Variation on a Meme

“Quality” as an adjective was just one of the things that caught my attention during a recent visit to England. Another was this play on man with a van, spotted during on a vehicle parked near Pembridge Villas in London.

van

“Quality” (adj.)

On holiday in London last week, I was gobsmacked to come upon this:

quality

The reason for my surprise was that, on my mother’s knee, I was taught that quality should not be used as an adjective but exclusively as a noun referring to a feature or characteristic of a person or thing. I haven’t been on my mother’s knee for a long time, but the injunction is still widespread. Bryan Garner’s entry on the word in Garner’s Modern American Usage reads, in its entirety: “When used as an adjective meaning ‘of high quality,’ this is a vogue word and a casualism <a quality bottling company>. Use good or fine or some other adjective of better standing.” For decades, one of the easiest and most efficient ways for novelists to convey that a character is a philistine has been to have him say something like, “I’m talking quality products here!”

But now I was seeing evidence that in England, quality is an adjective of perfectly good standing. It was meaningful that the sign was at a pub, for everything about this institution is supposed to signify history and tradition. In other words, the implication was that the usage had been OK for a long time.

And when I got home and checked my Oxford English Dictionary, I found that that is the case. The process started as early as Shakespeare, with the noun being used to mean high quality (“The Grecian youths are full of quality, And swelling ore with arts and exercise”) or, similarly, high birth or rank (“There are no men of quality but the Duke of Monmouth; all the rest are gentlemen,” 1671).

The adjective emerged roughly in 1700,  meaning, in the OED‘s words: “With sense ‘of high social standing, of good breeding, noble’, as quality acquaintance, quality air, quality blood, quality end, quality friend, quality gentleman, quality horse, quality lady, quality living, quality pride, quality white, etc.” There are many citations in the 18th century (“The influence of Peregrine’s new quality-friends”—Smollett, Peregrine Pickle), but starting in the early 19th, according to the dictionary, this usage became “archaic.” The archaicness seems to have commenced being reversed in the United States; the OED cites a 1910 headline in an Ohio newspaper, “American is the quality magazine.” In Britain it became common in the 1960s to refer to The Times, The Guardian, and such as “quality newspapers,” as opposed to the red-top tabloids—so much so that a quality can be used as a noun (once again) to refer to such a publication.

A Google Ngram Viewer graph shows that the frequency of quality as an adjective (in American and British English combined) was minimal through 1920, rose gradually from 1920 to 1970, and exploded from 1970 through 2000:

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One can name a couple of factors, besides British newspaper terminology, that surely contributed to the recent escalation. Business jargon certainly took to the adjective, with its quality assurance, quality management, and quality circles. It’s big in sports, too. One cannot follow a season in basketball or football without hearing incessant talk of “quality wins” or “quality opponents.” A popular statistic in baseball since the 1980s has been the “quality start,” referring to an outing in which a pitcher stays in the game for at least six innings, and gives up no more than three runs.

But the big kahuna is “quality time,” about which the OED says, “orig. U.S.: time spent in a worthwhile or dedicated manner; esp. time in which one’s child, partner, etc., receives one’s undivided attention.” The first citation is in 1972, but because it so directly addressed busy people’s anxiety about not spending enough time with their kids or spouses, it quickly became a buzzword, and by the mid-1980s, Frank Rich of The New York Times was deriding it as a cliché. Ngram Viewer shows that it’s more popular than ever. But I would bet that many if not most of the uses are ironic or derisive, suggesting that, like the perpetual-motion machine, the notion that quality time can compensate for sparse quantity time is but a dream.

“Nil”

Robert Siegel, the redoubtable National Public Radio host, took to the airwaves yesterday to denounce nil. Or, rather, to denounce “nil” and its

creeping penetration of American English thanks to the World Cup. Nil is a contracted scrap of Latin that survives in a few common bits of American English. We might say the chances of something happening are next to nil. Headline writers always in need of very short words sometimes use nil. But if I said, in the top of the third inning, the Nationals led the Cubs one-nil and then Chicago scored an equalizer the late Harry Carey and Phil Rizzuto [both baseball announcers] would both shout, “Holy cow!” in their graves.

As readers of this blog know, the “creeping penetration” of British soccer terminology is a rich subject, covered most recently here. On the “nil” question, Siegel, to his credit, didn’t just fulminate but brought in an expert, Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press. She added some historical perspective:

…in the beginning of the 20th century the way that Americans talked about soccer was not that different from the way that British people talked about soccer. And they used nil sometimes to describe a score. But we lost the knack for talking professionally about soccer during soccer’s decline over the course the 20th century and now I think that our journalists are picking it up on the fly. And there’s an uncertainty about where does British-English end and soccer terminology begin. Most people wouldn’t think it was odd, I think, to say extra time rather than overtime. That’s just how you talk about soccer.

Siegel’s other guest, an announcer for a Major League Soccer team, would have none of this. “I don’t use the term nil,” he said, “because when I say I’m going to the men’s room I don’t say I’m going to the loo.”

“Taking the Piss”

Longtime friend of NOOBs Wes Davis reports that when he saw Todd Snider in concert recently, the (American) singer said something about “extolling the virtues of taking the piss out of anyone who extols virtues.”

The OED defines “to take the piss (out of)” as: “to make fun (of), to mock, deride, satirize.” One doesn’t come across the expression very much in the U.S. The only time it has appeared in the New York Times (other than readers’ online comments) was in a quote from “a British newspaperman,” in a 2006 article about Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz’s  approach to Formula One racing– ”He’s taking the piss out of the sport because the sport is very up itself.” (Note to self: find out what up itself means.)

The author Bill Bryson, who deserves (if he doesn’t actually have) dual U.K.-U.S. citizenship, has observed, of Americans: “Wit, and particularly the dry, ironic, taking-the-piss sort of wit, was completely beyond them. (Do you know that there isn’t even an equivalent in American speech for ‘taking the piss’?) Yet here in Britain it is such a fundamental part of daily life that you scarcely notice it.”

I’m not so sure if Bryson was taking the piss, or not, which may prove his point.

 

“Plimsoll”

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the many contributions of Nancy Friedman, a blogger and consultant who specializes in commercial naming and branding but covers all sorts of language topics. Her “word of the week” last week was plimsoll; she begins her discussion with a definition:

A type of rubber-soled canvas sole developed in the 1830s as beach wear by the Liverpool Rubber Company. The footwear was originally (and in some places still is) known as “sand shoes”; in 1876 a sales representative for the company suggested the “plimsoll” name because, according to the OED, “their rubber band reminded him of the ‘Plimsoll Line’, marking the limit of safety to which merchant ships can be loaded. ‘Plimsolls’ are water-tight, so long as they are not immersed above the level of the water-band.”

I cannot improve on her analysis, so will merely reproduce the part where she puts forth the word as a NOOB (and note my own recent discussion of trainers)  I recommend that you read the entire post, which you can find here. Friedman writes:

The New York Times fashion pages … have added “plimsoll” to the roll of variations on “sneaker.” For example: “On the heels of the now ubiquitous high-end luxury sneaker, the new Swedish brand Eytys offers a refreshingly low-key alternative: platform plimsolls that channel ’90s Venice Beach skater shoes.” – September 3, 2013

In a 2012 article in The Atlantic titled “The Racial Divide on … Sneakers,” Emily Chertoff wrote that “Jordans and Chucks come from the same originary sneaker, a canvas plimsoll from the mid-19th century.” (Yes, originary. It’s a real word.)

Urban Outfitters, based in Philadelphia since 1972, is gradually acclimating American shoppers to the British lexical import by using “plimsoll sneaker” in its product descriptions.

Plimsoll_UO

 Massimo Dutti, the upscale offshoot of Spanish mega-brand Zara that recently opened a store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, also plays it safe, selling a “Mixed Plimsole” whose description begins “Combined sneaker in fabric, suede and nappa.”

Soccer, Rugger, and Footie

Another entertaining New York Times article by Sarah Lyall about the terminology of soccer/football. This one has to do with the name of the game itself. She starts off by quoting a 1905 letter to the Times. (And please put down your pen: I refer to the New York Times on second and subsequent references as “the Times,” because it would be silly to carry on writing “the New York Times” over and over again. If I mean to refer to The Times of London, I will say “The Times of London,” or “The Times.”)

It seems a thousand pities that in reporting Association football matches The New York Times, in company with all the other newspapers, should persistently call the game “socker.” In the first place, there is no such word, and in the second place, it is an exceedingly ugly and undignified one.

There’s a facsimile of the letter, which fascinatingly continues:

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Mr. Tabor was correct that the term originated in England as a slang term for “Association Football,” but he was wrong in a number of respects. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citations of the word, all from England, are as follows: “I absolutely decline to see socca’ matches” (1889); ” A sterling player, and has the best interest of the ‘socker’ game at heart” (1891);  and “The rival attractions of ‘rugger’ and ‘socker’” (1894). Not until 1895 do we find the “k”-less version: “When the boat~race, sports, and ‘soccer’ are in most men’s minds.”

There was a reason why the nickname, however it was spelled, was so appealing in America. This was the precise moment that a very different game we called “football” was rapidly gaining popularity. Lyall documents how the Times went back and forth between “socker” and “soccer” for about a decade, finally settling on the latter in about 1914.

Citing an academic paper, Lyall writes that over in Britain, “soccer” continued to be used “happily — right alongside ‘football”’— until at least the 1970s, when a surge of bad temper and anti-Americanism made it virtually radioactive.” She mentions the autobiography of Matt Busby, the manager of Manchester United in the 1950s and 1960s, Soccer at the Top, and another book of the period, George Best: The Inside Story of Soccer’s Super-Star.

The thing that tickles me about the whole history is the way the American term unwittingly incorporates the odd (to us) British habit of using what Lyall calls “the infantilizing ‘er’ diminutive to random words.” As she says,

Rugby, under this system, had been shortened to “rugger,” a term that is still widely used. Even today, English people sometimes call football “footie,” but that is another issue.

Please Weigh In

In connection with You Need to Read This (my new e-book, described yesterday), I’ve put together a survey that attempts to gauge how people’s feelings about changes in English usage correspond with their age. It’s mainly geared to Americans, but I’d be interested in the responses of English speakers from all around.

So please take the survey. You might find it very a lot of fun. Just follow this link.

[Note: The original version of this post contained an embedded version of the poll. As the comments below indicate, it didn't really work. My apologies.]