Jim’s assignment to England in the 1970s was one of our favorites in many ways, especially in language, and in that category, especially in idioms.
We lived off base in a small Suffolk village called Saxmundham about 90 miles from London. We were introduced to local slang the first time we took the kids out to eat. They wanted hamburgers and hot dogs.
After a few explanations, I found what they really wanted was fried mince on a toasted bap. To get hot dogs they had to ask for bangers on a bun. To get French fries with those sandwiches you had to order chips. And to get chips you had to ask for crisps.
If a cookie was your goal for dessert, you asked for a biscuit. Going out for food was going for a nosh and if you wanted to converse while eating, you were having a natter and a nosh. To pay the bill you needed a bit of lolly.
If you had no money, you were skint; if you were all over the gaff you needed a professional organizer; if you were hacked off you were annoyed; if you were knackered you were tired; if you were chuff, you were pleased; and if you were gobsmacked, you were overwhelmed.
We loved England and laughed with our British neighbors whenever any of us got the wrong end of the conversational stick. One of the funniest things happened when a group of us – Brits and Yanks – went to eat in a local café, pronounced “caff.”
The vegetable tray was offered to each diner and the waitress, pointing with her fork, named various offerings. She paused at my husband’s side, looked him straight in the eye and asked sincerely, “Would you like to take a leek?”
That of course destroyed all the Americans and left the English at sixes and sevens, or totally baffled.
The best way to deal with these circumstances was not to get your knickers in a twist.
After all it was only a turn of phrase.
Barbara Hill is a local historian and former reporter for the Summerville Journal Scene.