Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Go wobbly”

In a commencement address last month, former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

That “go wobbly” caught the ear of friend-of-NOOBS Stuart Semmel, as an echo of a famous Margaret Thatcher quote. She described in her memoirs a conversation with Pres. George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War: “We must use our powers to stop Iraqi shipping,” she recalled telling him. “This was no time to go wobbly.”

The relevant OED definition is “Wavering, uncertain, or insecure; unreliable, unstable.” And I hasten to say that the word “wobbly” is nothing new in the U.S., especially in the literal sense of wavering back and forth. In addition, “Wobbly” is a slang term for a member of the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) labor union. (A 1923 article by a member of the union gave an account of how the term originated: “In Vancouver, in 1911, we had a number of Chinese members and one restaurant keeper would trust any member for meals. He could not pronounce the letter w, but called it wobble, and would ask: ‘You I. Wobble Wobble?’ [that is, I. W. W.] and when the card was shown, credit was unlimited. Thereafter the laughing term among us was I. Wobbly Wobbly.”)

But “go wobbly” definitely has a Thatcherian and very British feel. Searching for the phrase in the New York Times, I found it in a January 2018 article about a conservative group’s hoped-for turn of events after a government shutdown a few years back:

“The public would express outrage that the president was willing to hold America’s full faith and credit hostage over the much-disliked Obamacare. Democrats would go wobbly.”

And then, not long after hearing from Stuart, I read in The New Yorker an article about the hacked e-mails of Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal. One of them, from producer Scott Rudin, remarked, “So you’re feeling wobbly in the job right now.”

It’s clear: “wobbly” has arrived.





In today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, fashion columnist Elizabeth Wellington gives advice on what to wear to summer festivals. She warns men to be aware of what’s on their t-shirts because

the wrong phrase or picture can turn a nice guy into a lout. Topics to stay away from: how good you are in bed, how many women you can pull, how much beer you can guzzle.

I’ve noted this particular “pull” quite a bit in the U.K., but not till now in America. The OED has this definition and citations:

 a. Brit. slang. To pick up (a partner), esp. for sexual intercourse; to seduce. Also intr.

1965   Sunday Express 25 July 17/2   As a young man I could never pull (pick up) any birds of my own class.
1973   E. Boyd & R. Parkes Dark Number vi. 69   Five years ago you did the big male-menopause bit, didn’t you? Skulking off to Paris to prove you could still pull the birds.
1985   J. Sullivan Only Fools & Horses (1999) I. 4th Ser. Episode 6. 246   Rodney, use your loaf, you’re never gonna pull a tart dressed up like Bertie Bassett.
1993   Bella 29 Sept. 40/1   ‘So you’re a barman,’ she said with a wicked glint in her eyes. ‘I bet you don’t have any trouble pulling.’
The first and most popular definition on Urban Dictionary was posted in 2003 by  an English contributor:
“Word used to describe the successful act of attracting a person to such an extent that you would be able to snog or perhaps bone them if you so desired.
With the help of my lucky Y-fronts I should pull tonight.”
I leave open the question of whether “Y-fronts” is a Britishism, and what in fact it is.
Update: After I tweeted about this post, Elizabeth Wellington, who is African-American, responded: “please ‘pulling chicks’ has been a part of hood vernacular for a minute. :)”
So there you go.

“Food hall”

As noted, when my wife and I passed the Penny Food Hall in on Seventh Avenue in New York the other day, she remarked that she thought “food hall” was a Britishism, and it turns out she was right. The OED definition: “orig. Brit. a section of a department store or shopping complex where groceries, esp. speciality and luxury products, are sold.” The first citation is from an advert in The Times in 1925: “You are invited to taste..any of the delicious jams, tinned fruits and so forth in Harrods Food Halls.” (And it was the wonderful Harrods Food Hall that my wife was specifically thinking of.)

By contrast, the OED defines “food court” this way:orig. U.S., an area in a shopping mall, airport terminal, etc., containing a variety of fast-food outlets and a shared seating area for their customers.” So: food halls offer groceries, and food courts prepared foods. The first citation for the latter is from the LA Times in 1979, when malls were just starting to boom.

“Food hall” penetrated the U.S. no later than 1976, when a New York Times article about Cambridge, Mass., describes a retail emporium called the Garage:In the food hall section … is Formaggio, where you can buy 130 kinds of cheese as well as imported meats, pâtés, smoked fish and inventive sandwiches on home‐style breads.”

American cities, especially New York, have seen an incursion of upscale food halls in recent years, offering (in my experience) almost exclusively prepared food that you eat there. The Pennsy Food Hall, for example, has six such spots, and no fishmongers or greengrocers:


A New York Times article in September 2017 addressed the trend:

Determined to provide experiences that will attract consumers and persuade them to open their wallets, developers are opening more food halls, the food court’s up-and-coming sibling, which are in the midst of a robust expansion.

Unlike food courts made up of fast food chains, food halls typically mix local artisan restaurants, butcher shops and other food-oriented boutiques under one roof. Many celebrate quirkiness versus uniformity, and their ability to draw crowds is particularly appealing to landlords battling the growth of e-commerce and changing shopping habits.

But it’s not just Americans who have changed the meaning of “food hall.” The last time I was at Harrods, I sat down and had a lovely afternoon tea.

Spotted in New York

I traveled up to New York City from my home near Philadelphia the other day to see the Broadway smash Hamilton. Great show! Unfortunately, what’s in my head now is the earwormy King George song, “You’ll Be Back.” Hopefully it will be out by the end of the decade.

Strolling the streets of New York I encountered a medical practice called Bespoke Surgical.


Then, next to Madison Square Garden, I passed the Pennsy Food Hall.


I thought nothing of it, but my wife (correctly) pointed out that “food hall” is of British origin. A post is to come.

At that point I started taking my own pictures. Here’s an ad in an apartment house’s ground-floor window:


(For more on “holiday” as British for “vacation” click here.)

Finally, the Flying Tiger store on lower Broadway is selling these containers for what Americans call French fries or just “fries.”


I realize Flying Tiger is Danish, but still.

“Chattering class/es”

I could have sworn I’ve done a post on this one, but apparently not, so here goes. The OED‘s definition and first three citations:

chattering classes  n. (occasionally also in sing. chattering class) freq. derogatory members of the educated metropolitan middle class, esp. those in academic, artistic, or media circles, considered as a social group freely given to the articulate, self-assured expression of (esp. liberal) opinions about society, culture, and current events.

1980   F. Johnson in Now! 21 Mar. 48/1   The peculiar need for something to be frightened about only seems to affect those of us who are part of the chattering classes.
1990   R. Crichfield Among British vii. 457   The old Britain of Eton, Oxbridge, the land, and the Guards, allied with a chattering class of literary intellectuals, so invaluable when it came to running an empire, is deadly when it comes to bringing the country into the 1990s.
1994   Daily Mail 18 July 8/2   A battle between Middle England—the sensible heart of the British middle classes—and Islington Person, the politically correct voice of the chattering classes.

Tooling around Google, I found a use that antedates the OED‘s first cite by more than a century, in an 1871 article in The Spectator called “The New Indian Danger”: “… and everything seemed to grow dear at once, to the immense disgust of the chattering classes who bought …” It’s clearly an outlier–nobody picked up on it–but it’s there.

In any case, the phrase is definitely of British origin. This Google Ngram Viewer chart shows it picking up popularity in the US starting in the 1990s, though still lagging far behind Britain.

Screen Shot 2018-05-05 at 11.00.55 AM

Ngram Viewer only offers reliable data through 2000, but “chattering class/es” has definitely picked up steam in the U.S. since then. In the New York Times, one or the other variants phrase have been used 295 times post-2000, most recently in a review of a book on Hillary Clinton’s campaign that appeared April 24 of this year: “… while the chattering class may be intrigued by, for example, Clinton’s flirtation with ABC’s David Muir, ordinary readers may find themselves swimming in references to journalists and staffers who are far from household names.”



Here’s the third and final (after “bestie” and “flummox“) entry in a series of posts based on words I only realized were Britishisms after reading Lynne Murphy’s book The Prodigal Tongue. They represent a sort of blind spot, or koan, for your humble blogger: if a word or phrase is prevalent in the U.S., how is one to realize that it’s of British origin? Sometimes I encountered it in the U.K. years before hearing it here; sometimes it just has a telltale whiff. Other times, you just have to rely on Lynne Murphy.

And so with “gastropub,” meaning, basically, a bar that purports to serve good food. If I had thought about it, I probably would have realized it’s British, as it’s the British who have proper pubs. In any case, according to the OED, it popped up no later than April 1996, when the (London) Evening Standard wondered: “Will stale pork pies and reheated bangers ever be axed from pub menus? The rise of the gastro-pub suggests that, one day, they might.” The term fairly quickly lost its hyphen.

It crossed the Atlantic in 2003. I can pinpoint the date (as well as the person who brought it over) because in November of that year, the New York Times reported:

April Bloomfield …, a 28-year-old English chef and alumna of the River Cafe in Hammersmith, just outside London, spent the summer in the kitchen of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., preparing for her new job in New York. She will be cooking at The Spotted Pig, a gastropub at 314 West 11th Street, when it opens in a couple of weeks.

After Pig, the deluge. Gastropub has made 315 appearances in the Times since then, including in a 2015 article about a Long Island sports-gastropub called Brixx & Barley. Instead of fried chicken wings,

jumbo wings … are marinated in pineapple juice, beer, jalapeño, cinnamon and other spices for about 48 hours, baked in a brick oven to render off the fat and grilled to order. There are about 15 sauces available, including maple sriracha, Jamaican honey and garlic Parmesan.


Lynne Murphy’s new book, The Prodigal Tongue, has plenty of blog-fodder, which I’m just starting to make my way through. As with “bestie,” I was surprised when she mentioned “flummox” as a Britishism, but once again, she’s right. For the most part.

It’s a word with a history, for sure. The OED categorizes is as “colloquial or vulgar” and gives as primary definition: “To bring to confusion; … to confound, bewilder, nonplus.” The first citation is a line of dialogue from Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, 1837: “He’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed.” (There is no evidence that the word has any Italian derivation–it shows up in late nineteenth-century books described as provincial English slang.) Green’s Dictionary of Slang bests that by three years with this quote from the bawdy songbook Delicious Chanter: “Joe owned he was flummix’d and diddles at last.”

However, both Green’s and the OED note a roughly contemporaneous use of the word in the United States, with the meaning “give in, collapse.” The OED has this quote from the 1839 novel Green Mountain Boys, by the Vermont author Daniel P. Thompson: “Well, if he should flummux at such a chance, I know of a chap..who’ll agree to take his place.” The online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang has a definition and citations (the first from Britain, the second from the U.S.) for another meaning of the word.

Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 3.48.20 PM

I also found this “flummox” in a slightly later novel by Thompson, Locke Amsden, or The Schoolmaster: “‘Well, he was a mean scamp, for all that,’ replied the oldest boy; ‘and we should have shipped him, at one time, if some of the boys had not flummuxed from the agreement.”

In any case, the “confound” meaning and the “flummox” (rather than “flummux”) spelling got solidified in Britain and seem to have been taken up in the U.S. in the middle of the twentieth century. An early use in the New York Times came in a 1954 James Reston column: “The Democrats were frankly flummoxed tonight.”

As this Google Ngrams Viewer chart suggests, U.S. use began to really rise in the 1960s and caught up with and then surpassed British use just before the turn of the twenty-first century:

Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 11.36.43 AM