I wouldn’t be dead for quids!

Look I’ve been busy as a one handed paper-hanger in Woollamaloo, flat out like a lizard drinking. I mean all a cockie wants is a fair crack of the whip, but at this writing lark, yer get the rough end of a pineapple shoved up yer jacksey, and not a skerrick of a motza for it. I tell yer, they think I’m a bleeding magic pudding. It’s left me stonkered, I was feeling so crook I went to see the quack and he said unless I want to kark it I’d better chill. Too right, it’s been yonks since I took the tinny out. So I put on me thongs, and me budgie smugglers. Man I looked as flash as a rat with a gold tooth, except I got a bloody veranda bum, and a Bondi chest from driving a desk. So I said to the ball-and-chain I was going walkabout. Man the cliner went spare. Told me I was a two bob watch and I’d have to get me own tucker then. And I was hungry enough to eat the crutch out of a low flying duck. So I got a slab of the green and a maggot-bag, and went out for a seven course meal, with a snot-block for afters.

Man, I don’t make the big bickies, but I wouldn’t be dead for quids!

“”I said it in Hebrew–I said it in Dutch–
I said it in German and Greek:
But I wholly forgot (and it vexes me much)
That English is what you speak!”

The Hunting of the Snark, fit the fourth. Lewis Carrol

Well, it is English, of a highly advanced sort (No really. I’m a Vandemonian. Trust me. You can, they say two heads are better than one.) And it is colorful and funny. But unless it’s your local lingo… it may be confusing as hell too, especially overdosed like that.

One of the big problems, of course, is that when it is your local form of English, you may not realize that it’s not really intelligible to the non-cognoscenti… And the same things mean different things in different places – do not describe that handy belt-on-purse as a fanny-bag in Australia, or if you’re a stray South African here, ask what route (pronounced in South Africa as ‘root’ ) is best. I gather South Africans are also the only English speakers to swim in dams (what in my old country they called the water in a man-made lake.) And my English daughter-in-law struggles with our ‘pants’ (which somehow bizarrely means ladies underwear, and is frequently used as an exclamation of irritation, as in: “Oh pants! I forgot mum’s birthday.” rather than meaning ‘trousers’, as it does to me.

They’re a trap for the unwary, but in small doses a source of ‘feel exotic’ and of added value.

So how about a few I wouldn’t know?

And what on earth does “Well tie my face to the side of a pig and roll me in the mud!” imply? Bacon makers (yes, I made 40 pounds of bacon this week) wish to know.

And as for what is wrong with our ability to get children to read – this is the answer.


      1. Oy, now. We hicks way back o’ the hickory sticks been known to’ve swum the dam a time or three. S’not only an english/southafricanism thing. *grin*

        1. I shall take delight in informing the son and daughter-in-law in UK that actually, they’re the ones getting it wrong, that from across the globe we all know what a swim in the dam means. 🙂

      1. I read that and was subjected to “why can’t the English teach their children how to speak” from my fair lady, in Rex Harrison’s voice.

      2. Heh, How bad is it that this Yank, whose never been outside the 48, understood a good chunk? (or at least made some sense of it.)

  1. The same goes for professional and technical dialects of English. I just finished reviewing the audio for the first fifteen minutes of my latest novel, and most of the scene is a conversation between my narrator and his lawyer. I ran the scene past a bankruptcy lawyer to make sure I wasn’t saying anything too groan-worthy, but I didn’t try to write the whole thing in “legalese”. Instead I wrote it in plain English and just included a few legal phrases where they were appropriate, to give it the feel I wanted.

    I have a background in building maintenance, and technical matters are often relevant to the story (this novel, in particular, involves some hidden passageways built into commercial buildings) so I ask people outside of the business if what I am writing makes sense to an average reader. Most people aren’t going to know or care whether Romex or mc cable is code for house current runs through a plenum space.

      1. Anglophones, we shakedown other languages for vocabulary so that we can have even more trouble understanding each other…

        1. Oh, man, I’ve previously read sf where there was a political or otherspace area named the Plenum (ie, “fullness”, “volume,” or a Gnostic theology term for the non-matter place where Gnostic Aeon Gods live).

          And so of course there were people flying through Plenum space.

          Folks in construction who read sf must have some giggle moments.

            1. Actually, magical duct work features in a lot of action movies. Ordinary ventilation ducts are neither large enough nor sturdy enough for a human being to move through, so the ones in the movies must be magic.

              One of my personal pet peeves.

              1. Let alone all the sheet metal screws sticking out into them….

                In my evil fortress, there is only one man-sized air duct. It doesn’t lead anywhere, and if you reach the end, a door shuts it off and keeps the hero trapped until a security detail can be formed.

  2. Heh.

    Coming to the USA in the mid-1990’s, I learned quickly that colonial English and American English (?) were not necessarily congruent. A few examples:

    1. In English-English, to “knock someone up” means to go visit them, or call, or whatever. Before and during World War II there was actually a job called a “knocker-up”, meaning to bang on the windows or doors of early-shift factory workers to wake them up in time to get to work. However, the first time I told an American friend that “Sure, I’ll knock you up at 5 so we can watch the sunrise”, the utter horror on her face told me that it didn’t quite mean the same thing on this side of the pond . . .

    2. Eating breakfast with a family in Baltimore. Teenage daughter was picking bits of cherry out of her fruit salad and putting them on the side of her plate. I like cherries, so I said to her in all innocence, “May I have your cherry?”, pointing to the plate. She blushed and fled, her parents dissolved in hysterical laughter, and I had no idea what I’d said. Only when her parents explained to me what I’d said in American, rather than English, did I understand (and blush in my turn).

    3. Not really like the first two, but a cherished memory . . . I first visited San Francisco in 1996. It happened to be the weekend of the Gay Pride parade – you know, bare-breasted ladies on Harley-Davidson motorcycles waving signs saying “Dykes on Bikes”, that sort of thing. Bit of a culture shock to a sheltered South African, don’t you know? Anyway, I got into an argument with a group of gay activists who were mocking Christians for not accepting their way of life. One of them, hearing my accent and obviously presuming I was British, sneered at me, “You damn Brits wouldn’t understand what I meant if I said ‘oral sex’!” I couldn’t resist. I looked snootily at him and in my best upper-crust Oxford accent said, “Sir, why do you think the English invented the stiff upper lip?” Chaos ensued.


    1. I’m compelled to observe that one must take care when expressing a desire to go outside for a smoke depending on whether in the East End or San Francisco. The interpretation of “I’ll just pop out and have a fag” is very much location dependent.

      1. VERY recent example: I was relating a story to Rhys about a guy who fought off five attackers. “…I mean, this one guy beat off five assail-”

        Rhys: *dissolves into helpless laughter*

        Me: *flat look, roll eyes, smack his arm with the back of my hand* “You KNOW what I mean!”

        Rhys: I know, but… *just laughs and laughs and laughs*

        Me: “And you guys say I’m dirty minded!” *smack arm again, laughing, because he’s just infectious when laughing*

        (spend the next 15 minutes laughing in the parking lot)

      2. I need to pick up some fags from the shop, and if they’ve got rubbers I need one of those too because I broke the one on my pencil

          1. When I was a kid, Rubbers were rubber shoe covers that were roughly the same size as a dress shoe, rather than a high overboot (galoshes). I haven’t seen them since.

  3. Another word (or phase) that does no man what I thought it meant is “Indian Summer.” To many Yanks, it is the warm spell following the first frost (or hard freeze, depending on your location), with the connotation “false summer.” In Britain it is any unusually warm ad dry spell in fall, and is associated with the weather in India. No wonder the Brits I was chatting with couldn’t understand why the term is considered politically incorrect in h States. 🙂

    1. I’m a bit suspicious of that one. Either the UK or the American etymology may be an “eggcorn,” And honestly, I’ve never thought of US Indian summer as a false summer; it’s the tail end of summer that just happens in fall and has cold nights, whether or not we get a frost before it. (In Ohio, we mostly don’t.) It’s true that many US idioms associated with “Indian” do have the connotation of “false” or otherwise twisted, like “Indian giver,” but not all. Indian summer is more associated with good things, like domestic weather wisdom and making the most of the season, I would have thought.

      I’ve never heard of anybody getting offended by Indian summer, but no doubt it will happen on the news in the next five minutes. The Wool Board is probably deeply offended by the name of woollyworms, too.

      Anyhoo, the old UK term for the warm weather after the first frost is “St. Martin’s summer,” because they used to get it all the way in November after their frosts started. (Nov. 11 is St. Martin’s Day, and usually falls right after harvest is done. So most of Europe with the convenient harvest and good weather coinciding had St. Martin’s Day associated with harvest festivals, night processions, costumes, wassailing, all that stuff.)

      1. Apparently anything Indian (feather, not dot) is suspect except Indian corn, and then the editors prefer maize.

        The conversation centered on popular etymology and PC. I suspect there are several regional variants and different understandings for Indian Summer and its history.

        1. My understanding is that it is a hot spell in fall or winter that temporarily makes it raiding season again. As in, coined during early colonial days when such raiding was more common in the most settled areas. I think I read it in one of those Edwin Tunis books.

        2. Except, of course, that neither maize nor Indian corn are really used in American English for what we simply call “corn” (which is distinct from grain, for us, so no modifier is required). So that PC advice is coming from the UK, apparently, where the term Indian Summer is presumably a borrowed Americanism. Their whole objection is a multi-fail.

          What the OED has to say about “indian summer”, first attested in 1778.

          a.a A period of calm, dry, mild weather, with hazy atmosphere, occurring in the late autumn in the Northern United States. Also transf. in other countries.
             (The name is generally attributed to the fact that the region in which the meteorological conditions in question were originally noticed was still occupied by the Indians; but other more specific explanations have been essayed. In its origin it appears to have had nothing to do with the glowing autumnal tints of the foliage, with which it is sometimes associated. The actual time of its occurrence and the character of the weather appear also to vary for different regions: see the quots.)

             1778 ‘J. H. St. John de Crèvecœur’ Sk. 18th-Cent. Amer. (1925) 41 It [sc. snow] is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer.   

            1. In Bartlesville OK. ‘Indian Summer’ is an Indian festival, Cherokee and Delaware convention or Pow Wow, held at the convention center in the middle of September. The big drum bangs til late (I like it) Indian dancing contests during the weekend, Queen is chosen, Art made by Indians and (?) is sold. Lots of color and fun.

  4. I won’t join in the confusion with my own peculiar difficulties. Oh, heck, yes I will. I — weirdly — get the gist of most dialects of English including historical ones. This gets the boys annoyed. BUT I have this peculiar space I go to mentally where I forget how to say something and reassemble it from the concepts. It still happens, but it was more obvious when I was first arrived. Apparently a pilot light is not a “guiding light” and a pot holder is not a “pan handler.”
    At least, my host mother laughed till she cried.

    1. Grad school, physics, regular tower of Babel of languages and customs. I was considered a Friendly Translator, and got to try to explain Western funeral customs to the Chinese (Tianaman Square Massacre memorial) and diagram the flow chart of Christian religions, which was fun. Then there was explaining to the Swiss postdoc, after reviewing his proposed lecture slides, that he, his German accent, and the words “final” and “solution” should not, ever, be combined….even if it DID make sense in context.

  5. One of my fortunate talents – thanks to sternly British grandparents and a taste for English writers – is that I am fluent in both Brit and American English, including a good bit of slang from both traditions. Before I turned to writing novels – especially The Quivera Trail, which started off in a grand English Stately Home and with two young Englishwomen as MCs – the one outstanding money-making use for this talent was a short gig as editor for the English-language simulcast of the 9 PM newscast for South Korea’s main broadcasting channel. (Yes, it was a profitable gig, shared with two other Americans who worked at AFKN-Yongsan). We would edit the English version of the newscast and assist with smoothing out the translations. The Korean staffers had usually learned proper British English (which is what most international ESL speakers learn) and I could alert them as to when they were using Brit-English which would have an unfortunate connotation in Am-English. Or sometimes, helping out when the English-to-Korean translators were working on something written in very allusive, slangy Am-English – like an article in a music magazine – and not making any headway at all.

    1. Those Brits just don’t know proper English. [Very Big Evil Grin While Flying Away Very Very Fast]

    2. I wonder if more ESL teaching is Am-English these days? My younger son is in Japan now teaching English, apparently a popular destination for American linguistics students.

      1. Don’t know, really – but most of the people I met who had learned English as a second language seemed to have learned it from a book, first.
        All the time that I was in Korea, there were a great many servicepeople, and dependent spouses who were doing outside tutoring in conversational English. There were Koreans all over the place who wanted to learn to speak fluently and well. Sometimes, when I was riding on the subway to do a voice-over job, I was handed notes from Koreans who wanted to know if I was available to tutor conversational English. One of the junior Army technicians at AFKN spent every minute that he wasn’t working, bopping all over Seoul to work with his language students. He was living on what he earned from that, was banking his military salary and investing quietly in stocks.

        Funny thing – when I talked to many Koreans (or Japanese or Vietnamese) who had learned English as adults, I could sometimes hear the ghost of a regional accent – the accent of the person whom they had learned from. It was subtle, sometimes – but it was there.

        1. Oh dear. Now I’m picturing student with a Texan accent. I don’t ordinarily hear the kids’ accents until I’ve spent a week with my California relatives. Then I notice it.

          1. You haven’t lived until you have encountered an ethnic Chinese with the thickest Australian accent known to man 😀 The cognitive dissonance made my head hurt.

            1. XD The Filipina-Australian actress Anne Curtis Smith apparently induces that on occasion. Speaking in Filipino, you wouldn’t know she’d lived outside the country. She has, I am told, a very Aussie accent.

              I’ll probably never lose my American accent now =/ I still speak to too many Americans to lose it via Vent.

        2. I haven’t seen it recently, but here in Japan there was a TV ad a few years ago with a young Japanese actress proudly announcing, “Ah lahrned ma aynglash aht ECC.” I would crack up hearing it, my Japanese friends would ask why it was so funny, and I would explain that I was fairly sure that her English teacher was from Texas, and we would talk about accents for a while.

    3. There was one individual (or group of them, for all I know) who was supplying English subtitles for Japanese samurai movies in the 1950s-60s who had a characteristic translation tic. Whenever the hero was at the lowest point of his story, drenched in the rain, wounded, and looking about him in despair, one of his sidekicks would always brace him with the phrase that was translated: “Buck up!”

      This became a household byword…

  6. Hmm. Where I grew up (a farming district in western Victoria), most people called a waterhole a “dam”, but my dad called a dam a “waterhole”. These days, a “tinny” would be an aluminum can of beer, but then that district is 100 km from the sea. So there are lots of regional variations.

    Also, in Australia, thongs come in pairs and go on the feet — Americans call them flip-flops.

    1. We always used to call them “thong sandals” or “thongs” around here, except for little kids calling their little flimsy plastic beach sandals “flip-flops.”

      Then thong swimsuits and underwear came in and people called them just plain “thongs” also. Thus the use of “flip-flops” for the footwear became general.

      1. In Texas, artificial ponds are called tanks. Makes for confusing directions for new comers. “There will be a big tank on the right, then take the next left . . . “

    2. When I was a kid (in the US), thongs were either footwear or lengths of leather cord. I don’t recall exactly when thongs became flip-flips, but one day they weren’t thongs anymore.

  7. Growing up I was most fortunate in that the local PBS station ran tons of older British comedies in the evenings: Are You Being Served, The Two Ronnies, stuff like that. I assume because they were either cheap or free, but I picked up on a great deal of British English speak from those.
    Of course the finest example of first person narration in a novel has to be The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. An entire book done in colloquial loonie by a true master storyteller. Even so, I recall at the time it first came out, some reviewers were obtuse enough that they just didn’t get it, failing to realize that Heinlein had created an entire dialect from bits and pieces of current languages that was still intelligible to the average real world reader.

  8. My wife (Bless her heart) has an amazing ability to butcher idioms of all types. It’s been a constant source of amusement in the last 24 years. It started shortly after we met when she used the phrase “Smokes like a fish”. And she grew up in the States. I can’t imagine how furriners deal with it.

      1. I say that all the time too. Rhys says it. I hear it from David the Housemate as well. Must be a local thing?

        In retrospect I wonder how bad it was when I first went to the US, for Americans to listen to me. Little Filipina girl, speaking English with a German accent and using German grammar. XD

  9. When I worked a winter in Helsinki, one of my friends was an Indian lady who was (like me) on a short term internship there. She worked with a couple of Americans who felt obliged to correct her English. I used to get phone calls asking me to confirm that what she’d said was perfectly good “British/Commonwaelth English”.

  10. And what does one call 40 pounds of bacon?
    Enough to share.
    Outside of those poor deprived halal or kosher regimes of course.

  11. Phrases you might like . . . Barrow pit (ditch beside the road), jockey box (glove box), pop (soda), church key (the tool you take the lid off the pop bottle with), and a regional food item: fry sauce, which is a mix of ketchup and mayonnaise generally eaten on fries or tater tots, which one gets at the drive through, but can’t get in other states (the big chains all stock it here). All these are from S. E. Idaho.

    1. From Utah – another phrase I never heard anywhere else; “my heck!” or “Oh, my heck!” – used where people anywhere else would have said, “My god!” or “Omigod!”

      1. Utah has some interesting slang features because of the local Mormon culture. One of my favorites is the how stake house became stake center in Mormon speak because people were thinking steak house restaurant instead of church building.

        1. Orson Scott Card wrote a Mormon dictionary, Saint Speak, in the style of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. It was published in 1980 so it’s quite dated but still funny if you know any Utah Mormons.

          1. My first post to this is lingering in moderation hell … so look up “No Man Knows My Pastries” on Amazon for a fond example of Mormon humor..

      2. I’ve heard of “what the heck” (for what the hell) all of my life (grew up and now living in Illinois).

      1. Bar ditch down here. Often one word.

        Walkin’ dog – an oil field pump jack. Christmas tree – the large pipe with fittings (and sometimes lights) that caps some oil wells. cabbage (v) – to take, often without permission (“someone cabbaged onto it and I ain’t seen it since.”)

      1. French fry maker (chips to you Brits) rolled up balls of all the left over potatoes breaded them then deep fried. I love ’em. Came out of southwest Idaho.

      2. Here-

        Oh, wait, I’m probably the food heretic here to most people.

        The ones from the store that I eat are bits of potato stuck together somehow in the shape of little cylinders. They are frozen, and the outside is a little bit browned, but they take some oven time to get right. I’m not sure of the exact dimensions, but I think maybe and inch, inch and half one way, and a diameter of about half that or so.

        I abhor the idea of mixing mayo with good ketchup. I mix mine with miracle whip.

    2. Would this Fry Sauce come from Arctic Circle?

      Doesn’t Fast Times at Ridgemont High have a bit of dialog where one fast food place uses thousand island dressing for the special sauce and another uses ketchup and mayonnaise?

  12. We were visiting Spain when I was a child and driving around looking for the local LDS meetinghouse. My Dad asked a police officer for directions. Unfortunately, instead of saying, “We are lost (cannot find our destination)”, Dad said “We are lost (damned)”. The police officer just laughed and laughed.

    1. For busy, ’round heah, we’ud say “Busier than a one-laig man in an azz-kickin’ contest”. Or busier than a man with a two dollar watch and the 7 year itch. When he a’int scratchin’ he’s windin’.

      1. Isn’t the penultimate Southron insult “Well bless your heart?”
        The ultimate of course being “Yankee Carpetbagger”

        1. Having lived down South, both Yankee and Carpetbagger individually are insulting. Together they’re far more so. There’s also “Damn Yankee” – that’s one who stayed.

        2. “bless your heart” is actually context-sensitive.

          If talking to someone’s face that you like, or about someone of with whom you’re friendly, it can be an exclamation of sympathy. “Where’s Mary?” “She’s out on bereavement leave; her grandmother died.” “Oh, bless her heart, the poor thing.”

          If not about someone you like, it’s a poisoned smile, a false-compliment meant to simultaneously seem like you’re not insulting them, while signalling to various and sundry that you really do not care for them at all. “So, Johnny wrecked his car driving drunk again.” “That boy, bless his heart, needs some jail time afore he gets someone killed.”

          This took me a while to figure out, so I was seriously confused when coworkers looked at my Alaskan-pale personage while working in a non-climate-controlled warehouse in a Tennessee August, and said, “Bless your heart, honey child, sit down and drink something right now!” Turns out they didn’t hate me; they were expressing concern that “their Alaskan” was on the edge of heatstroke and too inexperienced to recognize it.

          For another over-used and misunderstood phrase, the Canadian “eh” does not go on the end of every sentence. It is a very specific marker, like the American rising-intonation or the Russian “da”, that transforms a statement into a question.

          “You’re going to the store?” If said this out loud in American english, the last word or two words were said in a higher pitch, indicating this is actually a question.
          “You go store, yes?” Direct Russian translation – a brief pause and “da” asks the listener to confirm that this statement is true. No rising intonation at the end is needed or usually given, unless they’ve been around english speakers long enough to pick up that trick.
          “You’re going to the store, eh?” In the Canadian version, the last word “eh” may or may not have a rising intonation, but clearly signals that this is a question.

          1. You do realize what a problem (and sometimes opportunity) this is for the writer, don’t you? Because a reader can’t hear tone, and context is tricky to establish, written.

    2. Then there’s my grandfather’s expression of extreme disgust: “He’s as useless as tits on a boar hog!”

      And “Some people wouldn’t be happy if you hung ’em with a new rope!”

  13. Hopefully you at least COOK the damn bacon… sigh… Finally got em trained at the hotel in Perth, they saw me coming in, the chef would snag a couple of pieces and throw them back on the grill 🙂 And I know I’ve been spending too much time down under when I ‘got’ most of what you wrote… 🙂

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