There are two relevant senses of the adjective. The first, a commonplace in British sport commentary, is more frequently expressed in the U.S. in the phrase physically fit. But the shorter form is creeping through, thanks in some measure to tennis players, announcers, and reporters, who are partial to it. Thus the New York Times last year quoted Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, who had commented that Samantha Stosur “played like a man.” Asked to clarify, Cibulkova said, “As a player, she’s very fit. I’m not saying anything bad.”
A British reader of that quote may have had the impression that Cibulkova fancied Stosur, as the second British meaning of fit is “sexually attractive. The OED cites this 1985 exchange from The Observer: “Better ‘en that bird you blagged last night.’ ‘F—— off! She was fit.’”
I had never encountered a U.S. use of the second fit till this morning, when New York Times media correspondent David Carr sent this out over Twitter:
Now, it’s possible that Carr was merely imagining a United Parcel Service employee who regularly went to the gym. But where’s the fun in that?
As noted in such past entries as stockists and opening hours, a number of U.S. retailers have lately affected British terminology, presumably in an attempt to seem hip or classy. Sara Wilson alerted me to a wrinkle on the trend that can be seen in the the clothing purveyor Boden. The company originated in the U.K. but has a robust U.S. website on which, if anything, it seems to use more Britishisms than on its British one. Sara pointed out this banner ad:
She didn’t know what snaffle means, nor, in fact, if the expression being used was snaffle, snaffle up, or snaffle up to. Neither did I till I looked it up in the OED, whose definition for snaffle is: “To appropriate, seize, catch, snatch.” “I soon snaffled a double role in a big spectacle.”–Sunday Express, 1928. (The OED notes that the verb is sometimes rendered as snaffle up, but I believe that is not the case in the Boden ad, as it would render the word “to” meaningless. Rather, the phrase “up to” signifies some discounts are less than 40 percent.)
The Boden site is studded with flamboyant Britishisms. They call sweaters jumpers, a word that hasn’t been uttered on these shores since the film About a Boy. There are references to honour, sackings (for firings), offers (for sales), a call centre (in Pittston PA), and a range (what Americans would call a line). Logical punctuation is employed, and anyone with a question is instructed to call (why not ring?) a customer care representative on 1-866-206-9508 (needless to say, an American phone number).
Boden, could you be any more precious?
First off, I never expect to see pudding widely used in U.S. to mean “dessert,” both because dessert is too entrenched and because pudding has a such a specific meaning here (“a thick, soft dessert, typically containing flour or some other thickener, milk, eggs, a flavoring, and sweetener”–dictionary.com).
That said, there is room (as is always the case) for ironic, self-conscious use, as Jason Diamond (@imjasondiamond) just observed on Twitter:
I confess I didn’t get the reference (never fancied Pink Floyd) so had to consult Wikipedia, where I found this under the entry for the song “Another Brick in the Wall”:
The song also features a group of school children for lead vocals in the second verse: as the song ends, the sounds of a school yard are heard, along with the teacher (portrayed as a Scotsman) who continues to lord it over the children’s lives by shouting such things as “Wrong! Do it again!”, and “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?!”, and “You! Yes! You behind the bikesheds! Stand still, laddie!”, all of it dissolving into the dull drone of a phone ringing and ending with a deep sigh
This is an as near as I can tell exact British equivalent of U.S. “tough guy,” usually used in a sporting or criminal context. The quintessential hard man is footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones. The OED gives no definition or etymology, but the phrase appeared as early as 1984, in this capsule movie review in The Guradian.
“Sequel again features Gene Hackman as maverick, hard-man cop Popeye Doyle, back on the trail of his old drugs-czar adversary Fernando Rey.” (The Guardian, 1984)
Some other examples (taken from OED citations in other words’ definitions):
“There was no room to express love and only space for one kind of man: the hard man, the man’s man.” (Face, 1995)
“To his prison mates Archie was a swaggering hard man who never let a sliver of emotion through the tough exterior he had built against the world.” (Evening News [Edinburgh], 1998)
“Self-styled Hampstead hard man..is actually just a big-mouthed wet.” (Q, February 2003)
Historically, to the extent the the phrase could be found in the U.S., it was in phrases like “You’re a hard man to track down” or in the off-color Mae West chiasmus “A hard man is good to find.” I had assumed I would never encounter the tough-guy meaning here. But I assumed wrong. In a column about (American) footballer Jim Brown in yesterday’s New York Times, sports columnist George Vecsey wrote, “His aging high school teammates still shudder from the dreaded Tuesday tackling drills and know him as a hard man in public life.”
Figures it would be Vecsey, a soccer fan and a man of the world. I don’t expect to come across it again.
I was listening to the public radio show “The Takeaway” today. They had an interview with Thomas Kershaw, who for many years has owned the Boston bar after which the one in the TV show “Cheers” was modeled. Talking about the atmosphere in the city after the recent bombings, he said, “People have places they frequent, that they call their local.”
My ears perked up. This sounded like local in a very British sense, the one usually referred to as the local and defined by the OED as “the public house in the immediate neighborhood.” The dictionary quotes Germaine Greer: “Women don’t nip down to the local.”
After some looking around, I am going to label local as On the Radar. The only possible U.S. use I was able find about wasn’t about a bar at all. It was a March 2012 New York Times article that talked about how a man “came to own his local: the Mud, Sweat and Tears Pottery studio.”
But I bet local will eventually come into its own as a full-fledged NOOB. Probably in Brooklyn.
I was reading The New Yorker the other night (the March 25 edition–I’m always a few weeks behind) and came across this description of 1970s punk rock: it was “spare, nervy music created in reaction to the embarrassing excesses of arena rock.”
It reminded my that my friend David Friedman, a massive West Ham supporter, had for years been telling me about the British use of nervy, especially in a sporting context, to mean something similar to what Americans call nervous. I found this example, which is British in every possible way, in a headline on a website called “This Is Staffordhire”: “It’s getting nervy for all as Stoke City enter relegation battle.”
We use nervy, too, but here it’s traditionally meant something between audacious and impudent. The OED cites a 1991 short story by Joyce Carol Oates: “I was nervy enough to ask Joan how she’d gotten the little scar beside her mouth.”
Is nervy=nervous happening as a NOOB? The difficulty in answering is that in many quotes you have to study context clues to figure out how the word is being used. In the New Yorker quote, based on my sense of punk as a pretty twitchy affair, I think the British sense is being used. Same with these from the New York Times: