Form an orderly queue, chaps: A quick guide to British English
“Why British English?”, I hear you ask. Well, that’s because the OUPBlog is going international, with the new UK Early Bird. I will be posting from the UK office of OUP, bringing you the British take on all things blog-like. By way of introduction, I thought I’d take you through a lighthearted tour of some of my favourite examples of British English.
In last year’s edition of The Language Report, Susie Dent named ‘bovvered’ the word of the year. It originated as a catchphrase from a BBC comedy sketch show The Catherine Tate Show, and has become such a part of British cultural consciousness that even Tony Blair used it in a 2007 TV charity telethon. It is a uniquely British word, and it’s doubtful that many people beyond the shores of this sceptred isle will recognise it, let alone use it.
The world of food is a minefield of linguistic differences. While we both have chips and biscuits, they mean different things. What Americans call ‘chips’, we call ‘crisps’, while our ‘chips’ are their ‘fries’. This means that our US cousins are missing the delights of a good old chip butty – thick-cut chips between two slices of buttered bread (add ketchup to taste). Biscuits, meanwhile, to us Brits means what Americans call ‘cookies’, while their ‘biscuits’ are our ‘scones’.
A truly quintessential British meal is probably without equivalent in the US (though please do correct me if I’m wrong): the toad-in-the-hole. Worry not, no amphibians are harmed in the making of this particular repast: toad-in-the-hole is simply sausages baked into Yorkshire Pudding (now this particular pudding is savoury, not sweet – I hope you’re keeping up with me here!).
Moving away from food, the 2004 Language Report word of the year was ‘chav’. This derogatory slang term is defined in the OED as “a young person of a type characterised by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (especially sportswear); usually with connotations of low social-status”. If you were to come across a chav while out and about, you might say they looked a bit ‘dodgy’ (or, as the OED might say, ‘unreliable, questionable, dubious’), or perhaps you might be frightened that they might start a bit of ‘argy-bargy’ (an argument).
We put ‘petrol’ in our car instead of ‘gas’, our water comes out of ‘taps’, not ‘faucets’, and we use ‘lifts’, not ‘elevators’. We don’t go on ‘vacation’, we go on ‘holiday’, we take out the ‘rubbish’, rather than the ‘trash’ or ‘garbage’, and we buy our houses from ‘estate agents’, not ‘realtors’. But these important linguistic differences don’t just shape our adult lives – they are evident from the moment we draw breath: our babies wear ‘nappies’ and are taken outside in ‘pushchairs’ (not ‘diapers’, or ‘strollers’).
So it seems that we really are two nations divided by a common language, but we can still communicate enough to maintain our special relationship. Anyway, surely half the fun is figuring out what each other means.
About the UK Early Bird
Kirsty McHugh has been with Oxford University Press since July 2005, where she works in the publicity department. As well as her new role as the UK blogger, she also looks after the publicity in the UK/Europe for the Very Short Introductions, the Oxford Paperback Reference series, as well as a variety other trade, reference and academic titles. She can be reached at kirsty(dot)mchugh(at)oup(dot)com.