Dialectology in 2020

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "Do you make a distinction between shallots, scallops, and scallions? If you use all three words, do they all have different meanings, all the same, or are two the same and one different?"


  1. Chris C. said,

    October 14, 2020 @ 8:41 pm

    I came here specifically in hopes of finding a discussion about this one.

  2. John Shutt said,

    October 14, 2020 @ 9:22 pm

    A starting point is the discussion at explainxkcd.

  3. Ethan Merritt said,

    October 14, 2020 @ 9:45 pm

    Re: explainxkcd #6: "should not be drank from"??

  4. Hyman Rosen said,

    October 14, 2020 @ 11:51 pm

    For the longest time, I did pronounce "genre" as "juh-neer", mostly in my head. My wife says that she thought "fiery" was pronounced "fee-ree".

  5. Andreas Johansson said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 1:06 am

    I was interested to note that someone at explainxkcd thinks that the claw hammer depicted isn't the "standard" hammer. To me, it's definitely the default sort of hammer, the one I'd draw if you asked me to draw a hammer, and there wasn't context to suggest that some other type would be more appropriate.

  6. GH said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 1:58 am

    It's probably relevant that the NYT Upshot dialect map quiz (mentioned on explainxkcd) has recently been trending again on social media.

  7. Keith said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 3:57 am

    It's quite funny.

    The tool question reminds me of a conversation with a friend of mine who's an electrician.

    Many years ago we were working together wiring a ring main in a loft conversion and had to put some wooden panels onto some framing. He asked me to pass him the screwdriver, so I reached into the toolbox and handed him what I know as a screwdriver…

    He said "no, that's a screwturner, it's for removing screws, pass me that Stanley with the steel and black rubber handle… it was a claw hammer and he used it to drive in the screws in seconds with two or three taps, rather ten seconds or so of turning them.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 4:03 am

    In Britain, a hammer is sometimes referred to as an "Irish screwdriver" …

  9. Adam F said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 4:22 am

    I didn't realize #8 was about woodlice (I'm familiar with them mainly in the UK) until I saw that in explainxkcd. I thought it was a splice of fireflies and exaggerated cicadas. I understand the prime-number cicadas are out this year in the old country.

  10. Berna said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 4:56 am

    @Philip Taylor: In Dutch we call it an English screwdriver (Engelse schroevendraaier).

  11. Mark P said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 7:51 am

    @Keith — Oh, no! That electrician is going to be cursed some day when someone actually tries to unscrew his work, because it will have been thoroughly screwed.

  12. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 8:01 am

    Ooh, "terms of art" — lemme get in on this!

    Among stagehands (the local crew who make concerts possible, and who aren't the band or the road crew), Rule #1 is: "Never show up to a job site without your tools", of which a corollary is: "If you don't have your tools, for @#$%'& sake, at least bring your crescent wrench!".

    Now, especially if your an up-rigger (one of the monkeys swinging from beam to beam on the fly floor or loading deck playing with shackles and motor chains and whatnot), you don't really want to be loaded down with a bunch of tools, so, generally, you just usually have your crescent wrench (tied to your belt so that it doesn't end up embedded in somebody's skull!). But, occasionally, you _will_ need a hammer, and sometimes those can be hard to come by, especially during a fast-moving load-in. On such occasions, you will resort to using your…


  13. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 8:03 am

    In my last post, I inadvertently typed "your" in place of "you're".

    I'll just pack up my things and leave now…

  14. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 10:49 am

    The one about misleading lines on the highway reminds me of an incident from years ago. I was driving on a winding mountain road near Jackson, California. The yellow line down the center of the road was bright and immaculate and had clearly been recently repainted. Then I came around a blind curve to find an enormous splash of yellow paint on the pavement, and the yellow line ran off the road into the weeds.

    Not a trick, I assume, but I bet those highway workers were pretty disgruntled after the fact.

  15. Trogluddite said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 10:56 am

    Another variation on "X screwdriver" = hammer; this time alluding to British North vs. South rivalry. My former workshop manager, a Londoner by upbringing, always used "Manchester screwdriver".

    Incidentally, Benjamin's post regarding the terms of art of folks who hang around up in the air reminds me of a lovely alliterative term from my caving days. A cord dangling from one's sit-harness for hauling tackle was always known as a "donkey's dick" (not to be confused with a "cow's tail", a similar, but much shorter, line used for aerial maneouvres).

    PS: Caving (BreE) = Pot-holing (Northern English dialects) = spelunking (US English). Though "pot-holing" is the term local to me, I much prefer "spelunking" for it's lovely onomatapoeic quality, so reminiscent of water confined in echoey passages (I have no idea whether the Latin source ["spelunca" = "cave"] was intended as such).

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 11:30 am

    "spelunking" I have never previously encountered, but I would imagine that it is derived from the noun speleology (/ˌspiː li ˈɒ lə dʒi/, "the study or exploration of caves").

  17. Kenny Easwaran said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 11:44 am

    In my household, shallots and scallions are both used very frequently, and unfortunately, the words are often used interchangeably. (I assume this is an example of the same word being borrowed for similar objects at slightly different times, like shirt and skirt, and ship and skiff.)

    However, we did adopt the Australian convention of distinguishing a spatula from an egg-lifter, which avoids many other American dialectal kitchen confusions.

  18. Trogluddite said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 12:05 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    Certainly that's a possibility; "speleology" is the term for the scientific study of caves on both side of the Atlantic, and I have no idea how the derived words fan out from the original Latin term (e.g. "spelunke" was a [the?] word for "cave" in Middle English, via French). "Caving"/"pot-holing" usually refers to exploring caves for sport or leisure, and I presume that this is also the case for "spelunking", which OED dates to the 1940's.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 12:30 pm

    It has only just dawned on me (after 73 – delta 73 years) that I have absolutely no idea why we Britons call it pot-holing. The "holing" is clear, but why the "pot" ? The OED beckons, but first I need to finish making some more seekh kebabs …

  20. David L said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 1:52 pm

    I did that NY Times dialect quiz recently. I suppose my vocabulary is an odd mixed of dated Britishisms, words I picked up in the midwest when I first moved to the US, and other words acquired mainly from the mid Atlantic coast where I have lived for a long time.

    Anyway, it said I was from Paterson, New Jersey. Strangely specific.

  21. David L said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 1:56 pm

    @Philip Taylor: a geological definition of pot-hole is "a deep natural underground cavity formed by the erosion of rock, especially by the action of water."

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 2:42 pm

    Thank you, David. Having now made (and eaten) my seekh kebabs, I have had time to look at the OED, and see that the etymology is as follows —

    Etymology: In sense 1 probably < pot n.2 + hole n. In sense 2 and probably also in sense 1b < pot n.1 + hole n. In sense 3 perhaps developed from one of the other senses, or perhaps formed independently.

    where "pot n.2" is "a deep hole in the bed of a river or stream; a pool in a river or stream".

    Incidentally, the OED adds (of 'pothole') "In Caving, often used spec. of a vertical or nearly vertical shaft or chimney which is open to the surface".

  23. Chas Belov said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 3:58 pm

    @Philip Taylor: Then in areas where cave-exploring is called pot-holing, what do you call the faults in the road surface which are caused by freezing and thawing, which we in the US call pot-holes?

    I'll admit to having used the handle of a screwdriver as a hammer.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 4:12 pm

    Trogluddite: I thought your screen name just referred to a desire to return to caveman technology.

    Caving is commonly used in the U.S. I've picked up an unreliable and maybe obsolete impression that some cavers/spelunkers are happy not to be highbrow/lowbrow spelunkers/cavers, and some don't care what word you use.

  25. KevinM said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 4:56 pm

    @DavidL. Fellow New Jerseyan here. Most of the quiz is superfluous for us; "mischief night" by itself is sufficient to peg us.

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 6:01 pm

    "Pot-holes", Chas. And never before had I realised that the phrase is indeed overloaded in <Br.E>.

  27. Trogluddite said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 11:22 pm

    @Philip Taylor: The last of your definitions is, indeed, the one I intended, though I would question the "In Caving" qualification…

    Ordnance Survey maps as far back as I can find (1846) marked the cave shafts of Yorkshire as "Pot Holes", long before there were fools like my younger self descending them just for, erm, "fun". Their unique hazards to people and livestock (dead sheep are the least fun part of pot-holing) must surely have required a special term for as long as people have lived and worked around them (in fact, I see that "pot hole" may have been plausible in Middle English, with "pot" roughly equivalent to modern "pit"). The area where these caves are found is very limited by geology, though, so it would almost certainly be a dialect word which has only spread relatively recently (e.g. you find pot-holes in Yorkshire and Derbyshire limestone, but not that of Wales or the Mendips).

    Your comment about "holing" also caught my eye: the usual hyphenation has always seemed a little awkward to me because it encourages the [pot]+[holing] analysis ("breaking crockery"?). The hyphen does a good job of clarifying the pronounciation by splitting the "th" digraph, hence I still use it, but it certainly doesn't make [pot-hole]+[ing] any easier to see.

    @Jerry Friedman
    The part caveman, part technophobe meaning was intentional, though I can't claim credit for inventing the alias, a university friend coined it several decades ago. Like the much-maligned Luddites, I'm not against new technology per se, it just has to pass very stringent Quality (of Life) Assurance testing (using LL easily passes this test, of course!)

    And thanks for the comment about "spelunker". Despite the Latin flavour, the possible "brow-level" connotations had eluded me – likely because of my childish joy in the sound of the word (it honestly is one of my all-time favourites!). AFAIK, the BrE terms are free of such connotations; they just reflect the way that local geology affects cave morphology.

  28. Michael Watts said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 11:40 pm

    "should not be drank from"??

    Some people seem to have lost the EN-form of at least some verbs. In particular, it's fairly common now to see "have went" instead of "have gone".

  29. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 11:42 pm

    I was expecting the tool question to reference the studies that found motor cortex activation during word-related tasks involving tools (for example, jocn.2008.20123). Something like: My motor cortex showed activity 120 msec after stimulus onset.

  30. Michael Watts said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 11:53 pm

    I assume this is an example of the same word being borrowed for similar objects at slightly different times, like shirt and skirt, and ship and skiff.

    Interesting comment. Shirt and ship involve no borrowing at any time. Going by the writeups on etymonline, skiff feels like a better example than skirt.

    Etymonline says: skiff was borrowed from some old Germanic language into Italian, whence it eventually made it into English (through French) with the [sk] still intact. The same [sk] had presumably developed into [ʃ] back in the source language, given the location of Italy.

    Whereas skirt and shirt are the Norse and English cognates of a common Germanic root.

  31. bks said,

    October 16, 2020 @ 9:33 am

    A neighbor of mine, who grew up in Oakland, CA, told me that when he read Wonder Woman comics he thought that "Amazon" was pronounced "amazin'" (stress on second syllable as in amazing).

  32. BobW said,

    October 16, 2020 @ 1:17 pm

    It has been some time since I took a language location quiz, but it did place me correctly as having been raised in Detroit, Michigan. There was also one other small area in New Jersey possible, but I do not recall the name of the town. I did find that very strange.

  33. Dara Connolly said,

    October 16, 2020 @ 3:27 pm

    I attempted the New York quiz, but gave up part-way through because most of the questions were not applicable to my dialect.

    One question intrigued me: What do you call the night before Halloween? Mischief night, etc.

    Does this imply that Americans have Halloween night traditions on 30th October? Or that they have them on 31st October but consider Halloween to fall on 1st November?

  34. John Swindle said,

    October 16, 2020 @ 4:43 pm

    @Dara Connolly: America has Halloween night traditions, meaning October 31. Pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns, bats, spiders, witches, children trick-or-treating. Costumes or hints at costumes, also for people who work in banks. Not all scary: being a princess or an astronaut or a cowboy is fine. And apparently some places in America also have a pre-Halloween night tradition, meaning October 30. I suspect a lot of Americans like me never heard of that until the New York Times quiz.

  35. DaveK said,

    October 16, 2020 @ 5:30 pm

    “Mischief Night” and its brethren were apparently started by children to separate the trick-playing part of trick-and-treating from the business of collecting treats.
    In my childhood it involved such fun as soaping windows, throwing eggs, and stretching a string across a road with a tin can tied to each end, so it catch on a car bumper and make the driver think his car was falling apart.

  36. Andrew Usher said,

    October 16, 2020 @ 6:22 pm

    Michael Watts:
    The preterite and participle forms of verbs have been confused for a long time in spoken English, it is not a recent phenomenon. As long as the vast majority of verbs have the same for both, there will always be pressure for others to conform, but there has always been in English pressure from the standard to retain the old forms.

    And I don't think it's the participle (your EN-form) that disappears: in your example, I think 'drunk' for 'drank' is at least as common as the reverse. And the examples I can think of where one form has disappeared even for standard speakers, it is the participle that survived – spun, shrunk.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  37. Dara Connolly said,

    October 16, 2020 @ 6:44 pm

    @DaveK, @JohnSwindle, I never knew that about October 30th. Very interesting!

  38. Monscampus said,

    October 17, 2020 @ 12:46 am

    Spelunke is a grimy pub (or dive bar?) in German. The mere sound of the word is creepy.

  39. Andreas Johansson said,

    October 17, 2020 @ 1:32 am

    Just for a lark, I did the NYT dialect quiz. It thinks I'm equally likely to be from San Jose or Fremont, California, or Honolulu. Away from the Pacific, it also thinks I'm relatively likely to be from New York State or the southern tip of Florida.

  40. maidhc said,

    October 17, 2020 @ 3:16 am

    In the US, trick-or-treating and similar children's Hallowe'en activities were promoted by various civic organizations in the 1940s and 1950s, to counteract older pranking traditions. From the cliches of soaping windows and overturning outhouses, these pranks had grown more violent and anarchistic during the 1930s.

    The October 30 tradition must have been a reaction to this, but it's not really something I am familiar with.

    In the 1920s (and presumably before), children dressing up in costume and begging for treats was something that happened at Thanksgiving, at least in some parts of the country.

    Thanksgiving was once seen as an abolitionist holiday and was only celebrated in the North. Christmas was only celebrated in the South (because of the Puritan tradition in the North). Celebrating both Thanksgiving and Christmas was a post-Civil War reconciliation gesture.

    Hallowe'en, if it had any political edge to it, was an anti-power structure holiday. Thus the campaign by the post-WWII authorities to neuter it, Disneyfy it and turn it into a wholesome children's activity promoting the consumption of corporate sugar-filled mass market snack foods.

  41. Rodger C said,

    October 17, 2020 @ 11:11 am

    "What are spelunkers? People who get rescued by cavers."

  42. Trogluddite said,

    October 17, 2020 @ 11:23 am

    "Mischief Night" is regional in Britain, too. Here in Yorkshire, it's traditionally celebrated on November 4th – the night before "Bonfire Night" (which marks the foiling of the 1604 "Gunpowder Plot" to blow up Parliament). There are several local variations on the name ("[mis]Chevious Night", "Mizzy Night", etc). Other regions celebrate it on the night before Halloween, as in the USA, and a small minority here mark that night too (or as well). I don't recall ever hearing of it during my childhood in the East Midlands, and Wikipedia confirms such a three-way British split (and, to add yet another date, suggests that it was originally part of May Day traditions!)

    I can see how the original "cave" sense might be apt for such a place, and I imagine that many people feel would find the concept of pot-holing similarly repulsive! ;-)

  43. Trogluddite said,

    October 17, 2020 @ 11:24 am

    (* scrub the redundant "feel" in the final line).

  44. Trogluddite said,

    October 17, 2020 @ 11:29 am

    (Oh dear! The Gunpowder Plot was, of course, 1605 – the matching fives make it easy enough to remember correctly!)

  45. Philip Taylor said,

    October 17, 2020 @ 12:49 pm

    Was the ?mis?-spelling of "[mis]Chevious Night" intentional, Trogluddite ? I know that /ˌmɪs ˈtʃiːv i‿əs/ is a not-uncommon mis-pronunciation of "mischievous" but I have never seen it spelled that way before.

  46. Trogluddite said,

    October 17, 2020 @ 1:26 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    Oh heck – a hat-trick of errors in a single post!

  47. mg said,

    October 17, 2020 @ 3:28 pm

    @DavidL – The version of the language quiz I took several years ago included a question about going to a food store (it seems to no longer be there). I grew up calling that activity "marketing" and had no idea it was a very specific regionalism that pinpointed the Yonkers area – which is where my mother grew up. The quiz overall was quite accurate for me, locating my in the NYC metro area (I grew up in Manhattan).

  48. ajay said,

    October 27, 2020 @ 7:01 am

    "For the longest time, I did pronounce "genre" as "juh-neer", mostly in my head. My wife says that she thought "fiery" was pronounced "fee-ree"."

    "Steak" rhyming with "meek" was something I believed until a fairly late age, probably because we never ate steak when I was a kid. Also believed that there was a make of car which I'd heard people talk about but never actually seen, called a "Pershow", completely unrelated to Peugeot which I assumed was pronounced pew-got.

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