Category Archives: Outliers

“Rubbish” (verb)

The ever-observant Jan Freeman sends along a quote from (Syracuse-born) Daniel Dezner in a Washington Post essay: “When [people associated with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy] try to rubbish everyone else’s expertise, however, they only highlight their own intellectual inadequacies.”

This blog has covered the noun, which is the common British term for Americans’ “garbage” or “trash” — both metaphorical and literal — and noted that literal “rubbish” has pockets of popularity in Massachusetts and around Philadelphia. The OED defines the verb as “To disparage, criticize severely, pour scorn on” and notes it originated in Australia and New Zealand. The first citation is from a 1953 Australian novel, Riverslake: “If Verity was going to tramp [that is, dismiss from employment or sack] you for burning the tucker [that is, food] ..he would have rubbished you long before this.”

As the Google Books Ngram Viewer chart below shows, the verb started catching on in Britain in the 1980s, but is still very rare in the U.S., making rubbish the verb an outlier:

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“A patch on”

I’m not sure what this blog would do without Ben Brantley. The American-born New York Times theater critic is a veritable font of NOOBs, notably obscure ones, like “gives me the pip” and “twig.” He struck again yesterday in the first line of his review of Jez Butterworth’s play The Ferryman: “No matter what sort of spread you’ve planned for your Thanksgiving dinner, it won’t be a patch on the glorious feast that has been laid out at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.”

Since I didn’t recognize “won’t be a patch on,” and since it came from Brantley, I assumed it was a Britishism. I assumed right. The OED defines “not a patch on” as “in no way comparable to, not nearly as good as.” All the citations (starting in 1860) are from British sources, for example, the Daily Telegraph in 1994: “Set against native trees, Leyland green looks very synthetic, and is not a patch on yew.”

I’m going to label the phrase as an outlier, since when I searched Google Books for it, every single hit came from British or Commonwealth sources, including the title of the 2009 novel Not a Patch on Charlotte Cox.

patch

But in any case, cheers, Mr. Brantley.

“Kick/push into the long grass”

Katherine Connor Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press, tweeted me a quote from a Nov. 30 New York Times article about a potential state visit of Donald Trump to Britain: “Even before the latest uproar, there was speculation that the state visit was being pushed into the long grass.” She commented, “First time I recall seeing this BrE soccer metaphor (it’s usually ‘kick’) in a US pub[lication].”

The OED says “kick into the long grass” was originally political and defines it as “to put aside, defer; to sideline.” The first citation is a 1973 quote from The Times, which the OED notes employs an extended football (soccer) metaphor: “Mr Rippon set himself up as the archapostle of community politics..with all sorts of pledges about not ‘kicking the ball into the long grass’ from which it might emerge muddier than before.”

(Jonathon Green, in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, gives another meaning for “long grass,” defined in a 1986 quotation from Bob Geldof: “When you have not seen someone for a long time and you ask them where they have been they might replay, ‘Oh, I’ve been in the long grass,’ meaning they’ve been around but not visible.”)

As Katherine suggested, the phrase is not commonly encountered in the U.S. All the Google Books hits for “kicked into the long grass” are British. And as she also suggested “push” is a fairly rare variant, with only twenty total Google hits for “push/ed it into the long grass.” The first seems to have been a 2011 quote from the actor Hugh Grant, referring to his campaign against newspapers’ phone hacking: “Grant called this an ‘enormous national scandal,’ saying, ‘The politicians will for sure try to push it into the long grass.'”

Two of the hits are from American sources, one being the New York Times article I mentioned at the start. It actually doesn’t count as a NOOBs source because it was written by Cambridge graduate Stephen Castle. The second is a testimonial from someone identified as “Nick from NYC” to  a company called Speedy Papers, which sells students plagiarized term papers. He supposedly said:

“My paper was easy from the first sight and I pushed it into the long grass. I had only 24 hours to complete it. Speedypaper writer did my 3 page writing in 16 hours. You helped me out of difficulties. Keep right on!”

If Nick exists, he is almost certainly not from NYC as no one there says “pushed it into the long grass.” And “Keep right on” is a pure British phrase, originating in a Scottish hymn sung by Harry Lauder and adopted by the Birmingham City football club. (“From the first sight” also sounded odd to me–the familiar expression is “at first sight” or “at first glance”–but it seems like it’s used by Americans.)

Because of the lack of U.S. examples, I’m categorizing this as an “Outlier.”

In the course of my research, I came across a 1966 quote from a Parliamentary debate: “”In other words, how long is the ball to be kicked into the long grass?” I tweeted it out since it predates the first OED citation by seven years. A few days later, the official OED Twitter account, @OED, replied:

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That truly made my day; for a geek like me, contributing an initial citation to an OED definition is an achievement along the lines of a birder spotting an orange-bellied parrot. A friend asked, “Is this like winning an Oscar for you?” I said: “No. Lifetime Achievement Award.”

“Swings and Roundabouts”

Over on the American Dialect Society listserv, Wilson Gray posted that he had come across an unfamiliar expression at the website 9to5mac.com:

While you can argue that it’s more convenient to simply put your phone down on a pad than to have to plug in a cable, that’s swings and roundabouts: a cable lets me continue to use my phone while I’m charging it. Pick it up from a pad, however, and it’s no longer charging.

“A Briticism?” wondered Wilson.

Well, yes (or, as this blog likes to spell it, a Britishism). The Oxford online dictionary identifies “swings and roundabouts” as such and gives this definition: “A situation in which different actions or options result in no eventual gain or loss.” The idea is that in carnivals, where the proprietor might be losing money on one ride, such as the swings, he is likely to be doing well on another, such as the roundabout. (That doesn’t refer to a traffic circle but to what Americans would call a merry-go-round.) The equivalent American expression, I would say, is “Six of one, half-dozen of the other.” [A comment, below, led me to realize that “six of one…” has been equally popular on both sides of the pond.] “It all comes out in the wash,” has a similar message.

There is an interesting discussion of the origin of “swings and roundabouts” at a website appropriately called Interesting Literature. The first use that’s given there is in a 1906 P.G. Wodehouse novel, Love Among the Chickens:

In Chapter 16, when the protagonist, Jerry Garnet, realises that he’s probably done his dash with the object of his affections and he should get back to writing his novel, he remarks philosophically: ‘A man must go through the fire before he write his masterpiece. We learn in suffering what we teach in song. What we lose on the swings, we make up on the roundabouts’.

The context suggests that even then it was a familiar expression. Six years later, in 1912, it provided the title and theme to a poem by Patrick Chalmers, “Roundabouts and Swings.”

Since then it’s appeared almost exclusively in British sources. Either version (“swings and roundabouts” and “roundabouts and swings”) has been used in the New York Times a little more than a half-dozen times, and only twice by Americans. The first was book editor Jeremiah Kaplan, clearly an Anglophile, who was quoted in 1985, ”Publishing has always been swings and roundabouts, so publishers who diversify have a much better chance of succeeding.”  The second was fashion writer Vanessa Friedman, who didn’t seem to understand its meaning, using it to describe the rapidly changing looks that David Bowie embodied over the years.

As for the 9t05mac.com post, the author is Ben Lovejoy, whose bio describes him as “a British technology writer.” It goes on: “He speaks fluent English but only broken American, so please forgive any Anglicised spelling in his posts.”

Update: Robin Hamilton informs by e-mail me that he found both an earlier use of the phrase quoted by Wodehouse, and its origin, in a saying of costermongers, or costers. The use was in a Parliamentary debate in 1895:

“As the coster said : ‘What we gain on the swings we lose on the roundabouts.’”

 

Political analysis

A letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal:

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Perhaps Mr. or Ms. Stansbury is British, but in Los Gatos and the rest of the U.S., we say “college.”

“Two a penny”

From last week’s New York Times:

“Weather apps are two a penny, but I’ve used one more than any other this year: Yahoo Weather.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition for “two a penny” (“ten a penny” is a variant): “plentiful and consequently of little value, commonplace; easily obtainable or available; occurring frequently.” The OED quotes a 1948 novel by Neville Shute: “In Hollywood beauties were two a penny, and it was years before she got an inkling what it was that differentiated her from all the stand-ins and walkers-on.”

Before reading the quote in the Times, I was unfamiliar with “two a penny.”  Searching the the newspaper’s archives, I see the last time it was used was in a 2005 review of a play by Alan Ayckbourn, which was kind of appropriate, in view of Ayckbourn’s nationality. Given that there is an apparently completely synonymous American cliche–“a dime a dozen”–I don’t expect to encounter “two a penny” here again. But as Fats Waller immortally said, one never knows, do one?

News flash: Mere minutes after this was posted, the following came over Twitter, from Kit Eaton, who wrote the line about Yahoo Weather:

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“A right”

Chip Kelly, the coach of the (American) football Philadelphia Eagles was questioned the other day about the Eagles’ play calling: specifically, why relatively few plays have been called for star running back DeMarco Murray to carry the ball. Kelly replied in part: “I would love to get everybody in a right lather and going, but when we’re not having success running the ball at all, then it’s tough to say, ‘Hey, we’re just going to make sure we get [running back DeMarco Murray] 22 carries and he’s lathered up.'”

OK, so the “lather” thing is taken from horse racing, referring to the frothy sweat of a horse. The OED cites an 1837 novel: “Miss Bell had already exercised her [a mare] so well, that, to use a jockey term, she was all in a lather.” The novel is British, but I sense that “in a lather” has been used in racing circles on both sides of the Atlantic.

You’ll notice that Kelly used the term, figuratively, in two different expressions. “In a lather” is a venerable one, but traditionally has been used to mean being in a state of high anxiety, irritation and/or agitation. The OED’s first citation is from Frances Trollope, quoting an American in 1849: “Don’t be in a lather, father, before you are shaved. I’ll do your job, I expect, if you won’t be in such a tarnation fuss.”

“Lathered up” seems to have departed from  horse-racing parlance rather more recently. Searching Google News, I find Kelly is not the only American coach to lately use it about human athletes, especially football players (who are often described with words and expressions traditionally associated with animals). A Louisiana college football coach was quoted as saying about a receiver, “It’s hard to get into a rhythm until you get lathered up a little bit, it’s like a running back.” And the San Francisco 49ers coach said of an injured player, “he will be out there and going through that extended stretch that we do and try to get him into the team, get him warmed up and lathered up.”

But the real reason Kelly’s quotes spawned this post is the first two words in “a right lather.” The OED defines this “right” as “colloq. (chiefly Brit. and Irish English). As an intensifier (usu. in derogatory and ironical contexts): complete, absolute, total, utter.” It cites The Observer writing in 1974: “‘The Government did not know that there was no settlement in writing, and how could an order apply to something which did not exist,’ he said. ‘The Government made a right mess of it.’”

I would hazard to say that until Chip Kelly spoke, this usage of “a right” has never been uttered, non-ironically, by an American.