Today, the splendid writer James Wolcott (@James Wolcott) tweeted: “Romney’s multi-gaffe cock up: these are the times that try Jennifer Rubin’s soul.” (Ms. Rubin is a conservative blogger.) Naturally, that made me wonder whether cock-up had verged into NOOB territory

The OED defines this expression as meaning “a blunder, a mistake, a confused situation,” and cites it first in a 1948 dictionary of soldiers’ slang compiled by Eric Partridge. It is widely used in the U.K., notably in the phrase, “What a cock-up!” (Jonathan Coe has a novel with the subtitle “What a Carve-Up,” which I always imagined was a bowdlerized version.)

Wolcott notwithstanding, it’s very much still on the radar in these parts, its use mainly limited to hip or pseudo-websites, to wit:

“So yeah, maybe this isn’t Ryan Reynolds’ cock-up.” (Gawker.com, June 20, 2011, on the failure of the film “The Green Lantern”)

“But by any measure, this has been a monstrous cock-up.” (Slate.com, May 27, 2010, on BP’s handling of the Gulf oil spill)

But it’s certainly an evocative expression, and I look for more penetration soon.

“Man with a van”/”White van man”

I originally posted this in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog:

Man in van

The ABC television network has announced that in 2013 it will air a sitcom called Family Tools. Previously, the show was called Comeback Jack; before that it was called Red Van Man, and before that, it was called White Van Man. And therein lies a tale.

Like many American comedies, including All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and The Office, this one took its premise from a British original, White Van Man. If you are American, that phrase probably means nothing to you. And neither does the much older expression from which it sprang, “man with a van.”

I myself first became aware of the latter when I got an e-mail from a BBC correspondent, Michael Wendling, who was interested in Not One-Off Britishisms, the blog I conduct about British expressions that have become popular in the United States. He observed, “I was in Brooklyn recently and I saw signs for ‘rubbish removal’ and ‘man with a van.’ There was a sex shop called ‘Shag.’”

I was aware of rubbish (what we would call garbage or trash) and Austin Powers had universalized shag, but I’d never come across man with a van. I asked Michael what it meant, and he explained:

A ‘man with a van’ is a person who will move your belongings to your new flat, or take them to the rubbish tip, or any other odd jobs that need a large vehicle and an extra pair of hands. Particularly common in London where there are a lot of people moving and fewer people have cars.  Inevitably the man is Australian, and the van is white (you may have come across the related Britishism, ‘white van man’, a working class male usually employed in some sort of manual labour, avid reader of tabloids and connoisseur of full English breakfasts).

When I looked into the expressions (as how could I not?), I encountered some surprises. One would have presumed man with a van to have originated during the time when vans, as we know them, started to be manufactured—maybe the 1940s? In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary has a definition of van as “A covered vehicle chiefly employed for the conveyance of goods, usually resembling a large wooden box with arched roof and opening from behind,” and locates a first citation in 1829. Man with a van was in circulation by 1876, when an article in The Times noted, “The practice of the firm was to send to customers a man with a van.” And an Australian agricultural journal wrote in 1903: “Where the factory is so situated that a man with a van could collect the cans from the different suppliers, deliver them to the factory, and bring back the empty cans at a small charge the factory should lie supported.”

White van man, meanwhile, was apparently coined by a Times writer called Jonathan Leake, who in 1997 published an article headlined “Number Is Up for White Van Man—Scourge of the Road.” It began:

He is known as White Van Man and is the most feared driver on the road. But he is about to be tamed. Transport watchdogs plan to crack down on the young male van driver who looms in your rearview mirror, comes within feet of your bumper and usually makes obscene gestures until he forces his way past. The phenomenon of White Van Man—a tattooed species often with a cigarette in his mouth, who is prone to flashing his lights as he descends on his prey—has been identified in a report by the Freight Transport Association (FTA). It says his bullying antics have now become a threat to all motorists, and it believes the problem is so serious that a nationwide re-education programme is needed, possibly backed by legislation.

Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun subsequently ran a regular feature in which a white van man, shown through the window of his vehicle, was interviewed about the issues of the day. The BBC ran a documentary about the phenomenon, and  at least two studies have been devoted to it, one comparing the frequency of bicycles being overtaken on the road by cars and white vans, and the other a seemingly half-serious, half-facetious composite portrait of the species.

When ABC started working up its sitcom, White Van Man was a reasonable working title, but even the dimmest suit could see that it would lack any meaning or resonance for American viewers. ABC cleverly put a post on its Facebook page asking people to weigh in on the alternatives it was considering: Red Van Man, Get Back Jack, Comeback Jack, The Family Tools, and Tool Guys. A surprising 118 people replied, the majority of whom actually took the task seriously. (One who didn’t was the woman who noted, “How about canceled after 3 weeks”). And ABC actually took the counsel of Annette Zaripov-Brand, who wrote, “Family Tools … no ‘The’.”

So will this show be worth watching? The plot description doesn’t fill one with hope:

Mixing family with business is never easy, and Jack Shea (Kyle Bornheimer) is about to learn that lesson the hard way. When Jack’s father, Tony (J.K. Simmons), has a heart attack and is forced to hand over the keys to his beloved handyman business, Jack is eager to finally step up and make his father proud. Unfortunately Jack’s past career efforts have been less than stellar, so everyone seems to be waiting for him to fail. …

Moreover, the online trailer suggests the dominant motif of the show will be staple-gun humor. However, a show about a bunch of neurotic New Yorkers who have to figure out what to do when the fascistic owner of a soup restaurant throws them out wouldn’t have sounded so great, either. So I will give Family Tools a shot.

Meanwhile, I have to find out what a “rubbish tip” is.


From today’s New York Times:

Greengrocer is a really useful word. American English doesn’t have a good equivalent, possibly because up until recently we haven’t had that many greengrocers. The only alternative that comes to mind is “produce store,” which clearly isn’t very good.

However, it sounds inescapably pretentious–much like fishmonger. Perhaps that’s why the Times changed the word, in its online edition, to just plain “grocer.”

“Jumble Sale”

I was talking last night to Steven Rea, film critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer and proprietor of Rides a Bike, a Tumbler page devoted to vintage photographs of Hollywood personages riding bicycles. (Check it out–very cool.) Naturally, the subject of not one-off Britishisms came up, and he mentioned that the Brooklyn Bike Jumble, which, he said, invoked the Britishism “jumble sale.”

I confess that the only time I had ever come across the expression was in the town I live in, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, in which the local Friends Meeting holds an annual jumble sale–that is, rummage or tag sale. I confess I thought that the Friends had made the term up. But it turns out that it is indeed a Britishism, first spotted by the OED in 1898 and still in heavy rotation in the U.K., according to Google News.

Steven was also right about the Brooklyn Bike Jumble, in which used bikes and accessories are on offer, the latest edition of which is to be held September 8:

The phrase shows up here and there in U.S. print sources, as in this quote from an April 15, 2011, New York Times article about Los Angeles’s Chinatown:

“Cutting-edge performance artists staged happenings and smart collectors trolled to find future art stars at jumble sale prices.”

“Argle bargle”

In his always illuminating Baltimore Sun blog, “You don’t Say,” John McIntyre offers a word of the week. Today, he presents a British phrase, argle-bargle, and notes:

Originally meaning a squabble, argument, or bandying of words–it rises from a Scottish variant of argue–its meaning has broadened to include meaningless talk or writing, nonsense. There’s a variant, argy-bargy.

Naturally, this led me to look into the investigate the popularity of argle-bargle and argy-bargy in these parts. They pop up here and there. One veritable fount of spottings is the right-wing National Review, especially its writer Jonah Goldberg, who prefers the argy-bargy form and uses it incessantly. One time he criticized Attorney General Eric Holder because “he thinks this isn’t nearly enough racial argy-bargy”; another, he ripped an Obama energy ad for “endless stream of intellectual jibber-jabber and nonsensical argy-bargy.”

Elsewhere, the terms appear only intermittently. A couple of years ago, Alex Beam wrote in a New York Times op-ed about conflicts in the Episcopal church, “The schismatics invoke endless biblical argle-bargle to defend their un-Christian bigotry.” And just last week, a commenter on the Portland (Oregon) Mercury website humorously responded to a silly season article about how breakfast is overrated: “Shame on you and all those who truck with such joy-murdering argle-bargle.”

Bottom line, there is life in argle-bargle (I like that version better), so I say have some fun with it. Except for you, Goldberg. You are grounded.

“Knickers in a twist (or knot)”

A cartoon by Ming

Faithful reader Hall Hall sends a link to a Cnet.com article that begins “Verizon Wireless’s new family share plan has gotten lots of knickers in knots. But is the new plan really as bad as some people fear it is for consumers?”

Hal asks: “A Britishism (or an Americanism)?”

My answer … wait for it … an Americanism!

Here’s the deal. Knickers in a twist is indeed a Britishism, derived from the British sense of knickers as (in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition) “A short-legged (orig. knee-length), freq. loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment. In extended use, the shorts worn by boxers, footballers, etc.” The twisty figure of speech first appeared in the U.K. in 1967, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, quickly gained popularity through the mid-1980s, and has leveled off since then. In the U.S., by contrast, the phrase’s popularity grew quite gradually through the early ’90s, when it took off; it’s now used more here than here. A proper NOOB indeed. Here are the charts.

U.S. use of “knickers in a twist,” 1964-2008
British use of “knickers in a twist.” 1964-2008

Here is the thing. The red line in both charts represents relative use of knickers in a twist. But you’ll notice that the American chart has a blue line. That represents use of knickers in a knot–it first shows up in 1968 and has slowly risen ever since. In the British chart, knickers in a knot is a pure flat line, suggesting it has never been used.

Why did Americans make up knickers in a knot? Is it because we are partial to alliteration? Is it because we are unaware of the original meaning of knickers and hence don’t realize the physical impossibility of them getting knotted up on their own?

I have no idea and hence I’m not going to get my bowels in an uproar over it.

Do they say that in the U.K.?


A few days ago, the (London) Daily Mail published an article that began:

Olympic legend Michael Johnson says a ‘superior athletic gene’ in the descendants of West African slaves means black American and Caribbean sprinters will command the sport at the London Games.

The Olympic gold medallist and BBC commentator said: ‘Over the last few years, athletes of Afro- Caribbean and Afro-American descent have dominated athletics finals.

‘It’s a fact that hasn’t been discussed openly before. It’s a taboo subject in the States but it is what it is. Why shouldn’t we discuss it?’

If you’re American, you will probably be puzzled by (the American) Johnson’s comment that certain people “have dominated athletics finals.” In the U.S., athletics is an all-purpose term, pretty much a fancier and more formal version of sports (sport to you). In the U.K., however, athletics is used as Johnson was quoted as using it: to refer to track, that is, running, events.

I said that Johnson was “quoted as” saying athletics. I bet that he did not actually say it, but rather that the Daily Mail–not known for its journalistic scruples–doctored the quote to make it understandable to readers. Anyone think otherwise?