fun with phrases

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Tue Oct 25 17:04:49 UTC 2011

JL writes:
until American families became more mobile than ever, in the 20th C., any
"new kid on the block" would usually be an unthreatening new-born
Except when a new family with children moves onto the block.  Then there is
"a new kid on the block" (and a new kid in class) to be examined, quizzed
and tested to see whether he is acceptable. But this would be the new kid
who is the focus of suspicion, not a new kid who is going to upset the
established order.  But I do think you would find statements like "I was 8
when my parents moved there, and of course, as the new kid on the block, I
had to prove myself. . . ." from the first half of the 20th C and before.

When did "the block" come to mean "the neighborhood"?  The OED's entry on
"block", noun, was drafted in the 1890s, of course, but it has been tinkered
with recently, since it includes a sense from computing.  It traces "block"
(= "city block") to the 1790s, but the earliest items are sort of techincal
jargon of city planning.  Seems to me that the earliest appearance of a
casual sense is from Dickens:
*14.* *a.* A compact or connected mass of houses or buildings, with no
intervening spaces; (esp. in U.S. and Canada) the quadrangular mass of
buildings included between four streets, or two ‘avenues’ and two streets at
right angles to them.
*b.* A portion of a town or space of ground so bounded, whether occupied by
buildings or not. orig. *U.S.*
1796    *Aurora (Philadelphia)
*13 Dec.,   The whole block of buildings included between that slip, Front
Street, and the Fly Market.
1817    S. R. Brown *Western
* 101   Each block of lots has the advantage of two 16 feet alleys.
1837    *Knickerbocker<>
* *9* 72   Paved thoroughfares and manufacturing or commercial blocks.
1843    Dickens *Martin
* (1844) xvi. 203   A neighbouring bar-room, which‥was ‘only in the next
1851    *Househ.
* Mar. 69   The blocks‥are rapidly filling up by the erection upon them of
large houses.
1855    *Act 18 & 19
* cxx. §74   A group or block of contiguous houses‥may be drained more
economically‥in combination.
1882    E. A. Freeman in *Longman's
* *1* 89   American towns are built in blocks.

& several other citations.

In olden days, when I looked up a word in the online OED, I got an outline
of the entry, showing major divisions I, II, III. . , lesser divisions A,
B.., and so forth.  If division I seemed remote from the sense I had in
mind, I could skip immediately to II; if III A was close, but no cigar, I
could jump to III B.  I miss that feature and can't guess why it was taken


On Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 6:36 PM, Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at>wrote:

> Great find.
> What's interesting is that until American families became more mobile
> than ever, in the 20th C., any "new kid on the block" would usually be
> an unthreatening new-born - hardly cause for a kid-wide (or cop-wide)
> alert. Assuming you even where there were "blocks."
> The "new kid on the block" in the proverb is clearly an outsider
> trying to muscle in - successfully, it would appear, so far.
> The earliest I find in NewspArch (though w/o "Look/watch out!":
> 1957  INS in _Lebanon [Pa.] Daily News_ (Dec. 14) 8: Bradley and St.
> Louis may be the powers of the Missouri Valley again this year, but
> they'll have to contend with a tough new kid on the block, Cincinnati.
> Most fig. refs.  to a "new kid on the block" in NewspArch, however,
> suggest instead - through the 1960s - that the new kid is unsure of
> himself, eager to be liked, and is generally picked on by bullies and
> (what were then considered to be) "gangs."
> Expectations (or urban experiences) seem to have changed considerably
> after the '60s.
> JL
> On Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 6:09 PM, Garson O'Toole
> <adsgarsonotoole at> wrote:
> > ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> > Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> > Poster:       Garson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
> > Subject:      Re: fun with phrases
> >
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> > Jonathan Lighter wrote:
> >>
> >> "Look out X! There's a new Y on the block!"
> >>
> >> 2,000,000 raw Google hits.  I just heard a Discovery Channel  show
> >> from 2005 with  lines something like, "Look out Roswell [?]! There's a
> >> new alien on the block!"
> >>
> >> 1978 _Flying_ (June) 28:  Look out, Goodyear, there's a new blimp on
> >> the block. A West German company, Westdeutsch Luftwerbung, has moved
> >> its 180-foot-long flying machine to the United States.
> >>
> >> My own recollection of the phrase doesn't go nearly that far back, but
> >> I have encountered it a number of times in advertising contexts.  The
> >> 1978 ex. sounds as though it may be playing off an already familiar
> >> construction.
> >
> > Here is a close variant with "watch out" instead of "look out". The
> > words appear in a multi-part headline.
> >
> > Cite: 1973 August 5, Springfield Union, Section Leisure Time, Page
> > LT-1, [GNB Page 77], Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
> >
> > Watch Out Barbara Walters!
> > Smith Graduate Sally Quinn On the Way to Challenge You
> > by John Carmody
> > Special to The Republican
> >
> > Garson
> >
> > ------------------------------------------------------------
> > The American Dialect Society -
> >
> --
> "If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ.
Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.

The American Dialect Society -

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