Tag Questions, NEV, and “Level” (verb)

I watch a lot of tennis on TV, and watched a real lot over the last fortnight, as the U.S. Open was contested. As with football/soccer, the American announcers have picked up some British habits and terminology.

Watching the tournament on ESPN was interesting in this regard, as one of its commentators was the British Jason Goodall, with his abundant tag questions (sometimes called “question tags“) and nationalistic elegant variation. (H.W. Fowler coined the term “elegant variation” to refer to writers, especially journalists, who go to great lengths to avoid saying a word or name a second time.). Here’s an example of both in one (hypothetical) sentence: “It’s a vital game for the Austrian, isn’t it.” The absence of a question mark means the question isn’t supposed to be answered, is it.

One could hear the American announcers, presumably influenced by Goodall and the Australians Darren Cahill and Renae Stubbs, make ample use of both.

But I don’t recall any of the announcers using the Britishism employed, twice, by New York Times reporter Christopher Clarey. Referring to Borna Coric, Clarey wrote, “…the young, bristle-haired Croation [NEV and regular elegant variation!] kept grinding and swinging. He saved six match points and leveled the match at two sets apiece.” Then in the next paragraph, Clarey wrote that Stefanos Tsitipas “went up a break in the fifth before Coric leveled.”

That “leveled” doesn’t appear in the OED or most other dictionaries I checked. But it is in the unnamed dictionary that shows up in Google searches:

Americans would normally say “evened it up,” “tied it up,” or “evened the score.”

That reminds me of a British soccer term which I haven’t heard any American use in talking about soccer, tennis, baseball, or other relatively low-scoring sports. That’s “equalizer,” meaning a goal that ties the score. We would just say “the tying” run, goal, or point.

“Sport” Proceeds Apace

Last year I noted Nike’s use of “sport” (rather than the traditional American “sports”) in a social media campaign. Last night was the first time I’ve seen it on TV, in a Nike commercial in ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

“Hire”

Calvin Coolidge

A recent article in the New York Times began:

“A few days before Christmas 2013, Stuart Dempster hired a car to take him from Bangkok to the rural town of Ban Phai, in northeastern Thailand. Mr. Dempster, a 55-year-old track and field coach from Australia, was accompanied by a tall, burly security contractor.”

Instead of “hired,” “rented” would be the word used by Americans, one of whom is the New Jerseyan author of the article, David Yaffe-Bellany. I put his “hired” under the category “Ventriloquism,” meaning I reckon he used it because his subject, the Australian Stuart Dempster, would have done. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered the usage in the U.S. before, and I don’t expect to.

But it did remind me a particular old-fashioned American use of the word: as a synonym for “borrow.” I remembered using it in my biography of the Oklahoma-born humorist Will Rogers. He was in favor of our allies paying back the money they had borrowed to fund World War I, succinctly saying, “They hired it, didn’t they?”

I was initially confused when I looked up “hire” in The Dictionary of American Regional English because DARE said the “borrow” meaning came not from the Southwest but from New England. Then I consulted my book. It turned out Rogers didn’t utter the line himself, but was quoting the person who did, the famously laconic President Calvin Coolidge. And where was Coolidge from? Vermont.

“Different to”: Really?

I first looked at the expression “different to” (where Americans would say “different from” or “different than”) in 2013 and categorized it as a “Doobious NOOB,” so infrequently did it come up in the U.S. Two years later I upgraded it to “On the Radar,” because it showed up in an American publication–but then a commenter pointed out that the writer of the article was from London, and I downgraded it again. (And by the way, I’d advise reading all the comments on those two posts before commenting on this one–they offer a lot of good info and insight on the “from”/”than”/”to” forms.)

“Different to” appeared yesterday in the New York Times in a quote from a definitely American person, but I’m dubious. The person was the singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who very sadly died at the age of 38. His obituary included a quote from him in The Scotsman in 2015:

“I always knew there was something different about the way I used drugs and drank to the way my friends did.” (Emphasis added.)

Does the distance from “different” make it more likely that Earle would have used “to” rather than “from” or “than”? I would say not. My hunch is that he didn’t say it, but rather that the Scotsman writer (probably unthinkingly) rendered the quote to sound more natural to his or her ears and readers. And that’s why I’m introducing a new category, “Really?”, for dubious quotes supposedly by Americans in British publications.

And by the way Google Books Ngram Viewer suggests that even in British books, “different from” is much more common than “different to,” even though the latter has steadily increased since about 1960. (And I’m sure would be significantly more common in speech and other informal usage.)

In any case, I’m still waiting to encounter incontrovertible examples of Americans saying or writing “different to.”

“Cack-Handed”

Reader Evan Geller sent in this quote from Florida writer Diane Roberts in the Washington Post:

DeSantis, a fervent Trump partisan and sports fan who’s shown signs of harboring presidential ambitions, has seen his popularity shrivel of late, possibly because of his cackhanded approach to the pandemic in Florida: opening up too soon, refusing to mandate masks, hiding virus data from the public.

The key term is “cackhanded,” I hyphenate it to follow the OED, which gives this definition: “Left-handed; ham-handed, clumsy, awkward.” It shows up first in an 1854 glossary of Northamptonshire words, spelled “keck-handed.” The etymology “perhaps” comes from “cack,” an archaic word for excrement.

A search at Google News reveals the word is pretty common in the U.K. and Ireland, as in this recent headline from The Irish Times:

But it is quite rare in the United States. The term, in all its variants, has appeared in the New York Times just five times (other than cases where a British speaker is quoted) — all from the same writer! In 1995, political columnist William Safire referred to a politician’s “kak-handed pronouncement.” A few weeks later, wearing his other hat as language columnist, Safire wrote about using it as an example of his propensity “to throw in an obscure word now and then.” And a few weeks after that, he apologized for spelling it wrong the first time. Four years later, he praised a dictionary for including the word.

And finally, in 2008, Safire gave it one more shot, this time with the correct spelling. He referred to an adviser to presidential candidate John McCain’s

impolitic comment to Fortune magazine that a terror attack “would be a big advantage” for his candidate, who is highly credentialed on national-security matters. McCain had to quickly dissociate himself from the cack-handed remark: “I can’t imagine why he would say it.”

Update: I am reliably informed that “cackhanded” user Diane Roberts got her Ph.D. from Oxford University and is a Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria.

“Stalls”

It’s a rare day that I have a chance for cross-promotion, but today is such a day. My other blog is called Movies in Other Movies, and each post is about a scene in a movie or TV show in which the characters are watching a movie or TV show. There are a surprisingly high number of such scenes; I’ve been doing the blog for two and half years and new examples keep coming up.

The latest post is about Charlie Chaplin’s 1957 film A King in New York. Here are two notable facts about the movie:

  • It’s set in New York (as the title suggests) and much of it is a satire on current American culture.
  • Chaplin had been out of the United States in a semi-voluntary exile since 1952, and shot the film in his native England.

At one point, Chaplin’s character — a king who has been kicked out of his country by a revolution — goes to see a movie, and before we see him watching three coming attractions (the subject of my blog post), he witnesses the tail-end of a rock and roll show.

Screen Shot 2020-08-12 at 3.55.10 PM

Behind him, on the theater doors, you can clearly see the work “STALLS.” Now, “Stalls” is the British term for what Americans would call the Orchestra. (I have never encountered “Stalls” here.) The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) offers conflicting information on where this scene was shot, either the Odeon Cinema or the Warner Theatre, both on Leicester Square in London. But whichever it was, Chaplin and his crew neglected to erase a telltale word.

 

“Cinema”

The particular meaning of this word I have in mind is not what the OED terms “Films or movies collectively; films or movies considered as an industry, art form, or type of entertainment.” (E.g, “Bergman is a master of cinema.”) This has been in common use among arty types in the U.S. for a very long time.

Nor am I referring to a meaning that I believe common in Britain but which I haven’t heard in the U.S. It’s the equivalent of our “the movies” — “I love going to the cinema on a rainy afternoon:

Rather, I’m thinking of a cinema as a place where you go to watch movies. The OED quotes a headline from The Sun: “Top films coming to a cinema near you this summer.” As the dictionary notes, “Movie theatre [sic] is the more common term in North America.” That would be joined by “movie house” and, more recently, “multiplex.”

But I’ve been hearing this cinema-as-place a fair amount on National Public Radio, and a good number of uses show up when I search the NPR website. For example, this from a July 28 report on virus restrictions in the District of Columbia: “Theaters, cinemas and entertainment venues can apply for a waiver to host arts, entertainment or cultural events.” And, the day before, this from host Ari Shapiro on new drive-in movies: “Pop-up cinemas are, well, popping up.”

Meanwhile, New York Times movie reviews now note they will be playing at “virtual cinemas.”

Google Books Ngram Viewer confirms the sense of British predominance (though the term declined in popularity from about 1950-1980), with Americans starting to close the gap in the 1980s.

Screen Shot 2020-07-31 at 10.37.21 AM

 

 

Looking just at American books, the data shows “cinema” more or less neck-and neck with  “movie theater” since the ’80s.  (The chart does somewhat overstate the popularity of “cinema” because it omits “theater” by itself; that is, if you were going to the movies with someone you might say, “I’ll meet you at the theater at 3.” For pretty obvious reasons, I didn’t include “a theater” in the search.)

Screen Shot 2020-07-31 at 10.33.12 AM

 

 

The change makes sense. “Movie theatre theater” and “movie house” are both kind of clunky, and “cinema” sounds classy, always a good thing. The only trouble is, who knows if there’ll even be cinemas anymore?

“Clobber”

Correspondent David Griggs sent from England a note saying “you may be interested” in an example of the word “clobbered” in the New York Times. He was clearly implying it was a NOOB, but the word — meaning “to badly beat or defeat” — didn’t strike my ears as such. I checked the Times archive and found that “clobbered” or “clobber” have been used in the paper 1,720 times since 1990, frequently in a sports context. (“

Google Books’s newly beefed-up Ngram Viewer told an interesting story:

Screen Shot 2020-07-22 at 2.13.46 PM

That is, more use in the U.S. from the ’40s through about 1970, then a big spike in Britain over the next twenty years or so — which may account for David Griggs’ sense of it as a British word — followed by a period of slightly greater U.S. use.

But then David sent along a couple of sources asserting that “clobber” originated in British R.A.F. slang. The Online Etymology Dictionary  dates it to 1941, but doesn’t give any citations or sources. And a Merriam-Webster article says, “Pilots of the British air force during the 1940s were supposedly the first to throw around the punchy verb ‘clobber” (emphasis added): again, no evidence.

The OED does offer some, though from 1944 rather than 1941. Its first citation is from the R.A.F. magazine Gen, which had the line “Did anyone clobber any?” (The “any” apparently referred to flying bombs.)

The next two citations are from American sources, the first, reflecting a move in meaning from bombing to beating, from a 1949 reference to the University of Michigan football team: “The Wolverines clobbered their opponents 42 to 3.” And the second comes from Max Shulman’s 1951 novel The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: “‘Poor loser!’ they kept yelling as they clobbered me.”

And on my own I found a 1946 use by an American writer, Percy Knauth: “Bayreuth was clobbered badly.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang adds some interesting bits to the story, starting with some lines from a poem in an 1894 issue of the Australian magazine Truth: “The larrikin / So full of sin, / has now no fear of getting clobbert.”

Then two citations that illuminate the word’s move to America.

From 1000 Destroyed, 1946, by Grover Cleveland Hall: “It didn’t appear the war was going to last long enough to clobber them.”

And from the 1948 novel Twelve O’Clock High: “‘Hit it?’ Savage asked. ‘Clobbered it, I think, sir.'”

Hall was a public relations officer for the 4th Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Force — which was headquartered at the former R.A.F. base at Debden, England, starting in 1942. And Twelve O’Clock High was modeled on activities of the 306th Bomb Group, based at another R.A.F. facility, at Thurleigh.

As David Griggs said to me in an email, “Interesting just when Ngram says ‘clobber’ took off in the US: the late 1940s; all those American servicemen returning from WW2 Europe…” Exactly. The remarkable thing is just how fast it took hold in the U.S. For reasons I won’t speculate on, “clobber” and America were made for each other.

Update: The comments to this post and some additional investigation revealed several additional points of interest. First, the slogan of the comic book character The Thing has been, at least since 1964, what you see in the image below.

TheThing

Second, I should have pointed out a second, apparently unrelated British use of “clobber,” as a slang term for clothing (dating from the 1870s) or equipment or gear (1890s). They’re still in use today but have not penetrated America.

And finally, “the clobber passages” is a term that refers to the six or seven biblical verses that have traditionally been used to support the idea that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

 

“Fine”

My general understanding is that, weather-wise, where Americans would talk about it being “a nice day,” British people would refer to “a fine day.”

I still remember my first awareness of the latter. It came nearly fifty years ago, when I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Looking at a Gutenberg edition of the novel now, I can see why I was struck by this usage. The very first line is, “‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay.” The conversation continues (I have left out a lot of words about what Mrs. Ramsay’s son James, who really wants to go to the lighthouse, is thinking):

“But,” said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, “it won’t be fine.”

“But it may be fine—I expect it will be fine,” said Mrs. Ramsay.

Fine!

Now, Americans would sometimes refer to a “fine day” — indeed, a classic song by Carole King and Gerry Goffin says, “One fine day, you’ll look at me/And you will know our love was meant to be.” But the difference seems to be that American “fine” and “nice” bring with them a positive association, and are used in contexts other than weather. (“Have a nice day!”) Whereas British “fine” is more purely a description of weather we might call “fair.” Here’s an OED citation from 1913:  J. G. Wood Insects at Home iii. 337   “On a fine day, it is very interesting to watch the ants.”

After all these years, I just encountered for the first time an American use of this “fine.” It occurs in Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. On p. 44 we read, “Beaverbook convened key meetings in his downstairs library or, on fine days, outside on a balcony outside his first-floor bedroom (the second floor in American parlance.”

I have categorized this under “Ventriloquism” — the phenomenon of Americans consciously or unconsciously adopting Britishisms when writing about British people or topics.

 

A “Whilst” Landmark

I last wrote on “whilst” in January 2019, after Lynne Murphy had selected it as her U.K.-to-U.S. Word of the Year. I quoted Lynne quoting Nancy Friedman quoting numerous U.S. users of this synonym for “while,” and added some data of my own from Twitter.

But I was moved to return to the word last week, when the New York Times tweeted:

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 3.28.35 PM

In my little world, that is a big deal.

I took the opportunity to do a little more “whilst” research. First, I used Google Books Ngram Viewer to look at the frequency with which the word has been used in British and American books. U.S. uses is in red, British in blue.

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It’s a familiar pattern — rough equivalence around 1800; in the nineteenth century, British rise and American decline to the point of nadir; then British decline, and in the 2000s, aka the NOOB Era, American resurgence.

I also revisited a question Lynne had posed in her 2019 post, about whether Americans ever pronounce the word with a short “i,” as if it were spelled “willst.” It’s not an easy question to answer because the word (it would appear) is more often written than spoken in the U.S. But I went back to Youglish, a website originally recommended by Ben Zimmer, which currently purports to have a selection of 663 YouTube videos of Americans saying “whilst.” (I’d say “purports” because on the evidence of looking at a couple of dozen, only about half, going by accent, are Canadian or American; the rest were recorded at American events but with British or Australian speakers.) Anyway, listen to this one at about the 3:00 mark.

You heard it — “willst solving tasks.”