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Sidewalk message "Look Right!" for out-of-town travelers to London.

Brit Speak

On one of our very first trips to the UK in 2000, my partner (now husband) and I booked an apartment in Edinburgh with a reputable US agency (that is no longer in business, unfortunately, because I must say the customer service we received was terrific). While we found some of their booking process cumbersome, we loved the many emails full of additional and helpful information they sent out, helpful hints and interesting travel tips about our destination. Since then, this sort of “value-added content” has proliferated through the internet on blogs and travel guides, but back at the turn of the century (!) there was a lot less of it floating around the web.

One of the greatest pieces of non-essential information we received was a long and funny email titled “Brit Speak” and included the following guide to some of the common language uses and turns of phrase native to the United Kingdom.

Winston Churchill purportedly said that “America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.” The following tips for travelers about “Brit Speak” tends to prove his point:

Sidewalk message "Look Right!" for out-of-town travelers to London. “LOOK RIGHT” and “LOOK LEFT” written on curbs are meant to be obeyed – they could save your life as you are not used to the traffic flowing in the “wrong” direction. Trust this.  Rely on this.

Language in Britain is very class conscious. A 1950’s book called “U and non U” (“U” meaning upper class) says that a “U” person would not say toilet or WC.  She might say loo, but proper use is lavatory.  A “bathroom” is a room that has a bathtub.  A toilet or gents or loo or lavatory does not have a bathtub.  A room with a shower is a “shower room”.  Tubs are baths.

The check in a restaurant is the bill.

Cell phone – mobile
A biscuit is any kind of cookie.  Sweets are candy.  Jell-O is called Jelly. All else is jam.  Brits love jam.
A crisp is a potato chip.  Chips are French fries.
Jacket potatoes are baked potatoes.
A cooker is an oven.  Range tops are hobs
The TV is called the telly.
Napkins = serviettes
Jugs are pitchers.
Take-away = take out
“To hoover” is to vacuum
Markers are felt pens.
A garbage can is called a bin.  Garbage is rubbish – and so is anything disliked.
Yards are called gardens – even if it’s just grass.
Q-tips are cotton buds.

A jumper is a sweater.  Trousers are pants.  Pants are men’s underwear.  Women’s underwear are knickers.
Purse – hand bag
Swim suit – swimming costume
Windcheaters or cagoules (Ka-gools) are wind breakers.  Wellies are rain boots.  Trainers are sneakers.
Nappies are diapers.

Backpacks are called rucksacks.  A fanny pack is called a bum bag.  (“Fanny” is a very naughty word in the UK.)

The letter “Z’ is pronounced “Zed”.

A queue is a line waiting for something. Brits are very patient in queues. You will see queues for busses, trains and taxis, all quiet and orderly. Civilized

A shopping carts is called a trolley.  Flats = apartments.

Holidays (or hols) are vacations.

A lorry is a truck.  A coach is a bus.  A parking lot is called a car park.  A highway is a motorway or dual carriageway.  Petrol is gasoline.  The car windshield is the windscreen.  A car boot is the trunk and the bonnet is the hood.  One hires a car, not rents a car.

The game of tag is called tig and the tagger is a tigger.  Soccer is called football.  American football is called . . .American football.

Math is called maths.  A school crossing guard is a “lollipop” as s/he holds a round stop sign on a stick!
What we call “private” schools, the British call “public” schools as they train the privileged class to serve the public. These are “fee-paying” schools. “State schools” are what Americans call “public schools”.

A doctor’s office is a surgery.  A surgical operation is performed in an “operating theatre”.  One is “in hospital”,not, in the hospital.  A plaster is a Band Aid.

Stalls = Orchestra seats in a theatre.  An off-licence is a place where one can purchase alcohol and leave with it.  You post (a letter) instead of mail it.
Brilliant refers anything that is reasonably nice or good or pretty or smart. It can get quite annoying.

Bobbies are London police, named for Robert Peel, who started the London police force.  Pharmacies are called chemists.
You ring someone on the phone, not call.

The London subway is the underground or the tube.  “Mind the _____” means be careful of _____, as in “Mind the gap”.  If you don’t come home from London saying that, you didn’t spend enough time on the tube.

While & whilst are different. “Whilst” implies a passage of time. “While” may be sudden or immediate.  Will & shall are different. “Will” implies a decision; “shall” is future tense.  Got it?

The British ground floor is the US first floor. The US second floor is the European first floor. And so on. In other words, if a Brit says it’s on the first floor, add a floor to equal it to the US system. Their way makes much more sense since the ground level is not really a “floor”.

There’s one word you absolutely must master before attempting to Britify your speech, and that is “sorry.”  Use it whenever possible, and you’ll fit right in.  As in, “Sorry, you’ve made a terrible mistake on my bill.”  Or “Sorry, but you’ve just won the lottery. “

Jimmy is your name, even if it’s really Harold.  Smart means sophisticated: he dresses smartly.  I don’t like him, I “fancy” him.

A lounge is the living room in working class homes only.  In middle class homes, it’s a living room.  In upper class homes, it’s a drawing room.

And yes, at some point some innkeeper may well ask you what time you’d like to be “knocked up” in the morning. He means what time do you want to be awaken.

Generally, food in Britain is wonderful, but some old style foods linger. The Full English (or Irish) Breakfast is bacon, sausages, two eggs and a tomato, all fried in the bacon grease, and cold toast – a cardiac arrest served on a plate.

Pudding is dessert – any kind of dessert. What Americans call pudding, Brits call custard. But “black pudding” is neither pudding or a dessert.  It’s a black sausage. It’s blood, mainly, and it’s part of every “Full English Breakfast. There is also white pudding (lard sausage) & fruit pudding (lard, cereal, fruit & spices in a sausage). You have been warned.

All over Britain and Ireland, pubs serve a “Sunday Roast” 12 – 3 every Sunday. It consists of roasted pork, turkey, chicken and/or beef, two or three good vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy and Wellington pudding. Wellington pudding is not pudding (of course). It’s a sort of puff pastry that is covered with gravy. These meals are served “family style” and they are big and delicious, a feast. Then the pubs close and everyone goes home to sleep it off.

Courgettes are zucchini.  Aubergine are eggplant.  A joint is a piece of meat for roasting.  Griddle cakes are pancakes.  Tins are cans – as in tinned tuna.  Ketchup is “red sauce”.  Brown sauce is sort of a thicker Worcestershire sauce.  It’s ubiquitous.  Eggs have only brown shells.  A bap is a roll – usually soft, sort of like a burger bun.  A Popsicle is called an ice lolly.

Lager = yellow beer.  Shandy = half beer and half ginger beer or lemonade.  Ginger beer is a stronger, more flavorful ginger ale.  Yummy.  Lager & lime = beer and sweetened lime juice.  Brown (or “broon”) = Newcastle Brown Ale.  One is “quaffing a pint”, not drinking it.  Last orders – just as you’d think: your last change to order a pint.

A barrister is an attorney who tries cases in court.  A solicitor does not.

A fag is a cigarette. I’m not sure what homophobic people call gay men.

A call box is a telephone booth.  A lift is an elevator.  One says “stopping” for “staying”.  “See thee” (often with a little lilt) is good bye.

A flannel is a face cloth or wash cloth. Bring one with you as they are considered personal items and are not supplied in self-catering properties or B&B’s.  Flannel can also be used in a more cockney term to indicate that someone is making up a story: “What a load of flannel”.

Don’t get your knickers in a twist means to calm down, please.  A punter is one who buys something from you or uses your services, a client. It’s a sort of put down, but in a soft way, not mean.

Pubs and churches are often the main points of directions: ” Go to The Dukes Head & turn left at the church and then right at Six Bells & pass The Fox Revived . . .

These are some of the essentials to know when traveling to London or the whole of the UK for the first time. Since receiving this list from the very nice woman at the now defunct vacation rental agency, we’ve picked up boatloads more small language details – like saying “chemist” for drugstore, and “that’s so boring” for anything troublesome or annoying – and will attempt to compile a complete (and perhaps alphabetized and searchable?) list of terms in short order.  Currently the list consists of a zillion tiny little scraps of paper, torn out of travel journals and piled into a pencil case in one of ERI’s desk drawers. The list of odd sayings (“Bob’s your uncle” and “Easy peasy lemon squeezey”) alone practically fills the thing.

For now, though, the above list will get you started and we hope you find it helpful on your travels to London, the English countryside, and parts of Scotland (where there is an entirely new list of terms and terminology to cover… but that’s another post!).

Happy Travels, from Elegant Retreats.