“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.

“Own goal”

The OED has two definitions for “own goal.” The first is, in reference to “sport,” is “A goal scored against the scorer’s own team, usually unintentionally.” The dictionary cites a use of the term in 1922 but the next one isn’t till the Sunday Pictorial‘s use in 1947, the quotation marks around the phrase suggesting it hadn’t yet entered public parlance: “An amazing ‘own goal’ by Wilf Mannion.” The OED has a 1998 quote from the Miami Herald in reference to hockey, and I would judge that in recent years the term is commonly used by Americans discussing that sport and what we still call “soccer.”

The second definition is: “fig[urative]. (orig. and chiefly Brit.). An act that unintentionally harms one’s own interests.” The first citation is from the The Economist in 1975: “The doyen of the Tribune group..scored an own goal on Wednesday night… His speech at a packed Tribune rally was a gross tactical miscalculation of [etc.].”

All the citations are British, but figurative “own goal” has definitely arrived in the United States. The term’s growth may have been spurred by a 2010 article in Harper’s that got a lot of attention: “Own Goal: How Homeless Soccer Explains the World.” In any case, it’s now very much out and about. In an article that will be published in the New York Times Magazine on December 23, but that has already been posted online, Jason Zengerle writes that Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings

batted back Republicans’ most incendiary charges against Obama by pointing to the lack of any real evidence, and repeatedly provoked [Republican Congressman Darrell] Issa into own goals, like the time Issa received negative coverage for ordering Cummings’s microphone cut off when Cummings tried to make a statement at the end of a hearing.

 

 

 

“Quieten”

I was listening to the NPR radio show “Fresh Air” the other day; Terry Gross’s guest was Daniel Davis, a professor of immunology at the University of Manchester. I was struck by a word Davis used –“quieten.” In fact, a search of the episode’s transcript reveals he used it seven times, for example, “the exact evidence is really that when a person or an animal is stressed, the immune system does quieten down.”

The word felt unfamiliar; plus, I couldn’t tell the difference, if any, from “quiet.” Since Davis is British I suspected it is a Britishism, and I was right. The OED first lists a transitive sense of the verb: “To make quiet (in various senses); to calm, to pacify.” It’s listed in an 1828 book about York County dialect and apparently became popular enough so that someone wrote in the North British Review in 1844, “To ‘quieten’ the children..is not English.” Subsequent citations — all British — belie this assertion.

The definition for the intransitive sense — the one used by Dr. Davis — is “To become quiet (in various senses). Frequently with down.” The first citation, from 1890, and all subsequent ones are British, except this from Pissing in the Snow, and other Ozark Folktales (1976): “When things finally quietened down, the folks figured that the neighbor boys must have set off some fireworks under the bed.” The word also shows up in Whatever it was that was in the house, I quieten ’em down.” The word also shows up in The Frost Haint of ‘Possum Hollow and Other Ozark Tales (2008), by Alan Lance Andersen, so it does seem to be a thing in the Ozarks, a hilly region in the American South.

As for the difference between “quiet” and “quieten,” the OED definitions are pretty much the same. For the intransitive sense of “quiet,” it’s: “Now chiefly N. Amer. To become quiet; to quieten. Frequently with down.”

Outside of the Ozarks, “quieten” is pretty uncommon here, hence the “On the Radar” designation. It has been used eight times in the New York Times since 2010 but it turns out on seven of those occasions, the writer or the person being quoted isn’t from America. The eighth example is from an essay about the photographer Robert Adams by Teju Cole: “You are likely to feel your breath getting calmer and your senses quietened.” But even Cole, I discover, was born in Michigan to parents from Nigeria.

This chart from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, showing use of “quieten” and its derivatives (“quietens,” “quietened,” etc.)  shows a bit more frequency in the U.S., but still lagging well behind Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

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One of the 41 American uses is this sentence from a comment to a 2011 Huffington Post article: “Even if the sun were to quieten down appreciably for the rest of this century, it would still be business as usual for global warming.”

Intransitive “quieten” strikes me as a potentially useful addition to American English.  “Quiets down” is fine, but saying that someone merely “quiets” sounds sort of naked; it could use an extra syllable. So I expect eventually to see more of “quieten” on these shores.

 

 

“On holiday” goes wide

I was talking to an employee of my local health club, a normal bearded guy in his thirties, and I mentioned I was going to be away from home for a few weeks.

“Are you going on holiday?” he asked.

This suggested to me that the expression for Americans’ traditional “on vacation” has established a beachhead here and probably won’t go away.

“Scrounge”

“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!

 

 

“Wangle”

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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