Category Archives: Historical NOOBs

“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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