Some years back, I commented that the Great White Whale of this blog–the Britishism that seems least likely to succeed in the U.S.–is plural verb for collective noun, as in “Parliament are voting.” Over the years, most of the examples I’ve found relate to soccer/football, or more broadly to sports: “the Miami Heat are..” or (infrequently) “the team are…”

Today, NOOBs friend Wes Davis points out a New York Times headline that demonstrates the usage in a non-athletic context:

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 12.15.10 PMI don’t have access to the Times stylebook but I did search the newspaper’s archives for “Taliban believe” (11 hits) and “Taliban believes” (two hits), so the headline is consistent with past practice. But it may be less a matter of using British style than paying attention to etymology.  According to Wikipedia, “Taliban” is Pashto for “students–that is, it’s a plural.

The Girl in the Trainers

On Sunday, June 17, the New York division of the publisher Penguin Random House is holding a walk to raise money for Camba, a local charity. Groups within the company form their own “teams.” Geoffrey Kloske, the head guy at Riverhead (which published my last three books), has organized one called “The Girl in the Trainers.” This is brilliant because:

  1. Riverhead published the bestseller The Girl on the Train.
  2. The author of the novel, Paula Hawkins, is English, and Penguin was (obviously) originally a British company, so the Britishism trainers, instead of American sneakers, is appropriate.
  3. You wear trainers when you walk.

Well played, Kloske.

“Lost the Plot”

When a friend wrote in a Facebook post the other day that a certain political figure had “lost the plot,” my NOOB-dar came on. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase but it had the definite feel of a Britishism, and sure enough, it is.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “lose the plot” as “to lose one’s ability to understand or cope with events; to lose one’s touch; to go off the rails.” There is a dubious 17th-century citation, with the  next not coming till a 1984 quote from The Times, presumably about a fashion show: “Arabella Pollen showed sharp linens, lost the plot in a sarong skirt and brought out curvaceous racing silk and a show-stopping bow-legged Willie Carson.”

As to the phrase’s national origin, the OED doesn’t say. A 1994 article in The American Scholar claims it’s Australian. It would be interesting to hear about that from an Australian. In any case, it definitely is a Britishism, as shown in this Google Ngram Viewer chart comparing uses of the phrase “lost the plot” in books published in the U.S. and the U.K:

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Interestingly, the first time it shows up in the New York Times, in 1998, it’s also in a fashion article:

From the parade of Mao worker jackets with frog closures and cheongsam dresses at Ferragamo to the indiscriminate layering of tulle and other sheer fabrics over trousers and skirts at Anna Molinari, many designers in Milan had a story’s worth of ideas, but they had lost the plot.

It’s been used a few dozen of times since then, most recently less than a week ago, in a May 14 article about entertainment mogul Sumner Redstone:

The legal fracas has changed Mr. Redstone’s public image from a firebrand whose business acumen and ruthlessness won him control of Viacom, Paramount Pictures and CBS, a $40 billion empire, into something quite different. In the local parlance, he lost the plot.

Slightly Off “Toff”

A New York Times obituary the other day of George “Frolic” Weymouth had this sentence: “A bon vivant and a character, Mr. Weymouth was a toff of the old school, with a global network of friends in high places.”

Unless I’m mistaken, in British English, toff always has a negative connotation, signifying “upper-class twit.” That was surely the case in the flurry of uses four years ago, all referring to Mitt Romney.

I don’t imagine the Times meant to cast Mr. Weymouth in such a light.

More NOOBs from the Obamas

The Office of the First Lady issued this statement yesterday:

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I took a look at “gap year” here. The bottom line is that it originated as a British term in the 1980s, and has been in common use in the U.S. since the early 2000s.

More important, good on ya, Malia, and have a brilliant year.


Last week, when U.S. President Obama was in England, he created a bit of a kerfuffle when he spoke against the  U.K. leaving the European Union. That would portend badly for any U.S..-U.K. trade deals, he said:

I think it’s fair to say maybe some point down the line, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is on negotiating with the E.U. The U.K. is going to be at the back of the queue.

Leaving aside the policy aspect, British commentators jumped on the president’s use of “queue,” which of course is British English for the American “line” and has been covered many times on this blog, for example here. Writing about the episode in the Washington Post, Adam Taylor reproduced tweets whose authors purported to be shocked, shocked, that Obama would use such a word, some of them suggesting that he had been “fed” it by Prime Minister David Cameron.

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This was of course absurd. Taylor pointed out that Obama had uttered “queue” numerous times in the past, and was kind enough to cite NOOBs on POTUS’s use of the Britishisms “full stop,” “run to ground,” and “take a decision.”

A couple of other factors were at play. First, Obama is an inveterate “code-switcher,” changing his vocabulary and cadences to fit his audience. Thus, in front of a British crowd, he would be even more likely than usual to haul out “queue.”

The second is what I call the “Elegant Variation Effect” (EVE), after the great writer on usage H.W. Fowler. He coined the term “elegant variation” to mean the deliberate use of a synonym to avoid word repetition. In the quotation above, Obama uses “line” in the first sentence; hence, “queue” in the second.

When there are British and American English terms that mean exactly the same thing, Americans often use the British one on subsequent reference, due to EVE. One saw this recently in the announcement that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson as person pictured on the front of the American twenty-dollar bill. “Bill” is the American word, which the Brits refer to as “note.” Here’s the opening paragraph of the New York Times article announcing the change (underlining mine):

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew on Wednesday announced the most sweeping and historically symbolic makeover of American currency in a century, proposing to replace the slaveholding Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, the former slave and abolitionist, and to add women and civil rights leaders to the $5 and $10 notes.

Over the rest of the article, the terms were used interchangeably. And no kerfuffle ensued.

“Punter’s Chance”; “Punch Above One’s Weight”

If [the Oklahoma City Thunder are] clicking on all cylinders, I give them a punter’s chance obviously to put the kind of firepower out on the floor to go head to head with the [Golden State] Warriors four quarters.

—Jalen Rose, quoted in The New York Times, April 15, 2016

When I read that quote by Rose (a native of Detroit and famously a member of the University of Michigan’s Fab Five basketball team in the early 1990s), referring to two top National Basketball Association teams, my NOOBs antennae went up.

I had never encountered punter’s chance, but I knew that in Britain, punter is a common word that has not yet achieved NOOBs status. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it originated in the 18th century to mean “A person who plays against the bank at baccarat, faro, etc.” In Lynne Murphy’s discussion of the term in her blog, Separated by a Common Language, she says it was then generalized “to mean any type of gambler and from there to mean someone who pays for something, and particularly a man who pays for a prostitute’s services.” (This has no relation to the kicking play called the punt in American football and resulting metaphorical verb meaning to put off or delay a decision or action.)

From that, one can deduce that a punter’s chance means a small but not nonexistent chance, such as a bettor against long odds would have. One needs to deduce because the phrase isn’t defined in the OED or any other dictionary I’ve found. Indeed, it is a rarely used expression, on either side of the Atlantic, with scarcely more than 1,000 Google hits. The Rose quote represents the only time it has ever been used in The New York Times. The earliest use I’ve found is this tantalizing one apparently from an Australian financial publication called The Bulletin in 1973:  “At their present price of $2.30 the shares look good value in this market and it’s a punter’s chance that another free issue could be in the wind.” More solid is a quote from a 1986 article in The Hispanic American Historical Review —”He made promises he had only a punter’s chance of keeping.” A 2006 headline from The Times–“Vengeful Ponting Has Given England a Punter’s Chance”–made clever use of the nickname of Ricky Ponting, Australia’s  cricket captain at the time: “Punter.” Four years later, The Daily Mail noted: “It is not just the weather that might give an outsider a punter’s chance in Japan, but the fact the circuit presents a challenge unique in modern motor sport.”

My hypothesis is that punter’s chance is a rather brilliant eggcorn stemming from a more established (and more American than British) expression, puncher’s chance. This one comes from boxing and refers to the fact that even if you’re an outclassed underdog, you can win a match with one knockout punch. The first use I’ve found is from The New York Times in 1961: “Gene Fullmer today remained the favorite to defeat Florentino Fernandez, but the Cuban was given a puncher’s chance to score an upset.” It has been used 68 times in the Times since then, and it now shows up in all sorts of nonboxing and nonsports contexts, such as this from Nick Paumgarten, writing about the novelist James Salter in The New Yorker in 2013: “Among many writers, and some literary people, he is venerated for his sentence-making, his observational powers, his depictions of sex and valor, and a pair of novels that, in spite of thin sales and obscure subject matter, have more than a puncher’s chance at permanence.” Another former NBA player and current analyst, Vinny Del Negro, said last week, referring to the Dallas Mavericks’ playoff series against Oklahoma City, “You always have a puncher’s chance when Dirk [Nowitzki] is on the court.”

Talking of punching, to punch above [or more than] one’s weight is, according to the OED, a “chiefly British” metaphorical phrase derived from boxing and meaning to have more “power or influence [than] one’s status or significance allows or implies.” The first citation is from The Economist in 1986: “Though only some 12 percent of Nevadans are Mormons, they punch more than their weight.” It’s in full cliché mode now, with 5,340 hits in a Google News search. It is also a proper NOOB, with roughly as many of the hits from U.S. as from U.K. sources: e.g., “Russia, too weak to confront NATO directly, relies on two methods to punch above its weight, military analysts say” (The Boston Globe, April 16, 2016).

The phrase apparently really took off in the 1990s due to a widely quoted comment by Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd of Britain that the country punched above its weight in foreign affairs. Hurd subsequently denied “ever having expressed so crude a sentiment,” according to an Economist article in 1995. “He has ordered searches of electronic databases, defying anyone to find an authoritative attribution of the quote to him.”

No word on the results of the search.