Today on a Catalan open-source dictionary discussion list, one of my immediate colleagues asked whether a particular word was American, and someone else on the list recommended my blog to him (which he then forwarded to me, knowingly). Does that mean I'm two degrees of separation from myself?

The word in question was antsy (not to be confused with Ansty, a village in Sussex whose (shared) sign on the A23 I consistently misread as Antsy Cowfold, thus self-inducing the giggles). I only discovered that antsy was American when the Association of British Scrabble Players moved to a combined British-American dictionary (soon to be replaced by another one). Antsy is an important word to Scrabblers because of its comparative form: antsier. Competitive Scrabble players tend to study "stems", typically 6-letter combinations that have a high probability of making a 7-letter word when combined with one more letter, and thus using all of the tiles on one's rack. Doing so results in a 50-point bonus score, and thus is called a bonus word in BrE and a bingo in AmE Scrabble circles. Antsier is a case of RETAIN+S, and RETAIN is one of the first stems a Scrabble geek learns. (I say geek [orig. AmE] in the proudest possible way.)

But what does antsy/antsier mean? To a Scrabble fiend it should not matter, but I'll tell you anyway. The first meaning is 'fidgety, restless', that is, acting like one has ants in one's pants (orig. AmE), and it's often assumed to have derived from that idiom, although there is some evidence to the contrary. Thus, the goal in my lectures is to keep the students from getting antsy. If I see them starting to shift around in their chairs, I tell them something outrageously untrue to keep them interested. Oh wait, sorry, that's what I do when I can sense your attention starting to wander away from this blog. Maybe I should have done it back in the Scrabble paragraph.

By extension, antsy can also mean 'nervous, apprehensive'. So, I might start getting antsy before my first lecture of term. Or maybe my students will. I was very relieved when, about two years ago, I finally stopped having teaching anxiety dreams before every single term. I should probably (AmE) knock on/(BrE) touch wood now that I've said that. Maybe they stopped because parts of the dreams started coming true--such as students take phone calls during class.

By the way: HBBH! (LynneE for: Happy Birthday, Better Half! A few minutes belatedly!)


  1. First, let me say I am a long time fan of your site. It's a handy way to keep the US/UK terminologies straight; I've been here long enough now that I can become confused over whether I first heard a particular word here or back in Upstate NY.

    I, too, tend to use Antsy only when driving the A272 between Cowfold and Haywards Heath. There is a town called Bolney near Ansty and I always read the sign as 'Antsy and Baloney.' There are also signs to 'Wineham and Twineham,' which I find too twee for words. It is one of my favorite/favourite stretches of road.

  2. Thanks, Mike. In my experience, all the Americans in Sussex are from Upstate NY or California. I wonder why?

  3. I decided to follow the link to the evidence to the contrary suggesting that antsy may not be derived from ants in one's pants (not sure why I did this, as a Scrabble fiend of course I'm not interested in the meanings of words, and even less their derivations) but it didn't work: I think you missed the h in the http:// bit. This should work, I hope.

  4. Thanks, Straw. Am correcting it in the blog too.

  5. I've always been sensitive about "antsy" because of its unfortunate rhyme with my name. However, I do love the Yiddish "shpilkes"--nervous energy, pins and needles (it's derived from Polish szpilka, "pin"). To me it's always suggested "shvitz" (to sweat) and "spill" (all that energy spilling over). And the plural ending contains multitudes.

  6. How nice of you to mention me, Lynne. Do drop by for tea and BrE biscuits any time you're passing.

  7. In the versions of AmE that I am most familiar with, the idiomatic expression would be "knock on wood" rather than "knock wood".

  8. You're absolutely right, Doug. Sometimes I get confused by my virgules. Have corrected it.

  9. "Antsy" has no history / connection to "angst", is that right?

    I can't believe it!

  10. Antsy has been in use in English for about a hundred years longer than Angst. No etymological connection.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)