Category Archives: Outliers

“On the day”

Not long after I started spending time in London, I noticed the use of a phrase for which there is no precise U.S. equivalent: “on the day.” I know quite well that Americans use those words in that order, but not quite in the same context as in the U.K. I searched the phrase on Google News, and the first page of hits all came from British or Commonwealth sources. Here they are:

  • “These games are often fifty-fifty at best and even the well credentialled teams are vulnerable to a bit of bad luck on the day.” (Australian sports site The Roar)
  • Amongst the star performers on the day were young centre duo Jack Roberts and George Catchpole.” (Bourne [England] Local)
  • “Umpiring is a real team environment, just as playing is. We prepare to perform well, and all that matters is making sure you get it right on the day.” (The Roar, again)
  • “There’s been widespread condemnation from fans and teams alike of Force India, who blocked Manor (previously Marussia, previously Virgin, previously Manor) F1’s return to the grid, based on a half-baked excuse they came up with on the day.” (English Formula 1 site Badger GP)
  • “’Potentially, it’s a very useful tool but its complementary to the main pollsters. It would be feasible to do it on the day [of an election],’ he said.” (The Guardian)

That last one is interesting, because the bracketed insertion represents (to my mind) precisely the American version. That is, we are more explicit, saying  “on the day of [fill in the event],” or “when the day finally arrived,” or “on the day itself.” I have no idea why The Guardian should have felt the need to add “of an election,” other than as a gesture to its increasing number of American online readers.

I bring all this up because the other day I heard Vickie Barker’s very American voice, in an NPR report on London’s “Visit My Mosque” campaign, say these words: “But on the day, the center was packed with visitors sipping tea, nibbling pizza and cake, and eagerly listening to community members like Zahra Khimji describe a typical week there.”

NPR doesn’t provide any information about Ms. Barker, but I found a 2012 interview with her saying she had lived in London “over twenty years.” That makes at least twenty-five now, which is clearly enough time to lead even a Yank journo to say “on the day.”

“Bin” (verb, transitive)

There’s something about the Boston Globe. Hard on the heels of columnist Alex Beam’s “not by a long chalk” comes this from his fellow columnist Yvonne Abraham: “Occasionally, the eye-popping cost of a blood test gives us pause, but generally, we bin without a second thought.”

“Bin”–meaning to throw something in the rubbish bin (meaning the garbage can)–is not only rare in the United States, it’s non-existent. I can say that because Lynne Murphy of Separated by a Common Language took the trouble to trawl the massive Corpus of Contemporary American English and find that it contains not a single instance of “bin” as a verb.

Googling “Yvonne Abraham” provides an explanation: as she says in this interview (and as her accent makes obvious), she hails from Australia. But as Jan Freeman (who alerted me to the quote) points out, “I doubt that her editor is also from a bin-speaking nation.”

“Nappies”

I thought it would never happen, but it did. Lynne Murphy has alerted me that the American site Slate has published the following sentence. (It’s from the Dear Prudence advice column; a woman has written in complaining that all her friends want to talk about is their darling baby grandchildren.)

Let’s hope these two can get free from the nappies long enough to come to brunch at your house or join you somewhere for coffee.

There is no reason for no reason for an American writing for an American publication to use “nappies” instead of “diapers”–other than being cute, that is. There’s nothing wrong with being cute, of course, but I would be gobsmacked if “nappies” caught on here.

“Fug”

My friend Henry Fuhrmann, a copyeditor (subeditor to you lot) on the Los Angeles Times, today posted this image to Facebook:

10460708_10152497309311027_1610589640584692939_n

He noted: “We usually leave the Britishisms to, well, the British. But I like how Mary McNamara used ‘fug’ — meaning the unpleasant air in a crowded room — in her weekend commentary on Bill Cosby.”

The only “fug” I was aware of was the euphemism invented by Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead, later picked up by Ed Sanders in naming his ’60s rock band. But sure enough, the OED notes the word is “originally School slang” and provides this definition: “A thick, close, stuffy atmosphere, esp. that of a room overcrowded and with little or no ventilation.” The first citation was an 1888 quote from novelist E.F. Benson: “Seating himself in the most comfortable chair, as a consolation for the prevailing fug.” And there was also the interesting variation “fug-footer,” meaning indoor football and apparently spotted at Harrow in 1884.

Well played, Ms. McNamara!

 

“Secateurs”

On Twitter, sharp-eyed reader Jan Freeman noted the following caption from the New York Times “T” design magazine: “Kime with secateurs, looking for branches to display in the house.”

I have to admit, I had no idea what that meant, until I went to the article and then the dictionary. “Kime” is Robert Kime, a British interior designer, and “secateurs” is the British term for what Americans call pruning shears. (The picture shows Kime in the countryside near his vacation home in the Lake District, you got it, looking for branches.)

The author of the article is Rhoda Konig, who I happen to know is an American who has lived in London for years, but writers don’t write captions. The only acceptable excuse for the Times to have used “secateurs” rather than “pruning shears” is a kind of lexical ventriloquism (using the sorts of words your subject would use), but even that’s not much of an excuse.

I looked up “secateurs” in the Times’ index, and it turns out that, since 1851, the paper has used it about a dozen times. All but a couple were from the pen of longtime garden writer Anne Raver, who is from Maryland.

“To Hospital”

John Grossmann alerts me that in today’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof (born in Yamhill, Oregon) refers to someone “rushing a gravely injured student to hospital.”

Truth to tell, I had always thought of as the Britishism as “in hospital,” compared to the American “in the hospital.” But a check of Google News reveals that Kristof’s usage is indeed a common British form. The American version is either “to a hospital” or (less commonly than in the “in” form) “to the hospital.”

This is the first “to hospital” or “in hospital” I’ve seen in lo these many years of paying attention to such things. So, until I find evidence to the contrary, I’m going to categorize this as an “outlier.”

“Stand” someone a drink

I recently encountered this Facebook post (by an American, about an American): “Anyway, I just wondered if any of my Facebook friends in NY feel like standing a good friend of a friend to a drink? Jeff’s a blast, and any friend of mine oughta be a friend of his…”

The verb stand, as used here is defined this way by the OED: “To bear the expense of, make a present of, pay for (a treat); to put up or make a present of (a sum of money), esp. as part of a larger amount sought.” The first citation is from Dickens, Sketches by Boz (1836): ” Mr. Augustus Cooper..‘stood’ considerable quantities of spirits and water.” The quotations marks indicate recent coinage. The dictionary also has this 1890 quote from Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine:  “I’ll stand you a dinner.”

Google’s Ngram Viewer indicates the term is a Britishism, though one that started fading out around 1940. (The blue line indicates use of “stood me a drink” in British English, the red line in American English.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 3.36.03 PM

Some readers will have noted that my Facebook friend misused the expression,  talking of standing the gentlemen “to” a drink, when the proper expression is “stand him a drink.” That’s all the proof I need that this expression is a one-off.

“American football”

ImageI meant to note a Britishism uttered on my favorite television show, The Simpsons, a few of weeks ago. I figure that two days after the Super Bowl is about the right time! In the words of the recap on Celebrity Cafe:

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about “American football” before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football. Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart. And Bart tattles on Lisa to Marge.

Congrats to the Seattle Seahawks side and their supporters for a brilliant match.

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about American football before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football.

Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart. And Bart tattles on Lisa to Marge.

Read more at http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/2013/11/simpsons-recap-labor-pains#1w1VrtCrQvlwo4Lw.99

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about American football before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football.

Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart.

Read more at http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/2013/11/simpsons-recap-labor-pains#1w1VrtCrQvlwo4Lw.99

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about American football before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football.

Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart.

Read more at http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/2013/11/simpsons-recap-labor-pains#1w1VrtCrQvlwo4Lw.99

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about American football before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football.

Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart.

Read more at http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/2013/11/simpsons-recap-labor-pains#1w1VrtCrQvlwo4Lw.99

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about American football before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football.

Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart.

Read more at http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/2013/11/simpsons-recap-labor-pains#1w1VrtCrQvlwo4Lw.99

“Aeroplane”

I’ve been reading about the return tour of an American cult rock band from the 1990s, Neutral Milk Hotel. The reviews all mention the album that’s considered their best, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”

Aeroplane was first used for a “heavier-than-air aircraft,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1868, that is, before the aeroplane before it was invented. The OED describes airplane as “chiefly North American”; its first citation is from a 1906 Scientific American article that notes: “Air-plane is a much better word than aeroplane. It is as good etymologically, and much better when it is spoken.” The OED comments: “Airplane became the standard U.S. term (replacing aeroplane) after it was adopted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1916. Although A. Lloyd Jones recommended its adoption by the BBC in 1928, it has until recently been no more than an occasional form in British English.”

Google Ngram Viewer confirms this analysis:

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 11.16.32 AMIf the chart is too small to make out, it shows that aeroplane is still (barely) the preferred spelling in the U.K., and is virtually never used in the U.S.–other than in Neutral Milk Hotel albums.

Of course, I’d bet that in both lingos, the far preferred term is plane.

“Naff”

The indefatigable Nancy Friedman sends along a sentence from a New Yorker blog post by Adam Gopnik: “Then Bob Dylan showed up from Minnesota—telling various tales about places he had never actually been, with his naff, made-up name—having nothing but genius.”

She sent it along, of course, because Gopnik (a native Canadian who has lived in the U.S. and written for American publications for numerous decades) used the word naff.

The OED defines the adjective as “Unfashionable, vulgar; lacking in style, inept; worthless, faulty.” The first citation is a 1966 quote from  B. Took & M. Feldman in B. Took, Best of ‘Round the Horne’ (1989): “I couldn’t be doing with a garden like this… I mean all them horrible little naff gnomes”

The OED has a lengthy etymological note, which I have slightly abridged:

Origin unknown . Probably unrelated to slightly earlier naff v.

Various theories have been proposed as to the origin of this word. It has been suggested that it is (in Polari slang: see polari n.) < naff in naff omi a dreary man (compare omee n.), in which naff may perhaps be < Italian gnaffa despicable person (16th cent.).

One of the most popular theories is the suggestion that the word is perhaps an acronym either < the initial letters of Normal As Fuck , or < the initial letters of Not Available For Fucking , but this seems to be a later rationalization. O.E.D. Suppl. (1976) compares the earlier English regional (northern) forms naffhead , naffin , naffy , all denoting a simpleton or idiot (see Eng. Dial. Dict. s.v. Naff v.), and also niff-naff n., niffy-naffy adj., and nyaff n., nyaff v.

The OED defines the “unrelated” verb naff, bluntly, as “fuck,” and notes it is often followed by off.

The etymology may be unknown, but it is unquestionably the case that naff is British to the core. I searched the entire run of The New Yorker (which has been publishing since 1925) and found seven previous naffs. Six either referred to a person named Naff or were spoken or written by British people. The seventh was from, yes, Adam Gopnik, who wrote in 2004: “Being an expert on wine and writing about it is what the English call ‘naff,’ embarrassing and uncool…” (“Uncool” is right, but I’m not sure about “embarrassing.”)

The New York Times has been publishing since 1851, so has printed naff more than the New Yorker, though not that much more. Twenty-one times in the Times’ pages, the word either been uttered or written by a British person, or presented as a British term. On three occasions, it has been used by the fashion writers Suzy Menkes and Cathy Horyn. That leaves this quote, from a 1999 review of Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice: “An English author, one fears, would have found it ”naff,’ embarrassing, to point out what a hansom cab is…”

The writer of the review? Adam Gopnik.