“Do” (a menu item)

My observant friend Pat Raccio Hughes remarked that she’s lately been noticing young people ordering food in restaurants in a particular way. Let’s say they want a hamburger. Instead of saying “I’ll have a hamburger,” or “I’d like a hamburger,” or even the dreaded supposed Americanism, “Can I get a hamburger?”, they’ll say, “I’ll do the hamburger.”

This was a new one on me, but I immediately started to notice it in my travels. It seemed a sort of reversal of another food-related “do,” previously covered in NOOBs (“This restaurant does a nice pot roast”), so I had a hunch it has a British origin.

The only online dictionary in which I found a relevant definition was in one of the OED‘s many, many meanings for “do”: “To partake of (a portion of food or (esp.) an alcoholic drink); to eat or drink, esp. in a social context.” “Let’s do lunch” is a common phrase. But neither that nor and of the OED citations seem quite the same thing as ordering a particular item in a restaurant:

1853   ‘C. Bede’Adventures Mr. Verdant Green x. 78   To ‘do bitters’, as Mr. Bouncer phrased the act of drinking bitter beer.

1867   J. S. BorlaseNight Fossikers 116   I asked him to come to Poole’s shanty and do a chop and a nobbler with me.

1888   Civil & Mil. Gaz. (Lahore) 8 May 2/1   Hulloo! Back again, old man?.. I think we might do a drink together in honour of the occasion.

1908   S. R. LeeOther Sara v. 65   I feel as if I could do a chop and a glass of stout now.

1987   Sunday Tel. 19 July (Colour Suppl.) 39/3   An invitation to lunch might be pitched as, ‘Come on, let’s do sushi’, or ‘We have to do some Korean’.

In 2013, someone on the WordReference.com forum asked about “I’ll do the salad.” Only a few of the respondents had encountered it, but, amusingly, most of the British ones contended it was an Americanism, and most of the Americans contended it was a Britishism. Someone posted a link to a California magazine article from 1985 about demanding and entitled restaurant customers, an example being a woman who told a waiter

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Also suggesting an ’80s origin was the Random House editor and word maven Benjamin Dreyer, who responded when I brought it up on Twitter: “I’m sure I remember ‘will do the lobster’ from the last years of my restaurant career, so NYC in the late eighties.”

In 2013, an American blogger complained about the usage but had no idea where it had come from. In 2017, another blogger who also appears to be American noted:

“I’ll do the [food]” is one such phrase that’s been bothering me for the past few years—likely because I overheard it on an episode of some Beverly Hills reality show that I hated both for its existence and cult-following. Since then, I’ve continued to hear this phrase assertively stated at formal and fast-casual restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

Finally, I asked my daughter Maria, who is young and who is a writer and editor for Food and Wine magazine. She replied,

I think there’s something slightly pretentious about it, but i definitely do it maybe 50 percent of the time.

It often comes up  when servers are describing specials, and they say, “We have a lovely sole meuniere with chanterelle mushrooms, and we have a pork chop with an apple demi glaze.”

And then you say, “I’ll do the pork chop.”

My conclusion: this do isn’t a Britishism, one-off or otherwise. And it seriously annoys some people.

 

“Potted”

New York Times book critic Dwight Garner has the usual high number of good lines in his review today of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s new memoir. Here’s the one that especially interested me:

“Let Me Finish” is a superficial and ungainly book that tries to cover so many bases at once — it’s a series of attacks and justifications, it’s a master class in sucking up and kicking down, it’s a potted memoir, it’s a stab at political rehabilitation — that reading it is like watching an octopus try to play the bagpipes.

The reason for my interest is a NOOB–“potted.” The OED‘s definition is: “Of a piece of information, work of literature, historical or descriptive account, etc.: put into a short and easily assimilable form; condensed, summarized, abridged.” The first citation is from the magazine The Galaxy in 1873: “If I skip the lad’s measures and tidbits of potted history, yet these letters from Augustus are none the less welcome, revealing the traveller in a new light.” Subsequent citations, all from British sources, refer to “potted” abridgments, prose, abstracts, and, again history. That seems to be the word that most commonly follows this adjective, so I used the whole phrase for a Google Ngrams Viewer search to compare frequency of use in Britain and the United States through 2000, the last date for which the application supplies reliable data. (I couldn’t very well search “potted” alone, because that would give me American references to drunkenness, British references to what we would call canned laughter and to food preserved by the process we call “canning,” and reference in both countries to plants in their planters.)

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I’m pretty sure American use jumped not long after that, because of the Harry Potter theatrical satirical abridgment Potted Potter, which has been playing in the U.S. for more than a decade. In any case, I found a number of American uses, including one from Times drama critic Jesse Green in November 2018. Some skits within The Thanksgiving Play, he wrote, “are selections from actual lesson plans and Pinterest boards posted by teachers to share ideas for classroom Thanksgiving activities. They include potted history and offensive ditties and, in one case, a suggestion to split the pupils into Pilgrims and Indians ‘so the Indians can practice sharing.”’

And the previous year, book critic Laura Miller wrote in The New Yorker that “newsreel-like interludes of potted history … are constantly interjected” into Paul Auster’s novel 4 3 2 1.

“Big ask”

This line appeared in a December 2018 New York Times review of the Nicole Kidman movie Destroyer: “That she’s also a better detective than a mother makes her somewhat of an outlier, at least in American movies. If Bell [the Kidman character] were a man and father, and played by, say, Denzel Washington, this wouldn’t be a big ask.”

That “ask” is a shift of the word from verb to noun, meaning, basically, “request.” (“Request” started as a noun in about 1400 and was being used as a verb no later than 100 years later.) The OED cites uses of noun “ask” back to the 13th century, including this from a 1656 Bible translation: “God saith concerning Christ, thou art my Son, there presently followeth an Ask of me and I will give thee.” The dictionary says it is now “somewhat rare,” with three exceptions. The first is in bridge and whist, where it means “A play or bid having the primary purpose of eliciting information about a partner’s hand.” (“Who has not suffered when he has played correctly second hand..from his partner assuming that there has been an ask for trumps?” Westminster Papers, 1872.) The second is in finance, where it means “asking price.” And the third is when it’s modified by an adjective like “big,” “huge,” or “impossible, as in the Times quote above.

I would tend to disagree with the last category. That is, I accept that the current popularity of “ask” as a noun started with “big ask,” as we’ll see, but I think it’s very much out there by itself, as are such similar nouns as “get,” “reveal,” and “fail.” See the title of a 2017 book about fundraising by Laura Fredericks, The Ask: For Business, For Philanthropy, For Everyday Living. So I would recommend including “big ask” citations in the main definition.

As I say, the recent surge in “ask”-as-noun started with “big ask,” and it started in Australian sport(s). The OED has a 1987 quote from the Sydney Morning Herald, the quotation marks indicating a fairly recent coinage: “Four measly pounds is what the critics say. But according to his trainer..that four pounds is ‘a big ask’.”

I believe I can antedate that. The Google Books database has a “big ask” from what appears to be a short story in the Australian journal The Bulletin, vol. 97, 1975. “A big ask, though. They wanted a grand. Anyway I got two spot bail and the case is still swingin’.”

The phrase stayed in Australia for a while. Writing on the American Dialect Society listserv, Peter Reitan reported checking the newspapers.com database and finding that “every single hit from 1988 through 2006 is either from an Australian newspaper, or quotes a native Australian, typically athletes.”

Some American uses in that period can be found elsewhere. The (California) Orange County Register, August 29, 1993, referring to a program at the University of California, Irvine, reported: “[The American-born director] bundled seven projects into one Big Ask, for a regional alliance called Defense Photonics Medical Consortium.”

A chart showing frequency of “big ask” in American newspapers in the Lexis-Nexis database shows growth that’s gradual in the decade of the 2000s, and dramatic in the 2010s.

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Over in the U.K., the phrase was in circulation no later than 2006, when Friends of the Earth started a “Big Ask” campaign to fight climate change.

And someone posted this definition on Urban Dictionary in 2012:

Misused by stupid British soccer commentators as a substitute for job, task, or assignment.

“He has to stop Messi from scoring tonight: that’s a big ask.”

 

“Stiff Upper Lip”

stiffupperlip1

A 1963 novel by a quintessentially British author.

I was directed to the (British, as you can tell from “mum“) Mumsnet.com website because, in a discussion of Americanisms, someone nicely posted a link to NOOBs. Looking around on the discussion, I noted one person who listed the expression “stiff upper lip” as an Americanism. Another commenter responded: “I beg to differ. That’s really quite Brit.”

The first person was right.

Learning that surprised me, because the expression, suggesting stoic keeping calm and carrying on,  is so strongly associated with the British national character and lexicon. But so is “bumbershoot,” and that word is as American as a McDonald’s apple pie.

The OED confirms that with these early citations (Thomas Haliburton was Canadian):

1815   Massachusetts Spy 14 June    I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods.

1837   T. C. Haliburton Clockmaker 1st Ser. (ed. 2) x. 77   Its a proper pity sich a clever woman should carry such a stiff upper lip.

1852   H. B. Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin I. x. 152   ‘Well, good-by, Uncle Tom; keep a stiff upper lip,’ said George.

The popularity of the phrase was boosted by a oft-reprinted poem by the Ohioan Phoebe Cary (1822-1871), “Keep a Stiff Upper Lip,” whose last stanza is:

Through childhood, through manhood,
Through life to the end,
Struggle bravely and stand
By your colors, my friend.
Only yield when you must;
Never “give up the ship,”
But fight on to the last
“With a stiff upper lip.”

Not until 1887 does a British example appear, from The Spectator:  “The Financial Secretary, who, it is supposed, will have a stiff upper lip and tightly buttoned pockets.”

As this Ngam Viewer chart shows, the phrase continued to be more popular in the U.S. through the early 1940s:screen shot 2019-01-16 at 9.36.45 am

In the fall of 1937, something–I don’t know what–seemed to happen to establish the phrase’s connection to British people. On November 7, the New York Times used it in reference to the Duke of Windsor.

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More important, on November 19 Damsel in Distress opened. The movie featured a number, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by his brother George, and sung by Gracie Allen, George Burns and Fred Astaire, that took the expression’s Britishness as a matter of course. It starts off:

What made good queen Bess
Such a great success?
What made Wellington
Do what he did at Waterloo?

What makes every Englishman
A fighter through and through?
It isn’t roast beef, or ale, or home, or mother,
It’s just a little thing they sing to one another.

Stiff upper lip, stout fellow,
Carry on, old fluff.
Chin up, keep muddling through.

Stiff upper lip, stout fella
When the goings rough
Pip pip to old man trouble
And a toodly-oo too

And, in case you could use some delight in your life (who couldn’t?), here it is:

From then on, upper-lip stiffness was more and more thought of as a British thing. In 1940, the New York Times, reporting on English children coming to America to escape the war, “In the face of a barrage of questions and attentions from the curious, the English children trickling into this country in the past few months have maintained a solid front of poise, courtesy and the traditional stiff upper lip.”

In 1944, The New Yorker ran a Talk of the Town item with the title “Stiff Upper Lip,” summarized this way in the magazine’s internal filing system:

An American officer stationed in a remote English village writes us that he didn’t have much to do during the cold winter evenings while waiting for the invasion except read the books in the local lending library. He says that they served beautifully as reminders of certain quirks and crotchets of the native soul, and he gives an example. This is the opening sentence of an autobiographical volume he found: “In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminum one.”

(I learned through a Google search that the book in question was a 1943 novel, The Small Back Room, by Nigel Balchin, and that the actual first sentence was longer than the New Yorker quote. The whole thing: “In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminum aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.”)

The difference between “bumbershoot” and “stiff upper lip” is that the former was never adopted by the British, while the latter has been. You can tell that by series of citations in the OED, all from British sources.

1961   A. O. J. CockshutImagination of Charles Dickens viii. 116   He oscillated between indignation, self-pity, and reticence of the stiff-upper-lip English school.

1961   John o’ London’s 19 Oct. 447/2   The second film contains a firmly disciplined..undercurrent of Miniverish stiff-upper-lippery.

1963   Listener 3 Jan. 42/1   It was all very improbable and too stiff-upper-lippish to have been written by anybody but an anglophile Frenchman.

1973   New Society 31 May 483/2   MPs, in praising stiffupperlippishness, used sex as a stalking horse.

1977   Broadcast 14 Nov. 10/3   The British are stiff upper-lipping through power cuts.

I suppose it caught on in the U.K. because of the lesson in the expression, “if the shoe fits…”–the British version of which, I just learned, is “if the cap fits…”

 

 

“Betwixt and Between”

I was initially going to write about “betwixt,” as the third item in a trilogy started by “whilst” and “unbeknownst.” It is true that this synonym for “between” has traditionally been more popular in Britain than the U.S.

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And it’s true that it seems to be popping up in America a bit more frequently as a cute and old-timey variation, especially in a mystical or fantastical context, as in the title of this book by a Maryland-born author.

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The most common use, in my experience, remains the phrase “betwixt and between,” which, of course, means “between and between.” Google Ngram Viewer shows that after it came into prominence in the mid-1800s, Britain and the U.S. alternated in liking it more, with a long period in the mid-20th century with Britain in the lead, followed by equality since about 1980.

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But “betwixt” ultimately isn’t popular or interesting enough for me to say anything more about it. So I’m just going to leave it there.

“Unbeknown(st)”

In a comment to the previous post, on “whilst,” David Collard posted a link to a Times Literary Supplement blog post he wrote about his aversion to the word. Mr. Collard (whose spelling, logical punctuation, and use of the term “car park” tag him as British) noted:

“Whilst” is a word that never fails to irritate me, not simply because it’s an unnecessary and unattractive alternative to “while”, but because it’s employed as part of the pervasive culture of “customer care”. Here are three examples gleaned on a quick stroll around my neighbourhood this morning:

“This car park is reserved for customers whilst using the bank.”

“We apologise for any inconvenience whilst work is in progress.”

“Please wait here whilst your order is being processed.”

And a very familiar recorded telephone message: “Please hold the line whilst we try to connect you”.

American readers will find “whilst” merely quaint, and possibly affected, but on this side of the pond there’s a terrible tendency to prefer “whilst” to “while”, especially in public notices. It’s not simply that “whilst” is outdated, it comes with a certain hidebound attitude – prim, supercilious, self-righteous.

He went on to say, “Compare the not-unrelated words: ‘amongst’, ‘betwixt’, ‘unbeknownst’. Especially ‘unbeknownst’. They all share – for me at least – a false Arthurian whiff, a saloon-bar, fake bonhomous resonance, something that implies thoughtful reflection and careful discrimination and eloquence but usually expresses the opposite.”

I agree on “amongst.” As for his other two examples, I’ve always associated “betwixt” exclusively with the expression “betwixt and between” (the way I never hear about crannies apart from nooks, or caboodles apart from kits). But when I looked into it, I discovered “betwixt” is indeed used on its own, and I’ll return to it in a future post.

As for “unbeknownst,” I think of it as normal, or “unmarked,” commonly used as it is in the first hit in a Google News search, a January 8 U.S. newspaper article about a daughter whose father beat her and instructed her to lie about it: “Unbeknownst to [the father], his daughter recorded the incident with her cellphone, authorities said.”

But it turns out “unbeknownst” is a word with a history, occasionally a contentious one, as in David Collard’s critique. Part of the trouble is there’s supposedly an older, more straightforward equivalent: “unknown.” That’s to some extent true. “Unknown” dates to the 14th century. But it has two distinct meanings. One is that a piece of information, or a person, is simply not known, as in this 1865 quote from a geology journal: “I have an anthozoan from the carstone of Hunstanton; its species unknown to me.”

The other, slightly different meaning is defined this way by the OED: “In parenthetic adverbial phrases or with adverbial force (chiefly with to, of, specifying the person or group to whom the fact or information is not known): without the knowledge of.” The dictionary cites this line from a 1672 medical text: “The Patient, unknown to me, pursued his intention.”

Perhaps you can see the problem in that sentence. On first read, it might seem that the patient is unknown to the writer. That’s obviously not true, so one figures out “unknown” here means “without the knowledge of.”

In order to address that ambiguity, I believe, two similar words sprang up in the early 18th century, both deriving from the Anglo-Saxon word for “know,” “be-knowen.” The first is “unbeknown.”  The OED has a 1637 citation for “unbeknowne,” but that’s an outlier as the next one isn’t until 199 years later, a line of dialogue in Dickens’s Sketches by Boz: “If my ‘usband had treated her with a drain..unbeknown to me, I’d tear her precious eyes out.”

As for “unbeknownst,” the first OED citation is a line from an 1848 letter by the English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell: “You don’t see me, but I often am sitting in the rocking-chair unbeknownst to you.” I can antedate that. It’s used in the “not known” sense in this passage from an 1832 book, Wacousta: or, The Prophecy. A Tale of the Canadas, by Major John Richardson, whom Wikipedia calls “the first Canadian-born novelist to achieve international recognition.”

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The first example I’ve found of the “unbeknownst to” form is in a piece, credited to the presumably pseudonymous “Toby Allspy,” in an 1837 edition of Bentley’s Miscellany, which was edited at the time by Charles Dickens: “he ‘d paid for it with an old coat unbeknownst to his valet.”

As for the national character of the two words, in 1842, six years after Gaskell’s use, “unbeknown” shows up in a grammar book published in Boston, in a list of “American Vulgarisms, Improprieties, &C.” Some of the vulgarisms  have stuck, some not, as you can see from this screen shot:

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Five years after that, in another American grammar book, by Seth Hurd, “unbeknown” is listed as one of the “Common Errors of Speech.”

But wait: in 1875, “unbeknownst” turns up as an entry in a book about the language of Sussex, England.

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A Google Ngram Viewer graph tells the broader tale:

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Let me try to parse it: in the late 1800s (as the books quoted above suggested), “unbeknown” was quite popular in the U.S. (blue line) and somewhat less so in Britain (red line). American “unbeknownst” (orange line) caught up to “unbeknown” in the 1940s and ’50s, caught up in the late 1960s, and took off from there. British “unbeknownst” was about to equal “unbeknown” in 2000 (the last year for which Google Ngram provides reliable data) and presumably has left it in the dust by now, much to David Collard’s displeasure.

Finally, do I agree with his critique? Not really. I still think “unbeknownst” a useful and inoffensive term, and definitely better than “unbeknown,” which sounds odd. But, of course, I’m an American.

 

 

“Whilst” Breaks Through

I always look forward to this time of year because, among other things, Lynne Murphy announces two Words of the Year at her Separated by a Common Language blog: U.S. to U.K. and U.K. to U.S. For 2018, the former is “Mainstream Media,” or MSM.

More to the interest of this blog, the U.K.-to-U.S. word is “whilst.” She graciously mentions that I wrote about the word (which is, of course, a substitute for the traditionally American “while”) in a NOOBs post back in 2011, shortly after I started the blog. But there have been significant developments since then. Lynne quotes an email from another friend of NOOBs, Nancy Friedman:

While standard dictionaries still mark it as “chiefly British,” it’s on the rise among Smart Young Things here in the U.S. who think it sounds “cool” or “refined.” Here’s an example from The Baffler (published in New York), April 6, 2018: “You see, while the violence of financial capitalism and the ever-widening chasm of economic inequality might have something to do with why poor folks get themselves into a tizzy and take to the streets, the true catalyst is that they don’t feel respected whilst being systematically eliminated by the police state, they don’t feel respected whilst performing wage slavery.” This humor piece in McSweeney’s (based in San Francisco), from April 2017, is egalitarian: it uses “while” and “whilst” twice each. And here’s the singer Lana Del Rey— born in Los Angeles, residing in Lake Placid, New York — writing on Instagram in May 2017: “I had complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount.” (Quoted in Rolling Stone)

More “whilst”s from Americans:

Lisa Franklin, writer and comedian from New York: “people keep commenting on those comics whilst happily ignoring my jokes about The Flash.”

Halle Kiefer, “comedy writer out of Astoria, New York”: a surreally long, minutely detailed anecdote about a young Madonna auditioning with the Queen of Soul’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” whilst living in a crack den”

I’ll add that it’s not just the elite who are saying “whilst.” I used my new favorite TweetDeck tool, the location search, to find “whilst” users within 200 kilometers of a randomly selected U.S. city, St. Louis, and found plenty, who appear to be young things, though not necessarily notably smart (for British readers: clever).

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Interestingly, Lynne is interested in the pronunciation of the word. She writes:

Before I started hearing it in British English, I would have read it aloud as ‘willst’. (Dictionaries would have told me otherwise, but I don’t tend to look up pronunciations when I’m reading.) It is pronounced like while with a st on the end. In the US, it seems to mostly have a life in print (does anyone have any nice clips of audio clips of it in American mouths?), whereas in the UK, you hear it too.

I have the sense that I have heard it a fair amount here, always pronounced in the proper, long-“i” way. But I may be kidding myself. I searched the archives of National Public Radio for on-air utterances of the word, and found 246 of them. But they were all spoken by British people going back through 2015, at which point I gave up. Does anyone have evidence that an American has ever said “whilst,” and if so how she or he pronounced it?

Update: On the pronunciation issue, Ben Zimmer has directed me to a remarkable site called Youglish; it allows you to search YouTube videos for specific words or phrases, and narrow them down to U.S., U.K., or Australian speakers. He sent me a link for U.S. “whilst,” which has 364 videos. The categorizing isn’t perfect–the first clip is from a Canadian, and the second and third appear to be from an Australian and a Brit, respectively–but the speaker in the fourth video is from Minnesota, and I listened to enough true-blue Americans to establish that we do indeed say “whilst,” and that we pronounce it the same way the British do.