“Give a Toss”

From today’s New York Times, an article about the all-girl rock band the Go-Gos:

“Here were five women from my homeland, in angular haircuts and thrift-store miniskirts, tauntingly singing about their own public shaming — and not giving a toss.”

The author, Evelyn McDonnell, says that in 1981, when the band debuted, she was “a California-born punk-rock pirate marooned at a Midwestern public high school.”

Yet she uses the British expression “give a toss.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang‘s first citation for “toss” used this way is George Eliot’s 1876 novel Daniel Deronda. (“I don’t care a toss where you are.”) All subsequent citations are from British or Commonwealth sources until a 2012 American story called “Topless Vampire Bitches”: “A real horro nerd, Jimmy […] A shame that no one else gave a toss.”

It’s a nice NOOB. While it means the same as “give a hoot” or “give a fig,” it has a nice salty air to it–though there’s apparently no connection to the truly salty “tosser.”


I read this in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, in Alexis Soloski’s review of a production of Peter Pan, with music by Leonard Bernstein:

Peter (Peter Smith, an impish nonbinary comedian) intuits that growing up means mommy-daddy stuff, which is awfuller than all the awful things that ever were. Since the play’s vision of marriage is the wonky relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Darling, who’s to say he’s wrong?

The NOOB in there, of course, is “wonky.” I hasten to say that there are two separate, unrelated “wonky”s, one American in origin and the other (Soloski’s) British. As Green’s Encyclopedia of Slang, the essential resource on these matters, says, the former derives from the noun “wonk” defined as: “(orig. US campus, also wonky) anyone who works harder than the rest of the students see fit; latterly used to describe an expert, e.g. policy wonk.” The first citation is from the Harvard Crimson in 1955: “The articles vary from a serious appraisal of the Ivy League education to a less high-minded account of the social life of Harvard ‘wonkies’ and their Princeton and Yale counterparts, ‘tools’  and ‘weenies.’” In the form of “policy wonk,” it crossed over to Britain by 1999, when it was used in The Guardian.

The adjective form is seen in a March 2017 headline in the Times: “How a Wonky National-Security Blog Hit the Big Time.”

Green’s defines the second “wonky” as “of a person or object, unsteady, unstable, out of kilter.” Here are the first citations; the Union Jack indicates they are from British sources:

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The first appearance of the British “wonky” in the New York Times, as far as I can tell, appeared in a 1993 article about Ralph Lauren by Gerri Hirshey. She wrote

The Gap, Banana Republic and J. Crew, to name a few, have successfully marketed his look at a lower price. It’s a kind of piggyback populism, this rush to things basic and essentially conservative, worn, in Gap ad campaigns, by the unassailably edgy and hip. They are photographed in minimalist black and white: actors, painters, musicians. This is, in its way, a rebirth of the Whitmanesque longing that caused the jeaning of America in the late 60’s and went so wonky.

Nerd-“wonky” still is used more commonly than out-of-kilter “wonky” in the Times, but the latter has gained popularity, showing up at least seven times so far in 2018, including the Peter Pan review and this quote from the makeup artist Patrick Ta:

“I think eyebrows are super important. Eyebrows, in my opinion, are such a big part of the face, so if you have wonky, ugly eyebrows then people just like me are going to be judging you.”


Lynne Murphy tells me that one of her readers at the Separated By a Common Language log alerted her to today’s New York Times, specifically a passage about a dish called “breakfast salad” at the Bushwick, Brooklyn, cafe Carthage Must Be Destroyed. Julia Moskin writes that it’s

a proper green salad, but supersized and unfurled on a warm pink plate…. It’s also enriched with a creamy-yolked boiled egg, lashings of golden olive oil, soft chunks of marinated feta and an avalanche of chives, cilantro and basil.

The notable term wasn’t “proper,” which is pretty familiar in the U.S. by now, but “lashings.” The OED says the word is originally Anglo-Irish and defines it as “‘Floods,’ abundance.” (I’m not sure why “floods”is put in quotation marks.) The first citation is from Sir Walter Scott’s journal in 1829, a reference to “whiskey in lashings.” All of the subsequent quotations are British and most are also in reference to alcoholic beverages (a 1927 Dorothy Sayers novel has the line, “Nice little dinner—lashings of champagne”). The first food-related lashings is from The Lancet in 1966: “The crusty wholemeal bread..eaten with lashings of butter.”

A nytimes.com search for “Moskin lashing” reveals that this writer is fond of the word and has used it since 2004, when she wrote that a dish at a New York Japanese restaurant is  served with “lashings of mayonnaise, an American import that has become ubiquitous in Japanese fast food.”

As for me, I have been missing Australian breakfasts since I left Melbourne in January. My daughter Maria lives in Bushwick, and next visit I want to go to Carthage Must Be Destroyed. I just hope they serve tall long blacks.


Several months ago, a friend posted on Facebook a photo of his wife and son, with the message, “This guy … turned 26 yesterday with his beautiful mum by his side.”

What caught my attention, of course, was “mum.” That’s the equivalent in Britain and Commonwealth countries for Americans’ “mom,” as seen in this headline from a Scottish newspaper:

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On Mothers’ Day, in May, I noticed a few more American “mums” on social media. Then, less than a week later, the Royal Wedding happened, and I believe I saw some references to Meghan Markle’s “mum,” though I can’t locate them now.

It was a little hard to research it further, in part because “mum” is also a common word for silent, as well as a short form of chrysanthemum. I eventually discovered that on Twitter platform Tweet Deck, I could create a column for tweets containing “mum” that were posted within a 100 kilometer radius of New York City. Who knew?

This has proved to be a gold mine, with an average of a dozen or so hits a day. For example:

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From what I can tell, the American “mum” users tend to be female and on the young side. And the usage doesn’t seem to have extended to published sources. I would appreciate any additional observations on the matter.

“Go wobbly”

In a commencement address last month, former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

That “go wobbly” caught the ear of friend-of-NOOBS Stuart Semmel, as an echo of a famous Margaret Thatcher quote. She described in her memoirs a conversation with Pres. George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War: “We must use our powers to stop Iraqi shipping,” she recalled telling him. “This was no time to go wobbly.”

The relevant OED definition is “Wavering, uncertain, or insecure; unreliable, unstable.” And I hasten to say that the word “wobbly” is nothing new in the U.S., especially in the literal sense of wavering back and forth. In addition, “Wobbly” is a slang term for a member of the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) labor union. (A 1923 article by a member of the union gave an account of how the term originated: “In Vancouver, in 1911, we had a number of Chinese members and one restaurant keeper would trust any member for meals. He could not pronounce the letter w, but called it wobble, and would ask: ‘You I. Wobble Wobble?’ [that is, I. W. W.] and when the card was shown, credit was unlimited. Thereafter the laughing term among us was I. Wobbly Wobbly.”)

But “go wobbly” definitely has a Thatcherian and very British feel. Searching for the phrase in the New York Times, I found it in a January 2018 article about a conservative group’s hoped-for turn of events after a government shutdown a few years back:

“The public would express outrage that the president was willing to hold America’s full faith and credit hostage over the much-disliked Obamacare. Democrats would go wobbly.”

And then, not long after hearing from Stuart, I read in The New Yorker an article about the hacked e-mails of Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal. One of them, from producer Scott Rudin, remarked, “So you’re feeling wobbly in the job right now.”

It’s clear: “wobbly” has arrived.





In today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, fashion columnist Elizabeth Wellington gives advice on what to wear to summer festivals. She warns men to be aware of what’s on their t-shirts because

the wrong phrase or picture can turn a nice guy into a lout. Topics to stay away from: how good you are in bed, how many women you can pull, how much beer you can guzzle.

I’ve noted this particular “pull” quite a bit in the U.K., but not till now in America. The OED has this definition and citations:

 a. Brit. slang. To pick up (a partner), esp. for sexual intercourse; to seduce. Also intr.

1965   Sunday Express 25 July 17/2   As a young man I could never pull (pick up) any birds of my own class.
1973   E. Boyd & R. Parkes Dark Number vi. 69   Five years ago you did the big male-menopause bit, didn’t you? Skulking off to Paris to prove you could still pull the birds.
1985   J. Sullivan Only Fools & Horses (1999) I. 4th Ser. Episode 6. 246   Rodney, use your loaf, you’re never gonna pull a tart dressed up like Bertie Bassett.
1993   Bella 29 Sept. 40/1   ‘So you’re a barman,’ she said with a wicked glint in her eyes. ‘I bet you don’t have any trouble pulling.’
The first and most popular definition on Urban Dictionary was posted in 2003 by  an English contributor:
“Word used to describe the successful act of attracting a person to such an extent that you would be able to snog or perhaps bone them if you so desired.
With the help of my lucky Y-fronts I should pull tonight.”
I leave open the question of whether “Y-fronts” is a Britishism, and what in fact it is.
Update: After I tweeted about this post, Elizabeth Wellington, who is African-American, responded: “please ‘pulling chicks’ has been a part of hood vernacular for a minute. :)”
So there you go.

“Food hall”

As noted, when my wife and I passed the Penny Food Hall in on Seventh Avenue in New York the other day, she remarked that she thought “food hall” was a Britishism, and it turns out she was right. The OED definition: “orig. Brit. a section of a department store or shopping complex where groceries, esp. speciality and luxury products, are sold.” The first citation is from an advert in The Times in 1925: “You are invited to taste..any of the delicious jams, tinned fruits and so forth in Harrods Food Halls.” (And it was the wonderful Harrods Food Hall that my wife was specifically thinking of.)

By contrast, the OED defines “food court” this way:orig. U.S., an area in a shopping mall, airport terminal, etc., containing a variety of fast-food outlets and a shared seating area for their customers.” So: food halls offer groceries, and food courts prepared foods. The first citation for the latter is from the LA Times in 1979, when malls were just starting to boom.

“Food hall” penetrated the U.S. no later than 1976, when a New York Times article about Cambridge, Mass., describes a retail emporium called the Garage:In the food hall section … is Formaggio, where you can buy 130 kinds of cheese as well as imported meats, pâtés, smoked fish and inventive sandwiches on home‐style breads.”

American cities, especially New York, have seen an incursion of upscale food halls in recent years, offering (in my experience) almost exclusively prepared food that you eat there. The Pennsy Food Hall, for example, has six such spots, and no fishmongers or greengrocers:


A New York Times article in September 2017 addressed the trend:

Determined to provide experiences that will attract consumers and persuade them to open their wallets, developers are opening more food halls, the food court’s up-and-coming sibling, which are in the midst of a robust expansion.

Unlike food courts made up of fast food chains, food halls typically mix local artisan restaurants, butcher shops and other food-oriented boutiques under one roof. Many celebrate quirkiness versus uniformity, and their ability to draw crowds is particularly appealing to landlords battling the growth of e-commerce and changing shopping habits.

But it’s not just Americans who have changed the meaning of “food hall.” The last time I was at Harrods, I sat down and had a lovely afternoon tea.