Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

WWII Words. A 'bit' of an Issue. Kleenex.

Episode Summary

901. WWII spawned a bunch of new words, including "boffin" and "bonkers." We'll look into the history of these fun words and more in honor of Veterans Day. Plus, we'll talk about why an Australian called her desk being on fire, "a bit of an issue."

Episode Notes

901. WWII spawned a bunch of new words, including "boffin" and "bonkers." We'll look into the history of these fun words and more in honor of Veterans Day. Plus, we'll talk about why an Australian called her desk being on fire, "a bit of an issue."

| Transcript:

| The segment on "a bit" is written by Isabelle Burke, Research Fellow in Linguistics, the Faculty of Arts, Monash University. It originally appeared on Monash Lens and appears here through a Creative Commons license.

| My first WWII word round-up.

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, since Veterans Day is Friday in the United States, we're going to go through some fun words we got from WWII. And then we'll also talk about how Australians use the phrase "a bit," well, a bit more than other people maybe.

WWII Words

By Mignon Fogarty

Last year, I did a round-up of words from WWII and it was so popular, I decided to do another one this year. That was episode 849 if you want to go back and listen.

First this week is "boffin."

Boffin. The first use shown in the Oxford English Dictionary was as a slang term in 1941 to refer to an elderly naval officer. "Elderly" meaning anyone 32 or older. But a few years later, in 1945, it was used to refer to civilian scientists who were working on radar with the British Royal Air Force, which is where it gets the meaning we think of today: someone who does innovative or "back-room scientific or technical research."

The Malvern Radar and Technology History Society has a webpage with a collection of newspaper articles released on VJ Day (Victory over Japan Day). Radar was a new development that likely made the difference in winning the war, and the men known as Boffins were celebrated and admired. For example, an article in the Daily Herald said it should actually be called "Boffins Day," and another article went into great depth on the development of radar and said, "To the R.A.F. the mysterious 'Boffins' (as the experimenters were called) who invented and supplied the new devices became almost legendary figures, for none were quicker to grasp the immense importance of radar than the men who were to use them."

Nobody knows for sure the origin of the name Boffin. There were multiple fictional characters named Boffin that predated the war. Charles Dickens, William Morris, and J.R.R. Tolkien all had characters named Boffin in their books. I've seen multiple sources speculate that the James Bond character Q, who invents all the wonderful gadgets, is modeled on the Boffins, and it seems that in recent years, the term has become a little less glamorous and can now also be used to be roughly equivalent to calling someone an egghead. For example, a search at the Corpus of Contemporary American English brings up this example from about the camera on a Nexus Phone: "It [has] two holes off to one side and reminds me of something a boffin would make from the parts he bought from RadioShack."

Bonkers. Another one that came out of the British military is "bonkers."

It was originally Navy slang that meant "light-headed or mildly drunk," and then eventually came to describe someone who was crazy, as in "He's gone bonkers," or "He's raving bonkers."

The reasoning is ultimately unknown, but Eric Partridge, a lexicographer of the time who wrote "A dictionary of forces' slang," speculated that it might have come from the idea of getting a "bonk" on the head.

Cannibalize. "Cannibalize" is a word that definitely existed before WWII — it goes all the way back to the mid-1600s — but it took on a new meaning during the war: to take parts from something, like a jeep or plane, and to use to them to fix something else. The first example in the OED is from 1942, and reads, "A wrecked French plane is ‘cannibalized’—that is, parts are stripped from it for use on damaged Allied ships."

Clobber. "Clobber" is another word that popped up in the 1940s. The origin is unknown, but Partridge included it in his "dictionary of forces' slang" in 1948 as an Air Force term to refer to heavy bombing. I feel like now, I mostly hear it in sports commentary, like saying a quarterback really got clobbered or a team took a clobbering.

Famous Last Words. Partridge's book also includes the phrase "famous last words" being applied to a statement that is likely to be proven wrong. It's the first reference in the OED for the phrase, and it is given as a reaction to the statement that anti-aircraft fire isn't really dangerous. "Famous last words!"

Boondocks. And we'll finish this segment with "boondocks," which may have been popularized during WWII, but actually came into English much earlier from U.S. soldiers fighting in the Philippine-American War around the turn of the previous century. The boondocks — and I've never heard it as anything but plural even though the OED has the headword "boondock" — the boondocks are a wild, remote, or hard-to-reach area, and the soldiers picked it up from the Tagalog word "bundok," (B-U-N-D-O-K) which means "mountain" and is also used colloquially to refer to areas that are considered rustic or uncivilized.

And then finally "boonies," which means the same thing — "We're out in the boonies" — is just a shortened form of "boondocks" that seems to have been first used again by U.S. soldiers, but this time during the Vietnam War.

And again, if you want to hear last year’s episode that had other words from WWII, it came out in early November and was episode number 849.


Discourse markers: When saying ‘a bit’ can mean a lot

This next segment is written by Isabelle Burke, Research Fellow in Linguistics, in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University. She writes…

Let me set the scene for you: It’s a winter afternoon during lockdown last year, and I’m about to co-present a paper online for the Forum of Englishes in Australia. There’s just one problem – I’ve noticed my desk is on fire.

The fireplace behind me has issued a few sparks onto some papers, and I’m frantically snuffing them out with a mousepad – and I find myself saying: “Hang on, just a bit of an issue.”

A fire during a Zoom presentation ranks somewhere between “not ideal” and “catastrophic,” so it’s not surprising that among the first words in my mouth are “a bit” – a phrase typically used for mitigation. And as Kate Burridge and I have recently discovered, one that’s used in characteristically Australian ways.

“A bit” is a discourse marker – one of those hard-working little linguistic scraps like “you know” or “I mean,” which help manage the flow of discourse, perhaps through interpersonal work, or signposting the structure of a conversation.

Linguists such as Anna Wierzbicka have observed that discourse markers – such as “a bit,” or its well-known cousin “yeah-no” – are a reflection of tightly-held cultural values.

And for Australians, one of those core cultural precepts is “do not whinge” (even about your recent draft being set on fire).

Our recent analysis of corpus data on “a bit” reveals a grim catalogue of woes that Australian English speakers have mitigated with “a bit.”

These range from “a little bit of a car accident,” “a bit of a headache,” “a bit of a blood clot,” and even a plane crash (which was described as “a bit of a frightening experience”). My desk inferno hardly seems to rate, which I reckon is a bit rough!

‘A bit of a babe’ – and a hell of an understatement

“A bit” is a classic hedge – reducing the force of statements that speakers and listeners may find undesirable or unpleasant.

Hedges such as “a bit” are an integral part of our everyday conversational routines surrounding ill health or misfortune. But funnily enough, Australian speakers do not only mitigate overtly negative statements, but even seemingly positive ones. For instance, our data reveals examples such as calling someone “a bit of a local hero,” and plenty of instances of “a bit of a legend.” Tall poppy syndrome means the issuing of compliments can be a fraught business – in fact, in need of mitigation!

[And this is an aside that isn't from Isabelle Burke's piece. I thought some of you might be wondering about tall poppy syndrome. Samantha Enslen wrote about it a few years ago for the podcast. At the time, the well-known Australian Rebel Wilson used it to describe people trying to tear her down. It is also primarily an Australian saying that alludes to the tendency of feeling it is risky to stand out positively, like you're the tallest, perhaps the most beautiful or successful poppy in a field of flowers, and by standing out, you're going to get your head lopped off. And now, back to Isabelle's piece: Tall poppy syndrome means the issuing of compliments can be a fraught business – in fact, in need of mitigation!]

But that’s not all that “a bit” does – there’s a rich vein of humour in this little discourse marker too.

A common use of “a bit” is an ironic understatement, which draws attention to something that is very obvious – this is then used for humorous effect.

One speaker in his early 20s described his university career as “half a decade, mate, yeah – it’s a bit long!”

Even more vividly, one example we found described Nigella Lawson as being “a bit of a babe” – and as the photographic evidence demonstrates, this is quite the understatement.

Have you ‘got a lot on’? Or just ‘a bit on’?

This ironic use even made an appearance in the media not too long ago. As multiple states and territories across Australia were simultaneously entering lockdown due to fresh COVID-19 outbreaks, Dean Bilton, who was running the ABC live blog during the afternoon of 30 June, 2021, received a comment about his apparent overuse of the phrase “there’s a bit on.”

“Q: How many times can we say there’s 'a bit on in the blog today? Is there a quota we need to reach? Happy to help. – A bit on”

He responded:

“A: You’re right, there have been a bit of ‘bit ons’ on today. I’ll look to dial it back, but are there any other phrases that sum up the mood of ‘Oh cool, everything is melting down all at once and we don’t even have time to address another one before another one comes and melts all over us’ so succinctly?”

As Dean playfully suggested here, this ironic use also shades into playing down one’s troubles.

Linguist Karin Aijmer has described discourse markers as being “slippery customers,” and “a bit” is certainly no exception – it evokes particular pragmatic effects in turn, and likes to defy categorisation.

If the ABC’s live blog is any indication, it seems speakers of Australian English are increasingly aware of this multifaceted potential of “a bit,” and its frequency in the community. In fact, we’re so aware of ‘a bit’ that speakers and writers can even be criticised for its overuse – [which is] definitely a benchmark for success in a discourse marker!

Oh, and the presentation went well, by the way – some might even say it was “lit.”

Again that segment was by Isabelle Burke and was first published on Monash Lens. It's included here through a Creative Commons license.


Finally, I have a familect story about a brand name.

"Hi. I'm calling about the familect. My family called the facial tissue 'sneeze things.' This is because my mom, one day when she was, when she was in need of one, could not come up with the right name for facial tissues. Then eventually she's but.. I need a sneeze thing, and unfortunately that immediately replaced the real word for them in my brain. So I am actually kind of hoping that it will genericize all over the world as 'sneeze things' so I don't have to keep explaining it to everybody because I can't remember the name of them now either. So that's my familect."

Thanks so much. I don't hold out much hope that "sneeze things" will replace "Kleenex" or even "facial tissues," but I guess stranger things have happened. I did find the history of Kleenex kind of fascinating though as I was looking things up trying to find out if it is called Kleenex in other English-speaking countries. (And yes, it seems like it is, at least sometimes.)

Kleenex in the western world was originally marketed and trademarked specifically as a product for removing cold cream in 1924. It sounds like its use as "a sneeze thing" was kind of an afterthought started by a researcher at the company with hay fever and started a few years later and was obviously much more successful than just marketing it as a cold cream remover.

And then, also, I used cold cream when I was growing up, but I realized that I don't know what’s in it, so I looked that up too, and it turns out, it's super old. According to Wikipedia, it's an emulsion of water with a larger amount of oil. The original recipe is supposedly from a physician in second century Greece, so it goes back almost 2,000 years, and that recipe included rose water, beeswax, and either olive oil or almond oil. 

And it's called cold cream because of the way it makes your skin feel cold when you put it on.

Thanks again for the call!

If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL, and I might play it on the show.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes and my editor Adam Cecil. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, our intern is Kamryn Lacy, and our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, who has been practicing the piano to get ready for Christmas carol season.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.