Category Archives: Uncategorized

“We all of us”

A while back, an (American) Facebook friend posted something to the effect of, “We all of us have to be compassionate.” I was struck by the “we all of us” phrase; the typical American way of saying it would be either “we all have to be …” or “all of us have to be…” Turns out, no surprise, that the effectively redundant “we all of us” is traditionally more British than American.

Google Ngram Viewer shows an interesting pattern.

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My sense is this kind of shape has shown up for other words and phrases covered here. That is, similar trends in Britain and the U.S. in the nineteenth century, leading up to roughly equal use at the turn of the century, a Henry James/William Howells era when literary style in the two countries was similar. (Remember, Ngram Viewer uses the Gooogle Books database, which only includes published sources, mainly books.) Then a divergent American trend over the course of the Hemingway-influenced twentieth century, in which the term in question would sound fussy or stiff, followed by a closing of the gaps in recent decades, that due both to a reduced popularity of the phrase in Britain (where it has started to sound old-fashioned) and an increased use in the U.S., because NOOBs.

The phrase shows up twelve times in OED citations, ten of them by British writers, including Joseph Addison (“We all of us complain of the Shortness of Time,” 1711) and George Eliot (“We all of us carry on our thinking in some habitual locus where there is a presence of other souls,” 1876). The two U.S. examples are from novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and Clarence Edward Mulford, in 1860 and 1908, respectively — both before the American divergence.

Other databases tell complementary stories. The Corpus of Historical American English shows use of the phrase peaking in the U.S. in the 1920s, disappearing in the 1980s, and popping up again just a little bit in recent decades:

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The News on the Web corpus, charting the years 2010-2020, shows only moderately more uses of the phrase in Britain than America.

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Those numbers are a little misleading. Of the 20 hits ascribed to the U.S., the nationality of the speaker or writer can be discerned in 12, and of those only six are American, including the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who said in 2017 after being accused of sexual harassment, “We all of us are awakening to the reality that how men have behaved toward women for eons is not OK.” There’s also an odd quote from novelist Rick Moody: “Ernest Hemingway famously said of Mark Twain’s legacy that ‘we all of us came out from under Huck Finn’s skirts.'” (It’s odd because Moody mangles the actual Hemingway quotes, which is: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. […] it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” The skirt reference is presumable to a scene in Twain’s book where Huck disguises himself as a girl.)

My investigation of “we all of us” turned up one heavy American user of the phrase. That would be our former president, Barack Obama, who has employed in oratory at least three times: a 2009 speech to the NAACP (“And we, all of us in government, are working to do our part…”), a 2011 Iowa town hall meeting (“As tough as things are, we, all of us, are incredibly blessed to have been born in the United States”), and his 2015 State of the Union address (“So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes”).

Now, you may have noticed that in all three of the quotes, there are commas in the phrase. That is, the transcriptions show him saying “we,” then pausing and emphasizing the word with “all of us” (or “all of us in government”). That’s a bit different from the phrase as used in all the written examples above. I submit that in fact, Obama used it without a pause, and the commas were inserted by transcribers, perhaps because they were Americans and unfamiliar with the straight-through “we all of us.”

However, I am too lazy to check out my contention. If anybody else wants to, here’s video of the SOTU address. I almost hate to put it out, because the gap between Obama and the current occupant of the White House is so painfully chasmatic. But anything in the interest of science. According to this transcript, the phrase comes about three quarters of the way through.

 

 

 

 

Collective Nouns

I was intrigued by something New York Times soccer (football) writer Rory Smith mentioned the other day. Apparently there had been a discussion on his newsletter about the way British usage considers a team plural, but American usage has it singular:  “Chelsea are playing today” versus “New York is playing today.” (If only). I’ve looked at the issue a a few times on the blog, most recently here; you can see all the posts by typing the word “plural” into the search field at right.

But I haven’t covered why this difference exists, and Smith reported getting a message from a reader with an explanation:

I think the American use of the singular “is” as opposed to the plural “are” came about as a result of the Civil War. Prior to the war Americans talked and wrote about the United States using the plural — these United States “are.” After the war common usage changed to the United States “is.” Gradually that usage came to be applied to other groups such as sports teams.

I found myself reacting skeptically, and sure enough, when I ran it by linguist Lynne Murphy, she was dubious about both of the reader’s claims. First, she said, “The relevance of the Civil War to the singularisation of the US is something that’s been said and debunked in various places (or at least, claimed to be too simplistic). Language Log has done some: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1794 and there’s this: https://t.co/teBf5Xo4t6.”

I subsequently found, in addition, an article by Ben Zimmer on the Visual Thesaurus website that pinpoints where Smith’s reader probably got his take. In Ken Burns’s wildly popular 1990 documentary about the Civil War, historian Shelby Foote says:

Before the war, it was said “the United States are.” Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always “the United States is,” as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an “is.”

Foote didn’t make the idea up; Zimmer quotes several others who espoused it starting in the 1890s. But none of them had any hard evidence. It turns out the War did not in fact mark an abrupt change. One scholar analyzed Supreme Court decisions and found, “justices continued to use the plural form through the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the plural usage was the predominant usage in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Only in the beginning of the twentieth century did the singular usage achieve preeminence and the plural usage disappear almost entirely.”

Google Books Ngram Viewer similarly finds that in U.S. books, “The United States are” (red line) prevailed until about 1880, after which “The United States is” (blue line) commenced a rapid ascent.

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Smith’s reader’s other claim is that singular verbs for sports teams and other groups followed the example of “the United States.” Lynne Murphy didn’t buy that, either, calling it “fanciful/misguided.” There’s a section on this (complicated) topic in her book The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, in which she cites research to the effect that singular use for collective nouns (“the government,” “the army,” “Parliament,” “Congress,” “New York,” “Chelsea”) has been on the rise worldwide since the 18th century. Americans have been the trailblazers, in other words, and the British the laggards.

One interesting line of research suggests that, in the 20th century, the British reversed course and started doing the plural-verb-for-collective noun bit more, possibly to set themselves apart from the Yanks. (A similar thing happened in Britain with the end of words like “realize/realise” and “organize/organise.” The “ize” form was more popular until the late 19th century, when the very-much-non-American “ise” started to surge.)

An example comes from a database containing Hansard, the proceedings of the house of Parliament. Here’s a chart showing the declining frequency of the phrase “the government is”* since 1910. (The bottom number — 2.58 in 1910, 0.70 in 1990 — is key, indicating how often the phrase occurs per million words.)

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And here’s the chart for “the government are”:

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All of which leads me to suggest that Rory Smith’s readers take up a new topic: why do Britain have the odd habit of using plural verbs for collective nouns?

*Note. Pure searches for “the government is” and “the government are” would lead to false positives, for example, sentences like “Members of the government are working hard.” To avoid these, I searched for instances where the phrase followed a colon and thus began a clause.

“In the Event”–a Little Help, Please?

For reasons that are clear when you read the date of this post, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands, part of which I’ve spent by reading Stephen King’s novel The Institute (a page-turner). My NOOBs-dar was struck by two sentences. The first was in the line of dialogue, “I hope you’re sure they’re keeping shtum, as the saying is.” For “shtum,” see this post.

The second was this: “In the event, no gunshot came.” That “in the event” is equivalent to “as it happened” or “as it turned out,” and I had always thought of it as a Britishism. The OED has a couple of (obviously non-American) citations from 1570 and 1612. The next is from British-born Yank Thomas Paine in 1791: “But all his plans deceived him, and in the event became his overthrow.” All the rest are from Britain, up to novelist A.S. Byatt in 2009: “In the event, they were overwhelmed by rain.”

But that’s anecdotal evidence, and I have been having a hard time proving this expression is a Britishism, much less a NOOB. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, containing about 2 billion words published on the web in 2012-2013, indeed shows higher use of “in the event” in Britain, and especially Ireland, than in the U.S.

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But the trouble is, the vast majority times in every country, “in the event” isn’t used the Stephen King/A.S. Byatt way. Rather it’s “In the event that it rains …” or “in the event of a sellout” or “Anyone participating in the event…,” etc. I have not figured out a way for singling out this particular meaning in GloWbE or any of my other usual suspects, including Google Books or Ngram Viewer and the New York Times. (The Times is worst of all in this investigation because a search for “in the event” turns up every time the paper has used the word “event”; it considers “in” and “the” non-searchworthy minor words.)

So: if anybody has any bright ideas on how to quantify the use of “in the event” meaning “as it turned out” in Britain and the U.S., I am all ears.

Update, later that same day. Two things. First, judging from the comments, I didn’t make it clear enough that I’m not only talking about “in the event” as a standalone phrase, almost always followed by a comma, and not phrases that begin “in the event that” or “in the event of.” For some reason, the latter are common in the U.S. but not the former. Go figure.

More important, I sent my plea out over Twitter and immediately got some great information and suggestions. Writer James Marcus, acting on a hunch, searched for “in the event” and “Henry James” and got this from The Master’s 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle: “And the touch, in the event, was the face of a fellow-mortal.” Of course, James, though born and bred in the U.S., veered toward Britain in language, manner and eventually residence, in a sort of human heliotropism.

Actual linguist Lynne Murphy gave me a great tip for using GloWbE and the other databases at English-corpora.org. By searching for “. In the event ,” (no quotes), I could eliminate a lot of the noise and produce only cases where the phrase starts a sentence and is followed by a comma. Sure enough, on GloWbE, that produced an even more pronounced frequency in Britain.

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And even the low U.S. figure is deceptively high because a lot of the hits, though mostly published in U.S. journals or websites (one’s from the Daily Mail), were written by British people. For example, this is from an article about soccer (football) from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “In the event, the only ‘crack’ was the sound of the ball flying off Mario’s boot into the far corner.” But right there on the page, it says that the author of the article, Simon Moyse, was “Born in London.”

But a handful of the hits are legit American, for example this from the Daily Kos, by Matt Pociask: “In the event, though, the various statesmen who assembled at the Convention in 1787 had a fairly clear mandate for change.” Pociask identifies himself as an “Atlanta area lawyer.” (He may have gotten the lingo at work. On LinkedIn, Pociask says, “I’m currently a claims counsel for Hiscox … a leading specialist insurer rooted in England.”)

Another resource at English-corpora.org is the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which contains 2 billion words published between 1990 and 2019. It yields 71 examples of ” . In the event ,” in that time, again, some of them published in the U.S. but written by English people. But also again, some are legit, including this from a 2019 Slate article about Game of Thrones, by the American military strategist Robert Farley: “In the event , the snowstorm made it difficult for Team Alive to even take note of the weapons, and Team Dead squandered one of its biggest advantages.”

So Stephen King is not alone.

 

 

 

 

“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.