Lesley McCullough, who alerted NOOBs to “happy-clappy,” has a new hyphenated expression on her mind. She writes:

While reading a review in New York Magazine of “Six Minutes to Midnight” a new film written and starring Eddie Izzard, I noticed that the writer Helen Shaw referred to a performance by James D’Arcy as follows: “In D’Arcy’s case, he has chosen a wildly over-egged delivery, slicing each word onto the plate as though he’s serving Christmas ham.” I have always thought of “over-egged” as a particularly UK compound adjective derived from the idea of an over egged pudding being too rich and fluffy.

As with “happy-clappy,” I had no familiarity with “over-egged.” The OED confirms Lesley’s sense, defining the verb form, “over-egg,” as: “To embellish or supply to excess. Chiefly in to overegg the pudding: to go too far in exaggerating, embellishing, or doing something.” The first citation, from the 1845 book Hillingdon Hall, helpfully gives information on the term’s origin: “‘We mustn’t over-egg the pudding,’ as the Yorkshire farmers say.” It and all subsequent cites are from British sources. Interestingly, only the most recent one, from the Evening Standard in 2002, leaves out “pudding.” (“The bank was anxious however, not to overegg investor expectations for the current year.”)

The first time the expression appeared in the New York Times (other than written by or quoting British people) was in William Safire’s language column in 2003, in which Safire reported being asked about it and admitted never having heard it. The next time was in 2007, by the writer Paul Theroux, who is an honorary Englishmen. But then it showed up twice in 2020: in a film critic’s judgment of the 2020 film Fire Saga that “this over-egged farce whips slapstick and cheese into an authentic soufflé of tastelessness,” and in a book reviewer’s judgment that in a biography of Ted Kennedy, “scenes are often over-egged.” Both those writers are American.

As is Helen Shaw, whose review prompted Lesley to write. Or at least she went to Harvard.


I wanted to get this post in today, February 28, because it’s the last day I can with any claim to precision mark the tenth anniversary of this blog. The first post (on “advert“) was actually February 13, 2011 (or 13 February 2011) but I’m going by month.

Some numbers. I have written 616 posts, averaging a bit more than 300 words each, which amounts to some 200,000 words — the equivalent of two medium-sized books. (Actually, I now recall, I’ve only written 615 — Jack Bell did a guest post on soccer/football terminology.) There have been more than 2,597,000 page views. Because of some publicity in the New York Times and the BBC, 2012 saw the most traffic, with about 420,000 views, but it’s been quite steady since then, with between 210,000 and 310,000 views a year.

The most viewed post has been European date format, followed by “mewling quim” (don’t ask), “go pear-shaped,” “ta-ta,” and “cuppa.” I think my favorite of all time was about a word that isn’t a Britishism at all, “bumbershoot.”

I keep thinking I’ll retire the blog, but new NOOBs keep popping up. Right now I’m tracking, among others, “jump the queue/line,” “end in tears,” “wicked,” and “right” as adverb (as in “It was a right rainy day”). And frankly I’m glad that it keeps plugging along, first, because it’s fun to do, and second, because of the comments (more than 9,000) so far. Having you lot (a Britishism that hasn’t risen to the level of NOOB … yet) out there –funny, smart, sometimes disputatious — has really made it worthwhile. All in all, I’m really looking forward to the next ten years.


Reader Lesley McCullough emails:

I write to you from the Yukon Territory to ask about an expression I read in the Stephen Colbert profile by Joe Hagan, contained in the recent Holiday issue of Vanity Fair. Hagan writes, ” It’s all a reminder of how little distance there is between Colbert the CBS entertainer and Colbert the stuck inside a room like us, no happy-clappy circus at the Ed Sullivan Theatre to buoy him.”

I have always known “happy-clappy” as a scornful UK expression for super cheerful Christians who beat tambourines and sing modern hymns loudly and off key. I lived in Scotland as a kid and there it always seemed to be applied to evangelical English. And Google seems to bear my understanding out.

So, is this a one-time Britishism misused by the writer who I believe is from the States? Or is it evidence of a new Not One-Off Britishism? Or does the phrase have a different meaning in the U.S. than in the U.K. and Canada?

My answer’s to Lesley’s questions are yes, probably not, and I guess. The OED bears out her sense of the meaning of the expression, which falls under the classification “reduplicative” (like “arts-fartsy” and “argy-bargy“). It’s both a noun (“A member of a Christian charismatic or evangelical group whose worship is characterized by enthusiastic participation; [more generally] a charismatic or evangelical Christian”) and an adjective (“Of, relating to, or characterized by membership of such a group, or enthusiastic participation in worship; charismatic, evangelical”). The definitions probably should take note of the usual negative connotation. For example, someone wrote in The Times in 1993: “Is the man at the helm of the church an intelligent astute leader or a happy-clappy simpleton who will plunge his church into disestablishment?”

The phrase seems to have popped up first in Australia. The “Word Histories” blog reports:

The earliest instance of happy-clappy, used in this sense, that I have found is from the very beginning of the review of Dr J. I. Packer’s book Keep in Step with the Spirit, published in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) on 1st April 1985:

“Two brands of Christianism making themselves felt today are the ‘born again’ kind professed by Jimmy Carter and supportive of Ronald Reagan, and the happy-clappy, tongues-speaking, faith-healing kind called Pentecostal until it invaded the mainline churches in the late 1960s and became ‘charismatic renewal’.

Subsequent examples from Word Histories and the OED are all from Australia, South Africa, or the U.K.

As for “happy-happy” having a different meaning in the U.S., my qualified answer has to do with the power of reduplicatives. Word Histories found two American examples. Neither one has the religious sense and in both cases, I would imagine, the writer felt he or she made it up: A 1958 article from North Carolina invoked “the soothing strains of a string band and the happy-clappy feet of nimble square dancers,” and a 1990 Illinois review of an outpost of the Olive Garden restaurant referred to “those happy-clappy waiters and waitresses who seem to love to sing birthday cheer, but appear to know next to nothing about the menu.”

I imagine it was the same with Hagan.


On Twitter, Lynne Murphy shared an interesting table from a 2018 scholarly article called “Word prevalence norms for 62,000 English lemmas.” (“Lemma” is a linguistics term that for our purposes basically means “word.”) The table shows “Words known much better in the US than in the UK (left), and vice versa (right).” I believe “Pus” indicated the percentage of Americans who are familiar with it, and “Puk” the percentage of U.K. residents. If you click on the image below, you should be able to see a bigger version.

For the purposes of this blog, the list on the right is obviously the interesting one. (I will say I’m struck by how many of the ones on the left relate to ethnic food.) The only word I’ve covered from it is “naff.” Anyone have a hunch as to any others that might penetrate here? I have to confess I’m unfamiliar with about half the British words. The one I’d give the biggest chance to cross the ocean is “yob.” We certainly have enough of them over here.

“Kettle” (verb)

Twitter user @ktlikes sent along part of a tweet from the American writer Molly Crabapple

On January 20, 2017, the day of Trump’s inauguration, police kettled 217 anti-Trump protesters in the freezing cold and arrested them after sixteen hours.

Then he asked a one-word question: “NOOB?” I gathered he was talking about “kettle,” which I have been sadly familiar with over the past year, as a verb meaning (I quote from Lexico.com) to “confine (a group of demonstrators or protesters) to a small area, as a method of crowd control during a demonstration. ‘The plan was to get as close to the protest as possible without getting kettled..'” Lexico designates it as British, and the answer to @ktlikes’ question is yes.

The word first popped up in reference to protests at a G-20 Summit in London in April 2009. At the time, the New York Times ran a blog post on police response that got into the kettling term and concept. It included quotes from a Guardian article which suggested the tactic may have originated in football/soccer crowd control, and that the verb may have come from a noun used by police:

When the main body of protesters arrived on Wednesday from four different directions at their planned destination of the Bank of England, they soon found themselves hemmed in from all sides by ranks of police. Requests to leave the area were refused. This is, in police terms, the “kettle.”

Google Ngram Viewer confirms the British origin:

The graph indicates increasing U.S. use in the 2010s, and in fact the linguist Lynne Murphy chose “kettling” as her 2011 UK-to-US Word of the Year. Ngram Viewer data only goes through 2019, and I would imagine the U.S. would have caught up to Britain by this point. “Kettling” has been used well over a dozen times in the New York Times in the past year, most recently two days ago, in a quote by a Washington Post journalist describing her experiences covering Wednesday’s insurrection:

Law enforcement started kettling, creating circles of police officers around people. I’ve been in those many times, and usually I say I’m a journalist and they let me out. They didn’t in this situation, and I was taken aback. I went to three different officers and said we were journalists. When they didn’t engage at all, I thought we might be in a dangerous situation.

She ended up getting out okay.

And the Word of the Year Is …

Linguist Lynne Murphy, at her Separated by a Common Language blog, each year chooses two Words of the Year: one that’s traveled from the U.S. to the U.K., and one that’s traveled the other way, and is thus of interest here. Yesterday she named the U.S.-to-U.K. word: “furlough.”

Today’s she announced her U.K.-to-U.S. selection. There were two runners-up, both of which have been looked at here: “reckon” and “rubbish.” She specified “rubbish” as adjective (“a rubbish idea”) and verb (“don’t rubbish my idea”). My various posts on the word (which you can search for in the sidebar at right) have been as adjective and noun. For the latter, in the U.S., “garbage” or “trash” are more common, except in Massachusetts. I will have to keep my eyes out for “rubbish” as verb.

And Lynne’s winner is … “jab,” covered here just a week or so ago. She included this funny cartoon from @birdyword on Twitter:

While we’re talking about end-of-the-year things, I want to offer hearty thanks to NOOBs readers and commentators, who make this enterprise worth doing. Hard to believe, but 2020 was my tenth year of doing the blog — the actual tenth anniversary will come in a couple of months. This year — as in every year since the first — there have been more than 200,000 page views, about 100,000 from the U.S., 60,000 from the U.K., and the rest from all around the globe.

The most popular posts this year were:

One again, thanks so much for reading and have a great 2021. At the very least, it’s got to be a huge improvement on the year that came before.

“In hospital,” upgraded?

My wife would like the house tidied up, a bit, for the holidays, and thus I have been collecting scraps of paper I’ve left here and there. One of them contains these scrawled words: “The president is in hospital now” — Rachel Maddow, 10/2.

Maddow is an MSNBC host, and she was referring to the fact that soon-to-be-ex-president Trump was what Americans would term in the hospital with the Coronavirus. “In hospital” is certainly a Britishism, and the piece of paper inspired me to remind myself that I had covered it once before, back in 2014.

I’ll pause to say to say that I am not receptive to arguments that the British way is more logical than the American. Logic plays a pretty small role in language usage. And (as I believe Lynne Murphy once pointed out), if the British are so averse to the intrusive “the,” why don’t they say they’re going “to pub”?

Anyway, in that earlier post, I had found only one American “in hospital,” from the radio show “This American Life,” so it definitely seemed a one-off. I now have four additional examples. However, they’re all from Rachel Maddow, so it’s not exactly a huge American fad. Maddow was using it as far back as 2010, when she reported that a Winter Olympics athlete crashed, and “died shortly afterward in hospital.”

Two years later she used the phrase in reference to the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings, and in March of this year, when the virus had just begun, said: “A slice of those same new infections from three weeks ago are the people who are now critically ill and needing to be treated in hospital.”

Maddow has appeared on this blog before. She

  • said that Franklin D. Roosevelt had “stood for president four times” (this turned out to be a bastardization of the British usage)
  • used the adjectival compound “follow-on”
  • and always pronounces “scenario” as “sce-nah-rio.”

Maddow, a California native, was a Rhodes Scholar and went on to receive a doctorate from Oxford. But still.

“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.