Friday, 17 April 2015

Why Do Americans Find DIY So Confusing?

DIY in da house!
(photo by Kristin Brenemen)




DIY confuses Americans. I know, I know! You're thinking "Why on earth has this word made it into Lexicolatry?" Surely to earn a place on Lexi, a word has to be obscure, like celsitude or bromatology, or funny like a-poop or cementitious? And when an everyday word like, say, beach or anorak makes it, it's because it has an interesting etymology. But DIY? What could possibly be obscure, funny or interesting about that?

It's a fair point. Even The Shorter OED, from where I've taken the above definition, seems decidedly cursory about telling us what it is because, presumably, we all know already, so what's the point? But not to Americans. Bizarrely, inexplicably, DIY joins like the plethora of Britishisms that our chums across the pond find utterly befuddling (others, incidentally, include biscuit, chips and lorry).

A case study of this confusion is one of our highly-esteemed American contributors Katie Dwyer, author of the most excellent My College Advice and writer of many wonderful posts for Lexicolatry. During her stay in Ireland, Katie and I would spend many an evening discussing the differences between American, Irish and British English, and one word that repeatedly cropped up was DIY.

"So, just tell me again," she would say, "what exactly is it?"

"It's when you do stuff yourself, without hiring someone else to do it. Like repairs and stuff."

"Oh. So like if you repaired your car rather than take it to a mechanic?"

"Umm ... no .. not really. Well, that is technically doing-it-yourself, I suppose, But that's not really what DIY is. It's more to do with the house."

"Oh right. So, like, mowing your own lawn and doing yard work?"

"Umm ... no ... that's not ... well it is, I suppose, but it's not DIY."




"Umm ... no."

"Putting up shelves?"

"Yes! That's it! DIY is putting up shelves ... yourself!"



To be honest, I've been thinking about this for so long that it's starting to get messed up in my own head. All I know is this: if someone asks me what I'm doing today and I say "I'm doing a spot of DIY," that has a very specific meaning in my mind, and does not include things like car repair, gardening or wiring. But putting up shelves is definitely a possibility. Definitely.
Yes! This is DIY!
(photo by Chris & Jenni)
If you have a better way of explaining DIY, do please do it yourself in the comment box below.
(I did my best, OK?)

If you're American, and are aghast at the very premise of this post, do please comment also.

Together, we can get to the bottom of this.


  1. Well, here in this corner of Canada, it's definitely common knowledge. DIY Pinterest boards are everywhere - with anything from make your own centrepieces to make your own jar garden. It could be making your own decorations for the baby room too. Basically, it's creating something yourself rather than buying it... in my perspective anyway.

    1. Oh and sadly, I'm not sure I'd count putting up shelves ;).

    2. In England, I think that is what we call Arts & Crafts. Here DIY is more odd jobs around the house that you would usually pay a handyman to do, but instead you Do It Yourself.

  2. I'd rather think of DIY as painting a bedroom cabinet, sewing your own curtains, or re-upholstering a small lounge seat (that's my next DIY-project, won't be until the summer holidays and I get to take some time off work to get started on that). Kinda like how Kara sees it: things that require a bit of creativity, and might perhaps save you some money.

    Maybe that's the female version of DIY, and to men it's rather: "I'll build some shelves from these old planks I've lying around the garage, and that'll be my DIY-project for the weekend".

  3. I see where you're both coming from - and I would agree that 'DIY' as an adjective can be applied to pretty much anything (as in, I don't know, DIY beer, or DIY accessories, etc). However, as a noun on its own, with no qualifying information, DIY takes on quite a specific meaning, at least in Britain and Ireland. Therefore, if I (or my wife, as I don't think this is just a bloke thing) said: "I'm into DIY," or I listed DIY as one of my hobbies, that takes on a very specific and discriminatory meaning, specifically doing various tasks of home repair, maintenance and improvement.

    Any thoughts?

    1. I've honestly never thought of DIY in that context before, as we only use it the way Bibi and I discussed!

    2. I'm with you Eddie. In England, I think what Bibi and Kara are referring to is what I would call Arts & Crafts. Here DIY is more odd jobs around the house that you would usually pay a handyman to do, but instead you Do It Yourself. It does seem to have a different meaning in USA.

  4. I'm honestly still confused.

    Supportive, but confused.

    DIY on! (I guess?)

    1. Really? I think I've got to the bottom of this.

      DIY means different things in different places (and in some places, it's not used at all).

      While we all seem to understand the adjective, in Britain and Ireland we also use it as a standalone noun ("I like DIY"), and that is what has the specific, confusion-causing mean.

      That's right, isn't it?

  5. Husband - "pour me another beer, honey". Wife - "DIY"

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