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”).
The online magazine Slate sent out this tweet June 23:
The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for “dog’s breakfast,” from the Balleymena (Ireland) Observer, 1892, also provides a definition: “In a lump like a dog’s breakfast, said of a heterogeneous heap of things.”
It is very much a Britishism, but more of a NOOB than I would have expected. It has appeared in the New York Times–attributed to or written by Americans–seven times since 2010, the first in a quote from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who called court rulings on jury instructions “a dog’s breakfast of divided, conflicting, and ever-changing analyses.” The most recent occurred in a review of the HBO series “Vinyl” this past February, referring to a character who is “president of American Century Records, which has a dog’s breakfast of an artist roster: Grand Funk Railroad, Donny Osmond, Savoy Brown, Robert Goulet, and their biggest act, Led Zeppelin.”
Slate’s use of the phrase was appropriate–the author of the article called Simmons’ show “a mess.” If only the magazine had left things there. Instead, a mere four days later, it sent out this tweet:
That was a misuse of “dog’s breakfast”; all the article really said about the industry was that it isn’t doing well. But the tweet committed an even worse journalistic sin: repeating yourself.
When a friend wrote in a Facebook post the other day that a certain political figure had “lost the plot,” my NOOB-dar came on. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase but it had the definite feel of a Britishism, and sure enough, it is.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “lose the plot” as “to lose one’s ability to understand or cope with events; to lose one’s touch; to go off the rails.” There is a dubious 17th-century citation, with the next not coming till a 1984 quote from The Times, presumably about a fashion show: “Arabella Pollen showed sharp linens, lost the plot in a sarong skirt and brought out curvaceous racing silk and a show-stopping bow-legged Willie Carson.”
As to the phrase’s national origin, the OED doesn’t say. A 1994 article in The American Scholar claims it’s Australian. It would be interesting to hear about that from an Australian. In any case, it definitely is a Britishism, as shown in this Google Ngram Viewer chart comparing uses of the phrase “lost the plot” in books published in the U.S. and the U.K:
Interestingly, the first time it shows up in the New York Times, in 1998, it’s also in a fashion article:
From the parade of Mao worker jackets with frog closures and cheongsam dresses at Ferragamo to the indiscriminate layering of tulle and other sheer fabrics over trousers and skirts at Anna Molinari, many designers in Milan had a story’s worth of ideas, but they had lost the plot.
It’s been used a few dozen of times since then, most recently less than a week ago, in a May 14 article about entertainment mogul Sumner Redstone:
The legal fracas has changed Mr. Redstone’s public image from a firebrand whose business acumen and ruthlessness won him control of Viacom, Paramount Pictures and CBS, a $40 billion empire, into something quite different. In the local parlance, he lost the plot.
Online comments sections have a bad reputation, but sometimes you can learn a lot there. The first version of my post on Britishisms in the novel Room (below) appeared in the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, to which I contribute one post a week. A commenter who calls herself “englishwlu” noted:
imagine my surprise when my kid (Virginia born and bred) started saying “I can’t be asked. . .” and “go on about” and “sweet f. a.”–all with the right intonation! It turns out that for many years some of the kids he hangs out with inside games like Minecraft on X-Box Live are British. Evidently their idioms of teenaged ennui have transferred and stuck.
Englishwlu mentioned three expressions. “Go on about” is more precisely “on about,” and I wrote about it here. The other two mystified me. I learned about the meaning and origin of “sweet f.a.” here. As for “can’t be asked,” NOOB friend Nancy Friedman commented on the comment: “I believe you or your child mis-heard ‘can’t be arsed.'” The top definition for “can’t be arsed” at Urban Dictionary is “To be seriously demotivated; To be disinclined to get off one’s arse; To be unwilling to do something.”
All well and good, but I couldn’t very well claim “can’t be arsed” as a NOOB based on one Virginia teen’s use, or misuse, of it. Again, Nancy Friedman to the rescue. Today, she told me on Twitter that last night, an American had used the phrase in a tweet. Sure enough, she had, and here’s the tweet:
A few years ago, I called “different to” (as opposed to the American “different from” or “different than”) a “doobious NOOB”–meaning that there was no sign of it becoming popular in the U.S. But since reader Hal Hall recently spotted this sentence in the online publication Quartz—
One company, Canada’s D-Wave, which uses a different process to IBM’s, claims to have already built a commercially viable computer with 1,000 qubits.
–I’m upgrading it to “On the Radar.”
The public radio program “Marketplace” recently aired a piece about a new sitcom called “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which is set in West Covina, California. Discussing why she chose that town, one of the show’s producers (a female American, complete with vocal fry) said among other things she liked the fact that the local mall had pretzel shops at both entrances, “just in case you got peckish for a pretzel.” [Note: A commenter observes that “peckish for” is unidiomatic. It strikes me that this woman’s use of it grew out of the currently popular “hungry for”–as in “hungry for lunch”–as discussed here.]
This was the first time I was aware of encountering an American use of “peckish”–defined concisely by the OED as “somewhat hungry.” All of the dictionary’s citations are British with the exception of this from Laurie Colwin’s 1988 book Home Cooking: “At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish, but only the British have institutionalised this feeling.” (I wondered whether Colwin eschewed the American spelling “institutionalized”; Google Books told me “no.”)
It’s interesting that she would have mentioned 4 p.m., because I personally tend to get peckish in the morning. Many other people apparently do as well, hence the (British) custom of “elevenses,” for which
Winnie-the-Pooh Paddington favored honey on bread with condensed milk.
Anyway, it turns out that “peckish” shows up here now and again. It’s appeared sporadically in the New York Times in recent years, most recently in a review of a bar on the Lower East Side: “If peckish, try the matzo-meal fried chicken with pastrami-spiced gravy ($23).” Somehow, I don’t think Winnie-the-Pooh would approve.
The OED says this adjective derives from “obstreperous” and means the same thing, with some overtones, to wit: “bad-tempered, rebellious, awkward, unruly.” All the citations (starting in 1951) are from British sources, including John Burke’s novelization of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” (The word also appears, differently, in the screenplay by Alun Owen, a Liverpool writer. After Ringo complains to a little boy about being knocked over with a tire, the boy says, “Oh, don’t be so stroppy.”)
As this Google Ngram Viewer chart indicates, it’s indeed a Britishism:
Also as the chart indicates, the word’s presence in the U.S. is minimal at the moment. I had to go through about 100 hits of a Google News search before I found an American use, from a July Boston Globe review of the Amy Winehouse documentary: “the early sequences of ‘Amy’ are heartbreaking in the way they capture a lumpy, stroppy North London girl who just about bursts into flame when she opens her mouth to sing.” Also in July, there was a USA Today story quoting (the British) Piers Morgan on rapper Nicki Minaj: “I experienced at first hand what a stroppy little piece of work she could be when she appeared as a guest act on ‘America’s Got Talent’ when I was still a judge on the show.”
Over at the New York Times, the word has mainly been in quotes by or attributions to British people. Otherwise, the last use was in a 2011 review of a Sarah Palin biography, in which–according to the reviewer, the feisty Jack Shafer–anonymous sources characterized Palin’s marriage as “bloodless and stroppy.” The same year, the Times quoted a song by the Topp Twins, lesbian singers from New Zealand: “We’re stroppy, we’re aggressive, we’ll take over the world.”
When last heard from, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was referring to argle-bargle . Now, dissenting from the court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), Scalia accused the majority of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The OED notes that the term derives from a venerable Scots expression, joukery-pawkery, and means “deceitful or dishonest ‘manipulation’; hocus-pocus, humbug.” The dictionary’s first citation is from 1893, but Ammon Shea, at Merriam-Webster’s “Words at Play” blog, beat that by a remarkable five decades, quoting a December 1845 article from the (Reading, England) Berkshire Chronicle: “… under the present law, the averages were made up so faithfully and fairly as to prevent any jiggery-pokery.”
I myself had not encountered jiggery-pokery since 1967, when it served as the title of Anthony Hecht and John Hollander’s anthology of double dactyls. In inventing this form years earlier, the two poets had come up with some wild and crazy rules. As described by the poet Julie Larios, it consists of:
eight lines of two dactyls each, arranged in two quatrains. The first line of the poem must be nonsense (like “Higgledy-piggledy” or “Jiggery-pokery”) and the second line must be a name; the fourth and eighth lines are dactyls followed by spondees, and they rhyme; and one line of the poem (often the 6th or 7th) must be a single six-syllable word.
Here’s an example, by Hollander:
Went off her feed and just
Then, quite ignoring the
Threw in the sponge and was
Scraped off the tracks
Any readers want to try their hands?
A “lie-in” means the practice of resting (either awake or asleep, I believe) while lying down. The OED’s earliest citation is 1867: “The luxury of ‘a long lie in’, is the earliest and most universal of the delights of a working man’s Sunday.” A comparable term is “lie-down.”
They are two of a number of British expressions formed by making nouns out of phrasal verbs; other examples are “fry-up” and “carve-up.” The British also noun-ize some simple verbs that Americans do not, as in “having a sleep” and, indeed, “having a lie.”
Lynne Murphy’s Facebook friend notwithstanding, I don’t see any of these catching on in the U.S. and so, for the time being, categorize them as “On the Radar.”
Update: As commenters were quick to point out, my definition of “lie-in” was seriously wanting, specifically omitting the key element of staying in bed longer than one would normally do, without actually being asleep. It strikes me that this may be a bit of cultural difference that goes beyond language. That is, Americans don’t use “lie-in,” or have our own equivalent, is that we so rarely engage in this practice.
On my first extended stay in England, some fifteen years ago, I encountered the expression “spoilt for choice,” referring (forgive me if this is obvious) to a situation where one has a lot of options. Ever since, I have been looking for an appearance on these shores, presumably with the first word spelled “spoiled.”
My wait is finally over. The ever-observant Jan Freeman sent a link to a Wall Street Journal article about women’s trousers that contains the line “Those wanting to make a higher-end designer commitment will be spoiled for choice.”
I was going to categorize this as an “outlier,” on account of the author of the WSJ article, Alice Cavanagh. Her blog doesn’t give her nationality, but most of her writing has been for the British or Australian editions of “Vogue.” So she probably wasn’t even aware she was writing anything out of the ordinary.
But then I found it a couple of times in the New York Times archives, including a 2014 article about a New Jersey ice cream joint: “customers can also find themselves spoiled for choice at the 1940s-style roadside walk-up, which lists 60 flavors of homemade hard ice cream and 11 of soft serve on its outdoor sign.”
So “spoiled for choice” gets bumped up to “On the radar.”