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I was listening to the NPR radio show “Fresh Air” the other day; Terry Gross’s guest was Daniel Davis, a professor of immunology at the University of Manchester. I was struck by a word Davis used –“quieten.” In fact, a search of the episode’s transcript reveals he used it seven times, for example, “the exact evidence is really that when a person or an animal is stressed, the immune system does quieten down.”

The word felt unfamiliar; plus, I couldn’t tell the difference, if any, from “quiet.” Since Davis is British I suspected it is a Britishism, and I was right. The OED first lists a transitive sense of the verb: “To make quiet (in various senses); to calm, to pacify.” It’s listed in an 1828 book about York County dialect and apparently became popular enough so that someone wrote in the North British Review in 1844, “To ‘quieten’ the not English.” Subsequent citations — all British — belie this assertion.

The definition for the intransitive sense — the one used by Dr. Davis — is “To become quiet (in various senses). Frequently with down.” The first citation, from 1890, and all subsequent ones are British, except this from Pissing in the Snow, and other Ozark Folktales (1976): “When things finally quietened down, the folks figured that the neighbor boys must have set off some fireworks under the bed.” The word also shows up in Whatever it was that was in the house, I quieten ’em down.” The word also shows up in The Frost Haint of ‘Possum Hollow and Other Ozark Tales (2008), by Alan Lance Andersen, so it does seem to be a thing in the Ozarks, a hilly region in the American South.

As for the difference between “quiet” and “quieten,” the OED definitions are pretty much the same. For the intransitive sense of “quiet,” it’s: “Now chiefly N. Amer. To become quiet; to quieten. Frequently with down.”

Outside of the Ozarks, “quieten” is pretty uncommon here, hence the “On the Radar” designation. It has been used eight times in the New York Times since 2010 but it turns out on seven of those occasions, the writer or the person being quoted isn’t from America. The eighth example is from an essay about the photographer Robert Adams by Teju Cole: “You are likely to feel your breath getting calmer and your senses quietened.” But even Cole, I discover, was born in Michigan to parents from Nigeria.

This chart from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, showing use of “quieten” and its derivatives (“quietens,” “quietened,” etc.)  shows a bit more frequency in the U.S., but still lagging well behind Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

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One of the 41 American uses is this sentence from a comment to a 2011 Huffington Post article: “Even if the sun were to quieten down appreciably for the rest of this century, it would still be business as usual for global warming.”

Intransitive “quieten” strikes me as a potentially useful addition to American English.  “Quiets down” is fine, but saying that someone merely “quiets” sounds sort of naked; it could use an extra syllable. So I expect eventually to see more of “quieten” on these shores.



“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”:

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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.)

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“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:

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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:

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

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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):

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Next: “browned off.”