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“Potted”

New York Times book critic Dwight Garner has the usual high number of good lines in his review today of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s new memoir. Here’s the one that especially interested me:

“Let Me Finish” is a superficial and ungainly book that tries to cover so many bases at once — it’s a series of attacks and justifications, it’s a master class in sucking up and kicking down, it’s a potted memoir, it’s a stab at political rehabilitation — that reading it is like watching an octopus try to play the bagpipes.

The reason for my interest is a NOOB–“potted.” The OED‘s definition is: “Of a piece of information, work of literature, historical or descriptive account, etc.: put into a short and easily assimilable form; condensed, summarized, abridged.” The first citation is from the magazine The Galaxy in 1873: “If I skip the lad’s measures and tidbits of potted history, yet these letters from Augustus are none the less welcome, revealing the traveller in a new light.” Subsequent citations, all from British sources, refer to “potted” abridgments, prose, abstracts, and, again history. That seems to be the word that most commonly follows this adjective, so I used the whole phrase for a Google Ngrams Viewer search to compare frequency of use in Britain and the United States through 2000, the last date for which the application supplies reliable data. (I couldn’t very well search “potted” alone, because that would give me American references to drunkenness, British references to what we would call canned laughter and to food preserved by the process we call “canning,” and reference in both countries to plants in their planters.)

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I’m pretty sure American use jumped not long after that, because of the Harry Potter theatrical satirical abridgment Potted Potter, which has been playing in the U.S. for more than a decade. In any case, I found a number of American uses, including one from Times drama critic Jesse Green in November 2018. Some skits within The Thanksgiving Play, he wrote, “are selections from actual lesson plans and Pinterest boards posted by teachers to share ideas for classroom Thanksgiving activities. They include potted history and offensive ditties and, in one case, a suggestion to split the pupils into Pilgrims and Indians ‘so the Indians can practice sharing.”’

And the previous year, book critic Laura Miller wrote in The New Yorker that “newsreel-like interludes of potted history … are constantly interjected” into Paul Auster’s novel 4 3 2 1.

“Stiff Upper Lip”

stiffupperlip1

A 1963 novel by a quintessentially British author.

I was directed to the (British, as you can tell from “mum“) Mumsnet.com website because, in a discussion of Americanisms, someone nicely posted a link to NOOBs. Looking around on the discussion, I noted one person who listed the expression “stiff upper lip” as an Americanism. Another commenter responded: “I beg to differ. That’s really quite Brit.”

The first person was right.

Learning that surprised me, because the expression, suggesting stoic keeping calm and carrying on,  is so strongly associated with the British national character and lexicon. But so is “bumbershoot,” and that word is as American as a McDonald’s apple pie.

The OED confirms that with these early citations (Thomas Haliburton was Canadian):

1815   Massachusetts Spy 14 June    I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods.

1837   T. C. Haliburton Clockmaker 1st Ser. (ed. 2) x. 77   Its a proper pity sich a clever woman should carry such a stiff upper lip.

1852   H. B. Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin I. x. 152   ‘Well, good-by, Uncle Tom; keep a stiff upper lip,’ said George.

The popularity of the phrase was boosted by a oft-reprinted poem by the Ohioan Phoebe Cary (1822-1871), “Keep a Stiff Upper Lip,” whose last stanza is:

Through childhood, through manhood,
Through life to the end,
Struggle bravely and stand
By your colors, my friend.
Only yield when you must;
Never “give up the ship,”
But fight on to the last
“With a stiff upper lip.”

Not until 1887 does a British example appear, from The Spectator:  “The Financial Secretary, who, it is supposed, will have a stiff upper lip and tightly buttoned pockets.”

As this Ngam Viewer chart shows, the phrase continued to be more popular in the U.S. through the early 1940s:screen shot 2019-01-16 at 9.36.45 am

In the fall of 1937, something–I don’t know what–seemed to happen to establish the phrase’s connection to British people. On November 7, the New York Times used it in reference to the Duke of Windsor.

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More important, on November 19 Damsel in Distress opened. The movie featured a number, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by his brother George, and sung by Gracie Allen, George Burns and Fred Astaire, that took the expression’s Britishness as a matter of course. It starts off:

What made good queen Bess
Such a great success?
What made Wellington
Do what he did at Waterloo?

What makes every Englishman
A fighter through and through?
It isn’t roast beef, or ale, or home, or mother,
It’s just a little thing they sing to one another.

Stiff upper lip, stout fellow,
Carry on, old fluff.
Chin up, keep muddling through.

Stiff upper lip, stout fella
When the goings rough
Pip pip to old man trouble
And a toodly-oo too

And, in case you could use some delight in your life (who couldn’t?), here it is:

From then on, upper-lip stiffness was more and more thought of as a British thing. In 1940, the New York Times, reporting on English children coming to America to escape the war, “In the face of a barrage of questions and attentions from the curious, the English children trickling into this country in the past few months have maintained a solid front of poise, courtesy and the traditional stiff upper lip.”

In 1944, The New Yorker ran a Talk of the Town item with the title “Stiff Upper Lip,” summarized this way in the magazine’s internal filing system:

An American officer stationed in a remote English village writes us that he didn’t have much to do during the cold winter evenings while waiting for the invasion except read the books in the local lending library. He says that they served beautifully as reminders of certain quirks and crotchets of the native soul, and he gives an example. This is the opening sentence of an autobiographical volume he found: “In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminum one.”

(I learned through a Google search that the book in question was a 1943 novel, The Small Back Room, by Nigel Balchin, and that the actual first sentence was longer than the New Yorker quote. The whole thing: “In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminum aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.”)

The difference between “bumbershoot” and “stiff upper lip” is that the former was never adopted by the British, while the latter has been. You can tell that by series of citations in the OED, all from British sources.

1961   A. O. J. CockshutImagination of Charles Dickens viii. 116   He oscillated between indignation, self-pity, and reticence of the stiff-upper-lip English school.

1961   John o’ London’s 19 Oct. 447/2   The second film contains a firmly disciplined..undercurrent of Miniverish stiff-upper-lippery.

1963   Listener 3 Jan. 42/1   It was all very improbable and too stiff-upper-lippish to have been written by anybody but an anglophile Frenchman.

1973   New Society 31 May 483/2   MPs, in praising stiffupperlippishness, used sex as a stalking horse.

1977   Broadcast 14 Nov. 10/3   The British are stiff upper-lipping through power cuts.

I suppose it caught on in the U.K. because of the lesson in the expression, “if the shoe fits…”–the British version of which, I just learned, is “if the cap fits…”

 

 

“Betwixt and Between”

I was initially going to write about “betwixt,” as the third item in a trilogy started by “whilst” and “unbeknownst.” It is true that this synonym for “between” has traditionally been more popular in Britain than the U.S.

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And it’s true that it seems to be popping up in America a bit more frequently as a cute and old-timey variation, especially in a mystical or fantastical context, as in the title of this book by a Maryland-born author.

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The most common use, in my experience, remains the phrase “betwixt and between,” which, of course, means “between and between.” Google Ngram Viewer shows that after it came into prominence in the mid-1800s, Britain and the U.S. alternated in liking it more, with a long period in the mid-20th century with Britain in the lead, followed by equality since about 1980.

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But “betwixt” ultimately isn’t popular or interesting enough for me to say anything more about it. So I’m just going to leave it there.

“Whilst” Breaks Through

I always look forward to this time of year because, among other things, Lynne Murphy announces two Words of the Year at her Separated by a Common Language blog: U.S. to U.K. and U.K. to U.S. For 2018, the former is “Mainstream Media,” or MSM.

More to the interest of this blog, the U.K.-to-U.S. word is “whilst.” She graciously mentions that I wrote about the word (which is, of course, a substitute for the traditionally American “while”) in a NOOBs post back in 2011, shortly after I started the blog. But there have been significant developments since then. Lynne quotes an email from another friend of NOOBs, Nancy Friedman:

While standard dictionaries still mark it as “chiefly British,” it’s on the rise among Smart Young Things here in the U.S. who think it sounds “cool” or “refined.” Here’s an example from The Baffler (published in New York), April 6, 2018: “You see, while the violence of financial capitalism and the ever-widening chasm of economic inequality might have something to do with why poor folks get themselves into a tizzy and take to the streets, the true catalyst is that they don’t feel respected whilst being systematically eliminated by the police state, they don’t feel respected whilst performing wage slavery.” This humor piece in McSweeney’s (based in San Francisco), from April 2017, is egalitarian: it uses “while” and “whilst” twice each. And here’s the singer Lana Del Rey— born in Los Angeles, residing in Lake Placid, New York — writing on Instagram in May 2017: “I had complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount.” (Quoted in Rolling Stone)

More “whilst”s from Americans:

Lisa Franklin, writer and comedian from New York: “people keep commenting on those comics whilst happily ignoring my jokes about The Flash.”

Halle Kiefer, “comedy writer out of Astoria, New York”: a surreally long, minutely detailed anecdote about a young Madonna auditioning with the Queen of Soul’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” whilst living in a crack den”

I’ll add that it’s not just the elite who are saying “whilst.” I used my new favorite TweetDeck tool, the location search, to find “whilst” users within 200 kilometers of a randomly selected U.S. city, St. Louis, and found plenty, who appear to be young things, though not necessarily notably smart (for British readers: clever).

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Interestingly, Lynne is interested in the pronunciation of the word. She writes:

Before I started hearing it in British English, I would have read it aloud as ‘willst’. (Dictionaries would have told me otherwise, but I don’t tend to look up pronunciations when I’m reading.) It is pronounced like while with a st on the end. In the US, it seems to mostly have a life in print (does anyone have any nice clips of audio clips of it in American mouths?), whereas in the UK, you hear it too.

I have the sense that I have heard it a fair amount here, always pronounced in the proper, long-“i” way. But I may be kidding myself. I searched the archives of National Public Radio for on-air utterances of the word, and found 246 of them. But they were all spoken by British people going back through 2015, at which point I gave up. Does anyone have evidence that an American has ever said “whilst,” and if so how she or he pronounced it?

Update: On the pronunciation issue, Ben Zimmer has directed me to a remarkable site called Youglish; it allows you to search YouTube videos for specific words or phrases, and narrow them down to U.S., U.K., or Australian speakers. He sent me a link for U.S. “whilst,” which has 364 videos. The categorizing isn’t perfect–the first clip is from a Canadian, and the second and third appear to be from an Australian and a Brit, respectively–but the speaker in the fourth video is from Minnesota, and I listened to enough true-blue Americans to establish that we do indeed say “whilst,” and that we pronounce it the same way the British do.

“Quieten”

I was listening to the NPR radio show “Fresh Air” the other day; Terry Gross’s guest was Daniel Davis, a professor of immunology at the University of Manchester. I was struck by a word Davis used –“quieten.” In fact, a search of the episode’s transcript reveals he used it seven times, for example, “the exact evidence is really that when a person or an animal is stressed, the immune system does quieten down.”

The word felt unfamiliar; plus, I couldn’t tell the difference, if any, from “quiet.” Since Davis is British I suspected it is a Britishism, and I was right. The OED first lists a transitive sense of the verb: “To make quiet (in various senses); to calm, to pacify.” It’s listed in an 1828 book about York County dialect and apparently became popular enough so that someone wrote in the North British Review in 1844, “To ‘quieten’ the children..is not English.” Subsequent citations — all British — belie this assertion.

The definition for the intransitive sense — the one used by Dr. Davis — is “To become quiet (in various senses). Frequently with down.” The first citation, from 1890, and all subsequent ones are British, except this from Pissing in the Snow, and other Ozark Folktales (1976): “When things finally quietened down, the folks figured that the neighbor boys must have set off some fireworks under the bed.” The word also shows up in Whatever it was that was in the house, I quieten ’em down.” The word also shows up in The Frost Haint of ‘Possum Hollow and Other Ozark Tales (2008), by Alan Lance Andersen, so it does seem to be a thing in the Ozarks, a hilly region in the American South.

As for the difference between “quiet” and “quieten,” the OED definitions are pretty much the same. For the intransitive sense of “quiet,” it’s: “Now chiefly N. Amer. To become quiet; to quieten. Frequently with down.”

Outside of the Ozarks, “quieten” is pretty uncommon here, hence the “On the Radar” designation. It has been used eight times in the New York Times since 2010 but it turns out on seven of those occasions, the writer or the person being quoted isn’t from America. The eighth example is from an essay about the photographer Robert Adams by Teju Cole: “You are likely to feel your breath getting calmer and your senses quietened.” But even Cole, I discover, was born in Michigan to parents from Nigeria.

This chart from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, showing use of “quieten” and its derivatives (“quietens,” “quietened,” etc.)  shows a bit more frequency in the U.S., but still lagging well behind Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

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One of the 41 American uses is this sentence from a comment to a 2011 Huffington Post article: “Even if the sun were to quieten down appreciably for the rest of this century, it would still be business as usual for global warming.”

Intransitive “quieten” strikes me as a potentially useful addition to American English.  “Quiets down” is fine, but saying that someone merely “quiets” sounds sort of naked; it could use an extra syllable. So I expect eventually to see more of “quieten” on these shores.

 

 

“On holiday” goes wide

I was talking to an employee of my local health club, a normal bearded guy in his thirties, and I mentioned I was going to be away from home for a few weeks.

“Are you going on holiday?” he asked.

This suggested to me that the expression for Americans’ traditional “on vacation” has established a beachhead here and probably won’t go away.

“Scrounge”

“Scrounge” is the virtual twin of the last word I wrote about, “wangle.” Both mean roughly the same thing, emerged in Britain as World War I slang, and after a few decades got adopted in America.

The OED definition for “wangle” is “To accomplish (something) in an irregular way by scheming or contrivance; to bring about or obtain by indirect or insidious means (something not obtainable openly).” “Scrounge” is more specifically about getting; the dictionary defines it as “To seek to obtain by irregular means, as by stealth or begging; to hunt about or rummage.”

The OED cites a 1909 book, Passing English of the Victorian Era:  Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase, which defines “scrunging” as “(Country Boys’), stealing unripe apples and pears—probably from the noise made in masticating.” The word, with an added “o,” gained wide currency  and a more general sense during the war. George Goodchild’s 1918 book Behind the Barrage provides this explanation:

In the category of “odd jobs” came “scrounging.” “Scrounging” is eloquent armyese — it covers pilfering, commandeering, “pinching,” and many other familiar terms. You may scrounge for rations, kit, pay, or leave. Signallers are experts at it, and they usually scrounge for wire. Scrounging for wire is legitimized by the War Office, and called by the gentler name “salving.”

As for U.S. adoption, here’s the Google Ngram Viewer graph for “wangle”:

Screen Shot 2018-10-26 at 9.42.44 AMAnd here’s the one for “scrounge”:

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For whatever reason, “scrounge” reached parity later (in the 1960s as opposed to the 1940s), but ultimately became more (rather than equally) popular in the U.S. than in the U.K. Go figure!