“Plaster”

An amusing Hollywood convention has it that in movies that take place in ancient Rome, on another planet, or in any exotic place, the characters speak English with an English accent (especially if they’re bad guys). I thought of that while reading Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s New Yorker essay about a mass killing in his country. In the piece, Knausgaard quotes from a fellow Norwegian author’s book on the incident. The killer has been apprehended and asks for a cut on his finger to be “bandaged up.” A policeman replies, “You’ll get no fucking plasters from me.”

“Plaster” would be a good word for Americans to adopt, since it’s more specific than our “bandage” and involves more serious dressing than our trade name “Band-Aid.” But we don’t use it, and its presence in the essay–which was translated by an American, Kerri Pierce–struck me as the equivalent of a Martian talking like an Oxford don.

When I looked into it a little more, I realized that the situation was more complicated than I had thought. It turns out the book from which Knausgaard was quoting, Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, was translated by an English woman, Sarah Death, legitimizing the “plaster.”

I did find one proper Britishism in Pierce’s translation: the fact that one of the victims was “called” Simon.

“Jiggery-pokery”

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
Unsuitability,
Threw in the sponge and was
Scraped off the tracks
Any readers want to try their hands?

“On holiday” isn’t going away

The British equivalent of Americans’ traditional “on vacation” seems to be getting more established over here, at least judging from the e-mail I got today:

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Or maybe she was using it in a distinctive way, to mean “out of the office on the day of a holiday.” Question to British readers: can “on holiday” refer to a period of time as short as a day?

In any case, happy July 4th to all of you as well, and no hard feelings to my friends across the Atlantic.

“Over the moon”

Earlier this month, 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 week before, race car driver Scott Dixon said he was “over the moon” about winning the Firestone 600.

“Over the moon” is of course a metaphorical way of saying you’re happy and excited. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from 1936. It’s not unfamiliar to Americans, but it’s traditionally been more common in Britain, as this Google Ngram Viewer chart shows:

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In recent years, it’s mainly been the province of British and Australian celebrities talking about being pregnant or having a child, or athletes talking about winning a game. Such uses still yield the majority of Google News hits, such as Perth Now’s that an Australian businessman’s girlfriend has a baby bump: “’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 that “over the moon” will follow the lead of “at the end of the day” (which I see to my horror that I’ve never done an entry on) and become established in the U.S.

“Lie-in”

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.

“Covers band”

Catching up on New Yorkers, I happened on a poem by John Koethe, which begins:

It’s a great poem, but, needless to say, what mainly interested me was Koethe’s use of covers band instead of cover band — to mean a musical combo whose repertoire consists of songs popularized by other performers. It was a new example, to me, of a phenomenon I’ve discussed before — the growing pluralization of attributive nouns, such as Yankees fan replacing Yankee fan. As with such phrases as jobs (instead of job) report, drinks (instead of drink) menu, and books (instead of book) editor, the covers band example is consistent with the trend of Americans (Koethe was born in San Diego) adopting British usage. Of course, plural forms have not been unheard of in the United States: for example, parks commissioner or Antiques Road Show. But more and more attributives have become plural; I actually have the sense that I had never before even confronted covers band.

This Google Ngram Viewer chart confirms that it has been rare in the United States, while (interestingly) roughly equally common as cover band in Britain.

In a sort of Woody Allen-Marshall McLuhan moment, I tweeted at The New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris, wondering about the use of covers in the Koethe poem. She responded:

Oldies station — a radio station that plays old songs — is indeed a longstanding formulation here. Maybe it’s a music thing?

That doesn’t appear to be the case. In a 2002 paper, the linguist Elisa Sneed refines the work of Maria Alegre and Peter Gordon in determining the circumstances in which plural attributives tend to be used. There seem to be two important factors. The first is “abstractness.” Sneed writes: “Something not easily imagable, such as a process (admissions), an action (assists), a thing (benefits), or something that is otherwise complex (dissertations) is abstract; something easily imagable and simple conceptually, such as pencils or flowers, is concrete” (italics added).

So dissertations index sounds okay; *flowers pot does not.

The second factor is heterogeneity in the head (final) noun of the phrase. Sneed gives the example of analyst as a head noun that promotes “diversity among the entities denoted by the internal noun” and pile as one that highlights homogeneity. So we might say weapons analyst but weapon pile, as well as cookie jar and sock drawer.

She provides this nifty predictive chart, explaining, “Compounds that most closely meet the requirements for abstractness and heterogeneity will be perfectly acceptable, like admissions department. However, as we move away from the ideal in either dimension, the compound becomes less acceptable. This is illustrated by the difference between antiques dealer and antiques collector in the iso-acceptability diagram, where the latter is farther from the ideal.”

Three other wrinkles. First, irregular plurals tend to be more acceptable than regular plurals as attributives. We might say mice droppings but never *rats droppings. Second, as noted by David Crystal, the plural is often used in cases when meaning might otherwise be ambiguous or misleading. Thus, in baseball, a batter who doesn’t have enough power to produce doubles, triples, or home runs is a singles hitter. To call him a single hitter might mean that he’s just one hitter, or that he’s unmarried. Finally, the plural is used in cases when a possessive apostrophe is understood, such as farmers market or the street in Philadelphia where you go to buy a wedding ring, Jewelers Row.

I haven’t found a source that discusses, much less explains, the British preference for plurals even when Sneed’s criteria are not met, or the recent American tendency to adopt these expressions. Going back to the original example, there definitely is a sense of heterogeneity — it wouldn’t do to play the same song over and over again.  But one has a concrete rather than abstract sense of the repertoire, be it “Proud Mary” or “Get Off of My Cloud.” Yet John Koethe chose and insisted on covers band. It is a puzzlement.

The one thing I’m fairly certain of is that the plural trend will continue, and that the tendency will be to call it the plurals trend.

“Good on [someone]”

In a television interview yesterday, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had given “voice to a voiceless part of the Turkish population – good on him for that.”

Hayden was using a phrase that I’ve started to notice fairly frequently among American recently–an equivalent of the familiar (to us) expression of approval “good for you,” or him, her, them, me, etc. I think the adoption here is partly due to a slight difference of nuance. “Good on you” feels like it’s always used in praise of someone’s effort or actions, whereas “good for you” could apply either to that or good fortune, as in winning the lottery or having good weather on vacation.

The OED says “good on” was chiefly found in Australia and New Zealand until the 1970s, though it has an intriguing citation from a 1905 book called The Bush Boys of New Zealand: or Dinkums and Mac: “First one and then another came up and congratulated in true British boys’ style. ‘Good on you, Dinkums, old man. Put it there, old feller.’”

Also intriguingly, the OED says that “good on” formulations have “a stress on good, unlike good for you where the stress is on you.” That has not been my experience, though I hasten to add my experience is limited. I feel that in “Good on you,” I’ve most commonly heard the stress is on “on.” And “good on him,” which developed later, is usually said “good on him“–as Michael Hayden said it in the clip I linked to at the top.

But I wonder what Australian readers have to say.