Category Archives: On the radar

“Spoilt [or “Spoiled”] for Choice”

On my first extended stay in England, some fifteen years ago, I encountered the expression “spoilt for choice,” referring (forgive me if this is obvious)  to a situation where one has a lot of options. Ever since, I have been looking for an appearance on these shores, presumably with the first word spelled “spoiled.”

My wait is finally over. The ever-observant Jan Freeman sent a link to a Wall Street Journal article about women’s trousers that contains the line “Those wanting to make a higher-end designer commitment will be spoiled for choice.”

I was going to categorize this as an “outlier,” on account of the author of the WSJ article, Alice Cavanagh. Her blog doesn’t give her nationality, but most of her writing has been for the British or Australian editions of “Vogue.” So she probably wasn’t even aware she was writing anything out of the ordinary.

But then I found it a couple of times in the New York Times archives, including a 2014 article about a New Jersey ice cream joint: “customers can also find themselves spoiled for choice at the 1940s-style roadside walk-up, which lists 60 flavors of homemade hard ice cream and 11 of soft serve on its outdoor sign.”

So “spoiled for choice” gets bumped up to “On the radar.”

“Browned off”

In my admittedly non-scientific experience, the gossip column of my local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, is my single best source for NOOBs. One reason, I speculate, is that the writers’ embarrassment at covering such silly stuff prompts them to frantic elegant variation, as if to say, “I don’t really mean this.”

In any case, in today’s paper I read, “One person browned off by the hacks at Sony Pictures is the company’s chief, Amy Pascal.”

“Browned off,” meaning angry or annoyed, originated as British service slang, with the OED’s first citation coming from 1938. “Browned-offedness” is a later, baroque variation.

It has appeared (in a non-British, non-gardening context) only three times in the New York Times, three of them from the great critic John Leonard, who clearly had a fondness for the term. In 1978, he pulled off a nifty play on words, referring to “the pious androgyny of the young, that Norman O. Browned-off polymorphic sullenness of the children of the sixties, sexual differentiation being such a drag.”
I predict that “browned off” will remain permanently On the Radar, mainly because the American lingo is so rich in colorful terms meaning the same thing. The king of them all is a two-word phrase, also ending in “off,” that I’ll leave to your imagination.

“Fully”

A few years back, my daughter Maria Yagoda, who knows a lot of British and Australian young people, told me to be on the lookout for the arrival of a word she always heard them saying: “fully.” Now, this adverb is common in the U.S., in two particular contexts: a synonym for “completely” or “totally” (“the hotel is fully booked”) and a kind of antonym for “only” (“fully two thirds of registered voters sat this election out”).

The connotation Maria had picked up on was slightly different and is well-put by “Diego” (evidently an Australian) in this Urban Dictionary entry:

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 10.00.17 AM

I found a few other examples out on the web, two from British sporting types:

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 5.56.22 PMA rugby coach: “We had so many chances and the game was fully in our hands for 80 minutes. I was worried, but we got there in the end. George North saved the day.”

A government official: “Large unmanned aircraft, when they come, should be as safe as manned aircraft and the British public should be fully consulted before companies fly large, remotely-piloted aircraft over their homes alongside passenger planes.”

Of course, this isn’t a blog about Britishisms, so the above examples are beside the point. Unfortunately, after being on the lookout for a couple of years, I was drawing a blank on British “fully.”
Then, in July, I came on this quote in the New York Times, attributed to a (San Francisco) “Bay Area cook”: “It’s fully this crazy superstitious thing with all these stories attached to it.” Trouble was, the cook, Samin Nostrat, was identified as having grown up in Iran.

There things stood until a couple of weeks ago, when I attended (with Maria) a talk by Lena Dunham at the New Yorker festival. She showed a scene from a film she had made five or six years ago, and when the lights came up, she said, ” I forgot that I fully had acne.”

Maria and I high-fived each other. The rest of the crowd thought we were nutters.

“Bob’s Your Uncle”

English reader John Barrett reports that in an episode of “Marvel: Agents of Shield,” the (American) character Phil Coulson says, “Bob’s your uncle.” John elaborates:

It was the last episode and he was describing how his team were [I told you John is English] supposed to infiltrate HYDRA headquarters, but his plan ran out of steam rather quickly and he ended with “and..er.. Bob’s your uncle!”

I’ve heard it rather too often in project meetings down the years – it’s often an euphemism for the cloud on the board marked “And then a miracle happens.”

My favourite was about 20-odd years ago, a hardware engineer (ex-RAF, which probably explained a lot ) was showing me a piece of networking equipment which one “plugs into the old wossname, hit the tit and Bob’s your uncle.”

The OED defines the phrase as “everything’s all right,” and though (or maybe because) it’s a quintessential Britishism, it’s shown up rather frequently in American pop culture, at least according to the Wikipedia hive:

In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), Benji Dunn uses the expression to cap his quick summary of Ethan Hunt’s plan to intercept the nuclear code transaction….

In the NCIS episode entitled “Truth or Consequences,” Agent Anthony DiNozzo uses the phrase to explain the unspoken communication between Agent Gibbs and Director Vance.

In season 11, episode 15 of the animated cartoon TV show The Simpsons, titled “Missionary: Impossible,” Homer uses the phrase when talking with Reverend Lovejoy…

In Monk, season 8, episode 7, “Mr. Monk and the Voodoo Curse,” Lieutenant Randy Disher explains how a victim named Robert died: “He opens the box, sees the doll, Bob’s your uncle, his heart just stops.” After that, Captain Leland Stottlemeyer ribs him, asking if that is a real phrase, or if he made it up; Disher protests that it’s an Australian figure of speech.

The origins of the phrase are murky. The OED doesn’t give any etymology, and the ones I’ve seen on Wikipedia and elsewhere are unconvincing, partly because they cite 19th century happenings and the phrase didn’t pop up till the 1930s.

And in this regard I believe I have a contribution. The OED’s first citation for “bob’s your uncle”  is 1937, from Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang. Subsequently, Stephen Goranson found a 1932 use and posted it to the American Dialect Society listserv. After poking around a bit, I found something even earlier: a song called “Follow your Uncle Bob, Bob’s your uncle.” The U.S. Library of Congress lists this as having been “written and composed by John P. Long, of Great Britain,” and copyrighted December 2, 1931.

#Micdrop.

Update: That’ll teach me to brag. Since posting this, I have learned that Gary Martin, who blogs as The Phrase Finder, has found an even earlier use. He writes: “The earliest known example of the phrase in print is in the bill for a performance of a musical revue in Dundee called Bob’s Your Uncle, which appeared in the Scottish newspaper The Angus Evening Telegraph in June 1924.”

I await an update of the OED entry. In the meantime, here’s a clip of Florrie Florde singing “Follow Your Uncle Bob”:

“Taking the Piss”

Longtime friend of NOOBs Wes Davis reports that when he saw Todd Snider in concert recently, the (American) singer said something about “extolling the virtues of taking the piss out of anyone who extols virtues.”

The OED defines “to take the piss (out of)” as: “to make fun (of), to mock, deride, satirize.” One doesn’t come across the expression very much in the U.S. The only time it has appeared in the New York Times (other than readers’ online comments) was in a quote from “a British newspaperman,” in a 2006 article about Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz’s  approach to Formula One racing– ”He’s taking the piss out of the sport because the sport is very up itself.” (Note to self: find out what up itself means.)

The author Bill Bryson, who deserves (if he doesn’t actually have) dual U.K.-U.S. citizenship, has observed, of Americans: “Wit, and particularly the dry, ironic, taking-the-piss sort of wit, was completely beyond them. (Do you know that there isn’t even an equivalent in American speech for ‘taking the piss’?) Yet here in Britain it is such a fundamental part of daily life that you scarcely notice it.”

I’m not so sure if Bryson was taking the piss, or not, which may prove his point.

 

A “trainers” with an asterisk

Today’s New York Times has a fashion article titled, “Sneakers: Where Can’t They Go?” It’s about the trend of wearing sneakers in formal setting. You can already see one of the literary challenges faced by the writer of the article, Susan Joy: trying to avoid writing the word “sneakers” too many times. Joy, regrettably, was not fully up to the challenge. The brief article contains eighteen sneakerses, plus one in the title and one in a photo caption.

But she does make a couple of efforts to avoid the word, as in this sentence: “A quick scroll through the street-style blogs yields scores of shots of fashionable women looking confident and cool in their high-tech trainers and multicolor mash-ups.”

A couple of years ago, I promoted trainers from “Outliers” status to “On the Radar.” Roy’s use of it, being so obviously by way of avoiding writing “sneakers” yet again, is not enough to convince me to elevate the word to full-fledged NOOB.

 

“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:

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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.