It was Oscar Wilde who said that Britain and America were two nations divided by a common language. How true that is. It took me a while when I first moved to the United States to realize that many Americans didn’t know what a fortnight was or where to look in the boot of my car. Those things are obvious to me now, but there are still words that I don’t realize are exclusively English. Words like ‘dogsbody, jumble sale, bits and bobs, gormless, spanner and skew-whiff. Do you know what they mean? (the U.S. equivalents are: grunt, rummage sale, odds and ends, clueless, wrench, off kilter).
This always presents a challenge for me when I write my Royal Spyness novels, in the voice of a young British aristocrat, Lady Georgiana. She obviously has to use the correct vocabulary of her time and class, but I also have to make sure what she says is intelligible. For example I once said that she had to open fetes. My American readers took this to mean festivals or celebrations, when a fete in England refers to a Garden Fete—a church or school or village fair to raise money with hoop-las and white elephant stalls (do you know what they are?)
And because my books are set in the Thirties, I have to make sure that the slang is current for the time. Yes, people really did say “What-oh?” and Top hole” and even “toodle-pip” in those days. They really called each other “old sport. Old bean or even old fruit”. All terms of endearment, by the way. But only the upper classes used these expressions. England has always been a land in which one’s vocabulary reveals one’s class. Can you remember the huge fuss a few years ago when Kate Middleton’s mother was deemed too common because she’d used the word Toilet instead of Lavatory? This nearly broke up the relationship and made headlines for weeks. One headline proclaimed “Toiletgate.”
Cockneys, of course, have a vocabulary of their own. I have two Cockney characters in my books: Queenie the maid, and Georgie’s grandfather. A favorite expression of both is “Bob’s your uncle.” This means everything will be taken care of smoothly. As it, “We’ll pick it up again, put it back and bob’s your uncle.”
They also use rhyming slang, as in “apples and pears” for stairs. Butcher’s hook for look. And sometimes it gets even more complicated when they say “let’s take a butcher’s,” meaning let’s have a look.
Really you need a few lessons before you can understand the British properly. If you travel there now you’ll hear confusing expressions like “Throw a wobbly” and “go pear shaped.” The former means to get upset and the latter means that everything starts going wrong. And if you try to write or sound English please don’t say “Pip pip, cheerio, or “ta ta for now” or “tickety-boo” or even “a spot of tea.” They all went out of favor years ago. And please, never make the joke about getting knocked up. We’ve heard it a zillion times.
So do tell me, do you find English idioms and vocabulary makes it harder to read books, or do you relish in this different word usage and the way it takes you across the Pond?