Tag Archive for: English dialects

stick figure with umbrella raining cats and dogs
stick figure with umbrella raining cats and dogs

I spent a couple of years living in Cambridge, England where I learned to speak British English and quickly came to realize Americans speak an entirely different dialect. I came to enjoy noting language differences and sharing my discoveries with my supervisor at work, Dr Andrew Lacey (the Brits don’t use periods or “full stops” after titles) who patiently listened to me and even smiled a few times.

Full disclosure: Andrew was completing a Ph.D. in history at the time. He wanted to dedicate his first book, about the religious cult that sprang up after Charles I was executed, to his wife. But she made it understood that she wasn’t interested in getting some bugger-all dedication “to my supportive loving wife” etc. However, she reportedly enjoyed the dedication I constructed for Andrew:

“To Vanessa who, unlike Charles, did not lose her head.”

I am extremely proud of that dedication and the idiom behind it.

Book: The Cult of King Charles the Martyr by Andrew Lacey

Charles I, who lost his head.

It’s not that Vanessa wasn’t supportive of the book, which came out of Andrew’s dissertation on poor King Chuck. It’s just that she didn’t have much to do with the research other than accompanying Andrew to many, many sites throughout England Charles had visited, and consumed a lot of tea and pudding along the way. (The things people do for love.) Also, she hated the little wifey image so many academicians’ spouses still had at the time. Fair enough, as Brits say.

Brit Speak is Fun!

At times, everything sounded like an idiom I didn’t understand. Very often I got a little hung up trying to comprehend what people were saying to me.

A good example is a waiter who asked if I would like spotted dick for dessert. I’m sure I gaped at him until it became clear that spotted dick is what Americans call cake (“pudding”), with raisins and served with cream. It’s actually quite delicious in spite of having a name that sounds like an STD.

There was also the time when a colleague asked me if I had a rubber. “What makes you think I have rubbers today?” I asked, thinking he wanted what, my galoshes? (I was pretty sure he wasn’t asking for a condom.) It was sunny that day. Turned out the guy needed an eraser. To, you know, rub out what he wrote.

Memorable words from the Brit dialect

There are many Brit-words I enjoyed, in no small part because they were so interesting to me. Here are a few:

  • Bolshie, meaning uncooperative like the Bolsheviks.
  • Bonnet, the hood of a car. My first trip to the auto repair shop was interesting, to say the least, when the mechanic asked me to open up my bonnet. I wondered if this was some kind of odd way to proposition a person.
  • Boot, the trunk of a car. Vanessa once invited me to a boot sale, where I thought I’d get some real Wellies but it ended up being a kind of swap meet.
  • Bugger, which can be used in any number of situations where cursing is needed.
    • Buggering” refers to anal sex. While I was in England, there was a huge debate about decriminalizing gay sex. I listened to a debate over this on the radio. One outraged MP (Member of Parliament) kept yelling at his opponent that “buggering is illegal!”
    • Bugger all” means nothing.
  • Duck, or dearie. Andrew sometimes came to work and called out, “Good morning, ducks!” (This was not a #MeToo moment.)
  • Infant school, or early elementary and preschool. Whenever I heard this, I pictured newborns sleeping in their car seats in nice, neat rows. Actually, “infant school” would make an excellent idiom for people training to work for the Trump White House.
  • Pissed, meaning drunk–nothing to do with mood.
  • Piss and wind = all talk and no action, a clever idiom.
  • Tea often refers to a snack. You don’t even have to drink tea to have tea.

Arizonan English, a Mini-Dialect

I didn’t have too much trouble with the dialect here in Arizona, which gets winter visitors from all over North America who want to escape cold weather and baseball fans who want to see their teams play in the spring training Cactus League. Phoenicians sometimes find themselves puzzling over what East Coasters are saying to them.

Arizona is home to cricks and lots of ruff repairs

My own experience includes wondering why a friend was talking about replacing the “ruff” on his house.

The ruff? A ruffle design? Is he talking about his dog? No, he was talking about the roof.

And people here love the “cricks” that appear after a storm. Crickets? No, creeks.

Here’s how I keep it straight:

“It rained so much, the crick nearly reached the ruff!”

But it doesn’t rain in Arizona, right? Well, it does when we have a monsoon season, which happens during the summer months. And it gets humid–it’s not always a dry heat. In fact, it’s humid when the temps are highest.

The ruff guy also used to talk about mini-monsoons during the winter months and we did have a particularly rainy January this year. Bless his heart.

Haboob or dust storm

Big haboob over Loop 101

One word that was entirely new to me when I moved here is haboob, for the dust storms that often kick up during dry monsoons. The word comes from Arabic and means “blowing furiously.” As I once put on Facebook, we have big haboobs in Arizona. Heck, they make national and international news.

Bye, bye pizza pie

My son worked for Dominos during his senior year in high school. One night, someone called in an order for a “pie” from a customer, who I’m told had a “heavy Philadelphia accent.” The call was taken by the assistant manager on duty, a young woman who grew up on the Navajo Nation. She completely misunderstood the caller, whereas my son was mystified by the request. Dominos, of course, makes pizza.

“Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t have pies here,” she sweetly explained.

“You don’t have pies?!”

“No, I wish we did. I’d love to spend my days baking pies!”

Clearly, this generation doesn’t know the song That’s Amore, featured in the great movie Moonstruck.

That’s OK. I don’t watch PewDiePie — I’m way too old to be with the Squad Fam.

two profiles with word Phrase printed on them facing each other
two profiles with word Phrase printed on them facing each other

I used to have a part-time job providing captioning services for people who are hard of hearing and use one of those caption phones that let them read their conversations. It certainly provided me with insights about the state of the spoken language.

Some of the topics this job inspired included how people are speaking faster than ever before, which made conversations harder to follow (and caption!), and how telemarketing staff can improve sales to older folks by adapting their speech. The job certainly was an interesting perch to observe spoken language for a few hours each week.

Here are some other observations I picked up over a period of weeks in the year before the company closed shop in Arizona.

Phrases Can Come Back

Some phrases, like Joni Mitchell, can have popular comebacks.

I remember hearing “blah blah blah” quite a bit in the summer. Maybe people were tired and didn’t feel like talking. Between the heat, storms, floods, and wildfires, summer has become an ordeal for a lot of people.

Illustration of blah blah blah in the spoken language


I even heard the occasional “yadda yadda yadda,” an even bigger surprise because that one really got overworked in the 1990s.

At one point I started hearing a phrase I hadn’t heard since childhood: “okey-dokey.” And it wasn’t coming from the people for whom I captioned—it was from people speaking to them. Many sounded middle-aged or younger, and they were from all different backgrounds including a guy who sold farm equipment, schedulers in physician offices, hair stylists, and even tech support people.

I once worked with someone who broke up with a guy because she couldn’t stand that he said “okey-dokey.”

“Okey-dokey” is something I recall being said by adults to children and my first reaction upon hearing it was that it was from one of those well-meaning but annoying people who talk to older people as if they are children. But then the farm equipment guy used it after a discussion with a customer about the right kind of tubing to use for an irrigation project.  The two were clearly acquaintances–they commiserated over the mess known as the Colorado River Compact that was being re-negotiated at the time. I recall they also discussed parts for a second-hand tractor a friend was trying to sell.

The Urban Dictionary says “okey-dokey” first appeared around 1930. Another contributor said it’s a way to agree with something that’s pretty lame (like your boss reminding you about getting reports in on time), and yet another said it’s another way to tell someone to go fuck yourself.

Bless Their Hearts

This brings me to another phrase: “bless your heart.” I was made aware by a friend who grew up in Tennessee, in a town halfway between Memphis and Nashville, that this is the Southerners’ way of saying precisely the same thing as “okey-dokey.” It made me rethink a lot of people who I thought were my friends when I lived in the DC area.

The writer wearing a Yankees jersey

Bless my lil’ Yankee heart!

I heard “bless your heart” so often among Southerners that I assumed the phrase is intended for Yankees. But it’s all in the context of the conversation, as this Bless Your Heart 101 article from Southern Living explains. After reading it, I’m pretty sure that the empathetic version is only intended for fellow Southerners. Either that or they spend a lot of time on the phone with people they don’t like, bless their hearts.

Here are some other phrases Southern Living says are unique to the South but I declare,I heard many of these growing up in New Jersey. I won’t argue their origin, though, because that conversation won’t amount to a hill of beans and we can talk about it til the cows come home. Be sure to watch the accompanying video, too—it’s a hoot.

Sports Idioms Live On In Spoken Language

Sports idioms in the spoken language live on and it’s a crowded field out there.

All across the nation, people leave voice messages that they “just wanted to touch base,” a phrase I rarely hear spoken live to another person. Interestingly, I hear this most often in messages left by women, usually to men.

Men talk a lot about “Monday Morning quarterbacking” oddly enough, it seems, mid-week. I could be imagining it but I caption more men mid-week than on Mondays and Fridays. I hear this particular phrase in the rare political conversation and among people who got stuck in a bad weather situation. Farmers also use it: many have thrown their hands up in the air when it comes to the weather.

And those tests the doctor orders? They want the whole nine yards. But if you want to know how much a medication will cost, even a ballpark figure, forget it. They say they have to jump through too many hoops to get this.

Do you have a favorite or least favorite colloquialism, idiom, or clichè?

rows of cubicles with headsets hanging on walls
rows of cubicles with headsets hanging on walls

I work a part-time job where I have the opportunity to listen in on customer services and marketing to seniors delivered via phone.

For the most part, I’m not impressed. Aside from the obvious frauds (and I’m glad to report that many seniors smell a rat pretty quickly), far too many businesses are missing an opportunity to attract a group that has money and are probably more polite and patient than other age groups.

Seniors Have More Money to Spend Than Ever Before

Today’s seniors have more money today than they did a few years ago. According to a 2017 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, households headed by someone age 75 or older saw their net worth increase by 60%—more than other age groups.

I won’t get into the specifics but you can read an excellent summary on “the graying of wealth” from Forbes contributor Neil Howe.

Older people have more Franklins than ever before to spend. Photo: PublicDomainPNG/Pixabay

One item that stuck out to me is that wealth is also much more evenly distributed among this generation. Marketing to seniors as a group is in itself a pretty good lead. Plus, they like to shop, if not for themselves then for grandchildren and other young people in their lives. And according to the American Marketing Association, research from AARP shows they’re brand-loyal as well. One sale can lead to more.

Marketing to Seniors? Slow Down the Fast Talk and Speak Plainly.

I noted in an earlier piece that people who make a living doing sales over the phone need to slow the hell down with their speech! At some point, only they will be able to understand each other.

It’s funny because these calls often begin at a nice pace. “Hello, may I speak with Mr./Mrs. Smith?” Once they connect with the right person, these telesales people seem to go into speech overdrive:


Honestly, I don’t understand many of these callers, and I have several years in front of me before I can collect Social Security or wave placards warning the government to keep its hands off Medicare.

Seniors love to take notes from phone conversations.

Seniors love to take notes to review later. Credit: sabinevanerp/Pixabay

Marketing and salespeople who slow their speech to an accessible level will get some interest, even from skeptical seniors. I admit they probably won’t make a sale right away because seniors love to take notes so they can “look this up” later, probably to make sure they aren’t being sold a scam. And if a senior isn’t interested, he or she will politely inform you before hanging up.

I have a friend, a guy in his late 50s, who sells e-commerce services via phone. He’s lucky in that he doesn’t make cold calls and only calls people who ask to be contacted, so he’s already dealing with interested parties. He has many elderly customers who not only renew the service year after year but specifically ask to speak only with him.

The reason? He’s got great phone manners. He’s friendly, knows the product extremely well, and speaks clearly. He’s also very patient and doesn’t allow himself to get annoyed by repeated questions.

He’s created a great recipe for successful marketing to seniors.

He works on commission, so it’s in his interest to make quick sales. But he understands that not all selling can be done at a rapid pace. So he paces himself for those that take more time, even scheduling times to speak with older clients when he knows the office will be quiet.

Live and Automated Customer Service Need Consistent Speed and Volume

Some people who conduct business over the phone don’t seem to need to breathe. (How do they do that!)

However, taking the time and remembering to breathe will slow down your speech. This is good for you: lack of oxygen will eventually make you faint. If you work in customer service, I bet you get a lot of calls from seniors. Speaking slower will improve your performance with them. Keep a steady speaking pace, and don’t worry about long pauses: many seniors listening to you are often writing everything down.

This is critical when it comes to people who work in financial services. Don’t rattle off numbers one after another. Say them slowly, and be clear about which account you’re reporting.

Speak a bit more slowly and keep the volume consistent. Credit: sabinevanerp/Pixabay

In addition to live agents, there’s a lot of automated information seniors obtain via phone. Many times, these recordings have inconsistent volume and speed and feature different voices, which can be confusing for first-time callers.

A lot of physician office voicemails are set up by younger women with soft, higher-pitched voices. Their voices are fine one-on-one in an exam room but not for an older person, likely with hearing aids, who are trying to understand a long outgoing message. So they might hang up, but that means they will call again and tie up the lines.

Many customer service call centers frequently change their menus, or so they say. If this is true, do customers a favor and re-record everything using one voice at one volume with a consistent pace.

It’s startling to go from a friendly greeting to an extremely loud, eardrum-shattering announcement that the conversation may be recorded and monitored “to better serve you.” How about preserving customers’ ear drums?

Finally, does your service ask callers to participate in brief customer service surveys?  Well, guess what? Seniors do participate in these. Amazingly, they give middling scores to some pretty awful practices. Be nice, be clear, slow it down, and you’ll get higher marks.

Providing Tech Support? Give Seniors Clear Definitions.

Tech support people have long dealt with clueless customers. I remember hearing back in the day about how the “cupholder” on a new computer broke or worrying about giving the computer the flu virus.

People have caught up quite a bit. Still, tech support staff should be cognizant that many seniors don’t understand a lot of their language.

People often confuse browsers with search engines. It’s so rote, they don’t think about it.

Ask many non-tech people (not just seniors) what browser they use, and they’ll probably answer “Google.” This does not mean Chrome. This means they get to your company’s website through Google. Many people really don’t know the difference between a browser and a search engine. Or they forget: these functions are so rote, so automatic, that they don’t really mean much to the non-techies among us.

It also doesn’t help, as one tech support guy said, that Google and Microsoft use a similar color scheme.

So before you ask what browser someone uses, ask if they use IE, Firefox, Chrome, whatever. Some might even be using Safari.

Finally, understand that most seniors want to use automation. A lot of them have iPads and really do like them. They absolutely love email, Facebook, and online shopping. And while they don’t freak out like their younger friends do when the Internet isn’t working (they do things like read and chat on the phone), they deserve high levels of service. Because the services and products they’re buying might be from you!

Cream tea and scone
Cream tea and scone

English is spoken throughout the world but it’s always a good idea to brush up on the type of English language you might hear when you visit another country where it’s spoken. I lived in England for a couple of years and learned (or as they say, learnt) that there are a lot of differences between what they say and what a Yank might hear.

This post is about how the English language is spoken in England, which is a part of Great Britain and the United Kingdom.

Don’t Assume a Person is English!

It’s tempting to assume a person you meet in England is English. However, there are lots of non-English living there who identify with their nation. Even many Irish (from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) emigrate to study or work in England.

Although most speak the English language in their daily lives, there has been renewed interest in Scottish and Irish Gaelic languages. It’s even more of a reason to take care you don’t mistake a Scot for an Englishman; what if he whips out his dirk to scare you off? The Welsh can get riled up as well; if they start speaking their own language (it’s part of school curriculum), you’re lost. Back away, slowly.

While we’re at it, could you not bring up the King or his family? Literally, no one there cares. Even tabloid sales have been falling slowly but steadily in recent years.

20 Key Differences in the English Language in North America and the UK

I don’t know if you can call it Queen’s, um, King’s English everywhere. Regardless, here’s a list of linguistic differences I often noticed between English spoken in the UK and in the US. I learned/learnt most of them through personal, and sometimes embarrassing experiences (see #2 and #8 below).

Child sleeping in car seat

#17, Getting ready for Infant School. rhonda-jenkins/Pixabay

  1. Tea refers to any kind of snack. It doesn’t even have to include tea!
  2. Spotted dick is not an STD. It’s a popular dessert of bread pudding with raisins and quite tasty.
  3. Pudding is a cake, usually served with cream.
  4. Yorkshire Pudding isn’t cake but a kind of popover served with gravy
  5. Blood pudding is a pork sausage that includes pork blood and oatmeal. It’s also called black pudding
  6. Bangers are also sausages but aren’t bloody.
  7. Sultanas are a type of raisin, not women from Oman or Qatar who married well.
  8. A rubber is an eraser. Galoshes are still galoshes.
  9. A lift isn’t a ride home but an elevator.
  10. “Mind the gap” means “watch your step.” You see it mostly in the London Underground and train stations.
  11. The Underground is London’s subway, not a club.
  12. A coach is a bus. You won’t have a Jane Austen experience riding one.
  13. A boot sale isn’t a sale on boots. It’s more like a swap meet or rummage/trunk sale.
  14. A boot is a car trunk as well as footwear. Boot’s is the name of a drugstore chain.
  15. A bonnet is a car hood.
  16. A fag – a word I don’t use in any circumstance – is a cigarette. But someone might ask you for one.
  17. Infant school is daycare or preschool.
  18. Someone who’s mad is crazy. Madness = insanity.
  19. Sod it” means “screw it.” “Feck” is Irish for a similar expression comparable a common American curse.\\\
  20. The phrase Hobson’s Choice—take it or leave it—came from a Cambridge stable owner who didn’t take special requests. There, a horse was a horse of course.

Nothing beats Yorkshire on a cold Sunday. Shutterbug/Pixabay

#4, Nothing beats Yorkshire pudding on a rainy Sunday. Shutterbug75/Pixabay

Grammatical Anarchy in the UK

(With apologies to the Sex Pistols)

There are some grammatical differences as well. The one I noticed the most involves plural versus singular distinctions.

Is a team or band a group or separate individuals? Grammatically, we screw this up.

Americans tend to consider everything and anything that ends with an “s” as a plural, even if it’s a singular item. Not so in the UK.

  • There: Pink Floyd reunite in a one-time reunion. (I wish.)
  • Here: Pink Floyd reunites in a one-time reunion.

Yet we’d both say “The Rolling Stones play” because we see an “s” at the end of the band’s name. They just see more subjects as plural.

Rolling Stones' private jet with tongue logo

Guess who’s in town, mate? baslaan/Pixabay

Personally, I’d treat the Yankees and say, Manchester United as a singular entity. The Yankees would agree; they don’t even put players’ names on their uniforms. But it would sound odd to say “Manchester United play an exhibition game against Phoenix United next week.”

What Exactly is England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom?

England is part of Great Britain, which includes England, Wales, and Scotland. The United Kingdom is Great Britain plus the territory known as Northern Ireland, which lies about the independent Republic of Ireland.

Both the Republic and Northern Ireland are part of the geographic designation “British Isles.” This also includes several islands governed by England, Wales, and Scotland:

  • The Isle of Wight, off England’s southern coast, belongs to England only.
  • The Isle of Anglesey, off the Welsh coast, belongs to Wales.
  • Scotland claims the Shetland, Hebrides, and Orkney Islands.

Then there’s the Isle of Man, Guernsey, and Jersey, islands that do not belong to any of these nations but are properties of the British Crown.

I highly recommend this five-minute video by CGP Grey for more information on the UK’s reach across the British Isles and the world. Cheers!