Americans call them Legos. Everyone else calls them Lego.
In a recent segment about how to write an outline, we used Legos as an analogy, and I got a lot of comments from people who were outraged (outraged!) that we had called them Legos instead of Lego.
One common argument was that the company wants you to call the toys Lego or to use Lego as an adjective and call them Lego bricks. All companies protect their trademarks this way, and I’ve talked about words as trademarks before, but I’ve never had people be so upset about calling two devices iPhones instead of iPhone mobile digital devices or about using Google as a verb to say you are searching Google for something, so it seemed really weird to me that so many people were coming to the defense of Lego on trademark grounds. I started to think something else must be happening, and indeed, it was.
American: Legos. British: Lego.
I did polls on Twitter and Facebook and almost instantly discovered that Americans call the toys Legos, and almost everyone else in the world calls them Lego. As an American, I have never heard them called Lego--it still sounds weird to me--but pretty much everyone outside the US feels the same way about the word Legos: it sounds horribly, horribly wrong.
Count Nouns and Mass Nouns in British and American English
What makes this even more interesting is that this difference isn’t limited to a single brand of toy! American English and British English treat other words like this too.
Lynne Murphy has a wonderful blog called “Separated by a Common Language, Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK,” and she sent me her post on the topic: Some nouns that are count nouns in American English are mass nouns in British English.
Count nouns are just things you can count, like pebbles and rocks, and mass nouns are things you don’t count, like landscaping and gravel. You could say, “Squiggly gave me three pebbles,” or “Let’s put five big rocks by that tree,” but you wouldn’t usually say, “Squiggly likes three landscapings,” or “Let’s put five gravels around that tree.” You’d just say something like “Squiggly likes the landscaping at those three houses,” or “Let’s put some gravel around the tree,” because we don’t count mass nouns like landscaping and gravel, and therefore, we don’t make them plural.
So the British (and Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadians) think of Lego as a mass noun, and Americans think of Lego as a count noun, and this difference extends to other words too.
For example, according to Lynne, in the UK, people talk about eating mashed potato and scrambled egg instead of mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs like we do in the US, and you can make an argument for either since the foods are countable before they are prepared and much less countable when they are cooked and a glob on your plate. And people in the UK are much more likely than Americans to talk about sport instead of sports. For example, USA Today has a sports section, but The Times of London has a sport section.
So thank you to the people who complained about the word Legos for sending me on this interesting path. I learned about a difference between American English and British English that I didn’t know about before, and I’m sorry it sounded so grating to your ears. At least now you know why too.
Also, thank you to Benjamin Wolfe on Twitter who made me laugh by asking “It’s Leggueaux, right?
It's Leggueaux, right? — Benjamin Wolfe (@BenjaminWolfe) June 1, 2017