“Bits,” Revisited

World War I propaganda poster.

As I have mentioned before, I am working on turning this blog into a book. True to form, I’ve left some of the most extensive and therefore difficult entries to the end, which is why it wasn’t until yesterday that I tackled “bits.”

To state the obvious, this is a common word. How common? It is the 808th most frequently used word in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), just behind “decade” and ahead of “reduce.” The OED considers it to be six separate words—two of them verbs and four nouns. I am concerned here with the one of the nouns (the others have to do with the biting of horses, leather flasks, and computer information) that denotes a piece or part of a larger whole, literally or figuratively bitten off. Its entry has within it twenty-five separate variations, most of which are as commonly used in American as British English. (And some more so: as in a “bit part” in a movie, calling twenty-five cents “two bits,” and the meaning of schtick or well-rehearsed routine, as in this quote from Fred Astaire’s autobiography: “We were in Detroit—stranded—and that is where Mother did the pawning-of-the-jewels bit.”)

If you want my full thoughts on the matter, you’ll have to get the book (hopefully available later this year), but I’ll share here some thoughts on what I view as the main NOOB “bit”: using the word for what an American would most likely say “part,” often used in the plural and often preceded by an adjective. An early British example is from an 1873 humorous sketch in The St. Pauls Magazine, where the narrator describes wandering the halls of Parliament and coming upon a man who’s endeavoring to teach the members to “talk better.” This fellow poses a question:

“One of your great debates that fills three or four pages of your Times with the smallest of small print and runs over into the supplement—how much do you read of it next morning ?”

“Well, I generally glance my eye down the columns, and read the sentences where I see there have been ‘laughter’ and ‘cheers.'”

“Ah, just so, you read only the good bits. Now my plan is to make my pupils say nothing but the good bits. None of them shall speak longer than half an hour, and each sentence shall have a Thought in it.”

“The juicy bits” and “the naughty bits” show up in Britain in the 19th century as well, but really established themselves as phrases in the twentieth. An American would say “the good parts,” “the juicy parts,” and “the naughty parts,” or rather “the dirty parts.”

Most Americans, that is. One finds the occasional literary sort, like critic Richard Eder of the New York Times, writing of a Lina Wertmuller revival in 1976, “Enthusiasm for Miss Wertmuller’s later work may arm the spectator with the fortitude to mark out the good bits.” The same year, American science fiction novelist Ursula Le Guin wrote of H.L. Lovecraft in the Times Literary Supplement, “He imitated the worst bits of Poe quite accurately.”

This use of the word picked up steam in the U.S. in the ‘90s and 2000s, as in a 1999 quote from Time magazine, referring to prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s report on the alleged misdeeds of President Bill Clinton: “He wants America to believe he’d only included the good bits to help the legislature reach an informed decision.” More recently, a reader reports that the Turbo Tax program, while it’s loading, displays the message, “Hold on, we’re getting all the technical bits together.” (The be really British, it would have said, “Hang on.”)

One particular kind of “bits” deserves mention. A 1970 episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus had a sketch called “How To Recognise Different Parts of the Body,” which included this, well, bit (I quote from the Python Wiki):

A voiceover (John Cleese) points out more parts of the body:

10. The big toe

11. More naughty bits (a man standing wearing spotted Bermuda shorts)

12. The naughty bits of a lady (a lady posing wearing spotted Bermuda bra and shorts)

13. The naughty bits of a horse (a horse wearing spotted Bermuda shorts)

14. The naughty bits of an ant

15. The naughty bits of Reginald Maudling (a picture of Reginald Maudling wearing spotted Bermuda shorts)

In his humorous 1988 book God—The Ultimate Autobiography, Jeremy Pascall uses the phrase “dangly bits” five times, including his reference to the creation of Eve: “So much better formed, softer, rounder, smoother, with none of those ugly dangly bits.” “Dangly bits” caught on as a reference to men’s genitals and by 1999, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, had been shortened to just plain “bits.” An example is a quote from Twitter, which I especially like because it uses “bit” twice: “I was in the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday. My favourite bit was where Michelangelo painted in the Pope’s advisor, whom he detested, with a snake eating his bits.”

No surprise that at the U.S. vanguard was NOOBs hall-of-famer Dwight Garner of the New York Times, who, in a review of basketball star Jerry West’s memoir in 2011, wrote, “West seems here like both the Hatfields and McCoys. He shoots himself repeatedly in the head, feet and private bits.” The following year, Garner wrote that an author portrayed gay people as “pretty much like straight people, that is, except for what they do with their dangly bits.”

“Dangly bits” and “bits” appeared to be exclusively male provinces. To the rescue came “lady bits,” first spotted in 2005 and growing apace since then. Google reveals that “Lady Bits” is currently the name of a soap, a physical therapy practice, a zine, and an Australian cross-dressing salon.

The phrase is still an outlier in the U.S., but I imagine gained some traction after a 2021 exchange on Drew Barrymore’s talk show with Gwyneth Paltrow (an honorary English person, of course). Barrymore tasked her guest with coming up with alternatives to words you can’t comfortably say on morning network TV, like  “something beginning with v that ends in ‘ina.’”

“Lady bits?” Paltrow offered.

9 thoughts on ““Bits,” Revisited

  1. Re bits. I wonder of the cockney rhyming slang “threepennies” (or “thruppennies”) is an influence here. The threepenny bit was a British coin that appeared in a number of formats until it was abolished with the change-over to a decimal curency in the 60s. “Thruppennies” are female breasts, from “threepenny bits” = tits).

    1. I’ve never heard that bit of rhyming slang. I’ve usually heard “bristols”, from Bristol City.

  2. Reginald Maudling. There’s a name from the past. (He was Home Secretary under Edward Heath in 1970.)

  3. Private parts is a much more common term for genitalia. I suspect that use of “bits” in place of “parts” is an attempt to reduce the risk of double entendre or, at least, soften the meaning.

  4. ‘Private parts’ is more formal, polite. Some would find it genteel. ‘Bits’ is more common, more everyday, in keeping with a liking for casual, unaffected and often truncated speech. ‘Bits’ is also used for female bits without the ‘lady’.

    ‘Private bits’ feels unfamiliar. I don’t recall seeing or hearing it and I wouldn’t say it or write it.

  5. for a British example of “parts” used in place of “bits” to facilitate a double-entendre with the musical sense of “part” see the classic song “Green Grow My Nadgers, Oh!” by Kenneth Williams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utKHgURmF3w

    if you discuss “fag” in the sense of cigarette in your book, you might want to refer to the 1953 Christmas novelty song “Chinchy Old Scrooge”, by Phil Moore & The Phil Moore Four, where that usage occurs in the context of the Harlem hepcat slang of the period: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_tN_zBaKAM

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