“Fecking,” “Fookin'”

For the purposes of this blog, “British” refers to the British Isles, meaning not only the United Kingdom but Ireland as well. I mention that now because “feck” is of Irish origin, emerging in the nineteenth century as a verb meaning “steal.” From Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: (1916): “They had fecked cash out of the rector’s room.”

Some decades later, clever Irish people took advantage of how similar “feck” is to another word and began to use it as a Hibernian alternative. This line appears in The Bogman (1952), by the Irish writer Walter Macken: “The whole feckin world I’d give to be with her on the banks of the Ree.” Since then, various forms—including “feck off’,” “fecker,” and “feck it”—have been seen in the work of other writers, mostly Irish, in reproducing dialogue in novels, plays, and films.

A power user is the playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, whose parents were Irish but who was born and raised in London. I was initially excited to see the Corpus of Contemporary American English list 51 uses of “fecking” between 1995 and 99, but it turned out 44 of them were from McDonagh’s play The Cripple of Inishmaan, which was published in the American journal The Paris Review. Example: “Oh thank Christ the fecker’s over. A pile of fecking shite.” (The other seven “fecking”s in COCA came from Irish contexts as well.)

There has been a sprinkling of American uses over the years, for example in the title of a 2014 blog post by Charles Pierce of Esquire: “Not in My Fecking Backyard.” (It had to do with a controversy in Ireland.) I’ve noticed an uptick recently, which I peg to McDonagh’s popular 2022 film The Banshees of Inisheran. The word is used endlessly in it, including in costar Kerry Condon’s mic-drop line “You’re all feckin’ boring!”

In an interview, Condon contended, “It’s not a swear word. You can say it until the cows come home. My mother doesn’t swear ever. But she says ‘feckin’ all the time.” Stan Carey, who is both Irish and a scholar of language, bears her out, noting that in the 1990s TV comedy Father Ted, Father Jack shouts “Feck off!” regularly enough to make it a catchphrase. “’Feck’ is family-friendly, “ Carey wrote on his blog, “even according to advertising standards authorities…. As expletives go, it has a playful, unserious feel. People who are genuinely furious – as opposed to merely annoyed – or who want to be properly abusive, tend not to use feck: it just isn’t forceful enough.”

“Fooking”—commonly rendered as “fookin’”—is an example of what is known as eye dialect, spelling a word the way it’s pronounced, in this case from the north of England. Someone offered this definition on Urban Dictionary in 2003: “The result of someone with a Mancunian accent trying to say the word ‘fucking.’” An oft-repeated quote from singer Louis Tomlinson, from West Yorkshire, is “I hate fookin’ avocadoes.” And Adrian Chiles’ book We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, about supporters of West Bromwich Albion football, has the line, “He can’t see a fookin’ thing … and he’s got to drive we home.” (Note also the regionalism of “we” as the object of a verb.”)

As for American use, it’s sparse but growing. Journalist Charles Pierce, again, has a favorite epithet on Twitter: “Fookin’ eejit” (idiot). I searched Twitter for tweets containing “fookin’” and emanating in a 200 kilometer radius of New York City and it turned up a couple of dozen hits over the course of a week, including this from an account emanating from East Hampton, N.Y.: “For fook sake man! Im eating my fookin lunch here!!”

“Bits,” Revisited

World War I propaganda poster.

As I have mentioned before, I am working on turning this blog into a book. True to form, I’ve left some of the most extensive and therefore difficult entries to the end, which is why it wasn’t until yesterday that I tackled “bits.”

To state the obvious, this is a common word. How common? It is the 808th most frequently used word in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), just behind “decade” and ahead of “reduce.” The OED considers it to be six separate words—two of them verbs and four nouns. I am concerned here with the one of the nouns (the others have to do with the biting of horses, leather flasks, and computer information) that denotes a piece or part of a larger whole, literally or figuratively bitten off. Its entry has within it twenty-five separate variations, most of which are as commonly used in American as British English. (And some more so: as in a “bit part” in a movie, calling twenty-five cents “two bits,” and the meaning of schtick or well-rehearsed routine, as in this quote from Fred Astaire’s autobiography: “We were in Detroit—stranded—and that is where Mother did the pawning-of-the-jewels bit.”)

If you want my full thoughts on the matter, you’ll have to get the book (hopefully available later this year), but I’ll share here some thoughts on what I view as the main NOOB “bit”: using the word for what an American would most likely say “part,” often used in the plural and often preceded by an adjective. An early British example is from an 1873 humorous sketch in The St. Pauls Magazine, where the narrator describes wandering the halls of Parliament and coming upon a man who’s endeavoring to teach the members to “talk better.” This fellow poses a question:

“One of your great debates that fills three or four pages of your Times with the smallest of small print and runs over into the supplement—how much do you read of it next morning ?”

“Well, I generally glance my eye down the columns, and read the sentences where I see there have been ‘laughter’ and ‘cheers.'”

“Ah, just so, you read only the good bits. Now my plan is to make my pupils say nothing but the good bits. None of them shall speak longer than half an hour, and each sentence shall have a Thought in it.”

“The juicy bits” and “the naughty bits” show up in Britain in the 19th century as well, but really established themselves as phrases in the twentieth. An American would say “the good parts,” “the juicy parts,” and “the naughty parts,” or rather “the dirty parts.”

Most Americans, that is. One finds the occasional literary sort, like critic Richard Eder of the New York Times, writing of a Lina Wertmuller revival in 1976, “Enthusiasm for Miss Wertmuller’s later work may arm the spectator with the fortitude to mark out the good bits.” The same year, American science fiction novelist Ursula Le Guin wrote of H.L. Lovecraft in the Times Literary Supplement, “He imitated the worst bits of Poe quite accurately.”

This use of the word picked up steam in the U.S. in the ‘90s and 2000s, as in a 1999 quote from Time magazine, referring to prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s report on the alleged misdeeds of President Bill Clinton: “He wants America to believe he’d only included the good bits to help the legislature reach an informed decision.” More recently, a reader reports that the Turbo Tax program, while it’s loading, displays the message, “Hold on, we’re getting all the technical bits together.” (The be really British, it would have said, “Hang on.”)

One particular kind of “bits” deserves mention. A 1970 episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus had a sketch called “How To Recognise Different Parts of the Body,” which included this, well, bit (I quote from the Python Wiki):

A voiceover (John Cleese) points out more parts of the body:

10. The big toe

11. More naughty bits (a man standing wearing spotted Bermuda shorts)

12. The naughty bits of a lady (a lady posing wearing spotted Bermuda bra and shorts)

13. The naughty bits of a horse (a horse wearing spotted Bermuda shorts)

14. The naughty bits of an ant

15. The naughty bits of Reginald Maudling (a picture of Reginald Maudling wearing spotted Bermuda shorts)

In his humorous 1988 book God—The Ultimate Autobiography, Jeremy Pascall uses the phrase “dangly bits” five times, including his reference to the creation of Eve: “So much better formed, softer, rounder, smoother, with none of those ugly dangly bits.” “Dangly bits” caught on as a reference to men’s genitals and by 1999, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, had been shortened to just plain “bits.” An example is a quote from Twitter, which I especially like because it uses “bit” twice: “I was in the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday. My favourite bit was where Michelangelo painted in the Pope’s advisor, whom he detested, with a snake eating his bits.”

No surprise that at the U.S. vanguard was NOOBs hall-of-famer Dwight Garner of the New York Times, who, in a review of basketball star Jerry West’s memoir in 2011, wrote, “West seems here like both the Hatfields and McCoys. He shoots himself repeatedly in the head, feet and private bits.” The following year, Garner wrote that an author portrayed gay people as “pretty much like straight people, that is, except for what they do with their dangly bits.”

“Dangly bits” and “bits” appeared to be exclusively male provinces. To the rescue came “lady bits,” first spotted in 2005 and growing apace since then. Google reveals that “Lady Bits” is currently the name of a soap, a physical therapy practice, a zine, and an Australian cross-dressing salon.

The phrase is still an outlier in the U.S., but I imagine gained some traction after a 2021 exchange on Drew Barrymore’s talk show with Gwyneth Paltrow (an honorary English person, of course). Barrymore tasked her guest with coming up with alternatives to words you can’t comfortably say on morning network TV, like  “something beginning with v that ends in ‘ina.’”

“Lady bits?” Paltrow offered.

“Kidnap” (noun) and ACBL

I’ve written several times, I believe most recently here, about the phenomenon I call American Characters, British Lingo. It’s where a British novelist creates an American character and (unintentionally) has him or her use Britishisms. I am going to give it the acronym ACBL and plan to tag all relevant posts, starting with this one.

The current case is a fairly minor one. I’m a fan of the British mystery novelist Anthony Horowitz and just finished his latest, The Twist of a Knife. It takes place in London theatrical circles, and one of the characters is an American actor named Jordan Williams. At one point he says he and his wife “had a stupid row.” If that were the only ACBL in the book, I wouldn’t have bothered writing about it, because it is believable. Williams’s wife is English, he has lived in the country for a number of years, and furthermore, “row” is a useful word, with a slightly different nuance than “argument” or “fight.”

But I believe the second one is a slip on Horowitz’s part. Williams is talking about his background. He is Native American, and when he was three years old, social workers removed him and his three sisters from their home because their parents were deemed “unsuitable guardians.” He says, “You or I would call it kidnap, but they believed they were saving us.”

I can’t recall ever encountering “kidnap” used as a noun in this way. I (and I believe Americans in general) would say “kidnapping.” Is it a Britishism? The OED has an entry for “kidnap” as a noun meaning “the act of kidnapping,” but in three of the four citations, it’s used as an attributive noun, familiar to me from headlines referring to “A Kidnap Plot” or “Kidnap Verdict.” And the fourth (from a 1970s British novel) is “There was no money in killing you, but maybe a lot in a kidnap.” That sounds borderline okay to me.

I got a bit more confirmation from two other British dictionaries. Collins has a definition of “kidnap” as “the crime of taking someone away by force” and gives as an example “Stewart denies attempted murder and kidnap.” Macmillan has something similar and has the example “the kidnap of a local businessman.” I would absolutely say “kidnapping” in both those cases.

The American Merriam-Webster, meanwhile, doesn’t recognize “kidnap” as a noun.

I’d be interested in you all’s sense of whether this “kidnap” is a Britishism, and very much not an Americanism.

“Brekkie,” “Brekky”

As I mentioned in the last post, I spent January in Australia, where there is virtually no word too short to be abbreviated. One of the most prominent is the first meal of the day, which is rendered as “brekky.” Or “brekkie.”

Hungry Jack’s is Australia’s version of Burger King.

I saw both versions with what seemed like equal frequency. Unsurprisingly, there’s been debate on the issue, as in this article (which punted) and a Perth subreddit where someone posed the question: “Brekky, breaky or brekkie?” Most of the answers were facetious, but among the serious ones, “brekkie” beat out the “brekky” by a score of 3-2. “Breaky” does sometimes show up in the wild but, as some of the commenters pointed out, it’s been contaminated by the Billy Ray Cyrus song “Achy Breaky Heart.”

According to Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE), Australia leads the world in the use of both terms, with “brekky” being slightly more popular. Here’s the chart for “brekkie”:

Although Australia has outstripped both countries, the abbreviations started out in Britain and Ireland. The OED has a quote from the 1904 children’s book The Phoenix and the Carpet, by E. (Edith) Nesbit: “I’ve brought your brekkie, and I’ve put the little cloth with clover-leaves on it.” And in Elizabeth Bowen Ann Lee’s (1926), “Do call poor Bingo in..and give him his brekky.” Bingo is a spaniel. The first use in reference to adults I’ve seen is Green’s Dictionary of Slang’s citation of a line from Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “And then, when they settled down in a nice snug and cosy little home, every morning they would both have brekky, simple but perfectly served.”

In her youth, in the same period as the Bowen and the Joyce, Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, was partial to yet another variation. From her diary:

My sense is the words took off in Australia in mid-century but lay dormant in Britain till the 2000s, when both rose sharply, especially “brekkie.” Here’s a Google Ngram Viewer chart showing use in British English:

America has lagged behind, obviously.. GloWbE, which tracks usage in 2013-14, shows nine “brekkies” in U.S. sources, but even that’s deceiving, as most of them are quotes from Brits or Australians. However, there’s been a slight uptick in recent years, and I’ve labeled the terms “On the Radar” instead of “Outliers.” Here’s a graphic from a U.S. kids’ news service, posted just last week:

And Denver Post sports columnist Mark Kiszla wrote this in 2021: “The best breakfast in the world is a freshly baked almond croissant, eaten on a ski lift in Val d’Isere, France. Got get up early and move fast if you want to brekky with me, pal.”

Sign me up.

“Fit” Carries the Day

Apologies for the long gap in posting — I have been in Melbourne, Australia, leading a study abroad program for the University of Delaware, and pondering whether the preferred spelling is “brekky” or “brekkie.” The program is winding down and I have a free moment, so wanted to tardily report on Lynne Murphy’s annual U.K.-to-U.S. Word of the Year selection.

As the heading says, it was “fit,” in the sense of sexually attractive. Lynn notes that I have deemed it an “outlier,” but, as she delicately and accurately suggests, “Ben’s probably not in the right demographic for hearing it.”

The OED has the word first showing up in an exchange quoted in a 1985 Observer article: “Better ‘en that bird you blagged last night.” “F—— off! She was fit.” It seems to have been given a boost by its use on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show and on British reality TV shows, such as Made in Chelsea; the clip below is from a “super-fan show,” “Mad on Chelsea.”

Lynne suggests that the U.S. uptick in awareness of “fit” is largely due to another reality show, Love Island, where the word apparently is uttered so often that it’s included in an American glossary of unfamiliar terms used on the show. (And by the way, I think I have to take another look at “banter.”) The British characters on Ted Lasso throw it around as well.

And it shows up in a Love Island takeoff on SNL (at 1:12).

All well and good. But I still say it’s an outlier.


Lynne Murphy’s final nominee for U.K.-to-U.S. Word of the Year is “shrinkflation,” a portmanteau coinage so new it’s not even in the Oxford English Dictionary. Merriam-Webster added it just this past September, with the definition “the practice of reducing a product’s amount or volume per unit while continuing to offer it at the same price.”

The word’s certainly been used a lot in America of late — seven times in the New York Times in 2022 (and none before that). And it’s certainly a phenomenon. A brief glimpse of my own fridge shows me a 52-ounce Tropicana orange juice container that used to be 64 and a 1.5-quoart Breyer’s ice cream package that used to be 2.

And it’s certainly of British origin. In an online article about the word, Merriam-Webster credits it to the British economist Pippa Malmgren, in 2015 (while also noting than another economist used it with a different meaning, which didn’t catch on, in 2009). However, using the News on the Web (NOW), I found British journalist Marc Shoffman using it in 2013.

In any case, NOW shows the word being used fairly infrequently through 2021, all or almost all in U.K. sources. It expanded into the U.S. in 2022, but, as Lynne Murphy says in her newsletter, it may not “have had enough of a run as a ‘British’ term to be considered an import to the US.”

So what’s my vote for Word of the Year? As noted in the last post, “fit” is not yet common enough here. “Fiddly” is a solid choice, but I’m going with the cheeky one and casting my vote for “soccer.”

When Lynne names a winner, I’ll let you know.

“Soccer” and Other WOTY Candidates

I’ll get to the subject of this post in a minute, but first wanted to note that a couple of days ago, the blog had its three millionth page view. Luckily, I was there and ready to take a screen shot.

So hooray for us. Just goes to show that, for a committed and interested audience, there is no such thing as a too-narrow topic.

As long-time readers know, every year the estimable Lynne Murphy chooses two Words of the Year: an American word picked up in the U.K. and a NOOB. Last year’s U.S.-to-U.K. winner was the pronunciation of the title of the film Dune, and the U.K.-to-U.S. winner was “university,” which has been frequently discussed here. In her newsletter, Lynne listed this year’s nominees (as well as a link where people can express their preference or suggest other words). The U.K.-to-U.S. contenders:

  • Fit
  • Fiddly
  • “Soccer”
  • “Shrinkflation”

As the links indicate, I’ve covered the first two. “Fiddly,” more or less meaning “balky” and frequently appearing in the expression “fiddly bits,” is a full-fledged NOOB and I would support it as WOTY. “Fit”–meaning sexually attractive–on the other hand is still, in my experience, an outlier in the U.S.

“Soccer” might be surprising to some, as nowadays (especially during the World Cup), Americans are sometimes mocked or derided for using it to denote the game the British (and more or less the rest of the world) know as “football.” But is indeed a NOOB. It originated as a a reference to the Football Association, and to differentiate it from other forms of football, notably rugby. OED citations from the first, in 1873 (with the spelling “socker”), through 1935 are all from British sources.

“Soccer” did get picked up fairly quickly in America, seeming first by headline writers as a conveniently short word, as in this from the New York Times in 1906:

And of course, since then it’s become the American term of choice. To a slight extent, “football” has emerged as a NOOB to indicate the game with the round ball. It’s been slight because 99.9 percent of Americans will understand “football” to mean the game with the touchdowns and helmets. I don’t think there’s been a real life counterpart to the uber-pretentious Lisa Simpson, who refers to the home-grown sport as “American football.”

Next: “shrinkflation.”

“Faff”–Moving Up from Outlier

Hard to believe, but it’s been more than ten years since I looked at “faff.” The verb means dither or fuss, and is usually followed by about. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation, from an 1874 volume called Yorkshire Oddities, suggests that it originated as a regionalism: “T’ clock~maker‥fizzled an’ faff’d aboot her, but nivver did her a farthing’s worth o’ good.” There’s also a noun form, as in a 1960 OED citation: “Dithering about in a perpetual faff.”

Back in 2012, I labeled the word an “Outlier,” as I could find it only in one episode of Parks and Recreation and in some pieces by a New York Times sports blogger.

I was inspired to look at the word anew because Nancy Friedman sent me a tweet (remember those?) from Rick Wilson (@The RickWilson) that begins: “A bit of faffing about on the anti-anti-Trump right at the moment).”

I checked around and and found a reasonable amount of “faffing” including:

  • From a 2018 Times soccer article: “But he faffed around and did not shoot”
  • A 2019 article about skiing in China: “After much Google translating and faffing about, we got a ticket with ridiculously short skis and poles for about 130 renminbi, or less than $19.”
  • A tweet today from someone in Atlanta referring to “generic whine-on-Twitter faff.”

I have therefore upgraded “faff” to On the Radar.

And while I have your attention, I’ll note that the blog is up to 2,997,000 and some page views. That means it will hit three million within the next week. I’d like to set up some kind of doohickey where the three millionth person gets regaled with song and virtual fireworks, but that’s a bit beyond my capacity. I’ll have to settle for alerting you when I hit the milestone.

As always, thanks for reading and commenting.

Veddy Veddy?

A commenter on the previous post remarked that “uppity Canadians [from Ontario] are veddy proper Upper Canadians,” and a bunch of British people asked, basically, what the heck is a “veddy”? David Ballard replied:

It’s what Americans (and apparently Canadians) use when pretending to speak like a snobby British person. I reckon it’s what we heard/hear when that type of character (imagine those who populate Wodehouse’s books) says “very” in a confiding or authoritative way in old movies or, perhaps, in person. “My late uncle was a veddy important figure in the Raj, you know.”

My sense aligned with David’s but I was curious as to when, how, and why the custom started. The answer to the first, basically is 1932. That’s the date of the first example I could find, a one-sentence blurg in The Judge, an American humor magazine: “The Oxford Crossword Puzzle Book, veddy, veddy braincracking.” There are a bunch of other similar examples in the ’30s, which Google Ngram Viewer shows to be period when the term was not only introduced but skyrocketed in popularity, It leveled off around 1950, and has been up and down ever since.

(“Veddy” appears in some late nineteenth-century books as a rendition of baby talk, as in this quote from an 1894 book, stating that most men “sympathize with the little girl who, being asked if she had been good, answered, Not veddy good, not veddy bad–just a comferable little girl.”)

“Veddy” first shows up in the New York Times in a 1954 movie review by Bosley Crowther of a Danny Kaye movie, where he says that Kaye impersonates, among other characters, “a veddy British motor car salesman.” Crowther used the term about ten more times through 1967, no doubt contributing to its popularity.

But the backlash had already begun in 1954, when J.B. Priestley wrote an article in the Times about British accents. In it he commented:

“When some American writers want to have some fun with an English accent they make it say ‘veddy,’ presumably instead of ‘very.’ Now I pride myself on having a good ear but never. listening to every possible type of Englishman, have ever heard this ‘veddy.’ Where does it come from ? I find it veddy veddy puzzling.”

Not long afterwards, Edward Artin of the G.C. Merriam Company, publisher of Webster’s dictionary, wrote in to the Times with an answer. I present it as my last word on the subject.

“Americans’ articulation of the r in very (in fact, of all r‘s) may be described as comparatively sluggish. On the other hand, when a Southern Englishman says very he often articulates the r by thumping the tip of his tongue quite lustily but quickly against his palate, producing, to the American ear, a dd effect.

“Now, when this same Englishman says eddy he articulates the dd by hermetically clamping the tip and sides of his tongue against his palate so as to completely shut off the outbreath for a split second (producing what phoneticians call a stop or explosive). His sound between vowels here is appreciably different to his own ear from his sound between the vowels of very, and hence on the basis of purely his own speech the veddy jibe makes no sense. The average American, however, does not cut off his breath for even a fraction of a split second when he says eddy: he articulates the dd by much the same thumping of tongue-tip against palate that the Englishman uses for r in very. Thus the American listening to a Southern Englishman may apprehend the latter’s Perry as Peddy, and vice versa.”

Got Britishisms?

I just read and enjoyed See You in September, a memoir by Darryl Pinckney. Pinckney is a Black American writer (born in Indianapolis) but for some time (at least twenty-five years, it seems), he’s lived part-time in England, with his partner, the writer James Fenton.

So he comes by his Britishisms legitimately. Indeed, the most surprising thing to me, in this regard, is that I only found two of them in the book. However, he uses both of them a lot, and they are both pretty unusual (for an American).

The first is using “got” and “forgot” as the past participle form of “get” and “forget.” So Pinckney:

  • refers to “one of [his mentor Elizabeth Hardwick’s] recommendations I’d got from the
    library though she of course had it in her shelves.”
  • writes “We’d forgot to ring for the elevator.”
  • writes “they’d got engaged.”

Literally every other American would write “forgotten,” and every American with the exception of writers for The New Yorker would write “gotten.”

As the link in the previous sentence shows, I’ve previously written about “had got.” But I’ve only one or two Americans ever using Pinckney’s other main Britishism, and had been waiting for a few more sightings before addressing it. Here are some examples from the book:

  • a reference to a novel “which I’d not read.”
  • another to “everything I’d not done.”
  • “I’d not thought of quiche as heavy.”

The standard American phrasing would be “I hadn’t read,” “I hadn’t done,” and “I hadn’t thought.” Even in Britain, apparently, this is a bit unusual. In Lynne Murphy 2007 blog post on “Have contractions,” she cites another scholar, John Algeo as having examined a corpus and found

How about it, British readers: is the “I’d not VERBed” usage as rare as all that?