Mind the Gaff

I was strolling through East Molesy (a suburb of London) when I saw a shop specializing in French and Danish pastry. After seven weeks in Great Britain, the list of things I missed from back in the states was growing longer. That list included cheese Danish. I felt confident I would soon cross one item off my list. If the shop also served good American style coffee, another item would be removed, and I would be in seventh heaven. I immediately crossed the street and entered the establishment.

Unfortunately, neither cheese Danish nor American coffee was available. However, once I’m in a pastry shop, I’m unable to leave empty-handed. The pastries in England are wonderful and I always manage to find something I like. I examined the goodies in the display case and asked the price of the almond custard croissants. The woman behind the counter said, “It depends.”

I examined the croissants more carefully wondering if they were sold ‘by the pound’. They all appeared to be the same size. Confused, I asked, “Depends on what?”

The woman looked at me as though I had asked a stupid question and politely answered, “It depends.”

Now I was totally baffled. Why would such a nice friendly looking woman want to play games with me? Was I missing something? Perhaps the price varied based on the nationality of the person making the purchase. That didn’t make much sense. What was I missing?

The woman tried once more. This time she put the answer in a complete sentence and spoke slowly. “The pastries are eighty pence apiece.”

Oh. Silly me! She was saying “eighty pence” and I was hearing “it depends.” While those phrases are very different, her British accent combined with my American hearing caused our failure to communicate. We both had a good laugh over the misunderstanding. I made my purchase and left with a smile on my face. I’m sure we’ve both shared the experience with a number of our friends since then. By the way, the croissants were delicious.

I share this story because it illustrates, to a certain extent, that the United Kingdom is indeed a foreign country. We Americans tend to overlook that fact because we think we speak the same language.

I’d gone to England as a teacher, but quickly became a student. Not only did I learn a great deal about the history, politics, and culture of the country, I also got a crash course in the English language… the Queen’s English, that is.

The difference between our English and theirs can be categorized in three areas: words that are pronounced differently; words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings; and words that most Americans never heard of.

The first category is nothing new; Americans from different parts of the country pronounce many words differently. So differences such as these should be expected. Tomato and potato, in England, reminded me of an old George Gershwin song, but I wasn’t about to call the whole thing off. Either and neither were from the same song. Status is pronounced with the long A, while task and bath sounded more like coughs.

In truth, these words were simple. The real fun began when multiple syllable words were used. I could’ve started a real controversy by questioning people who pronounced it “con-TRA-VER-see.” Some of the pronunciations were beyond comprehension. Therefore, I’m at a loss trying to REP-ro-duce them here. Let’s go on to the words I can pronounce.

“Subway” is a word you’d expect to see in any large metropolitan area. However, there are several “subways” in London that leave the American tourist wondering what happened to the trains. A “subway” in London is merely a route used to cross a busy street by going under it. It has nothing to do with the “Underground”, which is the official name for their subway system… except, they don’t really call them the “Underground” or “trains.” The entire system is referred to as the “Tube.”

“Tube steaks”, an American term for hot-dogs are called “Bangers”, lamb chops are called lamb “cutlets”, and stoves are called “cookers.” A “pudding” may or may not be a dessert; in either case, it is more like a cake than a pudding. What they call “custard” is more like what we think of as pudding.

The hood of a car is called a “bonnet”, the trunk of a car is called the “boot”, expressways are called “motor ways”, a “motor way” that goes in a circle is call a “ring”, parking lots are called “car parks”, an exit is called a “way out”, traffic circles are called “round-abouts”, and Yield signs tell you to “Give Way.”

Yards are called “gardens” whether or not they are planted with vegetables or flowers, phone booths are called phone “boxes”, elevators are called “lifts”, and soccer is called “football.”

Finally, we have the words that are totally new to us. “Busking” is my favorite. To “busk” is to entertain in a public place in the hope that someone will enjoy your act enough to toss a Quid (the one pound coin) into the box you’ve placed in front of you. Busking is most prevalent in Covent Gardens, Leicester (pronounced Lester) Square, and Piccadilly Circus. Buskers can also be found in the Tube stations and on the Queens Walk along the River Thames.

Busking can be anything from singing and dancing to simply standing still for hours – those folks are called “human statues.” Buskers play all sorts of musical instruments or juggle. Most are very talented people and appear to earn quite a bit of money – one Quid at a time.

Another word was “mews” which amused me. Most mews seemed to be preceded by the word “Royal.” Mews are nothing more than stables and barns. They were originally used for the horses and carriages of the Royal Family. Come to think of it, they still are.

Obviously, it took me a while to catch on to the everyday language of England and I made numerous gaffs. The English have a practice of telling people to be careful by saying “Mind the… whatever.” For example, when the tube stops at a station, an announcement is made telling people to “Mind the gap.” The message is referring to the open space (gap) between the train car and the platform.

In buildings with low ceilings and doorways, there is often a sign warning you to “Mind your head.” Perhaps they should have a sign warning you to “Mind your gaff.”

I never saw a sign saying “Mind your manners,” but then again, the English people are a very staid lot; stiff upper lip and proper behavior at all times.

Well, most of the time. They do get a bit rowdy at football games… which is soccer to us… and they call them matches rather than games… and they often ride the tube to get to the pitch… which is a field to us… and they often stop at a pub… which is a tavern to us… before going to their flat… which is an apartment to us… to watch the highlights of the match on the telly… which is a boob tube to us… before taking a bath… which sounds like cough… and going to bed… which is also a bed to us. What do you know? I found a word that has the same meaning on both sides of the Atlantic.

With that, I’ll use two more words that have the same meanings: The end.

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