Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Untranslatable: BrE to AmE

11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures

George Bernard Shaw would have declared that most British English is untranslatable into American English but, having spoken both languages with a reasonable degree of fluency for the past five years, I'm not sure that's entirely the case anymore.  With pop culture crossing the Atlantic faster than a speeding tweet, BrE has permeated AmE and visa versa.  (That being said, I still think that this New York Times piece is an embarrassment to, you know, actual journalism.)  You're more likely to find subtitles in an American reality TV show - ahem, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo - than an English period drama that's made its way to US screens.  And, even when Americans have their own words or phrases that equate to British ones, most on both side of the pond will recognize either.

But there are some words in each language that don't have a direct translation.  I took to Facebook to ask for suggestions of BrE that don't have an AmE equivalent; my friend Louise especially enjoyed the challenge, though I suspect she made some of these words up...


My brilliant friends also submitted a few delicious phrases, like "dodgy prawn," "taking the piss," "for England," and "that's not cricket," but there's enough there for a second blog post!  Here are some of the other word suggestions I got:

faff (noun) - a mess, a chaotic situation
faff (verb) -  to mess around
moreish (adjective) - so good that you want lots of it; usually used to describe food or drink
fancy (verb) - to like someone romantically
tea (noun) - a meal that comes in late afternoon; sometimes referring to a  young child's early dinner
fuddle (verb) - to explore without looking for anything in particular
snaffle (verb) - to steal without malicious intent

Can you come up with any more, dear readers?  Gesci pointed out that Lynne Murphy has a fantastic series about untranslatable words on her blog, though I didn't let myself read it until I'd finished this post, and I definitely recommend you follow her on Twitter if you're into this sort of thing.  But I know you have ideas of your own of either AmE or BrE untranslatable words!  Leave them in the comments, please - I'd love to hear what you've got.

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26 comments:

  1. I've got a whole bunch of Scottish lingo, if you want to get really specific.
    The Scottish word I love and still use is "outwith". At least I think it's only used in Scotland. It means "outside of", as in "the forest is outwith the city limits" or "that is outwith her job description".

    Then you've got words and phrases like peely wally, piece, boggin, numpty, besom, and much more.

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  2. Haha I also just remembered one of my favorite phrases that was used on marketing at Glasgow's Prestwick airport: Pure Dead Brilliant.

    We say "pure" and "dead" to mean "very", so "pure great" or "dead good". Something that is "pure dead brilliant" is very very good. Sadly though, I don't think foreign passengers liked seeing the word "dead" before or after they got on a plane!

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  3. I've heard numpty! but I think you made "peely wally" up by yourself :P

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  4. This reminds me of that scene in the third Austin Powers movie where Austin & his Dad are chatting in East End Cockney slang and they have subtitles into US English for what everything actually means! Quite hilarious in my opinion.


    I miss Australian slang. We have an awfully bad habit of shortening words as well as having some really odd expressions!
    'sarvo = this afternoon
    Maccas = McDonalds
    'sanga = Sandwich
    Cuppa = cup of tea or coffee
    Doing your block = getting cranky
    Playing Sillybuggers = messing around

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  5. Charlie and I play sillybuggers all the time :P


    have you seen Snatch? you can turn on subtitles for the Pikey bits in the DVD extras!

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  6. Great post! Some of these are essential to know if living in the uk: taking the piss, dinner/tea/supper (all basically the same thing), fancying someone, maccy ds, dead good, silly buggers (although this is really quite old slang, hardly anyone says it), and the newer/teen slang- safe (meaning awesome)hench (physically fit).

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  7. Loved this!! I'm from Wisconsin and many of the cities have weird names that many people can't pronounce- I think it's so funny to watch!

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  8. This post is so fun, I love it!!


    I was invited to "tea" by my neighbor in Yorkshire not long after we moved there. I got all confused and called my friend from Lincoln and asked her "am I invited to tea (drink) and snacks or a big evening meal?!" and she said "ha, who knows? You're in Yorkshire!" Because apparently all dinner (evening meal) is "tea" in Yorkshire. But so's tea. And afternoon tea.
    Even Max and Sloan's petsitter would text me that they'd had their "tea". Paul once said "She's not really giving them tea, right??" (He'd already been shocked over how many babies were given tea in bottles, so it was a fair confusion!)


    Oh, and for Louise's "pop 'round", I'd say "drop by". So I think there is an American equivalent!

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  9. I always think of "dead sexy" when I hear dead used as an adjective- although I can't think of why??!

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  10. I say, 'taking the piss' all of the time! Too much probably.
    I'm trying to figure out how the word, 'd├ępaysment' has slipped by me for these last four years... I think it's kind of an important word for me to know!
    And Gregory is guilty of jayus a lot! I have a habit of laughing at him instead of with him. Bless.

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  11. I love posts like this! Sobremesa is my favourite. Trying to think of very British words. I agree with "tea" and "dinner" and "supper" basically meaning the same thing. Chuffed is a great word, as are faffed, knackered, arsed, as it "I can't be arsed with that". I didn't actually realised moreish and fancy were British-isms!

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  12. In the start of our relationship Fredrik and I had problems with this since in school here they learn British English so he would say to me he was having tea at work and I would be like ok whatever and make dinner and he would have eaten already! Now we speak in a mesh of American English, British English, Swenglish and other phrases I picked up living in the hostel. For example of Swenglish when Swedes use the word boring it can also mean lame or stupid, so if Fredrik makes a lame joke I will tell him he is being boring or if he does not want to watch the same show as me. Other various things we say though are mozzie for mosquitos, sunnies for sunglasses, dooner for comforter, and I use the South African now and now now too!

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  13. HENCH?


    oh man, I feel old. I remember learning what "fit" meant when I was 12 - I was in Salisbury and one of the choirgirls described one of the boys as fit. he was cute, sure, but also really scrawny. I was so confused! haha

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  14. doesn't Wisconsin have lots of French names? I have no idea who settled there!

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  15. we had an English au pair when I was younger who I heard call her sister a cow on the phone once. so the next day I called Sarah a cow... and Lucy got really mad. haha!

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  16. JAYSUS? is that a remnant from Dublin or something?

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  17. haha Swenglish! love it. my boyfriend when I lived in Paris was English and we'd speak a weird hybrid of French/BrE/AmE around French people :P

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  18. No! The Indonesian one, because he is rotten at telling jokes!

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  19. The untranslatable word from Indonesia is 'jayus', meaning a joke told so poorly and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh. Gregory is horrible at telling jokes, absolutely rotten, so bad that we end up laughing at him trying to tell it, rather than the joke itself. Hence, he is guilty of jayus.

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  20. Oh thank God! I thought I had lost the ability to communicate in English! ;)

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  21. I've heard of all those English words and never thought about them not having a translation!
    My boyfriend is from further north than me and sometimes even he thinks I speak a foreign language so I don't know what Americans would make of me!

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  22. BOYFRIEND!? so I guess the guy from over the summer did take after all :P

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