Separated By A Common Language And All That Jazz
April 5, 2003 9:18 PM   Subscribe

Do Most Of You Yanks Really Understand What The Brits Here Are On About? Although the cultural mistranslations are probably more a question of tone and habits of irony and understatement, Jeremy Smith's online American·British British·American Dictionary, to be published next September, might be of some assistance. Although I still prefer Terry Gliedt's older but pithier United Kingdom English For The American Novice and even Scotsman Chris Rae's English-to-American Dictionary. Here's a little BBC quiz to test your skills. It seems that Canadians, Australians and [another cute quiz coming up!] New Zealanders are the only Metafilterians to completely capture all the varieties of English usage here. Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that non-U.S. users know much, much less about England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand et caetera than vice-versa? Does anyone else get the occasional feeling we're not exactly speaking the same language here?
posted by MiguelCardoso (66 comments total)
Er, let me just rephrase that penultimate sentence. It should have read:

"Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that non-U.S. users know far, far more about the U.S. than Americans know about England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand et caetera?"
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:34 PM on April 5, 2003

Only five out of ten correct; I'm less than chuffed. Looks like I need to brush up on my breakfast bingo.

(In the American south we often eat grits for breakfast; "grits" rhymes with "Brits"; "bingo" rhymes with "lingo".)
posted by taz at 9:37 PM on April 5, 2003

Oh, and: "The misses had a few too many." Shouldn't that be "Missus" or something? Or is it just me again?
posted by taz at 9:41 PM on April 5, 2003

et caetera et caetera et caetera
posted by y2karl at 9:49 PM on April 5, 2003

Easy peasy! Nine for 10. But then again, I'm a dual citizenship Brit/Canuck.

And taz, I would have gone with "missus", too. They also spelled "Britney" (as in Spears = beers), "Britany".
posted by Monk at 9:55 PM on April 5, 2003

8 for 10, but I've been watching Britcoms since I was 10. I also watched the whole instruction on rhyming slang on the "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" DVD once.
posted by Cerebus at 9:58 PM on April 5, 2003

Nine out of ten, tra-la.

I just really like England.
posted by padraigin at 10:03 PM on April 5, 2003

8 for 10 for this Anglophile here. But I picked up most of these from reading British authors. I haven't heard too much rhyming slang in my sojourns in Blighty.
posted by Vidiot at 10:13 PM on April 5, 2003

You bastards! You're all evading the issue! ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:30 PM on April 5, 2003

7 out of 10. I confess to educated guessed on nearly all of them.
posted by The God Complex at 10:30 PM on April 5, 2003

The issue? Sorry, I just ctrl-f the front page for "quiz" and go wild!
posted by The God Complex at 10:33 PM on April 5, 2003

Hee hee - perhaps that answers my question, after all.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:38 PM on April 5, 2003

5 out of 10. I'm ashamed I did so poorly considering most of my TV watching involves Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and F1 races w/ British announcers.
posted by gyc at 10:48 PM on April 5, 2003

A humiliating six of ten: I was handed my Khyber Pass and made to feel a right cabbage, so I probably should keep my cakehole shut. In the translation industry, one is often asked to demonstrate competence in one or the other, or both,of British and American English, but this mostly amounts to the standard differences in punctuation and orthography ("realise"), and some vocabulary ("lift, lorry"). Estuary English and rhyming slang don't enter into it much — thanks be to cheese and rice.
posted by hairyeyeball at 10:49 PM on April 5, 2003

I'm a canuck, however, not a yank. And was I the only one that thought "Posh and Becks rhymes with sex" was a silly explanation for the tenth answer? I'm sure many of the yanks wouldn't catch the Posh Spice/David Beckham meaning behind it. Americans don't watch football.
posted by The God Complex at 10:49 PM on April 5, 2003

Okay, Miguel, but isn't this sort of self-obvious? American pop-culture is more widely exported, and people from other countries are exposed to it whether they want to be or not, whereas people in the US, in order to stay up to date with the trends of other countries need to actively seek out media with that content...

Or am I missing something in your question?
posted by taz at 10:55 PM on April 5, 2003

In case that last comment comes across as condescending, what I mean is that it's very American to respond to quizzes with one's results. Post a quiz here and you get a long list of "I gots". It's as if the purpose of a set of questions about something is to find something out about you, rather than, say, about the about.

A European reaction would be the opposite: the worse the result, the better - because you'd learnt something. Americans just go "Damn! I got X and Y wrong!" They hate themselves for failing and love themselves for succeeding. That can't be intelligent, surely.

Americans are so performance-obsessed, self-centred and simplistically and arithmetically competitive (money being a favourite measure of worth) that I sometimes think they're culturally autistic. Where is your curiosity? Where is your willingness to entertain doubt and uncertainty and be, in turn, entertained by them?

This may sound awfully pretentious, but I honestly think this is at the root of the problem the U.S. has with the world's perceptions of its motives and general demeanour and behaviour.

For me it's more than a little weird that a (far too) long post about cultural and linguistic differences, centred on links to dictionaries, should be exclusively followed by a list of results to a silly little quiz embedded in the middle of it.

It is a different language, to be sure. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:04 PM on April 5, 2003

posted by taz at 11:07 PM on April 5, 2003

That was pretentious wank. The problem with Europeans is all the pretentious wanking and the drive by billy-clubbings.

I'm, as mentioned, a Canadian, and agree wholeheartedly with your unabashed dropkick of America.

Chalk this one up under 'why Miguel isn't a scientist'
posted by The God Complex at 11:10 PM on April 5, 2003

Micky, why do you hate America?
posted by Mack Twain at 11:28 PM on April 5, 2003

That can't be intelligent, surely.

This may sound awfully pretentious, but we can bomb the medieval fuck out of your big booty, foreign boy, anytime we want to--so don't make us come over there and regime change on your ass. Compreenda ?

Yust yokin', Torvald ! ;)
posted by y2karl at 11:33 PM on April 5, 2003

You know I love America, Mack. I've loved America in print, shamelessly, repetitively, for over 20 years. In fact, I've often (and sometimes fairly) been accused in Portugal (and here too) of loving it too much. But this is how the voice of love sounds - truthfully. One loves just as much despite as because of. My despair has to do with the inability to understand certain things about contemporary Americans - not America - which don't chime with those I know and love about America. And hey - isn't ocasionally despairing of America part of your way of life? Well, perhaps not yours - but MetaFilter's at least! :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:39 PM on April 5, 2003

That's an interesting quiz.
The Varieties of English page has some descriptions of some of the more exotic ways of speaking English... Singlish (English as she is spoken in Singapore lah), Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Kamtok (Cameroon), Bislama(Vanuatu) 'derives from the nineteenth-century word Beach-la-Mar, which itself derives from the French biche de mer 'sea cucumber' '... etc...
posted by plep at 12:04 AM on April 6, 2003

Who said 'Winning isn't the main thing, it's the only thing.' ?
(I agree with Miguel, as a broad-brushed generalistion).
posted by plep at 12:11 AM on April 6, 2003

I just love brit slang. Damn wankers.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 12:14 AM on April 6, 2003

Miguel, you charge that "Americans are... performance-obsessed, self-centred and simplistically and arithmetically competitive (money being a favourite measure of worth)", but I find most of this a little odd, coming from you, since you seem to be somewhat performance-obsessed and self-centred yourself. And as to money being a measure of worth, you are also one of the few people here about whom I have some idea of their financial status, since you have made it a point to mention a couple of times how well-paid you are.

Also, I would suggest that since you are also one of the posters at Metafilter most likely to post fun little "how X are you?" quizzes, or to pose "what do YOU do/think/feel" questions in the body of your posts, that perhaps you could stay away from this, if you don't want "a long list of 'I gots'... as if the purpose of a set of questions about something is to find something out about you, rather than, say, about the about." I for one certainly wouldn't have mentioned my quiz results, if, say, the quiz were not included in the links. The dictionaries are great, but they happen to be something I already knew about.
posted by taz at 12:22 AM on April 6, 2003

I'm British and got three out of ten. I live in Yorkshire though, this rhyming slang nonsense is as foreign to me as it is to thee.
posted by vbfg at 12:29 AM on April 6, 2003

Miguel - Although I think the ubiquitousness (if that is the word I want) of US slang via TV is at least partially responsible for the watering-down of local sayings and colloquialisms, it does afford some wierd overlaps.

For instance - An English (northern) friend of mine recently referred to me as a 'dozy goombah bastard' - Which is kind of a nice mix of Dixon of Dock Green and Tony Soprano.

My favourite bit of slang though is the very Australian - "Get a (big/black/hairy/dead) dog up ya!"
posted by backOfYourMind at 12:38 AM on April 6, 2003

They hate themselves for failing and love themselves for succeeding. That can't be intelligent, surely.

Actually, Miguel, I didn't take the test until after I came back and read what you wrote, so I'm tainted--but, as you well know, doubt and uncertainty are constants in my life. I am intrigued by your observation, however, even though I don't think it's fair in context--you presented a test. People took it and reported their results. It was kind of like what kind of work of art are you? Anyway, I did poorly. Is there really such a term as a skonking doddle? I like the sound of it.

What you wrote reminded me of a passage of G. Spencer Brown's--

Unfortunately we find systems of education today which have departed so far from the plain truth, that they now teach us to be proud of what we know and ashamed of ignorance. This is doubly corrupt. It is corrupt not only because pride is a mortal sin, but also because to teach pride in knowledge is to put up an effective barrier against any advance upon what is already known, since it makes one ashamed to look beyond the bonds imposed by one's ignorance.

To any person prepared to enter with respect into the realm of his great and universal ignorance, the secrets of being will eventually unfold, and they will do so in a measure according to his freedom from natural and indoctrinated shame in his respect of their revelation.

Culturally autistic... I like that. Maybe we need a National Dating Guide For Autistics.
posted by y2karl at 12:47 AM on April 6, 2003

Does anyone else get the occasional feeling we're not exactly speaking the same language here?

posted by walrus at 1:29 AM on April 6, 2003

posted by Grangousier at 1:43 AM on April 6, 2003

9 out of ten. And most of those were just guesses. And I'm British. Plus I'm irritated by a reliance on some invented "Cockeney" rhyming slang that just helps reinforce the old American preconception that England consists of the two cities London and Scotland.

Plus. The differences between where I live and southern UK are almost as big. Trollied, Lakeing about, Sileing down. These words (and many others like them) are quite specific to the north.
posted by seanyboy at 1:49 AM on April 6, 2003

Maybe the quiz was more interesting than your post :) People like quizzes - there's no "personality trait" involved. I got 8 out of 10, and I'm as American as President Chirac. And yes, speaking as a Brit, it is "Missus".
posted by Naked blog at 1:50 AM on April 6, 2003

Grangousier: which beeper?
posted by walrus at 4:34 AM on April 6, 2003

hairyeyeball: A humiliating six of ten

Don't worry. I'm English, and got the same. The quiz has an intense modern-London bias.
posted by raygirvan at 4:48 AM on April 6, 2003


I suspect it's written by non-British people (Misses/missus; boracic/brassic and I don't think that "knickers in a twist" is the opposite of "chuffed"). Nobody speaks like that, except possibly drunk tourists trying to fit in.

Britain and America: two countries separated by a common language.

And a fucking great ocean, of course.
posted by Grangousier at 4:58 AM on April 6, 2003

Possibly Dick Van Dyke speaks like that. Possibly.

This is not a good thing.
posted by Grangousier at 4:58 AM on April 6, 2003

Dunno mate. I use "brassic", although I never understood the origin. I'm also highly chuffed from time to time. It's not very street, but then neither am I. Could have been written by non-British people, ex-pats, drunken tourists trying to fit in, or any combination of the above. I only got eight out of ten. Never heard the use of "elephant" for rat-arsed before, and I didn't know "pigs" for a brew either.
posted by walrus at 5:37 AM on April 6, 2003

So Miguel, what does it mean culturally that this American answered two questions on the quiz and then said to herself, "Why exactly am I doing this? What difference does it make how many of these I know or don't know?" and came back here? I guess those of us who aren't performance-obsessed just have short attention spans. :)
posted by JanetLand at 5:43 AM on April 6, 2003

Err, I got 8 out of 10 and I didn't even know what the hell I was doing. Sod's law, I guess...
posted by GrahamVM at 6:16 AM on April 6, 2003

seanyboy, what's "sileing down" all about?
posted by walrus at 6:22 AM on April 6, 2003

the disinction between usage in britain and america is totally overplayed. the distinction is no larger than regional differences within either of the two countries. in fact the difference in standard usage between the two countries is probably far smaller than regional variations within the countries. yeah that's what i think. brit and american will understand each other perfectly 99% of the time, as long as they aren't deliberately trying to be obscure. as to whether they would understand converstions between two natives from the other's country, i dunno. but probably. maybe it goes more one way than the other. anyway, i like americans, they're brilliant. zoob.
posted by mokey at 6:25 AM on April 6, 2003

Walrus, "sileing down" is heavy rain. "It's sileing it down".
posted by vbfg at 6:34 AM on April 6, 2003

Thank you, I may use that. I love weather words. Any clue about it's origins?
posted by walrus at 7:12 AM on April 6, 2003

I'd just like to second Miguel's comment about the American character. As an American with an identity crisis since long before 9/11, I've been thinking a lot about the impression Americans make on other cultures.

And yes, Americans have to actively seek out sources of how others speak English, which might well be a good thing to do. Complacency often equals ignorance and/or cultural death.

The U.S. is great for many reasons, but small-mindedness is not one of them.
posted by divrsional at 7:45 AM on April 6, 2003

Oh, for heaven's sake, you could easily reverse this quiz and insinuate that England, Wales, Australia, et al, don't know much about the USA.

I'm a Yank, born and bred, and I know who Posh and Becks are. I'm just not thoroughly familiar with the latest Cockney rhyming slang. (I've heard that plates of meat = feet, things like that). But how many Brits would know what a coney island is? Or a Boston Cooler? Or a bubbler?

Most Americans are familiar enough with the standard differences between British and American English to be able to make themselves understood (lift, telly, the Tube, boot, bonnet); is it really fair to call us ignorant and culturally uninquisitive just because we don't know the latest slang for naughty bits?
posted by Oriole Adams at 8:04 AM on April 6, 2003

I've answered my own question, as usual. I'll inflict the answer on the thread, just in case languagehat is reading.

From the OED:

"Sile , v1.
b. Of rain: To pour (down).
[...] 1865 Cornh. Mag. July 33 Rain in the Northern counties, when it falls perpendicularly, is said to ‘sile down’, as if in allusion to its passing through a sieve."

and ...

"Sile, v2.
1. To strain; esp. to pass (milk) through a sieve or strainer."
posted by walrus at 8:12 AM on April 6, 2003

Also, what Oriole Adams said.
posted by walrus at 8:16 AM on April 6, 2003

I was disappointed that an English-American dictionary in the FPP didn't have an entry for the Englishism "put paid." I've run across the phrase "put paid" quite a bit on British newspaper web sites lately, and I have no idea what the phrase means. I guess it seems so self-evident that people don't even put it in an English-to-American dictionary.
posted by Holden at 9:00 AM on April 6, 2003

Hmm. In North Carolina we still call it the "boot" of the car. The rest of America still calls it the trunk.

My main shock is finding out how "scones" is really pronounced. From a native.
posted by konolia at 9:43 AM on April 6, 2003

You know I love America... But this is how the voice of love sounds - truthfully.

Yeah, you love us even though we're dumb, performance-obsessed, self-centred and simplistically and arithmetically competitive. Why don't you go love somebody else? And that "truth" part is what all aggressive types use to justify their belligerence: you don't like my calling you names? You just can't handle the truth! Perhaps when you sober up, you'll realize that MeFites posting their scores on a quiz has absolutely nothing to do with the behavior of the U.S. government on the world stage.

I can see you coming home to the wife, handing her a catalog for women's clothes, and saying "See anything you like?"—then, when she says "Well, this dress is nice..." sneering at her and saying "That's what repels me about women: all you think about is clothes."

As Naked blog said, "Maybe the quiz was more interesting than your post."

Oh, and Walrus, thanks for the OED quotes!
posted by languagehat at 10:03 AM on April 6, 2003

Holden: to put paid to something is to finish it off. "Bush's imperial posturings put paid to his chances for re-election" (I wish) and so forth.
posted by bonaldi at 10:13 AM on April 6, 2003

I agree that the quiz had a very London-centric bias, but in a stereotypical way. For what it's worth, I lived in Saaf Lunnun (Brixton/Streatham) for about a dozen years and have no memory of ever hearing any of these supposed colloquialisms used in every-day conversation. My wife (lived in Washington all her life) scored better than I did.
posted by normy at 11:02 AM on April 6, 2003

The quiz seems to consist entirely of Mr Madonna's fictional version of cockney rhyming slang. Nobody actually speaks like that. Very few people even use real cockney rhyming slang, other than the Mr Madonna crowd who can, quite frankly, fuck off to Dick Van Dyke-land.
posted by influx at 11:33 AM on April 6, 2003

like fonz
posted by sgt.serenity at 11:51 AM on April 6, 2003

Not to be picky or anything but their own blurb correctly states that

In Cockney Rhyming Slang, a word is represented by a phrase that ends in a rhyme. For example, the word mate rhymes with china plate. So the phrase china plate represents mate. However, in spoken slang, only the beginning of the phrase would remain. So the word china means mate. Simple right?

So how come question 10 has the answer "some posh and becks" when it should be "some Posh"? Consistency is all, you know. In a quiz context, that is. When it comes to language, however, inconsistency is rife - whether it be between countries, regions, cities or neighbours. Expecting anyone to be up to speed with every bit of slang currently in usage around the world is a bit much.
posted by MUD at 2:52 PM on April 6, 2003

am i the only one who feels like street slang is a very, very poor barometer of the alleged linguistic differences between two countries? it varies widely from region to region, state to state, and city to city--and even ethnic and economic groups inside cities!--within these united states, and i'm sure the same can be said for canada, australia, new zealand, and certainly for the united kingdom, from whom we adopted the habit.

how about some differences between standard american english and standard british english? wait, everybody knows those because they're obvious--minor punctuation quibbles, slightly different spellings--so let's dredge up the most peculiar aspect of british slang (rhyming cockney slang) and use it to prove how little those dumb yanks really know.

oh, and then dump on them when they participate in the quiz that you did link to.

Where is your curiosity? Where is your willingness to entertain doubt and uncertainty and be, in turn, entertained by them?

i'm not sure what any of us are doing here if not out of curiosity and, above all else, our willingness to be entertained.

but down with amerikkka, the great satan.
posted by kjh at 4:11 PM on April 6, 2003

I have to apologize for my silly tantrum. Although I stand by what I said about Americans, I now realize I was narcissistically disappointed that this post hadn't produced the kind of thread I'd envisaged and, instead of just accepting that, I childishly blamed those who kindly responded and - Freud would have had a field-day with this - equated them with my problems with U.S. culture.

Sorry, fellow users. The truth is that the post was unfocussed, confused and far too wide-ranging to be properly discussed. Too many links; too many questions; no clarity; no hook on which to hang one's comment hat.

Damn, it hurt my pride - and took a lot of friendly, understated prodding - to come to this conclusion...

*goes humbly back to searching for the elusive beauty of the one-link; one-line; one-issue post.*
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:32 PM on April 6, 2003

Mockney cahnts.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 5:46 PM on April 6, 2003

What a bloody stupid quiz. I'm English, and I had to think about the first question (never heard of 'pirate juice') and the second question.. I had to totally guess. WTF is 'boracic'? Question 4.. what does 'elephants' mean in this context? 'Brahms' is not common slang at all these days. 'Pashes' is Aussie slang. And how many people in London REALLY use rhyming slang all the time?

What bollocks. This here Londoner got 7 out of 10. :-)
posted by wackybrit at 6:29 PM on April 6, 2003

My main shock is finding out how "scones" is really pronounced. From a native.

You can't really find that out in any definitely way though. Both 'scowns' (rhyming with owns) and 'scons' (rhyming with cons) are valid. The former seems to be preferred in the south of England and with the more affluent. The latter is heard, but I think it might be more commonplace elsewhere.
posted by wackybrit at 6:42 PM on April 6, 2003

never heard of pirate juice
A Google search suggests it means rum (or rum-and-coke). But it only gets a handful of hits, so it must be very uncommon usage. As to "pash", apart from being Australian, to me it's a fairly outdated UK word for an infatuation or 'crush', a kind of 1930s girls' school thing: e.g. "Maisie had a pash on the form prefect".
posted by raygirvan at 8:29 PM on April 6, 2003

Aaaah, finally I see why this is baffling so many British readers. The original quiz appears to be compiled from the BBC America US/English Dictionary, which is largely user-contributed. Various people, for whatever reason, have filled the list with antiquated (and often obscure) Cockney rhyming slang phrases, but described them as "commonly used in England".
posted by raygirvan at 8:56 PM on April 6, 2003

Australian living in the UK, 9/10, a couple of those guessed by eliminating the obviously wrong answers. 'Pash' is Australian slang for kissing, not for a crush, which may be why I guessed that one incorrectly.

But it's true, the quiz bears little relation to what you actually hear people say here.
posted by rory at 9:44 AM on April 7, 2003

Late to the party here, but we (Americans) returned from Scotland a week ago, our first trip there. The first day was spent getting used to the accents, but we had no problems understanding, or being understood.

We were told about the term "barmy" during a visit to a distillery by our young female guide, however. She might have been trying to tell us something.
posted by SteveInMaine at 9:58 AM on April 7, 2003

Yeehaw! I only got one right!!

Yeah, you're right. It does feel kind of unAmerican.
posted by groundhog at 7:46 PM on April 7, 2003

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