Archive for the ‘English’ Category

typewriter_jpg-288x300Atlanticisms are American and British dialect words that are understood on both sides of the Atlantic:

  • ad
  • add up
  • air matress
  • attic
  • autumn
  • ballpoint pen
  • Band-Aid
  • bar – not pub
  • bell-boy
  • big spender – not high roller
  • bill – not check (restaurant)
  • billboard – not hoarding
  • bird-watcher – not birder
  • blackboard
  • blackjack – not pontoon (card game)
  • bleach – not Clorox
  • blue-collar
  • boarder – not lodger
  • bring up – not raise (a child)
  • broke – out of money
  • broken – not busted
  • bulrush – not cattail
  • cafeteria
  • call – not ring up (telephone)
  • can opener
  • capital letters – not block letters
  • chickpea – not garbanzo bean
  • chief of police – not sheriff
  • cigarette butt
  • cinema
  • coffin – not casket
  • cop
  • cottom swab – not Q-Tip
  • crayfish
  • crematorium
  • cupboard
  • cupcake
  • curse – not cuss
  • curt – not snippy
  • curtains
  • dad
  • deadlock – not stand-off
  • dessert
  • dishcloth
  • drainpipe
  • drinking fountain
  • dress – not frock
  • dressing-table – not vanity
  • dump – not landfill
  • evening shift – not swing shift
  • extra-large – not outsize
  • fabulous – not royal
  • failed – not bombed
  • field – not pitch (sporting term)
  • fill out – not fill in a form
  • fire engine
  • firefly – not lightning bug
  • fire station
  • foot-and-mouth disease
  • funny-bone
  • glasses – not spectacles or eyeglasses
  • green thumb
  • grill
  • gnat – not midge
  • goose bumps
  • gutters
  • guy – male only
  • hamburger
  • handbag
  • heap – old car
  • hideaway
  • high-rise (building)
  • hike – not ramble
  • house painter
  • icing
  • idiot
  • imagine – not guess (as in “I guess so”)
  • immediately – not straight away
  • jam – not jelly
  • jerk
  • label – not tag
  • lavatory – not bathroom or rest room
  • lawyer – not attorney, solicitor or barrister
  • life jacket
  • lollipop
  • lonely – not lonesome
  • lout – not oik
  • magician
  • mail
  • measuring cup
  • minister – not vicar
  • mongrel – not mutt
  • nail polish
  • napkin – not serviette
  • newspaper clipping
  • newsstand – not news agent
  • nuts – not crackers
  • nutty
  • pack of cards – not deck of cards
  • pantry
  • parka – not anorak
  • paper-wasp – not yellow jacket
  • patch together – not cobble together
  • pawn – not hock
  • pedestrian crossing – not crosswalk or zebra crossing
  • pharmacist
  • pharmacy – not chemist or drugstore
  • physiotherapist
  • plasterboard – not Sheetrock
  • play hookey
  • plum pudding
  • police line up
  • porch – not stoop
  • prison – not penitentiary
  • public swimming pool
  • pushups
  • quarter – not fourth
  • quotation marks
  • racecourse
  • rattle on
  • reform school
  • relic – not holdover
  • rubber boots
  • rummage sale
  • rumpus – not ruckus
  • running shoes – not sneakers, trainers or tennis shoes
  • Santa Claus
  • scuzzy
  • seesaw
  • senior citizen – not pensioner
  • shopping bag
  • shopping cart – not trolley or buggy
  • shopping centre – not mall or shopping plaza
  • shoulder – not verge (of a road)
  • slash – not oblique or stroke (the “/” symbol)
  • slice of bacon – not rasher
  • somewhere – not someplace
  • smitten – not besotted
  • sofa
  • soft drink
  • soil – not dirt
  • stands – at a sporting event
  • sticker – not decal
  • stockings – not hose
  • stopover – not layover
  • stove
  • stuffing – not dressing
  • sucker – not patsy
  • supermarket – not grocery store
  • sweater
  • swimsuit
  • tarpaulin – not tarp
  • tasteless – not tacky
  • theatre programme – not Playbill
  • thermos
  • timetable – not schedule (for buses and trains)
  • toll-road – not turnpike
  • tone-deaf – not have a tin ear
  • tramp – not hobo or bum
  • travelling salesman
  • trunk – not steamer trunk
  • TV
  • usual – not regular
  • vacuum cleaner – not Hoover
  • vending machine – not slot machine
  • waiter – not server (restaurant)
  • walking-stick – not cane
  • wary – not leery
  • wedding ring
  • wharf – not quay
  • while – not whilst
  • wrench – not spanner
  • yell – not holler
  • zero – not nil

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21 Accents

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eminem-picture-2One commenter said this:

No matter how wrong you are YOU must be right. No English teacher in 2009 would allow you to write in a paper “black” with a small “b” no even in the deep south where Blacks are still made to feel like smal “b”. But must be right, right? Why?  White is right, isn’t it? You should just start from this day to pus the shift key when writing the word Black to denote a people. I will not hurt you and it will make Black folk who read what you write feel better about you, me included. Yes how you make other feel should be important to you.

That kind of got to me. And it got me curious: what do black blogs in my corner of the blogosphere use, “black” or “Black”? Here is what I found (these appear in at least four blog rolls with me):

  • black (16): The field negro, Aunt Jemima’s Revenge, Afrobella, Raw Dawg Buffalo, The Black Snob, Beauty in Baltimore, Siditty, Black Women Blow The Trumpet!, What Would Thembi Do?, What Tami Said, New Black Woman, Make Fetch Happen, Jack & Jill Politics, The Root, The Cocoa Lounge, Acting White.
  • Black (3): What About Our Daughters, Mirror on America, Invisible Woman.
  • Both black and Black (3): The Angry Black Woman, Hello Negro, AverageBro.com.
  • Unknown (1): Gorgeous Black Women.

So out of 23 blogs only 3, about one in eight, use “Black” all the time as the adjective for black people. Most use “black” regularly,  like I do.

So while “Black” might be more politically correct, “black” cannot cause that much offence – though I could be wrong.

But as interesting as that is, it is not how I settle matters like this. Instead what I do is look it up in my dictionary: the Eleventh Edition of the “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” (2006). It uses “black” as its main word for black people, not “Black”, much less “African American”, “Negro” or “coloured”. So that is what I use.

The Oxford dictionary was written mainly by white people. So far as I know there is no dictionary of Black American English. And even if there was, I would use it but not to settle matters like these. My aim in using English is to be understood all over the world, not just in one part of one country (Black America).

I do use “Black” on occasion, but only where I talk about blacks as an ethnicity or a culture. In that sense Eminem might arguably be called “Black” but Lenny Kravitz not, even though Kravitz is “black” and Eminem is “white” – by race.

To me what makes you black is not taking part in a particular culture or being shaped by it, like being French. It is not about music or language or anything like that. To me what makes you black is race, the experience of looking black in a white racist country and everything that follows from that.

– Abagond, 2009.

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Grey English

greyThe Lord’s Prayer in an extreme form of Grey English (extreme to make a point):

It is desired that the patriarchal figure of the triune Christian deity, who is believed to be located in the afterlife plane of existence, have his name honoured by the worshipping community, which anticipates the future eschatological phase when his name will be universally respected. It is requested that the present plane of existence be under direct and manifest divine command and, at this time, to provide for the current material needs of his believers on an ongoing, daily basis. One should cease from resentment, indignation and anger at perceived offences in order for the Christian deity to engage in reciprocation and overlook one’s own personal offences. It is further desired that said deity not position his communicants in any possible tests of character but to liberate them from morally compromising forces and situations.

Grey English (c. 1946 – ) is the name I give to the sort of English that professors, generals and businessmen write in. So do many who have a university education. The Wikipedia is written mostly in Grey English (where I got some of the Lord’s Prayer from).

Both George Orwell and June Jordan wrote against it, but never gave it a name – it was just the sad state of English in their day because people at the top lie so much.

They gave rules for avoiding it in their own writing. By turning these rules the other way round we can find out how to write in Grey English:

  • Write in the third-person passive. Avoid the word “I”.
  • Avoid the present tense.
  • Write to people in general, not to the reader.
  • Do not write about who did what. Keep it more general than that.
  • Do not write the way people talk.
  • Do not state things too plainly.
  • The more words the better. Add words, do not cut them!
  • Long words are better than short words.
  • Abstract words are better than concrete words.
  • Jargon, scientific words and foreign words are better than plain words.
  • Only use words, spellings and figures of speech that everyone else uses. Never invent any new ones!

To these I add:

  • Prefer jargon, buzzwords and catchphrases – they make you sound like you know what you are talking about.
  • Use measurements, numbers and dates – it is important to know these things!
  • Build your writing on placeholder words: person, process, nature, character, purpose, problem, solution, matter, result, perception, resources, relation, connection, condition, level, etc. This will make it easier to:
  • Write using abstract nouns and weak verbs.
  • Avoid using the same word twice – it sounds bad.
  • Never say anything straight out – guard what you say with doubts and conditions.
  • Language is not a clear glass window on the truth, but a way to get people to think certain things.

Like Orwell and Jordan, I see Grey English as bad writing that covers bad thinking and even some outright lies. I do not trust it.

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shakespeareHere is the Lord’s Prayer in Early Modern English (from the Geneva Bible of 1587):

Our father which art in heauen,
halowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdome come.
Thy will be done
euen in earth, as it is in heauen.
Giue vs this day our dayly bread.
And forgiue vs our dettes,
as we also forgiue our detters.
And leade vs not into tentation,
but deliuer vs from euill:

Early Modern English (1474-1660) is English from about the time of Caxton in the late 1400s, when he printed the first book in English, to Milton in the middle 1600s. It is the English of Shakespeare and the Authorized King James Bible, of Hobbes, Bunyan,  Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and Donne. It was considerably different from the English of Chaucer in the late 1300s, yet it was easily understood up until the late 1800s.

It was when English had become a respectable language, like French. It was taking in huge numbers of Latin words. Shakespeare showed its beauty and power. Even so, it was not the giant world language it is now – only about 5 million people in a corner of Europe spoke it. English was just beginning to spread its wings.

It was the English that was brought to America. The American use of –ize instead of -ise and mad in the sense of angry, for example, go back to this time.

It was during this period that English spelling became more or less fixed. This started with Caxton in the late 1400s, who pretty much wrote words the way they sounded. Most of what makes English hard to spell comes from the Great Vowel Shift that came soon after in the 1500s: that was when the silent e became silent, as did the k in knife, the w in wrong, the t in listen, the l in half and so on. It is when words like food and good or sweat and meat stopped rhyming in spite of how they were spelled.

The most noticeable difference between our English and theirs are all those thous and -eths. But even in the early 1600s they were already falling out of use. They are more common, for instance, in the King James Bible, which preserves an older English from the middle 1500s, than they are in Shakespeare. By the 1600s -eth was probably said as -es regardless of how it was spelled.

Some notes:

  • My became mine before a vowel: “mine apple”.
  • Is could still sometimes take the place of has in the perfect tense: “He is come”.
  • Its was just coming into use in the 1600s: before then his and whereof were used instead: “the weight whereof was an 130 shekels.”
  • Ye was used instead you when it was the subject of a sentence: “But be ye doers of the word.”
  • Thou was the familiar form of “ye”, but it was falling out of use.
  • Instead of using do to make a question you could just put the main verb first: “Have ye three apples?”

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typewriter_jpg-288x300A Black Americanism is a word or phrase that comes from black American English. It is a kind of Americanism. Some are found mainly just in Black English, some have crossed over into Standard English. Some you might think are Standard English but if you look them up in a dictionary, they are not there!

I divide Black Americanisms into three kinds according to their relationship to Standard English: the obvious, the subtle and the naturalized (the words in red are those that I have probably used on this blog):

1. The obvious: those that are so clearly black that most blacks readily drop them from their speech or writing when the circumstance demands Standard English, like at work or school. Many of these are seen as slang or improper English by both blacks and whites.


you is, she pretty, phat, hate on, done gone, I seen, she do, saditty, colorstruck, player (ladies’ man), to front (pretend), play someone, nigga, good hair, check one’s self, bougie, y’all, get busy, ho, conversate, might could.

2. The subtle: those that might seem to be Standard English but in fact are not. I thought all of these were Standard English till I looked them up:


wigger, anyways, inside of, all them, most everyone, dig (= understand), be into, whip out, lighten up, hooked on, go off on, get with it, get real, get it together, get one’s drift, get a clue, go broke, knock yourself out, to sweat someone, take the cake.

3. The naturalized: those that have crossed over into some level of Standard English. Most crossed over into white American slang, especially by way of jazz and hip hop, then into more formal levels of American English. From there some spread overseas.

“Informal” means it is all right for spoken English and for some kinds of writing, like for magazines, blogs and newspapers, but not, say, for government reports. “Vulgar” means not to be used in mixed company.


  • Americanisms:
    • Informal North American English: hooker, redneck, man (exclamation), dis, crib, Oreo (person), dude, to be strung out on something, jive, nappy, white trash, hustle (trick), knock up (get pregnant), two-bit, straight up, hood (= neighbourhood), whup.
    • Written North American English: down-home
  • No longer dialect:
    • Vulgar World English: dick, pussy.
    • Informal World English: okay, groovy, bad mouth, sweet talk, cool, be hip, vibes, yeah, not my bag, max, psych out, gig, funky, Mickey Mouse (adj), be with it, be wired, wing it, working girl, looker, get a move on, every which way, fab, come (= orgasm), put-down, goner, laid-back, quickie, sure enough, blow one’s mind, for real, bust (= burst), uppity, yo, cuss.
    • Written World English: go with (= date), jazz, banana, bogus, dead (no emotion), up on it, set-up (trick, frame), like crazy, lily-white, come down on, pimp, crying shame, crybaby, check it out, go along with, greens, two-faced, uh-uh.

I try to write in world English for this blog, so the World English ones are fine. All the rest are dialect: Americanisms, black or otherwise.

Sources: “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” (2006), Clarence Major: “Juba to Jive” (1994).

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America in 1956 (photograph by Gordon Parks)

Coloured, written as “colored” in America, is a word that has been applied to people who are not white. It has meant different things at different times and places. It is still current in South Africa and neighbouring countries, but in Britain and America it is somewhere between dated and offensive. That is why when Lindsay Lohan lately informed us that Barack Obama will be the first coloured president of America, she put her foot in her mouth.

In the 1700s the word meant anyone who was not white. It was close to what the terms non-white and people of colour mean now, but back then it took in Italians and Jews – anyone who was noticeably darker-skinned than an Englishman.

In Britain that is the meaning it had until the 1950s, though at some point Italians and Jews crossed over to white (when and how?) and the word came to mean anyone darker than a European. This is how Winston Churchill used the word when he said too many coloured people were coming to Britain. like from the Caribbean and South Asia. After the 1960s the word began to seem dated and fell out of respectable use.

In America before 1830 “coloured” was mainly applied to mixed-race Africans, people who were part black and part white. They were sometimes called “brown”. By the 1830s, “coloured” took the place of “African” as the main word most black people used when talking about themselves. “African” fell from grace in the early 1800s because whites were talking about sending Africans back to Africa! “Coloured” was the main word David Walker used in the 1820s, Frederick Douglass in the 1840s, and Solomon Northup in the 1850s. It is the C in NAACP. 

Under Jim Crow (1877-1967), its use spread to “Colored Only” signs and working-class whites.

By the early 1900s, among both blacks and whites,”coloured” was the main working-class word for black people. “Negro”, meanwhile, was the main middle-class word, the kind you would see in the newspaper, a book or a government report.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the word “black” swept away both “Negro” and “coloured”. By the late 1980s, “African American” became the new middle-class word.

In 2008, you can still hear the word “coloured” in old Hollywood films and from very old people – much older than Miss Lohan.

In South Africa the word is still current but came to mean something else: those who were neither white nor black but mixed. There is no One Drop Rule in South Africa. Under apartheid there were four races: White, Black, Coloured and Indian, all with capital letters. Coloureds were above Blacks but below Whites. Most are part black and part white, but many are mixed with other things too, like Javanese. In fact, they are the most racially mixed people in the world. Some want to replace it with the word “brown”.

Major revision in 2015.

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