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!