Ben Yagoda at his blog Not One-Off Britishisms (aka NOOBS) posts about perhaps the earliest example of a Britishism in American:

In the course of putting together a book based on this blog (you heard it here first!), I found that I am standing on the shoulders of Richard Grant White. White, a nineteenth-century American literary critic (and father of the architect Stanford White), coined the word “Briticism” in 1868, to mean words and usages that had sprung up in Britain (but not America) in the century or so since the countries had been apart. White didn’t look kindly on this phenomenon. Among the instances he cited was a peculiar British use of the word “directly” […] He also complained about a supposed British insistence on saying “ill” instead of “sick” to describe someone who was under the weather. […] Another complaint was “awfully” to mean “very,” instead of its early meaning of “in a manner that inspires awe or terror.” White wrote, “The misuse is a Briticism; but it has been spreading rapidly here during the last few years.” And here he was on the mark. In fact, I put forth this intensifier “awfully” as the very first Not One-Off-Britishism.

The early citations in the OED (which labels it “colloquial”) are all British, starting with one from The Times in 1820: “Let any one..say whether the illustrious defendant [sic]..has not awfully strong grounds for protesting against the tribunal.” I happen to be reading Thackeray’s Vanity Fair—published in 1847-48 and set in the 1810s—and came upon a line where Becky Sharp thinks, “I suppose he will be awfully proud, and that I shall be treated most contemptuously.”

Ngram Viewer also confirms White’s impression. It’s an interesting chart, showing significantly more frequent use in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century (White’s era), and American topping Britain in about 1920.

Since then, the two countries’ use of the word have been awfully similar.

Not surprising, of course, but it’s always good to have these things verified.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    “I feel sick” means “I am nauseated” in Brit, of course.

    I’m a bit surprised that “awfully” seems to be still going fairly strong. I think even I would only use it in a postmodern ironic way (despite being awfully old.) It conjures up the shade of J M Barrie, for me. Ugh.

  2. In The Duke’s Children (1879), Trollope uses “awfully” and other slang to distinguish between generations. Here, the hard-working and abstemious Duke, who is usually up and out hours before his night owl sons are awake, is surprised at the lavish breakfast laid out for them. See how the son uses “awfully” and how the father mocks him for it:

    They had now sat down, and the servant had brought in the unusual accessories for a morning feast. “What is all that?” asked the Duke.
    “Gerald and I are so awfully hungry of a morning,” said the son, apologising.
    “Well;—it’s a very good thing to be hungry;—that is if you can get plenty to eat. Salmon, is it? I don’t think I’ll have any myself. Kidneys! Not for me. I think I’ll take a bit of fried bacon. I also am hungry, but not awfully hungry.”

  3. Great quote!

  4. cuchuflete says

    “I feel sick” means “I am nauseated” in Brit, of course.

    And in informal Britspeak the noun sick means vomit, a usage unknown to most AE speakers.

    Old people like me still use awfully as an intensifier, but I can’t recall hearing it from anyone under forty.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    I have an anecdotal impression that certain Brits upped the ante to “frightfully” to serve the same intensifier function after “awfully” became equally common in AmEng, but I can’t be arsed to do corpus research to confirm that impression.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Pah! Real Brits don’t use adverbs at all. We leave that sort of thing to colonials.

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    And a good thing too. Look what happens with quite in “quite nice”…

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    I see no ambiguity here …

    Just because other lects of English make unneccessary distinctions …

    All it shows is that they lack the power of abstraction, well known as the hallmark of the Herrenvolk

  9. It’s rare these days for Britishisms to be incorporated into AmE, but until the late 19th century, the UK was one of the main origins of immigrants to the United States.

  10. It’s rare these days for Britishisms to be incorporated into AmE

    Not so — that’s what Ben’s blog (and now book) is all about. See his piece for Slate, The Britishism Invasion. It’s a decade old, but the invasion continues; see his blog.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    the power of abstraction, well known as the hallmark of the Herrenvolk …

    Today’s Hegel quote: “What is abstract, is simple”.

    Having gained short-term control of the Knechte, the Herren give them long-term control of complexity (“necessary distinctions”). For example, learning to distinguish between ravens and writing desks in order to make blackbird pies. The Herrenvolk don’t have the sense they wuz born with.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    We have no need of Sense. We have the WILL.

  13. John Cowan says

    Oh dear. Does that mean the Will is gunna Triumph? Because if so we may all need to move to Costa Rica, if not Hattiland.

  14. I had a teacher in middle school who said “an awfully lot.” All I can figure is that her mind considered “a lot” an adverb, and awfully was modifying it. The subject she taught, English or maybe “Language Arts”, only made it stranger to hear her say it.

  15. Consider this breakdown of ngram data for 40 years centred on 1868, showing words that follow “awfully” in the gb corpus (UK English). “Nice”, “pretty”, “jolly” (sometimes adverbial, we might suppose), and “good” are exiguously rare before 1868, but soar soon after: “nice” most notably. None of those adjectives suggests awe. Contrast “ancient” (which may indeed evoke awe): much more even, through time.

    Now this:

    I happen to be reading Thackeray’s Vanity Fair—published in 1847-48 and set in the 1810s—and came upon a line where Becky Sharp thinks, “I suppose he will be awfully proud, and that I shall be treated most contemptuously.”

    Pre-1868; but pride may be associated with awe, n’est-ce pas? Especially in the moral ambience of that sentence.

    OED is perhaps incautious in recording the meaning as it does:

    3. colloquial. As an intensifier.
    a. Modifying an adjective or adverb: very, extremely.

    It might not have been reduced to a mere intensifier till later. The only examples OED gives before 1868, cited in the original post: “awfully strong grounds”; “how awfully quick the time passes”. Awe is not entirely alien to “strong grounds”, nor to the speed with which time passes.

    But OED’s first example after 1868:

    1878 W. Black Green Pastures ii. 15 You’ll be awfully glad to get rid of me.

    There’s nothing of awe in gladness, is there?

    Compare the same ngram data for the us corpus, for “nice” and “good” in particular. US English differs little from UK English on these points, at least in printed sources. There is a generalisation of meaning after the mid- or late 1860s, almost certainly preceded by a like change in spoken usage – which White may be quite right to note, though not necessarily right to be censorious. Opinions will differ on that.

  16. J.W. Brewer : I am (barely) under forty years old, but I do use “awfully” in that way; I’m not a native speaker, though. I was taught BreEng since six years old in Bulgaria — with IPA and very strict “grammar” advise.

  17. “It conjures up the shade of J M Barrie” — cf. the 1995 film An Awfully Big Adventure, set in a 1940s Peter Pan production.

    To “be sick” is BrE for to vomit, which allows the progressive “he was being sick”. In Ireland “get sick” is more common in this sense.

  18. Isn’t there an article somewhere about how whole classes of words have changed their register because of movie blurbs — “tremendous”, “colossal”, “epic”, etc etc.?

  19. I alway find “super-colossal” to sound delightfully absurd. (Perhaps though, it makes sense it the two adjectives refer to separate dimensions or aspects. The Colossus of Rhodes was an immense statue, but Talos is a super-colossus,* since he can walk and throw stones.)

    * I was describing the circumstances of Daedalus’ and Icarus’ escape from Crete in Fred Saberhagen’s The White Bull a couple weeks ago. The book is a demythologization of many of the Greek legends (or Theseus, Dionysus, Heracles, etc.) as being after affects of an alien visitation; the aliens are already gone by the beginning of the book, but they have left behind technology and biological specimens. As I described the book, I realized that one of the entities in the story was actually Talos, something I had not realized during (or at least remembered from) my reading of the book as a teenager.

    Another appearance of Talos, in the NES game “The Battle of Olympus,” also went over my head when I first encountered it. Talos there is not a boss you have to kill and so is not discussed in much detail. Once you get Hermes’ sandals, you can jump over him to get into the labyrinth on Crete. However, it actually is possible to kill Talos; he just takes a huge number of hits, drops no treasure, and respawns as soon as you leave the screen, making doing so a waste of time.

  20. Is “super-colossal” used for anything other than olives?

  21. Narmitaj says

    There are supermassive black holes, and I wondered if there were super-colossal things in deep space. I found one article on Huffington Post – “Super-Colossal Space Tail Is Way Bigger Than The Milky Way“, which seems a more appropriate use of super-colossal than in relation to olives, though interestingly the Astronomy and Astrophysics paper that article links to is titled a much more modest “The long X-ray tail in Zwicky 8338” by G. Schellenberger and T. H. Reiprich.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    Black holes might be re-interpreted as super-colossal olives. “Dark matter” could be olive paste resulting from collisions between them.

    In an excess of political caution, such Eurocentric parameters have been omitted from models in these post-colonial times, so it’s no wonder their explanatory power has been overlooked. Once you include them, many things fall into place. “String theory”, for example, indirectly addresses the idea that the paste is intended for spaghetti.

    Only one big question remains: where are the capers ?

  23. Super-colossal olives sometimes form black holes and sometimes green holes.

  24. Stu Clayton says

    Some of those green “holes” might, on closer inspection, be found to be the missing giant capers!

  25. @Brett “The Battle of Olympus” for the NES: I thought I had played almost any NES game ever made (being a “playtester” for my father’s NES cartridges sales part of his business — as in which ones would sell for children my age), but I haven’t encountered that one, or I just don’t remember it. I just watched a playthrough, and it seems very unremarkable. I played hundreds of them. The name seems familiar, though.

  26. @Stu Clayton : “‘String theory’, for example, indirectly addresses the idea that the paste is intended for spaghetti”: I like your way of thinking.

    @Stu Clayton : “Only one big question remains: where are the capers?”
    In the fridge, and I’m running out of them.

    @Narmitaj : We pretty much know as a fact that there’s a supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy and have for some time, but other than that, it’s speculative.

  27. the paste is intended for spaghetti

    And the spaghetti, in turn, for the FSM?

  28. I think we’re approaching the Unified Theory they’ve been seeking for so long.

  29. @V: “The Battle of Olympus” is fairly (but not extremely) obscure game. It just happens to be one of the games that I developed a fondness for in childhood. Nobody I knew owned it, but it was repeatedly rented and eventually beaten. When emulators became available ca. 1999, I downloaded the ROM again and beat it one more time.

    It was a pretty difficult game, for a couple of reasons. One problem was that there were significant balancing issues. Some bosses were far too easy (such as the hydra, or the final boss Hades—whom I trounced on my very first try). However, some of them were equally difficult (like the lamia or Cerberus, who had two heads you had to kill, and if you were too slow damaging the second one, the first would regenerate). There were also many areas of the game that were quite difficult to navigate—mazes that required a great deal of diligent mapping.* Moreover, there is exactly one pit in the game that is not bottomless, and there is very little indication of which one it is you have to fall into. I have glanced at online playthroughs a couple times, and they have not really demonstrated the extremely frustrating experience of playing the game for the first time. Knowing what to do in advance cuts down a lot of the challenge that the game presents to a first-time player. Finally, the in-game English-language directions and clues are sometimes completely inadequate. In particular, the game mentions once of twice the “power of Argus,” but it never actually explains that it refers to lightning bolts that you can shoot once you obtain the most powerful weapon; nor that you can use the ability for free once you buy another artifact. At least one playthrough video I saw—from somebody who clearly had beaten the game before—showed that the player was completely unaware of the lightning ability, which must have made the later parts of the game additionally difficult. Another case of inadequate explanation means that there is practically no way for a player to find the magic nectar vessel except by chance or consulting a guide.

    * Of course, some similar NES games also required quite a bit of mapping. “The Legend of Zelda” and “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link” were conceived of as cooperative enterprises, with players pooling their knowledge—the pre-Internet equivalent of playing with the help of a walkthrough. However, that also meant that some things were exceedingly challenging to pin down precisely. In fact, there were some (intended) features of “The Legend of Zelda” that were not discovered for decades. Gameplay challenges for “The Battle of Olympus” were actually very similar to that in “Zelda II,”** but as a significantly more obscure game, it was correspondingly harder to find other players to share information with.

    ** In fact, it was eventually realized that “The Battle of Olympus” had actually duplicated code from “Zelda II.” The discovery was made when some player discovered that some of the infamous movement glitches in “Zelda II” could be recreated in an identical fashion in “The Battle of Olympus.”

  30. @Brett : Only one other person I know owned the original Japanese version of the NES Captain Tsubasa. We memorized the Japanese language prompts for the different soccer passes and kicks, without knowing any hiragana (and maybe katakana? I can’t remember if there was katakana) or what hiragana was, then. It was a long process of trial and error.

  31. @V: I once sat down to play untranslated “Radical Dreamers” (on an emulator) with one of my brothers, who was a huge “Chrono Trigger” fan. His Japanese was not good enough* at that point to understand everything in the game, which is very heavy on text, and he had been stuck for quite some time. I, on the other hand, knew no Japanese whatsoever, but I chose options based on my impressions from the visuals and vague fits of whimsy. On my first attempt, I ended up getting much farther into the game than he had ever managed.

    * After he had learned a bit more Japanese, but before he was fully fluent, he tried creating a translated ROM of “Radical Dreamers,” but somebody else beat him to it, and he never finished his script.

  32. @Brett : Chrono Trigger, I played it on an emulator with the intention to finish it but had the emulator reliably crash at the pterodactyl(?) flight animation. I guess there was incompatibility between the ROM and the emulator.

  33. Or maybe I completed a side-quest too weridly and encountered a bug, but the game crashed during the animation each time.

  34. @V: Do you mean you were playing the PlayStation version with the anime cutscenes? That version was essentially the original code, interpreted via an SNES emulator coded for the PlayStation; as a result, it could be much slower and flakier than the original.

  35. I’m not entirely sure; it was in the late ’90s and it was in English on an emulator on a PC. It was not slow in any way. I’ll ask my mate at whose house we played it.

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