“Twig”

New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley is a frequent user of Not One-Off Britishisms, presumably having picked  them up during all the time he spends in London going to plays. In the third paragraph of a review last week of a New York production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, Brantley referred to an actor “called” (instead of “named”) Michael Urie, which led me to turn on my NOOBs-dar. And sure enough one came along just a few paragraphs later:

Any suspense in the plot as to do with anticipating when, or if, the townsfolk will twig onto Ivan’s true identity…

“Twig onto” was unfamiliar to me, but it seemed to have a distinct British feel. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has a long entry for the verb, with definitions and citations dating from the eighteenth century for four different (similar) meanings: “to observe, to watch”; “to understand, to work out”; “to recognize, to expose”; and “to catch sight of, to become aware of.” Interestingly, the dozens of citation almost all use “twig” alone, rather than followed by “onto,” as Brantley has it. For example, from Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: “Brenda had never the agile mind to twig that he was whiling the days between times away with her sister.”

Green’s suggests the word may have been derived from “twick,” meaning “to jerk,” but Stan Carey has (for me) more convincingly argued for a derivation from the Irish “tuig,” meaning “understand.” The argument is bolstered by the fact that the first citation in Green’s (it’s the “observe, watch” meaning) is from the 1754 play The Brave Irishman, by the (Irish) Thomas Sheridan: “Twig his boots.”

Back to the “twig onto” matter, a search for “twigged onto”  on Google News yields a mere sixteen hits, from an intriguing variety of locations: the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and India. But “twigged that” pops up 1,030 times, the overwhelming majority from the U.K. The takeway is that Brantley got it wrong, and should give some thought to the proposition that if you’re going to use a Britishism, you should use it correctly.

Oh come on, Google

I have no idea why Google adopted British spelling in this notification, instead of the American “customization.”

At least Wikipedia has the excuse of being an international operation (and has established the precedent of using logical punctuation).

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“In the Street”

A notable difference in British and American usage can be found in references to streets or roads. We would normally say, “I live on Parrish Road,” while the British would say, “I live in Parrish Road.” This sounds very strange to American ears–as if the speaker were saying they pitched a tent in the middle of a street. That oddness explains (to me) why the otherwise very language-sensitive lyricist of My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner, could not bring himself to call the song “In the Street Where You Live.”

I was therefore surprised to come on this sign in Philadelphia yesterday:

street

I would have expected it to say “NO PARKING ON THIS STREET.” It prompted me to do some research with the Google Ngram Viewer tool, which produced this graph:

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The three lines represent the relative frequency with which the phrase “live on that street” has appeared in American books (red), and the phrase “live in that street” has appeared in British (green) and American (blue) books. “Live on that street” has apparently never appeared in a British book. (I used “that street” instead of “the street” because “live in the street” has in both countries [I believe] an additional meaning–basically, being homeless.)

The interesting takeaway, for me, is looking back at 1940 or so. Apparently U.S. usage up till that time still followed the British model of “in the street,” after which the “on” phrasing steadily gained popularity, coming out on top in about 1950.

I guess Philadelphia doesn’t change its street signs very often

“Done and done”

I hasten to say this is not a Britishism, at least in the way it’s currently used in the U.S. But it relates to a Britishism, so I reproduce below my post on “done and done” from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog:

I texted my wife the other day asking whether she had walked the dog. She answered, “Done and done.” I was like, “Wait — what and what??”

The truth is, the expression, indicating a task accomplished, did have a bit of a familiar ring to it. Going to Google News, I find these examples just in the last 10 days:

  • “I also believe it’s a particularly good match for the free-weekend treatment. You get in, you hopefully have a good time, and you get out. Done and done.” –Destructoid, on a game called Steep.
  • “First, duh, we just replace the iceberg that the Titanic crashed into with a giant, ocean-based creature. Bang. Done and done.” –article on The Ringer about putting giant animals into classic movies.
  • “Pink suitcases that could fit everything and still be light — done and done. The opportunity to extend the pastel world is so exciting for us.” –Poppy James, of luggage maker Pop+Suki, in Teen Vogue
  • The Princeton University basketball team owns “the spotless 14-0 conference record, and a 17-game winning streak. If this were yesterday, they’d own a bid to the NCAA Tournament, all done and done.”  –NCAA.com

In January, the New York Times television critic James Poniewozik wrote about Donald Trump’s reality-TV-style approach to the issues of the day: “And what does ‘ending conflict of interest’ look like? A lawyer says the word ‘trust’ a bunch of times, and there’s a big pile of documents. Done and done!”

These and other examples comprise two categories: cases where more than one task has been completed (so that the first “done” refers to one thing and the second another), and cases where it’s just one task (in which the second “done” is rhetorically redundant).

The expression doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or Green’s Dictionary of Slang. But it was used as early as 1712, when, as Richard Bleiler of the University of Connecticut has discovered, in “Whig and Tory: or, Wit on both Sides”:

Which introduc’d the Strife.
At which, the rough Tarpawling
Huzza’d, and made a Hollowing,
By crying, you’re a Whig, Sir,
Altho’ you talk so big, Sir,
And dare not Wage your Life.
When Done and Done was spoken,
A sure and certain Token,
That they both were agreed, Sir,
To do some mighty Deed, Sir . . .

The website World Wide Words investigated the expression in 2004 and found an appearance in the novel Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth, published in 1800: “‘Done,’ says my master; ‘I’ll lay you a hundred golden guineas to a tester you don’t.’ ‘Done,’ says the gauger; and done and done’s enough between two gentlemen.”

World Wide Words explains that tester is “a slang term for sixpence” and  gauger “an exciseman’s assistant who checked the capacity of casks.” It goes on:

… it seems that the usual convention was that a bet was agreed on the mere word of the two principals if both said “done.” They both being gentlemen, or assumed to be such, their word was their bond and there was no question of going back on the agreement once it had been made. Hence “done and done” meant that a binding agreement had been mutually accepted.

A half century after Edgeworth’s book, the expression seems to have become established, as well as crossed the Atlantic. From James Fenimore Cooper’s The Crater (1848): “Done and done between gentlemen, is enough, sir.”

But the current use of the expression has a different meaning — “Done thoroughly and satisfactorily,” as Wiktionary puts it. Wiktionary’s first citation for it is a short story called “A Natural Notion,” by David Seybold, included in the 1985 book Seasons of the Hunter: An Anthology, edited by Seybold and Robert Elman: “Done and done, he said to himself. And he felt pretty good. The anger and hurt that only a few hours before had been sharp and deep had dulled.”

My sense is that this second meaning of done and done took hold after the turn of the 21st century and has really taken off in the last few years. And my hypothesis is that its popularity sprang from another, similar sounding expression, done and dusted, which I covered in this blog in 2015:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as meaning “completely finished or ready.” Its citations are all from British sources, starting with the British Bee Journal, which had this line in 1953: “All to be done and dusted before the National Honey Show. After this the grand clear up.”

Done and dusted, which appears to have originated as a Northwest England regionalism, became in vogue in the 1990s Britain, but still hasn’t achieved much popularity in the United States, as this Google Ngram Viewer graph shows:

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So here’s the hypothesis. Done and dusted is a useful expression, the alliterative double verb giving strong emphasis to the idea of a job completed. But it sounds too, well, British, for Americans to want to use it, at least for the time being. So we Yanks cleverly resurrected a similar-sounding older phrase, and cleverly assigned to it the same meaning as done and dusted.

The done and done question?

Done and done.

“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“:

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

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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.

 

 

 

“Flummoxed”

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

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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.