Category Archives: On the radar

“Tall Poppy”

In honor of my return from a five-week stay in Australia, a post in honor of one of the first Australianisms I encountered on my first visit there, four years ago. Stuart — who collected me and the student group I was leading at the Melbourne airport and drove us to town — commented, vis a vis the national character, on the “tall poppy.” I forget his exact explanation but here’s the OED definition: “chiefly Australian. a prominent or conspicuously successful person or thing, frequently with implication of attracting hostility from envious detractors.” Stuart suggested that the tall poppy syndrome — the reflex to attack anybody who stood out from the crowd by accomplishing anything — was a national characteristic and, to some extent, problem.

The metaphor originated in sixth century B.C.E. Rome — specifically, Wikipedia says, in

Livy’s account of the tyrannical Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. He is said to have received a messenger from his son Sextus Tarquinius asking what he should do next in Gabii, since he had become all-powerful there. Rather than answering the messenger verbally, Tarquin went into his garden, took a stick, and symbolically swept it across his garden, thus cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies that were growing there. The messenger, tired of waiting for an answer, returned to Gabii and told Sextus what he had seen. Sextus realised that his father wished him to put to death all of the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang lists examples of the term being used in nineteenth-century Britain, but fifteen of the twenty citations from 1869 on are from or in reference to Australia or New Zealand, including this from Richard Beckett’s 1986 Dinkum Aussie Dictionary:

Tall poppy: Any Australian who reads more than the sporting results and knows how to use snail tongs. Someone who aspires to intellectual excellence and cannot tell the difference between one make of car and another. The species is much hated in Australia and is always being cut down to size.

Here’s what the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, which contains 9 billion articles from 2010 to the present, says about the frequency of use of “tall poppy” by country:

Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 3.48.26 PM

About half of the twenty-three U.S. hits are actually by or about Australians. But that still leaves a few examples.

  • Actress and singer Carrie Brownstein said in an interview: “How comfortable one is taking credit for their work depends on the person. I think tall poppy syndrome is endemic to smaller creative communities, but I also really value the fairly anti-capitalist approach of the more radical artistic communities from which I came.
  • Tech businesswoman Marian Salzman wrote in a Forbes article that Meghan Markle “may be under great scrutiny because the tall poppy often gets chopped down, but I think she’s a 2020 version of John F. Kennedy Jr. circa the mid-’80s.” (This was written in July 2019.)
  • New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in her scorecard for the second Democratic presidential debate in August 2019 (how long ago that seems), wrote of then-candidate Kamala Harris: “Tall poppy syndrome. After she garroted Biden in the first debate, everyone came after her, challenging her health care plan as she struggled to explain it herself.”

As we are wont to do, some Americans have tried to turn the expression on his head. In 2018, two entrepreneurs started a company to protect people, especially women, against online harassment. They called it Tall Poppy. One of the founders, Leigh Honeywell, explained it to Fast Company:  “The idea of tall poppy syndrome is that…anyone who becomes prominent in their field or in politics or whatever, they get cut down. So we protect the tall poppies.”

“Mate” as Direct Address

I have covered “mate” a couple of times as a synonym for “buddy” or “friend.” But this sign in a men’s room in the Seattle airport is the first time I’ve seen it in America as a form of direct address:

IMG-6711

The capital M in “Mate” suggests to me that the writer wasn’t especially comfortable or familiar with the term. Meanwhile, both the excessive politeness and the “eh” at the end suggest that he or she might be Canadian.

In any case, the first two citations in the OED for this use of the word are both from Englishmen (Arthur Polehampton and Lord Robert Cecil) who noticed it in their travels in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century.

1852   R. CecilDiary 31 Mar. (1935) 36   When the diggers address a policeman in uniform they always call him ‘Sir’, but they always address a fellow in a blue shirt with a carbine as ‘Mate’.
1862   A. PolehamptonKangaroo Land 99   A man, who greeted me after the fashion of the Bush, with a ‘Good day, mate’.

It had arrived in Britain by 1880, when this line of dialogue appears in a novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: “Who’s the magistrate hereabouts, mate?”

In the U.S., the comparable terms include “buddy,” “pal,” and, in recent years, “dude.” Those words are often used in a hostile, or at least passive-aggressive manner. “Mate” works well for this purpose, as the men’s room admonition illustrates. I’ll be curious to see if it catches on in these parts.

“Elasticated”

The ever-vigilant Nancy Friedman sends along this image from  “an NYC-based clothing company”:

The key bit is the “elasticated” waistband. Nancy notes, “In my experience, ‘elasticated’ is UK, ‘elasticized’ is US.”

She’s definitely right about that. The citations for ‘elasticated’ in the OED are all from British sources, starting from the first, in 1925, from Chamber’s Journal: ” A sense of the joy of power silkened and elasticated.”

(And by the way, the fact that that use is metaphorical suggests that “elasticated” had been around for a while beforehand. And sure enough, Google Books yields many antedates, the first being in an 1845 edition of the Repertory of patent inventions and other discoveries. It’s for innovations in the manufacture and use of “elastic fabrics.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-06 at 10.09.43 AM)

A Google Ngram Viewer chart shows that use of “elasticated” didn’t pick up until the 1950s, and was far more common in Britain than the U.S.

The chart shows some American use–but I wouldn’t count Nancy’s ad as an example. That’s because the clothing company, A Day, according to its website, appears to be more global than New Yorky. The “About” section reports: “As a team, we embrace being international citizens — our founders Meg (yoga teacher) and Nina (former competitive gymnast) were born in Beijing and Frankfurt, eventually connecting in London and moving together to New York.”

The legit American uses of “elasticated” are sparse and specialized enough that I’m going to tag it “On the Radar.” It’s appeared in the New York Times nineteen times, mostly uttered or written by Brits. It’s also appeared mostly in the fashion pages, including in 2014, when (American) Alex Vudela described a “pentagonal polka dot shirt with an elasticated hem, worn with a matching tie and trainers.”

A couple of the Times references are to Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties, which is based on real-life characters such as James Joyce. Another, lesser-known real-life character, Henry Carr, remembers Joyce working on Ulysses, although, he says, “at that time we were still calling it (I hope memory serves) by its original title, Elasticated Bloomers.” This factoid was pretty clearly made up by Stoppard, yet a Times review of a 1989 revival of the play took it as fact: mentioning the novel and then adding a parenthetical “(or ‘Elasticated Bloomers,’ as it was originally titled).” More recently, someone posted on Twitter in 2016:

The tweet didn’t get any likes, comments, or retweets, so I repeat the query here. Is it true? I hope so, too.

 

“Petrol”

I never thought I’d see this one (BrE for AmE “gasoline” or “gas”) in these parts. Even the OED flatly states, “This sense is not in use in the U.S. and Canada,” which doesn’t leave much room for discussion. Google’s Ngram Viewer bears this out, showing use in American books of “gas,” “gasoline,” and “petrol.” I’d wager that the lion’s share of the “petrol” uses are in American editions of British books, or in dialogue spoken by a British person. (Bear in mind that “gas” includes references not only to the fuel but to substances that aren’t solid or liquid.)

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 9.52.56 AM

But look what just showed up in an e-mail from the very American Sierra Club.

Screen Shot 2019-03-27 at 9.40.57 AM

I checked the New York Times and found that the newspaper used “petrol” 32 times in 2018-19. But in all but one or two case it’s said or written by a Brit, Australian, etc. The One exception is a reference to Texas-brewed beer: “a musty, petrol-y offering aged with Texan white-wine grapes.” I imagine it was used here because “gassy” means something very different indeed.

“In the new year”

Imagine it is the autumn of 2018. You want to refer to something that will happen in 2019. Do you say it will happen A, “next year,” or B, “in the new year”? I contend that it you are British, the answer is likely to be B, and if American, A. My sense is that I encountered the whole “in the new year” thing for the first time while reading British novels and the British press and watching British TV.

It’s a bit hard to quantify my contention using many of my go-to databases and other tools, because Americans do say “ring in the new year” and similar expressions. However, Google Ngram Viewer allows for case-sensitive searches, so I searched for “In the new year” — the capital “I” ensuring that the phrase wouldn’t be preceded by “ringing,” “seeing,” “welcoming,” “bringing” or any such verb. Here’s what I got:

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 10.38.15 AM

That is, it appears that in the twentieth century, “in the new year” as a standalone phrase was consistently  more than twice as popular in the Britain than in the United States. And note that I’m not saying it wasn’t used at all here; it was just used less often.

The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, which offers a snapshot of nearly 2 billion words of text in 2012-2013, doesn’t allow me to separate out the “ringing-in-the-new year”-type usages (or at least I don’t know how to), but even so, it shows “in the new year” as being generally much more common in Australia, Canada, Britain, and (especially) Ireland than in the United States.

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 11.20.05 AM

 

Here are just a few of the 1,153 times the phrase was used in British web pages:

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 11.08.42 AM

And here are some of the 236 American hits:

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 11.12.12 AM

Numbers 1, 2, and 8 are of the “welcome-in” form, but the rest have a definite British “in the new year feel.” Enough, at least, for me to designate the phrase On the Radar.

 

 

“Pot” (of yogurt)

Comments to the recent post on “potted,” meaning summarized or abridged, led me to understand that British people use the the word “pot” to refer to smallish containers for food, whereas for Americans, a pot is strictly the thing you cook in, frequently mentioned in company with pans. (British) Catherine Rose commented:

Potted food is in pots. It isn’t even always in a closed pot – potted shrimps are in an open-top pot which is sealed with a layer of butter, and has a very short shelf-life. Sometimes it’s in a ceramic pot with a ceramic lid, and sometimes in a glass jar with a lid that closes down with a seal (like a Kilner jar).

That made me remember that in Britain, a single-serving receptacle of yog(h)urt is called a pot, whereas I would just call it a container. (Being a native New Yorker, I would use the same word for the vessel in which you get coffee to go, properly pronounced “a containuh of cawfee.”) Some research confirmed this distinction. For example, consider this Google Ngram Viewer chart showing phrases’ frequency of use in books in the Google Books database:

Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 4.13.54 PM

I included British “container of yoghurt” in my search, but it doesn’t show up on the graph because, seemingly, that phrase has never appeared in a British book. The Brigham Young University Corpus of Contemporary American English, comprising 560 million words of text uttered or written in the U.S. between 1990 and 2017, allows you to search for the words that most commonly occurred before the phrase “of yogurt.” Here are the results:

Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 4.17.49 PM

“Cup”‘s 100 percent margin of victory over “container” is a bit misleading, I would say, because the word is also a unit of measurement (8 ounces), and is used that way in many of the thirty-four hits in COCA. But “cup” definitely is also used for a single serving (and not a measurement), as seen in this photo of a Dannon yogurt’s nutrition label I snapped at a supermarket. The serving size is listed as “1 cup,” but 150 grams is only 62 percent of a measuring-cup cup.

IMG-6228

For additional research, I created separate Twitter polls for British and American people. Here’s the result of the British one.

Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 4.35.19 PM

And here’s the American one:

Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 4.36.31 PM

That 20 percent “Something else” response is a sign of a poorly designed survey. The Twitter comments revealed that the most popular other term was, you guessed it, “cup.” “Thing” and “carton” also got some mentions.

The question remains, is “tub of yogurt” a Not One-Off Britishism? The phrase occurs exactly once in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, in a 2007 New York Times article about a redesign of the 1957 Fiat 500: “In France, … the original 500 was lovingly known as the ‘pot de yaourt,’ or pot of yogurt, for its soft shape.”

But the 5 percent showing in my American Twitter poll, and its presence in the Ngram Viewer chart, suggests “pot of yogurt” is making a U.S. incursion. My daughter Maria Yagoda, the digital restaurant editor at Food and Wine magazine, wrote me that she felt “pot” had gained popularity in the last ten years or so: “Because ‘container’ just wasn’t a good, specific enough word so we jumped on the opportunity to use pot.” A few examples pop up when you search in Google News. Last year, in Elite Daily, American Jordan Bissell wrote, “Who wants a little plastic pot of yogurt when you can have a frozen stick full of delicious, nutritious goodness?” And in 2017, the Wall Street Journal published this headline:

Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 4.49.36 PM

Bottom line, expect to see more American “pot of yogurt.”

 

 

“Give a Toss”

From today’s New York Times, an article about the all-girl rock band the Go-Gos:

“Here were five women from my homeland, in angular haircuts and thrift-store miniskirts, tauntingly singing about their own public shaming — and not giving a toss.”

The author, Evelyn McDonnell, says that in 1981, when the band debuted, she was “a California-born punk-rock pirate marooned at a Midwestern public high school.”

Yet she uses the British expression “give a toss.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang‘s first citation for “toss” used this way is George Eliot’s 1876 novel Daniel Deronda. (“I don’t care a toss where you are.”) All subsequent citations are from British or Commonwealth sources until a 2012 American story called “Topless Vampire Bitches”: “A real horro nerd, Jimmy […] A shame that no one else gave a toss.”

It’s a nice NOOB. While it means the same as “give a hoot” or “give a fig,” it has a nice salty air to it–though there’s apparently no connection to the truly salty “tosser.”