Thursday, February 25, 2010

My English is Terrible

My wife and I just returned from a long week’s vacation in England. I learned something while I was away that was really disconcerting. I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the English language, but as it turns out, my English is terrible. Mind you, my American English is just fine. It’s my British English that needs work.

It all started just after we landed at Heathrow. We knew from conversations with my British relatives that we needed to get ourselves to “Bister” which was near “Northumsher.” Neither of those places were on any of the maps we found, and after quite a bit of deliberation we decided that we were supposed to go to Bicester near North Hamptonshire.

We were on our way to my cousin’s wedding festivities, but since “Bister” was a “long slog” (long way away), we needed to find a restroom first. Strangely, there were none to be found in all of Paddington station. That is, until I overheard a young lad tell his mum that he had to go. She told him, “the loo is right over there,” as she pointed to one of the many signs we’d already seen labeled “WC.” Mystery solved.

There was some confusion at Avis over which was the “boot” (trunk), and which was the “bonnet” (hood) on our rental car. It turned out the car was French, so that must have been the issue. We got it “all sorted” and off we went toward Oxford, which is spelled correctly on the maps, and very close to “Bister,” which is not. After a hair-raising left-hand-side drive, we made it into Oxford for the rehearsal dinner.

Shortly after we had connected with my cousin and his family, they received a call from his sister. She was going to be late to the dinner because they were having some trouble with their new baby boy. They were on the road, but apparently “changing a nappy in a lay-by.” We received a translation and found out that she was changing a diaper at a rest area. She said to go on without them and they would “catch us up.” I was wondering aloud just how much more of this “nappy” story there was, or how much more we really needed to hear when I found out “catch you up” means “catch up to you.” Go figure.

While at the rehearsal dinner we learned that hors d’oeuvres are called “nibbly bits,” water melon seeds are called “melon pips,” and Yorkshire pudding is nothing more than a puffy hollow biscuit. No pudding at all. We ordered chips and got French fries. There were no potato chips to be had anywhere, but “crisps” made an excellent substitute.

We learned that “bits and bobs” are “little things,” homeless people are known as “rough sleepers,” and a bachelor party is called a “stag do.” Brakes on a bicycle are known as “anchors,” jail is spelled g-a-o-l, and a whole host of words like “authorise” are spelled with an “s” instead of a “z.” Also, if you ask a Brit, “What color is your collar?” they cannot distinguish between those two words.

Anyhow, I had packed light for the trip, and as a result I was planning to wear the same pair of pants to both the rehearsal dinner and the wedding. I had ordered a tomato sauce dish at the dinner and I remarked to the bride-to-be, whom I had just met for the first time that evening, that I needed to be careful because I was “planning to recycle these pants for the wedding tomorrow.”

She gazed at me with a curious mix of bewilderment and disgust, as my cousin, who speaks both kinds of English, leaned over and informed me that I had just told his bride that I would be re-using my underwear.

Turns out I should have said “trousers” instead of “pants.” My bad.

She returned the favor (or favour) a little later in the evening when she politely told me, “Keep your pecker up.”

There was a very humorous exchange that followed involving a lot of shock and embarrassment as we both explained what that expression means in our respective countries. Turns out she was telling me to “keep my chin up” and not despair.

After the red-faced bride regained control of her emotions I advised her against using that particular expression when she visits the U.S.

We had a lovely, laughter-filled evening that ended with the best punch-line of the night. One of the other British ladies in our group exclaimed that she was “absolutely knackered” and was off to bed. She then asked if someone would “knock her up” in the morning.

I thought that seemed pretty forward, and kind of an odd request until our translator informed us that she was “dead tired” and wanted someone to knock on her door to wake her up in the morning.

Once again, I had to advise that she limit the use of that expression to the British Isles, for fear of sending the wrong message if she ever visited the U.S.

Between the language barrier and the driving on the left side of the road, we spend a good portion of the trip utterly confused. We had a wonderful time nonetheless, and I must admit I find British English to be wonderfully colourful.

Especially the new words I learned from the lorrie drivers every time I forgot what side of the road I was supposed to be on.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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  1. Brilliant! Wicked! Loved it....


  2. Great stories Marc! Brings back fond memories of the visit my wife and I had with our new Aussie friends a couple years back. We laughed so hard I almost did not make it to the loo in time!
    Ask an Aussie (or maybe even a Brit) what the difference between a fanny pack and a bum bag is... similar to the boot and bonnet thing with the car.
    The topper though was learning about "cracking a fat" (no "r") If you don't know what this is, you'll just have to find a "Sheila" and ask her.
    Discovering and trading cultural quirkinesses is definitely a bonus when traveling abroad. Makes the adventure even better!
    Welcome home ya'll!