“Not By a Long Chalk”

Just as if it were a chrysanthemum, Alex Beam planted a NOOB in the opening of a recent column in the Boston Globe:

And here I thought we had the place to ourselves.

Not by a long chalk, it turns out. New census data show that Massachusetts is the fastest-growing state in New England, population wise.

The NOOB in question is “not by a long chalk” (which I hereafter abbreviate as NBALC). I know he planted it because he proceeded to go on Facebook and write:  “‘Not by a long chalk'; is that one of those “one-off Britishisms” that Ben Yagoda is always on about?” First of all, it’s “not one-off Britishisms,” not “one-off Britishisms.” Second of all, no.

Alex can certainly be forgiven for his mistake, since for nearly a hundred years , NBALC has indeed been more popular in the U.K. than the U.S., where the preferred wording is the similar-sounding “not by a long shot.”A 1995 New York Times review of a book of Italo Calvino short stories notes that the translator “re-creates the mix of languages while combining standard English with British usages, some colloquial (‘Mummy,’ ‘not by a long chalk’), others antiquated (‘wont,’ ‘woe betide us’).”

But NBALC, like bumbershoot, actually sprang from American soil. John Russell Bartlett included it in his 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms. Three years earlier, “The Knickerbocker,” a New York monthly, printed this saw: “THANKSGIVING ‘aint what it used to was, when we were a little shaver, sprouting up out of our boots among the green hills of Vermont—not by a long chalk.”

We can understand the confusion by taking a look at Google Ngram Viewer chart. The red line shows U.S. use of the phrase, the blue line British use.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 10.22.15 PMIn other words, starting in about 1920, “not by a long chalk” became inexplicably popular in the U.K., to the point where people like the New York Times reviewer and Alex Beam thought it was a Britishism. But is it? NBALC.



Lynne Murphy, proprietress of the Separated by a Common Language blog, has since 2006 selected the most noteworthy words that have traveled from the U.S. to the U.K, and the other way round (AmE: “around”). Here are her past U.K. to U.S. selections:

2006: wanker 
2007: (baby) bump
2008:  to vet (e.g. a candidate)
2009: to go missing
2010: ginger (redhead)
2011: kettling
2012: bollocks
2013: bum

The links go to her posts. I have covered all except “kettling,” which I confess I wasn’t aware of until today; you can find my entries by putting the words into the “Search” function.

Drum roll, please. This year Lynne chose both an adjective and a noun: “dodgy” and “gap year” (links are to my posts). And her U.S. to U.K. winners? “Awesome” and “bake-off.” Awesome.

Couldn’t resist…

Posting Scottish tennis star Andy Murray’s Twitter photo.

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Note: Here’s my post on chuffed. I’ve written a lot about various NOOBy uses of “bits” (for example here and here) but not Murray’s use, for which Americans would substitute “to pieces,” if anything. Nor has “jumper” (aka “sweater) made any inroads here, although, come to think of it, I bet Nancy Friedman has made some twee retail sightings.

“The B-Side”

… is not a NOOB but rather the title of my new book, due out 22 January 22 and pictured above. To order, all you have to do is click.


Not long ago, Nancy Friedman alerted me to the use of “Panto” in her native San Francisco. For the uninitiated, in the words of the Theatre-Britain website, “A panto is a traditional fairy tale complete with songs, dances, jokes, exaggerated characters and lots of audience participation. The British love a good panto. In fact the nation has been mad on it ever since the actor manager John Rich introduced it in 1717.” (Note to self: check “mad on it.”)

Now, the term used back in 1717 was “pantomime”; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the shortened form “panto” didn’t appear till 1852. “Panto” now predominates and emerges (as Theatre-Britain neglected to note) in the Christmas season. And speak of the devil, here’s a current offering of a troupe near me:

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The doing of pantos by American companies is a kind of cultural Britishism, but I am inclined not to view either “panto” or “pantomime” as a NOOB, for the simple reason that there isn’t any alternative word for that thing.

“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.

A milestone do

… is clearly called for. Around 11:30 last night, Eastern Standard Time, this blog passed the 1,000,000 page view mark.

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Many thanks to all who have read and commented and made suggestions. There seems to be a never-ending supply of NOOBs, so no leaving do for some time to come.