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Does the average American know its meaning? Is it used commonly in the spoken language? What connotations does it have?

Is it gender specific?

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To take your questions in order, starting from the title question:

  1. It's not very common. In text, since 1960, 'Pal', 'buddy', and 'chum' all stay relatively very low until 1990, but then 'buddy' rises fast to about 7 times as frequent by 2010 and 'pal' to 3 times as frequent.

NGram graph of frequencies of pal, buddy, and chum from 1960 to 2019. All stay relatively very low until 1990, but then buddy rises fast to about 7 times as frequent by 2010 and pal to 3 times as frequent

If you modify the parameters in NGrams, you'll see that limiting to the British or American corpus doesn't change the trend much.

As an AmE speaker it sounds very Wodehousian to me, like some old guy with a monocle drinking a g and t with an old rugby mate from public school.

  1. If it were spoken in context, an American would easily figure out that it is something vaguely like 'friend or pal or buddy or whatever'. But it sounds very high class British to Americans.

  2. The great majority of Americans don't have it in their production lexicon. Only a very very few Masterpiece Theater watchers (exposed to older British media) might at a stretch use it tongue-in-cheek.

  3. It is just as gendered as buddy/pal/mate which means it is used a) mostly b) by men, talking to c) men but d) that's not a hard rule. (that is, -if- it were to be used at all in the US)

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    If you adjust your nGrams chart changing "English (2019)" to "American English" or "British English", the trans-Atlantic difference does not look too great for chum though the buddy/pal gap widens in "American English"
    – Henry
    Feb 2 at 9:22
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    There are some specific uses of buddy, such as in Alcoholics Anonymous and other counselling/support, the "buddy system" in some activities (diving, school trips), and specific terms such as "drinking buddy". I don't think they would be very significant for the NGram totals, as they're all quite narrow, specialized areas.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 2 at 10:04
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    "As an AmE speaker it sounds very Wodehousian to me, like some old guy with a monocle drinking a g and t with an old rugby mate from public school." - I can assure you that 'pal' and 'chum' were widely used among the working and middle classes in the UK before World War 2. My father (born 1920) used, as a boy, to read a weekly boy's paper called 'Chums' published 1892 to 1941, and there were 'pals battalions' in the 1914 war of young men from the same towns who joined en masse. In the UK, 'Pal' and 'Chum' persist as brands of dog food. Feb 2 at 12:58
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    I am always flummoxed by what people say about who says what in English. I say all sorts of things outside the norm, as it were. Is anyone listening? [joke]
    – Lambie
    Feb 2 at 15:20
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    As UkE speaker, I don't hear 'chum' as gendered. It's definitely old fashioned, the only modern colloquial usage I come across is in the context of children. 'Did you meet your chums at the football match?' . Buddy to UkE ears is very American in the friend context.
    – Andy M
    Feb 2 at 16:17

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