Another expat Brit recently turned me on to Wikipedia’s List of British words not widely used in the USA. Now, other than perhaps queueing, there’s very little more likely to thrill me on a rainy day than a good, solid list with plenty of references and trivia, and I’ve spent the last couple of days devouring the whole thing.
There’s a handful of words in the list I hardly even recognise, such as “French letter” for a condom, or “jam sandwich” for a police car – although if it was speeding along I would be much more likely to use blues & twos than the USA’s awkward ‘lights & sirens’ or ‘code’. What is more surprising, however, is the sheer volume of words that I use on at least a weekly basis which have made it into this list and which I’ve recently ascertained a good portion of my American friends have no definition for. Perhaps this, rather than my Cardiff-English accent, explains the blank looks and non-sequitirs I get in response from them from time to time.
I’ve educated some closer friends on knackered and jumper (in the US, a sleeveless dress), and whilst other entries such as launderette and [five dollar] note sound a bit off, they’re close enough to be understood, but there are still a few which I had no idea are utterly baffling to folks over here. I found it amazing that strop is nearly unknown and that I would be completely incoherent were I to say that someone mincing around was a bit camp. Let’s examine a few more though:
If, feeling a bit peckish I put some petrol in my motor and popped off for a pukka hot pasty, no-one would think me a plonker, but things might go a bit pear-shaped if I asked for some Spotted Dick – they might think I was a bit of a ponce (not to be confused with a nonce). If I then suggested some toad in the hole, they’d probably think I was just another pisshead out on the razz and chuck me out into the street arse over tit.
The roads, though, can be a curious affair. If, just past the motorway, the flyover, or the dual carriageway you were to be waiting on the pavement under the Belisha beacons at a Zebra crossing, then Americans would think you were talking codswallop when you mentioned cats-eyes, sleeping policemen or suggested that, because of the roundabout, perhaps it would have been better to take the subway to cross the tarmac instead.
The bedroom could be an infinitely embarrassing source of confusion too, given the British predilection for social-awkwardness and the number of sexually-themed words appearing in our fine list. On the plus side (questions of chivalry aside), a Page 3 quality bird probably wouldn’t have the nous be upset if you called her a slag or a bint but, she might think you a bit twee if you asked her for a snog or tried to get her kit off. My mother reads this, so I won’t avail myself of the rest of the sexual entries, but I will just let my American friends know that blower, cack-handed and suck it and see wouldn’t have made it into this paragraph, whereas copping off and topping are indeed precursors to rogering some totty.
Honestly, I find it amazing I’ve ever managed to have a conversation over here.