Category Archives: Australianisms

“Big ask”

This line appeared in a December 2018 New York Times review of the Nicole Kidman movie Destroyer: “That she’s also a better detective than a mother makes her somewhat of an outlier, at least in American movies. If Bell [the Kidman character] were a man and father, and played by, say, Denzel Washington, this wouldn’t be a big ask.”

That “ask” is a shift of the word from verb to noun, meaning, basically, “request.” (“Request” started as a noun in about 1400 and was being used as a verb no later than 100 years later.) The OED cites uses of noun “ask” back to the 13th century, including this from a 1656 Bible translation: “God saith concerning Christ, thou art my Son, there presently followeth an Ask of me and I will give thee.” The dictionary says it is now “somewhat rare,” with three exceptions. The first is in bridge and whist, where it means “A play or bid having the primary purpose of eliciting information about a partner’s hand.” (“Who has not suffered when he has played correctly second hand..from his partner assuming that there has been an ask for trumps?” Westminster Papers, 1872.) The second is in finance, where it means “asking price.” And the third is when it’s modified by an adjective like “big,” “huge,” or “impossible, as in the Times quote above.

I would tend to disagree with the last category. That is, I accept that the current popularity of “ask” as a noun started with “big ask,” as we’ll see, but I think it’s very much out there by itself, as are such similar nouns as “get,” “reveal,” and “fail.” See the title of a 2017 book about fundraising by Laura Fredericks, The Ask: For Business, For Philanthropy, For Everyday Living. So I would recommend including “big ask” citations in the main definition.

As I say, the recent surge in “ask”-as-noun started with “big ask,” and it started in Australian sport(s). The OED has a 1987 quote from the Sydney Morning Herald, the quotation marks indicating a fairly recent coinage: “Four measly pounds is what the critics say. But according to his trainer..that four pounds is ‘a big ask’.”

I believe I can antedate that. The Google Books database has a “big ask” from what appears to be a short story in the Australian journal The Bulletin, vol. 97, 1975. “A big ask, though. They wanted a grand. Anyway I got two spot bail and the case is still swingin’.”

The phrase stayed in Australia for a while. Writing on the American Dialect Society listserv, Peter Reitan reported checking the database and finding that “every single hit from 1988 through 2006 is either from an Australian newspaper, or quotes a native Australian, typically athletes.”

Some American uses in that period can be found elsewhere. The (California) Orange County Register, August 29, 1993, referring to a program at the University of California, Irvine, reported: “[The American-born director] bundled seven projects into one Big Ask, for a regional alliance called Defense Photonics Medical Consortium.”

A chart showing frequency of “big ask” in American newspapers in the Lexis-Nexis database shows growth that’s gradual in the decade of the 2000s, and dramatic in the 2010s.

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Over in the U.K., the phrase was in circulation no later than 2006, when Friends of the Earth started a “Big Ask” campaign to fight climate change.

And someone posted this definition on Urban Dictionary in 2012:

Misused by stupid British soccer commentators as a substitute for job, task, or assignment.

“He has to stop Messi from scoring tonight: that’s a big ask.”



A few days ago, Louise Linton, the wife of U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, got into trouble for posting this picture on Instagram:

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The trouble stemmed from her hashtagging various items of her designer clothing–weird and creepy in itself, all the more so when accompanying a picture of getting off a U.S. military jet with official government markings.

What caught my eye was the reference to Tom Ford “sunnies”–sunnies being Australian shorthand for sunglasses. All citations for the term in both the Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang are from Australian or New Zealand sources.

Linton is a native of Scotland who has lived in the U.S. for more than fifteen years. Did she pick up “sunnies” in Scotland, or is the term prevalent in the U.S. circles in which she travels? Please weigh in if you know.

“Lost the Plot”

When a friend wrote in a Facebook post the other day that a certain political figure had “lost the plot,” my NOOB-dar came on. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase but it had the definite feel of a Britishism, and sure enough, it is.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “lose the plot” as “to lose one’s ability to understand or cope with events; to lose one’s touch; to go off the rails.” There is a dubious 17th-century citation, with the  next not coming till a 1984 quote from The Times, presumably about a fashion show: “Arabella Pollen showed sharp linens, lost the plot in a sarong skirt and brought out curvaceous racing silk and a show-stopping bow-legged Willie Carson.”

As to the phrase’s national origin, the OED doesn’t say. A 1994 article in The American Scholar claims it’s Australian. It would be interesting to hear about that from an Australian. In any case, it definitely is a Britishism, as shown in this Google Ngram Viewer chart comparing uses of the phrase “lost the plot” in books published in the U.S. and the U.K:

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Interestingly, the first time it shows up in the New York Times, in 1998, it’s also in a fashion article:

From the parade of Mao worker jackets with frog closures and cheongsam dresses at Ferragamo to the indiscriminate layering of tulle and other sheer fabrics over trousers and skirts at Anna Molinari, many designers in Milan had a story’s worth of ideas, but they had lost the plot.

It’s been used a few dozen of times since then, most recently less than a week ago, in a May 14 article about entertainment mogul Sumner Redstone:

The legal fracas has changed Mr. Redstone’s public image from a firebrand whose business acumen and ruthlessness won him control of Viacom, Paramount Pictures and CBS, a $40 billion empire, into something quite different. In the local parlance, he lost the plot.

“Good on [someone]”

In a television interview yesterday, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had given “voice to a voiceless part of the Turkish population – good on him for that.”

Hayden was using a phrase that I’ve started to notice fairly frequently among American recently–an equivalent of the familiar (to us) expression of approval “good for you,” or him, her, them, me, etc. I think the adoption here is partly due to a slight difference of nuance. “Good on you” feels like it’s always used in praise of someone’s effort or actions, whereas “good for you” could apply either to that or good fortune, as in winning the lottery or having good weather on vacation.

The OED says “good on” was chiefly found in Australia and New Zealand until the 1970s, though it has an intriguing citation from a 1905 book called The Bush Boys of New Zealand: or Dinkums and Mac: “First one and then another came up and congratulated in true British boys’ style. ‘Good on you, Dinkums, old man. Put it there, old feller.’”

Also intriguingly, the OED says that “good on” formulations have “a stress on good, unlike good for you where the stress is on you.” That has not been my experience, though I hasten to add my experience is limited. I feel that in “Good on you,” I’ve most commonly heard the stress is on “on.” And “good on him,” which developed later, is usually said “good on him“–as Michael Hayden said it in the clip I linked to at the top.

But I wonder what Australian readers have to say.


A few years back, my daughter Maria Yagoda, who knows a lot of British and Australian young people, told me to be on the lookout for the arrival of a word she always heard them saying: “fully.” Now, this adverb is common in the U.S., in two particular contexts: a synonym for “completely” or “totally” (“the hotel is fully booked”) and a kind of antonym for “only” (“fully two thirds of registered voters sat this election out”).

The connotation Maria had picked up on was slightly different and is well-put by “Diego” (evidently an Australian) in this Urban Dictionary entry:

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I found a few other examples out on the web, two from British sporting types:

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 5.56.22 PMA rugby coach: “We had so many chances and the game was fully in our hands for 80 minutes. I was worried, but we got there in the end. George North saved the day.”

A government official: “Large unmanned aircraft, when they come, should be as safe as manned aircraft and the British public should be fully consulted before companies fly large, remotely-piloted aircraft over their homes alongside passenger planes.”

Of course, this isn’t a blog about Britishisms, so the above examples are beside the point. Unfortunately, after being on the lookout for a couple of years, I was drawing a blank on British “fully.”
Then, in July, I came on this quote in the New York Times, attributed to a (San Francisco) “Bay Area cook”: “It’s fully this crazy superstitious thing with all these stories attached to it.” Trouble was, the cook, Samin Nostrat, was identified as having grown up in Iran.

There things stood until a couple of weeks ago, when I attended (with Maria) a talk by Lena Dunham at the New Yorker festival. She showed a scene from a film she had made five or six years ago, and when the lights came up, she said, ” I forgot that I fully had acne.”

Maria and I high-fived each other. The rest of the crowd thought we were nutters.


Hanks and Thompson, as DIsney and Travers

Hanks and Thompson, as Disney and Travers

My first thought was that I had misheard. I was watching a scene in the film “Saving Mr. Banks” where Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, is giving a tour of Disneyland to P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins, which he would dearly love to film. What I seemed to have heard didn’t make sense to me. But a tweet from @NickyD pointed out the same thing and directed me to the movie’s screenplay. That document confirms that Disney tells Travers, “In Adventureland there is a tree–this is a fun fact. A titbit … ”

Then Travers interrupts and corrects him: “Tidbit.”

Disney goes on: “… It has three million leaves, four million flowers”

The surprising thing isn’t that Travers would presume to correct the great Disney. According to the film, that is the very core of her character. Rather, it is an apparent reversal of the characters’ presumed position on the corrected point. I had thought of titbit as both a Britishism and the original form of the expression, and tidbit as a predominately American corruption.

The OED and Google Ngram Viewer gave me some nuance. The first use cited in the OED comes from 1649, is British, and is in fact tidbit, spelled a little differently: “A tyd bit, i.e. a speciall morsell reserved to eat at last.” The first titbit (also British) appears in 1697 and the last, from T.A. Trollope, in 1887: “During the singing of the well-known tit-bits of any opera.”

Ngram Viewer gives a sense of the popularity of the variants in the two countries:

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The “Mr. Banks” scene takes place in 1961, at which point, according to Google, tidbit was indeed the favored version in American English and titbit in British English. Now, titbit was still relatively common in AmE until beginning a steady decline in around 1930. (Presumably, that coincided with the rise to prominence of the slang tit, referring to a [usually woman’s] breast, making titbit seem improper, albeit unfairly.  British titbit began a decline of its own commencing in around 1950, possibly because by that point the anatomical  tit had crossed the Atlantic.) So it’s possible that Disney, who was born in 1901 to an Irish-Canadian father, would indeed have used the term. But that seems far too convoluted a linguistic possibility for this film to make note of.

IMDB tells me that one of the screenwriters of the film, Kelly Marcel, is British, and the other, Sue Smith, is Australian, as was Travers. And it would seem that the only plausibility for the anomaly is the Australian connection. Is it the case that tidbit was and is favored in Oz, to the extent that Aussies would think of titbit as an American corruption? I await wisdom from NOOB readers Down Under.


Reviewing R. Kelly’s new CD, “Black Panties,” in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dan DeLuca describes the performer as “the most pathologically pervy of pop stars.”

Something about that pervy piqued my NOOB-dar. I scuttled over to the OED, which defines the adjective as “Sexually perverted; pornographic” and locates its origin not in Britain but Australia. First cite is from a 1945 novel by the Australian Lawson Glassop, We Were the Rats: “Listen to this… ‘He buried his head in the warm fragrance of her bosom.’ So-and-so, so-and-so. It gets pervy again here. ‘His hungry kisses were returned with passionate abandon.’” The second is from a 1970 British book, Sir, You Bastard, by G.F. Newman: “Twenty maximum security, the lights never out, pervy screws watching every movement.”

There is also this illuminating exchange from the Australian novelist Jon Cleary’s 1982 book Clearfield’s Daughter: “‘What about Aussie men?’ ‘They’re different. They just think it’s pervy for the girl to be on top. Lie still!”

Google Ngram Viewer shows a rapid rise in pervy use in the U.K in the late ’80s, with the U.S. starting to follow suit about a decade later:

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(The word shows up pre-1990, but almost all uses are either of proper names or the Russian word pervy. I believe it means “first” in that language, at least judging by this quote I found on the Internet: “‘How was that as a first try?’ asked Trotsky. [Vladimir] Mayakovsky answered with a devastating pun: ‘The first pancake falls like a People’s Commissar’ (pervy blin lyog narkomom), a play on the saying ‘the first pancake falls like a lump.'”)

The word first appeared in the New York Times in 2000, in an interview with the novelist Edmund White: “Even though people act as though you’re being exhibitionistic in some sort of pervy way by writing about all of this stuff, I actually see it as sort of heroic.” Since then it’s been in the paper about seventy-five times, including this telling quote from a 2004  piece about fashion designer Christopher Bailey, datelined London: “You can’t even say the look is British, although in his latest women’s show, for fall 2004, he did have leather buttons and some see-through rain capes. Very pervy, Bridget Jones would say.”

Since 2009, the word has appeared about forty times in the Times, suggesting that it is now firmly in the American chattering class’s lexicon. One quote earlier this year described a (very) new version of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” that was performed earlier this year. “‘Ma’am, I don’t mean to sound twisty or pervy,’ goes one line in his rejiggered ‘Non so più.’ ‘Damn, I just love when a body’s all curvy.’”