Ask Language Log: Why don't Americans say "mate"?

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Reader AW asks:

What difference is there, if any, between the words "mate" and "friend"? I once had a British friend insist to me that he doesn't have mates, but that he has friends. My own feeling about the word "mate" is that it connotes a relationship that at least resembles one you have with a schoolmate — that is, a kind of collegial friend who's part of your cohort, whatever that may be, and who you've come up with. Why don't Americans say "mate"? Did we break from that culture of fraternal camaraderie? And for that matter, is there a difference between the British "mate" and the Australian "mate"?

AW is asking three different questions: (1) What's the difference (in British or Australian English) between mate and friend? (2) Why don't Americans use mate in the way that Brits and Aussies do? (3) Are the British and Australian versions different? In this post, I'm going to try to answer only question (2).

The OED says that the relevant senses of mate come from "Middle Low German māt comrade", and suggests that we "Compare early modern Dutch maat (1546), maet (1573) friend, partner".

The OED traces the English sense "A companion, fellow, comrade, friend; a fellow worker or business partner" back to 1380, and notes that this is "Freq. as the second element in compounds, as bed-, flat-mate, etc. (in which it is generally less colloq. than when standing alone)".

The sense glossed as "colloq. Used as a form of address to a person, esp. a man, regarded as an equal" is traced back to the 16th century:

c1500 Pilgrims Sea-voyage 14 in F. J. Furnivall Stations of Rome (1867) 37  ‘What, howe! mate, thow stondyst to ny, Thy felow may nat hale the by;’ Thus they begyn to crake.
c1550 Complaynt Scotl. (1979) vi. 32   The master cryit on the rudir man, mait keip ful and by, a luf.
1582 R. Stanyhurst tr. Virgil First Foure Bookes Æneis iii. 53   My maats skum the sea froth there in oars strong cherelye dipping.
1612 B. Jonson Alchemist ii. vi. sig. F2,   How now! What Mates? What Baiards ha'we here?
1637 T. Heywood Dial. i, in Wks. (1874) VI. 96   My Mate (It is a word That Sailors interchangeably afford To one another) speake.

But this sub-entry carries the note "Not used in N. Amer.".

This is mysterious and surprising, in my opinion. My impression is that most lexical differences between regional varieties of English are the result of geographically localized innovations, rather than geographically localized losses.

One clue here may be that all of the pre-19th-century citations (those listed above) occur in a nautical context. (This makes sense, if the word came from or was influenced by Dutch.) So perhaps the generalization to relationships on land was an innovation that took place (or at least spread) in the UK after most North Americans had already left.

As support for this view, note that the entry for mate in the "revised, corrected and enlarged" 1827 edition of Johnson's dictionary focuses on the sexual and nautical senses (though it does cite "a companion, male or female", along with the here-irrelevant chess -derived usage):

The OED develops the "second in subordination in a ship" sense from a more general "helper" or "assistant" sense:

"A helper for a more skilled worker; a deputy or assistant";
"An assistant to a particular functionary on a ship, esp. (now hist.) to a warrant officer in the navy. Now chiefly as the second element in genitive compounds, as boatswain's, cook's, gunner's, steward's mate, etc.";
"The rank of officer immediately subordinate to the master, divided according to seniority into first mate, second mate, third (etc.) mate";

The idea of mate as "one of a pair" has of course also developed into various sexual senses, such as "A partner in marriage; a husband or wife. Later usually: a person regarded as a suitable marital partner." This usage also goes back to the 16th century.

But the OED adds a geographically relevant note to this sense: "Also (now chiefly N. Amer.): a lover." Perhaps the "colloquial form of address to a male equal" sense (if it really existed outside the context of shipboard life) and the "lover" sense were in more tension than multiple uses usually are, and different regions resolved this tension differently?

Other common derived senses appear to be geographically undifferentiated, especially "Either of a mating pair of birds or other animals"; "Either of a matched pair of things; a counterpart".

So my tentative theory would be that as of 1800 or so, the sexual and nautical senses dominated usage on both sides of the Atlantic; and that the "companion" usage spread from shipboard to more general colloquial use, outside of North America, at some later time.

If we look for uses of the word "mate" in American sources during the first half of the 19th century, nearly all of the non-compounded examples are either the sexual or the nautical sense. A few from COHA:

For beaux and light coquettes, by fate Were each design'd the other's mate,
And if all's at sixes and sevens at home, and my mate's voice and face grow sharp and angry,
her heart fluttered and struggled as an imprisoned bird when her mate approaches her cage
The Captain and mate took the strong box to themselves
a wicked and turbulent wretch, whom they shipped in the West Indies as mate,
About ten, the mate came down, and told us the cable had parted

When I look at uses of the same word in (say) the London Times during the same period, I find a similar pattern, somewhat more tilted towards the nautical uses.

This still leaves open the question of when and how the modern "pal" usage started. I don't find it, for example, in Dickens' portrayal of English colloquial speech.  He does show Daniel Peggotty in David Copperfield using the vocative plural "mates", e.g.

"Well, mates," said Mr. Peggotty, taking his seat, "and how are you?"

But Daniel is a fisherman. The earliest non-nautical vocative example that I've been able to find is in Thomas Hardy's 1874 Far from the Madding Crowd:

The noise approached, came close, and a figure was apparently on the point of gliding past her when something tugged at her skirt and pinned it forcibly to the ground. The instantaneous check nearly threw Bathsheba off her balance. In recovering she struck against warm clothes and buttons.

"A rum start, upon my soul!" said a masculine voice, a foot or so above her head. "Have I hurt you, mate?"

(This encounter takes place in the dark, so the speaker — an army sergeant — is unaware of the sex of his addressee.) The earliest non-nautical non-vocative example I've found is from RIchard Jeffries' 1885 After London, Or, Wild England:

He got up, and returning slowly towards the camp, passed on his way the drinking-place, where a groom was watering some horses. The man called to him to help hold a spirited charger, and Felix mechanically did as he was asked. The fellow's mates had left him to do their work, and there were too many horses for him to manage.

It may be significant that both of these examples are in a military context. But perhaps some reader will be able to point us to a more complete history.


  1. joanne salton said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 8:14 am

    "He's a buddy" would be about the same in the US I should have thought (i.e no cultural difference) – you can only say it if the relationship is informal, and it suggests informal warmth/silliness.

  2. Colin Reid said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 8:20 am

    As a British English speaker, I find it jarring when Americans use 'mate' to refer to a lover. I would only use this word in a sexual sense when talking about animals (whether as a noun or as a verb), so using it for people seems insulting at best – like talking about a person's 'paws' or 'snout'.

    'Mate' seems to be used in the UK much as 'bud(dy)' or 'pal' is used in the US (including in 'look mate…' as an expression of impatience). Sometimes the word 'friend' is avoided simply because it is too formal, and the speaker wants to convey informality.

  3. Klaus Beutelspacher said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    I'd say, because Americans have "dude". And "pal" of course, as Colin mentioned. And they use "you guys" as a personal pronoun. But these are all different from "mate" I guess, maybe Americans look at each other in a different way compared to, well..

    What British anyway? I'd doubt that, in spite of more recent trends towards linguistic uniformity, "mate" is used in the same way throughout all regions and classes in Britain. A quote (from memory) brought to us from Bristol by Skins (1st season I think)

    Abigail is trying to hit on Tony, the smart middle class boy.
    Abigail: You can come to my hice.
    Tony: Come to your what?
    Abigail: Yeah, you can come to my hice and meet my frands!
    Tony: Meet your WHAT?

    Abigail doesn't have mates.

  4. ENKI-][ said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 8:44 am

    As an american, I always kind of found the british/australian usage strange because of the predominance of the sexual meaning here and the ambiguity it implies. Of course, if the sexual meaning is used in zoological contexts elsewhere, then it's only natural that it could be applied to humans in that sense.

  5. John said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    What about helpmeet? To my mind this is an archaic term used for one's spouse, and I've always assumed it was another form of "mate".

    I don't hear "mate" used to refer to one's spouse very often and to my ear it's a bit crude, more functional than emotional, always with a background of reproductive activity.

    Nautically of course we have the pirate's "matey" and all the ship roles already mentioned. Otherwise it's very common in compounds: room-, office-, house-, and even is fairly active in this role for the formation of new (perhaps nonce) terms.

  6. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:07 am

    How does the mate as suffix or part of compound nouns fit in here? Shipmate, roommate, officemate, housemate, teammate, etc… That's a very productive morpheme in American English.

    [(myl) The degree of productivity and overall frequency of use seems similar on both sides of the Atlantic. And as the OED entry points out, these -mate compounds are part of the formal language, while the "friend" uses in Britain and Australia are colloquial.]

  7. Eric P Smith said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:07 am

    Here in the UK, I don’t think that “mate” necessarily even implies “friend”. We use it as a neutral form of address even to a stranger. We ask, “Have you got the time, mate?” where 70 years ago we should have used “Sir”.

  8. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    I think that "helpmeet" is a misconstruction from the Authorized Version's Genesis. God created Eve "an help meet for him" (Adam", a helper suitable for him.

  9. gnaddrig said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    I guess the nautical context does account for much of the differences in usage of the word mate. When the Royal Navy blockaded most of Europe during the Napoleonic wars, a rather large proportion of the able-bodied men in Britain were pressed into service as sailors (according to Wikipedia, 184,899 sailors were conscripted during the Seven Years War between 1755 and 1763, so I would expect the numbers to be much higher during the Napoleonic wars).

    Probably everyone in Great Britain between the late 1790s and 1815 knew someone who had served in the Navy. Even though many of these sailors died in the war, enough have come back and will probably have continued to use the language they had gotten used to in the Navy. I remember using army slang at least occasionally even years after leaving the Bundeswehr (where I did 15 months of National Service as was the norm in Germany at the time).

  10. Colin Reid said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    @Klaus: By the looks of it, Abigail is a caricature of a 'rah' or 'Sloane ranger' (probably someone who isn't from that ultra-privileged background, but wishes she were). I wouldn't assume her speech is typical of anyone in real life (even the real Sloanes, who have their own slang that would cause genuine incomprehension).

    'Mate' is very widely understood in Britain, even if it isn't universally used. To me it doesn't have any strong race, region or class connotations, at least if it's used by a young male. (It's certainly not an exclusively male term, but usage by women is maybe not quite as widespread.)

  11. Acilius said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    I wonder if there's a comparison to be made between the US and UK uses of "mate" and "partner." There are still people here and there in the States who address people as "partner," as if they were cowboys in old movies, while I've never known an American to address another as "mate" without putting on a comically exaggerated British or Australian accent.

  12. h. s. gudnason said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:52 am

    I was coincidentally listening to some Gilbert and Sullivan over the weekend, and was struck by the use of "mate" as a verb, which to my American ears sounds rather clinical. I searched for the word in a collection of librettos and found the following occurrences between 1877 and 1896:

    All the village now have mated, (Sorcerer)
    A shepherd lad is no fit helpmate for a Ward of Chancery. (Iolanthe)
    They're men with whom you give each other mate, (Princess Ida) (This one is a pun.)
    At school alarmed her mates because she called /A buttercup "ranunculus bulbosus"? (Princess Ida)
    And therefore we propose/To let impartial Fate/Select for us a mate! (Gondoliers)
    To Gianetta I was mated;/I can prove it in a trice (Gondoliers)
    Yes, Ludwig and his Julia are mated! (Grand Duke)

    Only the second Ida use falls into the "friend" context discussed here; the rest are all marital (except for the Ida chess pun), though none truly imply consummation. I've omitted frequent nautical uses in Pinafore, Pirates, and Ruddigore.

  13. Marc Leavitt said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    I've found that "mate" as used in England tends to correspond to "guy, fella, buddy," etc., when used in casual conversation between men. It takes on more of the concept of friend when referring in the third person to "my mate," or "mates" at the pub. I do recall reading that there was quite a dustup in Canberra when a number of people objected to the use of "mate" in addressing members of parliament. I've never heard it used in the vocative or other ways in the US – only in compounds, and then infrequently, and of course, in the biological sense.

  14. garicgymro said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    @Colin: you say that the word "doesn't have any strong race, region or class connotations". I'm not so sure. Certainly I'm not aware of any race connotations, but I think it does have region and class connotations. It's rather less common in Scotland, for example (where "pal" does the same job), and I suspect that many Scots would see "mate" as a bit English (I may be wrong about that — and if I'm right, the situation may well be changing anyway).

    And I think class plays a very big part: It seems pretty clear to me that "mate" as a term of address to a stranger becomes more widespread the lower down the class scale you go, to the extent that posher people can have a hard time pulling it off. There's a hint of that here:

  15. Ken Brown said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    @Eric P Smith "We ask, “Have you got the time, mate?” where 70 years ago we should have used “Sir”"

    Yes. That's it exactly. Its an informal address between male equals. At least it is here in the South-East of England. It is completely part of my use vocabulary, though not in all circumstances – I would use it to almost anyone in the crowd at a local football match (Millwall, for context), I would us it to many people in the local pub, I would often use it in the street near where I live (Lewisham, SE London), but I would be less likekly to use it at church, or at work (Birkbeck College, London University). I can remember feeling good the first time my Dad used the word abut me in somome else's presence, sometime in my teens – it was a sigh of growing up of being accepted. But it signifies equality, not intimacy.

    There are other words used in similar context. "Geezer" works sometimes – though more likely "Geez". Its not very common but it is used and imples mild respect. "Fella" (which I am tempted to spell "Feller" but rhotic speakers would read it wrong.) is rarer and perhaps less respectful. "Bruv" (i.e. "brother") is used as well – its even more informal and perhaps mildy intimate – I've only heard it in the area I live in now, I don't know if that is because its local, or recent. (It might also have originated in black English but if it did its used more widely now) The equivalent word used to a woman might be "love" or "darling" – though they are rarer.

    There are also derogatory terms of address. If you were angry you could try to attract someone's attention by calling them someone "prat" or "wanker" or "cunt" – the last would of course be fighting talk (and almost only used about or to a man).

    I don't know but I suspect that "mate" was a south-eastern term till recently and that other regions had other words. Though come to think of it "marra" in the north east sounds as if it is a variant of "mate".

    British English has a huge variety of these anonymous terms of address. They seem to be very localised. When I was a student in the north-east of England both sexes were routinely called "duck" or "ducks" by older women – that might happen in the south of England but it would be a bit of a put down. The most notorious example is surely "my lover" in Bristol, which can, so we are told, be used by other sex, to either sex, with no implication of a close personal relationship.

  16. Robert Coren said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    @Eric P Smith: Americans are likely to use "pal" in exactly the same way when addressing a stranger.

    @h. s. gudnason: Note that the last three G&S citations are all in service of the rhyme.

  17. Ross Presser said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    In modern American, the words "dude" and "bro" are common, with "homes" (from homeboy) being a bit more out there. A few decades ago you'd hear "man". Before that, "pal" or "friend", or even "brother" ("Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?"). Nothing seems to have the lasting power of the non-American "mate" though.

  18. John Walden said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    "Mateship" is an important part of Australian culture. To get some idea, here's what the Aussie Government has to say about it:

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 11:58 am

    I definitely agree with the commenters who have compared Brit/Aus mate to Am buddy. I once had an American friend who insisted, rather like Reader AW's British friend, that he didn't have "buddies", only "friends". I also think it's pretty clear that there are class connotations to buddy in this sense, and that they're comparable to those of mate.

    All of what I just said is meant to apply particularly to the ordinary-noun use of these terms, not necessarily to the terms of direct address, though there's certainly a lot of overlap.

  20. Bruce said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    I had a lot of difficulty saying 'mate' after moving from Canada to the UK five years ago; it just seemed too copulatory, and I was aware I was pronouncing it differently from everyone else.

    I finally learned that it helps if I don't pronounce the "t". Then in my head, just a funny British sound that indicates informal relaxation, rather than animal sex. Useful for apologizing to someone you just bumped into in the pub and indicating a placatory attitude: "Sorry, mae".

    (I would more naturally say 'Sorry, dude' or 'Sorry, man')

  21. bric said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    In England at least 'mate' is definitely a class word (non-U if you like); from upper to lower it would be supercilious, from lower to upper presumptuous (and deliberately so). 'Look here matey . . . ' is spoiling for a fight. I don't believe I have ever used it as a noun: maybe it's just me.

  22. Richard said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    Some years ago I read an article (don’t remember where) that described “buddy,” “pal,” “Mac,” and “friend” as “the contemptuous familiar,” because when used in the vocative in the United States, they are often less than respectful. (I think this is quite different from the more egalitarian “mate” in England or Australia.) The author lamented that all of these usages are less common than they once were. Certainly they’re popular in old movies!

  23. Colin Reid said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    @garicgymro: It may not literally cover the whole UK, but it's not a characteristically regional expression like 'duck' or 'jimmy'.

    As for the class connotations, I think it's more a matter of register – middle-class people say 'mate' in more casual contexts, but we expect them to be more formal when talking to a stranger, especially if they are above student age.

  24. GeorgeW said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

    @Richard: I (So. AmE) agree that vocative 'buddy,' 'pal,' and 'friend' are contemptuous. "Hey buddy" would, I think, be very contentious or disdainful. To a stranger, I would say "excuse me sir or ma'am."

    In other contexts, I think 'buddy' and particularly 'pal' sound a bit dated. "He's my pal" sounds so 1930s or 40s to me. I would use 'friend' today.

  25. Mr Punch said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

    The adjective "matey" I think isolates the informality of the non-US usage well. "Mate" has the further sense, at least in the US, as a second unit of a pair ("Here's one sock – where's the mate?") related to the "sexual" sense.

    In the nautical usage, "mate" appears to have two conflicting meanings. It implies equality, yet it is also a rank or office – a sailor's "mate" is his equal, while a captain's "mate" is below him (but above the sailors). Good luck sorting that out.

  26. Elessar said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

    Personally I use "mate" for coupling/relationships — not to convey any sexual/childrearing obligation, but instead to convey the bond. My wife and I use it for each other and it's fine.

  27. Lauren said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

    To try and tease out the difference between British and Australian uses of the word "mate," I agree with John Walden above that Australians have taken that word, and its implications, as a foundation for various elements of the Australian identity (equality, helping out your fellow Australian. I would say that increasingly woman are using the word "mate" – but a smaller subset than the male population, and to a smaller subset of people. It's still not particularly common for women to refer to each other as "mate," but there is a small social sub-set for whom it is acceptable.

    In terms of pronunciation, I would say that Australians are much more likely to extend the vowel sound for emphasis. Having found this blog it appears that at least some Brits agree with me that this is a particularly Australian thing:

  28. peter said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

    The word "mate" featured prominently in two court cases in Australia in 1985-86, in which a High Court Judge, Justice Lionel Murphy, was acquitted of perverting the course of justice by intervening inappropriately in a legal case involving a friend by allegedly asking another judge, "How's my little mate?". Part of Murphy's defence was that he never used this word in everyday speech.

  29. JMM said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    IDk. Having spent over half a century on this planet, and all but about twenty-three years of that in North America (not much of a world traveler, not by choice), I am amazed to discover that people here use 'mate' to refer to spouses and lovers. We do?? They do?

    Maybe on comedy club stages; maybe when being facetiously clinical, but when else? And even if clearly facetious, it would be followed by slamming doors later that evening if overheard by the person being discussed. God, what an insult!!

    Did I miss a memo? I really thought my exposure to current expressions was pretty good for an old git. But I missed this one.

  30. JMM said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

    That should have said, "twenty-three" months in the first line. I was kinda startled.

  31. lynneguist said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

    I'd really recommend Anna Wierzbicka's work on words for 'friend' cross-culturally, in her _Understanding Cultures through their Key Words_ (was surprised no one had mentioned it yet!). While her Natural Semantic Metalanguage Theory isn't everyone's cup of tea, her observations about language and culture are always interesting. As an immigrant to Australia, 'mateship' is one of the things that's caught her interest.

  32. Gordon Campbell said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

    In Tasmania, you’ll sometimes hear men address each other as ‘cock’, with a similar connotation to ‘mate’. I think it’s a British regional use that’s been preserved there but largely lost in Britain.

  33. Rose said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

    @Gordon, I haven't heard 'cock' used like that in mainland Australia, but I did know plenty of people who used 'cunt' in the same way – a standard greeting amongst a particular group of adolescents was 'G'day cunt' or 'How ya going, cunt?'. Used in this way, it had all the positive connotations of 'mate'. It was only used by males, when addressing males – once, a male accidentally said 'G'day cunt' to me (a female), and was immediately embarrassed.

  34. Gordon Campbell said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 12:54 am

    @Rose. I guess that's similar to the way 'bastard' etc. can be affectionate–but taken one step further. 'Cock' in Tasmania is like rooster rather than penis (similar to 'hen' in Scotland and elsewhere). This use of 'cock' must be have been reasonably well known in the UK when this postcard was made (1950s):

  35. Julian Bradfield said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 4:26 am

    I agree with those who say the major difference in BE is class. Upper and middle-class people don't have "mates" (in the friend sense), except perhaps for young men trying to downgrade themselves for sociopolitical purposes. I had a firmly mid-middle-class upbringing, and I can't possibly call anyone "mate" with a straight face. (I sometimes try,when I think my usual form of address to an unknown male – "sir" – is more likely to get me punched than "mate".)
    If I refer to "my mates", it's always tongue-in-cheek, and I think the same is true of almost everybody I know of middle/upper-class origins.

  36. Jason Stokes said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 5:05 am

    Anna Wierzbicka has written a few things about the semantics of "mate" in her Cross-Cultural Pragmatics" and a few journal articles.

    It seems plausible that the reason for its prominence as the standard form of address in Australian English is because Australians were in need of a word with strongly egalitarian and plain-spoken, working class implications. "Comrade" doesn't cut the mustard, so "mate" it is. (In OzEnglish "mate" is almost completey gender-neutral, BTW).

  37. Bathrobe said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 5:58 am

    Well, 'mate' in Australia can also be used in a threatening way. For example, I can remember my brothers on odd occasions inadvertently snapping at my mother with expressions like 'xxx, mate!' The added 'mate' was carried over from playground usage, where it had distinctly aggressive and defiant overtones, possibly as the prelude to a fight. My mother's response was always: "I'm not one of your mates, I'm your mother".

  38. the other Mark P said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 6:08 am

    The use in New Zealand:

  39. James Wimberley said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 6:30 am

    On mate as verb: only three of h.e. gudnason's examples from Gilbert and Sullivan re verbs, and all are sexual. I suggest that's universal. The sexual sense has led to the engineering one; but you never hear say "they mated up " say to denote the formation of a friendship.

    Is it standard that verbing is selective, and does not ordinarily extend to all the meanings of the relevant noun?

  40. Harry Campbell said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 7:39 am

    One thing that I think may have grown in the UK since I was a child is the use of mate to address intimates, as opposed to a stranger with (as others have pointed out) often an unfriendly tone. I was in my twenties when I started hearing friends use it to each other. Since then it has started to be possible to use it to females. Scotland tends to prefer "pal" on the whole.

    Re cunt as a term of friendly address, it's also possible in Welsh: cont.

  41. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    eh dinny ken, pal.

  42. Ned Danison said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    Following Ross Presser at about 10:00 and Richard at about 1:00 (& probably others I missed), it seems that American English needs a "mate" and is continually picking up and dropping off substitutes: "bro" seems popular now, then there's "pal", "buddy", "blood", "homie", "my troops" "my boys", etc.

    Do you think the ever-changing terms says something about relationships between American males? (I see others have touched on this question.) Of course, terms change over time, but "mate" seems to have staying power, while the American counterparts don't.

  43. Robert Coren said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 11:37 am

    @James Wimberley: Well, when I say that I'm going to mate my socks after taking them out of the dryer, I sure don't mean anything sexual by it.

  44. m.m. said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    Ross Presser said,
    August 23, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    In modern American, the words "dude" and "bro" are common, with "homes" (from homeboy) being a bit more out there. A few decades ago you'd hear "man". Before that, "pal" or "friend", or even "brother" ("Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?"). Nothing seems to have the lasting power of the non-American "mate" though.

    Bruce said,
    August 23, 2011 @ 12:29 pm
    I finally learned that it helps if I don't pronounce the "t". Then in my head, just a funny British sound that indicates informal relaxation, rather than animal sex. Useful for apologizing to someone you just bumped into in the pub and indicating a placatory attitude: "Sorry, mae".

    (I would more naturally say 'Sorry, dude' or 'Sorry, man')

    Yeah, contemporary usage would generally be "dude" followed by "man". "bro"/esp "brah" usage is seemingly more reserved to certain social groups eg. guidos, fratboys & surfers.

    Ken Brown said,
    August 23, 2011 @ 10:33 am
    There are also derogatory terms of address. If you were angry you could try to attract someone's attention by calling them someone "prat" or "wanker" or "cunt" – the last would of course be fighting talk (and almost only used about or to a man).

    And here I thought I we were being innovative in the states when taking 'spencer pratt' of 'the hills' [in]fame[y] and calling people pratt/praat/prat as a derogatory.

  45. Chris said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    I'm a lower-middle-class AmE speaker and I'd never say "dude" to someone I didn't know; it strikes me as too informal. "Sorry, man" and "sorry, sir" would be my choices, depending on my perceptions of the status of the "bumpee"

  46. Mark F. said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 8:34 am

    Aren't there people besides me who don't have "dude" or "man", certainly not "bro", and are pretty much stuck (when addressing strangers) with mainly using no address at all? I'll use "sir"/"ma'am" if someone is looking away and I need to get their attention, but that sounds awfully formal, so usually I'll just start talking.

  47. Allison said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    "Friend" is not used vocatively in the US very often – I think I hear it most often from street evangelists and it marks them immediately for what they are.

    "Friend" is also both formally and informally when it's not vocative – babies have little friends, and I have a "Friends and Family" plan with AT&T.

    "Buddy"is probably the closest thing to mate, but as a woman, I would never use the world "buddy" vocatively, I don't have buddies, I have girlfriends, and I don't think anyone would ever try to call me "buddy" – a stranger's address on the street is usually, "Ma'am" "Miss" or "Girl" (the last one being uncommon from anyone but African American men). Would I be called "mate" in the UK or Australia if they wanted to know what time it was?

    Although, more often in the PNW, in my experience, people avoid the whole difficult question by dropping the vocative and just say "Excuse me!" or "Hey!" and just get louder when the person doesn't realize you're talking to them.

  48. David Walker said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    I'm an American, and I think of "mate" as a verb more than a noun. Even when an Australian friend says "he's my mate", I can't avoid thinking of the verb.

  49. Janice Byer said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

    "Here in the UK, I don’t think that 'mate' necessarily even implies 'friend'. We use it as a neutral form of address even to a stranger. We ask, “Have you got the time, mate?” where 70 years ago we should have used 'Sir'.”

    My sense is that "mate" attached to a request of a stranger serves precisely to imply "friend". For it to have replaced "sir" as verbal signal intended to assure a stranger upon approach is a tribute, I think, to an egalitarian spirit.

  50. Lizzie D said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    I seem to remember "Ay oop, cock" as an informal form of "good morning" in the Lancashire of my youth. hey, mate as a vocative only used by young men, but Ahm meetin oop wi me mates used by both sexes.

  51. Nathan McCoy said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

    The only American word that strikes me as being in the same register and encompassing the same functionality as BrE/AuE "mate" seems to be "bro", and that's constrained (as noted above) to certain social groups, none of which I'm a part of, so I may be ill-informed on the matter.

  52. Janice Byer said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

    David Walker, my fellow American, your sense of "mate" is mine. Mate is what animals do, including us humans, for which we have many euphemisms, none of which should be used when asking for the time.

  53. pj said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 5:15 am

    Read this at the time of posting but didn't have time to comment and now I'm very late to the party, but anyway, here's more anecdata towards questions (1) and (3):

    I'm from south-east England, in my 30s and female, and I don't have 'mate' for 'friend' in describing people's relationships. My partner (male, 30s, working-class South London background), to whom I put the question of 'mates' versus 'friends', reported that he, like AW's friend, would make the distinction; that mates are people you'd 'go out and get drunk and do silly things with', typically people you've rubbed along with on a daily basis (school-, university- or work-fellows), and that 'People I know through you would be friends.'

    I'm in a similar boat to Julian Bradfield: I occasionally the vocative to (male) strangers (probably most typically in the phrase, 'Cheers, mate' – 'thanks'), but usually with a bit of a 'what the hell was that?' cringe to myself afterwards, because it feels like it doesn't quite belong to me, like I'm somehow affecting, I don't know, a false 'working-classness'. I didn't grow up using it or hearing it from people around me, in any case.
    You do hear 'mate' for women too, though it's rare enough to stick in my mind when someone uses it to me. Three people that I can think of call me 'mate': my partner's 65-year-old Londoner father (who may well have crossed paths with Ken Brown at a Millwall match), a male colleague in his 50s from the south-west of England, and a local friend originally from North Wales in his 30s. All of these are fine by me; for any of them to call me 'love' or 'darling', on the other hand, would be mightily irritating, patronising and inappropriate.

    My partner volunteered an alternative male-male (possibly London-specific?) vocative of which I was previously wholly unaware: 'John'. To my delighted and faintly incredulous demand for examples, he offered the scenario of getting in someone's way in a pub toilet: 'Sorry, John,' or, 'When you go to the tip [municipal recycling/garbage site, on the assumption that's not international] with something, you shout to the bloke, "Oi, John, where do you want this?"'

  54. Jo S. said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 9:19 am

    @Marc Leavitt At my church in Cardiff, we had a children's song that originally referred to God and Jesus in separate instances as "my friend" and as "my mate". Our former curate changed the words so that Jesus is still a friend but God is not a mate; I can only assume that the sentiment was objectionable because she felt that "mate" implies equality or disrespect. (Or maybe Jesus can be a mate but not God? A theological rather than semantic issue?) The bloke who wrote the song, though, was obviously thinking of it in that affectionate third person usage.

  55. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    […] Language Log, Mark Liberman addressed why Americans don’t say “mate”; Geoff Nunberg gave Kathleen Parker at The Washington Post a dressing down for her implication that […]

  56. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    "john" reminds me of something that happened in Austrian German. When Austria had capitulated to Napoleon, the pubs were frequented by French soldiers who picked up that the waiters were generically known as "Johann", and started calling them "Jean". This was re-austriacized as »Schani« and now every group of streetside tables of a restaurant or cafe is called a »Schanigarten«.

    I used to know a down-and-out character in Scotland who called everyone either Bruce or Brenda. I suppose it was his way of not getting too personal with the people he was begging off.

  57. Warsaw Will said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    I think the interesting thing about the British use of 'mate' to greet people is how over the last twenty years or so, it has become relatively classless. I agree with those who are uncomfortable using it, but I'm of an older generation, and an RP speaker. The same thing doesn't seem to hold for my younger friends with a middle class background and higher education, and it seems to me it is the quintessential word in Estuary English. Just think Jamie Oliver. But I doubt his parents (RP) would use it.

  58. Zythophile said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

    I would entirely expect the man behind the counter at my local hardware shop in London, when he had dealt with the person in front of me, to turn to me and, wishing to find out what my particular need was, say "Yes, mate?" But I wouldn't use it myself, because I'm too far from my working-class roots.

  59. Andy Holyer said,

    September 11, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

    As a native UK english speaker – I would use it one-to-one but only in a working class context – probably not at work, for example.
    It also sounds typically Australian to me. Historical note: My great-grandfather emigrated to Australia, and then joined an expedition from Australia to establish "Australia's only colony", New Australia in what is now Paraguay. Citizenship in the colony was apparently referred to as "Mateship". My G. Grandfather returned to England on losing his mateship early in the 20th century. Apparently he always voted conservative from then on, saying that he had seen socialism, and had seen that it didn't work.

  60. Andy said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 11:39 am

    As an American, Mate has a very strong connection to reproduction and breeding pairs. Using the word to describe any kind of same-gender relationship hits a mental roadblock and with different-gender relationships immediately adds in a sexual nature with intent to have or already have children. A guy's "best mate" conjures up a polygamist and announcing his favorite woman. A "best friend" is not a "best mate" by any reasonable stretch of the imagination. Even a "best friend with benefits" is not a mate as you would not expect children.


  61. Lyvara Spark said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

    I can't belive americans actully use "mate" as some sorta sex term! Thats sick! YUCK! I read someones comment and it said that some women in GB call young uns "duck" or "ducks", my best mate's mum calls everyone "duck". Also it ain't just men who say "mate". I'm actully welsh, but I live right next to the border so I'm not a welsh speaker and I don't have a welsh accent. Also alot of my family are english. A "cock" is a english name for "rooster"! I h8 american vocab! It can be annoying!
    Cya later aligators!

  62. Britgirl said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 7:29 am

    For me, as a British woman, a mate is someone I spend time with, but would not stay in touch with if I moved jobs or house, i.e. away from the setting I usually see them in. We may have very different values but they are fun to be around.

    A friend, however, is someone I genuinely like and stay in touch with even if I don't see them very often.

    A good friend would be someone I can rely on when things get tough. We share common values.

  63. Louise said,

    February 22, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

    I'm confused, I'm new in the UK and in a rather new relationship with an young-ish Englishman, and from time to time he calls me 'mate'. It really throws me off and I start to think maybe the relationship is purely one-sided! As it is in it's delicate early stages am I to think that this man is trying to send me the message that the 'relationship' is not going to progress any further? I know very little about the 'class' system but I do know this man is not from either the middle or upper classes in his background. In the US, if a man referred to me as 'mate', or 'friend', we would be out watching a football game together, not holding hands! I thought men only called men mates?

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