Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.



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.


 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.]

Hot Off the e-Presses


I have officially entered the brave new world of e-books with a popularly-priced ($3.99!) collection of some of my pieces on language, first published in Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other fine publications. It’s called (take a deep breath) You Need to Read This: The Death of the Imperative Mode, the Rise of the American Glottal Stop, the Bizarre Popularity of “Amongst,” and Other Cuckoo Things That Have Happened to the English Language.

(Funny story about that title. Back in 2005, I wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review about the odd trend of extremely long subtitles. One example I gave was Jeff Pearlman’s recently published The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing, and Championship Baseball With Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, the Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put On a New York Uniform, and Maybe the Best. Since then, the trend has continued–so much so that I was apparently compelled to join it.)

So some of the topics covered in the book that are not mentioned in the subtitle include why everybody seems to be starting sentences with the word “So,” where vocal fry came from, and if “is that even a thing?” is even a thing.

This link and the image above lead you to the Amazon site for the book, but you don’t need a Kindle to read the book, and you can also order it from Kobo or Barnes & Noble, and probably other places as well.
Thank you for your support!

Still More on Not One-Off Footballism

Very amusing New York Times article today by Sarah Lyall, about hardcore American soccer/football fans who talk “about the pitch (field) and the kit (jerseys) and the supporters (themselves) and who, when compelled to use the word soccer, were putting it in invisible quotation marks.”

That is, this lot is adamant, maybe a bit too adamant, about using British, rather than American, sporting terminology. Last year, another New York Times writer, Jack Bell, wrote a guest post for NOOBs on the subject. Lyall’s article indicates that, on the eve of the World Cup, a critical mass of posers has formed.

Not surprisingly for someone who has spent a lot of time in Britain (for many years she was a London correspondent for the Times), Lyall has a keen eye for multiple layers of snobbery, as in her selection of this quote from Scott Chandler, 27, a business analyst: “I use pitch and I use club, but I don’t judge if other terms are used. To me, pretentious is denigrating M.L.S., like, ‘It’s not as good as my Spanish team’ or looking down on people who support Arsenal. It’s not what terms you use — it’s what you call out other people for using.”

And Lyall well knows that American fans have a long way to go before they truly resemble British supporters. She writes about the spectators at a U.S.-Nigeria game match:

Sure, they were chanting, but their chants were inoffensive exhortations about believing and winning, rather than vicious denigrations of the opposing players’ mothers. Sure, they were drinking to the point of insensibility, but it was the kind of drunkenness where you are more likely to hurt yourself from falling off your chair than from being attacked by your mortal enemy, an opposing fan.



Not long ago, John Timpane, the uncredited gossip columnist of my local Philadelphia Inquirer, noted that Sandra Bullock “reported getting slagged all over the Internet for being – over 40. How dare she?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the transitive verb “slag” as “To abuse or denigrate (a person); to criticize, insult”; following it with the word “off” is optional. The term dates only from the early ’70s, the OED’s first citations being Jamie Mandelkau, the manager of the rock band The Deviants, in 1971 (“He was doing a good job of bad mouthing and slagging me to a number of the Angels”), and The Guardian in 1972, which provided a helpful etymological note: “Mr Jack Jones, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, was ‘slagged off’—in dockland jargon—several times during the day.”

All the OED citations are from British sources, and the term is still far more common on that side of the pond, but it has been making inroads as a NOOB at least since 2007, when Virginia Heffernan wrote in the New York Times (about online culture): “I’ve sat idly by while regular posters slagged off shows or people I like.”

Referring as it does to the waste products of smelting metal, “slag” is a vivid word, and can be effective in an American context, where it’s still a relative novelty. Thus Richard Aregood, also writing in the (NY) Times, about a  press conference from Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey:

He said he had just learned what everybody in the state had suspected for weeks — that his own people had created a traffic nightmare in Fort Lee to get back at its Democratic mayor. Then he slagged his own people and called them names. Then he wallowed in self-pity for the way they had betrayed him.


“Hugger Mugger”

A review of a miniseries called “Labrynth” in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer says it has “lots of historical hugger-mugger.” The OED defines that last term as “Concealment, secrecy,” and notes, Formerly in ordinary literary use, now archaic or vulgar.” The last citation given in the dictionary is an 1874 quote from John Lothrop “The trial was all mystery, hugger-mugger, horror,” but they might consider adding in the next edition this from Samuel Beckett’s 1939 More Pricks than Kicks: “‘No shaving or haggling or cold or hugger-mugger.”

Well, hugger-mugger may be vulgar but among American writers, it isn’t, or isn’t any longer, archaic. Hugger Mugger is the title of a 2001 Robert Parker novel, and the term has appeared five times in the New York Times since 2010, twice by Michiko Kakutani, and once in a quote from Stephen King.

Over in the U.K., it turns out the most common recent uses of the phrase are literal. That is, they refer to muggers who befriend, then embrace, then rob their victims: hugger muggers. This has been going on for at least five years. In 2009, The Telegraph quoted a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Sean Oxley:

“Basically it is strangers coming up to people and trying to befriend them and hugging them.

“There are people who try and dance with you while another method is for someone to play football with you in the street with a can. They try anything to get close so they can grab a wallet or a phone.” The “hugger muggers” often pretend to be drunk themselves and target people coming out of pubs and clubs in the early hours.

Just yesterday, the British press was full of reports of a hugger-mugger who was caught on closed-circuit TV. According to the Daily Mail, the victim, a 24-year-old student,  “had been on a night out in central London when his attacker began talking to him about martial arts and acting out restraint moves. As the student turned around, the attacker suddenly put his arm across his throat and squeezed, causing the victim’s legs to crumple as he passed out briefly and fell to the ground. The suspect then ripped the victim’s watch a £5,00 Rolex Submariner with a silver bracelet and black face, off his wrist and fled.

And here, in the interest of public safety, is the video:

The Hyphen’s the Tell

The media is abuzz about yesterday’s “ouster”–a.k.a. sacking–of Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times. But, naturally, I was more interested in what a Times staffer, Patricia Cohen, tweeted about the announcement of the change:

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Of course, gobsmacked is a venerable NOOB–but not venerable enough for Ms. Cohen to realize it doesn’t take a hyphen.

“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.