My slang’s sneakier than your slang

July 3rd, 2010 § 3

See those bridges? Somehow they’ve joined, and slang is sneaking across them from the US to the UK.

For example, there was once a divide between people who say “you guys” and people who don’t. This divide consisted of a large-ish body of water called the Atlantic Ocean.

When I was in Liverpool in the late 1970s, studying for a graduate degree, I naturally said “you guys” all the time, frequently in connection with some food-related activity. “Hey, you guys!” I would shout. “Wanna go get some pizza?”

C'mon baby, light my fire!

My English friends would respond as follows: (1) “guys” are things you set fire to on Guy Fawke’s night; (2) women should not be referred to as guys; (3) it’s not lunch time.

This flummoxed me. If you’re hanging out with a bunch of men (I kept trying to do this, with indifferent success), you can address them as “you lot” or “eh, lads” or even, “right, you tossers.” But when you’re chillin’ with the Jills, your terms of address are limited. “Girls”? Insufficiently feminist. “Hey, lasses! Wanna go get some pizza?” No.

Pizza achieved; slang unchanged until recently

Mmm. Pizza!

So I went on saying “you guys” and eventually my friends stopped correcting me. Sometimes they even went for pizza. But they didn’t say “you guys.”

But today I got an email message from one of these friends, and there in the first paragraph, in reference to another woman and me, was the phrase: “you guys.”

Crikey! Dr. Posh Well-Spoken (not her real name) is now saying “you guys,” even though she’s very proper and gently-reared and has more degrees than you can shake a stick at — if shaking sticks is your idea of a good time, and who am I to judge your hobbies?

I’ve also heard English people say “gonna” and “come ta.” Sometimes they say all three, as in, “Those guys on the England team are gonna come ta no good.” At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before the Queen begins her Christmas speech: “Yo, listen up, dudes.”

It’s been happening for years. A vision comes to mind from ca. 1994 of Gareth Blackstock, aka Lenny Henry, shaking his chef-capped head and saying, “I can’t handle this.” He wasn’t talking about a hot spatula, either. And I seem to remember, in Four Weddings etc., one character (John Hannah?) saying to another (Hugh Grant?): “How’s it going?”

Hey, I’m glad you asked!

English people never used to ask that question. Particularly not of Americans, for fear of getting an answer. “Well, now, my piles are playin’ up something awful, which is why I’m settin’ on this cushion, and say, this weather’s just the pits, does it ever stop rainin’ over here? These sweat pants are never gonna dry out at this rate, and anyway … ”

Yes, it’s an enduring mystery that although we Americans haven’t got time to differentiate amongst our vowels –in fact we find it pretty darned im-pahss-uh-bull – we do have time to talk, well, quite a lot, actually.

Jon channels Glenn

It will be more entertaining to listen to us when British slang wakes up and realizes that it, too, can sneak across the joined bridges. I look forward to the day when Jon Stewart can just call Glenn Beck a wanker, or even a c**t, and have done with it. (If he’s done this already? PLEASE send me the link.)

I’m doing my bit, crikey-ing and bloody-ing all over the place, going to the chemist, calling people “daft as brushes,” popping to the loo, etc. Mostly I just get funny looks, but I’m a persistent little git once I get an idea into my head.

Which reminds me:

Hey, you guys, wanna go get some pizza?

[Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005: Guy Fawkes effigy in Lewes, from  Wikimedia Commons.]

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§ 3 Responses to “My slang’s sneakier than your slang”

  • Deana Birks says:

    I actually saw an article a few years ago about the Queen’s English. Someone had listened to several years’ worth of her formal speeches and tracked how her accent, pronunciation, and language had become more informal over time.

    The only British slang I use (that I’m aware of) is wonky. Which I heard from a season 6 Buffy episode.

  • Crikey! I had no idea that they now use the generic and flaccid term “you guys” in England, now. We Americans just keep spreading the good around, don’t we? What’s next? “Y’all?” molly

  • Rhiannon says:

    Deana, I love Buffy, and Giles is my favorite character. I’m going to re-watch the first 4 seasons when I get back from Britain — where, Molly, I will “have a bash” at spreading “Y’all,” despite being a Californian.

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