“Fit for/to purpose”

Lynne Murphy has published an interesting post on this phrase, the original version of which is with the “for.” It’s a Britishism which the OED defines as “suitable for the intended use; fully capable of performing the required task.” The dictionary has an 1861 citation but that appears to be an outlier, and the next is from a 1953 book about industrial operations: “Small-scale operation is multiplied when rival producers continually devise new designs which may or may not be fit for purpose.”

The phrase took off in Britain in the 1990s and aughts, as this Ngram Viewer chart shows.

I didn’t bother to look for it in American sources because it’s such an outlier here. The phrase has appeared in the New York Times sixty-one times, but said by British sources or written by British writers virtually always, one exception being in 2021, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Emergent BioSolutions “facilities were ‘fit for purpose and in a state of compliance.'”

But Lynne has found that Americans have taken to using an altered version of the phrase that seems to mean the same thing: “fit to purpose.” It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen before, for example in Americans changing “can’t be arsed” to “can’t be asked.”

Lynne reproduces this tweet, sent in by one of her readers:

And she says she’s found other examples of American “fit to purpose” on Twitter. It’s a trend that bears watching.

“Gadget”

The word was used as early as 1868, according to the OED, to refer to a piece of equipment used in glassmaking. Not long after that, nautical and Navy slang gave it another meaning. From an 1886 book: “Then the names of all the other things on board a ship! I don’t know half of them yet; even the sailors forget at times, and if the exact name of anything they want happens to slip from their memory, they call it a chicken-fixing, or a gadjet, or a gill-guy, or a timmey-noggy, or a wim-wom…”

It wasn’t until World War I that ”gadget” adopted the meaning (and spelling) we associate with it today—in the OED’s words, “a (small) mechanical or electronic device, esp. one regarded as ingenious or novel.” At first it was used in a specifically military context. Rudyard Kipling wrote in The New Army (1915): “They have installed decent cooking ranges and gas, and the men have already made themselves all sorts of handy little labour-saving gadgets.”

It quickly spread to other contexts. Correspondent H. Tapley-Soper wrote to Notes and Queries in 1918: “I have … frequently heard [‘gadget’] applied by motor-cycle friends to the collection of fitments to be seen on motor cycles. ‘His handle-bars are smothered in gadgets’ refers to such things as speedometers, mirrors, levers, badges, mascots, &c., attached to the steering handles.”

And it quickly spread to the United States. A 1919 New York Times article about a transatlantic flight noted, “It was no unusual sight to see [the pilot], tools in hand, busily fitting some ‘gadget’…”

Within ten years, Americans were using it more than Britons, according to Ngram Viewer:

That spike in the ‘30s and ‘40s is presumably what caused The New Yorker, under the editorship of William Shawn, to actually ban “gadget” from the magazine’s pages, along with a remarkable number of other words. Two editors at the magazine, John Bennet and Nancy Franklin, once composed a sentence to try to help them remember all of the things they had to eliminate or find replacements for: “Intrigued by the massive smarts of the balding, feisty, prestigious, workaholic tycoon, Tom Wolfe promptly spat on the quality photo above the urinal and tried to locate his gadget.” (They left out “gotten.”)

Another Plural Attributive Noun

I’ve written about several cases where Americans have adopted the British tendency to pluralize attributive nouns: to use drugs party, covers band, drinks menu, and books editor instead of the customary/traditional “drug party,” “cover band,” “drink menu,” and “book editor.” Check out those links if you’re interested in the ins and outs of the issue.

The latest instance comes via a current National Public Radio (NPR) corporate underwriting spot, intoned by the same plummy-sounding woman who (in another spot) talks about “what-if scenahhrios.” In this one, for Amazon Business, she touts the way it “helps simplify the supplies-buying process with a one-stop shopping experience.” The typical American term, I submit, would be “supply-buying process.”

I acknowledge that I can’t prove that. Both variations of the phrase are uncommon enough that Ngram Viewer and other tools aren’t able to shed much light. However, I can report that “supply buying” has been used nine times in the history of the New York Times and “supplies buying,” as of now, has never appeared in the paper.

If anyone thinks I’m off-base here, please have at me. (Not that you required encouragement.)

“Bespoke” Does a 180

The other day I spotted this display of neckties in a local department store, Kohl’s.

To be clear, these ties are pretty much the opposite of “bespoke” — they’re mass-produced, of middling quality, and sold in bulk in a department store, for pete’s sake. Brings to mind what Humpty-Dumpty told Alice in Through the Looking Glass — “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” I reckon we’re living in a Lewis Carroll world.

More on “can’t be arsed/asked”

Some years ago I looked at the expression “can’t be arsed” (that is, can’t be bothered) and the way it has been (mis)construed, notably by Americans, as “can’t be asked.” A couple of developments since then. First, the OED moved its first citation for the expression to 1968 (from 1978, as I recall). In Hunter Davies’s 1968 book The Beatles, Paul McCartney is quoted as saying: “If they can’t be arsed waiting for me, I can’t be arsed going after them.” In the same book, John Lennon says, “I like ‘A Day in the Life,’ but it’s still not half as nice as I thought it was when we were doing it. I suppose we could have worked harder on it. But I couldn’t be arsed doing any more.”

Second, I found a very long, multi-year thread on the wordreference.com forum debating the merits of “can’t be arsed” and “can’t be asked.” I’ll spare you the details, except to say that one commenter found a 1979 article in which the American pianist Keith Jarrett was quoted as saying, “There are things now that I can’t be asked to do that maybe five years ago I would…” Now, that raises the question of whether Jarrett actually said “can’t be asked” or whether he said the British “can’t be arsed” and the interviewer mistakenly rendered it as “can’t be asked.” By a stroke of luck, that 1979 interviewer, Mikal Gilmore, is a Facebook friend of mine and I asked him if he remembered what Jarrett said. In a kind of Annie Hall-Marshall McLuhan moment, he responded quickly and definitively: “He said ‘asked.’”

I can understand why Jarrett and others would have made the change. First, most British people pronounce “arse” and “arsed” without voicing the “r,” so it sounds like they could be saying “asked.” Second, “can’t be asked” actually makes more sense than “can’t be arsed”—suggesting the idea that I won’t do something even if someone asks me to.

Perhaps for those reasons, “can’t be asked” apparently spread to the U.K. quite some time ago. A commenter on my original post said, “Working in and with South Londoners in the late 90s, I can confirm ‘can’t be asked’ as a thing, albeit pronounced ‘can’t be axed’. Actually more common at that time than arsed…”

And in 2007, someone posted a definition of “can’t be asked” on Urban Dictionary: “Used by some Southern UK speakers in place of ‘can’t be arsed’ because they misheard it, or want to be more polite.”

Helpfully dispelling any “arsed”/“asked” confusion is the version that has apparently become popular among young people on both sides of the Atlantic in their texting and commenting: the initialism “CBA.”

Americans Confused by “Athletics”?

At commercial breaks, NBC television coverage of a new-happening international competition shows this logo:

I wonder what American viewers make of it. As I have noted before, the U.S. and Britain have distinct meanings for the word “athletics.” In America, it’s a general, rather formal term referring to any sporting activity, including baseball, rowing, and ultimate Frisbee. That was the case in Britain as well, when the word was coined in the 1700s. A 1767 article in the London Chronicle refers to “Giving athletics the lead in this progression,… beginning with Scotch-hop, Foot-ball, Cricket, Tennis, Wrestling, Fencing, Hunting, &c.” But in the 1860s, a particular meaning developed in Britain. As the OED defines it: “Track and field events, including running races and various contests in jumping and throwing; the practice or sport of competing in these.” The dictionary quotes a 1959 line from the BBC comedy series Hancock’s World: “Athletics dear. Throwing things, jumping about, running, all that lark.”

In America, for well over a century, the term for these endeavors” has been “track and field.”

But it is alone in this in the English-speaking world, which is why the biennial competition currently taking place is called the World Athletics Championships.

Take it from me, the idea of “athletics” meaning running and jumping about is completely foreign to Americans, and it has been interesting to see how the U.S. media deals with the name of this important event. Other than showing the logo, they pretty much have not. Generally, they’ve gone with lower case and referred to it as “track and field” championships, or, as in this TV listing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, just left out the problematic word “Athletics”:

The New York Times has published multiple articles every day for the past week or so on the event, and by my count has only referred to it by its actual name three times. Once was in this passage, referring to Nike founder Phil Knight, which also included another NOOB!

“Brunch”

Yesterday, H.L. Mencken inspired a post on historical NOOB portmanteau word “smog,” and now here’s another one, of a slightly earlier vintage. “Brunch” apparently originated as university slang. The Independent reported in 1895, “Breakfast is ‘brekker’ in the Oxford tongue; when a man makes lunch his first meal of the day it becomes ‘brunch’…” Five years later the word had spread far enough for the Westminster Gazette to use it (in quotation marks) as the punchline of a comic poem: “Perish Scrambling breakfast, formal lunch!/Hardened night-birds fondly cherish/All the subtle charms of ‘brunch’.”

“Brunch” took a while to catch on in the United States. The first American citation in the OED is from 1930; as late as 1939, the New York Times felt the need to put the word in quotes and define it as “the present-day phenomenon of the breakfast-luncheon, or ‘brunch,’ as it is affectionately called.”

That was then, this is now. Ngram Viewer shows that right about the time of the Times article, Americans passed Britons in their use of “brunch” and have stayed comfortably ahead ever since.

What’s more, round about 2000, Americans stole the British “boozy” and came up with the “boozy brunch,” meaning that for a set price, you can have all the mimosas you want.

“Smog”

In his classic book The American Language (published in 1919 and periodically revised through 1936), H.L. Mencken has a chapter called “Briticisms in the United States.” I don’t know what’s taken me so long but I’ve just now read it carefully, and was struck, among other things, by the number of early NOOBs he mentions that I didn’t realize were such.

Take “smog.” It sounds American as American can be, and that was certainly the case in 1970, when Joni Mitchell, in her song “Woodstock,” declared, “I have come here to lose the smog.”

But it definitely is English in origin. In July 1905, the newspaper The Globe helpfully reported its apparent creation: “The other day at a meeting of the Public Health Congress Dr. [H.A.] Des Vœux did a public service in coining a new word for the London fog, which was referred to as ‘smog’, a compound of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’.” The same year the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on the development and commented: “London is undoubtedly the proper place for its coinage, for it is said to surpass all other places in the opacity of its smog, but so far as mere darkness is concerned some other British and American cities would afford ample justification for the use of the term.”

The U.S. Weather Bureau picked up the word in 1914, causing a wag to comment in the Kokomo Tribune: “But why end there? Let’s call a mixture of snow and mud ‘smud.’ A mixture of snow and soot ‘snoot,’ and a mixture of snow and hail ‘snail.’ Thus we might have a weather forecast: ‘Snail today, turning to snoot tonight; tomorrow, smoggy with smud.’”

But the term was still unfamiliar enough in America in 1921 for a New York Times reviewer of a book by C.W. Saleeby to comment, “America has no counterpart of that strange mixture, thick as pea soup, the color of faded green, sticky and smutty against the human skin and the facade of buildings, with a taste something like stale beer, which serves much of the time as atmosphere in Edinburgh and London. It acts like smoke and looks like fog. Dr. Saleeby has at last found a name for it, a name that is a positive inspiration. It should be in the next edition of all dictionaries. The name is Smog. The adjective is ‘smoggy.’”

Things soon changed as American cities (notably Pittsburgh and Los Angeles) developed the problem, and Americans adopted the word. Indeed, Ngram Viewer shows that since the early ’20s, U.S. use of “smog” has surpassed that in Britain — most dramatically during the environmental movement of the 1960s and early ’70s. That is, right when Joni Mitchell was writing “Woodstock.”

More “Meant to” Stalking

A few years ago, I looked at the rather subtle differences between British and American use of the expression “meant to,” and a few examples of the British version being used in the U.S.

Briefly, Americans use it to mean “designed to” (“the speech was meant to convey a sense of solidarity”) or “destined to” (“our marriage was meant to be”). While in Britain there are additional meanings, all where Americans would probably say “supposed to”: “said to” (“this movie is meant to be good”); “tasked with” (“the builder was meant to expand the kitchen”); and a third, seen in this headline that appeared on the New York Times website the other day.

Dr. Bernard is an Indiana ob-gyn who, the essay explains, “became a target of a national smear campaign for speaking out about her 10-year-old patient, a rape victim from Ohio who needed an abortion and had to travel to Indiana to receive one, given the restrictions in her home state.” The “meant to” in the headline is yet another “supposed to,” this time indicating a plan or intention.

Its appearance in the Times is enough to remove the “on the radar” designation from the phrase. Clearly, it was meant to be.

“Cushy”

I happened upon a 1918 letter to Notes and Queries in which the correspondent, Archibald Sparke, noted that “quite a large number of new words have come into common use during the War” and offered a list. Here’s a part of it:

I’ve already covered “scrounge,” but a few of the others struck me as being common in the U.S. I’ll take a look at them all in the coming weeks, starting with the “cushy.”

The OED tells us that it derives from words in Persian and Urdu that connote pleasure or convenience, and suggests that etymologically distinct “cushion” or “cushiony” may also have had an influence. The definition for the most common sense is: “Of a job, situation, etc.: undemanding, easy; requiring little or no effort; (later) spec. involving little effort, but ample or disproportionate rewards…”

The specifically military sense predates the Great War, as the OED has a brilliant 1895 quote from the Penny Illustrated Paper: “He told me that I had got into a ‘cushy’ (easy) troop.” And Green’s Dictionary of Slang gives a 1912 example of a now familiar formulation: “A lot of them have rare cushy jobs.”

The OED notes an interesting World War I sense of “cushy”: “Of a wound: serious enough to necessitate one’s withdrawal from active duty, but not life-threatening or likely to have permanent consequences, such as disability.” It provides this 1915 quote: “When you are in the trenches a cushy wound..seems the most desirable thing in the world.”

This 1918 New York Times article uses an interesting noun form in the headline:

“‘CUSHIES’ FOR THE FRONT

“British Agitation to Make Holders of “Soft Jobs” Do Guard Duty.

“Henry W. Benson, a wool merchant who arrived yesterday from London on his way to Sydney, Australla, sald that when he left England there was a strong agitation under way to have all the holders of ‘cushy jobs’ sent to the Continent to do guard duty and let the men who have done the fighting and endured the hardships of the war come home.”

The first example I’ve seen of an American using the term is Green’s citation from Budd Schulberg’s 1947 novel The Harder They Fall: “My job with Nick was like a jail, a comfortable, cushy jail.” The New York Times first used the expression “cushy job” in 1964; since then, it’s appeared in the paper 103 times.

And so it isn’t surprising that Ngram Viewer shows American use picking up in the 1970s, and surpassing British use in the ’90s:

Next: “wash-out.”