Of gen, swot, skiving off, hooky, bent, nous, berk, plonker, numpty, pillock, clot, twitching, anorak, and bumf
This morning I jotted down a list of words, mostly slang or at least informal words, commonly used in the UK and not in the US—at least, not as far as I can remember. I’m not only getting to the point that sometimes a British expression comes to mind first when I’m speaking, I occasionally can’t remember whether a phrase is British or American, and then there’s always the possibility that a phrase might have crossed the Atlantic while I wasn’t looking. And I should point out that these are slangy words that have grown up in the language, applied for mortgages to buy space in nice vocabularies, and set about having little phonemes of their own; that is, none of this is what you’d call cutting-edge stuff coming up from the streets or from youth culture, but they are all in use in the part of Britain where I live.
So I picked out a handful of words from the list, mainly those having to do with information, looked up where they came from, and I’m ready to give you the gen.
Gen (pronounced like the woman’s name Jen) means information. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but used enough that I’ve picked it up while living here. It probably started as Royal Air Force slang from the Second World War (the British are less likely than Americans to use the form WWII); experts aren’t sure whether it comes from the common military phrase for the general information of all ranks, or just from intelligence, but here if you need to learn something you might say you need to gen-up on it, instead of using bone-up on it, as Americans (and some Brits) do. If you think that using military slang in the wider world is odd, but you don’t think twice if someone says they’re boning up on a subject, you might be surprised—I was—to find that to bone up started as slang at West Point.
One of my dictionaries—rather unhelpfully for Americans who don’t spend much time over here—gives swot as an explanation for gen-up. Swot comes from a Scottish dialect and means sweat: if you swot or swot-up, you’re working hard. Somebody who studies all the time is called a swot, too; I can’t swear that anybody in the Harry Potter books called Hermione a swot, but plenty of books about the J. K. Rowling books call her that; examples are easily found via Google Books.
(By the way, a swot isn’t necessarily smart, since here smart is not usually used to mean clever, but used to mean dressed nicely or lookin’ good. When a colleague who usually wears jeans shows up in a suit, you’ll hear “Well, don’t you look smart!”)
If what you swot up on is something terminally uncool—such as the engine numbers of trains; trainspotting is rather like twitching (that is, bird watching), but with fewer feathers and less uncertainty as to where to find the creatures you’re after, because if you stand on a railway platform long enough and look up the track and didn’t eventually see a train, something would be very wrong—then you might be called an anorak. Apparently terminally uncool people standing around British train platforms writing down engine numbers tend to get cold, and their choice of outerwear is a kind of jacket or coat with a hood, called an anorak. The word comes from the language of Inuit people in Greenland, and is used (I think) in parts of the US, too—at least, the coat itself may be called an anorak in the US, but I’ve never heard Americans use anorak as a synonym for nerd, as the British do.
If you’re a swot in the ordinary sense—teacher’s pet, always with your nose in a book (I plead guilty here)—it’s unlikely that you’ll skive off, which means to leave what you’re supposed to be doing and do something you’d rather. In context of school, skiving off means playing truant, which we called playing hooky when I was the age for doing it. But hooky here is slang for something you got illegally, or something counterfeit. (“Don’t buy one of them Gucci handbags down the market, they’re hooky.”) Someone who deals in hooky merchandise, or otherwise bends the rules, is bent. (Americans who watch imported British murder mystery TV shows probably already know about bent coppers.) The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that bent came over here from the US in the first place, but that must have been some time ago, as I’ve never heard an American use it. We’d say crooked, though I suppose it’s the same thing; something can’t be crooked without being bent at least a little, or at any rate I can’t think of an example.
Being a swot, however, doesn’t necessarily mean you have nous, which rhymes with house and is something of a cross between common sense and gumption. On the other end of the scale of common sense, there are any number of words here for people who, where I grew up, might be said not to have the sense God gave a mule: berk, plonker, numpty, pillock, clot, and on and on. Looking these up, I was surprised to find that two are derived from words for a certain popular male appendage (and one from its female counterpart), and will say no more except that one of the dictionary entries reads “The penis. Also in extended use.”
That points up a recurring issue for ex-pats: knowing which words are and aren’t acceptable in polite conversation. You can easily run into trouble if you learn a new word from the TV/telly or the people you meet in the pub, and don’t realize that it’s something that will raise eyebrows, if not elicit outright gasps, when you say it in a suburban living room. And then again, sometimes you can look up a word that you’ve heard used by perfectly polite, well-brought-up people and find that the definition points right back to something that in the US, you probably wouldn’t say in front of your mother or your boss. (At least, I wouldn’t say it in front of my mother or my boss.)
I ran into that with bumf—yes, bumf. First time I heard it, a local businessman giving a talk to people considering starting up new businesses saw me taking notes and said “Don’t worry about writing everything down, I’ll give you a lot of bumf to take home”. That turned out to mean printed info, leaflets, pamphlets. A useful word since these days, although we have the technology to have paperless offices, we seem to generate more paper than ever and my files bulge with bumf. Unfortunately, bumf turns out to be a shortening of bum-fodder, that is, toilet paper. Do my friends and neighbors realize that? Probably not.
Stay tuned for further posts on the differences between American English and British English from time to time. The subject usually provokes readers to comment (don’t let me down!), though a piece like this often gets a reaction, usually sent privately, from at least one British reader who feels offended, assuming that in pointing out how British English differs from what I grew up with, I disapprove. I not complaining; I’m just a bit of an anorak where language is concerned.