“If I’m honest”

Wes Davis, often mentioned on this site, used the expression on top of this post in an email the other day and parenthetically added, “(as Paul Hollywood says).” I’m not proud to say I had to Google to find out that Hollywood is a judge on “The Great British Bake Off.” But I didn’t really have to consult any sources to realize “If I’m honest” is a characteristically British expression. It just sounds like one.

Google Books Ngram Viewer confirmed the impression. It shows the expression coming on the scene in about 1990 and always being much more popular in Britain than in the U.S.:

Thoughtfully doing my work for me, someone on the Quora site asked, “Is the phrase ‘if I’m honest’ used outside the U.K.?” Three people responded, most pithily Andrew Humphrey, who said, “Wherever it is used, it is a pointless affectation. People in the UK are very fond of such redundant and pretentious words and phrases. They use these phrases to give their hackneyed or cliched pronouncements some fake importance or profundity.”

But more helpful was Luke Proctor, who dug up examples of two American using it, thus securing NOOB status:

If I’m honest I don’t believe the world would miss me if I never acted again.

Jamie Lee Curtis, actress

Because if I’m honest, people in the white world might be appalled, but in the black world they’re making myths out of me. And I know that ain’t the life

John Singleton, director

I also found, amazingly, no fewer than eight popular songs called “If I’m Honest”: by Blake Shelton, Missy Higgins, Brendan Murray, Julia Gargano, Jay Denton, the group All That Remains, and Kaitlyn Bristow of “The Bachelorette.” I know Shelton is American and assume Bristow is; I’ll leave it to you lot to sort out the nationality of the rest.

In a post on her blog, Separated by a Common Language, linguist Lynne Murphy did some investigating and found out that not only “If I’m honest,” but also the similar expressions “If I’m being honest” and “To be honest,” are used far more in the U.K. than the U.S. She goes on to muse:

One has to wonder: why are these such popular idioms in BrE? And then one has to wonder: is it because most of the time people are expected NOT to be honest, so it has to be marked up where people are being honest? There may be something to that — the British, after all, have an international reputation for not saying what they mean.

Of the three expressions, the one that sounds most familiar to my American ears is “To be honest.” So I plugged it in to Ngram Viewer and found this:

That is to say, it was roughly equally popular in both countries for a long time, and was used markedly more frequently in both between about 1980 and 2000. After that, it skyrocketed in Britain.

Why? If I’m honest, I have no idea.

“Spanner” Convergence

Continuing with the post-election catchup, back in late October (a veritable lifetime ago), @JLaBua sent on Twitter a link to a use of “spanner” by NPR’s Nina Totenberg. Speaking of the confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, she said: Senate Majority Leader “Mitch McConnell is a master strategist, and they’re still on track, but their execution has to be perfect. They can’t have many more GOP senators get COVID-19. It could really throw a spanner in their plans.”

It was interesting but I felt I had said all I had to say about the word so didn’t plan a new post. But the very next day my brand new spin bike arrived. When I looked at the included tools, what should I find but:

Interestingly, a third tool was included, which was labeled a “wrench.”

What is the difference between a spanner and a wrench? That turns out to be the title of a post on the (British) Wonkee Donkee Tools website:

Spanners vs Wrench

In the UK, a spanner is a fixed-profile hand tool which fits or removes a fastening by turning a nut or bolt and a wrench is a similar tool but turns non-fastening components, for example, a pipe (or Stillson) wrench which is used to turn and manipulate pipes.

The term ‘wrench’ is also used to describe a spanner-type tool that has an adjustable profile size. These tools are also known as ‘adjustable spanners’ or ‘monkey wrenches.’”

In the USA, the word ‘wrench’ is used almost entirely instead of the word ‘spanner,’ but, because the USA and European markets are linked, the terms ‘wrench’ and ‘spanner’ often appear interchangeable in Britain.

Perhaps that clears things up a bit. (Perhaps not.) I will note, in conclusion, that the company that made the bike, Sunny Health & Fitness, says on its website, “We carry only the finest exercise and health equipment from top manufacturers in Taiwan and China.” And the font on the tool package indeed has a characteristic Chinese look. Talk about throwing a spanner into the semantic works.

“Reckon,” Again

There’s been a lot going on in these parts, so you’ll have to forgive me in being late in passing along some correspondence. Shortly after I posted on “reckon,” Wes Davis, a longtime friend of this blog, sent along an article from the Atlantic and commented, “David Frum [the author] helpfully underlined the NOOB for you!” The relevant paragraph:

Of course, the underline wasn’t for emphasis but to indicate a link. If you want to follow it, click here.

“Reckon”

New York Times food editor Sam Sifton is a friend of this blog, though I reckon he doesn’t know it. “Reckon” is in fact today’s topic. The verb — defined by the OED as “To consider; to conclude; to suppose, believe, think likely” — was used by Sifton last year in one of this newsletters, which are mainly about eating but also touch on other matters: “Now, it’s only a little bit about food but Dwight Garner got me to order Robert Menasse’s satirical novel ‘The Capital’ and I reckon you ought to do the same.”

Here’s Google Ngram’s assessment of the frequency of “I reckon” in British and U.S. books:

Note the greater popularity in the U.S. from about 1850 through 1950. I reckon (sorry, I’ll stop now) that much of the American use is due to the real or supposed affection of “reckon” by homespun types from the South or West. The word immediately brings to my mind The Beverly Hillbillies, and in fact it was used five times in the 1962 premiere episode, including this exchange:

JED: Granny! Them pigs o’ yours got into the corn.

GRANNY: Did they drink much?

JED: I reckon they did. This here little fella was kickin’ blue blazes out of the mule.

In Britain, there seems to have been at times a bit of a colloquial feel, especially when used parenthetically or at the end of a sentence.; a character in Thomas Hardy’s Old Mrs. Chundle (1929) says, “I may as well do that as do nothing, I reckon.” But it was also used in higher registers. Benjamin Jowett’s 1875 translation of Plato has this: “I reckon, said Socrates, that no one…could accuse me of idle talking.”

The Ngram chart shows “reckon” taking off in Britain starting in about 2000, presumably as a fashionable use of an old-fashioned word. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, a snapshot of usage in 2012-2013, shows that process in full flower there, and even more so in Australia:

Frequency of “I reckon.” Bottom number is instances per million words.

And here, from GloWbE, is a sense of how it’s used in context in Britain:

If Sam Sifton is the reliable bellwether I think he is, America is about to catch up.

Tag Questions, NEV, and “Level” (verb)

I watch a lot of tennis on TV, and watched a real lot over the last fortnight, as the U.S. Open was contested. As with football/soccer, the American announcers have picked up some British habits and terminology.

Watching the tournament on ESPN was interesting in this regard, as one of its commentators was the British Jason Goodall, with his abundant tag questions (sometimes called “question tags“) and nationalistic elegant variation. (H.W. Fowler coined the term “elegant variation” to refer to writers, especially journalists, who go to great lengths to avoid saying a word or name a second time.). Here’s an example of both in one (hypothetical) sentence: “It’s a vital game for the Austrian, isn’t it.” The absence of a question mark means the question isn’t supposed to be answered, is it.

One could hear the American announcers, presumably influenced by Goodall and the Australians Darren Cahill and Renae Stubbs, make ample use of both.

But I don’t recall any of the announcers using the Britishism employed, twice, by New York Times reporter Christopher Clarey. Referring to Borna Coric, Clarey wrote, “…the young, bristle-haired Croation [NEV and regular elegant variation!] kept grinding and swinging. He saved six match points and leveled the match at two sets apiece.” Then in the next paragraph, Clarey wrote that Stefanos Tsitipas “went up a break in the fifth before Coric leveled.”

That “leveled” doesn’t appear in the OED or most other dictionaries I checked. But it is in the unnamed dictionary that shows up in Google searches:

Americans would normally say “evened it up,” “tied it up,” or “evened the score.”

That reminds me of a British soccer term which I haven’t heard any American use in talking about soccer, tennis, baseball, or other relatively low-scoring sports. That’s “equalizer,” meaning a goal that ties the score. We would just say “the tying” run, goal, or point.

“Hire”

Calvin Coolidge

A recent article in the New York Times began:

“A few days before Christmas 2013, Stuart Dempster hired a car to take him from Bangkok to the rural town of Ban Phai, in northeastern Thailand. Mr. Dempster, a 55-year-old track and field coach from Australia, was accompanied by a tall, burly security contractor.”

Instead of “hired,” “rented” would be the word used by Americans, one of whom is the New Jerseyan author of the article, David Yaffe-Bellany. I put his “hired” under the category “Ventriloquism,” meaning I reckon he used it because his subject, the Australian Stuart Dempster, would have done. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered the usage in the U.S. before, and I don’t expect to.

But it did remind me a particular old-fashioned American use of the word: as a synonym for “borrow.” I remembered using it in my biography of the Oklahoma-born humorist Will Rogers. He was in favor of our allies paying back the money they had borrowed to fund World War I, succinctly saying, “They hired it, didn’t they?”

I was initially confused when I looked up “hire” in The Dictionary of American Regional English because DARE said the “borrow” meaning came not from the Southwest but from New England. Then I consulted my book. It turned out Rogers didn’t utter the line himself, but was quoting the person who did, the famously laconic President Calvin Coolidge. And where was Coolidge from? Vermont.

“Different to”: Really?

I first looked at the expression “different to” (where Americans would say “different from” or “different than”) in 2013 and categorized it as a “Doobious NOOB,” so infrequently did it come up in the U.S. Two years later I upgraded it to “On the Radar,” because it showed up in an American publication–but then a commenter pointed out that the writer of the article was from London, and I downgraded it again. (And by the way, I’d advise reading all the comments on those two posts before commenting on this one–they offer a lot of good info and insight on the “from”/”than”/”to” forms.)

“Different to” appeared yesterday in the New York Times in a quote from a definitely American person, but I’m dubious. The person was the singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who very sadly died at the age of 38. His obituary included a quote from him in The Scotsman in 2015:

“I always knew there was something different about the way I used drugs and drank to the way my friends did.” (Emphasis added.)

Does the distance from “different” make it more likely that Earle would have used “to” rather than “from” or “than”? I would say not. My hunch is that he didn’t say it, but rather that the Scotsman writer (probably unthinkingly) rendered the quote to sound more natural to his or her ears and readers. And that’s why I’m introducing a new category, “Really?”, for dubious quotes supposedly by Americans in British publications.

And by the way Google Books Ngram Viewer suggests that even in British books, “different from” is much more common than “different to,” even though the latter has steadily increased since about 1960. (And I’m sure would be significantly more common in speech and other informal usage.)

In any case, I’m still waiting to encounter incontrovertible examples of Americans saying or writing “different to.”

“Cack-Handed”

Reader Evan Geller sent in this quote from Florida writer Diane Roberts in the Washington Post:

DeSantis, a fervent Trump partisan and sports fan who’s shown signs of harboring presidential ambitions, has seen his popularity shrivel of late, possibly because of his cackhanded approach to the pandemic in Florida: opening up too soon, refusing to mandate masks, hiding virus data from the public.

The key term is “cackhanded,” I hyphenate it to follow the OED, which gives this definition: “Left-handed; ham-handed, clumsy, awkward.” It shows up first in an 1854 glossary of Northamptonshire words, spelled “keck-handed.” The etymology “perhaps” comes from “cack,” an archaic word for excrement.

A search at Google News reveals the word is pretty common in the U.K. and Ireland, as in this recent headline from The Irish Times:

But it is quite rare in the United States. The term, in all its variants, has appeared in the New York Times just five times (other than cases where a British speaker is quoted) — all from the same writer! In 1995, political columnist William Safire referred to a politician’s “kak-handed pronouncement.” A few weeks later, wearing his other hat as language columnist, Safire wrote about using it as an example of his propensity “to throw in an obscure word now and then.” And a few weeks after that, he apologized for spelling it wrong the first time. Four years later, he praised a dictionary for including the word.

And finally, in 2008, Safire gave it one more shot, this time with the correct spelling. He referred to an adviser to presidential candidate John McCain’s

impolitic comment to Fortune magazine that a terror attack “would be a big advantage” for his candidate, who is highly credentialed on national-security matters. McCain had to quickly dissociate himself from the cack-handed remark: “I can’t imagine why he would say it.”

Update: I am reliably informed that “cackhanded” user Diane Roberts got her Ph.D. from Oxford University and is a Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria.

“Stalls”

It’s a rare day that I have a chance for cross-promotion, but today is such a day. My other blog is called Movies in Other Movies, and each post is about a scene in a movie or TV show in which the characters are watching a movie or TV show. There are a surprisingly high number of such scenes; I’ve been doing the blog for two and half years and new examples keep coming up.

The latest post is about Charlie Chaplin’s 1957 film A King in New York. Here are two notable facts about the movie:

  • It’s set in New York (as the title suggests) and much of it is a satire on current American culture.
  • Chaplin had been out of the United States in a semi-voluntary exile since 1952, and shot the film in his native England.

At one point, Chaplin’s character — a king who has been kicked out of his country by a revolution — goes to see a movie, and before we see him watching three coming attractions (the subject of my blog post), he witnesses the tail-end of a rock and roll show.

Screen Shot 2020-08-12 at 3.55.10 PM

Behind him, on the theater doors, you can clearly see the work “STALLS.” Now, “Stalls” is the British term for what Americans would call the Orchestra. (I have never encountered “Stalls” here.) The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) offers conflicting information on where this scene was shot, either the Odeon Cinema or the Warner Theatre, both on Leicester Square in London. But whichever it was, Chaplin and his crew neglected to erase a telltale word.