False alarm

My heart quickened when I saw this article on the website Bleacher Report: pace

The reason is that my friend David Friedman, an (American) West Ham supporter, periodically tells me about terms specific to English football, and one of them is pace, referring to the fleetness of a player. Americans, of course, use speed. The Bleacher Report story on the NBA (National Basketball Association) seemed like proof that the word had crossed over.

Was it Hamlet who said, “I know not ‘seems'”? In any case, it turned out the Americanization of pace was an illusion. The Bleacher report piece went on:

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 8.54.19 PM That is, the writer was talking about a team’s pace of play, not an individual’s foot speed. Never mind.

“Sport” sighting in New York Times


I’ve written before about the increasing U.S. use of sport rather than the traditional sports. National Public Radio’s  Frank Deford tends to alternate the two in his weekly commentaries. But this headline from today’s New York Times would appear to herald a new level of acceptance for the singular form.


Robert Siegel, the redoubtable National Public Radio host, took to the airwaves yesterday to denounce nil. Or, rather, to denounce “nil” and its

creeping penetration of American English thanks to the World Cup. Nil is a contracted scrap of Latin that survives in a few common bits of American English. We might say the chances of something happening are next to nil. Headline writers always in need of very short words sometimes use nil. But if I said, in the top of the third inning, the Nationals led the Cubs one-nil and then Chicago scored an equalizer the late Harry Carey and Phil Rizzuto [both baseball announcers] would both shout, “Holy cow!” in their graves.

As readers of this blog know, the “creeping penetration” of British soccer terminology is a rich subject, covered most recently here. On the “nil” question, Siegel, to his credit, didn’t just fulminate but brought in an expert, Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press. She added some historical perspective:

…in the beginning of the 20th century the way that Americans talked about soccer was not that different from the way that British people talked about soccer. And they used nil sometimes to describe a score. But we lost the knack for talking professionally about soccer during soccer’s decline over the course the 20th century and now I think that our journalists are picking it up on the fly. And there’s an uncertainty about where does British-English end and soccer terminology begin. Most people wouldn’t think it was odd, I think, to say extra time rather than overtime. That’s just how you talk about soccer.

Siegel’s other guest, an announcer for a Major League Soccer team, would have none of this. “I don’t use the term nil,” he said, “because when I say I’m going to the men’s room I don’t say I’m going to the loo.”

Collective plural


This appeared a couple of days ago in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The verb an American would normally use, of course, is “is.” My sense is that the Inquirer’s use of “are” is an aberration, even in coverage of English football.

The same day, John F. Burns had an article in the New York Times about the dodgy job prospects of football managers, and he did indeed use the singular verb form in reference to clubs, as in: “After several lean years, Arsenal is at the top of the Premier League standings, followed closely by Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City.”

However, Burns is English by birth and neither he nor the Times copyeditors could stop him from using another British custom, forgoing the definite article in referring to teams with plural nicknames, like Glasgow Rangers. An American would no sooner refer to “Yankees,” instead of “the Yankees,” than call a field “the pitch.”

Burns, referring to the Tottenham Hotspur club, wrote, “The admonition was not only for Spurs, who have fired eight managers in the past 12 years.”

Well played, sir.

“Go to Ground”

The New York Times’ redoubtable media columnist, David Carr, has provided material for this blog before, and he does so again in today’s paper. Referring to a supposed video of the showing the mayor of Toronto smoking crack, Carr writes, “By then the people who had claimed to have the video had gone to ground.”

My NOOB-dar whirred into action at that phrase gone to ground, with which I was not familiar but which had an unmistakable British sound to it. A look at the OED confirmed the suspicion; but even better, it’s a fox-hunting reference. I had hit some kind of jackpot.

The dictionary dates the phrase to 1797 and defines it as when the fox runs

into a burrow or hole in the ground, ‘to earth’… Also to lie at ground  . to go to ground  : also said of a dog. Also in other phrases, and fig. (of a person), to withdraw from public notice and live quietly or ‘lie low’

All citations are from Commonwealth countries and all  refer foxes or other animals until a 1964 quote (with telltale quotation marks, indicating newness): “The four men ‘went to ground’, probably in Johannesburg.” The expression appears currently to be popular in a sporting context, as in this quote from a 2009 Times rugby article originating in New Zealand: “But on defense, he is less assured and at times puts his team under pressure by offloading when it would be better to go to ground and set up the next phase of play.”

Note that this is different from the American expression “to run [something] into the ground,” meaning to destroy or ruin it by over- or misuse. Someone quoted in 2009 by the N. Y. Times’ Dealbook blog (unclear if he is British or American) seems to have confused the two: “Reuters’s Robert MacMillan argued that by letting the story of The [Boston] Globe’s possible demise leak, The [New York] Times may be betting that a white knight will emerge — ‘someone who fulminates long and hard about civic responsibility and not letting a hallowed journalistic institution go to ground.’”

I’m going to classify the David Carr/fox-hunting go to ground as “on the radar” rather than “outlier” because I found a couple of other uses in the Times in the past several months. Interestingly, they both came from members of the intelligence community, and it makes sense that it would have become popular in a world where people are, frequently, compelled to go to ground. In April, Philip Mudd, “a former senior C.I.A. and F.B.I. official,” referring to a Boston Marathon bombing suspect, said, “He’d get nervous and turn himself in, or he could go to ground.” And in February, Michael R. Shurkin, “a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst,” said, “Are they going to dig in and be guerrillas or go to ground and wait?”


There are two relevant senses of the adjective. The first, a commonplace in British sport commentary, is more frequently expressed in the U.S. in the phrase physically fit. But the shorter form is creeping through, thanks in some measure to tennis players, announcers, and reporters, who are partial to it. Thus the New York Times last year quoted Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, who had commented that Samantha Stosur “played like a man.” Asked to clarify, Cibulkova said, “As a player, she’s very fit. I’m not saying anything bad.”

A British reader of that quote may have had the impression that Cibulkova fancied Stosur, as the second British meaning of fit is “sexually attractive. The OED cites this 1985 exchange from The Observer: “Better ‘en that bird you blagged last night.’ ‘F—— off! She was fit.’”

I had never encountered a U.S. use of the second fit till this morning, when New York Times media correspondent David Carr sent this out over Twitter:

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 9.24.09 AM

Now, it’s possible that Carr was merely imagining a United Parcel Service employee who regularly went to the gym. But where’s the fun in that?


I was reading The New Yorker the other night (the March 25 edition–I’m always a few weeks behind) and came across this description of 1970s punk rock: it was “spare, nervy music created in reaction to the embarrassing excesses of arena rock.”

It reminded my that my friend David Friedman, a massive West Ham supporter, had for years been telling me about the British use of nervy, especially in a sporting context, to mean something similar to what Americans call nervous.  I found this example, which is British in every possible way, in a headline on a website called “This Is Staffordhire”: “It’s getting nervy for all as Stoke City enter relegation battle.”

We use nervy, too, but here it’s traditionally meant something between audacious and impudent. The OED cites a 1991 short story by Joyce Carol Oates: “I was nervy enough to ask Joan how she’d gotten the little scar beside her mouth.”

Is nervy=nervous happening as a NOOB? The difficulty in answering is that in many quotes you have to study context clues to figure out how the word is being used. In the New Yorker quote, based on my sense of punk as a pretty twitchy affair, I think the British sense is being used. Same with these from the New York Times:

  • “Ms. Rebeck has created a noisy roomful of sharp-tongued characters who are uncomfortable in their own skin — none more so than the self-conscious Lorna, who is preoccupied with dieting, and her nervy brother Jack, who is elusive about his sudden return from New York.” (November 2012)
  • “Federer earned game point a point later with a 1-2 punch of serve and forehand winner that he followed with a deep bark of ‘come on!’, only to send another forehand well wide on the next point. Federer closed out the nervy hold two points later, however…” (July 2012, and note the logical punctuation)

I found another Times quote, from September 2012, interesting: “Those who followed [Rory] McIlroy’s final round will say he won the tournament with three birdies on the closing nine and two nervy par putts, at Nos. 14 and 17.”

It seems to me that the writer, Karen Crouse, was using nervy to mean something else, sort of the opposite of the British usage. It’s basically the OED’s definition 2a, “courageous, bold,” which the dictionary says is “now rare.” Its most recent citation is a 1942 Stevie Smith poem:  “What man will spoil the brick walls of their yellow brim? Such a one as is nervy bold and grim.” U.S. sportswriters may be bringing it back.