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!

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Comments from our users:

Thursday February 3rd 2011, 6:31 AM
Comment by: Joan A. (Acushnet, MA)
baby bump (pregnant belly)
jab (for a shot from a needle)
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 8:40 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
I don'think that sell-by date and expiration date are the same. Expiration date is the date after which a product is no longer deemed to be effective. It seems to be mostly used on medical products. Sell-by date is usually appplied to food products and implies a short time for use, usually days, after that date. For example, dairy products are generally useable for 5-7 days after the sell-by date. (Also, there is best-used-by date. Mainly used with food items, it is a guiide to subjective characteristics of the prouct such a taste and texture.)Therefore, I don't think sell-by date in America is a Britishism for expiration date. Likewise, sack. I'm in my eighth decade and I can't remember a time when sack wasn't used for removing a person from their job.

Nevertheless these differences, I thnk this was a great article.
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Sandra C. (San Diego, CA)
Also "rotter," from the "Erm"paragraph above. PL 4 (jerk, bastard....we don't lack for alternative terms).
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 10:27 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
In the first paragraph, you say that "in order to be suitable for the page, a usage can't be a one-off" and you use telly, lift and trainers as examples. But later you define "one-off" as a unique, one-time event. Clarify, please: in what way is the use of each of your one-off examples (telly, lift, trainers) a unique, one-time event? Do you mean that these words aren't common enough in American usage to count?

One other comment: in writing up the Britishisms, how about including the equally good American equivalents, or synonyms?

I really like the article! I've noticed these phrases popping here and there, but hadn't seen a description and collection of them yet. Nice job!
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I agree with Gordon W. about 'sack'.

Having lived in Canada for so long, words such as 'holiday' for 'vacation' have long been part of my vocabulary!

I have internet connections with many in the UK, and we are constantly exchanging meanings -- and pronunciations! The latter can get quite complicated, and hilarious, too. But it's all so mind-stretching, English as another language sort of experience.
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Odile B. (DPO, AE)
I object to the whole idea. Partly because I've lived in several other English-speaking countries, and now I can't tell what part of my vocabulary came from where. But aside from that: will your next objection be to words or expressions that are more commonly used in southern/northern/central states (though in the case of California, I could make an exception!), or became popular because of a TV series or movie? Guess we shouldn't use the word "pajama" because it came from India, to use a well-known example.

That's where the French went in 1635, and founded the "Académie de la langue française," which dictates (to a very disobedient and amused audience) which words are correct French and which are not. It's a wonderful institution where great minds meet and debate on many subjects, not just language, but its actual influence on language use is weak to nil.

What makes English the universal communication tool is has become is its versatility and openness (eagerness, yea) to accept new words. Don't try to box it in. IT'S ALIVE!
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Ben Y. (Swarthmore, PA)
Joan: I have been tracking baby bump; will look into jab. Thanks.

Gordon: All I can say is that the NY Times did not use "sell-by date" at all from its founding in 1851 until 1980, and then not again till 1990. (Has used it 88 times since.) "Expiration date" was used 2,821 times from 1851 to 1980. That said, I agree that sell-by date offers a useful distinction in meaning, which is why it has caught on and why I gave it a Pretentious Level of only 1. "Sack" is harder to trace (since it has other meanings) but I feel pretty certain it has not been widely used in the U.S. to mean "fire" until recently.

Kristine, I meant, as you suggest, that "these words aren't common enough in American usage to count."

Odile: you "object" to my "objecting." Objection! I'm not trying to box anything in. But I really enjoy observing the changes.
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 11:11 AM
Comment by: Amy R. (Chicago, IL)
My kid was watching a Nickelodeon show, "House of Anubis"—a British import. When the closed captions said "erm," what I heard was "um." Are "erm" and "um" just different spellings of the same sound? Why go fake-British and spell out an R when nobody's pronouncing one here?
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 12:44 PM
Comment by: Rain
I'm Canadian, and have always thought our use of English was equally influenced by both Britain and the United States; Britain because of heritage and the U.S.A. because of proximity. Therefore, I tend to accept most usage customs. I think whether English is British proper or American laid-back, the quirky bits are the most fun.
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 5:00 PM
Comment by: Vivien D. (Sidney Canada)
I believe the selection of a word or expression depends on the purpose of the passage being written or to whom a comment is being expressed. One chooses a different vocabulary in casual conversation from the one used in a serious report or application for a job. I suppose I choose to say "I'm going on 'holiday' rather than 'vacation' as that originally meant it was a 'holy day' therefore one would not be expected to work, rather than 'vacation' which could be associated with 'empty'.
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 5:06 PM
Comment by: Lynne M. (Brighton United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Interesting project. I've been doing a bit of the same on my blog with an annual BrE-to-AmE Word of the Year for the past few years. (And also AmE-to-BrE.) They've been:

2010 ginger (hair colo[u]r)
2009 to go missing
2008 to vet (candidates, etc.)
2007 (baby) bump
2006 wanker (and its derivatives)

To read more:
Thursday February 3rd 2011, 7:07 PM
Comment by: Pamela T.
I knew what kerfuffle and spot-on were by middle school, clearly not Britishisms that caused this American girl any consternation in children's books. Neither are terribly useful in reporting news perhaps, but I've seen them appear plenty in other writing. Now, if you're going to say "Spot on, my good chap!" a la Bertie Wooster, yeah, that was borrowed. But when you say, "The author's criticism of the influence of billionaires with no teacher training trying to dictate the way public schools behave is spot-on," replacing spot-on with "perfect" doesn't flow, perfect implies something positive. "Accurate," another synonym, would be better, but implies fact, and the person making the statement is more likely agreeing with the author's educated opinion. The closest substitute is perhaps "hit the nail on the head," and idiom that is surely at home in American English speech but has been around long enough that we know it was borrowed.

Unless the news is reporting information regarding a current recall of dairy products, there would be little reason to see it in a newspaper. Perhaps in discussing general food supply safety or something in the food section of the paper. "Expiration date" is used for medication, for vaccines, and more recently, canned goods and spices. In the case of perishables, a "sell-by" date is used to account for differences in storage that would affect how long it's edible. Dairy has a sell-by date, but so do your chips and crackers and boxed macaroni and cheese and even some pre-washed/packaged vegetables and herbs.

But in general, I agree. Having an American friend in grad school in the UK, there are words that pop up in FB status posts that have been checking online dictionaries.
Friday February 4th 2011, 7:07 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I agree with Odile, and even more with Rain - "the quirky bits are most fun."

Usually I don't know what country my idioms spring from. I read them and they give me pleasure and then I use them as seems appropriate to me.
Friday February 4th 2011, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Susan F. (Ashburn, VA)
Returning to "sack" meaning "fired": my mid-Texas, born between 1914 and 1917, used "to get sacked" and "he was sacked" without a qualm. Except for having English-Scots-Irish-French ancestors who came to the US in the early 1700s, they had no other link to British English. Bill Bryson in his very thorough "The Mother Tongue", has an entire and very entertaining section on phrases that came to the US pre-Independence (found especially in the Appalachians), but have died out in Britain and now are crossing the Atlantic back to England, where they are being deemed silly "Americanisms." I think the words and phrases English speakers everywhere throw into the common pot are evidence of a living language. I wonder what will happen next, with more Chinese learning English than there are native English speakers in the rest of the world. I'd bet they have words with no English equivalent...that we'll all adopt.
Friday February 4th 2011, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Dwight W. (Abilene, TX)
English is an amalgam of many different words from many different languages and cultures. Let's not quibble about the new ones being added. Instead let us quibble about important things like which sports teams are the best.
Friday February 4th 2011, 8:10 PM
Comment by: Debra S. (Mt Victoria Australia)
I've often heard of people complaining of "Americanisms". It's funny to hear of "Britishisms".

Just another sign of the global times!
Saturday February 5th 2011, 7:33 AM
Comment by: Charlotte W (Brighton United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Hello, Brit here......

There really needs to be a distinction between words we use in everyday speech - lift, jumper (sweater), telly, bloke (guy) - and those that are from some kind of imagined Mary Poppins/ Dick van Dyke Britain like rotter and cad. There is a quite a lot of PG Wodehouse type vocabulary out there which sounds really archaic to us.

Watching US TV from England, it is clear that British characters in shows have been 'allowed' to use our own language rather than US speak for the last few years, which hasn't been visible before. From my point of view it is refreshing to see my people represented as real rather than the caricatures of before. Looks like it's seeping through at least partly via the telly!

Sunday February 6th 2011, 11:48 AM
Comment by: William T. (Phoenix, AZ)
What about "brilliant"? gag. And does anyone know how "out of pocket" came to mean "out of touch" in some U.S. regions? Is that British? Or maybe it's Australian, referring to baby kangaroos that have sprung their mama roos' joey pockets?
Sunday February 6th 2011, 9:59 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Here are four more candidates for Britishism status:

The que at the bank moved so slowly that I was almost late getting to the school to collect my daughter. I made it on time, but only just! Her schedule will change and I'll need to pick her up earlier on Wednesday next.

The Happy Quibbler
Tuesday February 8th 2011, 9:13 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
How about "at the end of the day"?
Tuesday February 8th 2011, 1:15 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Jan, 'at the end of the day' is an expression I'm getting durn tired of hearing! Every news person seems to be unable to avoid it! Hasn't it been banned yet by that Lake Superior U group? LOL
Friday February 18th 2011, 9:02 PM
Comment by: Meg D. (Owen Sound Canada)
Dual Canadian/US citizen who has lived in both countries. We do have a mix of British and American words and spellings; we also have our own, including the infamous double double. However, I am now taking an on-line course which is all APA style writing. I can't ever remember which is the British/Canadian spelling and which is the American for some words. I have added so many British spellings to my dictionary in Word that I haven't a clue which is the American spelling.
Thursday April 14th 2011, 2:27 AM
Comment by: Heather K. (Winder, GA)
What is interesting is that I learned most of my "Britishisms" from non-British sources - Japanese, French, Dutch, Swedish, Russian and even Turkish. Most of them I had not ever known were originally British expressions. Such is the magic of the interenet. For example "Erm" - I was introduced to that term in the year 2000 by a Japanese man while playing an online video game.

"Bit" and "Spot-On" I have used since my early childhood and would never have guessed they were any more British than any other American English word. By this I mean I did not know they were more recent additions.

Also, does "sack" really qualify as a Britishism when the first recorded use of "giving someone the sack" meaning to fire them is French?

Queue is often used by people who have a programming background because that's what they are. Queues are FIFO - the first person (or bit of data) into the queue is the first one to leave it. A "line" is a geometric object that does not move and stretches into infinity in both directions - and is probably only appropriate for describing the queue at the DMV.
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 5:18 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
"Expiration" - doesn't that mean "dying"? What was wrong with "expiry"?

Be that as it may, my intention is to comment on the expression "one-off". As an Engineer, I suspect that the term may originate in the practice of parting off items from a bar in turning. If one, two or more of a component are required for an assembly, the relevant drawing will call for "one-off", "two-off" and the like. On a parts list, there will be a column headed "No. Off". When parts are requisitioned from stores, or from a production source, the requisitioning is called "calling off".

Of course turning is only one of many techniques for component production but turning in the lathe is the principal method of mass production, even if the lathe itself has become almost unrecognisable since my apprenticeship nearly 60 years ago.
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Geoffrey: I wrote about the origins of "one-off" for the New York Times On Language column here.

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