“Hullo”

I got a business e-mail the other day (from an American) that started out with a one-word sentence: “Hullo.” The U.S. version, of course, is “hello.” I had always associated hullo with mum, except I sometimes encounter “mum” here, and I’d never seen an American “hullo.” Until now.

Poking around on the web for examples, I almost immediately encountered this quintessentially British quote from the quintessentially British P.G. Wodehouse (the narrator is the possibly even more quintessentially British Bertie Wooster):

“Hullo, Bobbie,” I said. “Hullo, Bertie,” she said. “Hullo, Upjohn,” I said. The correct response to this would have been “Hullo, Wooster”, but he blew up in his lines and merely made a noise like a wolf with its big toe caught in a trap.

Hello (first citation 1827) and hullo (1857) both have the same etymology as the verb holler, according to the OED, as do the older variants hallo (first seen in Dickens, in 1841) and hollo (Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus). Interestingly, an even earlier version is holla, which has recently come back in full force. The most popular definition on Urban Dictionary gives three meanings, the relevant one being, “A word used to acknowledge the presence of a fellow companion.” This example is offered: “Is that mah boy ova there? HOLLAAAAA!”

Generally, hello is indeed generally American and hullo generally British, through Google Ngram Viewer suggests some nuance:

Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 10.49.53 AMThe decline in hullo use on both sides of the Atlantic suggests that my e-mail correspondent’s use of the word was a one-off–about as likely to catch on as the similarly Wodehousian abbreviation for the thing we used to talk on: ‘phone.

 

 

 

 

“Expiry date”

When the BBC did a piece a couple of years on British people’s most annoying Americanisms, “expiration date” instead of “expiry date” made the top 50. As Lynne Murphy observed, those people didn’t really have much cause for their annoyance, but the Google Ngram chart below indeed shows “expiration date” as preferred in the U.S. However,  the two versions have been pretty close in Britain for the last fifty years.

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Now, what of American “expiry date”? The graph shows it to be on the rise, and the ever-sharp-eyed Nancy Friedman reports a growing number of sightings, notably at the clothing and furnishings chain Anthropologie. I went to the company’s website and went far enough in the process of buying a $500 rug to come upon this:

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At that point, I x-ed out of that tab as quick as I could and hightailed it out of there.

“Sport” sighting in New York Times

sport

I’ve written before about the increasing U.S. use of sport rather than the traditional sports. National Public Radio’s  Frank Deford tends to alternate the two in his weekly commentaries. But this headline from today’s New York Times would appear to herald a new level of acceptance for the singular form.

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.

van

“Quality” (adj.)

On holiday in London last week, I was gobsmacked to come upon this:

quality

The reason for my surprise was that, on my mother’s knee, I was taught that quality should not be used as an adjective but exclusively as a noun referring to a feature or characteristic of a person or thing. I haven’t been on my mother’s knee for a long time, but the injunction is still widespread. Bryan Garner’s entry on the word in Garner’s Modern American Usage reads, in its entirety: “When used as an adjective meaning ‘of high quality,’ this is a vogue word and a casualism <a quality bottling company>. Use good or fine or some other adjective of better standing.” For decades, one of the easiest and most efficient ways for novelists to convey that a character is a philistine has been to have him say something like, “I’m talking quality products here!”

But now I was seeing evidence that in England, quality is an adjective of perfectly good standing. It was meaningful that the sign was at a pub, for everything about this institution is supposed to signify history and tradition. In other words, the implication was that the usage had been OK for a long time.

And when I got home and checked my Oxford English Dictionary, I found that that is the case. The process started as early as Shakespeare, with the noun being used to mean high quality (“The Grecian youths are full of quality, And swelling ore with arts and exercise”) or, similarly, high birth or rank (“There are no men of quality but the Duke of Monmouth; all the rest are gentlemen,” 1671).

The adjective emerged roughly in 1700,  meaning, in the OED‘s words: “With sense ‘of high social standing, of good breeding, noble’, as quality acquaintance, quality air, quality blood, quality end, quality friend, quality gentleman, quality horse, quality lady, quality living, quality pride, quality white, etc.” There are many citations in the 18th century (“The influence of Peregrine’s new quality-friends”—Smollett, Peregrine Pickle), but starting in the early 19th, according to the dictionary, this usage became “archaic.” The archaicness seems to have commenced being reversed in the United States; the OED cites a 1910 headline in an Ohio newspaper, “American is the quality magazine.” In Britain it became common in the 1960s to refer to The Times, The Guardian, and such as “quality newspapers,” as opposed to the red-top tabloids—so much so that a quality can be used as a noun (once again) to refer to such a publication.

A Google Ngram Viewer graph shows that the frequency of quality as an adjective (in American and British English combined) was minimal through 1920, rose gradually from 1920 to 1970, and exploded from 1970 through 2000:

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One can name a couple of factors, besides British newspaper terminology, that surely contributed to the recent escalation. Business jargon certainly took to the adjective, with its quality assurance, quality management, and quality circles. It’s big in sports, too. One cannot follow a season in basketball or football without hearing incessant talk of “quality wins” or “quality opponents.” A popular statistic in baseball since the 1980s has been the “quality start,” referring to an outing in which a pitcher stays in the game for at least six innings, and gives up no more than three runs.

But the big kahuna is “quality time,” about which the OED says, “orig. U.S.: time spent in a worthwhile or dedicated manner; esp. time in which one’s child, partner, etc., receives one’s undivided attention.” The first citation is in 1972, but because it so directly addressed busy people’s anxiety about not spending enough time with their kids or spouses, it quickly became a buzzword, and by the mid-1980s, Frank Rich of The New York Times was deriding it as a cliché. Ngram Viewer shows that it’s more popular than ever. But I would bet that many if not most of the uses are ironic or derisive, suggesting that, like the perpetual-motion machine, the notion that quality time can compensate for sparse quantity time is but a dream.

“Nil”

Robert Siegel, the redoubtable National Public Radio host, took to the airwaves yesterday to denounce nil. Or, rather, to denounce “nil” and its

creeping penetration of American English thanks to the World Cup. Nil is a contracted scrap of Latin that survives in a few common bits of American English. We might say the chances of something happening are next to nil. Headline writers always in need of very short words sometimes use nil. But if I said, in the top of the third inning, the Nationals led the Cubs one-nil and then Chicago scored an equalizer the late Harry Carey and Phil Rizzuto [both baseball announcers] would both shout, “Holy cow!” in their graves.

As readers of this blog know, the “creeping penetration” of British soccer terminology is a rich subject, covered most recently here. On the “nil” question, Siegel, to his credit, didn’t just fulminate but brought in an expert, Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press. She added some historical perspective:

…in the beginning of the 20th century the way that Americans talked about soccer was not that different from the way that British people talked about soccer. And they used nil sometimes to describe a score. But we lost the knack for talking professionally about soccer during soccer’s decline over the course the 20th century and now I think that our journalists are picking it up on the fly. And there’s an uncertainty about where does British-English end and soccer terminology begin. Most people wouldn’t think it was odd, I think, to say extra time rather than overtime. That’s just how you talk about soccer.

Siegel’s other guest, an announcer for a Major League Soccer team, would have none of this. “I don’t use the term nil,” he said, “because when I say I’m going to the men’s room I don’t say I’m going to the loo.”

“Taking the Piss”

Longtime friend of NOOBs Wes Davis reports that when he saw Todd Snider in concert recently, the (American) singer said something about “extolling the virtues of taking the piss out of anyone who extols virtues.”

The OED defines “to take the piss (out of)” as: “to make fun (of), to mock, deride, satirize.” One doesn’t come across the expression very much in the U.S. The only time it has appeared in the New York Times (other than readers’ online comments) was in a quote from “a British newspaperman,” in a 2006 article about Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz’s  approach to Formula One racing– ”He’s taking the piss out of the sport because the sport is very up itself.” (Note to self: find out what up itself means.)

The author Bill Bryson, who deserves (if he doesn’t actually have) dual U.K.-U.S. citizenship, has observed, of Americans: “Wit, and particularly the dry, ironic, taking-the-piss sort of wit, was completely beyond them. (Do you know that there isn’t even an equivalent in American speech for ‘taking the piss’?) Yet here in Britain it is such a fundamental part of daily life that you scarcely notice it.”

I’m not so sure if Bryson was taking the piss, or not, which may prove his point.