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.
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