Speaking Of English, Speaking In British

by Kevin Burton

   Not smashing, not daft, something mid-table I’d say, to use a football analogy.

   I thought I was ready, so I had a go, with middling results.

   Every day Merriam-Webster sends me an e-mail to help me watch my language.  A few weeks ago they announced “The Great British Vocabulary Quiz.”  Once I saw that it was a matter of when, not if, I would take the quiz. 

   I thought myself qualified and prepared.  To wit: perhaps you noticed in my tribute to the late Olivia Newton-John, I effortlessly slipped in a Briticism at the end:

   “Given what I have learned about life, death and the afterlife, that ‘always be together’ line, reprised in Travolta’s Instagram, is even more dodgy than it was in 1978 (“The Bell Tolls For Olivia And For Me” Aug. 9).

   “Dodgy” means doubtful or questionable.

   Slipped that one in there and came away from it quite chuffed, thank you very much!

   Alas, “chuffed” is one of the terms I flubbed on the Great British Vocabulary Quiz. Given four multiple chose options I said it meant “winded.” Maybe I was hearing huffing and puffing in the word?

   Chuffing anyone?

   “Knackered” means tired. Chuffed means “delighted.” Sure doesn’t sound like delighted.

  The term chuff originally meant “puffed up with fat” according to the quiz. That doesn’t sound delightful either.

   I got 13 of 17 questions correct on the quiz. This took me back to my school days and test-taking strategies. Remember?

   You took to a test a metaphorical bag of knowledge, but in the bag was also some logic, and the good old process of elimination, to make the best guesses possible. 

   You have long since forgotten 99 percent of the questions and answers from your school quizzes, but you’re still using those little tricks to reason things out in life, am I right?

   So when presented the term “hard cheese,” which I had never heard, I figured it meant “tough luck.” It wasn’t difficult. 

   That is not to be confused with “cheesed off,” which means “annoyed, irritated.”

   I guessed correctly that “gormless” means dim-witted, just based on the –less suffix. “Gorm is an alteration of gaum meaning “attention” or “understanding,” the quiz explained after the fact, when it gave me the results.

   More fun with suffixes: Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned July 7 under intense pressure following the “Partygate” scandal.  That –gate suffix travelled the other way across the pond after Watergate, that mother of all political scandals.

   I got the question about “shambolic” meaning “disorganized” because the “sham” part had to mean something bad.

   On the question about the British term for somebody who does menial work, I was guessing, but more than that fervently hoping that the answer was “dogsbody.” And it was!

   Isn’t that great?  Dogsbody!

   I haven’t been watching enough Premier League soccer/football from England. That’s why I didn’t do better on the quiz.  I love to hear the announcers exclaim, “What a cracker!” after someone scores a particularly fabulous goal.

   “Cracking” is an adjective that means “the best.” The American blokes just say everything is “awesome.”

   Can Americans be blokes?

   If Merriam-Webster has a quiz for British people about American terms, one of the questions could be “If an American is watching Manchester United play, what sport is she watching? 

   Answer, soccer.

   Well blimey! Just checked the Premiership table (fellow Yanks, that means “standings”) and with my very own eyes saw Man U listed in the drop zone (that refers to relegation…long story, I’ll explain that later.)  It’s after only two fixtures (games) mind you, but still!

   “Fancy” is a good word that wasn’t on the quiz.  Americans sometimes say something “strikes my fancy” using it as a noun. In England they more often use it as a verb, “to fancy a cracking good quiz,” for example.

   “Bog standard” is a term meaning “nothing special.” Good description for my 13-of-17 quiz result.  A solid but unlofty C grade, unsatisfying.

   Hold on though. Excuse me! I just noticed that one of my “wrong” answers was counted wrong because I did not answer in time.  And it was the easiest one, knowing that “quid” refers to money.

   Bollocks (contempt, annoyance or defiance) I say! I’m giving myself credit for 14 out of 17, and a B-minus.

   Funny things happen to words between somebody’s mouth and somebody else’s ears.  In Puebla, Mexico where I lived for a time, a person might say “que barbaro” to mean “how silly.” English speakers see that barbaro and think “barbaric” which has a whole other intensity.

   So this is why I’m praying the good people of Merriam-Webster will now invent a quiz helping men interpret what women say and vice-versa. Been studying for that quiz ever since my voice changed.

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