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“Rambling,” “Walking”

This post is a ruse. That is, I know very well that rambling and walking are not not-one-off Britishisms. They are not even one-off Britishisms. They have chipped away exactly zero at the U.S. equivalent, hiking. (I would be interested in knowing the difference, if any, between the two in the U.K.)

The ruse is that I am actually looking for some walking, or rambling, advice. My wife and I ware planning a trip to England this summer, and would like to spend three or four days of it on a walking holiday. We are looking for a place where we could travel fairly easily from London (without a car) and go on a few beautiful, moderately strenuous 7-10 mile hikes walks. One option we’ve been looking at is the South West Coast Path, but which of its 630 miles, I have no idea.

All suggestions appreciated.




In honor of tonight’s premiere of a new season of Mad Men and the conclusion last week of the annual American rite of basketball, what about mad? Americans  tend to use the word as a synonym for “angry.” The OED shows that it appeared in Britain this way as early as the 1400s but gradually lost favor there, even as it was being adopted early and enthusiastically in the United States. Horace Greeley (1811-1872) said: “My God! This is a great country—when it gets mad!” That last phrase had a colloquial feel as late as 1902, when William James put it in quotation marks in The Varieties of Religious Experience: “He can’t ‘get mad’ at any of his alternatives; and the career of a man beset by such an all-round amiability is hopeless.” For some years, it has been impossible to avoid the catchphrase “Don’t get mad—get even.” The Yale Book of Quotations quotes a 1967 Chicago Tribune article describing this “as a venerable slogan in Massachusetts politics.”

The quintessentially British meaning of mad, of course, is the mad of the Noel Coward songs “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Mad About the Boy”: that is, mad meaning crazy, twisted, oobie shoobie, you know, flip city.

Few if any Americans would call or refer to a nutty person as mad, because listeners would assume the meaning was “angry.” However, this meaning of the word has persisted and thrived in other forms and in idioms.  Madness is pretty common, notably in March  Madness, itself, which was apparently used to refer to Indiana high-school basketball tournaments as far back as 1931. Other examples include the word madman and phrases like mad, mad scientist, mad cow disease, and an expression used by both Duke Ellington and Jim Morrison. Ellington’s motto was “I love you madly.” The Doors, meanwhile, used it in possibly the worst lyrical couplet in the Western canon: “Don’t ya love her madly/Wanna be her daddy.”

Americans have also made creative use of the the double meaning of mad, possibly starting with Mad Magazine. The publication was created in 1952 as a comic book with the cover line “Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD.” In Stanley Kramer’s 1963 film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the constantly hollering all-star cast indeed seemed to be both very aggravated and not in the best mental health. The dual meaning probably helped the line “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!,” from Network, become a classic. The TV series Mad About You was a flat-out pun, and the title of Mad Men is a remarkable four-way play on words. It invokes the “crazy” and “angry” uses of mad, the phrase ad men, and Madison Avenue, where ad men work.

Meanwhile, another prominent meaning for mad has come out of African-American slang, as an intensifier. This can be an adverb, as in the movie Mad Hot Ballroom, or an adjective. You know what I mean if you’re a skateboarder. If you don’t have mad skills, you had better hang it up.

What’s Up with That?

From yesterday’s New York Times interview with director Darren Aronofsky:

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As Nancy Friedman tweets, “Aronofsky is from Brooklyn. What’s up with ‘adverts‘?”

Come, Come, Mr. Pullum

I had l’esprit de l’escalier after writing the post below, which is about Geoffrey Pullum’s assertion that most of the differences between British English and American English are matters of pronunciation or “word choice,” rather than grammar. Specifically, three grammatical differences occurred to me:

  1. The (British) use of plural verbs with collective nouns, such as “Manchester United are having a poor season” or “Parliament are meeting.”
  2. The singular “they” is overwhelmingly used in speech and in online writing in both the U.K. and the U.S. (“If someone writes a book, they [as opposed to "he," "she," or "he or she"] should be prepared to do a lot of research.”) However, it is not widely accepted in U.S. academic writing, journalism, or publishing, while it is (it seems to me) in the U.K.
  3. American English uses had gotten (and had forgotten), while  British English uses had got. The truth of the latter proposition was forcefully brought home to me a year or so ago when I was interviewed by an Irish radio presenter on the subject of NOOBs. Asked for an example, I mentioned that the New Yorker magazine uses got instead of the more otherwise prevalent gotten. There was a pause, as if for the host to make sure his ears had not deceived him. “GOTTEN??” he bellowed. “GOTTEN?? There is no such word as GOTTEN!” It took a full ninety seconds before I was able to convince him that I wasn’t having him on.

I should say that underlying Geoff’s argument is his contention that the differences, whatever the extent of them, do not constitute some sort of scandal or problem, or much misunderstanding or mystification, either. I would agree with him on both points, while noting that a few words, notably pants and pissed, can create comedy via their dual meanings.

I’ll conclude by noting that Lynne Murphy has jumped into the conversation at her brilliant “Separate by a Common Language Blog.” She says she has written 432 posts, almost all on the differences between British and American English, including “22 on grammar, 20 on morphology [and 11 on count/mass distinctions, e.g. do you say Lego or Legos for a bunch of them].”

She concludes:

Are the differences exaggerated due to cognitive biases and prejudices? Absolutely. Are we still mostly able to communicate easily? Yes, certainly.  But that doesn’t make the differences that are there any less interesting to me.

Much Ado About Not Much?

Geoffrey Pullum–the distinguished grammarian and my fellow contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Lingua Franca” blog–has a post up there today asserting that the so-called differences between American English and British English are exaggerated. He writes:

… most trans-Atlantic differences either involve nothing more than pronunciation (most Americans pronounce the r of car and have the vowel of hat in words like glass, and the majority of British speakers don’t), or are merely differences in word choice, almost always choices among nouns (in Britain a truck is often called a lorry, though truck occurs as well).

He does acknowledge a couple of grammatical differences:

Americans like using the preterit rather than the perfect in clauses reporting past time with present relevance (I already did that), whereas British speakers clearly prefer the perfect (I’ve already done that). But speakers of both varieties can always understand both constructions. Closer to being absolute is the limitation to British English of the special use of the verb do in cases of omitted verb phrases, as in I don’t know if she understands French, but she may do. Americans would say she may, without that final do.

That’s admittedly not much, and he concludes, “the tiny differences between standard American and standard British English are trivial, barely even worth mentioning.”

Trivial, you say?  Well, I’ve got 800,000 page views (as of today) that say NOOBs are very much worth mentioning. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Will Pullum apologize? I’m not sure, but he should do.

“Stand” someone a drink

I recently encountered this Facebook post (by an American, about an American): “Anyway, I just wondered if any of my Facebook friends in NY feel like standing a good friend of a friend to a drink? Jeff’s a blast, and any friend of mine oughta be a friend of his…”

The verb stand, as used here is defined this way by the OED: “To bear the expense of, make a present of, pay for (a treat); to put up or make a present of (a sum of money), esp. as part of a larger amount sought.” The first citation is from Dickens, Sketches by Boz (1836): ” Mr. Augustus Cooper..‘stood’ considerable quantities of spirits and water.” The quotations marks indicate recent coinage. The dictionary also has this 1890 quote from Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine:  “I’ll stand you a dinner.”

Google’s Ngram Viewer indicates the term is a Britishism, though one that started fading out around 1940. (The blue line indicates use of “stood me a drink” in British English, the red line in American English.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 3.36.03 PM

Some readers will have noted that my Facebook friend misused the expression,  talking of standing the gentlemen “to” a drink, when the proper expression is “stand him a drink.” That’s all the proof I need that this expression is a one-off.


A syndicated columnist called The Word Guy (TWG) recently wrote the following:

A network-news correspondent recently described a medical issue that has led doctors and researchers to a “worrying conclusion.” Now, I’ve never seen a conclusion worry. I’m wondering whether it knits its brow, rubs its head, and grits its teeth.

 More and more people are using “worrying” not to mean “fretting” (“a worrying mom”) but “causing fretting” (“a worrying event”). “Worrying” joins other participles that have recently flipped in meaning, e.g., “these problems are very concerning.”… Frankly, I’m worrying about these worrying trends.

I have the same impression as TWG that concerning and worrying are on the rise as adjectives. And, indeed, Google News searches for each pull up examples on the first screen:

  • “The Mystery of Andros Townsend’s Slump Is Worrying for England and Spurs” (headline from Bleacher Report)
  • “In any of those situations, it’s very concerning. Up until we get all of the facts, we will let the process run its course.”—General Manager of the Baltimore Ravens Ozzie Newsome, on the arrest of the team’s player Ray Rice (

To my mind, the conventionally “correct” alternative to both would be either troubling or worrisome. Google Ngram Viewer (showing the relative frequency of each term in printed English sources) gives some surprising results. (I put the word very in front of each word so as to get only adjectival uses.)

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 7.33.41 PM

I was struck by the relatively recent ascendance of troubling and worrisome, but the big surprise was the relatively long tail of worrying. When I told Ngram Viewer to search only in British books, here’s what I got:

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 7.45.07 PM

A NOOB, a palpable NOOB!

The OED shows, not surprisingly, that both words TWG found problematic have been used as adjectives for a long time. We find worrying (as well as figurative literally!) in Frederick Reynolds’s Life & Times (1826), “Your whole conduct is literally worrying and annoying in the extreme,” and concerning in Coleridge’s Literary Remains (1839): “To utter all my meditations on this most concerning point!”

Beyond historical precedent, TWG’s objections are specious. If he thought about it for a minute, he would realize that he had indeed seen a conclusion worry, e.g., “The researcher’s conclusion worried his collaborators.” Indeed, it is customary, when a person, situation, or thing emotionally verbs someone, to describe that person, situation, or thing as verbing. Think of perplexing, frightening, amusing, touching, exciting, etc. The only counter-examples that come immediately to mind are scary and awesome. The varied usefulness of worry is probably what led to the delayed arrival of worrying the adjective, just as the prominence of concerning in the sense of “having to do with” delayed that new meaning.

In any case, whether you find it concerning or not, it seems clear that these adjectives are here to stay

Well played, Slate!

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(That is, the person who wrote Slate’s Facebook feed did a nice job of pointedly using the Britishism rubbish in reference to the British Piers Morgan [whose chat show was just cancelled by CNN.])

Implied Offscreen NOOB

A few years back, a friend of mine was watching a horror movie with his precocious ten-year-old son. A couple of characters were out rowing on a lake, and then there was some sort of horrible sound. My friend’s son turned to him and whispered, “Hmmm. Implied off-screen suicide.”

That came to mind the other day when I read a Philadelphia Inquirer article in which Brett Brown, the coach of the 76ers basketball team, made some comments about a young player, Nerlens Noel:


It was clear to me that Brown used the words tick and ticking, and the reporter supplied the American equivalent, check, in brackets. The backstory is that while Brown is a native American, he spent many years playing and coaching in Australia, which is presumably where he learned about ticking boxes.

Coincidentally, just a couple of days later, this appeared in the very same Inquirer:


I would bet dollars to donuts that the word Dan Klecko used to refer to Tom Brady was pissed, which, of course, means something very different in the U.K.

Good On Us

When I started Not One-Off Britishisms, nearly three years ago, it was a sort of experiment. In retrospect, I see that I was testing the commonly voiced proposition that the best blogs tend to be about the narrowest topics.

Well, narrow I have been. And while I won’t make any judgments about “best,” NOOBs recently passed the 750,000 page view mark, which is not nothing. (273,894 have come from the U.S. and 257,247 from the U.K.) Beyond the numbers, it’s been greatly rewarding for me. I’ve been able to explore a fun hobby and add infinitesimally to the fount of knowledge, all while never (knowingly) harming anybody. Best of all for me have been the comments, which continually delight and instruct. There are too many examples to name, but just in the past week, in the discussion of Titbits, I learned about the venerable magazine of that name and even heard from someone who’d worked as an editor there in its last days.

In this general air of self-congratulation, I thought I’d pass along some statistics, To start with comments, there have been 3,981 of them, and the most prolific recent commenters are:

  • Hal Hall
  • Martin James
  • IvanOpinion
  • czyrko
  • DW
  • Bren

Thanks, mates.

The most commented entry has been “Arse” with 99 of them, followed by:

European Date Format is the most-read single post, followed by

All that must mean something, but for the life of my I can’t think of what it is. Anyway, thanks again for stopping by. Talk to you again when we reach a million.