The Rich Tapestry Of English


My partner is a Kiwi, and although we share a common language, sometimes struggles with the confusing reference-laden complexity of ‘English’ English. The English language is meant to be flexible and absorbent, and contains more French, Latin and rhyming slang than one would imagine, but it’s also peppered with pop-culture shorthand.

The latter sometimes enter immediately into the language, like ‘Chav’, meaning working class, a word appearing in the late 1990s which may be derived from the theatrical slang ‘chavy’ meaning ‘child’ or from Romany ‘chavi’ meaning ‘woman’.

Others are double-rhymed slangwords, like ‘doing a Michael’, meaning Michael Caine, as in ‘caning it’ (going too fast, esp. drugs) which is probably rhyming slang from ‘pain’. In fairly common usage is ‘Fatboy’ = ‘Slim’ = ‘gym’. What was once Cockney seems to have spread throughout the country. I still tend to say ‘whistle’ instead of ‘suit’ and ‘Ruby’ instead of ‘curry’, but have a few Polari words up my sleeve for boys’ nights out.

Many short-term phrases hang around for decades. Monty Python added a huge number of phrases to the language, from ‘and what it is, which is mine’ (from the ‘Ann Elk’ sketch) to ‘splitters!’ and ‘He’s a very naughty boy’ (‘Monty Python And The Holy Grail’).

But there are other sayings which at first defy explanation. My mother used to say ‘He’s as dim as a Toc-H lamp’. The Toc H was a Christian charity which used to have a dim yellow Alladin’s lamp as its emblem. She also said ‘A la naafi’, meaning casual, from the Navy, Army Air Force Institutes method of dining.

Intonation also makes a difference. To greet someone with ‘Oh hello’, you exaggerate the vowels to get the minor character actor Charles Hawtrey”s greeting in Carry On films, which implies ‘What a surprise to see you here.’ Mike Leigh’s films have provided a good source of catchphrases, from ‘Aye, aye, it’s started, Sue’ in ‘Abigail’s Party’ to the whiny ‘You all right, darlin?’ from ‘Secrets & Lies’.

There’s plenty of recent slang in use, too. ‘Britneys’ = Spears = beers, ‘Harry Big Button’ – cheap electrical goods, and ‘to wallace’ – Wallace & Gromit = vomit. After that, popular language gets ruptured along lines of ethnicity, locality and tribes. European residents are apparently less mobile than their US counterparts, which means that terminology can literally vary from one street to the next.

In the interest of enriching the language, all strange overheard examples here, please!

18 comments on “The Rich Tapestry Of English”

  1. I plan on seeing again the whole MP oeuvre very soon, so I’m just working on memory, but isn’t “He’s a very naughty boy” from Life of Brian? Brian’s mother telling the crowd: “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy“. Hence the title of that mock oratorio recently performed at the Albert Hall under the guidance of John DuPrez and Eric Idle, (Not) the Messiah.

  2. tankard says:

    I’m cream crackered, I’m going for a ball o’chalk down the frog n’ toad to the rub-a-dub for a pig’s ear and horse n’ cart, remember to have a jimmy riddle before you leave with yer china plates and then we’ll get our hampstead heath in to a ruby murray for lilley & skinner.

  3. Andy says:

    Heh. I love slang and foreign loanwords. Bill Bryson’s “Mother Tongue” and Jeffry Kacirks “The word Museum” and “Forgotten English” are excellent books on the subject. Got a huge two-part encyclopedia of slang stored at mother’s, must rescue it sometime. The section on alternative names for the female genitalia is probably the largest section.

    Pratchett has (naturally) done his own take on Cockney rhyming slang with Dimwell Arrhythic Rhyming Slang-

  4. Alan Morgan says:

    Golly, and I’m still puzzled up here at times (Cumbria). The language goes back terribly far and if anything the differences so entrenched that they’re not affected at all. Quite aside from counting (from sheep), the occasionally still heard ‘yan, tan…’ there’s also (and just the very tip):

    Marra (mate), pagger (a fight), clarty (sticky, thick), clag (mud), fettle (how well one is), bairds (children). There’s so much more as hereabouts it’s right rural and so nigh on every word can leave you puzzled. Not Cockermouth of course, where in slightly scuffed brown shoes lovely people eat cake and read books – but otherwise. My favourite is that the Border TV news is known widely as ‘border crack and deekabout’ – which is not actually its name, obviously.

    My daughters correct me, which is why we have to move. ‘Daaad – it’s baff, not barff.’ About time they learn how to speak proper Lambeth.

    Baked potater!

  5. Andy says:

    One my family (South Wales) use a lot is “Looking black over Will’s Mother’s” to denote threatening clouds on the horizon, to the total bafflement of my wife (London). We got a few Welsh loan words in the local Swansea english dialect, but one I’ve never heard since is “scram” as a byword for “clawed” as in “The cat scrammed me!”. Scram for get out quickly or pull and emergency shut-down of a nuclear reactor (not used often in wales that one) yes, but scratched or clawed, no.

  6. Vickie Farrar says:

    Nothing to add but indignation: I take umbrage at whomever created Wallace = Wallace and Gromit = vomit. W&G are two of my MOST favorite (or, as you would put it, favourite) people.

  7. Sparro says:

    My partner uses the expression “As tough as all get-out”, and the phrase is fairly versatile insofar as any adjective can be substituted for ‘tough’ to convey the desired meaning. But what meaning? Her family are very definitely East-end Londoners, and her granny used the expression in a commonplace manner.
    Having spent much of my life working backstage in theatres, a ‘get-out’ is to me the removal of one stage-set to allow the placement of the next; but the descriptive expression is not known in theatre-land, so far as I am aware.
    Any ideas?

  8. tankard says:

    I know on the East-end tube if you asked is this Aldgate East you’d be told “No mate, all-get-out”.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    As tough as all get out was a common expression in my childhood in western Canada but I haven’t heard it lately (unless I said it myself). Fettle is common here as in being “in fine fettle” but surely children are ‘bairns’ not ‘bairds’ unless Cumbrians have constant nasal stoppages.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and the word ‘bluff’ as a noun. Here on the coast it is a steepish cliff but on the prairies it’s a grove of trees.

  11. Alan Morgan says:

    I’m sure the two have the same source Helen, it’s just been spelled as pronounced. ‘Bairns’ is more eastwards from here, but then the Geordie and Machem accents are more famous. The accent round here can be pretty thick – blunter and richer up on the farms especially.

  12. madmary says:

    I often say dim as a TocH lamp. I’m not sure anyone I say it to knows what I’m talking about though. I didn’t know myself for years, but I love the sound of the phrase.


  13. Daniel says:

    Up here in central Northumberland we have (I have no clue how to transcribe these, having only ever heard them used but never seen them written down) “Chairvers” for children (Romany in origin, I think), “Mairk” for annoying person and/or child, the relatively well known outside the region “muckle” for large, several of the ones Alan Morgan mentioned above from Cumbrian dialect (They’re all-region Northern, I think.), as well as “wazzock” and “pillock” for idiot, “gadgie” meaning unknown male person (once again, comes from Romany, I think) and very specifically to the village where I live the appending of the word “waffle” to a swearword used an insulting description of someone (Not sure on your profanity policy so I’ll blank out the swear words), such as “C___waffle”, “C__kwaffle” “S___waffle” and so on. Even a few miles away people will look at you oddly for using that particular turn of phrase, possibly with some justification.

    In regard to phrases instead of individual words, my god daughter reliably informs me that youngsters will describe an annoying male as his girlfriend’s/wife’s/mother’s “3 and 2”, meaning third favourite tit and second favourite c___. I’m not sure if this is unique to the area, region or something nationwide or even something migrating from the web to regular usage. Either way, it’s easily one of my favourite new insults. The very specific area of Northumberland where I live has a phrase I’ve never heard used elsewhere to indicate indignation/frustration “Never in the creation of crow s__t.”. I have no idea how that one came about. When responding to someone’s wish for an unrealistic thing, I’ve heard people respond “Aye, and if your granny had wheels she’d be a stack barrow”, but I once heard a Jewish New Yorker use a very similar phrase, so perhaps it’s more universal than I think. It could be the Romany influence again, since it shares some very similar phraseology with Yiddish.

  14. Marc says:

    In the late 70’s, I grew up in a town on the western edge of the West Midlands which had a sizeable chunk of travellers (I presume of Romany descent) in it’s demographic pie chart. It is fair to say that the non travelling element of the town’s population preferred to keep them at arm’s length if possible. Consequently, ‘Chavi’ was in regular usage by my friends (non travellers) as a less than friendly term of address between me and my friends. ‘Mush chavi’ was also an oft heard phrase, but I’ve no idea what it means/meant.

  15. Andy says:

    “Aye, and if my Granny had wheels she’d be a wagon” is, I believe, a line uttered by Scotty in Star Trek III.

  16. Gretta says:

    I had no idea your partner was a Kiwi, Christopher, so there would be little point in me sharing any local slang, as you’ve probably heard it all already. 🙂

    I will, however, share a particular favourite definition I found a while back:

    Ocker (noun)
    In Australia: A slow, or stupid person
    In New Zealand: An Australian

    I hope you’re all a box of fluffies. 🙂

  17. Daniel says:

    If we’re going the Antipodean route for slang, I recently learned what a “Map of Tasmania” is…

  18. “Aye, and if my Granny had wheels she’d be a wagon” is, I believe, a line uttered by Scotty in Star Trek III.

    I’m fairly sure that’s an euphemism for an expression (there’s probably an English equivalent) that says in French: “If my aunt had any, she’d be my uncle.”

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