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Separated by a Common Language

Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK

Updated: 2018-04-23T05:15:42.155+01:00


The book! The book!


I've been quieter than I'd like to be on this blog, but things have been a bit crazy-hectic-mad getting ready for the release of The Prodigal Tongue: The love-hate relationship between American/British and British/American English. Yes, there are different subtitles depending on which country you buy the book from. There had to be, right?

So I invite you, kind readers, to visit the new website for the book, which has lots of good stuff, including a couple of short quizzes (orig. AmE in that sense) to see how much you know about British and American English. (I will warn you: just because you come from a country doesn't mean you know all of its English!) 

If you're thinking about buying the book, please consider (orig. AmE) pre-ordering it (see the buy now link at the website). Pre-orders help authors because they show (BrE) bookshops/(AmE) bookstores and media outlets that it's a book people care about—and so it's more likely to be kept in stock and reviewed.

And let me make a special plea to those who follow the blog and like it. The content that I provide here (and daily on Twitter and less daily on Facebook) is provided for free. It's not part of my day job to write Separated by a Common Language. I started it as an act of love (and procrastination) and all expenses relating to it (e.g. the makeover the blog had a while ago) are out of my own pocket. I do not take advertising money, because nobody wants to see ad(vert)s here. If you like this blog or the Twitter Difference of the Day, and you want to show its author your support, please buy the book and/or ask your local or school library to buy it. (And if you like it, maybe give it as a gift too!)

The book is SO MUCH MORE than the blog has been. It is not a printing of old blog posts. I learned so, so much in writing it, and really think you'll enjoy it. The advance reviews have been amazing so far.

So, please have a look at the site, please consider ordering one (and/or asking a library to do so!), and if you take the quizzes, please share your results on social media!

Thanks for reading! Lynne x  (that x is soooo British)

P.S. SPOILER ALERT: people are talking about the answers to the quizzes in the comments here. So if you're planning to take the quizzes and read the comments, do the quiz part first!


dull and blunt


This item ran as a Twitter Difference of the Day back in September, and I've been meaning since then to explore it a bit more. My thanks to Colin Fine, who pointed out a Canadian tale of 'the customer isn't always right' story, in which the writer consistently used dull where (British) Colin would have used blunt. Since gradable adjectives are my favo(u)rite kind of word ever, I've been thinking about it on and off since.'The most important tool' by Simeon Berg, shared under a Creative Commons licen{s/c}eI hadn't noticed that British folk talk about blunt knives and not dull knives because Americans can talk about blunt knives too. Hearing blunt knife hadn't bothered me (and I hadn't noticed the lack of dull knives), because I hadn't (BrE) twigged that it means something different in the UK than it means to my American mind. It's one of those differences that can easily hide.In AmE, blunt is generally used to refer to things that aren't pointy (though they might have been). So, if I poke you with a stick, you would be better off if it were a blunt stick, rather than a sharp, pointy one. Using that meaning, an AmE blunt knife would be one without a sharp tip. That 'not-pointy-sharp' meaning works in BrE too. In BrE, I could poke you with the sharp end of a pencil or its blunt end. (Stay away from me. I'm clearly in a poking mood.)But BrE also allows for blunt to be the opposite of sharp when referring to an edge, not just an end. So, blunt knife in that case means that the knife is not good for cutting (whether it's good for poking people with is another matter).AmE uses dull for the edge, and thus has lexicali{s/z}ed (i.e. put into words) the contrast between the 'edge' and 'end' ways that something can be not-sharp. The chart below shows the nouns that are statistically 'more American' (left, green) and 'more British' (right, green) in the GloWBE corpus. (These are not the nouns that are used most with dull, but the ones that are not used in the other country much. See the 'ratio' column for the strength of the noun's 'Americanness' or 'Britishness' in this context.)  (Dull Tool is scoring so high because 12 of the 18 hits are the title of a Fiona Apple song, which goes 'you're more likely to get hurt by a dull tool than a sharp one'.) The 'more BrE' uses of dull have to do with its 'boring' or 'not bright' senses, which exist in AmE too, but perhaps aren't used as much.In both Englishes, sharp is the opposite of both dull and blunt in their literal 'cutting' senses. So if we talk about a sharp knife in either English (or a blunt knife in BrE), then it's ambiguous as to whether we're talking about the edge or the tip, but context often lets us know. If you're talking about cutting vegetables, the edge is more relevant; if you're talking about poking people, you're probably describing the tip. Where the context is not enough, you'll have to use more words to make it clear—e.g. The tip of that knife is really sharp. AmE doesn't have that ambiguity in the 'not-sharp' end of its vocabulary: the choice of dull or blunt disambiguates it.[...]

2016 UK-to-US Word of the Year: gutted


This is the second of my 2017 Word of the Year posts. For the US>UK winner, see yesterday's post.

A Pinterest page credits this
photo to Josef Gelernter

As I said then, there's always a choice--do I go for the (BrE) slow burner that's been wheedling its way into the other country, or do I go for something that was splashy in the news? I went for the slow burner for US-to-UK because it really did seem to resonate in 2017. But I couldn't find as good a reason to promote any of the UK-to-US slowburners (and there are a lot of them--as Ben Yagoda's been tracking) to special status for 2017. So I'm going way back to February when I tweeted this: