I thought I grew up speaking English. Little did I know.

IMG_0853 by Lorenzo Sernicola
IMG_0853, a photo by Lorenzo Sernicola on Flickr.

What I speak is American, not to be confused with what they actually speak in England. Since moving across the pond I’ve become accustomed to certain differences, like “pants/trousers” and “rubbish bin/trash can.” However, some things still serve as constant reminders that I am indeed in another country.

The Words Are Shorter

Brits love to shorten words. There’s something so desperately lengthy about “biscuit,” “breakfast,” and “lavatory.” These words become “bickie,” “brekkie,” and “lav.” In general I think it’s pretty cute. After all, it’s only here that you can munch on a “choccy bickie” or open up your “brill prezzies” on Christmas Day. But shortening “Christmas” to “Crimbo”? That’s taking it a step too far.

Everyone’s Your Lover

As a receptionist it often falls to me to sign for the dozens of packages delivered to the school. You Americans can imagine my confusion when the first delivery guy ended the transaction with, “Cheers, love!” I thought it was a personal oddity at first, but then I realized that everyone does it. Now I get called “love” about four times a day on average by men whose names I don’t even know. It’s also common to be called “dear,” “sweetheart,”or in some parts of the country even “My lover.” Disconcerting? Yes. Ultimately endearing? Certainly.

“Are You All Right? No Really––Are You?”

In the States when I ask, “Are you all right?” it means I’m concerned about you. You probably just banged your head against a brick wall or got a homicidal glint in your eye. Over here it’s the usual greeting. All my English coworkers will say, “Are you all right?” first thing in the morning. Gradually I’ve overcome the urge to say, “Yes, I’m perfectly healthy, thank you,” and instead reply, “Fine, thanks. And you?”

Incidentally, for some Brits the traditional answer is, “All right,” or even, “All right?” as a question, so that neither person ever finds out if the other is actually all right or not.

Is That a Serious Question?

Speaking of questions that aren’t really questions, there’s the inexplicable, “What are ya like?” (which I believe is more common up here in the North than the South). This is usually said after you’ve done something stupid or silly. It may even be followed by a pertinent comparison as in, “What are ya like, ya silly sausage?” Of course it’s rather obvious what you’re like, as you’ve just proved it without a doubt.

Thanks, Thanks, and Thanks Again

Brits have a thing for saying “goodbye” repeatedly, in various forms. Before hanging up the phone one might hear, “OK. Thanks. Cheers. Bye.” 

  • “Cheers” is pretty well known in the States, though it’s not an enthusiastic “CHEERS!” like we might say, but more of a halfhearted “Cheers” tacked onto the end of a conversation. It can mean the person wishes you well, but sometimes it’s used as a substitute for “thank you,” or “you’re welcome,” or really just about anything.
  • “Ta” is also used to express thanks. Because thank you is just too much of a mouthful. 
  • “Ta-ra” is for when you have to say thanks and goodbye but you’re really in a hurry. It’s “Thank you ever so much, now I must say farewell” wrapped up in two convenient syllables. 
What has been your experience with oddities of the English language?


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Written by Abigail Young

I've had a passion for everything British my entire life, despite being raised as a small-town girl in the American Midwest, After years of dreaming, I got the chance to live and work in England for an entire year. Now I write about my favorite country, and hopefully inspire my fellow Britophiles to get over there and experience it for themselves.

This article has 4 comments

  1. Aiken Reply

    “All right?” “Alright” is a standardised social code all over the UK. It means “I am not interested in hearing about your minor grumbles, but if something is really wrong speak now or forever hold your peace” answered by “I appreciate your acknowledging my existence, and wish you a good day”. If the asker and askee are close acquaintances, and if things are most definitely not alright (e.g. your dog died/wife ran off with the milkman/house exploded), it is acceptable to respond “could be better”. At which point the asker might request further elucidation and a cuppa or a trip to the pub may appear in the immediate future whilst the ills of the world are sorted out. Oh and cheers can mean anything from “I have never before reached this height of joy and feeling of fellowship” to “go take a long walk off of a short pier, and don’t forget your lead wellies”. It’s all in the intonation…

  2. Petra Reply

    Abigail, as my husband have just remarked, do not Americans use the expression “How are you?” in the same meaning as the English “Are you all right?” expresses? When we are taught English here, we are warned that if we are asked “How are you?”, it isn’t an impulse to start speaking about what we feel like at the moment or what problems we have and joys enjoy, we are just supposed to answer “I’m fine, thank you.” Any other answer would be considered impolite. 🙂

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