On Twitter, Lynne Murphy shared an interesting table from a 2018 scholarly article called “Word prevalence norms for 62,000 English lemmas.” (“Lemma” is a linguistics term that for our purposes basically means “word.”) The table shows “Words known much better in the US than in the UK (left), and vice versa (right).” I believe “Pus” indicated the percentage of Americans who are familiar with it, and “Puk” the percentage of U.K. residents. If you click on the image below, you should be able to see a bigger version.
For the purposes of this blog, the list on the right is obviously the interesting one. (I will say I’m struck by how many of the ones on the left relate to ethnic food.) The only word I’ve covered from it is “naff.” Anyone have a hunch as to any others that might penetrate here? I have to confess I’m unfamiliar with about half the British words. The one I’d give the biggest chance to cross the ocean is “yob.” We certainly have enough of them over here.
Sometimes writing this blog is like shooting fish in a barrel. Specifically, cod. I was reading Facebook and alighted on a post from the writer Tom Carson in which he said, “Because I just couldn’t face another day of yelling at my TV set, I watched The Man Who Fell to Earth for the first time in 40 years instead. Yes, it still looks gorgeous — and man, is it ever a preening load of echt-1970s codswallop, especially in the ‘Yay! Let’s quit compromising and go for TOTAL incoherence! That’ll impress people six ways to Sunday’ second half.”
So, “codswallop.” First step, go to Google Ngram Viewer to confirm British origin and American adoption. Check.
But hang on. I was surprised to see the use of the word start (in Britain) just before 1960, where I would have thought it was Shakespearean.
On to the second step, the OED, which has two definitions. The first is: “Britishslang (depreciative, chiefly London). An overly talkative woman, a gossip. Also in more general use, as a mildly depreciative term for a person. Now rare.” The first citation is from the English newspaper News of the World in 1928: “What is a ‘cod’s wallop’? According to a learned counsel..the term is an East-end [of London]colloquialism for ‘a woman who cannot keep her mouth shut’.” Then there’s a quote from a 2005 interview with the English comedy writer Alan Simpson, who was from Brixton, south of London: “In the thirties,..I was about seven or eight and my uncle..used to use it as a proper noun, he used to call me codswallop.”
Simpson’s quote is important, because in other sources he is credited with inventing the word. Indeed, the OED credits the TV show Hancock’s Half Hour, written by Simpson and Ray Galton, with the first use of the other (now prevalent) definition, “Nonsense, rubbish, drivel.” In an episode that aired in 1959, the character played by Sid James said, “Don’t give me that old codswallop.” And it took off from there.
As for American use, other than by Tom Carson, in the New York Times in 2018, Kara Swisher called the idea that Twitter and other platforms are rigged against Donald Trump “codswallop.” She continued, “You can look that fine word up on Google if you want to know what it means, by the way.”
Today, she wouldn’t need that addendum. But her point stands.
Twitter user @ktlikes sent along part of a tweet from the American writer Molly Crabapple
On January 20, 2017, the day of Trump’s inauguration, police kettled 217 anti-Trump protesters in the freezing cold and arrested them after sixteen hours.
Then he asked a one-word question: “NOOB?” I gathered he was talking about “kettle,” which I have been sadly familiar with over the past year, as a verb meaning (I quote from Lexico.com) to “confine (a group of demonstrators or protesters) to a small area, as a method of crowd control during a demonstration. ‘The plan was to get as close to the protest as possible without getting kettled..'” Lexico designates it as British, and the answer to @ktlikes’ question is yes.
The word first popped up in reference to protests at a G-20 Summit in London in April 2009. At the time, the New York Times ran a blog post on police response that got into the kettling term and concept. It included quotes from a Guardian article which suggested the tactic may have originated in football/soccer crowd control, and that the verb may have come from a noun used by police:
When the main body of protesters arrived on Wednesday from four different directions at their planned destination of the Bank of England, they soon found themselves hemmed in from all sides by ranks of police. Requests to leave the area were refused. This is, in police terms, the “kettle.”
The graph indicates increasing U.S. use in the 2010s, and in fact the linguist Lynne Murphy chose “kettling” as her 2011 UK-to-US Word of the Year. Ngram Viewer data only goes through 2019, and I would imagine the U.S. would have caught up to Britain by this point. “Kettling” has been used well over a dozen times in the New York Times in the past year, most recently two days ago, in a quote by a Washington Post journalist describing her experiences covering Wednesday’s insurrection:
Law enforcement started kettling, creating circles of police officers around people. I’ve been in those many times, and usually I say I’m a journalist and they let me out. They didn’t in this situation, and I was taken aback. I went to three different officers and said we were journalists. When they didn’t engage at all, I thought we might be in a dangerous situation.
Hillary Kelly is an American journalist, identified on her Twitter bio as a Philadelphia native. “Knob,” according to the OED, has two groups of meanings. The first, used both in Britain and America, refers to “A rounded lump or protuberance, and related senses.” The second, mainly British, refers to a penis, literally and figuratively.
The first literal citation is from 1922. Martin Amis used it in 1973 in The Rachel Papers: “My knob was knee-high to a grasshopper, the size of a toothpick.”
The first figurative citation, denoting “An annoying, unpleasant, or idiotic person (esp. a man or boy),” interestingly, is from 1920. All the examples are from British, Irish or Canadian writers, an example of the last being Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel Generation X: “I’d made all these plans to meet before, but he kept breaking them, the knob.”
And by the way, here’s a video giving the varying pronunciations of the word:
It’s hard to search for frequency of this sense of the “knob,” since there are so many others. I chose to search for the phrase “such a knob” on Google Ngram Viewer, and got this result:
For the same reason outlined in the paragraph above, it’s hard to quantify American uses, besides Kelly’s, of the insult. My best luck was with the tool in Tweetdeck that lets you search for tweets including a word or phrase that have been sent from a particular location. I chose a 200 km radius from New York City. There was a good bounty, surely because so many knobs have been acting knobbish in this country in recent days.
This one is from Western New York:
And this from the Adirondack Mountains of New York:
Then there’s this one, from Rhode Island, that suggests new avenues for research:
While we’re being timely, in addition to “jab,” Gigi Simeone mentioned that she had come across U.S. writers/speakers using “care home,” where normally, she said, Americans would say “nursing home.”
I wasn’t aware of ever encountering “care home” in a source from any nationality, so I looked it up in the OED, which has a “Draft Addition” listing as of 2011: “a small institution providing residential accommodation with health or social services for the elderly, vulnerable children, the infirm, etc.” That’s a more general definition than the American “nursing home,” where the residents would be elderly and not the other categories. The most recent OED citation, from the British author Christine Reddall in 2009, is: “When an elderly person goes into a care home, much of their independence and choice is lost.”
The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, which provides a snapshot of the use of the language in 2012 and 2013, establishes that “care home” was, at least in that moment, a Britishism. “Per mil” indicates the times “care home” comes up per million words.
It’s a little trickier to determine whether “care home” has migrated to these shores. I found a few uses in American sources, but they were a bit ambiguous. A New York Times obituary of the poet Diana di Prima said she “had been living at an elder care home since 2017.” In Britain, presumably, the word “elder” would have been superfluous. A June 2020 report on NPR attributed to an official of “a group that represents people with intellectual and developmental disabilities” a statement the effect that “there are consequences to paying less attention to people who live in other care home settings.” But the “other” suggests a broader meaning for “care home.”
I finally found what appeared to be an American “care home”=”nursing home.” A Wiredarticle posted in December 2020 talked about local U.S. health departments sending “extra help in certain cases, such as at a care home or to an infected health care worker.” Unfortunately, when I clicked on the name of the writer, Tom Simonite, I learned that he “received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cambridge and a master’s from Imperial College London.”
So for the time being “care home” remains On the Radar.
Linguist Lynne Murphy, at her Separated by a Common Language blog, each year chooses two Words of the Year: one that’s traveled from the U.S. to the U.K., and one that’s traveled the other way, and is thus of interest here. Yesterday she named the U.S.-to-U.K. word: “furlough.”
Today’s she announced her U.K.-to-U.S. selection. There were two runners-up, both of which have been looked at here: “reckon” and “rubbish.” She specified “rubbish” as adjective (“a rubbish idea”) and verb (“don’t rubbish my idea”). My various posts on the word (which you can search for in the sidebar at right) have been as adjective and noun. For the latter, in the U.S., “garbage” or “trash” are more common, except in Massachusetts. I will have to keep my eyes out for “rubbish” as verb.
And Lynne’s winner is … “jab,” covered here just a week or so ago. She included this funny cartoon from @birdyword on Twitter:
While we’re talking about end-of-the-year things, I want to offer hearty thanks to NOOBs readers and commentators, who make this enterprise worth doing. Hard to believe, but 2020 was my tenth year of doing the blog — the actual tenth anniversary will come in a couple of months. This year — as in every year since the first — there have been more than 200,000 page views, about 100,000 from the U.S., 60,000 from the U.K., and the rest from all around the globe.
My wife would like the house tidied up, a bit, for the holidays, and thus I have been collecting scraps of paper I’ve left here and there. One of them contains these scrawled words: “The president is in hospital now” — Rachel Maddow, 10/2.
Maddow is an MSNBC host, and she was referring to the fact that soon-to-be-ex-president Trump was what Americans would term in the hospital with the Coronavirus. “In hospital” is certainly a Britishism, and the piece of paper inspired me to remind myself that I had covered it once before, back in 2014.
I’ll pause to say to say that I am not receptive to arguments that the British way is more logical than the American. Logic plays a pretty small role in language usage. And (as I believe Lynne Murphy once pointed out), if the British are so averse to the intrusive “the,” why don’t they say they’re going “to pub”?
Anyway, in that earlier post, I had found only one American “in hospital,” from the radio show “This American Life,” so it definitely seemed a one-off. I now have four additional examples. However, they’re all from Rachel Maddow, so it’s not exactly a huge American fad. Maddow was using it as far back as 2010, when she reported that a Winter Olympics athlete crashed, and “died shortly afterward in hospital.”
Two years later she used the phrase in reference to the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings, and in March of this year, when the virus had just begun, said: “A slice of those same new infections from three weeks ago are the people who are now critically ill and needing to be treated in hospital.”
Maddow has appeared on this blog before. She
said that Franklin D. Roosevelt had “stood for president four times” (this turned out to be a bastardization of the British usage)
It isn’t often that NOOBs is timely and up-to-the-minute. But this post, suggested by Gigi Simeone, is about a word that’s as much in the news as a word can be. The rollout of Coronavirus vaccines over the past week in both the U.K. and the U.S. highlights the different common word used in each for an injection. Here it’s “shot”; there it’s “jab.”
Interestingly, “jab” originated in American underworld slang around the turn of the twentieth century, specifically meaning an injection of narcotics. But a more general sense had migrated over to Britain by 1959, when the OED cites this quote from Punch: “Receiving the hypodermic jab intended for the bullock.” (One can only imagine the context.) More recently there’s this 1973 quote from The Times: “The visitor must..take precautions and submit to a variety of jabs.”
I don’t recall ever encountering “jab”=”shot” in America. I would normally look it up in Google Ngram Viewer or another corpus, but at the moment don’t have the bandwidth to figure out how to eliminate all the other various meanings for both words. (In the U.S., for example, “jab” is frequently used as a boxing term and as both a noun and verb referring to a humorous insult. And don’t even get me started on “shot.”) Perhaps Lynne Murphy or another estimable scholar is up to the task.
Anyway, Gigi pointed out that she’s lately been hearing the hypodermic “shot” in the U.S. recently, and my investigation bears her out. I would imagine that a big reason is elegant variation — there’s only so many times a journalist can write “shot” or “injection” before yearning for a synonym. As far back as September, American virologist Jesse Erasmus said on NPR, “It would be nice if you could just have an RNA that can be manufactured. And then someone could just take a jab in the muscle, and then your muscle could produce that antibody, and you could reach protective levels.” (I am so not sure about this, but isn’t this more or less what happened?)
The New York Times has recently adopted the word, referring on December 2 to someone participating in a vaccine trial and getting “a jab in the arm.” But the acceptance was still a little shaky a week later, when the paper put the word in quotation marks in a headline:
Just yesterday, the Times used it in another headline, sans inverted commas — which would have ruined the play on words:
The word has a long and varied history. The current “usual sense” according to the OED is: “A person who receives a pension or stated allowance in consideration of past services or on account of injuries received in service; a retired person who receives a pension.” (“In earlier use,” the dictionary adds, “frequently applied to disabled soldiers and sailors of the Chelsea Royal Hospital and Greenwich Hospital.”)
Here’s what Google Books Ngram Viewer has to say about American and British use of the term (click on the image for a bigger view):
That is, sort of went back and forth in the 19th century, with notably more use in Britain in the 20th, but a pronounced dip there in the 21st. The OED citations are all British or Australian, with the exception of a quote from Herman Melville’s 1891 novella, Billy Budd: “The same thing was personally communicated to me now more than forty years ago by an old pensioner in a cocked hat, with whom I had a most interesting talk.” American use started falling off around then, slowly declining ever since.
I have the feeling — not backed up by the OED or other dictionaries I’ve consulted — that in Britain, “pensioner” might refer to a person who is no longer working but is not necessarily receiving a pension: what Americans would call a “retiree.” That’s suggested to me by the most recent OED citation, from Empire magazine in 1997: “Every other Thursday we do a golden oldies film club where we let pensioners come in for a pound.”
Bearing on the usage, probably, is the fact that in Britain and Europe, most retirees get pensions. In the U.S., by contrast, retirees generally receive modest Social Security payments but not pensions, which here are the offered (or not) by employers, not the government. They were once widespread, but as far back as 2008, only 13% of the workforce could expect to receive pensions; the number is certainly smaller now.
As a result, American uses of “pensioner,” what few there are, tend to refer specifically to people getting (often particular) pensions, not to a general class. For example, these quotes, all from 2020:
“The chief investment officer of one of the country’s biggest public pension funds said the government response to the coronavirus should be focused on supporting unemployed workers, not stocks owned by pensioners.”–CNBC
“[McClatchy’s] acquisition of Knight Ridder loaded it with billions of dollars more of crisis, and its pension thing is unsustainable. They say they have 28 pensioners for every employee.”–National Public Radio
“A spokeswoman for Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller who sits ex officio on the boards of pension funds serving teachers and other workers, said, ‘We are troubled by these reports, and we are closely monitoring the situation in accordance with our fiduciary duty and to protect the interests of our pensioners.'”–New York Times
Wes Davis, often mentioned on this site, used the expression on top of this post in an email the other day and parenthetically added, “(as Paul Hollywood says).” I’m not proud to say I had to Google to find out that Hollywood is a judge on “The Great British Bake Off.” But I didn’t really have to consult any sources to realize “If I’m honest” is a characteristically British expression. It just sounds like one.
Google Books Ngram Viewer confirmed the impression. It shows the expression coming on the scene in about 1990 and always being much more popular in Britain than in the U.S.:
Thoughtfully doing my work for me, someone on the Quora site asked, “Is the phrase ‘if I’m honest’ used outside the U.K.?” Three people responded, most pithily Andrew Humphrey, who said, “Wherever it is used, it is a pointless affectation. People in the UK are very fond of such redundant and pretentious words and phrases. They use these phrases to give their hackneyed or cliched pronouncements some fake importance or profundity.”
But more helpful was Luke Proctor, who dug up examples of two American using it, thus securing NOOB status:
If I’m honest I don’t believe the world would miss me if I never acted again.
Jamie Lee Curtis, actress
Because if I’m honest, people in the white world might be appalled, but in the black world they’re making myths out of me. And I know that ain’t the life
John Singleton, director
I also found, amazingly, no fewer than eight popular songs called “If I’m Honest”: by Blake Shelton, Missy Higgins, Brendan Murray, Julia Gargano, Jay Denton, the group All That Remains, and Kaitlyn Bristow of “The Bachelorette.” I know Shelton is American and assume Bristow is; I’ll leave it to you lot to sort out the nationality of the rest.
In a post on her blog, Separated by a Common Language, linguist Lynne Murphy did some investigating and found out that not only “If I’m honest,” but also the similar expressions “If I’m being honest” and “To be honest,” are used far more in the U.K. than the U.S. She goes on to muse:
One has to wonder: why are these such popular idioms in BrE? And then one has to wonder: is it because most of the time people are expected NOT to be honest, so it has to be marked up where people are being honest? There may be something to that — the British, after all, have an international reputation for not saying what they mean.
Of the three expressions, the one that sounds most familiar to my American ears is “To be honest.” So I plugged it in to Ngram Viewer and found this:
That is to say, it was roughly equally popular in both countries for a long time, and was used markedly more frequently in both between about 1980 and 2000. After that, it skyrocketed in Britain.