Among the random tesserae that comprise the mosaic of my life, thefacebook.com becomes steadily more interesting. (Come on, all you guys with no sexual preference listed, you’re not fooling anyone. We know you’re gay.)
Still, it’s partly thanks to the facebook’s Anglo-American Society that I can remind everybody about the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, which falls today. This was the occasion when Admiral Nelson’s fleet defeated that of Napoleon, who was trying to conquer Europe, thereby setting in motion an English suspicion of European unity that persists to this day.
(At least, it does in some circles. Trafalgar was commemorated this summer with a reenactment of the battle, marred slightly by the fact that it was fought not between the belligerent nations but between the Reds and the Blues for fear of offending the French. That said, it can’t help that Nelson’s famous signal — England expects — was matched by the forgotten but equally brilliant French signal: ‘To the water, it is the hour.’ The reason this hasn’t passed into history is because the original reads ‘A l’eau, c’est l’heure.’ — say it out loud and it makes sense — I digress).
In the attempts to define Englishness that followed in the wake of the London bombings, suspicion of the French was a commonly cited characteristic. Others included reticence, subtlety, understatement and politeness. As the Hungarian George Mikes wrote, ‘even when he is alone, the Englishman forms an orderly queue of one.’
But then, he also said that ‘Europeans have sex, the English have hot water bottles.’
National identity has been on my mind ever since I read Professor Timothy Kenny (University of Connecticut) quoted in London’s Daily Telegraph. “You Brits are so posh, so witty,” he purred. “We Americans swoon when you speak. Even the cash machine in my small Connecticut town has a young woman with very British tones urging me to ‘enter my secret number.'”
Fearing that the good professor had confused real life with a bizarre sexual fantasy — and I’ve never met an ATM that was trying to seduce me — I called him to inquire further. And apparently, in the small town of Coventry, you can indeed be addressed by a vixen who wants your number for a cash transaction — although if that’s all you wanted, you could just hang round BAR on a Tuesday.
I’m happy to accept the compliment and confirm that we’re all witty; so witty, in fact, that Americans frequently don’t notice. And I wish it were true that you all swooned when I spoke. But even on the rare occasions people do drift in my direction, it’s a little disconcerting to be desired largely for my accent. I have subtlety, I have wit, I have particularly fetching green eyes – but no, it’s the bloody accent. At least an English accent is supposed to make the bearer sound more intelligent, a theory currently being practiced on two Cold War discussion sections.
Prof. Kenny’s original point, expressed in a Los Angeles Times article, was to note the creeping invasions of Brit-isms such as ‘gone missing’ for ‘disappeared’ (“it drives me insane,” he groaned). To my mind, this seems a fair trade for the suffering caused by the American belief that there’s no noun that can’t be verbed.
Not that Americanisms are necessarily bad. Over the past two years, I’ve adopted some of your finer expressions: ‘hit me back,’ for ‘please respond to this message,’ ‘my bad’ for ‘it is I who am in error’ and ‘that sucks’ for ‘the circumstance you relate is far from ideal.’
Even my lovely accent is shaky: especially in section, I can hear myself use a strange mix of English and American intonation, which could, I suppose, be called Irritable Vowel Disorder.
Yet even the experienced alien can unintentionally sow confusion. ‘Pitch up,’ meaning to arrive in a serious but casual fashion, apparently doesn’t exist in American, and the word ‘toss’ is a minefield for the unwary. Goodness knows what Americans make of Kipling’s ‘turn of pitch-and-toss,’ but it sounds like something that happens at the more dubious kind of frat party.
That said, we do have much to offer: ‘taking the piss’ for ‘gently mocking’ and ‘cock-up’ for ‘avoidable mistake.’ Hence, the phrase ‘cock-up at the YDN’ means simply that ‘an avoidable mistake has occurred at the oldest college daily’ and absolutely nothing else. ‘Bum a fag’ is another helpful phrase that could easily be lost in translation, but even if you’re misunderstood it’s a potential win-win situation.
So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to send myself to Coventry, where I’ll pitch up at an ATM, queue to be asked my secret number, bum a fag, take the piss out of the French and then find a hot water bottle.
It is autumn, after all.
Nick Baldock labours over the colourful language in his column.