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.’”


Reviewing a restaurant called The Marrow this past Tuesday, the New York Post observed, “Many choices — starters $12 to $16, mains $24 to $33 — are dense with butter.” The latest issue of Cooking Light magazine, on my coffee table, has an article called “Skillet Mains.” Reviewing a book in its February 2013 issue, Library Journal says the author “shares recipes for breakfasts, mains, sides, snacks, drinks, and sweets.”

I started hearing main as a sort of familiar nickname for “main course”  a couple of years ago. I had the sense that it was a NOOB, and it is, but before that it was an Australianism.  A roundup  in the (Melbourne) Sunday Herald Sun in April 1991 notes about various restaurants: “Mains about $10”; “Mains about $10”; “Mains from $7.50”; and “Mains such as kang daeng (red beef curry with coconut milk) from $11.95 to $14.95.”

The New York Times, in a 1994 travel piece about Queensland, gave the word the telltale quotation-mark treatment, indicating that it was unfamiliar to the author but commonly used by the locals: “The standard ‘mains’ are an eclectic  selection, from a vegetable couscous to Thai-style green chicken curry and beer-battered fish and chips.”

Possibly the word gained currency in Oz because of the way the local accent can stretch out its vowel. But that is speculation. What’s clear is that it had arrived in Britain by 1996, when the New Statesman noted of a restaurant, “The set-price menu offers three starters, three mains, and three desserts.” Mains didn’t show up in The Times (the London one) till 2003, but quickly became the accepted term in its restaurant reviews. The New York Times didn’t adopt it (in describing a domestic restaurant) until 2008, when it described a San Francisco restaurant as having “hearty mains like Miyazaki filet mignon ($48) or loin of kurobuta (pork) with eggplant dengaku ($20).”

Enough for now. For some reason, I feel like I need a snack.




Via Twitter, @I_Am_Maylin_Now suggested that I look at aggro, and when I said it was a term with which I was not familiar, he directed me to a World of Warcraft (WoW) wiki site with this definition:

Aggro is a jargon word in WoW, probably originally derived from the English words “aggravation” or “aggression”, and used since at least the 1960s in British slang. In MMORPGs [Massively multiplayer online role-playing games], such as WoW, aggro denotes the aggressive interests of a monster/NPC. Some examples are “We’ve got aggro!” and “Go aggro that monster”.

The OED bears out  this out (regarding the origin), citing a 1969 article in It magazine (“At the moment kids are split up into different subcultural groups which have been driven by the system into a permanent state of aggro with each other”) and Martin Amis’s 1973 novel The Rachel Papers: “It wasn’t day-to-day aggro, nor the drooped, guilty, somehow sexless disgruntlement I had seen overtake many relationship.”

The dictionary doesn’t recognize aggro as a verb, but does locate an adjectival use in Australia, as in “My New York paintings were all pretty aggro, with plenty of black” (Sunday Mail of Brisbane, 1985).

As my Twitter friend might have predicted, the term seems to have entered the U.S. through the world of gaming, with the OED citing Wired magazine in 1999: “A gaming device that brings skiing, snowboarding, and skateboarding into your house without thrashing the furniture… The 2-foot X Board lets vid kids stand and deliver aggro drops, extreme spins, and more.” But it’s spread out since then, with Time Out New York asking in 2008, “Are bike enthusiasts too aggro in defending their rights to NYC’s thoroughfares?” and Vanity Fair referring last year to “steroids, which bulk the muscles and ramp up the aggro.”

“Hang on!”

The phrasal verb has assorted meanings, most of them common to both British and American English: retain (“he hung on to his mother’s jewelry”), refrain from telephonically hanging up (Blondie’s “hanging on the tel-e-phone”), and remain clinging (the Supremes’ “you keep me hangin’ on”).

That leaves hang on is an imperative verb, metaphorically requesting or demanding a time out. The American equivalents are wait (a minute) or hold on (a minute);  the OED quotes an 1841 dictionary of Americanisms describing the latter as “originally a sea phrase.” The OED’s first citation for this hang on is a surprisingly late definition in a 1941 dictionary of Australian (!) slang. But now it is  so much a Britishism that I can’t even say it in my head other than in my lame British accent (believe me, you don’t want to hear).

All the more reason why the American chattering classes seem to be lapping it up:

... spelling out that members of Congress shouldn’t use non-public information gained through their jobs to line their pockets? As Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus allegedly did, according to a 60 Minutes investigation? That’s more in the category of hang on, I can’t believe this is not already against the rules. (Andrew Rosenthal, New York Times, January 27, 2012)

Scientology appears to be giving you the promise of a better knowledge of God, perhaps an attractive prospect for youngsters who might be feeling that more mainstream organized religion leaves them cold. But hang on a minute. What “god” do Scientologists believe in? (Villagevoice.com, February 7, 2012)

“Good on” a person

Expression of congratulations or approval. The precise U.S. equivalent is Good for, as in Good for you!, Good for him!, Good for us!, etc. It’s an Australianism and  (in the manner to No worries and kerfuffle) appears to have been taken up first by the Brits and then by the Yanks. The ur-form is Good on ya, mate!

Another scene, the Elton John party, held in Taj Mahal-size tents outside Pacific Design Center off Melrose. Ever the pessimists, we gird ourselves for letdown. It’s the 16th year Sir Elton has done this, and good on him. (William Booth and Hank Stuever, Washington Post, February 26, 2008)/We all contain multitudes, so if Mr.[Anderson] Cooper — who likes to work all the time and has another job on the side doing occasional stories for “60 Minutes”— wanted to take on another assignment, good on him. (David Carr, New York Times, November 7, 2011)

“No worries”

In last week’s run-up to Thanksgiving, I wrote a post for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog about the proliferating ways of saying you’re welcome. I focused on the eminently annoying Not a problem! and No worries!, the latter of which has periodically been suggested as an NOOB.

I have always resisted. Not because it isn’t popular in the U.S.; indeed, it is nearly inescapable. Rather, because it’s not a Britishism but an Australianism. According to Wikipedia: “‘No worries’ was referred to as ‘the national motto’ of Australia in 1978, and in their 2006 work, Diving the World, Beth and Shaun Tierney call ‘no worries, mate’ the national motto of the country.

But looking into the matter I see that the the phrase itself has deep British roots. The Times used it 463 times between 1785 and 1985–for example, in the 1970 headline NO WORRIES FOR CELTIC. The Aussie innovation–now picked up in the U.S., with a vengeance–may have been to isolate the two words as a response to thank you or I’m sorry.