Saturday, September 11, 2010

Say What?

Foreign nurses in Norfolk, England are receiving a crash course in euphemism after patients asking to "spend a penny" found themselves being escorted to a hospital shop. Mike and Toni reflect on how easy it is to make similar mistakes even when you’re speaking the same language.


Having married an American (a southern one at that) I’m used to hearing words and phrases that have no discernable meaning, and I’ve given up trying to figure them out. When my husband first said “If I had my druthers” I didn’t know whether he was talking about a favorite pair of shoes or a pet name for his grandma. Honestly! On further inspection, I’ll admit that it’s not a great stretch to see that “druthers” derives from the words “would rather”, but when you’re put on the spot, the meaning isn’t quite on the tip of one’s tongue.

Similarly, when I was first asked for my “John Hancock”, I stood staring at the sales assistant, wondering whether he needed a good slap in the face. How was I to know that your John Hancock is your signature? (The signature of John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence is the most flamboyant and therefore the most recognizable.) And when fellow students on my Masters Degree program announced that they would be “boning up on” various things, I thought this was rather too much information personally. Of course, it isn’t rude in the least and means to study (or swot up on) a subject.

Hubby’s conversation is liberally peppered with euphemisms such as “crying Uncle” or just “uncle”, which of course, means to give up or surrender. (The origin of this is so debatable I’m not even going to bother with it.) He also says he’s going to “put something up” which I quickly learned is a southern way of announcing he’s going to put something away as opposed to getting the attic ladders out.

Americans are masters of the euphemism when it comes to unsavory or personal matters. No one dies, they “pass away” or have “bought the farm”; complete nutters “have issues” or “baggage”, if someone is downright bloody rude, they are “rough around the edges” and anyone who drinks too much is obviously “self-medicating”. (A great one to use if you ever manage to drink too much in public is to say you were “over-poured”.)

Yet again, a whole nuther language!


The first time I knew I was dealing with a foreign language was on my first trip to England, when my future father-in-law asked it I fancied a “wee dram.” Naturally, I had no idea what he was on about. But then he’s from Glasgow, and even English people can’t understand them. So I remained confused, over one point of language or another, for some time.

My favorite source of confusion, like the hapless Norfolk nurses, was over “spend a penny.” “Visit a man about a dog” I could deal with, as it was not much of a stretch from seeing the same man about a horse. But a penny? Especially when the toilet cover-charge in Victoria station has just gone up to 30 pence! It just didn’t—and still does not—make any sense.

But I have had just as good a time confusing the British with my American idioms. “Boondoggle,” “Charlie horse,” “going Postal” have all been met with odd stares and silence. The best, however, was committed by a co-worker from India who, while we were at a company picnic, noted that one of our number was wearing his “knickers.” This caused a great deal of mirth among the others, though I knew exactly what he meant: where I come from, short pants are called Knickerbockers, from the Dutch who had settled the area and left portions of their language behind (Dutch rub, Dutch Uncle, going Dutch, in Dutch with your wife, etc.). So shorts could be referred to as knickers there without many people raising an eyebrow. In Britain, however, it means you’ve been raiding your wife’s underwear drawer. Again.

After eight years, my wife and I have pretty much learned each other’s language. She’s used to me referring to what she calls “stair rods” as “a cow pissing on a flat rock” (for those of you scratching your heads, these both relate to really enthusiastic rain). My wife faffs and gets knackered, while I’m fidgety and get beat.

All in all, it’s an interesting exchange of culture. I’d like to go on, but it’s getting late, and I’m knackered.


  1. Re: spending a penny, and to repeat a silly thought I've previously blogged about, but it always confuses me when Americans say penny for a one cent coint. I'm trying to slowly convince people that as they're dealing with cents and not pence they should call it a
    'cenny" instead, but I'm not getting much traction on this.

  2. Then there's "I'm ready to skedaddle", "hit the hay", "kick the bucket", "going round robin's (or Robin Hood's)barn", "dead as a door nail", "for Pete's sake" (or "for the love of Pete") and others say "for pity's sake", "high on the hog", "one red cent", "happy as a clam", my bosses favorite 'happy as a pig in mud' and the idiom I hate the most because I screw it up all the time, "6 of 1, half dozen of the other."

  3. That makes interesting reading!
    I've never heard of the American sayings, though!
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  4. My granny used to say she was "just going round the corner", which would no doubt confuse Americans and Brits alike (and not to be confused with going round the bend).

    And to your list of euphemisms, Toni, I'd add 'heavy set' to mean fat/obese.

  5. My problem is that I don't even know yet which words are British and which American; for instance I had no idea until now that'knackered' wasn't internationally understood. I must have been confusing everyone. (By the way, I've definitely heard people saying 'boning up' in the UK, but maybe they just learned it from US tv.) The word I do find funny is 'pissed', which means quite different things in English and American....

  6. The British expression I could never figure out was "come a cropper" - finally asked English friends to translate.

  7. Lol - my Brit better half has been in American since he was a teenager, but I still catch him up (and there's another one) with southern phrases. The first time I had to explain what I meant when I said someone was "like tits on a boar" he damn near choked himself. I think the one I'm likely to get myself in the most trouble for is remembering that "fanny" is not just a more polite word for "butt".

  8. Oh my just do not get me started in on this subject lol! I wouldn't even know where to start living in Okieland but will support what both of you have said.

    One of my friends here said she once spent a whole night wondering where I was spending a penny at 2am in the morning! And I almost feel like it's rude to say someone 'died' here, they all just seem to pass away!

    And we even have a car dealer a few towns away called 'John Thomas'!!

  9. You've mentioned some that I haven't heard of before. There are a few that are very innocent in one country and not so in the other.

  10. Of course the big one is the word "she" or "he". Obviously not offensive on their own but Americans don't consider it rude to say it in front of the person they're talking about, while Brits tend to reply with "Who's she? The Cat's Mother?" (And a big brownie point to anyone who can come up with an origin for that one BTW.)

  11. You say that in your book, Expat Mum, but people talk about their kids like that all the time. I agree that it used to be considered rude, but I'm not so sure that it still is.

  12. I would say that in adult company in the UK it's still not OK, and if there's any doubt at all, don't do it. The point I try to make to Brits in the US is that it's not considered rude at all and no offence is meant.


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