“Are you replete?” my British wife wanted to know, her curiosity laced with earnest spousal solicitude. I froze, locked in a semi quaver’s worth of vamp-till-ready until context rolled in and I could brave my reply – a confident, if ever-so-slightly-belated, yes. This was dinner time, and my connubial blissmate had merely wondered, after all, if I had eaten my fill. I had.
They talk English over here, though not quite the kind uttered by you or me; and while the British can assert a proprietary claim to the language, that’s rather beside the point. Pride of ownership won’t save you or me from the mini culture shocks that jab at Americans stammering their way through London’s daily round.
You’ll understand what they’re saying, of course, but only after stemming the unease that steals across talk dared with others whose English is largely, but not precisely, the same as yours. Consort with Russian speakers, after all, and you’ll flail, but shamelessly; run with the French, and, save a few agreeable cognates, you’ll give up all conversational pretense, and soon. But talk the talk in London, and the linguistic playing field you thought was level begins to tilt – and you’re the one sliding downhill.
Don’t, for example, commit dictionary gaffe numero uno – terming those long enclosures lining your legs “pants”. Pants in England means underwear, period — or rather, full stop. You meant trousers.
And that’s just for starters. So here, then, for your edification, self-concept, and the cause of international understanding, are a few – and only a few – Britishisms for New Yorkers who ever plan to do the tourist thing this side of the pond:
Peckish – Having the munchies. When I feel peckish I sometimes dine on digestives, a none-too fetching sobriquet for a species of cookie.
Yonks – A long time, as in “I haven’t seen her for yonks”. Perhaps the only word in the English language that rhymes with “Bronx”. Ogden Nash obviously never heard of it.
Donkey years – Variant of yonks.
Yob – A hybrid gangsta/party animal, more or less.
Good nick – In robust physical shape; state of salubrity.
Wonky – Descriptive of an object tottering parlously in place.
Dodgy – An item of dubious, perhaps illegal provenance; suspicion-arousing.
Torch – I thought I’d married a pyromaniac when my wife advised me we had one of them in the glove compartment of her car. It’s a flashlight.
Bunking – Truancy from school or the workplace.
Cheers – Widespread if vague approximation to “goodbye”; a conversation-ender.
High juice – Ask for this in the States and you risk citizen’s arrest. Here? A fruit juice-laden drink.
Number 11 bus – Metaphor for bi-pedal locomotion; walking.
Spanner in the works – A monkey wrench; some life-complicating event. Readers who remember John Lennon’s book A Spaniard in the Works now know whence the wordplay derives.
Fairy cake – A cup cake, a coinage you’ll agree has absolutely no future in New York
Take the Mickey – Idiom for teasing or humiliating someone else.
Still, not to worry – you’ll manage, mate. Just don’t wait for a bus on the right side of the street; you’ll be waiting a long time.