Category Archives: On the radar


The public radio program “Marketplace” recently aired a piece about a new sitcom called “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which is set in West Covina, California. Discussing why she chose that town, one of the show’s producers (a female American, complete with vocal fry) said among other things she liked the fact that the local mall had pretzel shops at both entrances, “just in case you got peckish for a pretzel.” [Note: A commenter observes that “peckish for” is unidiomatic. It strikes me that this woman’s use of it grew out of the currently popular “hungry for”–as in “hungry for lunch”–as discussed here.]

This was the first time I was aware of encountering an American use of “peckish”–defined concisely by the OED as “somewhat hungry.” All of the dictionary’s citations are British with the exception of this from Laurie Colwin’s 1988 book Home Cooking: “At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish, but only the British have institutionalised this feeling.” (I wondered whether Colwin eschewed the American spelling “institutionalized”; Google Books told me “no.”)

It’s interesting that she would have mentioned 4 p.m., because I personally tend to get peckish in the morning. Many other people apparently do as well, hence the (British) custom of “elevenses,” for which Winnie-the-Pooh Paddington favored  honey on bread with condensed milk.

Anyway, it turns out that “peckish” shows up here now and again. It’s appeared sporadically in the New York Times in recent years, most recently in a review of a bar on the Lower East Side: “If peckish, try the matzo-meal fried chicken with pastrami-spiced gravy ($23).” Somehow, I don’t think Winnie-the-Pooh would approve.


The OED says this adjective derives from “obstreperous” and means the same thing, with some overtones, to wit: “bad-tempered, rebellious, awkward, unruly.” All the citations (starting in 1951) are from British sources, including John Burke’s novelization of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” (The word also appears, differently, in the screenplay by Alun Owen, a Liverpool writer. After Ringo complains to a little boy about being knocked over with a tire, the boy says, “Oh, don’t be so stroppy.”)

As this Google Ngram Viewer chart indicates, it’s indeed a Britishism:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 10.29.16 AM

Also as the chart indicates, the word’s presence in the U.S. is minimal at the moment. I had to go through about 100 hits of a Google News search before I found an American use, from a July Boston Globe review of the Amy Winehouse documentary: “the early sequences of ‘Amy’ are heartbreaking in the way they capture a lumpy, stroppy North London girl who just about bursts into flame when she opens her mouth to sing.” Also in July, there was a USA Today story quoting (the British) Piers Morgan on rapper Nicki Minaj: “I experienced at first hand what a stroppy little piece of work she could be when she appeared as a guest act on ‘America’s Got Talent’ when I was still a judge on the show.”

Over at the New York Times, the word has mainly been in quotes by or attributions to British people. Otherwise, the last use was in a 2011 review of a Sarah Palin biography, in which–according to the reviewer, the feisty Jack Shafer–anonymous sources characterized Palin’s marriage as “bloodless and stroppy.” The same year, the Times quoted a song by the Topp Twins, lesbian singers from New Zealand: “We’re stroppy, we’re aggressive, we’ll take over the world.”


When last heard from, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was referring to argle-bargle . Now, dissenting from the court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), Scalia accused the majority of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The OED notes that the term derives from a venerable Scots expression, joukery-pawkery, and means “deceitful or dishonest ‘manipulation’; hocus-pocus, humbug.” The dictionary’s first citation is from 1893, but Ammon Shea, at Merriam-Webster’s “Words at Play” blog, beat that by a remarkable five decades, quoting a December 1845 article from the (Reading, England) Berkshire Chronicle: “… under the present law, the averages were made up so faithfully and fairly as to prevent any jiggery-pokery.”

I myself had not encountered jiggery-pokery since 1967, when it served as the title of Anthony Hecht and John Hollander’s anthology of double dactyls. In inventing this form years earlier, the two poets had come up with some wild and crazy rules. As described by the poet Julie Larios, it consists of:

eight lines of two dactyls each, arranged in two quatrains. The first line of the poem must be nonsense (like “Higgledy-piggledy” or “Jiggery-pokery”) and the second line must be a name; the fourth and eighth lines are dactyls followed by spondees, and they rhyme; and one line of the poem (often the 6th or 7th) must be a single six-syllable word.

Here’s an example, by Hollander:

Higgledy, piggledy,
Anna Karenina
Went off her feed and just
Couldn’t relax.
Then, quite ignoring the
Threw in the sponge and was
Scraped off the tracks
Any readers want to try their hands?


From Twitter:

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A “lie-in” means the practice of resting (either awake or asleep, I believe) while lying down. The OED’s earliest citation is 1867: “The luxury of ‘a long lie in’, is the earliest and most universal of the delights of a working man’s Sunday.” A comparable term is “lie-down.”

They are two of a number of British expressions formed by making nouns out of phrasal verbs; other examples are “fry-up” and “carve-up.” The British also noun-ize some simple verbs that Americans do not, as in “having a sleep” and, indeed, “having a lie.”

Lynne Murphy’s Facebook friend notwithstanding, I don’t see any of these catching on in the U.S. and so, for the time being, categorize them as “On the Radar.”

Update: As commenters were quick to point out, my definition of “lie-in” was seriously wanting, specifically omitting the key element of staying in bed longer than one would normally do, without actually being asleep. It strikes me that this may be a bit of cultural difference that goes beyond language. That is, Americans don’t use “lie-in,” or have our own equivalent, is that we so rarely engage in this practice.

“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.”

“Over the Moon”

On June 16, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said, “We have things rolling out this fall that I am over the moon about and can’t wait for people to see.” The previous week, race car driver Scott Dixon said he was “over the moon” about winning the Firestone 600.

“Over the moon” is of course a hyperbolically metaphorical way of saying you’re very happy and excited. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1936, Margaret Kennedy, Together & Apart:  “She didn’t know she had a brother and she’s over the moon.” It’s not unfamiliar to Americans, but usage has been primarily British, as this Google Ngram Viewer chart suggests.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 11.51.34 AMIn recent years, it has largely been the province of British or Australian celebrities, when discussing being pregnant or having a child, or athletes, when discussing winning a game. Such uses still yield the most hits in a Google News search, as in a recent quote in Perth Now from an Aussie businessman whose wife is expecting: “’I’m over the moon. It’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me,’ the proud expectant dad told us exclusively.”

But the Costolo and Dixon quotes suggest “over the moon” may be following the lead of “At the end of the day” and entering U.S. parlance. I’m betting it will.

“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.