“Cinema”

The particular meaning of this word I have in mind is not what the OED terms “Films or movies collectively; films or movies considered as an industry, art form, or type of entertainment.” (E.g, “Bergman is a master of cinema.”) This has been in common use among arty types in the U.S. for a very long time.

Nor am I referring to a meaning that I believe common in Britain but which I haven’t heard in the U.S. It’s the equivalent of our “the movies” — “I love going to the cinema on a rainy afternoon:

Rather, I’m thinking of a cinema as a place where you go to watch movies. The OED quotes a headline from The Sun: “Top films coming to a cinema near you this summer.” As the dictionary notes, “Movie theatre [sic] is the more common term in North America.” That would be joined by “movie house” and, more recently, “multiplex.”

But I’ve been hearing this cinema-as-place a fair amount on National Public Radio, and a good number of uses show up when I search the NPR website. For example, this from a July 28 report on virus restrictions in the District of Columbia: “Theaters, cinemas and entertainment venues can apply for a waiver to host arts, entertainment or cultural events.” And, the day before, this from host Ari Shapiro on new drive-in movies: “Pop-up cinemas are, well, popping up.”

Meanwhile, New York Times movie reviews now note they will be playing at “virtual cinemas.”

Google Books Ngram Viewer confirms the sense of British predominance (though the term declined in popularity from about 1950-1980), with Americans starting to close the gap in the 1980s.

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Looking just at American books, the data shows “cinema” more or less neck-and neck with  “movie theater” since the ’80s.  (The chart does somewhat overstate the popularity of “cinema” because it omits “theater” by itself; that is, if you were going to the movies with someone you might say, “I’ll meet you at the theater at 3.” For pretty obvious reasons, I didn’t include “a theater” in the search.)

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The change makes sense. “Movie theatre theater” and “movie house” are both kind of clunky, and “cinema” sounds classy, always a good thing. The only trouble is, who knows if there’ll even be cinemas anymore?

“Clobber”

Correspondent David Griggs sent from England a note saying “you may be interested” in an example of the word “clobbered” in the New York Times. He was clearly implying it was a NOOB, but the word — meaning “to badly beat or defeat” — didn’t strike my ears as such. I checked the Times archive and found that “clobbered” or “clobber” have been used in the paper 1,720 times since 1990, frequently in a sports context. (“

Google Books’s newly beefed-up Ngram Viewer told an interesting story:

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That is, more use in the U.S. from the ’40s through about 1970, then a big spike in Britain over the next twenty years or so — which may account for David Griggs’ sense of it as a British word — followed by a period of slightly greater U.S. use.

But then David sent along a couple of sources asserting that “clobber” originated in British R.A.F. slang. The Online Etymology Dictionary  dates it to 1941, but doesn’t give any citations or sources. And a Merriam-Webster article says, “Pilots of the British air force during the 1940s were supposedly the first to throw around the punchy verb ‘clobber” (emphasis added): again, no evidence.

The OED does offer some, though from 1944 rather than 1941. Its first citation is from the R.A.F. magazine Gen, which had the line “Did anyone clobber any?” (The “any” apparently referred to flying bombs.)

The next two citations are from American sources, the first, reflecting a move in meaning from bombing to beating, from a 1949 reference to the University of Michigan football team: “The Wolverines clobbered their opponents 42 to 3.” And the second comes from Max Shulman’s 1951 novel The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: “‘Poor loser!’ they kept yelling as they clobbered me.”

And on my own I found a 1946 use by an American writer, Percy Knauth: “Bayreuth was clobbered badly.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang adds some interesting bits to the story, starting with some lines from a poem in an 1894 issue of the Australian magazine Truth: “The larrikin / So full of sin, / has now no fear of getting clobbert.”

Then two citations that illuminate the word’s move to America.

From 1000 Destroyed, 1946, by Grover Cleveland Hall: “It didn’t appear the war was going to last long enough to clobber them.”

And from the 1948 novel Twelve O’Clock High: “‘Hit it?’ Savage asked. ‘Clobbered it, I think, sir.'”

Hall was a public relations officer for the 4th Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Force — which was headquartered at the former R.A.F. base at Debden, England, starting in 1942. And Twelve O’Clock High was modeled on activities of the 306th Bomb Group, based at another R.A.F. facility, at Thurleigh.

As David Griggs said to me in an email, “Interesting just when Ngram says ‘clobber’ took off in the US: the late 1940s; all those American servicemen returning from WW2 Europe…” Exactly. The remarkable thing is just how fast it took hold in the U.S. For reasons I won’t speculate on, “clobber” and America were made for each other.

Update: The comments to this post and some additional investigation revealed several additional points of interest. First, the slogan of the comic book character The Thing has been, at least since 1964, what you see in the image below.

TheThing

Second, I should have pointed out a second, apparently unrelated British use of “clobber,” as a slang term for clothing (dating from the 1870s) or equipment or gear (1890s). They’re still in use today but have not penetrated America.

And finally, “the clobber passages” is a term that refers to the six or seven biblical verses that have traditionally been used to support the idea that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

 

“Fine”

My general understanding is that, weather-wise, where Americans would talk about it being “a nice day,” British people would refer to “a fine day.”

I still remember my first awareness of the latter. It came nearly fifty years ago, when I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Looking at a Gutenberg edition of the novel now, I can see why I was struck by this usage. The very first line is, “‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay.” The conversation continues (I have left out a lot of words about what Mrs. Ramsay’s son James, who really wants to go to the lighthouse, is thinking):

“But,” said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, “it won’t be fine.”

“But it may be fine—I expect it will be fine,” said Mrs. Ramsay.

Fine!

Now, Americans would sometimes refer to a “fine day” — indeed, a classic song by Carole King and Gerry Goffin says, “One fine day, you’ll look at me/And you will know our love was meant to be.” But the difference seems to be that American “fine” and “nice” bring with them a positive association, and are used in contexts other than weather. (“Have a nice day!”) Whereas British “fine” is more purely a description of weather we might call “fair.” Here’s an OED citation from 1913:  J. G. Wood Insects at Home iii. 337   “On a fine day, it is very interesting to watch the ants.”

After all these years, I just encountered for the first time an American use of this “fine.” It occurs in Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. On p. 44 we read, “Beaverbook convened key meetings in his downstairs library or, on fine days, outside on a balcony outside his first-floor bedroom (the second floor in American parlance.”

I have categorized this under “Ventriloquism” — the phenomenon of Americans consciously or unconsciously adopting Britishisms when writing about British people or topics.

 

A “Whilst” Landmark

I last wrote on “whilst” in January 2019, after Lynne Murphy had selected it as her U.K.-to-U.S. Word of the Year. I quoted Lynne quoting Nancy Friedman quoting numerous U.S. users of this synonym for “while,” and added some data of my own from Twitter.

But I was moved to return to the word last week, when the New York Times tweeted:

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In my little world, that is a big deal.

I took the opportunity to do a little more “whilst” research. First, I used Google Books Ngram Viewer to look at the frequency with which the word has been used in British and American books. U.S. uses is in red, British in blue.

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It’s a familiar pattern — rough equivalence around 1800; in the nineteenth century, British rise and American decline to the point of nadir; then British decline, and in the 2000s, aka the NOOB Era, American resurgence.

I also revisited a question Lynne had posed in her 2019 post, about whether Americans ever pronounce the word with a short “i,” as if it were spelled “willst.” It’s not an easy question to answer because the word (it would appear) is more often written than spoken in the U.S. But I went back to Youglish, a website originally recommended by Ben Zimmer, which currently purports to have a selection of 663 YouTube videos of Americans saying “whilst.” (I’d say “purports” because on the evidence of looking at a couple of dozen, only about half, going by accent, are Canadian or American; the rest were recorded at American events but with British or Australian speakers.) Anyway, listen to this one at about the 3:00 mark.

You heard it — “willst solving tasks.”

“Yoicks”

[Note: This piece originally appeared on the “Grammar Girl” website. If you follow the link, you can also hear it as a podcast!]

A recent article in the LA Review of Books has the line “Yoiks! Dostoyevsky at his weirdest is for me the most-Gogol-like of the Russians.” And this comes from a recent issue of the Pittsburgh Current: “Yoiks! Are we totally sure Lincoln didn’t commit suicide?”

I’m familiar with that “yoiks.” My dear departed mother-in-law Marge Simeone used to say it. I always thought it was a jokey, mock-New York rendition of the word “yikes.” But it isn’t. Or, more precisely, it isn’t only that.

A look at the OED shows me how unaware I was. The main definition for “yoicks” is: “Chiefly Fox-hunting. A call or cry used to urge on hounds. Sometimes also used more generally as an exclamation indicating excitement or encouragement.” The first citation is from 1774, and here’s one from 1838: “The wood begins to resound with shouts of ‘Yoicks True-bo-y, yoicks True-bo-y, yoicks push him up, yoicks wind him!’”

Evidence of American awareness of the term can be found in the 1958 Warner Brothers cartoon short “Robin Hood Daffy.” Daffy Duck is the legendary outlaw, and every time he attempts an acrobatic feat, he shouts, “Yoicks! And awa-aaay!!!”

 

As early as the 1880s, according to the OED, the word began to be used in a slightly different way, as “An exclamation expressing surprise, astonishment, or fright.” It popped up on both sides of the Atlantic, including in a 1942 article in the American magazine Boy’s Life: “Yoicks! What a day for the game!” This jibes with the use of it by my mother-in-law (born 1914). And the 1942 date is interesting, because it suggests that “yoicks” begat “yikes,” rather than the other way around.

I say that because it was precisely in the early ’40s that the now-familiar interjection “yikes” was born. The OED’s first citation is 1971, but a crowd-sourced etymological investigation on Twitter was able to move that up by more than three decades. Joshua Friedman found this on newspapers.com:

Old quotation that reads "And if you can’t think of anything else to be grateful for, just be thankful [that] you’re not a turkey. It can’t be too bad, though; they get the axe and we get the bird. Yikes!"

The Merriam-Webster Twitter account offered this odd quote from the September 1, 1940, “Baltimore Sun”: “‘BAW-W-W-W!’ said Beelzebub, and his massive flanks heaved with emotion and distress. ‘BAW-W-W-W!’ ‘Yikes!’ Kewpie bleated and fled.” And Peter Gilliver of the “OED” staff tweeted a Canadian quote from October 1940: “An oat-burner in October, yikes!”

So I hypothesize that “yikes” is an Americanized version of “yoicks.” And I speculate that the folks who started to use “yikes” in the early ‘40s may even have (mistakenly) thought that it was the original term, of which “yoicks” was a Cockney rendition. (Such a process, which you might call hyper-corrective back-formation, happened with “hoity-toity,” which originated as such in the 17th century and was sometimes subsequently rendered as “highty-tighty.”)

Here’s where it gets complicated, or more complicated. There’s a significant chronological gap between the 1941 Boy’s Life quote and my came-of-age-in-the-1920s mother-in-law’s “yoicks,” on the one hand, and the 2020 quotes cited in the opening of this article, on the other. And so why did Americans come back to “yoiks”?

The example of another word suggests an answer. In 1999, the Beastie Boys—white rappers from New York—put out a song called “Three MC’s and One DJ,” which contained this lyric:

My name is Mike D, and I’m the ladies choice
You’ll wanna get next to me in Rose Royce
Y’all gather round to hear my golden voice
Cause when it’s time to rhyme, you know I get nice

Only Mike D (Mike Diamond) pronounced the last word “noice.” I’ve been trying to send him a message asking what was going through his mind when he made this decision—other than rhyming with the previous three line-ending words—but the Beastie Boys are hard to get in touch with. So I’m going with the idea that he was doing a version of a New York accent.

Even that is complicated. Without a doubt, the “oi” sound— /ɔɪ/ in International Phonetic alphabet, or IPA—is associated with New York, and in particular New York Jewish, talk. The Jewish association stems from the very word “oy,” and the more general one from both the unmistakable dipthongy way New Yorkers pronounce /ɔɪ/ (listen to Terry Gross of “Fresh Air” say “boy” is you want to know what I mean), and the “I met a goil on toity toid street” idea, a caricature of what was once a prevalent feature of New York speech but that has mainly faded away. You can hear the real deal in the clip of Groucho “Say the magic woid” Marx:

And some older New Yorkers might indeed pronounce “nice” a little bit like “noice.” Michael Newman, professor of linguistics at Queens College and the author of “New York City English,” explained in an email:

in New York City English when the /ai/ is followed by a voiceless sound, like ‘price,’ ‘nice,’ ‘heights,’ ‘bike,’ or ‘bite,’ or when that diphthong has no following sound at all like ‘bye,’ ‘tie,’ the first part of diphthong gets pronounced farther back in the mouth than when the /ai/ is followed by a voiced sound like ‘prize,’ ‘size,’ ‘hide.’ This phenomenon is called PRICE backing. Listen to any old movie or TV show set in NYC or even plenty of older white New Yorkers, and you’ll hear that.… When this backing gets strong enough it sounds something like but not exactly like the vowel in ‘CHOICE.’

To me, “noice” sounds more like what its definition on knowyourmeme.com says: “… It is often associated with the Australian or English [to my ears Cockney] accents.” “Noice” has a definition on knowyourmeme.com because it is, well, a meme. The website says it “is an accented version of the word ‘nice’, used online as enthusiastic, exclamatory internet slang to declare approval or sarcastic approval of a topic or achievement.” By 2013, “noice” had moved from hip to a trying-too-hard cliché. I specify that year because it’s when the comedy team Key and Peele broadcast a skit in which they both play rap “hype men” who clash over possession of a the word “noice.”

Also in 2013, the TV comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiered. The main character, Jake Peralta (Andy Samburg), tries too hard to be hip. Naturally, his personal catchphrase is “noice.” He even tries too hard to expand it, saying “toight” for “tight.”

So what I think happened is that the popularity of “noice” as a jokey version of “nice” led to the reemergence of “yoiks” as a jokey version of “yikes.” The theory isn’t possible to prove, but it’s supported by the fact that the more common  spelling is now “yoiks,” not the fox-hunting-derived “yoicks.” And “yoiks” looks like “yikes.”

If I ever hear back from Mike D, I’ll let you know.

 

‘Bollix’ [or ‘Bollocks’ or ‘Ballocks’] Up’

I’ve written briefly a couple of times about the off-color term “bollocks,” originally meaning testicles and since used in all sorts of colorful ways. (The link is the more recent post, and it has a link to the previous one.) I recommend the comments on both, many of which are relate to how offensive the term has been, until fairly recently, in Britain.

I imagine that the move to acceptability occurred following the 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The record company was actually brought to court on obscenity charges; it won. Incidentally, it appears that the album led to the change in the more common spelling of the word, from “ballocks” to “bollocks.” Check out this chart from Google Books Ngram Viewer, showing the incidence of the two words in British books:

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As to the aforementioned “colorful ways,” here are just a few of the variants in the invaluable online resource Green’s Dictionary of Slang:

My topic today stems from a video clip someone put on Twitter of the American MSNBC commentator Joy Reid:

In the clip, Reid says about the Trump campaign’s Tulsa rally (helpfully defining the term after using it), “They completely bollixed it. They completely messed it up.” New York Times reporter Tariq Panja commented, “Not heard the phrase ‘bollocksed it’ [more on the spelling issue in a minute] used on the news before, and certainly not in the US. But, it has to be said, she’s used it correctly here!”

Well, the fact is “bollix” is a common American verb of long standing, admittedly usually followed by the preposition “up.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang’s first citation is from a Purdue University publication in 1902; the next two also American (as are all citations through 1954):

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(I’m struck that both Jerome Weidman and Arthur Kober were Jewish New Yorkers, as am I, and the term does have a suggestion to me of that milieu. However, my Yiddish expert friend Andrew Cassel tells me it doesn’t stem from that language; he says  my feeling may stem from the fact that Yiddish has a great number of words denoting fouling things up or failing.)

The first British use in Green’s doesn’t come till 1960, in the Colin MacInnes novel Mr. Love and Justice: “I hope your private investigations haven’t b—d up the situation prematurely.” (The omitted letters indicate the offensiveness of the word.) And from then on, Irish and British uses are common, with spellings including “bollix,” “bollocks.” “bollox,” and “bollux.”

But why would “bollix up” have been established in America first, when all other forms of “ballocks” were much more widespread in Britain? I believe I know the answer, or at least part of it, and it has been suggested (though even there not accepted) only once before as far as I know, in a short article in 1949 in the academic journal Modern Language Notes. It’s this: American “bollix up” does not derive from “ballocks”=”testicles,” but rather from an older phrase with a different etymology, “ball up.” The OED‘s first definition: “Of a shoe (esp. a horseshoe), hoof, etc.: to become clogged with balls of mud, snow, or the like. Also with the horse as subject.” The dictionary has citations, all but one American, dating from 1760. This is from George Washington’s 1787 diary: “Apprehension of the Horses balling with the snow.”

And that verb led to this broader, exclusively American definition of “ball”: “To clog or tangle; to bring into a state of entanglement, confusion, or difficulty. Frequently as past participle, esp. in balled up.” An 1885 citation is from a Mark Twain letter: “It will ‘ball up’ the binderies again.”

It seems evident to me that that expression led to “bollix up” within a couple of decades — pace the OED, which gives a “ballocks” etymology. (Green’s is silent on the question.) The one thing I don’t know is why it took on the extra syllable. It may indeed have been a conscious or unconscious nod to “ballocks” (which was commonly used in the U.S. to refer to testicles, though mostly in a farming context). Or it may have have been merely to add emphasis. Either way, I’m convinced that America “bollix up” doesn’t principally derive from “ballocks.”

By contrast, the author of that 1949 article in Modern Language Notes, Thomas Pyle, contended that it did. Otherwise, he wrote, “the similarity in from and the identity in meaning taken together must be accounted a truly remarkable coincidence.” I’m going with remarkable coincidence.

There is one more wrinkle.  The expression “balls-up,” meaning a blunder or error, shows up in an 1889 British dictionary of jargon and cant. Robert Graves used it in his 1929 World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That: “Tomorrow’s going to be a glorious balls-up.” Then it became a verb with the same meaning as “ball up”, no later than 1947, when Dan Devin used it in For the Rest of Our Lives, his novel about the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (N.Z.E.F.) in World War II: “: If only they haven’t ballsed up the bomb-line we gave them.”  From then on it appears frequently in British and Australian texts.

And does “balls up” relate to “balls”=”testicles”? Without a doubt, yes.

Nuance or NOOB?

I was watching an episodes of The Simpsons the other night where an unsuspecting Marge takes a job at “a high-end cannabis boutique.” (To be precise, it was Season 31, Episode 17, “Highway to Well.”) On figuring out what’s going on, she exclaims: “I’m a drugs dealer!”

Over the years, I’ve written on several occasions on the British tendency to pluralize collective nouns, most recently the similar “drugs party”; that post has links to previous ones discussing such forms as “drinks menu,” “jobs report,” “covers band,” and “books editor,” all of which are on the rise in America. But Marge’s “drugs dealer” was jarring because the alternative, “drug dealer,” is so common here. The New York Times has used that phrase 4,340 times but “drugs dealer” only twice, and one of those was a quote from an English tabloid editor. (I suspect the other one, in 1972, was a typo.)

Truth to tell, “drugs dealer” is relatively rare even in the U.K., as seen in this Google Books Ngram Viewer chart showing the frequency of the two forms in British books:

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But it’s definitely out and about, as in these two random hits from the Google Books database:

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Back to the Simpsons, the episode’s writer was Carolyn Omine, an American. When my wife and I talked about the “drugs dealer” line, I (naturally) claimed it was a Not One-Off-Britishism. But she disagreed, saying that Ormine wrote it in an awkward way to suggest Marge’s discomfort.

What do you think, NOOBs readers?

Update: You lot certainly thought I was wrong. Here’s a pie chart of the responses to the survey (now closed):

When Marge Simpson said drugs dealer, was it a case of

And you lot were right. In a wonderful Marshall McLuhan moment, the writer, Carolyn Omine responded to my tweet about this post: “That was supposed to a mom-like mistake. It was to show Marge is so far removed from the drug world she doesn’t pronounce drug dealer correctly.” (She also commented on this post. See below.)

I stand corrected. And as I replied to her, it’s a very nice piece of writing.

 

“Kit out,” again

Lidl is a German supermarket chain that has operated stores in the U.S. since 2017, including one in our area, which explains why we get a Lidl circular every week. This appeared in the one we received today:

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In British lingo, “kit out” means equip or outfit. The first two citations in the OED are from 1961 and 1962, respectively:

  • Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell: “There are cases on record of writers having to kit out contemporary narratives with aliens and space-ships in order to make a sale.”
  • The Guardian: “A child can have ten days skiing for under £25 and be kitted out by Moss Brothers into the bargain.”

I covered American “kit out” in 2016 and discerned a “trendlet.” The Lidl circular suggests it might be growing into a full-fledged trend.

It’s interesting, by the way, that the product advertised should be an electric kettle — ubiquitous in Britain, quite scarce in the U.S.

 

“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.”

FCO_WLK_CHPPCT_-00_Walkers-Prawn-Cocktail-Crisps-1-2-oz

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:

crisps

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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