Category Archives: Faux NOOBs


An amusing Hollywood convention has it that in movies that take place in ancient Rome, on another planet, or in any exotic place, the characters speak English with an English accent (especially if they’re bad guys). I thought of that while reading Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s New Yorker essay about a mass killing in his country. In the piece, Knausgaard quotes from a fellow Norwegian author’s book on the incident. The killer has been apprehended and asks for a cut on his finger to be “bandaged up.” A policeman replies, “You’ll get no fucking plasters from me.”

“Plaster” would be a good word for Americans to adopt, since it’s more specific than our “bandage” and involves more serious dressing than our trade name “Band-Aid.” But we don’t use it, and its presence in the essay–which was translated by an American, Kerri Pierce–struck me as the equivalent of a Martian talking like an Oxford don.

When I looked into it a little more, I realized that the situation was more complicated than I had thought. It turns out the book from which Knausgaard was quoting, Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, was translated by an English woman, Sarah Death, legitimizing the “plaster.”

I did find one proper Britishism in Pierce’s translation: the fact that one of the victims was “called” Simon.

“Not By a Long Chalk”

Just as if it were a chrysanthemum, Alex Beam planted a NOOB in the opening of a recent column in the Boston Globe:

And here I thought we had the place to ourselves.

Not by a long chalk, it turns out. New census data show that Massachusetts is the fastest-growing state in New England, population wise.

The NOOB in question is “not by a long chalk” (which I hereafter abbreviate as NBALC). I know he planted it because he proceeded to go on Facebook and write:  “‘Not by a long chalk’; is that one of those “one-off Britishisms” that Ben Yagoda is always on about?” First of all, it’s “not one-off Britishisms,” not “one-off Britishisms.” Second of all, no.

Alex can certainly be forgiven for his mistake, since for nearly a hundred years , NBALC has indeed been more popular in the U.K. than the U.S., where the preferred wording is the similar-sounding “not by a long shot.”A 1995 New York Times review of a book of Italo Calvino short stories notes that the translator “re-creates the mix of languages while combining standard English with British usages, some colloquial (‘Mummy,’ ‘not by a long chalk’), others antiquated (‘wont,’ ‘woe betide us’).”

But NBALC, like bumbershoot, actually sprang from American soil. John Russell Bartlett included it in his 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms. Three years earlier, “The Knickerbocker,” a New York monthly, printed this saw: “THANKSGIVING ‘aint what it used to was, when we were a little shaver, sprouting up out of our boots among the green hills of Vermont—not by a long chalk.”

We can understand the confusion by taking a look at Google Ngram Viewer chart. The red line shows U.S. use of the phrase, the blue line British use.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 10.22.15 PMIn other words, starting in about 1920, “not by a long chalk” became inexplicably popular in the U.K., to the point where people like the New York Times reviewer and Alex Beam thought it was a Britishism. But is it? NBALC.



My neighbor Mike Eiseman, about to embark on a trip to England, told me he was studying up on the native lingo, and mentioned a couple of words he had learned, one being “chockablock.”

I wasn’t aware of this as a Britishism, but I’m not aware of a lot of things, and I dutifully looked it up. The OED’s definition said it was originally used as a nautical term: “said of a tackle with the two blocks run close together so that they touch each other—the limit of hoisting; transf. jammed or crammed close together; also of a place or person, crammed with, chock-full of.”

The first citation in the OED was from an American, Richard Henry Dana, in  Two Years before Mast: “Hauling the reef-tackles chock-a-block.” The second, ten years hence, was from another Yankee seaman, Herman Melville.

But Mike was on to something, as I learned from another neighbor, Nanette Tobin. Nanette works for an international corporation, alongside a number of British people, and she often tells me about their expressions. (We are still waiting for the appearance of “leaving do”–“going-away party,” in AmE–on these shores.) I forget how it came up, but she happened to mention that her coworkers frequently talk of being “chokka,” i.e., busy. I just searched for it, and this came up on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 2.52.14 PM

I have never encountered “chokka” in the United States (it has never appeared in the New York Times), and expect to roughly the same time as “leaving do.”

Update: Some of the comments inspired me to look for alternate spellings of “chokka,” and indeed there are several. The OED lists “chocker” as the main form, in this entry:

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 9.41.52 AM

Interestingly, the OED doesn’t list the “super-busy” meaning or, indeed, the “chokka” spelling. Wait till the next edition.

Update to the Update:

A blog called L’Office du Jerriais, which describes itself as “the office that promotes the Jersey language,” linked to the above post and offered this additional information:

We have in Jèrriais the word “tchaque”, defined in the dictionary as “chock full”, presumably a borrowing from English, perhaps a maritime borrowing. We also have the verb “tchaquenarder” = to jostle. Whether the existence of the verb helped the assimilation of the English “chock” is a matter for speculation.

I’ s’tchaquenardait la chèrvelle = he racked his brains

Of course the English “chock” is by no means as English as it may appear, for if tchaque is chock then chock is really only being welcomed back to its Norman roots after an English vacation! English borrowed our Norman word chouque which became chock.

Chouque is also one of the Jèrriais words that crop up in Jersey English, used for example to refer to logs or firewood.

“Crisps,” “Builder”

In the last couple of weeks, I came upon two examples of a not uncommon phenomenon: an American, writing for an American publication, using an obvious Britishism when writing about Britain or a Briton. You might call it protective coloration, or going native. The first one was in a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert in which she describes what she finds in a parking lot (which she does not call a car park) near her airport hotel at Heathrow: “empty water bottles, crumpled candy wrappers, crushed soda cans, half-eaten packages of crisps.”

Of course, crisps is the word British people use for what Americans call potato chips or chips (which is what British people call what Americans call french fries or fries). But, as a matter of fact, crisps has been worming its way into AmE of late, specifically for products that are more off-beat than your typical Wise or Lay’s potato chips. This one, for example:


So I will categorize crisps as “on the radar.”

The other example came in a New York Times obituary of “Micky Lay, a bibulous retired builder who helped Mark Rylance craft his performance in Jez Butterworth’s hit play about British outcasts, ‘Jerusalem.'” The relevant term is builder. In the U.S., that word is used pretty much exclusively by newspapers in describing people like Donald Trump–that is, real estate developers.

In Britain, the OED says, “As the name of a trade, builder now denotes the master artisan, who receives his instructions from the architect, and employs the masons, carpenters, etc., by whom the manual work is performed.” That is what Americans would call a “contractor.” But I believe that British builder also refers to a lower-level laborer, what we call “construction worker.” I await enlightenment on this point.

Builder has made some inroads into the youth of America via the animated children’s series “‘Bob the Builder,” which has aired here since 2001. Some of the kids who watched it back then have grown up by now. But I don’t see any evidence of builder being used here in the British sense. That may have to do, unfortunately, with our construction slump. It’s not a job with great prospects, so no one under thirty has much reason to talk about it.


Listening to Geoffrey Nunberg’s “Fresh Air” commentary about not one-off Britishisms, I was struck by this: ” … when [the British] do send us an occasional blockbuster like Harry Potter, they’re considerate enough to Americanize ‘dustbin’ to ‘trash can’ and ‘pinny’ to ‘apron.'”

The reason I was struck is that, about fifteen years ago, shortly after we moved to a town in suburban Philadelphia, my older daughter, Elizabeth Yagoda, started to play soccer. When her team practiced, the girls on one side would put loose mesh jerseys–all of the same color–over their shirts. These were referred to as pinnies. Or at least that’s what I thought they were referred to as; the other possibility was some Southern-derived pronunciation of pennies. I had never heard the term before.

The mystery has persisted, till Nunberg’s comment inspired me to investigate. The OED’s definition of pinny is “A pinafore; an apron, esp. one with a bib.” The dictionary cites a 1939 Angela Thirkell novel: “If we had known mummie was coming, we’d have had our clean pinny on.”

Current British usage uniformly favors the apron meaning, as in this 2010 quote from The People about the Beckham family: “I can reveal Posh, 36, will be putting her pinny on to cook for the couple’s parents including Dave’s dad Ted, who has previously been shunned from the family’s festivities.” That meaning has not penetrated the U.S.

And what about the athletic usage? Wikipedia is of some help:

In modern times, the term “pinny” or “pinnie” has taken another meaning in sports wear, namely a double-sided short apron, often made of mesh, used to differentiate teams. This usage is chiefly British, with some usage in Canada and the United States. This type of pinny is also known as a scrimmage vest.[citation needed]

Citation needed indeed. I haven’t been able to find any British use–and would appreciate any reader input–but pinny appears to have been used to denote “scrimmage jersey” in the U.S. by the early 1950s. Renata Adler (born: 1938) writes in her 1976 novel, Speedboat, “It is all gone, after childhood knowledge of myths, constellations, baseball scores, dinosaurs, and idioms of the tennis court and athletic field. There are outcroppings of the old vocabularies still. Pinnies from field hockey. Heels down. Bad hop. Sorry. My fault. So sorry.”

And there is this in a 1951 publication called “Developing Democratic Human Relations” (the passage is apparently a list of guidelines for scholastic sports): “7. Short cuts to efficient organization for intramural programs (developed through the democratic process): a. Schedule for field and courts with the games schedule. b. Previous knowledge of pinny or shirt teams and direction of goal or basket…”

Today, the word is out there in America, but not completely familiar, as evidenced by way the singular is sometimes spelled pinny and sometimes pinnie, by the quotation marks in this 2012 New York Times blog post–“Children trade or alter clothing; they wear it in situations for which it wasn’t intended (a sports bra under a “pinnie”: perfect for lacrosse, less so in the classroom)”–and by the definition provided in this one, about a pickup soccer game:

“Sides of six to nine are assembled from players serendipitously wearing like-colored tops; noncoordinated participants, mostly men but some women, team up and wear borrowed practice pinnies (mesh vests).”

Almost precisely a year ago, ahead of the Harvard-Yale (American) football match–known in those parts as The Game–the Yale Daily News published this item:

In a clear demonstration that Harvard students measure their “superiority” by their university’s single-digit acceptance rate and their pinnies, a group of Harvard entrepreneurs have launched an “#OccupyYale” pinny — prominently displaying the school’s 6.2% admissions rate — for Cantabs to wear at The Game this weekend.

Pinny for your thoughts: typical Harvard arrogance


All the coverage of the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s ongoing cross-country farewell tour made me wonder, naturally, about the ou spelling in its final syllable. It turns out it was named–u and all–after the first ship commanded by the eighteenth-century English explorer James Cook. It’s not a natural spelling for us Yanks, hence this mistake in a sign some well-meaning NASA folk constructed to cheer on a 2005 launch:

Despite the shuttle’s fame, the u-less spelling (indicated by the red line on this Ngram chart, showing use of both spellings in American English between 1800 and 2008) remains a strong preference on these shores, as it has been since 1850:

“Knickers in a twist (or knot)”

A cartoon by Ming

Faithful reader Hall Hall sends a link to a article that begins “Verizon Wireless’s new family share plan has gotten lots of knickers in knots. But is the new plan really as bad as some people fear it is for consumers?”

Hal asks: “A Britishism (or an Americanism)?”

My answer … wait for it … an Americanism!

Here’s the deal. Knickers in a twist is indeed a Britishism, derived from the British sense of knickers as (in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition) “A short-legged (orig. knee-length), freq. loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment. In extended use, the shorts worn by boxers, footballers, etc.” The twisty figure of speech first appeared in the U.K. in 1967, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, quickly gained popularity through the mid-1980s, and has leveled off since then. In the U.S., by contrast, the phrase’s popularity grew quite gradually through the early ’90s, when it took off; it’s now used more here than here. A proper NOOB indeed. Here are the charts.

U.S. use of “knickers in a twist,” 1964-2008

British use of “knickers in a twist.” 1964-2008

Here is the thing. The red line in both charts represents relative use of knickers in a twist. But you’ll notice that the American chart has a blue line. That represents use of knickers in a knot–it first shows up in 1968 and has slowly risen ever since. In the British chart, knickers in a knot is a pure flat line, suggesting it has never been used.

Why did Americans make up knickers in a knot? Is it because we are partial to alliteration? Is it because we are unaware of the original meaning of knickers and hence don’t realize the physical impossibility of them getting knotted up on their own?

I have no idea and hence I’m not going to get my bowels in an uproar over it.

Do they say that in the U.K.?