So you’re an American novelist and you’ve decided to set your story in England. That’s great. But now here’s your problem: English. You need to get a handle on Britishisms.
If your story is set in France it’s perfectly legit for your characters not to speak French if they happen to be, say, American. If your setting is England, however, you cannot avoid British English, thus your need to familiarize yourself with Britishisms.
You probably already know you’ll refer to an apartment as a flat, an elevator as a lift, and the bathroom as the loo. There are plenty of websites that offer lists of words specific to British English, for instance:
In the last six months, in bingeing on British police procedurals (see What I’m Reading II and What I’m Reading III), I decided to make my own list of differences between British and American English.
I came up with six categories, only one of which concerns:
Things created in the last two-three hundred years, namely after British and American English split, will likely have different names. The railroad and automotive industries arose in modern times, which accounts for the differing terminologies: trunk v. boot, hood v. bonnet, gas v. petrol, station wagon v. saloon car, divided highway v. dual carriageway, rest stop v. lay-by, etc.
Modern clothing has different names, and Americans have to beware of words like jumper and pants, which mean different things in British English.
Telephone terminology is also at issue, with cell phone v. mobile, to call (up) v. to ring. (In British English to call still means ‘to pay a visit.’)
A random sampling of British words:
baby bud = Q-tip
beer towel, beer mat = coaster
cot = (baby’s) crib
glasspaper = sandpaper
golf buggy = golf cart
ribbon = the crawl (on TV, ‘the telly’)
torch = flashlight
trolley = shopping cart
As for verbs, they can be occasionally confusing:
to tuck in = to eat
to tuck up = to tuck in (bed)
The other five categories are:
Your British characters are going to notice and comment on (if only to themselves) the accents of other British people. You need to know the difference between a south-of-the-Thames accent, a Home Counties accent, public school tones, RP, and all the rest. It goes with the territory.
The British are way better at insults than we are. Or maybe, since I’m unfamiliar with them, they sound more inventive. When I came across one character referring to another character as a poncey little slag, meaning the guy was a jerk, I thought it sounded great.
To do up British English insulting right, you need to get familiar with gits and ginks and oiks and scrotes – just for starters.
Verbs that get ‘noun-y’
This category involves general verbs like to have and to do. I first noticed ‘verbal nouniness’ when a character said, “I need to have a think.”
A think? Goodness.
Here are some other noun constructions with to have:
to have a moan about
to have a poke around
to have a rummage
to have a scout about
to have a wash
to have a wander around
I even came across to have a sleep in the clear sense of ‘to go to sleep.’
With to do there’s:
to do a bunk = get lost
to do a runner, to do a skip = go away
to do my weekly shop
My weekly shop? No, not American English.
These kinds of Britishisms make a category unto themselves and are completely delightful. One of my favorites is skint which means ‘broke’ (money-wise). I’ll leave you to discover how many slang terms there are for having sex, only one of which is the slightly weird how’s-your-father.
In American English to mooch means ‘to cadge money or food you don’t intend to repay’. In British English:
to mooch = to wander, which easily yields the noun-y:
to have a mooch around
Steep yourself in contemporary British authors and soak up the slang.
Perhaps because swearing is related to insulting, the British seem to have a good edge on us in this department as well. They don’t use bland stuff like damn and goddamn. They’ve got the whole bloody, bleeding, bollicking, buggering, flaming, ruddy, sodding thing going on, and they use these terms liberally.
In British English you aren’t going to refer to something as a pile of shit. You’re going to call it a right bugger.
Britishisms are subtle but discernible.
Read the next posts in this series:
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen