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Grammar Language Lifestyle

Idioms Away and Dialect Demagoguery!

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.

Categories
Grammar

Understanding English in England

 

 

Author’s Note: I wrote this blog just prior to the terrible attack on Westminster Bridge March 22. I sincerely hope this event won’t dissuade anyone from traveling there. There really is no place like England, regardless of how you speak English.

England is Part of Great Britain and the United Kingdom

England itself is a nation that is part of Great Britain, an island that includes two other nations, Scotland and Wales.

The United Kingdom (full name: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is just that. Northern Ireland is the fourth nation within the UK. People from all four nations are carry British passports and are considered British although most prefer the more exacting definition of their nation.

The island of Ireland is divided by the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Most people who identify as Irish are from the Republic. The Northern Irish are just that.

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.

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 in England who identify with their nation. Even many Irish (as in Republic) emigrate to study or work in England.

Mistaking a Scot as English could be enough for  him to whip out his dubh or dirk.  Even some Welsh can get riled up. f they start speaking their native language (it’s now taught in their schools), you’ll be lost. “Rwy’n Cymraeg!”

I facebombed Queen Elizabeth whilst in England.
Facebombing the English Queen, circa 1995

While we’re at it, don’t bring up the Queen or her family unless you’re certain the person with whom you are speaking is English or from Northern Ireland. People from Wales and Scotland tolerate her at best.

The Scots refer to her as Elizabeth I since the historic Elizabeth wasn’t their Queen during her lifetime. Scotland had its own monarchs, including the disastrous Mary Queen of Scots, who Elizabeth arrested, imprisoned for 20 years, and beheaded. Mary’s son James ended up inheriting her throne and Elizabeth’s, joining the two nations in an uneasy alliance since 1603.

Stay tuned to see what happens after Brexit.

How do you know if you’re speaking with someone who’s Norn Iron or from the Republic? I don’t know. Best to let sleeping royals lie.

Key Differences in American and Queen’s English

I don’t know if you can call it Queen’s English everywhere. Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, the topic of anything Royal can become a touchy one.

Regardless, here’s a list of important linguistic differences between English spoken in the UK and in the US. I learned most of them through personal, sometimes embarrassing, experiences.

  1. Tea is any kind of snack. It’s rarely the whole afternoon ritual and might not even include actual tea!
  2. Spotted dick is not an STD. It’s a popular dessert: bread pudding with raisins.
  3. Pudding isn’t anything like our pudding. It’s soft cake, usually served with cream.
  4. Yorkshire Pudding isn’t cake but a kind of soufflé.
  5. Blood pudding is a pork sausage that includes pork blood and oatmeal. It’s also called black pudding.
  6. Bangers are also sausages.
  7. Sultanas are a type of raisin, not exotic foreigners.
  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 your Jane Austen experience on a coach.
  13. A boot sale isn’t a sale on boots. It’s more like a swap meet or trunk sale.
  14. A boot is a car trunk.
  15. A bonnet is a car hood.
  16. A fag is a cigarette.
  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.
  20. The phrase Hobson’s Choice—take it or leave it—came from a Cambridge stable owner. A horse is a horse of course of course.

Grammar Anarchy

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 everything as plural.

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 uniform shirts! But it would sound odd to say “Manchester United play an exhibition game against Phoenix United next week.”

Have you travelled and heard unusual phrases to American ears? Add your comments below!