Category Archives: On the radar

“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.”

24-Hour Clock

The all-time most popular post on this blog, with more than 146,000 views and 99 comments, is “European Date Format” (that is, rendering a date as date/month/year rather than the traditional U.S. month/date/year).

A communication I recently received from Amazon, giving instructions on returning an item to one of its Lockers, made me wonder if I might repeat that post’s success. Here’s what Amazon sent me:


The key is that “21:00.” The traditional American rendition of that time is 9:00 PM. So, I wondered, is there a trend of U.S. adoption of European time format?

For the purposes of this blog, the first question to answer is whether the 24-hour format is indeed a British thing. The answer is a bit mixed. I just read an entertaining free e-book on the subject called Counting Time: A Brief History of the 24-Hour Clock, by Peter Boardman. He recounts how this idea was broached following World War I, was adopted by the British Army and Navy, and was endlessly debated in the House of Lords and the letters pages of The Times in the 1920s and early ’30s. The Lords endorsed the 24-hour clock in 1933 and the BBC experimented with it the following year, but no one seemed to like the idea and it was pretty much dropped till 1964, when the railways and London Transport adopted. Boardman concludes, “Instead of having just one time system, we have two, and they’re both going to be with us indefinitely. ”

The book was published in 2011 and things may have changed in the intervening years, at least according to the responses I got when I asked British people on Twitter if they thought the 24-hour clock was common in the UK. Lynne Murphy said, “Very widespread–and I love it.” Mark Stradling ventured, “Written down, pretty much ubiquitous,” but noted a caveat: “Nobody talks like that, makes you sound like a robot.”

In the United States, the only home of 24-hour time has until now been the military, as one knows from movies where people talk about “Fourteen hundred hours.” But it’s also (not surprisingly) widespread in the computer world, which is presumably where Amazon picked it up.

In sum, I deem the 24-hour clock a Britishism and, in these parts, On the Radar. Let the page views and comments begin.


“Shock” (attributive noun)

I was lucky enough to attend the British Open (Americans’ term for The Open Championship) in Scotland in 1999. After the second round, a French golfer, Jean van de Velde, who had won only one tournament in his career, improbably went ahead by a stroke. I snagged this poster from a newsstand and it still hangs in my house:


(The shocks would continue. Wikipedia says: “[Paul] Lawrie, down by ten strokes at the start of the fourth round, completed the biggest final round comeback in major championship history, headlined by van de Velde’s triple-bogey at the last hole.” The tournament ended in a three-way tie among Lawrite, van de Velde and another golfer, and Lawrie won the playoff.)

What caught my eye on the poster was the unusual, to me, use of “shock” as an attributive noun, meaning “shocking.” I later encountered other instances in the British press. There’s no relevant entry in or Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary but the Oxford English Dictionary has a brief one: “of things that startle or shock.” The only example is a 1974 “heading” (US: “headline”) from The Times: “Shock news is broken to EEC ministers.”

Fortunately, Lynne Murphy of Separated by a Common Language wrote a substantial post about this “shock” in 2015. She reported a communication from David Sewell, an editor at the University of Virginia:

Some time within the last year or so I started noticing the distinctive usage of the phrase “shock poll” in the British news media; since then it seems to have migrated to the US, though apparently not in major news outlets. It appears so far as I can tell to mean simply “poll with startling results”, with adjectival “shock”. Some googling shows that “shock survey” and “shock study” are out there as well.

Is this use of “shock” as an adjective in fact coming out of British newspaperese, and is its usage spreading beyond a delimited set of nouns?

Lynne went to the corpora and was able to answer “yes” to the questions in the last sentence; some of the other nouns to which it’s been attached–all from British sources–are “victory,” “departure,” “resignation,” and “decision.”

Tantalizingly, Mr. Sewell didn’t explain why he thought the usage had migrated to the U.S. I for one had certainly never encountered it here until yesterday, when I read this sentence from a Washington Post dispatch in my local paper. (Emphasis added; the reference is to Trump’s announcement that he would raise tariffs on aluminum and steel, and was looking forward to a trade war.)

In an unorthodox presidency in which emotion, impulse and ego often drive events, Mr. Trump’s ominous moods manifested themselves last week in his zigzagging positions on gun control; his shock trade war that jolted markets and was opposed by Republican leaders and many in his own administration; and his roiling feud of playground insults with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

This is filed under “On the radar” and I don’t especially expect it to ascend to larger acceptance here. One reason is that, being short, it’s especially useful for headlines in print newspapers. And it would take a shock reversal for print newspapers to start being important again.



“Lift” is such a sensible way to say “elevator,” if only because it has three fewer syllables, but I have never encountered it in the U.S., maybe because it is such a quintessential Britishism.

Never encountered it until now, that is. Here’s what I saw on the lower level of the Chelsea Market in New York City:


Was “lift” used here merely because “elevator” wouldn’t fit? Or is this the harbinger of a “lift” incursion on U.S. shores? Only time will tell.

“On the day,” again

I last discussed the British expression “on the day”–AmE equivalent: “on the day of the event,” or “on the day in question”–because it was used by an American writer who turned out to have spent twenty years in the U.K. Two years later, it’s shown up again, this time in a quote by since-departed U.S. football manager Bruce Arena, after his team failed to qualify for the World Cup:

“This game in my view was perfectly positioned for the US team and we failed on the day.”

Arena has never coached anywhere but in the U.S., but, as has been discussed here in several posts, many Britishisms have made their way into American soccer. “On the day” hasn’t achieved broad acceptance, but it’s a useful expression, and Arena’s use of it makes me elevate its status from “outlier” to “on the radar.”


I mentioned that Stuart Semmel had suggested two NOOBs. The first was “liaise” and the second is second. That’s not double-talk: the word he suggested was “second,” usually used in passive-voice participle form: to be “seconded” (accent appropriately on the second syllable).

The term is of military origin. The OED has a first citation from 1802 and offers this definition: “To remove (an officer) temporarily from his regiment or corps, for employment on the staff, or in some other extra-regimental appointment.” It was applied to movements of civilian employees as early as 1920, when this appeared in the Westminster Gazette: “It was finally agreed that Lord Moulton should be seconded to the service of the Corporation and of the dye industry year.”

This Google Ngram Viewer chart indicates that ever since, “seconded” has been a decided Britishism. (The red line indcates British use, the blue line American)



And truth to tell, it still is one. The first five pages (after which I quit looking) of Google News hits for the phrase are all from U.K. or Commonwealth sources. However, Stuart reports hearing it on occasion in academic circles and my friend Nanette Tobin in corporate ones. And it was used three times in the New York Times in 2016, including this by Sarah Lyall (a longtime resident of London), in her coverage of the New York’s Westminster Dog Show: “Andy Das, an assistant sports editor whose responsibilities typically include soccer and college sports, but who was seconded to dog duty this year…”

So “seconded” is definitely On the Radar.



“Give [someone] the pip”

After all these years, it’s rare for me to come across an American using a Britishism I was previously unaware of. But that’s what happened when I was reading the New York Times the other day. Theater critic Ben Brantley, reviewing a revival of the musical “Sweet Charity,” alliteratively noted, “Peppiness gives me the pip.”

Actually, “pip” is one of the first Britishisms I was ever aware of, upon reading the Conan Doyle story “The Five Orange Pips” when I was a kid. (The word I would use for the seeds in an orange is “seed.”) “Gives me the pip” was a new expression to me, one that definitely had a British sound to it. And Britishism it is. It derives from the poultry disease known as “the pip.” The Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang reveal having or getting the pip was used to mean feeling depressed or out of sorts starting in the 1830s, and “giving [someone] the pip,” meaning to annoy or irritate, in 1896.

All of the many citations in Green’s are from British sources, including no fewer than five from the quintessential Englishman P.G. Wodehouse, ranging from 1910’s Psmith in the City (“That’s the sort of thing which gives me the pip”) to 1960’s Jeeves in the Offing (“It would be fatal to risk giving her the pip in any way”).