Category Archives: Faux NOOBs

The “Bumbershoot” Conundrum

Percy Pinkerton, of Sgt. Fury's Howling Commandoes

(I wrote an essay for the online magazine Slate about whether bumbershoot is or is not a Britishism. The first two paragraphs are below.)

In my recent Slate article about Americans using more Britishisms, I wondered aloud, “Why have we adopted laddish while we didn’t adopt telly or bumbershoot?” More than one English person responded to this query with another: “Bumbershoot? What do you mean, bumbershoot?”

I told them I had always thought of this funny term for umbrella as one of those words, like cheerio and old man, that the stage Englishman is required to say. My wife had the same impression. But when I looked into the matter, I learned that we were apparently misinformed. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the word as “originally and chiefly U.S. slang.” And the digital archive of the Times of London, comprising 7,696,959 articles published between 1785 and 1985, yields precisely zero hits for bumbershoot.

(To read the rest of the article, go to Slate.)

“Advisor”

Hold your fire! I know that the spelling “advisor” is not British. However, people think it’s British (someone even said that exact thing at a faculty meeting last week, unprompted by me), so I present the post below. (It originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog.) And I have devised for it a new category, “Faux NOOBs.” Additional nominations welcome.

Quick quiz: What do you call a person whose job is to offer advice? Or, rather, how do you spell that job?

If you said advisor, you would be in accordance with 100 percent of my students; with the practice of my university and I believe most others in this country; with the popular Web site TripAdvisor; with Merrill Lynch, which sends to its customers a publication called Merrill Lynch Advisor; and, in fact, with the English-speaking world generally.

If you answered adviser, you would be right. Or, to be more precise, right from the perspective of The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and history. Adviser first appeared in 1611, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was formed by appending the suffix –er (in this case, merely the letter r) to the verb advise, along the lines of such similar constructions as baker, candlestick-maker and, well, not butcher, which comes from the Old French bouchier, but teacher, seeker, and beekeeper.

The OED’s first citation of a different spelling is a periodical that first came out in 1899 and was called, simply, Advisor. The dictionary doesn’t specify its country of origin, but the new spelling became sufficiently popular in the United States that American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, mocked it in 1931: “Following the advent and acceptance in this country of advisors, newspapers now occasionally mention debators.” (There are, of course, -or nouns for occupations and identifications, but they are usually not formed from verbs: doctor, debtor, proctor, author, executor, curator, donor.)

The chart below is a Google Ngram showing the comparative frequency, in books published in America between 1900 and 2008, of adviser (blue line) and advisor (red line). The -or spelling pulls ahead in about 1999. (In Britain, -er is still ahead though its lead is fading.)

Ngram’s database, as I say, consists of books, which tend to stick with traditional usages longer than other forms of writing do. The Internet itself gives a more accurate snapshot of current usage, and if you stage a Google Fight between the two spellings, -or blows -er away, by 23.7 million to 5.7 million.

How to explain the dominion of advisor? First, it sounds fancy (because, I conjecture, the real –or nouns have longer pedigrees than the formed-from-verbs -er ones). Second, it sounds British. And when it comes to language in our country, that is an unbeatable combination.