American-in-London Mike Wendling (@mwendling) tweeted out this image yesterday:

It was in reference to the (American) football team Buffalo Bills, but that doesn’t matter. What matters, as Wendling pointed out, was the word “gutting.” I’ve long been aware of “gutted” (meaning devastated) as a NOOB — and Lynne Murphy even chose it as her 2016 UK-to-US word of the year — but I had not noticed American use of the gerund form, applied to an event that causes one to feel gutted.

The word is a little hard to search for (“gutting knife” and the process of eviscerating a fish, a building, or voting rights keep coming up) but I was able to establish that the Buffalo News Headline wasn’t a one-off. Just a couple of weeks ago, a New York Times critic said an album by the rapper Saba confronts “gutting life challenges: the anxiety of generational poverty and the depths of survivor’s guilt.”

And there are these U.S. tweets, the first about the death of musician Tom Smith, the second about the death of pets:

“Kerfuffle,” Revisited

In the very early days of this blog, I tended to do very short entries. Lately — in part because I’m contemplating putting out a Not One-Off Britishisms book — I’ve been revisiting and expanding these posts. And thus, “kerfuffle.”

The word, meaning “Disorder, flurry, agitation,” started as the Scottish “cafuffle” or “curfuffle,” which appeared as early as 1813.  Three years later, this line appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary: “Troth, and my lord maun be turned feel outright, an he puts himsel into sic a curfuffle for ony thing ye could bring him, Edie.” The OED cites a 1953 line from a London magazine: “The word cafuffle is still in general use in her part of Scotland..as a noun meaning a state of confusion.”

But by that time, the “k” spelling had already taken root. The OED quotes a 1946 book by the New Zealand novelist Frank Sargeson: “I bet it ended up in a good old kafuffle.” But Google Books turns up a self-conscious use a year earlier from Both Are My Cousins, by Ronald Fangen, a Norwegian novelist. (Dermot McKay’s translation of which seems to have come out in 1945, but it’s not definite.) It’s a line of dialogue followed by an intriguing parenthetical comment: “’I’m in a bit of a kerfuffle.’ (There was the word!)”

British use of “kerfuffle” rose steadily from the 1950s till about 2000. At that point, the word took off in the U.K. and went from U.S. outlier to buzzword.

The New York Times offers a helpful gauge of U.S. use. The word showed up in the paper a handful of times in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in British contexts, and in a wholly American one for the first time in 1995, when columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that a tasteless monologue at a presidential event threw “the capital into a kerfuffle.” Then it appeared seven additional times in the ‘90s, including two more by the much-read Dowd, who clearly fancied the word and clearly helped to popularize it.

And popular it is. “Kerfuffle” was used twenty-four times in the Times in 2021, which suggests that it not only deserves a “fully arrived” designation, but probably deserves a rest.


If you have not been following along, there is currently a row in the U.K. regarding some number (greater than one) of drinks parties Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave at 10 Downing Street, in defiance of Covid regulations.

The repeated use of the adjective “boozy” to describe them made me wonder if the term (also recently popular in the U.S.) is a NOOB. The answer appears to be yes.

I’ll point out, first, that a lot of dictionaries have some catching up to do with regard to “boozy.” The OED, Merriam-Webster.com, Lexico.com, and Dictionary.com all define it as a quality of a person: as Dictonary.com has it, “drunken; intoxicated; addicted to liquor.” But virtually all the examples that site has hoovered from the web use one of two related newer meanings:

Those new meanings are, first, an alcohol-driven event or experience (like Johnson’s parties) and, second, as a 2007 Urban Dictionary definition puts it: “referring to any item, substance, or food that has had booze added or applied to it, thereby greatly enhancing its appeal and/or taste. ‘Damn Gina! That’s some kickass boozy Pecan pie you done whipped up for me.'”

By the way, my daughter, an editor at a food magazine, informs me that this second “boozy” has become such a cliche that no one at her publication would deign to use it.

The first example of non-personal “boozy” I’ve found is from the House of Lords in 1976, when the Earl of Selkirk said: “I am asking for something which is quite small: that people should be given a little notice before a boozy festival takes place: I am not against boozy festivals from time to time; but the neighbours are entitled to a measure of protection.” (Interestingly, Lord Kirkhill responded, “My Lords, I do not want to prolong this matter but I do not know what the noble Earl means by “boozy festival.”)

As for NOOB-ness, looking at Google Books data from roughly 1975 on, “boozy” has consistently been roughly twice as commonly used in the U.K. as in the U.S.

But the Americans might catch up, as not all of our journalists are as scrupulous as my daughter and her colleagues. The New York Times, for example, has used “boozy” seven times since December 1, 2021, referring to, among other things, a revel, chats, a retirement, and two different cakes, including a Roumanian one served at a Brooklyn bakery that I am determined to try: “Spongy, creamy, fruity, boozy, the tiny savarin covers most all of the dessert food groups.”

“University” Gets Major Ink

I reckon that the three words I’ve written the most about over the years are (alphabetically) “bits,” “clever,” and “university.” (To find the posts on them, please use the search function in the right sidebar.) What they have in common is that all three have traditionally been used differently in the U.S. and U.K., and thus the adoption of the U.K. meanings over here need to be teased out a bit.

Recently, I’ve done a number of posts on “university“–specifically, Americans starting to say things like “When I was in university,” “He is going to university next year,” or “Many university students protested the ruling,” when traditionally they would have used the word “college.”

My distinguished colleague Lynne Murphy, author of The Prodigal Tongue (again, see right sidebar) and proprietor of the “Separate by a Common Language” blog, has noticed the same thing. And indeed, she has just chosen “university” as her annual “UK-to-US Word of the Year.” I recommend you read her entire post, but one interesting finding she shares is a difference that persists even for the Americans who are adopting “university.” It’s that where the British tend to refer to their time “at university,” Americans tend to say “in university,” echoing the familiar formulation “in college.”

Incidentally, her “US-to-UK Word of the Year” is “dune,” specifically its pronunciation.

“Ring” (verb) sighting

Seems odd to say this, but the last (and only) time I looked at “ring”–as in ring or ring up someone on the phone, or ring off, was more than ten years ago, in 2011. I tagged it as “On the radar” then, and I’d have to say that’s still the case, as the first time I’ve encountered a U.S. use since then was last week, when I was listening to the Gimlet podcast “Heavyweight” (highly recommended), when this promo for another Gimlet show, “Every Little Thing,” came on:

It’s the phone number. Maybe “ring” is starting to make inroads, or maybe it’s just that CALL-ELT wasn’t available.

“Puffer jacket”

When this photo of model Emily Ratajkowski appeared in US Magazine two years ago, the caption was “Are red puffers winter 2020’s It coat?” Credit: Broadimage/Shutterstock

Reader Key from New Zealand comments:

Is “puffer jacket” a NOOB?… I’ve noticed several journalists using it recently; it first stood out to me in an Atlantic piece where (American) Marina Koren said Jeff Bezos was wearing a “puffer jacket” to one of his space things. I believe the usual American term is “down jacket”?

That caught my attention, first since I really wasn’t aware of the term, and second because Marina Koren was once a journalism student in the program in which I taught, at the University of Delaware.

It proves to be an interesting (to me) story. It seems to start in 1973, when an Englishwoman named Penny Rogers founded a company called Puffa in order to produce and sell a down-filled jacket. According to a 2017 article, she “was inspired by quilted jackets she saw on her travels to the US and Canada. peaked in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, attracting high-profile fans such as Diana, Princess of Wales, and giving British model Jodie Kidd her first modelling job.”

Here’s the first interesting quirk. I would imagine Rogers chose the company’s name in recognition of the British non-rhotic pronunciation of the word “puffer”–and hence that there was already such a thing as a “puffer” or “puffer jacket.” But that does not seem to be the case. The first references I’ve been able to find to a “puffer jacket” comes from a series of advertisements in 1976-’81 from the American retailer Sears, which offered such a garment and apparently invented a name for it.

The above ad comes from the Centralia (Washington) Daily Chronicle, and according to newspapers.com was published on October 5, 1976. The OED‘s first cite for “puffer jacket” is from another Washington newspaper on October 6, 1976, which means I have antedated it by one day. Hurray for me.

As for “Puffa,” the OED defines it as “a quilted jacket or parka filled with a soft, lightweight insulating material such as down” and cites The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook in 1982: “In winter, you put on extra jumpers or a sleeveless Puffa.” “Puffa jacket” shows up in a British source in 1985; two years later, the novel The Sound of Murder, by Marjorie Hanxman, refers to “a slim young man in a puffer jacket.”

According to Google Books Ngram Viewer, “puffer jacket” overtook “puffa jacket” (and “Puffa jacket”–my search was case insensitive) in precisely 2013:

Now, as to the issue of NOOB-ness, both “puffa” and “puffer” qualify, though the former pretty much only appears in reference to the brand. Ngram Viewer shows “puffer jacket” rising steadily here since about 2000, though it’s still far outstripped by British use.

Ngram Viewer’s data only goes up to 2019, but, as Key observes, “puffer jacket” shows up even more frequently in the U.S. since then. The term appeared in the New York Times six times in 2021, and once so far this year, in a profile of the photographer Clifton Mooney (Instagram handle @gauchecowboy). The article says that Mooney photographed, “for the most recent issue of Interview, the ‘Saturday Night Live’ breakout star Bowen Yang, who wore a leather harness beneath a baby pink puffer jacket, then posted the pics to Instagram with the caption, ‘dream @gauchecowboy shots.’”

One final point. It’s significant that Key is from New Zealand because the term appears to be really popular there. Here’s the geographical breakdown of “puffer jacket” from the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, which charts websites since 2010:

“In the New Year,” Three Years On

Back in 2019, I noted that while Americans use the expressions “ring in the new year” or “bring in the new year,” they’re not like to use stand-alone “in the new year” as much as the British do. I was reminded of it by a tweet from @verybritishproblems:

My sense is that Americans would be unlikely to utter the quote in the tweet. Rather, they’d more commonly say “let’s do something next year” (if it’s before January 1) or “let’s do something this year” (if it’s after). They might even name the year. That is, where a British headline would say, “Stocks expected to rise in the new year,” the American counterpart might be, “Stocks expected to rise in 2022.”

To get a better sense of whether Americans are using the phrase more, I looked at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which has a database of U.S. sources from 1990 to 2019. It shows that the use of the phrase more or less doubled from the 1990s to the 2010s. (The actual increase is probably more than that, since “bring in…” and “ring in” formulations are included and were presumably constant over that time.)

Here are some examples from COCA of uses in American sources in 2019:

Note that six of the eleven use the long-established “ring in.”

FInally, I wish all NOOBs readers happiness and especially health in the new year.

Still More Anatopism!

The English writer David Mitchell’s latest novel, Utopia Avenue, is about a (fictional) late-’60s British rock band who, at various points, encounter (real-life) rock and roll figures. One scene takes place on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where Janis Joplin gives an impromptu performance. After one song, she takes her leave because, she says, “I’ve a session tomorrow.”

I found that piece of dialogue surprising, but at the same time not surprising. Surprising that Joplin, a native of Texas, would actually have said, “I’ve got a session” or maybe “I have a session”; the “I’ve a” construction is a Britishism. But not surprising because I’d already encountered a half-dozen examples in the novel of American characters using British words or phrases (and would come upon at least eight more in the remainder of the book). For example:

  • Gene Clark, on quitting The Byrds: “Now it’s gone, I want it back.” (American English: “Now that it’s gone.”)
  • Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane: “Chalk and cheese.” (A very British expression indicating two things very different in quality or value.)
  • Frank Zappa: “Accidents are often art’s best bits.” (Americans would say “best parts” or “best features.”)

It’s not only rock stars who talk this way. Other American characters in the book use the British terms “spot on,” “hey presto” (all of a sudden), “chop chop” (hurry up), “the chop” (getting fired), “reckons” (figures), “eyehole” (keyhole peephole), “carry on” (keep going), and “the till” (the cash register).

I’ve written about this phenomenon — British novels with American characters who use Britishisms — before, most recently here. But now I have a name for it: lexical anatopism. Anatopism is the equivalent of anachronism, except referring to words out of place rather than words out of time.

It’s not hard to imagine how this sort of thing happens. For both British authors and British copyeditors, lexical anatopism (like lexical anachronism) is a potential blind spot, a Donald Rumsfeldesque “unknown-unknown” situation. That is, they are aware that Americans would say “elevator” instead of “lift,” or would never say “telly,” but there are thousands of other expressions they probably don’t even realize are exclusively British. They just sound normal. Hence they don’t flag or query them when they come out of the mouth of an American character. 

American copyeditors would indeed sense something off, and I’m sure make many changes along these lines. But generally speaking, British books have already gone through the full editorial process before they cross the pond, and therefore often don’t get the fullest level of scrutiny over here. Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House (which published Utopia Avenue) and the author of Dreyer’s English, says, “When we publish a British book, we don’t do a thorough copyedit, unless that’s been prearranged. We do what I call a ‘vigorous proofread.’ Our editors pick up U.K. terms so obscure that even a reasonably Anglophilic U.S. reader wouldn’t understand them, like ‘ginger group’ [a ‘formal or informal group within an organization seeking to influence its direction and activity’—Wikipedia] or ‘Sat Nav’ [for GPS].'”

But “eyehole” for keyhole and “till” for cash register go through.

One might imagine the same thing happening the other way around—that is, British characters in American novels talking in Americanisms. I haven’t noticed it, possibly because I don’t recall reading that many American novels with British characters, possibly because of my own Rumsfeldian blind spot, or possibly because of a point raised by (American) romance novelist and linguistics professor Julie Tetel Andreson: “The influence of American movies and television has brought American usages into English speech—or, at least, this influence has made those usages not as foreign as they once might have been.”

But Andreson says both anatopism and anachronism are problems in Regency romances set in the early 19th century. She reports a couple of pieces of dialogue that are guilty of both sins: “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” and “I’ll bet.”

There are, of course, worse sins against literature than this sort of misstep, but they are nevertheless a bad business. As they accumulate in a novel, disbelief gets harder to suspend, credibility is strained, and the author’s spell, such as it is, begins to be broken. I humbly request a bit more effort by copy desks on both sides of the pond to ensure that dialogue is, well, spot on.

“On the night”

I have discussed the phrase “on the day” — the American equivalent being “on the day of [the event] — a couple of times, most recently here. But I had never encountered “on the night” until a couple of days ago, when I read, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, a quote from Jim Curtin, the manager of the Philadelphia Union soccer/football team. Referring to the Union’s close defeat in an important game, he said, “Our players played with an intensity that I think made the fans proud on the night.”

I didn’t know Mr. Curtin’s nationality, and when I looked it up I found he came from Oreland, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb not fifteen miles from where I’m sitting now.

(Going) “to university”

The “university” saga continues. Most recently, I looked at Americans talking about being “at university” or “in university” instead of the traditional “in college.” (I will note there was pushback against the idea of “in university” being a thing. See the comments to the post.)

Yesterday, I heard a new one (for me) on National Public Radio. The report was about Hollins University in Virginia, known until 1998 as Hollins College. The (American) chair of the Board of Trustees was quoted as saying, “People have a choice about where they go to university.”

That is not something Americans say. They say “go to college” in general or even in reference to a particular institution, whether it calls itself a college or university. Or, to be more precise, that is not something Americans say, apparently until now.