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Does anyone know anything about how the meaning of "just about" came to have opposite meanings in the UK and North America.

For example, in the UK, The team just about won. means that the team won, but it was close (ie The team barely won.). However, in North America, it means that the team almost won.

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Does it really mean what you say in NA English? –  Colin Fine May 5 '12 at 18:26
    
It really does. –  SigueSigueBen May 5 '12 at 18:46
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I was going to ask the converse. Does it really mean that in British English?? To an American "just about" does indeed mean they came close, but failed. If they had just about lost, then they would have won but by a slim and potentially narrowing margin. –  Jim May 5 '12 at 20:30
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In BrE how would this sentence be interpreted? Following the Second World War, the United States and Great Britain found themselves in completely opposite positions on just about every important item Would this indicate that there were some issues on which we agreed or that we disagreed on everything? –  Jim May 5 '12 at 20:47
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@Hugo, Thanks. So if BrE interprets 'just about' here to mean 'nearly' or 'almost' why, in "The team just about won", is it not interpreted as "The team almost won"? –  Jim May 6 '12 at 17:18

3 Answers 3

I am Scottish and we always use "just about" to mean "nearly, but not quite". E.g. "I just about passed my exam" means "I got close to the pass mark, but didn't quite make it."

A straw poll of some of my friends indicates that Australians, New Zealanders, the Irish (both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) and those from North America (Canada and that USA) also share the same meaning as we Scots. Amongst my English and Welsh friends, I have found that only those from the north of England (Northumberland and Cumbria) share our meaning.

An interesting fact I've noticed that is that everyone says "just about to", to mean "nearly, but not quite", e.g. "I was just about to leave when the telephone rang", meaning "I had not left, but was about to, when the telephone rang".

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On separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.it¹ (Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK) we can read the following explanation:

The translation problem in just about isn't just about just. Let's think about about. The (UK) Collins English Dictionary gives us this sense-definition, which is not to be found in the American Heritage Dictionary or Merriam-Webster:

about
13. used in informal phrases to indicate understatement : I've had just about enough of your insults it's about time you stopped

Aha, the famous British understatement. Rather than saying I've had enough, you put an about in to soften the blow. And then a just to soften it more.

For more details, see the site I mentioned, which seems quite well done.

¹ Probably, from other countries, you have to change 'it'.

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We Americans use about that way, too, though. "I've had just about enough of your attitude." So how does this answer the OP's question and address the example the OP gives? –  JLG May 5 '12 at 17:57
    
@JLG - Have you read the article on the site I have mentioned? –  user19148 May 5 '12 at 18:11
    
@Carlo_R. Thanks for the link. It confirms the divergence that I noted. I'm not convinced by the author that the issue is with about indicating an understatement since the regional usage appears consistent. The real difference only appears in the phrase just about. –  SigueSigueBen May 5 '12 at 18:57
    
Yes. And the blogger goes on to make the same point I did, but she didn't ever say why there are these divergent meanings. –  JLG May 5 '12 at 18:59
    
@Carlo_R. Interesting blogspot, I'll try to read more another day. Still, it does not help much towards understanding the reasons for different meanings. +1 anyway. –  Paola May 5 '12 at 20:22

When I was young, a long time ago (!), I was only aware of just about to mean very nearly, as in Just about everyone was there (a few people were missing) and I just about died when I heard the news. (I didn't actually die!)
About 20 years ago, I noticed that some sports journalists were using just about to mean only just as in The goalkeeper just about kept the ball out. (Meaning he saved the ball!). Interestingly, I recently noticed a football commentator use just about with one meaning in one sentence and then two minutes later used it with the other and completely different meaning. I have now noticed it being used by people other than sports commentators. This wouldn't be the first time that words have come to take on another often contradictory meaning. Like all evolutionary change, what starts off as a mistake, sometimes gets accepted and repeated, but it annoys me so much, I'll resist its lure.

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