"the" Americanization of English?

from the Guardian
Today the Guardian reported on a new study by Bruno Gonçalves, Lucía Loureiro-Porto, José J. Ramasco, and David Sánchez (you can get the pdf here) entitled The End of Empire: the Americanization of English. There are interesting things to find in this study, but I'm taken back to a panel that Sandra Jansen, Mario Saraceni and I presented on 'problems in predicting the linguistic future' last week in Newcastle. The focus of our talks was how the media present change in the English language and how linguists  sometimes contribute to skewed presentations of past, present and future—taking part in the very linguistic ideologies that academic linguists should be regarding with a critical eye. We're now working on making our panel contributions into an article, and I think it'll be a good one.

It's perfectly clear that many originally-American words and spelling standards have spread elsewhere. It would be surprising if they hadn't, since the US has a large population that mostly (and mostly only) speaks English, as well as a very big and very international economy. For me, the problem comes
  • (a) when "Americanization" becomes the whole story (because life and language are more complex than that),
  • (b) when the story depends upon informational/logical fallacies, and
  • (c) when that story is pitched as a story of winners and losers (because language doesn't have to be a competition, and because that winner-loser narrative is often heavily dependent on the simplifications of (a)).
Though I've label(l)ed those points as a/b/c, part of the task I have in writing up the paper is that it's hard to pick apart and label those points—they're very interrelated and also they hide a lot of detail. Here was my first draft—a slide from my talk last week. It's called "panic tools" because I am considering how Americani{s/z}ation* news stories might sit within "moral panic" about language change in Britain—a panic that Deborah Cameron wrote about in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene.
Slide from Is the future American? (Murphy 2017)

Anyhow, I was heartened to see that the Guardian article is by a data scientist, Mona Chalabi, and therefore it did something that popular news articles rarely do when talking about linguistic research—it sounded a note of caution concerning the data sources for the research: Google books data and Twitter.

Both are problematic resources in terms of making sure the data is what you think it is (here's one of many Language Log posts about Google Books metadata). This is not a criticism of the paper—we linguists use what we can to find out about language. But then we give caveats about the data, as we should.

But that note of caution is about where they've looked. There's also what you look for. Neither the Guardian article nor the paper give many caveats about that. The Google Books data was used to see what's happening in the US and UK over time, and the Twitter data to see what English is like across the world, and they searched for a specific list of "American" and "British" spellings and vocabulary.

To give just some examples that deserved more caution (from the paper's appendix of the British and American vocabulary that the authors searched for).
  • AmE bell pepper is matched to "BrE" capsicum. But the usual term in British (as in AmE, really) is just pepper or a colo(u)r+pepper (green pepper, etc.) or sweet pepper. Capsicum is primarily Australian English.

Capsicum the GloWBE corpus
  • AmE drug store and drug stores are matched to BrE chemist's. Why just the singular possessive? Why no plural? Looking at the same data set as they used (Google Books), it's clear that it's more common to get things from the chemist than from the chemist's. And often (maybe even usually) in contexts in which Americans would say drug store rather than pharmacist—e.g. The boy from the chemist is here to see you. But then, that leads us to another problem: does chemist's really match with drug store, when it also means pharmacist's and pharmacy?
Click here to be taken to the interactive version

And then there are the problems of polysemy (many-meaninged-ness) and variation, for example (but there are many examples):
  • The polysemy problem: in comparing BrE draughts and AmE checkers, are we sure that they're all about games? Some of the draughts will be AmE drafts (for beers or breezes). Some of the checkers could be checking things. If the frequency of use of any of these meanings changes across time, then that can interfere with answering the question of what people call the game. Elastic band is given as the BrE for AmE rubber band, but in my AmE, elastic band can be a name for the covered kind you make ponytails with (and then in the US there are also regional terms for both the stationery kind and the hair kind).
  • The variation problem: BrE plasterboard is given as equivalent of AmE wallboard, which I can't say I've ever used. It's drywall or Sheetrock to me in AmE. BrE spring onions is compared with AmE green onions (which, since that's the title of a song, might provide a fair amount of data "noise"), but AmE scallions is not included. BrE mobile phones is searched for, but not mobilesbut it looks to me (using GloWBE corpus) that about 1/3 of mentions of such phones have the shorter term. In the US, calling the phone by the shortened name cell looks to be less common than the equivalent shortened British form. So if you compare mobile phones to (AmE) cell phones, you might be missing a lot of BrE. (Then there's the problem of the not-uncommon spelling cellphones, which they didn't search for either.)
  • The vocabulary–spelling problem: AmE license plate v BrE number plate. If BrE or another English borrows license plate, they may very well adapt the spelling to their standard, so why not look for licence plate? What does it mean if that's found? Is it an Americanism or not?
All of this is to say: comparing such things is hard to do well. If it's possible at all.

(If the authors read this and want to correct me on any points in the comments, please do. I may have misread something in my haste.) 

I'd also like to sound a note of discomfort and caution regarding talking about AmE and BrE  "around the world". This involves a leap of thinking that bothers me: that AmE and BrE are used outside the US and UK. To be fair, the authors mostly talk about BrE or AmE forms being used. But for us to claim national ownership of those forms is to take a particular nationalist-political stand on English, I think.

It's a common way to talk about English. People in, say, India or Korea might say "I/we speak British English" or "I/we speak American English". But what people generally mean is "I/we use the British (or American) spelling conventions."

If you're learning English as a foreign language (e.g. in Korea), you may well use learning materials that are from the US or the UK. (Your teacher may well be from somewhere else.) You may aim for a particular kind of accent (though a number of studies show that learners are often not very good at telling the difference between the accent they're aiming for and others). What you speak will be English, but it won't particularly be "American English" or "British English".  You may aim for a certain pronunciation convention, you may get certain vocabulary. But your English has not developed in Britain or America. It's developing right now where you are. It's absolutely related to British and American English. But it is neither of those. (Glenn Hadikin's your linguist if you want to know about Korean English.)

In a place with longstanding English usage, like India, the language has been going in its own direction for some time. The fashions for UK or US spellings may change, and the language will take in new English words from the US and other places, but it also makes up its own, has its grammatical idiosyncrasies, etc. If you look at whether people in India use off-licence or liquor store (as this study did), then you're missing the fact that the Indian English liquor shop is more common than either the American or the British term. (And, interestingly, it looks like a mash-up between American liquor store and the British use of shop for retail places.) I don't know what the alcohol-selling laws in India are, but if they're not like Britain's then the British term off-licence would make no particular sense in India. Instead, Indian English has a nice descriptive phrase that works for India. But what a study like this will find is that there are a few more uses of liquor store in their Indian data than off-licence —who knows, maybe because they're talking to Americans on Twitter or because they're talking about American films in which people rob liquor stores. (Spare thought: are there UK films where people rob off-licences?) The study then completely misses the point that, for this particular word meaning, Indian English is Indianized, not Americanized.

The most interesting thing about the study (for me), but not one that gets a mention, is what happens to their data in the Internet age. After 1990, we see the gap narrowing. This does not come as a surprise to me—this is also the point at which Britain falls out of love with the -ize spelling and starts preferring the -ise one (having allowed them co-mingle for centuries). In the internet age, we also are seeing grammatical changes that set British and American on different paths (you're just going to have to wait some months for my book for those details).

From Gonçalves et al. 2017

This graph is based on Google Books data from the US and UK (or at least, that's what Google Books thinks). The yellow line is BrE vocabulary and the black line is BrE spelling (of the particular vocabulary and spellings they were looking for—which include no words with -ise/-ize). Those lines are fairly steady--though you can see that the two world wars did no favo(u)rs to British book publishing. You can also see dips in the American lines after WWII. The authors attribute this to European migration to the US after World War II.  I'd also wonder about American contact with Britain during the war.

But after 1990, those British lines are going up—the spelling one quite sharply. In the paper I gave last week, I talked about (what I've decided to call) contra-Americanization—British English changing or losing old forms because they look like they might be American. There seems to be a backlash to (perceived and real) Americanization.

I've  congratulated the Guardian author on the note of caution. I don't want to congratulate the headline writer, though. Nor the researchers' title for their paper.

The paper's title, setting the end of Empire against Americanization, implicitly feeds into that "it's a two-way competition" story.

The Guardian headline 'Do you want fries with that? Data shows Americanization of English is rising' includes an Americanism that wasn't part of the study. The implication that Americanization means de-Briticization (which falls out from the competition story) doesn't work for fries. British English now has fries, but it has very Britishly made it mean something different from what it means in America, since in Britain it contrasts with (rather than replaces) chips. But the bigger problem in the headline is that "is rising". Given what we've seen in the post-1990 graph line, is that true?

These kinds of things also raise the question: what is meant by Americanization? Apparently it means non-Americans having the words fries and cookies in their vocabulary. But if those words don't mean the same thing to them that they mean to Americans, what does Americanization mean here?

The moral of this story: talking about "the Americanization" of English makes a lot of assumptions—including that "Americanization" and "English" are each one thing. They ain't.

*I'm too tired to keep up the marking of the s/z contrast here, so I'm going with the z because it's Oxford spelling, good in Britain and America. Don't let any contra-Americanizer tell you otherwise!


  1. "Rubbers" is counted as an American form of "Wellington Boots", rather than as a British form of "erasers" (!)

    If I understand the "spelling word list" in the original paper correctly, then the following standard British spellings would all be incorrectly considered American: "honorary", "laboratory", "laborious", "collaborate", "elaborate", "vigorous", "clamorous", "odorous", "armorial", "valorous", "arboretum".

    1. In Canada, Rubbers refer to a low cut rubber slip-on-over-the-shoe item for covering shoes only for men and are entirely out of fashion. Billy boots or Rubber boots go up the leg and are good for rain or mud. I have an insulated pair for cold snowy days

    2. In my UK childhood (forty-mumble years ago) my father had a pair of things like that. We called them 'galoshes.'

    3. Ellarien, we called my dad's galoshes too (CanE, late 20s), though I think galoshes themselves, and thus all the words I can think of for them, are very dated.

      Incidentally, I can't think of any common use of "rubber" as a count noun in Canada. If someone said "rubbers" our of context, I would most likely understand it to mean condoms or erasers, but I'd mark it as a foreign usage. I use "rain boots" and "rubber boots" interchangeably, but I don't hear it shortened as "rubbers"

    4. Another Canadian, Galoshes usually slip over the entirety of the shoe and frequently buckle up on the side. Rubbers, which are also commonly called "toe rubbers" fit over the bottom of the shoe - almost always a dress shoe or, in the North, decorative mukluks - up for the first inch and a half are so and are to prevent the shoe being damaged as you walk through puddles.

    5. I too was familiar with galoshes — both the things and the word — in Britain forty-odd years ago when they were still obtainable. I used to have a pair, and found them very practical.

      My wife, coming from Russia, found them quaint and backward , because back home they were associated with the sort of felt boots which were worn only by old-fashioned villagers.

      I believe the US term was overshoes.

  2. I may be out of date, but when I was teaching English around the world it wasn't unusual for en educational institution or school system to make a conscious choice to teach British English or American English. I was told of a Department in a Norwegian university where students chose to study one or the other.

    1. Some certainly still do. What I'm saying is that you can say you're teaching BrE but (a) defining that is a problem in itself, (b) what you really mean is that you're teaching a certain set of spellings, words, and pronunciation targets, (c) the outcome of that teaching maybe something else again. I was told I was learning "Latin American Spanish and put. I have yet to meet anyone from Latin America who speaks Spanish like I learned to.

    2. What I 'really mean' is that I'm teaching (in my case used to teach) what is instinctive to me as a British English speaker from a body of printed and recorded materials produced by speakers with similar instincts.

      The sheer volume of input from that body of teaching materials produces something distinctly British-like as its immediate outcome. Of course, students may well be exposed to a lot of very different input when they cease to be students.

    3. No argument that it may be more or less 'British-like'. I'm just having a problem with claims that things outside Britain, used by non-Brits, *are* "British English".

    4. There are places and times where although it may not be the case that things *are* 'British English' they are nevertheless perceived as such by the speakers. They subscribe to British English norms, without necessarily following them consistently.

    5. Right, it's perceptions + a way of talking about these things, not 'reality'. And I want to be careful with how we talk about it.

      E.g. Canadian writers don't spell "the British way", they spell the Canadian way. That involves spelling some words the same as the British do, but they're not using British English when they do it. They're using Canadian English, which has some things in common with other Englishes, including British English.

    6. Very true, Lynne! We in Canada talk about spelling something the "American way" or "British way" to specify which form we use for a certain word (because it depends on the word!), but I wouldn't say I speak American English, even though much of our day to day speech is more American than British. We still have our own unique linguistic patterns and vocabulary.

      In teaching ESL, I also noticed that many students used "British English" in theory, but it was very dated because of the age of the materials from which they were taught. Even if a language could be transplanted unchanged from one country to another, it's never going to be exactly up to speed with the original!

    7. My English high school teacher always said "I don't care whether you use American or British spelling -- as long as you do it consistently. No mixing of spelling in the same piece of writing".

      I don't recall any policy on the use of vocabulary (or pronouncation). The teaching materials were all based on British English though.

  3. I have never understood how anyone could think chips and fries were the same thing, ever since first eating chips on a trip to Ireland at age 12. Perhaps they serve sort of the same function, but the fat bar is no more interchangeable with the small square cylinder than pounds are interchangeable with dollars.

    1. ...They're salted, deep-fried potato oblongs. They have a lot more in common than they differ.

      I think the reason that particular cultural difference gets so much attention really has more to do with "chips" meaning something else in America. Americans buying steak in Britain/Ireland (or Brits/Irish buying pub snacks in the US) aren't confused by seeing a completely new, unfamiliar word for the thing they want, they're confused by seeing a familiar word in a context that doesn't make sense.

      Or rather, they aren't, because at this point it's the single most famous Transatlantic vocabulary difference and it's now only notable as a running gag.

    2. And yet they see it absolutely in context and making perfect sense when prefixed by "Fish and".
      Nobody expects to be served Fish and Crisps.
      I ordered a "Gyro and Fries" from a food truck last week, having evidently recognized my accent they went on to serve me a "Doner kebab and Chips" :)

    3. *Giggles*. Love it!

      Seriously, though, we all know that to most Americans "Chips" means "crisps" except in the context of "Fish and chips" - but I've noticed that we speak of "Tortilla chips" rather than "Tortilla crisps"....

  4. Curious. In my family, in the late fifties, early sixties, it was always rubber bands. (We were Londoners transported to the north east of England.) Elastic bands sounds a bit posh, and elastic was the white strip used in dressmaking. (My mother did a lot a sewing.) Was my family odd?

    1. I (CanE, late 20s) have always had the same thoughts as you about "rubber band" vs "elastic band"!

      The other usage given for "elastic band" is for ponytails, but for me that has to be "hair tie", "hair elastic", or *maybe* just "elastic". But if someone told me they put their hair up in an "elastic band," I'd envision the uncoated rubber kind. Ouch.

    2. Never had hair long enough to need a tie. (What's the difference between a hair tie and a scrunchy?) But my mention of white elastic strip has brought back a memory of my childhood. My mother couldn't stand the way my socks used droop around my ankles so she improvised sock garters from elastic strips.

  5. Apparently it means non-Americans having the words fries and cookies in their vocabulary.

    Yes, that sounds pretty good for what I understand by Americanisation.

    But if those words don't mean the same thing to them that they mean to Americans, what does Americanization mean here?

    It means the import of words which exist as words in American speech and did not — at least in the perception of the speaker — exist hitherto as words in British speech. The precise meaning of the word in American speech doesn't really affect the definition.

    By the same token, the definition (as I personally understand the word) is not really affected by variations in British English usage. No matter what BrE speakers have used to denote a shop like Boots, all that matters is that we didn't use to call it a drugstore. And no matter what term we used for those vegetables, the only relevant fact is that we didn't use to call them bell peppers. Nor did we use to describe any of the variant forms of 'deep fried sticks of potato' as fries.

    On reflection, I'm not so sure that cookies is an Americanisation. I have a vague feeling that it used to exist as a word in British English referring to an undefined range of sweet cooked treats. And now the word seems to denote an American thing. For me it will be an Americanisation when we use it instead of the word biscuit for traditionally British things.

    1. The current 'cookie' is generally considered to come from US (where long-gone Americans got it from Dutch). There was a Scottish work 'cookie', but it referred to some other kind of baked good and hasn't had currency for a while, I understand.

      If borrowing 'cookie' and using it for American-origin things involves Americanization of British English, does importing foie gras and clafoutis mean the Frenchification of British English?

      The Frenchification of English was a question raised for me a few times in reading Matthew Engel's book, as he throws in a lot of bon mots while complaining about another foreign incursion on English. Amused me, at least.

    2. That definition seems a bit loosey-goosey. If the American meaning doesn't signify, and actual American origin doesn't signify (after all, I guess 'I suppose, I reckon' is certainly an Americanism now, even though Chaucer used it), then why should actual American use signify? Some of the words and pronunciations people denounce as vile Americanisms have never been heard of in These States at all.

      As far as the OED knows, cookie is an Americanism in every sense, borrowed, presumably in New York, from Dutch koekje 'little cake' during the colonial or immediately post-colonial period. There is an apparently independent borrowing that produced Scots cookie 'plain bun', but as far as I know this never spread to England. Canada and South Africa use American cookie.

    3. There's also the widespread and international internet "cookie," which may confuse the statistical analysis

    4. The current 'cookie' is generally considered to come from US ...

      Well yes. But whether it's an Americanism or not depends — for me — on whether it currently refers to those big round American things which we didn't use to consume or whether it supplants the word biscuit for things we've consumed for a long time.

      If the former, then cookie is no more an Americanism than baked beans or hot dog.

      I just think that Americanism is a trivial concept that just doesn't fit into the serious frameworks of semantics and etymology.

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  7. Hmmm, it's more than just vocabulary, surely. One of the biggest differences between AmE and BRE lies in the use of the past tense. Examples are:

    UK: Have you been outside? Is it raining?
    US: Did you go outside?

    UK: If I had had my boots, my feet would not be soaking wet.
    US: If I would have had my boots ...

    And then we have
    UK: It's just become/got easier to find car insurance
    US: Finding car insurance just got easier

    Only the last construction has made its way to the U.K. - so far!

    1. Hm.

      1. I reckon that Did you go outside? is possible in that sense in BrE — albeit still rare and restricted.

      3. I see a stylistic difference. The Past Simple version represents the change as a narrative.

      For both pairs I see the difference as as a pragmatic choice. The speakers is motivated by non-grammatical considerations to see an event as part of a narrative (Past Simple) or a resumé (Present Perfect). The difference between AmE and BrE speakers is that we Brits have a higher threshold of motivation; we need to be really keen before we make the narrative choice.

      2. This really is grammatical. The form if I would have had is absent from virtually all styles of British English.

    2. Ame speaker here, I could use all the the constructions you posted, with possibly using gotten instead of got. Do you think Americans don't use past perfect?

    3. Anonymous (Travelling Away from) New Jersey15 July, 2017 18:16

      Although your second example is certainly familiar to many speakers of AmE, I doubt that most consider it "the norm". For all of my past English Literature teachers and professors, it served as a marker of an unrefined speaker. At least one marked it as ungrammatical, and I am inclined to agree, though I have never tried to really work out how the phrase might stand up to the grammar Inwas taught eleventy-jillion years ago. (That phrasing grates on my nerves, to be honest. I cringe whenever I read it. I feel actual pain in my teeth. And while I fear that having such negative feeling towards a series of words makes me seem snobbish, I know that I am far from alone in feeling that way.)

      About the rest: As Dilsnik wrote, all your BrE examples are ones I'd likely hear in the U.S.

      To my ear, the BrE in example #1 meams something different to the AmE: I might ask the former if I hand mo clues to what the answer might be; the latter would likely be directed at someone who was visibly wet.

      Your "BrE" #3 would sound perfectly natural in AmE. A bit more formal than the "AmE" example, perhaps, but not by much. Also, am fairly certain that AmE example is a tagline for an insurance company's advertisements, making it stand out (to my ear) for a different reason.-- AiNJ

    4. At least one marked it as ungrammatical, and I am inclined to agree, though I have never tried to really work out how the phrase might stand up to the grammar I was taught eleventy-jillion years ago.

      Well, for me it is ungrammatical, and I do know why. Not that it makes it 'ungrammatical' for those who use it comfortably.

      For me, the rule is that there is a uniformity to sentences which use the modal verb will to express a hypothetical situation and its predicted outcome.

      • if I have my boots, my feet will not be soaking wet.
      • If I had my boots, my feet would not be soaking wet.
      • If I'd had my boots, my feet would not have been soaking wet.

      In each sentence there is it one prediction signalled by one clause with a form of will.

      In this corner of English verb grammar — as in a few others — PAST TENSE signifies THEN but not in the sense of 'before now'. Rather it signifies 'in that hypothetical case'.

      The combination of THEN ('before now') + THEN ('in that hypothetical case') is expressed by Past Perfect —
      •in the verb of the if‑ clause (the one stating the hypothetical condition) — technical term protasis
      • in the will+ lexical verb form of the main clause (the one expressing the prediction) — technical term apodosis

      Another way of putting it is

      Past Simple = before NOW
      Past Perfect = before THEN

      This congrats with Present Perfect and the more usual sense of Past Perfect

      Present Perfect = up to NOW
      Past Perfect = up to THEN

      The two senses of Past Perfect can be contrasted in so-called indirect speech.

      He said that he'd seen it before = at some indefinite time in the period UP TO THEN

      He said that he'd seen it when he got home at sis o'clock = at a definite time in the period BEFORE THEN

      One advantage of this only one prediction rule is that it also accounts for sentences where the other clause is a time clause with a different conjunction.

      * I'll see her when she comes.
      • I said I'd see her when she came.
      • I'll write to her before she comes.
      • I said I'd write to her before she came.
      * I'll let you know after I've seen her
      • I said I'd let him know after I'd seen her.

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    6. If (AmE) you-all want to discuss verb tense, could you do so at the Present Perfect post?

    7. Oh dear! My final section arguably relates to a different sense of will — expressing not prediction but willingness functioning as promise .

      Here are the sort of example I should have given:

      • I'll see her face when the bandages come off.
      • I said I'd see her face when the bandages came off.
      • I'll no doubt be informed before the bandages come off.
      • I said I'd no doubt be informed before the bandages came off.
      • I'll probably be asked to report after I've seen her,
      • I said I'd probably be asked to report after I'd seen her.

      The grammar —my grammar — rule for both uses is simple:

      Only one will in the sentence.

      Those native speakers who feel comfortable using will in both clauses simply have a different grammar.

  8. I interrupt my reading of this post to point out that Green Onions, by Booker T. & the MGs, is -- strictly speaking -- not a song, but an instrumental and that I had heard (and endlessly repeated) this account of how it got its name:

    Songfacts.com, however, ascribes the track's title to Jones. When asked by Stax co-owner Jim Stewart why he had given the track this title, Songfacts reports, [Booker T.] Jones replied, "Because that is the nastiest thing I can think of and it's something you throw away." (Wikipedia)

    -- except that in the version I heard (and endlessly repeated), it was the sound engineer who suggested the name in disdain,

    1. You know, I'd never heard anyone make the 'song has to have words' distinction till I moved to the UK. I don't know if it's a dialectal difference, or if I just interact with more musically literate people here.

    2. Certainly, to me a song must have words. I hate it that my iPod tells me all the songs I have, when I'm mentally shouting, "That's not a song, it's a movement from a symphony!"

    3. Not for me. I don't require words to classify something as a song, nor does having words mean that a musical work is a song.

      Beethoven's 9th Symphony is not a song, even though the last movement uses Schiller's An Die Freude. And Green Onions and Rebel-'Rouser are both songs even though they lack words.

      For me, "has words" is orthogonal to "is a song".

    4. I agree that just because something has words, it doesn't make it a song, but I have trouble thinking why something with words could be a song. I don't now the examples you give.

      Then there's Mahler's Song of the Earth and Szymanowski's Song of the Night.

      Not to mention Mendelsohn's Songs without words.

    5. @Paul Dormer,
      I've heard real (American) people referring to symphony movements as songs. To me, nothing in classical music should ever be called a song regardless of, whether it has words or not, unless, perhaps, it has the word "song" in its title.

      I also subscribe to "a song has to have words" distinction, but I am not sure if that is my AmE brain or my Russian brain objecting.

    6. Well, I consider that Schubert wrote a lot of songs. Indeed, I have a boxed set of CDs claiming to include every song he ever wrote. He wrote a lot.

    7. Boris

      I also subscribe to "a song has to have words" distinction, but I am not sure if that is my AmE brain or my Russian brain objecting.

      My wife tells me of a Russian proverb which serves on a comment on things that just can't be changed:

      You don't chuck the words out of a song.

    8. The concept of The Great American Songbook is not a British English coining.

      It consists in large part of works extracted from musicals. Sung works, not instrumentals. The equivalents in opera were called arias but these were numbers. Like arias they served to move the spectacle along. In theory, that is; in practice some of the best of them did the opposite and were called showstoppers.

      But once abstracted from their original settings, the numbers were called songs.

    9. @Lynne

      The "Songs must have words" thing is more a classical vs. popular music distinction than a BrE vs. AmE one, in my experience.

    10. "not a song, but an instrumental"

      Well, that certainly set the cat among the pigeons. Reverting to the trusty old Big Red Book (Chambers Dictionary, 1988), I note that it says "[...]: an instrumental composition of like form and character:[...]".

      No one seems to have taken up the (possibly) more relevant question of whether green onions are something that should be thrown out. I don't think this refers to salad/spring onions (scallions), but full-sized onions which have green in them. I've always taken the (possibly apocryphal) anecdote to heart in the kitchen and at least cut away green parts.

  9. I don't think merely being "classical music"* would keep music from becoming a "song" for me. The Carmina Burana contains several of what I would consider songs, for instance.

    That said, I'm having difficulty coming up with a definition for what I think of as a song with any sort of rigor. At present, it's rather a Potter Stewart definition, I'm afraid.

    * Here I'm using "classical music" to mean the things typically shelved in that section of a general music store rather than only the subset that a music historian would call "classical" in opposition to "baroque", or "romantic", or whatever.

    1. Carmina is the Latin for 'songs'. Orff's cantata is based on a collection of Medieval songs known as the Songs of Bürn. It's not surprising that the nature of the source material is discernible.

      You perceive it as an artistic whole containing several of what you consider songs. I think the problem is that any basic definition of a song would allude to its self-contained character. A similar short pice of sung music which is an integral part of something else classified according to:
      • its funtionaria, hymn, anthem etc
      • its performerssolo, duet, chorus etc

      Even a piece which is clearly stand-alone may be referred to by a name relating to
      • its structure and performancemadrigal, motet etc

      There's also a matter of language. If the text is in German, it's called a Lied plural Lieder. In fact it may still be called a Lied if the text is translated into another language. Russians use the French word romance to refer to a particular genre of song — some of which we might call parlour ballads.

      I thinks a basic definition would point to s self contained composition consisting of a verse-like text and a melody perfumed by a singer, possibly are than one, and possibly accompanied by one or more instrumentalist. By extension, you can have a song without words (shorter than a tone poem) and other pieces called song because of their song-like properties. You can also have song cycles with a wider encompassing unity, but even here each element can stand alone.

    2. a self contained composition consisting of a verse-like text and a melody perfumed by a singer

      I should have said something like 'with a verse-like text and a melody written to be performed by a singer'. It is, I think, still a song when nobody actually sings the words.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. self-contained composition

      But you also have song cycles.

      And some works - Mahler's Song of the Earth, Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony, Britten's Spring Symphony, Shostakovitch's 14th Symphony - are often called song-cycle symphonies.

    5. Paul

      See the last sentence of my post.

      The term song cycle without qualification suggests an ensemble of thematically linked but discrete songs. Once you talk about a song cycle symphony you're likening something to something else.

  10. I've never heard "rubbers" used to mean Wellington boots, only to mean rubber footwear placed over dress shoes and of approximately the same shape and size. Rubbers were also called "overshoes." I don't think I've seen any in decades, and even when I was a kid (New Jersey, USA, 1950s and 1960s) they were definitely uncool. My mom made us wear them, so we wore them out the door, took them off and hid them behind the garbage cans, then retrieved them and then, when we arrived home, put them on before going back inside.

  11. "Galoshes" is another name for them I can dimly remember people wearing them in the 1950s.

  12. Where are we with 'janitor' where English people would say 'caretaker'? 'Janitor' might be regarded as an americanism in England but in Scotland it's the usual word (often shortened to 'jannie'. Are there other instances where Scottish English is closer to American than English use? I'm sure there are, although I'm tired and can't think of any.

    Oh yes, 'I'm Good' is an expression that gets many English people frothing but it's a common Scottish expression and comes from Gaelic, as do many Scottish usages. A lot of words must have made their way specifically from Scotland, particularly following the Clearances, and it does make the phrase 'British English' rather problematic. Moving from England to Scotland, as I did two years ago, does come with its own linguistic culture shock, almost as much as travel[l]ing to the US.

  13. "British English now has fries, but it has very Britishly made it mean something different from what it means in America, since in Britain it contrasts with (rather than replaces) chips."

    Is that distinction similar to the fries vs. potato wedges distinction here in America? I'm guessing it is.

  14. @Rick Smith. Indeed, it is. It's basically a shoestring vs. steak cut fries distinction.

  15. I (an American) understood the shoestring vs. steak fries distinction instinctively, but I am confused by the reference to "those big round American things which we didn't use to consume." How big are they? Most American cookies are 1-3 inches, whether baked at home or bought from a bakery or store. Sometimes I see 5-inch ones at the bakery, but I would call them "giant cookies". They are a very special sub-set of cookies. Is there anything other than size that distinguishes them? Are there particularly American recipes?

    1. Please click on the link at 'cookie' in the post, and you'll be taken to the post that describes the difference between the US and UK understandings of 'cookie'. You're very welcome to add comments to that post.

  16. Re Chemist vs Pharmacy vs Drugstore - we do, of course, have our own drugstore chain, called Superdrug, which I think is based more on the German concept, shops like DM and Rossmann. Superdrug often has an in-store pharmacy (but then, so do larger branches of our supermarkets), but it is not its prime raison d'être, which is to sell cosmetics, hair products, perfume, etc. Boots, on the other hand, while having many of the lines you'd expect from a drugstore, is primarily (historically, at any rate) a pharmacy! I probably wouldn't say I needed to go to a pharmacy without specifying, e.g. hospital pharmacy, in-store pharmacy; I find I use "Chemists" less and less, although it is still an active part of my vocabulary.

  17. BTW: about "Do you want fries with that?"

    I realize the important distinction here is supposedly fries versus chips, but it's worth noting that the question "Do you want fries with that?" has become shorthand for a menial dead-end service job -- what's known, thanks largely to Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, as a McJob.

    Thus one might do a Google books search on this question and find it mentioned in works about labor economics and not about either fast food or the Americanization of English.

  18. Not to be crass, but the primary context in which I've heard "Do you want fries with that?" is when someone is leering at (or being facetious with) a woman whom they feel is walking provocatively. The complete version of the question is "Do you want fries with that shake?"


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