Claims about British and American English

1. The word “cheerio” does not precede 1910, and furthermore it has been obsolete for some time now, and not because it was pushed out by an Americanism.

2. The Brits are correct to insist on “I couldn’t care less,” rather than the American “I could care less.”

3. Americans used to call an umbrella a “bumbershoot,” yet nowadays if they hear the word they often think it is a Britishism.  The British slang term is in fact “brolly.”

4. When Americans speak, they prefer “repetitious” over “repetitive,” even though the latter is nine times more common in American text.  Perhaps repetitious is more…repetitious.

5. “One-off” is a Britishism that largely has caught on in America.

6. How can they call it “rumpy-pumpy”?

7. “The British use sorry at the rate four times the Americans do.”

All that and more is from the new and fun book The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, by Lynne Murphy.


4: how often do the British say "repetitious"? It's easier and faster to say than "repetitive", so that could be reason enough why Americans use it while speaking but less often while writing.

But if the Brits do not say "repetitious" very often, there may be something else going on. Because they seem even more prone than Americans to resort to shortened and/or sing-song-y slang words such as the aforementioned "brolly", "lolly", "loo", etc.

As a Brit, with relatively high exposure to a range of media, I almost never hear it. "Repetitive" is far more used.

Another Brit chiming in. I'm not a linguistic prescriptivist, but "repetitious" flags up as incorrect in my internal lexer.

I’m an American and I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word repetitious before now.

Yeah, it doesn't even sound like a real word. Maybe it's a regional thing? "Repetitive" is very much the more commonly used word here in the Midwest.

These arguments are getting repetitious.

Oh man if dearieme doesn't post here ring up the bobbies, he's come to a sticky end.

Wotcha, cock.

>How can they call it “rumpy-pumpy”?<

We have plenty of other terms. Sometimes a silly one is useful.

Grumpy-frumpy Trumpty-dumpty did the rumpy-pumpy with Porny-Stormy.

I love the English language.

Trumpty-Dumpty tried to build a wall. Trumpty-Dumpty had a great fall. Cohen and all of the Republicans, couldn't put Trumpty-Dumpty together again.

7. Only four times - really ?

Generally, many Americans have no problem saying sorry (or excuse me) - they would get fired if they did not, after all.

This is in distinct contrast to Germany, where saying sorry is generally considered an admission of guilt/responsibility.

'Sorry' is used instead of excuse me in doorways, on trains etc. Also a lot more often than in America as a softener intro to sentences. 'Sorry mate, do you have a light?'

''Sorry' is used instead of excuse me in doorways, on trains etc.'

Which I thought was covered by the '(or excuse me).' The function is also a bit different in American English, so sure, in a situation like that, an American is more likely to use 'excuse me.' But considering how often Americans ride any sort of train, the explanation might not be completely related to language usage per se.

''Sorry mate, do you have a light?''

An American, at least from the time and place where I grew up, would have likely said 'Sorry to bother you, do you have a light?" as well as 'Excuse me, do you have have a light?'

There is no question that there is a distinction between sorry and excuse me in American English, and there is no question that Americans use 'sorry' less, but I find the 4 times considerably harder to credit (anecdotal bias being fully noted). At least when looking at situations that are common in both cultures - train riding, as noted, is not common in the U.S. And an airport is a different context, at least in 2018 - where it is the security people saying 'Sorry sir/ma'am, you need to step over here' (depending on their mood, obviously - and I honestly have no experience of Trump's America regarding an airport, so it might be different than in the past).

And to end with a British term that continues to mystify me in its precise usage, cheers.

Sorry, I thought it was about the word ‘sorry’’. ‘Excuse me’ doesn’t show up in a word search for ‘sorry’, innit?

Sure - but half the time a British person would say sorry in a situation, an American would also probably say sorry. The other half of the time, they would say excuse me.

Which does not seem to add to four times as many sorries. Sorry about that - or is that use of sorry too American?

I’m terribly sorry, but that rather ignores the situations when Brits say sorry and don’t intend any apology...

That's interesting. The German "excuse me" is "entschuldigen sie, bitte."

The word "entschuldigen" is, clearly, a cognate of "schuldig," which means guilty, or in debt to.

To make this even more entwined, when one is excused from a class/meeting, the German term is 'entschuldigt.'

Also, as I just found out by going there, in Germany "how do you do" means "do you feel all right?" and is usually met with a puzzled expression, unless the person being asked is obviously distressed, while in the U.S. it means roughly "hello."

The most common German greeting is "Wie geht's?" which literally translates to "How goes it?"

This same phrase is often used to ask if someone is ill or sad. The parallel to English exact. There are, of course, other ways to ask the same things.

You are completely right about 'Wie geht's'. However, what Germans find confusing is that when an English speaker says 'How are you?,' you are not supposed to answer that your child is sick, that your dog recently died, and that your stomach flu has improved.

Not to comment precisely on what Larry Siegel wrote, but from a wide enough view, it is correct in broad outline, if not detail. Which may be too wide a view with too broad an outline, admittedly.

2. I could care less - but only if I were to try really hard.

Yeah, my impression of "I could care less," based on nothing much, is that it evolved thus:

"I couldn't care less"
"As if I could care less"
"I could care less"

I’m from Texas and I’ve never heard anyone say “I could care less”. It’s always “couldn’t”. I’m guessing “I could care less” was conceived in the backseat of a Chevy somewhere along the Jersey shore and thereafter adopted by lazy New Yorkers.

As a Texan I agree, this sounds like an Eastern usageto me. It isn’t the Western form either.

I couldn't care less = straightforward. Means what it says
I could care less = sarcastic. Means the opposite

I've never heard someone say "could care less" in that context.

Stephen Pinker made the "sarcastic" argument in one of his books. I think he's giving people WAY too much credit on that one though.

Maybe that's originally what it meant and then idiots started using it when they weren't being sarcastic?

Actually, I have. Assuming that the sarcasm is applied to the meaning 'could not care less.'

And yes, this could be more of an East Coast thing.

Though sarcasm might not be the only way to look at it. For example, when someone makes an excuse, to say 'I could care less' (along with a certain intonation) is used to completely dismiss the person giving the excuse. Parents would use it in a similar way to a child saying 'but she has an ice cream cone.'

(Several times today I have searched for this regional aspect, and keeping coming up empty handed - I have a memory of it, but it may be buried in a broader discussion of regional usages in the U.S.)

"I couldn't care less" Is like being on the bottom step already, "I couldn't go any lower".
"I could care less", I'm on a stair, I could move down a step if that's what you want. (seems far more sarcastic..)

Or you could look at it this way:

I could care less (because there is no factor setting a minimum for my level of caring)--a sort of threat that is the person keeps pushing the issue you will drop your level of care/consideration.

I couldn't care less (there is some factor holding up my minimum level of care).

Neither are correct/clear at a literal level (I don't care at all/one bit) and since the usage is idiomatic I am not sure you can claim that either is correct.

"Neither are correct/clear at a literal level " Are you dumb?

The simple meaning of "I couldn't care less" is that I care so little about you/this situation that it is not even possible to care less than this.

So, who has the correct meaning of 'tabling' something? Number 2 is simply silly - or is the British use of Grand Slam more accurate than the American use of grand slam?

The really amusing thing is that all of the examples are extremely superficial (this is not a comment about the book, just the examples), and essentially relate to vocabulary.

The differences between American and British English go considerably deeper. To give one example (pointed out originally by Le Carre, actually), basically the British meet people, while Americans meet with people - the use of a preposition in American English reflecting the sort of usage that marks German, not English. Which is unsurprising, considering the considerable mixing of various languages that occurred during centuries of North American history.

A process first noted, with alarm, by Benjamin Franklin in the 1750s.

meet people/meet with people. The meanings are different; it's not just British vs. U.S. English. "I'm going to meet Steve" implies a social get-together; "I'm going to meet with Steve" implies business - in both countries.

Quite possibly - the Le Carre observation is from the early 70s. Language changes over time, but at least the several British language teachers I have discussed this with tend to agree with that observation. Which is distinct from the differences in preposition use between British and American English (particularly in combination with verbs).

And for British people living in Germany over the last couple of decades, they tend to notice how British English seems to be fading, at least of the variety they grew up with. That is a broad discussion with a number of points, however, and would likely make a much more interesting book than looking at the past.

And for those that prefer British English, Brexit pretty much ensures that British English will fade further as the EU continues to use English without any real input from the British. (And whether the Irish use British English is another fascinating discussion, though it is absolutely clear they do not use American English.)

I think that falls under true-but-weak-inference, Larry. You'd be right 6 or 7 times out of 10.

As a Bayesian, that's good enough for me.

The Irish use Irish English, related to but not the same as British English. Kind of obvious.

Framing "couldn't care less" vs "could care less" as a British vs American thing is very odd.

How would you frame it? A right versus wrong thing?

Yeah, basically. I don't consider it to be an American vs British English thing in the first place.

How does the Church of England pronounce "separation of church and state"?


Except, of course, bishops sit in the House of Lords.

Take a point for attempted humour. It probably was funnier in German.

And the House of Lords is now essentially powerless, right? Though with this official name according to wikipedia, they are still to be feared in the realms temporal and spiritual - 'the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled' (to be honest, that almost sounds like a joke slipped into wikipedia).

Nonetheless, 'House of Commons' sounded less funny in English.

But shouldn't we really be talking about the original French, and the benefits the Normans brought to the English language? -

TEMPORAL and spiritual, Prior. TIME Lords. Don't mess with them.

Who is to blame for the American habit of turning nouns into verbs? Some of the blame goes to sportscasters and the athletes who listen to them. I suppose they believe it sounds more educated, more refined. What if everyone used the language of the sportscaster and the athlete and every sentence included a noun masquerading as a verb? Well, in computer-speak we "email" and "friend". An the list goes on and on. My best buddy has an unusual writing style, similar to that of the late and very British Christopher Hitchens (whatever one thought of him, his sentences were a thing of beauty). My friend explained to me that his writing style was influenced by his two years in Japan right after college. According to my friend, in Japanese the action words are typically the subject of the sentence. I suppose one could say my friend was impacted by the Japanese, but I won't say it.

The English language has always welcomed verbizing nouns, typically with -ize. Email and friend are much more brief and less harsh. "Email me" is easier to say than "send me an email." Word efficiency is an important aspect of communication, and English is good at it.

English is a master language because of its great flexibility, tolerance for errors, and permissiveness for creativity. A person can completely butcher an English sentence and be perfectly understood in context.

The use of "email" as a verb has solid precedent because "mail" is used as a verb.

Americans can speak english????

Old timers in India (my granddad's generation and to a lesser extent by father's) used many of these British expressions which are disused today.

What Ho!
My Goodness!
"What on earth" / "What the dickens"..

Younger Indians prefer Americanisms, and are in most cases totally ignorant of these British expressions...

I heard the last two often during my youth in Kansas and Missouri. I associate them with older proper female relatives.

I've heard "What are earth" although "What in the world" or more obscene phrases ("What the ...") are more common

My favorite Britishism that I've incorporated into my vocabulary is saying cheers instead of thank you for little things like somebody passing me the butter at the dinner table or at the end of an email thanking someone for assistance.

I'm often tempted to use "brilliant" the way the Brits use it. Especially after a dean who's from Britain elegantly explained accreditation to some staff and asked me if I had anything to add. I simply shook my head and said "very good" but I was tempted to say "brilliant".

Yes, this one as well.

To me, "off you go" is distinctly British, and remarkably charming. It's also versatile, working equally well as either a well-meaning send off or as a dismissive barb.

What makes "cheerio" obsolete?

I don't use it personally. But a handful of people I know do use it, and anyone who hears it, understands it. Or mistakes it for a sausage.

It's not.


I use "cheers" all the time." To my ear, "cheerio" sounds like baby talk, or like I am mocking the listener, or like I am referring to a breakfast cereal.

Do upper class Brits still end sentences with "what" like in PG Wodehouse novels? "Top drawer, what?!"

Not that I know too many upper-class Brits, but one doesn't hear that any more (if one ever did--not sure anyone ever spoke the way PGW characters did). But a (to me) interesting factoid about that "what" is that it's a homophonic slide from "wot," meaning "know." In that sense (and the related term "whatnot" from "wot not") it serves the same function as "y'know" (and the less common "dontcha know") and "isn't it" (as once and maybe still used in India), and the ubiquitous Canadian "eh?"

That is indeed interesting.

People don't use "wot" anymore, the empire's gone to hell...I'm not saying there's a causal relationship here, but something's definitely gone wrong with ol' Britannia.

I think the Ozzies have the most charming variant English vocabulary; think “brekkie” and “arvo”.

Bloody oath.

They just end everything with the dimunitive "ie." Breakfast is brekkie. Sunglasses are sunnies. Kindergarten is Kindie, for pete's sake.

I like English words that have been preserved in the American South, like 'reckon'.

Southern American English is a recognized dialect. I have a home in an area that was originally settled by Scottish Highlanders (they manned the British forts along the coast), and their descendants speak with a very distinct dialect and accent. My former father in law (of Anglo Saxon descent) spoke with a very distinct dialect and accent, which he would emphasize after a wee dram.

I like that they took it upon themselves to fix the issue of a missing second person plural in modern English (at least since "ye" became archaic). "Y'all" is just so useful, I wish I could use it without sounding like I'm a rancher.

And at least in some places more than one person is "all y'all" which is really wonderful when heard in the southern accent

You is the second person plural. Thou was the singular.

Differing usage of prepositions seems a potentially interesting area of study. Editors on Wikipedia will spend days or more fighting over whether one thing is "different to" another or "different from" another. Does the implied movement toward, or away from, the point of comparison embody American exceptionalism and the experience of emigration from the motherland? Or are the disputants just obsessive compulsive pedants from irreconcilable cultures?

taking the piss
taking a piss

taking a piss
taking a slash

Pissed (angry)
Pissed (drunk)

root vegetables- beets @ carrots
root vegetables - aussie paraphilia

If anyone is interested in a similar set of data, but for Canada vs the US, this tumblr has a bunch of good stuff.

One curio is that North American English has fewer regional accents than British Isles English. Another curio is that regional accents are dissipating in the U.S. In Britain, you've seen things like the emergence of 'Estuary English' in lieu of Cockney and RP. At least one of the Queen's grandchildren favors it.

I read that even the Queen has drifted into Estuary English over the years. It makes for an interesting study as she's both very old and audio recordings of her speaking are wildly abundant even back +80 years.

Ah, here we go:

Jonathan Harrington, Professor of Phonetics at the University of Munich, and author of the study on the Queen, said his team had conducted a thorough acoustic analysis of all the Christmas broadcasts during her reign.

"We chose the broadcasts because it is very rare indeed to find high-quality recordings of a person's voice stretching back over such a long period," he said. "The changes in the Queen's speech have been very, very slow, but they are there nevertheless.

"In 1952 she would have been heard referring to 'thet men in the bleck het'. Now it would be 'that man in the black hat'.

"Similarly, she would have spoken of the citay and dutay, rather than citee and dutee, and hame rather than home In the 1950s she would have been lorst, but by the 1970s lost."

8. Brits seem to tack "then" casually on to the end of sentences and questions, which Americans hardly ever do. ("Have some crumpets then", or "Carry on then" etc). To the extent Americans use "then", it's usually placed at the beginning of the sentence rather than the end, and often used in the context of an irritated or snarky reply. ("I don't want to hear about your drunken exploits", in reply: "Then you shouldn't have asked!" ).

As an old person I can assure that "repetitious" was there first. Nobody said" repetitive" when I was young. I suspect the print media is responsible for this.

As an American, one of the major differences I notice with British English is that they tend to use plural tenses for singular nouns when that singular noun is actually a group of some sort. For example, “The Navy have blockaded the port.” or “Manchester United are playing poorly as of late.”

It sounds wrong to me, but you can make the argument that it makes more sense.

"Cheers" in place of "Thanks" seems to have cross the pond over to America, and that's very welcome!

How many transgender pronouns does British English have? That is what keeps me up at night the most. Postmodernists are firing up the gulags any minute now.

Re: bumbershoot -- there was a Paul Bunyan story where it started raining upside-down at the lumber camp. The lumberjacks strapped upside-down umbrellas onto their feet and called them "bumbershoes."

The dominance of Hollywood has ensured that speakers of British English are well used to Americanisms but one word that still causes consternation to most British speakers is "Burglarized".

For us the verb is "to burgle". We have Burglars who burgle thereby committing burglary. The unfortunate victims have been burgled. Burglarized just sounds impossibly unwieldy to us and we can't believe it's a real word.

Americans seem to have lost the ability to uses prepositions. Most weathercasters say "70% chance for rain" when they mean "70% chance of rain" and "enamored with" when they mean "enamored of."

As in use of "pissed" for "pissed off," they say "He finally caved" when they mean "he finally caved in."

Two interesting terms I’ve seen reading British media are that they use the term “sleeping rough” instead of “homeless”, and “maths” instead of “mathematics” (as in “the kids were studying maths”)

My son lived in England for two years. On his return, he agreed to suggestions by saying "That would be lovely," and referred to the clothing on his lower half as trousers. Ten years later, he still says "brilliant" and "dodgy." Those two terms are creeping into my own vocabulary.

"The British use sorry at the rate four times the Americans do" Yes, but they mean it in the same way as Americans use "Have a Nice Day". It avoids further conversation.

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