One day in London, I was standing in a customer service line at Harrod’s. The well-dressed woman in front of me was unhappy with the answers she was getting from the man behind the counter. I heard the woman say icily, “I find your attitude most reprehensible.” The man behind the counter, amazingly, blanched, looked around to see who was watching, and gave her what she wanted. That’s England. An American customer in the same situation might say, “Hey, gimme a break” or “I want to see your supervisor, ” only to be met with a blank stare. The British still have a whole layer of civility that Americans are sadly lacking.
Brits take pride in their wit. Once at Blenheim Palace, I paid extra for a tour of the family’s private quarters–always worthwhile, anyplace it is offered. The tour guide provided a running commentary about the family’s foibles, as he guided us through grand but surprisingly shabby rooms (Brits still honor “old money,” and Blenheim is about as old as it gets). Someone asked the guide whether the college-age heir hung around the palace he would someday inherit. “Well,” he replied, “he’s off somewhere having his gap year, don’t you know, but every now and again he stops by and strikes the place a glancing blow.”
Some expressions are just amusing because they’re different. A trash can is a “rubbish tip.” To be careful when stepping onto a subway car is to “mind the gap.” The equipment needed for, say, a long hike, is “all the kit you need.” An airline attendant might look at an excessive amount of luggage and say, “I’m afraid you can’t bring all that lot.” If I thought my suitcase was especially heavy, I could say “That thing weighs 10 stone” (140 pounds, at 14 pounds to the stone). To give something a try is to “have a go.”
The Brits have some wonderfully descriptive terms, too. I like to call myself a “dogsbody” when I find myself doing some menial task no one else wants to do. When totally amazed, I might say I’m “gobsmacked.”
In the films of Laurel and Hardy, the contrasts between the American Oliver Hardy and the Englishman Stan Laurel account for a lot of the humor.
It’s especially amusing that the Englishman, who aside from his dopey expression looks slim and elegant, is childlike and dim. He’s always asking unanswerable questions. The tubby American is equally clueless, but he doesn’t know it. So he is ridiculously pompous.
All this has left me feeling a bit knackered. Maybe it’s time for a bit of a lie-down!