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The Scrivener: Some Neat Guesswork

Guess, neat, labor and thru… Brian Barratt delves once more into the American usage of English.

This completes a series of three entertaining articles by wordsmith Brian on “Americanisms’.

For further intellectual fun and games do please visit Brian’s internationally-popular Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

guess (‘I guess ...)

An Australian might say, ‘I think I’ll come to your party’ and ‘I suppose that’s true’. An American would say, ‘I guess I’ll come...’ and ‘I guess that’s true’. The widely-used American ‘I guess...’ arises from a usage meaning something between think and suppose. Chaucer used it. It was still common at the time of the first invasion of North America by illegal boat-people fleeing from religious persecution in western Europe. It no longer implies guesswork.

Unfortunately, combined with another word it has formed the cliché ‘Basically I guess...’ so often heard in the Australian media when someone, particularly of the arty-crafty persuasion, really has little idea of what they are talking about.


In Britain and Australia, this means clean, tidy and orderly. In the North America it can also mean good, pleasing, admirable. Both meanings come from 16th century English. The usage in relation to alcoholic drinks, e.g. neat whisky, arises from the original meaning of orderly, hence undiluted, free of impurities. There is another meaning, going back to Old English. It is seen in Shakespeare's Cymbeline Act 1, Scene 1:

...Would I were
A neat-herd's daughter, and my Leonatus
Our neighbour shepherd's son!

Here, neat means cow or cattle. A neat-herd was a cowherd.

labor or labour?

Labour comes from 13th century Old French and Latin labor. Honour comes from 12th century Old French onor. Valour comes from 15th century Latin valor. The list goes on.

Before English spellings were standardised by dictionary makers, both the -or and the -our ending were used. In the 18th century, Americans decided to retain the -or ending while the British thought -our looked rather superior. It really does not matter which ending you use as long as you are consistent. There is one exception: The official name of one of our political parties is the Australian Labor Party. This spelling must be used as it is part of an official name.


In British English in the late 1700s, this word was used for a particular type of sail on a sailing boat — a sail so high that it figuratively scraped the sky. It was later used to describe a large horse, a tall person, or even a person who sat high on a bicycle such as a penny-farthing (cycling was not for the faint-hearted in those days). In the USA, it was first applied to multi-storey buildings in the 1880s. It has come full circle, and what would we do without it?


'Through' is one of those confusing -ough words. It could be pronounced to rhyme with muff or how, but it actually rhymes with poo. Its ancient history includes the Saxon word thuru. The apparently recent USA shortened form, thru, is certainly easier to pronounce and is probably closer than through to the Saxon original. Nevertheless, thru is one of those words that traditional British English spellers just do not like the look of.

American English uses 'through' in a way not found in British English. A phrase such as ‘from Monday to Friday’ becomes ‘Monday thru Friday’, which is perhaps a clearer indication that the whole of the last day is included in the sequence.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2003, 2007


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