My English Is Not Your English

Great Britain


As proof that the English language is always changing, in the British Library, the Evolving English WordBank now contains 1,500 contributions to date, many of which are dialect words. This is a system that records new words or old dialect ones from the public, but it turns out that some in current use have a history going back hundreds of years.

English dialect dictionaries explore how geography and social class affects vocabulary. One has a collection of more than 1,300 words from 300 locations across the UK in the 1950s. From Mardy to Coco, Fainites to Tosh, it appears that old and new words blur together in colloquial sentences but rarely make it into books.

I made a list at home of the oddities that pop up in our conversation, with a few absorbed Jewish words and a lot inherited from my father. Some, like Snout and Dosh, make it into Arthur Bryant’s vocabulary. Others, like Wonga and Squids seem to self-perpetuate.

It turns out that people share slang, using words within a particular social or interest group, among friends. At home there are nonce words, ones which are formed for private use within family units, which can be adaptations from TV shows or mispronounced words from babies.

We have an awful lot of words meaning drunk, from Sloshed to Paralytic, and an awful lot for various states of needing a toilet, probably eased into circulation by the Viz Profanisaurus, which has given us so many visual images of erudite crudity.

Max Décharné’s excellent book ‘Vulgar Tongue’ is adding to our knowledge of slanguage (especially bringing it into recent times with music slang) but it’s also worth just listening to people in pubs where they’re more relaxed than at work, and noting the ways in which language is twisted into often surprising new forms. The Boat McBoatface phenomenon proves this point, as do the unofficial renaming of all the new London buildings, from the Walkie-Talkie to the Cheesegrater.


4 comments on “My English Is Not Your English”

  1. davem says:

    Another good recommendation, cheers

  2. Chris Webb says:

    I really don’t like the concept of slang/vernacular/dialect as it implies there is an “official” version of the language. All words were made up originally, starting with some caveman grunting “ug”, and if someone feels the need or urge to make up some more then that is their prerogative, even if they don’t work for the OED.

    Alternative words for the same thing aren’t necessarily redundant, as they have added implicit meaning, such as the speaker’s background or frame of mind.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    It doesn’t necessarily imply an official version, just that different versions are used in different circumstances and if you want to substitute “class” for circumstance, well, you probably can. I notice I don’t have as many varieties of language as I used to, perhaps because some of the other versions I used to have have acquired so much that I find uncomfortable that I have abandoned them. Much more and I will have become a total prude, I’m afraid. Nevertheless, expanding the envelope of one’s vocabulary can’t be such a bad thing. My Mother always urged us to speak clearly, to finish words, to avoid “nope” and “yeah” so that we “didn’t sound like hicks.” Probably derived from her having been raised on the prairies away from any towns at all.

  4. Charles (another one) says:

    I was glad to hear that the Boaty MacBoat-face saga seems to have panned out quite well. In the end, the main research ship is now called the ‘David Attenborough’, but the submarine research vessel (one of three) based on it is called Boaty MacBoat-face, or Boaty for short.

    What a happy way to resolve a highly silly situation.

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