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.


A “trainers” with an asterisk

Today’s New York Times has a fashion article titled, “Sneakers: Where Can’t They Go?” It’s about the trend of wearing sneakers in formal setting. You can already see one of the literary challenges faced by the writer of the article, Susan Joy: trying to avoid writing the word “sneakers” too many times. Joy, regrettably, was not fully up to the challenge. The brief article contains eighteen sneakerses, plus one in the title and one in a photo caption.

But she does make a couple of efforts to avoid the word, as in this sentence: “A quick scroll through the street-style blogs yields scores of shots of fashionable women looking confident and cool in their high-tech trainers and multicolor mash-ups.”

A couple of years ago, I promoted trainers from “Outliers” status to “On the Radar.” Roy’s use of it, being so obviously by way of avoiding writing “sneakers” yet again, is not enough to convince me to elevate the word to full-fledged NOOB.


“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:

“To Hospital”

John Grossmann alerts me that in today’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof (born in Yamhill, Oregon) refers to someone “rushing a gravely injured student to hospital.”

Truth to tell, I had always thought of as the Britishism as “in hospital,” compared to the American “in the hospital.” But a check of Google News reveals that Kristof’s usage is indeed a common British form. The American version is either “to a hospital” or (less commonly than in the “in” form) “to the hospital.”

This is the first “to hospital” or “in hospital” I’ve seen in lo these many years of paying attention to such things. So, until I find evidence to the contrary, I’m going to categorize this as an “outlier.”

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.