A couple of mornings over the holidays we decided to be lazy and we had a lie-in.
Now if you’re from the UK, you know exactly what I mean, but if you’re from North America, you’re probably scratching your head and wondering if we’ve just invited a lot of friends over to sit around with big cups of coffee in the sunshine and share tall tales.
A lie-in, according to one online English dictionary, means a long stay in bed. Here in North America we call it sleeping in.
When we first moved to England, it took me a long time to figure out that when everyone kept saying to me “Are you all right?” or “All right?” it didn’t necessarily mean that I looked ill. I’d look in the mirror and check to see if I looked particularly tired or pale. Just to be sure I’d sometimes put on a bit more rouge or lipstick. Finally, it clicked! “Are you all right?” was just their way of saying “How are you?”
If you refer to someone as homely, you might want to check which side of the pond you’re on. In North America, homely is no compliment! It means unattractive or ugly. In Britain however, to be told that you’re homely means that you’re considered warm and friendly.
As you can imagine, we had quite a learning curve to be fluent in UK English and we were often gently teased by friends and acquaintances over our perceived misuse of their language.
Remember fanny packs? They were all the rage here in North America in the 1980’s. People used them to carry keys, wallets, cameras, snacks, and just about everything else that would fit into the small zippered bags that strapped on to our waists. Well to North Americans, a fanny is a person’s backside. In England it’s, well, uhm… a person’s frontside? Would that be a sufficiently tactful way to describe it?
Anyone who knows me knows that I frequently use the word “trousers” since living in England. Across the pond, pants = underwear. And, “sod?” Well, in North America we have Murphy’s Law and they have Sod’s Law. If someone calls you a sod, it isn’t a compliment, trust me on this. It also isn’t a brilliant thing to call up a store and ask them if they sell sod – as in grass! I did and there was this very uncomfortable silence until finally someone, stifling their amusement, said “Do you mean turf?”
Same thing with panty hose. Shortly after moving to the UK, I needed to buy panty hose. We went to a John Lewis’ (a very posh department store in the UK) and I asked one of the salespersons where I could find panty hose. Eventually, between us, we realized I meant “tights!”
And, I will never forget my hairdresser’s reaction when I asked for a shag. A shag was a hairstyle that was very common during the 1970’s here in North America. The hair was cut, almost chopped, into obvious layers. Shag was also a type of carpeting popular during the same time period. In the UK however, a shag is something considerably more up-close and personal! I did know about the UK meaning of shag, however, I thought that being a hairdresser he would be familiar with the hairstyle and know what I meant. He didn’t. Poor Nic! I nearly had to resuscitate him!
Potato, patotto, tomato, tamotto… English is the same language worldwide – but it’s a crazy old world, isn’t it?
If you’re writing dialogue for a British character in your novel, knowing these bits of slang and the differences in the meanings of some words might make the difference between credible dialogue and reaching your audience, or missing the mark and giving them a good giggle.
For More Information
Americans Are Barmy Over Britishisms
What Brits say v what they mean – handy de-coding device
(British) English Translated For Americans
Differences between British, Canadian and American Spelling
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