I’m filing this one under the new category “Historical NOOBs.” When a reader suggested it a few months back, I was initially dismissive, so established an expression (meaning a project, idea or proposal that absolutely will not fly) has nonstarter become. But she (I think it was a she) was right.

The OED dates the word back to 1865, when it was used, straightforwardly, to indicate a horse that was unable to start a race. The first metaphorical use was a line from a 1934 P.G. Wodehouse novel, and the first in what I consider the modern meaning from a 1942 book: “That is one reason why non-intervention is such a non-starter.” That and all subsequent citations in the OED are British.

The New York Times used nonstarter first in 1987 and since then on “about” 1489 occasions (the newspaper’s new search system is for some reason partial to approximation). The most recent came on April 1, in a quote by Speaker of the House John Boehner: “The additional revenue that Obama demanded was a ‘nonstarter,’ he says.”

Below are Google Ngram charts showing frequency of use of nonstarter between 1950 and 2008. It’s a bit hard to make out the numbers but they show British use picked up in the ’50s and U.S. use in the ’70s; that Americans caught up with Brits more or less in the late ’80s; and that we now use “nonstarter” more than 50 percent more frequently.

U.S. use of "nonstarter," 1950-2008
British use of "nonstarter," 1950-2008

7 thoughts on ““Nonstarter”

  1. “Non-starter” (including the unhyphenated version) is most famously associated with Bamber Gascoigne, the host and quizmaster of ‘University Challenge’ show on British TV from the 1960s to late 1980s. Even in my own experience and no other, I’ve always heard that word used in British speech but it really took off in a general way in the UK the moment ‘University Challenge’ started airing. Almost literally every two or three minutes during the show, Bamber Gascoigne would utter “It’s a starter again” and “That was a non-starter.” It was probably the most enjoyable brainwashing we’ve had, ever.

    So I’m kind of wondering why the Ngram chart for British usage didn’t show a more pronounced upward spike for the 1960s and 70s – because that’s what was flooding into my eyes and ears at that time when I was living there. (But then again, I personally take Ngram with a pinch of salt about its scanning “millions” of books or whatever.)

    An Ngram search on “nonstarter” (unhyphenated) using BrE corpus shows up a spike that generally fits in with my personal experience: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=nonstarter&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=6&smoothing=3

    Another search on “non-starter” (hyphenated) using the same BrE corpus shows zilch – which in itself is helluva lot more interesting to me: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=non-starter&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=6&smoothing=3

    Just my twopence (3 cents’) worth. Good post. Brings back a lot of memories for me.

  2. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could plot both Ngrams on the same graph (in different colors, of course)!

  3. The comment about Banber Gascoigne is not right. He didn’t say “Starter again”. It was “starter, for ten (points)”. The Starter question was open to both teams, who got 10 points for a correct answer, and then had the chance to answer bonuses questions for five points.

    He also didn’t use the term non-starter. That comes form horse racing, and especially ante-post betting, where a bet on a non-starter is a losing bet and is not returned.


    1. Bamber Gascoigne did say “It’s/That’s a non-starter” once in a while, especially when some team gabbled its starters (notably, the University of East Anglia team in one episode).

      Yes, it IS true that Gascoigne’s phrase was “Starter, for 10 points” etc. However, the word “non-starter” is often associated with him (rightly or wrongly, at least in the minds of some of us whose formative years were in the 1960s and 70s), as the phrase “Play it again, Sam” is with Bogart.

      You are right, though, about ‘starter’ being from the horseracing world.

  4. Admittedly my memory is poor but I don’t remember having seen non-starter unhyphenated before. Is that an Americanism perhaps?

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