More "screaming and spluttering" from Matthew Engel

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Several readers have pointed out that Matthew Engel, the author of last week's odd BBC News peeve about Americanisms (discussed here and here), fired a couple of  earlier salvos last year in the Daily Mail. The first one was "Say no to the get-go! Americanisms swamping English, so wake up and smell the coffee", Daily Mail 5/29/2010:

In 1832, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fulminating about the 'vile and barbarous' new adjective that had just arrived in London. The word was 'talented'. It sounds innocuous enough to our ears, as do 'reliable', 'influential' and 'lengthy', which all inspired loathing when they first crossed the Atlantic.

As usual, this is somewhat less than half true. Coleridge did complain about talented, and he did dislike Americanisms. But his specific complaint about talented was grammatical rather than geographical. His grammatical reasoning on this point was so deeply confused that the Oxford English Dictionary specifically rebuked him for it. And talented did not originate in America.

Here's what Coleridge wrote:

I regret to see that vile and barbarous vocable talented, stealing out of the newspapers into the leading reviews and most respectable publications of the day. Why not shillenged, farthinged, tenpenced, &c.? The formation of a participle passive from a noun, is a license that nothing but a very peculiar felicity can excuse. If mere convenience is to justify such attempts upon the idiom, yo cannot stop till the language becomes, in the proper sense of the word, corrupt. Most of these pieces of slang come from America.*

* See "eventuate," in Mr. Washington Irving's "Tour on the Prairies,", passim. — Ed.

The OED's entry for -ed, suffix2 explains that

Old English -ede = Old Saxon -ôdi (not represented elsewhere in Germanic, though Old Norse had adjs. similarly < ns., with ppl. form and i- umlaut, as eygðr eyed, hynrdr horned):—Germanic type -ôđjo-, is appended to ns. in order to form adjs. connoting the possession or the presence of the attribute or thing expressed by the n. The function of the suffix is thus identical with that of the Latin ppl. suffix -tus as used in caudātus tailed, aurītus eared, etc.; and it is possible that the Germanic -ôđjo– may originally have been < -ôđo- (see -ed suffix1), the suffix of pa. pples. of vbs. in –ôjan formed upon ns. In modern English, and even in Middle English, the form affords no means of distinguishing between the genuine examples of this suffix and those ppl. adjs. in -ed suffix1 which are ultimately < ns. through unrecorded vbs. Examples that have come down from Old English are ringed:—Old English hringede, hooked:—Old English hócede, etc.

And let's split off for special consideration the conclusion of this explanation:

The suffix is now added without restriction to any n. from which it is desired to form an adj. with the sense ‘possessing, provided with, characterized by’ (something); e.g. in toothed, booted, wooded, moneyed, cultured, diseased, jaundiced, etc., and in parasynthetic derivatives, as dark-eyed, seven-hilled, leather-aproned, etc. In bigoted, crabbed, dogged, the suffix has a vaguer meaning.

And for extra-special attention, the last sentence:

(Groundless objections have been made to the use of such words by writers ignorant of the history of the language: see quot.)

The quoted "groundless objection" is of course from Mr. Coleridge.

As for talented, I pointed out in my earlier post that the earliest citations that the OED was able to find are from impeccably British authors:

1827 E. Bulwer-Lytton Falkland i. 16, I smiled at the kindness of the fathers who, hearing I was talented‥looked to my support.
1828 R. Southey Let. in Corr. R. Southey with C. Bowles (1881) 134 Unprincipled people, too many of them talented and clever and most agreeable.
1829 J. F. W. Herschel Ess. (1857) 515 Those numerous and talented individuals throughout the continent, and in England.
1830 W. Taylor Historic Surv. German Poetry III. 406 His eye, though indicating a talented mind, was restless and unsteady.

The fifth citation is to Coleridge's rant.

While we're reviewing Coleridge's errors, we should note that he was also apparently confused about which noun talented comes from. If there are relevant uses of talented is the sense of "endowed with the coins known as 'talents'", neither the OED nor I have been able to find them. Nor have I been able to find any evidence that Bulwer-Lytton, Southey, etc. were inspired by American models, directly or indirectly.

Ironically, the same work by Coleridge contains many instances of the OED's -ed, suffix2, as in the sequence "maggot-pated, hare-brained, muddle-pated, muddle-headed, Jackanapes".

Anyhow, Mr. Engel was as confused about why Coleridge disliked the word talented as Coleridge was about the justification for his animus. And a week later, having provoked the expected flood of peeving from his readers, Mr. Engel followed up with "Britain declares war on words that snuck into our skedule…", 6/6/2010:

Mark Easton is the BBC home affairs editor. He spent some of his childhood in Winchester, apparently, not Wisconsin. And his job seems unlikely to offer extensive travel opportunities to the United States.

Yet the other night he referred to ‘specialty shops’ (note the missing i) on the Ten O’Clock News. The rest of his report must have been drowned out by the screaming and spluttering of thousands of Mail on Sunday readers, who share my horror at the way British English is being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of mindless Americanisms. […]

‘Speciality’ (with the i) is a lovely word, full of rolling syllables. His version is the kind of usage that comes out of the mid-Atlantic and needs to be dropped back there, from a great height.

Mr. Engel's screaming and spluttering depends on a peculiar attachment to one side of a distinction that is not very clear on either side of the Atlantic. The OED has long entries for both speciality and specialty, which it treats as separate lemmas, not as alternative spellings of the same word. However, both come from the same historical source, and the range of senses seems to overlap substantially.

Thus we have specialty n 8.a. "A special line of work or business; a special manufacture or product (characteristic of a certain firm, place, etc.); an article specially dealt in or stocked", with mostly British citations:

1873 C. G. Leland Egyptian Sketch-bk. 246 His specialty was inlaid-work of mother-of-pearl and ebony in little diamonds, squares, and triangles.
Eng. Illustr. Mag. Nov. 89/1 The brass work of Birmingham has long been one of its specialties.
Daily News 16 Feb. 2/7 The better classes of fancy tweeds, choice serges, and specialties.

This is cross-referenced to speciality n 5.c. "A thing or article specially characteristic of, produced or manufactured by, a particular place, business firm, etc."

The only indication of a geographical differentiation is given in specialty n 9. N. Amer., cross referenced to speciality n. 6,7 "A thing or article of a special kind, as distinguished from what is usual or common".

Whatever the mysterious distinction at issue here, the version without the extra 'i' seems to have been in regular use in Blighty for some time, with Shakespeare, Carlyle, and Coleridge somehow managing to get along without those "rolling syllables":

1609 Shakespeare Troilus & Cressida i. iii. 77 The specialtie of rule hath beene neglected.
T. Carlyle Sartor Resartus ii. viii, Amid these specialties, let us not forget the great generality.
S. T. Coleridge Lit. Remains (1838) III. 21 Judgment, solid sense, invention in specialties,‥in these we can shew giants.

Have these items (whether different words or different spellings) been differentially adopted in the US vs. the UK? It seems that this is true to an extent:

specialty 4,984 137
speciality 169 476

Was that 78% to 22% preference in the BNC (collected in the early 1990s) enough to drown out the BBC's home affairs editor with the screaming and spluttering of outraged listeners in 2010? We report, you decide.


  1. RP said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 8:17 am

    Perhaps Engel was relying on an Oxford dictionary (just not the OED). At we are told that "the normal spelling is speciality; the spelling specialty, without the i before the t, is found in American English and some medical uses", while at we are informed that "specialty" is "chiefly North American & Medicine". It would be interesting to know whether the OUP is relying on more recent corpus data in making this judgement, or whether they consider that 22% insignificant (or perhaps a large part of the 22% relates to Medicine?), or whether they don't base their judgement on corpus data at all.

    [(myl) It seems likely to me that Engel was relying on his gut rather than on any particular reference work — though of course his instincts may have been influenced by some earlier experience with the peevological literature, or even with a reference work or two.

    Many but not all of the BNC's speciality instances are in a medical context:

    Janet Broadbent, who is employed by The Catering Guild — under contract for the Wedgwood canteen — has recently been awarded the Guild's Marketing Award for 1992. Janet has worked at Barlaston for the past 18 months and the award she gained has marked the completion of a year-long programme designed to help the Guild's managers to develop further their marketing and merchandising skills. Janet's notable successes at Barlaston have included an extended menu to offer a wide variety of healthy food options and the introduction of a take-away service. Additionally, she has launched a range of specialty products known as " Sticky Bits ". The canteen staff have all worked together in this project, making home-made sweets, cakes, jams and chutneys. " The staff have really shown their skills in producing this range of foods, " said Janet, " and on special occasions, such as Christmas and Easter, they have excelled themselves with superb cakes and eggs. " " Such has been their success that a couple of the staff are taking evening classes to extend and improve their skills at cake decorating.

    Perhaps this is an Americanism — or perhaps the author just didn't get the memo about Brits turning their collective back on Shakespeare, Coleridge and Carlyle…]

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 8:54 am

    So did the i-less lexeme enter the language first? And is there any relation to the aluminum/aluminium divergence?

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 9:52 am

    I just finished Sam Kean's entertaining book about the periodic table of elements The Disappearing Spoon and read that Al was first called aluminium to comport with many other elements, mainly metals, from the Gk -ion. At first Al was more expensive than gold, used for regal flatware and the tip of the Washington Monument. When Charles Hall began the commercial production of cheap Al in 1892, his advertising used the -um form (which dates back to Webster's dictionary of 1828), perhaps out of trademark considerations. Hall continued to use the -ium form in all his patents. The official chemical name is -ium, with -um as a US & Canadian variant.

  4. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    Dignified lady to tinker: "Are you aluminiuming 'em, my good man?"
    "No'm, I'm copper-bottoming 'em, Ma'am."

  5. ed cook said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    I always thought "speciality" was a case of epenthesis in the vicinity of sonorants, as in, e.g. "athalete," "realator," etc., although it's unusual to see a variant of this kind go off and start its own career as a separate lexical item.

  6. Zythophile said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    The style in British newspapers and magazines is always "speciality",so this will be the version that Mr Engel will therefore regard as "correct": the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, the default authority for most British sub-editors if their publications' own stylebook does not cover something, says merely: "speciality (US & Med. specialty)".

  7. richard howland-bolton said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 10:30 am

    And I believe that Davy first called it 'alumium'.
    I don't know why Mr Engel is so distressed, I mean British-isms definitely
    get's their own back on Americanisms (real or imagined), for example my own kids (thoroughly American) somehow learned the thoroughly British word 'wanker', and not from (ex-UKite) me. I wonder what they would call Mr Engel.

  8. richard howland-bolton said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    Damn WordPress's lack of editing ability and double-damn my proofreading skills:
    "I mean British-isms definitely get their own back"

  9. RP said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    It seems some Mail readers are not prejudiced solely against American English but against non-RP speakers generally. One quite highly rated reader comment says, "Actually one can not blame it all on the Americans… We have the new 'uz' from north of the border when its clearly 'us' with an 'S' not a 'Z'. Also instead of 'you' we now have 'choo'.which is an insult to the English language."

    One has to doubt whether "uz" is a particularly new pronunciation or has ever been uniquely Scottish. When I was growing up in the English East Midlands in the 1980s, most of us said "uz". I often still do, and find the prejudice against it quite annoying. The reader seems to imply that we should know how to pronounce "us" from its spelling (which isn't a logical notion, given how everyone I know pronounces "as" and "is"), but perhaps I am reading too much into her reference to "clearly 'us' with an 'S'" and she is simply referring again to pronunciation.

    I have never heard of "you" on its own being pronounced as "choo" – perhaps this is a reference to how, in colloquial speech, "ty" becomes "ch" ("what you" becomes "wochoo").

    To myl: thanks for your comments on my comment above. You are probably right about Engel's gut.

  10. Alexander said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    Too bad Coleridge didn't worry instead about how to accommodate parasynthetic derivatives without letting "three-toe" surface freely as an unbound noun.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    @ RP –

    I think most of the dialectal variants of pronouns go back centuries. Geordie huz does, so your Midlands uz may well do.

    Re choo, yes it seems likely our peever means dontcha, wontcha etc.

  12. Tim Silverman said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    I'm not sure the -ed suffix really attaches to nouns "without restriction". For me at least, one can be red-haired but not red-bicycled, and a hill may be wooded or pebbled but not sheeped or violeted. Not any kind of possession will do.

    [(myl) From Hesiod's Works and Days, as translated by David Tandy and Walter Neale:

    It is from works that men are many-sheeped and rich, and the man who works is much dearer to the deathless ones.

    From "Dr. Francis Lieber", The Century Magazine, 1873:

    He was once asked by a lady for a few hints about a Louise Quinze dress ; and it is a singular proof of his immense versatility, that he answered the light question with a learned treatise on powdered hair, and gave many valuable hints as to the colors which should be worn with it, winding up his note with : "I demand for my wages, to see you 'en Marquise,' and I am always yours, whether I am endusted or enbooked, or whether you are en-violeted, en-rosed, or en-pinked."

    From a review of Romance and Reality, The Westminster Review, January 1832 :

    Snow-dropped, crocused, and violeted spring, in the country, was beginning to consider about making her will, and leaving her legacies of full-blown flowers and green fruit to summer, when a letter from town arrived, franked by Montague Delawar, M.P.


  13. richard said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

    @Tim, I don't see any reason to reject a phrase like "the well sheeped hill / bleated its discontent," at least not on grammatical grounds. I would tend to avoid "violeted," for much the same reason I once advised a budding poet to look for another word when he described a television screen as "sheeny," but again I see nothing grammatically wrong with it.

    I note that the Urban Dictionary has several definitions for "sheeped" that are, hmm, more metaphorical:

  14. Spell Me Jeff said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

    Tim, I suspect your reaction combines your own sense of euphony and un-familiarity. If our collective sense of euphony determined that sheeped was okay, okay it would be, and the next generation wouldn't even notice the oddity.

    I suspect your distinctions have to do with specificity and/or proximity. But consider some counter-examples:

    red-broomed but not red-bicycled ; the proximity seems about the same
    jonquilled but not violeted ; the specificity seems exact.

    That said, I'm serious about euphony. There are things we just won't say because they sound "awkward" in ways that a phonologist can describe even though a layperson cannot. *violeted is just nasty, to me at least. There is also context. Written *violeted seems to call for hyper articulation of the 3rd syllable, fronting of the schwa in the 4th, and fronting of (what I pronounce as) the glottal stop represented by the "t," so the whole thing becomes a minimal pair with "violated." In effect, it's a whole new word. Ecch. If I learned it only by hearing it as normally-pronounced "violet" with a past marker tacked on, it might not sound so awful.

    Sheeped? Why not?

  15. Spell Me Jeff said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    I suppose I should have added that I would find the following completely unexceptional:

    The red-broomed custodian

    The jonquilled hillside

  16. The Ridger said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    And we do say "moneyed" but I expect he objects to that as well.

  17. John said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 6:03 pm

    Does anybody have any idea if the (Proto-?)Germanic suffix "-ôđjo-" in the OED quote could be related to the Latin suffix "-utus," which also forms adjectives from nouns with a similar semantic transformation? (Hence "X-udo" in modern Spanish and Portuguese, meaning "having lots of / a big X".)

  18. George Amis said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

    Someone has to mention A. E. Housman's great "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy":

    CHORUS: O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
    Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
    Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
    To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
    My object in inquiring is to know.
    But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
    And do not understand a word I say,
    Then wave your hand, to signify as much.
    . . . although I suppose that it's funnier if you've ever tried to read Greek tragedy in Greek.

  19. Alex said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

    You may be interested to know that the BBC recently had a review done of its science coverage, with various recommendations including the appointment of a science editor for BBC News. However, I can see no mention of linguistics:

  20. bloix said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

    "The object is to hit the bicycled man and send him as far as possible."

    "Philadelphia ranks among the most bicycled cities in the country,"

  21. Steve Morrison said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

    And I believe that Davy first called it 'alumium'

    According to Michael Quinion, he did indeed first call it "alumium", then "aluminum" and finally "aluminium". I think we know who to blame for this bit of terminological confusion.

  22. AJD said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 10:00 pm


    I don't think there is a Latin suffix -utus with that meaning. I'm pretty sure the *-utus that Romance languages show in words like that is from overgeneralizing the ending of the Latin words locutus 'having spoken' and secutus 'having followed', and the u in those is an overgeneralization from the u in the present-tense stems loqu- and sequ-.

  23. John M said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

    I don't see what these British people are going on about. I mean, last spring I was seeing my kid sister and her kid was going on about like, how he hat got to have new trainers for his gym kit, and I couldn't get why he needed new endurance coaches to build a model of his school's sports facilities, but no, that's not what he meant. So what's wrong with good old tennis shoes? Can't we just wear gym clothes or suit anymore?

    Why do these people always have to invent new words for stuff anyway? I mean, like, Dr. Johnson said, "The R is always pronounced in English," but do them buggers listen? No. They got to go and invent new ways a' talkin', don't they? Just like Sam Johnson, don't know nothin' 'bout nothin'.

    An' they think they gots gripes.

    Aw well, if it wasn't for the internet, we probably would have developed separate languages even more quickly, but we've become more of a single community than we've been for two hundred years, and that might not be a bad thing, even if it does lead to lots a' whinging.

  24. slobone said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 12:15 am

    As for "talented", the earliest example I can find through Google Books is in a Quaker tract, published in Philadelphia in 1815: "At this day, there are bright talented men in the society, and I have no doubt the head of the church has often awakened their souls…" etc etc. But I gave up after about half an hour, there might be some earlier ones.

  25. slobone said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 12:29 am

    PS there is an earlier usage of "talented", where it is more a verb form than an adjective. For example I found a quotation attributed to Dr. Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said of somebody "He was talented but as a common person…" This would have to be before 1633. There are similar examples from around the same time.

  26. Jon said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 2:31 am

    Dan, it is the other way round, to make a decent tongue-twister:

    Are you copper-bottoming those saucepans, my good man?
    No, m'm, I'm aluminiuming 'em, m'm.

  27. Word snobs – more irritating than jargon, Americanisms and teen-speak | Flip Chart Fairy Tales said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 3:36 am

    […] widely used in America. These two posts from linguistics professor Mark Liberman explain just how silly the whole thing is. This Economist piece puts the BBC's ranting readers in their place. […]

  28. Alen Mathewson said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 7:49 am

    This would be the same Daily Mail to which Simon Heffer (posts passim) regularly contributes?

  29. RP said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 9:07 am

    Alen, the short answer is "yes". The longer answer would be that at least one of these Engel pieces was published in The Mail On Sunday, which strictly speaking is a separate newspaper (different title, different editor, some different staff). However, they share a website (and the site does not even make it clear which paper pieces were published in) and are owned and published by the same proprietor. They also share the same mix of social conservatism, populism and celebrity gossip.

  30. Ian Preston said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    If there are relevant uses of talented is the sense of "endowed with the coins known as 'talents'", neither the OED nor I have been able to find them.

    From the Rev W. Beloe's 1795 translation of the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius

    Alas! That I should marry Crobule, a ten-talented woman of a cubit's stature

    The original, by the way, itself drawing on a fragment from a lost play of Menander, is hereOimoi Krobylen labein em'ei kai deka talanta . . . ten rhin'echousin pecheos — which I believe has more to say about the length of Crobule's nose than the Rev Beloe's translation captures, but the sense of talented must have to do, I think, with the coins.

  31. maidhc said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 11:27 pm

    I suppose if I am going to de-Americanise myself, I will have to stop talking about the "landed gentry". Right-o, "nobs" and "toffs" it is from here on.

  32. Alen Mathewson said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 11:28 am

    RP 'social conservatism'? These papers found nice things to say about Adolf Hitler in the 30s.

  33. RP said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

    I realise that.

  34. Punjabi immersion, Nigerian pidgin radio, and Annoying “Americanisms” | the world in words said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 9:27 am

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