“Bespoke” Does a 180

The other day I spotted this display of neckties in a local department store, Kohl’s.

To be clear, these ties are pretty much the opposite of “bespoke” — they’re mass-produced, of middling quality, and sold in bulk in a department store, for pete’s sake. Brings to mind what Humpty-Dumpty told Alice in Through the Looking Glass — “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” I reckon we’re living in a Lewis Carroll world.

More on “can’t be arsed/asked”

Some years ago I looked at the expression “can’t be arsed” (that is, can’t be bothered) and the way it has been (mis)construed, notably by Americans, as “can’t be asked.” A couple of developments since then. First, the OED moved its first citation for the expression to 1968 (from 1978, as I recall). In Hunter Davies’s 1968 book The Beatles, Paul McCartney is quoted as saying: “If they can’t be arsed waiting for me, I can’t be arsed going after them.” In the same book, John Lennon says, “I like ‘A Day in the Life,’ but it’s still not half as nice as I thought it was when we were doing it. I suppose we could have worked harder on it. But I couldn’t be arsed doing any more.”

Second, I found a very long, multi-year thread on the wordreference.com forum debating the merits of “can’t be arsed” and “can’t be asked.” I’ll spare you the details, except to say that one commenter found a 1979 article in which the American pianist Keith Jarrett was quoted as saying, “There are things now that I can’t be asked to do that maybe five years ago I would…” Now, that raises the question of whether Jarrett actually said “can’t be asked” or whether he said the British “can’t be arsed” and the interviewer mistakenly rendered it as “can’t be asked.” By a stroke of luck, that 1979 interviewer, Mikal Gilmore, is a Facebook friend of mine and I asked him if he remembered what Jarrett said. In a kind of Annie Hall-Marshall McLuhan moment, he responded quickly and definitively: “He said ‘asked.’”

I can understand why Jarrett and others would have made the change. First, most British people pronounce “arse” and “arsed” without voicing the “r,” so it sounds like they could be saying “asked.” Second, “can’t be asked” actually makes more sense than “can’t be arsed”—suggesting the idea that I won’t do something even if someone asks me to.

Perhaps for those reasons, “can’t be asked” apparently spread to the U.K. quite some time ago. A commenter on my original post said, “Working in and with South Londoners in the late 90s, I can confirm ‘can’t be asked’ as a thing, albeit pronounced ‘can’t be axed’. Actually more common at that time than arsed…”

And in 2007, someone posted a definition of “can’t be asked” on Urban Dictionary: “Used by some Southern UK speakers in place of ‘can’t be arsed’ because they misheard it, or want to be more polite.”

Helpfully dispelling any “arsed”/“asked” confusion is the version that has apparently become popular among young people on both sides of the Atlantic in their texting and commenting: the initialism “CBA.”

Americans Confused by “Athletics”?

At commercial breaks, NBC television coverage of a new-happening international competition shows this logo:

I wonder what American viewers make of it. As I have noted before, the U.S. and Britain have distinct meanings for the word “athletics.” In America, it’s a general, rather formal term referring to any sporting activity, including baseball, rowing, and ultimate Frisbee. That was the case in Britain as well, when the word was coined in the 1700s. A 1767 article in the London Chronicle refers to “Giving athletics the lead in this progression,… beginning with Scotch-hop, Foot-ball, Cricket, Tennis, Wrestling, Fencing, Hunting, &c.” But in the 1860s, a particular meaning developed in Britain. As the OED defines it: “Track and field events, including running races and various contests in jumping and throwing; the practice or sport of competing in these.” The dictionary quotes a 1959 line from the BBC comedy series Hancock’s World: “Athletics dear. Throwing things, jumping about, running, all that lark.”

In America, for well over a century, the term for these endeavors” has been “track and field.”

But it is alone in this in the English-speaking world, which is why the biennial competition currently taking place is called the World Athletics Championships.

Take it from me, the idea of “athletics” meaning running and jumping about is completely foreign to Americans, and it has been interesting to see how the U.S. media deals with the name of this important event. Other than showing the logo, they pretty much have not. Generally, they’ve gone with lower case and referred to it as “track and field” championships, or, as in this TV listing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, just left out the problematic word “Athletics”:

The New York Times has published multiple articles every day for the past week or so on the event, and by my count has only referred to it by its actual name three times. Once was in this passage, referring to Nike founder Phil Knight, which also included another NOOB!

“Brunch”

Yesterday, H.L. Mencken inspired a post on historical NOOB portmanteau word “smog,” and now here’s another one, of a slightly earlier vintage. “Brunch” apparently originated as university slang. The Independent reported in 1895, “Breakfast is ‘brekker’ in the Oxford tongue; when a man makes lunch his first meal of the day it becomes ‘brunch’…” Five years later the word had spread far enough for the Westminster Gazette to use it (in quotation marks) as the punchline of a comic poem: “Perish Scrambling breakfast, formal lunch!/Hardened night-birds fondly cherish/All the subtle charms of ‘brunch’.”

“Brunch” took a while to catch on in the United States. The first American citation in the OED is from 1930; as late as 1939, the New York Times felt the need to put the word in quotes and define it as “the present-day phenomenon of the breakfast-luncheon, or ‘brunch,’ as it is affectionately called.”

That was then, this is now. Ngram Viewer shows that right about the time of the Times article, Americans passed Britons in their use of “brunch” and have stayed comfortably ahead ever since.

What’s more, round about 2000, Americans stole the British “boozy” and came up with the “boozy brunch,” meaning that for a set price, you can have all the mimosas you want.

“Smog”

In his classic book The American Language (published in 1919 and periodically revised through 1936), H.L. Mencken has a chapter called “Briticisms in the United States.” I don’t know what’s taken me so long but I’ve just now read it carefully, and was struck, among other things, by the number of early NOOBs he mentions that I didn’t realize were such.

Take “smog.” It sounds American as American can be, and that was certainly the case in 1970, when Joni Mitchell, in her song “Woodstock,” declared, “I have come here to lose the smog.”

But it definitely is English in origin. In July 1905, the newspaper The Globe helpfully reported its apparent creation: “The other day at a meeting of the Public Health Congress Dr. [H.A.] Des Vœux did a public service in coining a new word for the London fog, which was referred to as ‘smog’, a compound of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’.” The same year the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on the development and commented: “London is undoubtedly the proper place for its coinage, for it is said to surpass all other places in the opacity of its smog, but so far as mere darkness is concerned some other British and American cities would afford ample justification for the use of the term.”

The U.S. Weather Bureau picked up the word in 1914, causing a wag to comment in the Kokomo Tribune: “But why end there? Let’s call a mixture of snow and mud ‘smud.’ A mixture of snow and soot ‘snoot,’ and a mixture of snow and hail ‘snail.’ Thus we might have a weather forecast: ‘Snail today, turning to snoot tonight; tomorrow, smoggy with smud.’”

But the term was still unfamiliar enough in America in 1921 for a New York Times reviewer of a book by C.W. Saleeby to comment, “America has no counterpart of that strange mixture, thick as pea soup, the color of faded green, sticky and smutty against the human skin and the facade of buildings, with a taste something like stale beer, which serves much of the time as atmosphere in Edinburgh and London. It acts like smoke and looks like fog. Dr. Saleeby has at last found a name for it, a name that is a positive inspiration. It should be in the next edition of all dictionaries. The name is Smog. The adjective is ‘smoggy.’”

Things soon changed as American cities (notably Pittsburgh and Los Angeles) developed the problem, and Americans adopted the word. Indeed, Ngram Viewer shows that since the early ’20s, U.S. use of “smog” has surpassed that in Britain — most dramatically during the environmental movement of the 1960s and early ’70s. That is, right when Joni Mitchell was writing “Woodstock.”

More “Meant to” Stalking

A few years ago, I looked at the rather subtle differences between British and American use of the expression “meant to,” and a few examples of the British version being used in the U.S.

Briefly, Americans use it to mean “designed to” (“the speech was meant to convey a sense of solidarity”) or “destined to” (“our marriage was meant to be”). While in Britain there are additional meanings, all where Americans would probably say “supposed to”: “said to” (“this movie is meant to be good”); “tasked with” (“the builder was meant to expand the kitchen”); and a third, seen in this headline that appeared on the New York Times website the other day.

Dr. Bernard is an Indiana ob-gyn who, the essay explains, “became a target of a national smear campaign for speaking out about her 10-year-old patient, a rape victim from Ohio who needed an abortion and had to travel to Indiana to receive one, given the restrictions in her home state.” The “meant to” in the headline is yet another “supposed to,” this time indicating a plan or intention.

Its appearance in the Times is enough to remove the “on the radar” designation from the phrase. Clearly, it was meant to be.

“Cushy”

I happened upon a 1918 letter to Notes and Queries in which the correspondent, Archibald Sparke, noted that “quite a large number of new words have come into common use during the War” and offered a list. Here’s a part of it:

I’ve already covered “scrounge,” but a few of the others struck me as being common in the U.S. I’ll take a look at them all in the coming weeks, starting with the “cushy.”

The OED tells us that it derives from words in Persian and Urdu that connote pleasure or convenience, and suggests that etymologically distinct “cushion” or “cushiony” may also have had an influence. The definition for the most common sense is: “Of a job, situation, etc.: undemanding, easy; requiring little or no effort; (later) spec. involving little effort, but ample or disproportionate rewards…”

The specifically military sense predates the Great War, as the OED has a brilliant 1895 quote from the Penny Illustrated Paper: “He told me that I had got into a ‘cushy’ (easy) troop.” And Green’s Dictionary of Slang gives a 1912 example of a now familiar formulation: “A lot of them have rare cushy jobs.”

The OED notes an interesting World War I sense of “cushy”: “Of a wound: serious enough to necessitate one’s withdrawal from active duty, but not life-threatening or likely to have permanent consequences, such as disability.” It provides this 1915 quote: “When you are in the trenches a cushy wound..seems the most desirable thing in the world.”

This 1918 New York Times article uses an interesting noun form in the headline:

“‘CUSHIES’ FOR THE FRONT

“British Agitation to Make Holders of “Soft Jobs” Do Guard Duty.

“Henry W. Benson, a wool merchant who arrived yesterday from London on his way to Sydney, Australla, sald that when he left England there was a strong agitation under way to have all the holders of ‘cushy jobs’ sent to the Continent to do guard duty and let the men who have done the fighting and endured the hardships of the war come home.”

The first example I’ve seen of an American using the term is Green’s citation from Budd Schulberg’s 1947 novel The Harder They Fall: “My job with Nick was like a jail, a comfortable, cushy jail.” The New York Times first used the expression “cushy job” in 1964; since then, it’s appeared in the paper 103 times.

And so it isn’t surprising that Ngram Viewer shows American use picking up in the 1970s, and surpassing British use in the ’90s:

Next: “wash-out.”

“Early Days,” Updated

The OED identifies this metonymic expression—which describes an early stage in an event or process, often implying too early, or premature—as “chiefly British” and finds a sixteenth-century citation from Sir Thomas More: “She telleth hym then that it is but early dayes, and he shall come tyme ynough.” It also shows up in Samuel Richardson’s 1740 Pamela (“’Tis early Days with Pamela, and she does not yet think of a Husband”) and frequently in the late 1700s and early 1800s, usually with the word “yet,” meaning “still,” at the end.

I should note that Americans have always referred to beginnings as “the early days of” something. It’s just that they only started saying “it’s early days” around 1980, as Ngram Viewer shows.

An early New York Times use came in 2001, when restaurant critic William Grimes wrote about the staff at a venerable French restaurant, after a change in management: “It’s early days yet, but I think they realize that Lutèce has turned a corner.”

By now, it’s common enough to be viewed as a cliché or—as the American tech writer Molly White observed in 2022—an excuse. White wrote that when she points out some of the shortcomings of blockchain currency (which has been around since about 2009), she’s often told “It’s early days.” However:

“So this raises the question: How long can it possibly be ‘early days’? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the ‘early days’ of proof-of-work blockchains?… The more you think about it, the more ‘it’s early days!’ begins to sound like the desperate protestations of people with too much money sunk into a pyramid scheme, hoping they can bag a few more suckers and get out with their cash before the whole thing comes crashing down.”

Possibly creating confusion is the existence of another British expression (which hasn’t penetrated to the U.S.) with a similar sound and meaning. The website World Wide Words offers a 2010 quote, and then a fascinating history:

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t concede, especially early doors, but I think it’s definitely game on if we score first.”—Sporting Life

Why footballers, commentators and fans say “early doors,” when “early” or “early on” would work just as well is probably due to Big Ron, otherwise Ron Atkinson, a well-known television football commentator, a former player and manager now regarded as one of the characters of the sport.… However, my memories of the phrase go back to Brian Clough, a rather more famous football manager, who is on record as using it in 1979. …

In the days before liberalisation of hours, pubs would reopen for the evening at 5.30, just in time for a quick drink after work and before going home. An early-doors beer would be one grabbed as soon as possible after opening time….

We’ve actually got to go back well over a century to find the true origin… Then as now, a last-minute crush usually developed at the entrances [of theaters] just before the performance started, with the street outside crammed with vehicles…. Around the 1870s, the idea grew up of charging a small premium to members of the audience who were willing to arrive well ahead of the crowd; in return, they were allowed to choose their own seats in unreserved areas — the pit and the gallery in particular. This could be a considerable advantage, as sightlines in those areas were often poor and interrupted by pillars…

The system continued into the twentieth century and became very well known:“The park-keeper eyed him; thought better of the bitter words he had contemplated; contented himself with: ‘Funny, ain’t yer?’ ‘Screaming,’ said George. ‘One long roar of mirth. Hundreds turned away nightly. Early doors threepence extra. Bring the wife.’–Once Aboard The Lugger, by Arthur Stuart Menteth Hutchinson, 1908.

It was recorded by G.K. Chesterton as a First World War battle cry by Tommies going over the top to attack the enemy (‘If they had only heard those boys in France and Flanders who called out “Early Doors!” themselves in a theatrical memory, as they went so early in their youth to break down the doors of death.”). Theatres seem to have stopped the early-doors practice in the early 1920s.

I Was So Wrong About “Harry”

Over the years, when I’ve been asked about the NOOBs phenomenon, part of my standard answer (along with the arrival in America of British journos like Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens and Tina Brown, and the rise of global internet culture) has been that the Harry Potter books introduced and popularized a lot of British words. The one example I always gave was “ginger,” in reference to Ron Weasley’s hair.

It finally occurred to me to check this assertion out. My local library had on offer a digital version of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (… and the Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K). I checked it out and searched for “ginger.” Nothing. On the other hand, there were multiple references to Ron having “red hair” and one calling him “redheaded.”

My world was rocked.

Apparently, “ginger” becoming “red-haired” was one of the numerous changes from the British versions of the books to the American. Wondering if any Britishisms remained, I found an article called “Six British Words from Harry Potter That I Never Understood.” The author doesn’t specify, but I assume she’s referring to words found in American editions. The words are:

  • “Budgerigar” or “budgie” (American: “parakeet”).
  • “Wotcher!” (“An old informal greeting, possibly Cockney in origin, possibly a contraction of “what cheer.”)
  • “Tea cozy.”
  • Fug.”
  • “Candyfloss” (American: “cotton candy”).
  • “Treacle” and “trifle.”

The only ones of these that showed up in my digital edition were “tea cozy,” “treacle,” and “trifle”–an item and two foods that don’t have American equivalents. The foods appeared in the same sentence, an interesting one, describing the desserts at Hogwarts:

“Blocks of ice cream in every flavor you could think of, apple pies, treacle tarts, chocolate éclairs and jam doughnuts, trifle, strawberries, Jell-O, rice pudding . . .”

Here’s my take on the list. “Blocks of ice cream” and “jam doughnuts” are Britishisms that somehow made it through. (We would be more likely to refer to “scoops” of ice cream and much more likely to say “jelly donut.”) “Jell-O” (U.K.: “jelly”) was probably and “apple pies” (“apple tarts”) possibly changed for the American market. And chocolate éclairs, strawberries, and rice pudding work equally well in both countries.

“Easy Peasy,” Updated

Since I first wrote about the expression, I’ve learned that “easy peasy” and its origins are shrouded in mystery, or, at least, uncertainty. Start with most British people’s Mandela effect notion that it came from an advertising slogan for Sqezy [sic] dish-washing liquid, “Easy Peasy, Lemon Sqezy.” It is flat-out wrong. The language historian Barry Popik and Pascal Tréguer, who runs the WordHistories.net blog, have both established that there was never such a slogan. Rather, from 1957 until 1962, it was, “It’s Easy With Sqezy.”

A 1957 advert.

Shortly after that, the brand was discontinued. However, a commenter on my 2012 post noted that Star Brands, which had (temporarily) reintroduced Sqezy, had a message on its website which bought into the folk/faux/fake etymology: “From its origins in 1958 when Sqezy was launched as the world’s first washing up liquid in a plastic squeezy bottle, we’ve now brought it bang up to date. Although when you consider that 99.9% of people can complete the line ‘Easy peasy ..’ you’d hardly believe that it had ever been away!”

In fact, the first documented (by Tréguer) instance of the full phrase is in a 1983 article in The Guardian: “Chap comes in, sits down, says, ’I want to be a marine biologist.’ Easy peezy lemon squeezy.”

Another odd thing about the short version of the phrase is its nationality. Ngram Viewer confirms it’s a NOOB (and that widespread use began in the late ‘70s):

Yet two of the three early uses of it cited by the OED come from American sources. The first is very early and not American: in a 1923 article about traditional mummers’ plays, there is a reference to “The Berkshire Doctor’s cure of the ‘easy-peasy, palsy, and the gout.’” In the 1940 American film Long Voyage Home, the character played by John Wayne says, “Easy-peasy. Take it easy, Drisc!” And a 1953 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer noted, “There’s a brief air travelogue of highlights of a jet trip from London to Cairo… The flight is such an easy-peasy affair for the air travellers, they seem to be motionless in a fantastic and lovely, sun-drenched cloudland.”

My guess would be that in all three cases, the phrase was used not because it was in circulation but because the rhyme came easily to the tongue. The same is true of the other popular variant, “Easy peasy, Japanesey,” which Popik has spotted in 1982 (that is, a year earlier than the “Lemon Sqezy/Squeezy” version). The character played by James Whitmore uses the phrase in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, which is set decades earlier and is therefore anachronistic.

“Easy peasy” has been used in the New York Times sixty-five times from its first appearance, in 2001, through 2021. That includes a 2012 article about a New York City burglar: “The following morning, he was awakened by police officers in his bedroom. One of them said, ‘Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy,’ first handcuffing, then dressing” him. The comma after “Easy” is the doing of the Times reporter and should not be there.

While the phrase is popular here, it hasn’t yet become a cliché and ripe for parody. It has in Britain, where in the 2009 satire In the Loop (Nancy Friedman has pointed out), a character says, “Difficult difficult lemon difficult.”