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Mind your language

When did we stop ‘tossing’ coins?

The progress of another flipping Americanism

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

What kind of scientists do school inspectors not need to be? ‘Inspectors don’t need to be rocket scientists.’ For what must we make sure that the school inspection regime is fit? ‘We make sure that the school inspection regime is fit for purpose.’ In what manner do we need an independent schools regulator to inspect all schools? ‘We need an independent schools regulator that inspects all schools freely.’ Apart from freely, is there another manner in which we need an independent schools regulator to inspect all schools? ‘We need an independent schools regulator that inspects all schools freely and fairly.’ I don’t really mean to make fun of Jonathan Simons’s remarks on his excellent report (with Harriet Waldegrave) about Ofsted, for Policy Exchange. If rocket science, fit for purpose and free and fair are clichés, are not clichés the poetry of the people? I was surprised, though, by the wording in Mr Simons’s press release of its most memorable judgment: that ‘you would be better off flipping a coin’ than relying on an Ofsted inspection.Why flipping?

To flip was originally the same as to fillip, to flick with the last joint of the finger against the thumb. Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) describes a trick about calling heads or tails (cross or pile) after a coin has been fillipped. Today I think the English usually toss a coin. Piemen, before they became extinct, might be tossed (with a coin) for pies. People were once tossed in blankets, and salads still are tossed. Drinks are tossed back and careless verses tossed off. These are British English.


Most recent developments of flip have happened in America. Flipping burgers has, since the 1970s, been a synonym of lowly employment. A flip-chart is turned over to show a new sheet. A flip-phone opens at a hinge. To flip your lid is ‘to become over-excited’, and to flip out is simply ‘to lose it’. Flipping [someone] the bird is ‘to make an obscene gesture with the middle finger’. These are American.

I don’t mind American English, but it doesn’t greatly tempt me. The BBC talking of running for Parliament, instead of standing sounds odd. Some people, though, will stand for anything.


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