Four Brits and a Yank photo by Todd (click on photo to see larger)
“There are some terrible chairs in the world,” said Ruth, Abi’s sister, as we were enjoying afternoon tea on the deck in the blessed fulgent sunshine.
“That’s a great line,” I exclaimed, jumping up to get pen and paper. “I must write it down.”
Ruth and her partner Jeff were visiting from England, staying for a week at the Mendocino Hotel and watching Abi perform with the Mendocino Music Festival orchestra. Abi stays with us when she comes to the coast from Forestville to play the annual festival, she and Marcia among the local players filling out the cello section. Ruth had never seen Abi perform on her cello, so this was a big deal for both sisters—Ruth nearing sixty, Abi fifty-three and a longtime California resident.
There were six of us having fruit salad and cheese and crackers and tea, Abi, Jeff, Ruth, and Marion the Brits, Marcia and Todd the Yanks.
We got on the subject of words and figures of speech specific to England shortly after Ruth told us about meeting people in Mendocino who, when they heard Jeff and Ruth’s British accents, felt the need to apologize for our president.
Lest we sink into group despair, I changed the subject by saying to Ruth and Jeff, “Marion recently used the word chuntering in an email to me. We don’t have that word in American English as far as I know. Do you use it, too?”
They said they did. One might say, “The washing machine was chuntering along.” But one might also say, “He was often chuntering to himself about one thing or another.” So there was not a set meaning to chuntering, but the four Brits knew what chuntering meant by the context in which it was used.
Then Marion asked Ruth and Jeff, “Do you ever use the expression scurryfunging?”
Ruth and Jeff didn’t know that one, and Abi suggested it might be specific to Oxford where Marion hails from.
“What does it mean?” Marcia wondered.
“When you’ve got guests arriving any minute and the place isn’t presentable,” explained Marion, “you do some scurryfunging to give the place a semblance of order.”
“Scurryfunging,” I said, writing it down. “Hurried house cleaning and putting things away before the guests arrive.”
This talk of words specific to British English put me in mind of one of the most enjoyable editing jobs I ever had. I was hired by a publisher to help them bring out the first American edition of a massive English gardening book, a classic in the field that had been revised and reissued several times in England over the past hundred years. The editor who hired me had taken one of my writing workshops and knew me as both a competent writer and a zealous gardener.
My job was to carefully read the massive tome and note any words or expressions I thought should be replaced by American equivalents to make the book less confusing for American readers. I would be working with a British editor who knew oodles of gardening terminology.
I found hundreds of words in that encyclopedic tome that needed translating to American English, and this charming British editor and I had three long telephone conversations during which we went through my list and came up with appropriate replacement words for the originals. Being a hopeless mimic, after a few minutes on the phone with this learned fellow, I had a British accent rahther like his.
So the British say green fly, Americans say aphid.
Americans say hand clippers, the British say secateurs.
The British use the word turf for what Americans mean by sod. The Brits use sod to mean soil, not the grass attached to the soil.
In other linguistic news, I’ve been having fun employing the expression I know. Right? in my recent communications with my pal Max. If you were a teenager or adult in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, you probably knew people who used this response…all the time. Here is my initial exchange with Max that inspired me to trot out the old expression.
Todd: Abi has agreed to teach me how to make my own granola, something I’ve always wanted to do.
Max: I’m amazed you’ve never made your own granola. A funny little hole in your history—soon to be filled.
Todd: I know. Right?
I’m fairly certain I know. Right? pre-dates, yet is somehow connected to, the ubiquitous phenomenon in America of teenagers and young adults, predominantly females, who make every sentence into a question?
“I went shopping yesterday? At Whole Foods? And I wanted to get bananas? But they were out of the organic ones? And I was just devastated?”
I know. Right?
I mentioned I know. Right? to Marion, and she was quite familiar with that particular expression.
“It’s not at all defensive,” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe it’s just a British thing, but if someone said, ‘I’m amazed you never learned to make your own granola,’ the British reply would probably be something like, ‘Well, I didn’t have time to learn. I was busy with more important things.’ Whereas, saying ‘I know. Right?’ is to nicely agree.”
Which is true, but what used to bother me about the expression was that the initial confidence implied by I know felt diminished by Right? as if the confidence was false.
Max pointed out that the correct reply to I know. Right? is Right!
But I always bridled at making that reply because I wanted to say, “Oh stop equivocating,” only I never said that because I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.
We had so much fun at tea with Jeff and Ruth and Abi and Marion, we did a bit of scurryfunging and had them over for Sunday brunch; and as I was giving Abi a copy of my book Calliope of Hope because she had very much enjoyed The Recipes of Alexander Skåll, she asked, “What is a calliope?”
I was surprised she didn’t know what a calliope was, being a pianist and cellist and whatnot. Then Jeff joined us, and he, too, didn’t know what a calliope was, which surprised me anew. The Brits apparently don’t use the word calliope.
So I described a calliope as best I could and Jeff said, “Oh…like a barrel organ, only bigger.”