Learning the Lingo

How long do you have to live in a country to feel like you know what on earth everyone’s talking about? In my case, there’s not even a second language involved as we’re all supposed to be speaking English. I’ve written at length about the vocabulary differences between British and American English, but in my experience, the real confusion comes from day to day expressions which bear no relation to their actual meaning.

For example, even though I’ve been in the USA almost twenty years, I apparently have had no idea what “being behind the eight ball” means. It’s a very common phrase here and I always assumed it was a good thing (don’t ask me why but I had really good pool/snooker players in mind), but no, in fact it means quite the opposite. If you’re behind the eight ball, you’re in serious trouble, or in a tricky situation.OK, what about a getting the “bum’s rush”? No – get your minds out of the gutter, it means to be forcibly ejected from somewhere or told to leave in a hurry. Remember, the American word “bum” means a tramp rather than a posterior, so the bum’s rush derives from wanting to rid a place of undesirable characters.

And what if someone requests your John Hancock? It hardly bears thinking about really does it? John Hancock was one of the founders of the United States and the first man to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Apparently from the late nineteenth century onwards, John Hancock has been slang for one’s signature. A bit like Cockney rhyming slang without the rhyming.

If you “bought the farm” what would that suggest? Perhaps a great real estate acquisition? Not even close. Although the similar phrase “to buy it” has been found in military records in the UK since World War 1, to “buy the farm” in the USA means to crash or be killed and is still in common use today. In more recent years, any sort of death buys you the farm.

The phrase that I still have to think about although I probably hear it at least once a week, is “crying Uncle”. That’s the verb “crying” rather than the adjective. And there’s absolutely no guessing what it could mean. Similar to “crying wolf” perhaps? No – not even warm. It means to surrender or ask for mercy. I would give you the origin but there are too many versions out there.

As for visitors to the United Kingdom, what must they think when someone comments that it’s “brass monkey weather”? This is actually short for “the weather is so cold it could freeze the balls off a brass monkey”. Ahem. A quick search on that phrase brings up a few different origins and explanations. I always understood that the “monkey” was a brass tray on which a ship’s cannonballs were stored and in extremely cold weather, the tray would contract spilling the balls. According to many erudite sources, this is probably not true because the tray wasn’t called a monkey, and there was a similar phrase around, (“freeze the tail off a brass monkey) which is probably the origin.

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And what if Brits suddenly affect a ridiculously aristocratic accent and refer to themselves as “we” instead of “I”? The phrase being bandied around will probably be “We are not amused”. This is an imitation of Queen Victoria, who was supposed to have said it around 1900. (The “we” is known as the “royal we” and reserved for kings and queens.) It caused howls of laughter when, in 1989, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told the world about her new grand-child by announcing “We have become a grandmother”.

When discussing dissimilar people or things I often say they’re “like chalk and cheese” – a phrase which is not used in the US. Similarly, I will say “snap” when caught wearing the same coat/top/shoes as someone else,(referring to the children’s card-matching game), again, to be met with bemused looks. Interestingly, my teenagers now say “snap” as an expression of disappointment or disbelief, much as I might say “Drat” or something stronger. It took me a while to stop looking for whatever they thought I had copied.

As I said, still learning the lingo.

Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.


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