Columns » Words

Just wild about hairy



Our discussion last week of the wild hair v. wild hare controversy produced an insightful comment from Challis Muniz. "But of course 'wild as a March hare' probably got tangled in with the wild hair/hare up everyone's butts, which is quite likely where the confusion comes in. Quite common for the harebrained." She got harebrained right too; it sometimes appears, erroneously, as hairbrained.

The Dec. 7 issue of The Week magazine contains an article by Cordelia Hebblethwaite on America's "infatuation with Britspeak." Some excerpts:

" 'Spot on — it's just ludicrous!' snaps Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley. 'You are just impersonating an Englishman when you say spot on.' And don't get him started on the phrase 'chattering class', with its overtones of a distinctly British class system." ...

"Then there's 'chat up,' referring to flirtatious conversation, which really began to take off in the 1990s, says [Kory Stamper, associate editor for Merriam-Webster]. Often you can't pinpoint why a word or phrase gets picked up, she says. 'Chat up' is a good example of a Britishism that has 'snuck in on cat's feet.' " ...

" 'To go missing' is a useful term, says [Ben Yagoda, professor of English at the University of Delaware], as it is more nuanced, conveying a greater sense of uncertainty than the standard 'to disappear.' Its use climbed significantly in 2001, with the high-profile case of the missing intern Chandra Levy in Washington, D.C."

Naturally, there are differences of opinion over some of these things. I find "He went missing" simply stupid. If Queen Elizabeth says it around me, I'll pinch her. But I kind of like "the chattering class" as a description of the pretentious gasbags on the Sunday talk shows.

Because of American popular culture, and American tourists, Americanisms are used far more in Britain than the other way around, as Hebblethwaite observes. I've noticed Americanisms creeping into even high-class British TV programs, like "Downton Abbey."

"It felt great to dunk. It always feels great, but I think I get most excited when I see other guys on the team get dunks and get blocks. It riles me up." Fires me up, I think he meant.

Add a comment