“Crisps”

This happened on Twitter the other day. Just for your reference, the initial tweet was by Mignon “Grammar Girl” Fogarty, a popular blogger on matters of language and usage and a resident of Nevada.

 

 

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I’ve blacked out the name of the person who asked “crisps or chips?” but the Internet says she’s an American and recent graduate of Columbia University. And I see to my surprise that I’ve never done a post on “crisps,” which is what the British call what Americans call potato chips, or simply “chips.”

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I actually have noticed some American use of “crisps” in recent years — not so much for potato chips, which I think is pretty well entrenched as a term, as for other crunchy, marginally more healthy snack items, like this:

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Or this:

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And what sort of “chips” did Mignon Fogarty have for lunch? One of my favorites.

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“At university”

On previous occasions, I’ve addressed Americans using, in various circumstances, the British term “university” rather than “college,” which Americans traditionally use even in reference about institutes of higher learning that indeed are universities. That is, someone who graduated from Pennsylvania State University would say he or she “went to college” there, or “when I was in college.” (To make matters even more complicated, this Penn Stater would, I reckon, refer to “my university” or “the university.”)

Recently, I’ve noticed a spate of Americans not saying “in college” but either “at university” or “in university” (which seems to be a Canadian or Australian favorite). Some examples:

State University of New York Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson: “When I was at university, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph system.”

Sarah Karlan, a writer for Buzzfeed “Despite her family losing their home and business during the depression, [Edith] Windsor graduated from high school and would continue on to earn a degree from Temple University. It was at university where she would first fall in love with another woman.”

I’m not sure of Majd’s nationality but here’s a tweet of hers. (And by the way, Lady Gaga went to New York University.)

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And these tweets all emenated from a 200-mile raadius of New York:

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Anachronistic “On About” and Anomalous “Catch Him Up”

I was watching Better Call Saul the other night (Season 5, Episode 9, to be precise), and the character Kim Wexler exclaimed to Lalo Salamanca: “That‘s what you’re on about?”

I covered the expression “to be on about” something in 2013; it’s kind of the British equivalent to the American “going on and on about.” The problem with Kim’s use of it is that Better Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad, with the current season taking place in 2004, and “on about” didn’t really take hold on these shores till after that. This chart from Google Ngrams Viewer gives a bit of a sense of the timeline:

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I say “a bit” because both the British and American timelines overstate the use of the phrase, as a result of examples like a record review saying of a musician, “he’s on a lot about ten of the tracks.” My conclusion is that the NOOB “on about” was close to nonexistent in the U.S. in 2004, and would not have been used by a New Mexico lawyer with no apparent obsession with English television or novels.

At about the same time, I was talking with a University of Delaware colleague, Ann Manser, who said she was watching an actual English TV show, Lovejoy (Season 1, episode 9, “Death and [sic] Venice”), and was taken aback to hear an American character say “catch him up.”

That actually took me aback because I wasn’t familiar with the expression, which, Ann explained, is the equivalent of our “catch up to him.” (We do have a “catch [someone] up,” but it’s different. If a kid has missed school, the teacher might ask another student to “catch her up on what she missed.”) Ann said she and her husband thought the phrase was some sort of clue, maybe that the supposed American wasn’t really American after all. But no, there was no follow-up. You might call it, “The Case of the Shoddy Teleplay.”

“Come a cropper”

The always vigilant Nancy Friedman alerted me on Twitter to something she labeled “Attempted Britishism” in this passage from an Esquire piece by Charles M. Pierce:

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The Britishism part is the phrase “come a cropper” and the “Attempted” part is the apostrophe, which doesn’t belong. Nancy checked it out and found Pierce frequently used the expression, always with an apostrophe. (The asterisk after “president” is another story, presumably Pierce’s commentary on the fitness of the current occupant of the office.)

Gary Martin, in his Phrase Finder website, has a good explanation of the phrase’s origin, which has do with the nether quarters of a horse — the “croup” or “crupper.”

In the 18th century, anyone who took a headlong fall from a horse was said to have fallen ‘neck and crop’; for example, this extract from the English poet Edward Nairne’s Poems, 1791:

A man on horseback, drunk with gin and flip,
Bawling out — Yoix — and cracking of his whip,

The startish beast took fright, and flop
The mad-brain’d rider tumbled, neck and crop!

‘Neck and crop’ and ‘head over heels‘ probably both derive from the 16th century term ‘neck and heels’, which had the same meaning. ‘Come a cropper’ is just a colloquial way of describing a ‘neck and crop’ fall. The phrase is first cited in Robert S. Surtees’ Ask Mamma, 1858:

[He] “rode at an impracticable fence, and got a cropper for his pains.”

By the time John C. Hotten published his A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words in 1859, the phrase has come to refer to any failure rather than just the specific failure to stay on a horse:

“Cropper, ‘to go a cropper’, or ‘to come a cropper’, that is, to fail badly.”

Martin also debunks the association of the phrase with one Henry Smith Cropper, who began selling  a platen printing press in 1866. “It was a successful design and before long all platen presses were known as croppers. It is suggested that ‘come a cropper’ derives from the accidents that print workers had when catching their fingers between the plates of the presses…. There’s no truth to it though.”

Here is an arcane point that you are welcome to skip. Part of Martin’s proof that the Henry Cropper etymology is bogus is the presence of various uses of “cropper” in John C. Hotten’s 1859 slang dictionary. In fact, a search through Google Books reveals that Hatten didn’t include the phrase till his 1874 edition.

The OED cites that 1874 use, as well as these subsequent quotes:

1875   A. Trollope Way we live Now I. xxxviii. 241   He would ‘be coming a cropper rather,’ were he to marry Melmotte’s daughter for her money, and then find that she had got none.
1877   H. A. Leveson Sport Many Lands 464   My horse put his foot in a hole and came down a cropper.
1951   T. Rattigan Who is Sylvia? i. 230   We bachelors welcome competition from married men. We so much enjoy watching them come the inevitable cropper.
1963   Times 30 Jan. 1/7   I came a proper cropper, dearie, all black and blue I was.

The quotes tell an interesting tale. The use of quotation marks in the Trollope suggests that the figurative, non-horse use, at least, was at that point new. And the Terrence Rattigan and Times quotes both have infixed adjectives before “cropper,” suggesting that the phrase had become a cliche, or at least well worn.

As for British and American use of the phrase, the Google Ngrams Viewer chart, showing frequency of use in books, is illuminating:

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It’s similar to the pattern we saw for “we all of us.” British origin, but Americans catch up and use it about the same in the turn-of-the -20th-century period (in this case shortly after the turn). Then separation in the mid-twentieth century, followed by a slight closing of the gap as the phrase begins to seems old-fashioned in the U.K. and appealing in the U.S., in part as a result of the NOOBs phenomenon.

Ngram Viewer only has reliable data through 2008, but the New York Times archives show continuing solid use of the phrase. “Come a cropper” has appeared 94 times in the Times, all since 1920; here’s a baseball article from five years later:

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But the Times has grown partial to the phrase over time, with all but thirteen of the uses coming since the 1970s, and 17 of them since 2000. A couple of interesting things turn up in the newspaper’s archives. For one, Richard Nixon used “come a cropper” in the White House transcripts released as part of Watergate investigation in 1973:

For an inquiry to start with the proposition of [Sam] Ervin and [Howard] Baker, where you don’t come a cropper right there at the beginning on whether you can get the three branches. What’s your view of the three-branch, John [Erlichman]?

And check out the most recent use of the past tense, in a 2017 crossword blog by Caitlin Lovinger:

Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 6.19.40 PMThat’s right, it’s (wrongly) hyphenated, “a-cropper.” The hyphen shows up other times in the Times, including in a column by language maven William Safire. You can sort of see the impetus behind both, as the word “a” in the phrase doesn’t act the way we expect the word “a” to act, making it seem like there’s some sort of abbreviation going on. It’s similar to the way people write highfaluting or highfalutin’, rather than the correct highfalutin. So get rid of the apostrophes and hyphens and use “come a cropper” naked. It feels good!

“We all of us”

A while back, an (American) Facebook friend posted something to the effect of, “We all of us have to be compassionate.” I was struck by the “we all of us” phrase; the typical American way of saying it would be either “we all have to be …” or “all of us have to be…” Turns out, no surprise, that the effectively redundant “we all of us” is traditionally more British than American.

Google Ngram Viewer shows an interesting pattern.

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My sense is this kind of shape has shown up for other words and phrases covered here. That is, similar trends in Britain and the U.S. in the nineteenth century, leading up to roughly equal use at the turn of the century, a Henry James/William Howells era when literary style in the two countries was similar. (Remember, Ngram Viewer uses the Gooogle Books database, which only includes published sources, mainly books.) Then a divergent American trend over the course of the Hemingway-influenced twentieth century, in which the term in question would sound fussy or stiff, followed by a closing of the gaps in recent decades, that due both to a reduced popularity of the phrase in Britain (where it has started to sound old-fashioned) and an increased use in the U.S., because NOOBs.

The phrase shows up twelve times in OED citations, ten of them by British writers, including Joseph Addison (“We all of us complain of the Shortness of Time,” 1711) and George Eliot (“We all of us carry on our thinking in some habitual locus where there is a presence of other souls,” 1876). The two U.S. examples are from novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and Clarence Edward Mulford, in 1860 and 1908, respectively — both before the American divergence.

Other databases tell complementary stories. The Corpus of Historical American English shows use of the phrase peaking in the U.S. in the 1920s, disappearing in the 1980s, and popping up again just a little bit in recent decades:

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The News on the Web corpus, charting the years 2010-2020, shows only moderately more uses of the phrase in Britain than America.

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Those numbers are a little misleading. Of the 20 hits ascribed to the U.S., the nationality of the speaker or writer can be discerned in 12, and of those only six are American, including the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who said in 2017 after being accused of sexual harassment, “We all of us are awakening to the reality that how men have behaved toward women for eons is not OK.” There’s also an odd quote from novelist Rick Moody: “Ernest Hemingway famously said of Mark Twain’s legacy that ‘we all of us came out from under Huck Finn’s skirts.'” (It’s odd because Moody mangles the actual Hemingway quotes, which is: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. […] it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” The skirt reference is presumable to a scene in Twain’s book where Huck disguises himself as a girl.)

My investigation of “we all of us” turned up one heavy American user of the phrase. That would be our former president, Barack Obama, who has employed in oratory at least three times: a 2009 speech to the NAACP (“And we, all of us in government, are working to do our part…”), a 2011 Iowa town hall meeting (“As tough as things are, we, all of us, are incredibly blessed to have been born in the United States”), and his 2015 State of the Union address (“So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes”).

Now, you may have noticed that in all three of the quotes, there are commas in the phrase. That is, the transcriptions show him saying “we,” then pausing and emphasizing the word with “all of us” (or “all of us in government”). That’s a bit different from the phrase as used in all the written examples above. I submit that in fact, Obama used it without a pause, and the commas were inserted by transcribers, perhaps because they were Americans and unfamiliar with the straight-through “we all of us.”

However, I am too lazy to check out my contention. If anybody else wants to, here’s video of the SOTU address. I almost hate to put it out, because the gap between Obama and the current occupant of the White House is so painfully chasmatic. But anything in the interest of science. According to this transcript, the phrase comes about three quarters of the way through.

 

 

 

 

Collective Nouns

I was intrigued by something New York Times soccer (football) writer Rory Smith mentioned the other day. Apparently there had been a discussion on his newsletter about the way British usage considers a team plural, but American usage has it singular:  “Chelsea are playing today” versus “New York is playing today.” (If only). I’ve looked at the issue a a few times on the blog, most recently here; you can see all the posts by typing the word “plural” into the search field at right.

But I haven’t covered why this difference exists, and Smith reported getting a message from a reader with an explanation:

I think the American use of the singular “is” as opposed to the plural “are” came about as a result of the Civil War. Prior to the war Americans talked and wrote about the United States using the plural — these United States “are.” After the war common usage changed to the United States “is.” Gradually that usage came to be applied to other groups such as sports teams.

I found myself reacting skeptically, and sure enough, when I ran it by linguist Lynne Murphy, she was dubious about both of the reader’s claims. First, she said, “The relevance of the Civil War to the singularisation of the US is something that’s been said and debunked in various places (or at least, claimed to be too simplistic). Language Log has done some: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1794 and there’s this: https://t.co/teBf5Xo4t6.”

I subsequently found, in addition, an article by Ben Zimmer on the Visual Thesaurus website that pinpoints where Smith’s reader probably got his take. In Ken Burns’s wildly popular 1990 documentary about the Civil War, historian Shelby Foote says:

Before the war, it was said “the United States are.” Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always “the United States is,” as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an “is.”

Foote didn’t make the idea up; Zimmer quotes several others who espoused it starting in the 1890s. But none of them had any hard evidence. It turns out the War did not in fact mark an abrupt change. One scholar analyzed Supreme Court decisions and found, “justices continued to use the plural form through the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the plural usage was the predominant usage in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Only in the beginning of the twentieth century did the singular usage achieve preeminence and the plural usage disappear almost entirely.”

Google Books Ngram Viewer similarly finds that in U.S. books, “The United States are” (red line) prevailed until about 1880, after which “The United States is” (blue line) commenced a rapid ascent.

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Smith’s reader’s other claim is that singular verbs for sports teams and other groups followed the example of “the United States.” Lynne Murphy didn’t buy that, either, calling it “fanciful/misguided.” There’s a section on this (complicated) topic in her book The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, in which she cites research to the effect that singular use for collective nouns (“the government,” “the army,” “Parliament,” “Congress,” “New York,” “Chelsea”) has been on the rise worldwide since the 18th century. Americans have been the trailblazers, in other words, and the British the laggards.

One interesting line of research suggests that, in the 20th century, the British reversed course and started doing the plural-verb-for-collective noun bit more, possibly to set themselves apart from the Yanks. (A similar thing happened in Britain with the end of words like “realize/realise” and “organize/organise.” The “ize” form was more popular until the late 19th century, when the very-much-non-American “ise” started to surge.)

An example comes from a database containing Hansard, the proceedings of the house of Parliament. Here’s a chart showing the declining frequency of the phrase “the government is”* since 1910. (The bottom number — 2.58 in 1910, 0.70 in 1990 — is key, indicating how often the phrase occurs per million words.)

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And here’s the chart for “the government are”:

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All of which leads me to suggest that Rory Smith’s readers take up a new topic: why do Britain have the odd habit of using plural verbs for collective nouns?

*Note. Pure searches for “the government is” and “the government are” would lead to false positives, for example, sentences like “Members of the government are working hard.” To avoid these, I searched for instances where the phrase followed a colon and thus began a clause.

“In the Event”–a Little Help, Please?

For reasons that are clear when you read the date of this post, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands, part of which I’ve spent by reading Stephen King’s novel The Institute (a page-turner). My NOOBs-dar was struck by two sentences. The first was in the line of dialogue, “I hope you’re sure they’re keeping shtum, as the saying is.” For “shtum,” see this post.

The second was this: “In the event, no gunshot came.” That “in the event” is equivalent to “as it happened” or “as it turned out,” and I had always thought of it as a Britishism. The OED has a couple of (obviously non-American) citations from 1570 and 1612. The next is from British-born Yank Thomas Paine in 1791: “But all his plans deceived him, and in the event became his overthrow.” All the rest are from Britain, up to novelist A.S. Byatt in 2009: “In the event, they were overwhelmed by rain.”

But that’s anecdotal evidence, and I have been having a hard time proving this expression is a Britishism, much less a NOOB. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, containing about 2 billion words published on the web in 2012-2013, indeed shows higher use of “in the event” in Britain, and especially Ireland, than in the U.S.

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But the trouble is, the vast majority times in every country, “in the event” isn’t used the Stephen King/A.S. Byatt way. Rather it’s “In the event that it rains …” or “in the event of a sellout” or “Anyone participating in the event…,” etc. I have not figured out a way for singling out this particular meaning in GloWbE or any of my other usual suspects, including Google Books or Ngram Viewer and the New York Times. (The Times is worst of all in this investigation because a search for “in the event” turns up every time the paper has used the word “event”; it considers “in” and “the” non-searchworthy minor words.)

So: if anybody has any bright ideas on how to quantify the use of “in the event” meaning “as it turned out” in Britain and the U.S., I am all ears.

Update, later that same day. Two things. First, judging from the comments, I didn’t make it clear enough that I’m not only talking about “in the event” as a standalone phrase, almost always followed by a comma, and not phrases that begin “in the event that” or “in the event of.” For some reason, the latter are common in the U.S. but not the former. Go figure.

More important, I sent my plea out over Twitter and immediately got some great information and suggestions. Writer James Marcus, acting on a hunch, searched for “in the event” and “Henry James” and got this from The Master’s 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle: “And the touch, in the event, was the face of a fellow-mortal.” Of course, James, though born and bred in the U.S., veered toward Britain in language, manner and eventually residence, in a sort of human heliotropism.

Actual linguist Lynne Murphy gave me a great tip for using GloWbE and the other databases at English-corpora.org. By searching for “. In the event ,” (no quotes), I could eliminate a lot of the noise and produce only cases where the phrase starts a sentence and is followed by a comma. Sure enough, on GloWbE, that produced an even more pronounced frequency in Britain.

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And even the low U.S. figure is deceptively high because a lot of the hits, though mostly published in U.S. journals or websites (one’s from the Daily Mail), were written by British people. For example, this is from an article about soccer (football) from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “In the event, the only ‘crack’ was the sound of the ball flying off Mario’s boot into the far corner.” But right there on the page, it says that the author of the article, Simon Moyse, was “Born in London.”

But a handful of the hits are legit American, for example this from the Daily Kos, by Matt Pociask: “In the event, though, the various statesmen who assembled at the Convention in 1787 had a fairly clear mandate for change.” Pociask identifies himself as an “Atlanta area lawyer.” (He may have gotten the lingo at work. On LinkedIn, Pociask says, “I’m currently a claims counsel for Hiscox … a leading specialist insurer rooted in England.”)

Another resource at English-corpora.org is the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which contains 2 billion words published between 1990 and 2019. It yields 71 examples of ” . In the event ,” in that time, again, some of them published in the U.S. but written by English people. But also again, some are legit, including this from a 2019 Slate article about Game of Thrones, by the American military strategist Robert Farley: “In the event , the snowstorm made it difficult for Team Alive to even take note of the weapons, and Team Dead squandered one of its biggest advantages.”

So Stephen King is not alone.