“Bits,” Revisited

World War I propaganda poster.

As I have mentioned before, I am working on turning this blog into a book. True to form, I’ve left some of the most extensive and therefore difficult entries to the end, which is why it wasn’t until yesterday that I tackled “bits.”

To state the obvious, this is a common word. How common? It is the 808th most frequently used word in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), just behind “decade” and ahead of “reduce.” The OED considers it to be six separate words—two of them verbs and four nouns. I am concerned here with the one of the nouns (the others have to do with the biting of horses, leather flasks, and computer information) that denotes a piece or part of a larger whole, literally or figuratively bitten off. Its entry has within it twenty-five separate variations, most of which are as commonly used in American as British English. (And some more so: as in a “bit part” in a movie, calling twenty-five cents “two bits,” and the meaning of schtick or well-rehearsed routine, as in this quote from Fred Astaire’s autobiography: “We were in Detroit—stranded—and that is where Mother did the pawning-of-the-jewels bit.”)

If you want my full thoughts on the matter, you’ll have to get the book (hopefully available later this year), but I’ll share here some thoughts on what I view as the main NOOB “bit”: using the word for what an American would most likely say “part,” often used in the plural and often preceded by an adjective. An early British example is from an 1873 humorous sketch in The St. Pauls Magazine, where the narrator describes wandering the halls of Parliament and coming upon a man who’s endeavoring to teach the members to “talk better.” This fellow poses a question:

“One of your great debates that fills three or four pages of your Times with the smallest of small print and runs over into the supplement—how much do you read of it next morning ?”

“Well, I generally glance my eye down the columns, and read the sentences where I see there have been ‘laughter’ and ‘cheers.'”

“Ah, just so, you read only the good bits. Now my plan is to make my pupils say nothing but the good bits. None of them shall speak longer than half an hour, and each sentence shall have a Thought in it.”

“The juicy bits” and “the naughty bits” show up in Britain in the 19th century as well, but really established themselves as phrases in the twentieth. An American would say “the good parts,” “the juicy parts,” and “the naughty parts,” or rather “the dirty parts.”

Most Americans, that is. One finds the occasional literary sort, like critic Richard Eder of the New York Times, writing of a Lina Wertmuller revival in 1976, “Enthusiasm for Miss Wertmuller’s later work may arm the spectator with the fortitude to mark out the good bits.” The same year, American science fiction novelist Ursula Le Guin wrote of H.L. Lovecraft in the Times Literary Supplement, “He imitated the worst bits of Poe quite accurately.”

This use of the word picked up steam in the U.S. in the ‘90s and 2000s, as in a 1999 quote from Time magazine, referring to prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s report on the alleged misdeeds of President Bill Clinton: “He wants America to believe he’d only included the good bits to help the legislature reach an informed decision.” More recently, a reader reports that the Turbo Tax program, while it’s loading, displays the message, “Hold on, we’re getting all the technical bits together.” (The be really British, it would have said, “Hang on.”)

One particular kind of “bits” deserves mention. A 1970 episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus had a sketch called “How To Recognise Different Parts of the Body,” which included this, well, bit (I quote from the Python Wiki):

A voiceover (John Cleese) points out more parts of the body:

10. The big toe

11. More naughty bits (a man standing wearing spotted Bermuda shorts)

12. The naughty bits of a lady (a lady posing wearing spotted Bermuda bra and shorts)

13. The naughty bits of a horse (a horse wearing spotted Bermuda shorts)

14. The naughty bits of an ant

15. The naughty bits of Reginald Maudling (a picture of Reginald Maudling wearing spotted Bermuda shorts)

In his humorous 1988 book God—The Ultimate Autobiography, Jeremy Pascall uses the phrase “dangly bits” five times, including his reference to the creation of Eve: “So much better formed, softer, rounder, smoother, with none of those ugly dangly bits.” “Dangly bits” caught on as a reference to men’s genitals and by 1999, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, had been shortened to just plain “bits.” An example is a quote from Twitter, which I especially like because it uses “bit” twice: “I was in the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday. My favourite bit was where Michelangelo painted in the Pope’s advisor, whom he detested, with a snake eating his bits.”

No surprise that at the U.S. vanguard was NOOBs hall-of-famer Dwight Garner of the New York Times, who, in a review of basketball star Jerry West’s memoir in 2011, wrote, “West seems here like both the Hatfields and McCoys. He shoots himself repeatedly in the head, feet and private bits.” The following year, Garner wrote that an author portrayed gay people as “pretty much like straight people, that is, except for what they do with their dangly bits.”

“Dangly bits” and “bits” appeared to be exclusively male provinces. To the rescue came “lady bits,” first spotted in 2005 and growing apace since then. Google reveals that “Lady Bits” is currently the name of a soap, a physical therapy practice, a zine, and an Australian cross-dressing salon.

The phrase is still an outlier in the U.S., but I imagine gained some traction after a 2021 exchange on Drew Barrymore’s talk show with Gwyneth Paltrow (an honorary English person, of course). Barrymore tasked her guest with coming up with alternatives to words you can’t comfortably say on morning network TV, like  “something beginning with v that ends in ‘ina.’”

“Lady bits?” Paltrow offered.

“Fit” Carries the Day

Apologies for the long gap in posting — I have been in Melbourne, Australia, leading a study abroad program for the University of Delaware, and pondering whether the preferred spelling is “brekky” or “brekkie.” The program is winding down and I have a free moment, so wanted to tardily report on Lynne Murphy’s annual U.K.-to-U.S. Word of the Year selection.

As the heading says, it was “fit,” in the sense of sexually attractive. Lynn notes that I have deemed it an “outlier,” but, as she delicately and accurately suggests, “Ben’s probably not in the right demographic for hearing it.”

The OED has the word first showing up in an exchange quoted in a 1985 Observer article: “Better ‘en that bird you blagged last night.” “F—— off! She was fit.” It seems to have been given a boost by its use on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show and on British reality TV shows, such as Made in Chelsea; the clip below is from a “super-fan show,” “Mad on Chelsea.”

Lynne suggests that the U.S. uptick in awareness of “fit” is largely due to another reality show, Love Island, where the word apparently is uttered so often that it’s included in an American glossary of unfamiliar terms used on the show. (And by the way, I think I have to take another look at “banter.”) The British characters on Ted Lasso throw it around as well.

And it shows up in a Love Island takeoff on SNL (at 1:12).

All well and good. But I still say it’s an outlier.


Lynne Murphy’s final nominee for U.K.-to-U.S. Word of the Year is “shrinkflation,” a portmanteau coinage so new it’s not even in the Oxford English Dictionary. Merriam-Webster added it just this past September, with the definition “the practice of reducing a product’s amount or volume per unit while continuing to offer it at the same price.”

The word’s certainly been used a lot in America of late — seven times in the New York Times in 2022 (and none before that). And it’s certainly a phenomenon. A brief glimpse of my own fridge shows me a 52-ounce Tropicana orange juice container that used to be 64 and a 1.5-quoart Breyer’s ice cream package that used to be 2.

And it’s certainly of British origin. In an online article about the word, Merriam-Webster credits it to the British economist Pippa Malmgren, in 2015 (while also noting than another economist used it with a different meaning, which didn’t catch on, in 2009). However, using the News on the Web (NOW), I found British journalist Marc Shoffman using it in 2013.

In any case, NOW shows the word being used fairly infrequently through 2021, all or almost all in U.K. sources. It expanded into the U.S. in 2022, but, as Lynne Murphy says in her newsletter, it may not “have had enough of a run as a ‘British’ term to be considered an import to the US.”

So what’s my vote for Word of the Year? As noted in the last post, “fit” is not yet common enough here. “Fiddly” is a solid choice, but I’m going with the cheeky one and casting my vote for “soccer.”

When Lynne names a winner, I’ll let you know.

“Soccer” and Other WOTY Candidates

I’ll get to the subject of this post in a minute, but first wanted to note that a couple of days ago, the blog had its three millionth page view. Luckily, I was there and ready to take a screen shot.

So hooray for us. Just goes to show that, for a committed and interested audience, there is no such thing as a too-narrow topic.

As long-time readers know, every year the estimable Lynne Murphy chooses two Words of the Year: an American word picked up in the U.K. and a NOOB. Last year’s U.S.-to-U.K. winner was the pronunciation of the title of the film Dune, and the U.K.-to-U.S. winner was “university,” which has been frequently discussed here. In her newsletter, Lynne listed this year’s nominees (as well as a link where people can express their preference or suggest other words). The U.K.-to-U.S. contenders:

  • Fit
  • Fiddly
  • “Soccer”
  • “Shrinkflation”

As the links indicate, I’ve covered the first two. “Fiddly,” more or less meaning “balky” and frequently appearing in the expression “fiddly bits,” is a full-fledged NOOB and I would support it as WOTY. “Fit”–meaning sexually attractive–on the other hand is still, in my experience, an outlier in the U.S.

“Soccer” might be surprising to some, as nowadays (especially during the World Cup), Americans are sometimes mocked or derided for using it to denote the game the British (and more or less the rest of the world) know as “football.” But is indeed a NOOB. It originated as a a reference to the Football Association, and to differentiate it from other forms of football, notably rugby. OED citations from the first, in 1873 (with the spelling “socker”), through 1935 are all from British sources.

“Soccer” did get picked up fairly quickly in America, seeming first by headline writers as a conveniently short word, as in this from the New York Times in 1906:

And of course, since then it’s become the American term of choice. To a slight extent, “football” has emerged as a NOOB to indicate the game with the round ball. It’s been slight because 99.9 percent of Americans will understand “football” to mean the game with the touchdowns and helmets. I don’t think there’s been a real life counterpart to the uber-pretentious Lisa Simpson, who refers to the home-grown sport as “American football.”

Next: “shrinkflation.”

Veddy Veddy?

A commenter on the previous post remarked that “uppity Canadians [from Ontario] are veddy proper Upper Canadians,” and a bunch of British people asked, basically, what the heck is a “veddy”? David Ballard replied:

It’s what Americans (and apparently Canadians) use when pretending to speak like a snobby British person. I reckon it’s what we heard/hear when that type of character (imagine those who populate Wodehouse’s books) says “very” in a confiding or authoritative way in old movies or, perhaps, in person. “My late uncle was a veddy important figure in the Raj, you know.”

My sense aligned with David’s but I was curious as to when, how, and why the custom started. The answer to the first, basically is 1932. That’s the date of the first example I could find, a one-sentence blurg in The Judge, an American humor magazine: “The Oxford Crossword Puzzle Book, veddy, veddy braincracking.” There are a bunch of other similar examples in the ’30s, which Google Ngram Viewer shows to be period when the term was not only introduced but skyrocketed in popularity, It leveled off around 1950, and has been up and down ever since.

(“Veddy” appears in some late nineteenth-century books as a rendition of baby talk, as in this quote from an 1894 book, stating that most men “sympathize with the little girl who, being asked if she had been good, answered, Not veddy good, not veddy bad–just a comferable little girl.”)

“Veddy” first shows up in the New York Times in a 1954 movie review by Bosley Crowther of a Danny Kaye movie, where he says that Kaye impersonates, among other characters, “a veddy British motor car salesman.” Crowther used the term about ten more times through 1967, no doubt contributing to its popularity.

But the backlash had already begun in 1954, when J.B. Priestley wrote an article in the Times about British accents. In it he commented:

“When some American writers want to have some fun with an English accent they make it say ‘veddy,’ presumably instead of ‘very.’ Now I pride myself on having a good ear but never. listening to every possible type of Englishman, have ever heard this ‘veddy.’ Where does it come from ? I find it veddy veddy puzzling.”

Not long afterwards, Edward Artin of the G.C. Merriam Company, publisher of Webster’s dictionary, wrote in to the Times with an answer. I present it as my last word on the subject.

“Americans’ articulation of the r in very (in fact, of all r‘s) may be described as comparatively sluggish. On the other hand, when a Southern Englishman says very he often articulates the r by thumping the tip of his tongue quite lustily but quickly against his palate, producing, to the American ear, a dd effect.

“Now, when this same Englishman says eddy he articulates the dd by hermetically clamping the tip and sides of his tongue against his palate so as to completely shut off the outbreath for a split second (producing what phoneticians call a stop or explosive). His sound between vowels here is appreciably different to his own ear from his sound between the vowels of very, and hence on the basis of purely his own speech the veddy jibe makes no sense. The average American, however, does not cut off his breath for even a fraction of a split second when he says eddy: he articulates the dd by much the same thumping of tongue-tip against palate that the Englishman uses for r in very. Thus the American listening to a Southern Englishman may apprehend the latter’s Perry as Peddy, and vice versa.”

Got Britishisms?

I just read and enjoyed See You in September, a memoir by Darryl Pinckney. Pinckney is a Black American writer (born in Indianapolis) but for some time (at least twenty-five years, it seems), he’s lived part-time in England, with his partner, the writer James Fenton.

So he comes by his Britishisms legitimately. Indeed, the most surprising thing to me, in this regard, is that I only found two of them in the book. However, he uses both of them a lot, and they are both pretty unusual (for an American).

The first is using “got” and “forgot” as the past participle form of “get” and “forget.” So Pinckney:

  • refers to “one of [his mentor Elizabeth Hardwick’s] recommendations I’d got from the
    library though she of course had it in her shelves.”
  • writes “We’d forgot to ring for the elevator.”
  • writes “they’d got engaged.”

Literally every other American would write “forgotten,” and every American with the exception of writers for The New Yorker would write “gotten.”

As the link in the previous sentence shows, I’ve previously written about “had got.” But I’ve only one or two Americans ever using Pinckney’s other main Britishism, and had been waiting for a few more sightings before addressing it. Here are some examples from the book:

  • a reference to a novel “which I’d not read.”
  • another to “everything I’d not done.”
  • “I’d not thought of quiche as heavy.”

The standard American phrasing would be “I hadn’t read,” “I hadn’t done,” and “I hadn’t thought.” Even in Britain, apparently, this is a bit unusual. In Lynne Murphy 2007 blog post on “Have contractions,” she cites another scholar, John Algeo as having examined a corpus and found

How about it, British readers: is the “I’d not VERBed” usage as rare as all that?

Non-Pension-Getting “Pensioner” Sighting

I noted in 2020 that “in Britain, ‘pensioner’ might refer to a person who is no longer working but is not necessarily receiving a pension: what Americans would call a ‘retiree.'” However, “American uses of ‘pensioner,’ what few there are, tend to refer specifically to people getting (often particular) pensions.”

Yesterday’s mail brought the first American example I’ve seen of the British meaning:

The pensioner is me but I do not receive a pension from the state of Delaware or my former employer, the University of Delaware. I do receive medical benefits, so it’s not exactly pensioner-in-the-sense of retiree. But it’s close.

“The Queue”

In recent days, London has experienced “The Queue,” in which people waited for up to 24 hours in order to pass by the body of Queen Elizabeth and pay their respects. And so it seems a good time to take another look at “queue,” meaning a line of people waiting for something.

As the spelling might suggest, it originated as a not one-off Frenchism. In French, “queue” means “tail,” and it was adapted by the English in the eighteenth century to mean a long plait of hair, that is, a pigtail. The French initiated the line-of-people meaning in the 1790s, and the first uses noted by the OED either italicized it as a foreign word or used it in a Gallic context, as in this quote from Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution (1837): “That talent … of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes … the French People.”

It’s an interesting quote because, of course, we now think of the British has having a talent for standing spontaneously in queue.

In the last half of the nineteenth century, queue-as-line was used in both Britain and the United States. An example of the latter came from New York Representative James Brooks, speaking in Congress in 1864: “Last Monday week I saw a long queue ranged around the New York custom-house waiting turns to buy gold certificates at 65, while gold was selling at 75.” And it’s worth noting that “line” was used in Britain, as in this 1711 quote from Joseph Addison: “The Officers planting themselves in a Line on the left Hand of each Column.”

But in the twentieth century, the British took “queue” up in earnest.

And soon a verb form arrived: “queue up” by 1920, and the “up”-less form some thirty years later.

As the Ngram Viewer graph shows, American use of the noun started ticking up in the 1960s. In January 1960, William Zinsser wrote in the New York Times, about the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, “Only on very rainy days was the queue [for the “Futurama” exhibit] a short one, but few tourists begrudged the hour they spent waiting.” “Queue” has appeared in the Times 5,385 times since then. Some of the increase in use on both sides of the Atlantic has to do with the use of “queue” in computer terminology, and more recently, inspired by Netflix, as a term for a sequence of movies or songs one plans to get to. (“What’s in your queue?”) Even more recently, some people have referred to a DJ “queueing up a record,” instead of the traditional term, cuing cueing it up.

Getting back to waiting in a queue, you can understand the word’s popularity in America, given the ambiguity-inducing multiple meanings of “line,” “line up”and “on line.” (New Yorkers wait on line, the rest of the country in line.) The only downside of “queue” is that it’s harder to spell. The gerund form actually has two versions, “queuing” and “queueing,” the former overtaking the latter in popularity in Britain in around 1990, according to Ngram Viewer. In any case, I knew a milestone had been passed about ten years ago, when I was at my local grocery store, and noticed that a sign indicating the “line” for checkout had been replaced by one indicating the “queue.”

Another milestone came in 2016, when President Barack Obama spoke against the U.K. leaving the European Union. That would portend badly for any U.S..-U.K. trade deals, he was quoted as saying: “I think it’s fair to say maybe some point down the line, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is on negotiating with the E.U. The U.K. is going to be at in the back of the queue.”

Leaving aside the policy aspect, British commentators jumped on the president’s use of “queue,” some suggesting he been “fed” it by Prime Minister David Cameron. However, writing in the Washington Post, Adam Taylor pointed out that Obama had uttered “queue” numerous times in the past, and was kind enough to cite this blog on the president’s use of such other Britishisms as “full stop,” “run to ground,” and “take a decision.”

“Peckish,” Revised and Expanded

As with many words, I distinctly recall the first time I heard “peckish.” The student group I was leading on a British trip in the mid-1990s was on a touring bus (which I was learning to call a “coach”), and the tour guide said there would be cafes in the next town we’d stop in, “in case you’re feeling peckish.” From the context I concluded that it meant a little hungry—that is, less than “starving” or “famished”—and so it does.

The OED reveals that the term popped up in Britain as early as 1714. All the pre-1988 OED citations are British, including my favorite, from P.G. Wodehouse in 1936: “Not since the distant days of my first private school had I been conscious of such a devastating hunger. Peckish is not the word. I felt like a homeless tapeworm.” A notable use came in Monty Python’s “Cheese Shop” sketch from 1972:

Owner: What can I do for you, Sir?

Customer: Well, I was, uh, sitting in the public library on Thurmon Street just now, skimming through Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole, and I suddenly came over all peckish.

O: Peckish, sir?

C: Esurient.

O: Eh?

C: ‘Ee I were all ‘ungry-like!

However, as befitting its pre-Revolutionary origin, the word did migrate to the U.S.; like “reckon,” it appears to have survived mainly in Western or rural settings. The Dictionary of American Regional English quotes a line from The Clockmaker (1838) by the Nova Scotia author Thomas Haliburton: “I don’t care if I stop and breakfast with you, for I feel considerable peckish this morning.” Its first appearance in the New York Times came in an 1872 Western tale, where a character says, “All hands got to be pretty peckish.” And the word shows up in an 1899 dictionary of Virginia “Folk-Speech,” defined as “Inclined to eat, somewhat hungry.”

The Coen brothers may or may not have been aware of this when they wrote the script for O Brother, Where Art Thou, their 2000 backwoods Depression-era version of The Odyssey. Big Dan Teague, the character played by John Goodman, says, “Thank you boys for throwin’ in that fricassee. I’m a man of large appetite, and even with lunch under my belt, I was feelin’ a mite peckish.”

In America, “peckish” developed another meaning, kind of befitting the way it sounds. The OED defines this as “Irritable, peevish; touchy,” and has an 1857 quote from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine: “I have observed that mothers are apt to be oversweet on their daughters-in-law at first, and terribly peckish on them afterwards.”

Both senses fell out of use in the U.S. until the age of NOOBs. That 1988 OED citation is from the American novelist Laurie Colwin’s book Home Cooking: “At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish, but only the British have institutionalized this feeling. Every year one English magazine or another carries an article about the decline of the tearoom, but teatime still exists and many tea shops serve it.”

That was a bit of an outlier, and notably dealt with an British topic. The word really didn’t start taking off in the U.S. until a decade or so later. I saw O Brother but didn’t notice the word, and the first time I recall encountering it here was in 2015, when one of the producers of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend said in a radio interview that she’d chosen a California town as the setting in part because the local mall had pretzel shops at both entrances, “just in case you got peckish for a pretzel.” (I posted this quote when I first wrote about “peckish,” and several commenters objected to the peckish for something construction as a vulgar Americanism.)

Since 1995, the word has appeared in the Times 107 times, including in a review of a bar on the Lower East Side: “If peckish, try the matzo-meal fried chicken with pastrami-spiced gravy ($23).” Most recently, it was in the first sentence of a fitness article: “Why are we so peckish after some workouts but uninterested in eating after others?”

Why, indeed?

“Shock,” Updated

A few years ago I wrote about the word “shock” used as an attributive noun, meaning “shocking” — as in shock survey, shock victory, shock election results, etc. It’s fairly common in the British press, but at the time I could find only one U.S. use and labeled it “On the Radar.” But I’ve seen quite a few examples over the past few months. I didn’t write them down, but I’m pretty sure they were all in New York Times sports coverage, as was this one, just published by tennis writer Christopher Clarey, in reference to newly crowned U.S. Open champ Iga Swiatek:

I therefore upgrade “shock” to full-fledged NOOB.