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“En suite”

Walking around in a hipsterish area of Brooklyn over the weekend, I came upon this sign:

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What caught my eye was the word “ensuite.” I had come across it — usually as two words, “en suite” — in Britain and Australia, meaning, I believe, that a bathroom is included in a hotel room or some other accommodation.

Research pretty much confirmed my impression. The OED shows a not-surprising progression of the meaning put to the phrase, starting with what I take to be a pretty literal translation from the French: “So as to form (part of) a set, group, or suite.” (“Match-box, stamp-box, and paper-knife, all en suite,” 1862.) In the late eighteenth century, it started to be used to refer to a set of connected rooms; then, crucially (as in the Brooklyn sign), to a bathroom connected to another room. The first such citation is from Canadian Railway and Marine World, in 1925: “Abaft the en suite rooms there is a state room with a single bed, armchair and wardrobe, and an en suite bath room and w.c.” (“Abaft” is a nautical term meaning “behind.”)

The final stage (so far) is “en suite” as a noun referring to the bathroom in question. That shows up in 1968, in an ad in the Canberra (Australia) Times: “Home suitable for a large family, 4 large bedrooms, en-suite off master, panelled study, large kitchen and dining room.”

All of the bathroom-related citations in the OED are from British, Irish, Australian, or Canadian sources. Google Ngram Viewer suggests “en suite” took off in Britain in the 1980s, presumably as a real-estate buzz phrase, which makes sense, given that bathrooms would be the sweet spot for a Frenchified fancy euphemism:

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The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, charting billions of words from the early 2010s, shows Ireland (especially) and Britain as heavy “en suite” users, with Canada and Australia lagging behind with the United States.

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But “en suite” has hit the U.S., and not just in Brooklyn. In February 2020 alone, the phrase was used in nine articles in the New York Times Real Estate section, including this referring to a $2 million house for sale in Fairfax, California: “The en suite bathroom has a walk-in shower as well as a separate soaking tub.” Beyond real estate, a February 12 Times review of the movie Swallow notes of a character, “She was a retail worker who bagged a rich man. Bearing his child is just another privilege, like en suite bathrooms or the latest iPhone.”

 

 

“Swan about”

Sam Sifton, the food editor of the New York Times, sends out an email newsletter a couple of times a week. Not to be harsh, but I find his style a little precious. In a recent dispatch, for example, he talked about a roast chicken recipe which is so good that, he predicts, “it’s all anyone in your set will be talking about in coming days.” I don’t feel like anyone has had a “set” since the 1950s.

Then there are the Britishisms — two in a mere 699 words. He writes, generously, “We are standing by if something goes pear-shaped with your cooking or your [Times] account.”

Elsewhere, he notes that he and his colleagues are accessible on social media. For example, “We swan around on Facebook.”

“Swan around” was a new one on me, but it had a British feel, akin to “lark about.” And British it is. The OED definition for the verb “swan” in this context is: “To move about freely or in an (apparently) aimless way (formerly, spec. of armoured vehicles); hence, to travel idly or for pleasure. Frequently with about, around, or off. slang (originally Military).” All the citations are British, starting with the first, from The Daily Telegraph, in 1942: “Breaking up his armour into comparatively small groups of..tanks, he began ‘swanning about’, feeling north, north-west and east for them [sc. British tanks].”

The most recent is from Dirk Bogarde’s 1980 novel A Gentle Occupation: “She swanned about at the party like the Queen Mother.”

The expression found its way into American English not long after that. Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in 1996, “There are a slew of books about making newspapers more civic-minded and a slew of ideologues and burnt-out journalists swanning about, calling themselves journalism experts and reformers.” (Note also the British “burnt” instead of American “burned.”)

In his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain wrote of a hypothetical dilettante restaurant owner: “He wants to get in the business — not to make money, not really, but to swan about the dining room signing dinner checks like Rick in Casablanca.

By the way, “swan about” sounds more authentically British to my ears, but according to Google Ngrams Viewer, “swan around” has been more commonly used since the ’70s.

There have been a couple of dozen other examples of both versions in the Times over the last two decades. Even so, I don’t think it will catch on in my set.

Stalking the Elusive “Meant to”

Some of the differences between British and American English are quite subtle. I give you the expression “meant to.” It’s certainly used here, with the meaning “designed to” or “intended to.” We would say, “I meant to get here early but I was delayed,” or, “In ‘Mona Lisa,’ the clouds are meant to represent God.”

But in recent decades, the British have used it in a distinctive way, as did the model Naomi Campbell in this quote from The Guardian:

I remember the day I was spotted in the street. It was a warm April afternoon, and I was hanging out with my friends after school. The three of us were dressed in our Italia Conti uniforms: a pale blue dogtooth kilt, a dark blue V-neck sweater, shirt, blazer, tie. We were meant to wear straw boaters, too, but never did.

An American would say “supposed to,” and that’s basically what this British “meant to” means. Another example comes from an NPR interview with the British novelist Sadie Jones: “The hotel — he’s meant to be renovating it — and he’s sort of meant to be renovating himself.” Her meaning is along the lines of “tasked with.”

Interestingly, the OED stresses a slightly different sense in its relevant entry.

d. In passive, with infinitive clause: to be reputed, considered, said to be something.

1878   R. Simpson School of Shakspere I. 34  It is confessed that Hawkins and Cobham were meant to be buccaneers, and it is absurd to deny the like of Stucley.
1945   Queen 18 Apr. 17/1   ‘Such and such a play,’ they [my children] will say, ‘is meant to be jolly good.’
1972   Listener 9 Mar. 310/1   America..is meant to be a great melting-pot.
1989   Times 30 Mar. 15/1   It [sc. evening primrose oil] is also meant to be good for arthritis.

 

The 1945 quote from Queen indicates that it was at that time a fairly new (and youth-based) usage. But it still apparently provokes some ire, as in this sniffy comment on an English-language website: “The now-common use of ‘meant’ instead of ‘supposed’ in that context is a relatively recent phenomenon in the UK, and appears to have come in from the bottom, like so many other instances of poor usage and mispronunciation. The usage is rare in other speakers of Commonwealth English.”

Here are a couple of examples from British Twitter:

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Now, as far as this blog goes, the question is whether British “meant to” has crossed to the U.S. I recently spotted it for the first time, in an article by the Maryland-born, Berlin-based writer Ben Mauk, reprinted in the anthology The Best American Travel Writing 2019. He’s talking about a pagoda in Cambodia and he says, “Only monks and laypeople are meant to live at the pagoda.”

That’s not much to go on, so I asked my sharp-eared daughter Maria Yagoda, who had alerted me years back to “fully“–come to think of it, a similar case, since there’s overlap in usage and the differences are subtle. She said she had definitely heard it aand would send on some examples–but she hasn’t come across any yet.

So I went on American Twitter and found this:

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At this point, “meant to” is On the Radar. Stay tuned.

“An historic” (and such)

Joshua Friedman (@joshuajfriedman) writes on Twitter:

Have you written or read anything about the relatively recent resurrection of “an historic”? My casual experience makes me think it happened around the 2008 election, but I haven’t seen data.

He’s referring to using “an” rather than “a” before words that start with a non-silent “h,” like “habitual,” “happy,” and “hotel” (but not “honest” or — in America — “herb”). Here’s the general lay of the land, from Google Ngram Viewer (which has reliable data only through 2000):

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You can see “an historic” was traditionally more common in Britain (red line) than in the U.S. (orange line), but that “a historic” overtook it in both countries — in the late ’30s in America, in the late ’60s in Britain. So “an historic” counts for me as Britishism. The question is whether Joshua’s correct and it’s lately been taken up by Americans.

By the way, I chose the mid-’20s as the start of the chart for a reason. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage was published in 1926, and in the very first entry, Fowler takes on this subject, writing in his inimitable way:

“A” is used before all consonants except silent h (“a history,” “an hour”); “an” was formerly used before an unaccented syllable beginning with h (“an historical work”), but now that the h in such words is pronounced the distinction has become pedantic, & “a historical” should be said and written; similarly “an humble” is now meaningless & undesirable.

And also by the way, in 1997, when Kevin Kerrane and I were choosing a subtitle for our anthology The Art of Fact, we chose A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, only briefly considering An Historical….

So have things changed since 2000? Contra Friedman, apparently not significantly. The News on the WEB (NOW) consists of nearly 9 billion words published on news sites between 2010 and the present. In it, “a historic” shows up 6.56 times per million words and “an historic” 1.52 times per million words, a proportion that has held steady from 2010 till now. Still, that 4-1 ratio reveals “an historic” having surprising staying power, which is probably what Joshua was observing. According to NOW, it’s used most commonly in Ireland, and least commonly — but not negligibly — in Canada and the U.S.

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And here are some examples of its American use over the course of just five days recently, also taken from NOW:

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British Copyeditor at N.Y. Times?

A while back, I pondered that signs in Philadelphia say “No Parking In This Street,” where American usage would favor “… On This Street.” The other day this photo captioned showed up in the Real Estate section of the Sunday New York Times, below a photograph of an apartment:

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To be clear, Sutton Place is a street in New York City, and American would normally refer to an apartment “on” Sutton Place. Either “in the street” is taking hold in the U.S., or the Times has a British copyeditor writing captions.

Update: I am reliably informed that in New York, Sutton Place is not only a street but a neighborhood, in which case “in” would be consistent with American usage. In the words of Emily Litella, never mind.

 

“Chuffed to be here”

A few days ago, Philadelphia-born musician Todd Rundgren inducted his fellow rockers The Hooters into the Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame. Here’s a little of what he had to say, as recorded by Dan DeLuca of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Explanatory note 1: Jerry Blavat, aka The Geator, aka The Boss with the Hot Sauce, is a legendary Philadelphia DJ whose career has spanned from 1960 till the present day.

Explanatory note 2: “chuffed” is a NOOB meaning, basically, pleased as punch.

The magic of the Internet reveals that Rundgren–who’s had lots of collaborations and contact with British musicians, notably Ringo Starr–has used the word at least once before, in this 2017 interview with Variety.

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“Poser”

I was recently talking with a professor at an American university who regularly brought students to London for study-abroad programs. (He’s now retired.) He said that by the end of the semester, his male students had always incorporated into their vocabulary three insults: wanker, tosser, and poser. I’ve covered the first here (and touched on it several other times: plug it into the “Search” field at right to see). As for “tosser,” the OED defines it as “A term of contempt or abuse for a person; a ‘jerk,'” and etymologically originates it in the same activity as “wanker.” But it seems to be used rarely if at all in the U.S.

However, “poser” is worth looking into. Here’s what the OED has to say:

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Since “poseur,” from the French, is an almost identically-spelled synonym, it’s worth looking at the OED deets:

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This suggests to me that “poseur” has been out and about since circa 1870; the Time and Maxim (American lad magazine) citations and a Google Ngram Viewer chart suggest it’s been used with relatively equal frequency in the U.S. and Britain.

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The Anglicized “poser” is trickier. First, note all the citations are British. Second, I suggest that the Pall Mall Gazette and Shaw (” The man..is young, agile, a talker, a poser, sharp enough to be capable of anything except honesty or altruistic considerations of any kind”) quotes are interesting outliers, in which the straightforward noun “poser,” one who poses, is extended to the derogatory meaning the word would later come to adopt. Even the 1987 Guardian quote (“I’ve always been a poser,..but the first time I did a modelling job I was shit scared”) seems to refer to literal posing. Only the final quote, from The Sun, sounds like the “poser” one is used to today: “The former World Cup striker is shown as a precious poser who wears a blond wig and refuses to play if it’s raining.”

It’s a little hard to be definitive with “poser,” since in database searches I’ve found it impossible to separate out two other meanings of the word: a hard-to-answer question (“that’s a real poser”) and a French verb meaning to put or to place. But assuming that “poser”=”poseur” had taken hold in the 1980s (by which time “poser”=tough question had fallen out of fashion), Ngram Viewer shows almost twice as frequent use in U.K. as in U.S. (As I’m fond of saying, reliable data for Ngram Viewer only goes up to 2000.)

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But the word has caught on on this side of the pond. The main character in a new Broadway play by Tracey Letts says Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is nothing but a “scrubby little poser.” (I know Yorke is English, but Letts is a Yank.) The headline of an ad in the New York Times reads

Getting Digital Right: Posers, Players and Profits

And last month Forbes had:

Peak Performer Vs. Professional Poser: Creating The Right Team

Earlier this year, Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke has been compared to “a middle-school poser who ‘went to Zumiez and spent $27 on stickers.'”

Don’t ask me to explain that. I only come up with the quotes, not what they mean.