Category Archives: Faux NOOBs

“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:


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.


Listening to Geoffrey Nunberg’s “Fresh Air” commentary about not one-off Britishisms, I was struck by this: ” … when [the British] do send us an occasional blockbuster like Harry Potter, they’re considerate enough to Americanize ‘dustbin’ to ‘trash can’ and ‘pinny’ to ‘apron.'”

The reason I was struck is that, about fifteen years ago, shortly after we moved to a town in suburban Philadelphia, my older daughter, Elizabeth Yagoda, started to play soccer. When her team practiced, the girls on one side would put loose mesh jerseys–all of the same color–over their shirts. These were referred to as pinnies. Or at least that’s what I thought they were referred to as; the other possibility was some Southern-derived pronunciation of pennies. I had never heard the term before.

The mystery has persisted, till Nunberg’s comment inspired me to investigate. The OED’s definition of pinny is “A pinafore; an apron, esp. one with a bib.” The dictionary cites a 1939 Angela Thirkell novel: “If we had known mummie was coming, we’d have had our clean pinny on.”

Current British usage uniformly favors the apron meaning, as in this 2010 quote from The People about the Beckham family: “I can reveal Posh, 36, will be putting her pinny on to cook for the couple’s parents including Dave’s dad Ted, who has previously been shunned from the family’s festivities.” That meaning has not penetrated the U.S.

And what about the athletic usage? Wikipedia is of some help:

In modern times, the term “pinny” or “pinnie” has taken another meaning in sports wear, namely a double-sided short apron, often made of mesh, used to differentiate teams. This usage is chiefly British, with some usage in Canada and the United States. This type of pinny is also known as a scrimmage vest.[citation needed]

Citation needed indeed. I haven’t been able to find any British use–and would appreciate any reader input–but pinny appears to have been used to denote “scrimmage jersey” in the U.S. by the early 1950s. Renata Adler (born: 1938) writes in her 1976 novel, Speedboat, “It is all gone, after childhood knowledge of myths, constellations, baseball scores, dinosaurs, and idioms of the tennis court and athletic field. There are outcroppings of the old vocabularies still. Pinnies from field hockey. Heels down. Bad hop. Sorry. My fault. So sorry.”

And there is this in a 1951 publication called “Developing Democratic Human Relations” (the passage is apparently a list of guidelines for scholastic sports): “7. Short cuts to efficient organization for intramural programs (developed through the democratic process): a. Schedule for field and courts with the games schedule. b. Previous knowledge of pinny or shirt teams and direction of goal or basket…”

Today, the word is out there in America, but not completely familiar, as evidenced by way the singular is sometimes spelled pinny and sometimes pinnie, by the quotation marks in this 2012 New York Times blog post–“Children trade or alter clothing; they wear it in situations for which it wasn’t intended (a sports bra under a “pinnie”: perfect for lacrosse, less so in the classroom)”–and by the definition provided in this one, about a pickup soccer game:

“Sides of six to nine are assembled from players serendipitously wearing like-colored tops; noncoordinated participants, mostly men but some women, team up and wear borrowed practice pinnies (mesh vests).”

Almost precisely a year ago, ahead of the Harvard-Yale (American) football match–known in those parts as The Game–the Yale Daily News published this item:

In a clear demonstration that Harvard students measure their “superiority” by their university’s single-digit acceptance rate and their pinnies, a group of Harvard entrepreneurs have launched an “#OccupyYale” pinny — prominently displaying the school’s 6.2% admissions rate — for Cantabs to wear at The Game this weekend.

Pinny for your thoughts: typical Harvard arrogance


All the coverage of the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s ongoing cross-country farewell tour made me wonder, naturally, about the ou spelling in its final syllable. It turns out it was named–u and all–after the first ship commanded by the eighteenth-century English explorer James Cook. It’s not a natural spelling for us Yanks, hence this mistake in a sign some well-meaning NASA folk constructed to cheer on a 2005 launch:

Despite the shuttle’s fame, the u-less spelling (indicated by the red line on this Ngram chart, showing use of both spellings in American English between 1800 and 2008) remains a strong preference on these shores, as it has been since 1850:

“Knickers in a twist (or knot)”

A cartoon by Ming

Faithful reader Hall Hall sends a link to a article that begins “Verizon Wireless’s new family share plan has gotten lots of knickers in knots. But is the new plan really as bad as some people fear it is for consumers?”

Hal asks: “A Britishism (or an Americanism)?”

My answer … wait for it … an Americanism!

Here’s the deal. Knickers in a twist is indeed a Britishism, derived from the British sense of knickers as (in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition) “A short-legged (orig. knee-length), freq. loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment. In extended use, the shorts worn by boxers, footballers, etc.” The twisty figure of speech first appeared in the U.K. in 1967, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, quickly gained popularity through the mid-1980s, and has leveled off since then. In the U.S., by contrast, the phrase’s popularity grew quite gradually through the early ’90s, when it took off; it’s now used more here than here. A proper NOOB indeed. Here are the charts.

U.S. use of “knickers in a twist,” 1964-2008

British use of “knickers in a twist.” 1964-2008

Here is the thing. The red line in both charts represents relative use of knickers in a twist. But you’ll notice that the American chart has a blue line. That represents use of knickers in a knot–it first shows up in 1968 and has slowly risen ever since. In the British chart, knickers in a knot is a pure flat line, suggesting it has never been used.

Why did Americans make up knickers in a knot? Is it because we are partial to alliteration? Is it because we are unaware of the original meaning of knickers and hence don’t realize the physical impossibility of them getting knotted up on their own?

I have no idea and hence I’m not going to get my bowels in an uproar over it.

Do they say that in the U.K.?


My friend Andrew Feinberg e-mailed me as follows:

I just came upon the following in a new book called “The Escape Artists:  How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery,” by Noam Scheiber.  On page 41 Scheiber writes:  “Simply put, Summers believed that a $1.2 trillion proposal, to say nothing of $1.8 trillion, would be dead on arrival in Congress because of the political resistance to such gob-stopping sums.”

Personally, I was gob-smacked by this locution and so startled that I gobbed on my carpet.  Where it all will end knows Gob.
For the record, Scheiber was a Rhodes scholar.  Have you come across “gob-stopping” before?

Well, no–and neither, I discovered, has the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED does, however, have an entry for gobstopper, to wit: “a large, hard, freq. spherical sweet for sucking.” Fans of Roald Dahl may recall the “Everlasting Gobstopper” featured in “Charley and the Chocolate Factory” and the subsequent film “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Is Noam Scheiber alone in making a sweet into an adjective having nothing to do with sweets? Well, no again. It has been used a total of three times by The Times (of London), most recently this by A.A. Gill in October 2011: “…if you ask me, and I suppose you are, to recommend just one gobstopping, heart-racing dinner in all of London, it would be Hedone.”

Moving to the New York Times (of New York), it appears exactly once, in a 2007 quote from the blogger Sara Robinson: “Reading [Steven] Gilley on NYC was like reading Molly Ivins on Texas. You could only sit back, mute, at the gobstopping wonder of it all.”

Gobstopping and the phrase a gobstopper of a show up occasionally in various internet outposts, generally meaning something along the lines of astounding or amazing. (If you have tender sensibilities, I suggest you do not read the entries at Urban Dictionary, which are very different.)

My best guess is that gobstopping happened because gobsmacked doesn’t easily converty to an adjective meaning that which causes one to be or feel gobsmacked. But behold, gobstopper already existed, and the suffix -stopping did, too, in such words as heart-stopping and show-stopping. Hence, gobstopping.

Make sense, Andrew?


Barack Obama sometimes pronounces the word divisive with a short i in the second syllable (similar to permissive or dismissive). In his March 2008 speech on race, he says it twice in a row that way, at about the 7:50 mark. (He also uses it in the traditional long--i pronunciation, a la incisive, at 5:44.)

There has been a fair amount of grumbling about Obama and various members of the chattering classes using the “divissive” pronunciation, much of which assumes they are aping the British. That is understandable, given the way the Brits say “vittamin” and “dinnasty,” but it is not correct. The OED lists only one pronunciation for the word: with a long i. A lengthy discussion at the Washington Monthly website (which descends to personal invective at the end in a predictable, almost ritualistic manner) suggests the short-i is an American regionalism, found in New England and the Midwest. (Apparently former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle said it that way.)

Regionalism aside, to my ears the “divissive” pronunciation comes off as an affectation, that is, a case of saying something differently for the express purpose of saying it differently, similar to pronouncing the word “negociate.” One of the first people to gripe about it was Charles Harrington Elster, in his 1999 “The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Complete Opinionated Guide for the Careful Speaker.” His target was another president, George H.W. Bush, who apparently said “divissive” in his inaugural address in 1988. Elster asks rhetorically: “Was this just a venial bit of Ivy League snobbery, or was the president letting fly with a beastly mispronunciation?” I vote for the former.

Glottal stop

Jamie Oliver glottalizes. So do American young women. How come?

A couple of days ago, I posted in Lingua Franca, the Chronicle of Higher Education Language blog I contribute to, a post about American glottal stop. A slightly edited version of it is below, followed by some additional thoughts.

The post:

If you associate with American females in the age range of roughly 15-25, or if you are one yourself, I bet you have heard the word important pronounced in roughly this way: imPOR-unh.

I first started noticing this among my students a half-dozen years ago. My first thought was, why are young Mid-Atlantic Americans glottal stopping?–the glottal stop being a consonant-swallowing vocalization found many places around the world but most famously in the British Isles. You can hear it in your mind’s ear if you think of Stanley Holloway singing “With a lih-ill bi’ o’ luck” in My Fair Lady or one of the Beatles saying, well, “Bea-ulls.”

Glottalization, especially on the t sound in the middle and at the end of words, has traditionally been associated with working-class Cockney, Liverpudlian and Glaswegian, but in an interesting recent development (since the 1980s, in any case) it has migrated upward socially, as a prominent feature of so-called Estuary English. This is a manner of speech favored by the middle-class youth of the greater London area, sometimes referred to as “Mockney.” For classic examples of Estuary, listen to the comedian Ricky Gervais or the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver; not 30 seconds will go by without at least one glottal stop. (Jamie, especially, also goes in for another notable feature, pronouncing th as f–“I’m firty-free years old.”) Here is Gervais emceeing last year’s Golden Globes; note the way he says settled and variety.

But how did glottal stop make its way to 20-year-old New Jerseyans? Since I have a strange fascination with the many British expressions, as witness my blog Not One-Off Britishisms, I was tempted to view this as another example of the phenomenon. But that doesn’t wash. The Britishisms I chart on the blog are driven by the chattering classes; glottalization clearly springs from a very different segment of society.

When I looked into the scholarship, I found it unhelpful. As the authors of one recent (2009) study note, “While there is an abundant literature on t-glottalization in the United Kingdom, investigation into the linguistic, geographic, and social factors that influence it in American English is in its infancy.” True that. They themselves tested just 58 speakers and found, not surprisingly, that t-glottalization was most common among the young and females. For reasons I don’t completely understand, only two-word combinations were tested–foot away, street outside, right ankle, etc.–not what appear to me to be the most common and noteworthy examples, single words like important, Clinton or button.

There are actually four possible pronunciations of the middle t sound in those words. British “received pronunciation” would give it a hard t. Americans only do that when the final consonant is stressed–pretend, return. Otherwise, we traditionally employ the “syllabic n,” in which the t is pronounced as t, but the subsequent syllable as a sort of vowel-less n. I recall in 1992 that northerners were instructed that the correct pronunciation isn’t Clin-ton but rather Clint-‘n.

Next, there is “flapping,” which Americans favor especially when the final syllable doesn’t end with n; thus, we say latter as ladder and city as siddy. Then there’s the new kid on the block, glottal stop. Getting back to the 2009 study I mentioned, an even more significant shortcoming is that none of the 58 participants was African-American. I say that because my observation is that the main manifestations of glottalization in popular culture are the expression “Oh no she dih-ent” (which originated, I think, as a ritualized audience response on The Maury Povich Show) and many, many rap songs. Glottalization has long been a characteristic of the form, at least as long ago as 1991, when Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Do You Want Me.” In the clip below, (at about the 21-second mark), the male singer raps, “You gotta let me know suh-‘en.”

In the popular music sphere, at least, glottalization has crossed racial lines. Last year the (white female) singer Kesha released a song called “My First Kiss.” Listen to the way she glottalizes little.

As Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania pointed out to me, the particular word is a surprising candidate for vocalization in not ending with an n; thus Kesha is glottalizing on a Jamie Oliver level.

I am left, in any event, with the observation that t-glottalization is rapidly spreading among young white female Americans, and the hypothesis that it came to them via an African-American style. How that style came about and how the transfer happened, I don’t know.

Anybody looking for a dissertation topic?

Additional thoughts: I had two reactions to the comments on the Lingua Franca post. Number one, linguists are rightfully concerned about the cataclysmic consequences of anyone without a PhD in the field commenting on language matters. I don’t know what came over me. Number two (and more seriously), a couple of the commenters proposed that t-glottalization in words that end with “n” (Manhattan, button), is a fairly long-time New York vocal characteristic. I am inclined to go along with that, and suspect that both the prevalence of glottalization in rap music and in my students stems from this regional pronunciation.