Englandish Spoke HereBy Steve Sparshott
July 29, 2010
Invaders! The enemy is at the gates, and he looks just like us, but with better teeth. And really, we want to be his friend. And there are no gates. I’ve filed this piece under “Rants” and with good reason: I’m about to get right off my bike about British English’s gradual erosion and the slow, insidious advance of a simplified (dumbed down) form of American English.
Let’s be clear, I’m not anti-American at all, nor am I particularly pro-British. The actual cause of my ire is the British media’s – and, consequently, the British populace’s – failure to hold on to and use its wonderfully rich, expressive, and often funny indigenous vocabulary. Instead they – we – lean increasingly, lazily, on a limited range of words: Those used in US TV programmes and films (or shows and movies, as they are becoming) and, particularly, on this here internet.
Some time around 2005 I saw a billboard advert asking “You dress your salad, why not dress your veggies?” Dress your what? In Britain, the word vegetables has always been contracted to a simple veg. Meat and two veg, a basic meal, and a euphemism for male genitalia; a veggie is a vegetarian. After I’d got over the inevitable knee-jerk stuffy apoplexy, I became intrigued; someone at the ad agency had made a conscious decision to use the word veggies. Why? The likeliest explanation was that it’s more universal. Well. Ad agencies aren’t exactly standard bearers, guardians of tradition, upholders of…anything, really. So we can’t expect characteristics as uncool as principle or consistency from them.
They annoyed me with another attempt at universal appeal, one December a few years earlier. For a long time the billboards in the centre of East London’s Old Street roundabout, facing each point of the compass, carried Gap ads. As Christmas approached, the usual slew of ethnically diverse (but culturally WASPish) models appeared, wearing woolly jumpers, scarves and bobble hats for that Jesus feel. The accompanying text read “GAP – That’s holiday”.
Excuse me? What?
In Britain, the word holiday is (almost) never unaccompanied, whether by an article or a…er…modifier? I’m no linguist, and while I could Google about, I’d rather be honest about my (lack of) credentials. But holiday isn’t a commodity like oil or depleted uranium. An exception: If someone starts a new job, you might ask “How much holiday do you get?”, meaning annual leave. Otherwise, you need a holiday, it’s the school holidays, we’re all going on a summer holiday. As the chap says in Rockers, now me vex. I complained to my friend Kiera, a native New Yorker, who added some interesting mud to the water.
“That,” she said, meaning the word that, “is very British.” That’s true, I thought. The phrase “this is true” is odd to British ears.
I didn’t draw any conclusion from this, except that when a representative of one culture tries jumping into another’s territory, like a visiting politician getting involved in a traditional ceremony, the result is an embarrassing mess.
Language changes faster and faster as communication becomes easier. More and more information is at our fingertips (that’s got to be good, right?), but in our hurry to suck it up and spit it out, nuance, variety and depth of expression are lost.
I call the language I speak and write “Englandish”. I use bits of slang from all over the English-speaking world and occasional archaic expressions, and I do like swears. I try to keep it in check, though, as I believe communication is paramount; while I might have been weathering a fuckload of vicissitudes due to bare poltroons all up in my grill, if you ask how my day’s been I’ll just say “Shit, thanks!” So you see I’m not averse to outside influences; on the contrary, I enjoy the myriad deviations from “The Queen’s English” that come with geography, age, profession and so on, right down to little spelling variations. An S here, a Z there, a U or not? One L or two? Local colo(u)r. Even within America itself, though, local vernacular must be crumbling slowly under the weight of Friendsish. Independent businesses close, neighbourhoods and vocabularies are strip malled, shit gets Starbucksed up. I’ve noticed my own inclination to use a more “universal” language when online; a more universal form of English, that is: “Standard” US English. You know what they say: If you’re not part of the solution…you’re part of the precipitate.
Most of the people I communicate with…with whom I communicate…online are American and they’re all erudite and funny and shit. In my experience, your average educated American (which may well be you) is better-read than your average educated Briton (which may well be me. And if you try to quote me I will deny everything).
America is justly proud of its literary heritage; most Americans I know, even those who’ve had no English education beyond high school, have read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Poe, Salinger, Lee (Harper, not Spike) etc. while the UK school system seems to think twentieth century literature begins and ends with Wodehouse. Shakespeare and Dickens feature in my school memories, and, unusually, I recall a cool English teacher called Steve handing out brand new copies of Catcher in the Rye – but he was American.
The internet, though, with its dense, short-form bursts of communication, is a different thing; I’m thinking particularly of Twitter, where the 140 character limit necessitates brevity. A stripped-down grammar comes into play – it’s certainly functional, and while the exaggerated emphasis-heavy use of CAPS, emoticons (ugh), Twitter-specific #hashtags and acronyms can be played with FTW, there’s not much in-betweenness. Although there’s something to be said for a format that prevents sentences like that last abomination. What I’m getting at is this: Communicating more information, to a greater variety and number of people, in fewer characters and less time, is draining the colour from the language, and giving rise to a featureless one-size-fits-all style. A wider audience with a shorter attention span is forcing us into less expressive territory.
I was guzzling a rather watery latte and a slice of agreeably dense blueberry cheesecake in the National Portrait Gallery’s underground café, earwigging furiously as the family on the next table chatted. They were an intelligent, articulate bunch, but when the teenage daughter related the experience of entering one of the many galleries above us, she became stuck. She needed an adjective, a grey shade between awesome and lame. I think of myself as a fairly heavy internet user, but I didn’t grow up with it; if I had, it’s likely that I’d have a yawning void between WIN and FAIL too. Punctuated, perhaps, by “meh”.
When I ordered the coffee and cake, did I say “Can I have” or “Can I get”? I can’t remember. Of course, the correct form is “May I…”, but I’m not here to stickle.
Here in the UK, a new piece of slang occasionally worms its way into everyday speech. In recent years, chav has become a common title for a particular form of wretched lowlife; similar to trailer trash, bridge-and-tunnel or bogan, but particularly British and (sub)urban. As its star rose, various theories regarding its heritage were bandied about: That it began in the town of Chatham in Kent, or it was an acronym (Council House Alcoholic Violence), but in fact it derives from a Romany word, chavo, a kind of casual “friend” – pal, buddy, mate. How did this happen? I have no idea! Isn’t it great though, how it’s crept in through a crack in the language? In the lift at the Converse shop in London’s Carnaby Street, a sanctioned graffiti scrawl asserts that “Trainers is what chavs call ‘em” [my apostrophe]. Well, no, it’s what British people call ‘em. But really, sneakers is a better word, reflecting their soft shoe shuffle nature and the fact that most athletic footwear isn’t used for sport. Whoever scribbled that scribble probably talks like Josh Peck’s character in The Wackness, though. Word.
Another mystery: Bare. A term exclusive to teenagers, it means many, very, a lot, considerably. There was bare Somalis on the bus innit. I ain’t got home ‘til midnight, Dad was bare angry. Again, I have no explanation, although many years ago I was told “…because it’s BEAR!”, and my educator reared up like an irritated grizzly. There was a club night called Bear Foolish for a while…but bare has become the standard.
I’m quite fond of innit too, a contraction, obviously, of “isn’t it?” Although it’s considered thoroughly chavvy, how does it differ from n’est-ce pas? A slight deviation is that it’s not usually followed by a question mark. In attaining single word status, it’s become more definite, giving its preceding statement emphasis, yo.
Hopefully I’m not coming across as provincial – I’m all for global culture, but at the moment that manifests itself as a worldwide awareness of Jersey Shore, Justin Bieber and bukkake. Recently a phenomenon called “Globish” or “decaf English” has received some press. Globish is a condensed form of English used by people whose first language isn’t English, and it’s a fine thing – a simple communication tool. It’s a gain, not a loss. I resent the smoothing-over of English’s surface. I like the way that referring to an urban railway as the Tube, Subway, BART, Métro, T or El immediately places the speaker in (or from) London, New York, San Francisco, Paris, Boston or Chicago. If my friend from Leeds directs me down t’ginnel I know to head down the alleyway…and where would I be without the multitude of words for bodily parts and functions? I’d laugh less in a world bereft of norks, bellends and clunges.
Just as First World banknotes contain minute amounts of cocaine, the British digestive tract – even that of a veggie – contains traces of fish’n’chips. When cod become extinct, super scientists will be able to clone them from a thousand miles of British intestines.
Chips will always be chips. Fries, French (frîtes) or otherwise, are widely available, but they’re long and slim. Chips are chunky chunks with fat-saturated skin (goose fat, if you’re in a particularly aspirational gastro joint) while the flat things that come in bags are, and will remain, crisps. The ad agency (yep, them) once tried to flog Pringles as “friendchips”…they won’t be doing that again. Their wretched array of twentysomething layabouts munching Pringles and talking bollocks didn’t help, but Michael Caine, Judi Dench and Winston Churchill couldn’t have fronted that campaign to victory.
Chips is chips, and I can’t imagine pavements, artics, cinemas and mobiles becoming sidewalks, semis, movie theaters and cells in a hurry. But pod words lie in wait, replacing existing words when they fall asleep. Stores are replacing shops. Intelligent becomes smart, smart meaning well-dressed disappears, stupid becomes dumb, dumb becomes mute. Spring becomes summer, summer becomes autumn…how long before autumn becomes fall? Will the word autumnal disappear, to be replaced by…what? Fally?
The unnecessary-but-BRITISH-damn-it “and” (“Come AND look at this”) is disappearing – and I’ve heard people asking for the bathroom. It’s taken considerable control to prevent this essay from becoming a series of rabid yelps (“Bathroom? Do you want a fucking bath? Do you want to “take” a fucking bath? You leave that bath where it is…” etc) – although bathroom (as opposed to toilet, lav, bog, or shitter) probably appeals to the middle class Brit’s innate politeness.
I’m trying not to judge individual words, but there are a few terms I find abhorrent. A Guardian journalist recently wrote a piece lamenting the ill-mannered stupidity of commenters in the paper’s online Comment is Free boards. While CiF comments have a long way to descend before they achieve YouTube’s “ur gay fag” levels of reprehensibility, they can be venomous and ill-informed. The journo’s complaints certainly had merit – but as far as I was concerned, he completely blew his credibility by calling commenters “retards”. A noun – re-tard; there are plenty of alternatives – moron, idiot, imbecile, fool, dickhead, or the good old British wanker – that don’t imply cognitive impairment (although, admittedly, it may be their origin). Well, it’s commonplace in North America and I have no problem with Americans using it. But a British journalist in his forties? While he’s unlikely to possess a vocabulary on a Will Self/Stephen Fry scale, he should have a pretty strong arsenal of insults. Was he trying to be down with the kids? Nice one, Disco Dad. Tosser.
“Language evolves” is used as a blanket dismissal, supposedly excusing laziness and sloppiness. The last time I had the misfortune to run into this argument, the arguer was trying to justify her use of gay as a pejorative term. Instead of calling her behaviour fucking disgraceful (which was my first inclination) I suggested that yes, language evolves, but the people who use the language can influence that evolution; we can accept or reject new usage, rather than adopting it without question. It took a long time for gay to become simple non-judgmental shorthand for homosexual. Should it now be traduced thoughtlessly? Should we allow that? We should not, that would totally suck balls.
Additionally, disconnect is a verb and buff is not an adjective, although sexy, when brought back as a noun, is fun.
I’ve set out a messy little manifesto here, haven’t I? It’s personal, though; I don’t intend to dictate, and I’m only criticising those who should know better, whose lazy-cool-laissez-faire-whatever attitude is slowly eroding the beautiful quirks which make communication hella entertaining and educational.
Ay, there’s the rub innit. Laziness is easier than…that other thing, the one that’s harder, and that’s the cause of most of these changes. But even for the conscientious objector-and-over-analyser (me) there is temptation. I’ve already mentioned sneakers; aeroplane sounds a bit childish, and as celluloid fades into the past, movie makes more sense than film. I’ll probably come round eventually, although when airplane appeared in two separate articles in a recent Guardian – British journalists writing in a British paper, letting the side down again – I was proper narked. Pissed off, not pissed, it was mid-afternoon, I hadn’t touched a drop.
And then…ah yes. I must admit, there are a few Americanisms I adore. What is an asshat? Do you know? I don’t, but it’s funny. And my favourite, something I’ll have to do eventually, one day…suck it up.
Haha, I enjoyed this. I’m with you— well, I would be wouldn’t I? We have to make a stand for our language!
Also, I was only thinking the other day that you hadn’t posted for a while.
A word that annoys me is ‘random.’ ‘Kids’ (and by kids I mean pretty much everyone from 10-25) using the word to describe anything even vaguely unusual. And then it’s evolved into things that aren’t in any way unusual either.
”I got a student discount on these nikes” (nikes are some sort of footwear, or so I’m led to believe)
No, no it isn’t.
Americanisms in British media annoy me. BUT I am also annoyed at people who complain about Americans ‘dumbing down OUR language.’
It is a different language. It’s a variation of our own that developed in it’s own way. And a lot of the ‘dumbing down’ makes sense really. How many ‘u’s or ‘l’s does one wourd realllly need?
I don’t think Americans are “dumbing down” UK English, I just think we’re adopting their version in a rather lazy fashion. US English is just as rich and expressive as ours, but I don’t particularly like the bland in-between form seeping from the internet into everyday life.
There’s a significant risk of me appearing to be a stuck-up God Save the Queen’s English arsehole here, isn’t there? Oh dear.
Yeah, I’m trying to avoid crossing that line. Especially when I know that my English isn’t always golly-gosh, how the devil are you? English.
Most of the writers I admire are American, and it tends to rub off on my writing unless I deliberately try and stop it.
I prefer ‘ass’ though, as a prefix to ‘hole.’ It sounds both more pleasant and more vitriolic. ‘Arsehole’ is almost playful, like ‘oh, you arsehole, you pilfered my last cucumber sandwich!”
OK, I just L’ed OL at that. Have you heard Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer? I recommend track 4, “I Say, You”. http://www.myspace.com/mrbthegentlemanrhymer
As always, if anyone wants anything translating, just ask. Here’s some more Englandish.
one of the best things about Facebook is that most of my friends are American.
So I’ll post a status about spuds, dressing gowns or spotted dick and then have to explain to a ton of people what I’m talking about.
It’s always a pleasure. But then even a lot of my English friends have to ask me what I’m talking about. Apparently I’m almost a parody of what it means to be English…
I recently tried to explain ‘Pants’ to an American. As in: That film was pants.
And the other startling revelation I recently had is that American’s don’t use the word ‘Fortnight.’
I thought they were pulling my leg. But it’s true! They don’t use it. Hardly ever. That is complete pants.
They don’t say “fortnight”? How do they say something’s happening in two weeks? Oh…
In the way that the definitive article can make negatives positive (shit/the shit, bollocks/the bollocks), it’s a shame nobody uses “THE pants” as an accolade.
That’s just weird! It must be so inconvenient having to say ‘two weeks’ whenever they make plans for the week after next…
‘Pants’ is a horrible expression. Although I thought it was an Americanism.
I know!! I was like: “But..but how do you say two weeks?? How does that work??”
I love pants. I just wished I used it more often. Kind of like how I do with ‘Jinkers.’
Now there’s a good word…
Wait, I know what a fortnight is, but how is that more convenient than saying two weeks?
It even has fewer letters… I call shenanigans!
I still don’t understand ‘pants’.
yeah, but fortnight is one word.
also it sounds kind of old and Victiorian.
and it has the word ‘fort’ in it.
Fort Night. I bet if Batman had a castle that’s what he’d call it.
And Batman is cool.
James has played the Batcard, signifying the end of the game. Like Mornington Crescent.
I am in your debt.
I’m still at a loss as to what ‘pants’ means outside of America. I gather it’s a perjorative, but I’ve no context to understand.
This probably won’t help. The comment from Reverend Steve of Waltham Abbey might shed a glimmer of light.
Like if something sucks, it’s pants.
‘That film we saw today was pants.”
‘His behavior today was pants.”
“This ice cream is pants.”
pants also means underwear.
pants aren’t as popular as they used to be, because of boxers and briefs.
pants as another word for ‘sucks’ is more common.
So when I put my pants on first thing in the morning, I’m really putting on my “sucks?”
No, your sucks go on your feet.
No, socks go on your feet, pants are what Superman wears over his tights. But we wear them under our tights…
The beautiful thing about the English language is it’s adaptability; it is an extremely versatile and expressive mode of speech, and I find the many verbal permutations and accents it’s developed in various places around the globe are beautiful things on the ear. It gives the speaker/writer a large verbal palette to paint with. If I remember correctly, English was Joseph Conrad’s third language, but his favorite (rather, favourite) to write in for that very reason.
Of course, as you point out, this is also a double-edged sword, and can just as easily lead to the language being degraded as it can to being built-up.
That back-and-forth isn’t always bad, though. There are several Britishims I’m rather fond of; it’s seriously fulfilling to call someone a twat, and I frequently utter ‘bloody hell’ in times of duress. I’ve always had a tendency to absorb some of the speech patterns and idioms used when I’m around persons speaking a different dialect than I do, sometimes even unconsciously mimicking the accent. Thanks to Zara, I now say “sweet as” with some regularity, even though no one around here has any idea what I’m saying.
Indeed yes, I love telling people to suck it up. Dyson should use it as an advertising slogan. Bogan is one of my absolute favourite words, although I only use it correctly. Redneck, on the other hand – I like to apply that to anyone displaying excessive patriotism; at World Cup time, any house or car with more than two George cross flags will have me attempting to sing “Don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground…”
And soon enough, we’ll divest you of all those silly, extra hads and haves, too! Mwahahahaaaa…
I don’t know.
I did a pretty stupid thing for my senior seminar (one of the last uni classes we take, in which we write a big paper to prove we learned something).
I took a linguistics course. I had to write a 20-page paper on a subject I had only ever studied once before in my collegiate life. So it ended up being a crash-course, and I ended up having to self-teach a great deal.
But one of the things I picked up along the way was that, in fact, we CAN’T control how our language evolves. I mean, I suppose it remains theoretically possible, but everything I’ve learned seems to suggest that’s just not the way it plays out in the big picture. It’s incredibly difficult for language groups to retain language over time as a result of a conscious effort to do so if it does not have huge majority backing from its speakers. Linguists discover this as they try to preserve “dying” languages. And efforts to change language over time are scattershot at best, with most successes being in conscious efforts by speakers to drop a native language or dialect altogether in favor of a preferred, more “desirable” language or dialect (in the sense that it is somehow viewed as more desireable by a large portion of its speakers). Linguists do not find this behavior desirable.
Though, I should point out, the “Universalish” online English doesn’t only affect Brits. I suddenly throw in those extra hads and haves for no good reason that I’m aware of. (That’s right. That I’m aware OF [period])
“(That’s right. That I’m aware OF [period])”
I made a funny.
Hads and haves? Do we have more hads and haves? I hadn’t noticed.
Do you mean like “Have you just farted?”, as opposed to “Did you just fart?” Those are actually disappearing.
Now then; you’re absolutely right about our inability to control the language’s evolution, because, of the many people who speak the language, very few really give a toss about it. The massive popularity of Lynn Truss’ grammar book Eats Shoots and Leaves around 2003 was a surprise, but did it lead to the British populace going “Eurgh, grocer’s apostrophe!” and demanding a “Ten items or fewer” checkout at the supermarket? It did not.
What I should have said to the “That’s gay” transgressor was that as individuals we can choose whether to adopt or reject new usage. There are plenty of alternative words denoting low quality; pants, for example.
And ending a sentence with a preposition? That’s something up about which even Kingsley Amis didn’t get worked.
Those are the ones.
Has she gone vs. Did she go/Did she leave?
They’ve gone to the store vs. They went…
“Now then” is British-y, as well (as is “as well”).
God, it’s suddenly really apparent to me how many subtle differences there are, even just in frequency and tenor of different words and phrases.
”Now then” is a brilliant phrase. Nothing better for starting something.
And by ‘starting something’ I mean a project or activity, rather than ‘starting something’ referring to a fight.
Yes! And those differences are tremendously entertaining to me – it’s their disappearance I’m unhappy about. About which I’m unhappy. I’m unhappy about their disappearance.
“Now then” is fairly pointless, isn’t it? I suppose it announces a new subject more succinctly than “Moving on to item two in the agenda…”
I suppose it depends how you use it.
My preference is when there’s a hold up before walking to the pub/cafe/wherever it is we’re going…
”NOW THEN! To the pub!/cafe!/wherever it is we’re going!” and then striding purposely in the direction of beer/tea/other
I wonder what the American equivalent is.
(With or without commas. You choose.)
“OK, movin’ on…”?
I loved a scene in Paranoid Park in which a detective is about to address a bunch of rowdy skaters. He lets them calm down a bit and the first thing he says is “Anyway…” Very cool, and the lads all laugh. Community policing skillz!
Dude! I feel your pain. And I’m not even pissed. Or an asshole. (Let me just hitch up my pants.) Your post was like totally awesome. I’m not even gonna put the boot in, have at it, or duff you up. Clearly, you’re up to sussing what we Americans are usually on about, without even a hint of curate’s eggishness.
Hat’s off! Bob’s your uncle!
I love Bob’s your uncle. So perfect for so many things.
It’s great, I agree, Zara! Here’s an interesting (and the most popular) explanation of “Bob’s your uncle” re its possible origin and its meaning; from WordReference.com, member “Ghostbuster”:
‘To those who don’t know the origin of “Bob’s Your Uncle” don’t feel bad. It has long been a part of the British/Irish lexicon but few people on the Isle have a clue as to its meaning. I hear it often from people of British descent, from Irish, Brits, Aussies, E. Indians etc. Still, its meaning is rather obscure. And makes for a fairly interesting little story. Here goes: Lord Salisbury, (Yes, that one; Salisbury Steak.) was Prime Minister of England circa 1887 and a member of the ruling Tory party and a member of a lengthy ancestry of the same title. He appointed an Arthur Balfour to a number of prestigious positions around the British Isles, including First Secretary of Ireland. Secretary Balfour made a great deal of money and gained great fame in his country and abroad. He was given more than proper respect. He was granted favor and preferential treatment everywhere he went. Mr. Balfour was, it seems, the nephew of Lord Salisbury, whose real name was Robert Cecil (pronounced “Sessil”). He was fondly referred to by his subjects as simply “Bob.” Thus, everywhere Mr Balfour went, he was ushered to the head of the line, the best seats at theatres, the finest tables at restaurants and so forth, with the salutation “Bob’s your Uncle” which validated him as more royalty than simple political appointee. And that, as they say, is that. Two interesting asides to the story. 1) As stated, this phrase is as much a part of the British lexicon as “piece of cake” is to ours. Yet the meaning is nearly meaningless to those who use it, except to say, it means (to them) “All is well.” 2) The phrase is even used in the movie “Pirates of the Carribean.” Captain Sparrow says to Captain Barbosa, “Robert’s your uncle and Fannie’s your aunt (an obvious reference to Lord Salisbury’s wife). Yet, the movie was set in the 18th century while the phrase didn’t originate until the late 19th century. Hope this helps. (It was researched and given to me by a research manager for the Gartner Group, Incorporated. So I trust the source implicitly.)’
There’s a ghastly, arch, David Brentish variation on “Bob’s your uncle” – “Robert is your father’s brother.” Actually I’ve never heard anyone say that in real life, thankfully.
(David Brent – Ricky Gervais’ character in The Office)
“Thankfully”, indeed, Steve!
Have you read Kate Fox’s _Watching the English_? Rodent’s son gave it to me on my second visit to England, and I loved it! Here’s an excerpt from an amazon.co.uk customer review of it:
10 Nov 2006
By Helen Hancox “Auntie Helen” (Essex, England)
This review is from: Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Paperback)
“I started this book 3 days after returning from my first trip to America. Whilst in America I became aware of the huge cultural difference between the friendly people of the USA and traditional Brits amongst whom I’ve lived almost my whole life – I found much of American behaviour inexplicable and rather rude and personal towards someone they didn’t know. I breathed a sigh of relief when returning to England, back amongst normal people who aren’t continually nosy and telling you what they think about politics, religion and anything else the whole time.”
“I wish I’d read this book before I went. Not that I wouldn’t have found a lot of American behaviour strange after reading it (I would still have done) but I would have been more aware of my cultural disabilities and how weird I must seem to them.”
“That’s the power of this book – you can dip into almost any page, read a paragraph and say “that’s me!” Kate Fox has studied the English for 10 years with remarkable acuity and she is able to identify behaviours that, to us, are entirely normal but are actually just part of our collective odd English behaviour patterns. When a man I had just been introduced to in America said “So, tell me all about yourself” I was left gaping at him in horror; `Watching The English’ describes how people in the UK never share personal information unless they know someone particularly well – and in fact most people don’t even introduce themselves to start with – my horror was expected and justified as I had never before been called upon to `blow my own trumpet’ and it is completely counter to British reserve and our self-effacing nature. Her comments on ignoring other passengers on train journeys, on our national obsession with pets, on queuing, mobile phone use, class distinctions, dislike of fuss and bother and so many other areas rang completely true.”
“What I particularly liked about the book (and that I am English would of course confirm this) was that she wrote with a lot of humour and throw-away one-liners, she wasn’t hugely pro-English or anti-English, she wasn’t anti-American (despite them being so ODD!) and was able to illustrate her comments through the vast amount of research that she has done, including interviewing English people and foreigners and carrying out experiments herself (such as bumping into people in the street and seeing if they say `sorry’ – the English generally do).”
I haven’t read Watching the English, but many people have recommended it to me, saying it’d be right up my street. It does indeed sound like my cup of tea.
I do hope you get a chance to read it, Steve. I giggled all the way through it, and learned much about the ways of Englishfolk (and USAmerican folk) that has proved spot-on.
In the same way that Applers like Macs because they’re not PCs, I like The Book Depository ’cause it’s not Amazon. And they have Watching the English at half price!
Thanks, Steve—had never heard of The Book Depository, will check it out immediately.
BTW, was gifted a MacBook Air which went belly up with massive overheating, hinge breaking, after 2 years; now have a Sony Vaio and love it.
Jersey Shore, Justin Bieber and bukkake. Ha!
I love my Steve Sparshott rants. In fact, I hereby declare that a rant concerning linguistics and/or usage should be called a sparshott. Although I don’t really see what’s the Barney with the blending of languages — or the kissing of tongues, if you will.
On the subject of cultural clashes in language: in a strip mall near the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC, a Chinese restaurant opened, calling itself Terminal House.
Great, great piece, man. (And thanks for explaining “chav,” which I’ve encountered a bit lately but didn’t know what it meant).
Also: did I use “Barney” right?
I love “Barney” for “trouble.” Because I dated a Brit, I will still occasionally say “Let’s have a butcher’s!” instead of “Let’s have a look!” or say knackered instead of tired. Knackered is such a great word. (:
“Knackered” is the pants. Alexei Sayle in The Young Ones:
“Excuse me, is this a cheese shop?”
Shopkeeper: “No, sir.”
Sayle: “Well that’s this sketch knackered then!”
I was well into bukkake when I was a kid, I made frogs and birds and loads and loads of planes.
I’m glad you like these; I’m a bit nervous about posting them, as I’m always aware that I have no qualifications in the field. I worry that someone will call me out for making an assertion that’s just plain wrong.
Brick Lane, centre of Bangla Town here in London, is best known for dozens of samey curry houses, but is also home to a (decreasing) number of fabric shops. I’ll put the following in its own little paragraph, specially for James:
One of them used to be called Touching Cloth.
That’ll require an explanation for most TNBers; “Touching cloth” is an expression meaning you really, really need a dump. See also: Gorilla’s finger, turtle’s head, rat’s nose.
Trust me to drag etymology straight down to scatology. Sorry.
As for barney…I’m not sure if that’s “real” rhyming slang or a Guy Ritchie invention. Please hold…
Thank you for holding. Apparently it’s pukka, but it’s usually used with an article – these two geezers ‘avin’ a right barney abaht sumfink – and that introduces geezer, which isn’t the same in the UK…there’s no end to it…
Touching coth and ‘the brown turtle is kissing my underpants’ are my two favourite expressions for needing a dump…
Oh, I love our language…
Chavs, Greg. They’re hard to describe or explain; after the title shot to prominence around 2004, there was a backlash, claiming class discrimination. But no; the chav label is as much to do with loud antisocial behaviour as fake sportswear and cheap jewellery. There are many definitions on Urban Dictionary but they’re generally one or all of the following: Illiterate, inaccurate, prejudiced, not funny. So I won’t provide a link.
Steve, you’re now TNB’s resident Kingsley Amis. We definitely need one. Great post, and not just because I’m a sucker for etymology.
The world cup reminded me of three of my favorite English Announcer/footballing phrases: Lovely Touch, Set Piece, and Ambitious. I’ve particularly been using ambitious in un-American ways, like when a friend of mine stares at a particularly attractive female. It has yet to catch on in my circle.
Wow. I mean, gosh. Well, thank you very much! I certainly don’t claim any authority; perhaps I’m more like Lynn Truss. More flexible, I mean.
Ambitious is quite versatile, isn’t it? Back in the mists of time* when I was on a dating site, if I saw a woman call herself ambitious, warning lights went off; I always imagined a status-obsessed corporate ladder climber. But I’d say Inception is ambitious, in that it packs an awful lot of storytelling into a couple of hours, and that’s definitely a compliment.
I love your version. Stick with it; even if it doesn’t catch on, it can still be yours.
Ah, the memories. Thanks, Steve.
Born in New Zealand, raised in Australia from the age of ten, lived in London for three and a half years (in my late twenties), a little bit of travel through Canada, but most of all, inconsistent bombardment of US vs British English through every-so-helpful spelling and grammar checkers. Embarrassingly, English is my only spoken language and I’m not very good at it. Though I can’t very well go around speaking in PHP and Java. That just won’t do.
My education in British slang is stuck firmly in the early 2000s, but I had completely forgotten about chavs and pants, and random was something you applied to people or events (as in, “You’re just some random I don’t care about”, and “Well, that was random”).
Something I’ve noticed in Australia in recent times, and it might have started as a piss take, is the usage of New Zealand slang in conversation. “Sweet as, bro” has replaced the familiar, yet dated and possibly localised expressions of “cool beans” and “grouse”.
Ha ha ha ha…
Yeah, we’re taking the piss.
Simon and Zara always spell it “brew”, and I remember an Aussie surf mag featuring a couple of NZ lads whose most commonly used expression was “Choice eh brue?”
“Grouse”? Never heard that one! I like the fact that it’s more of a negative term in other contexts (stop grousing, you moany bugger!).
We had an odd one for a few years at school – fair actually meant really good. As usual, I can’t offer an explanation.
I wrote this response last night when I was not necessarily completely sober, so I saved it for today when I could assess whether or not it was still applicable. I know your post is more about language and less about accent, yet I still can’t help trying to figure how the article below relates to what you’re saying. Maybe I’m reading too much into all of it. I do that.
I find it interesting that I read this article that you posted and this article:
that my friend sent me on the same day.
It would seem to imply that maybe you were more like us 300 years ago and now you’re just coming back over?
no— you were more like us.
WE CREATED YOU! OBEY US!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Apparently though the accent of New England is much closer to the English accent of yore.
Yeah, sure, Sport. I’ve tried this line of thinking on my children and it didn’t work on them, either.
You know that always goes wrong, right? The Matrix, BSG, Terminator etc etc.
Interesting piece! I’d have thought that in 1776 most European immigrants’ accents were still largely intact, although I imagine they’d be combining, heading towards the various American accents of today. I expect a major ingredient would have been Irish, and while I’m no linguist, it’s not hard to imagine an Irish accent mixing with various European sounds and a variety of UK dialects to become Mercan.
Right, I’m talking drivel. Shakespeare’s home, Stratford-upon-Avon, is in the Midlands, so he may well have sounded like Ozzy Osbourne. Alas, no recordings survive.
I should probably go outside and inhale a bit before replying to Uche.
Fun fun fun post! I certainly have the same global English jargon, with Nigerian pidgin mixed into the US and UK, and I’m as likely to throw in Desi cultural bits (including what I think of ABCDs) and even have a decent awareness of australasian expressions. My spoken French is pretty good, but what’s more important is that I keep reasonably up to date on argot, including the madness of Verlan. That’s just modern living innit? And it’s a glorious, glorious thing.
I think that the sheer variety of language, idiom, usage and mis-usage (also very important and formative) that the average person hears these days growing up ensures that awareness of, and flexibility in language throughout social strata is higher than it ever has been.
And any of us for well craze to think we can ever fully get a handle on it or slow it or control it. Even if it does piss us the fuck off every now and then (and leave us wanting to get proper pissed). And yeah, Twitter. I hate Twitter with a passion.
Uche! Hello. I was wondering whether you’d see this, and I was actually a bit nervous. I read your “Tongue of Warcraft” pieces some time ago, and found them both entertaining and scholarly; that is, you displayed knowledge as well as opinions. I only have opinions, really – based on observation, but not supported by much. I was afraid you might see my scattershot rant and say “That’s just plain wrong.”
I’m glad you liked it, though. And yes, it was intended to be (primarily) entertainment, as well as a vent for my spleen. I’m almost unable to speak (nerve damage) and the subjects covered here are the sort of thing I would grizzle about over drinks with friends, if I could do that sort of thing. But I can’t, so what we have here is my side of lots of conversations.
“In the U.K and U.S. the grammar constabulary is led by any buffoon who can write a book and convince enough copy-editors to mistake it for The Bible.” – that was you. To which I can only add…word.
Absolutely! I can tell an entertaining sally from a soulless grammar-crusader job a mile away.
I wondered about your voice after the “this is TNB” video. Very nice doing it all up with the silent film effect, BTW. Any chance its something from which you’ll eventually recover? I do hope so.
Cheers, Uche – no, my duff voice is part of a whole-body problem; my cerebellum took the impact of a Suzuki GSX-R600 motorbike in 2003 and now I only have about 25% physical function. Folks initially assume I’m cognitively impaired (y’know – a retard), but my speech is slow and awkward for the same reason as all my movements. Purely physical.
That’s why I started writing. I was a modelmaker and college technician, so the work was highly physical, from precise detail work to heavy lifting and machinery operation, and also required quick, accurate communication – written, drawn and often shouted. All that went out of the window, so now I sit and type. Slow-ly.
Oh bloody HELL! Sorry to hear about the accident. Nuff respect for you having worked something positive out of that. I do hope adaptive input technology catches up so you can at last type more quickly. That must be rather frustrating.
Thanks – it’s a 24-7 pain in the arse. For years I’ve been trying to make a “No, it wasn’t a stroke – it was a four-stroke!” joke work, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
I can type fast enough to maintain an IM conversation, but I’m sweating and going flat out, while the other person’s rummaging around the internet, taking phone calls and cooking dinner. The fact that my brain works much faster than my fingers does have a positive side; I rarely have to go back and revise anything. In a longer piece, I’ll change the order of paragraphs but there’s usually very little fat to trim.
I haven’t tried voice recognition software. I think it would work well, even with my unconventional speech, but an hour of clear dictation would wear me out. So for now I’ll just keep tapping away in a single-minded manner.
Hey groovers. I’m delighted by all the comments and I’ll respond properly tomorrow; for now, oof, I’m knackered. OMG, it IS tomorrow! Good night all.
Steve, the American slang overtaking the UK and Europe is born not just through movies and music- check out the preponderance of McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, Burger Kings, and now Starbucks taking over every corner. The whole marketing approach to fast food (and movies and music), is quick, dirty and “cool.” So American slang is seditiously purveyed to the masses like a side of colloquial fries.
I really enjoyed the British announcers (both the English and Scottish ones) during the World Cup this year because their expressions were way more eloquent, entertaining, and wry than we would normally hear during football or baseball games. It’s definitely a treat to hear the language originators doing their thing. 🙂
Definitely. McD’s and Starbucks can certainly take the blame for the rise of the use of regular, meaning normal, standard or everyday (rather than say, once a week). Actually, do Starbucks have a “regular” size? Grande, venti…I could be wrong.
I have to show you Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan’s) fabulous football commentary from the early ’90s. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzSQ3xgoh-w
Wayward apostrophe there. Never mind, eh?
Have either of you heard of Ray Hudson?
He’s a Geordie commentator on US tv, I think.
He’s insane. His use of language is beautiful…
“Morciless! Lyke Kathy Beates wi’ that sledgehammah in that moovie…”
I hadn’t heard of him and I looked him up on the ‘Tube and he’s the pants! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gS6Np-g_h5w
oh, trust me, my dear blimey limey…we Americans get our knickers in a twist over it too.
Far out in front of any reasonable demarcation of the razor’s edge, are the advertising copywriters.
My favourite travesty? “everyday.”
It is the name of a feminine hygiene product, and antecedently a perfectly serviceable adjective. But now it’s a travesty.
“That was fun. I could do that everyday.”
OH, STAB ME WITH A FUCKING BRICK. the word “everyday” can NEVER be followed with punctuation, in any world that lays claim to justice.
Oh dear, yes, advertising. I’ve gone blank, thinking of the innumerable insults to English perpetrated by advertisers. It’s a bit late, and as you can see, I’m having a bit of a hard time stringing sentences together.
“Duane Hanson’s sculptures celebrate the glorious complexity of the everyday.”
– be acceptable?
the exception proves the rule.
Oh crikey, as usual I’m lagging. I promise I’ll respond to all these comments tomorrow, but right now it’s nine minutes to August here in The United Kingdom of Great British. So good night once again, I’ll see you tomorrow. Big up all TNB crew!
I get shirty when language gets mauled down to a simpler version, or dialects get lost. And really, I have no ground to stand on, because it’s not as if I’m insisting we stick to Chaucerian English.
No, the truth is that I just get annoyed because suddenly, all of my years of studying English have been wasted. So fuck you, internet, for doing this to me.
It’s bloody inconsiderate, so it is.
Please excuse me, I’m so tired I’m tilting my upper body to type because it’s easier than moving my arm.
Good night! Before I go to bed I’ll read Slade Ham’s story that includes you and Zara and has PICTURES.
At least you still have Englandy or Englandish , however evolving, as a common denominator in your country. I live in Miami which is in southernmost Florida which used to be part of the United States which is still in the Western Hemisphere. We are now Havana North and Cape Haiti. I think I am the last fellow here that knows who Babe Ruth was or why we have Veterans Day. We have bumper strips that say “To last American- Don’t forget to take the flag.” Hasta Luego!
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