a queen's English

A friend sent me an email last night I had to share:

"Yesterday when I was reading your piece about your new tv habits, all I could think (while rolling my eyes) was: Dude, knock it off! You're not some bloke in a posh flat in London sipping tea while watching your telly. You're a guy from Indiana living in freakin' Dorchester, MA, watching crappy shows on your tv, just like the rest of us. Yes, reality sucks. Well, at least you're not speaking with a Madonna like British accent."

I'm working on that last part.

Yes, with friends like this... but never mind. I guess "telly" was the straw that broke the camel's back. She didn't seem to notice that in the same entry, I refrained, for her sake, from using "flat" for "apartment," knowing how much it bothers her.

Obviously she doesn't like my little Britishisms and has told me so to my face. But in my own defense, I never use the word "posh," especially to describe my "flat". Personally I like the word "flat" because it's shorter and more to the point than apartment. Plus, apartment sort of sounds expansive, where flat sounds more compact, like my... living quarters are. If I wanted to be really "posh" I'd say "chambers".

It may sound a little pretentious now, but it's actually "apartment" that is the more pretentious word. If "flat" and "apartment" met in a dark alley, "flat" would kick "apartment"'s ass, that's for sure.

Another thing: I have a flat-mate, not a roommate, and no one says apartment-mate. But I share my apartment, not my room with him. And this sometimes causes confusion. I keep finding him in my room. "Well, we're roommates, aren't we?" No, I keep telling him, we're flat-mates. He's like, "what's that?" I'm like, apartment-mates, dude. He's like, "no such word."

It's like not having a phrase for "bon appetit".

So it's true, I would like to see Americans adopt "flat" and a couple other innocent-enough, and widely used Britishisms. Nothing as obscure as "knackered" or as arcane as "kerfuffle." We're importing these obnoxious Brits all the time. Simon Cowell and the Supernanny, and that bird who rearranges your closets. Why not import some Britishisms, too? Enrich the language. It's a kind of cultural exchange.

"Bloke," I like, and it's fundamentally non-pretentious, too. People say it's like "guy," and since we've got "guy" why do we need "bloke"? But "guy" is as flaccid and indescriptive as "nice" (which is why they so often go together). "Guy" rhymes with "why" and sounds whiny. It's nasally. And American English is already way too nasally. British English forces words further back, and makes you open your throat. Whatever you want to make of that.

What it boils down to: "bloke" is ballsier. It sounds "blokey," dunnit? "Guy" goes well with "gay". "He's a gay guy." And that's fine. I mean, if that's what you're going for. But you can't say, "he's a gay bloke." I mean, it's just not done. Doesn't make sense. Because "gay" still retains it's older sense of light, care-free, airy-fairy, none of which mixes well with "bloke." (And in British English a "fag" is a cigarette, so don't even go there.)

Anyway, I need as many words for the male of the species as I can get. The more the merrier.

Just for the record, a bloke would not be sitting in a posh flat sipping tea. He'd be on the pitch or down the pub with his mates having a pint. And that's another thing about "blokes." They have "mates". You can't have the one without the other. "Guy"? Sure, you can say, "he's just one of the guys," but it just means he's even more utterly nondescript and neutral in a crowd than when he's by himself. You unpack "guy" and there's really nothing in it. A "guy" is just a "guy". There is little more than gender implied (and as for that, it might as well be neuter). It implies nothing about class origins, tastes, pastimes, morphology, or propensity for hooliganism. It has no nuance at all. I mean, what do you think of when you think of a guy named Guy?

I understand my friend may have been trying to convey with her absurd sentence ("you're not some bloke in a posh flat in London sipping tea while watching your telly") the absurdity of a Hoosier using highfalutin words like "bloke," "posh," and "flat." All of which are monosyllabic, and none of which have any high-class pretensions in their original form. But, point taken.

As for "dude," Scott Kiesling, a linguist from the University of Pittsburgh, has deconstructed it, and says the word connotes "cool solidarity, an effortless kinship that's not too intimate.
Cool solidarity is especially important to young men who are under social pressure to be close with other young men, but not enough to be suspected as gay." Just compare "hey, guy" and "hey, dude." (You would not say, "hey, bloke.") "Dude" obviously has a nuance all its own.

I will say this: white Americans speak a washed-out English. "Wicked" is about as colorful as it gets in these parts. What makes British English so much more fun (just check out this compilation of English slang and colloquialisms used in the U.K.) is it's coming from a blokier culture. This seems counter-intuitive, because when Americans think of British English, they think of the queen's English. But only queens speak the queen's English.

Region and class play a larger role in British English than in the more standardized American version. There are some slight differences, based on region, in America, but the biggest distinctions are due to race and profession. White America's slang is either lifted from black America, or comes from the washed-out workplace milieu. I think there's a case to be made for Britain's richer store of slang coming from a more compact, more urban society. Because slang is the language of subcultures. It arises from shared experience, like all language. But in America, subcultures are increasingly abstract. Experience increasingly mediated.

Which means we're producing less new language. My friend would probably say, "you go to the inkwell with the language you've got," and she's got a point there, too. I'm importing another culture's slang, but that's because ours seems to be losing its nuance (except in business and politics). And the American subcultures that are producing slang are not subcultures with which I particularly identify.

(Some interesting articles on "language crossing"--from least to most academic: here and here and here and here.)


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