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Friday, November 8, 2013

The British: a nation of schemers?

Something that always takes me aback when I am in England is how British and North American usage of the word "scheme" differs.

Here in North America, a "scheme" usually has negative connotations of something underhanded or conniving -- or at the very least somewhat suspect. It has this sense in British English as well. But in England, there are also laudable "schemes" everywhere: building schemes, funding schemes, training schemes, pension schemes, and so on. In Scotland, public housing is called "housing schemes". In all these cases, we North Americans would use "plan" or "project" or "program" (why we have a fondness for words starting in "p" I don't know).

You can even see that the word "scheme" is more common in British English than in American English by looking at this frequency chart based on Google Books (admittedly a rather clumsy tool, but nonetheless I think this is significant):

Here are some examples, in none of which would a North American use the word "scheme":

and, from Birmingham Royal Ballet's website:

"A longer version of this article originally appeared in Entrechat, the magazine of the BRB Friends. To find out more about the scheme [i.e. the Friends of BRB], click here."
"I have also worked there as a Regional Representative within Merseyside for their Young Dance Ambassador Scheme".

"Scheme" comes ultimately from the Greek schema (form, figure). Its first use in English, in the Renaissance, was for a rhetorical device, but it was also used to mean a diagram. From the literal "plan" of something, it soon came to designate a plan of action or a project. The idea of an underhanded plot came to be attached to the word in the 18th century,  and the negativity seems to have clung more tenaciously on this side of the Atlantic than on the other. There are of course neutral expressions like "colour scheme" and "in the great scheme of things" in all varieties of English.

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  1. My only question is why you created separate n-gram graphs for the British and American cases, instead of combining them, like this:


    1. My only answer is that I didn't know how...

  2. Thanks so much for this post. A friend of mine sent this to me after I posed this exact question on my facebook status. I love words and love people that love words!!

  3. The way I think of this is that outside North America scheme means 'plan', whereas inside North America it means 'plot'. P's on both sides!


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.