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This article contains, depending on your level of purity, either some
or a lot of obscenities. Not 'hard' ones, a fair few soft ones.
If this sort of thing bothers you, I suggest you go back to
the index
and pick a different topic to read.

On being a Brit, or faking it convincingly.

In the comments for the last b.log entry, Mick wrote "Come owm iyn". That's about a bad an American accent as most Americans trying to "be British" (though, special marks to Dick Van Dyke for giving the world the worst "Cockney" (in scare quotes) accent ever).

So I thought, how would we educate an average American to be able to speak "British" correctly? When I say "British", I am going to describe a southern-counties accent as it is arguably the clearest asides from Received Pronunciation (aka "that wot 'er Majesty does speak", and the way everybody on the Beeb used to speak until the '60s). Note, however, there there are a vast range of regional accents.
You might be aware of a generic West Country accent in the form of a cliché pirate. Think instead of "aaar, shiver me timbers", it'd be more "aaar, me corn's not growin'".
You may have heard a mild Scouse accent in the form of anything spoken by John Lennon. Or any of the other Beatles.
The Yorkshire accent is peripherally like the West Country accent. There are vast differences, but since it is said that many Americans can't tell the difference between British and Australian...
The Black Country is "oop nooth". God have mercy on your soul if you find yourself there, for nobnody understands that accent except people from there.
And we haven't even touched on the non-English parts of Britain, the Welsh, the various Scottish accents (from the icky Glaswegian to the rather nicer Edinburghian, not to mention the Aberdonian...), and of course the Northern Irish who don't sound anything like the real Irish... unless you've never watched an episode of "Ballykissangel" in your life.

The first trick, and one that helps a lot with how to pronounce things, is you speak more from the back of your throat. A quick way to fake this is to try to speak with a really low pitch voice. Once you've done that, have fun attempting to speak in your normal voice, but keeping your speech back.
This, by the way, explains why a lot of countries (I note American, France, and Japan) often have a lot of lip work. Their mouths move an awful lot when they speak. Conversely, a Brit can roll off an entire sentence with remarkably little lip movement. Must annoy the hell out of deaf people.

Next up - an absolute must - learn the phrase "Bloody hell!". This is a truly polyvalent phrase. The way you say it can express any of the following:

  • this awesome chick is getting naked right in front of me (and I'm the only one here, yay!).
  • You just wet your bed, you little brat.
  • Goddamn, aliens didn't come in peace, they nuked London.
  • That's right scum-face, pull into that parking space in front of me...
  • Wow, that's a big ice cream.
  • Some thieving eastern European <expletive> just wiped out my bank account.
If you learn this phrase, and attempt some of the innumerable ways of saying it, you must remember one GOLDEN rule. Never drop the 'h'. It is "Bloody Hell!". [there are dropped-h versions, but using it incorrectly will scream "foreigner trying too hard"]
If you want a phrase where the 'h' gets dropped, try "Flippin 'eck!".

Note that in British English, this is a "mild obscenity", in that pretty much everybody over the age of six uses it; such as that ginger-haired kid in the Harry Potter movies, who uses it frequently.
Don't try to soften it by using the expression "blimey". I think, since everybody can say "bloody hell", that few people still use "blimey".

One that trips up many is the letter 'R'. Most American accents take great care to emphasise the 'r', like "garden" (think Holly Hunter). By contrast, many British accents drop it in certain places, such as "gah'den" (garden) and "wo'-tah" (water).

If you can manage to say "water" like a Brit, you're most of the way there. It is never ever said like "wah'der".
Think of the word "whoa!". Now clip it, we only want the "wo" sound at the start, but not like woke, more like war).
Now think of the word "tut" (should rhyme with "shut", not "toot"). Drop the final 't' to give a "tu" sound. Now breathe out slightly as you say this, to make it more a "tah" sound (but not like tar or tape, it is still most like tug).
Now run them together - wo-tah.
If my descriptions were any good, you'll hopefully say it not that unlike somebody from the south of England.

If there is a word that sounds ridiculously pretentious, chances are it will be unknown in the UK. Examples being "deplane" (disembark) and "burglerize" (burgled).

Note also that many British expressions are fairly crude and you should probably avoid using them. If somebody falls head over heals, you should say exactly that. The British expression "arse over tit" may well be frowned upon, but the American versions "ass over tea kettle" or "ass over cupcake" are likely to be met with dead silence followed by hysterical laughter.
A big error is a balls up or a cock up. Again, frowned upon, but then so should be the correct meaning of the American "SNAFU". But, hey, it's 2010, just say "EPIC fail".

Likewise, while "bull" and the full length version of that phrase is universally understood, a Brit is more likely to respond with "bollocks!". As in testicles. You can, of course, elaborate in a manner appropriate to the level of sarcasm with which you wish to convey - "great hairy steaming bollocks", for instance.
On the other hand, "The dog's bollocks" is a very good thing (the logic being that the dog is always licking them so they must be good). This is roughly equivalent to the American usage of "the shit".
Though, it is worth pointing out that there are very few instances when anything "shit" can be good. Even to say "that's some good shit" can be taken as "better than the average rubbish".
Likewise, in America a movie that does well bombs at the box office. If something bombs in England, we keep very quiet and hope nobody notices how badly it went.

In keeping with that certain part of the anatomy, you may come across "brass monkeys" which means damn cold. The full version is "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey", and in common with many phrases, it probably isn't wise to go poking around the etymology.

While "bugger" (as in "oh bugger, I'm late") is fairly common in America, be aware that in the UK it is often linked to buggery and sodomy (in my experience, Northerners react more to this than Southerners), so you might find you're on much safer ground learning "bloody hell" than to say "bugger".
A more accepted relation is "bugger all". In America you might now jack shit about car engines. In Britain, you'd know bugger all about motors.

Leaving the crude parts behind (bad pun intentional), another amusing American/English difference is "jumper". The garment worn by girls and known as a pinafore or pinafore dress (think sleeveless overdress worn as part of a school uniform by younger girls) is a "jumper" (or jumper dress). A British "jumper" is a pullover, a sweater. While in America a "pinafore" is often a backless tie-on apron (like Victorian maids used to wear). Confused?

If you are the sort of American who says "mum" like "mam" and "body" like "baddie", you will need to sort your vowels out.

Nobody pays for anything with "bills". Bills are things you get in the post (mail) when other people want money out of you. We use banknotes, or just notes. Only the stuck up and very polite children would say something akin to "a five dollar bill". It's a fiver. And there's a tenner. But larger values are given by proper number (there's no "twentier", for instance). It is frequent if referring to units of 1000 to say things like "twenty grand" (£20,000) or "five large" (£5000).

You know that famous road crossing on the cover of the Beatles' album Abbey Road? Right. The stripey-stuff painted in the road is called a zebra crossing. It ought to be obvious why. The little flashing orange lollipop light on a stick either side of the crossing is called a Belisha beacon. It is named after the Minister of Transport who added them to existing crossings to increase visibility. This was back in the '30s.
A pelican crossing is the common one with the yellow and black push button control that activates traffic lights. There is also, as is common in many countries, a little red man/green man guide to walkers. Unlike some countries (France!), pelican crossings bring all traffic to a standstill. At a four-way junction, when the crossing is displaying the green man, all routes will have the green man showing and all traffic lights will be on red.
There is also a puffin crossing which is pretty much the same as the pelican. The difference, primarily, is the red/green man indicator is above the push button on your side of the road, not across on the other side of the road.
No, we don't have "Walk"/"Don't walk". It's a standing red guy, or a walking green guy.

Many of use write using a "biro". It's a ballpoint pen. Though sometimes we just called them "Bic".
In keeping with the hijacking of brand names, a vacuum cleaner is a "hoover", whether it is a Hoover, and Electrolux, or a Dyson. Though many Dyson owners tend to refer to their "Dyson" as if to want to make sure we all know that any regular hoover just isn't good enough for them.
Likewise, a "Cashpoint" is supposed to be the name of the Lloyds/TSB machines, but most people say "cashpoint" for any ATM. We would never ever call them an Automated Teller Machine because we don't give a damn what it says, we just want the readies.

Don't ask for a black pudding hoping for something sweet with blueberries and stuff. It's a blood sausage, and it's pretty disgusting (in my opinion).

The police are known as "plod", a "copper" and the "fuzz". And several less polite names. In the quaint old days, you might also have called a policeman a "bobby", but this isn't an expression used any more.
In keeping with the 'r' problem, "copper" is said like "koh-pah", change the 'er' to an 'ah' sound.
Oh, and we don't say "bang to rights" unless we're being ironic; but the fuzz do say "you're nicked!".
I don't think any actual British cop has ever used the expression "assume the position". Perhaps it is because British police do not routinely carry firearms. After all, look at the messes the armed numpties get themselves into.

My final one - and trust me, there are hundreds of other examples - is muppet. Like imagine Vinnie Jones saying "Oi! You muppet!".
Any decent well-raised American will think of Jim Henson, Kermit, Miss Piggy.
Any Brit will know it means an idiot, a fool, a dumb-ass.


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Rob, 22nd December 2010, 19:45
Re Pelicans/Puffins. Almost right there, but not quite, in your definitions and differences. Also see Pegasus and Toucan crossings. Also, not all roads will get red; many are now used with "cattle pens" in the middle of the road to allow pedestrians to cross just one half of the road, whilst traffic continues on the other side. Another difference is that whilst Pelicans will have far-side ped lights and a "WAIT" above the button, newer ones will have near-side red/green men instead. If installed correctly, they are supposed to focus the pedestrian's attention towards the oncoming traffic.. Also new ones come with a multitude of sensors and fancy timing algorithms to maximise throughput for all concerned. A bit of fascinating history here: 
Surprised you didn't mention Fanny ... Our colonial cousins even have "fanny bags"! You really would get laughed at over here for that, after the shock had worn off anyway. And as for all those poor unfortunates named "Randy" ....
Rick, 30th December 2010, 22:37
I did mention the red/green man. Note, though, that while the older crossings have "WAIT", many also have a red/green man on the far side of the road. I think in general it is safe to say that traffic is mostly stopped to allow crossings (if not, as you point out, all traffic), as opposed to a crossing on a crossroads typical in France where "this lane is stopped" gives a green man automatically (there is no push button (maybe in bigger towns with specific crossings...)) but pays little regard for traffic coming from the other directions which can quite validly cross the supposedly clear pedestrian way (and run them over, you get the picture). 
I did originally mention Randy, but deleted it because, well, it was getting smutty enough. I think in general we Brits are rather more uncouth than the oh-so-innocent Amricans. Though, perhaps thanks to Austin Powers, they might now understand why we giggle quietly at talk of "shag carpets". ☺ 
As I write this, my little last-reader thingy says "b.log last read [...] by somebody in New Jersey (United States)." Here's a shout out to Kevin Smith!

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