Several months ago, a friend posted on Facebook a photo of his wife and son, with the message, “This guy … turned 26 yesterday with his beautiful mum by his side.”

What caught my attention, of course, was “mum.” That’s the equivalent in Britain and Commonwealth countries for Americans’ “mom,” as seen in this headline from a Scottish newspaper:

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On Mothers’ Day, in May, I noticed a few more American “mums” on social media. Then, less than a week later, the Royal Wedding happened, and I believe I saw some references to Meghan Markle’s “mum,” though I can’t locate them now.

It was a little hard to research it further, in part because “mum” is also a common word for silent, as well as a short form of chrysanthemum. I eventually discovered that on Twitter platform Tweet Deck, I could create a column for tweets containing “mum” that were posted within a 100 kilometer radius of New York City. Who knew?

This has proved to be a gold mine, with an average of a dozen or so hits a day. For example:

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From what I can tell, the American “mum” users tend to be female and on the young side. And the usage doesn’t seem to have extended to published sources. I would appreciate any additional observations on the matter.

“Go wobbly”

In a commencement address last month, former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

That “go wobbly” caught the ear of friend-of-NOOBS Stuart Semmel, as an echo of a famous Margaret Thatcher quote. She described in her memoirs a conversation with Pres. George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War: “We must use our powers to stop Iraqi shipping,” she recalled telling him. “This was no time to go wobbly.”

The relevant OED definition is “Wavering, uncertain, or insecure; unreliable, unstable.” And I hasten to say that the word “wobbly” is nothing new in the U.S., especially in the literal sense of wavering back and forth. In addition, “Wobbly” is a slang term for a member of the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) labor union. (A 1923 article by a member of the union gave an account of how the term originated: “In Vancouver, in 1911, we had a number of Chinese members and one restaurant keeper would trust any member for meals. He could not pronounce the letter w, but called it wobble, and would ask: ‘You I. Wobble Wobble?’ [that is, I. W. W.] and when the card was shown, credit was unlimited. Thereafter the laughing term among us was I. Wobbly Wobbly.”)

But “go wobbly” definitely has a Thatcherian and very British feel. Searching for the phrase in the New York Times, I found it in a January 2018 article about a conservative group’s hoped-for turn of events after a government shutdown a few years back:

“The public would express outrage that the president was willing to hold America’s full faith and credit hostage over the much-disliked Obamacare. Democrats would go wobbly.”

And then, not long after hearing from Stuart, I read in The New Yorker an article about the hacked e-mails of Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal. One of them, from producer Scott Rudin, remarked, “So you’re feeling wobbly in the job right now.”

It’s clear: “wobbly” has arrived.





In today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, fashion columnist Elizabeth Wellington gives advice on what to wear to summer festivals. She warns men to be aware of what’s on their t-shirts because

the wrong phrase or picture can turn a nice guy into a lout. Topics to stay away from: how good you are in bed, how many women you can pull, how much beer you can guzzle.

I’ve noted this particular “pull” quite a bit in the U.K., but not till now in America. The OED has this definition and citations:

 a. Brit. slang. To pick up (a partner), esp. for sexual intercourse; to seduce. Also intr.

1965   Sunday Express 25 July 17/2   As a young man I could never pull (pick up) any birds of my own class.
1973   E. Boyd & R. Parkes Dark Number vi. 69   Five years ago you did the big male-menopause bit, didn’t you? Skulking off to Paris to prove you could still pull the birds.
1985   J. Sullivan Only Fools & Horses (1999) I. 4th Ser. Episode 6. 246   Rodney, use your loaf, you’re never gonna pull a tart dressed up like Bertie Bassett.
1993   Bella 29 Sept. 40/1   ‘So you’re a barman,’ she said with a wicked glint in her eyes. ‘I bet you don’t have any trouble pulling.’
The first and most popular definition on Urban Dictionary was posted in 2003 by  an English contributor:
“Word used to describe the successful act of attracting a person to such an extent that you would be able to snog or perhaps bone them if you so desired.
With the help of my lucky Y-fronts I should pull tonight.”
I leave open the question of whether “Y-fronts” is a Britishism, and what in fact it is.
Update: After I tweeted about this post, Elizabeth Wellington, who is African-American, responded: “please ‘pulling chicks’ has been a part of hood vernacular for a minute. :)”
So there you go.

“Food hall”

As noted, when my wife and I passed the Penny Food Hall in on Seventh Avenue in New York the other day, she remarked that she thought “food hall” was a Britishism, and it turns out she was right. The OED definition: “orig. Brit. a section of a department store or shopping complex where groceries, esp. speciality and luxury products, are sold.” The first citation is from an advert in The Times in 1925: “You are invited to taste..any of the delicious jams, tinned fruits and so forth in Harrods Food Halls.” (And it was the wonderful Harrods Food Hall that my wife was specifically thinking of.)

By contrast, the OED defines “food court” this way:orig. U.S., an area in a shopping mall, airport terminal, etc., containing a variety of fast-food outlets and a shared seating area for their customers.” So: food halls offer groceries, and food courts prepared foods. The first citation for the latter is from the LA Times in 1979, when malls were just starting to boom.

“Food hall” penetrated the U.S. no later than 1976, when a New York Times article about Cambridge, Mass., describes a retail emporium called the Garage:In the food hall section … is Formaggio, where you can buy 130 kinds of cheese as well as imported meats, pâtés, smoked fish and inventive sandwiches on home‐style breads.”

American cities, especially New York, have seen an incursion of upscale food halls in recent years, offering (in my experience) almost exclusively prepared food that you eat there. The Pennsy Food Hall, for example, has six such spots, and no fishmongers or greengrocers:


A New York Times article in September 2017 addressed the trend:

Determined to provide experiences that will attract consumers and persuade them to open their wallets, developers are opening more food halls, the food court’s up-and-coming sibling, which are in the midst of a robust expansion.

Unlike food courts made up of fast food chains, food halls typically mix local artisan restaurants, butcher shops and other food-oriented boutiques under one roof. Many celebrate quirkiness versus uniformity, and their ability to draw crowds is particularly appealing to landlords battling the growth of e-commerce and changing shopping habits.

But it’s not just Americans who have changed the meaning of “food hall.” The last time I was at Harrods, I sat down and had a lovely afternoon tea.

Spotted in New York

I traveled up to New York City from my home near Philadelphia the other day to see the Broadway smash Hamilton. Great show! Unfortunately, what’s in my head now is the earwormy King George song, “You’ll Be Back.” Hopefully it will be out by the end of the decade.

Strolling the streets of New York I encountered a medical practice called Bespoke Surgical.


Then, next to Madison Square Garden, I passed the Pennsy Food Hall.


I thought nothing of it, but my wife (correctly) pointed out that “food hall” is of British origin. A post is to come.

At that point I started taking my own pictures. Here’s an ad in an apartment house’s ground-floor window:


(For more on “holiday” as British for “vacation” click here.)

Finally, the Flying Tiger store on lower Broadway is selling these containers for what Americans call French fries or just “fries.”


I realize Flying Tiger is Danish, but still.

“Chattering class/es”

I could have sworn I’ve done a post on this one, but apparently not, so here goes. The OED‘s definition and first three citations:

chattering classes  n. (occasionally also in sing. chattering class) freq. derogatory members of the educated metropolitan middle class, esp. those in academic, artistic, or media circles, considered as a social group freely given to the articulate, self-assured expression of (esp. liberal) opinions about society, culture, and current events.

1980   F. Johnson in Now! 21 Mar. 48/1   The peculiar need for something to be frightened about only seems to affect those of us who are part of the chattering classes.
1990   R. Crichfield Among British vii. 457   The old Britain of Eton, Oxbridge, the land, and the Guards, allied with a chattering class of literary intellectuals, so invaluable when it came to running an empire, is deadly when it comes to bringing the country into the 1990s.
1994   Daily Mail 18 July 8/2   A battle between Middle England—the sensible heart of the British middle classes—and Islington Person, the politically correct voice of the chattering classes.

Tooling around Google, I found a use that antedates the OED‘s first cite by more than a century, in an 1871 article in The Spectator called “The New Indian Danger”: “… and everything seemed to grow dear at once, to the immense disgust of the chattering classes who bought …” It’s clearly an outlier–nobody picked up on it–but it’s there.

In any case, the phrase is definitely of British origin. This Google Ngram Viewer chart shows it picking up popularity in the US starting in the 1990s, though still lagging far behind Britain.

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Ngram Viewer only offers reliable data through 2000, but “chattering class/es” has definitely picked up steam in the U.S. since then. In the New York Times, one or the other variants phrase have been used 295 times post-2000, most recently in a review of a book on Hillary Clinton’s campaign that appeared April 24 of this year: “… while the chattering class may be intrigued by, for example, Clinton’s flirtation with ABC’s David Muir, ordinary readers may find themselves swimming in references to journalists and staffers who are far from household names.”


“Organ-eye-zation,” etc.

I have in my repertoire one parlor trick. I do it when chatting with someone whose speech is generally unremarkable, but who employs a pronunciation like “global-eye-zation” (the vowel in the third syllable rendered /ai/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA) instead of the typical American schwa (“global-/ə/-zation”). I say, “I bet you’re from Canada, aren’t you?” And they invariably say, “Yes!”

It’s one of the few pronunciation that Canadians have retained from Britain; others are pronouncing the first in pasta as in cat or hat and the long o in process. You can hear this long i when Canadian hockey players and fans refer to teams as organ-/ai/-zations, and in the Canadian William Shatner’s rendition of civilizations at about the 25-second mark of the opening monologue of Star Trek (right before an infinitive is boldly split):

Although Shatner spoke the words, the character he played, James Kirk, is supposed to be from Iowa. The fact that the producers nevertheless allowed civil-/ai/-zations to stay suggests that to them (as opposed to me), the departure is subtle and maybe not even noticeable.

In any case, I predict my little trick is not long for this world. That’s because Americans have started to adopt the /ai/ vowel in such words. The data I have to support of this assertion is admittedly preliminary, but suggestive:

  • In 2014, when someone on the Word Reference.com Language Forums asked about the pronunciation of organization, two Americans responded that their countrypeople alternated between the  /ə/ and the /ai/ forms.
  • Again, on the crowdsourced pronunciation site Forvo, two Americans offer pronunciations of organization, and they split the same way.
  • The /ai/ version is creeping up more and more on NPR. Just in the past week or so, I’ve heard the reporter Shannon Dooling say author-/ai/-zation; a newsreader (I forgot to write down the name) say denuclear-/ai/-zation; and, on the WBUR program Here and Now, Dipayan Ghosh, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the New America Foundation, say organ-/ai/-zation. Dooling graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (though she did get a master’s at the University of British Columbia!) and Ghosh from the University of Connecticut. (After a version of this piece was originally published on the Lingua Franca blog,. Ghosh told me, via Twitter, “I think I’ve always said it that way because it’s how my parents — from Calcutta — have said it.”)

There is another, similar set of words, such as missile, agile, futile, mobile, hostile, and fertile. Brits pronounce the two syllables with roughly equal stress and use /ai/ for the i, while Americans accent put the accent on the first syllable and use a schwa, for example, missəl. An informant reports that in the corporate world, rhyming agile with mile is all the rage, and I’ve noticed more than a few Americans very British-ly refer to their phone as “my moh-bile.” But this trend awaits further research.

As for the –/ai/-zation words, I note that Ghosh is in his late twenties and Dooling in her thirties; the organ-/ai/-zation guy on Forvo and the NPR newsreader both sounded in that age group to me. And this fits in with a number of other words, spellings, and pronunciations that I’ve noticed gaining popularity among the young: spelling gray as grey and adviser as advisor; pronouncing often as off-ten and sometimes going full oftentimes; saying neither to rhyme with MacGyver rather than beaver; using whomever even when whoever is called for; and saying amongst and amidst instead of among and amid.

What the new uses have in common is that they either are or appear British and therefore (?) fancy. If this blog has proved anything, there is a general American desire to seem British and fancy. But why would this generation act on it more than other generations? I confess I’m stumped.