Fraser’s Phrases: Five Mild American Words The British Find Rude

This lady has just been told she has a spunky bugger on her pants

If we have learned anything over the past few weeks of Fraser’s Phrases, it’s that different cultures that share a common tongue don’t always speak the same language. Traveling from one culture to the other can be a little like walking on thin ice, most of the time you’re fine, but if you find a weak spot, you can be in real trouble before you know what’s what.

So here’s a helpful guide to five of the most common cross-cultural cock-ups that occur when Americans visit Britain.

Note: It should be stressed that in all of these cases, ‘rude’ simply means ‘dirty.’ You’re more likely to cause blushes than outrage if you use any of these, unless you are talking to a retired general or duke. And that’s not very likely.

1: Fanny
Might as well get this one out of the way. Despite the confusion over this word being fairly common knowledge on both sides of the Atlantic, the important thing to say is that the British cannot conceive of any other meaning beyond vagina. Intellectually we’re aware that you mean bottom, but as far as we’re concerned – and this rationale happens on a fairly primal level – if you walk around talking about hiding things in your fanny pack, we’re going to temporarily find it hard to come up with a satisfactory response. There are few enough slang terms for that part of the human anatomy that aren’t pornographic, so for us, fanny is close to being the correct name, and therefore it’s not unlike someone telling you they call their penis an ear. Add to that the discomfort around discussing that body part in the first place, and it’s surprising there haven’t been more international incidents caused by this one little cultural switcheroo.

2: Spunk
Ah, a fiery spirit, a natural courage, a sense of exhilaration when faced with challenges new, to say someone has spunk could never be dirty, surely? Well, no, probably not, except there’s been a shift in common word use over the past thirty years. Previously the term may have primarily meant spirit, with perhaps a slight disquiet because some people used it as a slang term for semen. Now it primarily means semen, with perhaps a slight disquiet because some people still use it to mean spirit. Say to anyone under forty that they’ve got spunk and they’ll probably grin and jokingly ask you where. So it’s not that we don’t know what it means, it’s just so overwhelmed by the dirty meaning – in the same way that pussy doesn’t often mean cat any more – that you can’t use it in its original sense.

3: Pants
Another well recognized word confusion, and again there’s a gulf between the intellectual understanding of what is being said and the primary meaning (as heard by the listener). We call pants trousers, and we call underwear pants. You call trousers pants and pants underwear. We all know this. But if an American walks up to a British person, no matter how well aware of the situation they may be, and says, “Excuse me, I can’t help but admire your pants…where did you get them from?,” there will be a moment where panic streaks across the British person’s face as they try and work out whether their underwear is on show. It might not last long, but it’ll happen. And while that panic plays out, they’re really not listening to anything you’re saying. So be gentle with them, OK?

4: Bugger
Correct me if I’m wrong, but this isn’t that common a word in the U.S., right? I don’t mean booger, either, I mean bugger, which I understand is sometimes used to describe a little creature, like a bug or a beetle. And it can also be used as a term of affection for children, in much the same way you could say mite or imp. Well, over here it’s never, ever used in that context. Over here it’s an archaic slang word for homosexual men, bugger being a verb describing the act of anal intercourse AND a noun describing someone who enjoys buggering. Nowadays we tend to use it as a mild expletive or insult rather than anything descriptive, and certainly not in relation to homosexuality. You’ll hear frustrated people yell “oh BUGGER!” when something goes wrong, or friends saying “no, it’s YOUR turn to buy the drinks you tight-fisted old bugger” in the pub, and it’s all very affectionate and sweet.

Just, please do me a favor; don’t say it to a child, even if you’re using the American meaning. Their parents will very probably take offense.

5: Shag
Did you know British broadcasters were not allowed to call the Austin Powers film that uses this word by its full title? Even though the movie was named after the British slang, because he’s a British secret agent, the one place it wasn’t acceptable is Britain. And it’s not because we’re all so appalled by slang terms for coitus (and that’s exactly what this is), it’s just not a polite term to be used on television or radio. Far too brutal, and carrying the whiff of animal passion with it. This probably seems weird if you’re reading this from a culture that uses the word primarily to describe a dance or a hairdo, but hey, that’s language for ya.

Any more suggestions for words or phrases you’d like explaining in detail? Tell us here:

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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