More slang, please; we’re British

Statue at Parliament

“Mess with MY British slang? Ha! Take THAT!” Image courtesy of mconnors, Morguefile.

It never ceases to amaze me how England and America share many of the same opinions, but are so different when it comes to speaking the same language. I notice this difference when I travel through England or when my British friends visit me. At some point, one of us inevitably ends up translating words or phrases for the other.

As the result of several visits to England and reading the numerous books and blogs of many British writers, I consider myself reasonably fluent in that foreign language known as “British English.” (Don’t cry, readers from other parts of the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Canada and everywhere else. I still like your languages, too.) Even though I’m fluent, I still come across words that stump me and make me wonder how the heck they originated.

One case in point is the word “flannel.” In the U.S., this would be known as a washcloth, but in England, they call it a flannel. Maybe because the first washcloths were actually made from flannel? Possibly.

Then there’s the word “limey” (Possibly archaic by now? U.K. readers, need a little help here!) to describe a British person. I know this one. It comes from England’s navy — sailors didn’t have access to a lot of fresh fruit or vegetables, so they suffered from scurvy. Eating citrus fruits high in vitamin C, such as lemons and limes, cured that health problem.

There’s also “blokes” where Americans would say “guys,” “lorry” for a large truck, “Blimey!” as an expression of astonishment, “parky” for chilly (as in the weather) “anti-clockwise” for “counter-clockwise” and “skew-wiff” for out of kilter. I have no clue how those British words got going, but I love them anyway.

When they write American characters, most authors get it right and have their characters talk the way an American would talk. Others get it wrong. Scottish author Alistair MacLean, one of my favorite adventure writers, had some American characters in one of his books, Ice Station Zebra. This book has a scene at the beginning involving a British doctor needing to talk his way onto an American sub that is going to rescue people in the Arctic. An American officer and several crew members are assigned to watch the doctor until permission is granted to allow the doctor onboard. But I noticed that the Americans in this scene spoke the way Brits would talk. But apart from this tiny flaw, don’t let that put you off the book — it’s fun to read.

British policeman

I don’t know why he’s grinning…maybe he heard Americans talking slang? Image courtesy of karpati, Morguefile.

Britain also brings us great slang phrases, such as “a wash and a brush-up.” I love that phrase because there’s something that seems so cozy about it, for some reason I can’t really describe.

Sometimes even words our two countries have in common sound different when they’re spoken in a British accent. (Oh, quit snickering, Brit readers.) I once heard a British TV announcer say the word “controversy” but it stumped me at first because the announcer said it as “con-TRAW-ver-see.” An American says it as “CON-trow-ver-see,” you see.

But even despite the language difficulties (*giggles*), I still enjoy visiting the U.K. as often as possible. You’ve just got to love a country where people chase Gloucester cheese down a steep hill or have competitions where you take apart a cannon, move it over obstacles, fire it, take it apart again and go back to the beginning. What’s not to like?



Filed under Writing

26 responses to “More slang, please; we’re British

  1. And let’s not forget “a quid and a bob” and the “Bobbies”!

      • kibbled

        I do like the idea of such a thing as a British accent. I wonder what on earth it would sound like and who would have it? A Cockney? A Geordie? An Orcadian? We may be a small country but do not have a unified accent or indeed slang. An example; POKE can mean to be prodded or pushed. However as a slang word, according to where you are, it can mean intercourse or a paper bag. The question “Do you want a poke?” can have interesting repercussions in different parts of the U.K.

      • Kibbled, your point is well taken, which is that accents and slang vary widely across the U.K. That should have been noted in the post. And thanks for the heads-up about “poke”. That could be embarrassing if I misused it!

        And the same happens here…regional accents definitely vary in areas such as New England, the South and the Midwest. I suspect American slang varies quite a bit too between regions, but I’d have to do more research on that. I read once that a submarine sandwich is called a “hoagie”, a “sub”, a “hero sandwich” or a “grinder” depending upon where you are in the U.S., for example. Interesting when you consider that the sandwich may have originated with the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

        Hmmm…regional slang in my country…now there’s an idea to examine in a future blog post. 🙂

  2. Great post. I like the fact that they call flashlights torches. It sounds so much more regal! 🙂

  3. The rhyming slang can be fun, too. Australia uses a lot of British slang, but we have some excellent slang of our own.

  4. Blimey, you forgot gobsmacked. And it’s shedule versus our skedule. I always say shedule to sneak in my ancestral tongue and a bit of posh.

    Ages ago when in Germany, I had the opportunity to visit an English class (English being taught as a language). Those students looked at me in amazement because they couldn’t understand me at all. The teacher, a German, spoke with me in a British accent. Why? He was trained at Oxford. We agreed there really are two languages: British and American when it comes to English. But I would place Australian as a third.

  5. My friend rang me up and offered me a lift to the shops. I took the lift up to the 10th storey.

    I love Alistair MacLean — warts and all. And Dick Francis, whose tales just gallop along.

  6. Having visited the U.K., Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and Singapore, I can say that each of these English-speaking countries have unique slang. Of course, they have trouble with ours as well.

  7. Love this post! I find the small vocabulary differences fascinating. Then there’s Cockney slang, which I know isn’t what you’re writing about here, but can be pretty charming – i.e. “dog and bone” for “phone” and “apples and pears” for “stairs” – NPR did an interesting story about it recently.

    By the way, Alex George, the author of A GOOD AMERICAN, is British, and he completely nailed writing his characters speaking the way Americans would speak. Fantastic book!

  8. Nice post, Eagle-Eyed. I am from the States too and I associate flannel strictly with the material, as in “flannel sheets” or “a flannel” something I would wear during my youth while listening to Nirvana and Soundgarden. 🙂 Check this blog out that I was introduced to (not my own) while I was musing over some of the quirks that separate Yanks from Brits. Cheers!

  9. A very incompetent hotel clerk once double-booked my hotel room. I was already in my room when another guest was attempting to open the door with his room card. I had just driven through two hours of traffic and the hotel was hard to find. Now, I had this guy barging his way into my room. It turns out he was British and on vacation. He picked up the phone and said he would call the front desk. He set the phone back down immediately and declared “It’s engaged.” I gave him a blank look and asked “What do you mean?” He said back to me, “It’s engaged.”

    I hadn’t encountered very much British slang in those days and I was seriously stumped. And grumpy. I picked up the phone myself and I heard the busy signal. Ahhhhhh. Enlightenment. 🙂

  10. Thank you for the course in British slang. Pining about visiting there so I can hear it first-hand one day. Do you travel to England a lot, Editor?

    • Whenever possible, to visit my friends there. I love the way British people talk, their humor, their castles, their wonderful cities and picturesque villages, just about everything! And of course…their writers. 😉

  11. I love England! (I’m English)

  12. An American friend of mine just loves the word, lorry. I have no idea why but just mentioning it makes him smile so much. Whilst on a tour of their newly acquired home here in Bulgaria, a comment I made about a huge wooden beam across the ceiling in one of the downstairs rooms clearly showed the difference in the way us Brits say things. I commented that the beam was “cracking” to which one of our friends jumped about in horror asking me to show where the crack was. I quickly explained that “cracking” meant it was terrific, great or in his words, awesome. He was mightily relieved and mentally made a note of this ‘slang’ word for future reference. 😉


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