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While the big, punchy swears are the same all over the English-speaking world, some of our milder, more idiosyncratic slights will leave the uninitiated scratching their heads.
1. A two-fingered salute
This has come up before on MTG, but just to reiterate: stick two fingers up at an American and they’ll be no more affronted than if you’d waved hello or nodded. Should you feel compelled to use your hands to offend in the U.S., stick to the universally recognized raised middle finger.
Popularized by the late, great and hilariously foul-mouthed Big Brother contestant Jade Goody over a decade ago, the term meaning unattractive female is still fair game in Britain. If you’re looking for a way to insult an American woman without her realizing, this is ideal.
To American ears, this might sound like some kind of unadventurous English fish. Alas, it’s merely one of many hundred words we’ve evolved to refer to a somewhat idiotic, oafish individual.
American Roald Dahl fans might be familiar with this one from reading The Twits – a wonderfully vile tale of a dysfunctional married couple who keep pet monkeys and systematically abuse each other. Curiously, however, the book doesn’t shed much light on what it actually means to be a twit. It’s one of those semi-affectionate insults we might throw at a family member or friend who’s behaving in a less than cerebral manner. Synonyms include: wally, berk, prat, numpty, knob-head, nincompoop and tit.
This is one of the harsher terms on the list, perhaps because of its literal meaning: lady parts. Still, it’s a less offensive version of the other single syllable word that means the same thing. Brits are want to precede either word with “you daft…” or “you utter…” I’ve used “twat” around Americans and who think it’s got a satisfying ring to it. Could be one to watch over here.
6. Billy no-mates
It’s mild and reassuringly vintage but roam a UK school playground on your own looking miserable and you might still have this barked at you from across the tarmac. Shout this at an American loner kid, however, and he’ll assume you’re a lunatic.
7. Chav or pikey
These unpleasant slang terms, originally used to refer to Irish or Romani gypsies, have evolved to mean a certain type of flashy working class kid clad in designer sportswear and gold jewelry. The closest U.S. equivalent would probably be trailer trash.
When a British Goldman Sacs employee resigned last year in an open letter and said that some colleagues in London had called their clients “muppets”, Americans at the firm were left wondering what he meant. Brits have borrowed Jim Henson’s name for furry, be-stringed critters and tweaked it to mean someone who’s stupid, gullible and incapable of independent thought. Let’s not mention this to Miss Piggy.
9. Slapper or slag
In the UK, we’re unhealthily attached to nasty words that describe a “loose woman”. These two clangers are the most commonly used, yet they’re insults only the most dedicated American anglophile or British gangster movie aficionado will have encountered. In the U.S., “whore” and “slut” mean much the same thing.
This term, meaning one who engages in self, erm, stimulation, is a milder version of w**ker, which – perhaps you’ve noticed this too – Americans have recently adopted but serially misuse. They seem to think it’s one of those British slurs that doubles as a term of endearment. It’s not.
Which term do you throw around the most? Ever get funny looks!
We’re chatting British and American language differences in our #MindTheChat Friday, August 9 at 1 pm/et. Follow us on Twitter and join in using #MindTheChat.
Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.