“Ahnt”

I’ve written before about a trend I first noticed in my students, then observed in the wider world: eschewing the common or standard spelling, pronunciation, or version of a word in favor of one that is or seems more British. Examples include amongst (instead of the traditional among);  the British spelling grey (gray) and the faux-British spelling advisor; and pronouncing often as “off-ten” and either as “eye-ther.”

I’m far less certain about the causes for the trend than that it exists. Hypercorrection would seem an obvious explanation, though it’s puzzling why this would present itself especially among the young, or at a moment when formality is otherwise on the decline. Maybe, come to think of it, it’s a reaction to the casualness that’s rampant everywhere else.

In any case, I have a new specimen for the case: the pronunciation of the word for your mother’s sister. In the United States, there are two main alternatives. One is to sound like the insect, “ant” (“ænt” in the International Phonetic Alphabet). Centuries ago, it was pronounced that way throughout the British Isles, but then much of southern England switched to “ahnt” (“ɑnt” in IPA). And that’s the second U.S. pronunciation. In the nationwide dialect survey conducted by Bert Vaux of Harvard around the turn of the 21st century, 75 percent of the respondents reported saying “ant” (shown in blue on the map below) compared with 9.6 percent for “ahnt” (red).

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Clearly, the “ahnt” pronunciation — along with an additional 2.5 percent who reported rhyming the word with “caught” (“ɒnt” in IPA) — is concentrated in New England. (It’s how Rosalind Russell–born in Waterbury, Connecticut–says the word in the 1958 film Auntie Mame.) In addition, it is the “typical” pronunciation among African-Americans, according to Algeo and Butcher’s The Origins and Development of the English Language.

Vaux, now at Cambridge University, has continued his investigations under the project title Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes. The results for aunt would seem to confirm my anecdotal observation and hunch that a change is afoot: A mere 60 percent of respondents now report saying “ant,” and 25 percent either “ahnt” or “awnt.” Hot spots for the latter include (besides New England) Virginia and the Upper Midwest.

I conducted my own semi-scientific test and listened to the 20 most recent times Americans have said the word on National Public Radio’s air. Eleven said “ant,” including Tom Hanks, Joe Biden, Gene Wilder’s nephew, and the hosts Rachel Martin and Terry Gross (the last was overdetermined, since Gross is a Brooklyn native in her 60s whom one would invite to a “cawfee tawk”). Of the nine who said “ahnt,” five were from the traditional African-American group. But there was also an 18-year-old New Yorker whose parents were born in Ecuador, a white drug counselor from Minneapolis, the reporter Hansi Lo Wang (a native of Philadelphia and a fairly recent Swarthmore graduate), and, in the biggest surprise, Weekend Edition host Scott Simon, a 64-year-old Chicagoan.

What’s missing is a generational study, testing the hypothesis that the growth in “ahnt” has been fueled by millennials. To paraphrase Matt Damon in The Martian, can someone please science that up for me?

“Give [someone] the pip”

After all these years, it’s rare for me to come across an American using a Britishism I was previously unaware of. But that’s what happened when I was reading the New York Times the other day. Theater critic Ben Brantley, reviewing a revival of the musical “Sweet Charity,” alliteratively noted, “Peppiness gives me the pip.”

Actually, “pip” is one of the first Britishisms I was ever aware of, upon reading the Conan Doyle story “The Five Orange Pips” when I was a kid. (The word I would use for the seeds in an orange is “seed.”) “Gives me the pip” was a new expression to me, one that definitely had a British sound to it. And Britishism it is. It derives from the poultry disease known as “the pip.” The Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang reveal having or getting the pip was used to mean feeling depressed or out of sorts starting in the 1830s, and “giving [someone] the pip,” meaning to annoy or irritate, in 1896.

All of the many citations in Green’s are from British sources, including no fewer than five from the quintessential Englishman P.G. Wodehouse, ranging from 1910’s Psmith in the City (“That’s the sort of thing which gives me the pip”) to 1960’s Jeeves in the Offing (“It would be fatal to risk giving her the pip in any way”).

“Gutted”

When Americans read the news today, oh boy, many of them searched for a word to describe how they felt. Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster reported the top lookups at the online dictionary site were bigot, fascism, concede, xenophobe, trump, misogyny, and deplorable. As for me, “horrified” and “devastated” came to mind.

I encountered another alternative in a tweet by the American writer Ben Greenman:

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Americans tend to think of “gutted” as meaning “eviscerated.” As blogger Lynne Murphy noted when she wrote about the word in 2009, the Brits have recently adopted a metaphorical sense. The  OED reports it originated as prison slang and defines it as: “bitterly disappointed; devastated, shattered; utterly fed up.” The dictionary’s first citation is a 1984 entry in Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang and the first use in the wild is from a 1987 article in the English newspaper The Independent: “We are a..strong family, but we are gutted by Shani’s death.

All subsequent citations are from British sources. But “gutted” so perfectly fits the mood of so many here that I think Greenman is merely the harbinger of a U.S. boom.

“Banter”

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?

“Trendy”

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:

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“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.