“Wrong-foot” (verb, transitive)

This originated as (and still is) a tennis expression. If your opponent is running or moving, say to their right, to “wrong-foot” them is to hit the ball to their left, also known as “behind” them. The OED‘s first citation is from the Daily Telegraph in 1928, and it uses an odd-sounding gerund form: “His ground strokes had not the same speed and polish as Austin’s, nor could he steer all his volleys into the same wrong-footing area.”

The first OED citation in a more standard form doesn’t come till a 1959 book on rugby: “You could pick up the ball as though to go one side, and then, having picked up the ball, swing to the other side… It will wrong-foot the attackers, thereby giving you more time for your kick.”

However, using Google Books, I found an example from 1935:

The source is American Lawn Tennis, a periodical that, to state the obvious, was American. The quotation marks around “wrong-footed” suggest that the phrase was a relatively new borrowing from British tennis discourse. I am an avid tennis player, and my sense is that the term has long been used by people from all countries, yet it retains a British feel. In fact, when I say something like, “You properly wrong-footed me!” I always do so in a mock-British accent, aspirating the “t” in “footed” instead of using the flapping American “foodded.”

Here’s what Ngram Viewer has to say:

My read of the graph is the uptick in both Britain and the U.S. is due to non-sporting, metaphorical uses of the term. The OED defines this as “To disconcert by an unexpected move; to catch unprepared.” Its first example is from a 1957 book:  “‘Let me tell you..that the Government has made enquiries and we are not at all satisfied with the accuracy of your report.’ Kingsley was wrong-footed.”

Neither this nor any of the other citations are from American sources, but it has become a popular NOOB, to the point of cliche. The first eight uses of the term in the New York Times were published between 1964 and 1977, and all concerned tennis. (There were also two references in music reviews to “wrong-footed rhythms” but I consider that unrelated.) Then a 1982 article had this line: “the Japanese are now busy making many of their cars bigger, not smaller, and could catch Detroit wrong-footed once again if fuel economy becomes less important to consumers.”

The trickle has become a flood. The Times used the phrase thirteen times between 2019 and 2021, and only three concerned sports (two soccer and one tennis). For example, from a June 2020 article about the Trump Administration’s approach the pandemic: “Vice President Mike Pence, having been wrong-footed after taking the no-mask custom to the Mayo Clinic, now seemed to be making it up as he went along.”

For a related foot-centered sporting expression, see “on the back foot.

“Spot-on,” Revisited

[When it was early days for this blog, I tended to write quite short entries. So I’ve been going back and updating and expanding a few of them.]

This is a classic example of an early NOOB that caught on because it’s better than all the American equivalents. “Perfect,” “exactly right,” “right on the money,” “flawless”: they’re all either weak, vague, or worn-out.

The OED has some early twentieth-century examples for “spot-on,” all British, in more or less technical senses, like this one from 1936: “We..have three variables, namely, the oscillator inductance, the parallel trimming condenser, and the series padding condenser, and three frequencies which are to be ‘spot on’.” In the ‘50s, the term began to be used as a more general adjective (“the performance was spot-on”) or interjection, as in this from Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, quoted in Green’s Dictionary of Slang: “Arthur screwed his sandwich paper into a ball and threw it across the gangway into somebody’s work-box. ‘Spot-on’, he cried.”

The first American use I’ve been able to find was the opening of a 1985 New York Times restaurant review:

“’Oh, it’s a mixed bag.’ This was the reply I got when I telephoned Eton’s, the luxurious new restaurant in Englewood Cliffs, to ask what kind of food we would find there. As it turns out, the gentleman on the telephone was spot on.”

A lot of the early American uses were in food contexts, as in this from Los Angeles Magazine in May 2000: “For the lemony, pan-seared garlic chicken with baby spinach and a mashed potato gratin ($21), he suggests the ’97 Edmeades zinfandel, which is a spot-on pairing.” But three years after that, when it was featured on HBO’s The Wire, the term still wasn’t widespread. The late language commentator Geoffrey Nunberg, speaking on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” described its use in the series:

“Detective Jimmy McNulty is posing as an English businessman in order to bust a Baltimore brothel. He speaks in a comically bad English accent, the inside joke being that McNulty was actually played by the English actor Dominic West. Before he goes in, his boss Lt. Daniels and Assistant DA Rhonda Pearlman are prepping him for his role and giving him the signal to have them come in to make the arrests:

Lt. Daniels: It’ll be your call when we come through the doors. You want us in, you say … [turns to Pearlman] what was it?

Pearlman: “Spot on.” It means “exactly.” And remember, they have to bring up the money and the sex first, then an overt attempt … to engage.

McNulty (in an exaggerated English accent): Spot on!”

Well, things have changed a lot in two decades, as this Ngram Viewer chart shows:

In other words, as of 2012 or 2013, U.S. use topped British use. Supporting what I said at the top: in some situations, “spot-on” is, well, spot-on.


American-in-London Mike Wendling (@mwendling) tweeted out this image yesterday:

It was in reference to the (American) football team Buffalo Bills, but that doesn’t matter. What matters, as Wendling pointed out, was the word “gutting.” I’ve long been aware of “gutted” (meaning devastated) as a NOOB — and Lynne Murphy even chose it as her 2016 UK-to-US word of the year — but I had not noticed American use of the gerund form, applied to an event that causes one to feel gutted.

The word is a little hard to search for (“gutting knife” and the process of eviscerating a fish, a building, or voting rights keep coming up) but I was able to establish that the Buffalo News Headline wasn’t a one-off. Just a couple of weeks ago, a New York Times critic said an album by the rapper Saba confronts “gutting life challenges: the anxiety of generational poverty and the depths of survivor’s guilt.”

And there are these U.S. tweets, the first about the death of musician Tom Smith, the second about the death of pets:

“Kerfuffle,” Revisited

In the very early days of this blog, I tended to do very short entries. Lately — in part because I’m contemplating putting out a Not One-Off Britishisms book — I’ve been revisiting and expanding these posts. And thus, “kerfuffle.”

The word, meaning “Disorder, flurry, agitation,” started as the Scottish “cafuffle” or “curfuffle,” which appeared as early as 1813.  Three years later, this line appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary: “Troth, and my lord maun be turned feel outright, an he puts himsel into sic a curfuffle for ony thing ye could bring him, Edie.” The OED cites a 1953 line from a London magazine: “The word cafuffle is still in general use in her part of Scotland..as a noun meaning a state of confusion.”

But by that time, the “k” spelling had already taken root. The OED quotes a 1946 book by the New Zealand novelist Frank Sargeson: “I bet it ended up in a good old kafuffle.” But Google Books turns up a self-conscious use a year earlier from Both Are My Cousins, by Ronald Fangen, a Norwegian novelist. (Dermot McKay’s translation of which seems to have come out in 1945, but it’s not definite.) It’s a line of dialogue followed by an intriguing parenthetical comment: “’I’m in a bit of a kerfuffle.’ (There was the word!)”

British use of “kerfuffle” rose steadily from the 1950s till about 2000. At that point, the word took off in the U.K. and went from U.S. outlier to buzzword.

The New York Times offers a helpful gauge of U.S. use. The word showed up in the paper a handful of times in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in British contexts, and in a wholly American one for the first time in 1995, when columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that a tasteless monologue at a presidential event threw “the capital into a kerfuffle.” Then it appeared seven additional times in the ‘90s, including two more by the much-read Dowd, who clearly fancied the word and clearly helped to popularize it.

And popular it is. “Kerfuffle” was used twenty-four times in the Times in 2021, which suggests that it not only deserves a “fully arrived” designation, but probably deserves a rest.

“University” Gets Major Ink

I reckon that the three words I’ve written the most about over the years are (alphabetically) “bits,” “clever,” and “university.” (To find the posts on them, please use the search function in the right sidebar.) What they have in common is that all three have traditionally been used differently in the U.S. and U.K., and thus the adoption of the U.K. meanings over here need to be teased out a bit.

Recently, I’ve done a number of posts on “university“–specifically, Americans starting to say things like “When I was in university,” “He is going to university next year,” or “Many university students protested the ruling,” when traditionally they would have used the word “college.”

My distinguished colleague Lynne Murphy, author of The Prodigal Tongue (again, see right sidebar) and proprietor of the “Separate by a Common Language” blog, has noticed the same thing. And indeed, she has just chosen “university” as her annual “UK-to-US Word of the Year.” I recommend you read her entire post, but one interesting finding she shares is a difference that persists even for the Americans who are adopting “university.” It’s that where the British tend to refer to their time “at university,” Americans tend to say “in university,” echoing the familiar formulation “in college.”

Incidentally, her “US-to-UK Word of the Year” is “dune,” specifically its pronunciation.

“Ring” (verb) sighting

Seems odd to say this, but the last (and only) time I looked at “ring”–as in ring or ring up someone on the phone, or ring off, was more than ten years ago, in 2011. I tagged it as “On the radar” then, and I’d have to say that’s still the case, as the first time I’ve encountered a U.S. use since then was last week, when I was listening to the Gimlet podcast “Heavyweight” (highly recommended), when this promo for another Gimlet show, “Every Little Thing,” came on:

It’s the phone number. Maybe “ring” is starting to make inroads, or maybe it’s just that CALL-ELT wasn’t available.

“In the New Year,” Three Years On

Back in 2019, I noted that while Americans use the expressions “ring in the new year” or “bring in the new year,” they’re not like to use stand-alone “in the new year” as much as the British do. I was reminded of it by a tweet from @verybritishproblems:

My sense is that Americans would be unlikely to utter the quote in the tweet. Rather, they’d more commonly say “let’s do something next year” (if it’s before January 1) or “let’s do something this year” (if it’s after). They might even name the year. That is, where a British headline would say, “Stocks expected to rise in the new year,” the American counterpart might be, “Stocks expected to rise in 2022.”

To get a better sense of whether Americans are using the phrase more, I looked at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which has a database of U.S. sources from 1990 to 2019. It shows that the use of the phrase more or less doubled from the 1990s to the 2010s. (The actual increase is probably more than that, since “bring in…” and “ring in” formulations are included and were presumably constant over that time.)

Here are some examples from COCA of uses in American sources in 2019:

Note that six of the eleven use the long-established “ring in.”

FInally, I wish all NOOBs readers happiness and especially health in the new year.

Still More Anatopism!

The English writer David Mitchell’s latest novel, Utopia Avenue, is about a (fictional) late-’60s British rock band who, at various points, encounter (real-life) rock and roll figures. One scene takes place on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where Janis Joplin gives an impromptu performance. After one song, she takes her leave because, she says, “I’ve a session tomorrow.”

I found that piece of dialogue surprising, but at the same time not surprising. Surprising that Joplin, a native of Texas, would actually have said, “I’ve got a session” or maybe “I have a session”; the “I’ve a” construction is a Britishism. But not surprising because I’d already encountered a half-dozen examples in the novel of American characters using British words or phrases (and would come upon at least eight more in the remainder of the book). For example:

  • Gene Clark, on quitting The Byrds: “Now it’s gone, I want it back.” (American English: “Now that it’s gone.”)
  • Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane: “Chalk and cheese.” (A very British expression indicating two things very different in quality or value.)
  • Frank Zappa: “Accidents are often art’s best bits.” (Americans would say “best parts” or “best features.”)

It’s not only rock stars who talk this way. Other American characters in the book use the British terms “spot on,” “hey presto” (all of a sudden), “chop chop” (hurry up), “the chop” (getting fired), “reckons” (figures), “eyehole” (keyhole peephole), “carry on” (keep going), and “the till” (the cash register).

I’ve written about this phenomenon — British novels with American characters who use Britishisms — before, most recently here. But now I have a name for it: lexical anatopism. Anatopism is the equivalent of anachronism, except referring to words out of place rather than words out of time.

It’s not hard to imagine how this sort of thing happens. For both British authors and British copyeditors, lexical anatopism (like lexical anachronism) is a potential blind spot, a Donald Rumsfeldesque “unknown-unknown” situation. That is, they are aware that Americans would say “elevator” instead of “lift,” or would never say “telly,” but there are thousands of other expressions they probably don’t even realize are exclusively British. They just sound normal. Hence they don’t flag or query them when they come out of the mouth of an American character. 

American copyeditors would indeed sense something off, and I’m sure make many changes along these lines. But generally speaking, British books have already gone through the full editorial process before they cross the pond, and therefore often don’t get the fullest level of scrutiny over here. Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House (which published Utopia Avenue) and the author of Dreyer’s English, says, “When we publish a British book, we don’t do a thorough copyedit, unless that’s been prearranged. We do what I call a ‘vigorous proofread.’ Our editors pick up U.K. terms so obscure that even a reasonably Anglophilic U.S. reader wouldn’t understand them, like ‘ginger group’ [a ‘formal or informal group within an organization seeking to influence its direction and activity’—Wikipedia] or ‘Sat Nav’ [for GPS].'”

But “eyehole” for keyhole and “till” for cash register go through.

One might imagine the same thing happening the other way around—that is, British characters in American novels talking in Americanisms. I haven’t noticed it, possibly because I don’t recall reading that many American novels with British characters, possibly because of my own Rumsfeldian blind spot, or possibly because of a point raised by (American) romance novelist and linguistics professor Julie Tetel Andreson: “The influence of American movies and television has brought American usages into English speech—or, at least, this influence has made those usages not as foreign as they once might have been.”

But Andreson says both anatopism and anachronism are problems in Regency romances set in the early 19th century. She reports a couple of pieces of dialogue that are guilty of both sins: “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” and “I’ll bet.”

There are, of course, worse sins against literature than this sort of misstep, but they are nevertheless a bad business. As they accumulate in a novel, disbelief gets harder to suspend, credibility is strained, and the author’s spell, such as it is, begins to be broken. I humbly request a bit more effort by copy desks on both sides of the pond to ensure that dialogue is, well, spot on.

(Going) “to university”

The “university” saga continues. Most recently, I looked at Americans talking about being “at university” or “in university” instead of the traditional “in college.” (I will note there was pushback against the idea of “in university” being a thing. See the comments to the post.)

Yesterday, I heard a new one (for me) on National Public Radio. The report was about Hollins University in Virginia, known until 1998 as Hollins College. The (American) chair of the Board of Trustees was quoted as saying, “People have a choice about where they go to university.”

That is not something Americans say. They say “go to college” in general or even in reference to a particular institution, whether it calls itself a college or university. Or, to be more precise, that is not something Americans say, apparently until now.

“Snooker” (verb)

Reader Calum Aikman writes:

“I was wondering if you could perhaps find out how frequently the word ‘snookered’ now features in contemporary American discourse. It literally means ‘to confound’ or ‘to place in an impossible situation’, and is a word that I’ve always considered quintessentially British, for it derives from the game of snooker (which, if you’re unaware, is a form of billiards popular in the UK; it gets its name from the tactic of ‘snookering’, whereby a player obstructs the path between cue ball and object ball in order to force his/her opponent to commit a foul). Few Americans seem to have ever encountered snooker, so imagine my surprise last week when watching an episode of Judge Judy and hearing the eponymous courthouse diva using ‘snookered’ several times whilst berating a particularly egregious example of modern youth. In fact, she must be quite fond of the term, as she deployed it again on the Queen Latifah Show in 2013, as shown here:

“Is this a NOOB? I would never have thought so, but if such an unadulterated product of Noo Yawk as Judy Sheindlin is using it, then I suspect it may perhaps have trickled down to the level of ordinary conversation in the U.S.”

Great suggestion. I actually remember the first time I became aware of the word. It was on July 31, 1987, when I was watching the U.S. Congress’s Iran-Contra hearings. Former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan testified about his frustration that Iran had not freed American hostages, despite the U.S. sending arms to the country. He said he told President Ronald Reagan: “We’d been snookered again, and how many times do we put up with this rug merchant kind of stuff.?” (Incidentally, after the testimony, rug merchants lodged a protest.)

I particularly remember the way Regan, a Massachusetts native, pronounced “snookered” non-rhotically, that is, without sounding the “r.” And speaking of pronunciation, Americans pronounce the first syllable of the word to rhyme with “book,” and British people to rhyme with “nuke.”

Looking into the history of the word, the OED dates both the noun (the game of snooker) and the verb to 1889. The verb’s first citations are in line with the snooker strategy described by Mr. Aikman, and the first figurative use–meaning “to place in an impossible position; to balk, ‘stymie’.”– is in 1915. A line from a 1925 novel is, “‘I can’t see any solution,’ he said. ‘I’m snookered.’”

Google Books Ngram Viewer confirms British origin but indicates American use of the verb rising in the 1960s and surpassing the Brits in about 1979.

My sense is that Americans use is the word in a slightly different way than is suggested by the OED definition. Regan seems to have meant something like fooled, swindled, bamboozled. More recently, a right-wing figure named Allen West claimed George W. Bush “got snookered” when he referred to Islam as a religion of peace. And Judge Judy tells Queen Latifah: “If you choose a bad boy, you’re going to get snookered.” She actually might have meant “put in an impossible position,” but her affect and tone of voice suggests something more devious.

The word has appeared five times in the New York Times in 2021, generally in the bamboozled sense, as in this line about the con games of Jeffrey Epstein: “Journalists were among those who allowed themselves to be snookered.”

Has the word similarly shifted meanings in the U.K.? I await an answer from my British readers.

Update: Judging from the comments (which I commend to your attention), there does indeed seem to be such a difference. And linguist Lynne Murphy sends a link to a Lexico.com definition that confirms it: