As shown in the National Trust’s Silly Walking campaign, British humour often has a self-deprecating streak (Credit: Alamy)
It’s unsurprising that this national trait has made its way into the language. Romantic activities (like ‘snog’ and ‘shag’) are spoken of in childish terms. Classic dishes are made to sound deliberately unappetising (‘dead man’s arm’ and ‘Eton mess’ – respectively, a rolled cake filled with jam and a dessert combining meringue, strawberries and cream. And there’s a healthy appetite for nonsensical ambiguity. To take just one example, ‘ladybird’ is a bugbear of perplexed Americans who wonder – although their version of the word is only slightly more sensible – “Why ladybird? Why not ladybug?”
This hints at a gleeful willingness in British English to dispense with literal meaning. Food, for instance, is a rich vein of words like this. ‘Fairy cake’, ‘toad in the hole’, and ‘jacket potato’ have nothing to do with fairies, toads and jackets.
There’s a long tradition in British English of inventing words just for the fun of it. Eminent linguist David Crystal writes in The Story of English in 100 Words that ‘a gaggle of geese’, ‘an unkindness’ of ravens’, and other collective nouns of this ilk were created in the 15th Century. He speculates that this was done deliberately for comic effect, giving rise to ‘a superfluity of nuns’ (pun intended).
There were more people writing, and there were no dictionaries to act as a stabilising influence – David Crystal
While whimsical British terms have been coined in every era, certain periods have been especially fruitful. According to Crystal, linguistic inventiveness, particularly of a playful kind, seems to have peaked in the Elizabethan era. This is partly due to the enduring influence of wordsmiths like Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists. Meanwhile, Crystal adds, at this time “there were more people writing, with pressure to produce new plays to feed the daily demands of the new theatres. And there were no dictionaries to act as a stabilising influence.” This created a climate of lexical creativity, which we can thank for words like ‘balderdash’ (meaning, appropriately, a nonsense word or idea).
Here are seven of our favourite silly-sounding British words:
Since Shakespeare, British writers from Charles Dickens (‘whiz-bang’) and Lewis Carroll (‘mimsy’) to JK Rowling (‘muggle’) have continued to enliven English vocabulary. As Liberman points out, it’s not that these authors had a monopoly on childlike wit. Rather, historically, British English’s “influence was mainly exercised by great authors,” he says. “The joys and charm of British English have to be sought in the works of the great wits of various epochs. For comparison, in the US, the only figure of comparable size – in this respect – is Mark Twain.”
Of course, there’s a risk of over-interpreting the relationship between culture and vocabulary. Fanciful terms can be found in all varieties of English: linguists also have written about how terms like ‘face like a dropped pie’ and ‘cultural cringe’ reflect an Australian culture of informality and ‘mateship’.
To make matters more complex, the border between British and American English – the two most influential forms of English – is fairly blurry. In fact, many of the words popularly believed to stem from one country actually originated in the other.
The University of Sussex’s Lynne Murphy, who has a blog and a forthcoming book about differences between US and UK English, notes that many Americans incorrectly think ‘bumbershoot’ and ‘poppycock’ are British words. That’s simply, she says, because “a lot of Americans stereotype the British as having silly words.” So words that fit that expectation are the ones that gain a great deal of currency overseas.
This is also true of terms that mainly sound comical due to their difference from US terms. Murphy explains that Americans love slang with a (non-flattened) short ‘o’ sound, such as ‘cosh’, ‘bollocks’ and ‘dogsbody’, because “that’s a sound that Americans don’t make”.