What ho, Mitt!

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Commenters on Mark's post about my remarks to the BBC about Briticisms asked if I really had it in for Briticisms in general, and in particular, what was I found so objectionable about "spot on." For the first, the answer is no; as I told Ms Hebblethwaite, some loans are quite useful, like "sell-by date" and "one-off." And I like "twee," with its evocation of Laura Ashley preciosity, though it seems to have lost some of those associations in its application to a genre of indie pop.

But there are others which add nothing more than the fact of their Englishness—what I think of as "motorcar" words. "I liked the funny bits"—what does that convey that "the funny parts" doesn't, other than to say that the speaker is familiar with how the English talk? And given that Anglicisms generally flow to us via a narrower pipe than the one that pours Americanisms into British speech, and one that with some exceptions tends to deposit its effluvia into the cultural upper stories, the practice often suggests a whiff of pretension.  But with "spot on," there's something else going on. I don't think I would have called it ludicrous, as Ms H reports me as saying. But I might very well have said "awfully silly."

In British English, "spot on" very often signals stereotypical upper-class twittery. Take a commenter's response to a Guardian column by Julian Glover that calls on the government to "rise above the left's howl against budget cuts and explain its attempt at a fair distribution of pain… Turn away from the mob. Ignore the angry brigade. Let their spittle run down the walls." The commenter says:

"Julian, you're spot on old chap. You see, you're right: they're like CHILDREN, you know? Emotional, prone to violence, don't understand what's good for them, express themselves with bodily fluid (ugh: spittle…).

You can hear those associations on other .uk sites, where "spot on" is often paired with other Woosterisms:

Absolutely spot on old chap. I am a Yorkshire fella through and through, born in Harrogate (a private nursing home, of course.) pip pip.

A cynical spoof on an old British documentary film. Indeed it is quite hilarious. The narrator's voice is spot on. Pip-pip old chap. Cheerio….

I say. Spot on. Good Show. Pip pip.

Those Ian Carmichael/Terry-Thomas associations are occasionally present when Americans use the expression, but it's most often just a way of sounding "smart" and well-traveled.  Certainly Romney had nothing of the kind in mind when he defended his advertising by saying "We've been absolutely spot on.  And any time there's anything that's been amiss, we correct it or remove it."

Now for all I know, Romney might not even know that the expression is originally British English. But it's for sure that most of the people he learned it from did.  Americans might not  hear the phrase as twittery, but it betrays the attitudes of the sort of people who think it's smart to sound like the English upper classes. I don't think you'd be likely to hear from Paul Ryan, say; it's a white-shoes country-club or upmarket journo locution. That's what makes it a bit absurd. It's one thing to go to England and return wearing a pair of shoes you had custom-made on Jermyn Street (naturally you'd refer to them as "bespoke"). It's another, much more comical, to show yourself off in your newly acquired Bertie Wooster-style spats.

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  1. Andy Averill said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    The Briticism that annoys me (as long as we're peeving) is "glove box", which seems to be replacing "glove compartment", a perfectly good expression.

  2. David said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

    I think you're over-emphasising the Bertie Wooster element of 'spot on'… I'm certainly not from an upper class background and I use the phrase without irony — not every day, but often enough to feel it's part of my standard vocabulary.

    In the examples you quote, I think that the 'upper class twit' feeling comes from the other phrases ('old chap', 'pip pip' etc): on its own, 'spot on' is fairly neutral.

  3. Edward Vanderpump said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

    The need to show one is well-travelled, yes, that's at least part of it. That is presumably why younger Brits say eg "Can I get…" rather than "Can I have…".

  4. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    Hmm… and all along I thought the inimitable American TV 'hostess' ,Barbara Walters had first coined the word "twee" during her fledgling post-Oscar celebrity interviews when she would ask guests, say Barbra Steisland for instance, "….. if you were a 'twee', what 'twee'* would you be?" (Groan)

    *Apologies to anyone who may have difficult pronouncing their "r"s, out there. It shouldn't really be a laughing matter, but in Ms. Walters' case, it has become almost a pop culture trope. SNL's Gilda Radner did a wild-and-crazy impression of Walters and made sure to emphasize her non-rhotic/ surrogate "w" tic, throughout.

  5. Eric P Smith said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

    @David: I agree. I’m British, middle class and with no upper class connections whatsoever. To me, "spot on" is a standard way of saying "exact" or "exactly".

  6. Richard said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

    Mind you, we Canadians can sometimes find ourselves using "spot on" unironically. Small chunks of our characteristic vocabulary aren't unlike amber-preserved pre-WW2 British slang.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    In the British National Corpus (100 million words from the early 1990s), as indexed at BYU, "spot on" occurs 20 times at the end of a sentence, for a frequency of 0.2 per million words. In the COCA (American) corpus (450 million words, 1990-2012), "spot on" at the end of a sentence occurs 46 times, for a rate of 0.1 per million words.

    So it's rare in both collections, but twice as common in the British collection.

    Still, there are plenty of uses in COCA that don't strike me as especially hoity-toity:

    Rick Perry, on Fox News: You know, where most people kind of go off the track with Congressman Paul is on his foreign policy and some of his statements about the military and Iran in particular, and whether or not he would defend Israel. That's where we have a real problem. But economically, there are some things that Congressman Paul's talking about that are spot on .

    Eric Bolling, co-host of Fox Five: Well, can I just point out, Dana, immediately after you saw the tweet, you said, I expect any minute now the White House is going to start distancing themselves from Hilary Rosen. First, it was Axelrod, and now, Carney. You were right on. Spot on .

    Sarah Palin, on CBS Evening News: His theme last night, in the State of the Union was that WTF, you know, winning the future. And I thought, OK, that acronym, spot on . There are a lot of WTF moments throughout that speech.

    Gretchen Morgensen, NPR Talk of the Nation: Caroline, you could not be more spot on .

    … and so on.

  8. Picky said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    Yep, spot on, these days at least, is not upper class in BrE. And glove box? You sure that's modern BrE, Andy? I say glove compartment. Perhaps the disease that afflicts peeving Englishmen (sounds weird, must be American) is now spreading in mutated form west of the Atlantic (sounds weird, must be pretentious mock-Brit). Prof Nunberg begins to sound like an American version of a Daily Mail columnist.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

    Maybe I haven't paid close enough attention but the "twee" genre of indiepop has mostly struck me as, in fact, generally "twee." Just like, e.g., blues-rock is typically bluesy. So that doesn't undermine the semantics of "twee" in general for me. OTOH, I think one attested public use by Sarah Palin seems like it ought to liberate any phrase from Wodehousianness.

    There are particular professional subcultures in the U.S. where Britishisms have become part of the internal jargon and thus lost their Britishness in context, but where they can still jar when dealing with outsiders. Example: there's a BrEng use of "revert" that in my experience strikes most AmEng speakers as very weird – when one says "I'll revert to you [on that issue/question/etc]" meaning "get back to you" as opposed to "turn back into you" like Cinderella's coach reverting to pumpkin form. But I have heard a very non-Anglophile-seeming (general speech register was tough-guy-from-New-Jersey) reinsurance broker using "revert" in that fashion, which makes sense because so much of the global reinsurance business revolves around the London market that the jargon could've been influenced even in the U.S. (He also used the verb "to broke" to mean "do what brokers do," which is afaik unexceptional in BrEng but I believe pretty rare in AmEng except jocularly.)

  10. Jamie F said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    @Mark The interesting question though would be how often it's used without any hoity-toity connotations in the BNC …

  11. Picky said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    That BrE use of revert sounds equally weird to this BrE speaker. In fact I've never heard it used that way. Perhaps it's just internal jargon and not BrE at all?

  12. C. Jason said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    What I don't get is what the 'American' equivalent of spot on might be.

    Dead to rights?
    Nailed it?

  13. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

    On target; dead on; on the money; on the nose; etc. I recently heard a TV show host say someone hit the hammer on the head, meaning–I hope–hit the nail on the head. (But one can never be sure.)

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    "Glove box" is BrE? It was not uncommon among the working-class Midwesterners I grew up with. "Glove compartment" was also common but perhaps a trifle highfalutin'.

  15. C. Jason said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

    @Mr Fnortner

    Thanks for the examples.
    I'll risk sounding pretentious with 'spot on', though.
    Those other phrases lack euphony.

  16. Stuart said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    I don't associate "spot on" with British English at all. I think the vast, vast majority of uses in the US have no "Wooster" connotation at all. Learning that other people think it does is… bizarrely fascinating.

  17. David L said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    It seems a bit silly to argue about glove box versus glove compartment. I keep many things in there, but none of them are gloves.

  18. Karl Weber said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    @Mr Fnortner: Yes, "on the nose" is one possible US synonym for "dead on," though interestingly it's also used as a term of condemnation in the film business, describing dialog that is too literal and obvious.

  19. Pierre W said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

    @Mr Fnortner:

    Or rather, as Jeeves puts it to Bertie, rem acu tetigisti!

  20. jf said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

    I work with a lot of Brits, so "horses for courses," the use of plural verbs for corporations "GE are planning to…" "spot on" and plenty of other trans-Atlanticisms have been added to my vocabulary. i find it far more offensive though, to change ones accent than I do vocabulary additions. When I detect certain pronunciations start to change, I check myself immediately. Is this a well-founded phenomenon or just me?

  21. HP said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    A few comments:

    - I sometimes find myself struck when I hear Canadians use the taboo word "bloody." But then I remember that bloody has been part of the Canadian vocabulary for about as long as it's been British. I think it strikes me as novel because I've only encountered angry Canadians recently.

    - Regarding "funny bits." In vaudeville and stand-up comedy, a bit is a sequence of jokes or gags around a single topic, as part of a larger performance. Used in that sense, it's a very American term. (E.g., "Why a duck?" is a bit in The Cocoanuts.) There must be a better example of the British use of "bits" in place of "parts."

    - I find the contemporary meaning of "punter" in British English to be an incredibly useful word with no good American equivalent. I wish I could use it in my American English when appropriate without getting blank stares. I once suggested this to a visiting Scotsman, and he was horrified by the idea, even though I'd heard him use the word only moments before..

  22. Aelfric said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    American here, though I did study for some time in Edinburgh, so I can't claim too much linguistic purity. "Spot on" sounds perfectly American to me, and completely unobjectionable. What is odd, however, is that if you add an adverb to the phrase, as in "absolutely spot on," for instance, it suddenly has the aforementioned "Bertie Wooster" sound to it. Never noticed that before.

  23. PD said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

    A Brit like many on this thread, I too would probably not notice 'spot on' as exceptional, even coming from an American, but _absolutely_ spot on surely has that over de trop character that I didn't think anybody but those who pronounce yes to sound like 'ears' can pull off unaffectedly. I expected it to be followed by 'old chap'.

  24. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

    I seem to recall the phrase, "Right on!" used quite frequently in casual African-American inner-city street jargon (in the areas of film, music, literature, etc, … where ever Black urban culture was reflected and portrayed), starting around the period of the '60s Civil Rights era, (and I'm guesstimating here), up into the present day; but less so, today, within the greater Black community in the U.S.

    "Right on!", in essence, is the Brit version of "Spot on!", meaning exactly on-point, but clearly without the original snooty, upper-crusty Brit vibe….. more like the mellow 'Snoop' vibe ….. Snoop Dogg that is.

    Right on, bro! Peace out!

    It's no mystery that the ever-growing lexicon of African-American street jargon is highly informed and influenced by evolving vocal, instrumental, and fashion trends in hip-hop, rap, and other popular grass-roots musical forms, and w/ the increasing acceptance, and appreciation of these Black-centric musical genres by the wider music-loving public, many of these once niche-type slangy terms have often been co-optd by young non-Blacks fans, who gradually find these novel, now more familiar words cropping up w/ more frequency in their own everyday parlance.

    Much like the words "cool", "hip" and "groovy" arising largely from the 'jive talk' of Jazz, Beat and early Rock & Roll artists, and eventually percolating up to the masses as acceptable, expressive descriptive terms. (I know THAT wasn't a grammatically correctly structured complete sentence. Oh well.)

    P.S.: –Picky, nice to see you on board. I resist using my familiar (as on other language blogs) "old chap", or "old boy" salutation, for fear of being labeled a Wodehouse wannabe. HA!

    Personally, I rather like using "spot on", on occasion, even if, for many, it still has a clinging air of old-world, snobby pretension attached to it. After all, I'm still counted in the ranks of one of those staunch relics, a British Commonwealian, being a slightly chauvinistic Canuck, brought up as a youth on BBC sitcoms and historical dramas carried by our government-run CBC. So it's hard to disassociate one's self completely from those earliest of Brit TV cultural influences, most of which I seem to have assimilated, and embraced w/ open arms…. well eyes and ears, mostly.

    Ta! Ta!

  25. Gerald said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    Have to say regarding spot on that 0.2 per million against 0.1 is not a significant difference, even if it is double. I (a NJ native) can't think of an apter alternative in the place "That impersonation/analysis is ___."

    And glove box is the preferred term in my lexicon.

  26. Nick Lamb said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    By "the contemporary meaning" do you mean "any person" or "customer of a prostitute" ? The trouble with transatlantic English seems to be a version of the usual problem of being almost fluent in a language – native speakers assume you know what you're doing and that can in fact be your undoing. If our recent Lithuanian recruit opines "I like the bitch" then we try to figure out how to understand this sentence and conclude that he has mispronounced a word and in fact enjoys sea, sand, etc., whereas if our near fluent Italian colleague says it, we will probably assume she's talking about a woman, or perhaps a dog.

  27. Mark F. said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    When I originally read GN's (mis)quote "Spot on – it's just ludicrous!" I at first thought that he was agreeing with something the reporter had said in her question. I thought he was saying, in effect, "You're exactly right, it's just ludicrous that people complain about Americanisms in British English when it goes both ways." As I kept reading it became clear what he was supposed to have meant.

    So it doesn't feel foreign enough to me that I would have been surprised to see him quoted as using it.

  28. Stuart said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 5:38 pm

    It was interesting and surprising to read "spot on" being described as indicative of upper-class Wodehousian twittery. In NZE it definitely has none of such connotations. A good solid, ordinary phrase, one that was even the name of a very mass market TV show in the 70s here.

  29. HP said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

    Nick, I may have my "punters" chronology all wrong. The sense I've heard most often is something that would be rendered clumsily in American as "regular folks out for an evening's entertainment," so, I guess, "any person." I'm familiar with the "off-track betting" meaning, but I don't think I've ever read or heard it used exclusively where Americans would say "johns."

    /*runs to dictionary*/

    Collins World English online has:

    1. a person who places a bet
    2. informal any member of the public, esp when a customer: the punters flock into the sales
    3. slang a prostitute's client
    4. slang a victim of a con man

    So it looks like the "john" meaning is more recent. Sorry about that.

  30. Jim Breen said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 6:23 pm

    Geoff writes about "Anglicisms" and "how the English talk", but really he means "how non-American native speakers of English talk". Most of the phrases he associates with British English are also commonly used in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, etc. There are, of course, purely British terms such as "off-licence", but they don't travel that well.
    Given the spread of Americanisms, I find complaints about non-American terms being used in the YewEss, well, a bit rich.

    GN: In the context of loan words, descriptions of provenance have to be read intensionally, so to speak. Americans borrowed "spot on" from British English, or more specifically English English, which is what gives it its original associations, even if some Americans have by now lost sight of the connection. The fact that it happens to be used in Australia or elsewhere doesn't figure in the story. By the same token, the lion's share of the "Americanisms" that the British complain about are common in Canada, too, but nothing would be gained by describing them as North Americanisms, and their significance in British speech would be obscured: the point is to evoke American attitudes, not Canadian ones. (Or think of it this way: ménage à trois is a gallicism in English, whether or not they happen also to use it in the French of Brussels or Abidjan.)

  31. Brett said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

    @Jim Breen:
    Spot on :-)

    Here in Australia "spot on" is used without any sense that it's particularly British, and without any sense or irony. We generally have a pretty good ear for affected Britishisms, and it would never have occurred to me that this was one.

  32. Brett said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

    I'm just disappointed that the Julian Glover who wrote that column was not the guy who played General Veers.

  33. Vince said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

    Speaking as a Brit (and echoing the Brit commentators above), as far as I'm aware "spot on" by itself doesn't have any associations with upper-class twittery: what's going on is that it is also a part of the stereotypical register that includes words that do have that association, unlike other expressions of comparable meaning. In any case I have to agree with Jim Breen above that Geoff is really grasping at straws with this overall argument.

  34. Joe Green said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

    What strikes me most about this whole upper-class thing is that when we (BrE) use "pip-pip" etc, we're more or less taking the piss (there's another BrE expression, I suppose) out of the upper classes. We're certainly not trying to pretend that we are upper-class of better-spoken or whatever. In contrast the main complaint from AmE speakers here seems to be that their compatriots *are* trying to sound more English. (I can sympathise with that, in reverse, as it were.)

    As for bits/parts, well bits are smaller than parts. A funny bit might be a single line. A funny part might be a whole scene. A perfectly reasonable distinction for me. How would that be in AmE?

  35. EndlessWaves said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

    I wouldn't say bits are smaller than parts, a bit of a machine may contain several parts. Parts perhaps has a sense of order that bits lack.

    In the context of commenting on a drama I'd assume it's to prevent confusion:

    That was a good part – but I'm not sure about the actor playing it.

  36. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

    GN: The two Englishmen whose opinions I consulted are both upper-middle-class speakers in their fifties, and things are apparently changing.

    I don't think there's any question that the expression is meant to have woosterish associations in some of the examples I cited, like the satiric response to the Guardian writer that begins "Julian, you're spot on old chap," or the enumeration of twitterisms in "I say. Spot on. Good Show. Pip pip" — why would anyone insert a socially neutral but linguistically marked expression in the middle of that string? Similarly, an exchange on answers.com reads:

    Q: Do Englishmen really say "pip pip cheerio"?

    A: Certainly do old chap. Spot on. Tally ho

    And in an entry at BritishWords.co.uk, a contributor writes of "spot on":

    Note: I used to think was only said by older people or posh people, but it seems that younger people say this too – even if they are only mocking the posh by putting on their best royal accent and saying “spot on old chap!”

    Some of the British commenters on the post, like PD, retain this association, at least when "spot on" is preceded by "absolutely." From the comments of others, though, it's clear that many British speakers no longer hear the phrase this way. File it under "change in progress" then. Or maybe there's something else going on. In almost all the satiric uses I've cited, "spot on" is a stand-alone response to someone's action or utterance, meaning something like "quite right" or "exactly," rather than an attributive or predicate modifier (as in "That was a spot on impersonation").

    The question, then, is how the phrase sounds when used in sentence-initial position, not the sentence-final position that Mark looked at. There are six examples of this pattern in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, but three are distractors (really adjectival modiifers, or a stage direction). The other three are punning headings in Harper's Bazaar and Country Living, some referring to British settings, which does suggest upscale associations. There is one relevant eg in the British National Corpus, in a conversation between two characters identified as having gone to minor public schools. So there's some reason to believe that some upper-class tone still attaches to this use of the phrase, at least. Which, to be sure, would not be the way it's used by Romney…

  37. Joe Green said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 10:33 pm

    @EndlessWaves: in drama, what then of bit-parts? :-)

    You're right, parts might have some sense of order or theme which bits lack.

    Going back to the original point, I can't see why the fact that "good bits" conveys nothing which/that "good parts" doesn't is a reason to object to it in the first place. What's wrong with elegant (or inelegant for that matter) variation? How impoverished would a langauge be in which there was only one way to say something?

  38. Nathan Myers said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 4:17 am

    I wonder if the perceived Britishism of "good bit" is similar to that in "a drop" of whiskey: use of an absurd diminutive as ironic exaggeration. I don't seem to hear that used much in American speech, except in broadcast language where anything horrendous is always "a little bit" dismaying.

    To this west-coast-ian, "dead on" is fully American, a direct translation of "spot on" but without a speck of twee-baiting.

  39. iching said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 6:07 am

    I agree with the other AuE (and NZE) speakers that "spot on" sounds wholly unremarkable to my ears and means just "exactly right", unlike many Wodehouse-isms which probably sound just as quaint and twee to Antipodeans as they do to Americans and even most contemporary Britons (not sure about the Royal family).

    I was about to write that "spot on" was "bog standard" usage in Australia, but recognised the phrase is probably unfamiliar to Americans, as it is probably a Britishism. I quick search of the Internet revealed the opinion that it is quite a recent usage (60s?) which I find hard to believe, as I seem to recall hearing and using it all my 62 years of life. Does anyone know its origin?

    In AuE, "bit" is just a synonym for piece or part. To my ears not even a very small piece (or part). So I don't understand what sounds wrong with "funny bits". Does the objection also apply to "bits" used with adjectives other than "funny"?.

  40. Kasper said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 6:24 am

    It's refreshing to hear Americans protest about the use of British expressions when people on this side of the water have been complaining about your expressions taking hold over here!
    I have to agree about 'can I get', however; it must be stamped on whenever it appears (as should those that use it).

  41. Michael Drake said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 6:39 am

    This analysis is spot on, dude!* (I might have said it's "spot on, chap," except that this locution isn't quite as popular.**)

    * http://www.google.com/search?q=%22spot+on+dude%22

    **http://www.google.com/search?q=%22spot+on+chap%22

  42. cm said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 6:54 am

    The hoity-toity connotations of "spot on" may be influenced by the eminently Woosteresque phras "a spot of".

  43. Caroline Devitt said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 7:45 am

    Just for the record, I'm a non-snobby Brit and for me 'spot on' has none of the connotations mentioned in this post. Also, I've never heard 'glove box' before, only 'glove compartment'.

  44. Acilius said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 8:48 am

    "Now for all I know, Romney might not even know that the expression is originally British English." Hmmm…

    Mr Romney is a highly educated man, well-traveled, whose extremely wide circle of acquaintance no doubt includes a great many upper-class Britons. So if it is plausible that not even he is aware of any association of the expression "spot on" with Bertie Wooster and his present-day congeners, I don't see firm grounds for supposing that the expression represents undue imitation of such people on anyone's part.

  45. ajay said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 9:41 am

    The Briticism that annoys me (as long as we're peeving) is "glove box", which seems to be replacing "glove compartment", a perfectly good expression.

    I've only ever heard Americans say "glovebox"; every Brit I've ever heard talk about it (including me) has used "glove compartment".

    "Spot on", of course, was used in series 2 of The Wire by McNulty, pretending rather unconvincingly to be British in order to investigate a house of ill repute, and he had to have it explained to him. (The joke being that the actor playing McNulty is actually British…)

    "Revert" is more corporate English than BrE, I would think. Like "I'll action that".

    GN: Nice point. I had forgotten that "Wire" episode and looked up the sequence. The Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty (played, as you note, by an English actor, Dominic West) is about to go undercover to bust a brothel. He's posing as an Englishman, but with a comically bad accent. He's being prepped for the assignment by Lieutenant Daniels and Assistant D.A. Rhoda Perlman, who's also his girlfriend. She hands him a purse.

    McNulty: What the fuck is that?

    Ass't D.A. Rhoda Perlman: It's a man's purse. European men, like yourself, sometimes carry one.

    Det. Greggs: Besides, the mic has to go somewhere. They might have their hands all over you before we get what we need.

    Lt Daniels: It'll be your call when we come through the doors. You want us in, you say…[turns to Perlman] what was it?

    Perlman: (enunciating clearly) "spot on." It means "exactly." And remember, they have to bring up the money and the sex first, then an overt attempt… to engage.

    McNulty (in an exaggerated English accent): Spot on.

    In the event, McNulty forgets the phrase and by the time the police enter, he's in flagrante with two women. In the view of the director and writers of the show, then, the upper-middle-class Rhoda would have perceived "spot on" as a stereotypical anglicism while neither the working-class McNulty nor the self-made Daniels would have been familiar with it, nor would Rhoda have expected them to. That was pretty much my perception, too.

  46. M (was L) said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    > Now for all I know, Romney might not even know that the
    > expression is originally British English.

    How original do you mean?

    Last I heard, the leading theory for the primary source of American English, was Brits settling, um, colonyside.

  47. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    @iching,

    Speaking of the term "bits', in America I've also heard the phrase, "naughty bits", referring to ones, or some others, normally concealed, (at least in public) private parts. Basically a kind of delicate euphemism that, for many, describes touchy parts of our bodies. (Hmm… "touchy" may have been a poor word choice, there.)

    You hear it come up in comedic entertainment circles, on occasion, usually alluding more to the female anatomy. Likely because our fairer sex has more "naughty bits" than us naughty guys*. HA!

    Have no clue if "naughty bits" has BE roots, or not.

    Still, I like its kind of light, cheeky air, without getting into gross, or specific anatomical detail. Just enough to enliven the prurient imagination, 'tis all.

    *Hope that didn't come off as male chauvinistic? Not intended, as such.

  48. Mr Punch said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 11:36 am

    I associate "naughty bits"with Monty Python; don't think I ever heard it (in the US) before the '70s.
    Spot on = right on, exactly right, amen brother

  49. Andy Averill said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    I stand corrected, according to the Google ngram viewer, "glove compartment" is more popular than "glove box" in both their British and American English corpuses, and by about the same amount. But "glove box" is still reasonably common in both places.

  50. Emerson said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    Let me get this straight. Geoff Nunberg articulates his subjective response to the indexical valence of certain expressions, and it generates 48 comments about whether that response is "correct"? Philologists and etymologists have ways of determining the sources of expressions, and corpus linguists can demonstrate their spread. Sociolinguists have methods for studying perceptual dialectology; they have theorized how discourse about language enregisters certain expressions as part of a dialect, register, or language — and how using expressions in turn evokes the language users or situations of use which that dialect or register indexes. A discussion along those lines, using the empirical and interpretive tools of disciplinary linguistics might be interesting. At the end of the day, Nunberg's interpretation is his interpretation, and it would be more useful to treat it as a data point rather than debate its correctness.

    I may be at a disadvantage here, since I'm not sure what "indexical valences" are (my mind is racing), and what "disciplinary linguistics" is doing — I mean, as opposed to what? But the facts are pretty clear with no need of subjective interpretation:

    Is there evidence from citations and speaker reports that some British speakers perceive "spot on" as posh? Yup, see above, and passim. Is there evidence that not all do? Yup, ditto. Is there evidence that many Americans perceive the expression as an anglicism? Yup. Is there evidence that some don't? Yup again. Is this the sort of evidence that "philologists and etymologists" rely on? Yup. Would an extensive quantitative investigation be able to fill in those existentials more precisely? Maybe. Would it add much to the point at issue? Hard to see how.

  51. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    I associate "naughty bits" with both Python and the Kenny Everett Show, which was an ITV not BBC production and quite vulgar (not in a bad way), but which I fortunately had access to in my teenage years as the 70's became the '80's because the pretentious Anglophiles who ran the local PBS station thought anything British must be posh.

  52. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    @Mr. Punch,

    "Right on", and "amen" right back at you, brother!

    I should have recalled the "naughty bits"/ 'Python connection.

    Over the years that wacky Monty Python ensemble had scores of bawdy, naughty 'bits', i.e., hundreds of consistently hilariously "funny bits", as in edgy comical skits, or routines; kind of another tack on "naughty bits", if you will.*

    The late great Brit comedy stalwart, Benny Hill, was also fond of alluding to "naughty bits", constantly pushing the envelop of titillating 'tele' humor w/ his often scantily clad Brit damsels either in distress, amorous embrace, or flights from the lecherous Hill. (Hard to get that infernal honky-tonky chase music out of ones head, even after all these many years.)

    On a parenthetical note, I always found it strange that Benny Hill declined numerous financially generous offers to come to the U.S. and perform for American audiences. I guess he knew his real comedic niche was in the U.K. and felt very loyal to his British roots and his adoring British fan-base.

    I also heard that he was very close to his mum, and this was another reason why he didn't chose to travel abroad.

    *I realize "funny bits" had been discussed in earlier posts.

  53. Victoria Simmons said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

    I tend to associate Mr. Romney's use of what might be perceived as Briticisms not with his background of wide travel, but with his having been a prep-school boy. He does this quite a bit, using words or phrases that Americans might perceive as British or as upper class, such as "sport" rather than "sports," "playing fields," and "motor car." It definitely contributes to the Thurston Howell III image, although I myself am usually more reminded of Dan Aykroyd at the beginning of "Trading Places."

  54. Victoria Simmons said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

    "Naughty bits" and "funny bits"– I think of both as British, and the former certainly seems to strike many Americans as British. For instance, in fan fiction set in the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" universe, American writers often go overboard trying to make the British characters sound British, using stereotypical items such as "Cor!" "Naughty bits" is often used by American-written British characters.

    There are many message boards and websites that give advice for Americans trying to write British characters. I tried to find something specifically on "naughty bits," but my search resulted in a lot of ghits about "Fifty Shades of Grey." (And, by the way, when I attempted to read that book, I could tell without being told that it had been written by a Brit. Although the characters are all American, they say things like "I've never been one to toss my toys out of the pram [if I don't get what I want].")

    Here's a page advising on how to write Britain, although it only has a little on language:
    http://www.reeslay.co.uk/cath/britain.htm
    And this, just for fun:
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/YeOldeButcheredeEnglishe

  55. BongoBob said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    My favorite British expression, which I first heard on “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”:

    “Doesn’t that just take the biscuit…”

  56. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    For evidence of contemporary British non-upper class use of 'spot on' try Google.co.uk search for "spot on mate". Hundreds of examples on football and other sports forums. No irony, no imitating the upper classes, just plain, everyday British English.

  57. Chandra said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

    Maybe it's because I'm Canadian and we have more British influence here, or maybe it's because my father (and thus half my extended family) is British, but I can't see how "funny bits" (or any other usage of "bits" for "parts") makes a person sound pretentious…

  58. M (was L) said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

    @Emerson: I don't know that all 48 are disputing the correctness of his statement, nor have any argued about his qualifications for making it.

    They are expressing other points of view, as native speakers. There can't be a single, one-size-fits-all-ideolects, answer in matters of taste.

    Geoff Nunberg can find something grating, and I can find it otherwise, without anybody being wrong. If he said "Every American finds it annoying" – well then he'd be wrong. But he only said that he finds it so.

    Now, do all "motorcar words" "add nothing but Britishness?"

    By definition, yes, but "funny bits" no longer strikes my ear as a motorcar word. Rather it strikes my ear as a naturalized American citizen of the dictionary.

    "Spot on" is, to my ear but not to all, a motorcar. But it is not, to my ear, Bertie Woosters' pre-war Aston Martin, it's just an ordinary right-hand-drive subcompact, among motorcars. I don't find it "awfully silly" but that's not a dispute. That's just me, just reporting my reaction.

  59. Emerson said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    Rigorous quantitative (or qualitative) investigation of language — here, variation in what a linguistic form indexes for different listeners — certainly does have something to add to what, up until this point, amounts to the airing of anecdotes among a tiny and unrepresentative sample. Returning to "the question at issue": If the question is whether Geoff Nunberg thinks that Mitt Romney's use of "spot on" indexed posh Britishness, then the answer, based on his public statements, seems to be "yes." If the question is whether Geoff Nunberg is correct in his claim that Mitt Romney's use of "spot on" indexed posh Britishness for some statistically meaningful set of listeners, then *only* rigorous investigation will yield a result that is valid by the standards of our discipline. The point here is not to refute Geoff Nunberg's interpretation but to emphasize out that there is a tradition in linguistics of systematic investigation of language ideologies, a tradition which would also point out that "second-order" indexical uses of language — uses through which, for example, a speaker demonstrates his/her mastery of a particular dialect or register — are not parasitical to language, but inherent to it.

  60. diogenes said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

    "damn stright"! A usage never to be heard in the British Isles except among americanophiles.
    Spot on can hold its head high…have i ever heard a Brit say "Damn straight".? apologies for incorrect placing of the question mark.

  61. M (was L) said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

    Rigorous investigation won't reveal anything about any single individual, and from what I can gather, he wasn't asked to provide rigor in that sense, in that article.

    Without us ignoramuses, you have no data on how ignoramuses experience language. Since 99% of everybody is in the bottom 99% of everybody, that makes us the infectious microbes who teach the biologists how to cure disease.

    And we're damn proud of it.

  62. Peter Taylor said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 2:15 am

    Geoff Nunberg wrote

    … There is one relevant eg in the British National Corpus, in a conversation between two characters identified as having gone to minor public schools. So there's some reason to believe that some upper-class tone still attaches to this use of the phrase, at least. …

    That rather depends on who wrote the characters. To someone who went to a minor public school, minor public schools are more suggestive of middle class with either money or the ability to win a scholarship.

  63. M (was L) said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    @Emerson

    > "second-order" indexical uses of language — uses through which,
    > for example, a speaker demonstrates his/her mastery of a
    > particular dialect or register — are not parasitical to language,
    > but inherent to it.

    I don't know that anybody missed this point either.

    If "spot on" etc strikes some listeners one way, and others another way, then yes – of course only a rigorous study would tell us how pervasive among Americans the perception is, and whether certain segments of the American population view it differently from others. (For that matter, if it struck all readers of this board the same way, then only a rigorous study would tell us anyhow.)

    I don't think that the sponsors of this board intend for it to be limited to scholarly results – first of all, there are many journals to serve that purpose, and second of all they would have blocked my id right away.

    I post unscholarly piffle, therefore I am permitted to post unscholarly piffle.

  64. ajay said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    "damn stright"! A usage never to be heard in the British Isles except among americanophiles.

    Who's the dark-skinned chap who cuts quite a dash among the fairer sex?
    (SHAFT!)
    Spot on.

  65. ajay said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    In the view of the director and writers of the show, then, the upper-middle-class Rhoda would have perceived "spot on" as a stereotypical anglicism while neither the working-class McNulty nor the self-made Daniels would have been familiar with it, nor would Rhoda have expected them to. That was pretty much my perception, too.

    Worth noting, though, that that particular episode was made almost a decade ago.

  66. Andy Averill said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

    A lot of Benny Hill's humor involved wordplay that only works in British English.

    Ex. MC at talent show: And now, Mrs Smythe will sing "What is This Thing Called, Love?".

    Ex. [A young woman in a short maid's uniform is bending over to dust]
    Old man: She's a lovely little lass.
    Benny: Yes, hasn't she?

  67. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 2:44 am

    What baffles me is that what is an unambiguously prescriptivist peeving argument that's based upon fallacious reasoning is being uniquely responded to here without the criticism, or even ridicule, that regularly greets similar fallaciously argued prescriptivist peeves elsewhere on Language Log.

    For example, with regard to the "is 'spot on' a snooty affectation" question, while Geoff is certainly as welcome to have his subjective impressions about the usage as anyone else is … he wasn't merely reporting this. Rather, he was asserting his subjective impression as an objective fact (dubious on its own) by which he, in turn, argued for a language proscription that he thinks should apply to all American anglophones (even more dubious).

    But that's small potatoes compared to his more sweeping argument: that almost all of these Britishisms are objectionable because they are redundant. This is a classic prescriptivist fallacy, that there can only be one way to do things. That if we already have a word meaning X, then we certainly don't need another and its addition is somehow bad.

    Let's put aside the fundamental claim about redundancy. Suffice it to say that it's questionable, as are all such similar claims. Instead, just consider that the elaborated argument, if taken seriously, would pretty much apply to almost all new usages. That is, when they are taken up by new speakers after they've heard them from others, these usages a) probably don't serve some need that can't be served with an existing usage, and b) that being the case, then all such usages are nothing more than affectations. This reduces all importation into a dialect to an affectation to be scorned. Which, you know, is stupid.

    Normally, such an argument would be mocked heartily here. Yes, we all have our own likes and dislikes and most of us peeve about something or other. And there's nothing wrong with disliking certain usages. But what is consistently and strongly countered here on LL is promoting these idiosyncratic preferences to some universal prescriptive rule about usage, usually based upon an ad hoc, poorly reasoned, and often entirely fallacious argument. When Geoff says that a) these usages aren't useful for Americans, b) are necessarily affectations, and c) should be avoided by Americans, he's making a prescriptivist argument that is squarely within the province of linguistic analysis. It's not merely a reporting of his personal taste.

    GN: You got it. I'm not just saying that it's my subective impression that the use of alien words that add nothing semantically other than the fact of their alterity can sometimes make speakers sound like an asino; I'm claiming that they really are asini for saying these things. Though I'd suggest a slight terminological adjustment. Before linguists made a déformation professionelle of the evacuation of discrimination and judgment that's implicit in the charge of "prescriptivism," this enterprise went by the name "criticism."

  68. Brian T said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 8:31 am

    If you want to sound 100% American, "spot on" is "right out."

  69. M (was L) said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 11:44 am

    @Emerson: I take it back. Somebody is disputing all that.

  70. BobW said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    @iching
    Bog standard: from http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bog-standard.html
    "First recorded in the early 1960s, although there are numerous hearsay reports of its colloquial use in the UK before then. Given that it is quite an colourful-sounding phrase and that it is quite recent, it is surprising that a definitive origin can't be found. Most of the early citations – and there aren't many of those – come from the technical world; either computing or engineering. The earliest so far found is from the October 1968 edition of Hot Car:
    'The brakes are bog-standard – anyway Barry says he only uses them in the paddock!'"

  71. Joe1959 said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    re: "revert" and "to broke"

    I have worked in Financial Services in Edinburgh for 20+ years and I've only ever heard "revert" (in the "get back to you" sense) used by a single IT colleague in India.

    I've occasionally heard "to broke" (in the "do what brokers do" sense), but more often I hear "to broker".

  72. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    Geoff, what I've noticed about the posts by your fellow linguist-bloggers complaining about prescriptivist peeving has always been that the criticism has been directed at the dubious linguistic arguments made to support the peeves, not that someone has likes and dislikes or that certain things seem objectionable somehow. (Whether because it's an affectation or because it's offensive.) You're not just being critical, you're making a linguistics argument involving asserted matters of fact. You're asserting linguistic claims about these usages (that they're redundant) and that because of those claims, a prescriptive argument about those usages is linguistically justified (foreign words which are redundant should be spurned because they don't bring anything to the table as language, but only as social posturing). And both the linguistic assertion of fact about the usages (that they're redundant) and the implicit argument that there's a meaningful line between semantic content and social communication in language usage are, well, shall we say, linguistically suspect. It is a linguistics argument, not an argument of taste, and it is being presented in a linguistics blog, by a linguist, authoritatively as a linguist.

    Geoff Nunberg: This deserves discussion in a separate post, but for the present, let me just appeal to the Miss Piggy argument: it is a linguistic fact that moi adds nothing denotationally that me doesn't, but merely contributes the fact of its Frenchness. It is a critical question whether the speaker's motivations for making that move are ethically or aesthetically justifiable. It's one thing to say that Miss Piggy's pretentiousness is not a matter of linguistically demonstrable fact; it's another to say that it can't be a matter of fact at all, or that we don't have the right—or indeed, the obligation—to render such judgments. That would leave us with our brains all over the floor.

  73. John Kingston said,

    October 6, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    It appears no one has picked up on Hebblethwaite's reference to a supposed British influence on American pronunciation, "Yagoda notices changes in pronunciation too – for example his students sometimes use "that sort of London glottal stop", dropping the T in words like "important" or "Manhattan"." But this attribution is nonsense: American dialects have glottal stop regularly in front of syllabic [n], as in the examples cited and "mountain, button, curtain", etc. and have had for some time. Indeed, we'd probably suspect someone of being a British spy if they pronounced the "t" in the spellings of these words as a [t].

    [(myl) Excellent point. I wonder whether Ben Yagoda is responsible for this flub, or whether Hebblethwaite made it up. As usual, my money is on the journalist.]

  74. Ed W said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 8:01 am

    All this palaver demonstrates is that everyone suffers from linguistic peeves, it's just that linguistics professors are usually better at hiding them. But sometimes the mask slips!

    I'm British and would not consider "spot on" to have any upper class overtones. In fact as some of the posters above pointed out, I most often hear it in sporting discussions on the radio and TV, which are anything but upper class. Perhaps in the past it was a more class-bound expression, but certainly not today.

    What I would like to know is why some people love to use phrases from other cultures and others find them barbaric. Is it a conservative vs. progressive mindset or something to do with opinions of other countries or something else? The only formation where I know for sure is when British people use the American plural "sports" instead of the standard British English "sport", which I CANNOT STAND!!!!!!!! But I'm sure that's simply because I find American sport tedious.

  75. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 7, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

    What I would like to know is why some people love to use phrases from other cultures and others find them barbaric. Is it a conservative vs. progressive mindset or something to do with opinions of other countries or something else?

    Good questions. I do think there's some xenophobia involved. And not just ethnic xenophobia, which I think plays a prominent role in this particular variety, but xenophobia in a more general sense, too. That is, I think many people are temperamentally hostile to unfamiliar language, generally. It provokes a cluster of xenophobic psychological responses. That the speaker is likely out-group, say, or that if they're otherwise apparently in-group then the usage is intended to alienate listeners as out-group to the speaker. In short, it evokes suspicions, most of the dark. Suspicions about identity, about status, about motivations. All this is evident in Geoff Nunberg's response.

    This is why I think that this is of critical importance on the other side of the question, as well. That is, I argued earlier that this is of importance here because Geoff built his argument upon genuinely linguistic premises and, as such, he's making a linguistic argument — the sort that is usually eviscerated at LL. But the other side is important, and often plays a large role in why such arguments are often eviscerated with hostility on LL: the uses to which such arguments are put. Because they're very, very often used to legitimize social conventions and institutions which reinforce inequality and bigotry. Complaints about dialects of English which are not the prestige dialects are built around prescriptivist arguments concerning how English is presumed to "properly" work (such as remaining pure of unneeded imported synonyms) and stigmatize non-prestige usage.

    Geoff is making a normalization argument, he's not merely describing some usages as annoying, he's telling us that some are objectively "bad" and, crucially, using this as a mean to make judgments of character about the targeted speakers. Exactly as a Daily Mail writer does about the lower-classes appropriating Americanisms, or criticisms of southern US dialect, or black American dialect. Or, more similarly to Geoff, criticisms from the middle-class about usages common in the academic class. All are arguments which are not merely a testimony about what annoys, but, most crucially, are negative, judgmental arguments about the personality and motivations of the speakers.

    Prescriptivist peeving matters generally because it's often a mechanism for bigotry and it matters to linguists most especially because it's often a mechanism for bigotry that is built upon phony linguistics.

    All that said, I do think that, indeed, there is some political temperament involved in this, as you suppose. Research indicates a pretty reliable correlation between openness to new experience, a tendency toward inclusivity, and a less rigid relationship with rules and norms with political liberalism, and their opposites with conservatism.

    True, a lot of prescriptivist peeving from the educated classes originates from what I believe to be the impulse to the protection of one's accumulated cultural capital (though that impulse is itself, in the true Bourdieuan sense, arguably essentially politically conservative) — specifically, one's investment in the accumulation of expertise in prestige English usage. But a lot of it originates first and foremost as a means of criticizing an especially disliked out-group. It has a relationship in this with urban folklore. (Well, that and the other essential aspect of urban folklore, which is how it propagates and persists. This would be a fertile line of research, this similarity.) In this regard, I do think it has a strong conservative character; but perhaps arguably especially so mostly to specifically targeted groups. Liberals are not uninclined to mock the usage of y'all, after all … and that's because of which group is targeted by the criticism.

  76. Eric Vinyl said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 2:41 am

    The glove compartment isn't accurately named, and everybody knows it. So I'm proposing a swift, orderly change.

  77. Ali Stanton said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 9:58 am

    I have to say I agree with Keith Ellis above. What's interesting to me is not that this linguistic prejudice happens (along with other in-group mentalities) but how it happened in this specific case. The professor seems to have an impression of the usage and connotations of a word in Briteng that the vast majority of Brits on this forum (myself included) disagree with. In particular, this word has upper class connotations for him. I would say never underestimate WHO the professor has come in contact with, or WHAT sources he has come in contact with to form this opinion. As an American living in America, he of course could not be expected to come in contact with as many different Brits as those living this side of he pond. He has therefore an impression based (I guess) largely on what has travelled to America. The upper classes are over represented in print, in other media, and in person abroad due to a whole host of socio-economic factors. As an example of this phenomenon, here in china the majority of English learners think of the uk as an island solely inhabited by the upper classes, with top hats and coat-tails!
    Although less obvious, many Americans hold he same incorrect biases, based on the material they have access to that tells them about Britain. An American friend of mine finds it hard to distinguish between the lexicon of the upper classes and those of the cockney stereotype that also occasionally reaches to the states.

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