A Meatball By Any Other Name (and other humorous British/American language confusions)


Like most transplanted Americans to Great Britain, I am well-qualified to talk about the quirks of language and slang. That’s why this week’s writing challenge was made for me. It can be amusing (and just a whole lot embarrassing) if you are ignorant of the (rather large) differences in the meanings of some words. I have lived in the UK for over nine years now, and so I have mostly come to grips with calling bangs (in relation to hairstyle) a fringe, a trash can a rubbish bin, an elevator a lift and I accept various pronunciation differences in words like “garage” and “vitamin” and, of course, spelling differences (so much so that words like “colour” and “humour” and “neighbour” and “honour” do not look right to me sans the “u”). After this many years, I rarely ever slip up and call something by their American names. However, there is the rare occassion (especially when I’m tired) when my American-ness will surface….with varied results. I will get to my latest occurance in a bit; first I want to highlight some common and highly amusing examples of getting lost in translation with Americanisms and British slang.

Let’s take the word “fanny”. To an American, you have just said “bum”, “butt”, “backside”, “derriere”, “gluteus maximus”. However, to a Brit you’ve just used a slang term for female genitalia.

If that wasn’t funny enough, let’s try it the other way around. Say, “Fancy some faggots for tea?” You have just asked a Brit if he/she wants a very tasty foodstuff (somewhere between a meatball and a meatloaf but made with pork, really nice with gravy and mashed potatoes) for his/her evening meal. Say “faggot” to an American and you have just used a derrogatory term for someone of the homosexual persuasion. To further confuse matters, a slang term over here for cigarettes is “fags” (and it has nothing to do with the afore mentioned tasty foodstuff) while “fag”, to an American, is simply the short version of “faggot” which, as I have explained, is a very insulting name to call a gay person.

Biscuits and gravy? Tasty breakfast to most Americans (especially those of a southern persuasion). Say that to a Brit and they instantly picture Oreos (or some other cookie) that you must be destroying in your obviously disturbed and twisted mental state by covering them in meat gravy! Well, that does sound pretty sick, doesn’t it? I remember when my husband (fiancé at the time) came to visit me in the States the first time. He asked me what Americans like to eat for breakfast. I started with my list and came to biscuits and gravy and saw the look of horror that crossed his face. He was turning shades of green, so I quickly had to explain, “U’h…no, no, no…think savoury scones with a white gravy made from sausage.” He was still dubious until I took him to a Cracker Barrel restaurant and ordered some for him to try. “Not bad”, he said.

Fancy a shag? You are either an American carpet salesman or you are propositioning the person you’re talking to (although, I suspect, most Americans are wise to this one now thanks to Austin Powers…Yeah, Baby, yeah).

This brings us to “whacking off”, and my recent experience with it. I was talking to a friend (an English friend) – yes, I have friends – and talking about getting my hair cut. I remembered to call “bangs” “fringe”. And, I said something like, “Yeah, I’m just going to whack it off and have a fringe again.” I said it a few times without thinking about it, until my friend could no longer contain herself and said, “Autumn! Stop saying ‘whack it off’, please!” She was laughing pretty hard by now and having a difficult time catching her breath, when it finally dawned on me…

See, say “whack it off” to most Americans and you will have just told them you are going to cut something off (be it your front hedge or a tree limb or your hair). Say “whack it off” to a Brit and, well, there’s really no way to put this delicately… it’s a slang term for masturbation.

Yep. And, there I was, going on about whacking it off. She was in bits. I had simply forgotten and fallen into an old pattern of speaking. Humorous? Definitely. Embarrassing? That, too.

Dare I mention the perfectly innocent (to the American mind) words “toss” and “spunk”? I fear, for the British mind (with the exception of, perhaps, the more dirty minds amongst us), I may have taken this post a tad too far (my sincere appologies to those with more delicate sensibilites; I really don’t mean to offend…I’m just attempting to prove the point).  For, your simple throw of something (in the former word) or your characteristic of a vivacious personality trait (in the latter) mean something entirely different over here, with “toss” resembling my whacking it off and “spunk” the result of the whacking!! Oh, dear.

Language really is a seriously funny old thing.  Communication is a very tricky thing. Tread carefully, my friend. Your innocent comment or invitation to dinner might be someone else’s offensive comment or offer to get it on (or take it off… or, indeed, whack it off, as the case may be).