“England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
We were so excited to get to England. After six months in South America, we realized how much our trip was impacted by not being fluent in Spanish. We missed the little things (and some big things) by not completely understanding the language.
Granted, we can’t expect to be fluent in the language of every country we visit. But this is the United Kingdom – we already know the language!
Or do we?
It’s all in how you say it
It is funny to say that English people have an accent because, well, they invented the language we speak. In truth, we have an accent. Semantics aside, however, there is a bit of a challenge understanding sometimes because of the differences in the way we pronounce things.
Berkshire is pronounced Barkshire. Edinburgh is Edin-bura (quick now, don’t drag it out!). Derby is always Darby. Leicester is Lester, of course. Loughborough is, naturally, Luffbura.
Not knowing how to pronounce a town or an area means you won’t find out how to get there. Same goes for streets and monuments.
Some things you just have to live here to know.
When our friends Chris and Hillary invited us to visit them in Yorkshire, we were pretty excited. We planned to head north to Scotland after our visit, so when Chris emailed asking us to let him know what we wanted to do “up north” we wondered if they were planning to go to Scotland with us. It wasn’t until we started suggesting destinations in Scotland that we learned “up north” means Yorkshire.
“Emmet” means a foreigner or tourist in the Cornwall area, and “grocket” means the same thing in Devon. Warren was even called a colonial in one pub! We were tuned in by friendly locals as to the meaning of these words. We laughed when we discovered that our new friend Nick, a 25-year resident of Falmouth, is still an emmet to his Cornish friends and neighbors. We think he wears this label quite proudly.
Being invited to a “knees up” is a good thing – it means you are going to a party. “Knackered” is how you would feel the morning after the party if you got “pissed” or “loaded.” In fact, you may need a cat nap, or a “kip” to recover. Just don’t let the “gaffer” catch you sleeping on the job.
You may think “cheers” is what you would say at a toast, but typically toasts are more varied than that. Cheers is usually used in a very general way as a goodbye or thank you. When bicyclists pass us on a path they say cheers. When we hold the door open for someone else, they say cheers. When finishing a chat you say cheers.
You might think that “cracking” means breaking, but it actually means great. Cracking gets used frequently as a superlative, almost as often as “brilliant.”
Faff is a great one. It means to veg around or to dilly-dally. This activity is often done by disorganized people who need to “get sorted.”
When Brits are upset, they are “gutted.” When they are surprised they are “gobsmacked.” Because “fanny” means the front bits and not the back, the English are gobsmacked when they hear us talk about our fanny packs. We are gutted to find out we’ve made such an embarrassing faux pas (whoops, that’s French).
“Pants” means crap, as in “oh pants!” My friend Sam tells me this is what you would say in front of your mother instead of what you really want to say. If something has gone wrong, it has gone “pear shaped.” I don’t know how pears got such a bad rap.
“Posh” is high-class, when referring to an expensive store or someone’s accent or even in a derogatory way if someone is putting on airs. Unfortunately, we have never been accused of being posh.
A “pussy” is a cat, not a “fanny.” If you offer to show a “bloke” your fanny pack so he can see how much it holds, he might buy the next “shout” – or round – for you at the pub. Before long, you might be “snogging” – or making out – in a dark corner. Once you get him back to your “flat” and he finds out that you actually do own a cat, he may “do a runner” out the bathroom window.
Rubbish goes in the bin, which is probably where you should put your fanny pack just to avoid uncomfortable slips of the tongue.
“Starkers” is how Warren went swimming in Antarctica, and I hope he doesn’t give me cause to use the word again after this post.
Cookies are “biscuits.” The closest thing to a US biscuit is a “scone.” Scones should be eaten with jam and clotted cream. We have come to the conclusion that we can eat more “biscuits” in the UK than we could the same “cookies” in the US because the calorie count is lower. I mean, it’s just a biscuit, right?
School is for children, and “uni” is for college students. If you ask a young adult about school, they are likely to be offended that you think they are still in high school.
As for food, a “bap” is a roll, a “banger” is a sausage, “chips” are fries and “crisps” are potato chips, and you will find cilantro in the grocery store labeled as coriander. A “cream tea” is actually a snack consisting of tea, scones, and jam with clotted cream. A “curry” is a general term for any Indian or Indonesian food, and it is quite common to “go out for a curry.” A “filet” of any type is pronounced “fill-it.” The English pronounce the “h” in “herb.” “Mushy peas” are often served with “mash” (mashed potatoes). You can buy your liquor in a grocery store or an “off license” store, which sounds illegal, but it isn’t. “Pimms” is the base to a sangria-like concoction that is deceptively smooth – until you stand up. “Squash” is not a vegetable but a fruit drink made of concentrate plus water, or a cordial. I continually mispronounce my friend’s favorite drink as “splosh.”
Lost in translation
It can be a little tough to follow a conversation, what with the English “accent” and all the new words and strange phrases, but our new friends have been delightfully patient with the poor colonials so far. We’re all learning more about each other through the different turns of our shared language.
Because it is all new to us, we are paying attention. We listen to what our new friends say, ask questions, and clarify so we won’t make an error in the future. We also share our terms for certain foods/activities/places and discuss the similarities and differences as a way of getting to know each other better. In short, we make an effort to understand so we can be understood.
This has parallels to being in a romantic partnership.
In a new relationship we pay attention to everything about our new mate. Our lover’s moods, habits, and preferences are top priority for us to learn, and we adjust some of our behavior and actions to please him or her. We are gobsmacked every day to be snogging with our new love, and we think of him or her even when we aren’t starkers together.
But over time we think we “know” the other person and pay less attention to each word, concentrating only on the general meaning of the sentence. Maybe later we even tune out portions of the conversation altogether.
English is our common language with England, but more than two centuries apart have created some pretty stark differences in speech patterns and meaning.
You know where this is going, right?
When we were on the M/S Expedition we were shown the Osmosis Room, which is actually where they desalinate the water. Warren joked that it should be the room where spouses can go for better understanding of their mate. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that easily.
For the next week, I challenge you to listen to your mate as if he or she was a Brit (or from the US or Australia or Canada or whatever “opposite” works for you). Do you really understand what he or she is saying, and is your meaning coming across clearly as well? Are you separated by an ocean, or can you laugh at a few little different turns of phrase?
Last but not least, throw the fanny pack away. Seriously. It isn’t doing you any favors.