Blog Excerpts

Not One-Off Britishisms

Last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Delaware English professor Ben Yagoda wrote about the clunky prose style he noticed in his students' compositions, including "a boom in Britishisms." Now Yagoda has created a wiki page blog to keep track of Britishisms creeping into American usage. Here is what Yagoda has collected so far.

Over the last decade or so, an alarming number of traditionally British expressions have found their way into the active American vocabulary. This page offers a dynamic list of Britishisms that have been widely adopted in the U.S.

Britishism: Definition and/or American equivalent. "First American citation." (Source)/"Most recent American citation." (Source) PL (pretentiousness level): 1=useful and fine. 2=borderline pretentious. 3=really? 4=wanker.

My main criterion for the PL is whether there is an equally good American equivalent. Thus, we already have the perfectly fine words "ad," "advertisement" and "commercial," so there is no excuse for "advert." Same with "fire" and "sack." On the other hand, we don't have an expression that succinctly expresses the meaning "run-up" does.

Some notes: In order to be appropriate for the page, a word or usage can't be a "one-off"--that is, "telly," "lift" and "trainers" (for sneakers) won't work. (Yet.) In citations, an American writer's text is preferable to someone quoted by a journalist (since that someone could well be British.) If you don't have an example, simply write "Needs first American citation" or "Needs most recent American citation." And finally, as you're editing, be advised to save your work early and often: this Wiki is temperamental.

Cheers!--Ben Yagoda

Advert. Noun. Advertisement. "Chapman's star turn at the House Science Committee Thursday provided little more than an advert for NASA's proposed $5 million asteroid tracking program..." (Time Magazine, May 22, 1998)/"Directed by MJZ's Fredrik Bond, the advert shows how a simple changing of diapers can result in total chaos." (, January 6, 2011) PL: 3

Bit. Noun. Part, as of a text or film. "He [Kenneth Starr] wants America to believe he'd only included the good bits to help the legislature reach an informed decision." (Time Magazine, August 9, 1999)/"I can tell you some of my very favorite bits. Every single bit of the fight with Matthew Patel is brilliant." (, January 12, 2011) PL: 2

Erm. Interjection. Self-conscious vocalism, indicating skepticism; um. "Here's a report on the, erm, incident from CBC's nightly national newscast." (Slap Shot blog, New York Times, November 29, 2007) /"Justice Breyer asks a hypothetical question that he will pose several times today: 'Imagine a well-educated American woman marries a man from a foreign country X. They have a divorce. The judge says the man is completely at fault here, a real rotter. The woman is 100 percent entitled to every possible bit of custody and the man can see the child twice a year on Christmas Day at 4:00 in the morning.' (Erm. Isn't that once a year?)" (Dahlia Lithwick, Slate, January 10, 2010) PL: 4

Go missing. Verb, intransitive. To disappear or vanish. "A proxy card with 425,000 votes for the Bank of New York - the second largest block of stock in its favor - simply went missing." (Sarah Bartlett, New York Times, September 18. 1988)/"Later, cell phone records obtained through a court order showed a call to her voicemail was made in Massapequa, a hamlet not far from where her body was found, on the day she went missing, the official said." (Associated Press, January 27, 2011) PL: 1.5

Kerfuffle. Noun. Controversy, commotion. From the Scots "curfuffle." "The kerfuffle began when the American bloke in the striped tie tried to prove he was not a poppy by stopping at a pub and shouting for some cold ones." (Maureen Dowd, New York Times, April 30, 1989)/"Ricky Gervais Globes-hosting kerfuffle does not move ratings needle." (Washington Post headline, January 11, 2011) PL: 1. (But it's a cliche.)

One-off. Noun, adj. A unique, one-time event. "The World Trade Center bombing in 1993 was a shock, but a first of its kind, a one-off." (Bill Keller, New York Times, September 12, 2001)/"Mr. Tiberio said Duane Reade was considering this a one-off project." (Stephanie Clifford, New York Times, January 13, 2011) PL: 3

On holiday. On vacation. "Often it seems that the whole world is on holiday as you drive in heavy traffic." (Cherokee County Herald, December 15, 1998)/"Apparently Art Conn has been on holiday while the rest of the cast, Jeff Wellington and Susan DeJesus, were rehearsing." (Clarksville [Miss.] Leaf Chronicle, January 28, 2011. PL: 4

Run-up. Noun. A relatively brief period of time leading up to a particular event. "Gone are the days when certain aggressive merchants would offer genuine Champagne at table-wine prices to generate business during the run-up to New Year's Eve." (Terry Robards, New York Times, December 27, 1981. Note: Robards may be British, and if so another citation is needed.)/"The Packers' report is more than a novelty in the run-up to their playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6." (Richard Sandomir, New York Times, January 27, 2011.) PL: 2

Sack. Verb. To be removed unwillingly from one's job. "He and his wife, Sofia (Amanda Peet), have moved to Ohio with their newborn baby because Tom was sacked from his job at a restaurant after a fight with the sadistic head chef." (Stephen Holden, New York Times, May 11, 2007)/ "That macho style, forged on the pitch and adapted as the country's most prominent football broadcaster, has now backfired on him with his sacking from Sky Sports News following sexist criticism of a young woman assistant referee." (Rob Harris, Associated Press, Jan. 26, 2011) PL: 3

Sell-by date. Expiration date. "Ms. [Kathleen Hall] Jamieson's list of double binds is a little past its sell-by date." (New York Times, April 2, 1995) /"And the hippie-with-an-expired-sell-by-date look suits him [Paul Rudd] well." (Entertainment Weekly, January 24, 2011) PL: 1

Spot-on. Adj. Superb, perfect. "For the lemony, pan-seared garlic chicken with baby spinach and a mashed potato gratin ($21), he suggests the '97 Edmeades zinfandel, which is a spot-on pairing." (Los Angeles Magazine, May 2000)/"The vision President Obama laid out in his State of the Union -- future forward and focused on winning the clean energy race through innovation, freeing business to compete and investing in research and education -- was spot on." (Huffington Post, January 27, 2011) PL: 2

On the radar:

"Presenter" (for TV host); "crisps" (potato chips); "chat-show" (talk show).

Have you noticed any other ostentatious Britishisms catching on in the U.S.? Leave a comment below, or head on over to Yagoda's wiki page to make your own contributions.

Update: "Not One-Off Britishisms" is now a blog!

Click here to read more articles from Blog Excerpts.

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The blog Separated by a Common Language takes on transatlantic differences.
The British singer Susan Boyle brought the word "gobsmacked" to worldwide attention.