Most of you know that Rom and I had a transatlantic romance (Canada/UK) and settled in Nova Scotia. We talk endlessly about the small differences in our cultures, customs and language. Both of us were very familiar with each other’s vocabulary from extensive reading and TV watching. However, it’s one thing to understand someone else’s slang, and another to use it! Holly’s recent post reminded me of our early struggles.
For the first year we knew each other, Rom and I talked endlessly about the differences between our education systems, health care systems, and tax systems. (You would think we’d actually, like, want to get to know each other!) And we talked ourselves through the immigration process. We were always asking each other if certain songs or TV shows that we remembered had been popular in the other country. It turns out we were both fans of NWOBHM, and yes, I knew Angel Witch and Jaguar and Tank!
The thing we talked about most was language itself. For a while, it was obsessive. Rom would say something like, “In the UK, we have this expression ‘raining cats and dogs.’ Do you say that here?” And the answer would always be yes.
Early on, I was caught unawares by certain phrases. On my first trip to the UK, I was shocked when I saw a sign in a pub pointing to the “toilets.” In North America, we pretend we don’t use them, and instead go to the “restroom” or “washroom” (“bathroom” in someone’s house). We don’t say “bog” or “loo,” either!
I was also confused when Rom asked, “What do you want for pudding?,” having no idea it meant any kind of dessert. You can have pie or cake for “pudding”! Even now, Rom will ask, “What are we having for tea?,” when the word tea refers only to the drink here. The answer, of course, is “Check the meal plan and see what you’re making!” And I’m sure you know there are all kinds of different food words, such as aubergine, courgette and rocket for eggplant, zucchini and arugula.
The only expressions that truly confounded me were Cockney rhyming slang. Other than “pork pies” for “lies,” I didn’t know any, and had never heard them used in real life.
Here are a few random words and phrases that trip us up.
Rom still giggles whenever I use the word pants, which in the UK is used for “underpants” and not trousers. Likewise, I laugh whenever he says he’s putting on a jumper, which in North America used to be a dress worn with a top underneath – otherwise we say “sweater” (pullover sweater).
Every time we’re out in public and Rom leaves a store or a restaurant, he says (to local ears), “Chee-ahs!” (Cheers) which is often met with a complete lack of understanding. We don’t have an equivalent, all-purpose expression for these situations, other than “Have a nice day!”
I often heard the word “foreigners” when I was in the UK. Usually it was not said with any malice; it just referred to non-locals, or as we would say “come-from-aways.” Perhaps when you come from a small island empire, you have an historical sense of Us and Them? I have carefully coached Rom to use the word “international” wherever possible, and to refer to someone’s country of origin, if necessary, without pointing out that it’s “foreign” or “other.” I suppose that foreigner is meaningless when everyone in North America except the the First Nations comes from somewhere else.
The one thing you could say in Canada that would make everyone’s jaw drop would be, “I’m going out for a fag.” Totally cringe-worthy!
But if you really want to annoy a Canadian, all you have to do is talk about ice hockey. They will tell you it’s redundant: it’s just hockey. The “ice” part is a given! If you were talking about field hockey or street hockey, you would specify.
My favourite UK language folly is the reversal of nuisances and catastrophes. If your bus is ten minutes late and you have to stand in the rain, it’s a “bloody nightmare!” If you have to evacuate your home and live in a football stadium for a week, it’s a “spot of bother.”
C’est la vie in the UK!
What regional words or expressions have amused or confused you the most although supposedly part of your own language?