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Compound fractures

Though it has never been discovered, there must be, resting somewhere on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, a box of words that lost their way in the perilous journey from British to American English, or in some cases, in the reverse direction. This would handily explain the disparities among a number of compound terms that differ between the two dialects. There are many cases where one dialect uses a compound term to designate the thing that the other dialect names with a single word. In other cases, both dialects use a compound term, but one component of the compound doesn’t match.

I was thinking about this the other day after reading Solange’s query about corn on Stan’s post that mentioned linguistic narrowing. If you compare the British and American entries for corn in the Macmillan dictionary, you’ll see a disparity in sense 1. When Americans say ‘corn,’ they mean maize, whether the word appears alone or in compounds. When British speakers use ‘corn,’ it’s usually to talk about cereal crops generally. The OED has this note about the differences:

Corn- in combinations, in American usage, must therefore be understood to mean maize, whereas in English usage it may mean any cereal; e.g. a cornfield in England is a field of any cereal that is grown in the country, in U.S. one of maize.

This results in corn dolly and Corn Laws being about grain, while corn dogs and cornflakes are about maize. All this came about because English settlers saw and wrote about the ‘corn’ that Native Americans were growing and called it Indian Corn. As John Winthrop, an Englishman who was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony put it in 1630: “Though we have not beef and mutton, &c. yet (God be praised) . . . our Indian corn answers for all.” Americans eventually dropped the “Indian” modifier; it still turns up occasionally in British English. You could say that Indian corn is an early retronym.

Another retronym with a less colorful paper trail is push bike – by which Brits sometimes designate a bicycle, presumably to distinguish it from a motorcycle. Push bike is not used in the US; Americans just say bike for the kind that you pedal – and occasionally for the motorized kind – depending on context to disambiguate the two. Interestingly though, both dialects reserve biker for motorcyclists, and cyclist for bicyclists.

Readers over a certain age will think first of music when they see the word Motown. Americans may be surprised to learn that this genre of music is sometimes called Tamla Motown in the UK. This reflects the fact that the founder of Motown records, Berry Gordy Jr., began two record labels, the first being Tamla, in 1959 – a fact lost to American popular consciousness, but preserved in the British compound term.

Americans who want to give the impression that they’ve done something as if by magic can say “Presto!” Presto is an interjection that’s labelled ‘mainly American’ in the Macmillan Dictionary, because you have to say “Hey presto!” in Britain to achieve the same effect. The reasons for this are unclear, but “Hey presto!” has documented evidence back to the 18th century.

You may want to pit your wits against the terms below and test your transatlantic compound skills. All of the terms share one component, which should make the meanings easy to match,  but do you know which ones are British and which American?

 telephone booth cotton candy
 sparkplug dump truck
fruit machine fish finger
 sailing boat gingersnap
 rummage sale jumble sale
 money order level crossing
 baking sheet postal order
 ginger nut sailboat
 fish stick slot machine
 dumper truck sparking plug
 candy floss telephone box
 grade crossing cookie sheet
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Orin Hargraves


  • Fascinating stuff. I never knew “Tamla” wasn’t remembered in America.
    Dump truck and dumper truck both sound American to my English ears. Phonebox is more common than telephone box, although they’re all disappearing now.
    Otherwise, spot on.

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