Talking Funny, or: Annoying Britishisms, Sorted
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)?
If you think you know what it is, send an e-mail to email@example.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!
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