“Numpty”

I was surprised to find that I have never covered this term for a stupid or foolish person, given that I have done wazzock and shitgibbon, and that British insults are much in the air. The OED describes “numpty” as originating in Scotland and gives this possible etymology: “Origin uncertain; perhaps an alteration of numps n. or numbskull n., with ending perhaps remodelled after humpty-dumpty n.” The first citation is from 1985  (‘They are a pair of turkeys,’ he said. ‘Numpties, the both of them.’–P. Firth, The Great Pervader), and more recent ones show a migration to England.

Neither the OED nor Green’s Dictionary of Slang show U.S. use, but the term did appear in the New York Times in 2009, when Dallas-born novelist Bill Cotter said:

In the mid-’80s, Boston’s Kenmore Square, where part of [his novel Fever Chart] is set, was home to three-card-monte men, ordinary punks, beer-devastated Red Sox bleacher-seat numpties, the Guardian Angel menace, and the only music venue worth visiting in that fourth-rate city, the Rat, a black basement often populated with bloody-nosed hardcore girls swinging tiny fists of stone.

More recently, I’ve started to see it over on Twitter, inevitably regarding the most frequent subject of all these insults, the U.S. president. As I’ve noted previously, the Tweetdeck application lets you filter tweets geographically. Here are some recent ones that use “numpty” and were posted within 200 kilometers of New York City:

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“BAL-let” (pronunciation)

New York Times critic Gia Korlas writes today:

It was dismaying that [Lara] Spencer, a host of “Good Morning America” on ABC, would openly laugh at the news that a 6-year-old boy had elected to study ballet. Listing Prince George’s curriculum on Thursday morning, she ticked off “religious studies, computer programming, poetry and ballet.”

She pronounced it, “BAH-lay.”

And then she continued. “Prince William says George absolutely loves ballet,” she said, looking mystified while she stifled laughter. “I have news for you, Prince William. We’ll see how long that lasts.”

I’m not sure why Korlas thought the pronunciation of “ballet” was noteworthy. But it caught my eye because that’s the way the British give the stress in the word, whereas Americans put the accent on the second syllable. (The vowel sound in the first syllable, for both British and Americans, is like the “a” in “cat,” so perhaps Korlas was struck that Spencer said it to rhyme with like the first word in “Bah, humbug.”)

It’s one of those cases where the Brits seem (to me) to make a big point of not attempting to adopt the original language, in this case French. Other examples include MAHN-ay (the painter), PASS-ta (the Italian noodles), Cuh-RACK-iss (the Venezualan capital), and JOCK-o-vitch (the Serbian tennis player). At least they don’t put a “t” in ballet, as they do in “fillet” (or “filet”) and “valet.”

Spencer is American, which I found out from Wikipedia, which oddly calls her a television “presenter” in the British manner. I wonder if she cleverly used the the British pronunciation of “ballet” because she was talking about British people. Ms. Spencer, if you happen to come upon this post, please enlighten us!

“Shtum”

Nancy Friedman recently alerted me to an American use of a Britishism I had been unfamiliar with. (As she does.) It was from a blog post by an American writer named Tim Carmody, referring to an interview with public radio figure Ira Glass, in which Carmody thought Glass was unforthcoming: “he kind of schtums up and falls back on generalities and a few broad compliments.”

The OED doesn’t have an entry for “schtum,” but, unsurprisingly, Green’s Dictionary of Slang does. Green’s says its origin was the Yiddish word for “silent” and gives these citations:

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One immediately notices the array of spellings — shtoom, stumm, schtum, stumm, and stumpf — and the procession of Union Jacks, indicating all of the sources are British. In an admittedly less than comprehensive search, I was unable to find any other American uses beyond Carmody’s, other than an National Public Radio interview with the British author of a novel called Shtum (about a 10-year-old boy with autism who has never spoken). Therefore I’m classifying it as “Outlier.” (BTW, Green’s has a separate entry for the verb form Carmody used, “shtoom up.”)

The word apparently emerged from Yiddish to the British criminal underground; Green’s first citation is from a memoir of petty crime and prison by Frank Norman. I was able to antedate that by one year. British journalist Laurence Wilkinson’s 1957 book Behind the Face of Crime has this passage (the snippet view was all I could get from Google Books):

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“Good on You” (not “Ya”)

The American clothing chain Men’s Wearhouse has a new ad campaign. You don’t have to watch the whole thing; the relevant bit comes in the last three seconds.

I’ve covered the expression “Good on (someone, usually “you”) a couple of times, and I’m slightly embarrassed to see that the second time I did it, I had forgotten the first time. Anyhoo, the Men’s Wearhouse spot is consistent with usual American–as opposed to the original Australian–pronunciation. That is, the announcer says. “Good on you,” as opposed to the Australian “Good on ya.” Of course, with the attempted pun (Men’s Wearhouse clothes supposedly look good on its customers), he would have to.

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“Mate” as Direct Address

I have covered “mate” a couple of times as a synonym for “buddy” or “friend.” But this sign in a men’s room in the Seattle airport is the first time I’ve seen it in America as a form of direct address:

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The capital M in “Mate” suggests to me that the writer wasn’t especially comfortable or familiar with the term. Meanwhile, both the excessive politeness and the “eh” at the end suggest that he or she might be Canadian.

In any case, the first two citations in the OED for this use of the word are both from Englishmen (Arthur Polehampton and Lord Robert Cecil) who noticed it in their travels in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century.

1852   R. CecilDiary 31 Mar. (1935) 36   When the diggers address a policeman in uniform they always call him ‘Sir’, but they always address a fellow in a blue shirt with a carbine as ‘Mate’.
1862   A. PolehamptonKangaroo Land 99   A man, who greeted me after the fashion of the Bush, with a ‘Good day, mate’.

It had arrived in Britain by 1880, when this line of dialogue appears in a novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: “Who’s the magistrate hereabouts, mate?”

In the U.S., the comparable terms include “buddy,” “pal,” and, in recent years, “dude.” Those words are often used in a hostile, or at least passive-aggressive manner. “Mate” works well for this purpose, as the men’s room admonition illustrates. I’ll be curious to see if it catches on in these parts.

New Horizons in “Sport”

Nancy Friedman points out a new hashtag campaign by Nike, seemingly launched yesterday on Twitter:

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That’s the British “sport” rather than American “sports.” The usage has been noted on this blog from time to time. With Nike buying in, I expect it to surge.

“Hotchpotch”

Sometimes NOOBs are entertaining, often they’re useful, but once in a while they are purely pretentious. I’d say that’s the case when the term is very rare in the U.S. and there is an exact or very nearly exact American equivalent. The word used in a tweet by the San Francisco Business Journal and flagged to me by Nancy Friedman certainly qualifies.

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The word is “hotchpotch” and the American equivalent is “hodgepodge.”

The etymology is complex and interesting. The original English term is “hotchpot,” dating from no later than 1381, and deriving, the OED says, from the “Anglo-Norman and Middle French hochepot (French hochepot ) dish containing a mixture of many ingredients, especially kind of stew made with minced beef or goose and various vegetables (c1214 in Old French).” “Hotchpot” took on metaphorical meaning, as “A confused mixture of disparate things; a medley, a jumble” by 1405, followed five years later by a rhyming version, “hotchpotch,” referring both to the stew and the figurative jumble. “Hotchpot” and “hotchpotch” both acquired yet another continuing meaning, in law, as “The reunion and blending together of properties in order to secure equality of division; bringing into account, esp. on intestacies.”

“Hodgepodge” came on the scene in 1579, according to the OED, from the pen of poet Edmund Spenser. In the Dedication to The Shepherd’s Calendar, “E.K.” decries writers who have found the English language to be insufficient:

they patched up the 
holes with pieces and rags of other languages, borrow- 
ing here of the French, there of the Italian, every, 
where of the Latin ; not weighing how ill those tongues 
accord with themselves, but much worse with ours: 
so now they have made our English tongue a galli- 
maufray or hodgepodge of all other speeches.

“Gallimaufry” is another name for a mishmash, both of food or anything else.

I’m not sure why “hodgepodge” became the preferred American version, but it did, starting in about 1900, as this Google Ngrams Viewer chart illustrates.

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My guess is that the chart actually overstates the frequency of American “hotchpotch.” The New York Times has used it 37 times in its more than 150-year-history, all but a handful coming from British or other foreign speakers or writers. The most recent exception came from a 2002 article about (American) football, noting that the New York Giants had a hotchpotch offensive line.” In 1954, movie critic Bosley Crowther referred to The Golden Coach as having “a spectacularly hotchpotchly cast.”

On the chart, it’s interesting to see that in 1880, “hotchpot” (combined British and American, red line) was the most popular form, while it barely exists today. I take my hat off to the few souls who use it; they are really owning their pretentiousness.