commonwealth English prefers "the restaurant is off the side of the road".

8:35 PM  
Blogger Carol w/ just 5 letters said...

Weren't the words 'treshhold of materiality' recently spoken via a quasi American accent?

5:17 AM  
Blogger Dom said...

I've lived in the UK almost all my life and never have I heard the word 'growler' used to refer to female genitalia. However, we are hugely inventive where slang for genitalia are concerned (see for example Monty Python's 'one-eyed trouser snake' song and Viz's Roger's Profanisaurus - 'spam javelin', anyone?) so it may well be that it's a regionalism or an ephemeral student coinage.

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Jessica said...

I love some of these suggestions, many of which I didn't realize were specific to America!

Rain check is one that I like. And being from New York, I also cotton to (is that one?) the Yiddishisms that have been incorporated into daily language.

Here are some from an Armenian who learned British English and then came to study in America (and wrote a long blog post about refusing to change his spelling preferences!):

When something strikes my fancy, for example, it is “sweet”. When something excites me, I go, “Yes!”. I shall definitely “graduate” in May, and not “pass out”, as I would have in India.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Doohickey. Like British "thingie" or "thingamabob", but sometimes has particularly functional connotations, like "Could you pass me that doohickey?" or "Then you need to put this doohickey in this slot here and crank this handle here".

Definitely not one I heard before moving to the United States, and I don't think I really heard it before coming to Pennsylvania. Like a lot of down-to-earth country-sounding words, it wouldn't be hard to convince myself without a scrap of evidence that it originated in West Virginia.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Dominic said...

(to) Holler. Shout, yell, cry out. But somehow more urgent or enthusiastic than ant of the above. This one's well-known but not used very much in Britain, as far as I know.

It's used in the West Indies as well, like in the Calypso song Dolly Dawn:

When Dolly hear them sound the drum
Up she jump she holler: ”Here I Come”!

6:34 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am currently in Pittsburgh as a team leader at the International Linguistics Olympiad ( and this has been a source of amusement all week between the English-speaking teams (US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia). I'll try to remember and post some of the ones that came up in conversation.
Meanwhile, What you call a growler is called a jug in the circles I move in, never heard it referred to as a flagon. We say “gun it”, “ride shotgun” and “humongous” too.
Monkleyakimbo: all those phrases are heard in British English too.

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Harold said...

PS Not sure why my "name" appeared as Unknown

8:49 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

It's a very simple one, but I have always preferred the American 'sidewalk' to the British 'pavement'. It's just more accurate and to the point.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Harold! I'll keep posting more as I think of them. Today's is:

Diner. People worldwide know what a diner is, it's not just a restaurant, it's an American cultural icon and appears in movies, TV, rock songs, all over. But knowing what a diner is and enjoying one for real are two different things.

Diners are best appreciated on Sunday at breakfast time, which means anything up to mid-afternoon. Whether you've been to church or not, your sins are for a while forgiven and calories are entirely free. Or at least, it seems that way - even the many people who are really careful about consumption at other times of day will gladly eat a deep-fried mountain for breakfast. Because it's breakfast, even if it's lunch.

We're not talking just a British fried breakfast: bacon and eggs and ham and sausage and homefries and hashbrowns might be your main course, but you'll undoubtedly try some big thick pancakes with maple syrup, perhaps start with a waffle or bagels, squeeze in ice cream if it's late enough to eat desert, and of course drink several gallons of coffee which usually ranges from basically pretty good to excellent. Just the range of choices for eggs (scrambled, sunny-side-up, over-easy, and probably some other options that I've never quite learned) gives you some idea of how many decisions you have to make moment-in, moment-out in the land of manifest destiny and consumer choice.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Neil, After many years I think I agree with you on "sidewalk". It's simple and descriptive. The British "pavement" can be confusing when both wheels and feet go on paved surfaces (and "pavement" is sometimes used for the road surface in America, which confuses me of course). I remember a New Zealand friend telling me that they mainly use "footpath", which makes sense though I tend to think of a footpath being in a forest not by a road.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

(e)Spanglish. "Habla Espanglish?" roughly translates as "Parlez-vous Franglais?", just with a different but related version of foreignish. A scientific survey of my nearby office-mates suggests that High-School Spanglish may be taking over from Grammar-School Franglais as the world's most widespread really-badly-spoken language. Go team!

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Harold said...

"Pavement" is never ever ever confusing to a Brit, since cars drive on the road. Indeed, if a car drove on the pavement it would be a major drama.

Fully agree with the comments on "diner", so while we're talking food let's just say that you Mercans don't know what you're missing out on vis a vis bangers and mash, spotted dick, or toad in the hole.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Yorkshire Pudding is always a favorite here whenever I try to cook it - and honestly I don't even make very good Yorkshire Puddings, not compared to some folk above!

Apparently popovers are great as well, that's a delicacy I have yet to experience. :)

8:33 PM  
Anonymous Harold said...

Not sure what a popover is, but we do have something called poptarts, which are a poor apology for food which I thankfully have never eaten.

Top of my list of things to buy in America and take home to my grateful family is grape jelly (jelly as in jam of course). We have grapes in Britain... why cant we make jam out of them?

But now we seem to be talking not so much of linguistic but cultural differences. So to get us back on track, here are some more from the Linguistics Olympiad: this afternoon we had the team competition and I was proctor (ie invigilator) for the American team who, at the end of the competition turned in (ie handed in) their answers.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Good idea! There are plenty of education words. After the papers are turned in, someone will be "grading" them. We use "marking" for this in Britain, but sometimes you get back a mark, sometimes a grade. Similarly, we sometimes talk about a year, a class, and a form in Britain where it's pretty systematically a grade or Kindergarten here, hence the phrase "K-thru-12" or just "K12 education". K12 sounds to me like a next-generation Dr Who robot, but it's a useful part of the language - we talk of "K12 outreach" at Google, and it's much simpler than talking of "primary and secondary school outreach", and more specific than "school outreach".

Grade, form, class, and mark are all examples of very basic and very versatile words in all the English I've come across, so it's interesting to see how they get coopted in so many different ways.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

As a slight phonological chuckle on "grading", it's one of the words with a "d" or "t" sound that when spoken in America sounds ambiguous to British ears. For example: "How's your grading going?" "Oh, it's just grading." could be a deliberate pun saying "Oh, it's just grating."

My favorite of these because it comes up so much in computer science is the famous sordid table. "We have a sordid table of integer | string pairs." Sounds pretty intriguing, doesn't it? One of my closest colleagues became so used to my attempts to suppress chuckles day in day out that he started spitting out "sorTED table" with an exaggerated "T", which tended to get an even slightly bigger chuckle from a few more people. Some jokes are just funny every time to language nerds!

6:33 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

(Topical) Filibuster. Apparently used for out-of-band military operations for centuries, became a political term in the USA in the 1850's (thanks again, Wikipedia!). I think it's understood but not used widely in Britain. I first heard the term in the script of Finian's Rainbow, in the same Senator Rawkins speech as the wonderful "An immigrant? My family's been having trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country!"

While we're on the topic, gerrymandering is named after Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), Governor of Massachusetts. Sounds like he's up there with Captain Boycott, the Irish land agent, as one of history's unpleasant characters with a disparaging memorial in the language.

1:25 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Random: Not sure if this is so much an American term or more of a term that is specific to Canada and more specifically my generation....Random is often used to describe an appraisal of an awkward social interaction or a situation that was "surprising". I've got about a million weird things my friends "sketch"...what we call a guy who is not dating material and has a million red flags. I love it!

5:23 PM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Wow, I haven't heard "sketch" like this before. I've heard "sketchy" for "half-baked" in Britain, and for kind-of undesirable in California, so I can see where "sketch" might come from! Very nice (in a not-so-very-nice way)!

"Random" is very popular in British universities, or at least used to be. "In the beginning was the word, and the word was random, and many freshers thought it was the only word."

6:21 PM  
Blogger Dominic said...

(to) Trash. Trash is used in other parts of the world, of course, but not to the same extent as in America. In America you take out the trash or garbage, in Britain the rubbish. Leads to the very direct "trashcan" (compare "dustbin"). And it becomes a verb: to trash is belligerent; to rubbish is belittling.

Again, not a neologism at all, e.g., in The Tempest (Act I, scene II):

Being once perfected how to grant suits,
How to deny them, who to advance and who
To trash for over-topping, new created
The creatures that were mine ...

(Oooh, and note that Shakespeare isn't hung up on "whom" either!)

6:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brunch: Combination of breakfast and lunch served in late morning

10:56 AM  
Blogger Jeremy Allison said...

"write me"....

Grrrr. It's "write *TO* me" you lazy lot !

11:53 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Just like "Lend me" ... yeah, it should have been "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend TO me your ears!"

I'm sure some of my linguist friends could explain this at length, but I suspect that the gist is that indirect objects are sometimes used without prepositions when there's no danger of confusion, and which ones are "allowed" depends on what you're used to?

12:06 PM  
Blogger AndrewJHorsford said...

Can I rail against the disappearance of the preposition from North American journalistic and media parlance for a minute?

"The Mayor said Monday that there would be an inquiry into ..."

Perhaps I am channeling the spirit of my maternal grandmother (that's "Little Granny" for those who know) but this just drives me nuts because the Subject-Verb-Object typology of English (JACK / KICKED / THE BALL) leads one to believe that the speaker is talking to someone named Monday! This construction implies that the word is an interjection which addresses the person being spoken to rather than conveying when the Mayor was speaking.

Too many people say "well, you know what they mean" but that is LAZY and it is WRONG.

Here it is again with the "proper" punctuating commas given the suggested implication that the placement denotes an interjection:

"The Mayor said, Andrew, that there would be an inquiry into ..."

I realise that the grammatically correct structure for their intended meaning requires more words and in the printed medium space is a premium, but this is SPEECH! You aren't being charged by the second to SAY extra words!

11:13 AM  
Blogger Dominic said...

Zerbit. Can't imagine why I didn't think of this one earlier, but just got back from a lovely holiday / vacation where the kids were thoroughly enjoying blowing zerbits on the grandparents, and vice versa. A zerbit is like "blowing a raspberry" on someone's skin, usually their tummy. It's got nicer connotations than blowing a raspberry because (as far as I know) the word is never used to describe a rude expression, it's only used when the intent is one of endearment.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Celia said...

What about the noun/verb Tailgate? To tailgate here in the states, especially in a football city (Dom, you should hear all about tailgating if you have any friends who are Steelers fans.)

To tailgate: to eat, drink, barbeque and be merry In your car or truck In the parking lot of the stadium you are parked in before the football game. I call this both a noun and a verb because you can go to a tailgate party ("Hey, man, are you coming to the tailgate party?") or actively invite someone to tailgate with you ("Oooh, I love tailgating! Hell yeah, I'll come with you!")

12:31 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Dom, I believe zerbit is correctly spelled zrrbt, from a Cosby Show episode. And I'm embarrassed to admit that I know this.

8:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To follow up on the "kittycorner" post, we who have been influenced by the mid-South/southern midwest dialect often say "cattycorner". "Kittycorner" always struck me as a diminutive form of "cattycorner" when I encountered it (probably my folk etymological brain center at work).

2:09 PM  
Anonymous D said...

"Finna" is the AAVE (African American Vernacular English, a.k.a. "Ebonics") version of "fixin' to". That is, in my experience, it is more common in the black community.

2:13 PM  
Anonymous D said...

Here are some Americanisms to fill the void of the "thee/ye" distinction that has been lost in English:

Y'all (you all): mostly southern.

You all: southern, midsouthern and sometimes heard in the midwest.

You'ins (I believe from "you ones"): heard from Pittsburgh on down through the "midlands" settlement belt (where the Ulster-Scots settled) to about Cincinnati.

Y'ins (from You'ins): mostly Pittsburgh area.

[Also, note: 'youngins' (maybe from 'young ones', or even 'youngens', you know, German-style). Heard this quite a lot in the redneckier parts of southern Indiana where a lot of Germans settled.]

You guys: pan-American, but probably started in the midwest.

Also note that these function as pronouns and are (semi-)non-compositional: "You guys's car is parked out back. You need to move it." [But sometimes "Your guys's" is also used; and that irritates even me.]

We also have an extra 2nd-person singular (reflexive and non-reflexive) pronoun: 'his-ass'. As in "He needs to get his-ass here soon.", or "I made his-ass leave, 'cause he was just being a douche."

Oh, and while I'm on it 'ass' means 'arse' and 'douche' (short for "douchebag") means ass/arsehole.

Sorry for the information overload.

2:31 PM  
Anonymous D said...

From reading Harold's post on grape jam, I take it the finer nuances of canning vocabulary have been lost in the Old World. We have 'jelly' (just pectin and juice congealed into a sugary paste), 'jam' (congealed paste of the whole fruit, after having been crushed or ground up) and 'preserves' (congealed paste with the fruit left whole), as well as marmalade and chutney, and all that jazz.

That's what those terms mean to most Americans, anyway. I have yet to see any grape preserves, though. Yuck!

2:46 PM  

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