Learning the Lingo

When I lived in Bath the year I studied abroad, I didn’t actually get to know that many Brits. My program(me) was all American students from colleges on the East Coast, and we all pretty much stuck together for everything. So other than our British professors and administrators, I didn’t befriend anyone my own age from here. I briefly, sort-of dated some local bloke named Ian, if you could call it dating. Our interactions basically consisted of drinking Bacardi Breezes at dance clubs and text messaging. He did threaten to buy me dolphin jewel(le)ry, so you could say it was pretty serious.

This time round I’m getting to know the English people, and I learn new things about their culture and language all the time. I am starting to think it’s completely absurd we Americans say we speak English, when there are more differences in our language across the pond than I ever knew.

There are entire dictionaries published of English vs. American words/terms, so I’m not going to attempt to create a list of them all. Just walking through the grocery store and looking at the names and descriptions of foods is a lesson in the divide. Aside from the food name differences (there must be hundreds), here are some words used on packaging to describe foods: moreish (because you’ll want more, I think?), squidgy, and nobbly. Feeling peckish?

I love listening to English people talk and picking up on the different phrases they use. “Oh, pants!” is one of my favo(u)rite things I hear people say (pants, of course, meaning underwear here), as kind of a “dang it!” Also: “That’s rubbish,” “bits and bobs,” “cheap as chips,” “let’s get cracking,” “crack on,” “the rain was really chucking down,” “lovely weather for ducks,” “Billy-no-mates,” “lost the plot,” “done and dusted,” “life’s not all beer and skittles.”

“Chuffed to bits” translates to “thrilled to pieces.”

There are some words I’ve adopted, like using “pop” to say things like “I’ll pop by later” or “pop the letter in the postbox”; “faff” or “faffing” is another useful term, basically meaning ineffectual activity: “Quit faffing around!” or “there was a lot of faff involved in getting there.”

I’ve also adopted the way the ladies here sign off on messages, be it email, text, or written card, with x’s for kisses. Unlike a triple-X rating equalling adult content in America, “xxx” is a perfectly acceptable pleasantry used between women in correspondence. (I have yet to determine whether the number of x’s used means anything—it generally varies from one to four.)

But there are many more words I just can’t bring myself to say because I feel silly and like I’m putting on airs (“whilst,” for example).

Then there’s the matter of things that just don’t sound grammatically correct to my professional editor’s ear. I recently learned that “gotten” isn’t a word here. Where I would say “I’ve gotten” or “I’d gotten” they just use “I’d/ve got,” and that sounds strange to me. The hardest one for me is the way the English pluralize (or pluralise, I suppose) the name of a business or group, where Americans make it singular. So, for example, if I’m talking about looking to buy something, someone might say “Waitrose have it,” when I would say “Waitrose has it.” This continually drives me crazy. “The whole family are going on holiday.” No. “Whole family” is singular. I just can’t.

Some of the spellings baffle me, as well. Why do they add an extra “l” into so many words, such as jewellery or travelling, but then take one out of enrol/enrolment and fulfil/fulfilment?

And, of course, there’s the matter of pronunciation. I’ll be reading aloud a British children’s book to E and all of a sudden the rhyming scheme is completely thrown off because I read what’s meant to be read with a British accent in my American one. “Laugh” and “scarf” don’t rhyme the way I pronounce them.

I’ve also noticed this time round (not around, just the monosyllabic “round,” in English English) some other distinctions of the accent I’d never picked up on before. The way they pronounce the “o” in words like “forest,” “porridge,” and “scone” is more like an “ah” sound. And when there are two syllables in a row, and the first one ends in a vowel and the second syllable begins with a vowel, there’s a subtle “r” sound added in between the two syllables. “Draw-ring room”; “Peppar-and-George.”

And to take things to another level, there is apparently a linguistic divide between the classes. I’m not talking about accent, which is a very obvious indicator of class, I’m talking about vocabulary. I just thought they had multiple words for the same thing, but it turns out that in many cases it’s that there are certain words the upper class use (uses?) and certain words the lower classes use.

“If you’re lower class you say ‘toilet,’ if you’re posh you say ‘loo,'” an Australian friend, who has lived here for a while, explained. “If you’re lower class you say ‘sweet,’ if you’re middle class you say ‘dessert,’ and if you’re posh you say ‘pudding.'”

I asked an English friend about this (whose accent is rather posh), and she confirmed it. She said that growing up her parents ingrained in her “never to use the ‘T word,’ that’s common! You say ‘loo.'” And they have “pudding.” Then she thought of a bunch more, like drawing room versus lounge, and sofa versus settee, and napkin versus serviette. She thinks some of it might actually stem from a distaste for all things French, thus eschewing French words like “toilette” and “serviette.” (Though why the French words are still used here for foods like eggplant (aubergine), zucchini (courgette), and green beans (haricot verts) is a mystery to me; not to mention how they say “zed” instead of “zee” for the 26th letter of the alphabet.)

Later, she sent me this link about U and Non-U English.

We went on to discuss other “rules” of the English aristocracy, which I pretty much only know about from watching Downton Abbey, and she told me about her experiences at posh dinner parties, where you only speak to the person on one side of you until the hostess “turns” the conversation, and then you speak to the person on your other side; and how after dinner the women “go through” to the “draw(r)ing room” whilst the men have their after-dinner drinks and cigars.

But, she said, things are more relaxed these days. This is more her parents’ generation and older, she said. She would personally not be offended if she had people over for dinner and didn’t receive a hand-written thank you letter. And when she shakes someone’s hand she usually says “nice to meet you” instead of “how do you do?” And, though she still says “loo” as it was ingrained in her from youth, she understands that “toilet” is a very international word that many different languages use and understand.

But she does offer this advice: Never hold up your pinky whilst drinking tea.

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