Sunday, October 30, 2011

Happy Halloween

Love it or hate it, there's no getting away from Halloween:


As you’ll know, Halloween is HUGE in the States. According to one Halloween costume company there are 41 million potential Trick or Treaters this year (aged 5-14). People will spend $1.21 BILLION on adults’ costumes, $1 Billion on kids’ costumes and $310 million on pet costumes.Yes, that's right - pet costumes.  87.78 million houses will give out candy and everyone will consume an average of 1.2 pounds of the stuff. As I said, HUGE.

It’s also quite good fun; people get into the spirit and in my neighbourhood, will decorate their houses on the outside, and perhaps sit on the front porch to greet the kids coming round. Either that or they’re just making sure that no one takes more than a few pieces. Last year we had kids with pillowcases in which to carry their booty.

All the parties happened on Saturday night so there were quite a few “sights” walking round the streets. I may have mentioned in previous years that Halloween costumes here don’t have to be spooky. Kids dress as anything from a Mario brother to a knight in shining armour, and grown men get the chance to dress in women’s clothing without people looking askance at them.
I, for one, went all out this year with the help of a 2nd hand psychedelic cat suit and a large wig. I went to a party where there was also karaoke, so my look was 70’s Disco Queen. Unfortunately I ended up looking more like a Drag Queen, but it’s all good fun.
 Looking more drag than disco, with my Sith date.


Halloween is alive and well in Horsham.  Although I detected a lack of enthusiasm in the run up to the celebrations—merely a few window displays in some of the local shops—today it seemed as if someone fired the starting pistol on all things Halloween.

While wandering around town today many of the store clerks and market stall staff were dressed in costumes and there was a celebration at the band stand where groups of children in Halloween garb got to show off their stuff.  While walking across the street to get a Chinese take away this evening, I saw young people in fancy dress going into town and after dinner I heard the raucous celebrations and saw the fireworks display (which I enjoyed from the balcony while smoking my postprandial cigar) taking place at the local cricket ground.

In addition to this, on the telly tonight, Strictly Come Dancing, QI and some other popular shows have aired (or are going to air) Halloween-themed programs.  Considering that (with the exception of Strictly, which is a live-ish show) these episodes were filmed back in July, it is obvious they have been thinking about Halloween for some time.

What I do not see in any of this is any trick-or-treating, and that is how it should be.  Don’t get me wrong; I love that aspect of Halloween and consider it the very essence of the holiday in the US.  But that’s the thing: Trick-or-Treating is American and is therefore looked upon with misgiving over here.  To have kids showing up at your house demanding candy is akin to a confectionary shakedown.  An article I read while waiting for my take-away—written by the Sussex Police—advised parents, if they were going to take their children trick-or-treating, to visit only the homes of friend or relatives (i.e. people who were expecting them).

So Halloween is not ignored over here, it’s a major part of the autumn celebrations, which do not include pestering strangers for candy.

Oh, and there’s no TPing, either.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

MidWeek Mention - The Pitmen Painters

If you're from the North East of England, you're probably familiar with the tale of the Pitmen Painters; a group of miners from Ashington Colliery in Northumberland.

A permanent exhibition of the miners' work can be seen at Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, if you're up that way. Toni visited this summer and although it's a small museum, it's well worth a visit. A book and a play have been produced about the Pitmen Painters, and after a fantastic run at Newcastle's Live Theatre and elsewhere, it's now playing at the Duchess Theatre in London's West End till January. Here's a review of the play in London. Mike has seen it and recommends it.

For Americans, it's also playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City and (oh joy) at the Timeline Theatre in Chicago.

Here's one more link to Robson Greene talking about the making of the Pitmen Painters. (Readers in the USA may not be able to view it.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Americans & Brits - Always Offending Each Other

In the years that we’ve lived “abroad”, we’ve quickly discovered that it’s easy to insult someone without really trying:


Oh yes, even after 21 years here, I still manage to offend people willy nilly.

Take the phrase “Shut Up”. Although a few Americans use it to mean “No way!”, there is no other acceptable version. In the UK I’d have no problem saying “Oh shut up” if someone for example, comes out with a funny, gross exaggeration or something utterly gross. I once accidentally said “Shut up” to one of my kids (I meant to say “Be Quiet” which is almost as bad here). Unfortunately we happened to be in a room full of parents with kids, and they all literally stopped mid-sentence, turned to look at me and gasped in unison.

The other “bad” word here is “stupid.” I once called attention to a woman who was walking on the road, with traffic coming up behind her, headphones on and just asking to be run over. “Look at that stupid woman”, I said to my kids. “She’s going to get hit by a car”. As I said it, another woman walked past my open car window and muttered “Charming” loudly enough for me to hear. You also can’t get away with calling someone a “stupid idiot” either in jest or for real. You might as well use the word “retarded”.

Another “sin" is when I fail to acknowledge any thanks I receive. I often complain that Americans rarely say “Please” but boy do they take “Thank you” seriously, to the point that if you don’t say “You’re welcome”, people you know really well (ie. Cheeky kids) will often say it for you. There’s a crossing guard/lollipop man outside our school every morning. He gets thanked every time he walks someone across the street, and he says “You’re welcome” to every single person. If that were me, I’d have  a little tape recorder in my pocket doing it for me!


The US/UK divide that catches me out more than “Shut up” (I haven’t had any reason to say that word since my children grew up) is the way they use “Please” and “Thank you.”

In the US, “Thank You” is the star.  “Please” is reserved—in my experience—for those occasions when several requests have gone ignored, and it is usually uttered with more than a little sarcasm:

“Will you please clean up your room; this is the third time I’ve asked.  Thank you.”

But here, “Please” takes center stage and “Thank you”—if it appears at all—is a bit player.  Leaving out “Please” is considered rude and, I suppose, thanking someone before they actually do something could be considered a bit presumptuous. 
Therefore, my e-mail communications at work often go something like this:

Colleague to me:  “Will you please send me the specifications for the new widget?”

Me to Colleague:  (Thinking: whoa, what’s up with him?)  “The specification is still missing a few key points.  Could you send me your notes from yesterday’s meeting where we discussed these points?  That would be a big help.  Thanks.”

Colleague: (Thinking: wanker!)  “I compiled my notes and copied them to the document repository.  Please see my e-mail from yesterday afternoon concerning this.”

Me: (Thinking: asshole!)  “I don’t seem to have an e-mail from you about that.  Could you resend it?  Thanks.”

Colleague:  “It’s in the standard location, you stupid Colonial retard!”

Me: “Why don’t you just shut the f*&k up and answer my question, you sanctimonious British ponce!

Okay, so maybe those last two exchanges don’t actually happen, but that’s what we’re thinking.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Splitting Hairs

When you move across The Pond your mind starts playing tricks on you after a while. Some well-worn phrases are so similar that you can’t remember which one’s which. While it’s “no biggie”, use of the wrong phrase can raise a wry smile from friends and family members, and make for great conversation.

For example,

In the US you  “putter around” and in the UK it’s “potter”; the American “meat and potatoes” becomes Britain’s “meat and two veg”; and “Main Street” is “High Street”.  So far so good, but it’s a bugger trying to keep them straight after more than a decade or two.

There’s the American “downtown” which becomes the “town centre”, “talk shows” are “chat shows” in the UK, and “business casual” becomes “smart casual” (or “casual smart” in some cases). Did you know it’s “hodge podge” in the States and “hotch potch” in Britain? Or “tid-bit” instead of the more risqué British “tit-bit”?

Some are not only hard to keep sorted, but bloody irritating at the same time, like the US’s “Every little bit helps” versus Britain’s  “Every little helps”.

To quote Mike - “This one drives me nuts.  There is an advert on the telly -- Tesco, ASDA, LIDL or one of the other low-budget shops--that ends "every little helps" and I want to scream at the TV--"Every little WHAT helps?"

Toni’s pet peeve is “I could care less” which is oft-heard in the States. Do Americans realise what they’re saying? They’re trying to convey a deep sense of well, not caring, yet they’re telling you they could actually care a little bit less than they do?  There is a suggestion that it’s a highly sarcastic phrase meaning "as if I could care less about this", but since Americans generally don’t employ sarcasm, it’s doubtful.

And the worst thing about it is...well, David Mitchell says it so much better than we could:

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Host Country words & phrases

Host Phrases

We’re obviously into discussing words and phrases, because this week we’re highlighting three favourite/favourite words from our host country:-


Cor Blimey!  Three words or phrases I’ve picked up from my host country?  Gordon Bennet, that’s a tall order, innit, and bugger if I can come up with anything.  I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes and, so far, I’ve got sweet FA.

Yeah, to be honest, limiting it to three is the hard part.  The British language is so full of brilliant words and phrases that it’s difficult to not pick them up.  When I visit the States these days, people have a hard time figuring out what I’m on about.

So for my three:

Penultimate: I love this one because no one knows what it means.  In America, we just say “next to the last” or, more likely, don’t mention it at all.  I mean, if it isn’t the ultimate, it simply doesn’t matter.

Fortnight is a good one, too.  People know immediately what it means, but when you say something like, “We’ll be holidaying there for a fortnight,” they think you’re talking like a Jane Austin novel.

Bollocks, however, is my favorite.  It’s such a handy pejorative – “bollocks!” – or can be used to describe a telling-off (“Clive toddled home from the Dog and Bacon at half three last night and she-indoors* gave him a proper bollocking, poor sod.”)

Really, how can you not like these words?

*She-Indoors = wife


(I thought it was “her indoors”, or “’er indoors”, but never mind.)

If this were a competition, Mike’s “bollocks” would win hands down, so to speak. There just isn’t really a word anywhere on the planet, I venture, that has quite the impact. However, there are a few Americanisms that I have grown fond of over the years.

Snooze, you lose” – used in our house on a daily basis and covers everything from me asking what the kids want for Christmas, (I usually give them ten seconds to list their “wants”), to justification for nicking the last piece of pizza. 

Copasetic” – I have never actually plucked up the courage to say this. It would be like an American saying “bollocks” – somehow fake-sounding and just plain wrong. However, it’s another one of those words that can cover a lot of bases (ooh, there’s another American phrase), and it means “perfectly satisfactory”. Doesn’t it have a much more scientific sound though? I think it should mean something to do with the left frontal lobe. Or something. (See why I’ve never used it.)

Behoove” – I’m not so much fond of this word as amazed by it. Yes, it means the same as “behove” but talk about sounding stupid. The word is used a little more in the States than I remember it in the UK, especially in the southern states. The first time I heard someone saying “It would behove you to…” I honestly thought it was a joke. Be-what? Talk about taking a perfectly good British (Middle English, actually) word and spoiling it like that.

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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.