Welcome to our second instalment in our "about Britain" series. For the uninitiated, Britain can appear to be a pretty odd place. We have odd habits, odd food, odd weather, odd taps and an even odder sense of humour. It's nothing that a good bout of cultural training can't sort out, but I'm going to run a series of posts about what makes the Brits so wonderfully weird - or weirdly wonderful - which may help our non-indigenous friends to understand what the heck we are all about.
1. You might not get the joke, but we are just so funny
The British are renowned for their sense of humour. But maybe not always in a good way. Yes, we have had strokes of comedy genius, such as Fawlty Towers, Allo Allo, Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder, Bottom, Red Dwarf, The Office, The League of Gentlemen, to name but a very few, but everyday, unscripted British humour can be quite tricky for a non-native to understand.
British humour is founded on irony and heavy sarcasm, so when a fellow diner comments that his chicken nuggets are "amazing", he may well mean the complete opposite. A work colleague states that she finds Donald Trump to be a little too reserved and caring for her liking. Seriously?
To make this kind of situation even more difficult to read, British humour is almost always delivered poker-faced so there is little by way of a clue that a joke has just been made. To make it worse, Brits speak like this all the time so you really do have to read between the lines to work out whether or not we are joking. Nice haircut, by the way. In time, you may be able to effectively deliver your own such jokes but do be careful, especially if you are telling your Sales Director that he really is the most inspiring boss you've ever had, as this may be taken as an insult.
Yes, it really is that tricky.
2. We like nicknames
Very much like sarcasm, Brits use nicknames all the time, as a term of endearment or acceptance, but also for ridicule. Nicknames are often brought to you by the letter "Y", so somebody with the last name "Jones", would be called "Jonesy"; Smith would become "Smithy" but often pronounced "Smiffy"; similarly, the chip shop is the "chippy"; the off-licence is the "offy".
However, if Mr Jones were over six feet tall, his friends might refer to him as "lofty" or even "shorty" - more irony; Miss Smith has started wearing glasses, so is now affectionately called "Speccy", from "spectacles", or "four-eyes". Yes, we really are funny, aren't we?
The above examples are all pretty harmless ways we use nicknames, but we can apply them in a more insulting manner if the occasion demands. Calling someone who is a little dim-witted "Brains", "Einstein" or "Sherlock" is not uncommon and is guaranteed to raise a titter from all but to whom the insult is addressed. You can even make them up - an overweight person could be referred to as a "frequent flyer", for example; or "Cyrano" for somebody with a spectacularly protruding proboscis.
Brits do like to pick on negative aspects when giving nicknames but for those who are not used to it this can seem a little offensive. Advice - give yourself a nice nickname - and hope that your new colleagues and friends don't give you a new one.
3. Swearing at our friends
Banter is another bedrock of British humour, particularly amongst younger males, who do like to mock each other at every opportunity, often for no particular reason other than the sheer joy of taking the mickey out of somebody else. This often includes heavy use of profanities. The interesting point here is that if your friends address you with what civilised society would usually deem to be a highly offensive term, this is neither how it is intended nor should be taken. The use of such nicknames is actually a term of endearment, albeit a rather odd one, rather than a term of abuse - it almost cements the relationship.
Our very own Shelley and her younger brother, John, call each other "cock". Whilst many would consider "cock" to be a swear word (a slang word for penis in the UK), it is in fact from the regional dialect (Black Country) "cocka" which is a term of endearment. So they greet one another by saying “alright cocka” or “please pass me the salt, cock”. John is also affectionately called "Wally" by the family, which is a light-hearted term for somebody who is a little stupid.
Now, whilst swearing in the UK is not in itself a criminal offence, swearing in public where it causes harassment, alarm or distress may constitute an offence under the Public Order Act 1986. Furthermore, swearing in the workplace may actually be worthy of gross misconduct in some instances, so please do exercise caution if you want to get pally with somebody in the workplace.
4. We have the chav
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a chav as "a young lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behaviour." Chavs also wear designer sportswear (usually fake) and excessive and tacky jewellery.
They are the sort of people who don't have jobs because they don't want to work. You probably wouldn't want to employ one, anyway. Whilst they are not working, they sit at home, following this easy, ten-step routine:
Watch Jeremy Kyle on TV;
Drink cheap lager;
Chain smoke cheap fags;
Argue with "her indoors";
When the five-a-side football team of uncontrollable and malnourished, sugar-fuelled kids are back from school (Charmaine, Britney, Jordan, Reece and Tyler), swear at them;
Swear at "her indoors" again;
Storm out of the house to meet mates at the bookies and then onto the pub for a few pints;
Have aggressive argument with a female friend you just got pregnant but can't afford to support because you spend all of your money on cigarettes, lager and SKY telly;
Return home for another row with partner before bed;
Wake up and repeat from step 1. Like Groundhog Day.
Origins of the term "chav" are unclear but one backronym that is proving popular is "council house and violent." This term has been criticised as a demonisation of the working classes, but still prevails. At this point, I would like to make it very clear that this post in no way is intended to disparage any section of society, apart from chavs. The above description is a stereotype, one that exists in plain view, nevertheless.
Totes chavtastic, mate.
5. We can't spell kids' names
The ability to spell anything correctly has gone a little awry in the UK. This, I suppose, is in part due to the rise and rise of "text speak" which has slaughtered the English language. Having said that, we have too many superfluous letters in our words, anyway - for example, "through" or "thumb", so perhaps any culling should be welcomed with open arms?
Next on the list are schools; when you receive newsletters from your kid's school, peppered with spelling and grammatical errors, you do have to wonder what the world is coming to and what hope in Hell our seedlings have of spelling their own names. Enterprises fare no better. I remember once perusing the "Stationary" aisle in Sainsbury's. Thank Heavens it wasn't moving otherwise I may have lost my balance and fallen into the shelf, stabbing myself in the eye with a pencil.
I guess that a typo, after all, is a typo, a mistake, but when someone makes a conscious and deliberate effort to spell their baby's name incorrectly, you do have to wonder what is going on inside their head. But this is what is happening in the UK. Apparently, having an unusual name helps your child stand out and increases their chances of success; although what you define as success is clearly subjective - see point 4 above.
I think, by unusual name, "they" meant names such as "Breeze", "Genesis", "Moon", and "Whisper", rather than everyday names that have just been spelled poorly. Check these out; may I once again refer you to point 4 above:
Jeehzuz Kryste, one can only imagine the difficulty Kristoffer is going to have when giving somebody his email address.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, everybody!
Tune in next week for part 3!
Image by Carlos.