Press-Republican

May 30, 2012

Mother instilled love for British heritage, language

By SUSAN TOBIAS, Pinch of Time
Press-Republican

---- — Britain and America have fought side by side in skirmishes since 1859, and a special friendship has developed, especially in World War II.

For my family, the friendship is personal, because we share British blood. My dad, Artie McGibbon, who was in the Army during World War II, met my mother, Jean Johnson, and they married in 1945 in England.

My mother has made sure we know and experience the English customs and we love them: tea in china cups, egg and chips (French fries) for supper, bangers and mash (English sausages and mashed potatoes), Yorkshire pudding and Christmas crackers (paper cylinders you pull like a wishbone; little presents and a “silly hat” fly out).

The English language — the “real” English language — has been part of our upbringing. When we question my mother about the way she pronounces certain words (i.e., “laBORatory” or “zed”), she’ll say, “I speak the queen’s English. I don’t know what English you are speaking,” with a raise of the eyebrows.

Enter the “UK to US Dictionary” by Claudine Dervaes and John Hunter. A copy landed on our editor’s desk, and it lines right up with our family’s experiences.

Common words Americans use become something else in England, such as lawyer becomes barrister, a bird is a woman, bitters are popular ales, and don’t dare say “bloody” because it’s a curse word. How about “Bob’s your uncle,” which means everything is good; or the bonnet as the hood of the car; and the boot is the trunk. Tell someone “On your bike,” and you’re telling them to go away.

My grandmother Johnson’s nickname was Nellie, but she had nothing to do with the phrase “Not on your nellie,” which is saying, “No way!” The loo is the restroom, and your lughole is your ear. A nipper is a young boy or girl, and a nosey parker is an inquisitive person. If you are knackered, you’re tired.

Several years after my dad died, my mother married our fantastic stepfather, Frank Goddard. Frank is a hardworking, sports-loving man who has made us more aware of cockney rhyming. He’s had a few curious looks and a lot of questions when he used cockney phrases or rhyming slang, but it’s a natural part of the British language.

The “UK to USA Dictionary” says rhyming slang is a type of code that was invented many years ago by the Cockneys, Englishmen who live in East London, who resented having to work with Irish immigrants. They devised rhyming words to confuse them.

The dictionary states that “you can pretty much make up your own.” Over time, the list changes and some words get replaced with others. Sometimes the rhyming part is omitted, such as “Have a butcher’s,” which means “Have a look,” rhyming with “butcher’s hook.”

At Mum and Frank’s house, you might hear “your daisy roots,” that’s your boots; “up the apples and pears,” that is up the stairs. How about your “plates of meat,” which is your feet; and brown bread means dead. What if you said to your kids, “Get your plates of meat up the apples and pears, or you’re brown bread”? Too funny!

A few more I found in the book are biscuits and cheese are your knees, bread knife is your wife, and jockey’s whip are chips.

Several phrases use men’s names: Uncle Ben is 10, as in money (English pounds); Uncle Bert, shirt; Uncle Fred, bread; Uncle Gus, bus; Uncle Jack, back; Uncle Ned, bed or head; Uncle Reg, veg(etables); Uncle Toby, Mobi (a British cell phone); Uncle Willy, silly; and your uncles and aunts are your plants.

Bubble and squeak is a dish that Frank really likes, made of warmed leftover rutabaga or veggies with cabbage and potatoes. Frank has been a meat cutter most of his life and makes his own homemade bangers, a delicious sausage.

Each generation of our family takes a pride in being half British. We are all Royal Family watchers; love the queen; collect everything about them; and observe British customs, as directed by our mother. More than that, we love our Mum for making sure we know who we are and where we come from. Who knows, there could be some royal blood in our line. Maybe I’ll take a DNA test. You never know.

One last thought, as always, please be kind to each other. The world needs more kindness.