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Britspeak for Yanks

Though my enthusiasm for the impending royal wedding is a match for my enthusiasm for colonic irrigation—as someone observed, the music, likely the best part of the spectacle, will be overrun by commentary in the full range from vapid to imbecilic—I am still enough an Anglophile to encourage interest in the Mother Country.

Peter Sokolowski has provided just the right method, with a set of ten British words which are yet included in Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries. (Some you will have encountered on these premises.) I’ll give you the ten—lovely, just lovely, all of them—but you’ll need to go to the link for definitions and examples.

Top 10 Favorite British Words











Make them your own.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:41 PM | | Comments (35)


Frankly my fragile, non-editor's left-brain was getting so mangled, and stretched in trying to follow the admittedly lively discussion re/ the intricacies, and nuances in parsing the different applications of the quantitative terms "less and fewer" in Prof. Mci. earlier post, that I just had to opt to move on. So here I be.

I find it curious how many coined English words often have a pronounced auditory root, such as "plonk" (which kind of mimics the sound of poured--cheap-- wine), the word "whinge" (from the arcane OE word meaning to moan), and "chunter" (to chat in a decidedly muffled tone)--------- just a small sampling from the list-of-ten Brit word 'oddities, above. (Maybe not THAT very odd to most true Brits?)

Frankly, w/ my creative imagination ofttimes tending toward the polymorphous perverse (basically naughty thoughts HA!), the word "knackered" almost immediately conjured up the notion of damage to the pendulous male gonads (bollocks?), but on checking on the attached link I was relieved to find it actually meant, being thoroughly spent, or exhausted, usually after some type of physical exertion. Whew! That was a huge relief. HA!

Hope all you "You Don't Say" regulars enjoy the fast-approaching Royal Nuptials, if that's your cup of tea............ and crumpets. I prefer Earl Grey, myself. Sadly the old Earl won't be on hand to enjoy tomorrow's revelry. A pity.

Ta! Ta!

P.S.: ----Prof. McI., I would argue that one's enduring a typical colonic irrigation has to be much more of a personally 'gut-wrenching' ordeal (literally), than watching two delightful (some would say boring) royal lovebirds get hitched, amid all that traditional British pomp and circumstance. You are essentially comparing upper GI 'exploration' to the British Royal upper crust. Respectfully, in my view, offering an unfair apples-and-oranges dichotomy, old chap.

For what it's worth, a recording of the wedding will be available for download tomorrow via iTunes and others. So if you really want to hear the music, you can, and without the prattling commentary.

There will also be a CD version, but not until mid-May.

Wonderful list. You know what I love about English? And here I mean English English, not that Frenchified Latinate crap.

It all sounds dirty if you don't know the meaning.

"Met a pukka boffin last night, and we got knackered." (Did I use them right?)

That's a fairly astonishing list for one such as I who lives in Ireland, and so shares the vocabulary of Perfidious Albion.

Most astonishing is 'whinge'; it would never in a million years have occurred to me that this wasn't a standard, in-the-dictionary-for-centuries word. Ditto 'prat' and 'knackered', which I've been using for decades (rarely, though, in the same sentence).

On the other hand, 'chunter' is entirely new to me.

Brief usage lesson for Todd Price: if you say 'we got knackered' it suggests you got drunk, even though the word doesn't strictly have that meaning. 'were knackered afterwards' would be the phrase of choice. That'll only suggest you were having boffin sex.

Amusing and lovely the maybe,but I suspect none of them will appear in the wedding ceremony. At the heart of all the ceremony - which I admit I love - is a beautifully written, traditional C of E wedding. Good luck to them. (And NO Elton the John music.)

Odd to see "twee" here; I never considered it to be a British word. It's certainly uncommon, but I have definitely heard it used naturally by Americans. (I've also heard Americans use the other words on the list, but usually only when they're consciously trying to sound British.)

"Chunter" reminds me of "chunder", which my Scottish brother-in-law uses for "to vomit".

Your Scottish brother-in-law needs must stand back. Chunder is v definitely Australian.

Oh my, though, the C of E ceremony does its job, though, doesn't it? And the Bishop of London, bless his lordship, gave us a spiffingly good sermon. Musically ... well, a shame Peter Maxwell Davies wasn't given his head, but there ... good to see Parry brought back to life.

Take hope.

It would be interesting to compare British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand slang/expressions to see how many terms are common. Can anyone tell me if "turfed" is used outside of Canada to mean fired/kicked out? (I'm not in Canada but I've seen it used in their media.) Alex McCrae is right that many British terms have a "auditory root." "Turfed" seems to have a visual root: you can see someone getting tossed out the door onto the lawn.

I've noticed of late that a lot of British slang has begun to gain a foothold here. The reverse also is true. If you look online at the British slang dictionary, you'll find a large number of American terms. Good list. Twee exists here as tweet, or tweety, as in 'Isn't he a tweet baby?" Whinge is stronger than whine - an intensification of same, and I'm rooting for it (use it myself now and again). Pukka reminds me of a "pukka sahib" in the days of the Raj, and boffin is familiar from many Englisdh sci-fi novels. Knackered may be gaining, jury's out., and one word not on the list, "chuffed" (proud, of pleased, puffed up) is very handy.

Isn't "pukka" an Indian (Sanskrit) word, appropriated by the British and not left behind when they slunk out of that corner of their Empire?

If I started referring to you as "the syntax wallah," would that be British or Indian?

As I've remarked elsewhere, English is an utter slut of a language, appropriating vocabulary from any other language it brushes up against, utterly without shame. Pukka was Hindi pakka, and now it's English.

Feel free to refer to me as the syntax wallah; I've been called worse.

There is much we didn't leave behind when we slunk, thank goodness.

How are things in Puerto Rico, by the way?

Prof. McI.,

Most respectfully, I believe your self-coined "syntax wallah'" moniker hardly does you true justice.

In doing some minor research I've discovered that the term wallah has a decidedly pedestrian, working-class flavor to it, as in the ubiquitous "chai wallahs" selling their cardamon-laced tea-and-milk beverage delights throughout the Indian Subcontinent.

I would suggest 'syntax guru' as perhaps a more fitting title...... still retaining that exotic air of the esteemed, seasoned sage, but sans the ofttimes religious undertones. Although i bet you have a wild mantra. Om..........................?

Although in hanging out on your fine blog for some months now, it appears that some of your most ardent regular 'devotees' revere the lexicographic/ syntactical craft w/ an almost quasi-religious fervor. Nothing delights more than prose, or poesy writ well. Not only is just cleanliness next to Godliness.

By-the-by, I actually broke down, against my better judgement, and decided to watch the entire preamble to the Royal Nuptials (a lot of extremely posh, dark vehicles whisking the wedding principles to Westminster Cathedral, and such), and then taking in the entire most gracious and totally delightful, slightly understated Church of England wedding ceremony.

After the engaging church service w/ the handsome, and seemingly joyous couple officially united-as-one, it was approaching almost 4:00AM out here in L.A.. So slightly bleary-eyed and flagging, I wisely opted to hit the sack, and catch the Kate and William much-anticipated 'smooch' (actually 2 kisses), up on the Buckingham Palace balcony today around midmorning on YouTube.

(Of course the media glommed onto the image of a little scowling official gal-in-waiting (?) standing right next to the happy waving newly-wedded couple, kind of leaning over the stone rail, obviously covering her ears to presumably shut out the humongous din of whoops and cheers from the assembled thousands-strong Kate&William adoring crowd, below.
That adorable little sprite will likely be reminded of her sourpuss pose on this most momentous day for the rest of her living days. Frankly, I thought it was a rather sweet counter-point to the whole regimented pomp and ceremony. of the day. Kids WILL be kids. God bless them!)

I may return, anon, to offer some further personal observations on the 'Big Show'. The residual negative effects of pulling a near-all-nighter are starting to kick in about now, so I'll bid ye all farewell.



I had no intention of getting up in the wee hours to watch the wedding, but when I got breakfast this morning I was very surprised to find that my husband had tuned in. I found it more touching than I had anticipated--especially all those little boys with angelic voices in the choir. They will remember this day forever.

Picky, perhaps you could answer a question for my sister. She noted that the bride preceded her attendants. Here the bridesmaids, etc. go first, and then the bride appears. Was that a British thing or a royal thing? (she asked inelegantly)

It's Westminster Abbey, not Westminster Cathedral , which is Roman Catholic and just down the road apiece.

It's Westminster Abbey, not Westminster Cathedral , which is Roman Catholic and just down the road apiece.

Patricia The Terse,

Just curious, have you ever given any serious thought to a career in fact checking? (Just joshin'.) I guess being right (most of the time) does give one a certain fleeting sense of self-gratification, although I must admit I did blow it on my erroneous Westminster Cathedral call, as opposed to the correct identification, i.e., The Abbey. Perhaps a tad sloppy on my part, I'll concede.

Although, if this is any minor consolation, I have a suspicion when writing that earlier post that that catchy Brit music-hall-flavored mid-'60s novelty hit from my teen years, "Winchester Cathedral", first recored by The New Vaudeville Band, may have been rumbling around in my noggin, and "Abbey" just got temporarily shoved to the cerebral curb in deference to "Cathedra", l so to speak. Oh well....... mea culpa, nonetheless.

(Of course the impressive gothic-style Winchester Cathedral is located in Hampshire, England. But i digress.)

Glad none of the Royals got the destinations of the two majestic Westminster holy edifices mixed up (Hmm.... was that The Abbey, or The Cathedral?), like yours truly. That could have been quite the royal pickle, eh? (Don't tell me they wouldn't be caught dead--or alive, for that matter--- in a Catholic house of worship. They've come a long way baby................ hmm...... on second thought, maybe not. Never mind.)

Probably why I never got an invitation........... Canadian commoner and all. HA!



@Patricia, before you pounce on me for my obvious typo, "Catherdra" in my last post, clearly my second quotation mark, and that adjacent "comma" decided to conspire against me, teaming up, to push the "l" in "Cathedral" to the immediate right, creating the nonsensical phrase, "I so to speak".......... which oddly enough happens to rhyme w/ the perfectly sensible phrase, "as I lay me down to sleep." I admit, sometimes I'm flying on a wing and a prayer.

This ain't my first typo by a long shot, And I can guarantee it won't be my last. Remember that old adage, "To err is human, to forgive, divine."

Actually "Cathedra" has a rather classic authoritative, mythological air about it. Maybe the goddess of cathedrals? But abbeys.......... not so much.

I'm glad we cleared that one up, Ollie.


Dahlink: unless I misunderstood what was going on, the bride and her dad arrived last; the bridesmaids and pages, bless 'em, had already arrived and were waiting inside the West Door, where they joined Miss Middleton, sorted out her train and followed her down the aisle.

Alex: there are plenty of RC members of the Royal Family, and although the damnfool Act of Settlement keeps them off the throne they're certainly allowed in the Abbey. At least, given there were cardinal archbishops in the congregation (happily singing that Wesley hymn, no doubt) they had cover.

And Dahlink I think that's normal here, the bride would arrive last, but the attendants would be waiting to follow her down the aisle.

Thanks, Picky. I tuned in just about that time. Here the bridesmaids and matron of honor would proceed down the aisle, followed by the adorable flower girl(s), and then the bride and her father would appear in all their glory. At least that's the way it has been arranged in all the weddings I have attended (none of them royal, but all joyous).

Dahlink: I suspect one reason for bridesmaids following the bride is that traditionally one job of the attendants to a lady in procession would be to look after her train. Indeed, of course, they are her "train". Sometimes a bride will even today have a gown with a train that needs to be held. I think photographs of the Queen's wedding show her with a splendid train held by two pages (followed by what looked like about 500 hefty wenches gallumphing along in bridesmaid kit).

John McI: I watched on BBC, and while they hushed their drivelling during the service (thanks be) the rest of the time they certainly were as vapid as you like.

The problem as a Dutchman is that we get 'the Queen's English' taught at school, but then hear mostly American English on TV and in movies, as a result of which we speak what I once heard being called Mid-Atlantic by some anglophile English teacher.

I often don't know if a word is British or American.

@Picky, old lad, I also opted to watch the Royal Nuptial festivities (and solemnities), live, on BBC, via our local Public Broadcasting Service(PBS) outlet, KCET here in L.A. .

Although admittedly a tad crusty, slightly vapid, and mildly fussy at times, in-the-main I thoroughly enjoyed the reporting style of the lively BBC commentating team; far more than the almost constant, blathering stream of trivial factoids cascading from the lips of co-ABC veteran network news anchors, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters.

(I'd occasionally switch over to the 'Yankee' telecast, just to compare. I believe the BBC broadcast was the prime visual feed to most networks, while each, naturally, provided their own 'observers'. Whenever I would flip back-and-forth, the same streaming images were on the screen, at the identical time.)

These two veteran newscasters, Sawyer and Walters, managed to dig deep for some of the most trite Royals minutia, whilst the gang at the BBC generally just, more or less, let the unfolding wedding narrative pictorially speak for itself, w/ minimal voice-over schmaltz, or forced hyperbole.

I particularly enjoyed the BBC-ers identifying the various British media celebs, high-profile politicians, pop culture fixtures/ sport icons (David Beckham, Sir Elton, director Guy Ritchie) U.K. religious leaders, and sundry visiting dignitaries (like the Sultan of Brunei), whilst they were all being individually directed to their designated seats.

Nice touch that Kate and her family chose to invite a smattering of familiar, close, common town-folk from their local community........... of course just not ANY old Tom, Dick or Harry. (Well, a certain rusty-headed HARRY, w/ a mischievous twinkle in his eye, did happen to make it to the Abbey on time. HA! )

I would venture to say that many of those true-Brit notables pointed out by the observant BBC folk undoubtedly wouldn't be that well-known to most TV viewers beyond the U.K.

( Picky, your extroverted London mayor is quite the character. Saw him interviewed prior to the wedding ceremony. Natural blonde pols are definitely in the minority these days, on both sides of The Pond. Recent Republican political aspirant, the cocksure Donald Trump, doesn't count. That peculiar cantilevered coif of his defies description. It could probably run as a separate primary candidate on its lonesome---- an entity unto itself. HA! )

I got a bit of a chuckle out of Sir Elton John clearly struggling w/ a few passages of the hymn selections, seemingly not being familiar w/ them, and having difficulty following the lyrical line. A rare sight for the former Reginald Dowd----the ultimate polished pro, who very rarely appears at a loss for words (or lyrics) out there.

Regarding the various invited clergy, it was nice to see his holiness, Jonathan Sacks, the current Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, in the hallowed house...... of worship. In checking up on the revered Rebbe on Wikipedia I learned that Mr. Sacks is also the "Chief Rabbi of the mainstream British Orthodox synagogues". (Sounds impressive.) He's a prolific scribe, as well (mostly exploring liturgical/ philosophical themes), and wears additional hats (yarmulkes HA!), as both a part-time professor, and much sought-after lecturer. A true multi-tasker.

I'm sure the Kate & William union wasn't his first occasion to attend services in the grand old Abbey.

Thought perchance he may be related to the fine Brit comedic actor Andrew Sachs, who popularized the dim-witted Barcelona-born hotel busboy character, Manuel, in the hilarious TV series, Fawlty Towers. Clearly, his surname is spelt slightly differently than the esteemed rebbe, so likely not related in the least. So I tried.

IHmm........ I sense Royals fatigue is finally settling in, so I'll bid ye all adieu.


Laurent: given the ease with which so many Dutch people speak English, you are probably evolving your own dialect, and soon we'll be able to peeve to our hearts' content about each other's slang expressions.

Jim Sweeney - "He was turfed out of the pub" would be understood by every Australian, young or old.

As would six-eight or so or the words on John's list. What I was surprised to see was
whinge – I'd never even contemplated that it wasn't universally used and understood in the English-speaking world.

Michael, I'm familiar with most of the words in Prof. McI's list, but I have never encountered "whinge" apart from this blog.

Does anyone else get a mental picture of someone with a very weak chin and poor posture when you hear the word "gormless"?

BrE does it the way Michael describes from Australia - turfed out.

Excellent to read what Michael says about whinge. It's English from way, way back, but many Britons think it's Aussie, since Australians have so often used it to characterise us, to our chagrin.

And yes, Dahlink, to me people LOOK gormless as often as they ARE gormless.

on today's guardian homepage, a profile of a celebrity carries the headline, "I'm no slapper!"
now, as anyone who's sat down with a strong cuppa to watch coronation street will attest, one does not accuse another of being a slapper without significant consequence, often physical. I'm appalled to find the term in the quality press.
(what? did I hear you say coronation street isn't available in much of the u.s.? pity. it's difficult to appreciate the slur that is jiggery-pokery unless you've heard some serious argy-bargy with, oh, bet lynch taking a strip off a daft slapper who's been giving her aggro.)
laurent: american or british, it's all goed.

I had to look up what these words meant! My roommate is British and I have never heard her use these before. It's always interesting to learn their lingo versus our own. So similar, but so different.

The American fashion press uses "twee" frequently when making snarky remarks about overly cutesy outfits. And I love the word knackered.

I also like "dodgy," (as in, "That neighborhood is a bit dodgy") but that just sounds wrong without a British accent.

I seem to remember North American chums being much amused by the phrase "in a right state" meaning in a mess or in some sort of emotional turmoil, possibly as a result of heavy drinking.

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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
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