“Swings and Roundabouts”

Over on the American Dialect Society listserv, Wilson Gray posted that he had come across an unfamiliar expression at the website 9to5mac.com:

While you can argue that it’s more convenient to simply put your phone down on a pad than to have to plug in a cable, that’s swings and roundabouts: a cable lets me continue to use my phone while I’m charging it. Pick it up from a pad, however, and it’s no longer charging.

“A Briticism?” wondered Wilson.

Well, yes (or, as this blog likes to spell it, a Britishism). The Oxford online dictionary identifies “swings and roundabouts” as such and gives this definition: “A situation in which different actions or options result in no eventual gain or loss.” The idea is that in carnivals, where the proprietor might be losing money on one ride, such as the swings, he is likely to be doing well on another, such as the roundabout. (That doesn’t refer to a traffic circle but to what Americans would call a merry-go-round.) The equivalent American expression, I would say, is “Six of one, half-dozen of the other.” [A comment, below, led me to realize that “six of one…” has been equally popular on both sides of the pond.] “It all comes out in the wash,” has a similar message.

There is an interesting discussion of the origin of “swings and roundabouts” at a website appropriately called Interesting Literature. The first use that’s given there is in a 1906 P.G. Wodehouse novel, Love Among the Chickens:

In Chapter 16, when the protagonist, Jerry Garnet, realises that he’s probably done his dash with the object of his affections and he should get back to writing his novel, he remarks philosophically: ‘A man must go through the fire before he write his masterpiece. We learn in suffering what we teach in song. What we lose on the swings, we make up on the roundabouts’.

The context suggests that even then it was a familiar expression. Six years later, in 1912, it provided the title and theme to a poem by Patrick Chalmers, “Roundabouts and Swings.”

Since then it’s appeared almost exclusively in British sources. Either version (“swings and roundabouts” and “roundabouts and swings”) has been used in the New York Times a little more than a half-dozen times, and only twice by Americans. The first was book editor Jeremiah Kaplan, clearly an Anglophile, who was quoted in 1985, ”Publishing has always been swings and roundabouts, so publishers who diversify have a much better chance of succeeding.”  The second was fashion writer Vanessa Friedman, who didn’t seem to understand its meaning, using it to describe the rapidly changing looks that David Bowie embodied over the years.

As for the 9t05mac.com post, the author is Ben Lovejoy, whose bio describes him as “a British technology writer.” It goes on: “He speaks fluent English but only broken American, so please forgive any Anglicised spelling in his posts.”

Update: Robin Hamilton informs by e-mail me that he found both an earlier use of the phrase quoted by Wodehouse, and its origin, in a saying of costermongers, or costers. The use was in a Parliamentary debate in 1895:

“As the coster said : ‘What we gain on the swings we lose on the roundabouts.’”


The Case of the Missing “Brilliant”

A couple of weeks ago, I noted on this blog an ad that appeared in my local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, with a suspiciously British “brilliant“:


But then, just a couple of days ago, I opened the Inquirer to find this:


Which made me wonder: Did Samsung suddenly realize that “brilliant” was a NOOB and replace it with the much more American “beautifully”? Or do they run the ads in rotation? Or is there some other explanation?

If by a remote chance someone from the Samsung advertising department reads this blog, do me a solid and let me know.





This summary appeared February 3 on the home page of the New York Times:


It reminded me that a couple of weeks back, someone suggested “flummoxed” as a NOOB. That sort of flummoxed me, as I had thought of it as a cross-Atlantic word, claimed neither by BrE not AmE. Google Ngram Viewer showed me I was mistaken and my correspondent was correct:screen-shot-2017-02-04-at-11-12-33-amThat is, it started out as a mainly British word, but Americans took a shine to it starting in the 1970s, and finally overtook the British in the late ’90s.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines the word as “confused, let down, outwitted” and has as its first citation a 1834 book called Delicious Chatter: “Joe own’d he was flummix’d and diddles at last.” Three years later, in Pickwick Papers, Dickens has Mr. Weller say, “And my ‘pinion is, Sammy, that if your governor don’t prove an alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call regularly flummoxed, and that’s all about it.”

The OED doesn’t support the Italian etymology but does say the word had a distinct meaning in nineteenth century America. So does Green’s, which quotes Schele De Vere’s Americanisms (1872): “Flummux, to, a slang term used in England in the sense of to hinder, to perplex, denotes in America the giving up of a purpose, and even to die.” It seems to have faded out in the U.S. in the early twentieth century.

The New York Times has used “flummoxed” exclusively in the British sense, first in a dispatch from the 1935 British Open: “there was some confusion regarding ownership of the balls and Smith, being slightly deaf, got so thoroughly “flummoxed” — as the Scots say–over instructions from the marker, his partner and the friendly crowd …” The next use was in 1949, and since then it has appeared in the newspaper 1,434 times–including eight in the first weeks of 2017. Its popularity in this moment isn’t surprising: like “government officials and travelers,” many of us over here feel pretty flummoxed pretty much all the time.

The Ascendance of “Sport”

I wrote here, and again here, about Americans’ use of the typically BrE “sport,” rather than the traditionally American “sports.” I’ve continued to see a lot of examples, most recently from tennis star Venus Williams yesterday at the Australian Open:

I think why people love sport so much is because you see everything in a line. In that moment, there is no do-over. There’s no retake. There is no voice-over. It’s triumph and  disaster witnessed in real time. This is why people live and die for sport, because you can’t fake it.

At this point, AmE “sport” seems sufficiently widespread not to warrant further comment.


I mentioned that Stuart Semmel had suggested two NOOBs. The first was “liaise” and the second is second. That’s not double-talk: the word he suggested was “second,” usually used in passive-voice participle form: to be “seconded” (accent appropriately on the second syllable).

The term is of military origin. The OED has a first citation from 1802 and offers this definition: “To remove (an officer) temporarily from his regiment or corps, for employment on the staff, or in some other extra-regimental appointment.” It was applied to movements of civilian employees as early as 1920, when this appeared in the Westminster Gazette: “It was finally agreed that Lord Moulton should be seconded to the service of the Corporation and of the dye industry for..one year.”

This Google Ngram Viewer chart indicates that ever since, “seconded” has been a decided Britishism. (The red line indcates British use, the blue line American)



And truth to tell, it still is one. The first five pages (after which I quit looking) of Google News hits for the phrase are all from U.K. or Commonwealth sources. However, Stuart reports hearing it on occasion in academic circles and my friend Nanette Tobin in corporate ones. And it was used three times in the New York Times in 2016, including this by Sarah Lyall (a longtime resident of London), in her coverage of the New York’s Westminster Dog Show: “Andy Das, an assistant sports editor whose responsibilities typically include soccer and college sports, but who was seconded to dog duty this year…”

So “seconded” is definitely On the Radar.



“Go to ground” Gets a Bump

A few years back I wrote about the expression “go to ground,” which originated in fox-hunting and came to mean “disappear”–not in the “go missing” sense but as a deliberate act, a sort up souped-up lying low (or, as it’s nearly universally rendered in the U.S., “laying low”).

The expression has been picked up by U.S. sources in the past week in reference to Christoper Steele, the former British intelligence officer who put together a dossier alleging bad behavior by Donald Trump and, when the news came out, flew the coop. So the New York Times had this headline:


While checking out recent uses of the expression, I noticed something I didn’t mention in my original post. In As mentioned in the original post, in British football and rugby coverage, “go to ground” is used more literally–meaning a player who for one reason or another has actually ended up on the ground. As in:


As Tara McAllister Byum has pointed out on Twitter, a slang expression long favored by doctors  and used in the 1978 novel “The House of God” is “Gomers go to ground.” (“Gomer”–possibly an acronym for Get Out of My Emergency Room.) According to an article in Phramacy Times, “The gomer was often an elderly patient, and one of the ‘laws] of the book was that ‘gomers go to ground,’ referring to their tendency to fall or fall out of bed.”

Very British-y “Brilliant” in a Samsung Ad


(For more on “brilliant”as NOOB, read this.)