Here’s the third and final (after “bestie” and “flummox“) entry in a series of posts based on words I only realized were Britishisms after reading Lynne Murphy’s book The Prodigal Tongue. They represent a sort of blind spot, or koan, for your humble blogger: if a word or phrase is prevalent in the U.S., how is one to realize that it’s of British origin? Sometimes I encountered it in the U.K. years before hearing it here; sometimes it just has a telltale whiff. Other times, you just have to rely on Lynne Murphy.

And so with “gastropub,” meaning, basically, a bar that purports to serve good food. If I had thought about it, I probably would have realized it’s British, as it’s the British who have proper pubs. In any case, according to the OED, it popped up no later than April 1996, when the (London) Evening Standard wondered: “Will stale pork pies and reheated bangers ever be axed from pub menus? The rise of the gastro-pub suggests that, one day, they might.” The term fairly quickly lost its hyphen.

It crossed the Atlantic in 2003. I can pinpoint the date (as well as the person who brought it over) because in November of that year, the New York Times reported:

April Bloomfield …, a 28-year-old English chef and alumna of the River Cafe in Hammersmith, just outside London, spent the summer in the kitchen of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., preparing for her new job in New York. She will be cooking at The Spotted Pig, a gastropub at 314 West 11th Street, when it opens in a couple of weeks.

After Pig, the deluge. Gastropub has made 315 appearances in the Times since then, including in a 2015 article about a Long Island sports-gastropub called Brixx & Barley. Instead of fried chicken wings,

jumbo wings … are marinated in pineapple juice, beer, jalapeño, cinnamon and other spices for about 48 hours, baked in a brick oven to render off the fat and grilled to order. There are about 15 sauces available, including maple sriracha, Jamaican honey and garlic Parmesan.


Lynne Murphy’s new book, The Prodigal Tongue, has plenty of blog-fodder, which I’m just starting to make my way through. As with “bestie,” I was surprised when she mentioned “flummox” as a Britishism, but once again, she’s right. For the most part.

It’s a word with a history, for sure. The OED categorizes is as “colloquial or vulgar” and gives as primary definition: “To bring to confusion; … to confound, bewilder, nonplus.” The first citation is a line of dialogue from Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, 1837: “He’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed.” (There is no evidence that the word has any Italian derivation–it shows up in late nineteenth-century books described as provincial English slang.) Green’s Dictionary of Slang bests that by three years with this quote from the bawdy songbook Delicious Chanter: “Joe owned he was flummix’d and diddles at last.”

However, both Green’s and the OED note a roughly contemporaneous use of the word in the United States, with the meaning “give in, collapse.” The OED has this quote from the 1839 novel Green Mountain Boys, by the Vermont author Daniel P. Thompson: “Well, if he should flummux at such a chance, I know of a chap..who’ll agree to take his place.” The online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang has a definition and citations (the first from Britain, the second from the U.S.) for another meaning of the word.

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I also found this “flummox” in a slightly later novel by Thompson, Locke Amsden, or The Schoolmaster: “‘Well, he was a mean scamp, for all that,’ replied the oldest boy; ‘and we should have shipped him, at one time, if some of the boys had not flummuxed from the agreement.”

In any case, the “confound” meaning and the “flummox” (rather than “flummux”) spelling got solidified in Britain and seem to have been taken up in the U.S. in the middle of the twentieth century. An early use in the New York Times came in a 1954 James Reston column: “The Democrats were frankly flummoxed tonight.”

As this Google Ngrams Viewer chart suggests, U.S. use began to really rise in the 1960s and caught up with and then surpassed British use just before the turn of the twenty-first century:

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Lynne Murphy’s new book, The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English, has a lot of insights and revelations, which I’ll have more to say about in a subsequent post. For today, I’ll just note Lynne’s inclusion of “bestie”–slang for best friend–in a list of British expressions. That surprised me, because it’s certainly all over the place in the U.S.

But she’s right. The OED says the word is “originally and chiefly British” and has as its first citation a 1991 quote from The Observer: “Diana’s friends often date from the days BC (Before Charles). Some are Besties—reliable pals from school.” That appears to be a bit of an outlier. The next cite is from a 2008 novel called Swingers, and that’s about when the word starts showing up in the Google Books database.

By that time, “bestie” was already out and about in the United States. The first use in the New York Times came in a 2007 Maureen Dowd column, complete with quotation marks and definition indicating it was new on the scene; Dowd referred to “Urbanista, an online Rolodex that dispenses advice for ‘hip’ girls in Manhattan, offering to be a ‘bestie’ (a best friend) and answer questions like ‘Where should I go to get my Marc Jacobs shoes reheeled?’”

The word appeared once in the Times in 2009 and 2010 and kept moving up: 2012, four times; 2013, five; 2014, seven; 2015, 13; 2016, 16; and 2017, 14. (The slight dropoff is probably explained by the novelty having worn off.) There’ve been three appearances this year, including a headline:

Kardashian Bestie Simon Huck Is Selling You Beer and Shampoo

I’d be interested if any readers–British or American–could recall a specific pre-2007 when you recall using, hearing, or reading “bestie.”

“Bits and Bobs”

As noted in the previous post, I was surprised to see Harvard historian Jill Lepore use “bits and bobs” in a New Yorker piece; the phrase seemed just too British to be used by an American. But to paraphrase John Lennon, Lepore is “not the only one.”

Backing up a bit, “bits and bobs” does not have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, but is included in a larger entry for various expressions that include “bit.” It’s lumped with “bits and pieces” (very familiar to Americans) and “bits and bats” (not so) and defined as “fragments, oddments, odds and ends; small articles, personal belongings, bric-à-brac.” The first citation is an entry in A Warwickshire Word-book, 1896, which gave a sample sentence: “Gather up your bits-and-bobs, and let me lay the tea.”

However, I have found in the Google Books database a use that seems to precede that by two years. It’s in the novel Baptist Lake, by John Davidson (a Scottish writer):

For an hour and more, Mrs. Tiplady entertained Salerne with gossip — light, if a little muddy, like the froth of porter — with bits and bobs of music-hall songs and step- dances, and with caresses brief and birdlike — the wariest of landladies, deep in love with her viking as she was.

Google Books also suggests that “Bits and Bobs” was used as a chapter heading in a photography yearbook a year earlier, in 1893, but the date can’t be confirmed from what Google shows of the book.

On the matter of “bits and bobs” appearing in American sources, Google Ngram Viewer shows sporadic use in the twentieth century, with a gradual increase starting in the ’70s.

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The expression has been used 57 times in the New York Times, some but not all coming in quotes from British people. The first appearance is in a 1951 review of a children’s book about making puppets, using, for example, “the bits and bobs to be found in a young boy’s pocket.” And the most recent is in a December 2017 Vows column, which describes one of the two grooms: “He was always creative and enjoyed making crafts with bits and bobs of paper he had saved, ticket stubs and back-of-the-envelope doodles.”

In any case, it’s a useful expression, not quite the same as “bits and pieces”–which for me, anyway, always brings to mind the Dave Clark Five song. I imagine it’s here to stay.

Can You Spot the NOOBs?

The two publications I regularly read are the New York Times and the New Yorker. The latter has something of a reputation for Anglophilia (diminished somewhat since Tina Brown stepped down as editor) but in fact I tend to find more Britishisms in the Times.

However, I don’t think the Times has ever published three in one paragraph, as the New Yorker did in a January issue I just caught up with. The author is the Harvard historian Jill Lepore, and she’s writing about an intellectual-property dispute relating to two doll brands, Barbie and Bratz. Actually, Lepore has the three NOOBs in just two sentences! Can you spot them?

Carter Bryant was thirty-one and working at Mattel in August of 2000, designing clothes for Barbie, when he created Bratz, though he later said—and his legal defense turned on this claim—that he’d got the idea for the dolls while on a seven-month break from Mattel, two years earlier. He drew some sketches of clothes-obsessed, bratty-looking teen-agers—“The Girls with a Passion for Fashion!” he called them—and made a prototype by piecing together bits and bobs that he found in a trash bin at work and in his own collection at home: a doll head, a plastic body, and Ken boots.

Update: You could indeed spot them: he’d got, bits and bobs, and bin. As the links suggest, I’ve covered “he’d got” (Americans, except when writing for the New Yorker, universally say “gotten”) and “bin.” And as one commenter suggested, Lepore’s “trash bin” is a hybrid. I believe Brits would tend to say “rubbish bin” or just plain “bin,” with Americans preferring “trash can” or “waste-paper basket.” As for “bits and bobs,” I had always considered it one of those almost stereotypically British terms, like “telly” or “cheerio,” that would never be used by an American. Clearly, I was wrong, and I’ll take it up in my next post.

Another “lift”

Just a couple of weeks ago, in New York City, I spotted an elevator being described as a “lift.” Now, one from an Aloft Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina. This seems to be a trend.

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24-Hour Clock

The all-time most popular post on this blog, with more than 146,000 views and 99 comments, is “European Date Format” (that is, rendering a date as date/month/year rather than the traditional U.S. month/date/year).

A communication I recently received from Amazon, giving instructions on returning an item to one of its Lockers, made me wonder if I might repeat that post’s success. Here’s what Amazon sent me:


The key is that “21:00.” The traditional American rendition of that time is 9:00 PM. So, I wondered, is there a trend of U.S. adoption of European time format?

For the purposes of this blog, the first question to answer is whether the 24-hour format is indeed a British thing. The answer is a bit mixed. I just read an entertaining free e-book on the subject called Counting Time: A Brief History of the 24-Hour Clock, by Peter Boardman. He recounts how this idea was broached following World War I, was adopted by the British Army and Navy, and was endlessly debated in the House of Lords and the letters pages of The Times in the 1920s and early ’30s. The Lords endorsed the 24-hour clock in 1933 and the BBC experimented with it the following year, but no one seemed to like the idea and it was pretty much dropped till 1964, when the railways and London Transport adopted. Boardman concludes, “Instead of having just one time system, we have two, and they’re both going to be with us indefinitely. ”

The book was published in 2011 and things may have changed in the intervening years, at least according to the responses I got when I asked British people on Twitter if they thought the 24-hour clock was common in the UK. Lynne Murphy said, “Very widespread–and I love it.” Mark Stradling ventured, “Written down, pretty much ubiquitous,” but noted a caveat: “Nobody talks like that, makes you sound like a robot.”

In the United States, the only home of 24-hour time has until now been the military, as one knows from movies where people talk about “Fourteen hundred hours.” But it’s also (not surprisingly) widespread in the computer world, which is presumably where Amazon picked it up.

In sum, I deem the 24-hour clock a Britishism and, in these parts, On the Radar. Let the page views and comments begin.