Friday, January 13, 2012

just about

Continuing on the backlog of emailed requests, Ron Shields writes (well, wrote--in August) with:
I have noticed football commentators in Britain using the phrase just about when a player is successful as in "He just about made that pass". In AmE just about would mean "close but no cigar".
Indeed, for the 'did make it, but only by a small margin' meaning, AmE could just use just: He just made it into the goal. But we might even avoid that, since that could also mean 'a moment ago'. This ambiguity is probably more of a problem in AmE than in BrE because of the differences in past-tense marking. I'd probably say only just in this context, but I'm fairly contaminated by BrE at this point. The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms gives only the meaning 'very recently' for only just. The two instances of only just made it in the Corpus of Contemporary American  English (COCA) are 'very recently' and the eight in the much smaller British National Corpus all mean 'barely'. I think this has firmly diagnosed my BrE contamination. I'll have to tell my American family to wear protection around me.

I must admit, I'm held back a bit* in my discussion here by a couple of things. First, finding examples of particular meanings of just about is not exactly easy. If you search for the two words in a corpus or on the web, you will find huge numbers of examples, most of them irrelevant--it's just about how common the words are (see what I did there?). So I've had to look for bigger stretches of text, like just about made it, in order to limit the results to useful ones. That means that anything interesting that I didn't think of, I didn't find. Second, we were supposed to (AmE/BrE) move/(BrE) move house this week. We discovered Monday that we were not moving (house) this week, or indeed next week, or indeed this  month. So all my books are packed (not the greatest of the current  inconveniences!), and therefore I can't consult a couple of things that might have been helpful. I will blog about English (BrE) estate agents/(AmE) real estate agents and the horrors (and vocabulary!) of  buying/selling property in England after this nightmare is over.

At any rate, the translation problem in just about isn't just about just.  Let's think about about. The (UK) Collins English Dictionary gives us this sense-definition, which is not to be found in the American Heritage Dictionary or Merriam-Webster:

about
7. used in informal phrases to indicate understatement I've had just about enough of your insults it's about time you stopped

Aha, the famous British understatement. Rather than saying I've had enough, you put an about in to soften the blow. And then a just to soften it more.

But one would say I've had just about enough of your insults in AmE too.  In fact, in COCA, there are 35 instances of about had it, including 16 just about had it. There might be a difference in perception here. To my AmE ear, I've just about had it is not an understatement. It means, if things don't change right away, I will have had it, and it's thus used as a warning. Whether BrE ears perceive that particular example as understatement is something that the mouths (or the typing fingers) that  share a brain with those ears will have to tell us. At any rate, the UK dictionary did feel the need to mention it as an understatement-marker and the US ones did not, and I think there's something to that.

Ron's example is a much clearer case of understatement. The claim is that the pass was made, but it is stated as if the pass was not quite made in order to communicate that it almost wasn't made.

To give a few more examples, found by Google-searching "just about made  it" (plus 'British' and 'American', because I originally searched with the  hope that I'd find some dialect commentary):

We just about made it through Christmas. (Temple Audio, Ltd)

Well, I just about made it to hunt out some British talent for you all  this week. I've tried to include more variety this time... (Road Runner Records)

I think you just about made it to the studio in time for your show!  (commenter on Simon Mayo's BBC Radio 2 blog)
There are also examples of the (orig. AmE) 'close but no cigar' type on this search and (of course) some that are ambiguous. But the above examples all come from the first page of results, clearly describe events that did happen (rather than ones that almost happened), and are all related (at least) to the UK. (The second is located in the US, but is a music scout who seems particularly Europe-focused, so one can only guess about his nationality or his linguistic contamination level.)

 And on that note, I'm about finished.


 * My ubiquitous bits are further evidence of my contamination. And yes, that is a double entendre. But don't think about it too much, please.

52 comments:

David Crosbie said...

I'm British, elderly and unaffected by the idiom of football commentary. I base my understanding on the fact that He just about made that pass would be a very strange thing to say, unless there was an actual pass to comment on. So for me it means:

'He almost didn't make that pass'

— i.e you do get the cigar, but it was close.

I've just about had enough is different. I don't see it as an understatement. For me it means that I'm exasperated. I haven't yet blown my top, but I could do at any minute.

In other words, in the had enough it's plain almost, while in the made the pass sentence it's almost not.

If somebody asks Have you finished? The answer Just about is beautifully equivocal: you can say it with a clear conscience whether you're actually almost finished or only just finished.

For me on the point of doing it is similarly ambiguous. Usually it means that I'm immediately about to do it, but it could be squeezed to mean that I've just this minute done it.

Joey Nordberg said...

I have nothing to add to the conversation on "just about", but I am curious why you think "bit" is contamination. Here in Southeastern Massachusetts (or the South Shore) I grew up hearing that word in phrases such as "give me a bit" or "just a bit" and "move back a bit." Is it just a regionalism or is New England just more prone to adopting "Britishisms."

Jan said...

Joey, I live near Boston too, and your "bits" are normal for me. But the Brit "bit" is used far more often for AmE "piece"; it's one of the first locutions I find myself adopting when I'm in England. ("If you don't want that bit, could I have it?") I think Lynne has written a separate post on this, though -- I'm just too lazy to look right now.

Anonymous said...

Lynne, you and I grew up not so far apart, either geographically or temporally, and it's often been a source of vicarious pride to me that you're an Honest To God Linguist for that reason. So to have you say you're becoming contaminated by BrE is pretty disappointing. Literally, my inner dialog went "What!? NO! You can't do that! I'LL NOT HAVE IT!"

--Wait, what????

Little Black Sambo said...

"...I'LL NOT HAVE IT!"
That is another interesting phrase, but perhaps the difference between "I'll not" and "I won't" is more of an internal English regional one?

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Nothing to say on the discussion, but just to express sympathy about the move - that is seriously pants/the pits. Terrific nightmare for all of you.

mollymooly said...

The OP doesn't really quote any AmE instances of "just about [verb]", which would be the direct analogue of the "just about made that pass" BrE example.

In COCA, the clearest such expression of the difference is "just about killed me", which in BrE could only be hyperbole unless spoken by a ghost.

More importantly, perhaps, the common narrative clause "when X was just about finished" has the ambiguity David Crosbie mentioned. I would be inclined to interpret it as "when X had just finished" rather than "when X was about to finish"; I guess I must be more careful in future.

piersy said...

The 'bits' lynneguist alludes to are a peculiarly british euphemistic term for..errrm..one's..errr..

..

.. bits.

Roger Owen Green said...

"I've just about had it" sounds VERY parental to these AmE ears, usually followed by "with you" or "with your behavior". This is code for you are thisclose to a spanking, or being grounded, or me screaming in your face, depending on parental style.
More common in my experience, BTW, than "I've had just about enough from you" - odd how the placement of "had" changes the preposition.

Autolycus said...

I think the significant part of the OP is the reference to football commentators, who tend to speak a dialect all of their own - especially when it comes to finding new ways to dramatise or add emphasis to the bleedin' obvious. I'd sum it up by saying "just about" serves to emphasise a closeness to something, but whether the approximation is to the positive or negative side depends on the context. It could be (as in the original example) "so near as to be uncertain of the outcome until it actually happened", but equally "so near that the outcome is certain, even if it hasn't happened yet". And there's a sarcastically counter-intuitive use of it to suggest just how distant something is from something else (e.g., "Hasn't X. got a lovely singing voice?" - "Just about")

lynneguist said...

@Joey: it's not 'bit' itself (at least not in that particular context) that's necessarily BrE, but the ubiquity of bit in my speech. Where I used to say 'a little' and occasionally 'a bit', I now mostly say 'a bit'.

I did talk about this somewhere on this or another blog--as a side-note somewhere. Of course, I can't find it because searching for 'lynneguist "a bit" "a little" avoid' brings up just about everything I've ever written or commented upon. But there I said I think I avoid 'little' in part because of the flap (D-like pronunciation) in the AmE, which is a bit (whoops) of a sore thumb here (as in: 'sticks out like a...').

David Crosbie said...

As Marie Loyd sang

Do you think my dress is a little bit
Just a little bit..... Well not too much of it,
Though it shows my shape just a little bit
That's the little bit the boys admire


Listen here.

Andy JS said...

The phrase "a little" is unusual in my experience (UK). People normally say "a little bit" or "a bit". "A little" on its own immediately sounds American or maybe even Australian.

David Crosbie said...

Andy

For me too, the opposite of a lot is usually a little bit, not a little.

Was she upset? Yes, a lot.
Was she upset? Well, a little bit.


I could also say

Was she upset? A bit.

However, I'm happy to use a little to mean 'somewhat':

Could you slow down a little, please?

You've got to live a little take a little
Let you poor heart break a little
That's the story of, that's the glory of love


The shorter version can't be that alien to British English because of that old, old joke

Don't back into the bacon-slicer, Johnny. You'll get a little behind in your order

There can be a difference between a little bit and a bit.

Will you wait a little?
Will you wait a little bit?
Will you wait a bit?


I'm not entirely sure, but I have the strange feeling that a little and a bit are closer in meaning to each other than they are to a little bit. The latter, I think, suggests a small amount of waiting time — the former merely 'not none'.

In Scotland, I hear a wee bitty — quite often I think, but i may be mistaken. Of course, you can't say a wee as equivalent to a little, but you can achieve the equivalent:

England etc: Please sit her and wait a little
Scotland Please take a wee seat

EK said...

I'm curious about the "close but no cigar" examples. I'm American, and I'm unfamiliar with it used that way.

To me, "just about" means not quite but almost done, with the implication that it will be done. "I've just about read that book" means I'm reading it, I'm almost finished with it, and will be finishing it soon. I wouldn't say "I just about read that book" for something I didn't finish and don't plan to.

And I wouldn't apply "close but no cigar" to something that hasn't yet happened, but will soon.

So I find the idea of an AmE "close but no cigar" usage of that quite odd.

Ø said...

EK, I'm American and I agree that "close but no cigar" is not the central meaning of "just about". But in context it's the best guess I can come up with. For me "he just about made that pass" cannot mean that he successfully made the pass, so my best guess would be that he made an unsuccessful attempt at a pass. "He just about made a pass might mean that he almost tried.

David Crosbie said...
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David Crosbie said...
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David Crosbie said...

I may not speak for all British speakers but for me if you just about did X you may or may not have done X but you did something — quite often 99% of X.

So I just about died means I went through almost all the stages of (metaphorically) dying — but not the final one, of course. But in football/soccer there's no such thing as 99% of a pass. If you say that pass you must be referring to a successful pass.

And it's not just that you've done something — it also implies (for me) that you've done. This makes EK's meaning — with the implication that the thing will be done — quite impossible for me. If you've just about done it but not quite, then that's it. All bets are now off.

OK, in practice if you haven't actually finished but say I've just about finished, you may go on to finish — but (for me) there's no implied guarantee. Rather, it's what you say to disguise the fact that you haven't really finished — a trick that apparently works when played on mollymooly.

Matt said...
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Matt said...
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Matt said...

First I must give some sort of shout-out to Ron Shields. It's a brave soul that ventures into the world of foreign sports pages / commentary. As much as I've tried, I find them bewildering. Like Ron, I (an American) would certainly have interpreted 'just about made a pass' to mean 'just failed to make a pass'.

I am not sure what the correct linguistic term is (besides adverb) ... but it seems to me that words like just, almost, close to, etc. are all modifiers that describe how close an action is to having a positive or negative result relative to the action being modified.

For example:

Just – positive and very close.
I just made the plane = I did make the plane but by the smallest of margins.
I just missed the plan = I did miss the plane (so 'positive' relative to the word miss) by the smallest of margins.

Almost – negative and a little further from the result boundary.
I almost made the plane = I didn't make the plane and missed the plane by a wider margin than 'I just missed the plane'.

Just about – negative but very close
I was just about to call you. I didn't call but was on the very cusp of doing so.

@David Crosbie. You bring up a very interesting point, and perhaps part of the confusion relates to the word 'pass' and not to 'just about'. In American English, a pass is the release of a ball with the intent of another player catching / receiving the ball. However, it does not necessarily imply the ball was actually received. As those who follow (American) football know, a very important quarterback statistic is the ratio of completed to incomplete passes. For us, it is quite possible for a pass to be 99% on the mark.

However, I still cannot think of an example in American English where the combination of the phrase 'just about' and a verb that denotes a completed successful action still implies a barely positive result. For example, 'he just about shot a bullseye' still means he missed.

David Crosbie said...

Matt

I (an American) would certainly have interpreted 'just about made a pass' to mean 'just failed to make a pass'.

But it wasn't a pass. It was that pass.

A can have open or closed reference as in

She wants to marry a Norwegian

He could be any old Norwegian or a particular bloke called Thor. But there's no such ambiguity with

She wants to marry that Norwegian

The different codes of football seem to differ on what constitutes an actual pass — as opposed to an attempted pass.

Ø said...

Her mother always said: "Marry a Norwegian." For years she waited, hoping that that Norwegian would come along, but he never did.

Matt said...
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Matt said...

I guess in American English it doesn't make a difference whether or not the action being modified is definite or indefinite. The 'about' signifies the action hasn't occurred yet.

Following up on your example ...

She just about married Thor.

I take it that in British English this would mean that that she and Thor are the newest of newlyweds? For me, that sentence says that she got cold feet (or came to her senses) at the very end, and there are distraught (or delighted) family members.

I'm curious what the sentence means when the tense is changed.

She was just about to marry Thor when someone objected.

Matt said...

The more I think about it, the more I realize that this 'just about' business could be tricky. Is the following statement true?

It was just about noon = It was 11:55am (AmE) = It was 12:05pm (BrE).

Does the above logic (if true) hold up in the present tense as well?

David Crosbie said...

Matt

Is the following statement true?

It was just about noon = It was 11:55am (AmE) = It was 12:05pm (BrE).


Not for me it isn't, Matt. The time could be either before or after noon — or even noon itself.

Individual contexts may imply one unique interpretation, but much of the time just about is ambiguous — wherein lies its utility.

It's a dodgy tool for conveying precise information, but a handy tool for emollient replies that avoid disappointment or conflict.

Andy JS said...

I'm British and to me "just about 12pm" would most likely be used for 11:58am or 11:59am. But it could also be used for exactly 12pm or slightly afterwards, but that wouldn't be as likely IMO.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but what is "12pm" when it's at home?

12 post meridiem (12 hours after midday) is midnight, not noon.

Sorry, off-topic -- but's in old hobby horse of mine!

Kevin said...

The last Anonymous was me, BTW. I clicked on the wrong circle.

Ø said...

Yes, Kevin, if anything deserves to called 12pm, it's midnight, since midnight comes along next in the sequence 1pm, 2pm, ..., 11pm, ...

But, to quibble a little more, in some sense Npm does not mean N hours after midday: rather, it means the Nth of the post-midday hours. At least, so it seems to me when I think of am as well as pm.

On a related note, it might be a little hard to call noon 12am since it's not before noon. The situation is hopeless.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

The answer is simple - use the 24-hour clock! But even that begs the question as to whether midnight is 0:00 or 24:00... it's just about the perfect enigma (to bring this vaguely back on-topic!).

Kevin said...

I agree with you, Ø, that "12am" is nonsense too. The two twelve o'clocks are noon and midnight.

And I agree even more with Mrs Redboots. Indeed, Mrs R., we SHOULD be using the 24-hour clock -- at least in writing. I once nearly missed a flight in the US because I was waiting and waiting for the departure time to come up and it only dawned on me just in time that the "525P" being displayed (in precisely that strange format!) on the departure screen meant 17.25.

Incidentally, 24.00/0.00 isn't really a problem: everyone knows that they each mean midnight -- but it's very useful to have both available because 24.00 signifies the end of Day 1 and 0.00 the beginning of Day 2, so that, for instance, a train ARRIVES at 24.00 but DEPARTS at 0.00.

Anonymous said...

Matt said:
>She just about married Thor.

>I take it that in British English >this would mean that that she and >Thor are the newest of newlyweds?

No, that would be "She has just married Thor". "She just about married" doesn't really mean anything in British English.

"12 p.m." is a pet peeve of mine too. What's wrong with "12 noon"?

Kate (Derby, UK)

David Crosbie said...

Kate

"She just about married" doesn't really mean anything in British English.

Well, it can. It simply requires the appropriate real-world circumstances to reflect — and these circumstances are somewhat unlikely to occur.

For a start, in British English we don't insist on she has married if the lady in question is dead. Not do we insist if a definite time is specified or implied.

So, it's fine to say:
My late sister fell in love with a GI during the War and she married him
Last month Kate flew to Australia to join her boy-friend and she married him

What difference would just about make? Well, there are two possibilities

1. They had two children together, they lived together, and they signed a contract that looked very like a pre-nuptial agreement. In short, she just about married him

2. Sarah flew half way round the world, knowing that Peter might die at any moment. A priest was called, with the warning that there might be a wedding, a funeral or both. It was a very close thing but she just about married him on his death bed.

For me, the latter is ambiguous but I would assume that the marriage took place — unless something in the speaker's voice suggested otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say that it had to be "she has married". It's the "just" that makes the difference.
Traditional British usage would be "She has just done X" rather than "She just did X", though I notice a recent tendency here for advertising slogans such as "X just got better". I think this issue has been discussed in another thread.

Kate (Derby, UK)

iphone application development said...
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lynneguist said...

I have accidentally deleted the content of this post. Crying to commence immediately. Any clues how to get it back would be greatly appreciated.

lynneguist said...

Phew, a kind, kind person (and fantastic local wildlife photographer) found the text of the post in his RSS reader and sent it to me. I hope I've restored the links and formatting sufficiently. Phew.

Dru said...

I may be wrong here, as I'm commenting on a dialect I don't speak, but I think 'move house' is specific to England and Wales, and that the Scots 'flit'. It's a usage that always sounds odd to my conventional English ears, as to me 'flit' implies leaving in a way that has something disreputable about it.

I don't know what 'close but no cigar' means. I've never heard the phrase. So I'd not be able to say whether 'just about' which is normal idiom, conveys the same thing.

David Bennett said...

To me "He just about made that pass" means to say that if he was not under pressure at the time he made the pass, then he is a poor footballer.

If, however, he was under pressure at the time he made the pass, then he deserves some praise, but he still deserves to be damned with faint praise. That is because in the nature of football-speak it is permissible and encouraged to speak in superlatives.

If he was under terrific pressure at the time he made the pass, then the statement is neutral about his abilities.

David Crosbie said...

Over the weekend I was in London where the bookshops are big, spotted a new (to me) edition of Collins COBUILD and looked up this phrase. Back home, i see that my 1987 edition also covers the phrase (which I should have though of before). Its treatment of one sense is just about identical, but the treatment of the other sense has changed somewhat. Here's the old entry:

just /dʒʌst/
1 ...
...
13 Just about
is used 13.1 to say that something is so close to a particular level or state that it can be regarded as having reached it. E.G. She was just about his age ... Everything is just about ready. 13.2 to say that something is in fact possible, although it is very nearly not possible. E.G. It is I suppose just about possible ... 'Can we get to the airport in an hour?' 'Just about.'

In the margin there are cryptic grammatical notes (unnecessary for native speakers) and semantic notes to the effect that meaning 13.1 is similar to roughly and meaning 13.2 is similar to barely.

The new edition swallows the marginal notes into the body of the entry (the grammar info. is still there — I'm not sure about the semantic). From memory, I think the second sense no longer centres on what is possible. I think it gives an example of something which only just happened — not dissimilar to He just about made that pass.

The characterisation of the first sense is not exactly what we've said, but I think it's better. Not so much
Close, but no cigar
as
Not 100%, but so close that we'll give you the cigar anyway.
Personally, I tend to express this sense with
to all intents and purposes.

I'm a big fan of COBUILD. Only the statistically most frequent words and senses get a look in, and the senses are presented in order of popularity — no question of starting the entry for gay with anything but the 'homosexual' meaning. So COBUILD confirms that — according to their data bank — the two sense we've discussed are reasonably common in British English usage, and that the to all intents and purposes sense is the commoner of the two.

Health warning: COBUILD isn't aimed at native speakers. If you just want to look up unusual words, buy another dictionary. But for my interests, it's second only to the OED.

David Crosbie said...

Following from that COBUILD definition, I realise that i could say He just about made that pass under these conditions:

1. Smith kicked the ball towards Jones.

2. Instead of reaching Jones's foot, the ball hit the ankle of Robinson, who was trying to intercept.

3. The ball glanced off Robinson's ankle directly to the toe of Jones's boot.

So Smith just about made that pass to Jones (thanks to Robinson).

Not that I would claim that the commentator cited meant anything like this.

lynneguist said...

Thanks David--the COBUILD stuff is great. I sillily blog at home and keep most of my dictionaries at the university. Well, not entirely sillily, because I don't have an office at home since Grover came along. But maybe some day the real estate gods will let me move and have an office at home again...

lynneguist said...

Peter M sent me this apt cartoon".

Failing at the post-a-week new year's resolution (as well as the 'go to bed earlier' one). Hope to have a new one later in the week...

polyglot said...

Thanks Lynne for the explanation.

The phrase "just about" is one that I hear quite often on British TV as an answer to a question:

Q: "Are you ready?"
A: "Just about."

Nelida K. said...

@David Crosbie: Thanks for the Cobuild reference, my own reads "New Edition" but it's 2006, so it must be older than yours.

I am not British, and neither am I American, I am a native of Spanish (Latin American variety) but by profession a certified translator of English (living and working in Montevideo, Uruguay, South America). So the meaning of idioms, expressions and sayings is always of great interest to me. Linguistically speaking, I am half British, half American (I learned English at a British institute but did my senior year of High School in the U.S. and my son and family live there). If I had read the sentence on my own, without the background of Lynne's post and the string of comments, I would have interpreted "just about made that pass", as per the Cobuild definition, to mean that the player "barely" managed to make it (or, as David initially said, that he "almost didn't" do it).
If I say "I've just about had it", I mean that I have reached my limit of tolerance.
"I'm just about ready", to mean that I am practically, or almost, ready.
"The book deals just about this issue", to mean "precisely with".

So this is my two cents as a linguistic outsider, as it were.

Thanks for the opportunity to participate in such an interesting discussion.

Anonymous said...

I've been following soccer (I'm American) from England for a while, and I've noticed this phrase show up more the past few years than maybe 10 years ago (google brought this page up as the top result for "just about" britsh vs american).

This phrase is one of the few Britishisms I can't get used to.

"Just about got back" to me should mean "he almost got back to cover, but was a fraction of a second behind", but it seems, when used by British to mean "he barely got back in time to cover".

Or the like.

Love the blog - first time I've come across it.

biochemist said...

Kevin said (in January) ....it only dawned on me just in time ... and slowly it dawns on me that 'only just' is the better BrE phrase for the 'barely made it' sense - either 'I've only just completed the job today' or 'I only just had enough paint to cover the walls'. Either way, it's a positive phrase, just about!

Wordpress Development said...

"Little" the phrase is rare in my experience (United Kingdom). People often say "a little" or "a little." Soon, the "small" voice of the United States or Australia.

Brn said...

I'm late to this, but got here via the same thing that Ron Shields noticed: that the football commentators say things like "he just about cleared the danger" when the player obviously did clear the ball, and wanted to make sure that I was interpreting it correctly. To me as an American Southerner, I would say "just barely".

Anyway, thanks for clearing this up for me.