“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!




To recap: a couple of posts ago, I mentioned a listicle of supposed Britishisms that included eleven words or expressions I would not have though of as such: “the bee’s knees,” “(go on a) bender,” “dim” (as opposed to clever), “full of beans,” “gallivant,” “miffed,” “round (of drinks), “smarmy,” “waffle,” “wangle,” and “shambles.” I said that three of them turned out actually to be of British origin–although even they have been common in the U.S. for at least several decades. The three are “smarmy,” “full of beans,” and today’s entry, “wangle.” (A fourth is “waffle,” which I learned is used differently in the U.S. and U.K.)

The OED‘s definition for the transitive verb “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).”

The dictionary suggests an intriguing origin for the term, in an 1888 British lexicon of printers’ terms: “Wangle, a slang term used by printers to express arranging or ‘faking’ matters to one’s own satisfaction or convenience.” But the first two proper citations are from 1917:  “No market is ever ‘free’: probe it deep enough, and..monopolies will..be found, in many cases deliberately ‘wangling’ prices and limiting production to sustain them.” And: “He had come in from the North Atlantic Cruiser Patrol, and when in home waters had ‘wangled’ a few days’ leave.” The first quote is from the Edinburgh Review and the second from the Stanford University Bulletin. Stanford is in California, but the reference to North Atlantic Cruiser Patrol suggests that it’s in reference to a Briton.

In any case, Google Books Ngram Viewer shows British use outpacing American till roughly the middle of World War II; ever since, it’s been roughly equivalent on both sides of the pond.

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Looking into the word, I found an antedate of the 1917 OED citation. In the January 23, 1915, issue of Notes and Queries, R.W.B reported that the word “has been used recently in a newspaper, as a verb, by a writer in describing his visit to a hospital for the wounded.” He encounters a patient who “has a liking for invalid food, and says to his visitor, ‘See me wangle a jelly.’ The word, therefore, is connected with the acquirement of something by a stratagem not devoid of humor.”



“Rubbish” (verb)

The ever-observant Jan Freeman sends along a quote from (Syracuse-born) Daniel Dezner in a Washington Post essay: “When [people associated with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy] try to rubbish everyone else’s expertise, however, they only highlight their own intellectual inadequacies.”

This blog has covered the noun, which is the common British term for Americans’ “garbage” or “trash” — both metaphorical and literal — and noted that literal “rubbish” has pockets of popularity in Massachusetts and around Philadelphia. The OED defines the verb as “To disparage, criticize severely, pour scorn on” and notes it originated in Australia and New Zealand. The first citation is from a 1953 Australian novel, Riverslake: “If Verity was going to tramp [that is, dismiss from employment or sack] you for burning the tucker [that is, food] ..he would have rubbished you long before this.”

As the Google Books Ngram Viewer chart below shows, the verb started catching on in Britain in the 1980s, but is still very rare in the U.S., making rubbish the verb an outlier:

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“A patch on”

I’m not sure what this blog would do without Ben Brantley. The American-born New York Times theater critic is a veritable font of NOOBs, notably obscure ones, like “gives me the pip” and “twig.” He struck again yesterday in the first line of his review of Jez Butterworth’s play The Ferryman: “No matter what sort of spread you’ve planned for your Thanksgiving dinner, it won’t be a patch on the glorious feast that has been laid out at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.”

Since I didn’t recognize “won’t be a patch on,” and since it came from Brantley, I assumed it was a Britishism. I assumed right. The OED defines “not a patch on” as “in no way comparable to, not nearly as good as.” All the citations (starting in 1860) are from British sources, for example, the Daily Telegraph in 1994: “Set against native trees, Leyland green looks very synthetic, and is not a patch on yew.”

I’m going to label the phrase as an outlier, since when I searched Google Books for it, every single hit came from British or Commonwealth sources, including the title of the 2009 novel Not a Patch on Charlotte Cox.


But in any case, cheers, Mr. Brantley.

“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.

“Smarmy,” I

A friend sent me an article published about a year ago on Business Insider called “88 very British phrases that will confuse anybody who didn’t grow up in the UK.” Not surprisingly, the title is patently untrue. While some of the words and phrases were indeed unknown to me — like “bagsy,” “pull a blinder,” budge up,” and “cack-handed” — others, such as “anorak” and “boot” (for the trunk of a car), are familiar to anyone who has watched much British television, read many British novels, or spent much time in Britain. And others have penetrated the U.S. to the extent that I’ve written posts about them for this blog: “bloody,” “bog standard,” “Bob’s your uncle,” “cheeky,” “chockablock,” and that’s only halfway through the “C”s!

What interested me most was a fourth category: 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. Eleven of these were listed: “the bee’s knees,” “(go on a) bender,” “dim” (as opposed to clever), “full of beans,” “gallivant,” “miffed,” “round (of drinks), “smarmy,” “waffle” (as in go back and forth on a decision), “wangle,” and “shambles.” [Update: As several commenters pointed out, what I have given is the American definition of “waffle.” The British one is indeed different. In the words of the Cambridge English Dictionary: “ to talk or write a lot without giving any useful information or any clear answers.”]

I tested them all–except “dim,” which was problematic because it has so many different meanings–with Google Books Ngram Viewer, which allows you, among other things, to chart the relative historical frequency of words of phrases in British and U.S. books. It turned out all of them have a long history of frequent use in America and most are currently at least as popular here as in Britain. (That’s including “shambles,” but not omnishambles.”) But three of them, in the early years of their use, were more common there than here, making them Historical NOOBs, and I’ll address all three, starting with “smarmy.”

The OED‘s principal definition of the word is “Ingratiating, obsequious; smug, unctuous,” and the first citation is from L. Brock, Deductions of Col. Gore, published in 1924: “Don’t you be taken in by that smarmy swine.” I found an earlier use in Google Books, in a poem called “The Widower” by Edward Sydney Tylee, published in The Living Age in 1905. Tylee is going for a dialect that I can’t identify:

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By the way, a secondary definition is “smooth and sleek,” with the first OED citation from a 1909 source: “A tall, slight, smarmy-headed man.” I believe I can antedate that as well, in a line from a 1903 play by Henry V. Esmond, When We Were Twenty-One:

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Back to the issue of British and American use of “smarmy,” here’s the Google Ngram chart:

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In other words, American use overtook British in the late 1970s, and by 2000 (the last year of reliable Google Ngram data) it was about 50 percent more popular in the U.S. I would imagine the margin is bigger today, what with all the smarmy people around who need to be described.

Any guesses as to the other two Historical Noobs on the Business Insider list?