Category Archives: Outliers

“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.’”

 

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Political analysis

A letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal:

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Perhaps Mr. or Ms. Stansbury is British, but in Los Gatos and the rest of the U.S., we say “college.”

“Two a penny”

From last week’s New York Times:

“Weather apps are two a penny, but I’ve used one more than any other this year: Yahoo Weather.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition for “two a penny” (“ten a penny” is a variant): “plentiful and consequently of little value, commonplace; easily obtainable or available; occurring frequently.” The OED quotes a 1948 novel by Neville Shute: “In Hollywood beauties were two a penny, and it was years before she got an inkling what it was that differentiated her from all the stand-ins and walkers-on.”

Before reading the quote in the Times, I was unfamiliar with “two a penny.”  Searching the the newspaper’s archives, I see the last time it was used was in a 2005 review of a play by Alan Ayckbourn, which was kind of appropriate, in view of Ayckbourn’s nationality. Given that there is an apparently completely synonymous American cliche–“a dime a dozen”–I don’t expect to encounter “two a penny” here again. But as Fats Waller immortally said, one never knows, do one?

News flash: Mere minutes after this was posted, the following came over Twitter, from Kit Eaton, who wrote the line about Yahoo Weather:

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“A right”

Chip Kelly, the coach of the (American) football Philadelphia Eagles was questioned the other day about the Eagles’ play calling: specifically, why relatively few plays have been called for star running back DeMarco Murray to carry the ball. Kelly replied in part: “I would love to get everybody in a right lather and going, but when we’re not having success running the ball at all, then it’s tough to say, ‘Hey, we’re just going to make sure we get [running back DeMarco Murray] 22 carries and he’s lathered up.'”

OK, so the “lather” thing is taken from horse racing, referring to the frothy sweat of a horse. The OED cites an 1837 novel: “Miss Bell had already exercised her [a mare] so well, that, to use a jockey term, she was all in a lather.” The novel is British, but I sense that “in a lather” has been used in racing circles on both sides of the Atlantic.

You’ll notice that Kelly used the term, figuratively, in two different expressions. “In a lather” is a venerable one, but traditionally has been used to mean being in a state of high anxiety, irritation and/or agitation. The OED’s first citation is from Frances Trollope, quoting an American in 1849: “Don’t be in a lather, father, before you are shaved. I’ll do your job, I expect, if you won’t be in such a tarnation fuss.”

“Lathered up” seems to have departed from  horse-racing parlance rather more recently. Searching Google News, I find Kelly is not the only American coach to lately use it about human athletes, especially football players (who are often described with words and expressions traditionally associated with animals). A Louisiana college football coach was quoted as saying about a receiver, “It’s hard to get into a rhythm until you get lathered up a little bit, it’s like a running back.” And the San Francisco 49ers coach said of an injured player, “he will be out there and going through that extended stretch that we do and try to get him into the team, get him warmed up and lathered up.”

But the real reason Kelly’s quotes spawned this post is the first two words in “a right lather.” The OED defines this “right” as “colloq. (chiefly Brit. and Irish English). As an intensifier (usu. in derogatory and ironical contexts): complete, absolute, total, utter.” It cites The Observer writing in 1974: “‘The Government did not know that there was no settlement in writing, and how could an order apply to something which did not exist,’ he said. ‘The Government made a right mess of it.’”

I would hazard to say that until Chip Kelly spoke, this usage of “a right” has never been uttered, non-ironically, by an American.

“Done and dusted”

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Google News results for “done and dusted” are all from UK or Commonwealth sources.

The ever-reliable Jan Freeman points out on Twitter that the (American) novelist Elinor Lipman used this phrase in an essay published yesterday in the New York Times. Lipman is describing (romantically) breaking up with a British man she had been seeing. “I had acquitted myself in relatively menschy fashion,” she writes. “Done and dusted.”

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.”

I’m labeling this an “Outlier,” as it is rarely found on this side of the Atlantic. The only other times it’s appeared in the Times in recent years is in the soccer (football) columns of Rob Hughes, an English native. Using it was a nice touch on Lipman’s part, as it echoed the patois of the bloke in question.

And Lipman actually replied to Freeman’s tweet, confirming that this was a favorite phrase of his. “‘And Bob’s your uncle,’ he’d add,” she added.

“On the day”

Not long after I started spending time in London, I noticed the use of a phrase for which there is no precise U.S. equivalent: “on the day.” I know quite well that Americans use those words in that order, but not quite in the same context as in the U.K. I searched the phrase on Google News, and the first page of hits all came from British or Commonwealth sources. Here they are:

  • “These games are often fifty-fifty at best and even the well credentialled teams are vulnerable to a bit of bad luck on the day.” (Australian sports site The Roar)
  • Amongst the star performers on the day were young centre duo Jack Roberts and George Catchpole.” (Bourne [England] Local)
  • “Umpiring is a real team environment, just as playing is. We prepare to perform well, and all that matters is making sure you get it right on the day.” (The Roar, again)
  • “There’s been widespread condemnation from fans and teams alike of Force India, who blocked Manor (previously Marussia, previously Virgin, previously Manor) F1’s return to the grid, based on a half-baked excuse they came up with on the day.” (English Formula 1 site Badger GP)
  • “’Potentially, it’s a very useful tool but its complementary to the main pollsters. It would be feasible to do it on the day [of an election],’ he said.” (The Guardian)

That last one is interesting, because the bracketed insertion represents (to my mind) precisely the American version. That is, we are more explicit, saying  “on the day of [fill in the event],” or “when the day finally arrived,” or “on the day itself.” I have no idea why The Guardian should have felt the need to add “of an election,” other than as a gesture to its increasing number of American online readers.

I bring all this up because the other day I heard Vickie Barker’s very American voice, in an NPR report on London’s “Visit My Mosque” campaign, say these words: “But on the day, the center was packed with visitors sipping tea, nibbling pizza and cake, and eagerly listening to community members like Zahra Khimji describe a typical week there.”

NPR doesn’t provide any information about Ms. Barker, but I found a 2012 interview with her saying she had lived in London “over twenty years.” That makes at least twenty-five now, which is clearly enough time to lead even a Yank journo to say “on the day.”

“Bin” (verb, transitive)

There’s something about the Boston Globe. Hard on the heels of columnist Alex Beam’s “not by a long chalk” comes this from his fellow columnist Yvonne Abraham: “Occasionally, the eye-popping cost of a blood test gives us pause, but generally, we bin

without a second thought.”

“Bin”–meaning to throw something in the rubbish bin (meaning the garbage can)–is not only rare in the United States, it’s non-existent. I can say that because Lynne Murphy of Separated by a Common Language took the trouble to trawl the massive Corpus of Contemporary American English and find that it contains not a single instance of “bin” as a verb.

Googling “Yvonne Abraham” provides an explanation: as she says in this interview (and as her accent makes obvious), she hails from Australia. But as Jan Freeman (who alerted me to the quote) points out, “I doubt that her editor is also from a bin-speaking nation.”