“There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!”
Mark Twain said that as far back as 1897 (Following the Equator, Chapter XXIV). While many Brits continue to entertain the attitude typified (or satirized) by Max Beerbohm:
“He held, too, in his enlightened way, that Americans have a perfect right to exist. But he did often find himself wishing Mr Rhodes had not enabled them to exercise that right in Oxford.”
Zuleika Dobson, 1911
all of us (i.e. English-speakers) use U.S.-coined words some – if not all – of the time.
Oscar Wilde’s quip “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language” really does not apply to so very many words – though the differences between British and U.S. English as indefatigably explored by Lynne Murphy, are still legion.
Twentieth-century “new” words
As mentioned in an earlier blog, I’m having great fun looking at words that “came into the language” year by year from 1900 onwards, and tweeting one or two a day. To find them, I use “advanced search” in the OED specifying “headword” and a given year. Each year there are usually round 500 such words, and in some years rather more (e.g. 1900: 686), but very occasionally rather fewer (e.g. 1913: 451). [Note that very careful use of fewer, ;-)]
That search excludes words which [yes, oh Word grammar checker, it’s fine to use “which” in a defining clause] acquired new meanings in any year. So, what I end up with is a list of completely new “visitors” (in bird terms) to our language. For each year, I generally look at the first 100, ordered by frequency, and then select 20 or so according to criteria explained in the earlier blog.
Now, while doing this (at the time of writing, I had got up to 1915), I found myself wondering more and more insistently just how many emerged in British English and how many in U.S.English. I was expecting U.S. English to produce the greater number, but my little sample surprised even me.
A 50-word personal sample
I chose 20 words from 1909 and 30 from 1913, thus giving me a nice round figure of 50 to do easy percentages with. The OED lists a few of them as “Orig. U.S.” and variants on that theme. But I had a suspicion that more of them were U.S. than that labelling suggested. I decided to look at the written source which the OED had tracked down as the first record of the word: was it an American journal/newspaper/book, or a British one?
The totals are as follows: U.S. = 33; Brit = 16; other = 1
i.e. 66% of words are first cited in U.S. sources.
Some caveats are in order, of course.
First, several of the OED entries have not been revised for the third edition; different dates and sources may therefore be found.
Second, the fact that a word first appears in a U.S. source does not prove conclusively that it is an American coinage, though it does point strongly in that direction.
And, third, my sample is neither random, nor large enough to prove anything. But it is, to my mind, very suggestive, given that most of these words must surely be considered part of everyday language, rather than technical.
I also labelled the words with a subject field. “Modern life” is a bit of a cop-out, to avoid too many labels; “General language”, as you will see, includes several informal or (once) slangy terms.
“Bull” does not mean what you might think
Hopefully, the abbreviations in the list of sources are self-explanatory. “Bull.”, by the way, means “Bulletin”. Newspapers figure as the first citation for ten words; three appear first in dictionaries.
Finally, some of the first citations are piquant: Winston Churchill for seaplane, Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street for lav, P.G. Wodehouse for fifty-fifty, and Arnold Bennett for turn-round. The relevant citations follow the table.
Words are in order of frequency as listed in the OED. Finally, quite why piggy bank first appears in the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette for March 1913 is anyone’s guess.
|movies||1909||US||Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican||entertainment|
|cinema||1909||Brit||Tragedy of the Pyramids||entertainment|
|trade-off||1909||US||St. Louis Post-Dispatch||business, economics|
|coke||1909||US||Coca-Cola Bottler (Philadelphia)||modern life|
|air conditioning||1909||US||Useful Information Cotton Manufacturers||modern life|
|exponentially||1909||US||Cent. Dict. Suppl.||science|
|libido||1909||US||Freud Sel. Papers on Hysteria||psychology|
|empathic||1909||US||Lect. Exper. Psychol. Thought-processes||psychology|
|mindset||1909||US||Philos., Psychol. & Sci. Methods||psychology|
|rite of passage||1909||Brit||Folk-Lore||anthropology|
|neo-cortex||1909||Brit||Arch. Neurol. & Psychiatry||psychology|
|socialite||1909||US||Oakland (Calif.) Tribune||general language|
|scrounge||1909||US||Webster’s New Internat. Dict. Eng. Lang.||general language|
|gaffe||Brit||Pall Mall Gaz.||general language|
|bakelite||1909||US||Jrnl. Industr. & Engin. Chem.||modern life|
|US||Nevada State Jrnl||business, economics|
|Proc. Sect. Sci. K. Akad||science|
|US||Titusville (Pa.) Herald||entertainment|
|US||Altoona (Pa.) Mirror||entertainment|
|US||Ann. Amer. Acad. Polit. & Social Sci.||business, economics|
|US||Waterloo (Iowa) Times-Tribune||entertainment|
|turn-round||1913||Brit||The Regent||general language|
|stooge||1913||US||Sat. Evening Post||general language|
|US||Lincoln (Nebraska) Daily Star||general language|
|US||Dict. Automobile Terms||transport|
|fifty-fifty||1913||US||Little Nugget||general language|
|once-over||1913||US||N.Y. Evening Jrnl||general language|
|lav||1913||Brit||Sinister St||general language|
|US||Colorado Springs Gaz.||general language|
|intelligence quotient||1913||US||Psychol. Bull.||psychology|
|Brit||Monthly Notices Royal Astron. Soc.||science|
|sexologist||1913||US||Pract. Treat. Causes, Symptoms & Treatm. Sexual Impotence||medicine|
|admin||1913||US||Trans. 15th Internat. Congr. Hygiene & Demography||general language|
|headcount||1913||US||Motion-pict. Work||general language|
|piggy bank||1913||US||Dietetic & Hygienic Gaz||general language|
seaplane: Hansard Commons, 17 July – We have decided to call the naval hydroplane a seaplane, and the ordinary aeroplane or school machine, which we use in the Navy, simply a plane. (Churchill)
lav: Sinister St. I. vii. 99 – Tell the army to line up behind the lav. at four o’clock. (Mackenzie)
(lav is marked as “Chiefly Brit” and “colloq.” in the OED)
fifty-fifty: Little Nugget vi. 121 – Say, Sam, don’t be a hawg. Let’s go fifty-fifty in dis deal. (Wodehouse)
turn-round: The Regent x. 291 – She’s going to do the quickest turn-round that any ship ever did… She’ll leave at noon to-morrow.