Ad and marketing creatives

Plimsolls on Offer: British Borrowings in U.S. Marketing Speak

The old adage about American and England being "two nations divided by a common language" — wrongly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, who never said or wrote it — may still hold true in some quarters. But in the language of U.S. commerce, it's fast losing its relevance. Terms that once seemed quaintly Olde English to Americans — from "bespoke" to "stockist" — are fast becoming the new normal.

True, the word exchange has thrived in the other direction for years. American-linguist-in-the-UK Lynne Murphy, who blogs at Separated by a Common Language, has documented the encroachment of cookie (instead of biscuit), Black Friday (the shopping frenzy on the day after Thanksgiving, a holiday that doesn't exist in the UK), and other Americanisms into British English. To British ears, the American words often represent modernity or brashness. British imports, by contrast, are often employed for the opposite reason: to sound old, established, or "classy." Then again, sometimes a Britishism simply fills a gap in the language for which there's no adequate American equivalent.

I've written previously about two of those borrowings, apothecary and crisps. Here's a guide to some additional Britishisms in American commerce:

Bespoke. The American term is made to measure; the British version has been in use since at least the middle of the 18th century, according to the OED. It once was used narrowly to refer to made-to-order suits from London's Savile Row, but around 2010 it began cropping up in all sorts of U.S. business lingo and names. "In the New York City area, there are two dozen 'bespoke' businesses, including Bespoke Barber Shop, Bespoke Books, Bespoke Surgical and at least one shop simply called 'Bespoke,'" the Wall Street Journal reported in May 2012. The oldest "bespoke" trademark in the U.S. trademark database, Bespoke Education, goes back only to October 2010; since then at least 66 other "bespoke" trademark applications have been filed. The enthusiasm for "bespoke" is so pervasive that in April 2011 I spotted a Groupon deal for a "bespoke" poem — written, not bespoken.

Book (verb): Americans traditionally reserve a table at a restaurant or a seat on a plane, but we don't have a dedicated verb for getting, say, theater tickets. The Britishism book works for all situations, which may explain why it's catching on here. The London-based restaurant-reservation site, for example, now serves New York City; the U.S. travel site Expedia urges visitors to "score a pile of travel points when you book American Airlines flights." Another travel site, — based in Amsterdam but owned by Priceline, which is American — reinforced booking in a 2013 ad campaign that turned the company's name into a mock-expletive. ("Look at the booking view!" "It doesn't get any booking better than this!") According to Ben Yagoda, who tracks the Americanization of British words in his Not One-Off Britishisms blog, to book began its American surge in 1993.

Expiry date: Americans prefer expiration date when referring to credit cards; apparently it's one of those Americanisms that drive British people bonkers. As Lynne Murphy patiently points out, expiration is about 200 years older than expiry. But it's also four letters longer, which — along with the ineffable "classiness" factor — may explain why at least one large American retail chain, Urban Outfitters, and its subsidiaries, including Anthropologie, use expiry date in their checkout forms.

On offer:  This British phrase may mean for sale or more generally available; thus, peaches may be on offer at the farmers' market, and jobs may be on offer at a company. Ben Yagoda wrote in 2011 that the American usage of on offer had seen a "relentless increase commencing in about 1972.

Google Ngram graph of "on offer" in American English from 1900 through 2008. (Source: Not One Off Britishisms.)

It's still seen more often in journalistic accounts than in retailers' websites or ads. The New York Times is particularly fond of the phrase; in 2014 alone it's appeared more than 100 times in the paper. A November 4 survey of New York City doughnut shops included this comment about the goodies at Carvin's Mini Donuts in Harlem: "all benefit from a dive in dark chocolate, one of several dipping sauces on offer." And People magazine, in a July 2014 story about a "Swedish Crayfish Party" in IKEA's U.S. stores, gushed that "the smorgasbord on offer will include crayfish, cucumber salad, cheese pie, meatballs (yes!), Swedish cheeses, strawberry and black currant crumble, and much more."

Opening hours: American stores and public buildings have traditionally said simply "hours" or hours of operation, but the British opening hours is catching on, if inconsistently. Maas & Stacks, a ritzy San Francisco boutique, uses the phrase, and a couple of years ago so did the Getty Center in Los Angeles. (The Getty now uses "hours.") Minnesota Sea Life, an aquarium in the Mall of America, uses "opening times," possibly wishing to strike a compromise between British and American usages.

Plimsoll: A type of rubber-soled fabric shoe originally developed in the 1830s by the Liverpool Rubber Company and named for the "Plimsoll Line" on a ship's hull, which marks the limit of safety to which merchant ships can be loaded. In the U.S., such shoes have traditionally been called sneakers, gym shoes, or tennis shoes, but "plimsoll" is catching on. Urban Outfitters (again!) splits the difference with its "Classic Plimsoll Sneaker," and a Santa Barbara company, SeaVees, sells a line of "Hermosa Plimsoll" shoes — that's Hermosa as in Hermosa Beach, California. Read more about the origins of "plimsoll" on my blog.

Queue: Americans stand in line (or on line, if they're New Yorkers); Brits queue or queue up. Thanks primarily to Netflix (founded in 1997), which introduced average Americans to the concept of a rental "queue," the Britishism is gaining favor in a variety of American contexts. (Computer programmers have of course long used queue to refer to a sequence of jobs.) Ben Yagoda has documented the rise of queue (noun) in the U.S. since the 1950s, and more recently it's been showing up as a verb as well. Earlier this year I spotted this sign outside a Whole Foods Market in San Francisco:

Stockist:  American and British dictionaries say this word, first documented in 1922, is "chiefly British"; it describes a retailer or distributor of goods for sale. Recently, though, some American businesses have cottoned to it. In a 2012 blog post, I listed six American companies that used stockist on their websites instead of the more-familiar "Where to Buy" or "Store Locator." Since then I've had several additional sightings, including a print brochure for jeans-maker DL1961 (whose website says "store locator"); the "slow lifestyle" magazine Kinfolk, based in Portland, Oregon; and a Salt Lake City boutique called The Stockist. In 2012, Ben Yagoda placed stockist "in the same category as bespoke: a phony, hype-y word that exists–and one hopes will stay–in the realm of advertising and promotion." But I acknowledge its utility as an umbrella term covering both retailer and wholesaler — and thus filling a gap in the American commercial lexicon.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 19th 2014, 8:17 AM
Comment by: Neil C.
Nice article!

As you rightly mention, the exchange of words has been flowing across the pond in the other direction for a long time, and shows no signs of abating. For instance, I'€™ve noticed that even smallish shops are increasingly referring to themselves as '€œstores'. And where are these stores often to be found? In a shopping mall, of course, which sounds *way* more glamorous than a dowdy shopping centre.

And if you're an estate agent / realtor trying to sell a flat? Well, for a start, don'€™t call it a flat. They'€™re all apartments these days. If you can get away with calling it a loft apartment (thereby conjuring up images of Manhattan), then so much the better!

Unlike some of my compatriots, I'm quite relaxed about these developments. To my mind, the magpie nature of English is one of its great strengths: it will happily nick words from other languages, so it's only natural that it should enrich its lexis from other versions of itself. In the end, the popular/useful borrowings will survive and the others will fall by the wayside.

Have a nice day, y'all!
Wednesday November 19th 2014, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Neil: Let's not overlook regional US distinctions. For example, "flat" is the default usage in San Francisco--much more common than "apartment." Los Angeles has its own real-estate terms, e.g., a "bachelor" apartment (one room, lacks a full kitchen).
Thursday November 20th 2014, 6:29 AM
Comment by: James R.
It was Mencken who quipped about two countries divided by a common language.
Thursday November 20th 2014, 1:25 PM
Comment by: Cynthia C.
The term "on offer" has long been common in northern, rural Illinois.
Thursday November 20th 2014, 8:50 PM
Comment by: John E. (Mechanicsburg,, PA)
Sometime ago, about 1963 in fact, I was In a Spanish tutorial. The instructor always referred to the the time he tutored me in the finer distinctions of the popular, political, and scientific written language as being "on class," never in class. I was the one "in class," but he was "on class," as "on duty."

John E., Mechanicsburg, Pa
Friday November 28th 2014, 5:43 AM
Comment by: Neil C.
Nancy: That's interesting, thanks. I didn't know that, and had assumed "apartment" was the default usage throughout the U.S.

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