Tag Archives: British expressions


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!

Why Do Americans Love Downton Abbey?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I like the show for the sheer Englishness of it.  The show actually depicts a long-vanished England, so there’s an element of nostalgia, too.  And the England depicted never did really exist except for a very tiny minority of aristocratic people and the comparatively small number of ordinary people who served them in their grand country homes.  So there’s a large element of fantasy.

Even today, as England becomes more and more diverse, I love the uniquely English expressions, habits and ways of looking at the world. For example, here is a sign that stands outside the very old, very ornate gate of the private driveway of Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire:


The hand-lettered sign reads “Dead Slow. Hoot.”  What does it mean?  I could not think of any legitimate reason that as a lowly tourist, I could drive up to the private gate and demand entry.  But I think the sign means that drivers are to approach the gate as slowly as humanly possible, and then  to sound their horns to be let in.  The word “Hoot” implies, of course, a decorous tap, not a prolonged blast. Apparently there is no automatic opener and no card-recognition system on the 18th-century gate.  Someone will have to run out, confer with the driver, and swing the gate open.

Notice also the gathering of people and animals beside the gate.  The wearing of practical rain gear and the watering of dogs are hallowed activities in the countryside of England. So is the visiting of stately homes–it has been a favorite pastime at least since the days of Jane Austen.  In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet famously changes her fate when against her better judgment she tours Mr. Darcy’s estate, Pemberly, and comes face to face with Mr. Darcy himself. Many people believe that Jane Austen based Pemberly on Chatsworth House.

I just read that the “real” Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, is completely sold out of pre-bookable tickets for the coming opening times, mid-July to mid-September.  There are some tickets available to walk-ups, usually after 2 pm.  However, if I were traveling to England this summer, I would not let that worry me. I would go instead to Chatsworth House, and then I would go to at least a dozen other stately homes.  They’re all over England, and each has its own story every bit as fascinating as the fictional one so many of us love.

I’m going to write in coming posts about English country houses I have visited.  Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe–with the British Isles thrown in!