pet, stroke and limerick winner

One of my newer internet addictions is Ross Horsley's My First Dictionary, which is wicked in every sense of the word. One must (if one is me) pause here to note that the 'excellent' sense of wicked is originally AmE. Several of my UK students have assumed that they'd have to explain this trendy BrE slang to me, but I was saying wicked pissa cool with my Bostonian university mates before my current students were even born. (I had a Master's degree by the time my youngest students were born. Who is going to cure me of this senescence?) MFD makes me feel incredibly uneasy and extremely amused at the same time. I don't know if that's a good thing, but I like it. This dose of MFD, from 26 June, raised a lot of discussion of BrE versus AmE in the comments: The comments at MFD were mostly about (mostly BrE) pussy versus (mostly AmE) kitty and the use of having as a light verb in the first sentence. But what struck me, because Better Half strikes me with it all the time, is the use of stroke for where AmE speakers would use the (originally Scottish English) verb pet. So, when I say to Grover Are you petting the kitty cat? Better Half is not far behind with Stroking! Stroking the cat! (He tolerates kitty, no doubt because of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink effect of pussy.) I'm starting to say stroke in this context, in the interest of marital harmony and getting my own back later, but to my AmE ears, it sounds a bit more, um, sexy. This, of course, makes not a lot of sense, since (orig. AmE) (heavy) petting is about (probably orig. AmE) feeling people up. But why should English and my feelings toward(s) it start making sense at this late date? At any rate, I thought an introduction to a very funny website would work as an introduction to our very funny limerick competition. As promised, the judging involved a panel of my friends, whom you may know through their SbaCL-character alter-egos: the Blinder, Maverick, the Poet--and of course Better Half. (With the exception of the ubiquitous last judge, the links take you to their first appearances on the blog.) I asked each to send me their three favo(u)rites, assuming that the cream would rise to the top and there would be a clear front-runner. But there was too much cream. A few got two votes, thus limiting the field a little for my final judging. It came down to Dunce's Rubber and Richard English's Hooters, re-published here:
An eager young Yank on the make Thought he'd finally had his big break. She asked for a rubber but she wasn't a scrubber. Just had to erase a mistake. My girl has a fine pair of hooters Attractive to gentleman suitors. But don't rush too far They're both on her car And she toots them to warn slow commuters.
My decision comes down to the fact that one of these poets had other efforts in the judges' top threes. So, congratulations, Richard English! Your copy of Britannia in Brief will be on its way to you soon, and the authors have asked to reprint the winner on their blog. (Let us know if that's not ok with you!) On a last humorous note, British-Canadian singer-songwriter Luke Jackson (shouldn't he have a hyphenated name?) has sent me a link to the video for his song 'Goodbye London'. This animated treat might strike a chord for the American exchange students out there who've headed back home.


  1. I have no idea who started saying wicked to mean excellent, but this Bostonian does have to object on one point. The wicked in wicked pissa (or wicked retarded, wicked good, wicked bad, etc) means very/really not excellent.

    Do agree that stroke sound dirtier somehow. Maybe because it's a word more associated with masturbation?

    Nice job Richard!

  2. I've always supposed that the Boston wicked and the British wicked were independent developments. The former is pretty localized, and I find it hard to believe that it would have spread so completely to the U.K.

    Now that the competition's closed, I'll add this classic, not by me but by that best-known of all limericists, Anon.:

    There was a young lass from Madras,
    Who had a remarkable ass:
         Not rounded and pink,
         As Americans think --
    It was gray, had long ears, and ate grass.

  3. As an Australian, I find stroke sort of formal and pet very odd.(Unless pet in the AmE way is pronounced differently to the noun?)
    I would generally talk about patting a cat. (Except that cats make my eyes run.)

  4. Goodbye London struck a chord with me. I lived most of my life on the outskirts, moved away a couple of years ago and hate going back. Horrible mixture of nostalgic yearning and relief.

  5. Do you know Nothing for Ungood? The comments on the latest post are quite amusing from the 'US English' point of view. The blog is satirical, but there are always some German readers who take it seriously and are offended.

  6. @Bec: To me, patting a cat is a different action than stroking/petting (which is indeed pronounced like the noun). Patting would be a couple of light touches (no stroke) with an open hand, but petting, same as stroking is running an open hand along the cat's fur.

    @Elizabeth: I don't know if that's a recent development, but 'wicked' was definitely 'intensely good' back in the 80s. And internet guides to Boston slang tend to agree. To quote:

    Wicked pissa!
    Something that's way cool.

    Wicked f-----' pissa!
    Something that's just absolutely too cool for words.

  7. @ lynneguist: pat and stroke, as verbs on their own, have the same meanings for me as you describe. I can just never imagine saying "I'm stroking the cat", unless I was trying to emphasise the exact motion. It seems like the meaning of pat expands to a more general "affectionately touching the cat", whether you are patting, stroking or scratching.

  8. "WIcked pissa" means excellent but "wicked" is also used in front of pretty much any adjective as an intensifier. Which makes sense, since "pissa" alone means "good."

  9. I would also note that "Grandpa is having a stroke" is double entendre in BrE but not in AmE.

  10. I think it's a double-entendre in both, since that's why I and Elizabeth are uncomfortable using it to describe touching animals!

  11. I don't think that "having a stroke" has a double meaning in my (AmE) idiolect. For me, that phrase refers only to an emergent neurological incident, very different from "being stroked".

  12. @John Cowan
    Wicked as an intensifier is generally local to New England but it does show up in some odd places. For instance, the Minneapolis/St. Paul "More than Nice" ad.

    Also, ITA with fauxklore.

    My dad, a native of upstate NY, claims that wicked and wicked pissa were used when he was in college in the late 60s (in Cambridge, MA). Who knows how reliable that is though. By my teen years wicked pissa was not really current, though sometimes people used it the same way certain people say groovy. Wicked connected to any adjective is still going strong though.

  13. Hmm, musta been Boston teaching nuns who carried wicked to the Twin Cities, just as nuns from NYC carried get/stand on line (vs. the in line used pretty much everywhere else in the Anglosphere).

  14. ... stroke a cat and pat a dog ... woe betide you if you pat a cat it'll freak out .. (as it would if you were to drape a banana skin along its back and either side of the tail... heh heh heh ... allegedly)

    I would NEVER use the word 'pussy' to mean 'cat' because inside I'd just be sniggering and wheezing like Muttley ...

    Sarah (age 12, apparently)

  15. I agree with Doug about "having a stroke" (and I'm British!).
    To me, "pet" sounds much more sexual than "stroke", presumably because of the expression "heavy petting".

    Kate (UK)

  16. I lived in Boston 1969-1971 and I know pissa was used as described here. I don't think I heard wicked used this way but that may be because it was overlaid by the usage in Good Will Hunting.

  17. And the day this post was made came the news of the death of Molly Sugden, who played Mrs Slocombe on "Are you Being Served", and who kept on making doubles entendres about her pussy. At least, the audience was supposed to, and of course did, interpret them as doubles entendres.

    The version I learnt of the limerick that John Cowan posted (and also thought of, when I saw the terms of the competition), went as follows:

    There was a young lass from Madras
    That had the most beautiful ass.
    But not, as you'd think,
    Firm, round and pink,
    But grey, with long ears, and eats grass.

  18. Just read about Molly Sugden today. Her ghost must've been visiting me, as if you click on the 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink' link in the post, you'll be taken to a medley of her pussy jokes on Are You Being Served?

  19. I had never heard the phrase 'having a stroke' (or encountered the masturbatory usage) until last week when it emerged as an alternative (joke) version of how Michael Jackson died. I am going to be more careful when referring to someone who suffers a stroke.

    I'm sure that 'stroking' is respectable UK usage for running one's hand along hair or fur in an affectionate way; 'petting' has a sexual connotation in the UK. I might pat a dog, but would stroke a cat, cuddle a baby.

  20. Need a research man. Wicked means excellent.......... I didn't find anywhere instead of your blog. I went through 2-3 dictionaries but didn't find. I am going to do some researches now.

  21. 'Having a stroke' is an odd thing to say, a little too much like cat-fondling even to my British ears. My own dialect has it as 'smoothing the cat' - although I suppose that's only accurate if you're stroking the poor sod in the right direction. Either way, my use of the phrase in the States has caused my friends a great deal of amusement.

  22. 'Smoothing the cat.' I've never heard it before, but I like it a lot!

    I've noticed a lot of people in my age group (20s-early 30s), in the UK using 'kitty' recently, or perhaps more accurately 'kitteh'. Lolcats are to blame for this (but I can't complain, as I am conversationally fluent in lolcat myself). 'Pussy' is almost never used without deliberately making a dirty joke at the same time, certainly amongst my friends anyway!

    As for petting or stroking... I think I grew up with 'stroke', but these days see the naughty side of both words. Not sure what I'd use these days, which is odd as I came into possession of an unexpected kitten this week, so should remember what word I've been using. I shall keep my ears peeled.

  23. To my Australian ears, "petting" is associated with sexual touching. "Stroking" also has a naughty connotation. I agree exactly with Bec how in Aus English "patting" can be extended to the meanings she described.

  24. It's interesting having just visited my parents in new england the prevalence of "wicked" meaning very was one of the biggest bits of culture shock. Having hardly ever heard it in Washington state (Other then fellow expatriate Yankees), While I've heard "wicked" meaning excellent, it almost exclusively in the media and I had pretty much chalked it up to being one of those bits of fad slang that won't last more than a few years let alone a generation.

  25. In ScE I grew up "clapping" our dog, which I feel is more patting than petting. I would use and understand both "pet" and "stroke" with no difficulty, although I think I use "stroke" more. I would still clap a dog though.

  26. "Wicked" in the New England / Bostonian usage does appear to be simply an intensifier and not a synonym for "good" or "excelent" - at least I returned from Boston with a souvenir T-shirt with the slogan, "Pahkin ya cah is wicked hahd - Boston" where it seems pretty obvious that it does not mean anything positive, just intense.

  27. I just have to say that as an American, I find it sad that you are giving in to the British so much. I think personally, I would try to keep my Americanisms and pass it on to my child. Although, I am not living there, and I can not say for sure what I would do.

    Both my BH are from the same place and town, but we say lots of things differently, but I always either
    a) stick to my guns or
    b) look it up to see who is correct.
    Typically, I am correct,but if I am not, I usually try to change it. If I am correct, I will go back to a) and try and convince him that he should change how he says things.

  28. The lovely thing about being a linguist is enjoying all language and not worrying about anything being 'correct' (because we don't believe there is such a thing, really).

  29. I totally agree with where you are coming from Lynne :)

    I think that both the American and British English are correct. I just feel uncomfortable with some BrE speakers thinking their English is the only correct English by giving in to the way they say things.

    (some small bit of experience for me on this.)

    But Like I said, If I was the minority, I do not know what I would do. I probably would have punched someone by now for mocking me and making me feel stupid for my language.

  30. BrE,Scot. As. Scot, like Cameron, I would use clap instead of pet or stroke. However, think of some of the unusual ways that Scots use grammar. Rather than “can I stroke your cat?”. we are quite likely to say “can I give your cat a stroke?”. Now substitute clap, and imagine the looks of baffled horror.


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