Untranslatables Month 2015: the summary

One thing that was particularly rewarding about Untranslatable October this year was that fans started discussing my tweeted offerings in the comments of the blog post that introduced the month.  They've made it clear that at least one of the 'untranslatables' is fairly translatable. Here they are, in the order they were posted on Twitter, with some commentary:

1. BrE marmite: something that people either love or hate, as in ‘Big Brother is television marmite’. After a famous yeast extract spread.

2. AmE redeye: a long-distance overnight airline flight, as in 'I flew to NY on the redeye'. Not all UK dictionaries still mark this as 'North American'. (There's a bit more discussion at the earlier post, where commenters question whether this only applies where there is choice of other times for the flight.)

3. BrE blag: to obtain by trickery/guile, as in 'He blagged a 1st-class ticket'. AmE score is similar, but seems less underhanded. Suggested by @laurelspeth.

4. AmE your mileage may vary: = 'you may have a different experience/opinion'. The abbreviated form YMMV is now known more widely on the internet, but I don't hear it offline and have had to explain it in UK. It comes from the way in which American car manufacturers had to qualify their miles-per-gallon claims in advertisements.

5. BrE plonk: inexpensive (but generally drinkable) wine (i.e. not rotgut). For example, 'you order the pizza and I'll bring the plonk'. Suggested by @AuditorsEditor.

6. AmE to bus (a table): to clear dirty dishes (etc.) from a table at a restaurant. For example, 'please bus your own table'. Also busboy, busgirl: person employed to clear tables at a restaurant/cafe. This is different from 'clear the table' because it can't be used of a table at home. Suggested by @tjathurman

7. BrE horses for courses: means something like 'everyone has different skills, so choose right one for job'.

8. AmE columbusing: explained here. This one may have been premature, since it's a pretty new term, but it is used in circles I belong to.

9. BrE to faff: 'to act unproductively, with elements of dithering and procrastinating'. I find dictionary definitions of this wholly inadequate, and the indecisive element makes it for me rather different from fart around. But there's further discussion at the comments here.

10. AmE leaf-peeping: tourism for the purpose of looking at autumn foliage, done by leaf-peepers.  Suggested by @mwnciod.

11. BrE assessment: collective term (but also sometimes a count noun) for any and all work that contributes to the final mark for a course. That is, exams and/or coursework, considered together.

12. AmE to put in face time: I defined it as 'to make an appearance at social/family event for *just* long enough to meet obligation', but others say they use it for business/networking. The face time is the same, but in my experience the verbs are different--I want to get some face time with people I network with, but I have to put in some face time at a grandnephew's christening. Suggested by @Word_chucker.

13. AmE squirrelly: having a kind of nervous dementedness, hence untrustworthy (pronounced 'skwirly'). Suggested by @tonythorne007.

14. BrE throw a wobbly: This is a bit of a cheat, as it's originally Australian--but it is used liberally in the UK. Means something like 'to lose self-control (in anger or panic)'. I suggested freak out as a close AmE relative, but commenter @niblick_iii felt that 'throwing a wobbly has more connotations of being unnecessary or unreasonable than freaking out' (I'd agree). Also suggested by @tonythorne007.

15. AmE weekend warrior: someone who does an activity (especially a strenuous one) only on the weekend (originally used in relation to weekend military training). Suggested by Simon C.
16. BrE sticky wicket: Simon C (suggester) defines it: ‘tricky situation we can get out of if we really concentrate’. Closest AmE is probably in a pickle, but doesn't have that 'we can get out of it' connotation.

17.  AmE -grader: e.g. '5th grader'. For child of certain school year. In the BrE English and Welsh school system of the moment, there's no word that is different from the word for the year: e.g. the year 5s are going on a field trip. But perhaps not-so-different is -former, still heard in sixth-former, but previously heard with a broader range of 'forms'. See this old post for more on how school years work in the two countries. Suggested by @libraryjamie.

18. AmE klatch or klatsch, particularly coffee klat(s)ch: from German kaffeeklatsch: a group that meets informally for coffee and cake in someone's home. There is a long discussion of whether this is equivalent to BrE coffee morning in the comments at the previously mentioned post. The upshot is: it probably was equivalent in certain settings at one point, but these days coffee morning has a strong whiff of 'charity fundraiser' and may apply to larger events outside the home.  Suggested by @SamAreRandom.

19. BrE boffin: essentially egghead with positive connotations. (See this for more discussion.) Suggested by @n0aaa For copious use of it, see the Mitchell and Webb 'Big Talk' sketches.

20. AmE kibitz: (from Yiddish) 'to give unwanted advice (especially to players of a card game)

21. BrE santa’s grotto: a place where kids visit someone dressed as Santa (usually receiving a small gift). Of course, Americans have Santas in shopping malls, and such, but there you 'go see Santa', there's not a universal name for the nook where Santa sits. As a Twitter commenter noted, Americans (of a certain age) are more likely to associate grotto with Hugh Hefner.

22. BrE gubbins: Its individual senses may be translatable, but taken as a whole, it has so many that no one word will do. Here's Merriam-Webster's Unabridged entry for it:

And that is it! The fifth Untranslatable month finished. I'm collecting as if there will be a sixth, but we'll see...


  1. Re:throw a wobbly. I don't know how common, but "to have a come-apart" is used in much the same way. Not a freak out, more a sudden loss of cohesion. Am/E.

  2. As a Canadian, it was interesting to see that all of the AmE untranslatables were things I would consider common in Canada, but most of the BrE terms weren't--or at least I'd never heard them while I was in Canada. That said, I was surprised that"assessment" is considered BrE. I'm pretty sure I heard the term used in a similar if not identical fashion while I was in teachers' college in Canada, so I would have expected it to be used in AmE as well.

  3. To my surprise, a number of Americans I've met have been familiar with the term "sticky wicket" (even if they knew nothing else about cricket).

  4. Note that the school year system is different in Scotland and so BrE "year 3" is only heard in England and Wales.

  5. I'm not sure about "weekend warrior"; I've heard that used all my life to refer to members of the Territorial Army. A quick Google search turns up a Guardian article from 2004 that uses the term, and I'd heard it as far back as the 80's.

  6. Although I haven't seen "weekend warrior" used outside the context of military training, and perhaps that's the use being discussed here. Oops.

  7. @Zhoen: I've never heard 'come-apart' in that context. No examples in GloWBE, so it must be fairly limited in use.

    @SSH: Yes, of course, you're right. I've changed it (acknowledging the mistake as well) in the post.

    @Kelvin Green: yes, the more general sense was what I was counting as 'untranslatable'.

  8. Thought so, sorry for blundering in without thinking first!

  9. I've never followed the untranslatables on your blog before but it was fantastic, all the research, reading comments section etc. I think it was a great fun, thank you!

  10. A very recent possible translation in BrE of YMMV that I've seen (and used) online is some variant on the standard small-print announcement (particularly on BBC TV, but you will also see it on commercial channels) to get round any accusations of favourable promotion of one product (such as the station's own magazine) over another - "Other [insert here as appropriate] are available".

  11. As an Australian I think that the British term "throw a wobbly" might actually be it's own thing. For a start I'd only ever "chuck a wobbly" never "throw" one (though that might be a location thing - I'm from NSW). Secondly to me the term brings up more ideas of a tantrum/not getting one's own way than "freaking out" because your panicking. I suppose the anger idea of losing your self-control still applies but I've never heard of someone chucking a wobbly in panic.

  12. A plausible Wikipedia entry on Santa's Workshop confirms what I suspected: Santa's grotto is a fairy grotto.

    It traces the history from 1868 when Lewis's Bon Marche department store opened its 'Christmas Fairyland'. Santa doesn't come to you; you go to him in a magical journey. And what should you find in Fairyland but a fairy grotto?

    I have a dim and distant memory of that journey. It was a bewildering TARDIS-like experience: bigger on the inside than the apparently few steps — vaguely apparent even to my very young self — from the entrance to Santa to the exit. I have no memory of what they used to create the journey illusion. I suspect it included the animatronic figures described in the Wikipedia entry.

    There's a delicious account of a full-blown grotto in Terry Pratchett's Hogfather. Because it's Discworld there are differences: Christmas becomes HogWatch presided over by the Hogfather; and his sleigh is drawn not by reindeer but giant pigs. But the Assessors have had the Hogfather assassinated, which is bound to bring about a loss of faith in every salutary fiction from the Tooth fairy to love, peace and justice, all vital to keeping humans human. To abort this, Death has disguised himself as the Hogfather and is ensuring that children have unshakeable faith in the fiction.

    It was a magnificent Grotto this year, Vernon Crumley told himself. The staff had worked really hard. ~The Hogfather's sleigh was a work of art in itself, and the pigs looked really real and a wonderful shade of pink.

    The Grotto took up nearly all of the first floor. One of the pixies had been Disciplined for smoking behind the Magic Tinkling Waterfall and the clockwork Dolls of All Nations showing how We Could All Get Along were a bit jerky and giving trouble but all in all, he told himself, it was a display ti Delight the Hearts of Kiddies everywhere.

    The kiddies were queuing up with their parents and watching the display owlishly.

    And the money was coming in. Oh, how the money was coming in.

    Wikipedia notes:

    Nowadays department stores and shopping centres in the UK still host Santa's Grottos.

    implying that they no longer do so in America.

  13. The archetypal boffin is a backroom boy (a backroom girl would be insufficiently archetypal). Away from public gaze he is free to cultivate the necessary boffinic eccentricities.

    The last great boffin, I suggest, was suggest, Colin Pillinger OK he was an academic, but he was a maverick who distanced himself from the power structure and official public interface of academia.

    Bond's Q would qualify as a boffin if there wasn't so much emphasis on the gadgets themselves rather than the character of their inventor.

    I once knew a boffin, albeit only slightly. When he wasn't working to create Britain's space rockets, he was dancing in an Andy Pandy suit and re-writing the history of Morris Dancing.

  14. Lynne: My notions of kibitz are much more expansive. Sure, it's Yiddish in origin -- and I'll take your word that it began as a way to describe unwanted advice at the card table. But in AmE it's used much more broadly as a synonym for gossip or (as among women at a coffee klatsch) to make small talk that may or may not include gossip. Certainly that's the way my (non-Jewish) mother would have used it, which is another way of suggesting it's also very much a term for people of a certain age. I'd wager if I asked my 18-year-old daughter to define it she wouldn't have a clue.

    Dug up my 30-year-old copy of Arthur Naiman's Every Goy's Guide to Common Jewish Expressions and looked up kibitz/kibitzer. It begins with the definition you provide, though a little more broadly ("A spectator who gives unwanted advice is a kibitzer. Typically, the activity kibitzed is a chess or a card game, but it can be anything.") But he goes on to say:

    To "kibitz around" means to joke with friends, or to socialize in a relaxed, purposeless way:
    "What are you guys doing?"
    "Nothing. Just kibitzing around."

  15. What's interesting about "redeye" is that I'm not sure that I've seen anyone talk about the westbound redeye. There are fewer, but they achieve their eye-reddening by making passengers navigate the destination airport in jet lag limbo--the clocks and other social cues say that it's late the same night they left, but their body clocks say that it's early in the next morning.

  16. Re plonk - isn't this originally Australian? I first came across it in Nevil Shute's "A Town Like Alice", where the narrator visits Australia and is offered "plonk" by his host:

    "He asked me if I would drink tea, beer or plonk.
    'Plonk?' I asked.
    'Red wine,' he said. 'I don't go much for it myself, but jokers who know about wine, they say it's all right.'
    They had a wine list, and I chose a Hunter River wine, which I must say I found quite palatable."

    Also, "Throw a wobbly" - isn't this the same as "having a meltdown"?

  17. 'Horses for courses' seems equivalent to 'the right tool for the job' in AmE.

  18. @Mrs Redboots: Yes, I should have pointed that out. Two cheating ones.

    @Tobias: I'd never use that of people. Would sound like I'm calling them 'tools'!

  19. That is to say, Mrs Redboots, that I should've pointed out the point about 'plonk'.

    'Have a meltdown' might work. Can babies throw wobblies? I don't think I've seen it used of them, but they have meltdowns all the time.

    1. In BrE a wobbly is like an adult tantrum. An over reaction focused on something that, in a more rational moments, wouldn't elicit that response. Taking accumulated frustrations out on an insignificant target. I've always assumed the wobbly bit referred to the trembling of a child's bottom lip as they work up the tears. Throwing a wobbly is childish. A meltdown is more severe.

      If I got to work and was told my boss threw a wobbly over the state of the kitchen, I'd laugh. If I were told they'd had a meltdown I'd get scrubbing!

  20. Oh, I think babies can throw wobblies.... certainly verbal, or nearly-verbal toddlers can!

  21. How do you use "horses for courses"? Is it said on its own, or do you need to use it in a sentence (e.g. "choose the right horses for courses")? Haven't heard that one before (CanE), and curious about its context in conversation :)

    1. You usually say it as a summing up: someone could relate a story of struggling which person to assign a task to and you might shrug ans say "horses for courses". It's deployed without a full sentence in much the same way you might say "pot kettle!"

    2. I'd say it's more usually used when something didn't work out as well as expected. A high flying colleague reveals an inability to use fractions, or a lesson you planned for a class went down like a lead balloon. Horses for courses. It's a non critical way of saying you tried and failed, but never mind there's so much else you are good at. Next time we'll pick a different horse.

      Literally the phrase means that an excellent jump horse might be rubbish on a flat race but that doesn't mean they are useless. Pick the horse for the course.

  22. Mrs Redboots

    Yes plonk was Australian, and decades before Neville Shute. See my posting
    on the Here comes the 5th Untranslatable October! thread.

  23. Laura:

    Here are some examples from the British National Corpus:

    it's really going to be horses for courses isn't it?

    the annuity's still plugging away. And it's horses for courses, it's secure.

    what we have to do with quality management, is introduce the horses for courses idea.

    It's a question of horses for courses, finding the best route forward

    employing headhunters when looking for' rare birds' for specialised jobs as' horses for courses'.

  24. I agree with the anonymous Australian above. Here we chuck wobblies, we never throw them. And when we do it, we are angry, not scared or any other emotion.

  25. Autolycus, I don't think the two phrases mean the same thing. YMMV means your experience may be different from mine, not that another product might be available.

  26. Wondering how well YMMV translates to "One man's meat is another man's poison" - which of course no-one says any more. In fact, do any of those classic idioms/proverbs still exist in spoken (UK) English?

    I occasionally say "honey catches more flies than vinegar" to my daughter, but I think I may be one of the last.

  27. David Crosbie:

    "Wikipedia: Nowadays department stores and shopping centres in the UK still host Santa's Grottos.

    "implying that they no longer do so in America."

    Such places still have photo opportunities (and special pleading) with Santa and his elves. And the decor can be quite elaborate, though it sounds like the British do even more. But I've never seen one called a "Santa's Grotto" in the US.

    Rachel Ganz: I'd say that "horses for courses" is closer to "One man's meat is another man's poison" than is YMMV. The first two imply something like picking the square peg for the square hole. YMMV doesn't have that connotation at all for me, being more of a comment that "your experience might be different". YMMV, coming from ad-speak, is also often used with an ironic edge*, implying that whatever was suggested by the speaker/advertisement/seller, "your mileage" would always be worse.

    * Or at least it would be if it were possible for Americans to use irony, of course.

  28. Some comments from New Jersey:
    8. Never heard of "columbusing"
    10. I don't remember ever hearing of leaf-peeping, at least as a set phrase rather than some wordplay on the local news
    11. It's hard to say from your short explanation, but it seems like this is what assessment means here too.
    12. The definition of face time I've heard is different. It's the supposedly valuable idea of meeting your friends or coworkers in person rather than just communicating with them by phone or electronically. Of course it's also the name of Apple's video calling feature (competing with Skype). Did that ever make it to the UK?
    13. Never heard "squirrely" before
    18. Read "coffee klatch" once somewhere, but never heard it used in conversation (despite being Jewish and hearing a lot of Yiddishisms on a daily basis)
    20. I hear "kibitz" only in the first sense Wiktionary gives: "To chat; to gossip; to make small talk or idle chatter." The only instance where I've seen it in something resembling the definition discussed here was back in the days Yahoo Games was popular. If you tried to join a table with a game already in progress, you were allowed to "kibitz", which allowed you to watch the game and join in the conversation, but not play.
    21. Never heard "santa's grotto", though, of course, have seen what you're describing as the definition

  29. I'm not sure that article is very helpful, or even correct. It homes in on spelling, but everyone knows English spelling is a bit of a problem. But even on spelling, the writer makes simplifications and mistakes that anyone who claims to be an expert should not make. For example, just as there are some dialects that are rhotic and some that are not, there are some dialects that still do pronounce the 'h' where there is a 'wh'. Also, 'ptarmigan' isn't a Canadian First Nation word. Well before John Cabot, the bird was known in Scotland. Its name comes from Scottish Gaelic.

    Despite what he/she says, most, if not all, the surrounding languages of Western Europe also have an irregular verb 'to be'. German certainly does. German also has a lot of irregular verbs. Some are the cognates in that language.

    It would be more interesting to know whether English is fairly easy or more difficult for foreigners to learn apart from the spelling. After all, English has far more rigid and rational gender rules with almost no irregularities. So that at least ought to make it easier.

    My suspicion is that English is a language where it's actually quite easy to learn enough to get by in it. It's only difficult if one's standard is whether a person has become fluent enough to be able to pass themselves off as a first language speaker of it.

  30. (Hi Dru--you're now responding to a post that I've deleted as spam. I leave it to you to decide if you want to leave your response!)

  31. When discussing the relative difficulty of learning English, it's worthwhile, I think, to take a look at John McWhorter's Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage. A major part of his thesis is that English is strongly exoteric and thus is much easier to learn than the average language, though spelling is problematic.

    Not being a linguist, all I can say is that it largely convinced me.

  32. Doug Sundseth

    the decor can be quite elaborate, though it sounds like the British do even more.

    Hogfather is satire, not documentary.

    Pratchett builds an elaborate picture so that its destruction is all the more spectacular and hilarious when Death turns up dressed as the reaL Hogfather with real giant pigs pulling a real rickety old sleigh yo hand out real — and sometimes dangerous — presents to children who are simultaneously terrified and thrilled.

    The justification for Wikipedia's 'still' and the implication that the Americans used to have Sant's Grottos is the assertion earlier in the article that

    This tradition started in Britain in 1879 and then extended in the 1890s to Australian and American department stores seeking to attract customers.

    They go on to document Australian grottos and their partial demise, but fail to substantiate the claim that they had 'spread to Amerrican department stores'.

    It's not impossible. The OED records a use of fairy grotto associated with Christmas in the New York Magazine:

    1968 N.Y. Mag. 29 Apr. 49/2 One Christmas..he had turned Bendel's into a beautiful and fascinating fairy grotto with miles of silver paper and thousands of tiny lights.

  33. You may be reading too much into that. Also, Bendel's was one of New York's poshest department stores, not really representative. But, I wasn't around in the mid-60's, I don't know if similar set-ups were common elsewhere in the US. Mall Santas surrounded by christmas trees and fake snow are still a thing, they just don't have grottos.

    I've seen/heard "sticky wicket" used often enough to know that it's some kind of a problem, but not exactly what sort. I think leaf-peeping is only a thing in Vermont-I assume you need maple trees. And squirrly is a very useful word. (AmE)

  34. Anonymous in New Jersey06 November, 2015 06:44


    I've never heard of "columbusing", either. But as Lynne noted, it's a newer word that's used in her circles. Perhaps it hasn't made it to us yet.

    I first recall hearing about "leaf-peeping" when I briefly lived in a prime leaf-peeping area in New York State. When I returned to New Jersey a year later, I heard it all the time. Perhaps for you, as it seems to have been for me, it's just something that you don't notice much.

    "Assessment" really isn't used that way here for pupils or for undergraduate students.

    I've heard all three uses of "face time", but recently, your main definition is the one I hear more often. It was startling to me when I first heard it as a positive thing! And then there was the day my dad asked me to "face time [him]" despite my lack of an Apple device...

    I don't recall having heard "squirrely" often before emigrating to northern New Jersey, but it's definitely used here as well as where I grew up.

    "Coffee klat(s)ch" used to be a lot more popular than it appears to be now.

    "Kibitz" has the same definition for me as it does for you.

    And, no, I'm pretty sure "Santa's Grotto" isn't the standard term here. I don't think we have one!

    – AiNJ

  35. Anonymous

    Mall Santas surrounded by christmas trees and fake snow are still a thing, they just don't have grottos.

    The operative word is thing. The difference here between Britain and America is not one of language. We simply experience different marketing devices.

    Grotto is not a fancy BrE term for the same thing as you have. It's a different thing with a different name.

    Our device has an unbroken history from its origin as a Fairyland concept. And in BrE a fairy grotto is a pretty common attribute.

  36. Anonymous

    I've seen/heard "sticky wicket" used often enough to know that it's some kind of a problem, but not exactly what sort.

    It's not the nature of the problem, it's the existence of some not necessarily specified problem or problems which constitute a serious obstacle to whatever is being attempted.

    Here's the OED definition (under sticky

    1. c. Horse Racing and Cricket. Of a course, a wicket: Having a yielding surface owing to wet. Also fig., esp. in phr. to bat (or be) on a sticky wicket: to contend with great difficulties (colloq.).

    And the most recent quotation

    1971 Cabinet Maker & Retail Furnisher 24 Sept. 517 When it comes..to moulded plastics of various kinds, then the timber producer is on a stickier wicket.

    Oxford Dictionaries Online takes a slightly different view

    1 Cricket A pitch that has been drying after rain and is difficult to bat on.

    1.1 informal A tricky or awkward situation:
    I might be on a sticky wicket if I used that line

    The controlling group needs to know they are going to be on a sticky wicket with this.
    With increasing education levels, and rising standards of living (with rising expectations) China's fascist rulers are on a sticky wicket.
    The Democratic Presidential nominee, who has been railing against outsourcing, is walking on a sticky wicket on the issue.

  37. Wondering how well YMMV translates to "One man's meat is another man's poison" - which of course no-one says any more. In fact, do any of those classic idioms/proverbs still exist in spoken (UK) English?

    I don't think that's a particularly direct translation. One phrase that you see used in some of the same situations as YMMV is "for certain values of [x]". But I wouldn't call it a direct translation either.

  38. Noting that a race course can also be sticky, it occurs to me that when the going gets tough uses much the same metaphor.

    For those still puzzled by a literal sticky wicket, the word wicket applies equally to the pitch as to the arrangement of sticks which is the target for the bowler (similar to pitcher).

    The consistence of the pitch is important because the batsman strikes the ball with the intention that it will bounce and travel — ideally as far as the boundary. If he strikes the ball through the air as far as the boundary he is rewarded but the attempt is risky, since somebody might catch the ball and make him 'out'.

    (I use he. There are women cricketers, but I hesitate whether to write of a batswoman.)

  39. A sticky wicket (the original sort) is one that is damp as a result of rain.

    Because the ball is bounced off the wicket (the area of the ground between and around the bowler and batsman) before the batsman can hit it, the quality of the ground affects the way the ball bounces. On a sticky, a spinning ball will stick to the ground better, so getting a greater deflection from the same amount of angular momentum; to use a cricketing term, it will "turn square". A sticky will also have inconsistent bounce.

    The result of this is that it is much harder to bat on a sticky wicket, so a team will struggle. Nonetheless, a skilful batsman may still play well.

    Normally in cricket, the wicket will vary from match to match, so it might favour the bowling or the batting side, but, of course, it's the same for both sides, so it might result in a high-scoring or low-scoring game, but it doesn't give a big advantage to one side or the other. A sticky, though, depends on rain and will cease to be sticky once it dries out. If it rains just as one team starts to bat, they will be playing on a sticky and it will just be drying out as they get out and it switches to the other team. That's clearly a big disadvantage. However, if the batting team can defend until it dries out, they should be OK.

    So, by analogy, a sticky wicket is a big challenge, for reasons that are out of your control, but which exceptional performance might get you out of.

    Incidentally, real sticky wickets have been nearly abolished, because pitches are now covered when its raining so the wicket stays dry. Certain types of bowler had a big advantage on a sticky (most famously, Derek Underwood) and their styles of bowling have largely disappeared since covered pitches came in in the 1980s.

  40. It might be well to note that "pitch" in BrE is a noun that refers to (as I understand it) the field of play. In cricket, the "bowler" "bowls" the ball toward the "stumps" or "wicket" (David Crosbie's second sense), not by rolling it, but by flinging it and bouncing it off the "wicket" (David Crosbie's first sense). Note that I used "fling" rather than "throw", because "throw" in cricket refers to a specific arm action that is a violation of the rules and is apparently a great faux pas. The details are likely not important here.

    To an American, a "pitch" is a noun (and associated verb with appropriate modifications) that refers to the act of "throwing" or "pitching" the ball from the "pitcher's" mound to "home plate" near which the batter stands in a baseball game. And "bowling" refers only to rolling a ball, whether for 10-pin bowling on a wooden "lane", for bocce on grass, or possibly for some other such game.

    As is typical for other sports, each sport has extensive specialized vocabulary that is largely opaque to those not aficionados.

    As to "grotto", in my AmE idiolect, "grotto" is very strongly associated with a partially flooded sea cave and doesn't have the "cave associated with human use" sense that apparently persists strongly in BrE. I don't know whether other Americans have that second sense as a standard. This makes discussions of what a "fairy grotto" might be a bit difficult. 8-)

  41. I agree with Doug Sundseth about the idea of a grotto being something cave-like associated with water, something like Hugh Hefner's grotto. I am in my mid-fifties and grew up in the US Midwest then raised my own children in California. We celebrate Christmas and never once have I come across the term Santa's Grotto until reading about it on this site. I asked a few colleagues if they knew the term and no one had a clue what it was.

  42. I've heard "plonk" (cheap wine, esp. red) in the U.S., but until last night, while watching Episode 1, Season 3 of BBC One's "Last Tango in Halifax," I'd never heard "plonker." (Rough paraphrase: "I can't decide if she's nice or a plonker." I turned on subtitles to make sure I'd heard it correctly.)

    #10 "leaf-peeping" is, I'm pretty sure, regional U.S. (specifically New England). There is no equivalent here in California, even though -- contrary to popular belief -- we do have trees that change color in the fall/autumn.

  43. The word "plonker" was popularised by the sitcom Only Fools and Horses, where Del Boy was always saying of his brother, "Rodney, you plonker." A stupid or dull person, nothing to do with plonk the drink. It can also mean the penis, surprise, surprise.

    1. "Plonker" has an interesting history. It originated during WWI as Australian slang for a particular artillery shell, and soldiers being soldiers, it didn't take long for someone to notice its rather phallic shape. From which we get "plonker" meaning penis, and like other penis words ("dick", "prick", "cock", "bellend" (BrE), even "penis" itself in some dialects) it then came to be used as an insult.

    2. Do you have sources for that? Green's Dictionary of Slang only has UK citations of 'plonker' in the 'penis' sense, dating from 1920. Though it has the Australian bomb usage (as part of a more general 'something big' sense that goes decades further back), it has no Australian 'penis' usages.

  44. Lynne I think as someone then responded to it, my post had better stay. I'm sorry to take so long to get back. I posted just before I went to bed last night and have been occupied all day today.

    On the various other posts today, I think 'sticky wicket' is still a sufficiently live metaphor that one needs to know how cricket works to be able properly to appreciate what it means. For those not really familiar with the expression, David Crosby and Richard Gadsden have explained it very clearly. There are plenty of similar expressions from baseball, American football and ice hockey that likewise don't convey the message the speaker intends outside their home culture. British speakers who use them because they think it makes them sound cool are likely to misuse them. I've mentioned before that any speaker of Brit-English who uses the expression 'rain check' is probably using it with a quite different meaning from its Am-English one. I don't understand its Am-Enlish meaning, but I do know that in Am-Enlish it does not mean to do the metaphorical equivalent of looking out of the window to see what the weather is doing.

    I suppose the practical lesson from this is that it's not safe to use a sporting metaphor unless all one's target audience are going to be familiar with the sport. 'Hole in one' is a safer phrase to use than 'sticky wicket', 'home run' or 'off-side rule'.

    On 'plonker' I'm fairly sure it meant penis before it meant a stupid person. I can remember it being used to mean penis back in about 1963.

    On grotto, in the eighteenth century, rich people built grottos in their gardens which were artificial caves, encrusted with shells, imitation stalactites etc. There is no sense in its Brit-English use that a grotto has to have water in it. It might do, like the one in Mad Ludwig's castle at Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, but that's a decorative extra. A grotto does not have to have one.

  45. I love "boffin." Never heard this before, but it seems similar to "wonk" an AmE word that is frequently accompanied by an adjective denoting one's area of expertise, as in, "I'll have to ask the marketing wonks about that." It actually is more respectful that dweeb or nerd, but also connotes the eccentricity of someone who is rapturously preoccupied with his/ her area of study. Sort of an absent-minded professor?

  46. The OED gives three, not obviously related slang meanings for plonker

    2. slang (chiefly Brit. and Austral.).

    a. The penis.

    b. A man who sanctions sexual relationships between his girlfriend and his male friends. Now rare.

    c. A foolish, inept, or contemptible person.

    As Dru thought, the 'penis' meaning is earliest — first quote 1920. The strange meaning [b] has quotes from 1966 and 1970. The earliest quote for the 'idiot' sense is from script of Only Fools and Horses (1981).

    I have a dim half-memory of another sense from my childhood. My father would count something I can't now recall. I only remember that it happened in four steps: One, two, three and a PLONKER.

    Presumably it's from The OED's first, non-slang, sense:


    a. orig. and chiefly Eng. regional (north.). Something large or substantial of its kind.

    The most recent quote is:

    1950 D. Eastwood Diary 6 Mar., in River Diary 24, I lost another much bigger one [sc. a fish], a real plonker!

  47. A memory has struggled to the surface. One, two there, four, five, six and a PLONKER accompanied the laying out of card for patience.

    (My instinct tells me that patience is BrE and solitaire AmE, but Lynne has taught me to distrust such instincts.)

    After laying down the initial card face up, this is how you start dealing for the game known online as Klondike. Next you count to five, then four etc. The PLONKER is when you plonk a card face up.

    This gives plonker a sense distinct from any in the OED — although the OED does have an entry for the verb plonk. It seems to be one of those words that relies on the noise it makes to lend intensity (and often a sense of size) to whatever is the centre attention.

    'a great big whatsit'

    when a whatsit might be an angler's catch, a penis, a fool or the gesture of slamming a card on the table.

    It reminds me of the adjective mamlish used in some Blues records to mean nothing in particular but to add intensity.

    Your head is nappy : your feet so mamlish long
    And you move like a turkey : coming through the mamlish corn

  48. As vernacular words for both male and female organ seem habitually to get adopted as personal insults - I'm not going to quote these in polite circles, though we all know of them, and one does hear 'tool' used that way - I'd suggest that 'plonker' in sense 1 came first and progressed naturally to acquire sense 3.

  49. Dru, I think all the senses derive from the idea of a plonking noise and/or downward movement. The OED suggests five senses for the verb plonk

    1a. Northern word for a delivering a heavy thudding blow

    1b. play a musical instrument heavily and ineptly

    2a. drop or set down heavily

    2b. sit or set down down heavily or unceremoniously

    2c. plonk oneself sit down heavily

  50. There is also the Lourdes grotto, and the copies of it in the churchyards of many RC churches, with a statue of the Virgin Mary in a cave.

  51. Since the late lamented Pterry has already been brought up once, he used Klatch as the name for the Discworld's pseudo-Middle Eastern empire. Which might be a coincidence, except that it's most famous for its (extremely strong) coffee. I'd never heard of that term before though.

  52. Thanks Johnny!

    Yes of course

    Klatchian Rare Roatred!
    When a Pickaxe is Not Enough!

  53. Re ”throw a wobbly”, I usually translate this to my American friends as being similar to a hissy fit - they seem to understand that one.

    I can't imagine how to translate gubbins - not used so often now but my father used it a lot for anything, particularly a gadget, he couldn't remember the name of.

  54. Doug Sundseth

    Note that I used "fling" rather than "throw", because "throw" in cricket refers to a specific arm action that is a violation of the rules and is apparently a great faux pas. The details are likely not important here.

    Important, but of some linguistic interest perhaps.

    Although a dozen other cricketers on the field strive to exercise various skills, what they are able to do is contingent on the duel between two people: the one delivering a ball and the other striking (or attempting to) with a bat. The rules of cricket have been developed so as to make the duel as equal a contest as possible — giving each the fullest opportunity to exercise their particular skills.

    This striving for 'fair play' was for many an obsession. Strict adherence to the letter and the spirit of the rules was the mark of a gentleman. Indeed, in 'first class' cricket matches, the sort that spectator would pay money to watch, the sportsmen were classified as either gentlemen (amateurs) or player (professionals). This distinction, with all its class overtones, persisted right to the middle of the last century.

    Although often used with some irony, 'It's not cricket!' is still synonymous with It's unfair and despicable.

    Anyway, as the game developed it was found that allowing the man with the ball to chuck it any old how made it unfairly difficult for the batsman to do clever things. So he was obliged to use the action employed with bowls or skittles or, indeed, bowling. But that gave too much advantage to the batsman, so a new form of delivery was invented. Like bowling it insisted on a straight arm (to give the batsman more of a chance), but the arm was allowed to come up over the shoulder.

    Nowadays, the old delivery form is used when playing with children. It's known as underarm bowling. The overarm standard is nothing like throwing or chucking or even pitching, which all imply a high trajectory. So the old term bowling was retained, even though it's nothing like what you do in an alley or on a green.

  55. Definitely "chuck a wobbly" not "throw a wobbly".

    "blag" is gaining a bit of ground online as a description of "write a largely content free, barely serious, uninteresting blog post". xkcd.com uses it.

    "weekend warrior" is frequently used in my experience of AmE to mean "people who do something other than construction and renovation for a living, but on the weekends visit their local (big box) hardware store and work on projects that involve construction/renovation for their home". "DIYer" might be a BrE equivalent, but it doesn't entirely convey the sneer that "weekend warrior" comes with when spoken by a contractor.

  56. David Crosbie: "Like bowling it insisted on a straight arm (to give the batsman more of a chance), but the arm was allowed to come up over the shoulder. "

    First, the history was interesting to me; thank you for that.

    Second, it's my understanding that some years ago high-speed photography studies were done of top-tier pace bowlers, all of whom were found to be using then-impermissible throwing motions. (See this piece, for example). Which probably goes to the difference between the letter and intent of the rules, since I think that prior to those studies, nobody thought this was happening, at least to any great extent.

  57. Paul, what you've just said about 'weekend warrior' looks like another example of how, if a term used in one country gets adopted in the other, it's likely to acquire a different meaning in the process. Here, 'weekend warrior' would be assumed to be a jocular reference to someone in the TA (Territorial Army). It could easily be used that way.

    A person would definitely 'throw a wobbly' here rather than 'chuck' one.

  58. For another UK usage of "Weekend Warrior" - Iron Maiden had a song with that phrase as a title in 1992, the lyrics of which refer to football hooliganism. That usage is also in an article from 1985 ( http://newint.org/features/1985/12/05/hooligan/ ). I think it has probably mostly died out in popular culture now, along with the decline of violence associated with football.

  59. "Weekend Warrior" is used in the UK to refer to amateurs who are paid to do something part time which would normally be done by a full time professional. For example, a lot of wedding photographers are "weekend warriors" because they have other jobs and just do photography for a bit of extra income. Also, it can refer to people who do voluntary work at weekends, e.g. aircraft restoration in a museum. This is analogous to army and navy reservists - I'd never thought of it as an Americanism.

    Is "all right" as a greeting really a Britishism? It sounds more cockney to me...

  60. "All right?" as a greeting (or more often "Yerright?") is pretty common in various bits of the UK - certainly sounds natural with a Scouse accent, for example. Although my endearingly sweary East Midlands landlord's response to it is generally "what you going to do if I'm not, you c**t?"

    A fairly close equivalence to "your mileage may vary" was current during the era of the big Thatcherite privatisations when TV ads to persuade the great unwashed that they wanted to buy shares in something they already owned had to come with the caveat "remember, your shares may go down as well as up". YMMV doesn't really work here as "mileage" is used exclusively (in my experience) to refer to the distance shown on the vehicle odometer (so "high mileage" = old or heavily used, also figuratively) rather than fuel economy.

  61. A funny word mileage.

    A task to which I was 'volunteered' to back in the day is to process driver's claims forms. The ridiculous form has columns for

    MILES + in tiny print (home to duty)
    MILES + in tiny print (duty)
    MILEAGE + in tiny print (total miles x rate)

    It's taken years to get through to claimants the perverse idea that mileage is a sum of money.

  62. Dru, on the matter of "rain check" I was away last weekend and asked a number of my friends (all English) what they understood by the term. None of them thought of it as "the metaphorical equivalent of looking out of the window to see what the weather is doing" and all seemed to use it correctly, to defer on some offer till later. (My understanding is that if a baseball game is rained off, then you can accept a rain check that entitles you to see another game later. I'm told a similar thing now happens with cricket.)

  63. I learned the meaning of 'rain check' a few years ago from reading this blog. Until then I would have supposed it to mean something to do with checking up on weather conditions.

  64. I think I first heard "rain check" sometime in the early seventies when it was the basis of a question on the radio quiz show Brain of Britain.

  65. Paul Dormer: "My understanding is that if a baseball game is rained off...."

    Is that "off" typical of BrE? AmE would have it as "rained out".

  66. "Rained off" is certainly what I would say, and it has an entry in Chambers: "(of a sport, outdoor activity, etc) cancelled because of rain."

    "Rained out" is not in Chambers (although "rained in" is, but that is something entirely different).

  67. The OED has both.

    Rain out is described as 'chiefly U.S.' The earliest quote is from 1883 in a Galveston newspaper.

    More surprisingly the earliest quote for rain off seems also to be American — from an 1916 publication identified as Olean (N.Y.) Evening Herald.

  68. My copy of Chambers was closer than my OED.

  69. Just found this wonderful blog, so forgive me if this has been addressed, but I believe that "plonk" is an anglicization(?) of "blanc" as in "vin blanc." Growing up in the UK there were only three types of wine: Chianti (anything red, 99.99% of which had never been within 1,000 miles of Chianti), Matteus Rosé (universally pronounced "Matoos," and something vaguely white… the "plonk" under consideration.

  70. I would suggest (if no-one has done so already) AmE "pitch a fit" for BrE "throw a wobbly." It definitely contains an element of unreasonableness, even childishness. Though not quite as childish as throwing a tantrum. Just found your blog and am thoroughly enjoying so far! Thanks!

  71. Carolyn, I would never use horses for courses that way. It's probably a generation thing as I'm over seventy.

    For me it's always a comment on the choice of person or strategy, not on the result. So in the case of your high-flying colleague, I might use the phrase to encourage (or gently criticise) his/her line manager. The manager should think next time before choosing someone whose talents don't square with the demands of the task.

    For me it's implicit in the metaphor that the task (the race) changes from situation to situation (different locations and weather conditions) whereas the performer (the horse) has a predictable and relatively unchanging set of abilities.

    It's a rather sad comment to make about a person — that they have no more flexibility than a super-trained single-purpose animal. So it's a tricky one to use as a serious criticism. Rather, I think I'd use it to downplay the seriousness. So in this hypothetical case I might be implying 'It's not that you're bad at picking people. You just picked someone whose talents were wrong for the task'. Yes, It's still criticism, but nothing as confrontational as 'You should never have picked him/her!'

    As for your failed lesson ploy, I think I'd tell myself 'Well, that was a probably brilliant way to teach something entirely different'.

  72. Regarding "sticky wicket", I would venture that most Americans are familiar with the term, from TV and movies, even if (as is the norm) they are utterly unfamiliar with the sport of cricket. In fact, it's a rather common stereotypical phrase one might use (almost always jocularly) if one were affecting an over-the-top British accent, something like "I say, old chap, that's a bit of sticky wicket."

    Like most Americans, I know very little about cricket, but I was aware that it involved some posts driven into the ground called "wickets". So I always assumed that this was what the phrase referred to, although I was puzzled as to how these posts could get sticky, or why that would be a problem.


  73. I don't think it has been mentioned but you can also "pack a wobbly"in NZE. That sounds more natural to me than "chuck", although I use chuck in everything which has confused my northern hemisphere friends immensely.

  74. I lived in New Jersey for almost 30 years, and I've been in Virginia for 25; I also spent some time in New York and Massachusetts.

    I've heard "leaf-peeping" in the North and "leaf-looking" in Virginia. "Coffee klatch" was common in the North when I was young, but I don't hear it any more. I heard "kibitz" when I was young, always in reference to unwanted advice in a game. "Squirrely" I knew in New Jersey. I don't hear "face time" any more; when it was common, I knew only the meaning of meeting in person, particularly with a boss who might not see you very often.

  75. I think blag has regional differences. When I was a teenager (1990s North West England) blagging meant you were making an idiot of yourself while trying to chat someone up.
    Sticky Wicket is the title of a M*A*S*H episode, though I think Larry Gelbart was an anglophile.


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