So this is where I learnt to speak funny

Moving country and home so often during my youth, I always worked hard to blend in. To learn the local slang. And not to sound like a stranger. Living in London I realise I have a new perspective. I’m okay with being and sounding forrin.

I like that I have a strange accent and I speak funny. I like that I say now and now now, that I say off as if it’s spelt orf. I like that I say shu and use hey far too often and inappropriately, and that when I say shame I mean sweet, or pretty much any other word that might fit into that sentence. I like that I have to explain certain words that I use that have no place in local usage, and that I have to ask the meaning of a local word or expression that I haven’t heard before.

You see, London is full of people like me. Yes, Saffas and Zimbabweans, but also people who are living far from their home, their language and their custom. So, while I don’t blend in, I blend in just fine. We all do. It’s like that in the Big Smoke.

Listening to the radio this morning, I heard the latest gossip about an X Factor contestant. My first thought was, “Sheesh, what a waster.” Which took me back to my high school days in Zimbabwe … I thought about my teachers and my friends, and how we used to speak. So allow me to take you on another trip to Bulawayo in the mid-1970s.

I went to an all girls’ high school. Moving from a small, private boarding school to a large, government school was a shock to the system. I soon settled. I always did. I had a few teachers that I will remember always.

Our English teacher, Mrs E, was a Jean Harlow lookalike. Her hair was lily white. She was meticulously fussy about grammar and the correct use of English. We were NEVER allowed to say different to or different than. It was compulsory, in her class, to say different from. Hopefully could only ever be used as an adverb and all hell would break loose if we talked about quotes rather than quotations. She was a delight, she loved her subject and, with her guidance, we all did well in our external examinations. (Not exams.)

In my early years of high school, we had ONE male teacher in the school. Two things about him were so not in his favour: firstly, his surname was the same as our school’s name. And secondly, he had a lisp. His subject was maths, which he pronounced mathth and he would regularly call us naughty goblinth and throw chalk at us. He didn’t stay too long at our school, but he did marry one of our other teachers. Bleth.

In my last two years at school, a few new male teachers joined the staff. Our new English teacher was SO cool – Mr K was his name. He would walk into the classroom and, to begin with, we would all stand as he entered. The first few times he said to us, “J***s, sit down, I’m not God.” He would then take his place at the front of the classroom, stand with his left foot on his desk, lean his elbow on his left knee, and talk poetry. Or literature. He wore short safari suits; he was clearly a fan of the King as his blond hair was expertly greased and coiffed into a snazzy Elvis flick and duck tail. He wore long socks and tucked his comb into one of them.

Our French teacher, Mr B, looked quite similar. Except his hair was black, and the grease was natural. He was always quite sweaty and struggled to push the words out of his mouth without a little spittle. Our favourite challenge was to get him off the subject, which we managed to do with regular monotony. We would feel so self-satisfied if we’d spent a double period of French learning about his exploits in the army, and giving French grammar a miss. He would protest with much saliva when he realised he’d been hoodwinked. Again.

So back to waster… here’s another mini-lexicon of Zimbabwean slang from my high school era:

  1. Waster – a good-for-nothing.
  2. Skate – at high school, our uniform was a striped dress, short socks and brown lace-up shoes and a straw boater/hat with a school ribbon on it. If we had long hair we had to tie it back and we had to wear school-colour ribbons. If you were a skate you’d wear the boater as far back on your head as you could balance it, you’d wear the shortest ankle socks you could find, you’d wear non-regulation shoes with buckles, and you either wouldn’t tie your hair back or you’d not wear ribbons. And you’d always go out every weekend and party and meet all the cool guys. Skate = a slight reprobate or rebel. But mostly in a harmless way.
  3. Hood – similar to skate but perhaps less harmless, and always male. My dad might refer to this type as a wide boy. I had a boyfriend who used to drive an old truck. He would stop outside our front gate and hoot for me. I would run out, jump in the truck and go out with him. He was a hood, but my dad used to call him … actually in that instance he used a different expression from wide boy.
  4. Tune – this verb means the same as say, tell, chat up, mock, make fun of, lie, flirt or stir. If someone tuned you, you could be angry, flattered, informed, misinformed or provoked. It all depended on the context.
  5. Own/oke – this noun means guy. I went to the disco and this oke was tuning me.

I guess that’s the end of the Zimbo lesson from London for today. There is more to come, so keep your notebooks handy. Someone once said that when the world ends, all that will be left will be cockroaches and Zimbabweans. Do you think she was tuning me?

Sunshine signing off for today!

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36 thoughts on “So this is where I learnt to speak funny

  1. Wow, you’re bringing back memories. South African slang from that period was much the same. When were you at UCT? I think we may have been there around the same time. I was there 1980 – 1982.

    Safari suits are a “fashion item” I hope NEVER comes back again! That and the comb in the sock thing!

    1. We were at UCT at exactly the same time! Yes, safari suits and combs in socks were not great – it was quite funny that Mr K was such a cool personality yet even in those days, his style was well outdated!

      1. Imagine that?! It took so many years for us to meet.

        I really think you should find I photo of a Safari suit, so that your other readers can appreciate what you’re talking about!

  2. Zim memories will last forever. I went to an all girls school in SA where slang was discouraged so I learnt to speak the ‘posh’ way….. until I, like you switched to a government school where there were boys!!! Boy I sure learnt the lingo in the last 3 yrs of schooling. Pretty much similar to Zim. Oh and I did embarrass myself by calling a sir ‘sister’ once in a moment of forgetfulness.
    Thanks again for the well written reminder of childhood memories from the Zim perspective x

  3. What is it with young male high school English teachers? I think your teacher and my Freshman-year teacher might be the same guy.

    Loved the “I went to the disco and this oke was tuning me.” line. So funny. Girls are always trying to “mack on” my handsome big brother. I’ll have to teach him this slang.

  4. You write sooooo beautifully that I always feel like I’ve been transported for a few moments to a remote and exotic place where people use interesting phrases to say hilarious things. Checking in with you is like going on a Sunshine-filled vacation 🙂

  5. Now I know what …this oke was tuning me, means! Language is so interesting. Way back in the day, we used also used the word “hood” for the rebellious ones, but a hood could be a guy or a girl, and it really wasn’t a good thing to be a “hood”.

  6. How did your English teacher pronounce off? Oh those notorious safari suits! So last century. Unconscionable fashion item.

  7. Once again a fantastic blog Ruth, I had forgotten about naughty goblinth! We were so wicked to him, no wonder he did not last long at our school! I would have said something else that was not in his favour was his afro hair style!!!
    My Dad still wears safari suits and long socks. He insisted on wearing them even when he came over to England!!

    1. Thanks so much, Bev! Yes, poor guy – he didn’t stand a chance with us lot! The way we were to him was one of the reasons I decided never to become a high school teacher! That’s hilarious that your Dad still wears safari suits … what a hoot! 🙂

  8. Aw the memories of Townsend High – I loved Mr K too & giggled at Mr B especially when we had bomb drills as opposed to fire drills he’d get all flustered in getting us out in an orderly manner – 30 young 17 yr old girls I dont think so!!!

  9. Hi there – just to let you know that I will read your piece to “Mr K” tomorrow [thanks for letting me know about it BJ]! Yes, he is alive although in hospital but since I met him in 1979 I can assure you that the safari suits, long socks, comb and the hair gel have been banished! Loved your writing and brought back great memories. Regards Patsi Kenyon in Cape Town

    1. Hi Patsi – how absolutely lovely to hear from you! Please do send my warm regards to Mr K and my best wishes for a speedy recovery. Tell him that even after all these years, he still looms large in my memories of school. He really was a great teacher.
      Thank you for visiting my blog, and for your kind comments.
      Sunshine x

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