Brit Speak

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

Photo credit: Pixabay

In Remembrance, 2014

We lived in England while the United Nations was actively involved in bombing raids during the Bosnian war. There were several American air force bases around our village, and one in particular regularly sent bombers flying overhead, so low that you could almost see the pilots’ faces as they flew over.

It was an uncomfortable feeling, not only because we knew where those planes were headed and what they would do when they reached their destination, but it was uncomfortable for us because we were from Canada, and although we had relatives who’d served in our armed forces during wars, we had never witnessed the machinery of war in action before. It felt very different actually witnessing even that much. It was closer to an active conflict than I’d ever wanted to be.

The experience made me look at the beautiful green countryside dotted with ancient thatched cottages differently, and I would try to envision what it must have looked like, all those years ago, to see not only allied planes departing, but to watch helplessly as Hilter’s fighters flew overhead.

The area where we lived was steeped in the history of the world wars. Our village, Thorpe Waterville, in Northamptonshire, was a stone’s throw from Lilford Hall. I passed it regularly. A magnificent building, it had been used as an American field hospital during WWII.

The village of Polebrook, a few miles away, had an airfield during the war. Clark Gable, the well known actor, had joined the American Air Force and was stationed in Polebrook. I was told that Jimmy Stewart who’d also enrolled in the Air Force, had frequented the nearby city of Peterborough during the war.

Glenn Miller, the famed band leader, boarded a plane at an air force base not too far from where we lived, enroute to Paris, France on December 15, 1944, never to seen again.

I mention Clark, and Jimmy, and Glenn, not because of the importance of their service above all others, but because they are names that you will recognize. We once visited a pub called The Vane Arms in the small village of Sudborough. It was filled with reminders of the service of nameless individuals. Pennies are wedged into a beam over its fireplace. The pennies were placed there by airmen before their missions. If they returned, they removed their pennies from the beam and purchased drinks with them. If they didn’t return, the pennies were bent over in remembrance and remain there to this day. You can see pictures here.

While we lived there, we were privy to many other sites and stories about England during the wars, sites and stories often unknown to North Americans, which helped us to gain a fresh perspective of something so old. We were able to experience what it would have been like to walk through a WWI trench, or sit in a bomb shelter during a WWII air raid at the The Imperial War Museum in London. And, I will never forget the sight of small graveyards in the middle of farmers’ fields visible from the roadways in France, or the humbling magnificence of the Menin Gates etched with thousands of names of the dead and missing British and Commonwealth soldiers from WWI. The Gates are found in Belgium in the town of Ypres, a town that was reduced to rubble because it was bombed so heavily during WWI that a man on horseback could see across the entire town.

I’d had uncles who’d served overseas, one joined the navy and drove boatloads of soldiers to the beaches on D Day, another was involved in the liberation of Holland. As a child, I’d heard their stories, rarely shared, and they were horrifying.

My uncles were still teenagers when they served. As a child, I couldn’t appreciate just how young they were, but now, as a mother of children in their 20’s, I understand now how young they were and how horrific it must have been for all concerned to send their children on their way to war, still so wet behind the ears not knowing much of life, without knowing if they would ever come back to join the family circle.

I think about these people and places, and the pennies, especially at this time of the year and I remember.

Photo courtesy of Evgeni Dinev |