Enough about the sound of things. As long as you’ve got at least one ear to listen with and can read people’s lips while they talk, you’ll be able to follow along and make sense of the conversation—until you encounter some undecipherable British vernacular, that is. Given that I have not even lived here a year, nor ventured very widely, I have only just begun to learn all the wonderful phrases that only Brits (and maybe Australians) say, and to decipher them. However, I have been keeping a mental account of some of the new words words I’ve encountered—some of which I’ve even found creeping into my own speech:
• Suss, as in, “to suss out.” This means “to investigate,” “to feel out,” “to determine.” For instance, “I didn’t think that the pub looked very reputable, so I peeked through the window to suss out the situation before going in.”
• Punnet. This is a small plastic container holding small produce, such as berries—what, in America, I would refer to as a “carton.” For instance, “I bought a punnet of strawberries from the market.”
• Zed. No matter what I may change about my accent and vocabulary, I hope I never let this word creep into my vernacular, because it truly offends my sensibilities. This is the British word for “zee,” the last letter of the alphabet. It comes from the Greek and has earlier origins than the American “zee,” which I like to think of as a more highly evolved version of the letter's pronunciation and spelling.
• Serviette. For some reason, the British have absorbed more French words into everyday use than we have in America. In addition to the things we say (e.g., “café,” “hors d’oeuvres,” “voila,”) there are also nouns for which English counterparts are rarely or never used. “Serviette” is one of these, and it means “napkin.” I am not sure that I can ever bring myself to use this word in normal conversation, because it just seems too pretentious. Unfortunately for me, however, people do sometimes hesitate when you ask for a "napkin," and I honestly think it’s because they aren’t quite sure what you want. I may have to cave in eventually and allow this word entry into my vocabulary.
• Car park. I’m sure I don’t have to define this one. This phrase has the same number of words as the American equivalent, but fewer syllables, so technically it is more efficient. However, it bothers me. “Car park” seems to me like something that should either be a verb (“I am performing a car park”) or a place where you take your vehicle to go frolic in the grass on a sunny day. It doesn’t sound like what it is, a parking lot (which, come to think of it, is another phrase that could use some grammatical critiquing).
• Quid. No, this is not an animal with tentacles. This is the British equivalent of “bucks,” as in, “Can you lend me 20 quid so I can buy us some drinks at the pub?” I always feel like such a poser when I contemplate using this word, so I just stick with “pounds.” However, the other day it came out of my mouth during an exclamation ("They gave me 20 quid for walking the dog?!"), so it looks like my transformation is already beginning, whether I like it or not.
• Marquee. This means “large tent,” as in, the thing that you would have at a large outdoor event, such as a wedding or a circus or, as I have already described, one of the innumerable festivities in Discovery Quay. This word makes me think of its homonym, “marquis,” which is a type of nobleman, or of the American definition of the word, “a tall rooflike projection above a theater entrance containing the name of the currently-featured show.” Thus, I prefer “tent.”
• Shop, as in “a shop,” rather than “to shop.” This word is sometimes used in the US, also, but not often—normally we’d say “store,” or even “market.” To me, a shop is much smaller and quainter, which, in fact, is often more accurate here in the UK, given the scaled-down nature of many buildings here. When you say, “I’m going to pop out to the shop,” it doesn’t sound like you could possibly be spending all that much money, so I enjoy using this phrase in a euphemistic way in order to disguise splurges.
• Fringe. This is the British word for “bangs,” and these two terms couldn’t really be more unalike. I have to admit, although I feel a bit odd saying “fringe,” it at least makes sense. Who thought to refer to the head above your forehead using a word that also means “loud noise” or “blow”?
• Paying-in, as in “I need a paying-in slip.” This is the British term for “deposit.” “Paying-in” does make sense, when you think about the meaning of the words, but it seems unnecessary and inefficient to use a hyphenated phrase when a single word would do.
• Lorry. This is a word that I first learned after listening to Neil Young’s “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” (“Old man lying/by the side of the road/with the lorries rolling by”). “Lorries” are “trucks,” though that word is also sometimes used here. Lorry is one of those words that just seems so intrinsically British that I can’t help feeling self-conscious at even the idea of uttering it—I would feel like such an imposter.
• Loo/loo-roll. I think probably every American knows what this means, because it’s one of those “cute” terms we pick up on in movies or when having the odd encounter with a British ex-pat in the US. “Loo,” of course, is bathroom (or, to use the local synonym, “toilet”), while “loo-roll” is toilet paper. When it comes time for me to refer to this place, I prefer “toilet,” a term that is used on both sides of the Atlantic and therefore allows me to fit in without sounding too fake. However, occasionally it’s fun to say “loo” just because it has a nice ring to it, and doesn’t sound as though it could be associated with something at all unsavory.
• Queue. When I first learned the word “queue,” I think it was in reference to the braid that Chinese men used to wear down their backs. Odd that I should learn that definition prior to the one used in Britain, which is “line.” I’ve been so conditioned to say "line" over my 29 years of English speaking that I usually don't even consider "queue" as a choice in my vocabulary, but I no longer really notice when people around me say it, which hints at a bit of integration on my part. Speaking of positional phrases, this is a good time to point out that the Brits sometimes use “on” instead of “in.” For instance, when you buy tickets the night of an event, you pay “on the door.” I find this strange, since it is not physically accurate—you are paying at the door, perhaps while standing on the doorstep or inside the doorway, but I’m guessing you are probably not standing atop the door while you hand over your money.
• Finally, ladies in the UK do not suffer from “PMS,” but rather “PMT,” short for “premenstrual tension.” I think we can all agree that you can call this whatever you like, it will be an unpleasant experience regardless.
When speaking with the locals, you may also find yourself confused at their use of otherwise familiar words, or find them giving you strange looks as you speak. This is because many words here have quite different meanings from words in the US. For instance, it would be best if you avoided saying “Oh, I got a stain on my pants while eating dinner!” because in Britain, “pants” means “underwear,” and the item of clothing you wear over those is referred to as “trousers.” If, after that meal, you are asked whether you would like some pudding, do not think that your only option of dessert is a thick sweet cream. “Pudding” here means any assortment of desserts, including not only those with an American pudding-like consistency, but also things that involve mousse, sponge, cake, etc. Also, while you might get away with describing a dessert as “fruity” if it does, in fact, contain fruits, I would advise against using this adjective on a person. In the US, you might use this word to indicate someone who is crazy or weird, or, if you are being close-minded and rude, homosexual. Here in the UK, though, it means “horny” or “randy.” You might make use of this phrase when “taking the piss” out of someone or something. This does not mean extracting a urine sample (unless perhaps you are a doctor or a veterinarian), or making them less furious about something. Instead, this means making a tongue-in-cheek quip to poke fun at them. On the other hand, if you are pissed, you are not angry, nor (hopefully) have you peed your pants; you are totally drunk. People often find themselves in this state after sitting in the pub all afternoon watching football. As you are probably aware, in this time of pre-World Cup buildup, this sport does not consist of men in padded clothing throwing an elliptical ball at each other, but is the British word for “soccer.” [Theoretically the American word for this sport is derived from a shortening of the phrase “asSOCiation football,” onto which was added an “-er,” but I am not sure that I buy this convoluted explanation.]
If you happen to be a footballer in the UK, you will need to occasionally go buy yourself some boots and, otherwise, replenish your kit. This does not mean that you will be tromping around in calf-high footwear, since “boots” here refer to sports shoes with cleats (e.g., those used in rugby, soccer, cricket, etc.). Additionally, “kit” is not a selection of tools used to assemble something, but the suite of gear that you use—I hear this most often used in terms of sports equipment, but it can also refer to any outfit and is also used to describe people who like to get naked (e.g., “get their kits off”). In training for soccer, you will probably find yourself going for a run, in which case you’ll want to swap your boots for trainers. However, once you’ve showered up and put on your street clothes for a night on the town, you might also wear a different type of trainers that are intended to be less athletic and more aesthetic. In all my years of competitive running, I referred to my footwear as “tennis shoes” (a bit of a colloquial phrase, I think), “running shoes” (obviously), or “training shoes.” Thus, while “trainers” makes sense intuitively, it was not a word I was familiar with until I came here. Likewise, using this same word to describe “sneakers” or, again, “tennis shoes” is something new for me. People who have many pairs of trainers had better have a large flat in which to store them. I am not using this word as an adjective, in the American English way, nor as a type of women’s shoes without heels or a long, rectangular open-topped carton in which you might carry a bunch of potted plants. In Britain, “flat” means “apartment,” which is understandable given that, unless you are unlucky enough to live in quite an old building that is beginning to shift off its foundations, your living space is probably, indeed, flat. You might also need a large boot in which to transport all these many pairs of shoes. By this I, again, am not referring to calf-high footwear, but to the “trunk” of your car.
Even once you have mastered all of the new words and alternative meanings, as I most definitely have not (even my husband, who has British parents and has spent a good number of years in Britain, can be surprised by vernacular every now and then), you will still have to deal with differences in pronunciations. One of my greatest struggles as an American ex-pat is using British pronunciations; in fact, it’s really not much of a struggle—I just don’t do it. However, I think them in my head before I speak, but when I open my mouth I just can’t commit myself for fear of sounding like a wannabe, and so I pause, stammer, and then finally spit out the American version. It is so hard to get over 29 years’ worth of practice, and it is also hard to convince myself that people won’t think I’m either taking the piss (see how nicely that phrase works?) or pathetically trying to fit in when I so obviously don’t. I’m sure that one day I will just get over this and commit to speaking like a local, most likely because my husband torments me every time I insist upon being so obviously American. In any case, many examples of these pronunciation differences are food-based. Here, the “ba” in “basil” sound like the “ba” in “bad,” rather than “bay.” “Oregano” has an emphasis on the first and third syllables, rather than the second; likewise, “shallot” has an emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first.” In “yogurt,” which is more often than not spelled “yoghurt,” the “yog” is pronounced like “cog.” The “on” in “scones” is pronounced more or less like the preposition (as in, “I am standing ON my soapbox”). Any multisyllable word ending in “berry” (raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, etc.) might as well be spelled “bry,” because it effectively has only one syllable rather than two (ditto “-bury”). This is similar to condensing names like Worcestershire to sound like “Woostshire,” and “Saint Andrews” to sound more or less like “Snandrews.” Now that we’re on the topic of places, I will point out that “Caribbean” is not pronounced “CARE-ih-BE-an,” but “Ca-RIB-e-an.” Inexplicably, a “derby,” which here is usually meant to refer to an important sporting contest between rival teams (not usually horse races), is pronounced “darby.” In my humble opinion, if you want an “a” sound, you shouldn’t spell with an “e,” but who am I to argue with the people who actually invented the language I speak? (They invented it but we Americans perfected it, yes?) Finally, when I begin my research job this fall, I will be working on “zebra” finches, whose name is not pronounced “ZEE-bra,” but with a “ze” sounding like the last letter of the British alphabet, which you now know is “zed.”
As with all the topics covered here, I could list many more examples but will refrain so as not to become tiresome or sound like I am poking fun or complaining. Actually, none of these differences bothers me—I find them quite interesting, and it makes me think about the ridiculous phrases and pronunciations present in my own language—but it does get a bit annoying to have people constantly sniggering at the things you say. It seems a bit unfair that Brits visit the US and get adoration for their accents, but Americans go to the UK and get laughed at. I suppose I could just shut my mouth and rely solely on the written word, but this, too, would require some conformation. Here, “-or” words such as “color” and “behavior” are spelled “colour” and “behaviour.” “Check” is spelled “cheque,” and rather than hitting the “curb” with your “tire,” you hit the “kerb” with your “tyre.” Instead of ordering a “filet” of fish (or, indeed, any other piece of meat), you order a “fillet,” and pronounce the “t” on the end. If you are like me, you may wonder why so many other French word/phrases are left intact, in terms of both pronunciation and spelling, and yet “fillet” has been altered in such an aesthetically unpleasing way. For now, it shall remain a linguistic mystery for which I shall hypothesize no solutions. Or, should I say, “hypothesise,” because the “z” in British English is often replaced with an “s” when followed with an “e” at the end of words (e.g., “analyse,” “categorise,” etc.).
To learn all of these variations would require one to embark on a serious “programme” of study. For now, however, let me mollify my British readers by closing with a compliment. Having grown up in the foothills of Appalachia, I inherited some rather interesting old country phrases passed down from my mother and grandmother, who, in turn, got them from previous generations, and so on. And where do you think those phrases originated? Aside from the ones that appear to be Appalachian/Southern specialties ("Crooked as a dog's hind leg" comes to mind, which we use to mean "severely bent" as opposed to "dishonest"), many of them have origins right here in Britain. This includes phrases that are more widely known in the US ("Three sheets to the wind," "at the end of my tether," "flogging a dead horse," and variations thereof), as well as ones that I generally only hear when I'm around my own family ("Colder than a witch's tit in a brass bra" is a good one that comes to mind, as well as "I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole," which comes from the British "I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole"). In all my time living away from home, I almost never encountered anyone who a) used as many idiomatic phrases as I did, or b) could decipher what I meant when I used them. It feels very homey to once more be surrounded by people who use strange euphemisms and metaphors, and who know what I mean when I do the same. So, there you go, it's all fine and dandy, and Bob's your uncle.