British English and American English

british english and

A friend in England just sent me a nice little book: “British Language and Culture,” published by Lonely Planet.

I thought my knowledge of British English was moderately okay. I can read the Financial Times without a crib sheet, and even do the crossword puzzle. (The puzzle, sadly enough, often resorts to cricket terminology, which kills me, but I now know all about googlies and centuries and maiden overs, not to mention former Archbishops of Canterbury and Prime Ministers and managers of Manchester United.)

But this new book is a gold mine.

I opened the book randomly to Cockney rhyming slang. “Apples and pears” I knew from an Austin Powers movie (it means “stairs,” which rhymes with “pears”; you can say just “apples” if you’re feeling obscure). How about “Use your loaf” for “Use your head”? I assumed “loaf” was just a silly euphemism for “head,” because people’s heads were big and lumpy, like loaves of bread. But it’s rhyming slang too: “head” rhymes with “bread,” which leads us to “loaf of bread” . . . .

The book also includes Estuary English, and Zummerzet English, and Geordie English. It has a Cornish lexicon, and a Welsh lexicon, and a Scots Gaelic lexicon, not to mention a Lallans supplement.

It makes my head spin, that there are so many ways of saying the same thing.

Here’s a story from my own past:

Where I grew up – in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s/1970s – “I have an idea” was a synonym for “I think so” or “I agree.” Example: if someone said “I think it’s going to rain today,” you could agree by saying “I have an idea.”

Then I came to New England in 1978, still using all my Northwestern idioms. I quickly stopped saying “pop,” and substituted “soda” (which seemed strange for a year or two, but which wasn’t such a big deal). I quickly stopped making fun of people who didn’t pronounce “ant” and “aunt” in exactly the same way. Ditto “ferry” and “fairy.” Ditto “Mary” and “marry” and “merry.”

And slowly I learned to speak New England English, or more specifically, Rhode Island English.

But it took me a long time to get rid of “I have an idea,” even though people reacted strangely to it. One person long ago said, wonderingly: “What? What idea do you have?”

Okay. I finally got it. No one understands “I have an idea.”

But I still think it’s a cute expression.

And isn’t it lovely that we have so many ways of expressing ourselves?

‘Bye now. I have to run up the apples and pears.


About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

2 Responses to British English and American English

  1. starproms says:

    Exciting stuff Loren and I love the cover of that book. To be a real Cockney one has to be born within the sound of Bow bells. I have known a few Cockneys and always found them fascinating – brave and funny and very down to earth. As the United Kingdom is a mix of English, Scots, Irish and Welsh, I suppose it is not surprising that we have so many names and phrases for things. I went to a meeting last night where there was a very interesting talk about threads. It would have been even more interesting if I could have understood the speaker better. She came from ‘up north’ on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire and she sounded ‘oh so different’ to me.

    • I love the book. I’ve learned a lot from it. And, yes, I love the cover too: they worked in every English image they could think of!

      Sometimes, watching BBC America, I catch someone with a really thick accent I can’t make out. And, a couple of times, I’ve seen Australian movies with subtitles, because the accent is so think and unfamiliar to most Americans.

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