Very British-y “Brilliant” in a Samsung Ad


(For more on “brilliant”as NOOB, read this.)


NOOBSian Stuart Semmel of Yale University has passed along two new (to me) NOOBs. The first is the verb “liaise,” a back-formation from the French noun “liaison,” which originally meant a sauce-thickening agent (who knew?) but has since referred to a close (sometimes intimate) connection between two people or organizations. The OED describes “liaise” as “originally Services’ slang” and provides a first citation from 1928: ” [Lord Fisher said in 1916] I want a keep in touch with the Navy and so ‘liaise’ or exchange inventions which may be suitable.”

It is certainly a Britishism (which achieved massive gains in popularity in the last four decades of the 20th century), as seen in the Google Ngrams Viewer graph:


I had heard it over the years, but mostly in the context of critiques of business jargon and “verbing” nouns. Back in 2005, in a column about back-formations, the great William Safire of the New York Times commented, “I don’t like liaise, a self-important, bureaucratic substitute for ‘work with.'” (He added, interestingly, “I like ‘surveil,’ because ‘surveillance’ has more of a pervasive and sinister quality than ‘watch’ or ‘follow.'”)

As the graph shows, “liaise” has gained some popularity in the U.S., but still is used much less than across the pond. Since Safire’s column, it has been used (by apparently American writers and sources) fifteen times in the Times, ten of them since 2010. This came from a February 2016 article about Libya:

Libyan officials and news media outlets have reported the presence of American, French, British and Italian special forces units in the country in recent weeks, ostensibly on reconnaissance missions and to liaise with local militias.

Next up: Semmel’s second NOOB (and therein lies a clue).


Writing in the New York Times Book Review yesterday, Woody Allen (invoking the sort of stereotypes that would be offensive from the pen of a Gentile and maybe even from a Jew like Allen) referred to the American playwright George S. Kaufman as having a “standard tribal hooter and the natural blessing of wit common to his people.”

Benjamin Dreyer, an editor at the American publishing firm Random House, remarked on Twitter that he had only recently become aware of “hooter” as a slang term for “nose” and then had this illuminating exchange:


Mr. Dreyer’s last assessment is spot-on, in my humble opinion.

“Hooter” for nose isn’t all that old; the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from the 1958 book Bang to rights: an account of prison life, by Frank Norman. It’s clearly derived from another British sense of “hooter”–what Americans would call a car horn. Along the same lines, in Australian Rules Football, the hooter is the horn that sounds at the end of a period or a game. In the U.S., traditionally, the main slang meaning of “hooter” is the female breast, as seen in the chain of fine dining establishments.

Woody Allen (whose review proves–again in my humble opinion–that he’s much better at writing comic essays than movies) was in his high S.J. Perelman mode, which includes a mix not only of Britishisms but of Yiddish, low slang, and polysyllabic archaicisms. Thus his “hooter” doesn’t signal or awkward a widespread U.S. adoption. (We’re good with “honker” and “schnozz.”) The only other recent use in the Times was from book critic Dwight Garner, himself an estimable stylist. Reviewing a collection of Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesebury” cartoons in 2010, Garner referred to “the pencil-shaped hooter that his main character, Mike Doonesbury, has sticking out of his face.”



The ever-observant Nancy Friedman has sent along a screenshot of a Wall Street Journal headline: “Tehran officials say accord is now harder to undo, threaten clawbacks if scuppered.”

Never mind about “clawbacks” for the moment–the thing that caught her, and my, interest is “scuppered.” The OED tells us that the verb “scupper” originated in the late nineteenth century as military slang for “to surprise and massacre.” There followed a “colloquial” twentieth-century meaning, “To defeat, ruin, destroy, put an end to.”  By 1957–when a writer for The Economist noted, “The suspicion is still alive that there would have been secret rejoicing in Whitehall if the French Assembly had scuppered the common market”–it had entered (British) journalese, in a sense similar to that seen in the Wall Street Journal headline.

And it definitely is a Britishism, as seen in this Google Ngram Viewer chart:


I reckon that the recent popularity of “scuppered” is in part due to its aural resemblance to “scuttle”–originally a nautical term meaning to bore holes in the boat for the purpose of sinking it, and in figurative use by the 1888, after which it has been equally popular in the U.S. and U.K. according to Google Ngram Viewer. ( “The day..began with bad news. The Rent Subsidy Bill had been scuttled without opportunity to work on it.” Ladybird Johnson, White House Diaries, 1965.) “Scuppered” may (wrongly) make  journos and subeditors feel that they are using a fresher word than the tired old “scuttled.”

In any case, “scuppered” is gaining a foothold among U.S. writers, who may (wrongly) feel that using a Britishism makes them seem cool. It has appeared in the New York Times five times in 2016, first from the pen of columnist Maureen Dowd:

Of course, if [Hillary Clinton] had been a better listener on her health care initiative and the Iraq invasion, those two towering issues might not have scuppered her.

And most recently from the pen of former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who wrote for the December 5 edition:

A trade deal between the European Union and hardly threatening Canada was almost scuppered by a recalcitrant Belgian province concerned about the effects of globalization on local workers.


I’ve written before about a trend I first noticed in my students, then observed in the wider world: eschewing the common or standard spelling, pronunciation, or version of a word in favor of one that is or seems more British. Examples include amongst (instead of the traditional among);  the British spelling grey (gray) and the faux-British spelling advisor; and pronouncing often as “off-ten” and either as “eye-ther.”

I’m far less certain about the causes for the trend than that it exists. Hypercorrection would seem an obvious explanation, though it’s puzzling why this would present itself especially among the young, or at a moment when formality is otherwise on the decline. Maybe, come to think of it, it’s a reaction to the casualness that’s rampant everywhere else.

In any case, I have a new specimen for the case: the pronunciation of the word for your mother’s sister. In the United States, there are two main alternatives. One is to sound like the insect, “ant” (“ænt” in the International Phonetic Alphabet). Centuries ago, it was pronounced that way throughout the British Isles, but then much of southern England switched to “ahnt” (“ɑnt” in IPA). And that’s the second U.S. pronunciation. In the nationwide dialect survey conducted by Bert Vaux of Harvard around the turn of the 21st century, 75 percent of the respondents reported saying “ant” (shown in blue on the map below) compared with 9.6 percent for “ahnt” (red).

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 10.10.56 AM

Clearly, the “ahnt” pronunciation — along with an additional 2.5 percent who reported rhyming the word with “caught” (“ɒnt” in IPA) — is concentrated in New England. (It’s how Rosalind Russell–born in Waterbury, Connecticut–says the word in the 1958 film Auntie Mame.) In addition, it is the “typical” pronunciation among African-Americans, according to Algeo and Butcher’s The Origins and Development of the English Language.

Vaux, now at Cambridge University, has continued his investigations under the project title Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes. The results for aunt would seem to confirm my anecdotal observation and hunch that a change is afoot: A mere 60 percent of respondents now report saying “ant,” and 25 percent either “ahnt” or “awnt.” Hot spots for the latter include (besides New England) Virginia and the Upper Midwest.

I conducted my own semi-scientific test and listened to the 20 most recent times Americans have said the word on National Public Radio’s air. Eleven said “ant,” including Tom Hanks, Joe Biden, Gene Wilder’s nephew, and the hosts Rachel Martin and Terry Gross (the last was overdetermined, since Gross is a Brooklyn native in her 60s whom one would invite to a “cawfee tawk”). Of the nine who said “ahnt,” five were from the traditional African-American group. But there was also an 18-year-old New Yorker whose parents were born in Ecuador, a white drug counselor from Minneapolis, the reporter Hansi Lo Wang (a native of Philadelphia and a fairly recent Swarthmore graduate), and, in the biggest surprise, Weekend Edition host Scott Simon, a 64-year-old Chicagoan.

What’s missing is a generational study, testing the hypothesis that the growth in “ahnt” has been fueled by millennials. To paraphrase Matt Damon in The Martian, can someone please science that up for me?

“Give [someone] the pip”

After all these years, it’s rare for me to come across an American using a Britishism I was previously unaware of. But that’s what happened when I was reading the New York Times the other day. Theater critic Ben Brantley, reviewing a revival of the musical “Sweet Charity,” alliteratively noted, “Peppiness gives me the pip.”

Actually, “pip” is one of the first Britishisms I was ever aware of, upon reading the Conan Doyle story “The Five Orange Pips” when I was a kid. (The word I would use for the seeds in an orange is “seed.”) “Gives me the pip” was a new expression to me, one that definitely had a British sound to it. And Britishism it is. It derives from the poultry disease known as “the pip.” The Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang reveal having or getting the pip was used to mean feeling depressed or out of sorts starting in the 1830s, and “giving [someone] the pip,” meaning to annoy or irritate, in 1896.

All of the many citations in Green’s are from British sources, including no fewer than five from the quintessential Englishman P.G. Wodehouse, ranging from 1910’s Psmith in the City (“That’s the sort of thing which gives me the pip”) to 1960’s Jeeves in the Offing (“It would be fatal to risk giving her the pip in any way”).


When Americans read the news today, oh boy, many of them searched for a word to describe how they felt. Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster reported the top lookups at the online dictionary site were bigot, fascism, concede, xenophobe, trump, misogyny, and deplorable. As for me, “horrified” and “devastated” came to mind.

I encountered another alternative in a tweet by the American writer Ben Greenman:


Americans tend to think of “gutted” as meaning “eviscerated.” As blogger Lynne Murphy noted when she wrote about the word in 2009, the Brits have recently adopted a metaphorical sense. The  OED reports it originated as prison slang and defines it as: “bitterly disappointed; devastated, shattered; utterly fed up.” The dictionary’s first citation is a 1984 entry in Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang and the first use in the wild is from a 1987 article in the English newspaper The Independent: “We are a..strong family, but we are gutted by Shani’s death.

All subsequent citations are from British sources. But “gutted” so perfectly fits the mood of so many here that I think Greenman is merely the harbinger of a U.S. boom.