Do Not Press 1 For English!
Because You Might Get Real English….
I grew up happily, even gleefully, a “functional illiterate” in several languages. I ’specially loved mixing dialectical debris from three languages into one unstructured sentence, stringin’ ’em together with Melanesian pidgin, which is sorta the Swahili of the islands, and now called “Tok Pisin.” Mipela likee distok velly-velly. My Dad, however, was not amused.
He was a language purist, devoted to serious study and fine fluency. Sorry, Pop; it never really took with me. Maybe not surprisingly, I’ve always done well with accents, dialects and quick, superficial skill with many languages—and mastery of none. The most problematic for me was English—not “American,” but real Brit-speak English. I think that’s because I mistakenly assumed they were closely related. Churchill was right. Here’s an illustration:
My old pal Nigel, now retired from the British Army, called to relate an incident to me. The scene was his club in London, a gathering place for old soldiers. A mutual acquaintance of ours was listening to another fella tell a “color-enhanced” tale of a long-past battle, and becoming very visibly upset. Nigel was concerned about Teddy’s health and “dicey blood pressure.” Now, Nigel’s an Oxford and Sandhurst man, but after 40 years in ‘Er Majesty’s kit, his speech includes bits of all Britannia’s dialects.
“Positively shirty he was!” Nigel described our pal. “Veins like dancing serpents on ‘is forred, Johnny-O! Verging on aggro, I daresay. This cheeky chap was nattering on as though he’d been Billy-no-mates slaying heathens by the score sans assistance, quite forgetting p’raps that Teddy’s the lad who fetched him out of that hotchpotch, bearing him away on his shield as it were. I thought, ‘He’s all but shot his cuffs’, and then he did! He shot his cuffs! Cor blimey! Oh, pardon that. I’ve been mucking about wi’ my East-Enders overmuch of late.
“I spirited poor Teddy away before he could brew up, and although it was chuckin’ it down on the cobbles, got him first a proper wife-beater, then stuffed ’im with some rather good toad in the hole. Fancied that, didn’t you always?”
“Great Britain and the United States are nations separated by a common language.”—
Winston Churchill, fluent English-speaker and semi-sorta OK at talkin’ American, too.
Which Translates To….
“Shirty” is a condition of anger preceding a fight, dating from the days when men removed their shirts before engaging in fisticuffs. “Forred” for “forehead” is one of maybe 9,000 words properly shortened by Brits and considered grammatically correct. “Aggro” is aggression or assault, and you prob’ly know “cheeky” means lippy, flippant or braggadocious. “Billy-no-mates” is a friendless chap or a bloke acting solo, on his own.
To shoot one’s cuffs is quintessentially British; the act of briskly extending an arm, grasping one’s shirt cuff from under one’s jacket sleeve and yankin’ it into proper position, rapidly followed by shooting the other cuff. This can be done fiercely. Among British gentlemen, this signals that one may be miffed or cross, if not positively shirty. You can even shoot your cuffs while shirtless, a symbolic exercise signaling that you’re really shirty.
“Cor blimey” is interesting. “Cor” is, as Brits say, “disused” these days, though you often hear just “blimey.” Cor blimey is the compressed Cockney form of God blind me, which itself is shortened from the Middle-Ages “May God blind me if this is not true.” Nigel’s East Enders are Cockney Brits, former soldiers from his regiment, from the East End of London; speakers of one of the most unique and sometimes unintelligible of English dialects. Most English people trying to imitate Cockney speech sound as silly as Americans trying to mimic English.
“Brewing up,” for British tank crewmen, means catching fire and blowing up. “Chuckin’ it down” refers to a heavy rain, and you can guess “the cobbles.” A “wife-beater” ain’t a sleeveless undershirt in England, it’s a potent form of beer, and “toad in the hole,” thankfully, has nothin’ to do with toads or holes. It is sausages baked in Yorkshire pudding dough, summat like a pie, properly graced with veggies and rich onion gravy. One of England’s handful of edible dishes, it incorporates no noxious, horrid, nasty bits of rubbish or too-long-dead critters. In fact, it’s scrummy—scrumptious-yummy—not to be confused with Scrumpy, a sometimes rock-hard alcoholic cider, named from “scrumping,” the act of stealing apples, which, if they’re poxy little rejects, are called “scrimps.”
If you’re dining on English pub-grub and in doubt, order toad in the hole, bangers-and-mash or meat-filled pasties. Avoid the jellied eels, spotted dick and, at all costs, the black pudding (see “noxious, horrid and nasty bits,” above). No offense, you suet, congealed-blood and pig-snouts fans; that stuff’s just manky. And don’t think you can order biscuits and fill up on them while you fake eating the black pudding, because in England, a biscuit is a cookie. Too, be careful to pronounce “pasties” with a hard “a” as in hat, not a long “a” as in pastries. Mispronouncing “nice plump filled pasties” to the wrong serving-lass could get you smacked silly, ya gormless sod.
Shoot, Fire & Tiffin
I got the impression lots of guys signed up for British military service just to avoid some traditional English dishes. When I voiced this to a long table of Tommies at mess, I got a rousing chorus of Oy’s, Arr’s, Aye’s, a lone “roight-o!” and a thundering Cor blimey!
Some Brit military lingo makes more sense than American. In the Royal Navy, to discharge any weapon, from a pistol to an 8-incher the command is to shoot!, never, ever “fire,” a word with only one meaning on a warship. Serving with Brits one should also know “directly” means right bloody NOW! whereas “presently,” as in, “We shall presently move off to rendezvous at BangDaGonga” can mean we’re moving tonight, next Tuesday or in a fortnight, depending.
Of the many terms for eating-times, “tiffin,” meaning “lunch,” always conjured up for me visions of neatly-dressed Brits serving tea and biscuits on fine china; sorta classy, y’know? When a Royal Marine tore open a cold field ration in the endless bleedin’ rain and sighed, “Ah, tiffin!” he saw my eyebrows arch. Poking the contents with a spork he explained, “Lends a dash of elegance to this muck, don’t it now?”
There are lots of terms for idjits and morons too, most of them unprintable. “Numpty,” I was told, “Can be affectionate; someone a bit daft, p’raps; but of whom one is quite fond.” So when a bootnecked old sarn’t-major bonks yer on the bonce and laughs, “Arrh, y’great numpty, yiv shot on my target!” it means you screwed up, but he likes you. I don’t mind bein’ a numpty—as long as I’m a great numpty! Connor OUT.
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