Category Archives: Uncategorized

“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” 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”:

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 8.47.51 AM

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!



“Full of Beans”

A couple of posts back, I mentioned a published list of Britishisms that included eleven “words and expressions that have been common in America for as long as I can remember, and which I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of as British in origin.” I commented that initial investigation suggested only three of them seemed to be proper Britishisms. The first was “smarmy.” And the second is “full of beans.”

The OED defines the expression, which seems to derive from horse racing, as meaning “to be full of energy, and in high spirits.” The first citation is from an 1843 novel: “‘Ounds, ‘osses, and men, are in a glorious state of excitement! Full o’ beans and benevolence!”

That and all subsequent citations are from British sources. In Green’s Dictionary of Slang, all cites are from Britain or the Commonwealth until this from the American writer Leo Rosten’s 1975 novel Dear Herm: “Now he is full of beans and vinegar and with a whole new outlook on Life.” (That seems like a euphemistic switch on the roughly equivalent U.S. phrase “full of piss and vinegar.”) One earlier U.S. use of “full of beans” is in a 1938 New York Times article: “Whenever Sage, a cowboy with whom I once punched cows on the San Simon Ranch in Eastern New Mexico, felt particularly full of beans of a cool early morning….”

In any case, Google Books Ngram Viewer shows British dominance for the phrase until roughly the late 1970s, when the U.S. caught up. That was followed by a British spurt, and equivalence again in 2000, the last year for which the database has reliable data. (Note there are some false positives, for example, for references to a pot that is literally full of beans.)

Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 9.35.10 AM



“Smarmy,” II

In my previous post, I proudly asserted that I had antedated (from 1924 to 1905), the OED‘s first citation for “smarmy,” meaning “ingratiating, obsequious; smug, unctuous.” The use I found was in a poem featuring a rustic bloke speaking with a West Country accent. Moments after I proudly tweeted out my find, Jonathon Green, editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, responded with a bit of skepticism: “Looking at other bits of [the] poem allowed by Google Books I’m certain it is a positive sense and not the current one. All simple rustic good fellowship, none of implications of modern ‘smarmy.’”

On reflection, I took his point, although I couldn’t find such a good-fellowship meaning in any reference work or in any other text. The other recognized meaning of smarmy derives from the verb smarm (sometimes spelled smalm or smawm), defined by the OED as “smear, bedaub” and first cited by the dictionary in an 1847 work, A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words. The OED has a secondary definition of smarmy as “smooth and sleek,” with the first citation from a 1909 source: “A tall, slight, smarmy-headed man.” As that suggests, the “smear” meaning became associated with the stuff one smears on one’s hair. A little quality time on Google Books gave me an antedate, from a 1903 play by Henry V. Esmond, When We Were Twenty-One:

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.21.20 AM

That one seemed to hold.

It makes sense that “unctuous”-smarmy, with its sense of behavioral greasiness, would have emerged from the hair sense of the word. And a short time after our initial Twitter exchange, Jonathon Green posted a true antedate, from a 1916 edition of an Australian newspaper, the Barrier Miner, in New South Wales: “I wonder what his game is […] He doesn’t look the sort she could make a friend of; too smarmy for my taste.”

I kept looking and eventually came upon an even earlier use of modern smarmy. Strangely enough, it was a joke. A London journal called The Academy ran “Literary Competitions” in each issue, much as New York magazine and The Washington Post have done in later years. Here are the rules for No. 14:

Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 3.55.16 PM

Using Google Books, I found an article about the results of the competition, including this list of some of the best responses:

Screen Shot 2018-10-14 at 8.08.21 AM

After I sent that out over Twitter, language maven Ben Zimmer located the original article from the  January 14, 1899, issue of The Academy announcing the winner of the competition. It revealed that one B.R.L., of Brighton, had come up with the idea that a word for “saying treacly things which do not sound genuine” should be smarmy.

The Internet is full of articles about notable neologisms, such as witticism, coined by John Dryden, and serendipity, invented by Horace Walpole. But none of them includes smarmy, and the very fact that B.R.L.’s humorous definition in a literary contest should eventually have become widely adopted — even as screel, scrungle, and gluxy disappeared — I find amazing.

I hope that doesn’t sound smarmy.

“Ginger Jesus”

The following appeared in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:


The reference is to Carson Wentz, quarterback for and perceived savior of the Philadelphia Eagles (American) football team, whose hair would normally be called “red” in the U.S. and “ginger” in the U.K. Judge for yourself!


“Cheesed off”

The previous post on “Piss off!” mentioned the (originally American) expression “pissed off,” meaning annoyed, angry, etc.  There are two British equivalents, “browned off” and “cheesed off,” both of which date to World War II and both of which are NOOBs.

I’ll cover “cheesed off” today. All the citations in Green‘s Dictionary of Slang are from Britain or Commonwealth countries, for example this from a 1946 Philip Larkin letter — “I sympathise very much with your cheesed-off state.”

The earliest U.S. use I found was a 1983 New York Times quote from Congressman Les Aspin, referring to a heated debate about a nuclear freeze: ”Tempers are frayed — the boys are getting cheesed off.” (Interestingly, Aspin was from the American state of Wisconsin, which is known for cheese.) In 2008, in The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg referred to “Hillary [Clinton]-supporting women who are still mightily cheesed off that Obama beat their candidate, despite his comparatively short resumé and so on.”

I got some more recent hits using my new favorite tool: the geo-tagging feature of TweetDeck that allows you to see tweets originating from a particular region. Here’s what came up when I set it for 200 kilometers from New York (Joe Maddon and Gabe Kapler, mentioned in the first tweet, are baseball managers):

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 10.52.04 AM

Next: “browned off.”


“Piss Off!”

A dependable American NOOBS informant, who wishes to remain anonymous, suggests an entry on “Piss off!” which she or he claims to be hearing more and more. This is distinct from “piss off” meaning to annoy, which started as U.S. service slang in World War II, and got picked up in Britain by 1989, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang. And it’s also distinct from “pissed” meaning drunk, which is a Britishism dating from 1810 and has yet to be picked up in the U.S.–hence, a NOOB in waiting.

Green’s reveals that “piss off” originated in circa the 1920s as a verb meaning “to leave”; a 1959 Kingsley Amis letter notes, “She pissed off at about 9.” “Piss off” as a command is defined by Green’s as “an excl. of rejection, dismissal.” Citations–all from British or Commonwealth sources–date from 1934, with the most recent being from David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, 2006: “The gypsy kid sat under the cedar sending out piss off waves.” The dictionary doesn’t say so, but it seems to me clearly a euphemism for the saltier “f— off.”

Has “Piss off!” penetrated to the United States? Not wanting to just take my informant’s word for it, I turned to Twitter, specifically the geo-tagging feature in TweetDeck. This allows me to create a column consisting of tweets containing the phrase “piss off” that originated within a 200-kilometer radius of New York City.

Bingo–we have a NOOB.

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 7.43.15 PM

You’ll note that the tweet from “Autistic Lady – FEC demon -”  sure doesn’t sound like it originated from the New York vicinity, filled with Britishisms as it is. She subsequently explained:

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 7.44.05 PM