In the know, British style

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.

I seem to have amassed quite a few dictionaries. The smaller ones here are sitting on the 2-vol Compact OED (Oxford English Dictionary)

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!”)

These days I use the latest edition of the OED on-line to look up etymologies, but this is still a nice dictionary to have around the place. Notice the line "reproduced micrographically"; the print is so small the set comes with a magnifying glass.

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.”

A page from the Compact OED with an American dime to show the scale: the dime covers 16 lines, by my count. I've posed the dime between BLOCKMAN and BLOKE, because that's where BLOG would have been, if the word had been invented when that dictionary was printed.

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.



Filed under Culture, Language, Travel

16 responses to “In the know, British style

  1. Malcolm

    It’s interesting that we use ‘smart’ both approvingly–‘a smart-looking car … filly’ etc–and pejoratively: Teacher: ‘Don’t try and get smart with me, young man!’ or ‘Too smart for his own good.’ The latter usage is associated with being ‘a smart-alick’ who might also be ‘a barrack-room lawyer.’ But to do something ‘smartly’ usually means ‘swiftly’ or, more precisely, ‘expeditiously’ and has no pejorative sense at all. Maybe nowadays it’s more often heard as ‘smartish’–‘We got out of there pretty smartish!’ How do foreigners ever learn our tongue, which has few rules and almost infinite usages? (Try explaining the difference between a perfume being ‘on the wind’ and a rumour being ‘in the wind’–as I found myself doing to a Swede a few days ago!

  2. Blimey, M-E, you’re a right diamond geezer!

  3. Highly entertaining as usual Mary Ellen! I love it when you clue us in about language. I might have to use “bumf” today!

    Speaking of slightly naughty words, “fanny” has an entirely different meaning on this side of the pond. My mother used to threaten to give me a good swat on the fanny if I didn’t behave. I imagine that would give Brits a bit of a giggle as I understand that it means a slightly different part of the female anatomy than the bum!

    • Candida

      Ooh, a friend of mine raised partly in America and partly in Britain was working as a chalet maid in France back in the 80s. She said the funniest thing she saw all season was the day the newly arrived American ski coach called to a group of British women due for their lesson in a jocular way “OK, ladies, if I could ask you to get your fannies over here…” You wouldn’t think the French Alps in winter could get MUCH colder, but they did. She went and rescued him (after she’d stopped falling over laughing) by explaining to the party what he’d meant, and to him what he’d apparently said, and the poor man then spent the rest of the week visibly wincing every time he encountered one of the women.

  4. MFC

    Another excellent and entertaining post, Mary Ellen! Thank you!

    Your discussion of “smart” puts me in mind of the difference between the English “brilliant” and the United States “brilliant”. Would you have any comment about that one?

    • Anthony Watkins

      Bent and smart, and need to gen-up on it, are all fairly common here in the colonies, and used us you use them here, but bent stateside is more often to mean bent out of shape, or angry. seems like in some circles they dont give swot, but not sure they mean they dont want to work at it or if they are just politing up $hit, which i find it funny the bumf means toilet paper, as here he might have said, “dont worry, i will give you all that $hit to take home.” i think the funniest thing i ever saw in this regard was when i was married a puerto rican to learn that mechanical devices walked instead of ran in spanish:) at first the idea of my refrigerator walking seems preposterous until i thought about the old joke, “is your refrigerator running? then catch it!” thanks again for keeping me in the know!

    • Anthony Watkins

      as in americans are brilliant and brits are just so-so?:)

  5. Some sentences just don’t travel, do they? e.g.”I used to smoke fags.” (fags=cigarettes in Ireland.) I used to do it while ‘mitching’ off school.
    The other thing about slang is the way it can disappear. As a kid it feels like every third sentence ended with ‘gift’ which was Dublinese for ‘cool’ but I haven’t heard it used that way since the eighties.
    & Could you be called a slangorak?

  6. GaryG

    Perhaps in the next article you might want to explain to American fans of British crime fiction how someone can nick something, then get nicked by the police and be taken to the Old Nick!

    I, too, have a Compact OED which was gathering dust on my bookshelf until I saw the above; I had quite forgotten that the magnifying glass had a small light attached.

    By the way, ‘nous’ is occasionally used in a more highbrow fashion. As it means ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’ in Ancient Greek, it sometimes comes up in conversation with academic philosophers (I’m one). There is also a quarterly philosophical publication of the same name. I can’t imagine that anyone outside academia has ever read it.

  7. Hi Mef,
    Regarding the definition of Gen-up(intelligence) and Smart
    During my childhood, my father uncharacteristically slapped the top of my hand one day,this action was unexpected enough to cause me to flinch both emotionally and physically. My father then proceeded to explain that this was the definition of smart. Afterwards, he justified his behavior by informing me that I was not smart, I was intelligent. This in turn is now my idiosyncratic definition of a backhanded compliment.

  8. Wow — a backhanded compliment indeed! You’re smart/clever/intelligent enough to get a good story out of an unpleasant experience, anyway–

    SO sorry to have taken so long to approve your comment; I thought I did it ages ago. Now that your first comment has been approved, your comments will appear as soon as you post them, and you won’t have to wait again for approval. APologies.

  9. Great post. The thing you have to understand about us Brits is that like to confuse people, and by extension, ourselves. For instance, take Worcester(wooster) sauce or, Beauchamps (Beechams). Gives us hours of giggles. Usually when using words with multiple meanings, it’s all down to context. That and we just can’t be bothered to use the correct word. Above all else – we’re lazy.

  10. Thanks for this post! I just got back from hols in the UK (do people still say the hols?) and I am puzzled over what slang terms Britons might use for when someone is angry. As a USAn, I’d say “That guy is really pissed” but I know that means drunk, and “mad” means crazy, so…?

    • Pissed off is the expresssion you’re looking for. As always we have to just that bit different from everyone else.

      • Interesting. We say “pissed off” in the states, too, but many people use “pissed” to mean the same thing. We also have “ticked” and “ticked off.” But you hardly ever hear about someone being “cross” or having a “row.”

      • I was very “cross” when my daughter nearly slaughtered me last week during her driving lesson. I was other things too, but this is a site for civilised people.

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