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“If I’m honest”

Wes Davis, often mentioned on this site, used the expression on top of this post in an email the other day and parenthetically added, “(as Paul Hollywood says).” I’m not proud to say I had to Google to find out that Hollywood is a judge on “The Great British Bake Off.” But I didn’t really have to consult any sources to realize “If I’m honest” is a characteristically British expression. It just sounds like one.

Google Books Ngram Viewer confirmed the impression. It shows the expression coming on the scene in about 1990 and always being much more popular in Britain than in the U.S.:

Thoughtfully doing my work for me, someone on the Quora site asked, “Is the phrase ‘if I’m honest’ used outside the U.K.?” Three people responded, most pithily Andrew Humphrey, who said, “Wherever it is used, it is a pointless affectation. People in the UK are very fond of such redundant and pretentious words and phrases. They use these phrases to give their hackneyed or cliched pronouncements some fake importance or profundity.”

But more helpful was Luke Proctor, who dug up examples of two American using it, thus securing NOOB status:

If I’m honest I don’t believe the world would miss me if I never acted again.

Jamie Lee Curtis, actress

Because if I’m honest, people in the white world might be appalled, but in the black world they’re making myths out of me. And I know that ain’t the life

John Singleton, director

I also found, amazingly, no fewer than eight popular songs called “If I’m Honest”: by Blake Shelton, Missy Higgins, Brendan Murray, Julia Gargano, Jay Denton, the group All That Remains, and Kaitlyn Bristow of “The Bachelorette.” I know Shelton is American and assume Bristow is; I’ll leave it to you lot to sort out the nationality of the rest.

In a post on her blog, Separated by a Common Language, linguist Lynne Murphy did some investigating and found out that not only “If I’m honest,” but also the similar expressions “If I’m being honest” and “To be honest,” are used far more in the U.K. than the U.S. She goes on to muse:

One has to wonder: why are these such popular idioms in BrE? And then one has to wonder: is it because most of the time people are expected NOT to be honest, so it has to be marked up where people are being honest? There may be something to that — the British, after all, have an international reputation for not saying what they mean.

Of the three expressions, the one that sounds most familiar to my American ears is “To be honest.” So I plugged it in to Ngram Viewer and found this:

That is to say, it was roughly equally popular in both countries for a long time, and was used markedly more frequently in both between about 1980 and 2000. After that, it skyrocketed in Britain.

Why? If I’m honest, I have no idea.

“Spanner” Convergence

Continuing with the post-election catchup, back in late October (a veritable lifetime ago), @JLaBua sent on Twitter a link to a use of “spanner” by NPR’s Nina Totenberg. Speaking of the confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, she said: Senate Majority Leader “Mitch McConnell is a master strategist, and they’re still on track, but their execution has to be perfect. They can’t have many more GOP senators get COVID-19. It could really throw a spanner in their plans.”

It was interesting but I felt I had said all I had to say about the word so didn’t plan a new post. But the very next day my brand new spin bike arrived. When I looked at the included tools, what should I find but:

Interestingly, a third tool was included, which was labeled a “wrench.”

What is the difference between a spanner and a wrench? That turns out to be the title of a post on the (British) Wonkee Donkee Tools website:

Spanners vs Wrench

In the UK, a spanner is a fixed-profile hand tool which fits or removes a fastening by turning a nut or bolt and a wrench is a similar tool but turns non-fastening components, for example, a pipe (or Stillson) wrench which is used to turn and manipulate pipes.

The term ‘wrench’ is also used to describe a spanner-type tool that has an adjustable profile size. These tools are also known as ‘adjustable spanners’ or ‘monkey wrenches.’”

In the USA, the word ‘wrench’ is used almost entirely instead of the word ‘spanner,’ but, because the USA and European markets are linked, the terms ‘wrench’ and ‘spanner’ often appear interchangeable in Britain.

Perhaps that clears things up a bit. (Perhaps not.) I will note, in conclusion, that the company that made the bike, Sunny Health & Fitness, says on its website, “We carry only the finest exercise and health equipment from top manufacturers in Taiwan and China.” And the font on the tool package indeed has a characteristic Chinese look. Talk about throwing a spanner into the semantic works.

“Reckon,” Again

There’s been a lot going on in these parts, so you’ll have to forgive me in being late in passing along some correspondence. Shortly after I posted on “reckon,” Wes Davis, a longtime friend of this blog, sent along an article from the Atlantic and commented, “David Frum [the author] helpfully underlined the NOOB for you!” The relevant paragraph:

Of course, the underline wasn’t for emphasis but to indicate a link. If you want to follow it, click here.

“Reckon”

New York Times food editor Sam Sifton is a friend of this blog, though I reckon he doesn’t know it. “Reckon” is in fact today’s topic. The verb — defined by the OED as “To consider; to conclude; to suppose, believe, think likely” — was used by Sifton last year in one of this newsletters, which are mainly about eating but also touch on other matters: “Now, it’s only a little bit about food but Dwight Garner got me to order Robert Menasse’s satirical novel ‘The Capital’ and I reckon you ought to do the same.”

Here’s Google Ngram’s assessment of the frequency of “I reckon” in British and U.S. books:

Note the greater popularity in the U.S. from about 1850 through 1950. I reckon (sorry, I’ll stop now) that much of the American use is due to the real or supposed affection of “reckon” by homespun types from the South or West. The word immediately brings to my mind The Beverly Hillbillies, and in fact it was used five times in the 1962 premiere episode, including this exchange:

JED: Granny! Them pigs o’ yours got into the corn.

GRANNY: Did they drink much?

JED: I reckon they did. This here little fella was kickin’ blue blazes out of the mule.

In Britain, there seems to have been at times a bit of a colloquial feel, especially when used parenthetically or at the end of a sentence.; a character in Thomas Hardy’s Old Mrs. Chundle (1929) says, “I may as well do that as do nothing, I reckon.” But it was also used in higher registers. Benjamin Jowett’s 1875 translation of Plato has this: “I reckon, said Socrates, that no one…could accuse me of idle talking.”

The Ngram chart shows “reckon” taking off in Britain starting in about 2000, presumably as a fashionable use of an old-fashioned word. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, a snapshot of usage in 2012-2013, shows that process in full flower there, and even more so in Australia:

Frequency of “I reckon.” Bottom number is instances per million words.

And here, from GloWbE, is a sense of how it’s used in context in Britain:

If Sam Sifton is the reliable bellwether I think he is, America is about to catch up.

“Sport” Proceeds Apace

Last year I noted Nike’s use of “sport” (rather than the traditional American “sports”) in a social media campaign. Last night was the first time I’ve seen it on TV, in a Nike commercial in ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

“Hire”

Calvin Coolidge

A recent article in the New York Times began:

“A few days before Christmas 2013, Stuart Dempster hired a car to take him from Bangkok to the rural town of Ban Phai, in northeastern Thailand. Mr. Dempster, a 55-year-old track and field coach from Australia, was accompanied by a tall, burly security contractor.”

Instead of “hired,” “rented” would be the word used by Americans, one of whom is the New Jerseyan author of the article, David Yaffe-Bellany. I put his “hired” under the category “Ventriloquism,” meaning I reckon he used it because his subject, the Australian Stuart Dempster, would have done. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered the usage in the U.S. before, and I don’t expect to.

But it did remind me a particular old-fashioned American use of the word: as a synonym for “borrow.” I remembered using it in my biography of the Oklahoma-born humorist Will Rogers. He was in favor of our allies paying back the money they had borrowed to fund World War I, succinctly saying, “They hired it, didn’t they?”

I was initially confused when I looked up “hire” in The Dictionary of American Regional English because DARE said the “borrow” meaning came not from the Southwest but from New England. Then I consulted my book. It turned out Rogers didn’t utter the line himself, but was quoting the person who did, the famously laconic President Calvin Coolidge. And where was Coolidge from? Vermont.

“Cinema”

The particular meaning of this word I have in mind is not what the OED terms “Films or movies collectively; films or movies considered as an industry, art form, or type of entertainment.” (E.g, “Bergman is a master of cinema.”) This has been in common use among arty types in the U.S. for a very long time.

Nor am I referring to a meaning that I believe common in Britain but which I haven’t heard in the U.S. It’s the equivalent of our “the movies” — “I love going to the cinema on a rainy afternoon:

Rather, I’m thinking of a cinema as a place where you go to watch movies. The OED quotes a headline from The Sun: “Top films coming to a cinema near you this summer.” As the dictionary notes, “Movie theatre [sic] is the more common term in North America.” That would be joined by “movie house” and, more recently, “multiplex.”

But I’ve been hearing this cinema-as-place a fair amount on National Public Radio, and a good number of uses show up when I search the NPR website. For example, this from a July 28 report on virus restrictions in the District of Columbia: “Theaters, cinemas and entertainment venues can apply for a waiver to host arts, entertainment or cultural events.” And, the day before, this from host Ari Shapiro on new drive-in movies: “Pop-up cinemas are, well, popping up.”

Meanwhile, New York Times movie reviews now note they will be playing at “virtual cinemas.”

Google Books Ngram Viewer confirms the sense of British predominance (though the term declined in popularity from about 1950-1980), with Americans starting to close the gap in the 1980s.

Screen Shot 2020-07-31 at 10.37.21 AM

 

 

Looking just at American books, the data shows “cinema” more or less neck-and neck with  “movie theater” since the ’80s.  (The chart does somewhat overstate the popularity of “cinema” because it omits “theater” by itself; that is, if you were going to the movies with someone you might say, “I’ll meet you at the theater at 3.” For pretty obvious reasons, I didn’t include “a theater” in the search.)

Screen Shot 2020-07-31 at 10.33.12 AM

 

 

The change makes sense. “Movie theatre theater” and “movie house” are both kind of clunky, and “cinema” sounds classy, always a good thing. The only trouble is, who knows if there’ll even be cinemas anymore?

A “Whilst” Landmark

I last wrote on “whilst” in January 2019, after Lynne Murphy had selected it as her U.K.-to-U.S. Word of the Year. I quoted Lynne quoting Nancy Friedman quoting numerous U.S. users of this synonym for “while,” and added some data of my own from Twitter.

But I was moved to return to the word last week, when the New York Times tweeted:

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 3.28.35 PM

In my little world, that is a big deal.

I took the opportunity to do a little more “whilst” research. First, I used Google Books Ngram Viewer to look at the frequency with which the word has been used in British and American books. U.S. uses is in red, British in blue.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 3.54.51 PM

It’s a familiar pattern — rough equivalence around 1800; in the nineteenth century, British rise and American decline to the point of nadir; then British decline, and in the 2000s, aka the NOOB Era, American resurgence.

I also revisited a question Lynne had posed in her 2019 post, about whether Americans ever pronounce the word with a short “i,” as if it were spelled “willst.” It’s not an easy question to answer because the word (it would appear) is more often written than spoken in the U.S. But I went back to Youglish, a website originally recommended by Ben Zimmer, which currently purports to have a selection of 663 YouTube videos of Americans saying “whilst.” (I’d say “purports” because on the evidence of looking at a couple of dozen, only about half, going by accent, are Canadian or American; the rest were recorded at American events but with British or Australian speakers.) Anyway, listen to this one at about the 3:00 mark.

You heard it — “willst solving tasks.”

“Yoicks”

[Note: This piece originally appeared on the “Grammar Girl” website. If you follow the link, you can also hear it as a podcast!]

A recent article in the LA Review of Books has the line “Yoiks! Dostoyevsky at his weirdest is for me the most-Gogol-like of the Russians.” And this comes from a recent issue of the Pittsburgh Current: “Yoiks! Are we totally sure Lincoln didn’t commit suicide?”

I’m familiar with that “yoiks.” My dear departed mother-in-law Marge Simeone used to say it. I always thought it was a jokey, mock-New York rendition of the word “yikes.” But it isn’t. Or, more precisely, it isn’t only that.

A look at the OED shows me how unaware I was. The main definition for “yoicks” is: “Chiefly Fox-hunting. A call or cry used to urge on hounds. Sometimes also used more generally as an exclamation indicating excitement or encouragement.” The first citation is from 1774, and here’s one from 1838: “The wood begins to resound with shouts of ‘Yoicks True-bo-y, yoicks True-bo-y, yoicks push him up, yoicks wind him!’”

Evidence of American awareness of the term can be found in the 1958 Warner Brothers cartoon short “Robin Hood Daffy.” Daffy Duck is the legendary outlaw, and every time he attempts an acrobatic feat, he shouts, “Yoicks! And awa-aaay!!!”

 

As early as the 1880s, according to the OED, the word began to be used in a slightly different way, as “An exclamation expressing surprise, astonishment, or fright.” It popped up on both sides of the Atlantic, including in a 1942 article in the American magazine Boy’s Life: “Yoicks! What a day for the game!” This jibes with the use of it by my mother-in-law (born 1914). And the 1942 date is interesting, because it suggests that “yoicks” begat “yikes,” rather than the other way around.

I say that because it was precisely in the early ’40s that the now-familiar interjection “yikes” was born. The OED’s first citation is 1971, but a crowd-sourced etymological investigation on Twitter was able to move that up by more than three decades. Joshua Friedman found this on newspapers.com:

Old quotation that reads "And if you can’t think of anything else to be grateful for, just be thankful [that] you’re not a turkey. It can’t be too bad, though; they get the axe and we get the bird. Yikes!"

The Merriam-Webster Twitter account offered this odd quote from the September 1, 1940, “Baltimore Sun”: “‘BAW-W-W-W!’ said Beelzebub, and his massive flanks heaved with emotion and distress. ‘BAW-W-W-W!’ ‘Yikes!’ Kewpie bleated and fled.” And Peter Gilliver of the “OED” staff tweeted a Canadian quote from October 1940: “An oat-burner in October, yikes!”

So I hypothesize that “yikes” is an Americanized version of “yoicks.” And I speculate that the folks who started to use “yikes” in the early ‘40s may even have (mistakenly) thought that it was the original term, of which “yoicks” was a Cockney rendition. (Such a process, which you might call hyper-corrective back-formation, happened with “hoity-toity,” which originated as such in the 17th century and was sometimes subsequently rendered as “highty-tighty.”)

Here’s where it gets complicated, or more complicated. There’s a significant chronological gap between the 1941 Boy’s Life quote and my came-of-age-in-the-1920s mother-in-law’s “yoicks,” on the one hand, and the 2020 quotes cited in the opening of this article, on the other. And so why did Americans come back to “yoiks”?

The example of another word suggests an answer. In 1999, the Beastie Boys—white rappers from New York—put out a song called “Three MC’s and One DJ,” which contained this lyric:

My name is Mike D, and I’m the ladies choice
You’ll wanna get next to me in Rose Royce
Y’all gather round to hear my golden voice
Cause when it’s time to rhyme, you know I get nice

Only Mike D (Mike Diamond) pronounced the last word “noice.” I’ve been trying to send him a message asking what was going through his mind when he made this decision—other than rhyming with the previous three line-ending words—but the Beastie Boys are hard to get in touch with. So I’m going with the idea that he was doing a version of a New York accent.

Even that is complicated. Without a doubt, the “oi” sound— /ɔɪ/ in International Phonetic alphabet, or IPA—is associated with New York, and in particular New York Jewish, talk. The Jewish association stems from the very word “oy,” and the more general one from both the unmistakable dipthongy way New Yorkers pronounce /ɔɪ/ (listen to Terry Gross of “Fresh Air” say “boy” is you want to know what I mean), and the “I met a goil on toity toid street” idea, a caricature of what was once a prevalent feature of New York speech but that has mainly faded away. You can hear the real deal in the clip of Groucho “Say the magic woid” Marx:

And some older New Yorkers might indeed pronounce “nice” a little bit like “noice.” Michael Newman, professor of linguistics at Queens College and the author of “New York City English,” explained in an email:

in New York City English when the /ai/ is followed by a voiceless sound, like ‘price,’ ‘nice,’ ‘heights,’ ‘bike,’ or ‘bite,’ or when that diphthong has no following sound at all like ‘bye,’ ‘tie,’ the first part of diphthong gets pronounced farther back in the mouth than when the /ai/ is followed by a voiced sound like ‘prize,’ ‘size,’ ‘hide.’ This phenomenon is called PRICE backing. Listen to any old movie or TV show set in NYC or even plenty of older white New Yorkers, and you’ll hear that.… When this backing gets strong enough it sounds something like but not exactly like the vowel in ‘CHOICE.’

To me, “noice” sounds more like what its definition on knowyourmeme.com says: “… It is often associated with the Australian or English [to my ears Cockney] accents.” “Noice” has a definition on knowyourmeme.com because it is, well, a meme. The website says it “is an accented version of the word ‘nice’, used online as enthusiastic, exclamatory internet slang to declare approval or sarcastic approval of a topic or achievement.” By 2013, “noice” had moved from hip to a trying-too-hard cliché. I specify that year because it’s when the comedy team Key and Peele broadcast a skit in which they both play rap “hype men” who clash over possession of a the word “noice.”

Also in 2013, the TV comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiered. The main character, Jake Peralta (Andy Samburg), tries too hard to be hip. Naturally, his personal catchphrase is “noice.” He even tries too hard to expand it, saying “toight” for “tight.”

So what I think happened is that the popularity of “noice” as a jokey version of “nice” led to the reemergence of “yoiks” as a jokey version of “yikes.” The theory isn’t possible to prove, but it’s supported by the fact that the more common  spelling is now “yoiks,” not the fox-hunting-derived “yoicks.” And “yoiks” looks like “yikes.”

If I ever hear back from Mike D, I’ll let you know.

 

Nuance or NOOB?

I was watching an episodes of The Simpsons the other night where an unsuspecting Marge takes a job at “a high-end cannabis boutique.” (To be precise, it was Season 31, Episode 17, “Highway to Well.”) On figuring out what’s going on, she exclaims: “I’m a drugs dealer!”

Over the years, I’ve written on several occasions on the British tendency to pluralize collective nouns, most recently the similar “drugs party”; that post has links to previous ones discussing such forms as “drinks menu,” “jobs report,” “covers band,” and “books editor,” all of which are on the rise in America. But Marge’s “drugs dealer” was jarring because the alternative, “drug dealer,” is so common here. The New York Times has used that phrase 4,340 times but “drugs dealer” only twice, and one of those was a quote from an English tabloid editor. (I suspect the other one, in 1972, was a typo.)

Truth to tell, “drugs dealer” is relatively rare even in the U.K., as seen in this Google Books Ngram Viewer chart showing the frequency of the two forms in British books:

Screen Shot 2020-06-10 at 2.57.56 PM

But it’s definitely out and about, as in these two random hits from the Google Books database:

Screen Shot 2020-06-10 at 3.07.07 PM

Back to the Simpsons, the episode’s writer was Carolyn Omine, an American. When my wife and I talked about the “drugs dealer” line, I (naturally) claimed it was a Not One-Off-Britishism. But she disagreed, saying that Ormine wrote it in an awkward way to suggest Marge’s discomfort.

What do you think, NOOBs readers?

Update: You lot certainly thought I was wrong. Here’s a pie chart of the responses to the survey (now closed):

When Marge Simpson said drugs dealer, was it a case of

And you lot were right. In a wonderful Marshall McLuhan moment, the writer, Carolyn Omine responded to my tweet about this post: “That was supposed to a mom-like mistake. It was to show Marge is so far removed from the drug world she doesn’t pronounce drug dealer correctly.” (She also commented on this post. See below.)

I stand corrected. And as I replied to her, it’s a very nice piece of writing.