Recent articles in both The New York Times and the BBC Magazine commented on the increasing invasion of Britishisms (or “Briticisms,” as they used to be known) into American English. Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic regarded the phenomenon as the Yanks’ attempt to sound sophisticated.
The articles didn’t point out that the cross-pollination works both ways. In recent years, on visits to the United Kingdom, I’ve been startled to encounter cookies where biscuits once were served (chocolate-chip, at that!), bags of potato chips rather than crisps, sidewalks instead of pavements, elevators replacing lifts, and periods at the ends of sentences where full stops used to sit. Whether that makes the Brits sound sophisticated I couldn’t say.
On the other hand, here’s a quick primer of some words that used to be strictly British but have inched their way into the American vocabulary:
Bum – “buttocks,” used since the fourteenth century where Americans would say butt. Bum, from the Middle English bom, is thought to be onomatopœic, analagous to other similar words meaning a “protuberance or swelling,” such as bump, bud, and burr. Butt is the older term, from the late thirteenth century, derived from buttock, which came from buttoc, meaning the “end of a small piece of land.”
Cheeky – “insolent, impudent, or audacious,” in use since 1840, probably from the same anatomical notion that gave rise to jaw or mouth off, alluding to insolent speech. Cheeky monkey is an especially evocative characterization of a saucy young person.
Chuffed – “elated, very pleased,” from the now obsolete chuff (“swollen with fat”), which was last used in that sense in the sixteenth century. If you read the Inspector Lynley mystery novels by Elizabeth George (who is, oddly enough, an American), you’ll encounter this word a lot.
Dodgy – “risky, dangerous, suspicious,” first used around 1860 and probably derived from the verb dodge, meaning “evade.”
Gobsmacked – “flabbergasted, struck dumb with amazement,” attested only since the 1980s, and probably derived from gob meaning “mouth” and smack meaning “hit.”
Knickers – “undergarment for women, i.e. panties,” most often seen in the idiom “Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” meaning “calm down.” Not to be confused with the old-fashioned American word that meant knee-breeches, knickers derives from knickerbockers, so-called from their resemblance to the trousers worn by Dutch settlers in New York as depicted in the George Cruikshank illustrations of Washington Irving’s History of New York, published in 1831, written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker.
Loo – slang for “lavatory or toilet,” in use since the 1920s, probably derived from French lieu d'aisance, "lavatory," literally "place of ease," a euphemism picked up by British servicemen in France during World War I. Others say it may be a pun on Waterloo, based on water closet.
Shag – a vulgarism meaning to “copulate with,” dating to 1788, probably from the obsolete verb shag (late fourteenth century) meaning “shake or waggle.”
Suss – “come to understand, figure out, " in use since 1966, a slang shortening of the police jargon usage of the verb suspect.
Wonky – “shaky or unsteady,” first noted in 1919, and of unknown origin, possibly from the German prefix wankel-, which has a similar sense, or from surviving dialectal words based on Old English wancol ("shaky, tottering").
Britishisms used by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou are pretty much limited to “another pint of bitter” and “where’s the loo?” Nontheless, he has tried his hand at a little transatlantic debauchery, which we all hope will do nothing to imperil the Special Relationship.
Don’t be perplexed by pedagogy,
And sit around just feeling stodgy,
Get off your bum,
Go out and do a deed that’s dodgy.
When you are weary, wan, and wonky,
And feel as dumb as some old donkey,
Don’t be non-plussed,
You’ll get it sussed--
Just hang out in a honky-tonky.
When your lamplight fades and flickers,
And you’re lapping up a load of liquors,
Don’t feel rebuffed,
You can be chuffed,
Just knock the knots out of your knickers.
If you are growing old and creaky,
And find your plumbing’s rather leaky,
Here’s what to do:
Step in the loo,
And come out chipper, chic, and cheeky.
If you are drooping and you’re dragging,
And your libido’s lame and lagging,
Don’t be gobsmacked,
It’s time to act--
‘Cause sure as shooting, you’re shy some shagging.