“So who should be most brassed off by this show?”–Jason Farago, New York Times, June 1, 2023, in reference to “It’s Pablo-Matic,” an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, which he did not like.
When I came to the phrase I’ve put in italics, it sounded like a Britishism, and it is. Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines it as “irritated, fed up, annoyed,” and has two 1940 citations, one from a book called A. A. S. F. (Advanced Air Striking Force, by Charles Gardner: “Cobber said he was ‘brassed-off,’ especially after he had got half-way home once, only to be called back to hand over his flight and teach two new-comers the way around.” Neither Green’s nor the OED has anything to say about etymology, but it would appear to be a combination of the verb “brass off,” meaning to complain, which is seen in British service slang as early as 1925 and “browned off,” meaning annoyed, which popped up no later than 1931.
Observers at the time had some fun describing the differences among those two phrases and another new one, “cheesed off.” A 1943 Time magazine article on RAF slang reported: “Among thousands of Americans, ‘browned off’ already means fed up. (‘Brassed off’ means very fed up and ‘cheesed off’ is utterly disgusted.)”
And a 1943 book called Women at War had these index entries:
“Brassed Off. See Browned Off.
“Browned Off. See Cheesed Off.
“Cheesed Off. See Brassed Off.”
In Britain, “brassed off” got pretty popular pretty fast. A short story by Herbert Bates which was published in a 1942 book has this passage:
He spent most of the rest of his life being brassed off.
“Good morning , Dibden, ” you would say. “How goes it?”
“Pretty much brassed off, old boy.”
“Oh, what’s wrong?”
“Just brassed off, that’s all. Just brassed off.”
In Britain, the phrase fell off in popularity after the War, but started picking up again in the 1980s, as this Ngram Viewer chart shows:
In 2004, the BBC ran a TV series called Brassed Off Britain, which endeavored to identify the things the country found most annoying. (Junk mail “won,” followed closely by banks and call centres.)
But the phrase has never taken hold in America. Until the line from Jason Farago quoted above, it had never been used in the New York Times by an American writer or source, except in reference to Brassed Off, described by the Times as “a funny and poignant  film set in a bleak Yorkshire mining town.” Similarly, it does not show up at all in the Corpus of American Historical English or from any American sources in News on the Web (NOW), a corpus of more than 17 billion words published since 2010.
So well done, Jason Farago! You have perpetrated a true One-Off Britishism.
As previously noted, Americans say “parking garage” for a building and “parking lot” for an on-the-ground parking facility, but the British “car park” is occasionally found here. (Commenters suggested that Grand Theft Auto, whose script apparently uses it, might have been an influence.)
The term popped up just today when I downloaded an app from a New Jersey real estate and parking company, Nexus Properties:
Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, messaged me the other day:
Are you watching “Succession”? And if so, are you noticing occasional Britishisms sneaking through from the British writers on the show? Tom says “could do” (periphrastic “do”!) talking to Shiv in “Living+,” and Shiv says “Sorry to break up the brains trust” (instead of “brain trust”) in “Tailgate Party.” Of course, Matthew MacFadyen is British and Sarah Snook is Australian, so it’s possible the actors themselves tweaked the lines. Someone also pointed out that “sex pest” was used in a Season 2 episode (by Kendall, I think).
I am perhaps the only person I know who is not watching Succession, so all this was new to me. I had never actually heard of “sex pest,” but just a few days later, someone wrote to the American Dialect Society listserv about a headline on the Jezebel website: “Lauren Boebert Filed for Divorce, and Her Sex Pest Husband Didn’t Take It Well.” None other than Ben Zimmer replied: “‘Sex pest’ is a popular in British tabloid headlines for, e.g., allegations against Prince Andrew. ‘Sex pest’ is actually a useful term, since it implies something a bit less extreme than, say, ‘sexual predator.'”
The OED ‘s definition: “a sex offender; a person who sexually harasses another.” The first citation is what appears to be a headline from The Times in 1985: “Sex pest’s one-way ticket back. A convicted sex offender, sent by a Californian judge..to Florida,..is to be returned to where he came from.”
The phrase has appeared in the New York Times eight times since 1991. They have mostly been in British contexts, including a reference to a report on predatory behavior of Jimmy Savile which said “it appeared to be an ‘open secret’ that Mr. Savile was a ‘sex pest.'” However, that 1991 example was from a humorous essay by American writer Elinor Lipman about the guy at work who “sniffs a woman’s hair at the copy machine and asks what kind of shampoo she uses.” The title was, “Are You the Office Sex Pest?”
In 2020, reviewing Curtis Sittenfield’s novel Rodham, book critic Dwight Garner, a NOOBs icon, wrote, “The portrait of Bill Clinton as sex pest in this novel is dark, and grows darker.” And in 2021, the Times reported on an SNL skit in which a talk-show host introduced Rep. Matt Goetz (played by Pete Davidson) this way: “As we’d say in the early 2000s a hot mess and as we’d say today, a full-on sex pest.”
On her blog, Fritinancy, Nancy Friedman has chosen as the Word of the Week “perk-cession,” defined (by the Wall Street Journal) as the way “companies are cutting back on prized employee perks from fancy coffee to free cab rides as they vow to trim costs and prioritize efficiency.” She writes:
Perk, by the way, is a truncation of perquisite, which entered English from Latin—“a thing acquired or granted”—in the 1400s. Since around 1567, perquisite has meant “any casual profit, fee, remuneration, etc., attached to an office or position in addition to the normal salary or revenue,” as the OED puts it. The “perk” abbreviation started appearing in truncated form around 1869 in the UK. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to determine when it migrated to the US; I’m pretty sure it was within my own lifetime. (When I started working, I would have used the term “fringe benefit” rather than “perk.”) Anyone out there able to trace perk’s procession?
OK, OK, I’ll do it.
Nancy specified 1869 because that’s the date of the first citation in the OED, from a muckraking book by James Greenwood called The Seven Curses of London. In a chapter on thieves he writes about a species of “small pilfering”:
Ordinarily it is called by the cant name of “perks,” which is a convenient abbreviation of the word “perquisites,” and in the hands of the users of it, it shows itself a word of amazing flexibility. It applies to such unconsidered trifles as wax candle ends, and may be stretched so as to cover the larcenous abstraction by our man-servant of forgotten coats and vests. As has been lately exposed in the newspapers, it is not a rare occurrence for your butler or your cook to conspire with the roguish tradesman, the latter being permitted to charge “his own prices,” on condition that when the monthly bill is paid, the first robber hands over to the second two-shillings or half-a-crown in the pound.
But by 1887 the word had lost its nefarious connotation, the Pall Mall Gazette referring that year to “an order that free blacking is no longer to be among the ‘perks’ of Government office-keepers.”
As for Nancy’s question about precisely when “perk” migrated to the U.S., Green’s Dictionary of Slang has an 1882 quotation from the National Police Gazette, published in New York: “Detectives must have some protection and privileges […] not to mention the ‘perks’.” But I’ve got to think that’s an outlier, written by a British correspondent for the magazine. Myinitial research suggests the abbreviation arrived here about 1970, which is indeed (I don’t think she’ll mind me saying) within her lifetime. The first use in the New York Times came that year, in Phil Dougherty’s long-running column on advertising, the quotation marks and the explanation suggesting his readers wouldn’t be familiar with the word: “For such men as Mr. Norins and Mr. Kershaw, the cost of commuting is a perquisite— ‘perk’ in Madison Avenue jargon—bestowed by grateful management.”
Google Ngram Viewer shows British use perking up (sorry) in the 1970s and ’80s, followed by American in the ’80s and ’90s (I searched for “a perk” to limit other senses of the word.) It was used roughly equally in both countries in the 2000s, and since about 2013 it’s been more common in the U.S.
This is an interjection with a history, and a fair amount of complexity. It started as the nautical affirmative “Cheer ho!”, said in response to “What cheer, ho?” The variants cheeroh and cheero then became used as “a friendly greeting or a call to attract attention” (OED) and subsequently to express good wishes on parting, to express encouragement (“take heart!”), and as a toast or salutation on drinking. A bit of doggerel composed in 1919 by the American philologist Charles Alphonso Smith commented on the term’s all-purpose nature: “The British have a funny word—Cheer-O!.. They said it when we joined the fleet, They say it now when e’er we meet, Till smilingly we all repeat, Cheer-O.”
A third variant, cheerio, surpassed cheero in 1916 (according to Ngram Viewer) and became, along with old chap, one of main words the American caricature of an Englishman habitually said. The idea had been established by 1941, when Judy Garland encouraged a besieged Britain with the song “Chin Up! Cheerio! Carry On!”, lyrics by Yip Harburg, in the movie Babes on Broadway. The same year, General Mills introduced a breakfast cereal called Cheerioats. In 1946, faced with a legal challenge by the Quaker Oats, they changed the name to Cheerios.
Cheero and cheerio begat cheers, which took on all the old meanings. My experience tells me that the only one adopted in the United States was the drinking toast, which has been widespread here for as long as I can remember and served as the title of the NBC sitcom, set in a bar of the same name, which starred Ted Danson.
Meanwhile, over in the U.K., the word took on yet another sense. As Philip Howard wrote in The Times in 1976: “By a remarkable transition from the pub to the sober world at large outside cheers has become the colloquial synonym in British English for ‘thanks.’” In his 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, Kingsley Amis described a news agent saying “Cheers five times, the first time when he noticed the approach of his customer, again when he handed the magazines, again when he took money, again when he gave change and the last time when bidden good-bye.”
Flash forward twenty years, to when I started spending a good amount of time in London. I was struck precisely by a newsagent’s “Cheers” when I handed over payment for my Independent or Evening Standard. And over the next few years, as I paid attention, it seemed to me that “thank you” was indeed the preeminent meaning for the word.
Not long after that, the word exploded for a simple reason: email, where “Cheers” became immensely popular as a sign-off, first in the U.K. and then in the U.S. But here’s the odd thing: I believe that over there, it more or less means “thanks,” while in here, it more or less means “good tidings” or “all the best wishes” or something vague and positive along those lines. I acknowledge that, short of interviewing people who use the sign-off, I can’t prove or disprove my proposition. So I’m hoping readers will help me out. Those who sign off with “Cheers,” what do you mean by it?
As late as 1777, when the Royal Standard Dictionary was published, the predominant pronunciations of “either” and “neither” in England were “ee-ther” and “nee-ther.” But that gradually changed. In its 1907 edition, The Oxford Dictionary remarked that “eye-ther” was more prevalent in the “educated speech” of Londoners. H.W. Fowler predicted in 1926 that this pronunciation would “probably prevail,” and by 1965, when Sir Ernest Gowers revised Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, it had “almost wholly displaced” the long e pronunciation.
For a long time, the United States stuck with “ee-ther,” for the most part. In 1873, the philologist W.D. Whitney harrumphed that the ”eye-ther” pronunciation had “spread …by a kind of reasonless and senseless infection, which can only be condemned and ought to be stoutly opposed and put down.” A 1928 satirical sketch called “The Lady Buyer” noted of that personage,
always, standing her in good stead, and ready at the tip of her tongue is her crystal-clear, British pronunciation of “either.” She says the staunch word with such hauteur as to make one forget other mistakes and even feel apologetic for having noticed them. Nothing on earth could make her whisper “ether” in the darkest corner of a stock-room. She knows it would ruin her socially.
Memorably, “eye-ther” was one of the British pronunciation choices (along with “to-mah-to”) in Ira Gershwin’s 1937 lyric to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” In 1961, Hans Kurath and Raven McDavid called “eye-ther” “a sporadic feature of the cultivated speech of Metropolitan New York and Philadelphia…. it is in all probability a recent adoption from British English.”
My ears tell me is that “eye-ther” and “nIe-ther” are currently on the rise in America, especially among young people. My own millennial-generation daughter, despite having two parents who say “ee-ther,” says “eye-ther.” On the pronunciation site Youglish, six of the first twenty American utterances of the word are “eye-ther” (all youngish people), and fourteen are “ee-ther,” including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
I would be interest in the observations of readers, both American and British–or any other English-speaking country, for that matter.
I wrote about “x years on” in 2011, where “x” is a number and the phrase means, roughly, “x years later.” (I say “roughly” because I think “years on” is only used in ongoing contexts, whereas “years later” can be retrospective. You could write, Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. Four years later, he was defeated.” But not, “…. Four years on, he was defeated.”) The date of my previous post is significant, since it was prompted by discussions of the 9/11 attacks on their tenth anniversary. A good number of them used the expression, especially in headlines, where the brevity of “on” is a virtue. For example, “10 Years On: Finally, Smarter Airport Security Screening?” (Wall Street Journal). And “Though we’ve felt the impact of 9/11, more will yet unfold. Ten years on, it still might be too soon to tell.” (Sacramento Bee.)
We’ve just experienced the twentieth anniversary of of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and my sense is that “years on” is even more popular in discussions of it. Thus, from Google News, and then the New York Times:
The phrase is hard to research since it’s used in many other contexts, e.g., “She served two years on the president’s staff” or “I’ve spent five years on the problem.” But I can say a few things about it. First, it’s fairly new, and second, it’s British in origin. The first use I’ve been able to find is in a Parliamentary address in 1964: “We are more than ten years on since Aneurin Bevan uttered those words.” Four years later, an Alan Bennett play called “Forty Years On” was produced in the West End. “Ten years on” was said Parliament twice in the ’70s and ten times in the ’80s, some in reference to a book called Ten Years On in Northern Ireland.
Here’s the Ngram Viewer graph for American and British use of “years on”:
There’s a lot of noise in the graph; that is, it includes uses of the phrase in other contexts. But I believe the gap that begins to yawn in the late ’60s represents British adoption of the “X years on” expression. The first American used I’ve been able to find is a headline from 1991: “A Consummate Teacher: Coach Robinson 50 Years On.”
Thirty-two years on, it’s fully arrived.
Update: Reader Ian Christian reports that the Harrow school song, composed in 1872, starts out:
“Forty years on, when afar and asunder Parted are those who are singing today,…”
So obviously, Bennett’s was referring to the song in the title of his 1968 play. I still have the sense that the “x years on” formulation was rarely used until the 1980s. But I could be wrong.
For the purposes of this blog, “British” refers to the British Isles, meaning not only the United Kingdom but Ireland as well. I mention that now because “feck” is of Irish origin, emerging in the nineteenth century as a verb meaning “steal.” From Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: (1916): “They had fecked cash out of the rector’s room.”
Some decades later, clever Irish people took advantage of how similar “feck” is to another word and began to use it as a Hibernian alternative. This line appears in The Bogman (1952), by the Irish writer Walter Macken: “The whole feckin world I’d give to be with her on the banks of the Ree.” Since then, various forms—including “feck off’,” “fecker,” and “feck it”—have been seen in the work of other writers, mostly Irish, in reproducing dialogue in novels, plays, and films.
A power user is the playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, whose parents were Irish but who was born and raised in London. I was initially excited to see the Corpus of Contemporary American English list 51 uses of “fecking” between 1995 and 99, but it turned out 44 of them were from McDonagh’s play The Cripple of Inishmaan, which was published in the American journal The Paris Review. Example: “Oh thank Christ the fecker’s over. A pile of fecking shite.” (The other seven “fecking”s in COCA came from Irish contexts as well.)
There has been a sprinkling of American uses over the years, for example in the title of a 2014 blog post by Charles Pierce of Esquire: “Not in My Fecking Backyard.” (It had to do with a controversy in Ireland.) I’ve noticed an uptick recently, which I peg to McDonagh’s popular 2022 film The Banshees of Inisheran. The word is used endlessly in it, including in costar Kerry Condon’s mic-drop line “You’re all feckin’ boring!”
In an interview, Condon contended, “It’s not a swear word. You can say it until the cows come home. My mother doesn’t swear ever. But she says ‘feckin’ all the time.” Stan Carey, who is both Irish and a scholar of language, bears her out, noting that in the 1990s TV comedy Father Ted, Father Jack shouts “Feck off!” regularly enough to make it a catchphrase. “’Feck’ is family-friendly, “ Carey wrote on his blog, “even according to advertising standards authorities…. As expletives go, it has a playful, unserious feel. People who are genuinely furious – as opposed to merely annoyed – or who want to be properly abusive, tend not to use feck: it just isn’t forceful enough.”
“Fooking”—commonly rendered as “fookin’”—is an example of what is known as eye dialect, spelling a word the way it’s pronounced, in this case from the north of England. Someone offered this definition on Urban Dictionary in 2003: “The result of someone with a Mancunian accent trying to say the word ‘fucking.’” An oft-repeated quote from singer Louis Tomlinson, from West Yorkshire, is “I hate fookin’ avocadoes.” And Adrian Chiles’ book We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, about supporters of West Bromwich Albion football, has the line, “He can’t see a fookin’ thing … and he’s got to drive we home.” (Note also the regionalism of “we” as the object of a verb.”)
As for American use, it’s sparse but growing. Journalist Charles Pierce, again, has a favorite epithet on Twitter: “Fookin’ eejit” (idiot). I searched Twitter for tweets containing “fookin’” and emanating in a 200 kilometer radius of New York City and it turned up a couple of dozen hits over the course of a week, including this from an account emanating from East Hampton, N.Y.: “For fook sake man! Im eating my fookin lunch here!!”
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.’”
I’ve written several times, I believe most recently here, about the phenomenon I call American Characters, British Lingo. It’s where a British novelist creates an American character and (unintentionally) has him or her use Britishisms. I am going to give it the acronym ACBL and plan to tag all relevant posts, starting with this one.
The current case is a fairly minor one. I’m a fan of the British mystery novelist Anthony Horowitz and just finished his latest, The Twist of a Knife. It takes place in London theatrical circles, and one of the characters is an American actor named Jordan Williams. At one point he says he and his wife “had a stupid row.” If that were the only ACBL in the book, I wouldn’t have bothered writing about it, because it is believable. Williams’s wife is English, he has lived in the country for a number of years, and furthermore, “row” is a useful word, with a slightly different nuance than “argument” or “fight.”
But I believe the second one is a slip on Horowitz’s part. Williams is talking about his background. He is Native American, and when he was three years old, social workers removed him and his three sisters from their home because their parents were deemed “unsuitable guardians.” He says, “You or I would call it kidnap, but they believed they were saving us.”
I can’t recall ever encountering “kidnap” used as a noun in this way. I (and I believe Americans in general) would say “kidnapping.” Is it a Britishism? The OED has an entry for “kidnap” as a noun meaning “the act of kidnapping,” but in three of the four citations, it’s used as an attributive noun, familiar to me from headlines referring to “A Kidnap Plot” or “Kidnap Verdict.” And the fourth (from a 1970s British novel) is “There was no money in killing you, but maybe a lot in a kidnap.” That sounds borderline okay to me.
I got a bit more confirmation from two other British dictionaries. Collins has a definition of “kidnap” as “the crime of taking someone away by force” and gives as an example “Stewart denies attempted murder and kidnap.” Macmillan has something similar and has the example “the kidnap of a local businessman.” I would absolutely say “kidnapping” in both those cases.
The American Merriam-Webster, meanwhile, doesn’t recognize “kidnap” as a noun.
I’d be interested in you all’s sense of whether this “kidnap” is a Britishism, and very much not an Americanism.