Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

“American” words in English: where would we be without them? They own the bulk of the shares

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“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.

Headword Year Country Source Field
gene 1909 US Amer. Naturalist science
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
fuselage 1909 Brit Flight transport
empathic 1909 US Lect. Exper. Psychol. Thought-processes psychology
multi-party 1909 Brit Englishwoman politics
mindset 1909 US Philos., Psychol. & Sci. Methods psychology
rite of passage 1909 Brit Folk-Lore anthropology
neo-cortex 1909 Brit Arch. Neurol. & Psychiatry psychology
counter-offensive 1909 Brit Daily Chronicle warfare
xenophobia 1909 Brit Athenæum politics
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
isotope 1913 Brit Nature science
close-up 1913

 

US Technique Photoplay entertainment
Salmonella 1913 Brit Pract. Bacteriol medicine
project management 1913

 

US Nevada State Jrnl business, economics
behaviourism 1913 US Psychol. Rev. psychology
superconductor 1913

 

Proc. Sect. Sci. K. Akad science
big picture 1913

 

US Titusville (Pa.) Herald  entertainment
comic strip 1913

 

US Altoona (Pa.) Mirror entertainment
streamlined 1913 Brit Aeroplane transport
not-for-profit 1913

 

US Ann. Amer. Acad. Polit. & Social Sci.  business, economics
talkie 1913 US Writer’s Bull.  entertainment
petrochemical 1913 US Chem. Abstr.  science
record player 1913

 

US Waterloo (Iowa) Times-Tribune entertainment
seaplane 1913

 

Brit Hansard Commons  transport
turn-round 1913 Brit The Regent general language
stooge 1913 US Sat. Evening Post  general language
person-to-person 1913

 

US Lincoln (Nebraska) Daily Star general language
anti-freeze 1913

 

US Dict. Automobile Terms  transport
pre-eclampsia 1913 Brit Lancet medicine
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
pep talk 1913

 

US Colorado Springs Gaz.  general language
intelligence quotient 1913 US Psychol. Bull. psychology
parsec 1913

 

Brit Monthly Notices Royal Astron. Soc.  science
reflexology 1913 US Med. World  medicine
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

seaplaneHansard 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-fiftyLittle 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.

 

 

 

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

2 thoughts on ““American” words in English: where would we be without them? They own the bulk of the shares

  1. Fabulous… and many thanks for spending your time so fruitfully. For those of us wot refuse to use Twitter and Facebook (I should really give Twitter a try, perhaps, if this is the sort of stuff I’m missing), then your blog is the ideal way to keep up with your research. Do please give us regular updates. Who on earth would have thought some of those words are 100 years old.

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  2. Hi, Margaret. It’s good to hear from you again, and I’m glad you like the blog. Yes, part of the point was that a lot of these words seem more recent than they are. And, IYWMO (if you want my opinion), don’t bother with Twitter. I am sure you have much better things to do. J

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