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Lingual, kinda

Bi-Lingual, kinda

by Toni Summers Hargis

Having lived in the States for nineteen years, I like to boast that I’m “bi-lingual”. What? You think there’s no new language to learn? “How different could it be?” you ask. Let’s just say the learning never ceases. Only last week, as we were heading off to an outdoor concert with some friends, one asked if I had the “church key”. I thought he was referring to the front door key, which I proudly produced, to gales of laughter from everyone. Come on – how was I supposed to infer that he was talking about a bottle opener?

For the most part, American English and British English are similar enough for us to be able to communicate; British goose pimples become goose bumps across the Pond, the phrase six and two threes translates to six of one and half a dozen of the other” (or six and one half when pressed for time), and fanny simply means one’s bottom instead of, well, a female front bottom. Some of the differences are hilarious either to Americans or Brits, depending on the situation. For some reason behoove, (which is the American version of “behove”) cracks me up every time I hear it. If you’re trying to warn me that it would “behoove” me to do something, you’ll need to choose a different word to be taken seriously. Similarly, every time I pronounce the word herb with an audible “h”, all the Americans in the room will smile indulgently at each me and then repeat my pronunciation exactly. The most hilarious of all is when Brits come across Americans named Randy. There’s much elbowing, winking and general Monty Python-esque behavior, which falls on utterly deaf ears as Americans don’t use the word “randy” to mean “horny”.

Generally, the differences cause mirth instead of confusion, but when your husband tells you he’s been shagging flies, it’s important to jump for the dictionary rather than jump to conclusions. (The term means to throw and catch baseballs in the outfield when the baseball game isn’t in progress.) Similarly, when your teenagers tell you they’re boning up on something, you should know that they’re studying (or claiming to) rather than getting up to anything more illicit.

During my time here there have been some real clangers, as when my English mother visited me shortly after I came here. Being jet lagged, she was worried about over-sleeping, so gracefully said to my American husband, “If I’m not up by eight, would you mind knocking me up?” Fortunately, my husband had lived for three years in London, so knew exactly what she meant. She however, was mortified to learn that in the States, the phrase “to knock someone up” usually means to get them pregnant. (In the UK, it can also mean “to knock on someone’s door in order to wake them.)

Sadly, I have basically had to drop most of my favorite Brit words as they just don’t translate over here. Words such as knackered, sod it, sodding and dodgy (*see below for translations) are now a distant memory, and I find myself over-using them when with fellow Brits, just for the heck of it. And although most people, both American and British, comment that I have lost none of my English accent, I have had to change my vocabulary fairly radically just to be understood. I am forced to say diaper instead of nappy, trunk instead of boot, and chips instead of crisps, but I also grudgingly admit that guessing those Brit words would be as difficult as figuring out the church key thing.

One astonishing thing that happens from time to time is that perfect strangers will imitate my accent. (Unfortunately, friends and acquaintances do it too, but I haven’t quite figured out how to stop them without damaging the friendship.) I swear this wouldn’t happen if I had a Belgian or Brazilian accent, but evidently a British accent is fair game. My most recent assault occurred when a customer service guy from a well-known department store was returning my call. Born and raised in Illinois, his entire voicemail message sounded like a constipated member of the Royal family!

For some reason, even after all this time in the USA, my rendition of an American accent, is unashamedly appalling!


Knackered – knackered people are very tired; knackered things are broken.
Sod it – A great one to use when your patience finally snaps; like “screw it”!
Sodding – can be used like “bloody” in place of the innocuous “very”, to describe something or someone.
Dodgy – A dodgy person is untrustworthy, disreputable or just suspicious-looking; a dodgy thing is on the verge of collapsing or breaking.

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