Sunday, October 2, 2011

And All This Time I Thought it Meant....

No matter how long you live in a "host" country, you're learning all the time. This week we talk about the words we've merrily been assuming we knew the meaning of...


The Ball & Chain is American and has always had quite a colourful vocabulary; by that, I don't mean swearing, but coming out with phrases like "That dog ain't hunting" and "If I had my druthers" *. I have often accused him of making words and phrases up, but I'm having to acknowledge that even after 21 years in the States, the vocabulary still stumps me from time to time.

* druthers -- a preference. Presumably comes from "I'd rather" wouldn't you think?

Take "jonesing" -- a word that comes up quite regularly but the context gives no clue as to its meaning. I have never asked for a definition in public because it's always sounded vaguely dirty to me. A bit like "cottaging". An example of usage is someone is "jonesing" for something. (See - I told you it had dodgy undertones.), and it means "to have a strong need, desire or craving for something".

Then there's carpet-bagger -- a derogatory name used in politics, giving no clues to its meaning. I noticed that it was usually aimed at politicians who were representing regions they didn't come from, as when Hillary Clinton bought a house in New York State and then ran for Senate. According to Wikipedia it was a name Southerners gave to Northerners in the US who moved to the South between 1865 and 1877. The Northerners were accused of questionable motives, exploitation and of meddling in local politics. However, the name comes about because they carried their luggage in carpet bags (a la Mary Poppins).

Carpet Bagger

 Another vaguely dirty-sounding phrase I hear a lot is "charlie horse". Someone will exclaim that they have a Charlie Horse, and I never dare look in his or her direction. Fortunately it only means 'painful cramps or spasms in the leg", a bit like a dead leg in the UK.

Now that I have bothered to learn the true meanings, I will use the above words and phrases as often as possible over the next few weeks!


I don’t have the same problem Toni does, but not because I have become an authority on British English over the previous ten years; quite the opposite, in fact.  The British language is so varied and regionalized that even British people become confused about the language from time to time.  And if you take rhyming slang into account (which we are not) all bets are off.

You might, for example, wake up in your home county, travel to a place where you can have a “bap” for lunch, walk down a “twitten” and stroll by the “brook,” and then move on to another locale where you can have a “cob” for dinner, walk down a ‘ginnel’ and stroll by the ‘beck.’  I am, therefore, used to not knowing what people are talking about, and I am generally not alone.

(Definitions: Bap/Cob = bread roll, Twitten/Ginnel = narrow alley way between houses.)

Usually, it’s safe to assume any word I don’t know the meaning of is yet another euphemism for penis.

There remain, however, a few British words that give me more problems than others.

It wasn’t very long ago that I ran across the term “any road” and I had no way of divining what that could possibly mean.  Recently, I came to understand it simply means “anyway.”

Another source of confusion involves things belonging to a dog, for they can denote “good” or “bad” depending on the item.  The “dog’s bollocks” means something is really great, while the “dog’s dinner” (or breakfast) means it is a mess.  This took a bit of getting used to, but I have, happily, caught on.

Another word I struggled with was “gormless.”  I had no way of knowing what my “Gorms” were but I was pretty certain I did not want to be without them.  Likewise, “Muppet,” does that mean you are a Jim Henson devotee, or what?

Muppet, I was able to get to grips with due to the context.  It means that you’re, well, a muppet.  If you can imagine a person you might want to call a muppet, well, that’s a muppet.  Sorry, I can’t come up with anything better than that.

Do you know this guy?

 As for “gormless” I mistakenly believed it meant lazy, but when I verified that with my wife she told me that was not, in fact, what it meant.

“What does it mean, then,” I asked.

“It means you’re a muppet,” she said.


  1. I lose my cool when friends describe someone else by saying, "What is she like?!" It seems to be both a question and an exclamation, but even they can't tell me what it means. Argh!

  2. Mike - that wife of yours comes out with some corkers doesn't she?

    Betsy - you know, I never thought of that. The trick is, (when trying to describe someone) not to make the end sound like a question. 'Coz it's not!

  3. The term gormless & muppet really means that you haven't much going on in your head.
    *Any road* is only used in the north.

    When I moved down south I was confused by the baps and the daps and the crumpets instead of pikelets, biers instead of shiphams. I could go on!

    Bristol has its own strange dialect. *How bist?* How are you? i *Ark at ee* Listen to him. *You'm a gud'n. You're OK.

    I think you are right, Mike in thinking that the British language differs tremendously in different regions.You could be in a different country.

    Toni....... not sure I have ever heard any of these expressions.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  4. Maggie - you can relate to my shock when I arrived at Bristol for university and couldn't understand the directions I was given from the train station. Hilarious.

  5. Ha, this sounds like us arriving in Kentucky from the East Coast and discovering a whole new vocabulary. Our favorite regionalism: Using the word 'puny' to describe someone who's not feeling well, as in: "Where's Bob?" "He stayed home. He's puny."
    Ah, language.
    Oh, and - right or wrong - in my brain, I have always translated the word 'gormless' as 'clueless.' May not be exact, but seems to work...

  6. I think gormless is a catch-all. To me, it depicts someone who has "that look".

  7. Gormless is a great word - also makes me think of 'chinless wonder', another good British epithet. I am always flummoxing people here with expressions like 'the lurgy' and 'palaver'. I'm surprised Muppet isn't used over here in the US, after all The Muppets are American!

  8. Oooh, another Brit one I love is "numpty". It wasn't really popular when I was there so it's a novelty for me.

  9. I love articles about the differences in the languages. I always chuckle whenever Vernon tells me he's "knackered". I know it means tired, but it still sounds dirty to me. ;)

  10. I think "Jonesing" must come from "keeping up with the Joneses, don't you think?

    Living abroad makes you challenge your own phrases. For example, the other day I said "he could talk the hind leg of a donkey", and that made people stop. We started discussing the phrase, and I concluded I didn't really know whether it meant "he talks a lot" or "he's a charmer and gets what he wants". I think it really means the second, but I often use it to mean the first. (Am I right?)

  11. Iota - not sure but I'd use "talk the hind leg off a donkey" to mean chatterbox, generally. Not saying I'm right, though.

    I think 'gormless' is a great word. It really amused our family when Ikea had a range of shelves named 'Gorm'. I think they've renamed them something else now.

    And I quite like "that's the danglies", which comes from "the dog's danglies", which comes from "the dog's bollocks".

    A lot of phrases seem to evolve that way. "Hard cheese" morphed into "tough cheddar", and there are several more that won't come to mind right now because I'm tired but I'm sure I'll remember in the middle of the night.

  12. My dad uses "gormless" and he's American! Usually used as, "what a gormless idiot." He grew up with crazy Irish grandmothers so maybe he picked it up from them.


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