Monday, March 31, 2014

A Rose by any Other Name

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."      Romeo and Juliet,  Act II, Scene ii

There are few people past the age of 13 or 14 that haven't read or, in the event they sat gazing in the vicinity of their 9th grade literature book without actually reading the words as their class read aloud one day, heard that line. Of course, we all know that Juliet is saying that what a thing or person (in this case, Romeo) is called isn't important; rather, she claims, what matters is what a thing or person is.

I bet you're thinking, "Oh, wonderful! An English professor in England. Here comes the post on Shakespeare and a visit to his Globe Theater or Stratford-on-Avon." Sorry to disappoint you (or happy to make your day, depending on your feelings for Shakespeare), but that isn't the case. I will eventually be writing about my visit to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London, but something else is on my mind today.


I've always been crazy about words. I love how they sound, how it feels to write them, their meaning, and generally everything about them. In fact, what I love most about writing is the way a writer selects and arranges -- manipulates, really -- words to create a piece of text that will . . . I'm sorry, I tend to go on and on when I get started on this topic (just ask my students). Trust me, I love words, particularly the written word.

Back in December, a colleague thoughtfully gave me an American English-British English (and vice-versa) pamphlet, and I enjoyed picking it up several times a day and reading the various entries. Of course, when I read the British English words and phrases, my mind automatically used my version of a British English accent, based primarily on what I've picked up from watching more than a few Hercule Poirot movies over the years.

You can use google to find a similar list, I'm sure, so I won't bore you with examples from it. Instead, I thought I'd share just a few of my favorite words and phrases. Before I do, though, I need to explain a few things.

1. First, while I did watch some high-brow British television programming (the news, documentaries on WWI and WWII and gardens, etc.) I quickly became enamored of British dramas and shows in which comedians serve on "teams" on game shows built around current events. To get an idea of what I'm talking about, watch "Mock the Week" or "Have I Got News for You" or "Q1 XL" on YouTube or via Netflix.  Anyway, the next few points on this list reflect this broader range of television programming.

2. British television programming demonstrates a more relaxed standard regarding language than television in the states. I routinely hear words and phrases that I rarely hear at home, and then only when riding mass transit or on one of my rare (and hated) excursions to a mall when teenagers are present. The f-word is quite common, for example.

3. Fairly graphic (again, by American standards) references to body parts and sex acts are also quite common on British television.

4. Two young men who I have gotten to know while in Canterbury (colleagues at the university here) have helped me navigate the interesting path of acquiring new vocabulary. "D" and "S" were my sounding board about any newly-heard word, and my standard for acceptability went something like this:


Me: I heard another new word! I need to know if it's okay for me to use (optional) and what it means.

D or S: {grinning} What's the word?

Me: {lowering my voice in case the word is "dodgy"} It's insert word.

At that point, the reaction inevitably varied. Scenario 1:

D or S: {bland face, somewhat disappointed, I think} Oh, yeah, that word is fine.

More often, the reaction went something like this. Scenario 2:

D or S: {big grins} Oh, repeat word, that's a good one!

Me: {either} What does it mean and is it okay to use? {or} I know what it means, but is it too slangy?

And then came my question that became somewhat of a joke between my 2 new friends and I.

Me: Could I say it at tea with the Queen?


So with that in mind, here are my favorite new words and phrases. Some aren't really appropriate for tea with the Queen, but they're all no more than PG-13 rated according to D and S (but remember, they're British and young). I've put the favorites of my favorites in bold.*

arse; arse over elbow = the first is probably very clear; the second means something like "head over heels" but not necessarily in the way we mean it (i.e. in love), more like confused, I think

blimey = an expression of surprise

bloody = an all-purpose quite mild swear word, typically used as an adj before a noun

blow me = (get your mind out of the gutter) used when surprised; we might say it when we mean "I was so surprised you could knock me over with a feather"; as much as I like this one, I know I will not be using it :)

bollocks = (not to be used when chatting with the Queen) rubbish (but technically it refers to a piece of anatomy)

brassed off and cheesed off = ticked off

bugger all = nothing ("I got bugger all in exchange for all my work")

chat up = try to pick up someone (as in a bar)

cheeky = brassy, saucy, smart-alecky

cock up = (see blow me) make an error, mess up

dodgy = not on the up and up; questionable

git = (again, not around the Queen) an idiot; quite insulting

honking = throwing up

knackered = worn out (perhaps after a night on the town)

letterbox = mailbox (in which you receive your mail)

the mutt's nuts = fantastic  *this is my all-time 2nd favorite; alas, I only heard it once or twice

nibbles = hor d oeuvres (I will never have to google how to spell that again!)

nick = steal

on about = talking about (as in "What are you on about?")

piss up = drinking session

potty = crazy      NOTE: I noticed that when the British say my name, they pronounce it "potty"; that is purely a coincidence!

ring = call

shite = (I think you can figure out this one)

sod = an all-purpose word that is used in a wide variety of ways; just to be safe, I would not use this when talking to the Queen

sod all = nothing  (as in "After I paid my taxes, I had sod all left.")

a spot of = a bit of

stonker, stonking = huge  ("That stonking hamburger fed 4 of us!")

take-away = carry-out food

top off = put more in/on  (pay-as-you-go phones get topped off, for example, as do glasses of wine)

twat = hit ("If you do that again, I'll twat you on the head.")  I do not ever plan to use this, but I almost choked when I heard a mom tell her child that on the bus the 2nd week I was here! lol

wanker = D & S both laughed hysterically when I asked about this one, and it most definitely cannot be used in the presence of the Queen; it means jerk ("that guy is a jerk"), but it is quite crude. Sorry to offend, but I can't help it --  I like this word -- it makes me laugh. Alas, I don't imagine ever using it out loud.

wonky = off-balance

*This list is not all-inclusive. Take that as you will.   ;)

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