Nice use of “chuffed”

The singer and musician Van Dyke Parks posted this on Twitter today:

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Translation: In 1973, apparently Parks alerted Bonnie Raitt to the song “Wah She Go Do,” which was written by Calypso Rose and opens with the line “I can understand why a woman must have an outside man.” The song appeared on Raitt’s album, “Takin’ My Time,” with backup vocals by Parks. It apparently did well enough to earn Calypso Rose a royalty check in at least the four figures, by which she was understandably pleased.

Here’s the song.


Friend of NOOBs Lucy Berrington alerted me to a piece posted yesterday in Slate’s women’s-issues blog, XX Factor. Writer Michelle Goldberg discussed how Susan Sarandon, in an MSNBC interview, “posited that a Trump presidency might be preferable to a Clinton one, because it would hasten the revolution. ‘Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in, things will really explode,’ she said.”

Goldberg excoriated Sarandon for–among many other things–“the gormless unreality of her idea of revolution.”

The OED defines “gormless” as “wanting sense, or discernment,” and dates it to 18th-century Lancashire dialect. There’s a citation from Wuthering Heights (1846): “Did I ever look so stupid, so ‘gaumless’, as Joseph calls it.” (Joseph being from Yorkshire, the next county over from Lancashire.)

This Google Ngram Viewer chart suggests that the word didn’t really become widely popular in the U.K. till the 20th century,:

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The low U.S. usage is reflected in the archives of the New York Times, where “gormless” has appeared a mere seventeen times. Many of them are quotations from people from Britain or Ireland, as in the earliest use, from a 1957 column by Drew Middleton: “They’re a poor, gormless [feckless] lot down there,” a Belfast building worker said over the bar at the Great Eastern pub.”  The eleven 21st-century uses tend to be from the mouths of the Times writers, as in the most recent one, a 2015 capsule movie review of “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” where  “Benicio Del Toro’s drug kingpin Pablo Escobar is elbowed aside by this fact-studded fiction’s near-ruinous focus on a gormless surfer played by the chronically inexpressive Josh Hutcherson.”

I expect to see more U.S. uses of “gormless,” as the amount of gormlessness in the world appears to be on the rise.


Is “Called” a Kiddy Thing?

One of the downsides of watching the NCAA basketball tournament (aka March Madness®) is seeing the same commercials over and over (and over) again. Occasionally, there’ll be an ad repeat showings of which I actually enjoy. There’s at least one such this year, for the chain restaurant Buffalo Wild Wings:

I post it here because of what the manchild on the phone says at the beginning: “I have a new friend! He’s called Jeff. I can’t wait to have him over.”

So, “called,” the American equivalent of which is “named.” The question is whether the “called” in the commercial is a NOOB, or if an actual American little kids would tend to say “called” instead of “named.” I await your collective intelligence.

Onward and Upward with “Advert”

Nancy Friedman wonders, “Is Facebook trying to make ‘advert‘ happen?” and sends along this screenshot.

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My answer to her question would have to be:



“Can’t Be Arsed”

Online comments sections have a bad reputation, but sometimes you can learn a lot there. The first version of my post on Britishisms in the novel Room (below) appeared in the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, to which I contribute one post a week. A commenter who calls herself “englishwlu” noted:

imagine my surprise when my kid (Virginia born and bred) started saying “I can’t be asked. . .” and “go on about” and “sweet f. a.”–all with the right intonation! It turns out that for many years some of the kids he hangs out with inside games like Minecraft on X-Box Live are British. Evidently their idioms of teenaged ennui have transferred and stuck.

Englishwlu mentioned three expressions. “Go on about” is more precisely “on about,” and I wrote about it here. The other two mystified me. I learned about the meaning and origin of  “sweet f.a.” here. As for “can’t be asked,” NOOB friend Nancy Friedman commented on the comment: “I believe you or your child mis-heard ‘can’t be arsed.'” The top definition for “can’t be arsed” at Urban Dictionary is “To be seriously demotivated; To be disinclined to get off one’s arse; To be unwilling to do something.”

All well and good, but I couldn’t very well claim “can’t be arsed” as a NOOB based on one Virginia teen’s use, or misuse, of it. Again, Nancy Friedman to the rescue. Today, she told me on Twitter that last night, an American had used the phrase in a tweet. Sure enough, she had, and here’s the tweet:

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Which Side of the Atlantic Is This “Room” On?

I just read Emma Donoghue’s excellent novel Room–the film version of which is up for a slew of Academy Awards Sunday night. The book’s about a five-year-old named Jack, whose entire life has taken place in an 11-by-11 foot room, where he is confined with his mother. (That situation becomes apparent in the first few pages of the book, so this is not a spoiler.)

Before starting the book and even as I was reading the early pages, I had the feeling that it took place in a completely unspecified location — or, if anywhere, somewhere in Britain, where I had the sense Donoghue lives. It turned out I was wrong on that last point — she is a native of Ireland now based in Canada. And as I read on in Room, I found I was wrong on the first point, too: We eventually learn that Jack and Ma and Room are in the United States.

I was gobsmacked to learn it, because Jack and Ma both talk like they’ve spent their whole lives hard by the North Sea. I’m reasonably certain that wasn’t intentional on Donoghue’s part. She and/or her editors have scrubbed away most of the obvious Britishisms. Jack says elevator instead of lift, trash instead of rubbish, sweater instead of jumper. Spelling-wise, it’s favorite instead of favourite and program instead of programme

But when it comes to the subtle things that separate the two varieties of English, Jack and Ma almost always come down on the British side. Consider:

  1. At one point, Jack says, “Now I’m 5, I have to choose.” An American kid (or adult) would say “Now that I’m 5.”
  2. He writes, “Ma’s washing up real slow.” American English: “washing the dishes” or “doing the dishes.” (Numbers 2 and 1 are so uncommon in the U.S. that they’ve never been written about in this blog.)
  3. Ma tells Jack, “And I also had — I have — a big brother called Paul.” An American would say “named Paul.”
  4. Jack says poo instead of poop. Enough said on that subject.
  5. He uses the very British proper, as in “if I put on my proper shoes” and “I’m not doing proper pictures, just splotches and stripes and spirals.”
  6. Probably the most common Britishism is bits, used to mean “pieces” or “parts.” The word appears 62 times in Room (having a book on Kindle is great for this kind of investigation), and most are pure British, including: “She doesn’t have many soft bits but they’re super soft”; “she’s putting the hem back up on her brown dress with pink bits”; and “For dessert we have a tub of mandarins between us, I get the big bits because she prefers the little ones.”

An important moment in the book, referred to frequently later on, happens when Ma points to Jack’s reflection in Mirror and says,

“The dead spit of me.”

“Why I’m your dead spit?”…

“It just means you look like me. I guess because you’re made of me, like my spit is.”

When I encountered it, I thought “dead spit” was a bit of poetic invention. But I looked it up and it turns out it’s a common British expression for what Americans call “spit and image” or “spitting image.”

I don’t blame Donoghue for all of this. Only someone as neurotically obsessed with the differences between American and British English as I am would be expected to be aware of the trans-Atlantic register of every word or phrase. But the personnel who see a manuscript to publication are expected to attend to such matters. And Donoghue’s editors let her down.

[Note: a version of this article previously appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog.]

“On Lead”

Below is a portion of a photo that appeared in today’s New York Times, taken at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, in New York.

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My eye was immediately drawn to the sign saying “DOGS ON LEAD ONLY.” I only became aware of the expression “on lead” during a trip to England two years ago, when I encountered it as the equivalent to what Americans would call “on a leash.” My guess is that it’s been used in American dog circles for a long time; I’m sure readers can fill me in on that score.