A trip to Bri­tain comes with lin­guis­tic sur­prises

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - Rick Steves

Tri­bune Con­tent Agency

As we’ve had to post­pone our trav­els be­cause of the pan­demic, I be­lieve a weekly dose of travel dream­ing can be good medicine. These thoughts about com­mu­ni­cat­ing on the road in Bri­tain are a re­minder of the fun that awaits us at the other end of this cri­sis.

Os­car Wilde fa­mously said that the English “have re­ally ev­ery­thing in com­mon with Amer­ica nowa­days — ex­cept, of course, lan­guage.” It’s still true. A trip to Bri­tain comes with plenty of lin­guis­tic sur­prises.

I’ll never for­get check­ing into a small-town B&B as a teenager on my first solo Euro­pean ad­ven­ture. The land­lady cheer­ily asked me, “And what time would you like to be knocked up in the morn­ing?”

I looked over at her hus­band, who winked, “Would a fry at half-eight be suit­able?” The next morn­ing, I got a rap on the door at 8 a.m. and a huge Bri­tish break­fast a halfhour later.

Bri­tain can be an ad­ven­ture in ac­cents and id­ioms.

Ev­ery day you’ll see ba­bies in prams and pushchairs, suck­ing dum­mies as moth­ers change wet nap­pies. Soon the kids can trade in their nap­pies for smalls and spend a penny on their own. “Spend a penny” is Bri­tish for a visit to the loo (bath­room). Older Bri­tish kids en­joy candy floss (cot­ton candy), naughts and crosses (tic­tac-toe), big dip­pers (roller coast­ers), and iced lol­lies (pop­si­cles). Kids are con­stantly in need of an Elasto­plast or stick­ing plas­ter (Band-Aid), which their par­ents buy at the chemist’s (phar­macy).

In a sta­tionery store, you can get sticky tape or Sel­lotape (ad­he­sive tape), rub­bers (erasers), and scrib­bling blocks (scratch pads). At gar­den shops, those with green fin­gers (a green thumb) might pick up some cour­gette (zuc­chini), swede (rutabaga), or aubergine (egg­plant) seeds. If you need a torch (flash­light), visit the iron­mon­ger’s (hard­ware store).

In Bri­tain, fries are chips and potato chips are crisps. A beef burger, made with mince (ham­burger meat), comes on a toasted bap (bun). For pud­ding (dessert), have some sponge (cake).

The Bri­tish have a great way with names. You’ll find towns with names like Up­per and Lower Slaugh­ter, Once Brewed, and Itch­ing Field. This cute co­zi­ness comes through in their lan­guage as well. You’ll visit “bril­liant” (won­der­ful) sights that’ll give you “goose pim­ples” (goose bumps). Your car will have a bon­net and a boot rather than a hood and trunk. You’ll drive on mo­tor­ways, and when the free­way di­vides, it be­comes a dual car­riage­way. Never go an­ti­clock­wise (coun­ter­clock­wise) in a round­about. Gas is petrol, a truck is a lorry, and when you hit a tail­back (traf­fic jam), don’t get your knick­ers in a twist (make a fuss) — just be pa­tient and queue up (line up).

The Bri­tish never say they have a two-week va­ca­tion, but many locals hol­i­day for a fort­night, of­ten in a homely (homey) ru­ral cot­tage or pos­si­bly on the Con­ti­nent (con­ti­nen­tal Europe). They might pack a face flan­nel (wash­cloth) and hair grips (bobby pins) in their bum bag (never a “fanny” pack — which refers to the most pri­vate part of a wo­man’s anatomy). If it’s rainy, they wear a mack­in­tosh (rain­coat) or an anorak (parka) with press studs (snaps).

If you get set­tled into a flat (apart­ment), you can post let­ters in the pil­lar box or give your mum a trunk (long-dis­tance) call. If that’s too dear (ex­pen­sive), she’ll say you’re tight as a fish’s bum. If she wit­ters on (gabs and gabs), tell her you’re knack­ered (ex­hausted) and it’s been don­key’s years (ages) since you’ve slept. Af­ter wash­ing up (do­ing the dishes) and hoover­ing (vac­u­um­ing), you can have a plate of bis­cuits (cook­ies) and, if you’re so in­clined, a neat (straight) whisky. Too much of that whisky will get you sloshed, par­a­lytic, bevvied, wellied, rat­ted, popped up, or even pissed as a newt.

Then there is the ques­tion of ac­cents. These days, ac­cents are trendy in Bri­tain. Politi­cians, news­cast­ers, and movie stars have been fa­vor­ing deep ac­cents over the Queen’s English. It’s hard for Amer­i­can ears to pick out all of the vari­a­tions — and some ac­cents are so thick they sound like a for­eign lan­guage — but most Brits can de­ter­mine what re­gion a per­son is from based on their ac­cent.

All across the Bri­tish Isles, you’ll en­counter new words, crazy hu­mor, and col­or­ful ac­cents. Pubs are col­lo­quial trea­sure chests. Church ser­vices, sport­ing events, and lo­cal com­edy shows are lin­guis­tic class­rooms. The streets of Liver­pool, the docks of Lon­don, and chil­dren’s parks through­out the UK are play­grounds for the Amer­i­can ear. One of the beau­ties of tour­ing Great Bri­tain is the il­lu­sion of hear­ing a for­eign lan­guage and ac­tu­ally un­der­stand­ing it … most of the time.

Rick Steves (www.rick steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on public tele­vi­sion and public ra­dio. Email him at rick@ rick­steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

RICK STEVES/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

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