Category Archives: Historical NOOBs

“Clobber”

Correspondent David Griggs sent from England a note saying “you may be interested” in an example of the word “clobbered” in the New York Times. He was clearly implying it was a NOOB, but the word — meaning “to badly beat or defeat” — didn’t strike my ears as such. I checked the Times archive and found that “clobbered” or “clobber” have been used in the paper 1,720 times since 1990, frequently in a sports context. (“

Google Books’s newly beefed-up Ngram Viewer told an interesting story:

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That is, more use in the U.S. from the ’40s through about 1970, then a big spike in Britain over the next twenty years or so — which may account for David Griggs’ sense of it as a British word — followed by a period of slightly greater U.S. use.

But then David sent along a couple of sources asserting that “clobber” originated in British R.A.F. slang. The Online Etymology Dictionary  dates it to 1941, but doesn’t give any citations or sources. And a Merriam-Webster article says, “Pilots of the British air force during the 1940s were supposedly the first to throw around the punchy verb ‘clobber” (emphasis added): again, no evidence.

The OED does offer some, though from 1944 rather than 1941. Its first citation is from the R.A.F. magazine Gen, which had the line “Did anyone clobber any?” (The “any” apparently referred to flying bombs.)

The next two citations are from American sources, the first, reflecting a move in meaning from bombing to beating, from a 1949 reference to the University of Michigan football team: “The Wolverines clobbered their opponents 42 to 3.” And the second comes from Max Shulman’s 1951 novel The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: “‘Poor loser!’ they kept yelling as they clobbered me.”

And on my own I found a 1946 use by an American writer, Percy Knauth: “Bayreuth was clobbered badly.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang adds some interesting bits to the story, starting with some lines from a poem in an 1894 issue of the Australian magazine Truth: “The larrikin / So full of sin, / has now no fear of getting clobbert.”

Then two citations that illuminate the word’s move to America.

From 1000 Destroyed, 1946, by Grover Cleveland Hall: “It didn’t appear the war was going to last long enough to clobber them.”

And from the 1948 novel Twelve O’Clock High: “‘Hit it?’ Savage asked. ‘Clobbered it, I think, sir.'”

Hall was a public relations officer for the 4th Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Force — which was headquartered at the former R.A.F. base at Debden, England, starting in 1942. And Twelve O’Clock High was modeled on activities of the 306th Bomb Group, based at another R.A.F. facility, at Thurleigh.

As David Griggs said to me in an email, “Interesting just when Ngram says ‘clobber’ took off in the US: the late 1940s; all those American servicemen returning from WW2 Europe…” Exactly. The remarkable thing is just how fast it took hold in the U.S. For reasons I won’t speculate on, “clobber” and America were made for each other.

Update: The comments to this post and some additional investigation revealed several additional points of interest. First, the slogan of the comic book character The Thing has been, at least since 1964, what you see in the image below.

TheThing

Second, I should have pointed out a second, apparently unrelated British use of “clobber,” as a slang term for clothing (dating from the 1870s) or equipment or gear (1890s). They’re still in use today but have not penetrated America.

And finally, “the clobber passages” is a term that refers to the six or seven biblical verses that have traditionally been used to support the idea that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

 

“Come a cropper”

The always vigilant Nancy Friedman alerted me on Twitter to something she labeled “Attempted Britishism” in this passage from an Esquire piece by Charles M. Pierce:

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The Britishism part is the phrase “come a cropper” and the “Attempted” part is the apostrophe, which doesn’t belong. Nancy checked it out and found Pierce frequently used the expression, always with an apostrophe. (The asterisk after “president” is another story, presumably Pierce’s commentary on the fitness of the current occupant of the office.)

Gary Martin, in his Phrase Finder website, has a good explanation of the phrase’s origin, which has do with the nether quarters of a horse — the “croup” or “crupper.”

In the 18th century, anyone who took a headlong fall from a horse was said to have fallen ‘neck and crop’; for example, this extract from the English poet Edward Nairne’s Poems, 1791:

A man on horseback, drunk with gin and flip,
Bawling out — Yoix — and cracking of his whip,

The startish beast took fright, and flop
The mad-brain’d rider tumbled, neck and crop!

‘Neck and crop’ and ‘head over heels‘ probably both derive from the 16th century term ‘neck and heels’, which had the same meaning. ‘Come a cropper’ is just a colloquial way of describing a ‘neck and crop’ fall. The phrase is first cited in Robert S. Surtees’ Ask Mamma, 1858:

[He] “rode at an impracticable fence, and got a cropper for his pains.”

By the time John C. Hotten published his A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words in 1859, the phrase has come to refer to any failure rather than just the specific failure to stay on a horse:

“Cropper, ‘to go a cropper’, or ‘to come a cropper’, that is, to fail badly.”

Martin also debunks the association of the phrase with one Henry Smith Cropper, who began selling  a platen printing press in 1866. “It was a successful design and before long all platen presses were known as croppers. It is suggested that ‘come a cropper’ derives from the accidents that print workers had when catching their fingers between the plates of the presses…. There’s no truth to it though.”

Here is an arcane point that you are welcome to skip. Part of Martin’s proof that the Henry Cropper etymology is bogus is the presence of various uses of “cropper” in John C. Hotten’s 1859 slang dictionary. In fact, a search through Google Books reveals that Hatten didn’t include the phrase till his 1874 edition.

The OED cites that 1874 use, as well as these subsequent quotes:

1875   A. Trollope Way we live Now I. xxxviii. 241   He would ‘be coming a cropper rather,’ were he to marry Melmotte’s daughter for her money, and then find that she had got none.
1877   H. A. Leveson Sport Many Lands 464   My horse put his foot in a hole and came down a cropper.
1951   T. Rattigan Who is Sylvia? i. 230   We bachelors welcome competition from married men. We so much enjoy watching them come the inevitable cropper.
1963   Times 30 Jan. 1/7   I came a proper cropper, dearie, all black and blue I was.

The quotes tell an interesting tale. The use of quotation marks in the Trollope suggests that the figurative, non-horse use, at least, was at that point new. And the Terrence Rattigan and Times quotes both have infixed adjectives before “cropper,” suggesting that the phrase had become a cliche, or at least well worn.

As for British and American use of the phrase, the Google Ngrams Viewer chart, showing frequency of use in books, is illuminating:

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It’s similar to the pattern we saw for “we all of us.” British origin, but Americans catch up and use it about the same in the turn-of-the -20th-century period (in this case shortly after the turn). Then separation in the mid-twentieth century, followed by a slight closing of the gap as the phrase begins to seems old-fashioned in the U.K. and appealing in the U.S., in part as a result of the NOOBs phenomenon.

Ngram Viewer only has reliable data through 2008, but the New York Times archives show continuing solid use of the phrase. “Come a cropper” has appeared 94 times in the Times, all since 1920; here’s a baseball article from five years later:

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But the Times has grown partial to the phrase over time, with all but thirteen of the uses coming since the 1970s, and 17 of them since 2000. A couple of interesting things turn up in the newspaper’s archives. For one, Richard Nixon used “come a cropper” in the White House transcripts released as part of Watergate investigation in 1973:

For an inquiry to start with the proposition of [Sam] Ervin and [Howard] Baker, where you don’t come a cropper right there at the beginning on whether you can get the three branches. What’s your view of the three-branch, John [Erlichman]?

And check out the most recent use of the past tense, in a 2017 crossword blog by Caitlin Lovinger:

Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 6.19.40 PMThat’s right, it’s (wrongly) hyphenated, “a-cropper.” The hyphen shows up other times in the Times, including in a column by language maven William Safire. You can sort of see the impetus behind both, as the word “a” in the phrase doesn’t act the way we expect the word “a” to act, making it seem like there’s some sort of abbreviation going on. It’s similar to the way people write highfaluting or highfalutin’, rather than the correct highfalutin. So get rid of the apostrophes and hyphens and use “come a cropper” naked. It feels good!

“Scrounge”

“Scrounge” is the virtual twin of the last word I wrote about, “wangle.” Both mean roughly the same thing, emerged in Britain as World War I slang, and after a few decades got adopted in America.

The OED definition for “wangle” is “To accomplish (something) in an irregular way by scheming or contrivance; to bring about or obtain by indirect or insidious means (something not obtainable openly).” “Scrounge” is more specifically about getting; the dictionary defines it as “To seek to obtain by irregular means, as by stealth or begging; to hunt about or rummage.”

The OED cites a 1909 book, Passing English of the Victorian Era:  Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase, which defines “scrunging” as “(Country Boys’), stealing unripe apples and pears—probably from the noise made in masticating.” The word, with an added “o,” gained wide currency  and a more general sense during the war. George Goodchild’s 1918 book Behind the Barrage provides this explanation:

In the category of “odd jobs” came “scrounging.” “Scrounging” is eloquent armyese — it covers pilfering, commandeering, “pinching,” and many other familiar terms. You may scrounge for rations, kit, pay, or leave. Signallers are experts at it, and they usually scrounge for wire. Scrounging for wire is legitimized by the War Office, and called by the gentler name “salving.”

As for U.S. adoption, here’s the Google Ngram Viewer graph for “wangle”:

Screen Shot 2018-10-26 at 9.42.44 AMAnd here’s the one for “scrounge”:

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For whatever reason, “scrounge” reached parity later (in the 1960s as opposed to the 1940s), but ultimately became more (rather than equally) popular in the U.S. than in the U.K. Go figure!

 

 

“Wangle”

To recap: a couple of posts ago, I mentioned a listicle of supposed Britishisms that included eleven words or expressions I would not have though of as such: “the bee’s knees,” “(go on a) bender,” “dim” (as opposed to clever), “full of beans,” “gallivant,” “miffed,” “round (of drinks), “smarmy,” “waffle,” “wangle,” and “shambles.” I said that three of them turned out actually to be of British origin–although even they have been common in the U.S. for at least several decades. The three are “smarmy,” “full of beans,” and today’s entry, “wangle.” (A fourth is “waffle,” which I learned is used differently in the U.S. and U.K.)

The OED‘s definition for the transitive verb “wangle” is “To accomplish (something) in an irregular way by scheming or contrivance; to bring about or obtain by indirect or insidious means (something not obtainable openly).”

The dictionary suggests an intriguing origin for the term, in an 1888 British lexicon of printers’ terms: “Wangle, a slang term used by printers to express arranging or ‘faking’ matters to one’s own satisfaction or convenience.” But the first two proper citations are from 1917:  “No market is ever ‘free’: probe it deep enough, and..monopolies will..be found, in many cases deliberately ‘wangling’ prices and limiting production to sustain them.” And: “He had come in from the North Atlantic Cruiser Patrol, and when in home waters had ‘wangled’ a few days’ leave.” The first quote is from the Edinburgh Review and the second from the Stanford University Bulletin. Stanford is in California, but the reference to North Atlantic Cruiser Patrol suggests that it’s in reference to a Briton.

In any case, Google Books Ngram Viewer shows British use outpacing American till roughly the middle of World War II; ever since, it’s been roughly equivalent on both sides of the pond.

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Looking into the word, I found an antedate of the 1917 OED citation. In the January 23, 1915, issue of Notes and Queries, R.W.B reported that the word “has been used recently in a newspaper, as a verb, by a writer in describing his visit to a hospital for the wounded.” He encounters a patient who “has a liking for invalid food, and says to his visitor, ‘See me wangle a jelly.’ The word, therefore, is connected with the acquirement of something by a stratagem not devoid of humor.”

 

 

“Full of Beans”

A couple of posts back, I mentioned a published list of Britishisms that included eleven “words and expressions that have been common in America for as long as I can remember, and which I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of as British in origin.” I commented that initial investigation suggested only three of them seemed to be proper Britishisms. The first was “smarmy.” And the second is “full of beans.”

The OED defines the expression, which seems to derive from horse racing, as meaning “to be full of energy, and in high spirits.” The first citation is from an 1843 novel: “‘Ounds, ‘osses, and men, are in a glorious state of excitement! Full o’ beans and benevolence!”

That and all subsequent citations are from British sources. In Green’s Dictionary of Slang, all cites are from Britain or the Commonwealth until this from the American writer Leo Rosten’s 1975 novel Dear Herm: “Now he is full of beans and vinegar and with a whole new outlook on Life.” (That seems like a euphemistic switch on the roughly equivalent U.S. phrase “full of piss and vinegar.”) One earlier U.S. use of “full of beans” is in a 1938 New York Times article: “Whenever Sage, a cowboy with whom I once punched cows on the San Simon Ranch in Eastern New Mexico, felt particularly full of beans of a cool early morning….”

In any case, Google Books Ngram Viewer shows British dominance for the phrase until roughly the late 1970s, when the U.S. caught up. That was followed by a British spurt, and equivalence again in 2000, the last year for which the database has reliable data. (Note there are some false positives, for example, for references to a pot that is literally full of beans.)

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“Smarmy,” I

A friend sent me an article published about a year ago on Business Insider called “88 very British phrases that will confuse anybody who didn’t grow up in the UK.” Not surprisingly, the title is patently untrue. While some of the words and phrases were indeed unknown to me — like “bagsy,” “pull a blinder,” budge up,” and “cack-handed” — others, such as “anorak” and “boot” (for the trunk of a car), are familiar to anyone who has watched much British television, read many British novels, or spent much time in Britain. And others have penetrated the U.S. to the extent that I’ve written posts about them for this blog: “bloody,” “bog standard,” “Bob’s your uncle,” “cheeky,” “chockablock,” and that’s only halfway through the “C”s!

What interested me most was a fourth category: words and expressions that have been common in America for as long as I can remember, and which I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of as British in origin. Eleven of these were listed: “the bee’s knees,” “(go on a) bender,” “dim” (as opposed to clever), “full of beans,” “gallivant,” “miffed,” “round (of drinks), “smarmy,” “waffle” (as in go back and forth on a decision), “wangle,” and “shambles.” [Update: As several commenters pointed out, what I have given is the American definition of “waffle.” The British one is indeed different. In the words of the Cambridge English Dictionary: “ to talk or write a lot without giving any useful information or any clear answers.”]

I tested them all–except “dim,” which was problematic because it has so many different meanings–with Google Books Ngram Viewer, which allows you, among other things, to chart the relative historical frequency of words of phrases in British and U.S. books. It turned out all of them have a long history of frequent use in America and most are currently at least as popular here as in Britain. (That’s including “shambles,” but not omnishambles.”) But three of them, in the early years of their use, were more common there than here, making them Historical NOOBs, and I’ll address all three, starting with “smarmy.”

The OED‘s principal definition of the word is “Ingratiating, obsequious; smug, unctuous,” and the first citation is from L. Brock, Deductions of Col. Gore, published in 1924: “Don’t you be taken in by that smarmy swine.” I found an earlier use in Google Books, in a poem called “The Widower” by Edward Sydney Tylee, published in The Living Age in 1905. Tylee is going for a dialect that I can’t identify:

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By the way, a secondary definition is “smooth and sleek,” with the first OED citation from a 1909 source: “A tall, slight, smarmy-headed man.” I believe I can antedate that as well, in a line from a 1903 play by Henry V. Esmond, When We Were Twenty-One:

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Back to the issue of British and American use of “smarmy,” here’s the Google Ngram chart:

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In other words, American use overtook British in the late 1970s, and by 2000 (the last year of reliable Google Ngram data) it was about 50 percent more popular in the U.S. I would imagine the margin is bigger today, what with all the smarmy people around who need to be described.

Any guesses as to the other two Historical Noobs on the Business Insider list?

“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.”