While writing our new novel we consulted English friends about a few words and phrases we had written in the book, a crime thriller titled, “Deadly News.”
One of the plot’s bad guys, a British media mogul, uses a vulgar expression that we thought meant, “Get out of here.” But we were one word off. What we were having the villain say was the vulgar British term for “nothing,” as in, “I did all that work and got BLEEP-all for it.”
We got it wrong, but had time to edit it out. But might we be making similar mistakes with other British words? Having lived in London and having British friends here and there, we’ve learned to appreciate and to appropriate some British words and phrases that are efficient, effective and just plain cool.
We’ve also enjoyed an explosion of British TV series on American TV, from “Upstairs, Downstairs” to the seductively popular “Downton Abbey.”
We get a different slice of English life and language, with “Call the Midwife,” a quirky TV series set in London’s East End in the 1950s. It’s all about young nurses and midwives who ride bicycles and deliver babies, which is not as daft as it sounds.
The East End is home of Cockney rhyming slang, a sub-language contrived by locals in the 1840s that allows them to communicate with one another while leaving nosy outsiders in the dark.
One colorful example is the phrase, “Trouble and strife.” It’s Cockney for “wife.” Strife rhymes with wife. Then they remove the “and strife” and end up with just “trouble.” So “trouble” means “wife.”
Rhyming slang runs from colorful to crude, so be careful with it.
The differences between American English and British English can be fun-filled. Here are interesting British words we either knew about or learned from various websites, including the excellent .
• Pear-shaped: It means gone wrong, similar to our “out of kilter.” Usually in a jovial sense.
• Squiffy: Pear-shaped or anything that has gone wrong, especially if excess alcohol is involved. “Dad was looking squiffy by midnight.”
• Faff: Pussyfooting or messing around doing things not relevant to the task at hand. “Often used when men are complaining about women faffing around,” trying on shoes and such.
• Kip: Sleep, sometimes as in a nap. “I’ll be having an hour for some kip.”
• Table: In America, “table” as a verb, “to table” something, is to put it aside for now, to postpone action on an issue, perhaps.
In British, however, to “table” means just the opposite, to put forward for consideration.
One of our favorites is the British word “yous.” The Sceptic’s Companion reports it’s the Scottish plural of “you.”
“Are yous coming? When alien civilizations try to crack the English language, several things will make them wonder how on earth anyone managed to communicate using it. Perhaps the most confounding will be that we had no way to make a distinction between addressing one single person, or several thousand.”
To some Americans “yous” sounds incorrect. But in parts of the U.S., many people use the word “yous,” as in “you people” or, in the south, “y’all.”
Our favorite British expressions that slowly are settling in here are “spot on,” and “one off.” As in, Chris says about Don, “Me old pot and pan” thinks this column should be an ongoing series, not just a one off.” Pot and pan rhymes with old man. Remove the pan and you are left with pot.
Says Don about Chris, “My trouble is spot on.”