When tapes emerged of Donald Trump bragging of kissing women and grabbing them by their private parts without their permission, he said (by way of apology or explanation), “This was locker-room banter.”

Locker rooms all over America immediately spoke out in protest, but what caught my ear was banter.  The word came up in this blog a couple of years ago in reference to the“cheeky Nandos” meme, which someone (facetiously) attempted to explain in lad-culture terms:

okay, its a friday night and you and the lads are out on the lash getting wankered in town, harassing women on the street, all wearing chinos, yeah? your top mate Ryan (proper LAD) wants to get something to eat so suggests pizza hut, bit old school and full of kids so banter wont be top notch, instead you get a cheeky nandos and the banter is sick as #bantersaurusrex #bantanddec #barackobanter #banterclaus #archbishopofbanterbury class night with the lads

But the word far predates Nando’s, having emerged in both noun and verb form in the late 17th century (etymology unknown). Green’s Dictionary of Slang quotes a 1698 slang compendium defining the noun as “a pleasant way of prating, which seems in earnest but is in jest.” Twelve years later, Jonathan Swift observed that the word was “first borrowed from the bullies in White Friars, then fell among the footmen”; he condemned it — along with kidney and bamboozle — as part of his brief to reform the English language.

Swift’s complaint fell on deaf ears (as such complaints almost always do), and banter continued to be a popular word; Henry Fielding even used it as a character name in his satirical play The Historical Register of 1736. Things kept on in much the same way until the decade of the 2000s, when English lad culture adopted  it as a favorite word for lads’ conversational back-and-forth, as in this scene from one of the Inbetweeners films (sort of a younger British version of the Hangover series).

Not that banter isn’t used by oldsters in the United Kingdom. Scottish officers purposefully employ banter when patrolling the mean streets; a delegation from the New York Police Department recently traveled to Glasgow to observe them in action. After members of London’s Garrick Club voted to continue to exclude women, one member said it was because he and his colleagues wanted to preserve the “camaraderie” and “banter” of the club.

Banter begat the phrase having the bants, which an Urban Dictionary contributor defined this way in 2010:

Engaging in the age old English tradition of bantering.

1. Fast paced witty exchanges, with tremendous japes had by all

2. General good times with clean fun and joviality

“We were all down the pub, having the bants when Pete came over and bought us another round. Great bants!”

Meanwhile, banter became a sort of all-purpose excuse for boys behaving badly:

  • Niall Horan of the boy band One Direction greeted female fans at Dublin’s airport, saying: “Remember the last time I walked out here? Remember the last time I walked out here and sprained my knee, you shower of c***s!” After getting some blowback, he tweeted, “It was just banter with fans who I think of more as mates.”
  • On the British reality show I’m a Celebrity, one D-lister said of another, “What the f**k is this p***k doing in here? What’s he offering?’ Why the f**k are you in here? What are you? What sort of skill have you got?” His subsequent explanation: “We’re great friends, we are going to be for a long time — it was total banter.”
  • In 2014, Cardiff City football manager Malky Mackay wrote in a text message, referring to a sports agent, “Go on, fat Phil. Nothing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers.” The explanation from the League Managers Association? This and other messages were “sent in private at a time Malky felt under great pressure and when he was letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter.”

A  teacher banned the word, according to an article on the BBC website,

saying it had become an ‘excuse for inappropriate behaviour’ in his classroom, in Gorleston, Norfolk.

“If I catch somebody nicking someone’s pencilcase, calling another student a derogatory name or thumping them on the back, nine times out of ten I’ll be met with a, ‘Siiiir, it’s just bantaaaaaaah!’” he wrote on his blog.

A (male) poet was quoted in the article as saying the word had become “more downmarket than it used to be. It’s something I used to say quite a bit but it’s taken on quite a laddish connotation now.”

Even before last week, the Banter Excuse had started making its way across the Atlantic. A Brown University student accused of sexual misconduct said, as part of his defense, that he and the alleged victim had engaged in “sexual banter.”

Back in the 18th century, Swift wrote, “I have done my utmost for some Years past, to stop the Progress of Mob and Banter; but have been plainly born down by Numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.” If banter takes hold here and becomes the go-to excuse for having said racist, sexist, hateful, or otherwise horrible things, then I am going full-Swift on the word. Who’s with me?


Like bonkers and a piece of cake, this word for “fashionable” or “voguish” doesn’t sound like a Britishism, but it is.

It seems to have popped up in London in the early 1960s; the OED’s first cite is a supercilious quote from a 1962 Punch: “I saw the headline ‘The Trendiest Twin Set’.”

The first use in the New York Times came in 1968, via the paper’s British-born art critic John Russell. It took hold quickly, because the following year, reporter Steven V. Roberts referred to Roman Polanski as being “been near the center of a loose group of film makers who were described with all the current cliches: rood, hip, swinging, trendy.”

As this Google Ngram Viewer chart shows, within about fifteen years, U.S use had surpassed British use, never to look back:



“Fully” spotting

My daughter Maria Yagoda, who first alerted me to the specifically British meaning of “fully,” sent along American entertainer Selena Gomez’s Instagram video of her dancing with a cute toddler. Selena’s message:

“Finally got to meet this sweetheart–she owned it fully.”

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[NOTE: The comments on this post suggest there is some perplexity about the use of “fully” in the U.S. and in U.K./Australia.  I direct you to my original post on the word. Basically, it’s commonly used here but in a more workmanlike way–usually before the verb, and specifically in opposition to partialness. “The bridge won’t be fully completed till next year,” “I don’t fully understand your point,” I fully appreciate your efforts,” etc.  In the U.K. and in Australia (where this use originated and is most common), it’s a much more all-purpose intensifier; as the (Australian) author of the most popular definition on Urban Dictionary put it, “Said to mean Really, Totally, Completely, a lot, very much so or to add emphasis to something.” Americans would never say, “I fully hate that show,” or “I’m fully going to ask her for a date.”

As for the little girl “owning” the dance, that’s a piece of American slang denoting mastery.]

“Dog’s Breakfast”

The online magazine Slate sent out this tweet June 23:

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The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for “dog’s breakfast,” from the Balleymena (Ireland) Observer, 1892, also provides a definition: In a lump like a dog’s breakfast, said of a heterogeneous heap of things.”

It is very much a Britishism, but more of a NOOB than I would have expected. It has appeared in the New York Times–attributed to or written by Americans–seven times since 2010, the first in a quote from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who called court rulings on jury instructions  “a dog’s breakfast of divided, conflicting, and ever-changing analyses.”  The most recent occurred in a review of the HBO series “Vinyl” this past February, referring to a character who is “president of American Century Records, which has a dog’s breakfast of an artist roster: Grand Funk Railroad, Donny Osmond, Savoy Brown, Robert Goulet, and their biggest act, Led Zeppelin.”

Slate’s use of the phrase was appropriate–the author of the article called Simmons’ show “a mess.” If only the magazine had left things there. Instead, a mere four days later, it sent out this tweet:

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That was a misuse of “dog’s breakfast”; all the article really said about the industry was that it isn’t doing well. But the tweet committed an even worse journalistic sin: repeating yourself.


Today’s New York Daily News Front Page

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There is so much to say about this laudable attempt by an American newspaper to simulate British argot in marking Iceland’s remarkable football (“footy” for short) victory over England yesterday.  First, “Mighty England” is a longstanding phrase, applied not only to the national football team but to the country as a whole.is a reference  to the chant ““We’re from England – mighty, mighty England.” Over on Twitter, there has been considerable discussion about whether a hypothetical youngster would say “mummy,” or “mum,” or whether he would address his mother at all on this matter. (There have been no objections to “my arse.”)

Then there’s “call bollocks on” apparently meaning “to call something bollocks.” The phrase is not only not listed in the OED, it’s not even listed in Urban Dictionary. Lynne Murphy, who alerted me to the Daily News front page, has already blogged that it’s not an actual British expression. It’s certainly not widespread, but it’s out there, with 1,870 Google hits for “call bollocks on” and 874 for “call bollocks to.”

What do you lot think?

Political analysis

A letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal:

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Perhaps Mr. or Ms. Stansbury is British, but in Los Gatos and the rest of the U.S., we say “college.”

More “Kit”

Spotted yesterday on Twitter from the American online magazine Slate:

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Obviously, Slate is using “kit” for what an American would usually call a jersey or shirt. My question is, would a British person refer to “France kit” or “French kit”?