Category Archives: Uncategorized

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:

Screen Shot 2019-11-30 at 10.39.38 AMScreen Shot 2019-11-30 at 10.38.47 AM

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:

IMG_0040 2

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.

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 3.08.53 PM

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.

 

“Full marks”

shopping

Note British “odour” spelling

This post marks a Not One-Off Britishisms first. I don’t believe it’s ever previously happened that, while researching American use of a British word or phrase, I came upon an example written by me. The phrase is “full marks.” Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has these definitions and examples:

1 chiefly British : the highest possible grade on an exam or in a course. “She got full marks for the coursework”… — Lancashire Telegraph

2 chiefly British : due credit or commendation. “Regarding the question of aircraft nomenclature, my pet peeve is commercial airline aircraft. I give the Europeans full marks in this department: Comets, Caravelles and Concordes are above reproach.”— John Ryan

There’s a nice used of the term, sort of half-literal and half-metaphorical, in E.M Forster’s A Room with a View:

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In my many years as a student and teacher, starting in 1960, I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered Merriam-Webster’s first meaning. The American equivalent would be “got 100” or “got straight As” or “aced it.” But I found that in years past, it was used here. This is from a 1908 New York Times article about a graduation ceremony at a school “for Immigrant Children”:

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The literal meaning fell out of favor in American education but the figurative use shows up in the prose of mid-20th century belle-lettristic sorts, including Times writers like Orville Prescott, Arthur Krock, and Brooks Atkinson, who in a 1947 pan of a Molnar play wrote of the author, “Possibly he should be given full marks for attempting a sublime theme.”

But the phrase was used considerably more commonly in Britain, especially in the ’30s through the ’60s, as this Google Ngram Viewer graph shows. (Reliable data for Google Ngram Viewer only goes up to 2000.)

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Nowadays, the metaphorical meaning pops up quite a lot in the U.S., including two in sports contexts in just the past few days: The (American) football website Fansided on October 1: “If [Josh] Rosen ever becomes a legitimate starter in the NFL, full marks to him.” And ESPN’s National Hockey League preview on September 30: “Full marks to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brad Richardson” of the Arizona Coyotes.

There have been twenty-one uses in the Times since 2012, including:

  • Recap of the TV series Outlander: “Full marks to Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe for doing a scene on actual horseback instead of on barrels with hair.”
  • Theater critic Charles Isherwood: “I’d grant [playwright Adititi] Kapil full marks for invention.”
  • Sports column quoting Ron Katz, the chairman of the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics at Santa Clara University, on a National Football League report on “deflate-gate”: “I thought the N.F.L. was going to brush it under the carpet. I give them full marks for coming out with this report.
  • Theater critic Ben Brantley in a review of The King and I: “give full marks to the first-rate Ruthie Ann Miles”

And including an article about comma use listing various mistakes and saying that if the reader spotted them, “give yourself full marks.” The author, I was interested to note, was Ben Yagoda.

WC

I was informed via Lynne Murphy of this map for an event held yesterday in Portland, Oregon.

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The key at the bottom says that WC (British term for public lavatory, short for “water closet”) indicates “restrooms” (an American term for same), thus effecting a nice trans-Atlantic hybrid.

American WC tends to turn up in special circumstances, as in the Portland map, where the customary symbol for such facilities, a version of this–

kc8ngXKzi

–might end up too small to be legible. (Or maybe, Portland being Portland, the binary imagery was viewed as politically incorrect.)

The American company Kontextur uses the term for their range of bathroom-cleaning tools:

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And it’s helpful in headlines, where space is at a premium. This 2004 New York Times article is about being stuck on a bathroom-less corporate jet:

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WC is useful term, not only in being concise but in having a Goldilocksean just-right level of euphemism, not explicit about its function but, being willing to acknowledge “water,” nowhere near as opaque as “rest room” or “facilities.” I hope it catches on.