John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Saturday, April 10, 2010

From over the pond

The estimable Jan Freeman, writing in The Boston Globe about British-American linguistic cross-pollination, endorses my previous suggestion that there are a number of Britishisms that we could profit from adopting:

Surely, among all these offerings, everyone can find a Britishism to cherish. How about Thursday week, meaning “a week from Thursday,” which would instantly cure our chronic confusion about whether a meeting or dinner is scheduled for “this Thursday” or “next Thursday”? I’ve always been fond of fortnight, too — I suppose it doesn’t catch on here because our vacations (their holidays) are rarely two weeks at a stretch. And surely sell-by date is sleeker and more precise than expiration date.

I’d add snog for “to make out,” top up (a drink) for “refill,” gormless for “clueless” or “stupid,” and dodgy for “unsound,” “questionable,” or “suspicious.” (Your suggestions have not exactly been arriving in a torrent; am I supposed to do all the work here?)

Ms. Freeman also drew attention to Separated by a Common Language, a blog by Lynne Murphy, an American linguist living in Britain, who has written extensively about these transatlantic exchanges. (She is also on Twitter, @lynneguist, a pun I reluctantly endorse). I was particularly happy to discover her post from last December in which she provides some details on the increasing popularity of go missing on these shores, despite the unaccountably vehement and irrational resistance to it. As she explains, along lines that I too have suggested:

Go missing is beautifully meaningful--giving us some nuances not available in other words. It's not the same as vanish or disappear--and that's what makes it so useful. When something is said to go missing, it makes it seem like a less mysterious event than 'disappearing' or 'vanishing' which have a whiff of the supernatural about them. One can use it as a way to avoid blame--including self-blame: My phone went missing rather than I lost my phone. If a person 'goes missing', then there's a sense that although we don't know where they are, they do.

These exchanges often prompt spasms of crankiness. The British tend to bridle at Americanisms, even when they turn out to have a long history in British English as well, and Americans are liable to see the adoption of any British turn of phrase as a laughable affectation. (And I have encountered enough Episcopal clergy with synthetic British accents to understand the latter reaction.)

But I suggest that we can leave the peeving aside. If a word or expression offers a nuance that we did not previously enjoy, or simply adds to our variety of expression, go for it. That last phrase is an Americanism; I offer it to the British in a spirit of linguistic cousinhood.


  1. Britspeak I've recently noticed on US websites:
    wank, WAGs, gobsmacked, shag (UK meaning) and dodgy (in a headline in the last week, John, tho I can't now find it: on Salon or Slate, I think).

    Referring to the Britishism 'gutted' (meaning very disappointed) the Australian cricket blog, AGB, described that very common feeling of resenting a foreign word but finding that nothing else will do.

    Re 'Thursday week': personally I've always found it as confusing as the ever-exasperating 'this Thurs' and 'next Thurs' business. (I'm a Brit.)

    Agreed about fortnight: hard to repress during visits to the US -- tho not as hard as "Ta!"

  2. How about chuffed (pleased, flattered, proud)?

  3. We British have already gone for "go for it" over here. But I must reluctantly tell you that while we think "Thursday week" is pretty useful, we still manage to confuse each other about "this Thursday" and "next Thursday", and we have regional and English v Scottish differences of usage between the two just to mess up (I fess up) things even more.

  4. Word that Americans need without knowing it:


  5. Far from BrE being affected and "posh" a healthy proportion of the suggested British transfers seem to be from, well, (I'm proud to say) the coarser side of town.

  6. You guys are talking about those expressions like you just heard them! don't you read more than grocery store weeklies???

  7. As a non-native speaker, I had no idea most of those words - fortnight, dodgy and top up, especially - were not used in the US. I must be using a lot more Britishisms than I was aware of doing.

  8. I continue to make free use of the word "ta," slang for "thank you," on Twitter. In other places, I'm unlikely to shorten an expression as important as "thank you," but I do see it as useful for situations where the word is obligatory and polite for some minor event, such as receiving change at the newsstand. I also admit to using "sacked" in a headline.

  9. I've found "on the fly" to be an Americanism that those on the right side of the pond don't always understand.

    My favorite mixup came when I asked a colleague in London where he bought his suspenders. That's when i learned why they call them braces. (For the uninitiated, to him I was asking about a garter belt.)

  10. I always liked "leave off", meaning to stop doing something.

  11. One of my favorites is "throw a wobbly" -- as I understand it, to have an overreactive tirade.

  12. Patricia the TerseApril 10, 2010 at 3:57 PM

    I've always liked "sod off." It requires no translation. And one of my all-time favorites, "Bob's your uncle!" Then there is "All my eye and Betty Martin" (Whoever she was). The tedious "gravitas" (from the Latin "gravitas,-atis,f, 3rd declension) had been used by the illiterati and chattering classes in Britain to describe writers' qualities, and the political classes,looking for a new cliche, picked it up. A few years ago the American professional talkers discovered it: wait for the next presidential election to hear it used "ad nauseum." I believe it was former PM Tony Blair who started to use "going forward" and we now hear every American political commentator using it.

  13. "mind your head" is a good one when navigating hallways with low ceilings...And I like "queue" for line....(did I spell that correctly?)
    And holiday meaning vacation.....

    I do love gobsmacked, but can find no occasion to use it.

  14. If Americans don't use "fortnight", what do they use instead? The main use of fortnight in Australia is not to describe holidays (we get at least 4 weeks for that), but to describe pay-periods. The Government, and the majority of private industry, pay their employees fortnightly.

  15. Just remembered 'An Englishman Needs Time', that excellent Eartha Kitt song which I assume is American and which uses precisely the 'Thursday week' construction. (Here's a video:

    The lyrics below are lifted from a Franglais website:

    He'll admit to attraction
    but show no reaction
    His lips never part in a sigh
    What goes on in his breast
    is completely supressed
    by the weight of his old school tie

    The Vienese need a waltz by Strauss
    or a glokenspiel to sweet chime
    While the Dutch begin
    with a bottle of gin
    but an Englishman needs time

    A New Yorker's need
    is variety and speed
    But out West they are more sublime
    At a Hollywood ball, they need nothing at all
    but an Englishman needs time

    He will meet you maybe Monday night
    But unless he's quite unique
    He will call you up around Wednesday noon
    you'll get flowers Thursday week.

    I suppose the lyricists could be deliberately using a Britishism....

  16. Patricia the TerseApril 12, 2010 at 1:25 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  17. In Ireland, they use 'feck' as a polite form of, well... you know what I mean.

    I've heard old ladies say things like 'feck off' or 'that fecking thing'.

  18. Mdiehl said, "Thursday (or whatever day of the week was appropriate to the discussion) was very much in use in the environs of Athens, GA when I lived there during the 80s.

  19. re: "One can use it as a way to avoid blame--including self-blame: 'My phone went missing' rather than 'I lost my phone'."

    Spanish-speakers use this method of slightly detached responsibility. Instead of "I lost the phone," a rough translation to Spanish is the equivalent of "the phone lost itself with respect to me."

  20. Sorry this is a bit long winded. I think it makes sense though.

    Re: "thursday week"

    This is super confusing. I had never even thought to combine those words like that. To me, this and next week is pretty simple. The week starts on Sunday. I believe this very strongly. If you say "this Thursday", you (should) mean the Thursday of this week. Next Thursday means the Thursday of next week. The same applies with last Thursday. The only real difficulty I see is if you're point of reference is Saturday (though it's not very hard). If it's saturday and you mean the thursday in 5 days, say next Thursday because it's next week- the new week has to start before you can say "this" day. Thursday two days ago is just "thursday" -you wouldn't really say "last thursday" because that would mean 9 days ago.

  21. My main problem whilst in America has been "chips" and "biscuits". The young lady in the cafe was absolutely "gobsmacked" when I asked for tea (hot, of course) and biscuits. For proprieties sake I cannot mention the mistake I made when I suggested a gentleman should keep his spirits up but I can say that in England it didn't mean what he thought it meant.