Thursday, August 18, 2016

if I'm honest, to be honest, honestly!

Fellow American-linguist-in-Britain Chris Kim mentioned to me the British use of If I'm honest as a discourse-commentary-type idiom, where she would more naturally say To be honest. By 'discourse-commentary-type idiom', I mean: it's a set phrase that the speaker uses to indicate their stance with respect to what they're saying in the rest of the sentence. As in:
I think to be honest, like most people would be, he was extremely p***** off with the idea of being ill so soon after retiring! [Mirror.co.uk]
"It makes me a bit nervous, to be honest, and I am handling her with little gloves at the moment because I am not sure how far to push.”[Brendan Cole on Victoria Pendleton in The Telegraph]

I reckon I see about one production of it every year. Most of them, if I’m honest, aren’t great. But they keep being staged: audiences can’t seem to get enough of Greek tragedy.  [Natalie Haynes in The Independent]
I'd very much been 'out' as a former geographer. If I'm honest, I'd outed myself many years earlier. [comedian Rob Rouse]

There's also the variant with being:
I'm fairly happy being both English and British. I don't feel that I need to choose.
If I'm being honest, and with apologies to the other nations of this country, I think that's because I see the two identities as very much overlapping - the vast majority of British people are English, and being English and being British have very similar implications. [Comment on a Guardian article]
But if I'm being honest I had never thought about the spear tackle rules. [sporty person talking about a sporty thing in The Independent]
The I'm phrases are sometimes--much less often--found in the full form I am.

The examples above were all found through the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE). Wiktionary defines these phrases as equivalent, and frankly is offered as a synonym. But frankly doesn't sit quite right with me in all of the contexts. In the examples I've given, the first of each pair has the speaker/writer 'being honest' about something other than themselves. There, I might say frankly. In the second examples, they are admitting something about themselves. In those cases, I get a sense of 'I'm ashamed to say', not just 'frankly'. I tend to interpret the BrE ones with I as having more of this personal reading to it, but I'm not a native user of that form, so my intuitions may be off.

Chris is right that Americans say to be honest and not if I'm honest (though it is the name of a country album), but what's interesting is that the British seem to say all of these phrases more.

I searched for to be honest followed by a comma or a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period in order to avoid counting things like I asked you to be honest with me. This might slightly undercount British examples, because Brits are less apt to use commas after sentence pre-modifiers than Americans are, but oh well. (There are some false hits in the numbers with non-idiomatic use of these words, but not many.) The * in the other rows indicates that I've included numbers for I am and I'm. (Keep in mind that this is data from the web, so I expect 15-20% of the data to NOT be by people from the dialect in question.)


AmE BrE
to be honest {,.} 2700 5483
if I *m honest 91 713
if I *m being honest 35 99

One has to wonder: why are these such popular idioms in BrE? And then one has to wonder: is it because most of the time people are expected NOT to be honest, so it has to be marked up where people are being honest? There may be something to that--the British, after all, have an international reputation for not saying what they mean. (English Spouse is not impressed with this explanation.)

But: against that hypothesis is the fact that one can kind of say the same thing with the simple adverb honestly, and that's more common as a word in AmE than BrE:


AmEBrE
honestly 1860012307

Hidden in the honestly numbers are the use of Honestly! as an exclamation of exasperation--a word that English Spouse uses (it feels like) constantly. He says it when the child hasn't put her shoes on when asked, when Jeremy Hunt is on the radio, when he thinks we're going to be late because I can't find my sunglasses. It's not clear whether he's an easily exasperated man or whether he lives in an excruciatingly exasperating climate (i.e. in a house with me).

This is harder to check in a corpus, because corpora are not particularly rich in situations where children haven't put their shoes on after repeatedly being asked. Where one can find standalone Honestly! in GloWBE, it's hard to tell if it's an assurance of honesty or an exclamation of exasperation. There are cases that look like the Honestly of exasperation in both the American and British data, but the largest number are in the 'hard to tell without hearing the person' category:

Not the Honestly of Exasperation: It is for sure one of the MOST beautiful things I have ever read. Honestly! It is the gospel lived out in its purest form.  (GloWBE-US)
Probably the Honestly of Exasperation:
"Honestly! You can't REALLY expect me to believe that?" (GloWBE-US)
Could easily be read more than one way:
I just started laughing -- honestly! it's been 6+ months since we talked. (GloWBE-GB)
"Style not dynamic enough", the guy said. Honestly!!!  (GloWBE-US)
 'Yuck! Pass me the sick bag I want to vom!? Honestly!' (GloWBE-GB)

 So, this is the kind of thing that I can't tell whether:
(a) It's more common in British English than American
(b) It's not particularly more common in BrE (there's lots of individual variation), but I notice it more in BrE because my spouse (and his mother) are avid users of it.

Nevertheless, there are more standalone Honestly! in the British data than  in the American in GloWBE (86 v 52).

Honestly!

P.S. (the following day)
Commenters are doing a good job of specifying the connotations and contexts of these phrases, so do have/take a look!

One thing some commenters have mentioned is that some would like an adverb before honest in to be honest. Here's what the top 10 adverbs look like (just looking at the phrase followed by a comma):

The list stretches to 40 different adverbs, but many have just one or two hits. In total, with an adverb the AmE (287) & BrE (293) numbers are virtually the same, but as you can see, some adverbs are more nationalistic than others. (Who knew the British were so brutal?)

In related 'honesty' news, @grayspeeks on Twitter asked whether Americans use the expression (no,) I tell a lie when correcting themselves. The answer is 'no' (GloWBE has 22 in UK, 0 in US), but several US tweeters responded that they'd say that's a lie or no, I'm lying for the same thing. It's harder to give accurate numbers for these, because they could be used for other purposes--so I have to look at them with the no in front, and that creates more (punctuation) problems.  Doing that, no, I'm lying has 3 UK hits and 1 US, as does no, I lie. No, that's a lie has 2 UK hits and 1 US one. Those numbers are small enough that I can check by hand: there are no false hits.  Trying without the no gives more false hits than 'good' ones: e.g. people accusing others of lying for that's a lie or people lying down for I'm lying.  I'm not going to go through hundreds of examples to try to count whether AmE is saying these phrases more--just not with no--because there's just too much guesswork in judging them. So, it's not a clear picture, but the evidence we have has BrE using all the lie phrases more than AmE.

One that Americans do seem to use more is to tell (you) the truth , (thanks, Zouk Delors, in the comments). US hits = 366, UK = 188.  

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

alumni

Last month Linguist Laura wrote a blog post congratulating the students who were graduating from her program(me). She discusses graduate, then moves on to alumni, excerpted below. I've highlighting the bit that was news to me.
My undergraduate alma mater
Go Minutemen! Go Minutewomen!
When the graduands morph into graduates, they also become alumni, another Latin word. It's plural, in that form, and pedants will have know[n] that the singular is alumnus or alumna, depending on whether you're male or female. Again, this is a bit annoying for English speakers who don't really bother that much with gender other than pronouns, [...]

Normal procedure when removing gender distinction is to go with the male for everyone: actors and actresses become actors, lady doctors become doctors, and so on. With alumni, we're taking to using the plural form for everyone. You're an alumni once you graduate. This ever so slightly grates on me but I am a good linguist and a descriptivist and do not go around correcting people. I don't know why we use the plural. We're familiar with this in words like cactus/cacti so we might have used alumnus as the singular; we just didn't. Perhaps it's because we use alumni in the plural way more often than the singular and, as it's not that common a word, that's the one that stuck.
I am not sure who the we is here. Laura's department? English speakers? It seems to me it's British English speakers, as in my experience Americans haven't adopted the plural as a singular.

First, Americans use the gendered singulars. I looked for an alumn* of in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) in order to get only singular instances:

(I checked the one that says alumni* and it's by a graduate of The Open University [UK] who uses the word maths, so I have mentally flipped it into the GB column.)

In AmE singular alumni amounts to about 9% of the total, but in BrE it's about 22% (and in Canadian English, it's 35%). Note the lack of alumna in BrE.

When Americans want to avoid the gendered Latin terms, we often hack off the Latin suffix. I am an alum of the University of Massachusetts. I am friends with many of my fellow alums.

The word looks odd and is hard to pronounce if you don't know that it's a clipped form. It is not a homophone with the astringent chemical alum. The chemical is A-lum, the graduate is a-LUM, following the stress pattern of the suffixed form. I've also seen it spel{led/t} alumn and I kind of like that better. (There are 6 instances of alumn in GloWBE, 5 American and one that is classifed as GB, but when you look it's from an organi{s/z}ation in New York. None of these is in the phrase an alumn of, so they aren't included the numbers below.)

An alum of gets 10 hits in the US and 2 in GB (all legitimate; plus one Canadian hit, for those keeping track). If we add these to the numbers in the chart above, we get the following proportions:

a ___ of AmE BrE
gendered singular alumna/us 81% 75%
plural-form singular
alumni
8% 21%
clipped singular
alum
11% 4%
total number 88 52


Now, if you worked at a college/university in the US, I am quite sure that you would hear alum much more than you'd hear singular alumni. I had a quick look in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which showed twice as many an alum of as an alumni of (though the numbers were small--21 in total).

So, a few points of unseemly defensiveness after all this:
  • Americans are able to and do use the Latin gendered suffixes. I mention this because there seems to be some belief that the British know Latin better than Americans do.  One of the interviewees in Jones's book on English expats in the US says she felt "she got to win a lot of arguments" because Americans assume “I [have] this great level of culture [and speak] and read fluent Latin” though of course she didn't. Similarly, I've had it said to me that Americans make barbarous "false" Latin words because we aren't close enough to the language. An British commentator on early American accents wrote that "Americans do not, however, speak or pronounce English according to our standard; [...] probably from a want of any intimate knowledge of Greek or Latin." I can't see much evidence for thinking the contemporary British folk have some access to Latin that contemporary Americans don't. Latin comes and goes in both American and British schools. Yes, the fancy public (i.e. private) schools of Britain do tend to offer Latin, but so did my run-of-the-mill American high school. Very few schools anywhere require it (or even offer it) any more--though apparently it's popular with American home-schoolers.
  • If you see Latin plurals masquerading as singulars, it's not a case of "American political correctness" coming over and "ruining" the language. The British are very capable of being sensitive to gender discrimination and changing the language themselves.  
The other thing to notice is that Americans use these words more. In fact, Americans have a great head start on using them. This is not necessarily a bragging point. The reason Americans needed these words earlier is that American universities have long depended on their graduates' generosity.

That was not an issue for British universities, which until recently were funded mainly through government grants. While I've lived in the UK, I've seen tuition fees go from 0 to over £9000 per year. And it was only once the government stopped directly funding university teaching that universities needed to step up relations with their graduates in the hope of getting donations and bequests. That's when my university got an Alumni Relations Office, something any American university would have had decades earlier.

Americans, I would say, have a keener sense of alumnihood. They have stickers identifying their alma mater in the back windows of their cars. The phrase alma mater is about four times more common in AmE than BrE (in GloWBE). They go to homecoming. They follow their institution's sports teams for the rest of their lives. (The need to keep alumni involved is a big reason for American universities having so much sporty activity.) They might even know their college's/university's song. That's in general, of course. I can't say I do any of those things. But I know many more Americans than Britons who do. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

mental health

From Cllr James Baker's website
Want to bring out the pedant in me? Invite me to help fight the stigma attached to mental health. Then watch me shout: "There is no stigma attached to mental health! There is a stigma attached to mental illness!"

I have these little shoutings fairly regularly these days--because I live in England, the home of mental health stigma.






From the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE):


It doesn't matter which preposition you use, if it's a stigma and there's mental health nearby, it's probably British:


Yes, yes, some of those mental healths will have nouns after them like problems or professionals, but in BrE, most of them don't. For instance, for the 12 British stigma around mental health examples, only two follow up with problems or issues. For the others, it is just mental health that carries the stigma:



Now, when people ask me to give money for cancer or child abuse, I object that I don't want cancer or child abuse to have my money. Simple pedantry for pedantry's sake, because I'm 100% confident that the people collecting money really mean that it's money to fight cancer or child abuse. And so I thought it was with the British and mental health--they're saying it that way, but they obviously mean 'the stigma about not having mental health' rather than 'the stigma about mental health'. But it's phrased so often in this way in BrE that I wonder: maybe they didn't obviously mean that. Maybe there is a stigma about mental health. There seems to be a stigma about talking about one's own mental health, and there is (relative to American sensibilities) a stigma against pursuing mental health (e.g. seeing a therapist).

I'm being a bit facetious here, but the phrasing does go with the stereotype of the British stiff upper lip. A stigma about admitting to any mental state at all...

When I looked into mental health and mental illness a bit more, I was surprised to find that the number of mentions of mental illness were about even in BrE and AmE (in GloWBE still). But the British mention mental health much more:

Why? A clue is in the number of nouns that follow mental health. The green parts in these tables are the phrases that are statistically much more American (left) or much more British (right):

Many of the BrE ones have to do with how the National Health Service is structured, but also you can see here ways of not saying mental illness: mental health problem(s), mental health difficulties, and even mental health illness(es). AmE has some odd ones (from a pedantic point of view too): mental health symptoms (do we ever talk about symptoms of physical health? No. Illnesses have symptoms, not health) and mental health benefits (if the meaning of benefits here is the same as in disability benefits, then it's a benefit for not being healthy).  (Note stigma shows up again in the BrE list.)


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Theresa and other sibilant names

The appointment of a new Prime Minister in the UK has led to both national and international crises in pronunciation. How do you say Theresa?

The national crisis, within the UK, is the problem of whether the second syllable is pronounced 'ree' or 'ray' ('ree' it turns out, for this particular Theresa) and whether the first syllable is truncated (no), as this passage from a Buzzfeed article (helpfully jpegged by author @jamesrbuk) explains:


Language Log looked at that vowel yesterday.

The international crisis is: what's going on with that 's'?  In American English, the 's' means /s/, but note that the Buzzfeed article didn't even mention the possibility of (mis)pronouncing it with an /s/. In British English, it's a /z/.

Theresa is not alone. There are other s-ful names that British English routinely pronounces with /z/, and American English usually pronounces with /s/. These include:

  • Denise
  • Leslie / Lesley (which British folk will tell you is the feminine spelling--Americans don't follow that distinction) and the truncated form Les
  • Wesley
  • Lisa sometimes (hear here - this is the only UK voice I've found on name-pronouncing sites)
  • Joseph sometimes (compare here)
  • Louisa? (I only recently learned that other people say LouWEEza, whereas I always said lewISSa. Maybe I'm just a weirdo, but I'm an American weirdo. Here's some discussion. About Louisa, not about whether I'm a weirdo. That matter has been settled.  Louise has a /z/ in both countries.)
For comparison, here are a British and an American actor saying Wesley. The American /s/ is very pronounced, the British consonant less so:




But--and this is a big BUT--these are names, so anything can happen. Names are subject to fashions and to individual whimsy. In particular, I suspect that the /s/ in the 'sl' names varies in America. In fact, I know it does in Wesley. The name (for the same character) is pronounced on Big Bang Theory with a definite /z/. Since the /s/ pronunciation is used by the character's own mother, this just seems disrespectful. ;)




In on-line conversations, I've seen Americans calling the /z/ version of 'Theresa' "posh". (They were American, so maybe posh isn't the word they used, but it was the meaning.) That may be because of the association with British accents or the Frenchness of the /z/ (as in Thérèse).


I can't say that I ever noticed any /z/ pronunciations of Theresa while growing up in America. Mother Theresa had an /s/ and so did the Theresa I went to school with. She used to ask if she could carry my lunch box for me to show that we were friends. When we'd get to the corner where we should part ways, I'd ask for my lunchbox back and she would laugh and cross the street that I wasn't allowed to cross and run away with my lunchbox. Yes, the use of habitual verb forms there indicates that it happened more than once. She always promised that it wouldn't happen again if I just trusted her...

 Alicia and Marcia are another couple of names that often throw me when I hear them in the UK. Whereas the Alicia I grew up with was "aLEEsha", in the UK it's "aLISSeeya". There is bound to be variation in the US on these, especially since in Spanish Marcia would have a "seeya" pronunciation.

There are, of course, many other names that are pronounced differently in the two countries. On the theme of national leaders' names, I have another post on Barack Obama. You might find discussion of some of the others by clicking on the names tag.  Important to note here that the /z/ in these names is not particularly related to the /z/ that's used in a lot of British nicknames. While Theresa may become Tezza, the z in that case is coming (believe it or not) from the /r/, just as it does for Jeremy --> Jezza. I've another post on that phenomenon.


Friday, July 15, 2016

leafy

David Cameron and his house in 'leafy' Holland Park
Daily Express




Brits sometimes tell me that the problem with American politics is that the system of checks and balances, with the separate executive and legislative branches, means that changes are hard to make. My experience of politics in the UK since 2010 leaves me feeling that changes are too easy to make. Have an election and the next thing you know, things that have been built up over years can be thrown away. Get a new cabinet and within the year school curricula may change, departments of the civil service are closed, public properties are sold off. Because it's so much easier to destroy than to build, the recent Conservative (and coalition) governments (approx. AmE administrations) have wreaked change that undoes generations' worth of work and that will affect many generations beyond the current decade. But perhaps the most surprising thing for Americans watching the news is how quickly David Cameron had to move out of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's official residence. On the 8th of July, there were two candidates to replace Cameron, and the winner of their contest would be decided on the 9th of September.  Three days later, one of the candidates dropped out, and so the remaining candidate was (almost) automatically appointed head of the ruling party, and therefore the next prime minister. She could have been made prime minister that day, but the queen was out of town, and you can't become prime minister without the monarch's ceremonial say-so*.  So two days later, on Wednesday, Theresa May was made Prime Minister, which meant she got to move into 10 Downing Street right away. None of this two months' warning that residents of the White House have.

But that's all just preamble for this tweet from Tony Thorne:

Sounded right to me, but I had a quick look.

My first question was: Which things are described as leafy in AmE and BrE? This result from GloWBE shows us just nouns after leafy for which there are sufficient numbers for some statistical analysis.

 My second question was, if Americans don't say leafy suburb, what do they say?



The software isn't searching for meanings, it's just searching for any adjectives right before suburb. As it happens it's given us some near-synonyms, for leafy in BrE is code for 'affluent'. Tony clarifies:



It works as code better in the UK than in the US for geographical reasons. The UK has far fewer trees than the US, and the way cities are built means that there are few trees within them. In the US, the poor neighbo(u)rhoods in a medium-sized city may well have trees (of course denser cities have fewer).  I live in a nice part of town in Brighton and our street/road has almost no trees. And of course, no lawns. And little in the way of (BrE) front gardens/(AmE) front yards. (It would have had a few more trees in the past, but Brighton lost many to the Great Storm of 1987 and to Dutch Elm disease.)

The numbers for leafy suburb in the US are not zero, as Julie Lawson notes:

I noted in reply that the Washington Post is a hotbed of Britishisms. (It's been coming up a lot as I do the research for my book.) None of the six in the GloWBE corpus are from the Post but at least three are from DC-area writers/sources, so it may be fairly local to the area.

The semantics of suburb are not quite the same in the US and UK. (But I'm going to have to leave that for another day.)  I've just shown suburb in the table above because if you search for suburb* with a wild-card at the end, you get suburban and suburbanite and it all gets a bit messy. But if we look at the plural alone, we're informed a bit more about American society...





*Interesting side note: say-so has been around since the 1600s, but OED says "In 19th cent., chiefly U.S. and Eng. regional (midl.)." It now seems to be general English again. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

infections and itises

So last time, I wrote about disease versus infection following the phrase sexually transmitted, and I started thinking (again) about how we talk about medical things--technical or non-technical? In the book I'm writing (for you!), I've touched on it a little with respect to bodily functions:

Sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, I’m amused and a bit astonished to find posters about what to do if there is blood in your pee or poo.* The equivalent American public-service advertisements say urine and stool. In the medical context, America avoids being crude by sounding more scientific, and Britain uses baby-talk.
* Make an appointment with your doctor immediately!
The discussion hits on things like BrE waterworks ('urinary tract') and back passage ('rectum') and  classes given to foreign nurses in the NHS on British slang--aka British euphemism. (It's a bit of the book that looks at the stereotype of Americans as euphemists, so yes, there's a lot of attention in the other direction.)

The "Americans use overly technical terminology" aka "Americans like jargon" stereotype that I contribute to in the quote above is one worth taking apart as well. I've been encouraged in that stereotype when I hear friends talk about their chest infections where I tend to have bronchitis. But then they're also talking about having cystitis (my poor, unhealthy friends), which I hadn't heard of before moving here. An infected cyst? Ew... No, it's a bladder infection. In AmE I'd call it a UTI (urinary tract infection). (The NHS website tells us that cystitis is a common type of UTI, so the terms are slightly different--but that's the case with bronchitis and chest infection too.)

So far, we're tied: Itises: BrE 1, AmE 1. Infections: BrE 1, AmE 1.

So I thought I'd have a look at which things Americans and Brits call infections and which they use Medical Greek -itis names for.

 The tables below are the statistically "most American" (left) and "Most British" (right) nouns that come before infection in the GloWBE corpus. (If you click on the table, it should get bigger.)
"Most American" and "Most British" words preceding infection
What you can notice there (if you can read the small print) is that the "more British" preceding nouns include things that can get infected (wounds, chests, throats), whereas the "more American" ones tend to be the microbes that do the infecting. In AmE, I think I'd say someone has an infected wound rather than that they have a wound infection. And one kind of wound infection you can have is a staph infection (in the US list), which is a very familiar term from my AmE childhood (we were constantly being told that gym mats were very dangerous). I don't know that I've ever heard staph infection in the UK.

In the BrE column you can also see urine infection, another BrE way of saying urinary tract infection. This one names neither the pathogen nor the organ, and always strikes me as a bit odd. Urine might have germs in it, but can urine itself be infected?

BrE has more throat infections because Americans are more likely to say they have strep throat. In my experience, scarlet fever is heard more in BrE these days (which is not to say you never hear it in AmE). When my child was diagnosed with it (in the UK), I really felt like I'd been taken back to Victorian times. She wasn't all that sick. But when I looked it up and found that it's the strep germ, I thought: maybe you hear scarlet fever more often in UK because AmE has strep infection.

Some of the numbers up there, though, are art{e/i}ifacts of the corpus. AmE has 56 instances of HSV infection but all of them come from a single website (virologyj.com), so we shouldn't take too much from that. American, like British, English would typically call that herpes. HBV infection is found on a greater range of sites, but they are mostly medical journals and such. Laypeople would generally say Hepatitis B.

But that does seem to sum up the difference between the AmE table and the BrE table: a lot of the AmE infection cases are use of medical jargon in a medical context--staph infection was the only one I knew as a layperson. Whereas in BrE the body-part+infection cases are terms that non-medical people would use when talking about their maladies.

If we look at the infections that American and British English have in common, we can see  that Americans do talk about infections too, sometimes with body parts, even.


But what about -itises? Is it mostly Americans using the fancy words? No, but there again maybe some effects here of one source being over-sampled in the corpus. Here I'm showing what came up as 'most American' (left) and 'most British' (right), with a bit of the 'neither one nor the other' showing in white. This is going to be very hard to read on a phone (sorry!), but I'll write up the highlights below.


I've given a comment in red if (a) the things are not diseases, but just coincidentally spelled with -itis, or (b) if it's a spelling issue. Though oesophagitis shows up in the British list, it's not because Americans don't use an -itis name for the problem, but because we spell it esophagitis. (Click here for my old post on oe/e spellings.) The British list is lengthened by a misspelling of arthritis and having two spellings for tonsil(l)itis.

After discounting those, the British list is still a lot longer than the American one, but I'm very much suspecting some bad corpus effects here. Tonsillitis, colitis, dermatitis, gastroenteritis, appendicitis, pancreatitis--I or members of my family have had all of these and that's just what they were called in the US. The numbers for these diseases are greater than expected in the British part of the corpus--but they're hardly absent in the American part. For example, note that there are 756 AmE occurrences of meningitis--which is here counting as "rather British", while only 16 AmE hits for phlebitis make it "very American". Some of these cases are going to seem "more British" or "more American" to the software just because the corpus happened to hit on some websites that talked about these things a lot. But I think what we can say from this exercise is that we have no particular evidence for British English avoiding -itis words, despite its greater use of body-part+infection.

Still there are a few itises worth mentioning for BrE/AmE interest. One is labyrinthitis, which I had an unfortunate encounter with this spring. When I described my symptoms (the room going upside-down and inside-out every time I turned my head left), lots of British friends said "Oh, that's labyrinthitis. I've had it. It's horrible!" But it was not a word that my American friends seemed to have at their fingertips--to them it was an inner-ear infection. (Why do Brits seem to get it more often, though?)


Conjunctivitis shows up on the British list, though it is a word that Americans use too. But Americans have another informal term for the problem: pink-eye. That will push the US conjunctivitis numbers down. (There are a few UK hits for pink-eye--with or without the hyphen, but a lot of US hits.)

In the white part of the table--where the numbers are similar for AmE and BrE -- are the two itises that are earlier in this post: cystitis, which I've experienced as more British, and bronchitis, which I've experienced as more American. Because the corpus is imperfect, I'm not going to totally discount my experience on these. But it would be interesting to hear if others (particularly transatlantic others who can compare) think I'm off my rocker...

I was surprised to see only one made-up disease in the list: boomeritis on the AmE side. (It was the name of a book--click on the word to learn more.) I would have bet that (AmE) senioritis would appear. (As it happens, there were only two US examples of it in the corpus--most are Canadian.) To quote Wikipedia:

Senioritis is a colloquial term mainly used in the United States and Canada to describe the decreased motivation toward studies displayed by students who are nearing the end of their high school, college, and graduate school careers.
For a minute there, I was worried that I expected senioritis to be there because I am OLD and UNCOOL. But I'm happy to report that in both the Corpus of Historical American English and in Google Books, the rate of senioritis use has only gone up in the decades since I was a high-school/college senior. Not happy for the teachers who have to teach these seniors, but happy that my vocabulary is not a complete dinosaur--yet.

If you're interested in other disease names, do have a look at the medicine/disease tag--thanks to (a) having a small child and (b) being a complete hypochondriac, quite a few have come up over the years--but there are still many more to cover in future.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

STD, STI

Is a Manchester sexual health clinic
trying to tell me something?
I just feel that I should say this up front: there is nothing autobiographical about this post. There. Got that out of the way. The topic only came up because I was in a conversation that involved an allusion to leaflets in doctors' (AmE) offices/(BrE) surgeries

Those leaflets are sometimes about (AmE, old-fashioned) social diseases. In either country it's possible to find references to  Sexually Transmitted Diseases or STDs or  Sexually Transmitted Infections or STIs. Is there a difference? Not really. To quote one (US) site on the matter:
STI stands for sexually transmitted infection, and many people, mostly the medical community, have begun transitioning from “STD” to “STI” in an effort to clarify that not all sexually transmitted infections turn into a disease. For instance, the vast majority of women who contract HPV (human papilloma virus) will not develop the resulting disease cervical cancer. In fact, most cases of infection will clear up within two years. Additionally, people who use this term believe that it also eliminates some of the shame that’s been associated with the acronym “STD.”
The UK seems to be far ahead of the US in adopting the "new" term.

The GloWBE corpus has about 5 times as many STD(s) in AmE as STI(s), but about 1.2 times as many STIs in BrE as STDs. The numbers for the non-abbreviated forms were not as strongly separated by country, but there were still more sexually transmitted diseases in the US and infections in the UK.

GloWBE is useful because relatively current and country-coded, but  it's counting up phrases from the web and there's no guarantee of the Britishness of someone writing a comment on a British news site (etc.). I wanted to check further because the UK numbers weren't as stark as I had expected. The friend in the aforementioned conversation has a nurse for his partner, a (UK) nurse, and his experience/impression was that in the medical profession it is almost always STI in the UK. That's been my impression too.

So, I searched for the terms on the National Health Service (UK) website and found about 4 times as many sexually transmitted infection(s) as sexually transmitted diseases but similar numbers of STI and STD. This seemed to be because almost whenever the NHS site uses the abbreviation, they use both abbreviations, as in "Sexual health testing for people with symptoms or who have had sex with someone who has a confirmed STI/STD" on a list of clinic services. In some cases, when I clicked through on a hit for STD there was no visible STD on the page, just STI. Which is why, boys and girls, it is generally better to use a corpus rather than Google for getting word-frequency counts. Some SEO magic seems to be going on on there.

On the National Institutes of Health (US) website there are twice as many sexually transmitted diseases as sexually transmitted infections.

Was STI coined in the UK? Not necessarily, but it's hard to tell. Only sexually transmitted disease (first citation, 1962) is in the OED. Searching Google Books, I find instances of sexually transmitted infection going back at least as far, but there's no clear separation between US (red) and UK(blue) books at the start of the term's history.



Why has STI caught on more in the UK? Some possibilities:
  • A more enlightened approach to sexual health? 
  • Better management of terminology due to the dominance of the National Health Service in delivering patient information and treatment?
  • It fits better with other names for illnesses in the dialect?
In terms of the last point, a first thing to wonder is whether STD is more popular in the US because Americans are more used to calling such things diseases, as in venereal disease. The answer seems to be "no". Venereal disease is and was just as well used in BrE, as far as I can tell.

What about the word infection, is that more common in BrE more generally? The answer is complicated, so I've decided to make that a separate post. It's half-written, so it might even be the next one!

And I leave you with what may be my favo(u)rite disease joke, from Cyanide and Happiness: