“Taking the Piss,” continued

When I wrote about the expression in 2014, it was very much an outlier. Its use by American food television personality Anthony Bourdain in an (excellent!) People.com interview suggests it may be catching on.

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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:

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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.”



As I say, NOOB readers predicted “flat”–AmE equivalent, “apartment”–would catch on here, and so it seems to have, judging from the above and similar advertisements. The term is, in my experience, largely restricted to commercial attempts to fancy up a dwelling, rather than being a word an actual American person would use.

Except in San Francisco, Nancy Friedman reports: “One of the things that struck me when I moved to the Bay Area 40+ years ago [from Southern California] was that San Franciscans ALWAYS said ‘flat’ instead of ‘apartment.’ I’d never heard the term at all, and I grew up 370 miles away. It’s still true, and I still have no idea why.”


I see that back in 2012, I gave a poll asking readers for NOOB nominees. I promised to follow up and do posts on the winners, which were shagflat, and a tie for third between gap year and row.

Typically, I proceeded to totally forget about it, though I did ultimately write about row and gap year.

Bringing this to mind is a line in an article by an American college professor that just came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He’s writing about the depiction of professors in Woody Allen’s films, starting with “Manhattan” (1979) where

Michael Murphy plays an English professor dragging his feet on an F. Scott Fitzgerald book while still having enough money to wonder if he should trade in his spacious apartment on the Upper East Side for a house in Connecticut, with seemingly endless time and money to eat the overpriced food at Elaine’s (and being enough of a celebrity to get a table there) and have an affair with Diane Keaton, with whom he can have a spontaneous shag at a hotel somewhere between Bloomingdale’s and 68th Street.

So, “shag.” It’s of course a verb and noun (as above) referring to the act of copulation, made popular worldwide by the subtitle of one of Mike Myers’s Austin Powers movie: “The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Fascinatingly, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for it came from none other than Thomas Jefferson in 177o: “He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.” All the subsequent citations are from British and Commonwealth sources.

I’m not sure of its current state of play thereabouts, but in the U.S., post-Austin Powers, it seems to have settled in as a euphemism slightly more randy  than some of the others on offer but still respectable enough to meet the standards of such publications as the Chronicle.

Next: “flat.”

“The penny dropped”

The OED defines this useful phrase as meaning “a situation or statement has at last been understood; a person has reacted belatedly” and notes, “Originally used with allusion to the mechanism of a penny-in-the-slot machine.” The first citation is from The Daily Mirror in 1939; all the later cites are British as well.

As I say, it’s useful phrase. The closest American equivalent would be something like, “The lightbulb went on,” which, besides being clunky, lacks the apt imagined “click” of the penny equivalent.

In addition to the OED cites, this Google Ngram Viewer chart suggests the phrase is indeed of British origin. The red line indicates British usage, the blue American.

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(There’s a fair amount of noise in the chart, emanating from references to actual pennies actually dropping.)

The chart indicates a steady rise in U.S. uses through 2008, and it appears to be continuing. In the New York Times, through 2006, the phrase almost always appeared as part of quote by a British or Canadian person. But there have been about fifteen uses of it by Times writers since then.  Quite a few of them came from the pen of one person, Deb Amlen, who writes the “Wordplay” crossword puzzle blog. Clearly, pennies have to drop or the puzzle doesn’t get solved.


Keen” has penetrated the American lexicon sufficiently as to allow for puns, as seen in this advert for a New York theater company.

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The Queen’s Latin

I recently wondered why, in American movies and TV shows set in foreign or imagined lands, the characters almost invariably speak in British accents, and whether there’s a literary equivalent. I can now report some news on the topic.

First, there has been a lot of discussion about the general phenomenon. One commentator theorized that, on the fantasy end of things (on up through Game of Thrones, where poor Peter Dinklage is made to talk British), it’s the responsibility of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the books that started the genre, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: “even though Middle Earth is a fantasy world it’s clearly inspired by England. Thus it’s not unreasonable that the characters sound like they come from the country that has such a heavy influence on the settings in Middle Earth.”

The invaluable website TV Tropes came up with a name for the custom–“the Queen’s Latin”–and has this explanation for its use in historical dramas:

Britain’s long history causes British accents to seem somehow “older” — they are used to suggest a sense of antiquity. This is actually inaccurate from a linguistic perspective; the modern British accents actually represent a more evolved form of English. Older English accents were closer to modern Irish and American accents.

In any case, using the Queen’s Latin makes a series or film commercially viable in the U.S. It alleviates the need for subtitles, while maintaining the appearance of historical authenticity. It’s just foreign and exotic enough. (Many British actors already Play Great Ethnics.) It’s also no doubt inspired by productions of Shakespeare‘s plays set in Ancient Rome. Remember: Romeo might have been Italian, but he’s not realistic unless he talks like a proper British toff.

The other new thing is another example of literary Queen’s Latin, from the novel All the Light We Cannot See. The book is set in France and Germany during World War II, yet the author, Anthony Doerr — an American— frequently uses British terms: crisps instead of potato chips, lift instead of elevator, and biscuits. (The last is a reversal of the English rapper Lady Sovereign’s couplet “Some English MCs get it twisted/Start sayin’ ‘cookies’ instead of ‘biscuits.’”)

The lingo doesn’t make sense, but I suppose it adds to the feel of the book as taking place in a long-ago era.