An amusing Hollywood convention has it that in movies that take place in ancient Rome, on another planet, or in any exotic place, the characters speak English with an English accent (especially if they’re bad guys). I thought of that while reading Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s New Yorker essay about a mass killing in his country. In the piece, Knausgaard quotes from a fellow Norwegian author’s book on the incident. The killer has been apprehended and asks for a cut on his finger to be “bandaged up.” A policeman replies, “You’ll get no fucking plasters from me.”

“Plaster” would be a good word for Americans to adopt, since it’s more specific than our “bandage” and involves more serious dressing than our trade name “Band-Aid.” But we don’t use it, and its presence in the essay–which was translated by an American, Kerri Pierce–struck me as the equivalent of a Martian talking like an Oxford don.

When I looked into it a little more, I realized that the situation was more complicated than I had thought. It turns out the book from which Knausgaard was quoting, Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, was translated by an English woman, Sarah Death, legitimizing the “plaster.”

I did find one proper Britishism in Pierce’s translation: the fact that one of the victims was “called” Simon.


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.

“Crisps,” “Builder”

In the last couple of weeks, I came upon two examples of a not uncommon phenomenon: an American, writing for an American publication, using an obvious Britishism when writing about Britain or a Briton. You might call it protective coloration, or going native. The first one was in a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert in which she describes what she finds in a parking lot (which she does not call a car park) near her airport hotel at Heathrow: “empty water bottles, crumpled candy wrappers, crushed soda cans, half-eaten packages of crisps.”

Of course, crisps is the word British people use for what Americans call potato chips or chips (which is what British people call what Americans call french fries or fries). But, as a matter of fact, crisps has been worming its way into AmE of late, specifically for products that are more off-beat than your typical Wise or Lay’s potato chips. This one, for example:


So I will categorize crisps as “on the radar.”

The other example came in a New York Times obituary of “Micky Lay, a bibulous retired builder who helped Mark Rylance craft his performance in Jez Butterworth’s hit play about British outcasts, ‘Jerusalem.'” The relevant term is builder. In the U.S., that word is used pretty much exclusively by newspapers in describing people like Donald Trump–that is, real estate developers.

In Britain, the OED says, “As the name of a trade, builder now denotes the master artisan, who receives his instructions from the architect, and employs the masons, carpenters, etc., by whom the manual work is performed.” That is what Americans would call a “contractor.” But I believe that British builder also refers to a lower-level laborer, what we call “construction worker.” I await enlightenment on this point.

Builder has made some inroads into the youth of America via the animated children’s series “‘Bob the Builder,” which has aired here since 2001. Some of the kids who watched it back then have grown up by now. But I don’t see any evidence of builder being used here in the British sense. That may have to do, unfortunately, with our construction slump. It’s not a job with great prospects, so no one under thirty has much reason to talk about it.

“Saviour” and “Nappies”

Now there’s a combination you don’t normally see, but they are, or at least seem to be, favorites of Amy Bishop, the American woman convicted of murdering three of her colleagues at the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 2010. Patrick Radden Keefe recently published a long article about her case in the New Yorker, and in it a line of dialogue spoken by a “pompous scientist” in one of Bishop’s unpublished novels:

“And you want to change nappies, wipe snotty noses, and shovel green glop into a baby’s mouth like any fat, stupid Hausfrau?”

If you are unfamiliar with the term and the context clues are insufficient, nappy is British for diaper. I don’t know if the pompous scientist is supposed to be British, but I can affirm that nappy has virtually never been used anywhere else in the U.S., even among the hipsters of deepest Williamsburg.

Elsewhere in the article, in discussing Bishop’s religious feelings, Keefe writes: “Amy told me she accepts Christ as her Saviour, and she has been reading the Bible in prison.”

The most common U.S. spelling is savior and has been since the 1930s. In the Google Ngram chart below, the green line is British use of saviour, red is U.S. saviour (note the NOOB uptick on the right), yellow is U.S. savior, and blue is British savior.

Screen Shot 2013-02-20 at 3.07.50 PM

Despite the recent NOOB uptick in U.S. saviour, the u-less version is very much the standard here. The New York Times Style Guide mandates Savior in religious contexts, savior in secular ones (such as “the new goalie will be the savior of the hockey team”). The Associated Press Style Guide (followed by most U.S. newspapers) calls for lower-casing both. The New Yorker, true to its idiosyncratic self, calls for hockey saviors and a Christian Saviour. 

The nappy may be Amy Bishop’s; Saviour is very much the New Yorker’s.

Oh, come on

In a profile of the director Robert Wilson in the September 17 issue of the New Yorker, Hilton Als relates how Wilson studied as an undergraduate at the University of Texas in his native state. Als then writes:

“While at university, where he enrolled in business administration to please his father, he took a job as a kitchen aide at the Austin State Hospital for the Mentally Handicapped.”

The “at university” sets a news standard for conspicuous and gratuitous use of Britishisms (CAGUOBs), even for the New Yorker.


This is a pure play. By that I mean there is a precise (?) U.S. equivalent, bartender, so that the use of barman in the U.S. can be explained only by the  desire to use a Britishism, or the conscious or unconscious imitation of others who have done so. (I suppose another possibility is retrograde sexism.)

According to this Google Ngram, the use of barman increased about 20 percent in the U.S. between 2000 and 2008 (actually, between 2000 and 2005; it has held steady since then):

(It’s interesting to look at an Ngram, below, showing the use of barman [blue] and bartender [red] in British English between 1920 and 2008. At least since about 1960, it appears to be a case of an encroaching Americanism, with the two terms recently nearing equality. However, barman is still used about twice as often in Britain as in the U.S., and bartender is six or seven times more prevalent in the U.S.


The New Yorker has used barman 34 times from 1937 to the present, including in a 1939 poem called “Forsaken Barman,” a 1964 Talk of the Town piece called “Barman,” and this, from a January 30, 2012, Profile by Nick Paumgarten:

He cuts off the drinks, keeps spare umbrellas on hand for sudden squalls, shuffles customers around to make space for someone’s mom, and, like any barman with a following, dispenses a lot of free drinks.

But you can find the word in all sorts of other sources as well:

“Whiskey You’re the Devil”: The best version of this traditional song is the one you sing right before the barman kicks you out. (Rosie Schaap, New York Times, March 8, 2012)

I grabbed a spot at the bar and was immediately greeted by the friendly barman, Christopher. (HoustonPress.com, March 2, 2012)



A picture of Martin, which can be yours for $750

In a short New York Times essay about his personal art collection some time back, Steve Martin wrote,  “There are great pictures mixed in with good pictures, mixed in with oddballs, but I endorse and have found something worthwhile in every one of them.” In all he used the word picture or picture fifteen times, always as a synonym for painting.

This is a distinctly British, U (in the sense of U vs. non-U) and old-fashioned sense of the word. John Ruskin wrote in 1852, “Every noble picture is a manuscript book, of which only one copy exists or ever can exist.”

Wilde didn’t call his novel The Painting of Dorian Gray, after all. In that book, Lord Henry Wotton, after seeing the title portrait for the first time, tells the man who painted it, Basil Hallward: “You must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor. The [Royal] Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse.”

Most Americans tend to use painting for paintings, reserving picture for photographs, drawings or what children produce at nursery school. But the Ruskin-Wilde-Martin picture crops up now and again, for example in the title of Richard Wollheim’s 1988 book Looking at Pictures the Old-Fashioned Way: Painting as an Art.

And then, as is often the case with NOOBs, there is The New Yorker, which is quite fond of pictures, as in a 1935 Talk of the Town piece: “A cold cop wandered into one of the most elegant art galleries in town the other day and asked the lady in charge if he could stay until his hands got warm. He walked around for a while, blowing on his hands, and looking at the pictures.”

NOOB Much?

“[Andrew] Stanton is ginger-haired, candid, and boyishly eager.”–Tad Friend, “Second Act Twist,” The New Yorker, October 17, 2011

“They settled in Los Angeles, where he’d got a glamorous, welcome-to-show-biz job…”–ibid.

“The task of adaptation was further complicated by [Edgar Rice] Burroughs’ racial bushwa, Mad Libs terminology … and general barminess.”–ibid.

(Note: in the above sentence, bushwa is 100 percent American slang.)

“On offer”

This image, weirdly, advertises the Australian Government's "Defence Work Experience Program"

For sale, or on sale (that is, discounted); more generally, available. First cited in the OED in a (London) Daily News in 1881: “Old wheat scarce and dear. Very little barley on offer.”

The Google Ngram chart below shows the use of the expression in American English from 1900 through 2008, with the relentless increase commencing in about 1972.

Tens of thousands of Apple Macintosh users visited the Macworld trade exposition here earlier this month, examining the hardware and software on offer.(Peter H. Lewis, New York Times, April 22, 1990)/Self-improvement has always found a ready market, and most of what’s on offer is simply one-on-one instruction to get amateurs through the essentials. (Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, October 3, 2011)