“Worrying”

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 (ESPN.com)

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.])

“American football”

ImageI meant to note a Britishism uttered on my favorite television show, The Simpsons, a few of weeks ago. I figure that two days after the Super Bowl is about the right time! In the words of the recap on Celebrity Cafe:

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about “American football” before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football. Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart. And Bart tattles on Lisa to Marge.

Congrats to the Seattle Seahawks side and their supporters for a brilliant match.

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about American football before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football.

Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart. And Bart tattles on Lisa to Marge.

Read more at http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/2013/11/simpsons-recap-labor-pains#1w1VrtCrQvlwo4Lw.99

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about American football before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football.

Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart.

Read more at http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/2013/11/simpsons-recap-labor-pains#1w1VrtCrQvlwo4Lw.99

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about American football before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football.

Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart.

Read more at http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/2013/11/simpsons-recap-labor-pains#1w1VrtCrQvlwo4Lw.99

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about American football before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football.

Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart.

Read more at http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/2013/11/simpsons-recap-labor-pains#1w1VrtCrQvlwo4Lw.99

Lisa emerges in the kitchen with a book titled “Pretending to Like Football” by Mrs. John Madden. Lisa dishes out a fact about American football before Bart interrupts her saying that it’s not “American” football; it’s just football.

Lisa rubs it in that Milhouse invited her to the “American” football game instead of Bart.

Read more at http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/2013/11/simpsons-recap-labor-pains#1w1VrtCrQvlwo4Lw.99

“Aeroplane”

I’ve been reading about the return tour of an American cult rock band from the 1990s, Neutral Milk Hotel. The reviews all mention the album that’s considered their best, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”

Aeroplane was first used for a “heavier-than-air aircraft,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1868, that is, before the aeroplane before it was invented. The OED describes airplane as “chiefly North American”; its first citation is from a 1906 Scientific American article that notes: “Air-plane is a much better word than aeroplane. It is as good etymologically, and much better when it is spoken.” The OED comments: “Airplane became the standard U.S. term (replacing aeroplane) after it was adopted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1916. Although A. Lloyd Jones recommended its adoption by the BBC in 1928, it has until recently been no more than an occasional form in British English.”

Google Ngram Viewer confirms this analysis:

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 11.16.32 AMIf the chart is too small to make out, it shows that aeroplane is still (barely) the preferred spelling in the U.K., and is virtually never used in the U.S.–other than in Neutral Milk Hotel albums.

Of course, I’d bet that in both lingos, the far preferred term is plane.

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:

brown

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:

kelcko

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.

“Naff”

The indefatigable Nancy Friedman sends along a sentence from a New Yorker blog post by Adam Gopnik: “Then Bob Dylan showed up from Minnesota—telling various tales about places he had never actually been, with his naff, made-up name—having nothing but genius.”

She sent it along, of course, because Gopnik (a native Canadian who has lived in the U.S. and written for American publications for numerous decades) used the word naff.

The OED defines the adjective as “Unfashionable, vulgar; lacking in style, inept; worthless, faulty.” The first citation is a 1966 quote from  B. Took & M. Feldman in B. Took, Best of ‘Round the Horne’ (1989): “I couldn’t be doing with a garden like this… I mean all them horrible little naff gnomes”

The OED has a lengthy etymological note, which I have slightly abridged:

Origin unknown . Probably unrelated to slightly earlier naff v.

Various theories have been proposed as to the origin of this word. It has been suggested that it is (in Polari slang: see polari n.) < naff in naff omi a dreary man (compare omee n.), in which naff may perhaps be < Italian gnaffa despicable person (16th cent.).

One of the most popular theories is the suggestion that the word is perhaps an acronym either < the initial letters of Normal As Fuck , or < the initial letters of Not Available For Fucking , but this seems to be a later rationalization. O.E.D. Suppl. (1976) compares the earlier English regional (northern) forms naffhead , naffin , naffy , all denoting a simpleton or idiot (see Eng. Dial. Dict. s.v. Naff v.), and also niff-naff n., niffy-naffy adj., and nyaff n., nyaff v.

The OED defines the “unrelated” verb naff, bluntly, as “fuck,” and notes it is often followed by off.

The etymology may be unknown, but it is unquestionably the case that naff is British to the core. I searched the entire run of The New Yorker (which has been publishing since 1925) and found seven previous naffs. Six either referred to a person named Naff or were spoken or written by British people. The seventh was from, yes, Adam Gopnik, who wrote in 2004: “Being an expert on wine and writing about it is what the English call ‘naff,’ embarrassing and uncool…” (“Uncool” is right, but I’m not sure about “embarrassing.”)

The New York Times has been publishing since 1851, so has printed naff more than the New Yorker, though not that much more. Twenty-one times in the Times’ pages, the word either been uttered or written by a British person, or presented as a British term. On three occasions, it has been used by the fashion writers Suzy Menkes and Cathy Horyn. That leaves this quote, from a 1999 review of Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice: “An English author, one fears, would have found it ”naff,’ embarrassing, to point out what a hansom cab is…”

The writer of the review? Adam Gopnik.

Someone Was Probably Just Trying to Be Humourous

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I guess Fleetwood Mac started it all when they didn’t call their album “Rumors.”