English as she is spoke

The thing about accents is that you only notice them when they differ from your own. At home in Cape Town I never notice my own accent but here in London, it’s another story all together. I’m well forrin and can’t hide it.

I heard the tail-end of a discussion on a TV talk show this morning. One of the guests said, “When I speak to someone with an accent, I start talking with that accent. I can’t help it.”  And everyone laughed. There is also the tendency to speak louder and more slowly when you speak to someone with an accent other than your own, or someone whose first language is not the same as yours.

So that was my prompt: I thought it was time to talk a little more forrin and share some more of my language idiosyncrasies with you. It’s funny, I never notice them at home and yet here, in London, they stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. Is that a well-known expression?

Here goes with the Saffa-isms:

  1. Chips! This is an expression that has a number of uses. You can use it to ask someone to move out of your way (not really polite); you can use it to alert someone to a possible danger, such as “Chips! Open manhole ahead” or worse, “Chips, the teacher’s coming.”
  2. Long teeth. This is a direct translation from the Afrikaans. If you do something with long teeth it means you do it with extreme reluctance, dragging your feet, not wanting to do it at all.
  3. Swak (pronounced swuck). This is an Afrikaans word which literally translated means weak. Its use in English has a slightly stronger meaning and I’m not sure that I can do it justice: mean, horrible, nasty, unfair. For example, “My cell phone got stolen last night.” “Ah, no, bru. That’s so swak.”
  4. Whinge. This is in common use in England and in SA, and it means to complain, or to whine, but with an extra truckload of annoying-ness.
  5. Land with your bum in the butter. I’m not sure where this saying originates, but it means to be lucky, to have things go your way.
  6. When I was a child, if something irked my Cape Town-born and bred mom, she would say she could spit blood. That was quite a frightening thought for me. She would also say, as she rolled her eyes, “Oh, heavens to betsy!”
  7. Gedoente. Again, this is an Afrikaans word (don’t know how to explain its pronunciation) and it means (usually unnecessary) fuss. Or, in the words of a client that I worked with in a PR consultancy, it’s a major bloody marchpast.

And here are a few of the English expressions I notice here. I wasn’t familiar with them, but am now growing to love them:

  1. Anorak. This one fascinates me. The word, which means hooded raincoat or parka, has evolved into slang usage, and it means fan, fanatic, aficionado, knowledgeable one on a particular (unusual) topic, and perhaps in an obsessive way. So you could be a train anorak or a Star Trek anorak (Trekkie).
  2. In bits. I heard this expression on the news last night. The reporter was covering the story about the guy whose wife was murdered in South Africa last month, while they were on honeymoon. The taxi driver, convicted of the murder, implicated the husband by saying he’d been paid by him to murder his wife and make it look like a car-jacking. The reporter said the husband, at his home in England, was in bits. It means upset. It’s often associated with crying. In this context, the expression strikes me as the exact opposite of hyperbole.
  3. Winding me up. This means teasing me, having me on. The local radio station we listen to runs many competitions, including one where you have to identify three mystery voices. The jackpot grows with each wrong guess and it continues to grow until all three voices have been correctly identified. Earlier this year, a listener won £100,000 when he did just that. His reaction? “You’re joking! You’re winding me up! You must be winding me up!” I must say, that was my favourite kind of reaction!
  4. Lovely. This is not a new word to me, but I love its constant presence in conversation here. Lovely to meet you, lovely to hear from you, lovely to see you, lovely to chat to you, etc etc. When I had one of my first job interviews in London last year, the interviewer shook my hand at the end of the hour and said, “Lovely to meet you.” I walked on air as I made my way home. “She liked me, and I’m sure I’m going to get the job,” I thought. Not so much. I realised, when I got the no, that she would have said that to everyone. I was in bits. (Not really!)

This is an ongoing project, learning new expressions and discovering the forrin-ness here of the ones I use. If you have any suggestions or contributions, it would be lovely to hear them! And I do mean lovely.

Sunshine signing off for today!


56 thoughts on “English as she is spoke

  1. “Land with your bum in the butter.”

    I know that there’s a German equivalent of this which translates to “Landing in the butter”. Same meaning. I wonder why butter?!

    There are quite a few English sayings which have equivalents in other languages. So they must go quite far back.

    1. Yes, why butter? It’s such an odd expression. I didn’t realise it had a German equivalent. It would be interesting to study where these expressions all came from … we’d probably never use them again, hey? 🙂

  2. Great post! This sort of thing fascinates me. Here in Haiti they use the expression “mountains beyond mountains”–sort of, trouble without end. The closest English equivalent might be–“If it’s not one thing it’s another”–only the usage here in Creole makes me think more of poor Sisyphus rolling the rock–endless struggle.
    Recent book titled Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder–a biography of Paul Farmer, the Harvard physician who founded “Parnters in Health” here in Haiti–is a great read.
    Lovely post, Sunshine!

    1. Thanks, Kathryn! I like that expression – it’s quite strange, but makes sense somehow.
      Thanks for coming by when I know you’re having a crazy day over at your blog – hope you got my wishes and whoops for being Freshly Pressed? Great work!

  3. Great list as usual, Sunshine! Chips. I love it. I could say that about 1,000 times a day while driving to and from work.

    “Lovely” is a nice word, isn’t it? I worked for a woman about 8 years ago who wove “lovely” into almost every conversation we had. It was a solid tactic for her, because she had a hard edge, and the word made her seem a bit softer. I started to use it in return, and now, I say it constantly out of habit.

    And now, with long teeth, I need to get to work. Happy Wednesday, Sunshine!

  4. I’m in America, and I’ve heard heavens to Betsy amongst older people. My mother is from Arkansas, but I grew up in Michigan, which made me a little foreign, LOL. Then I moved to Florida and it’s a whole new world like none of those places are in the same country, yet they are.

    My mother always says things like “it don’t make me no never mind” or “if you like it I love it,” which don’t have any hidden meaning, but I think are pretty funny.

    Here in Florida, they say someone was “38 hot,” which is really angry. It’s in reference to the gun, which I guess means you are mad enough to “spit blood.” I’ve heard mad enough to spit, but not spit blood–she must have been 38 hot!

    I also like the expression that someone had “neither a pot nor a window” which basically means they are dirt poor, having not a pot to pee in nor a window to throw it out of (that has to be old; who goes to the bathroom in a pot and throws it out a window?). Then there’s the expression “up the creek without a paddle.”

    I’m going to have to read your other forrin posts. I like these. I may use them and be ahead of the trends here 😀

    1. Thanks for all of these – they are brilliant! I love them, and haven’t heard any of them before. It’s so funny how English can be used so differently – a constant fascination for me. I’m going to have to try some of your expressions out too – hahaha!

  5. “Oh, heavens to betsy!” That’s also an expression I’ve heard on this side of the pond (both U.S. and Canada). My Grandma in Ohio used to say “Oh, my stars!” and my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law say it too…it’s a different version of “Oh, my goodness!”

    An expression I’ve only heard since I’ve lived in the Maritimes is “Pee like a racehorse” (if somebody says that, they really need to use the washroom!).

    Fun post!


    1. Thanks, Wendy. That’s so interesting that heavens to betsy is used in the US and Canada too – maybe it’s common to the older generation, rather than geographically bound.
      I love the racehorse expression – that’s some kind of desperate! xx

  6. I grew up in Toronto and heard “pee like a racehorse” from my NY born mother. A great expression (sorry, but it’s crude) is “f***ing the dog”, i.e. doing nothing. It’s so awful! It seems to be commonly used in Canada, rarely here in NY.

    I live in NY and people stand “on line” not “in line”. There are many expressions I’ve learned in the U.S., my favorite being a “do-over”, a chance to get something right the second time without penalty or punishment. Even applied to first marriages!

    I often say “dog’s breakfast”, which no one in NY understands, but which Canadians and Brits do.

    1. Hi broadsideblog – thanks for coming by and for the comment. I love your expressions – language is so interesting.
      I’m sure you know that over here (and in SA), we queue, rather than stand in or on line? I also use dog’s breakfast – often to describe the state of my sons’ rooms!

  7. I’m with Todd. I love these language lessons. My sister and family moved to Alabama from Minnesota when her kids were young. They later moved back to Minnesota with a whole new vocabulary. My favorite that comes out of my sister’s mouth every so often is “They were pitchin a fit!” Which basically means her kids were having a temper tantrum. Jeanne

  8. I grew up hearing the “Heavens to Betsy” saying. I find it fascinating to hear how these sayings came into existence. My all-time favorite English word is “brilliant,” the way the Brits use it. They only mean that something is good or fine or whatever, but to my ear, everyone is telling me I am a raving genius.

  9. When I moved to England from Ukraine (of all places) six years ago the whole language was a new world- nothing like the textbooks. You only truly learn to appreciate the sheer differences and subtleties of English once you meet someone from an English-speaking country which is not your own- it really is quite remarkable.

  10. Land with your bum in the butter. I love it! It reminds me of a saying a neighbor woman used to say. Whenever something good would happen to me, she’d say “That damn Patty. She always comes up smellin’!” Of course it was her version of “smelling like a rose”. She was the first mother I ever heard use curse words – and she used them a lot!
    Thanks for the continuing language education!

    XO Patty

  11. As someone who has always lived on the other side of the pond, your post is fascinating and informative. I’ve never heard of most of these expressions, though I am familiar with the regular use of “lovely.” I do hope when next I’m in a dilemna, that I land with my bum (or rear, as we refer to it here) in the butter, and that I don’t end up in bits. Have you ever listened to an American public radio program called, “A Way with Words”? I think you and your readers would enjoy it (you can listen online) and the hosts would no doubt enjoy reading your post. Here’s the link: http://www.waywordradio.org/ Lovely post, btw!

    1. Said:
      “I think you and your readers would enjoy it (you can listen online) and the hosts would no ‘doubt enjoy’ reading your post.”

      Here is one way I have not heard for a while “no doubt”

  12. When I was very young I lived in Canada, then we moved to California and I found that some words didn’t translate. I used the term “eavestrough” and people didn’t understand I was talking about what they called the gutter (of the roof). I was also grossed out by a convenience store beverage called a Slushie, because back in Canada, slush was the nasty, dirty, half-melted snow at the edge of the road.

  13. I am an American living in Madrid…I have been living here for over 9 years but my accent would tell you otherwise – it’s like I just got off the boat! I was chuckling while reading your entry because it is sooooo true…I look Spanish so people assume that I am…then….I open my mouth…..that’s when I get a weird look and the volume goes up, like I am in need of a hearing aid!

    My best friend is British and she and I get a chuckle out of the differences in English….pants in American English are trousers….in British English, they are underwear/under garments!!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    1. That’s so funny, Sarah! It must be doubly confusing if you look Spanish and aren’t! I’m so glad this made you chuckle … I have a few older posts (links above) that I have written about language.
      Thanks so much for coming by – welcome to my blog!

  14. One of the sayings I do not like is “good for you” – I am sure when people say “good for you” they mean well, but I dislike it, it says to me good for you, you loser or who do you think you are, I am so jealous…

    Example: Zain says…took a drive along the beach this morning…busy viewing some apartments…had a much needed gulp of fresh sea air…
    Des says… good for u

    What do you hear when people say “good for you”?

    1. Hey, Brian – how cool to see you here! Welcome! Good for you is one of those funny expressions … to me it can mean both “big whoop, you’re quite the hero, aren’t you?” and “well done, that’s fantastic for you.” I guess it depends on the context.

  15. One of my wife’s sayings (to the kids) which I think she came up with is: “Do you think I fell off a Christmas tree?” Her way of saying “Do you think I was born yesterday” you can’t fool me…

  16. The hubs best friend of 25 years is british and his parents came over on the Queen Mary. Ms. Hazel has this amazing accent and when I “ring” her or she “rings” me she always ends the conversation, “it is so lovey to chat with you or the weather was just lovely, etc” The word lovely the way she says it just warms my soul and I can’t explain why, but it just does! So I get it.

    1. I agree – it’s a word that just does that to you. Unless it’s not meant!
      And yes, it is a British thing to “ring” someone. In SA we may say “I’ll give you a call,” or “I’ll phone you”. What do you say?
      Thanks for the comment xx

  17. Great post, Sunshine! I never heard of that use of Chips before. I’m in Brooklyn, NY and people like to say “Fuhgeddaboudit.” as in “forget about it,” like “don’t worry” or “there’s no problem here.” Sometimes Brooklynese is a language all its own. 🙂

    1. Thanks for coming by – welcome to my blog! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      That’s hilarious – makes me think of the movie, Mickey Blue Eyes, with Hugh Grant! I’d love to hear more about Brooklynese 🙂

  18. Such a lovely post, Sunshine! You always make me smile. I love the differences in language. When I was in grade school, our music teacher would always say, Heavens to Betsy, when we weren’t singing the correct notes. One year, my brother’s friend from England, spent Christmas with us. We were fasinated by the language differences. We said, “We call this part of the car the hood, what to do call it?” She answered, “The bonnet”. Oh, we thought that was so funny, because , of course, a “bonnet” is a hat. We asked all kinds of stuff. Finally, we pointed to the table, and said, “We call this a table, what do you call it?” She looked at us kind of weird, and said, “a table”.

    1. Thanks, Darlene. Glad you enjoyed this post. It’s so funny how we have different words – in the same language – for the same thing. We call what you call the “trunk” of a car, the “boot”! I love the question about the table – who’d have thought it would be the same? hahahaha!

  19. The first time I heard ‘whinge’ was from an Australian who was whingeing about whingeing poms!

    I hadn’t heard ‘land with your bum in the butter’ before, but I expect it’s because butter is or was a luxury/expensive. There’s an English version of ‘landing on both feet’ (but not in the butter!) with the same meaning.

    I’ve heard ‘spit blood’ (or ‘spitting blood’) in London, too.

    Anorak has the same meaning as nerd. And it means more than just an obsessive, it’s also mildly derogatory. I’ve never heard it used with another word, just on it’s own. “Oh, he’s an anorak!”

    Great post! I’m off to read the others!

    1. Thanks, Val – glad you enjoyed this post. Isn’t language fascinating? I guess with the world getting smaller, we all share more and more expressions and they unite us rather than divide us.

  20. I stumbled upon your post because of a funny incident I had at a party a few nights ago. I wanted to check that “bum in the butter” was an actual expression. I am a saffer living in the SW of England in Wiltshire. Now Wiltshire has an accent all of its own and with my SA accent I am used to standing out as foreign. Anyway, at this party, talking of my experience of emigrating I said ” I felt i had landed with my bum in the butter”. The lady I was speaking to looked blank. “….with your bum wha?” she finally asked. “in the butter……butter….”. I replied trying to enunciate better.
    She still looked confused. “Batter?”, she finally ventured.
    “er, no. Butter! Maybe its not a saying you’re familiar with? Bum in the butter?” I tried again
    “No, I just don’t understand what you’re saying. What’s that word?”
    I gave up.
    “I simply meant that I was very fortunate in that it all worked out” I said lamely.
    “oh how lovely”, she replied.

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