« Many happy returns, Baltimore Sun | Main | Where I live »

Topping up

Last month I confessed to an affection for evocative words from British English, mostly encountered in my reading of murder mysteries.

To my whingeing (whining, but more annoying), snogging (making out), topping up (refilling, as of a drink), gormless (stupid, clueless), and dodgy (unsound, unreliable, suspect), readers of the post added gobsmacked (astounded), chuffed (well pleased), and a series of frankly vulgar terms. Good show.

Since then I have recalled juddering (shaking and vibrating rapidly), mizzle (light rain or drizzle, also a verb), knackered (exhausted), tickety-boo (this one’s from P.G. Wodehouse, for going smoothly), and, a favorite, stroppy (easily annoyed, ill-tempered, belligerent). Several of these turn out to be included in the New Oxford American Dictionary, which is more ecumenical than one might have expected.

And, since English has much wider scope than the United Kingdom and the United States, I’ll put in a word for the Australian fair dinkum, of obscure origin, meaning authentic or genuine.

If you have an interest in the separated-by-a-common-language phenomenon, you should check out the blog of that name maintained by Lynne Murphy, who is also on Twitter as @lynneguist. You know, egg salad in the U.S., egg mayonnaise in the U.K.; call someone on the telephone in the U.S., ring someone in the U.K.; American carryout and British takeaway; that sort of thing.

In good conscience, I should warn you that, unless you are, say, an American Episcopal clergyman trying to lay on the posh for the Anglophile parishioners, or in the secure company of fellow Are You Being Served? rerun addicts, you will want to exercise careful judgment about incorporating such vocabulary into your daily speech. You wouldn’t want to be thought toffee-nosed.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:23 AM | | Comments (17)


You just solved the conundrum for me of what an "egg mayonnaise" sandwich is. Bless you.

Also, we "top up" everything here. We top up our phones with minutes, we top up our coffee with milk, we top up our empty beer glasses time and again.

Gaw blimey.

One of my favorites is "bumff"--short for "bumfodder."

For those not familiar with the word, it means blatant nonsense or propaganda, not worth the paper it's written on. Alternative spellings: bumf or bumph.

I had a meeting today where British guy asked me to spin his fliers around. I almost gave him the peace sign! LOL

One of my favorite comments on U.S. vs. U.K. usage was made over a decade ago on the BBC's Two Fat Ladies cooking show. Jennifer Paterson (of lamented memory) was crimping a pastry crust and saying, "I'm just going to knock up the edges here." Clarissa Dickson Wright commented, "If you say 'knock up' to Americans, they get very distressed." Jennifer replied, "Humph. If you say many things to Americans, they get very distressed."

Chuffed can mean "displeased" as well as "pleased", but this usage seems to be limited to a few regional British dialects, and I've never encountered it in the wild.

If I did, I'd be chuffed, not chuffed.

But can someone tell me what "bloaters" and "bloater paste" are?

Watching the DVD extras for "The Young Victoria", we heard Emily Blunt say something was like "chalk and cheese". Never heard that before -- apparently you use the expression to refer to something or someone being very different from another.

Chalk and cheese is a stock expression, equivalent to the American apples and oranges.

We learned the hard way about the difference between 'ring' and 'call'. My sister had promised to call a friend's mother when she arrived in Ireland. When she arrived, she made the courtesy phone call, only to learn that she was expected to pay a visit (call upon) the lady for tea and biscuits. Making a phone call is 'ringing up', a 'call' is a visit. Learned the hard way about this one.

Thank you for the plug/link, John--I seem to have acquired many new Twitter followers because of it.

Bloaters are smoked herring akin to kippers:

BTW - as an Englishman (as opposed to Irish) I use the term "to call ON" someone when making a visit. "To call" someone is commonly used here for for making a telephone call.

If I may add to your warning: people with North American accents should avoid using 'bloody' as an expletive because it sounds so incongruous to the British ear.

I've always been particularly fond of articulated lorries and cattle flyovers (which create an entirely different mental picture than their actual meaning).

"and Bob's your uncle" :-)

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected