“Tall Poppy”

In honor of my return from a five-week stay in Australia, a post in honor of one of the first Australianisms I encountered on my first visit there, four years ago. Stuart — who collected me and the student group I was leading at the Melbourne airport and drove us to town — commented, vis a vis the national character, on the “tall poppy.” I forget his exact explanation but here’s the OED definition: “chiefly Australian. a prominent or conspicuously successful person or thing, frequently with implication of attracting hostility from envious detractors.” Stuart suggested that the tall poppy syndrome — the reflex to attack anybody who stood out from the crowd by accomplishing anything — was a national characteristic and, to some extent, problem.

The metaphor originated in sixth century B.C.E. Rome — specifically, Wikipedia says, in

Livy’s account of the tyrannical Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. He is said to have received a messenger from his son Sextus Tarquinius asking what he should do next in Gabii, since he had become all-powerful there. Rather than answering the messenger verbally, Tarquin went into his garden, took a stick, and symbolically swept it across his garden, thus cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies that were growing there. The messenger, tired of waiting for an answer, returned to Gabii and told Sextus what he had seen. Sextus realised that his father wished him to put to death all of the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang lists examples of the term being used in nineteenth-century Britain, but fifteen of the twenty citations from 1869 on are from or in reference to Australia or New Zealand, including this from Richard Beckett’s 1986 Dinkum Aussie Dictionary:

Tall poppy: Any Australian who reads more than the sporting results and knows how to use snail tongs. Someone who aspires to intellectual excellence and cannot tell the difference between one make of car and another. The species is much hated in Australia and is always being cut down to size.

Here’s what the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, which contains 9 billion articles from 2010 to the present, says about the frequency of use of “tall poppy” by country:

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About half of the twenty-three U.S. hits are actually by or about Australians. But that still leaves a few examples.

  • Actress and singer Carrie Brownstein said in an interview: “How comfortable one is taking credit for their work depends on the person. I think tall poppy syndrome is endemic to smaller creative communities, but I also really value the fairly anti-capitalist approach of the more radical artistic communities from which I came.
  • Tech businesswoman Marian Salzman wrote in a Forbes article that Meghan Markle “may be under great scrutiny because the tall poppy often gets chopped down, but I think she’s a 2020 version of John F. Kennedy Jr. circa the mid-’80s.” (This was written in July 2019.)
  • New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in her scorecard for the second Democratic presidential debate in August 2019 (how long ago that seems), wrote of then-candidate Kamala Harris: “Tall poppy syndrome. After she garroted Biden in the first debate, everyone came after her, challenging her health care plan as she struggled to explain it herself.”

As we are wont to do, some Americans have tried to turn the expression on his head. In 2018, two entrepreneurs started a company to protect people, especially women, against online harassment. They called it Tall Poppy. One of the founders, Leigh Honeywell, explained it to Fast Company:  “The idea of tall poppy syndrome is that…anyone who becomes prominent in their field or in politics or whatever, they get cut down. So we protect the tall poppies.”

“Tipped to”

A recent New York Times article about the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards noted that the film Joker “had been tipped to win big at the awards.”

I’ve been in Australia for the past month or so, and that phrase “tipped to” is quite common here. Merriam-Webster online provides a definition: “chiefly British: to mention as a likely candidate, prospective winner, or profitable investment.”

The results for a Google News search for a phrase are all British, Irish, or Australian, for example this Daily Mail Headline: ‘Meet your new Bachelor! Jett Kenny is tipped to be this year’s suitor.”

It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the term, since the OED doesn’t have an entry for it. It is, however, used in a citation for another word (“super,” meaning “superannuation,” which is what Americans refer to as 401 (k) plan). It’s from the Sydney Bulletin in 1973: “In some cases where the executive’s own company contributes substantial sums to his super scheme … the tax commissioner is tipped to take a far more sceptical view.”

Google Books has only use prior to that. It’s from the 1964 proceedings of the Kenya National Assembly.

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As for American use, there isn’t much. The only other recent use in the Times was in the article about last year’s BAFTA awards, which noted that The Favourite “had been tipped to win big.”

But it turns out that both articles were written by Times correspondent Alex Marshall, who is British. And so I dub “tipped to” a faux NOOB. But it is very much a British/Australianism, so shouldn’t it have an OED entry?

 

“Swan about”

Sam Sifton, the food editor of the New York Times, sends out an email newsletter a couple of times a week. Not to be harsh, but I find his style a little precious. In a recent dispatch, for example, he talked about a roast chicken recipe which is so good that, he predicts, “it’s all anyone in your set will be talking about in coming days.” I don’t feel like anyone has had a “set” since the 1950s.

Then there are the Britishisms — two in a mere 699 words. He writes, generously, “We are standing by if something goes pear-shaped with your cooking or your [Times] account.”

Elsewhere, he notes that he and his colleagues are accessible on social media. For example, “We swan around on Facebook.”

“Swan around” was a new one on me, but it had a British feel, akin to “lark about.” And British it is. The OED definition for the verb “swan” in this context is: “To move about freely or in an (apparently) aimless way (formerly, spec. of armoured vehicles); hence, to travel idly or for pleasure. Frequently with about, around, or off. slang (originally Military).” All the citations are British, starting with the first, from The Daily Telegraph, in 1942: “Breaking up his armour into comparatively small groups of..tanks, he began ‘swanning about’, feeling north, north-west and east for them [sc. British tanks].”

The most recent is from Dirk Bogarde’s 1980 novel A Gentle Occupation: “She swanned about at the party like the Queen Mother.”

The expression found its way into American English not long after that. Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in 1996, “There are a slew of books about making newspapers more civic-minded and a slew of ideologues and burnt-out journalists swanning about, calling themselves journalism experts and reformers.” (Note also the British “burnt” instead of American “burned.”)

In his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain wrote of a hypothetical dilettante restaurant owner: “He wants to get in the business — not to make money, not really, but to swan about the dining room signing dinner checks like Rick in Casablanca.

By the way, “swan about” sounds more authentically British to my ears, but according to Google Ngrams Viewer, “swan around” has been more commonly used since the ’70s.

There have been a couple of dozen other examples of both versions in the Times over the last two decades. Even so, I don’t think it will catch on in my set.

“Tie-up”

I was listening to NPR the other day, and heard the proposed merger between Jeep and Peugeot referred to as a “tie-up.” I can’t actually find the show but there are quite a few other uses of the term, for example in an NPR story last August: “In their latest gasp for fresh ideas, Macy’s and J.C. Penney made the same choice: A tie-up with ThredUp, the largest online store for second-hand clothes.” And the New York Times in July referred to “talks of a tie-up between Fiat Chrysler and Renault.” (I guess Peugeot won out over Renault.)

I suspected a NOOB, a, because I had never encountered this meaning of “tie-up” and, b, because Americans have such a familiar and very different use of the noun. The OED defines this as: “A stoppage of work or business, esp. on account of a lock-out or strike; a stoppage of transport, a traffic hold-up.”

The dictionary’s information on merger/”tie-up” interesting. It started as a U.S. phrasal verb meaning ‘To associate or unite oneself or one’s interests with (or to).” From the New York Evening Post in 1903: “It becomes his first interest to make business for that yard. He can best do this by tying up with the other navy yard representatives on the committee.” The verb had migrated across the Atlantic by 1928, when The Daily Express wrote, ” Registered readers..have..‘tied up’ with the newspaper which..offers the best..insurance benefits,” the quotation marks indicating a relatively new usage. (I suspect also that by this time it was fading away in the U.S.)

The OED defines the noun rather generally, as “a connection or association,” and the first citation is from 1927, also from The Daily Express: “There is a tie-up, too, over this firm with the gramophone records. Every record of the ‘Happiness Boys’ is an advertisement for Happiness Chocolates.” (We might refer to that as a “tie-in.”) The citations run through 1974. All, with the exception of an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, are British, and none refer specifically to a financial merger, leading me to think that this is a rather recent usage.

I asked Michael Regan, senior markets editor at Bloomberg, the worldwide business news enterprise, and he agreed with my hypotheses. “My sense,” he wrote me, “is that ‘tie-up’ is a Britishism that has crept into the language of the American financial press over, say, the past decade.”

Better yet, he gave me some data. He was able to chart the use of both “merger” and “tie-up” in the myriad business-news sources that are published on the Bloomberg terminal. (They’re international but dominated by U.S. sources, Mike told me). He came up with two nifty graphs. This one shows the relative frequency of “merger” over the past ten years:Screen Shot 2019-12-20 at 10.33.20 AM

And here’s “tie-up”:

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It’s almost too neat: over the past five years (not ten, as Mike guessed), “merger” has fallen and “tie-up” has risen.

Mike also had a theory about “tie-up”‘s popularity:

I’ve been in financial journalism so long that I’m not sure how big of a deal they are to regular-news editors, but editors here and at other financial pubs are big sticklers for avoiding word echoes. It sort of makes sense in this corner of the journalism world, since you’re more prone to word echoes when writing about, say, a merger. And tie-up is a good synonym for merger because its short character count makes it good for headlines.

Word echoes, also known as word repetition, are what writers and editors are trying to avoid when they use what H.W. Fowler, in The King’s English (1908), called “elegant variation.” It’s the sort of thing sportswriters do when they refer to a second baseman not by name, but as “the fleet-footed second-sacker.” Fowler was not a fan, observing that “Many writers of the present day abound in types of variation that are not justified by expediency, and have consequently the air of cheap ornament.” Fowler listed many examples, including an article from the Westminster Gazette that, in the space of twenty lines, described paintings that “made, fetched, changed hands for, went for, produced, elicited, drew, fell at, accounted for, realized, and were knocked down for, various sums.”

One can only imagine what he would have made of “tie-up.”

 

 

 

“Splashed Out”

Jan Freeman, former language columnist for the Boston Globe, is one of the sharpest observers I know, and when she passes on a tip, it’s always worth listening to. So it was the other day when, on Twitter (@Jan_Freeman) she directed me to an article about holiday tipping in the November issue of Real Simple Magazine. The paragraph in question:

Rounding up to the nearest dollar on your coffee run is not necessary, but it’s a nice gesture, especially if you’re a regular or a barista has gone out of their way to make your visit special. “If they’ve really splashed out on the latte art or given you a great recommendation for walking around the neighborhood, go ahead and make it at least 20 percent,” says Emilio Baltodano, founder of Eleva Coffee in Brooklyn, New York.

And the phrase in question is “splashed out.” It was a new one to me, and when I looked into it I confirmed (as Jan suspected) that it wasn’t being used in the traditional way. The phenomenon of Americans slightly or not so slightly changing the meaning of a British expression isn’t a new one: see “cheers.” On the blog, I label these terms “shape-shifters.” Mr. Baltodano used it to indicate making a big effort, but the OED confirms that’s not the traditional British meaning.

d. colloquial. To spend (money) extravagantly or ostentatiously. Frequently const. adverbs, esp. in to splash (money) out on (something). Also absol.

1934   Times 7 Mar. 7/5   Public money ought not to be splashed about in this manner without grave and searching examination by the House of Commons.
1946   F. Sargeson That Summer 82   After we’d splashed on a talkie we went home.
1960   S. Barstow Kind of Loving ii. ii. 170   I splash eight-and-six on a pound box of chocolates and send them with a little note.
1973   Courier & Advertiser (Dundee) 1 Mar. 2/2   Allied now plan to splash out an extra £150,000 on advertising.
1978   Morecambe Guardian 14 Mar. 17/2   Splash out on something new to wear; the result will be worthwhile.

 

So it seems to have started as “splashed” or “splashed about,” with the “splashed out” form taking hold in the 1970s. Judging by the New York Times, it’s gotten some use on these shores, mostly in reference to business or sports moguls shelling out cash. From 2016: Disney chief Bob Iger “splashed out $1 billion for a one-third stake in Major League Baseball’s streaming technology, with the option to buy it out.” 2017: former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer “splashed out $2 billion for the Los Angeles Clippers in August 2014.” And in 2018, “teams in the decidedly mediocre Chinese Super League splashed out more than $400 million on international stars like Carlos Tevez and Oscar, outspending even the English Premier League.”

As far as I can tell, it’s the precise equivalent of the traditional U.S. “shell out,” the moral being, never underestimate the appeal to journos of elegant variation.

Update: A lively discussion in the comments has persuaded me that, in Britain at least, “splashed out” is not the same as “shelled out.” I don’t agree that “shelled out” always or even usually implies reluctance, but, clearly, “splashed out” conveys enthusiasm (sometimes deployed ironically) or splurging. I still maintain, however, that the three New York Times examples are equivalent to “shelled out,” suggesting that U.S. use of “splashed out” has shape-shifted it a bit.

Stalking the Elusive “Meant to”

Some of the differences between British and American English are quite subtle. I give you the expression “meant to.” It’s certainly used here, with the meaning “designed to” or “intended to.” We would say, “I meant to get here early but I was delayed,” or, “In ‘Mona Lisa,’ the clouds are meant to represent God.”

But in recent decades, the British have used it in a distinctive way, as did the model Naomi Campbell in this quote from The Guardian:

I remember the day I was spotted in the street. It was a warm April afternoon, and I was hanging out with my friends after school. The three of us were dressed in our Italia Conti uniforms: a pale blue dogtooth kilt, a dark blue V-neck sweater, shirt, blazer, tie. We were meant to wear straw boaters, too, but never did.

An American would say “supposed to,” and that’s basically what this British “meant to” means. Another example comes from an NPR interview with the British novelist Sadie Jones: “The hotel — he’s meant to be renovating it — and he’s sort of meant to be renovating himself.” Her meaning is along the lines of “tasked with.”

Interestingly, the OED stresses a slightly different sense in its relevant entry.

d. In passive, with infinitive clause: to be reputed, considered, said to be something.

1878   R. Simpson School of Shakspere I. 34  It is confessed that Hawkins and Cobham were meant to be buccaneers, and it is absurd to deny the like of Stucley.
1945   Queen 18 Apr. 17/1   ‘Such and such a play,’ they [my children] will say, ‘is meant to be jolly good.’
1972   Listener 9 Mar. 310/1   America..is meant to be a great melting-pot.
1989   Times 30 Mar. 15/1   It [sc. evening primrose oil] is also meant to be good for arthritis.

 

The 1945 quote from Queen indicates that it was at that time a fairly new (and youth-based) usage. But it still apparently provokes some ire, as in this sniffy comment on an English-language website: “The now-common use of ‘meant’ instead of ‘supposed’ in that context is a relatively recent phenomenon in the UK, and appears to have come in from the bottom, like so many other instances of poor usage and mispronunciation. The usage is rare in other speakers of Commonwealth English.”

Here are a couple of examples from British Twitter:

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Now, as far as this blog goes, the question is whether British “meant to” has crossed to the U.S. I recently spotted it for the first time, in an article by the Maryland-born, Berlin-based writer Ben Mauk, reprinted in the anthology The Best American Travel Writing 2019. He’s talking about a pagoda in Cambodia and he says, “Only monks and laypeople are meant to live at the pagoda.”

That’s not much to go on, so I asked my sharp-eared daughter Maria Yagoda, who had alerted me years back to “fully“–come to think of it, a similar case, since there’s overlap in usage and the differences are subtle. She said she had definitely heard it aand would send on some examples–but she hasn’t come across any yet.

So I went on American Twitter and found this:

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At this point, “meant to” is On the Radar. Stay tuned.

“An historic” (and such)

Joshua Friedman (@joshuajfriedman) writes on Twitter:

Have you written or read anything about the relatively recent resurrection of “an historic”? My casual experience makes me think it happened around the 2008 election, but I haven’t seen data.

He’s referring to using “an” rather than “a” before words that start with a non-silent “h,” like “habitual,” “happy,” and “hotel” (but not “honest” or — in America — “herb”). Here’s the general lay of the land, from Google Ngram Viewer (which has reliable data only through 2000):

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You can see “an historic” was traditionally more common in Britain (red line) than in the U.S. (orange line), but that “a historic” overtook it in both countries — in the late ’30s in America, in the late ’60s in Britain. So “an historic” counts for me as Britishism. The question is whether Joshua’s correct and it’s lately been taken up by Americans.

By the way, I chose the mid-’20s as the start of the chart for a reason. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage was published in 1926, and in the very first entry, Fowler takes on this subject, writing in his inimitable way:

“A” is used before all consonants except silent h (“a history,” “an hour”); “an” was formerly used before an unaccented syllable beginning with h (“an historical work”), but now that the h in such words is pronounced the distinction has become pedantic, & “a historical” should be said and written; similarly “an humble” is now meaningless & undesirable.

And also by the way, in 1997, when Kevin Kerrane and I were choosing a subtitle for our anthology The Art of Fact, we chose A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, only briefly considering An Historical….

So have things changed since 2000? Contra Friedman, apparently not significantly. The News on the WEB (NOW) consists of nearly 9 billion words published on news sites between 2010 and the present. In it, “a historic” shows up 6.56 times per million words and “an historic” 1.52 times per million words, a proportion that has held steady from 2010 till now. Still, that 4-1 ratio reveals “an historic” having surprising staying power, which is probably what Joshua was observing. According to NOW, it’s used most commonly in Ireland, and least commonly — but not negligibly — in Canada and the U.S.

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And here are some examples of its American use over the course of just five days recently, also taken from NOW:

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