Posted by: wrmcnutt | April 15, 2009

England, Language, Naughty Bits, and Families


British readers and others who truly speak the “Queen’s English” are cautioned to put down their tea before reading.  Those who are easily offended by certain words may wish to skip this post. Not responsible for monitor or keyboard damage due to spit-takes.

On my second trip to England I had an entertaining cross-cultural experience.  We’d spent a day in the coastal city of Portsmouth, and caught the last train out to York, way up in the North Country.  Along the way we picked up a working class family with three children headed home after spending a few days in London.  BritRail trains are laid out with seats in rows like on a bus, but they also have work or dining tables with surrounding chairs.  We hadn’t booked specific seats, we’d just boarded with our BritRail passes.  As there weren’t enough seats for us to sit together, we scattered across several rows on both sides of the aisle. The luck of the draw put my friend Duren at the table with the two young daughters.

Now if you’ve never ridden and English train, you might not know that people don’t talk on English trains.  It’s like riding in a little church filled with librarians.  Unless you have a bunch of Americans aboard who are very excited to be going to York.  So we babbled on and on about what we had seen in Portsmouth and what our plans were for the ancient city of York. (Did you know that there was already a city there when the Roman Legions built the fortress of Eboracum?) And eventually our bad example became too much for the young girls . . .  and they started asking Duren questions.

“Oh, now you’ve done it,” sez I.  “She’s a school teacher.  Now you’re going to get lessons.  That just got me a dirty look.  (From Duren.)

So we continued to enjoy the voyage north, entertained by Duren’s explaination of why we Americans have to have states, and why Las Vegas is in the middle of the desert.  I had to be recruited to ‘splain about Bugsy Siegel.

So anyway – as we clattered up the rails, I noticed Mom and Dad were seated behind me, keeping a friendly but watchful eye as their daughters continued to interact with the crazy Americans.  I struck up a conversation with the father.  They’d been down in London to visit a Grandmother and had seen a play.

Now – there’s a sacred ritual that’s practiced on English trains to this day.  Not all trains have them, but if you’re on a long trip, or it’s the right time of day, you will see the coming of the trolley.  The trolley contains all manner of goodies, including crisps, candy, and, of course, the bulwark of English cuisine, tea. 

The necessary commercial interaction complete, the adults all settled back with our tea, and, over on our side of the train, the conversation turned to language.  It’s been often said that England and the United States are two nations, separated by a common language.  We chatted about the things that always come up.  In England, you don’t stand in line for the bathroom.  You “queue for the loo.”  You don’t rent anything.  You hire it.  And they’re not cookies, they’re biscuits.  I watched the gentleman enjoying his tea, and I decided to play a harmless little liguistic joke.  I’d done my research regarding the lingua franca of England.  I didn’t want to misuse my slang.  And I had discovered something.  To properly present the scene that follows, I ‘m afraid that I’m going to have to be vulgar, and maybe even a little offensive. 

In England, the term “fanny” is not a polite term for the buttocks.  It’s an extrememly vulgar term for a lady’s private parts.  They use it the same way that Americans use the term <click here if you really want to know>.

*ahem*  To continue, I turned the language discussion to slang, and, I’m not sure exactly how the term came up, but I eventually mentioned, that, “In America, we don’t say ‘arse.’”

“Yes,” he responded, “you say, ass.”

“Well, not exactly.  It’s very informal.  It’s something that I’d say if I was about to get into a fight with a yob – ‘I’m gonna kick your ass!’ Or I might say it to one of my mates down at the pub – ‘Don’t be an ass!’”  But I wouldn’t say it to my Mum or my teachers.  We’ve got a different word for that.”

Then I waited.  I’d timed the sentence carefully, and he was just taking a giant mouthful of tea.  His eyebrows went up as he curiously waited for me to resolve the mystery.  I looked off to my left, to make sure his wife and daughters weren’t listening, and then . . . the cobra strikes!  I dropped my voice and said: “fanny.”

I almost got the spit-take.  His eyes got huge, and he almost sprayed the seat-back in front of him.  He almost choked, as he tried to laugh, swallow, and not spray tea all over the compartment.  We also got the what-is-going-on-over-there hairy eyeball from his missus.  It took him a few moments to settle down and get back to his tea. 

We chatted for a while longer, and then I asked him if English families had that little-old-lady auntie that everyone in the American South tends to have.  You know her. She may or may not really be an aunt.  She may be somebody’s cousin, or a widow, but she’s very, very proper.  He allowed that, while not every English family has one, the ancient auntie is an architype our cultures share.

“So what do you suppose that an ancient auntie would say, if she had a nephew or grandson who was cutting wild, obnoixious, and disrespectful?  She might say she was going to give him a spanking.  But she is just as likely to say  . . .”

Here I paused as he took a big swallow of tea.

“I’m gonna fan your fanny!”

So near and yet so far.  Wide eyes, bulging cheeks, choking noises, then laughter.  But no spit take.

Another hairy eyeball from the Missus.  This one was the I’m-trying-to-keep-an-eye-on-the-kids hairy eyeball.  Once again, we settled down.  He saw the humor in my little jokes and we talked a little more.  But he continued to drink his tea.  I had one more arrow in my quivver.  So I set up my last line.

“You know those little bags that people buckle around their waists?  I think ya’ll call ‘em ‘bum bags?’”

He nodded, and took a great big gulp of tea.  I checked again, to make sure his wife and children couldn’t hear, and then I struck.

“Fanny packs!”

One more time, I got heroically close to the spit take, but his self control was more heroic than my timing.  But this time I got a reaction out of his wife.

“Wot evah is the matteh with yew?”

He glanced at her and muttered, “I’ll tell you later.”

While profanity is generally the sign of a limited vocabulary, when applied at the appropriate time it can be a useful and entertaining communication tool.

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Responses

  1. LOL!!! Must be just tooo fun to travel like that with you!

    • I try to make it fun. Travel with friends is much cheaper than travel alone. Our first trip to the Olde Country we managed to cut our lodging costs down to 35 pounds each for a week.

  2. remind me never to drink tea in your presence

  3. LOL you are a bag if crazy fun, truly hillarious man.

    • I hope you continue to enjoy these. I’m basically working my way through stories I’ve been telling over dinner for years. I’m really interested in finding out what happens when I run out of them.

      • Run out of stories? I doubt that… what with May Tourney and Silver Hammer, and fighter practice, and fencing, and….as sources for new ones… I mean I’m still getting mileage out retelling the story of Aleksei’s proposal from last year’s May Tourney…

      • Yeah – but people get tired of SCA stories all the time.


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