Translating English English into regular English
“England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”(George Bernard Shaw)
Pshaw Mr. Shaw! Exaggerating the differences between British and North American English has been a time-honoured convention. In 1789, lexicographer Noah Webster predicted that over British English and North American English would diverge to a point that they became as different as Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from German or from each other. Clearly, this fear has not materialized.
Because my life-partner hails from Yorkshire, I am used to hearing her being “peckish” rather than “hungry,” “she wears “jumpers” not “sweaters,” uses “bins” and “flannels” instead of “garbage cans,” and “washcloths” and gets pricked by “flu jabs” not “flu shots.” Also, our bathrooms contain “loo rolls” not “toilet paper.”
On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, however, I was surprised by the number of words and expressions that left me befuddled. I asked someone in London where I could find an ATM. She looked nonplussed but her companion translated, “he means a “hole-in-the-wall.” Often my non-comprehension would occur upon espying commercial signs. For example, I was perplexed on seeing a sign announcing “bespoke industrial units” and another advertising “bespoke shoes.” I got a clearer idea when I saw another sign that read “bespoke tailors.” The OED defines bespoke as “ordered to be made, as distinguished from ready-made.” By the way, ready-made clothes in the UK are not referred to as “off the rack” but rather as “off the peg.” Some other British-sounding usages I noticed were the pompous (if not oxymoronic) sign in York that advertised “purveyor of fine fish & chips,” and the announcement on the Tube to “alight for Buckingham Palace.”
Reading British newspapers introduced me to some new terms. I spotted many newspaper usages of the word “laddish,” an adjective used to describe testosterone-addled males. Here are three examples: “The laddish letters of Kingsley Amis”; a pop music impresario described as “defiantly laddish and magnificently queenly”; and a denunciation of the “laddish attitudes ingrained in footballers from youth.”
Another unfamiliar word to me was “swot” which performed double duty as a noun and a verb in British dailies: “Any swot lucky enough to be blessed with BBC Choice can tonight experience ‘an evening of programmes dedicated to one of the greatest singer-songwriters and one of the most influential political artists of modern times’.”, and “I wanted to swot up on rock history.” The OED defines swot(v) as “to work or study at school” and swot(n) as “one who studies hard”. In colloquial use as a noun, it seems to be used most often as a synonym for “nerd.” The OED quotes one theory that the term was originated by the following terse comment by Scottish Professor of Mathematics William Wallace while employed at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, England: “It mades one swot”= (sweat).
British terms can be more picturesque than their counterparts in North America. A good example, is our inelegant “speed bump” which is often rendered in British English as “sleeping policeman.” that is a direct translation of the French gendarme couché.
Speaking of French, when dining in British restaurants or pubs, you might get the impression that the Normans had re-seized power. “Eggplant” and “zucchini” are supplanted respectively in England by “aubergine” and “courgettes,” and a Brit is more likely to wipe egg off his face with a “serviette,” rather than a “napkin.” Other menu items A North American might not be familiar with are “bangers” (sausages) and “bubble and squeak.” This dish originally contained beef along with the left-over cooked potatoes and cabbage, though today people don't generally bother with the meat. The name is apparently due to the sounds that are emitted during cooking, the vegetables bubble as they are boiled and then squeak in the frying pan.
Judging by the words on menus, you might be loath to order some pub grub fare, so let me deconstruct their meanings. “Faggots” is a type of meatball made with pork and beef liver, and “toad in the hole” consists of suusagesin Yorkshire pudding batter usually served with vegetables and gravy. Then there is the dish that sounds like a venereal disease- “spotted dick.” It is actually a pudding dessert consisting of a suet-based sponge cake and fruit such as raisins or currants.
Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?