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Feature

Why Americans Think British Words Are Silly and Adorable

By Lynne Murphy | HUMANITIES, Spring 2018 | Volume 39, Number 2

Posted April 18, 2018 

Me: Hi

English person: You mean you don’t have SNELLYDORF HUFFLEDAMS? WHERE DO YOU PUT YOUR BROOKENSHIRES?

Me: Aight man have a good day                                                                                                                                                                                                                     —@minifiliawarde

Since 2011, University of Delaware professor Ben Yagoda has been writing Not One-Off Britishisms, a blog that tracks British turns of phrase that are infiltrating American media. (One-off is one of those Britishisms.) Reflecting on his role as a one-man linguistic border patrol, Yagoda wrote a piece for the online magazine Slate, wondering:

Why have we adopted laddish while we didn’t adopt telly or bumbershoot?

Yagoda immediately faced a comment storm from Britons asking, “What on earth is a bumbershoot?” Why indeed would British people know bumbershoot, an early twentieth-century American slang term meaning ‘umbrella’? Yet in the collective American imagination, bumbershoot has become British. You might recall hearing it, minus the last consonant, in the Morris-dancing scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, set in Edwardian England:

you can have me hat or me bumbershoo,

but you’d better never bother with me ol’ bamboo.

Morris dancing may be an English folk tradition, but the songwriters were American and so was the bumbershoo. Similarly, the American writers of the sitcom Frasier had their English character Daphne endorse the British bumbershoot myth:

Niles: Take my bumbershoot.

Daphne: Oh, isn’t that nice, well at least someone appreciates my mother tongue.

Investigating why Americans associate the Americanism bumbershoot with Britishness, Yagoda traced the misapprehension as far back as 1939, when the word was only a few decades old. The New York Times had noted that umbrellas were key elements in caricaturing the British prime minister: “Mr. Chamberlain’s ‘bumbershoot’ provides inspiration for British and American cartoonists,” they wrote. Putting bumbershoot in quotation marks hinted to the reader that it might be Chamberlain’s word. Soon bumbershoot was a fixture in descriptions of the British. As the 1940 book War and Propaganda noted: “To many upper-class Americans there was nothing so thrilling as having an Englishman around the house, complete with Oxford accent, school tie, and bumbershoot.”

Why did Americans get the wrong end of the bumbershoot? It probably helped that umbrella-carrying is a stereotypical British activity—so much so that British English does have a slang term for ‘umbrella’: brolly. But a crucial factor in the faux Britishness of bumbershoot is another American stereotype of British English: that it is full of preposterous words.

Matthew Inman, creator of the comic strip The Oatmeal, had a go at the stereotype on how British people sound to Americans. A white-haired, pipe-smoking, book-reading character spouts a speech full of sentences like “I’m chuffed as nuts to see you looking as humbly-jumbly as Her Majesty’s watermelons!” The speech runs on nonsensically, peppered with real Britishisms like chuffed as nuts (‘extremely pleased’) and rumpy-pumpy (‘sexual intercourse’) alongside fake ones, like humbly jumbly, dingbangling, and throbbing wobbly. They sound stereotypically British to Americans, with their silly rhymes and somehow comical sounds: lots of consonants from the front of the mouth, like /b/ and /f/, with the o and u vowels from the back of the mouth. Not to mention the naughtiness (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). For further evidence, I invite you to revisit the subtitled scene in Austin Powers in Goldmember in which Powers and his groovy spy dad (played by Michael Caine) switch to “English English” in order to talk about “naughty things” in front of American women. “Are you telling pork pies and a bag of tripe? Because if you are feeling quiggly, why not just have a J. Arthur?”

Stereotyping the British as silly might seem to conflict with the standard American stereotype of British English: that it sounds educated and upper class. But the two stereotypes intersect, since the British upper classes are often regarded as somewhat preposterous—in the U.S. as well as the U.K. British commentators often mistake American fascination with the British aristocracy as a regretful longing for the monarchy that our ancestors so decisively rejected. The BBC’s former U.S. correspondent Justin Webb has perhaps a truer reading of the American obsession with royal weddings and the like: “They flock to see us make fools of ourselves.” My sister-in-law offers a case in point. Coming to England, all she wanted to see were castles and “old things,” and she was duly impressed. But that didn’t keep her from exclaiming, “That’s ridiculous!” at the explanations of the rituals associated with the things she saw. Judges wearing wigs that look like ancient scouring pads, palace guards wearing eighteen-inch-tall bearskin hats, and a rich tradition of comedic cross-dressing—all are vaguely ludicrous, impressively convoluted, and definitely British. Maybe Americans enjoy associating the English with a bonkers aristocracy that says bonkers words (like bonkers) because doing so provides entertainment while reinforcing the idea that we’re better off without such people in positions of power.

Gobsmacked (‘shocked’), argie-bargie (‘argument, row’), and kerfuffle (‘commotion, to-do’) are all Britishisms whose transatlantic migration Yagoda is tracking on Not One-Off Britishisms. There are silly syllables like fuff, not used in other English words. There’s rhyming. There’s naughtiness. They all seem delightfully British. And they’re so cute that Americans eat ’em up.

Poppycock is another bumbershootism: an Americanism that sounds silly enough that Americans assume it’s British. Poppycock, from the Dutch for ‘doll’s poop,’ comes to English from Dutch settlers in North America—yet it’s frequently heard in American impressions of upper-class Brits. Those two “short o” vowels may be to blame. In a standard English accent, this o vowel is further back in the mouth, with a smaller mouth opening, than the “short o” in American English. When I say hot in my native U.S. accent, the vowel sounds like “ah.” The vowel (whose phonetic symbol is [ɒ]) just does not exist in most American dialects. So, if you want to make a word sound British, give it some short os and say it in an upper-class English accent. Those Internet lists of “British phrases you should be using” are happy to supply such words, including sprog (‘offspring’), dogsbody (‘person who has to do grunt work’), toff (‘upper-class person’), gobby (‘loud-talking, blunt’), and tosh (‘nonsense’). While that sound accounts for less than 5 percent of the vowels in a British English dictionary, it is nearly 15 percent of the vowels on “75 simple British slang words you should probably start using,” proposed by the website Lifehack. The tragic fact about Americans who impersonate Brits saying poppycock is that they could have said codswallop, which also has two of those adorable short os, means the same thing, and is actually British.

Those lists of Britishisms that Americans “should” use are often very dated, both because the authors know that their audiences expect and want “quaintness” in their British expressions and because much American contact with British culture is episodic, limited, and often in the form of historical drama. How’s your father?, a Mental Floss list explains, is a “turn of the century” euphemism for sex. They don’t mention it’s the turn of the previous century. Cockney rhyming slang is of perennial fascination—birthdays bring me yet another Cockney dictionary from stateside friends, picked up from the impulse-purchase tables at chain bookshops. They would have me say that I’m going out for some Britneys with me old china, with Britney (Spears) meaning ‘beers’ and china (plate) for ‘mate.’ Never mind that the slang has long been “cultivated more assiduously in the media than in the East End of London,” as lexicographer Robert Ilson notes.  It’s a secret language, it’s fun, and so Americans want it as part of their picture of England. These wish lists of Britishness don’t tend to include the kind of slang that’s used on the streets of London these days, like bare (‘a lot of; very,’ as in I’m in a bare good mood) or cotch (‘to relax; to sleep’). The British vocabulary that Americans consume lives at Downton Abbey, 221B Baker Street, or Hogwarts. It doesn’t come from the inner-city settings of soaps like Coronation Street or from the party animals of the Geordie Shore.

And Americans seem to like it that way—imagining that their British words come straight from the country manor, the Edwardian chimney sweep, or Her Majesty’s Secret Service, not from the local hairdresser or the kids in the skate park. When James Corden was preparing to take over the U.S. institution The Late Late Show, the CBS network encouraged him to use “charming” British words, but stopped him from using others that they thought might “confuse” his audience. According to newspaper reports, the charming ones included willy (‘penis’), bonkers (‘crazy’), shag (‘have sex with’), and squiffy (‘tipsy’). Some of these were already well known in America thanks to British-Canadian comedian Mike Myers, whose Austin Powers and Simon (a “cheeky monkey” of a boy on Saturday Night Live who liked to do “drawrings” in the “bahth”) characters are silly, cute, and slightly obsessed with their willies. The ones on Corden’s don’t-say list included knackered (‘worn out, tired’), dodgy geezer (‘untrustworthy man’), bladdered (‘drunk’), half-cut (‘drunk’), well-oiled (‘drunk’), and trollied (‘drunk’). You may notice a theme there.

Advertisers in the U.S. have cottoned on to the American love of unfamiliar British syllables and risqué content. It helps that rude British words have an easier time getting past American censors than their American counterparts. Hygienic wipes have been made “fun” with the catchphrase Let’s talk about bums (= U.S. butts).

Are British words inherently more silly, or do Americans just like to think of them that way? Certainly, unfamiliar things can seem silly, and the perception of silliness may be helped along by the fact that the British are known for not taking themselves too seriously—in contrast to Americans, whom the Brits generally think of as being “too earnest.” British comedy—especially the British comedy popular in the US—is full of silly, camp, and surrealist humor. Expressions like lovely jubbly and mad as a box of frogs seem to fit American tastes for Brit wit. But as with any of these linguistic generalizations, they are made without much self-reflection. Americans love to make up and say funny words too, like:

bloviate ‘talk, without much to say’

lickety-split ‘quickly’

gonzo ‘a subjective style of journalism’

hootenanny ‘an improvised folk concert’

mugwump ‘an independent politician’

discombobulate ‘come apart, put out of sorts’—and its recent partner...

recombobulation ‘the process of putting yourself back together after clearing airport security’

 And let’s not forget the silliest American word of them all: bumbershoot.

About the Author

Lynne Murphy is professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex and recipient of the NEH Public Scholars Program grant. Born and raised in New York State, she studied linguistics at the universities of Massachusetts and Illinois, before starting her academic career in South Africa and Texas. Since 2000, she has lived in Brighton, England, where she has acquired an English husband, an English daughter, and an alter ego: Lynneguist, author of the award-winning blog Separated by a Common Language.

Republication Statement

This article is not available for republication: It is an edited excerpt from The Prodigal Tongue by Lynne Murphy, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by M. Lynne Murphy.