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A guide to understanding 'English' English

An English Rose in Georgia

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POSTED: May 30, 2014 12:53 p.m.

It is hard to believe that next month will be the fifth anniversary of my relocation to the U.S.  
I do now think that I am fully ‘bilingual’ in that I speak both British English and American English fluently, although I sometimes still confuse the charming southerners amongst whom I now live and work.  
Even worse, when I return to the land of my birth I am sometimes accused of having an American accent (egad!)  and using American terminology and phrases (Really? Ya think?).
Thanks to “Downton Abbey,” “Doctor Who” and other PBS and BBC America hit TV shows, British English is now more widely understood than it was just a few years ago.  For example, a “posh toff” is now usually understood by Americans to be an upper-class individual with an unpleasant air of superiority.  And many Americans know that Brits “queue for the loo” rather than wait in line for the bathroom.
Similarly, the phrases “brilliant” (for “awesome”) and even “crikey” (for “oh, my”) seem to be creeping into acceptability here in the States.
There are still traps, of course.  I have seen a look of polite confusion cross the faces of many Americans when I go too far with my British-isms.  For example, both Britain and America are dog-loving nations, but in the U.K. we weave our love of dogs into many daily phrases.  Did you know these:
• A dog’s breakfast = a real mess.
• Dressed like a dog’s dinner = to be overdressed.
• A dog collar = the type of collar worn by the clergy.
• A dog end = a cigarette butt.
• My dogs are barking = my feet are tired and aching.
Turning to other common expressions and as a handy hint for travelers to the U.K., the best translation for the charming and multi-faceted “bless your heart” is “bless your cotton socks.”  If you hear someone say, “If you eat with the devil, you need a long spoon,” they are warning you not to get too close when dealing with unethical or unscrupulous people as you are likely to be influenced by them.
What is even more confusing is when Brits and Americans think they are speaking the same language but really aren’t:
• When the British say “cheers,” Americans hear “to your good health” as in a toast.  In fact, Brits use this to say “thank you” or “goodbye.”
• When the British say, “How do you do?” Americans believe that it is a genuine inquiry into their health.  It is not, but rather a formal greeting to which the proper answer should be: “Very well thank you.  And you?” (even if you feel miserable and have been sick for a week).
• When the British say, “I’ve got the right hump,” Americans think they are complaining about having a hunchback. But Brits are just expressing annoyance or frustration.
• When the British say, “It’s a bit dear,” Americans think it is a comment that something is slightly adorable, whereas the British are politely saying that it is too expensive.
• And finally, beware if a British person starts a sentence “With all due respect ...”  You are actually being insulted, and the speaker is setting out to prove that you are wrong!
Speaking of insults, the British can be pretty sharp tongued, and British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill had few equals.  He is credited with one of history’s funniest and fastest insults to his nemesis and the first female member of Parliament in the U.K., Lady Astor.  At a dinner party, she said “Winston, you are drunk,” to which he immediately responded, “And you, madam, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning!”
God bless America!

Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

 

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