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Thursday
Sep172009

Taking the Piss

Britain and America have been described as two countries separated by a common language.

That statement sums it up pretty well I think.

We each use different words when talking about the same things; “Trash” in the US is “Rubbish” in the UK.

To complicate things further a “Trash Can” in America, is a “Dustbin” in Britain.

The problem has been over the years that Americans keep changing things to suit their own ends. Football is called Soccer, to avoid confusion with the game where, out of the whole team, only one player actually kicks the ball with his foot.

They bring this player on the field only when the ball needs to be kicked, because he is the only one who knows how to do it.

Where they don’t change the word, they spell it differently. In America they took the “U” out of colour and spell it color, which is fine, it simplifies things.

However, when Americans come across a name like mine, “Moulton,” they don’t know the rule is; when these two vowels are together, the second one is silent.

They try to put the “U” in there and it comes out sounding something like Mow-ull-ton, instead of Mol-ton. I have to explain, it is like when sheep make love; the ewe (U) is silent.

Here is a joke that no American will get.

What’s the difference between a Kangaroo, and a Kangaroot? A Kangaroo is an animal, and a Kangaroot is a Geordie stuck in a lift.

To translate for those used to American English. From the end of the punch line; a lift is an elevator, a Geordie is a native of Newcastle, which is a town in the far North of England. They speak in a dialect that even most English people can’t understand.

In fact if it wasn’t for Newcastle Brown Ale, most Americans would not have heard of the place. So a person from Newcastle, trapped in an elevator, would make the statement, “I can’t get out.” However, with this strange dialect they speak there, it would sound like “A Kangaroot.”

Of course jokes are never funny when you have to explain them, but it does serve to illustrate the many different dialects that exist within the tiny island made up of England, Scotland and Wales.

I grew up in the East End of London so developed a strong Cockney accent early on. As a teen my parents moved to Luton, which is only 30 miles North of London, so the dialect didn’t change that much. Locals from Luton, leave the “T” out of the name of their town, and call it Lu’on.

In my early twenties I moved back to the East End of London, so my accent was pretty well established; even though I moved to the North of England in the 1960s, and to Worcester in the West in the 1970s. 

When I came to the United States in 1979, I may as well have spoken a foreign language. I had no problem understanding Americans, but they could not understand me.

I remember walking into a Produce Market in New Jersey and asking for Grapefruit; I was met with blank stares. In frustration I walked over to a pile of grapefruit, and holding one up asked, “Was’sat then?”

“Grapefruit,” they answered.

“Wot the faack did I just say?” I responded. Luckily, they didn’t understand that either. I bought my grapefruit and left.

There followed years of frustration until I adapted my version of the English so it could be understood. Now the Cockney dialect, bastardised with American, people think I’m Australian.

The problem is most Americans think that the English all talk like the Monty Python crew. When they realize I am English they say something like, “Pip, pip old chap, absolutely spiffing, jolly good, what.” 

They think it is funny, but after thiry years it is bloody annoying, ‘cos no one in England actually speaks like that. Which lead me to the realization that in America there is no slang for “Taking the Piss.” Which is exactly what they are doing with the mock accent.

To explain once more to my US readers, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, is “Taking the Piss” out of the American News Media. There is no slang expression for that in America; it is not the same as “Are you kidding?” or “Are you shittin’ me?” There is a subtle difference.

John Cleese and the rest of the Monty Python cast were taking the piss out of the British upper class twit, by exaggerating the upper class accent.

The thing is in England, Piss Taking is an art form, and you don’t always realize it is happening. When you do you ask, “Are you taking the piss?”

Every one laughs, and the piss taking stops. Without the “Piss Taking” expression in America the piss taking continues.

Sometimes amongst strangers I can go with the pretence that I'm Australian. Americans think all Australians are like Crocodile Dundee (Paul Hogan.) or Russell Crow, and it's best not to take the piss out of those people.

Other than that, all I can do is endure it and occasionally write piss taking articles like this one.

Reader Comments (11)

"There followed years of frustration until I adapted my version of the English so it could be understood. Now the Cockney dialect, bastardised with American, people think I’m Australian."

I once worked for an English carpenter who had lived in the US for about 15 years at the time. He often encountered people who wanted to take a guess at his origins. On one occasion that I witnessed, a young lady guessed damn near every English speaking country in the world, including Canada, but not England. She finally gave up.

September 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Loveless

Dave, I don't agree that there's no North American equivalent to the British expression "taking the piss" (or "taking the mickey", a milder way of saying the same thing). Mocking, or making fun of should do it. This subject also brings up subtle differences between certain American and Canadian expressions. Americans get pissed, while Canadians get pissed off. When a Canadian "gets pissed", he gets drunk.

Like Dave, I also grew up in London, England, but came to Canada in the mid-fifties, when I was just 15. Wanting to assimilate, I worked hard at dropping my Cockney accent. Aside from the most obvious differences in British and Canadian accents, I noticed how Canadians pronounced their R's while the English dropped them. Working on this, I earned the nickname "Scotty"!

September 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

Aside from your understandable frustration, this had me laughing out loud. Even among Americans, accents can be a big issue. I grew up hyper aware of accents, because my parents are from the north (near Boston) but moved to the south (Carolina) for the Army. My parents had very strong Massachusetts accents and southerners had a hard time understanding them. My mother tried to adapt her accent, but then several people thought she was German. I have no idea how that happened. When I started dating my now-husband, whose family is very southern and lives on a farm, I could not understand a lot of what his parents said to me, which was mortifying. (FYI - "skeeters" are mosquitoes, "winders" are windows.) On the other hand, when I visited London this year, I understood everyone perfectly.

September 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDottie

Priceless! The last time I visited the US, I went into a bar and asked for a Coopers beer. I'd heard others ask for the same beer, so I knew they stocked it. The bartender looked blankly at me, asked me to repeat myself. "Coopers", I yelled over the din. Blank stare. Finally, I screamed "BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEER". And they produced a pale, amber, fizzy substance that smelled vaguely of hops. You see, English is not the only thing Americans bastardise ;)

September 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMax

I left Washington state (I always had to say "state" after Washington otherwise DC was assumed) in 1977 to attend a small college in Manchester. Thank goodness I'd been watching "Coronation Street" on the "telly" so I was somewhat acclimatised (s? z? hmmm.) but for the life of me it took forever to begin to understand the student from Bolton, just 15 miles away. That is one of the fascinating things I find about accents in England - they are widely varied within just a short distance.

September 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGene

I think we have too many accents in the UK. Everyone should speak like us Southerners! :-)

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTrainsharp Cycle Coaching

“Are you kidding?” or “Are you shittin’ me?” is definetely not the american equivlent of "taking the piss" out of somebody. However, "fuckin' with" somebody is.

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Strong

Yer a faacking cokney besterd er ya. haha. Would have never guessed after reading the blog for a for a few years, guess things like accents never come across in written form. I once lived in a London flatshare where I had to be the official translator for everyone. Having grown up all over the world i was able to translate for everyone between english, kiwi, american and tasmanian so we could all understand each other, quite comical at times, innit.

September 19, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbooka

When I saw the title of this post, and then the dog, I thought this would be a discourse on you know, the obvious. Anyway, great article. You take the mickey out of Americans!

September 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRon

Interesting piece about accents alright. Have you any opinions on Irish accents?For a country that's even smaller than England the diversity in dialects has to be heard to be believed and I'm not just talking about the brogue from The Quiet Man or the northside Dubs in The Commitments!

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTom

"Newcastle, which is a town in the far North of England. They speak in a dialect that even most English people can’t understand."

Ah divvent knaa wotyeronaboot like!

June 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA Capp
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