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Some of the most endearingly antiquated and incomprehensible phrases in the English language emanate from Britain’s upper class. Expect to have to explain yourself to straight-talking Americans should any of these highborn idioms leave your lips.
1. Golly gosh
Should you wish to register mild surprise in a genteel manner, this expression gets the job done. “Golly” and “gosh”, incidentally, are thought to be old euphemisms for “God.” Crumbs! Who knew?
2. Old bean
Also see: “old sport”, “old fellow” or even “old fruit.” All are terms of endearment, which subtly imply the object of your warmth is perhaps a tad passed his or her prime. As in, “Really, Old Bean, must you put your keys in the fridge every time you come home?”
As every Brit knows, this is a refined yet pompous way of saying something is, frankly, nonsense. What some of us may not know, however, is that the word can be converted into the adjective “poppycocking.” As in, “Stop all that poppycocking around, Old Bean.”
4. Jolly hockey sticks
A phrase used to describe an upper class female (possibly a school girl or school mistress) who’s enthusiastic to an irritating—or irrational—degree. She could have her tuck confiscated or her head shoved down the loo by bigger girls, and it wouldn’t come close to breaking her spirit. “She’s frightfully jolly hockey sticks,” an onlooker might comment.
5. Pip pip
For the uninitiated, this is a cheerful way for posh folk to say “goodbye.” Admittedly, this one hasn’t gotten out much in the last hundred years, but it’s useful for parodying the well-to-do – or understanding Jeeves and Wooster type satire.
6. By Jove
“Jove” is, of course, an abbreviation of “Jehovah”, a.k.a. God. Back in the 18th and 19th century, it was used by people trying to avoid saying the “G” word, which could be deemed offensive. Now, it’s probably only uttered by the occasional aristocrat wishing to register his mild, delighted shock. Or, more likely, the occasional aristocrat wishing to register his mild delighted shock in a terribly written film or period drama.
If something is excellent or marvelous, a posh Brit might once have referred to it as “spiffing.” “That’s a spiffing hat,” or “Absolutely spiffing, old chap.” Nowadays, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear it used unironically.
8. Good grief
One of the more familiar expressions on the list, this is not, as the uninitiated might guess, an endorsement of a certain type of mourning. Instead, it’s an exclamation of mild—possibly amused—posh person shock. As in, “Good grief, man. Put some pants on.”
9. Jolly good show
Again, this isn’t necessarily an expression to be taken literally. It’s not: “Jolly good show, that EastEnders.” It’s more often a term of admiration for anyone or anything that’s performed well. Like a football team or share portfolio.
When this word comes out of one of our well-to-do countrymen’s mouths (pronounced “kepitol”), they’re not referring to a city, letter or money used to start a business. Instead, it means “fantastic!”
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View all posts by Ruth Margolis.