UK v US English: Gobsmacked by usage and pronunciation

UK v US English: Gobsmacked by usage and pronunciation

When shopping for vegetables, do you look for “aubergine” or “eggplant”? What you say depends on where you learned English. US copy editor Pam Nelson and UK writer Samantha White discuss the rise of “awesome”, why some seemingly simple words have different pronunciations in the UK and US, and more in this sequel to a discussion on words such as “scheme” and “boondoggle” published in June 2019 and a follow-up to popular quizzes on the FM site in 2017 and 2018.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • How English speakers in different parts of the world pronounce “niche” — apparently there are more than two ways.
  • When “awesome” came into regular usage.
  • Why one guest says it can feel cathartic to say “gobsmacked”.
  • The ways that English speakers in India are contributing to our global lexicon.
  • A bit of history about the phrase “chalk up” and how it is sometimes confused with “chock up”.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato, an
FM magazine senior editor, at


Amato: Way back in the spring of 2019, we had this first conversation. The finished product of that conversation on the podcast episode page said, “US copy editor Pam Nelson and UK writer Samantha White discuss times words have left them at a loss or made them laugh.” So today, we hope to laugh again, for sure, but also to educate.

So we’ll jump into our first word. It’s a pronunciation question more than a meaning question. The word is spelled N-I-C-H-E. Again, that’s N-I-C-H-E. It seems like such a simple word. If I see it written, I’d say niche (“nitch”) as in niche industry or niche publication, but I’m American. I never took French.

So Sam, I’ll start with you. What do you say?

White: I definitely say niche (“neesh”). I think this is a really good example of a word that can cause confusion between US and UK speakers, even though the spelling and the usage is exactly the same. I first heard the US pronunciation, “nitch”, in its context, so specifically about businesses or freelancers finding or identifying their particular niche, or speciality, or target market. So the meaning was clear to me from the context, but in preparation for this discussion, I asked some friends what they would understand if they heard someone say “nitch”, and it produced varying degrees of bewilderment. Everyone agreed it sounded like an unpleasant medical complaint.

So I then thought about what other words we British English speakers adopt the French pronunciation for, and most are to do with food or arts, like quiche, for example. There’s a lot, obviously legal terms. For instance force majeure, an insurance one which probably has come into play quite a lot in recent months. And then there’s our old friend route (“root”) or route (“rout”), depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on.

But I think the most interesting point for me is that US English and UK English take their influences from different places. For example, in British English, we’ve got vegetables called courgette and aubergine following the French, but in the US equivalent, you’d refer to them as zucchini and eggplant, and that reflects the different communities and the different influences. So I thought that was — moving away from the unpleasant medical complaint – that was a really interesting discovery.

Amato: I learned something new about zucchini and eggplant. I had seen those words in reading but had no idea, the ones you just said, that they were the same thing as zucchini and eggplant.

Nelson: Right, and an American speaker would maybe use “aubergine’ to refer to a colour, the colour of eggplant. So I remember walking into work one day in a purple pantsuit; it was a long time ago, OK. And one of my colleagues described it as “aubergine” and I think that was the first time I’d heard someone say that word. I’d read it but hadn’t heard anyone say it. Yeah, and it was kind of the colour of an eggplant. It was an odd purple.

White: Nice.

Nelson: I forgot what’s the word for zucchini?

White: Courgette.

Nelson: Right. I haven’t heard any American speaker say that word unless they were influenced by Britain. In an American dictionary, the writers of the dictionary said that “nitch” was actually an older pronunciation and that they speculated that it was the “neesh” pronunciation was kind of a vogue, I guess, or not just an influence from French, but a more recent influence from French. But nowadays, I think there are people in the US who say “neesh” because they have been influenced by hearing British TV shows, maybe, or British speakers saying “neesh”. I still say “nitch” and I agree with you that the I-T-C-H sound does sound like a condition.

Amato: It’s interesting you brought up quiche, because really, I would never say “quitch”.

Nelson: And that is a really good example of how we would continue with whatever the French pronunciation is with a food.

Amato: One other thing on that. I actually looked up online pronunciation of it and it truly said UK pronunciation, US, but there were two little sound files for US and one was “nitch” and then the other one was one I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say. It actually said “nish”, like N-I-S-H. So that was a new one.

Nelson: Yeah.

Amato: So we have definitely found our niche with this conversation. We’re off and running. I’m going to start with Sam, again, on this one, because one word that I’ve been rightly accused of using far too often is “awesome”. If you were reacting to some good news, you might say, what, brilliant or splendid? One, I guess for both of you, really, does anyone know where “awesome” came from, and for Sam, in particular, was that something that you encountered a lot when you started dealing with editors in the United States?

White: I think “awesome” is one of the most popular examples of when people talk about the sort of cultural imperialism of the US, and English people starting to say awesome, probably in the late ’90s, as a result of TV, or films, or now it would be social media and that sort of stuff. It’s the one that grates mostly with the people who want to defend pure English or British English. And I understand the annoyance, because to me, awe, wonder, reverence, amazement needs to be reserved for a very particular context.

I might be in awe of an artist’s ability to capture a landscape, or if I ever got to see the northern lights, I’m sure I would be awestruck. But just to find out that your team’s won this week or whatever, doesn’t fill you with awe, unless it’s the championship final or whatever it might be. So it is a particularly — one that gets people goat, as we say here.

I would say, and I’ve found myself doing it in the last few days, I would say “brilliant”. “That’s brilliant news”, or there’s one certain presenters use here, which is “magnificent”, which I really like because it’s quite dramatic. It’s quite emphatic. And the contagion is there. I have used “awesome” and then thought, “ugh, that is just not natural. That’s not natural to my speech.”

And I think part of that is a cultural thing, as well, in that British English speakers tend not to feel comfortable demonstrating so much enthusiasm as conveyed by the word “awesome” for anything, and we’re kind of more understated in our reactions. So I would say “brilliant” is about as far as we would comfortably go in the praise or the expression sakes.

Nelson: You’ll be interested to know, though, I read a linguist writing about “awesome”, and he found a reference in 1977, a letter to the editor, where in — which newspaper was it in? I forget. It was Los Angeles Times newspaper, that a reader was complaining about people using the word “awesome” to mean something really good. And I was surprised that it was that far back, 1977. I mean it may be a bias on my part, but I don’t think I heard it as much until the ’80s, really, or late ’80s, even, and I resisted it for a long time because it sounded like a vogue word, which is a term that linguists use for something that comes into language and just kind of explodes, all of a sudden.

Anyway, the woman who wrote the Los Angeles Times just didn’t think that “awesome” should be used for that because it means something fills you with awe; similar to the word awful, which has almost the opposite meaning. When something is awesome, it’s really great. When something’s awful, it makes you feel dread or you hate it. That’s another wonderful thing about English, that a root word can take two different directions.

I used the word “awesome” yesterday with somebody, but I was trying to speak to someone younger, so I thought, “Oh, I’ll tell her what happened was awesome so she’ll understand I mean it was really great.” But I think it’s a little bit too much of a vogue word, myself, but still.

White: Really interesting what you said about the vogue words. I hadn’t heard that term as such, but I think any words that are used to express something being fabulous, great, whatever, do tend to change, or at least move through a cycle really quickly. Because if you think sort of, I don’t know, ’60s and ’70s “groovy”, and then “cool”, and then “fabulous”, and then “wicked”. And I think it’s by region, as well. When I was at school in London, it was “blinding”, something would be blinding, while in the northwest of England, you might have described something as “mint”.

And like you said about the younger person you were talking to, I’m not in touch with what the latest ones that teenagers and 20-somethings are using now, but they certainly wouldn’t be any of the ones that I would use.

Amato: I’ve heard “mint” a few times. I can’t recall the setting, but the first time I heard it, I was just, whoa, what? That’s some synonym for “awesome”. Why can’t you just use awesome?

Nelson: Or brilliant!

Amato: Sure. I don’t think I have anything else on the awesome front other than to say that my heavy research, which consisted of going to the Wikipedia page for the word, said it first came into use because it was in a 1970 film, I believe, called “Tora! Tora! Tora!” that was about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Nelson: And “awesome” was in that? Huh.

Amato: 1970.

Nelson: That was a giant movie in 1970. I remember it being very, very popular, but it was also one of those movies where it was popular because it was just so big. It was a major motion picture. But I’m really surprised that “awesome” showed up in that movie because that was not a teen movie at all.

Amato: Interesting. Let me just say, also, we are recording on 1 October 2020. We are definitely in the social distancing era. The last time we recorded this show, Pam and I were in our Durham, North Carolina, office and we talked to Sam by Zoom. This time, I am at my home, Pam is at her home, Sam is at her home. So we’re all apart here for this recording. So in the social distancing era, I guess people on both sides of the Atlantic should know and understand the word “queue”, that’s Q-U-E-U-E. What else would you like to say on the word “queue”, or queuing up for lining up?

Nelson: I think that’s a British term that’s really overtaken an American usage. I think people do say, and part of it may be because of the computer language, because when you talk about something, a stack of things that a computer is doing, that’s referred to as a queue, and so I think that’s become — in our work at the Association, our computer list of stories that we’re working on is a queue. And so I think that’s come into use. But I don’t know that it’s really widespread that people say, “I’m queuing up for coffee” instead of “lining up for coffee”. I think that probably doesn’t happen that often. But it is becoming a little bit more common in the United States.

So I will tell you about the rabbit hole I went down when I started, because I think the first time I heard queue in that usage, not like a billiard cue but a queue for a line, was in an old Western on TV and there was a Chinese character in the late 1800s, and there were a lot of Chinese who came over to work on the railroad. And of course, this was all about how mistreated they were and how horrible prejudice that people had against Chinese people. But they were wearing — I’m gesturing now — but they were wearing the hairstyle where the man had a long braid down his back, from the top of his head down his back, and in the Western, they called that his queue, and I think the plot point was that somebody cut off his braid, cut off his queue.

That’s all to say that’s the first time I think that I heard the word “queue”, and it comes from the Latin, it went to French, that was a French term, and it [came from] Latin, from coda, and that is the word for “tail”, T-A-I-L, in Latin. And you can see that again in a coda on a piece of music; it’s at the end of a piece of music. So then I started wondering, well, is that related to code as in tax code and conduct code, and there’s a similar word. It’s codex, which is literally a tree trunk, but also a book. So that’s where code came, from that line, rather than from the other line that led to queue.

Anyway, so a queue is literally a line, and then I think that the British adopted that from the French, and now maybe it’s moving a little bit more out of Britain or not, but what’s interesting to me, I love etymology, anyway, but it really was interesting to me that it literally came from the word for “tail” and that’s how the word “queue” came into French and then into English.

Amato: Interesting.

White: Fascinating, so you’ve taken it from Latin, French, all the different influences, and what it made me think of when you said codex is in the anthropology museum in Mexico City, there’s the Mayan codices, so all of the writings and the hieroglyphic script of the Mayans referred to as the codex. So yeah, more and more cultures we can bring in.

Amato: Anymore thoughts on queue or queuing up?

White: Apart from to say it’s hardwired into the DNA of British people to queue, and if you’re waiting for the bus or something and the queue is disrespected, it feels like a personal insult, so yeah.

Amato: Oh, so you mean, like, if you’re standing at a bus stop and instead of just milling around, there needs to be a proper queue so that there’s an order just in case there aren’t enough seats on the bus?

White: Absolutely, yeah.

Nelson: Right. So would you say that someone jumped the queue if they —

White: Absolutely, yeah.

Nelson: We would say “broke in line”. If someone got ahead of somebody else in line, they would break in line, and we don’t like it, either. And it’s also the difference between saying in line and on line. And I got on line, wouldn’t you say it’s more of a Northern US thing, Neil? I think people in Brooklyn would say, “I was standing on line,” rather than, “I was standing in line.”

Amato: I’ve definitely heard it both. I’m not sure I can narrow it down to Brooklyn, but I know I’ve heard it.

Nelson: Maybe I’ll say just the Northeast part up there.

Amato: Here’s one that’s come up recently. Someone pointed out to me just a few differences. I’ve noticed if someone in the US says, “I need to get back to you”, they might say, “I’ll be in touch”, or “I’ll reply to them”. I’ve noticed the usage among my UK colleagues is, “That person hasn’t come back to me”, or “They haven’t come back to you, yet. They haven’t replied.” So it’s a small difference but something I’ve noticed. Sam, have anything to say on that front?

White: I think I would make a distinction in meaning between the two terms, personally. I would say “in touch” to me is a very loose commitment with no timeframe attached to it. So if someone calls you about a job ad that you’ve placed, and they’re applying for the job, or whatever, and you’re sort of doing it but you’re not really interested, or whatever, you might say, “I’ll be in touch”, as in “Get off my phone line, please”. But there’s no commitment there whatsoever. “Let me come back to you”, to me is more concrete, more committed. It implies to me, at least, that I intend to take an action. I intend to — maybe it’s find out the answer to your question and let you know. So there’s some sort of more concrete action.

Amato: Got it. And on the, “I’ll be in touch”, “I’ll reply”, “I’ll come back to you”, I guess is also the word “revert” that is coming into use. Sam, do you have insight into that word’s usage?

White: To me, the word “revert” means that something returns to a previous state. However, the Cambridge Dictionary refers to it — revert as in reply — being an example of Indian English. To use it in that context, to reply, sounds quite technical, quite unnatural, as if it’s a chat bot talking to you. But it would certainly make sense that terms from Indian English are spreading in their usage, particularly in the business sphere with call centres, and all the technology companies, and all of that kind of thing, software, given that there are at least 125 million English speakers in India. So some traffic the other way, some influence to the US and to UK English, it would make a lot of sense.

The only one that I sort of found when I was Googling around having a look is quite a fascinating one. Apparently in Indian English, they use “prepone” as meaning the opposite — it’s a quite useful invention — of “postpone”. So to fill a gap in meaning, “Let’s prepone it.” And as a journalist who obviously is always working right on deadline, bringing a meeting forward is something that fills me with horror, so please don’t prepone anything.

But yeah, I thought that invention to fill a gap where there wasn’t a word for that, wasn’t a single word for that, let’s say, was really quite interesting.

Amato: So you’re basically saying if a meeting was scheduled or was in the diary for noon on Friday, you could prepone it to 2pm on Thursday?

White: Yeah, and that would be horrific.

Amato: I agree.

Nelson: I love that English keeps changing, that new influences keep coming in to the language from other languages or just from different varieties of English. It’s lovely, I think, a lovely part about English that we have, although preponing a meeting would fill me with dread, too. I would consider that awful.

White: Indeed.

Amato: That might go on my jargon bingo list that’s something I’ve been talking about but not really playing too often. So I hope people will not slate us for the choice of this word, and when I say “slate”, I mean criticise, trash, or pan us, and I’m making a joke about that. I did not know that word could be a verb in that sense, as in “you shouldn’t slate someone who’s late to a meeting in the pandemic era. You have no idea what their schedule is during work at home.” Sam, more to say on that?

Nelson: I was just gonna say that was a perfect example of the use of that word, but I hadn’t heard it either, so I’m looking forward to explaining a little bit more about it.

White: So what it makes me think of, to use the word “slate” as a verb, is that if someone’s talking about a new film that’s just come out and says, “Oh, it got slated in the press.” It could be a book, a film, a play, and it got terrible, terrible reviews. That’s the immediate connotation I have for it. You might slate someone, but it’s more a thing that got slated, I would say.

And the other use would be in a pub or a restaurant, if you say, “Oh, put it on my slate.” It’s just a tab or an account to be paid later, and that would be because in the past, it would have been a literal piece of slate that the bar owner or the restaurant owner would have chalked up your bill on and kept a tab of what you’d been spending and how much you owed them.

Nelson: When you said “chalked up”, that’s exactly what that means. So when someone says, “I chalked it up to his being stupid or something,” then that is like writing on a slate with a piece of chalk. And so the thing that I encounter as a copy editor sometimes is people write it as “chock up”, C-H-O-C-K, and I would like to be paid for every time I fix that in a story. That would be nice. I think people just hear it as — and “chock up” is something completely different, of course. It’s like raising something on a chock, on a piece of wood, or something.

Anyway, so I’m sorry I went off on a tangent, but “chalk up” is just one of those phrases that comes up all the time and I would like to be able to explain to people that it’s writing on a slate with a piece of chalk.

White: Which school pupils did here into the 20th century, into the mid-20th century, in fact. But just to further that tangent, we chalk a lot of stuff up to experience, or if you tried something and it went badly, it’s, “uh-oh, chalk it up to experience. We’ll learn from it. We’ll move on.” And what you said about the chock, this mishearing chalk for chock, here we use “chock-a-block.” If it’s, “Oh, yeah, I went to the supermarket, but it was chock-a-block and I had to leave.”

Nelson: Yeah, that’s a great term, chock-a-block.

Amato: And that actually means it was too crowded?

White: Yeah, it’s wall-to-wall people, basically.

Amato: We’ll close out with a word that I’ve always loved. I don’t think I use very much. I think I know what it means, but we’re gonna have Pam Nelson explain it more. The word is “gobsmack” or “to be gobsmacked”.

Nelson: Right, so that means that you’re speechless, that something has just left you speechless, and that can be in a good way or in a bad way, I would think. From the etymology that I looked at, it comes from a British slang word for mouth, “gob”, and from World Wide Words, which is an online site, a blog that a fellow did for a long time, and it was wonderful. It’s kind of retired now, but the entries are still there, and it talks about “gob” being a Northern England and Scottish slang term, gob, and then the verb smacked, so if somebody’s utterly astonished.

So that is a word that has I think come into US English a lot where people talk about being gobsmacked, and we probably heard it from British TV. I’m not sure. I wasn’t able to find that for sure. It’s almost an onomatopoeia in a way because it almost says exactly what it is. When you’re gobsmacked, I’m gesturing now, again, so you can’t see on the podcast, but a palm to your face kind of gesture.

Anyway, so I think that the influence of the British slang on that is because apparently “gob” is not a word that a proper person would use all the time. Sometimes the meaning seems very low class, but “gobsmacked” sounds to me, as a US listener, as something kind of even high class, maybe because I associate it with British people.

White: I agree with what you said about onomatopoeia. It is really powerful. It’s quite a cathartic thing to say, “I’m gobsmacked.”

Similarly, I looked at the Macmillan Dictionary, and it said that there’s written evidence of it being in use since the 1930s, but it’s been in the spoken slang a lot longer. And “gob”, like you say, I would have got told off by my mum for using the word “gob” because it’s not speaking properly, but it apparently comes from Irish and Scottish Gaelic, to mean mouth, so that’s where it comes from. But here, it is pretty colloquial, but I think it’s probably being used more often now.

Amato: Well, thank you, Pam and Sam. This has been excellent. I really appreciate your time. I’ll say to the listeners, I hope this has been an awesome or splendid run through this “nitch” or “neesh” topic, and that you’re all properly gobsmacked, and will share it with your friends instead of slating us over our choices. Again, thank you.

White: Fabulous. Thank you very much.

Nelson: Thank you.