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Talking Funny, or: Annoying Britishisms, Sorted

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One of the most viewed items on the Web site of Britain's Telegraph newspaper recently has been a blog posting by the paper's Washington correspondent, Toby Harnden. It's titled "Top 10 most annoying Americanisms" and it's a list of U.S. expressions that bug the Tobester. I imagine most Americans could come up with lists of their own, but when a foreigner does it, we bristle. It's like a stranger calling your dog ugly. He may be ugly, but he's still your dog.

Harnden aims his poison pen at some of the usual subjects: Have a nice day. (He writes: "Translation: 'I would like you to have a pleasant time today' or 'I hate you' -- or anything in between") and some odd ones: You're welcome ("Translation: Meaningless Pavlovian response to thank you").

[[Actually, what I find most Americans say in response to "Thank you" is... "Thank you." I can barely listen to NPR for the surfeit of misplaced gratitude.]]

Most of what Harnden objects to are Americans' attempts at politeness: How are you today? Happy holidays. You're welcome. Have a nice day. We may think of the British as polite, but that's only if you confuse aloofness with politeness. In fact, I'll bet the two things that bug Harnden about phrases such as "Have a nice day" and "You're welcome" is: 1. That you don't mean it. 2. That you do mean it. What goes over big in Britain, meanwhile, is what one British acquaintance of mine calls "subtly subversive disingenuousness." No Brit would ever say "Have a nice day" unless it was delivered in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

Harnden also dislikes "Not so much," as in "I like fish and chips. Haggis? Not so much." Here's an interesting article that traces the expression to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and its entrenchment to Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show." I think what really spread "not so much," though, was its use by Borat, aka Sacha Baron Cohen who is, er, English.

But enough whining about the man from the Telegraph. Let's do our own Most Annoying Britishisms. I couldn't come up with 10, a reflection no doubt of Britain's waning global linguistic influence. But I have five and I invite you to submit your own:

1. "Can I help?" Walk into any store in England and you'll be greeted by this phrase. I find it annoying for two reasons: It's lazy. (The shopgirl can't even expend the energy to say "Can I help you?") And it's ridiculously disingenuous. England has no service culture so, no, she probably can't help.

2. "What are you on about?" Translation: What are you talking about? What do you mean? But it's only uttered by people too dumb to know what you're on about.

3. "Well, that's [blank] sorted." Fill in the blank: "dinner," "the bills," "my college application," whatever--it means that a task has been successfully completed. But there's a self-congratulatory tinge to it as well as a typically English diminution of the matter at hand. The phrase is best employed when there is a disconnect between the jocularity of the expression and the substance of the actual issue, ie: "Well, that's the Nazis sorted." I'm pretty sure Churchill said that.

4. Infantilizing nicknames. Any figure who spends any time in the news in Britain must have a nickname and it is usually a nickname created according to this basic formula: Truncate the first or last name, add double consonants, end it with a vowel. Thus BBC auto show presenter Jeremy Clarkson is "Jezza." Former politician Michael Heseltine is "Hezza." Toby Harnden would be either "Tozza" or "Hazza." (Of course, it isn't just proper names that the British like to abbreviate, witness "telly" for "television," "biccie" for "biscuit" and "Crimbo" for "Christmas.")

5. "Cheers." "Cheers" is sort of like the British equivalent of "aloha": a multipurpose word that can be employed in nearly any situation. It means goodbye. It means hello. It means thank you. It means you're welcome. Many English people are unable to hold even a single, brief conversation without frequent lashings of the C word.

Well, that's five from me to get us started. What bugs you about the way our English cousins speak--or can't speak--our shared language? And while we're at it, what drives you crazy about Amerispeak?

Where in Washington?
Can you identify the Washington building pictured in this historic postcard (which comes to me courtesy of David Stinson)?

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If you think you know what it is, send an e-mail to kellyj@washpost.com. The first correct entry I receive wins a Post postcard signed by a Post Pulitzer winner. (Last week's postcard was of what is today the National Museum of Natural History.) Cheers!

By John Kelly  |  December 29, 2008; 9:15 AM ET
 | Tags: England, language  
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Comments

I wasn't annoyed so much as amused by the common British telephone send off "Cheers, Bye."

I think the source of my amusement was the fact that every British person I ever spoke with on the telephone, from the operators at the pager company to Members of Parliament, said the phrase the exact same way before they hung up: "ChersbYYYYYYYYYYYYYEeee." "Cheers" was almost entirely lost in a sing-song ennounciation of "bye" that stretched out for at least 3 or 4 seconds.

Also, the phrase "Are you alright?" instead of "how is it going?" used to throw me for a loop, mostly because I would only ask someone if they were "alright" if they were either crying or actively bleeding.

Posted by: MattinSW | December 29, 2008 9:50 AM | Report abuse

"Brilliant" and "Well Done!" are overused in the UK, which has a whiff of a superiority complex.

Posted by: ShawnDC | December 29, 2008 9:55 AM | Report abuse

The funny thing about "not so much" and tracing it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Joss Whedon - the series creator - spent many years in England as he graduated from Winchester College - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winchester_College

His British influence actually shows up on Buffy; the British character of Giles is frequently dismissive of American culture (Emily Dickinson was a good poet "for an American"; he has to work to not refer to the American characters as "Bloody Colonials".)

I'm also wondering who says "Let's visit with each other." I've never heard anyone I know (or have simply met before) use that phrase. Honestly, it sounds more British than American.

And most people I know simply ask "Where is your bathroom?", instead of asking permission to use it (or when they do ask permission, they do use the grammatically correct "May I...", not "Can I..."). It's not like any reasonable host is going to refuse permission at the risk of ruining their flooring and/or upholstery.

I completely agree with "Oh my gosh", though. I've known many people who say that and ostentatiously protest when someone says "Oh my God", because the Lord's name shouldn't be taken in vain. But lying/cheating/stealing in their personal and professional lives seem to be acceptable within their religious beliefs, so go know.

I do love British slang - I think it's more expressive, precise and somehow more satisfying from a linguistic standpoint.

I've gotten my Midwestern neighbors using "w@nker", which sounds rather odd in their Fargo-esque accents; they're starting to understand I'm pleased when I say I'm "chuffed"; I've had to drop "bollocks" because people think I'm saying "bullocks" in this area where dairy farming is prevalent.

Then again, I grew up around UK Expats, so I was exposed to the differences between "American English" and "English English" from a young and malleable age. And it goes both ways - one of my British friends now regularly says "y'all" to even his own amusement (it is not a word meant to be uttered in a Birmingham, UK vs. a Birmingham, AL accent).

And I still love that "I'll knock you up" means waking you up by knocking on the door - a bit different than the American meaning of the phrase. And don't get me started on Spotted Dick (but I think the Brits are embarrassed by that one themselves, as well - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/2249273.stm )

Other than that, it's just cultural differences, and it's not a shock to see a Brit being dismissive of Americans. Doesn't really bother me much - we are still "bloody Colonials" after all ;)

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | December 29, 2008 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Whenever I go to the UK, it always takes me a day or two to get used to how freely the "f bomb" is dropped in the UK. Oh for "F***'s sake" for example is heard often.

I'm most amused by british "foodisms" like "bacon sarnie" or "bacon buttie."

Posted by: mfromalexva | December 29, 2008 12:18 PM | Report abuse

"Spot on" and "give me a shout." Although I don't really notice when Brits use them, I find the increasing number of Americans using them annoying and pretentious.

Posted by: rashomon | December 29, 2008 1:54 PM | Report abuse

I think that we have BBC-America to blame for the increased use of Britishisms by Americans. Between the car guys, the cleaning ladies and Gordon Ramsey, we are getting a real taste of the talk.

Posted by: mfromalexva | December 29, 2008 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Good suggestions, thanks.

@MattinSW: YES, I've noticed that phone habit myself. The worst thing is that it's hard to tell when an English person is actually ending a conversation. They tend to modulate their voice UP at the end of a phone call, rather than down, so it sounds as if they're asking you a question rather than saying goodbye.

@Chasmosaur1: I like English slang too, and have great affection for the British. They do need to be taken down a peg every now and then, though.

@rashoman and MfromAlexVA: That's an interesting hypothesis, that BBC America is influencing our language, increasing the number of Yanks saying "spot on." I suppose that's only fair, given how powerful American culture is these days. Still, I doubt we'll ever say "ZEH-bra" instead of "ZEE-bra" or "full stop" instead of "period."

Posted by: JohnFKelly | December 29, 2008 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Clever use of the "Tobster" example of #4....

Posted by: OldLady1 | December 30, 2008 7:00 AM | Report abuse

Regarding infantile nicknames, we have to cast out the beam of "Brit-brit" and the like (ScarJo, Brangelina) before we pluck out the motes of our English brethren.

Posted by: reddragon1 | December 30, 2008 7:24 AM | Report abuse

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