Category Archives: Historical NOOBs

“Browned off”

As I mentioned when discussing “cheesed off,” “browned off” is a similar term meaning fed up or annoyed. Both The Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s trace it to British sources, originating no later than 1938. That was the publication date of James Curtis’s novel They Drive By Night, this line from which both reference works quote: “What the hell had he got to be so browned off about? He ought to be feeling proper chirpy.”

But there is evidence of earlier use. The OED quotes Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang (1961) as labeling the expression “Regular Army since ca. 1915; adopted by the RAF ca. 1929.” However, the dictionary sniffs, “pre-1938 printed evidence is lacking.” Green’s quotes a letter written in 1940 by Mrs. Jean Green in Hunsur, Mysore, in India, and published that year in American Speech:To brown off or to be browned off was first heard by me in Army circles at Aldershot [England] in 1932, and when I came out to India later in the year it was also used in Bangalore. Since then I have used it often, but gave it up a year or two ago, thinking it was overdone and dated.”

Much as one would like to, one cannot take Mrs. Green’s word for it that browned off was used in 1932. I can, however, provide the OED with a pre-1938 use in this line of dialogue from another James Curtis novel, There Ain’t No Justice, published in 1937: “All right, all right, all right, only fer Christ’s sake lay off of me. I’m feeling proper browned off. Be flying off the handle, any minute now.”

As for American adoption, “browned off” is not in wide use today on on either side of the Atlantic but appears to have been picked up by American soldiers in World War II–hence my categorizing it under “Historical NOOBs.” Green’s quotes a Norman Mailer letter from 1948 in which he lumped the expression in with a bunch of euphemisms he had disdain for: “Words liked [sic] browned-off, fouled-up, mother-loving, f—, spit for shit are the most counterfeit of currencies.” I can antedate that, too. On October 3, 1943, The New York Times published an article by Milton Bracker called “What to Write the Soldier Overseas.” Right at the get-go, Bracker takes up the topic of “Dear John” letters. He notes:

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I discussed the foregoing in a post for Lingua Franca, the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s blog about language and writing. Then I  proudly tweeted my James Curtis antedate.

Well, my moment of triumph lasted four hours and seven minutes. I had tweeted my find at 9:18 PM Eastern Daylight Time, and at 6:25 AM Greenwich Mean Time, Jonathon Green, editor of Green’s Dictionary, responded:

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As Jonathon suggests, the item is a bit difficult to decipher. Tommies is slang for common soldiers in World War I, and Kitchener’s men refers, Wikipedia says, to the so-called New Army, “an (initially) all-volunteer army of the British Army formed in the United Kingdom from 1914 onwards following the outbreak of hostilities in the First World War in late July 1914.” Bob down is trickier. Christopher Moore, in Roger, Sausage and Whippet: A Miscellany of Trench Lingo From the Great Warsays it means to take cover, on the approach of enemy aircraft. That’s consistent with a use in a 1915 British book called Soldiers’ Stories of the War: “The whole of the advance consisted of a series of what might be called ups and downs — a little rush, then a ‘bob down.’” After the war, it took on a broader use, according to Jonathon Green’s forebear, Eric Partridge, who writes in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English that “Bob down — you’re spotted” was a catchphrase, dating from around 1920 , meaning “Your argument (excuse, etc.) is so very weak that you need not go on!”

As for “browned off,” it doesn’t seem in the newspaper item to have the later sense of angry or annoyed. Jonathan’s best guess was:  “‘brown off’ = for a veteran to defeat a rookie; the ‘old sweat’ would have served in India or elsewhere in Empire and thus be literally brown, i.e. sun-tanned. Probably WW I army use only.”

He followed his first tweet up with an image of a letter to the Portsmouth Evening News, December 10, 1935, that definitely used browned off in the annoyed sense, thus antedating my antedate. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted. It’s a response to a previous letter by a correspondent who called herself or himself “Browned Off,” indicating that the expression was already somewhat common. (The quotations marks around “six years inland in sweltering heat” indicates it was a well-known quote, too, but a Google search yields nothing.)

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That leaves one mystery. Green’s entry for browned off lists as one of the few American citations a line from Chester Himes’s 1969 crime novel Blind Man With a Pistol: “By the time the sergeant got to the tenants in the last room he was well browned off.” I noted in my Lingua Franca post that it seemed odd that Himes — an African-American, born in Missouri in 1909 — would have used not only browned off but also the intensifier well, especially in reference to a New York City policeman. When well is placed in front of an adjective, I associate it strictly with British writers and speakers, a sense that’s confirmed by Brigham Young University’s Corpus of Global Web-Based English. I searched the GloWbE for the phrase well happy, meaning “very happy.” There were zero hits from American sources and 28 from British ones, including this line from a 1988 document, The Manual, that contains four Britishisms: “Nobody would dare ask to be paid for having a laugh [1], acting the lad [2] — buy them a pint [3] and they will be well happy [4].” (Americans do use a similar well in front of past participles: “That ball was well struck”; “It’s a well-written book.”)

So how did Himes come to use this well? The mystery was solved, to my satisfaction, by Lingua Franca commenter 99Luftballoons, who noted that Himes lived abroad — first in France, then in Spain — from 1953 till his death in 1984 and that his companion and eventually wife in his later years was Lesley Packard. Her 2010 obituary in The Guardian reports, “After he suffered a stroke, in 1959, she left her job to nurse him back to health and cared for him for the rest of his life, as his informal editor, proofreader and confidante.”

It almost goes without saying that Packard was British.

“Flummoxed”

This summary appeared February 3 on the home page of the New York Times:

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It reminded me that a couple of weeks back, someone suggested “flummoxed” as a NOOB. That sort of flummoxed me, as I had thought of it as a cross-Atlantic word, claimed neither by BrE not AmE. Google Ngram Viewer showed me I was mistaken and my correspondent was correct:screen-shot-2017-02-04-at-11-12-33-amThat is, it started out as a mainly British word, but Americans took a shine to it starting in the 1970s, and finally overtook the British in the late ’90s.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines the word as “confused, let down, outwitted” and has as its first citation a 1834 book called Delicious Chatter: “Joe own’d he was flummix’d and diddles at last.” Three years later, in Pickwick Papers, Dickens has Mr. Weller say, “And my ‘pinion is, Sammy, that if your governor don’t prove an alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call regularly flummoxed, and that’s all about it.”

The OED doesn’t support the Italian etymology but does say the word had a distinct meaning in nineteenth century America. So does Green’s, which quotes Schele De Vere’s Americanisms (1872): “Flummux, to, a slang term used in England in the sense of to hinder, to perplex, denotes in America the giving up of a purpose, and even to die.” It seems to have faded out in the U.S. in the early twentieth century.

The New York Times has used “flummoxed” exclusively in the British sense, first in a dispatch from the 1935 British Open: “there was some confusion regarding ownership of the balls and Smith, being slightly deaf, got so thoroughly “flummoxed” — as the Scots say–over instructions from the marker, his partner and the friendly crowd …” The next use was in 1949, and since then it has appeared in the newspaper 1,434 times–including eight in the first weeks of 2017. Its popularity in this moment isn’t surprising: like “government officials and travelers,” many of us over here feel pretty flummoxed pretty much all the time.

“Trendy”

Like bonkers and a piece of cake, this word for “fashionable” or “voguish” doesn’t sound like a Britishism, but it is.

It seems to have popped up in London in the early 1960s; the OED’s first cite is a supercilious quote from a 1962 Punch: “I saw the headline ‘The Trendiest Twin Set’.”

The first use in the New York Times came in 1968, via the paper’s British-born art critic John Russell. It took hold quickly, because the following year, reporter Steven V. Roberts referred to Roman Polanski as being “been near the center of a loose group of film makers who were described with all the current cliches: rood, hip, swinging, trendy.”

As this Google Ngram Viewer chart shows, within about fifteen years, U.S use had surpassed British use, never to look back:

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“A Piece of Cake”

It started with an email from my eclectic friend Wes Davis. He said he’d been reading Tinkerbelle, by, he told me, “Robert Manry, a copy editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who, in 1965, took a leave of absence from his job and sailed a 13-and-a-half-foot wooden boat across the Atlantic, from Falmouth, Mass., to Falmouth, England.” He’d come upon a passage he thought would interest me. Manry is just starting out and it’s a beautiful day, “the wind strong enough to keep us moving along briskly.” He observes: “I told myself that if most of the days ahead were as pleasant as this, our trip would be a breeze, or, as the English say, a piece of cake.”

Wes sent me the quote because his sense (like mine) is that “a piece of cake” is as American as red velvet cake. So what was with Manry’s attribution to the English?

As usual in such matters, I turned first to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which yielded the graph below. (The blue line represents British uses of the phrase “was a piece of cake” and the red line, American uses.)

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Thus at the time Manry was writing, it was still predominantly a British phrase, but that would soon change.

There’s a bit of noise in the graph — that is, it tracks not only the figure of speech but literal uses, like “What they served me was a piece of cake.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for the phrase is from a 1936 poem by the American Ogden Nash: “Her picture’s in the papers now,/And life’s a piece of cake.” But I feel that’s an outlier — merely a fresh metaphor concocted by Nash. I wasn’t able to turn up any additional uses until 1942, and all of the ones from then through the early 50s are English.

And specifically English military, and even more specifically, RAF. The first quote in the Google Books database comes from a 1942 Life magazine article written by an RAF pilot: “It sounds incredible considering that we were 150 miles from the target but the fires were so great that it was a piece of cake to find the target area.” The phrase, so redolent of the plucky fliers, really caught on. The same year, Terrence Rattigan’s play Flare Path has the line, “Special. Very hush-hush. Not exactly a piece of cake, I believe.” By 1943, it had become so well-known that Cyril Henry Ward-Jackson titled his book It’s a Piece of Cake: or R.A.F. Slang Made Easy.

As the Google chart indicates, American use started to pick up but often (as with Manry) with attribution to the English. A 1951 article in an American flying magazine had the line, “The radio operator’s weather reports show all stations ahead in good shape and as the English say, ‘It’s a piece of cake.’” Eventually, we took it to heart, and rightly so, since it’s a great phrase, nicely complementing easy as pie (which refers to a process, rather than a task) while still staying in the realm of baked goods. As with a number of other phrases I’ve covered — including bonkers, nonstarter, and ta-ta (meaning “goodbye”) — Americans have ended up using it far more than the Brits.

There’s a coda to the tale of a piece of cake. Fans of Roald Dahl may recognize it as the title of one of his short stories, included in his 1946 collection Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying. That story is actually an extensive reworking of his first published work, an article in the August 1942 edition of The Saturday Evening Post called “Shot Down Over Libya.” In the piece, labeled a “factual report,” Dahl talks about being given the assignment, in 1940, to bomb a group of Italian trucks in the Libyan desert. One of his fellow flyers remarks, “Hell’s bells, what a piece of cake!” Another agrees, “What a piece of cake.” (This is retroactive evidence of an earlier British use of the expression than given in the OED, but can’t be included in the dictionary as such since the publication date is 1942.)

It wasn’t a piece of cake for Dahl. As the story describes, he had a bad landing and was badly injured. But the story was far from a “factual report.” His plane was not shot down, as the title asserts and the text strongly implies. His biographer Jeremy Treglown writes, ”He stopped twice to refuel, the second time at Fouka, where he was given directions that may have been confused by events. 80 Squadron was not where he expected to find it, and as dusk gathered over the North African desert and his fuel gauge fell, he decided to try to land.”

The 1946 reworking was presented as fiction but had a more accurate account of the forced landing. In fact, just about the only thing it has in common with the 1942 version is “a piece of cake.”

“Bonkers”

Stop! Do not write that comment! Or at least hold off until you read the whole post.

I am well aware that bonkers is and has long been common in American English. This Google Ngram chart shows that in the ’90s, U.S. use of the word (in red) was more frequent than British use (blue):

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And at this point, it’s hard to avoid on either side of the Atlantic. Here’s what a Google News search turns up:

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But the word is most definitely of British origin. The first citation from the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1945 Daily Mirror article: “If we do that often enough, we won’t lose contact with things and we won’t go ‘bonkers’.”

Three years later, Eric Partridge included it in A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang: “Bonkers, light in the head; slightly drunk. (Navy.) Perhaps from bonk, a blow or punch on the bonce or head.”

Throughout the ’50s, the uses of the word I’ve turned up are all from  British writers:

 

  • From a 1951 novel by Philip Loraine, A Break in the Circle: “‘You bonkers?’ enquired Rocky. ‘Maybe.'”
  • From John Osborne’s play The Entertainer (1957): “We’re drunks, maniacs, we’re crazy, we’re bonkers, the whole flaming bunch of us.”
  • From Kingsley Amis, Take  Girl Like You, in 1960: “Julian’s absolutely bonkers too you know.”

The first use in the New York Times was a 1965 by the great Israel Shenker: “In ‘Paranoia,’ his newest picture, Italy’s Marcello Mastroianni goes slowly bonkers sharing bath, bed and Bedouin with three co-stars.”

That quote doesn’t even show up when you search for “bonkers” in the Times “Chronicle” app:

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Let’s take a look at the entire Ngram chart, from 1955 to 2008 (the last year for which there are good statistics):

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It shows British prevalence through about 1976, then equivalence until 1987, American dominance for the next fifteen years, and then (surprisingly) a resurgence in Britain.

Now go ahead and comment.

 

“Quality” (adj.)

On holiday in London last week, I was gobsmacked to come upon this:

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The reason for my surprise was that, on my mother’s knee, I was taught that quality should not be used as an adjective but exclusively as a noun referring to a feature or characteristic of a person or thing. I haven’t been on my mother’s knee for a long time, but the injunction is still widespread. Bryan Garner’s entry on the word in Garner’s Modern American Usage reads, in its entirety: “When used as an adjective meaning ‘of high quality,’ this is a vogue word and a casualism <a quality bottling company>. Use good or fine or some other adjective of better standing.” For decades, one of the easiest and most efficient ways for novelists to convey that a character is a philistine has been to have him say something like, “I’m talking quality products here!”

But now I was seeing evidence that in England, quality is an adjective of perfectly good standing. It was meaningful that the sign was at a pub, for everything about this institution is supposed to signify history and tradition. In other words, the implication was that the usage had been OK for a long time.

And when I got home and checked my Oxford English Dictionary, I found that that is the case. The process started as early as Shakespeare, with the noun being used to mean high quality (“The Grecian youths are full of quality, And swelling ore with arts and exercise”) or, similarly, high birth or rank (“There are no men of quality but the Duke of Monmouth; all the rest are gentlemen,” 1671).

The adjective emerged roughly in 1700,  meaning, in the OED‘s words: “With sense ‘of high social standing, of good breeding, noble’, as quality acquaintance, quality air, quality blood, quality end, quality friend, quality gentleman, quality horse, quality lady, quality living, quality pride, quality white, etc.” There are many citations in the 18th century (“The influence of Peregrine’s new quality-friends”—Smollett, Peregrine Pickle), but starting in the early 19th, according to the dictionary, this usage became “archaic.” The archaicness seems to have commenced being reversed in the United States; the OED cites a 1910 headline in an Ohio newspaper, “American is the quality magazine.” In Britain it became common in the 1960s to refer to The Times, The Guardian, and such as “quality newspapers,” as opposed to the red-top tabloids—so much so that a quality can be used as a noun (once again) to refer to such a publication.

A Google Ngram Viewer graph shows that the frequency of quality as an adjective (in American and British English combined) was minimal through 1920, rose gradually from 1920 to 1970, and exploded from 1970 through 2000:

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One can name a couple of factors, besides British newspaper terminology, that surely contributed to the recent escalation. Business jargon certainly took to the adjective, with its quality assurance, quality management, and quality circles. It’s big in sports, too. One cannot follow a season in basketball or football without hearing incessant talk of “quality wins” or “quality opponents.” A popular statistic in baseball since the 1980s has been the “quality start,” referring to an outing in which a pitcher stays in the game for at least six innings, and gives up no more than three runs.

But the big kahuna is “quality time,” about which the OED says, “orig. U.S.: time spent in a worthwhile or dedicated manner; esp. time in which one’s child, partner, etc., receives one’s undivided attention.” The first citation is in 1972, but because it so directly addressed busy people’s anxiety about not spending enough time with their kids or spouses, it quickly became a buzzword, and by the mid-1980s, Frank Rich of The New York Times was deriding it as a cliché. Ngram Viewer shows that it’s more popular than ever. But I would bet that many if not most of the uses are ironic or derisive, suggesting that, like the perpetual-motion machine, the notion that quality time can compensate for sparse quantity time is but a dream.

“Ta-Ta”

saveTeeBlackThe New York Times’ Sarah Lyall recently ended eighteen years as a London correspondent. The title of her farewell article, “Ta-Ta London. Hello, Awesome,” made me curious about ta-ta, which I hadn’t  thought of as a Britishism. In fact, my main association with the term is a memory of my mother jokingly saying, “Ta-ta, tatele“–the latter word being a Yiddish diminutive for “father.” A Google search also reminded me of a 1993 “Seinfeld” episode where George quits by saying to his boss, Mr. Tuttle, “Ta ta, Tuttle!”

But ta-ta is indeed of British origin. The OED defines it as ” nursery expression for ‘Good-bye’; now also in gen. colloq. use.” The earliest citation is from 1823, and a notable one can be found in T.S. Eliot’s 1923 “The Wasteland Waste Land”: “Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight. Ta ta. Goonight.”

None of the dictionary’s examples come from U.S. sources, but it caught on here fairly early, as is illustrated by this 1889 article from the New York Times:

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During the 1940s, an initialized version of the expression merged via a character on the BBC radio program “Itma.” According to the OED, a “famous saying” of the Cockney Charlady, Mrs. Mopp (played by Dorothy Summers), “were the letters ‘T.T.F.N.’—a contraction of ‘Ta-ta for now’ with which she made her exit.” TTFN emerged decades later as an example of teenage online lingo, presumably on both sides of the Atlantic, peaking sometime in the middle of the decade of the 2000s. I gather that from a comment to a 2012 New York Times review of a play called “Peter and the Starcatcher”: “it tries so hard to be contemporary that it manages to date itself to about five years ago by overusing pop culture references and slang (‘TTFN,’ ‘guuuuuuuurl,’ ‘as if,’ and ‘Oh. My. God.’ to list just a few) from that time.”

A similar sounding word, also with nursery origins, but apparently with no connection to ta-ta, is ta, meaning “thank you.” I believe this is still current in the U.K. (in fact, it just showed up in an English friend’s Facebook feed), but hasn’t made any inroads in the U.S. I had a brief moment of hope when a Google search found it in a line of dialogue in a 2003 William Gibson novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties: “’Cheers,’ Tessa said, ‘ta for the lager.'” But when I looked into it, it turned out that Tessa is Australian, a fact Gibson tried to emphasize by having her use three separate British-Australianisms in one sentence.

I have the sense that a single “ta” is sometimes used in Britain as a shortened version of “ta-ta,” the way one might shorten “goodbye” to “bye.” Any guidance on this point would be appreciated. [Update. Several comments have convinced me that I was mistaken on this point.]

Meanwhile, a more recent term, seemingly American in origin, is ta-tas, or tatas, meaning breasts. It’s been especially prominent since 2004, when an anti-breast-cancer foundation was founded with the name “Save the Ta-tas,” prompting many t-shirts such as the admitted click-bait at the top of this post. I hesitate to speculate on the etymology of the term, but the earliest use I’ve been able to find is from the 1997 book Sexplorations: Journeys to the Erogenous Frontier, by Anka Radakovich: “My own lingerie jones is bras. I like plunging my tatas into lace, satin, and vinyl, and I love shopping at Frederick’s of Hollywood.”