The Merry Words of England
Infantile? Patronising? Misused frequently by Americans? To all three, a definitive yes.
Dear friends and fellow countrymen,
Early last fall, I was a member of a group What’s App chat — which people in Europe and England seem to use without abandon — and was asked my recommendation for food to consume during a long walk, aka hike, through Wales. I offered my insight as such:
“While it’s usually good to take bananas and apples, I would bring a Clif bar, too, especially if you feel like you could bonk,” I replied in the chat.
Radio silence going forward. No response. Not that day, nor the day after, or the day after that. Wondering what had happened to our group hike, I asked my then girlfriend about the situation. Did her family have a thing against Clif bars? Were tea biscuits (cookies) the preferred means of nourishment for every excursion?
No, as it turned out. They had taken the discussion to their family’s private What’s App chat to laugh uproariously at my use of the word “bonk” on a public forum, especially as I referred to food to eat in case of a bonk. In American English, bonk means to sugar crash, to feel as if one is going to keel over from lack of proper carbs, or carbohydrates. Across the Atlantic, to “bonk” means to have sex. I had just recommended a food regime for f*^king in the forest.
It was a fun little way to learn the ins-and-outs of the vastly different means of expressions used between the Brits and Americans. Yes, we all know that “boot” means that thing you put on your foot and the back end of a car; that a “tosser” is someone who is full of oneself, or Boris Johnson; that if one “fancies” something or someone, he or she usually wants to consume it.
But even the most seasoned Anglophile will trip over her tongue when encountering British “witticisms”, such as Oxbridge (the plowing together Oxford and Cambridge, usually used cynically) or even engaging in the most mundane of tasks: ordering entrees (they are appetizers, not the main courses); placing a much needed item in a “bum bag” and not a “fanny pack” (neither is particularly resounding, although it’s better not to say you are going to stuff something in your vagina); and wanting to describe an ache in the place where food digests (everyone — from grown in-laws to the A+E nurses and doctors — refers to the stomach as a “tummy” in England).
In the now 15 months that I have been here, I offer a few instances of language acclimatization in which I have either a) laughed at, b) talked about on social media, c) corrected several times, or d) all of the above. They are purely for fun, or cautionary tales for people who actually care what the English think about you — and if you live here, you sort of have to.
Bonnet vs. hood: Not long ago, a friend of mine and I were driving down the dual-carriageway (the highway or Interstate) and she realised that she needed to have her oil changed. We stopped at a petrol (gas) station and she told me to pull the lever (pronounced lee-ver) for the “bonnet” whilst she bought said oil.
“You mean you want me to take off your hat?” I asked?
“No, I want you to open the bonnet of the car,” she replied.
“But your car doesn’t have a rack on top of it,” I said.
She proceeded to open the driver’s side, reach in and pull the device that popped the hood. Problem solved. Only problem, I refuse to call that thing covering the engine something that references 19th-century “Little House on the Prairie” headgear (just the kind of literary inventiveness the Brits seem to relish).
To have vs. to take:
I never realised this English manner of speaking until my second girlfriend from The Angry Island (as writer A.A. Gill likes to call it) and I were in our second month of dating. Rather than saying she would “take a shower” or “go on a walk” or “make a Branston pickle and cheese sandwich,” she was going “to have a shower” or “to have a walk” or “have a Branston pickle sandwich.” But then again, I never noticed that she always ended an affirmative statement with a question, i.e. I like this Branston pickle and cheddar sandwich, don’t you?
I actually spent a good deal of time looking this up and found a rather long Wikipedia entry on the difference between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) and never found the answer I sought. But I learned a great many other things, of which I will not bore you, such as those nifty shorthand entires for British English and American English. My own personal belief is that “to take” or “to do” implies an act of will and “to have” is more of a passive, pleasant way of going about matters. In other words, the actor becomes the receiver. Since I now know the English never want to come off as “aggressive” in any manner — even in rugby (a goal is called a “try”) — I assume “to have” just emerged as the preferred usage. I have not yet figured out why Second English Girlfriend followed all her assertions with a question. My best guess: the English also like consensus. Bold, singularity gets no one very far here.
Toilet vs. Loo vs. Lavatory
Even Americans, when they want to come off as exceedingly polite or “posh” (upper-class), use the word “loo” instead of bathroom or “restroom,” which used to be my preferred term. Since arriving on kinder shores, however, I have preferred just simply, “toilet,” which seems like the European way of going about asking for the place in which one does her mother nature thing. I have since learned that “toilet” or even the French “toilette” is considered rather crass here. So which is it?
Hands down, in England, it’s always going to be loo — even though the term comes from those pesky French (it’s guardez l’eau, meaning watch out for the water). Some middle-class and/or educated people say “lavatory” or “lav” for short. Still, since there is such a thing as an English “ban on earnestness,” according to pop anthropologist Kate Fox, author of the very helpful guide Watching the English — I now have three gifted copies — and there is that English love of whimsy, go with “loo,” even it that, too, is slightly cringe-worthy.
Knackered, knickers and kickers:
These are simple — and can be used alternately to whitewash dirty sentences or add drop of scandal to purely innocuous phrasing. These words are also very useful in deriving smiles and giggles from children. Knackered means “extremely tired”; knickers are underwear; and kicker is a football term, or a journalist’s word for ending an article. Therefore, for my kicker, I will simply say that I am absolutely knackered from getting my knickers in a regular twist over the English language. Or, the kicker lost her knickers after a good off-field bonk and is knackered because she didn’t have a Clif bar.
English or American Rebuttal
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