Sunday, January 17, 2010

It's Only Words

This week we look at words and phrases:


I picked up an interesting book the other day. “Let’s Talk Turkey; The Stories behind America’s Favorite Expressions”, by Rosemarie Ostler. You’d think, since I’ve lived in the States for almost twenty years I’d know most of them. Hmmm, it appears not.

Until a few days ago I had no idea what “being behind the eight ball” meant, even though it’s quite a common American phrase. I’d have guessed it was a good position to be in, but no, in fact it means quite the opposite. If you’re behind the eight ball, you’re in serious trouble, or a tricky situation.

OK, what about a “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 Brit’s, what do you think you’d be being asked for if someone requested 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.

And finally, the one that I still have to think about although I probably hear it at least once a week, “crying Uncle”. That’s the verb “crying” rather than the adjective. Apparently Mike couldn’t believe that his English wife had never heard this, so common is it in the US. 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 so many versions I’d be over my word count.


Toni skated up to the edge of some smutty words but in this half, we’re going to dive right in:


This word is an amazement to me over here for a number of reasons. First, although it is not something you’d hear at a royal banquet, unless Prince Philip was there, it is definitely used more in conversation here than it is in The States. It doesn’t have quite the same sting here; it’s a more friendly pejorative than its colonial cousin.

Also, there’s the matter of pronunciation. Typically, the Brits use softer versions of words and leave the sharpened consonants to us Americans. Bahth is a typical example, which I pronounce bath, with a shortened, sharper “a”. In the case of Twat, however, the Americans pronounce it Twot, with a rounded vowel, giving it the weight of seriousness, whereas the Brits use the more playful, but typically American, “at” sound.

The use is different, as well. While it is used as a euphemism for a woman’s “bottom front” in both countries, in Britain, it also means a disagreeable or silly person, irrespective of gender. It’s the type of jibe a friend might throw at you if you’re acting up: “Stop being such a twat!”

You don’t call a woman a twat in The States unless you want her to introduce her high heels to your groin area.

And I won’t even go into the “C” word.

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  1. Very interesting post! I'm not going to use these words but it's nice to know what they mean :)

  2. Didn't David Cameron get in trouble for using the word 'twat' in a radio interview? Apparently his PR people were mortified (because of the actual meaning of the word). But I agree, it is widely used in the UK.

    Didn't know any of the US ones, Toni, so I'll watch out for those. My least favourite US expression? "It is what it is". Basically seems to translate as "It sucks but I can't be bothered to do anything about it."

  3. Yes, I wouldn't recommend going about saying "twat" unless you're very comfortable with your situation.
    NVG - Actually I use that all the time when I'm trying to calm myself down about something that is completely out of my hands. A bit like -"Whaddya gonna do?"

  4. The most trouble I got into in the UK ever was for not knowing the local meaning of "fanny"

  5. Mike you are a literary genius. Twat is one of my fav words as it is very rude but also seems to generally accepted in (certain) conversation.

  6. I'm not going to comment. I start blushing even when I am thinking of certain words...never mind saying them or writing them!! I've also committed some corkers in Spanish.......ahem.

  7. NFAH - slapped wristies - you obviously didn't read my book. Fortunately, more Brits these days know what Americans mean by "fanny" although it does still tend to make everyone titter a bit.
    And yes, Hadriana - certain words, such as Mike's choice here, are just going too far for me. I think I'm more comfortable with the C word than the T one.

  8. ExptaMum: The "C" word! I can't even bring myself to say it. As bad as my upbringing was, that was the one taboo we couldn't break. I still find it strange to heard it, even on the telly.

  9. Learnt a lot by reading that.
    Are American girls more feisty then than their Brit cousins? Seems like that to me.
    Nuts in May

  10. I think Maggie's just identified the topic of next week's post. Are American girls more feisty than their British cousins? I have quite a few thoughts on that and I bet Mike does too.
    And Mike - I don't think I have ever uttered the C word in my life, it just has more shock value for me that the T word for some reason. But then this girl grew up being told (by kids, I might add) that twat meant "pregnant fish". Go figure!

  11. The C word (we are talking about the same one on both sides of the pond, I assume?) is a horrible word and I wouldn't use it. It sounds really derogatory.

    "Twat", on the other hand, just sounds like "twit", so it seems much milder and I have to remind myself what it actually means. I probably would use it to mean someone I thought was a prat or stupid. I'd use "wanker" in the same context - that is, when driving. I wouldn't generally use those words in everyday life, but driving has its own set of rules imo.

  12. As we're on the topic.....

    Most British people are unaware that what they think is a very minor expletive seemingly on a par with twit - is to call someone a berk. Suggesting they are a minor form of idiot or not entirely all there.

    However the word derives from cockney rhyming slang for which the long version is "Berkeley Hunt" - no prizes for guessing what the term actually means then......

  13. Well, you live and learn don't you? I don't think I use the word 'berk', though it was very popular when I was in junior school.

  14. I went to school in Berkhamsted, so there were many jokes about the word berk.

    So a John Hancock isn't the same as a John Thomas, then? I wonder how many Americans know what a John Thomas is.

    If you're going to post on the feistiness of American girls, you should get one of the writers of "She's Not From Yorkshire" to guest blog. They have written much on that subject.

  15. Blimey - I never knew that but I don't use "berk" much.
    Iota - yes, I'm defeinitely going to be asking them for their ten cents' worth.

  16. I used "berk" before knowing where it originated. I still use it ;)


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