A “Whilst” Landmark

I last wrote on “whilst” in January 2019, after Lynne Murphy had selected it as her U.K.-to-U.S. Word of the Year. I quoted Lynne quoting Nancy Friedman quoting numerous U.S. users of this synonym for “while,” and added some data of my own from Twitter.

But I was moved to return to the word last week, when the New York Times tweeted:

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In my little world, that is a big deal.

I took the opportunity to do a little more “whilst” research. First, I used Google Books Ngram Viewer to look at the frequency with which the word has been used in British and American books. U.S. uses is in red, British in blue.

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It’s a familiar pattern — rough equivalence around 1800; in the nineteenth century, British rise and American decline to the point of nadir; then British decline, and in the 2000s, aka the NOOB Era, American resurgence.

I also revisited a question Lynne had posed in her 2019 post, about whether Americans ever pronounce the word with a short “i,” as if it were spelled “willst.” It’s not an easy question to answer because the word (it would appear) is more often written than spoken in the U.S. But I went back to Youglish, a website originally recommended by Ben Zimmer, which currently purports to have a selection of 663 YouTube videos of Americans saying “whilst.” (I’d say “purports” because on the evidence of looking at a couple of dozen, only about half, going by accent, are Canadian or American; the rest were recorded at American events but with British or Australian speakers.) Anyway, listen to this one at about the 3:00 mark.

You heard it — “willst solving tasks.”

“Yoicks”

[Note: This piece originally appeared on the “Grammar Girl” website. If you follow the link, you can also hear it as a podcast!]

A recent article in the LA Review of Books has the line “Yoiks! Dostoyevsky at his weirdest is for me the most-Gogol-like of the Russians.” And this comes from a recent issue of the Pittsburgh Current: “Yoiks! Are we totally sure Lincoln didn’t commit suicide?”

I’m familiar with that “yoiks.” My dear departed mother-in-law Marge Simeone used to say it. I always thought it was a jokey, mock-New York rendition of the word “yikes.” But it isn’t. Or, more precisely, it isn’t only that.

A look at the OED shows me how unaware I was. The main definition for “yoicks” is: “Chiefly Fox-hunting. A call or cry used to urge on hounds. Sometimes also used more generally as an exclamation indicating excitement or encouragement.” The first citation is from 1774, and here’s one from 1838: “The wood begins to resound with shouts of ‘Yoicks True-bo-y, yoicks True-bo-y, yoicks push him up, yoicks wind him!’”

Evidence of American awareness of the term can be found in the 1958 Warner Brothers cartoon short “Robin Hood Daffy.” Daffy Duck is the legendary outlaw, and every time he attempts an acrobatic feat, he shouts, “Yoicks! And awa-aaay!!!”

 

As early as the 1880s, according to the OED, the word began to be used in a slightly different way, as “An exclamation expressing surprise, astonishment, or fright.” It popped up on both sides of the Atlantic, including in a 1942 article in the American magazine Boy’s Life: “Yoicks! What a day for the game!” This jibes with the use of it by my mother-in-law (born 1914). And the 1942 date is interesting, because it suggests that “yoicks” begat “yikes,” rather than the other way around.

I say that because it was precisely in the early ’40s that the now-familiar interjection “yikes” was born. The OED’s first citation is 1971, but a crowd-sourced etymological investigation on Twitter was able to move that up by more than three decades. Joshua Friedman found this on newspapers.com:

Old quotation that reads "And if you can’t think of anything else to be grateful for, just be thankful [that] you’re not a turkey. It can’t be too bad, though; they get the axe and we get the bird. Yikes!"

The Merriam-Webster Twitter account offered this odd quote from the September 1, 1940, “Baltimore Sun”: “‘BAW-W-W-W!’ said Beelzebub, and his massive flanks heaved with emotion and distress. ‘BAW-W-W-W!’ ‘Yikes!’ Kewpie bleated and fled.” And Peter Gilliver of the “OED” staff tweeted a Canadian quote from October 1940: “An oat-burner in October, yikes!”

So I hypothesize that “yikes” is an Americanized version of “yoicks.” And I speculate that the folks who started to use “yikes” in the early ‘40s may even have (mistakenly) thought that it was the original term, of which “yoicks” was a Cockney rendition. (Such a process, which you might call hyper-corrective back-formation, happened with “hoity-toity,” which originated as such in the 17th century and was sometimes subsequently rendered as “highty-tighty.”)

Here’s where it gets complicated, or more complicated. There’s a significant chronological gap between the 1941 Boy’s Life quote and my came-of-age-in-the-1920s mother-in-law’s “yoicks,” on the one hand, and the 2020 quotes cited in the opening of this article, on the other. And so why did Americans come back to “yoiks”?

The example of another word suggests an answer. In 1999, the Beastie Boys—white rappers from New York—put out a song called “Three MC’s and One DJ,” which contained this lyric:

My name is Mike D, and I’m the ladies choice
You’ll wanna get next to me in Rose Royce
Y’all gather round to hear my golden voice
Cause when it’s time to rhyme, you know I get nice

Only Mike D (Mike Diamond) pronounced the last word “noice.” I’ve been trying to send him a message asking what was going through his mind when he made this decision—other than rhyming with the previous three line-ending words—but the Beastie Boys are hard to get in touch with. So I’m going with the idea that he was doing a version of a New York accent.

Even that is complicated. Without a doubt, the “oi” sound— /ɔɪ/ in International Phonetic alphabet, or IPA—is associated with New York, and in particular New York Jewish, talk. The Jewish association stems from the very word “oy,” and the more general one from both the unmistakable dipthongy way New Yorkers pronounce /ɔɪ/ (listen to Terry Gross of “Fresh Air” say “boy” is you want to know what I mean), and the “I met a goil on toity toid street” idea, a caricature of what was once a prevalent feature of New York speech but that has mainly faded away. You can hear the real deal in the clip of Groucho “Say the magic woid” Marx:

And some older New Yorkers might indeed pronounce “nice” a little bit like “noice.” Michael Newman, professor of linguistics at Queens College and the author of “New York City English,” explained in an email:

in New York City English when the /ai/ is followed by a voiceless sound, like ‘price,’ ‘nice,’ ‘heights,’ ‘bike,’ or ‘bite,’ or when that diphthong has no following sound at all like ‘bye,’ ‘tie,’ the first part of diphthong gets pronounced farther back in the mouth than when the /ai/ is followed by a voiced sound like ‘prize,’ ‘size,’ ‘hide.’ This phenomenon is called PRICE backing. Listen to any old movie or TV show set in NYC or even plenty of older white New Yorkers, and you’ll hear that.… When this backing gets strong enough it sounds something like but not exactly like the vowel in ‘CHOICE.’

To me, “noice” sounds more like what its definition on knowyourmeme.com says: “… It is often associated with the Australian or English [to my ears Cockney] accents.” “Noice” has a definition on knowyourmeme.com because it is, well, a meme. The website says it “is an accented version of the word ‘nice’, used online as enthusiastic, exclamatory internet slang to declare approval or sarcastic approval of a topic or achievement.” By 2013, “noice” had moved from hip to a trying-too-hard cliché. I specify that year because it’s when the comedy team Key and Peele broadcast a skit in which they both play rap “hype men” who clash over possession of a the word “noice.”

Also in 2013, the TV comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiered. The main character, Jake Peralta (Andy Samburg), tries too hard to be hip. Naturally, his personal catchphrase is “noice.” He even tries too hard to expand it, saying “toight” for “tight.”

So what I think happened is that the popularity of “noice” as a jokey version of “nice” led to the reemergence of “yoiks” as a jokey version of “yikes.” The theory isn’t possible to prove, but it’s supported by the fact that the more common  spelling is now “yoiks,” not the fox-hunting-derived “yoicks.” And “yoiks” looks like “yikes.”

If I ever hear back from Mike D, I’ll let you know.

 

‘Bollix’ [or ‘Bollocks’ or ‘Ballocks’] Up’

I’ve written briefly a couple of times about the off-color term “bollocks,” originally meaning testicles and since used in all sorts of colorful ways. (The link is the more recent post, and it has a link to the previous one.) I recommend the comments on both, many of which are relate to how offensive the term has been, until fairly recently, in Britain.

I imagine that the move to acceptability occurred following the 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The record company was actually brought to court on obscenity charges; it won. Incidentally, it appears that the album led to the change in the more common spelling of the word, from “ballocks” to “bollocks.” Check out this chart from Google Books Ngram Viewer, showing the incidence of the two words in British books:

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As to the aforementioned “colorful ways,” here are just a few of the variants in the invaluable online resource Green’s Dictionary of Slang:

My topic today stems from a video clip someone put on Twitter of the American MSNBC commentator Joy Reid:

In the clip, Reid says about the Trump campaign’s Tulsa rally (helpfully defining the term after using it), “They completely bollixed it. They completely messed it up.” New York Times reporter Tariq Panja commented, “Not heard the phrase ‘bollocksed it’ [more on the spelling issue in a minute] used on the news before, and certainly not in the US. But, it has to be said, she’s used it correctly here!”

Well, the fact is “bollix” is a common American verb of long standing, admittedly usually followed by the preposition “up.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang’s first citation is from a Purdue University publication in 1902; the next two also American (as are all citations through 1954):

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(I’m struck that both Jerome Weidman and Arthur Kober were Jewish New Yorkers, as am I, and the term does have a suggestion to me of that milieu. However, my Yiddish expert friend Andrew Cassel tells me it doesn’t stem from that language; he says  my feeling may stem from the fact that Yiddish has a great number of words denoting fouling things up or failing.)

The first British use in Green’s doesn’t come till 1960, in the Colin MacInnes novel Mr. Love and Justice: “I hope your private investigations haven’t b—d up the situation prematurely.” (The omitted letters indicate the offensiveness of the word.) And from then on, Irish and British uses are common, with spellings including “bollix,” “bollocks.” “bollox,” and “bollux.”

But why would “bollix up” have been established in America first, when all other forms of “ballocks” were much more widespread in Britain? I believe I know the answer, or at least part of it, and it has been suggested (though even there not accepted) only once before as far as I know, in a short article in 1949 in the academic journal Modern Language Notes. It’s this: American “bollix up” does not derive from “ballocks”=”testicles,” but rather from an older phrase with a different etymology, “ball up.” The OED‘s first definition: “Of a shoe (esp. a horseshoe), hoof, etc.: to become clogged with balls of mud, snow, or the like. Also with the horse as subject.” The dictionary has citations, all but one American, dating from 1760. This is from George Washington’s 1787 diary: “Apprehension of the Horses balling with the snow.”

And that verb led to this broader, exclusively American definition of “ball”: “To clog or tangle; to bring into a state of entanglement, confusion, or difficulty. Frequently as past participle, esp. in balled up.” An 1885 citation is from a Mark Twain letter: “It will ‘ball up’ the binderies again.”

It seems evident to me that that expression led to “bollix up” within a couple of decades — pace the OED, which gives a “ballocks” etymology. (Green’s is silent on the question.) The one thing I don’t know is why it took on the extra syllable. It may indeed have been a conscious or unconscious nod to “ballocks” (which was commonly used in the U.S. to refer to testicles, though mostly in a farming context). Or it may have have been merely to add emphasis. Either way, I’m convinced that America “bollix up” doesn’t principally derive from “ballocks.”

By contrast, the author of that 1949 article in Modern Language Notes, Thomas Pyle, contended that it did. Otherwise, he wrote, “the similarity in from and the identity in meaning taken together must be accounted a truly remarkable coincidence.” I’m going with remarkable coincidence.

There is one more wrinkle.  The expression “balls-up,” meaning a blunder or error, shows up in an 1889 British dictionary of jargon and cant. Robert Graves used it in his 1929 World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That: “Tomorrow’s going to be a glorious balls-up.” Then it became a verb with the same meaning as “ball up”, no later than 1947, when Dan Devin used it in For the Rest of Our Lives, his novel about the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (N.Z.E.F.) in World War II: “: If only they haven’t ballsed up the bomb-line we gave them.”  From then on it appears frequently in British and Australian texts.

And does “balls up” relate to “balls”=”testicles”? Without a doubt, yes.

Nuance or NOOB?

I was watching an episodes of The Simpsons the other night where an unsuspecting Marge takes a job at “a high-end cannabis boutique.” (To be precise, it was Season 31, Episode 17, “Highway to Well.”) On figuring out what’s going on, she exclaims: “I’m a drugs dealer!”

Over the years, I’ve written on several occasions on the British tendency to pluralize collective nouns, most recently the similar “drugs party”; that post has links to previous ones discussing such forms as “drinks menu,” “jobs report,” “covers band,” and “books editor,” all of which are on the rise in America. But Marge’s “drugs dealer” was jarring because the alternative, “drug dealer,” is so common here. The New York Times has used that phrase 4,340 times but “drugs dealer” only twice, and one of those was a quote from an English tabloid editor. (I suspect the other one, in 1972, was a typo.)

Truth to tell, “drugs dealer” is relatively rare even in the U.K., as seen in this Google Books Ngram Viewer chart showing the frequency of the two forms in British books:

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But it’s definitely out and about, as in these two random hits from the Google Books database:

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Back to the Simpsons, the episode’s writer was Carolyn Omine, an American. When my wife and I talked about the “drugs dealer” line, I (naturally) claimed it was a Not One-Off-Britishism. But she disagreed, saying that Ormine wrote it in an awkward way to suggest Marge’s discomfort.

What do you think, NOOBs readers?

Update: You lot certainly thought I was wrong. Here’s a pie chart of the responses to the survey (now closed):

When Marge Simpson said drugs dealer, was it a case of

And you lot were right. In a wonderful Marshall McLuhan moment, the writer, Carolyn Omine responded to my tweet about this post: “That was supposed to a mom-like mistake. It was to show Marge is so far removed from the drug world she doesn’t pronounce drug dealer correctly.” (She also commented on this post. See below.)

I stand corrected. And as I replied to her, it’s a very nice piece of writing.

 

“Kit out,” again

Lidl is a German supermarket chain that has operated stores in the U.S. since 2017, including one in our area, which explains why we get a Lidl circular every week. This appeared in the one we received today:

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In British lingo, “kit out” means equip or outfit. The first two citations in the OED are from 1961 and 1962, respectively:

  • Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell: “There are cases on record of writers having to kit out contemporary narratives with aliens and space-ships in order to make a sale.”
  • The Guardian: “A child can have ten days skiing for under £25 and be kitted out by Moss Brothers into the bargain.”

I covered American “kit out” in 2016 and discerned a “trendlet.” The Lidl circular suggests it might be growing into a full-fledged trend.

It’s interesting, by the way, that the product advertised should be an electric kettle — ubiquitous in Britain, quite scarce in the U.S.

 

“Crisps”

This happened on Twitter the other day. Just for your reference, the initial tweet was by Mignon “Grammar Girl” Fogarty, a popular blogger on matters of language and usage and a resident of Nevada.

 

 

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I’ve blacked out the name of the person who asked “crisps or chips?” but the Internet says she’s an American and recent graduate of Columbia University. And I see to my surprise that I’ve never done a post on “crisps,” which is what the British call what Americans call potato chips, or simply “chips.”

FCO_WLK_CHPPCT_-00_Walkers-Prawn-Cocktail-Crisps-1-2-oz

I actually have noticed some American use of “crisps” in recent years — not so much for potato chips, which I think is pretty well entrenched as a term, as for other crunchy, marginally more healthy snack items, like this:

crisps

Or this:

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And what sort of “chips” did Mignon Fogarty have for lunch? One of my favorites.

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“At university”

On previous occasions, I’ve addressed Americans using, in various circumstances, the British term “university” rather than “college,” which Americans traditionally use even in reference about institutes of higher learning that indeed are universities. That is, someone who graduated from Pennsylvania State University would say he or she “went to college” there, or “when I was in college.” (To make matters even more complicated, this Penn Stater would, I reckon, refer to “my university” or “the university.”)

Recently, I’ve noticed a spate of Americans not saying “in college” but either “at university” or “in university” (which seems to be a Canadian or Australian favorite). Some examples:

State University of New York Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson: “When I was at university, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph system.”

Sarah Karlan, a writer for Buzzfeed “Despite her family losing their home and business during the depression, [Edith] Windsor graduated from high school and would continue on to earn a degree from Temple University. It was at university where she would first fall in love with another woman.”

I’m not sure of Majd’s nationality but here’s a tweet of hers. (And by the way, Lady Gaga went to New York University.)

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And these tweets all emenated from a 200-mile raadius of New York:

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Anachronistic “On About” and Anomalous “Catch Him Up”

I was watching Better Call Saul the other night (Season 5, Episode 9, to be precise), and the character Kim Wexler exclaimed to Lalo Salamanca: “That‘s what you’re on about?”

I covered the expression “to be on about” something in 2013; it’s kind of the British equivalent to the American “going on and on about.” The problem with Kim’s use of it is that Better Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad, with the current season taking place in 2004, and “on about” didn’t really take hold on these shores till after that. This chart from Google Ngrams Viewer gives a bit of a sense of the timeline:

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I say “a bit” because both the British and American timelines overstate the use of the phrase, as a result of examples like a record review saying of a musician, “he’s on a lot about ten of the tracks.” My conclusion is that the NOOB “on about” was close to nonexistent in the U.S. in 2004, and would not have been used by a New Mexico lawyer with no apparent obsession with English television or novels.

At about the same time, I was talking with a University of Delaware colleague, Ann Manser, who said she was watching an actual English TV show, Lovejoy (Season 1, episode 9, “Death and [sic] Venice”), and was taken aback to hear an American character say “catch him up.”

That actually took me aback because I wasn’t familiar with the expression, which, Ann explained, is the equivalent of our “catch up to him.” (We do have a “catch [someone] up,” but it’s different. If a kid has missed school, the teacher might ask another student to “catch her up on what she missed.”) Ann said she and her husband thought the phrase was some sort of clue, maybe that the supposed American wasn’t really American after all. But no, there was no follow-up. You might call it, “The Case of the Shoddy Teleplay.”

“Come a cropper”

The always vigilant Nancy Friedman alerted me on Twitter to something she labeled “Attempted Britishism” in this passage from an Esquire piece by Charles M. Pierce:

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The Britishism part is the phrase “come a cropper” and the “Attempted” part is the apostrophe, which doesn’t belong. Nancy checked it out and found Pierce frequently used the expression, always with an apostrophe. (The asterisk after “president” is another story, presumably Pierce’s commentary on the fitness of the current occupant of the office.)

Gary Martin, in his Phrase Finder website, has a good explanation of the phrase’s origin, which has do with the nether quarters of a horse — the “croup” or “crupper.”

In the 18th century, anyone who took a headlong fall from a horse was said to have fallen ‘neck and crop’; for example, this extract from the English poet Edward Nairne’s Poems, 1791:

A man on horseback, drunk with gin and flip,
Bawling out — Yoix — and cracking of his whip,

The startish beast took fright, and flop
The mad-brain’d rider tumbled, neck and crop!

‘Neck and crop’ and ‘head over heels‘ probably both derive from the 16th century term ‘neck and heels’, which had the same meaning. ‘Come a cropper’ is just a colloquial way of describing a ‘neck and crop’ fall. The phrase is first cited in Robert S. Surtees’ Ask Mamma, 1858:

[He] “rode at an impracticable fence, and got a cropper for his pains.”

By the time John C. Hotten published his A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words in 1859, the phrase has come to refer to any failure rather than just the specific failure to stay on a horse:

“Cropper, ‘to go a cropper’, or ‘to come a cropper’, that is, to fail badly.”

Martin also debunks the association of the phrase with one Henry Smith Cropper, who began selling  a platen printing press in 1866. “It was a successful design and before long all platen presses were known as croppers. It is suggested that ‘come a cropper’ derives from the accidents that print workers had when catching their fingers between the plates of the presses…. There’s no truth to it though.”

Here is an arcane point that you are welcome to skip. Part of Martin’s proof that the Henry Cropper etymology is bogus is the presence of various uses of “cropper” in John C. Hotten’s 1859 slang dictionary. In fact, a search through Google Books reveals that Hatten didn’t include the phrase till his 1874 edition.

The OED cites that 1874 use, as well as these subsequent quotes:

1875   A. Trollope Way we live Now I. xxxviii. 241   He would ‘be coming a cropper rather,’ were he to marry Melmotte’s daughter for her money, and then find that she had got none.
1877   H. A. Leveson Sport Many Lands 464   My horse put his foot in a hole and came down a cropper.
1951   T. Rattigan Who is Sylvia? i. 230   We bachelors welcome competition from married men. We so much enjoy watching them come the inevitable cropper.
1963   Times 30 Jan. 1/7   I came a proper cropper, dearie, all black and blue I was.

The quotes tell an interesting tale. The use of quotation marks in the Trollope suggests that the figurative, non-horse use, at least, was at that point new. And the Terrence Rattigan and Times quotes both have infixed adjectives before “cropper,” suggesting that the phrase had become a cliche, or at least well worn.

As for British and American use of the phrase, the Google Ngrams Viewer chart, showing frequency of use in books, is illuminating:

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It’s similar to the pattern we saw for “we all of us.” British origin, but Americans catch up and use it about the same in the turn-of-the -20th-century period (in this case shortly after the turn). Then separation in the mid-twentieth century, followed by a slight closing of the gap as the phrase begins to seems old-fashioned in the U.K. and appealing in the U.S., in part as a result of the NOOBs phenomenon.

Ngram Viewer only has reliable data through 2008, but the New York Times archives show continuing solid use of the phrase. “Come a cropper” has appeared 94 times in the Times, all since 1920; here’s a baseball article from five years later:

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But the Times has grown partial to the phrase over time, with all but thirteen of the uses coming since the 1970s, and 17 of them since 2000. A couple of interesting things turn up in the newspaper’s archives. For one, Richard Nixon used “come a cropper” in the White House transcripts released as part of Watergate investigation in 1973:

For an inquiry to start with the proposition of [Sam] Ervin and [Howard] Baker, where you don’t come a cropper right there at the beginning on whether you can get the three branches. What’s your view of the three-branch, John [Erlichman]?

And check out the most recent use of the past tense, in a 2017 crossword blog by Caitlin Lovinger:

Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 6.19.40 PMThat’s right, it’s (wrongly) hyphenated, “a-cropper.” The hyphen shows up other times in the Times, including in a column by language maven William Safire. You can sort of see the impetus behind both, as the word “a” in the phrase doesn’t act the way we expect the word “a” to act, making it seem like there’s some sort of abbreviation going on. It’s similar to the way people write highfaluting or highfalutin’, rather than the correct highfalutin. So get rid of the apostrophes and hyphens and use “come a cropper” naked. It feels good!

“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.