Thursday, 10 May 2007

Fannies and packies

I’ve been telling two highly embarrassing stories about miscommunications here in the UK, and people keep telling me I should put them in a blog. So I figured I’d write an entry about some of the difficulties of being an American surrounded by British English, which sometimes feels like a whole other language. Some are just minorly confusing, while others have caused big misunderstandings!

The first came just a few weeks after I arrived here. I was in the break room with a group of my coworkers and we were discussing a project that needed to get done. They were saying that a certain woman in the office needed to get to work on it because she hadn’t done anything so far. So I said,

“She just needs some pressure on her, give her a little kick in the fanny.”

The room went silent. They stared back at me with expressions of horror and disgust. And I left completely puzzled as to why it got so quiet after I said that.

Now, my American readers are probably wondering why they reacted this way, while my British readers are probably rolling on the floor laughing at my expense. You see in the states, “fanny” is a kind of cutesy word for someone’s butt. You’d probably use it with little kids, saying “I’m gonna pinch your fanny!” or something like that. So I was just trying to be cute.

But in the UK, “fanny” is a slang word for a woman’s vagina. Yes, that’s right, I told a group of my coworkers that they should kick a woman in the vagina.


I didn’t find out the British meaning until about a month later when someone was telling me how funny they find the word “fanny pack” in the US. When I found out why, I realized with horror why they reacted the way they did, and I spent the next day finding each of the people who were in that room and explaining what I had meant.

The other example is probably even worse. Here in the UK they call stores that sell alcohol an “off-license,” meaning that they have a license to sell alcohol that can be taken off the premises. I find it kind of odd to refer to a store by its licensing structure but whatever. In the US, we mostly call them “liquor stores.” But in New England, where I grew up, we call them “package stores.” I don’t know why, we just do. So we often abbreviate it to “packy.”

So a few weeks ago I was with a group of British friends hanging out at somebody’s house and we were trying to figure out what to do. So I suggested, “We could just hang out here and get some vodka from the packy down the street.”

I got the same look of horror in response that I had gotten to the fanny comment. Only this time I realized what I had just said and quickly covered my mouth saying “No no no! I mean the liquor store! I mean…oh crap.”

You see, in the UK, “paki” is a racial epithet for a South Asian person from Pakistan, India or Bangladesh. And because of the huge South Asian population in the UK, it’s probably one of the worst things you can say (the equivalent of our N-word). So I had a hell of a time trying to explain what I had meant, tracing the obscure origins of New England colloqialisms. But it was particularly bad because the racial epithet seemed to work in the context, as the liquor store down the street was most likely staffed by a South Asian person.

So, no more New England expressions in Old England.

It’s really shocking how much language variation there is between the two countries. Everything from pronunciation, spelling, word use, vocabulary, word order and cadence are completely different. And it’s interesting because there is relatively little variation between UK English and antipodean English in Australia or South Africa, and yet the distance between them is greater.

I’ve noticed some people here attempt to tone down the Britishisms when speaking with me, and some people go all out. I’ve noticed that class and education level seem to be a big determinating factor in how many Britishisms people use.

1 comment:

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