“Fecking,” “Fookin'”

For the purposes of this blog, “British” refers to the British Isles, meaning not only the United Kingdom but Ireland as well. I mention that now because “feck” is of Irish origin, emerging in the nineteenth century as a verb meaning “steal.” From Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: (1916): “They had fecked cash out of the rector’s room.”

Some decades later, clever Irish people took advantage of how similar “feck” is to another word and began to use it as a Hibernian alternative. This line appears in The Bogman (1952), by the Irish writer Walter Macken: “The whole feckin world I’d give to be with her on the banks of the Ree.” Since then, various forms—including “feck off’,” “fecker,” and “feck it”—have been seen in the work of other writers, mostly Irish, in reproducing dialogue in novels, plays, and films.

A power user is the playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, whose parents were Irish but who was born and raised in London. I was initially excited to see the Corpus of Contemporary American English list 51 uses of “fecking” between 1995 and 99, but it turned out 44 of them were from McDonagh’s play The Cripple of Inishmaan, which was published in the American journal The Paris Review. Example: “Oh thank Christ the fecker’s over. A pile of fecking shite.” (The other seven “fecking”s in COCA came from Irish contexts as well.)

There has been a sprinkling of American uses over the years, for example in the title of a 2014 blog post by Charles Pierce of Esquire: “Not in My Fecking Backyard.” (It had to do with a controversy in Ireland.) I’ve noticed an uptick recently, which I peg to McDonagh’s popular 2022 film The Banshees of Inisheran. The word is used endlessly in it, including in costar Kerry Condon’s mic-drop line “You’re all feckin’ boring!”

In an interview, Condon contended, “It’s not a swear word. You can say it until the cows come home. My mother doesn’t swear ever. But she says ‘feckin’ all the time.” Stan Carey, who is both Irish and a scholar of language, bears her out, noting that in the 1990s TV comedy Father Ted, Father Jack shouts “Feck off!” regularly enough to make it a catchphrase. “’Feck’ is family-friendly, “ Carey wrote on his blog, “even according to advertising standards authorities…. As expletives go, it has a playful, unserious feel. People who are genuinely furious – as opposed to merely annoyed – or who want to be properly abusive, tend not to use feck: it just isn’t forceful enough.”

“Fooking”—commonly rendered as “fookin’”—is an example of what is known as eye dialect, spelling a word the way it’s pronounced, in this case from the north of England. Someone offered this definition on Urban Dictionary in 2003: “The result of someone with a Mancunian accent trying to say the word ‘fucking.’” An oft-repeated quote from singer Louis Tomlinson, from West Yorkshire, is “I hate fookin’ avocadoes.” And Adrian Chiles’ book We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, about supporters of West Bromwich Albion football, has the line, “He can’t see a fookin’ thing … and he’s got to drive we home.” (Note also the regionalism of “we” as the object of a verb.”)

As for American use, it’s sparse but growing. Journalist Charles Pierce, again, has a favorite epithet on Twitter: “Fookin’ eejit” (idiot). I searched Twitter for tweets containing “fookin’” and emanating in a 200 kilometer radius of New York City and it turned up a couple of dozen hits over the course of a week, including this from an account emanating from East Hampton, N.Y.: “For fook sake man! Im eating my fookin lunch here!!”

“Brekkie,” “Brekky”

As I mentioned in the last post, I spent January in Australia, where there is virtually no word too short to be abbreviated. One of the most prominent is the first meal of the day, which is rendered as “brekky.” Or “brekkie.”

Hungry Jack’s is Australia’s version of Burger King.

I saw both versions with what seemed like equal frequency. Unsurprisingly, there’s been debate on the issue, as in this article (which punted) and a Perth subreddit where someone posed the question: “Brekky, breaky or brekkie?” Most of the answers were facetious, but among the serious ones, “brekkie” beat out the “brekky” by a score of 3-2. “Breaky” does sometimes show up in the wild but, as some of the commenters pointed out, it’s been contaminated by the Billy Ray Cyrus song “Achy Breaky Heart.”

According to Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE), Australia leads the world in the use of both terms, with “brekky” being slightly more popular. Here’s the chart for “brekkie”:

Although Australia has outstripped both countries, the abbreviations started out in Britain and Ireland. The OED has a quote from the 1904 children’s book The Phoenix and the Carpet, by E. (Edith) Nesbit: “I’ve brought your brekkie, and I’ve put the little cloth with clover-leaves on it.” And in Elizabeth Bowen Ann Lee’s (1926), “Do call poor Bingo in..and give him his brekky.” Bingo is a spaniel. The first use in reference to adults I’ve seen is Green’s Dictionary of Slang’s citation of a line from Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “And then, when they settled down in a nice snug and cosy little home, every morning they would both have brekky, simple but perfectly served.”

In her youth, in the same period as the Bowen and the Joyce, Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, was partial to yet another variation. From her diary:

My sense is the words took off in Australia in mid-century but lay dormant in Britain till the 2000s, when both rose sharply, especially “brekkie.” Here’s a Google Ngram Viewer chart showing use in British English:

America has lagged behind, obviously.. GloWbE, which tracks usage in 2013-14, shows nine “brekkies” in U.S. sources, but even that’s deceiving, as most of them are quotes from Brits or Australians. However, there’s been a slight uptick in recent years, and I’ve labeled the terms “On the Radar” instead of “Outliers.” Here’s a graphic from a U.S. kids’ news service, posted just last week:

And Denver Post sports columnist Mark Kiszla wrote this in 2021: “The best breakfast in the world is a freshly baked almond croissant, eaten on a ski lift in Val d’Isere, France. Got get up early and move fast if you want to brekky with me, pal.”

Sign me up.

“Faff”–Moving Up from Outlier

Hard to believe, but it’s been more than ten years since I looked at “faff.” The verb means dither or fuss, and is usually followed by about. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation, from an 1874 volume called Yorkshire Oddities, suggests that it originated as a regionalism: “T’ clock~maker‥fizzled an’ faff’d aboot her, but nivver did her a farthing’s worth o’ good.” There’s also a noun form, as in a 1960 OED citation: “Dithering about in a perpetual faff.”

Back in 2012, I labeled the word an “Outlier,” as I could find it only in one episode of Parks and Recreation and in some pieces by a New York Times sports blogger.

I was inspired to look at the word anew because Nancy Friedman sent me a tweet (remember those?) from Rick Wilson (@The RickWilson) that begins: “A bit of faffing about on the anti-anti-Trump right at the moment).”

I checked around and and found a reasonable amount of “faffing” including:

  • From a 2018 Times soccer article: “But he faffed around and did not shoot”
  • A 2019 article about skiing in China: “After much Google translating and faffing about, we got a ticket with ridiculously short skis and poles for about 130 renminbi, or less than $19.”
  • A tweet today from someone in Atlanta referring to “generic whine-on-Twitter faff.”

I have therefore upgraded “faff” to On the Radar.

And while I have your attention, I’ll note that the blog is up to 2,997,000 and some page views. That means it will hit three million within the next week. I’d like to set up some kind of doohickey where the three millionth person gets regaled with song and virtual fireworks, but that’s a bit beyond my capacity. I’ll have to settle for alerting you when I hit the milestone.

As always, thanks for reading and commenting.

“Expiry Date”?

My heart quickened when I saw this headline — for an article about women runners in their 40s who are still running — in yesterday’s New York Times:

In the early days of the blog, I had written about “sell-by date,” a British term roughly equivalent to what Americans call “expiration date.” A bit later, I noted one American use of the similar term “expiry date.”

I hadn’t encountered it again till the Times headline. Unfortunately, the quote in it is from one of the runners, and she turns out to be from British Columbia, so it doesn’t properly count as a NOOB. On the plus side, this spurred me to create a new category and put “expiry date” in it: “false alarms.”

“Care Home”

While we’re being timely, in addition to “jab,” Gigi Simeone mentioned that she had come across U.S. writers/speakers using “care home,” where normally, she said, Americans would say “nursing home.”

I wasn’t aware of ever encountering “care home” in a source from any nationality, so I looked it up in the OED, which has a “Draft Addition” listing as of 2011: “a small institution providing residential accommodation with health or social services for the elderly, vulnerable children, the infirm, etc.” That’s a more general definition than the American “nursing home,” where the residents would be elderly and not the other categories. The most recent OED citation, from the British author Christine Reddall in 2009, is: “When an elderly person goes into a care home, much of their independence and choice is lost.”

The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, which provides a snapshot of the use of the language in 2012 and 2013, establishes that “care home” was, at least in that moment, a Britishism. “Per mil” indicates the times “care home” comes up per million words.

It’s a little trickier to determine whether “care home” has migrated to these shores. I found a few uses in American sources, but they were a bit ambiguous. A New York Times obituary of the poet Diana di Prima said she “had been living at an elder care home since 2017.” In Britain, presumably, the word “elder” would have been superfluous. A June 2020 report on NPR attributed to an official of “a group that represents people with intellectual and developmental disabilities” a statement the effect that “there are consequences to paying less attention to people who live in other care home settings.” But the “other” suggests a broader meaning for “care home.”

I finally found what appeared to be an American “care home”=”nursing home.” A Wired article posted in December 2020 talked about local U.S. health departments sending “extra help in certain cases, such as at a care home or to an infected health care worker.” Unfortunately, when I clicked on the name of the writer, Tom Simonite, I learned that he “received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cambridge and a master’s from Imperial College London.”

So for the time being “care home” remains On the Radar.


The word has a long and varied history. The current “usual sense” according to the OED is: “A person who receives a pension or stated allowance in consideration of past services or on account of injuries received in service; a retired person who receives a pension.” (“In earlier use,” the dictionary adds, “frequently applied to disabled soldiers and sailors of the Chelsea Royal Hospital and Greenwich Hospital.”)

Here’s what Google Books Ngram Viewer has to say about American and British use of the term (click on the image for a bigger view):

That is, sort of went back and forth in the 19th century, with notably more use in Britain in the 20th, but a pronounced dip there in the 21st. The OED citations are all British or Australian, with the exception of a quote from Herman Melville’s 1891 novella, Billy Budd: “The same thing was personally communicated to me now more than forty years ago by an old pensioner in a cocked hat, with whom I had a most interesting talk.” American use started falling off around then, slowly declining ever since.

I have the feeling — not backed up by the OED or other dictionaries I’ve consulted — that in Britain, “pensioner” might refer to a person who is no longer working but is not necessarily receiving a pension: what Americans would call a “retiree.” That’s suggested to me by the most recent OED citation, from Empire magazine in 1997: “Every other Thursday we do a golden oldies film club where we let pensioners come in for a pound.”

Bearing on the usage, probably, is the fact that in Britain and Europe, most retirees get pensions. In the U.S., by contrast, retirees generally receive modest Social Security payments but not pensions, which here are the offered (or not) by employers, not the government. They were once widespread, but as far back as 2008, only 13% of the workforce could expect to receive pensions; the number is certainly smaller now.

As a result, American uses of “pensioner,” what few there are, tend to refer specifically to people getting (often particular) pensions, not to a general class. For example, these quotes, all from 2020:

  • “The chief investment officer of one of the country’s biggest public pension funds said the government response to the coronavirus should be focused on supporting unemployed workers, not stocks owned by pensioners.”–CNBC
  • “[McClatchy’s] acquisition of Knight Ridder loaded it with billions of dollars more of crisis, and its pension thing is unsustainable. They say they have 28 pensioners for every employee.”–National Public Radio
  • “A spokeswoman for Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller who sits ex officio on the boards of pension funds serving teachers and other workers, said, ‘We are troubled by these reports, and we are closely monitoring the situation in accordance with our fiduciary duty and to protect the interests of our pensioners.'”–New York Times

Tag Questions, NEV, and “Level” (verb)

I watch a lot of tennis on TV, and watched a real lot over the last fortnight, as the U.S. Open was contested. As with football/soccer, the American announcers have picked up some British habits and terminology.

Watching the tournament on ESPN was interesting in this regard, as one of its commentators was the British Jason Goodall, with his abundant tag questions (sometimes called “question tags“) and nationalistic elegant variation. (H.W. Fowler coined the term “elegant variation” to refer to writers, especially journalists, who go to great lengths to avoid saying a word or name a second time.). Here’s an example of both in one (hypothetical) sentence: “It’s a vital game for the Austrian, isn’t it.” The absence of a question mark means the question isn’t supposed to be answered, is it.

One could hear the American announcers, presumably influenced by Goodall and the Australians Darren Cahill and Renae Stubbs, make ample use of both.

But I don’t recall any of the announcers using the Britishism employed, twice, by New York Times reporter Christopher Clarey. Referring to Borna Coric, Clarey wrote, “…the young, bristle-haired Croation [NEV and regular elegant variation!] kept grinding and swinging. He saved six match points and leveled the match at two sets apiece.” Then in the next paragraph, Clarey wrote that Stefanos Tsitipas “went up a break in the fifth before Coric leveled.”

That “leveled” doesn’t appear in the OED or most other dictionaries I checked. But it is in the unnamed dictionary that shows up in Google searches:

Americans would normally say “evened it up,” “tied it up,” or “evened the score.”

That reminds me of a British soccer term which I haven’t heard any American use in talking about soccer, tennis, baseball, or other relatively low-scoring sports. That’s “equalizer,” meaning a goal that ties the score. We would just say “the tying” run, goal, or point.

“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:

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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.”

“Full marks”

Note British “odour” spelling

This post marks a Not One-Off Britishisms first. I don’t believe it’s ever previously happened that, while researching American use of a British word or phrase, I came upon an example written by me. The phrase is “full marks.” Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has these definitions and examples:

1 chiefly British : the highest possible grade on an exam or in a course. “She got full marks for the coursework”… — Lancashire Telegraph

2 chiefly British : due credit or commendation. “Regarding the question of aircraft nomenclature, my pet peeve is commercial airline aircraft. I give the Europeans full marks in this department: Comets, Caravelles and Concordes are above reproach.”— John Ryan

There’s a nice used of the term, sort of half-literal and half-metaphorical, in E.M Forster’s A Room with a View:

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In my many years as a student and teacher, starting in 1960, I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered Merriam-Webster’s first meaning. The American equivalent would be “got 100” or “got straight As” or “aced it.” But I found that in years past, it was used here. This is from a 1908 New York Times article about a graduation ceremony at a school “for Immigrant Children”:

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The literal meaning fell out of favor in American education but the figurative use shows up in the prose of mid-20th century belle-lettristic sorts, including Times writers like Orville Prescott, Arthur Krock, and Brooks Atkinson, who in a 1947 pan of a Molnar play wrote of the author, “Possibly he should be given full marks for attempting a sublime theme.”

But the phrase was used considerably more commonly in Britain, especially in the ’30s through the ’60s, as this Google Ngram Viewer graph shows. (Reliable data for Google Ngram Viewer only goes up to 2000.)

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Nowadays, the metaphorical meaning pops up quite a lot in the U.S., including two in sports contexts in just the past few days: The (American) football website Fansided on October 1: “If [Josh] Rosen ever becomes a legitimate starter in the NFL, full marks to him.” And ESPN’s National Hockey League preview on September 30: “Full marks to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brad Richardson” of the Arizona Coyotes.

There have been twenty-one uses in the Times since 2012, including:

  • Recap of the TV series Outlander: “Full marks to Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe for doing a scene on actual horseback instead of on barrels with hair.”
  • Theater critic Charles Isherwood: “I’d grant [playwright Adititi] Kapil full marks for invention.”
  • Sports column quoting Ron Katz, the chairman of the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics at Santa Clara University, on a National Football League report on “deflate-gate”: “I thought the N.F.L. was going to brush it under the carpet. I give them full marks for coming out with this report.
  • Theater critic Ben Brantley in a review of The King and I: “give full marks to the first-rate Ruthie Ann Miles”

And including an article about comma use listing various mistakes and saying that if the reader spotted them, “give yourself full marks.” The author, I was interested to note, was Ben Yagoda.

“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:


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.