On Oct. 29, The Times Literary Supplement held a party at the National Arts Club for its new editor, Ferdinand Mount, and the New York Brits came out in force to wine and sport: A writer friend called me “a girl” when I started to say something in earnest; a slender, semifamous writer mocked the American concept of monogamy; an editor with horn-rims smiled politely at a job offer from a prominent American magazine before turning back to more urgent business, the meaning of “snog.”
Oh, you cool, beautiful Brits. Yes, your emotional lives are opaque and, no, you don’t put much stock in personal hygiene. But you never, ever take yourselves too seriously.
Having been as defensive as anyone about the British invasion of publishing- lamenting their values (trashy), their eccentricities (James Truman allegedly chewing on the plastic bulb at the end of a blind pull during a meeting) and their anti-Semitism (what wide acclaim there was for last year’s Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh , in which a typical line, from Waugh, went, “Yes, I am afraid I must admit to a shade of anti-Jew feeling. Not anti-Semite. I rather like Arabs.”)-I find that I’m coming around. I realize that we brought the Brits on ourselves. Our journalism had become turgid and overprofessionalized.
If English Brits are famous for not working, American Brits maintain immigrant standards. “They’re like transfer students, they work harder,” the writer Patty Marx says. You might even think of them as new Jews: a tiny striving minority who exercise enormous influence over the media.
When my people were clamoring loudly at the gates, Leo Rosten softened up the goyim by humanizing us and promoting our language with The Joys of Yiddish . No Brit has taken on this job. It goes against their public school code (or private school-who can figure that out?) to blow their own horn or open those cool, cabineted hearts to sympathy.
Still, their argot gently seeps. About the sixth time lately that an editorial assistant with an American accent said, “That would be genius” when I merely agreed to fax her something, or maybe when The New York Times Magazine described a Los Angeles police officer as “sneaking out for a guilty fag” (“sneaking out for a guilty smoke just didn’t have it,” the author Richard Rayner says), I thought, Can I do it? Can I sing the Joys of Briddish?
Knackered . Dead tired. From knacker’s yard, slaughterhouse.
Shag . More neutral than screwing or fucking. One source tells me that a slapper (retro Briddish for slut) in a bar might actually say, Fancy a shag? Another Brit says you could say to your liberal uncle, Guess who I shagged last night? “You wouldn’t say ‘slept with’?” I asked. “That sounds posh.” You never want to sound posh when you’re talking Briddish.
Tosser . A useless person. From tossing off, one of the poet Philip Larkin’s favorite expressions (and activities). Synonym to wanker. It’s working class, but that’s key to understanding Briddish. Briddish is an upper-class tongue, but it’s all high-low. Privileged Brits assimilate the phrases of the working class without quote marks. One Brit reports that Camilla Parker Bowles, possibly the future Queen of England, muttered, “Don’t want to bollock the car” when squeezing into a tight parking space. Status-conscious American English could gain something from this mix. (Especially considering the typical flat American response to Prince Charles and Camilla: Why does he want to be king if he wants to be a Tampax?)
Have it off . We had it off last night. Briddish always makes sex sound joyless. Was it Johnny Rotten who captured the national spirit by describing sex as a minute and a half of squishing noises?
Naff . Naff is sure to catch on here, naff is key, naff may be everything. If the Eskimos have 50 words for snow, and apparently they don’t, the English have tons of words to express disdain. Naff is wrong, off, or lame, but with a harsh class edge to it. Margaret Thatcher was naff because she was so dowdy, yes, but mainly because she was the daughter of a greengrocer and took herself too seriously. The Spice Girls, the shimmering empty heart of naff.
Pissed . Drunk.
Assholed . Plastered.
Brilliant, brill, fantastic, amazing, excellent, genius . Sorry, English dude, we don’t need any of these.
Berk . A jerk, horse’s ass. From Cockney rhyming English: Berkshire hunt equals cunt, shortened to berk, now crossing gender. What a beautiful journey, huh. Thus: berk in a Merc. (That’s Mercedes, with a hard c.)
Cow . Term of derision for a woman, even a skinny woman. She’s a silly old moo.
Bonking, slagging . Notice how Briddish, perhaps influenced by Yiddish, always sounds like it’s rolled around in the dirt? (We may not be as clever, but we are cleaner and more presentable than they are. When Martin Amis got his teeth fixed, there was a national outcry.)
He’s good news. As close as limp Briddish gets to enthusiasm.
He’s passed his sell-by date . Back to the usual snarky fare.
Gobsmacked . Tabloid speech that’s going wide, and why not. It means dumbfounded.
Cock-up (noun). A screw-up. Almost as fun to say as the great Yiddish adjective for screwed-up: f’cocked.
Bolshy . Has made the long march from the particular to the generic: self-righteous. “Self-righteous is even too honorable,” says Inigo Thomas, of George magazine. “I’d say bolshy about a moody young child. I’d be looking on him fondly, giving him points for trying to get his way.”
Stroppy . Bad-tempered. She’s in a strop. Employed, as all Briddish is, to enforce a certain manner. “There are so many terms in England indicating a much lower tolerance for grandeur about oneself,” says the writer Zoë Heller.
Stitching someone up . Understated Briddish for hatchet job. Stronger than “take the piss.”
Take the piss out . A useful phrase meaning to mock or dis. Often wielded by the victim of such behavior: “Don’t take the piss,” a slightly confrontational expression meaning, You’re being unreasonable. You’re belittling me. You might even be fucking my wife. (Does a Brit care?)
Spivvy . I don’t know what this means, but an English person said it. Something about a scammer with pointy shoes.
Scarpered . Fled.
Knickers . “The vicar was found wearing knickers-that’s what British sex was like for a number of years,” says Ms. Heller.
Snog . Typical of Briddish to take something sexy, in this case a tongue kiss, and render it silly, childish. It always sounds to me like a blend of snug and snot. Sorry; I prefer to French.
One-off . It happened after the Christmas party, sharing that cab downtown, and what a comedown to run into him on the street two weeks later, lantern-jawed and unctuous. Listen, he said, can we have a drink sometime? You smile icily, Briddishly. I think that was a one-off. An event not repeated. Jesse Sheidlower, an expert on slang at Random House, who disputes my claim that the Joys of Briddish will rival The Joys of Yiddish (“Yiddish was vast!”), reports that one-off is in the Webster’s College Dictionary.
Wide boy . This should make it across the pond. Refers to a stylish lower-class man with attitude. Funny, cocky, flashy, scam-running. Bruce Willis before he hit it.
Chippy . Bearing a chip on the shoulder. Which the Brits do, coming over here from their laggard blind-pull-chewing culture. As sure as we Jews did (do?), teeming up from live-poultry Delancey. If you only get to know the Brits-and, no, they don’t make it easy-you know that under the cleverness and snobbery, they’re anxious to do well here in the bigs and gain our approval (and S.I. Newhouse Jr.’s pay). And why shouldn’t they have it? They’re better talkers than we are, they’re motivated (even if they’re no good with numbers).
Of course, speaking Briddish still seems pretentious, posh, climby. Your chippy narrator seethes when his friend says, “My fax machine is in hospital.” (The writer Hilton Als says that’s bullying: “Americans have always been suspicious of history and other people.”)
All that could change, though.
If a tedious, self-important print culture was what pulled the Brits to New York, the push was naff conservative England. That berk John Major and that gray cow Margaret Thatcher. Who wanted to be around for that? Now Tony Blair is allegedly young and exciting (you could fool me), and they’re spending millions on the new Tate Gallery and some sort of dome. The upside of Diana’s death was that the global response reassured the chippy Brit that his culture still mattered. London’s happening. Young Brits want to make their mark there.
They might stop coming. Now can you love them?