Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language
In an earlier column, I discussed the differences between American and British English. While the latter was decidedly the version of the language that initially prevailed in the Gulf and South Asia, thanks to the impact of British colonialism, the former has been gaining ground around the world, as the US’s dominance of world communications, social media networks, movies, and satellite and cable television, has meant that most English speakers hear a lot more “American” than “British” English spoken these days. This is all to the good, since it has enhanced global familiarity with a number of distinctively American expressions that have added colour to the English language, despite having originated well outside England.
Take, for instance, the expression ‘the whole nine yards’. “Do you want walnut toppings on your sundae, bananas, cherries, whipped cream?” asks the ice-cream saleswoman. “Yes, the whole nine yards,” you reply. Or, “Did you hear that Ahmed has sold his tea shop?” a friend asks, and another replies, “Yeah, the whole nine yards.” You might be puzzled since neither the sundae nor the tea-shop measures nine yards, but the meaning is clear — to have or do something to the fullest extent possible is to go the full nine yards. But why? American fighter planes in the Second World War used machine guns fed by a belt of cartridges. The average plane held cartridge belts that were 27 feet (9 yards) long. If the pilot used up all his ammunition, he was said to have given it the whole nine yards!
While we are on World Wars, have you come across the American expression ‘buying the farm’, which goes even farther back to World War One? “I have bad news — Joe, the boy next door who enlisted in the army, has bought the farm.” In other words, the poor chap has died or been killed. The reason for this turn of phrase is that during World War One, soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5,000, which was also the price of an average farm in America in those days. A solider who died “bought the farm” for his survivors, when they collected the insurance claim.
American soldiers are not the only ones of that nationality to ask for enjoy a ‘shot of whiskey’. What has alcohol got to do with shooting? Again, history and old prices come into the story. In the old Wild West, a .45 cartridge for a “six-gun” (revolver) cost 12 cents — so that was the price of a “shot”. But a glass of whiskey at a Wild West saloon also cost 12 cents — so it was easy to conflate the two. If a patron was low on cash, he would instead offer the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a “shot” of whiskey. The West is no longer quite so wild, but the expression endures!
Perhaps the most famous Americanism — and certainly the most widely used — is that of ‘passing the buck’, often modified colourfully into President Harry Truman’s famous desktop sign, ‘the buck stops here’. “Passing the buck” means giving a responsibility to someone else, usually hierarchically above you; the “buck” stopped with the President, since there was no one above him to pass it to. But what is the buck in the first place? Most men in the old American Frontier carried a jack-knife made by the Buck Knife company. When these rough and ready folks, many of them cowhands and gunslingers, played cards, usually poker, it was the practice to place a Buck knife in front of the dealer so that everyone knew who he was. When it was time for a new dealer to take on this responsibility, the deck of cards and the Buck knife were passed on to that player. If this player didn’t want to deal, he would “pass the buck” to the next person to deal instead of him. That was how the expression “passing the buck” came into the language. It has also acquired the connotation of shirking responsibility — one who does not want to take on a burden “passes the buck” to someone else so he would not be held responsible if anything goes wrong.
More Americanisms next week!