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Form an orderly queue, chaps: A quick guide to British English

By Kirsty

“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.

Recent Comments

  1. Phil

    Go go go Kirsty!

  2. Tony

    And don’t forget:

    Everyone knows that the Englishman’s bum is the American’s hobo, and the American’s butt is the Englishman’s thing they have for collecting rainwater or storing Malmsey. Also, I am told that behind is so closely associated in America with butts that it is rarely used to denote the position of one thing relative to another and they have to say “Get thee in back of me, Satan”.

    Englishmen have no such problem; we happily use the word in both senses and it is hard to imagine a context in which this could cause misunderstanding.

    But when we come to ass/arse the position is more complicated. Americans have only the first word and pronounce it the same whether it is the animal or the other thing. We used to have the two words meaning different things which were pronounced and spelt differently. This meant that one could call someone a silly ass (short “a”) which was a very mild and respectable way of telling him he was foolish. But inconsistency and confusion crept in long ago; in the fifties one of our serious newspapers noted on one page that the cricket authorities had been accused of assing about with the selection for the next Test match while on another page in the same issue Britain was said to have kicked the debtor nations up the arse.

    My own feeling is that Englishmen of taste and refinement prefer the longer word, but, sadly, American influence has meant that it is now falling out of use.

  3. John Cowan

    So what does “bovvered” actually mean, for the benefit of Yanks and others? The article you link to says that no explanation is needed; well, it is!

    Also, chips are not fries nor vice versa. There is a restaurant not half a mile from my house in NYC where chips may be bought, and they are large and bar-shaped, rather than small and rod-shaped like fries.

    The nearest analogue of toad-in-the-hole is possibly pigs-in-a-blanket, which are sausages (usually hot dogs) wrapped in a crescent roll and baked. Yorkshire pudding in America takes the form of the popover, which is basically a miniature Yorkshire pudding baked in a custard cup.

  4. The Book Depository

    […] OUP blog gets UK voice Monday, 28th May 2007 The US-based Oxford University Press blog has now added a British voice to its mix — nice touch. And an interesting first post on […]

  5. John Cowan

    Tony: Distinguo. In the U.S., a hobo is a rather impolite term for what is now called a migrant laborer; a tramp is a migrant non-laborer, and a bum neither migrates nor labors. Both of the latter categories are now referred to as “homeless people”, though of course there are plenty of other kinds of people without homes as well.

    As for “behind”, of course we have no trouble with it as a preposition, though we do like “in back of” as well. Note that “in back of” is parallel to “in front of”, which is transatlantic.

    As for “ass”, in the 19th century United States a lot of words lacked “r” between “a” and “s”. This is quite distinct from the later process by which most English dialects lost “r” after all vowels, and probably reflects an earlier change that affected the English rural dialects but not the standard language.

    Much of this change has been undone: we no longer say “hoss” for “horse” or “skasely” for “scarcely”, as we did in Mark Twain’s time. But we still have “bust” (now a separate verb from its parent, “burst”), “passel” (meaning a large quantity of something) from “parcel”, and “cuss” from “curse”.

  6. Tony

    John: Well, we didn’t lose the “r” in “arse”, thank goodness, so we still have two words differing in spelling AND pronunciation AND meaning.

    And there is no doubt that your loss of our “bum” has impoverished you:

    The last couplet of Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale provides a perfect end to the story, combining as it does a terse summary of the final situation and a pious wish which we may all share.
    In a modern translation by an Englishman it goes:
    “Now Nicholas is branded on the bum
    And God take all of us to Kingdom come.”

    And see what a modern American translation has done with it:
    “And Nicholas is branded on the butt.
    This tale is done, and God save all the rout!”


  7. Ian

    John, just found this thread four years late.

    bovvered means bothered. here’s an explanation.

    It’s a cockney pronunciation. A cockney is a person born within the hearing distance of the bells of Bow church,a district of London. Everyone likes to think they are a cockney when in fact they are not.

    Cockneys tend to use double v instead of th as in muvver or bruvver instead of mother or brother. In the 60’s there was a cockney skiffle/rock n roll band called Joe Brown and his bruvvers.

    Chips and fries -I have found while here in Texas they are two different things unless buying fish and chips (which very often means you still get those horrible fries). Potato chips are British crisps.

    Another word that Brits and Americans use is Jock. In the UK, a Jock is a Scotsman ( originally a form of John) in the US, it refers to an athlete usually football – which could lead to a whole new thread about sports and their variations.

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