Category Archives: Faux NOOBs

“Do” (a menu item)

My observant friend Pat Raccio Hughes remarked that she’s lately been noticing young people ordering food in restaurants in a particular way. Let’s say they want a hamburger. Instead of saying “I’ll have a hamburger,” or “I’d like a hamburger,” or even the dreaded supposed Americanism, “Can I get a hamburger?”, they’ll say, “I’ll do the hamburger.”

This was a new one on me, but I immediately started to notice it in my travels. It seemed a sort of reversal of another food-related “do,” previously covered in NOOBs (“This restaurant does a nice pot roast”), so I had a hunch it has a British origin.

The only online dictionary in which I found a relevant definition was in one of the OED‘s many, many meanings for “do”: “To partake of (a portion of food or (esp.) an alcoholic drink); to eat or drink, esp. in a social context.” “Let’s do lunch” is a common phrase. But neither that nor and of the OED citations seem quite the same thing as ordering a particular item in a restaurant:

1853   ‘C. Bede’Adventures Mr. Verdant Green x. 78   To ‘do bitters’, as Mr. Bouncer phrased the act of drinking bitter beer.

1867   J. S. BorlaseNight Fossikers 116   I asked him to come to Poole’s shanty and do a chop and a nobbler with me.

1888   Civil & Mil. Gaz. (Lahore) 8 May 2/1   Hulloo! Back again, old man?.. I think we might do a drink together in honour of the occasion.

1908   S. R. LeeOther Sara v. 65   I feel as if I could do a chop and a glass of stout now.

1987   Sunday Tel. 19 July (Colour Suppl.) 39/3   An invitation to lunch might be pitched as, ‘Come on, let’s do sushi’, or ‘We have to do some Korean’.

In 2013, someone on the WordReference.com forum asked about “I’ll do the salad.” Only a few of the respondents had encountered it, but, amusingly, most of the British ones contended it was an Americanism, and most of the Americans contended it was a Britishism. Someone posted a link to a California magazine article from 1985 about demanding and entitled restaurant customers, an example being a woman who told a waiter

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Also suggesting an ’80s origin was the Random House editor and word maven Benjamin Dreyer, who responded when I brought it up on Twitter: “I’m sure I remember ‘will do the lobster’ from the last years of my restaurant career, so NYC in the late eighties.”

In 2013, an American blogger complained about the usage but had no idea where it had come from. In 2017, another blogger who also appears to be American noted:

“I’ll do the [food]” is one such phrase that’s been bothering me for the past few years—likely because I overheard it on an episode of some Beverly Hills reality show that I hated both for its existence and cult-following. Since then, I’ve continued to hear this phrase assertively stated at formal and fast-casual restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

Finally, I asked my daughter Maria, who is young and who is a writer and editor for Food and Wine magazine. She replied,

I think there’s something slightly pretentious about it, but i definitely do it maybe 50 percent of the time.

It often comes up  when servers are describing specials, and they say, “We have a lovely sole meuniere with chanterelle mushrooms, and we have a pork chop with an apple demi glaze.”

And then you say, “I’ll do the pork chop.”

My conclusion: this do isn’t a Britishism, one-off or otherwise. And it seriously annoys some people.

 

“Unbeknown(st)”

In a comment to the previous post, on “whilst,” David Collard posted a link to a Times Literary Supplement blog post he wrote about his aversion to the word. Mr. Collard (whose spelling, logical punctuation, and use of the term “car park” tag him as British) noted:

“Whilst” is a word that never fails to irritate me, not simply because it’s an unnecessary and unattractive alternative to “while”, but because it’s employed as part of the pervasive culture of “customer care”. Here are three examples gleaned on a quick stroll around my neighbourhood this morning:

“This car park is reserved for customers whilst using the bank.”

“We apologise for any inconvenience whilst work is in progress.”

“Please wait here whilst your order is being processed.”

And a very familiar recorded telephone message: “Please hold the line whilst we try to connect you”.

American readers will find “whilst” merely quaint, and possibly affected, but on this side of the pond there’s a terrible tendency to prefer “whilst” to “while”, especially in public notices. It’s not simply that “whilst” is outdated, it comes with a certain hidebound attitude – prim, supercilious, self-righteous.

He went on to say, “Compare the not-unrelated words: ‘amongst’, ‘betwixt’, ‘unbeknownst’. Especially ‘unbeknownst’. They all share – for me at least – a false Arthurian whiff, a saloon-bar, fake bonhomous resonance, something that implies thoughtful reflection and careful discrimination and eloquence but usually expresses the opposite.”

I agree on “amongst.” As for his other two examples, I’ve always associated “betwixt” exclusively with the expression “betwixt and between” (the way I never hear about crannies apart from nooks, or caboodles apart from kits). But when I looked into it, I discovered “betwixt” is indeed used on its own, and I’ll return to it in a future post.

As for “unbeknownst,” I think of it as normal, or “unmarked,” commonly used as it is in the first hit in a Google News search, a January 8 U.S. newspaper article about a daughter whose father beat her and instructed her to lie about it: “Unbeknownst to [the father], his daughter recorded the incident with her cellphone, authorities said.”

But it turns out “unbeknownst” is a word with a history, occasionally a contentious one, as in David Collard’s critique. Part of the trouble is there’s supposedly an older, more straightforward equivalent: “unknown.” That’s to some extent true. “Unknown” dates to the 14th century. But it has two distinct meanings. One is that a piece of information, or a person, is simply not known, as in this 1865 quote from a geology journal: “I have an anthozoan from the carstone of Hunstanton; its species unknown to me.”

The other, slightly different meaning is defined this way by the OED: “In parenthetic adverbial phrases or with adverbial force (chiefly with to, of, specifying the person or group to whom the fact or information is not known): without the knowledge of.” The dictionary cites this line from a 1672 medical text: “The Patient, unknown to me, pursued his intention.”

Perhaps you can see the problem in that sentence. On first read, it might seem that the patient is unknown to the writer. That’s obviously not true, so one figures out “unknown” here means “without the knowledge of.”

In order to address that ambiguity, I believe, two similar words sprang up in the early 18th century, both deriving from the Anglo-Saxon word for “know,” “be-knowen.” The first is “unbeknown.”  The OED has a 1637 citation for “unbeknowne,” but that’s an outlier as the next one isn’t until 199 years later, a line of dialogue in Dickens’s Sketches by Boz: “If my ‘usband had treated her with a drain..unbeknown to me, I’d tear her precious eyes out.”

As for “unbeknownst,” the first OED citation is a line from an 1848 letter by the English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell: “You don’t see me, but I often am sitting in the rocking-chair unbeknownst to you.” I can antedate that. It’s used in the “not known” sense in this passage from an 1832 book, Wacousta: or, The Prophecy. A Tale of the Canadas, by Major John Richardson, whom Wikipedia calls “the first Canadian-born novelist to achieve international recognition.”

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The first example I’ve found of the “unbeknownst to” form is in a piece, credited to the presumably pseudonymous “Toby Allspy,” in an 1837 edition of Bentley’s Miscellany, which was edited at the time by Charles Dickens: “he ‘d paid for it with an old coat unbeknownst to his valet.”

As for the national character of the two words, in 1842, six years after Gaskell’s use, “unbeknown” shows up in a grammar book published in Boston, in a list of “American Vulgarisms, Improprieties, &C.” Some of the vulgarisms  have stuck, some not, as you can see from this screen shot:

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Five years after that, in another American grammar book, by Seth Hurd, “unbeknown” is listed as one of the “Common Errors of Speech.”

But wait: in 1875, “unbeknownst” turns up as an entry in a book about the language of Sussex, England.

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A Google Ngram Viewer graph tells the broader tale:

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Let me try to parse it: in the late 1800s (as the books quoted above suggested), “unbeknown” was quite popular in the U.S. (blue line) and somewhat less so in Britain (red line). American “unbeknownst” (orange line) caught up to “unbeknown” in the 1940s and ’50s, caught up in the late 1960s, and took off from there. British “unbeknownst” was about to equal “unbeknown” in 2000 (the last year for which Google Ngram provides reliable data) and presumably has left it in the dust by now, much to David Collard’s displeasure.

Finally, do I agree with his critique? Not really. I still think “unbeknownst” a useful and inoffensive term, and definitely better than “unbeknown,” which sounds odd. But, of course, I’m an American.

 

 

Is “Feeling a …?” a thing?

A while back, I discussed Donald Trump tweeting that his political enemy Bob Corker “was made to sound a fool”–the Britishism being the omission of the word  “like” after “sound.”

Soon afterwards, my friend and neighbor Nanette Tobin alerted me to this sign in our town grocery store:

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Nanette wondered if the first line were a similarly British elision–the meaning being “Feeling like having a treat?” (Obviously, the more common way of expressing this on the other side of the Atlantic would be “Fancy a treat?”) I tend to think that it sounded British to the signmakers, but it actually isn’t. What do you lot have to say?

“Plaster”

An amusing Hollywood convention has it that in movies that take place in ancient Rome, on another planet, or in any exotic place, the characters speak English with an English accent (especially if they’re bad guys). I thought of that while reading Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s New Yorker essay about a mass killing in his country. In the piece, Knausgaard quotes from a fellow Norwegian author’s book on the incident. The killer has been apprehended and asks for a cut on his finger to be “bandaged up.” A policeman replies, “You’ll get no fucking plasters from me.”

“Plaster” would be a good word for Americans to adopt, since it’s more specific than our “bandage” and involves more serious dressing than our trade name “Band-Aid.” But we don’t use it, and its presence in the essay–which was translated by an American, Kerri Pierce–struck me as the equivalent of a Martian talking like an Oxford don.

When I looked into it a little more, I realized that the situation was more complicated than I had thought. It turns out the book from which Knausgaard was quoting, Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, was translated by an English woman, Sarah Death, legitimizing the “plaster.”

I did find one proper Britishism in Pierce’s translation: the fact that one of the victims was “called” Simon.

“Not By a Long Chalk”

Just as if it were a chrysanthemum, Alex Beam planted a NOOB in the opening of a recent column in the Boston Globe:

And here I thought we had the place to ourselves.

Not by a long chalk, it turns out. New census data show that Massachusetts is the fastest-growing state in New England, population wise.

The NOOB in question is “not by a long chalk” (which I hereafter abbreviate as NBALC). I know he planted it because he proceeded to go on Facebook and write:  “‘Not by a long chalk’; is that one of those “one-off Britishisms” that Ben Yagoda is always on about?” First of all, it’s “not one-off Britishisms,” not “one-off Britishisms.” Second of all, no.

Alex can certainly be forgiven for his mistake, since for nearly a hundred years , NBALC has indeed been more popular in the U.K. than the U.S., where the preferred wording is the similar-sounding “not by a long shot.”A 1995 New York Times review of a book of Italo Calvino short stories notes that the translator “re-creates the mix of languages while combining standard English with British usages, some colloquial (‘Mummy,’ ‘not by a long chalk’), others antiquated (‘wont,’ ‘woe betide us’).”

But NBALC, like bumbershoot, actually sprang from American soil. John Russell Bartlett included it in his 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms. Three years earlier, “The Knickerbocker,” a New York monthly, printed this saw: “THANKSGIVING ‘aint what it used to was, when we were a little shaver, sprouting up out of our boots among the green hills of Vermont—not by a long chalk.”

We can understand the confusion by taking a look at Google Ngram Viewer chart. The red line shows U.S. use of the phrase, the blue line British use.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 10.22.15 PMIn other words, starting in about 1920, “not by a long chalk” became inexplicably popular in the U.K., to the point where people like the New York Times reviewer and Alex Beam thought it was a Britishism. But is it? NBALC.

 

“Chokka”

My neighbor Mike Eiseman, about to embark on a trip to England, told me he was studying up on the native lingo, and mentioned a couple of words he had learned, one being “chockablock.”

I wasn’t aware of this as a Britishism, but I’m not aware of a lot of things, and I dutifully looked it up. The OED’s definition said it was originally used as a nautical term: “said of a tackle with the two blocks run close together so that they touch each other—the limit of hoisting; transf. jammed or crammed close together; also of a place or person, crammed with, chock-full of.”

The first citation in the OED was from an American, Richard Henry Dana, in  Two Years before Mast: “Hauling the reef-tackles chock-a-block.” The second, ten years hence, was from another Yankee seaman, Herman Melville.

But Mike was on to something, as I learned from another neighbor, Nanette Tobin. Nanette works for an international corporation, alongside a number of British people, and she often tells me about their expressions. (We are still waiting for the appearance of “leaving do”–“going-away party,” in AmE–on these shores.) I forget how it came up, but she happened to mention that her coworkers frequently talk of being “chokka,” i.e., busy. I just searched for it, and this came up on Twitter:

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I have never encountered “chokka” in the United States (it has never appeared in the New York Times), and expect to roughly the same time as “leaving do.”

Update: Some of the comments inspired me to look for alternate spellings of “chokka,” and indeed there are several. The OED lists “chocker” as the main form, in this entry:

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Interestingly, the OED doesn’t list the “super-busy” meaning or, indeed, the “chokka” spelling. Wait till the next edition.

Update to the Update:

A blog called L’Office du Jerriais, which describes itself as “the office that promotes the Jersey language,” linked to the above post and offered this additional information:

We have in Jèrriais the word “tchaque”, defined in the dictionary as “chock full”, presumably a borrowing from English, perhaps a maritime borrowing. We also have the verb “tchaquenarder” = to jostle. Whether the existence of the verb helped the assimilation of the English “chock” is a matter for speculation.

Idiom:
I’ s’tchaquenardait la chèrvelle = he racked his brains

Of course the English “chock” is by no means as English as it may appear, for if tchaque is chock then chock is really only being welcomed back to its Norman roots after an English vacation! English borrowed our Norman word chouque which became chock.

Chouque is also one of the Jèrriais words that crop up in Jersey English, used for example to refer to logs or firewood.

“Crisps,” “Builder”

In the last couple of weeks, I came upon two examples of a not uncommon phenomenon: an American, writing for an American publication, using an obvious Britishism when writing about Britain or a Briton. You might call it protective coloration, or going native. The first one was in a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert in which she describes what she finds in a parking lot (which she does not call a car park) near her airport hotel at Heathrow: “empty water bottles, crumpled candy wrappers, crushed soda cans, half-eaten packages of crisps.”

Of course, crisps is the word British people use for what Americans call potato chips or chips (which is what British people call what Americans call french fries or fries). But, as a matter of fact, crisps has been worming its way into AmE of late, specifically for products that are more off-beat than your typical Wise or Lay’s potato chips. This one, for example:

010114_42903_BrownRiceCrispsGardenSalsa_D

So I will categorize crisps as “on the radar.”

The other example came in a New York Times obituary of “Micky Lay, a bibulous retired builder who helped Mark Rylance craft his performance in Jez Butterworth’s hit play about British outcasts, ‘Jerusalem.'” The relevant term is builder. In the U.S., that word is used pretty much exclusively by newspapers in describing people like Donald Trump–that is, real estate developers.

In Britain, the OED says, “As the name of a trade, builder now denotes the master artisan, who receives his instructions from the architect, and employs the masons, carpenters, etc., by whom the manual work is performed.” That is what Americans would call a “contractor.” But I believe that British builder also refers to a lower-level laborer, what we call “construction worker.” I await enlightenment on this point.

Builder has made some inroads into the youth of America via the animated children’s series “‘Bob the Builder,” which has aired here since 2001. Some of the kids who watched it back then have grown up by now. But I don’t see any evidence of builder being used here in the British sense. That may have to do, unfortunately, with our construction slump. It’s not a job with great prospects, so no one under thirty has much reason to talk about it.