Watch your language — Learning a lesson in language

Published 4:58 pm Saturday, October 29, 2022

was in the south of England a few weeks ago (part of a research trip to learn more about the evacuation of Basque children to England during the Spanish Civil War) and had the delightful opportunity to meet Mike Anderson, a knowledgeable and very personable town historian in Sussex. While I was there primarily to learn about a colony of 20 Basque children who lived at Pounsley Farm in the late 1930s, I also learned something about the local dialect. Mike and his wife Barbara are also keen observers of language and were able to answer my many questions about local dialects and word use. I share here with you some of the things I learned while in England.

Mike introduced me to the term “bog-standard” which means “normal” or “not fancy”. An example he gave was “It’s just the bog-standard for the Ford Mustang.” Merriam-Webster explains that it means “having no special or interesting qualities.” Another dictionary describes it as conveying a derogatory tone perhaps because “bog” is also another name for “toilet.”

And in this conversation about toilets, I learned something new. Thomas Crapper was a plumber (English) whose company “Thomas Crapper and Co. Ltd” made toilets with the company’s name often emblazoned inside the porcelain bowl and sometimes with the heading “venerable” as in “The Venerable Thomas Crapper & Company.” (It is important, I believe, to point out that they also made sinks that displayed the company’s name.) His name became associated with the toilet to such a degree that his last name became a reference for the toilet and then folks created the verb “to crap” as a back formation and a word that is also slang, informal, and isn’t used in formal language.

While in England, it was not difficult to pick up on the use of words that vary greatly from the words typically used in U.S. English. For instance, in the airport and on the many trains that I took, there was a phrase that was announced over loudspeakers or that appeared as a running script on the screen on the train at frequent intervals. “If you see something that doesn’t look right, report it to the British Transport Police. See it, say it, sorted”. What caught my attention was the word “sorted.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “used to describe a situation in which everything is correctly organized or repaired.” The dictionary provides the following example, “Have you spoken to Grant about the party?” “Sorted!” We tend to use “sort” to mean to “organize in groups” or to “go through” as in “My parents sorted through all the things in their garage and labeled everything to go into the yard sale.”

Another difference I noticed was the use of the word “scheme” to mean plan and without any negative connotation. An example I heard went something like this, “We have many schemes for helping the poor and needy in that particular country.” Another example was from a bank that referred to schemes for helping its clients. Because our use of this same word implies something manipulative or deceptive, I felt a sense of concern for the vulnerable until I realized, after hearing it a few more times, that it simply meant “idea” or “plan.”

In our different conversations about language, Mike told me about Cockney rhyming slang. I had read about it but had never really come across it. It is based on the use of clever substitutions of phrases that sound like the intended phrase. For instance, one might say “I see you’re on the dog and bone” meaning “I see you’re on the phone.” Or “I’ll go have a butcher’s” which is short for “butcher’s hook” to mean “I’ll go have a look.” The phrase “Ruby Murray” (reference to a famous singer in the 1950s) is substituted for “curry” and “trouble and strife” is substituted for wife. When I asked for a “specific example of the use”, Mike gave me the following: “I’m going out for a Ruby, and the trouble and strife is coming with me.” From the quick grin on his face, I do believe he had a little too much fun when he shared that with me and his wife Barbara. I found out later though that “pot and pan” is Cockney rhyming slang for “the old man” so I’m glad to see the rhyming substitutions are distributed somewhat equally. I’ll close with a “baked potato” (See you later) and some examples for you to figure out below. Answers provided at the end.

“Just go up the apples and pears and you’ll see the room you’re looking for on the right.”

“What’s wrong with you! Don’t do it that way! Use your loaf (of bread).”

“I never believed much of what he said. He used to tell a few porkies (porky pies) back in the day.”

“I’d love to go to Spain with you, but I don’t have any bees and honey right now.” (from the website blog.lingoda.com)

“To make that cake, you’ll need a borrow and beg.”

“I hear crying. Go check on the basin of gravy.”

“There’s no way you have enough bread and honey.”

“Uh-oh. Don’t look now but here comes the bottle and stopper. You’re probably going to get a ticket!”

“Thanks so much for your lump of ice. I’m not sure I find it helpful.”

“I didn’t order gin. I ordered a pimple and blotch.”

(Answers in order: stairs, head, lies, money, egg, baby, money, policeman (copper), advice, and Scotch.)

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.

Learning a lesson in language