Tuesday 19 December 2017

Losing your Rag in Rag Week in America

Image result for postman patI've been going through A Short History of Drunkenness for the American edition, changing those words and phrases that would be incomprehensible on the farther shores of the Atlantic. It's a process that I find utterly fascinating.

Some of the phrases are expected: "Does exactly what it says on the tin" comes from a British advertising campaign of the 1990s. I was surprised that rumpy-pumpy doesn't exist in America, but it was easily replaced with hanky-panky. But I became particularly curious about "lost his rag". This phrase not only doesn't exist in America, but I didn't really know why it existed in Britain.

The phrase is first recorded in 1928:

Finally, losing his rag completely, he extended his fingers to his nose and challenged any three men in the audience to come up on the platform and fight him.

This goes back to an old Yorkshire term "to get somebody's rag out", and that in turn appears to go back to the use of rag to mean tease, torment, scold etc. That's the same rag that you have in Rag-Week at University: the first week when everybody chases each other around rather boisterously. And it's also the origin of the American phrase to rag on sombody as in this line from 1979:

Critics all over the country..for years and years have been ragging on Joyce Carol Oates.

So Americans, it turns out, can be ragged on, but their rag cannot be gotten out, and nor can it ever be lost; they're just too good tempered.

The other problematic differences were the absence of Postman Pat on those distant shores (the British version points out that a Sumerian drinking song can be sung to the theme music), and finding a precise American equivalent of Maidstone.

Anyhow, A Short History of Drunkenness is already available in Britain, indeed the Spectator says that:

My favourite book of this and possibly any other Christmas is Mark Forsyth's A Short History of Drunkenness

And as it would make the perfect present for just about anybody, it should immediately be bought from a bookshop or one of these people:

Book Depository

And for all who don't know or remember here is the original Ronseal advertisement that changed our language, followed by the original Postman Pat theme.

(American readers should note that the majority of British English is now based on this one advertisement)


  1. Hmmm. I think you will want to investigate the American side of "to rag on" -- perhaps many Yankees are wrong, but they associate the phrase "to rag on" with women's "hormonal rages." Because hygiene products.

    While it is entirely possible that both Rag Weeks influence the phrase here in the States, it doesn't seem complete to ignore the non-University one.

    1. That would be "on the rag." To "rag on" someone is definitely to give them a hard time / to tease them. I've never heard "rag week" but without any context would probably have assumed it meant a visit from Aunt Flo / Shark Week / that time of the month.

  2. - I literally stumbled across your amazing writing, Mr. Forsyth, in a local brick-and-mortar bookstore recently—and no, I'm not talking about graffiti strewn in the bookstore or anything of that sort, LOL; your amazing writing which I came across was tidily enshrined in the pages of a paperback :-)

    - Wow! Love the liveliness you bring to the fine craft of writing; keep up the amazing work of educating and entertaining your readers. You now have a new fan!

    - I look forward to writing about (i.e.  giving coverage to) your fine work in the essays that I write and post to my own blog: Programming Digressions (which I have self-styled as having the charter of sharing "Essays at the intersection of culture, software, technology, and science")…

    - Happy holidays to you and fellow readers!

  3. Thank you for your work! Etymology is one of the funnest things in the word!! I am a native Russian speaker living in English-speaking environment with a passion for French and an affinity to Latin. You are just my man!

  4. I, an American, am currently reading an ARC of the American edition via NetGalley. Because it is an ARC, I guess, it still has the phrases "rumpy-pumpy" and "lost his rag" and so on. I didn't have any problem understanding, but it may be because I've already been exposed to a lot of British books and television.

    I only just recently acquired this ARC; perhaps the publishers decided not to replace all of these expressions? There is something wonderfully English about the whole book, so someone may have decided at the last moment not too "Brit-pick" it too much.

  5. I’m not sure about this rag = tease thing. I mean, if it was rag = temper, then perhaps I’d buy it. I have a vision of a grumpy chief engineer on a steam train or boat (on which there are many hot levers) furiously searching around for the thing he usually grips these hot levers with and, being unable to find it, goes into one / has a paddy or, in the modern vernacular, loses his shit. Hth. Smiley face emoji.