Three kinds of English, to start with

Anyone who’s changed countries, even those speaking the same language on paper, find a whole new vocabulary awaits them. I grew up in Canada, lived in England ages two to five, then moved to the U.S. at the of 30.  One of my prized possessions is a navy blue T-shirt with a list of Canadian words, used here as an illustration. (In fact, the correct spelling is tuque…anyone know what that is?)

How many of you non-Canucks know the meaning of loonie, toonie, screech, deke or GST?

I know a few Americans now get poutine — gross! — which is cheese curds with gravy, for some reason trendy in hipster American neighborhoods. The round bacon which Americans call Canadian bacon is actually called back bacon in Canada.

We also read the Financial Times and the Guardian and see deliciously English words like nous, prat and naff(ness), none of which my well-read American husband knew the meaning of.

Since I moved to the States, (which only non-Americans call what Americans call America [as if there were no distinction between North, South and Central America. Hello, there are three Americas!]) I’ve learned phrases new to me, like:

— a do-over. You blew it: a date, a job interview, a first meeting. Ask for a do-over, a chance to get it right the next time.

a hail-Mary. A last-ditch and/or surprise attempt to salvage a bad situation. (Comes from football, a great throw that can save the game.)

– step up to the plate. Take responsibility for something. (Comes from baseball, where the batter must step up to home plate in order to hit the ball.)

— hit it out of the park. A huge success. (Baseball, when the ball is struck so hard it leaves the stadium.)

— a full-court press. To apply every possible sort of pressure to a situation. (Basketball term.)

— hit a single/double/triple. To achieve at varying levels of success, from lowest to highest. (Meaning you got to first, second or third base.)

You can see that if you don’t play, or watch or listen to sports in the States, you’re toast! (The kind you make in toaster and eat hot, not left cold in a toast rack, like the British do.)

Then there are regionalisms, where some Americans say pop instead of soda for a soft drink or a cabinet instead of a milkshake or frappe. Here’s a funny blog post about this…

In my travels to Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and Australia, I’ve heard some other odd ones like chilly bin for what we would call a cooler. (Yet a cooler here can also mean a sugary, low-alcohol beverage.)

Electoral divisions in Canada are called ridings; in the U.S., simply districts. A Canadian MP is a Member of Parliament; here, a Military Policeman.

One American woman recently told Bloomberg Businessweek magazine how she’d totally embarrassed herself when interviewed on British television by referring endlessly to how her product, Spanx, made one’s fanny so much more alluring. Turns out (who knew?!) that fanny  there means vagina, while for Americans it’s a polite word for ass (the Brits would say bum and we’d say butt…)

What distinctive English words or phrases are used where you live?

33 thoughts on “Three kinds of English, to start with

  1. scarf – as in I scarfed it down (ate my meal quickly) (Quebec), Boxing Day – the day after Christmas, ginch – underwear, elastic – rubber band, May Long – what we call Victoria day (we get a long weekend), runners – sneakers, I’m so hungry I could eat the ars off a skunk (NFLD) Western sandwich in Quebec, Denver Sandwich in the west….and the look I got when I ordered fries and gravy in OK and the look I gave them when they brought me some pasty looking, floury concoction!

  2. Julia

    You might be shocked to hear that Schnieder’s and Maple Leaf processing plants in Ontario are closing or retooling and back bacon where once ubiquitous is hard to find, at least in local grocery stores here in Toronto. The last batch we found was called “Wiltshire Bacon” and was processed in Ireland. Weird, eh?

  3. Ah, so much to comment on here! I lived for 30 years in Texas, where we were “rode hard and put up wet” (exhausted), “big hat no cattle” (a big-mouthed phony), and where “that dog don’t hunt” (we’re not going to do things that way — a good one to say to the kids).

    A few years ago I volunteered in Costa Rica, and one day we visited an English language school so that the students could practice their English. They gave me a list of words and phrases to study and wanted to know what “pimping” was. I had fun explaining that with my limited Spanish vocabulary! Later we had fun with all the various ways to say “throw up,” from “upchuck,” “toss cookies,” and “lose your lunch” to “praying to the porcelain God.” I could go on, but I think I’ve said more than enough!

    BTW, I know loonies and toonies, but I’ll have to look up the rest! Great post, eh?

  4. The Yup’ik Eskimos would say “I’m so bum.”

    Or for linguistic melding they added the suffix -aq on the back end of any English word to turn it into a “Cosskimo,” word. Cusskimo is slang for part qass’aq (derived from Cossack pioneers in the Arctic) and part Eskimo. They did this to short cut any new words for which there was no linguistic basis.

    My favorite? Gum = Gum-mam-aq.

  5. Don

    Such a good post. I’m afraid she would have had the same kind of embarrassment if she spoke about her “fanny” in South Africa, as well.

  6. Oh yes I have problems with “soda” and “pop”…in Boston soda is club soda and pop is cola or ginger ale, etc. In NYC soda is for the most part, any carbonated drink.
    Another NYC thing was the way you ordered your coffee. Back in the day, it was coffee light (extra cream and regular sugar), coffee regular (cream and sugar) and coffee black . God only knows how you order coffee at a NY deli now!

  7. Only in NY do we stand “on” line, as opposed to in one…

    And when ordering coffee in Canada, you’d ask for a double/double (two each of sugar and milk, I am guessing.) In Australia (Nigel? Jimmy? Charlene?) I think coffee with milk is a flat white….?!

  8. well, during my 30 years of hockey, we had skates with “tuk” (pronounced like “spook”) blades. but i wonder of “tuk” is just a shorter version of “tuque” and it’s easier to fit “tuk” on the side of a skate blade.

    as for american lingo, i’m often in arguments over standing “in” line for a movie or “on” line for a movie. i try to avoid that one when possible because i never seem to agree with who i’m with, regardless of which i choose. and speaking of “regardless,” you’ll find enough people who say “irregardless,” and some very educated people too, depending on where they live.

    i’m from the new york area, and we will often say “goofing” for teasing someone.

  9. I frequently get teased for my Canadianisms even after living in the States for 16 years. The ehs slip out fairly often. One of my favorites from back home is chesterfield for couch. Also, the many variations on washroom. One time my Dad asked where the washroom was at my aunt’s house and she showed him to the laundry room. He wanted the bathroom.

    If you get a chance to read Douglas Coupland’s 2 Souvenir of Canada books do it. They are quite entertaining.

  10. Jane

    Being from NL (most easterly point in North America. We’re so far east, we’re half Irish!), we have lots of unique words and uses. How ’bout “crooked” means grumpy, out of sorts, like Monday morning before your large double-double. Got myself in trouble when I confessed to a co-worker I was feeling crooked. She thought I meant to steal something.
    Or, how ’bout raglan? Given our, um, frequently liquid climate, we have several distinct all-weather coats. To me, a raglan is somewhere between a topcoat and a trenchcoat.NoButtons and maybe a belt, but no hardware and no padded shoulder, instead a “raglan sleeve”. Maybe the rumpled coat Columbo

    1. Jane

      Oops touched Post too soon. Was going to say maybe the coat Columbo wore? And, should read “Buttons and maybe a belt”.

  11. Love this! I think we shld sell T-shirts that say, “Look out, I’m crooked!” 🙂

    Raglan is a style we see here in NY as well…It’s a comfy loose sleeve.

    I am learning a great deal!

  12. My linguist heart beats happy with this topic! I do research on dialects of English. We spend a lot of time deconstucting these idioms for our accent modification clients. Here in the southern states we have some colorful sayings. Just to name a few…

    “That dog don’t hunt.” – That is an implausible idea

    “Bless her heart.” – A rather passive-aggressive way of being catty while seeming sweet and sympathetic. It’s often used after reporting that someone did or said something really dumb.

    “Do what?” – I have no idea what purpose the ‘do’ serves in this question. It pretty much means “what?”

    “___ as all get out.” – Used as a superlative; indicates a very high degree. Example: “she’s as crazy as all get out” or “it’s hot as all get out”

    “da’gum.” – used in place of an explitive as in “that da’gum warthog better not bite me.”

    “fixin to.” – About to as in “I’m fixin to go to the store.”

    …and then there are the double modals (might can, may could), the catenatives (gonna, wanna, hafta), and the contracted forms (y’all)

  13. Fun! I’ve heard many of these on my jaunts in the south. I’m thinking that one of the best songs EVER from the south …Love Shack by the B-52s (of Athens, GA) has a “Do what?!” in it…no?

  14. What about the Brit expression ‘knock me up in the morning’, which to us Canuck’s at least means to impregnate where as the Brit just wants to be woken up. 🙂

    1. And when a Briton is pissed, they’re drunk…an American who’s pissed is pissed-off, i.e. angry.

      And no one in the U.S. would understand the verb to snog, I imagine, pissed or not.

  15. New Zealand and Canadian slang are pretty similar – courtesy of shared Brit origins – and there are a LOT of Brit usages in NZ – snog, pissed (intoxicated), scarfed (gobbled), etc. But we’ve got a few twists that come from Maori, especially ‘tutu’, which means ‘fiddle with something without knowing how it works, so it breaks’ (‘did you tutu with the channel selector?’).

    Odd historical squib about ‘Fanny’ – this was an accepted first name here 150 years ago, variously of itself or as a diminutive of ‘Frances’. Again, originating from the UK. A fair number of my historical books on the settler period include quotes from or references to people with it.

    These days, though, I think there’s another change happening – a lot of teens these days, seem to use Californian valley speak. Like, it’s been imported, like…

  16. I’m surprised the word ‘shag’ hasn’t come up. I’m an American who has lived in Scotland for almost 25 years and am only now completely au fait with la langue Ecosse/Anglaise. The first word/phrase to undo me was ‘I’m stuffed’, which to me meant full (or ‘fuller than a tick on a dog/dawg’ to my southern grandparents), but to my friends meant something along the lines of “I’ve just had a satisfying sexual encounter”. Rather like the word “shag” (which may or may not have been satisfying). Raising a Scottish teenager has acquainted me with a whole new set of words to be confused by (‘sick’ for ‘really great’; “Beast” ditto). And, the British have both the best and worst word for restroom (what a strange euphemism) – loo and cludgie.

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