What It All Means

First of all, about me. My name is Ben Yagoda, and I’m an author and retired professor of English and journalism. You can read more about me at my website. In 2011, I started writing this blog, Not One-Off Britishisms, aka NOOBS.

A couple of years after that, Slate, the online magazine, asked me to write a piece about my experience doing NOOBs. I had been thinking I should really weigh in on What It All Means, so this gave me the opportunity to cogitate on the matter. It was a bit challenging, since in this and most cases, I’m a lot more interested in observing that and how than in speculating about why or (even worse) weighing in on whether the phenomenon is good, bad or somewhere in between.

But I wrote the piece and you can read it here.

Just a couple of things to add. First, while the headline (“The Britishism Invasion”) is spot-on, I did not write an am not pleased with the subtitle, “Language corruption is a two-way street.” “Corruption” is such a harsh word.

Second, the comments–thousands and thousands of them, at this point–are a trip. A few are dopey, but most are right in the spirit of this enterprise, adding interesting comments and suggestions for future entries. (Shag seemed to keep coming up.) Also, not a few pointed out that I made an embarrassing mistake–I had the plural of corpus as corpi, which apparently is not a word, rather than corpora. Hey, I don’t know Latin and I’m not a linguist. I don’t even play one on TV.

I heard directly from quite a few people with interesting things to say. One of them was Helen Kennedy, the first journo, according to my unscientific investigation, to use go missing to refer to Chandra Levy’s disappearance. Her e-mail had the subject line “You made my day!” and began:

I always knew I would amount to something, and having some small part in the downfall of American English – well, could one be more subversive? No, one could not.

I’m half-American and half Irish, raised in England and Italy. I am CONSTANTLY having to turn to my colleagues to ask if “advertizing” has a Z here, etc… I genuinely had no idea that “gone missing” was not regular Ammurican.

So “go missing” was (arguably) blown to these shores, like some exotic seed, by someone who learned it in the U.K. As has been observed before, the Internet sure is something.

58 thoughts on “What It All Means

  1. Great article. I found about it through metafilter.

    So…how about “remit”? ‘Fraid to say my wife will use it when we’re feeling a bit poncey.

    And since my entire family enjoys MasterChef UK, we will occasionally or regularly say pudding (“That’s a good pud”), aubergine, courgette, minced beef, fillet (rhymes with grill it) of beef, spring onions…I’m sure there are other bits and bobs.

  2. For the record, I spent quite a bit of time puzzling over the meaning of NOOBS until it finally dawned on me that it’s short for Not One-Off Britishisms. And no, that doesn’t make me a dolt (though I suppose it does make me a NOOB, at least around here) because NOOB has a long established history in Internet slang as a shortened, deliberately corrupted form of Newbie, which in turn is short for anyone who’s new to a website or forum or otherwise laughably clueless about some feature of the Internet or its culture or of a software program. Anyway, the cognitive dissonance I experience when seeing “ABOUT NOOBS” in your header menu — not to mention Faux NOOBs in your right nav — is quite vexing. I’m guessing you’d never have adopted this misleading acronym if you hadn’t been an Internet NOOB yourself.

  3. Ben,
    Has ‘dick about’ or ‘dicking about’ not on your radar yet?

    Essentially means messing about instead of doing a job properly.

    1. Des: “dicking around” — with the same meaning you’ve assigned to “dicking about” is definitely a familiar term in the US — though it may well be antiquated. Commonly used 40 years ago, less so now. What *has* come on strong is the use of “dick” as an insult equivalent to “jerk” or “asshole” … a sorrowful development for me, because my given name, Richard, once lent itself quite nicely to the nickname Dick — as it did for my father. I like to think of Dick as a nickname that’s still in fond (or at least nonpejorative) use in the UK … is it?

    2. The use of the word “about” instead of “around” sounds more British to me than the words “dick” or “dicking,” the meanings of which can vary. I might say, “Stop dicking with that,” if someone was handling an object irresponsibly, and I might say “Quit dicking around,” if someone were being lazy, but the choice of adverb is what strilkes me. An American who says, “Why is he hanging about,” instead of “Why is he hanging around” would almost certainly be putting on airs. I may ask what you’re talking “about,” while we’re hanging “around,” but I will never ask what you’re “on about” because that is “about” the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.

      1. Messing – “Oi”, pack in messing about with that”
        Pissing – “Oi!!!!! stop pissing about or you’ll be out on your arse”

  4. I never heard anyone using the term “dick about” growing up in the UK or any of my family in the Northeast, perhaps it was a southern thing. I agree with Mike, most of the time we used the term “faffing about”.

    1. It might be more of a sothern thing as ‘He is just dicking about’ was around a bit when I was growing up but must admit I cant remember hearing it for a few years now.

  5. I don’t see an entry for “ahead of,” which I suspect is a Britishism, taking over for our American “before,” as in this, from Huffington Post, today: “Ahead of the first presidential debate this Wednesday, the Obama campaign has rejected the idea that the president will be hurling any ‘zingers’ at opponent Mitt Romney.”

    1. “Ahead of” is journo-speak, I’ve heard it a lot on the BBC. I guess they think it sounds less prosaic than “before”

  6. Can I put in a good word for “twat”?. The Wiki entry reveals an interesting history, relating in particular to the poet Robert Browning. What it doesn’t mention is that not only Disraeli found it funny, but so did Gladstone-hardly a man to break into a smile!
    I believe the word is not used at all “over there”.

    1. Fanny in Scotland is similar to Twat in England – a term of abuse for anyone you really, REALLY hate “See, you, your a pure fanny” (and yes, a direct reference to the vulva)

  7. haaark: I don’t have access at the moment to my compact OED, but based on your good word for “twat” I have to believe it *must* have a radically different meaning in the UK from the one it has over here, where it is considered a vulgar term for describing a woman’s vulva. Am I missing something?

  8. “Twat” as a term of abuse for a fool in Britain does literally mean “vagina”, as does “berk” (though this is Cockney rhyming slang). The ubiquitous “prat”, on the other hand – which serves the same function – literally means “arse” (which in itself can also have the meaning of “fool” over here, an “ass” – meaning “donkey” – being a much milder term).

    1. It seems to be a recent change in usage I remember when I was a kid that “twat” simply meant an idiot, a numpty, in recent years it seems to have acquired a vulgar meaning. But thats definately in the last 15-20 years by my reckoning.

    2. Puzzled by rhyming slang?

      Berkshire is an unusually rigorous contraction of “Berkshire hunt”. Think “apples and pears” or “plates of meat” for “stairs” or “feet”, respectively. Ergo, Berk (which in this sole instance is peculiarly pronounced à l’American fashion – “burk”, whereas all British English native speakers diminunitivise* the name of the county westward along the M4 between Middlesex and Wiltshire as “barkshire” qv the track on Traffic’s LP, ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’) acts as a rhyme to “cunt”**.

      Get it? Pears: stairs. Meat: feet. Hunt: cunt.

      Simples, eh?

      * diminunitivise – first coined by Thomas Jefferson when he labelled John Adams, “sumfink of a berk, in my opinion” in 1798.
      ** Longman’s Dictionary of the English Language First Edition 1984 p.192

  9. Well, if in the UK “twat” has become the functional equivalent of “prat” — a word I’ve noticed used repeatedly in the Harry Potter novels, mostly by Ron Weasley — I can safely say it’s not used in the US in remotely the same way. Indeed, I rarely hear anyone use the word “twat” in any context. Those inclined to misogyny are far more likely to use the word “cunt”, which in my book is equally vulgar.

  10. The final word you mention is the most obscene one possible in the UK – the others are really euphemisms for it (as is “fanny”, though in a chiefly physiological sense). I don’t think there is any misogyny involved – “prick”, “dick”, “knob”, etc. are similarly used.

  11. I’ve used the word twat usually for when I’m describing a person I’m really, really not happy with , as in “that twat over there” or “you twat”. In this context if you really put emphasis on the word, it sounds and is meant to be, vicious. As an aside to this there was an apologetic, embarrassed explanation for the word (probably from television), usually used when heard by a female nearby – twat is a pregnant trout madam.

    1. If nothing else these unhappy exchanges about “twat” and its brethren strongly suggest Ben Yagoda won’t be blogging about them any time soon on this site. There’s clearly a chasm between informal abusive language in the UK and the US — and it’s entirely possible American English is impoverished in this respect. “Twat”, “git”, and “prat” are unknown here, and if “twit” gets some play it’s likely institutional memory sustained by Monty Python’s memorable “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch. I’m uncertain what we in the US use in place of these assaults; the best I can do on short notice is “douchebag”, “dick”, and “asshole”, though even these aren’t interchangeable (e.g., only a particularly flagrant dick qualifies as an asshole). If Great Britain and the United States are two countries separated by a common language, nothing illustrates the separation better than how we word our insults.

  12. Not so much unhappy as fascinating. As you suggest, “twat” is probably a little rich for Ben’s blog, but it would be brilliant if he picked up “plonker” on his radar.

  13. “Back-endish”. A topical Yorkshire word describing the garden just now. A dank misty chill in the air, damp leaves all over the place. The remains of the bedding plants still trying to produce flowers.

  14. “T’back end” is an expression I used to hear all the time – and a valuable one for the lapse of the year – but here in Norfolk it’s rare. Nothing, of course, to do with the “back ends” mentioned above.

  15. rfhartzell- regarding the word “cunt,” I worked ina pub in Chicago where everyone but myself was pretty much right off the boat from Dublin, or Limerick, or Cork, and they threw that word around at eachjother a lot. I explained to them that in America, it is about the most offensive thing you can say whether you are referring to the female genitalia literally or using it as an insult. It’s something you call a woman that you really HATE. When I asked one of them sit sit their “fanny” down and chat with me, however, I got a real roast, I can tell you, which needed an explanation! 🙂

    1. Any American company should have it as standard operating procedure, when sending an employee to the UK for the first time, to instruct them NEVER to refer to their (or others’) backside as fanny. The room will go silent if used.

  16. Just watched a documentary called “A wolf called Storm” in which the Canadian(?) writer and narrator Jeff Turner uses the term “to leg it”, ie the wolves were legging it after a buffalo. I’m sure this must be a Britishism – certainly one I’ve used since my teenage years. It sounded really out of place in his piece. You would “leg it” after a bus or away from someone about to do you harm, but I’d never leg it after a buffalo!

  17. The OED has “leg it” as “Scottish and dialect”, and gives the first citation as 1601. I guess there are plenty of people with Scots heritage in Canada, but I’m with you in finding this usage something of an understatement. Presumably he was talking abut the American bison – buffaloes tend to be slow moving creatures.

  18. What’s different about genital insults in British English is that whether they’re describing male or female bits, they’re almost universally directed at men, which might be why they’re seen in blighty (rightly or wrongly) as less misogynistic.

    1. That is perfectly true, although I hadn’t realised it until reading it here. As a 68 year old british male who has spent time in the armed forces, I reckon I know pretty much every genitalia related english swear word there is, but I don’t recall any of them being used to insult a woman. Bitch, mare, slag, slapper, tramp, cow, scrubber, whore, slut, trollop and so on come to mind, but nothing involving genitalia seems to be appropriate if you’re trying to insult a woman, however much you might dislike her. On the other hand, anything goes if you’re slagging off a bloke.

      1. I’m going to disagree with this claim, though admittedly with limited data to support my case, which is this: 1) my wife has an old friend who was married for nearly 20 years to an Englishman and, toward the end of the marriage, when things became a little acrimonious, he called her a cunt to her face — in front of her own mother, in fact, and 2) a few years ago my daughter, then about 14, was stunned to collect a voice mail from an unidentified English boy (she suspected it was the younger brother of a classmate) who thought it would be amusing to leave her a rant that kicked off by calling her a cunt. So, yes, slim evidence, to be sure. But to me, anyway, it casts doubt on the claim that genital insults in British English are almost universally directed at men.

      2. rfhartzell, as shown by the experience that your wife’s friend had, women are obviously not totally exempt from genitalia related insults, and no doubt many other women could tell similar unpleasant stories, but nobody is claiming that it never happens, and I think that, as a general rule of thumb, A McD’s comment that ” they’re almost universally directed at men” is still valid. I can only repeat that I don’t recall ever hearing a woman insulted in that way.

        I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that all changed in the not too distant future, though, if it hasn’t already happened. With the emergence of the ‘ladette culture’, if the newspapers can be believed, it does appear that many young women in the UK today are determined to behave exactly like adolescent young men, and perhaps with this push for ‘equality’ they are now losing, or even deliberately rejecting, the respect that women would have received in the past. If that respect is no longer there, the types of insults aimed at women would then presumably be no different from those aimed at men.

    1. And in Nottinghamshire “if he doesn’t shut his trap, he’s in for a twatting”, “went out last night and got jumped by 3 blokes, got a right twatting”….

      Also, in Notts, to get really, REALLY drunk “twatted”

      1. Both these uses were fairly common in Lancashire in the 70s and 80s (and may still be, but I moved).

        It never struck me as strange at the time, but when you think about it, these are very peculiar usages! We would never threaten to “vagina” someone or “cunt” someone who we are threatening to fight, nor comment how a long session of drinking got us “pussied” or “cunted”.

  19. I know the difference between a buffalo and a bison: you can’t wash your hands in a buffalo.

  20. A few years ago I was standing in a queue (line) at a motel reception (check in desk) in Utah with a group of friends from the US. In case it’s not obvious, I’m a Brit. We were discussing our arrangements for the next day whereupon I said to Judy, “ok, I’ll knock you up a 7:30”. All of my friends and several others in the queue looked at me with mouths agape. It took me several seconds to realise the everyone had obviously heard your US meaning rather than my Brit meaning – which was “I’ll knock on your door at 7:30 to wake you up”! In the UK your meaning is known but is certainly not in common usage whereas the ‘wake up’ usage is widespread. I felt obliged to explain my usage which amused my friends but the others in the queue weren’t too impressed. In times past, before the general availability of alarm clocks, ‘knocker uppers’ were employed to wake up people at agreed times by knocking on their doors or windows, hopefully so they’d get to work on time.

      1. Don’t use that expression in Holland or the Flemish half of Belgium. Half seven means six thirty.

  21. What a great site! I just read your Slate piece, too. For years I have thought that the adaptation of British expressions started with Masterpiece Theatre [sic] back in the ’70s, and that how and when certain expressions first showed up in the US would make a swell thesis subject for some English major. With the Internet, it’s exploded.

    The word I love but don’t use because nobody would know what the heck I am talking about is “gormless.” I think the word itself is hilarious; from context, I believe it’s a combination of “clueless” and “hapless,” but I can’t be certain. Any information would be gratefully received.

  22. I have never heard the word “gormless” in America, and only became aware of it right before Gordon Brown was given the boot. (Gormless Clown)

  23. Suzie in NYC: you’ve got gormless about right – I’d qualify it as being generally clueless and hapless, not only in a specific context. Harry Solomon, in 3rd Rock from the Sun, qualifies as gormelss; Joey Tribbiani in Friends doesn’t

    1. Gormless can also be a judgement “He looks a bit gormless” Not nice as it is an assumption based on features rather than communication

  24. Here in Canada, especially British Columbia, nearly all of the anglicisms you cite would not only be well understood, but commonly used. Here’s one you dont cite that I object to — the American use of “Victorian” to describe an old house in a place like San Francisco or Portland. Sorry, folks, you lost the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of being in any way “Victorian” long ago, either because of your forbears’ disloyalty to good King George, or later events. Portland, like the rest of Oregon and Washington, even had the benefit of actually being Victorian, until they were foolishly discarded under the Polk administration in 1848, which opened to way to slaughter the Indians in those places in true American style, as never occured in any of the colonies that later formed Canada. Be proud of all that if you like, but don’t call your house a “Victorian”.

  25. Rick in Vancouver, the term “Victorian,” as you are using it, has very little to do with Queen Victoria, or any benefits one might or might not have enjoyed during her reign. It simply refers to a style of architecture (such as “Queen Anne” or “neoclassical”) that was popular during and after her reign. It isn’t even a “noob,” strictly speaking, as I’m sure there are examples of “Victorian” buildings in places like India, or Kenya, or any of the other many places colonized by the English, as well as North America. You are clearly proud of your Anglican heritage, and of Canada, and good for you; however, I’m not sure why you felt the need to toss in that bit about slaughtering Indians “in true American style” as if cruelty, bigotry, and brutality are brand-new, American inventions. If you are simply trying to “score points for the home team,” there is probably a more suitable forum for that. I come here for the ‘noobs.”

  26. I’ve searched here but can’t find this one: “Not to put too fine a point on [or “upon”] it.” Not so uncommon as once, but I think I heard it for the first time in a biopic of Dickens on PBS, probably 30 years ago. Have you ever tackled this one? The Google Ngrams are pretty fascinating, in my view.

  27. Back to twats, cunts and fannies. I would point out that they are not only used as insults but also as terms of endearment (amongst men, mostly), although the wife of one of my friends happily refers to him as cunty-baws, an expression that I would alternate with fanny-baws when addressing him.

  28. ‘All fur coat and no knickers’
    The sort of epithet that might be used on ‘Coronation Street’. Like so many others- ‘blowsy’, ‘mutton dressed up as lamb’, we are talking about women of a certain age.
    In this case it implies that the lady in question has suddenly come into money- the pools, premium bonds, a good marriage-and goes out and buys the fur coat of her dreams. Unfortunately, thanks to lack of breeding, she’s not used to wearing knickers….

  29. ‘All fur coat and no knickers’. reminds me of another saying from my childhood: ‘All mouth and trousers’ about a bloke who talks big but there is no substance behind it.

  30. Parties on either side of the Atlantic may not be aware of the difference in pronunciation of twat – in the UK it rhymes with cat, but in the US it rhymes with cot.

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