A shibboleth in time

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James McElvenney comes to the defense of Andrew Herrick ("Linguistic border security", Fully (sic) 8/16/2010).

Shorter version: Herrick argued that Americanisms are polluting the clear pool of Australian English, and bringing social ills like mugging in their wake ("With American lingo, we've imported toxic US culture", The Age, 8/6/2010); I suggested that Herrick was prejudiced, illogical, and deluded ("'America's toxic culture' invaded Oz — in words?", 8/6/2010); McElvenney presents evidence that Herrick was not entirely deluded.

Specifically, he uses some additional historical research to cast doubt on the relevance of my evidence that several of Herrick's pet peeves have actually been used in Australian newspapers for fifty to a hundred years:

… if we repeat what was presumably Liberman's search for "rush hour" in the Australian Newspapers archive, we find that the use of the term reached a peak in the period 1920-29 and then began to taper away. "Peak hour", on the other hand, becomes more popular from the period 1920-29 onwards. Perhaps we're seeing "peak hour" becoming established as the more markedly Australian term in this period and "rush hour" as non-Australian in the minds of speakers of Australian English. […]

Of course, none of this means that these words are necessarily American, as Liberman points out. Australian English speakers like Herrick may simply say these words sound foreign and so they must come from the Great Satan.

But you should read the whole thing.

[Update — There's been some discussion in the comments of one of Herrick's key examples, try-hard.  So I've promoted the following to the main part of this post.

Herrick wrote:

We've imported America's toxic culture with its language, and react by resorting to a questionable American "solution".

Australian culture was once marked by our admiration for a good loser and for deploring a poor winner. Our tennis champions didn't pump their fists in the air and throw tantrums or their racquets. Our sports heroes weren't hounded and derided when they didn't win, because Australians believed that winning wasn't everything.

The American term "loser" means something quite different, in a culture where only winners are valued. Even trying is demeaned in America, where the sneering term "try-hard" is applied to people who have little chance of winning.

Australians view the experience at Gallipoli in a way that puzzles people from other cultures. Americans historically play down their defeats because their culture eschews loss. Australian culture venerates its episodic defeats because they show us to be persistent triers despite terrible odds. [emphasis added]

The relevant question here is whether the term ("try-hard" as a noun, used to sneer at those who try hard) and the associated concept, are salient features of American varieties of English and of American ("toxic") culture, which have recently been imported into Australia from the U.S.

The OED has an entry for try-hard, glossed as "A person who tries very hard; (in later use usually) a person regarded as trying too hard to achieve something, esp. popularity or acceptance" — with a usage note that says "colloq. (chiefly Brit. and Austral.)"!

With the exception of an isolated 1922 example that the OED regards as "prob. a nonce-formation unconnected to the later evidence", the earliest uses are

1982 Times 16 June 10/2 The try hards make their way into the one year sixth form.
1987
Herald (Melbourne) (Nexis) 19 Oct., My brother's friends are real try-hards. They think it's [sc. smoking] really tough and it's something against their parents.

None of the OED's citations are from American sources. And other evidence suggests that in the U.S., the term is at best a marginal one. A search of the NYT's archive turns up no examples of "try hards", nor are there any in COCA. A search of Google News turns up six examples, one from Edmonton in Canada, one from the Irish Independent, and four from various Australian publications.

As I wrote earlier, I've never heard it or read it, as far as I can remember. Over the past few days, I've checked with a 14-year-old, a 20-year-old, and a 25-year-old American, all people who consider themselves members in good standing of their generation's culture, and none of them recognized the term either. This is not exactly a scientific survey, but I think it establishes the plausibility of the view that this term has at best limited distribution in the U.S., presumably having leaked in from the British and Australian sources cited by the OED.

As for the associated concepts, they're implicit in Horace's simplex munditiis, and explicit in Castiglione's advice to would-be courtiers "to practise in all things a certain nonchalance (sprezzatura) which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless". If anything, the American cultural stereotype is of earnest colonials whose sprezzatura is entirely inadequate by European standards — something that we presumably have in common with the Australians.

So, in sum, the facts with respect to this example perfectly confirm my diagnosis that Herrick is prejudiced (against American language and culture), illogical (because he thinks that borrowing a word causes a change in culture), and deluded (because he thinks that a term of British and Australian origin has been imported from the U.S.).

Oh, and the Battle of the Alamo predates Gallipoli by almost 80 years, if we're going to talk about celebrating losers who try hard.]



31 Comments

  1. Jonathan said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    "Even trying is demeaned in America, where the sneering term "try-hard" is applied to people who have little chance of winning."

    I'm Australian, not American, but in Australia at least, a try-hard is pretty much equivalent to a suck-up or a goody-goody. At least in my late Gen Y demographic.

    [(myl) Curiously, in a fairly long life in the U.S., I can't recall ever having heard anyone called a "try-hard". As far as I know, the phrase just isn't in general use here. Nor for that matter can I remember any real-life instances (as opposed to stories about over-driven football coaches or David Mamet plays about excessive sales competition) where the concept of trying hard and failing was treated in a "sneering" or even generally negative way.]

    ""Buddy" doesn't mean the same thing as "mate", mate."

    Herrick does make an interesting point here. I remember a few years ago in High School, someone called me "buddy" and the teacher told him off, saying: "Buddy is not a nice word. Trust me, if someone on the street calls you buddy, you run."

    [(myl) "Buddy" as a vocative is definitely a hostile way to address someone in the U.S., in most circumstances.]

  2. Rodger C said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    I concur with Mark Liberman. I'm 62 and have lived in several parts of the US, and as far as I can say, "try-hard" simply isn't an American expression at all.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    Re try-hard: this is definitely a generational thing in the US. You'll find numerous definitions on Urban Dictionary, and I've even heard it used as a verb among young gamers (for whom "tryharding" during gameplay is unseemly).

  4. Andrew said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    Jonathan's observation on "buddy" puts me in mind of a similar idea expressed by Terry Pratchett – I can't remembre the exact quote, but it's something like "Someone who addresses you as 'friend' is rarely friendly"

  5. Linda said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    Is that why the song I knew in my youth as "Buddy, can you spare a dime." has become in recent recordings "Brother,…."

  6. bulbul said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    "Buddy" as a vocative is definitely a hostile way to address someone in the U.S., in most circumstances.
    One of Dane Cook's few funny skits contains the description of an exchange between the comedian himself and a KFC 'counter help' (his words) illustrating this point (the relevant portion of the exchange starts at roughly 3:38).

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    Linda: The actual song includes both 'Brother' and 'Buddy' ('brother', I think, in the first two iterations, and 'buddy' in the last). I suspect that which people give as the title is random.

  8. Debbie said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    Try living next door to the US…real instead of really, 'zee' instead of 'zed', dropping u from words (flavour, savour and I'm no longer even sure of odour!(. It's been real nice posting a comment, yaw'll come back now ya hear?

  9. Anna Phor said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    I'm familiar with hostile uses of buddy in the U.S., usually in interactions between strangers. But I've observed lately that it is also used in the U.S. toward very young boys. Is the hostile use a semantic extension of its use toward children? i.e. is it patronizing way to address a strange man?

    To my mind, a closer U.S. English analogue to Australian mate is man.But it's not an exact match (for starters, you can't use it to address a woman).

  10. Debbie said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    I just wanted to add that I affectionately call my young son 'buddy' and hear many parents doing so but can't imagine it being used between friends. Does anybody remember the doll marketed to boys called 'My Little Buddy'? As for 'try hard', I've never heard of it before reading this post.

  11. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    Try-hard is very common in the UK, at least among people of my generation (30) and below.

  12. Edith Maxwell said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    In my experience, all adults in Massachsuetts (ok, that's an exaggeration) call little boys "buddy" or "bud." Parents almost never address their young sons by their names.

    My father (born in 1923), who was a Junior, was called Bud by his entire family, and I remember the Buddy doll he still had around from his childhood. I think it was the only male doll I saw until Ken came out. Looking up My Little Buddy just now, I see that it came out in 1985, so that's a new version.

  13. Edith Maxwell said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    Oops, misspelled my state of residence! Massachusetts…

  14. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    "My buddy" may be closer to "my mate" than "buddy" is to "mate". And "buds" is common to refer to people who are "mates" here in the US.

  15. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Ginger Yellow. I can't remember hearing "try-hard" in the UK (or anywhere). But then I'm 43…

  16. Emily said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    @Ginger Yellow:

    This must depend on more factors than just age; I'm 20, lived in the UK all my life, and don't recall ever hearing the expression.

  17. Rodger C said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    I'm glad to know that "try-hard" is a young people's expression, a possibility that occurred to me after I posted the comment. But maugre (a word that should be revived) Anna Phor, my generation addressed females as "man" all the time.

  18. Anna Phor said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    Rodger C, really!?! I did not know that. Can it only be used for a woman that you know, or could you use it (in the right social context) for strangers? Can you say "Hey man, got the time?" to an unknown woman, say, standing in line at the bus stop?

  19. Rodger C said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

    Well, you could in, say, 1972, if the woman was also about 24.

  20. Julie said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    I can't say I've ever heard or seen "try-hard" outside this column…and I don't trust the Urban Dictionary, either, considering how falsely it portrays the neighborhood I live in. (See Oak Park, defs 2, 6, 10, and 12) The system may be inherently biased toward "I heard this cool new thing today" than accurately picking up current usage.

    "Buddy" and "Bud" are common nicknames, especially for men over 60, and some of them use no other name. Others are "Buddy" only among their intimates. In California, I don't see it with younger men, but that doesn't mean it's not still current elsewhere.

  21. Dean said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

    I would guess that the fact that "buddy" is common in addressing children and dogs contributes to its perception as hostile when used to address strangers.

    And I've also never, ever heard the term 'try-hard' (24, life-long resident of New England, and occasional 'gamer').

  22. Mark HJ said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

    "Peak hour" may be characteristically Australian, but I don't think "rush hour" was necessarily imported from the US, since it's standard to use the latter in the UK too (as you mentioned in your original article)..

    It seems much more likely that British immigrants to Australia (like myself), or perhaps Australians who have spent time in the UK, brought "rush hour" over with them.

  23. Alan Walker said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

    'Mate' can be used in an ominous way by Australians.

    'When they call you "mate" in the NSW Labor Party it is like getting a kiss from the Mafia.' This was a quote from politician Bill Hayden in 1983, shortly after he was deposed as national leader of the Labor Party.

    The quote comes from the transcript of a discussion with Bruce Moore, editor of the Australian Oxford Dictionary, about the evolving Australian usage of 'mate': http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/ling/stories/s1465304.htm.

  24. Eloise said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

    @Jonathan: I'm Australian, not American, but in Australia at least, a try-hard is pretty much equivalent to a suck-up or a goody-goody. At least in my late Gen Y demographic.

    Really? I'm Australian Gen Y too (western Sydney, if it matters), and I would tend to use it more for someone trying to be cool – accepted by a peer group – than for someone trying to get approval from an authority figure. As you note, we have other words for that.

  25. Stewart said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 6:34 am

    @Eloise,

    As a slightly older Australian (almost 40) I also share your understanding of 'try-hard' – certainly that is how it was used amongst my peers in the late 80s and early 90s. I've occasionally heard it used in the same way in England and in the US, for what it is worth.

    This perhaps illustrates the point – emphasised in some of the posts above – that just because one has not previously heard a term does not mean it is not in regular use (somewhere) or that it is an exotic import.

    [(myl) The relevant question here is whether the term ("try-hard" as a noun, used to sneer at those who try hard) and the associated concept, are salient features of American varieties of English and of American ("toxic") culture, which have recently been imported into Australia from the U.S.

    The OED has an entry for try-hard, glossed as "A person who tries very hard; (in later use usually) a person regarded as trying too hard to achieve something, esp. popularity or acceptance" — with a usage note that says "colloq. (chiefly Brit. and Austral.)"!

    With the exception of an isolated 1922 example that the OED regards as "prob. a nonce-formation unconnected to the later evidence", the earliest uses are

    1982 Times 16 June 10/2 The try hards make their way into the one year sixth form.
    1987 Herald (Melbourne) (Nexis) 19 Oct., My brother's friends are real try-hards. They think it's [sc. smoking] really tough and it's something against their parents.

    None of the OED's citations are from American sources.

    In the U.S., the term is at best a marginal one. As I wrote earlier, I've never heard it or read it, as far as I can remember. Over the past few days, I've checked with a 14-year-old, a 20-year-old, and a 25-year-old American, all people who consider themselves members in good standing of their generation's culture, and none of them recognized the term either. This is not exactly a scientific survey, but I think it establishes the plausibility of the view that this term has at best limited distribution in the U.S., presumably having leaked in from the British and Australian sources cited by the OED.

    As for the associated concepts, they're implicit in Horace's simplex munditiis, and explicit in Castiglione's advice to would-be courtiers "to practise in all things a certain nonchalance (sprezzatura) which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless". If anything, the American cultural stereotype is of earnest colonials whose sprezzatura is entirely inadequate by European standards — something that we presumably have in common with the Australians.

    So, in sum, the facts with respect to this example perfectly confirm my diagnosis that Herrick is prejudiced (against American language and culture), illogical (because he thinks that borrowing a word causes a change in culture), and deluded (because he thinks that a term of British and Australian origin has been imported from the U.S.)]

  26. Linguistic border security – Fully (sic) said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    […] Mark Liberman responds here] Comments (0) | […]

  27. James McElvenny said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    Try-hard sounds like pretty good Australian dialect to me too, actually, and I think I'd agree that Herrick is at least partly deluded. In my blog post I only wanted to make the point that just because a word may have been found earlier on in a particular place, it doesn't mean that it still counts as local dialect at a later time (as in the case of rush hour vs peak hour, perhaps).

    The example of this argument I've heard most often is in the case of gotten as the past participle of get. The discussion starts when someone says gotten is American and not Australian or British. The reply comes that actually it's in Shakespeare so it's not really American. But didn't the form gotten die out in the meantime in (at least standard) British English and not get carried to Australia and the other later colonies? The etymology section of the OED entry for get seems to support the story of the dying out of gotten in standard British English and its survival in American English (although it also says that Webster 1864 lists the form as 'obsolescent').

    I suppose it's possible that the form made its way to Australia through some non-standard British dialects and that it underwent a resurgence in Britain and Australia independent of any American influence. I think a more likely scenario is that the form has been reintroduced through the American media that is available in Britain and Australia, or at the very least that the surviving remnants of the form have been reinforced by the American media. I suspect that something similar might have occurred with rush hour and peak hour. This is something that could be tested empirically with the right corpus data.

    And let me make it clear that even if it can be established that some words are cross-dialectal borrowings and that the direction of borrowing is predominantly one way (because the exchange of media products is asymmetrical), it doesn't imply any value judgement on the exchange – that is something that is layered on top.

  28. Ben said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    Wanted to second try-hard being a generational thing. It is commonly used by my American and Canadian friends (20-something in Vancouver BC).

  29. Paul Chernick said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    You can look back far past the Alamo for Americans celebrating the efforts of gallant losers. The first battles of the Revolution, at Lexington and Concord, took place on the same day. The locals lost Lexington (with several casualties, and without even nicking any redcoats), but won in Concord. A whole series of naval ships have been named for Lexington, none for Concord.

  30. Ken Brown said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 6:31 am

    "Gotten" never completely died out in British English. It might have stopped being productive (except as humour or deliberate archaism) but never became incomprehensible. Its in some fossilised phrases ("ill-gotten gains") Its in Shakespeare. Most importantly its in the AV Bible, and in the Book of Common Prayer. Even if the English never uttered the word for six days of the week they did on Sunday.

    I have this off by heart and I suspect a large minority of all English speakers from the 17th to the mid-20th century did as well:

    "O sing unto the LORD a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory."

    OK, BCP Evening Prayer didn't save "holpen". But "gotten" is pretty regular. I doubt if any competent English speaker ever had to ask what it meant.

  31. Stewart said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 8:50 am

    Mark, I wholeheartedly agree that Herrick is deluded. Putting aside his odd notions of 'toxic' American culture and the pernicious effects of 'foreign' words and concepts, it seemed very strange to me that he should describe the phrase 'try-hard' as a recent American import (with all the negative connotations that seemingly has) when it was a term I used as a Australian teen more than twenty years ago. This is perhaps not equal to the sixty or more years of evidence of Australians using the term 'rush hour' (at least some of the time), but still makes it seem pretty Aussie usage to me (regardless of origins). Looking back at my earlier post I can see I wasn't very clear about this.
    However, although I've always thought of 'try-hard' it as an 'Australian' phrase and concept (simply because it was one used by most of my teenage peers), I was also amused by those who seemed to basing their claim that it was not used in the US because they, or one or two young people of their acquaintance, do not use the term.

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