On Twitter, Lynne Murphy shared an interesting table from a 2018 scholarly article called “Word prevalence norms for 62,000 English lemmas.” (“Lemma” is a linguistics term that for our purposes basically means “word.”) The table shows “Words known much better in the US than in the UK (left), and vice versa (right).” I believe “Pus” indicated the percentage of Americans who are familiar with it, and “Puk” the percentage of U.K. residents. If you click on the image below, you should be able to see a bigger version.

For the purposes of this blog, the list on the right is obviously the interesting one. (I will say I’m struck by how many of the ones on the left relate to ethnic food.) The only word I’ve covered from it is “naff.” Anyone have a hunch as to any others that might penetrate here? I have to confess I’m unfamiliar with about half the British words. The one I’d give the biggest chance to cross the ocean is “yob.” We certainly have enough of them over here.

48 thoughts on “Outliers

    1. It’s true. I spent my gap year (before gap years existed) working in a large butchery department. Back slang was the standard way of talking to each other both in the cutting room and especially in front of customers. The female equivalent of yob was lrig, pronounced elrig. The pronunciation of many reversed words had to be tweaked for usability reasons and some words weren’t reversed at all. Here’s a quick and easy test (using phonetic pronunciation) for budding butchers :

      Evach a kool ta the lrig’s gels.

    1. If by plaice you mean flatfish, “Flounder” would be closest. A brolly is an umbrella (or a “bumbershoot” if you live in Seattle, Washington). Abseil = to rappell down (a cliff or building).

      1. It doesn’t quite match. Flatfish is a British word, and a plaice is a type of Flatfish. Flounder is also a British word, and a plaice is a type of flounder. So the general is popular in the use, but the specific type of fish “plaice” is much more popularly used in the UK.

      1. I went on holiday to Savannah, Georgia a couple of years back, and an American friend educated me as to what a Chigger is. I recognised 10 words. It’s interesting that reverse cases don’t appear in the British list. Acetaminophen is on the American list, but Paracetamol is not on the British one. Kabob is on the American list, but Kebab is not on the British one. Crawdad is on the American list, but Crayfish is not on the British one. Similarly Abseil in the British list, but Rappel not on the American one, and so on.

    2. British, but from my knowledge of American English: Brolly would be umbrella and abseil is rappel (British version is from German, American is from French). I don’t know about plaice.

    3. I assume they use the French word ‘rappel’ rather than the German ‘abseil’ like we do, I’ve heard it used on rare occasions so I’m familiar with its meaning but can’t recall whether it’s Americans I’ve heard saying it. It’s rare enough here to not appear in my Chambers dictionary (though it does appear in my Collins, which doesn’t specify there being any U.K./U.S differences)

  1. All the words in the British list are in common use here. The only American word I’m familiar with is tamale, and Crawdad since the best selling book ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ was published here, but I had to look up what Crawdad meant.

  2. Are the food ones the most likely to cross? Chipolata for a small sausage. Korma, not exactly a fashionable dish but very tasty and due for a revival. Calling NY Times food writers! Many of the others have exact US equivalents. The only one I didn’t recognize is pelmet? But I just asked my wife … I don’t think a term for a layer of fabric around the base of a bed is going to stay popular anywhere for long.

    1. Now here’s another UK/US dichotomy: a fabric screen for the bed base is a Valance in the UK, although Google’s on line dictionary does note that a Valance is a curtain fittings screen in North America – in other words, a Pelmet in UK usage!

      1. “Bedskirt” is the equivalent here. (Signed, a former copywriter for a home-interiors catalog.)

  3. They are interesting lists. As a reasonably well educated and literate English person, I knew the meaning of only three of the predominantly US words: tilapia, garbanzo and hibachi. But garbanzo is a funny one to include as it’s one of the many instances where US and UK English diverge. We call them ‘chickpeas’. Far from US and UK English converging over time, I am surprised how these differences persist despite modern mass communication, even in relatively new words, such as US ‘cellphone’ and UK ‘mobile phone’.

    1. “Chickpea” is used in North America. It’s probably more common than “garbanzo” – people know and use both words

  4. Here’s my summary of the UK words:
    Tippex – brand name of a typing error correction fuild, that has become synonymous with the action, in the same way hoover = vacuum cleaner. “I’ll tippex it out”
    Biro – brand name of a ball-point pen – same synonymity as above. “Do you have a red biro?”
    Tombola – alternative name for bingo. May have been a slightly different game originally
    Chipolata – small sausage, usually pork. 16 to the pound, instead of the usual 8.
    Dodgem – bumper car on a fairground ride
    Yob – obnoxious or loud youth
    Gazump – outmanouvre someone in purchasing a house or flat, typically jumping in when you think you’ve reached an agreement, and offering the sellers more money to get the property before the deal is finalised.
    Abseil – rappel – descend a rockface or building rapidly with clever use of ropes.
    Naff – shoddy or poor quality when talking of goods, can mean dubious morality when talking of situations – “The way he treats his workers is a bit naff”
    Kerbside – kerbs are the edge of the pavement (sidewalk), the boundary between the paved walkway and the tarmac or concrete road surface. Vehicles park at the kerbside, fast food trailers are often kerbside, and so on.
    Plaice – a type of fish, commonly offered in fish and chip shops as a cheaper alternative to cod.
    Judder – shake and vibrate rapidly and with force. “The steering wheel juddered in his hand.”
    Chiropody – the treatment of the feet and their ailments.
    Korma – a form of curry, particularly the rich creamy sauces where the meat or fish is marinaded in yogurt
    Bolshy – loud and argumentative
    Quango – a semi-public administrative body outside the civil service but receiving financial support from the government, which makes senior appointments to it. In other words, something for politicians to provide jobs for their cronies.
    Pelmet – decorative band across the top of curtains, used to hide the curtain rail and other mechanics of the opening and closing mechanism. Extreme mini skirts are sometimes referred to as pelmets!
    Brolly – umbrella
    Chaffinch – small song bird of the finch family
    Escalope – thin cut of meat, often veal, typically served in a rich sauce

      1. Ben — I recently read Nella Larsen’s 1929 book “Passing,” the Penguin Classic edition. (It was in conjunction with my reading Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half.”) I was startled to see the use of “kerbside” in the Larsen. I knew what it was from being a pathetically enthusiastic Anglophile, but Penguin assumed that it was unknown enough that they included its definition in the explanatory notes. Wonder if you have thoughts about the spelling choice for that era in general or for a writer from the Harlem Renaissance.

    1. Quango is more precisely a Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation, though apparently that is not an official term: in preference “The Cabinet Office lists Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPB) in its annual Public Bodies publication” instead.

      Click to access Key-Issues-Quangos.pdf

      My immediate thought was a tombola was a rotating-box raffle-ticket randomiser often found used at village fetes, as here:
      though looking it up there is a connection between bingo and tombola as well.

      1. When I was a kid in Plymouth (UK), my mum would go to a regular weekly Bingo session at the Church Hall two streets over.
        Our next door neighbour, who went to the same session, always called it Tombola, so the two are synonymous in my mind.
        The neighbour, who was from Manchester, or Sheffield, or similar Northern parts, once told me it was Tombola because they pulled the numbers from a rotating drum, instead of a bag…

      1. That spelling means “restrain or hold back” to me, as in “curb your enthusiam”
        I have a vague idea it can be part of a horse bridle or harness, as well.

      1. That may well be true, but in the UK, the ‘curb’ spelling means “to restrain or hold back”, so is a very different word.

      2. >>
        Surely, a ‘kerb’ restrains or holds back traffic, just like ‘curb’.
        Yes exactly. In British English, Curb and Kerb started out as variants of the same word. However, in BE Kerb has evolved to be specifically used for a raised roadside edging, whereas Curb has other usages (as in Curb your enthusiam, Curb your child's bevaviour, etc)


    2. A tombola is very different from bingo. (Although there’s an online bingo/game site named Tombola.) It’s a sort of instant raffle, commonly used at fund-raising events.

      Prizes are donated, usually in fairly large quantity, and each prize is assigned a number. Raffle tickets are spun in a drum — or if no drum is available, they might be mixed in a box or some such — and players pay their money to draw a ticket at random. If it matches one of the prize numbers, they win that prize. Often there’s an additional rule that all tickets ending in 0 or 5 win a small consolation prize. This keeps interest up later in the day as the available prizes start to thin out.

  5. I must say I’m surprised at the low UK score for Conniption
    But then, I live in the far South West of England, so large parts of the UK regard my vocabularly and word usage as odd, if not actually archaic!

  6. Acetaminophen
    In the UK this painkiller is sold as paracetamol.
    My cousin’s husband in Canada says there’s a legal reason the name “paracetamol” can’t be used in North America.
    Both names are supposedly generic and not branded names. I suppose I could look it up!!

    1. Reminds me of the old joke:

      Why are there no painkillers in the jungle?

      Because the parrots eat ’em all.

    2. The only potential legal reason I can think of is simply that “paracetamol” isn’t the official North American name for it. There might be rules about selling drugs under other than the recognised name.

      Both words are derived from the chemical formula, N-acetyl-para-aminophenol. Americans took the “acetyl” and “aminophen” parts; Brits took the “para”, “acetyl”, and “phenol” parts.

  7. Seems strange to me to include ‘kabob’ on the US side if you’re not going to include ‘kebab’ on the UK side. Different spellings of the same word, AFAIK.

  8. Some of them are unfamiliar because the thing being referred to is rare or nonexistent in the other country.

    Tombolas, for instance, are a common feature of British fairs and fetes, but I’ve never seen or heard of one in the US. Chaffinches are British birds that most Americans wouldn’t need to know about. Korma is a mild, creamy curry that presumably isn’t common in the US because of the lesser curry culture there.

    Gazumping is a sharp practice in house/property sales — a verbal agreement is made to sell at a certain price, but before binding contracts are drawn up, the seller either raises the price or accepts a higher offer from a different buyer. I believe in the US contracts are exchanged much earlier in the process, so gazumping isn’t done there, and thus they don’t need a word for it.

    Tipp-Ex is the leading brand of correcting fluid in Britain, where an American would use Wite-Out. Neither side would recognise what the other was talking about. The same applies to a lot of brand names that are familiarly used in one place but would draw blank stares in the other.

    Acetaminophen is the North American word for the drug known to the rest of the world as paracetamol. Both words were derived by taking different parts of the chemical name, para-acetylaminophenol.

    1. Which reminds me of trying to buy Rawlplugs in a hardware store on 2nd Ave in NY. Got them once I described them as plastic plugs that go in the wall that you then screw a screw into 🙂 Apparently they are known as “anchors” on the US.

  9. A follow up re ‘quango’, ‘Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organization’. A quango is like an American ‘agency’: a government department not led by a politician. Hence we also have the useful derogative ‘quangocrat’: a person who has a senior role in a quango. Such a person probably has technocratic instincts. He probably read PPE or perhaps a social science. He probably knows some John Rawls but little Aristotle and no Aquinas. He has probably spent his entire career in the public sector and would have been a failure in the private. He is probably part of a fairly small and closed social circle of highly socially liberal North London public sector leaders; he may well have several highly-paid part-time jobs with various quangos. If he ever has to resign from one role in quango for poor performance, he will soon pick up another one. If he leads a quango to do with science he will not know any science; if he leads a quango to do with the arts he will be a philistine. He probably votes Labour but dislikes actual contact with poor people. (Sorry if that doesn’t sound very objective but I am trying to give you a sense of what the word connotes in its cultural context, as spoken by the kind of person who is likely to use it).

    1. He probably … He probably … He has … He is … If he ever has to … he will soon … If he … he will not know … if he leads … he will … He probably
      Or she! But nice caricature.

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