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:



“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.”


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:


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.


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.”

“Small beer” and “hard cheese”

A line in David Carr’s column in the New York Times a couple of days ago caught my eye: “Fumbling an editorial change may seem like small beer when viewed against the backdrop of an industry in which bankruptcies are legion and rich business interests are buying newspapers as playthings.”

I wasn’t familiar with small beer, but it had the ring of a NOOB, so I investigated. The first OED definition is “Beer of a weak, poor, or inferior quality” (what Americans might call near beer). The second, by extension, relates to Carr’s meaning: “Trivial occupations, affairs, etc.; matters or persons of little or no consequence or importance; trifles.” Or, what Americans would typically term small potatoes.

Although Shakespeare does use the term in “Othello,” the OED quotes Joseph Addison rather purposely and self-consciously crafting the metaphor in 1710:  “As rational Writings have been represented by Wine; I shall represent those Kinds of Writings we are now speaking of, by Small Beer.” The next quotation is from John Adams, who wrote in 1777, “The torment of hearing eternally reflections upon my constituents, that they are..smallbeer [sic],..is what I will not endure.”
Adams, of course, was an American, and therefore small beer isn’t a NOOB along the lines of gobsmacked or toff. But I do classify it as a “Historical NOOB.” Back in 1777, there wasn’t any, or much, difference between the way Englishmen and Americas used the language. Over the years, however, this particular expression, like many others, acquired a British patina; all post-1777 OED citations are British. The Google Ngram chart below shows use of the phrase in Britain (red line) and the U.S. (blue line) between 1900 (by which time it was mostly used metaphorically) and 2008. Up until the mid-2000s, it was used between two and three times more frequently in Britain.
Google’s data goes up only to 2008, but I would imagine that by now blue and red lines have met, or are about to. That is, small beer is getting some U.S. traction.  Stanford Professor David M. Kennedy, writing for CNN after the recent election, regretted that “as committed a change agent as Obama is doomed to four more years of nothing more than Lilliputian, small-beer tinkering.” In September, a Los Angeles Times writer observed, “Of course, in San Diego a dispute that has lasted only a decade is but small beer.”
Another colorful British food metaphor has had less success over here. I refer to hard cheese, i.e, “tough luck.” (That brings to mind another Britishism, the one-word sentence that’s a favorites of sports commentators, “Unlucky!” No spottings here as yet and I don’t expect there ever to be.) A fair amount of hard cheese searching yielded only a couple of hits, both of them facetious. In 1990, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker channeled the notoriously preppy then-President George H.W. Bush: ”Gee, fellows, we can talk about anything but maybe the graduated income-tax thing; but, golly, if there’s going to be an increase, sorry, hard cheese, but you Democrats have to propose it. Then I’ll just have to tell the taxpayers I’m going along only because you big tax-and-spenders left me no choice.” And a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist wrote in 2007: “It’s a cold, cruel, capitalist world out there, Bunky. You put in your 20 years in the gunk at the chemical plant and one day . . . whack! It’s all over. It’s hard cheese for you and your family.”
All the rest of the American uses I encountered referred either to dairy products or to baseball, where the expression is an accepted elegant variation for fastball. From a New York Times recap of a 2010 game: “So, at 3-0, Robertson threw Young some hard cheese at the knees for a strike.”


We’ve talked a good deal about soccer of late. Now for some ruggers.

Scrum refers to the deal in rugby where all or most of the players join in a kind of aggressive group hug. (I await scornful corrections and clarifications.) The OED’s first citation for a metaphorical use–denoting “a confused, noisy throng (at a social function or the like)”–is  Murder Included,  by J. Cannan (1950): “I kept wondering where you were..in that awful scrum.” That and all subsequent cites in the dictionary are British except for a 1979 quote from the Globe & Mail of Toronto.

Scrum appeared to arrive in the U.S. in the 1970s as well. Early uses tended to be make the metaphor explicit, as in an article by the NY Times’ R.W. “Johnny” Apple about a Watergate trial: Judge Sirica, he wrote, had jurors “approach the bench individually to talk to him and to a kind of rugby scrum of lawyers straining to hear the process.”

As Wes Davis pointed out to me, scrum is now everywhere in the U.S. media. Google News reports that fourteen hours ago (as I write), the Omaha World-Herald posted, “An arbitrator’s report details why an Omaha officer was reinstated after her role in an arrest scrum last year outside Creighton University.”

But Johnny Apple’s erstwhile employer, the Times, has given the word more love, by far, than any other publication. Wes noted a front-page story in the paper yesterday about low pay in Apple stores (great article by the way): “If a solution took longer to find, which it frequently did, a pileup ensued and a scrum of customers would hover.” But that’s one example out of thousands. The Times  has used scrum an astonishing 98 times in 2012, all but a handful of them in a non-rugby context. Time to give it a rest, methinks.


I’m filing this one under the new category “Historical NOOBs.” When a reader suggested it a few months back, I was initially dismissive, so established an expression (meaning a project, idea or proposal that absolutely will not fly) has nonstarter become. But she (I think it was a she) was right.

The OED dates the word back to 1865, when it was used, straightforwardly, to indicate a horse that was unable to start a race. The first metaphorical use was a line from a 1934 P.G. Wodehouse novel, and the first in what I consider the modern meaning from a 1942 book: “That is one reason why non-intervention is such a non-starter.” That and all subsequent citations in the OED are British.

The New York Times used nonstarter first in 1987 and since then on “about” 1489 occasions (the newspaper’s new search system is for some reason partial to approximation). The most recent came on April 1, in a quote by Speaker of the House John Boehner: “The additional revenue that Obama demanded was a ‘nonstarter,’ he says.”

Below are Google Ngram charts showing frequency of use of nonstarter between 1950 and 2008. It’s a bit hard to make out the numbers but they show British use picked up in the ’50s and U.S. use in the ’70s; that Americans caught up with Brits more or less in the late ’80s; and that we now use “nonstarter” more than 50 percent more frequently.

U.S. use of "nonstarter," 1950-2008
British use of "nonstarter," 1950-2008