“Quieten”

I was listening to the NPR radio show “Fresh Air” the other day; Terry Gross’s guest was Daniel Davis, a professor of immunology at the University of Manchester. I was struck by a word Davis used –“quieten.” In fact, a search of the episode’s transcript reveals he used it seven times, for example, “the exact evidence is really that when a person or an animal is stressed, the immune system does quieten down.”

The word felt unfamiliar; plus, I couldn’t tell the difference, if any, from “quiet.” Since Davis is British I suspected it is a Britishism, and I was right. The OED first lists a transitive sense of the verb: “To make quiet (in various senses); to calm, to pacify.” It’s listed in an 1828 book about York County dialect and apparently became popular enough so that someone wrote in the North British Review in 1844, “To ‘quieten’ the children..is not English.” Subsequent citations — all British — belie this assertion.

The definition for the intransitive sense — the one used by Dr. Davis — is “To become quiet (in various senses). Frequently with down.” The first citation, from 1890, and all subsequent ones are British, except this from Pissing in the Snow, and other Ozark Folktales (1976): “When things finally quietened down, the folks figured that the neighbor boys must have set off some fireworks under the bed.” The word also shows up in Whatever it was that was in the house, I quieten ’em down.” The word also shows up in The Frost Haint of ‘Possum Hollow and Other Ozark Tales (2008), by Alan Lance Andersen, so it does seem to be a thing in the Ozarks, a hilly region in the American South.

As for the difference between “quiet” and “quieten,” the OED definitions are pretty much the same. For the intransitive sense of “quiet,” it’s: “Now chiefly N. Amer. To become quiet; to quieten. Frequently with down.”

Outside of the Ozarks, “quieten” is pretty uncommon here, hence the “On the Radar” designation. It has been used eight times in the New York Times since 2010 but it turns out on seven of those occasions, the writer or the person being quoted isn’t from America. The eighth example is from an essay about the photographer Robert Adams by Teju Cole: “You are likely to feel your breath getting calmer and your senses quietened.” But even Cole, I discover, was born in Michigan to parents from Nigeria.

This chart from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, showing use of “quieten” and its derivatives (“quietens,” “quietened,” etc.)  shows a bit more frequency in the U.S., but still lagging well behind Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

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One of the 41 American uses is this sentence from a comment to a 2011 Huffington Post article: “Even if the sun were to quieten down appreciably for the rest of this century, it would still be business as usual for global warming.”

Intransitive “quieten” strikes me as a potentially useful addition to American English.  “Quiets down” is fine, but saying that someone merely “quiets” sounds sort of naked; it could use an extra syllable. So I expect eventually to see more of “quieten” on these shores.

 

 

“On holiday” goes wide

I was talking to an employee of my local health club, a normal bearded guy in his thirties, and I mentioned I was going to be away from home for a few weeks.

“Are you going on holiday?” he asked.

This suggested to me that the expression for Americans’ traditional “on vacation” has established a beachhead here and probably won’t go away.

“Scrounge”

“Scrounge” is the virtual twin of the last word I wrote about, “wangle.” Both mean roughly the same thing, emerged in Britain as World War I slang, and after a few decades got adopted in America.

The OED definition for “wangle” is “To accomplish (something) in an irregular way by scheming or contrivance; to bring about or obtain by indirect or insidious means (something not obtainable openly).” “Scrounge” is more specifically about getting; the dictionary defines it as “To seek to obtain by irregular means, as by stealth or begging; to hunt about or rummage.”

The OED cites a 1909 book, Passing English of the Victorian Era:  Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase, which defines “scrunging” as “(Country Boys’), stealing unripe apples and pears—probably from the noise made in masticating.” The word, with an added “o,” gained wide currency  and a more general sense during the war. George Goodchild’s 1918 book Behind the Barrage provides this explanation:

In the category of “odd jobs” came “scrounging.” “Scrounging” is eloquent armyese — it covers pilfering, commandeering, “pinching,” and many other familiar terms. You may scrounge for rations, kit, pay, or leave. Signallers are experts at it, and they usually scrounge for wire. Scrounging for wire is legitimized by the War Office, and called by the gentler name “salving.”

As for U.S. adoption, here’s the Google Ngram Viewer graph for “wangle”:

Screen Shot 2018-10-26 at 9.42.44 AMAnd here’s the one for “scrounge”:

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For whatever reason, “scrounge” reached parity later (in the 1960s as opposed to the 1940s), but ultimately became more (rather than equally) popular in the U.S. than in the U.K. Go figure!

 

 

“Wangle”

To recap: a couple of posts ago, I mentioned a listicle of supposed Britishisms that included eleven words or expressions I would not have though of as such: “the bee’s knees,” “(go on a) bender,” “dim” (as opposed to clever), “full of beans,” “gallivant,” “miffed,” “round (of drinks), “smarmy,” “waffle,” “wangle,” and “shambles.” I said that three of them turned out actually to be of British origin–although even they have been common in the U.S. for at least several decades. The three are “smarmy,” “full of beans,” and today’s entry, “wangle.” (A fourth is “waffle,” which I learned is used differently in the U.S. and U.K.)

The OED‘s definition for the transitive verb “wangle” is “To accomplish (something) in an irregular way by scheming or contrivance; to bring about or obtain by indirect or insidious means (something not obtainable openly).”

The dictionary suggests an intriguing origin for the term, in an 1888 British lexicon of printers’ terms: “Wangle, a slang term used by printers to express arranging or ‘faking’ matters to one’s own satisfaction or convenience.” But the first two proper citations are from 1917:  “No market is ever ‘free’: probe it deep enough, and..monopolies will..be found, in many cases deliberately ‘wangling’ prices and limiting production to sustain them.” And: “He had come in from the North Atlantic Cruiser Patrol, and when in home waters had ‘wangled’ a few days’ leave.” The first quote is from the Edinburgh Review and the second from the Stanford University Bulletin. Stanford is in California, but the reference to North Atlantic Cruiser Patrol suggests that it’s in reference to a Briton.

In any case, Google Books Ngram Viewer shows British use outpacing American till roughly the middle of World War II; ever since, it’s been roughly equivalent on both sides of the pond.

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Looking into the word, I found an antedate of the 1917 OED citation. In the January 23, 1915, issue of Notes and Queries, R.W.B reported that the word “has been used recently in a newspaper, as a verb, by a writer in describing his visit to a hospital for the wounded.” He encounters a patient who “has a liking for invalid food, and says to his visitor, ‘See me wangle a jelly.’ The word, therefore, is connected with the acquirement of something by a stratagem not devoid of humor.”

 

 

“Rubbish” (verb)

The ever-observant Jan Freeman sends along a quote from (Syracuse-born) Daniel Dezner in a Washington Post essay: “When [people associated with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy] try to rubbish everyone else’s expertise, however, they only highlight their own intellectual inadequacies.”

This blog has covered the noun, which is the common British term for Americans’ “garbage” or “trash” — both metaphorical and literal — and noted that literal “rubbish” has pockets of popularity in Massachusetts and around Philadelphia. The OED defines the verb as “To disparage, criticize severely, pour scorn on” and notes it originated in Australia and New Zealand. The first citation is from a 1953 Australian novel, Riverslake: “If Verity was going to tramp [that is, dismiss from employment or sack] you for burning the tucker [that is, food] ..he would have rubbished you long before this.”

As the Google Books Ngram Viewer chart below shows, the verb started catching on in Britain in the 1980s, but is still very rare in the U.S., making rubbish the verb an outlier:

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“A patch on”

I’m not sure what this blog would do without Ben Brantley. The American-born New York Times theater critic is a veritable font of NOOBs, notably obscure ones, like “gives me the pip” and “twig.” He struck again yesterday in the first line of his review of Jez Butterworth’s play The Ferryman: “No matter what sort of spread you’ve planned for your Thanksgiving dinner, it won’t be a patch on the glorious feast that has been laid out at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.”

Since I didn’t recognize “won’t be a patch on,” and since it came from Brantley, I assumed it was a Britishism. I assumed right. The OED defines “not a patch on” as “in no way comparable to, not nearly as good as.” All the citations (starting in 1860) are from British sources, for example, the Daily Telegraph in 1994: “Set against native trees, Leyland green looks very synthetic, and is not a patch on yew.”

I’m going to label the phrase as an outlier, since when I searched Google Books for it, every single hit came from British or Commonwealth sources, including the title of the 2009 novel Not a Patch on Charlotte Cox.

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But in any case, cheers, Mr. Brantley.

“Full of Beans”

A couple of posts back, I mentioned a published list of Britishisms that included eleven “words and expressions that have been common in America for as long as I can remember, and which I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of as British in origin.” I commented that initial investigation suggested only three of them seemed to be proper Britishisms. The first was “smarmy.” And the second is “full of beans.”

The OED defines the expression, which seems to derive from horse racing, as meaning “to be full of energy, and in high spirits.” The first citation is from an 1843 novel: “‘Ounds, ‘osses, and men, are in a glorious state of excitement! Full o’ beans and benevolence!”

That and all subsequent citations are from British sources. In Green’s Dictionary of Slang, all cites are from Britain or the Commonwealth until this from the American writer Leo Rosten’s 1975 novel Dear Herm: “Now he is full of beans and vinegar and with a whole new outlook on Life.” (That seems like a euphemistic switch on the roughly equivalent U.S. phrase “full of piss and vinegar.”) One earlier U.S. use of “full of beans” is in a 1938 New York Times article: “Whenever Sage, a cowboy with whom I once punched cows on the San Simon Ranch in Eastern New Mexico, felt particularly full of beans of a cool early morning….”

In any case, Google Books Ngram Viewer shows British dominance for the phrase until roughly the late 1970s, when the U.S. caught up. That was followed by a British spurt, and equivalence again in 2000, the last year for which the database has reliable data. (Note there are some false positives, for example, for references to a pot that is literally full of beans.)

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