“Knickers in a twist (or knot)”

A cartoon by Ming

Faithful reader Hall Hall sends a link to a Cnet.com 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.

“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.

The “Bumbershoot” Conundrum

Percy Pinkerton, of Sgt. Fury's Howling Commandoes

(I wrote an essay for the online magazine Slate about whether bumbershoot is or is not a Britishism. The first two paragraphs are below.)

In my recent Slate article about Americans using more Britishisms, I wondered aloud, “Why have we adopted laddish while we didn’t adopt telly or bumbershoot?” More than one English person responded to this query with another: “Bumbershoot? What do you mean, bumbershoot?”

I told them I had always thought of this funny term for umbrella as one of those words, like cheerio and old man, that the stage Englishman is required to say. My wife had the same impression. But when I looked into the matter, I learned that we were apparently misinformed. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the word as “originally and chiefly U.S. slang.” And the digital archive of the Times of London, comprising 7,696,959 articles published between 1785 and 1985, yields precisely zero hits for bumbershoot.

(To read the rest of the article, go to Slate.)


Hold your fire! I know that the spelling “advisor” is not British. However, people think it’s British (someone even said that exact thing at a faculty meeting last week, unprompted by me), so I present the post below. (It originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog.) And I have devised for it a new category, “Faux NOOBs.” Additional nominations welcome.

Quick quiz: What do you call a person whose job is to offer advice? Or, rather, how do you spell that job?

If you said advisor, you would be in accordance with 100 percent of my students; with the practice of my university and I believe most others in this country; with the popular Web site TripAdvisor; with Merrill Lynch, which sends to its customers a publication called Merrill Lynch Advisor; and, in fact, with the English-speaking world generally.

If you answered adviser, you would be right. Or, to be more precise, right from the perspective of The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and history. Adviser first appeared in 1611, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was formed by appending the suffix –er (in this case, merely the letter r) to the verb advise, along the lines of such similar constructions as baker, candlestick-maker and, well, not butcher, which comes from the Old French bouchier, but teacher, seeker, and beekeeper.

The OED’s first citation of a different spelling is a periodical that first came out in 1899 and was called, simply, Advisor. The dictionary doesn’t specify its country of origin, but the new spelling became sufficiently popular in the United States that American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, mocked it in 1931: “Following the advent and acceptance in this country of advisors, newspapers now occasionally mention debators.” (There are, of course, -or nouns for occupations and identifications, but they are usually not formed from verbs: doctor, debtor, proctor, author, executor, curator, donor.)

The chart below is a Google Ngram showing the comparative frequency, in books published in America between 1900 and 2008, of adviser (blue line) and advisor (red line). The -or spelling pulls ahead in about 1999. (In Britain, -er is still ahead though its lead is fading.)

Ngram’s database, as I say, consists of books, which tend to stick with traditional usages longer than other forms of writing do. The Internet itself gives a more accurate snapshot of current usage, and if you stage a Google Fight between the two spellings, -or blows -er away, by 23.7 million to 5.7 million.

How to explain the dominion of advisor? First, it sounds fancy (because, I conjecture, the real –or nouns have longer pedigrees than the formed-from-verbs -er ones). Second, it sounds British. And when it comes to language in our country, that is an unbeatable combination.