“Shock,” Updated

A few years ago I wrote about the word “shock” used as an attributive noun, meaning “shocking” — as in shock survey, shock victory, shock election results, etc. It’s fairly common in the British press, but at the time I could find only one U.S. use and labeled it “On the Radar.” But I’ve seen quite a few examples over the past few months. I didn’t write them down, but I’m pretty sure they were all in New York Times sports coverage, as was this one, just published by tennis writer Christopher Clarey, in reference to newly crowned U.S. Open champ Iga Swiatek:

I therefore upgrade “shock” to full-fledged NOOB.

“Head boy”?

I have a category here called “Ventriloquism,” which covers cases where American writers adopt British language when writing about British people or subjects. The August 15 issue of The New Yorker has a doozy. The article is a profile of (British) philosopher William MacAskill, written by (American) Gideon Lewis-Kraus. In the first paragraph Lewis-Kraus writes that in his early undergraduate days at Cambridge, MacAskill like to “frolic about in the nude”–the Britishism being the “about.” (An American would normally say “frolic around” or “frolic” or, actually, might not make the reference at all.)

That’s pretty mild, but soon Lewis-Kraus goes all in. MacAskill is the leader of a movement called Effective Altruism, and the article says that various qualities he has “made him a natural candidate for head boy.” I probably wouldn’t have known that the head boy (or girl) is the most senior prefect at a school if I hadn’t read Anthony Powell’s novels. Apparently there are head boys and head girls in the Harry Potter books as well.

A few paragraphs later, we’re told of a point in his life where MacAskill spent a lot of time wearing “a wolf-emblazoned jumper.” For Americans, a jumper is (I quote from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary) “a sleeveless one-piece dress worn usually with a blouse.” And unless they had read a lot of Harry Potter or Anthony Powell, Gideon-Lewis’s sentence would call up a truly bizarre image.

“On offer,” Updated and Antedated

The phrase means “available for sale” or, more generally, “available.” The first OED citation is from the  (London) Daily News in 1881: “Old wheat scarce and dear. Very little barley on offer.” But using Google Books, I came up with an example more than fifty years older, from a September 1826 issue of Cobbett’s Political Register:

But in any case, the phrase didn’t cross the Atlantic for another century or more:

A relatively early use came in the New York Times in 1990: “Tens of thousands of Apple Macintosh users visited the Macworld trade exposition here earlier this month, examining the hardware and software on offer.” It arrived in the New Yorker through British writers—Kenneth Tynan in 1977 and Salman Rushdie in 1992—and was first used there by an American one, Hendrik Hertzberg (using the magaqzine’s famous editoral “we”), in 1994: “We know, for example, that there are people who picked up their first copy of The New Yorker on account of a story or a “casual”–on account of something by O’Hara or Cheever or Salinger or Perelman or Munro or Updike–and only later, and gradually, became aware that other kinds of writing were on offer in these pages too.”

But it’s all over the place now. The Times used the phrase 112 times in 2021, from to January 21 (at a hair colorist’s studio, “Cappuccino and mineral water were served, and tuna and watercress salad was on offer”) to December 21 (“While the Omicron variant has thrown many people’s New Year’s Eve plans into doubt, there’s no shortage of events on offer in the televised realm”).

“Shambolic,” revisited

This popped up on my New York Times phone app this morning.

The headline, taken directly from the columnist Bret Stephens, spurred to me take another look at shambolic, which I first addressed almost precisely eleven years ago. (Time flies when you’re having fun.) The definition of the adjective is “Chaotic, disorderly, undisciplined” — that is, in a state of shambles. As I noted then, the OED‘s first citation is from The Times of London in 1970, but there’s also an odd note: “Reported to be ‘in common use’ in 1958.” Doesn’t say who’s doing the reporting.

In any case, there are definitely antedates to the 1970 quote, and even to 1958. Moving in reverse chronological order:

  • August 3, 1965: “Mr: William Yates The hon: Member must understand that so long as the country is willing to pour more and more money into this ancient, shambolic building in this area of London, there is no chance of getting that or having any of the facilities that he wants…”–Parliamentary debate
  • July 25, 1965: “Our social life is shambolic.”–The Sunday Times
  • 1958: “He said his club had coined a new word ‘Shambolic,’ which meant spending more time watching the weather than playing.”–West Sussex Times
  • 1952: “… one must admit there were those among us who were somewhat on the shambolic side.”–The Tank. (This citation appears in Wiktionary, which links to a Google Books entry, but I don’t 100 percent trust it because Google Books doesn’t offer a full view and its dating is often dodgy.)

Next is an interesting quote I turned up in the ProQuest database. It’s an abstract of a 1946 article from the Blackpool Tribune reviewing a book by Roland Gant called How Like a Wilderness. It’s not clear who write the abstract, or when, but it has the feel of being composed at the time–and also suggests “shambolic” might have been World War II military slang. The blurb begins: “THE AUTHOR parachuted into the Calvados country on D-Day in an operation which, in the language of those days, would have been described as ‘shambolic.'”

And there’s one more, a full seven years earlier, which I had cited in my earlier post. It’s from a May 1939 number of The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics. (Previously, I had found it via Google Books, but it doesn’t appear to be there anymore, and this time I dug it up in the JSTOR database.)

I’m pretty certain that this doesn’t have any relation to the present-day “shambolic.” For one thing, it’s in an American journal, and Ngram Viewer shows the word not taking hold in the U.S. till the 1990s.

For another, the context (including quotation marks) suggests that the writer, David S. Wald, is inventing a new word based on “sham,” not “shambles.” But the word is undeniably there and I hope the OED takes note.

As I say, American use picked up at the end of the last century. It first turned up in the New York Times in a 1984 William Safire column taking note of the word. Between then and today’s Bret Stephens quote, the word appeared in the paper 365 times.

And finally, I should note that we should be grateful to “shambolic” if only because it spawned omnishambles!

“Fit for/to purpose”

Lynne Murphy has published an interesting post on this phrase, the original version of which is with the “for.” It’s a Britishism which the OED defines as “suitable for the intended use; fully capable of performing the required task.” The dictionary has an 1861 citation but that appears to be an outlier, and the next is from a 1953 book about industrial operations: “Small-scale operation is multiplied when rival producers continually devise new designs which may or may not be fit for purpose.”

The phrase took off in Britain in the 1990s and aughts, as this Ngram Viewer chart shows.

I didn’t bother to look for it in American sources because it’s such an outlier here. The phrase has appeared in the New York Times sixty-one times, but said by British sources or written by British writers virtually always, one exception being in 2021, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Emergent BioSolutions “facilities were ‘fit for purpose and in a state of compliance.'”

But Lynne has found that Americans have taken to using an altered version of the phrase that seems to mean the same thing: “fit to purpose.” It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen before, for example in Americans changing “can’t be arsed” to “can’t be asked.”

Lynne reproduces this tweet, sent in by one of her readers:

And she says she’s found other examples of American “fit to purpose” on Twitter. It’s a trend that bears watching.


The word was used as early as 1868, according to the OED, to refer to a piece of equipment used in glassmaking. Not long after that, nautical and Navy slang gave it another meaning. From an 1886 book: “Then the names of all the other things on board a ship! I don’t know half of them yet; even the sailors forget at times, and if the exact name of anything they want happens to slip from their memory, they call it a chicken-fixing, or a gadjet, or a gill-guy, or a timmey-noggy, or a wim-wom…”

It wasn’t until World War I that ”gadget” adopted the meaning (and spelling) we associate with it today—in the OED’s words, “a (small) mechanical or electronic device, esp. one regarded as ingenious or novel.” At first it was used in a specifically military context. Rudyard Kipling wrote in The New Army (1915): “They have installed decent cooking ranges and gas, and the men have already made themselves all sorts of handy little labour-saving gadgets.”

It quickly spread to other contexts. Correspondent H. Tapley-Soper wrote to Notes and Queries in 1918: “I have … frequently heard [‘gadget’] applied by motor-cycle friends to the collection of fitments to be seen on motor cycles. ‘His handle-bars are smothered in gadgets’ refers to such things as speedometers, mirrors, levers, badges, mascots, &c., attached to the steering handles.”

And it quickly spread to the United States. A 1919 New York Times article about a transatlantic flight noted, “It was no unusual sight to see [the pilot], tools in hand, busily fitting some ‘gadget’…”

Within ten years, Americans were using it more than Britons, according to Ngram Viewer:

That spike in the ‘30s and ‘40s is presumably what caused The New Yorker, under the editorship of William Shawn, to actually ban “gadget” from the magazine’s pages, along with a remarkable number of other words. Two editors at the magazine, John Bennet and Nancy Franklin, once composed a sentence to try to help them remember all of the things they had to eliminate or find replacements for: “Intrigued by the massive smarts of the balding, feisty, prestigious, workaholic tycoon, Tom Wolfe promptly spat on the quality photo above the urinal and tried to locate his gadget.” (They left out “gotten.”)

Another Plural Attributive Noun

I’ve written about several cases where Americans have adopted the British tendency to pluralize attributive nouns: to use drugs party, covers band, drinks menu, and books editor instead of the customary/traditional “drug party,” “cover band,” “drink menu,” and “book editor.” Check out those links if you’re interested in the ins and outs of the issue.

The latest instance comes via a current National Public Radio (NPR) corporate underwriting spot, intoned by the same plummy-sounding woman who (in another spot) talks about “what-if scenahhrios.” In this one, for Amazon Business, she touts the way it “helps simplify the supplies-buying process with a one-stop shopping experience.” The typical American term, I submit, would be “supply-buying process.”

I acknowledge that I can’t prove that. Both variations of the phrase are uncommon enough that Ngram Viewer and other tools aren’t able to shed much light. However, I can report that “supply buying” has been used nine times in the history of the New York Times and “supplies buying,” as of now, has never appeared in the paper.

If anyone thinks I’m off-base here, please have at me. (Not that you required encouragement.)

“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!