I always listen carefully when Mike Nichols is talking–he is as smart, witty and sophisticated as they come–and that was the case last month, when he appeared on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” to discuss the production of “Death of a Salesman” he recently directed. Referring to the library research he did about two previous directors of Arthur Miller’s play, Nichols commented: “I saw a letter from [Elia] Kazan to [Harold] Clurman, who is sort of his partner-stroke-nemesis.”

Naturally, what struck me was the word stroke. I sensed from context and subsequently confirmed that it is the British equivalent of the punctuation mark Americans call slash (/), or nowadays forward slash, and similarly used orally, as the OED puts it, “to indicate or stress alternatives.” The dictionary lists these examples:

1965   M. Allingham Mind Readers xv. 153,   I have my own feel, of course, which would be ‘glad stroke laughing at’ in his case.
1971   J. Yardley Kiss a Day ii. 39   The Truman stroke Eisenhower regime.
In recent years, the “model slash actor” (or “actress”) has become a U.S. trope, mocked in the 2001 comedy “Zoolander,” where Fabio receives as “Slashie” award and is gratified by the word order: “you consider me the best actor slash model… and not the other way around.”
I was only able (in my admittedly limited research) to find one similar use of stroke in the U.K. In her Twitter profile, Liz Richardson describes herself as “Actress stroke comedienne stroke Wren cyclist stroke dogs (because they’re nice).”

As for U.S. use of stroke, I haven’t been able to find a single example other than Nichols’. That makes sense. If it emerged from the mouth of anyone of lesser stature, it would come off as insufferably pretentious.

25 thoughts on ““Stroke”

  1. Just as you can’t imagine the word coming from the mouth of an American other than Nichols, I can’t imagine anybody using the word (as opposed to the symbol) in a written context, as in the case of the two OED examples. When writing, I use the symbol spacelessly between single word terms, and with a space on either side of the symbol between multiword terms and phrases.
    As for the backslash, it came into prominence in my experience when Microsoft began using it in the context of their DOS, later Windows, operating system.

  2. There seemed to be a pattern in conversations I heard that women used stroke and men used slash. Slash was never really popular as it is a slang word for urinating!

    1. I think when you write the word (stroke) instead of the symbol (/), there’s a level of air-quote irony, as in the Liz Richardson Twitter profile. That is, you’re saying that you’re aware that you’re using a catchphrase.

      1. Thanks.In the novels, I came across two words. The British and the Americans refer to each other as “cousins”…..and another word. Can you prompt me please?

      2. I’m not sure what you mean, but in John Le Carre’s novels, the British spies always rather sardonically refer to their CIA counterparts and Americans in general as “the cousins.” I always assumed this was a reference to the 1958 play “Our American Cousins,” which Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_American_Cousin

      3. Yes,the same.Brits call them ‘cousins’. Yankees refer to Brits as?..I have forgotten that word! But I remember having come across such word. If you know it, can you tell me please?
        Also, can I talk of a neologism I have invented, in these columns? Is it allowed?

  3. Not that long ago, in the time of typewriters and letterpress printing, the symbol was called an oblique.

  4. Intercal programmers (if there are any of that elusive species still among us) might still refer to a ‘/’ as a “slat”.

  5. BBC Radio 4 ; John Humphreys, on the morning news programme, for years, refused to use the more American ‘forward slash’ when describing a web-page address & used to make me laugh by using the term “stroke” instead, ( bbc.co.uk stroke radio4″ ) just to ensure that an ‘Americanism’ did not creep into his vocabulary.

    The term ‘Oblique’ rather than ‘stroke’, was certainly still in use in the early 1970’s in UK. I used to hear the Engineers at work using their dictaphones & they often used the term.

  6. You will find that Londonderry in Northern Ireland is commonly called Stroke City, due to the politically loaded nature of the name. Nationalist residents would prefer the name ‘Derry’.
    Thus, to avoid any political awkwardness, and to cater for the full spectrum of viewpoints, people will write the name as ‘Londonderry/Derry’, and when saying it will use ‘Londonderry stroke Derry’. Thus giving it its nickname of ‘Stroke City’.

  7. Most intriguing, it is very fortunate that you stumbled upon this difference. I agree that the explicit spelling out of the word ‘stroke’ implies irony or emphasis and because generally in the UK if commonly describing such a thing otherwise it would just be represented ‘/’ just as in the US. Unless it was spoken or spelled out in this way it is possible that neither an English nor an American would ever realise that they would read out a sentence spelled precisely the same using two entirely different words, mind boggling.

  8. Another common UK example is the tendancy of residents of Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland to refer to the place as “Stroke city”

  9. The Northern Irish city of Derry was renamed Londonderry in the 17th century: during the Troubles, the name became a shibboleth – Catholics/republicans called it Derry, Protestants/unionists called it Londonderry (formally, anyway – in casual speech I think most people called it Derry most of the time). In official contexts, it became usual to talk about “Derry-stroke-Londonderry”, and Gerry Anderson, a very fine local radio host, popularized the name “Stroke City”.

    1. “Disk” isn’t an Americanism; it’s a contraction of “diskette”. We now use disk to refer to any magnetic storage media with a whirling platter because of the ancestry from diskettes. A compact disc was never such a device, hence the different spelling. Same goes for Laserdisc, and Blu-ray Disc.

  10. If you believe old M*A*S*H tv show reruns it was commonly used by the US military, at least in the Korean War:

    Captain Sloan: Um, “inhalator, indicator, innoculator, infusilator –
    ” Here it is: 437 – stroke – R2, incubator.
    Henry Blake: Thar she blows!
    Captain Sloan: “Device for developing bacterial cultures at constant
    suitable temperatures.” Uh-huh. I see. That certainly makes sense.
    You cant have one.

  11. Sorry to lower the tone here (is that a Britishism in itself?) , but outside of computing, slash is most commonly used as a slang term for urinating, as in ‘having a slash’. Not used in polite company but feel free to adopt if you wish!

  12. My impression is that slash and stroke are about as common as each other in the UK to mean /. (As others have said, this would normally only be spoken, not written.) My guess would be that slash predominates in usages where US influence is strong, such as web addresses.

    I presume that the concept of slash fiction originated or was popularised in the US, which is why I’ve never heard it referred to as “stroke fiction” in the UK.

  13. Stroke was (is?) used in US Army parlance as a vocal name for a forward slash. You here it quite frequently on old M*A*S*H episodes particularly when referring to supply forms “a four seven stroke B”.

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