New York Times outliers: “maths,” “trainers” and “mate”

The New York Times publishes a lot of words, including some by me. So it’s not surprising that its contributors would occasionally let loose with some truly (presumably?) one-off Britishisms. Three recent examples:

“We keep reading that someone has done the maths and found the third Monday in January to be the most depressing day of the calendar year.” (Freakonomics blog, January 16, 2009)

“For the rest of us, the lesson might be that even if you’re not interested in going barefoot, you might want to invest in a slimmed-down trainer.” (Well blog, March 12, 2012. Note: trainers is British English for sneakers.)

“Jefferson Mays makes an effectively sweaty impression as a squirrelly former Army mate of Cantwell’s…” (Charles Isherwood, review of “The Best Man,” April 1, 2012.)

Note: the extremely common American phrase is Army buddy. I had always suspected that Isherwood is English, I imagine because of example of Christopher Isherwood. But apparently he is not:




29 thoughts on “New York Times outliers: “maths,” “trainers” and “mate”

  1. plimsoll was a perfectly good word that was not displaced meaningfull in the UK by trainer until the 1980s

    1. No it wasn’t. A plimsol had no laces, and was specifically intended for indoor use (usually in the sports hall).

      1. I had plimsols when I was at school in the 1950s and 60s. They always had laces and were usually black. The white ones were often reserved for tennis because for normal wear they entailed far more work to keep clean. By the way, The name was often spelt with an additional P as in plimpsole. I do not know the origins of ‘plimp’ but as it is followed by ‘sol (sole?) I am presuming it is referring to the type of upper or maybe the fixing of the upper to the sol (sole?).

  2. I have to say that as long as I’ve been familiar with “maths” it still rubs me the wrong way, for one simple reason: it’s too bloody hard to pronounce.

    For those unaware of the efforts of J.K. Rowling’s U.S. publisher, Scholastic, to banish confusing colloquial British English from her books, I submit for your approval this link to a side-by-side comparison of changes made to the first 4 of Rowling’s 7 Harry Potter novels:

    Some of the changes are understandable, some are a bit more mysterious, and others appear to be arbitrary editorial changes I *hope* were instigated by Rowling herself. Then again, apparently by the 5th Harry Potter novel Rowling, now omnipotent, had regained control and would no longer accede to helping out America’s children by letting Scholastic translate “jumper” into “sweater”, “Mum” into “Mom”, “multi-storey car park” into “multilevel parking garage”, and so forth.

    1. The rest of the English-speaking world’s children have always managed to read, understand and enjoy American literature and its vocabulary, so perhaps it is time America’s children were treated as intelligent beings too, and allowed to enjoy the exoticism of another form of English.

      1. For a datapoint on non American children being expected to cope with untranslated American I can remember reading a Judy Blume novel as a child and, despite it being a UK edition, there being references to sloppy joes, from context it was some sort of food beyond that I had no idea what it was, although the name sounded pretty disgusting. Apparently it is savoury mince on a bun.

    2. I agree, “maths” is hard to say; but it’s not so difficult to write. Here’s a photo caption by Brittish musician, Rumer: “While unpacking I found this year 8 maths school report … funny”

  3. Freakonomics blog: More than one math had to be done to figure this out.
    The slimmed-down trainer is a personal trainer who has been on a diet.
    The mate is either Cantwell’s life partner or Isherwood’s analogy to a naval rank.

  4. An N64 game called “Banjo-Kazooie”, along with its sequel “Banjo-Tooie”, had an item called “Turbo Trainers” that let you run very fast. That is what the item is called in all versions of the game, so American N64 owners would have known what trainers were back in 1998-2000 when those games came out. The developer, Rare, is English, but Nintendo attempted to make them use US spellings (which they partially did, but left in things like a baby saying “mummy”). Now this I fail to understand. Why is it OK for English children to play video games in American English, but American children mustn’t be given a game in UK English? I don’t get it.

    1. Turbo Sneakers does not sound as good, I doubt it may be intentional since I would be dubious of the standards of any video game language translating in the 90’s since ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US

      1. Well, Rare is an English company and Nintendo didn’t get involved in any part of the production, for the English version at least. However, they did ask Rare to use US spellings, which I don’t think is fair for the reason above. Why not simply use both types of spellings? The game had to be translated into four European languages anyway.

  5. Do you not have a classmate, roommate or workmate in the US? These senses of ‘mate’ differ from its colloquial use as another way of saying friend in the UK in that none of those phrases implies any endearment, simply a person you are associated with by virtue of being colleagues or sharing a position with them. If Isherwood was English I would suggest ‘army mate’ would suggest ‘armymate’, simply implying they may have been in the same regiment or corps at the same time and that is all. If we were certain they were acquaintances you might describe them as ‘army friends’ or ‘mates from the army’ to more strongly show that they were actually well acquainted. Pure conjecture, perhaps something to do with ‘shipmate’ (is that a ship hand)? A ship is large but contained so you might not know all your shipmates but due to the hardships you would endure perhaps you were more likely to form strong friendships with those you did know hence giving rise to this use of mate?

  6. I’ve been American all my life and “sneaker”has always sounded to me like old people talk, Like folk going down to the druggist for a phosphate. I’ve heard trainer used for years or more commonly the shoe is identified by the sport it’s for.

  7. @Barry. A ‘shipmate’ (BrE) is someone with whom one one has served (worked) with in a given ship, normally regardless of rank. A ‘Mate’ is part of various civil/military seagoing roles (see First Mate, Boatswain’s Mate.

    ‘Mate’ is also a BrE generic address to another (male) “Listen mate, I’m only going to ask once” (term isn’t nececessarily menacing). If the other person is thought to be of higher standing ‘guv’ (for ‘guvenor’) might be used instead: cabbie to fare – “Where to guv?”. ‘Mate’ is also used used with heavy irony to address those who clearly aren’t a ‘mate’.

  8. “Trainers” existed as long ago as the 1950’s in the UK when they described football (soccer) boots without studs. They were intended to be worn during practice sessions with your teammates (again) whom studs might injure.

  9. I thought mate in the British naval sense originated from the the French word matelot. I must look it up again ….. I hate being called mate by English people.

  10. A rare instance of attention to language detail and authenticity by a scriptwriter/director perhaps, or just the actor saying what any non-American English speaker would naturally say.

    I am a New Zealander and am increasingly saddened by the steady erosion of all forms of English (including New Zealand, Australian, and British English) by American English. Our vocabulary, idioms and even our grammar are inexorably morphing into the seemingly omnipotent West Coast American English that pours out of social media, tv and movie studios. Please don’t get me wrong, I love American English too, but it amuses me to see Americans bemoaning the odd non-US English word or usage that pops up in their own lives.

    1. Caroline, If you’re referring to my post appearing just before yours, I wasn’t bemoaning, just observing, for its relevance to this string. Sorry for any confusion.

      1. Thanks, Hal; I must admit I wasn’t sure, and now see I misinterpreted your intention, so apologies for that. I had been thinking of commenting about the loss of New Zealand English on this thread for a while, after reading some of the other comments above.

        Here are just a few examples of the losses I am seeing/hearing every day now: “tramping” has become “hiking”, “footpath” – “sidewalk”, “bum” – “butt”. The latter was what set me off on this admittedly pointless crusade a few years ago. I like the well-rounded shape and sound of “bum” – it seems so appropriate, and “butt” seems such an ugly word, associated with guns, cigarettes and the violent activities of goats, bulls and thugs! I’ll stop now.

  11. I’m Welsh (my frst name gives that away). In “Welsh” English a mate is your “butty” (often shortened to “but”). Could “buddy” be one of those so-called Americanisms that are actually old Britishisms that have surivived in American English? Another Welsh term, also found in Bristol, England, where I now live, is “dap” for plimsoll (canvas gym shoe). It’s not usually applied to trainers, though. Maths is logical, as a short version of mathematics. Math just makes no sense to us.

    1. Would “math” make more sense if it ended with an abbreviating period? tags “mathematics” with “noun plural but usually singular in construction.” I don’t knwo what “singular in construction” means, but if it’s plural, why does the definition call it a “science” instead of [a set of] “sciences,” i.e., for its encompasing geometry, arithmetic, etc.?

      1. I sometimes feel the British, in innovating the language, have gotten sloppy with singular vs plural; mathematics is a field of study (singular) hence math, sports are multiple games (plural) hence sports. Football is a sport, but football and cricket are sports. I think the U.S. has it right on these. A company (of people in business) is singular, hence “Facebook has”, not “Facebook have”. But Facebook employees have, since they’re plural.

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