Things That Are Better in Britain: Language

I didn't hear a single swear the entire time I was in England (except, sometimes, in my head).

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By David Hammond

There's a famous scene in "Fawlty Towers," the post-Monty Python series starring John Cleese as hotel owner/manager Basil Fawlty, when a brusque and wealthy American visits and orders a Waldorf Salad. When Basil explains that the chef isn't sure if he can prepare such a dish, the American counsels Basil to "kick his ass," a crudity that visibly shakes the Englishman.

Coarse language seems largely alien to the British temperament, at least in the southern part of the country, London and Isle of Wight. 

Sitting in my upstairs home office on Scoville, when the windows are open in the spring and fall, it's quite likely that as OPRF students walk home I will hear the words "motherfuc*er" and "bit*h" – and, honestly, epithets much stronger than those vernacular touchstones – several times. I'm no prude; in fact, I have used such words myself on more than one occasion. I'm not proud of that, and I will admit that as an American I am so inured to such language that I hardly hear the words when spoken, let alone flinch when I do hear them. 

After almost three weeks in London and Isle of Wight, I can say with assurance that obscenities are not a normal feature of British English. In fact, the only time I actually saw British people be even slightly uncivil was when we were learning to drive on the left and many drivers yelled something out the window at us…and I'm guessing it was more a weary exclamation than an obscenity-laced verbal assault. 

Now, I'm sure that there are places in England where the language is as salty as anywhere in Chicago (my ancestral homeland of Liverpool in the north may be such a place), but all's I can say is, I didn't hear a single swear the entire time I was there (except, sometimes, in my head). 

And it rubbed off: my language is actually much more toned down since we stayed in England, and I notice that when you don't rely on the standard cusswords, you are actually compelled to be more articulate…which the English most certainly are. 

As Carolyn mentioned to me on more than one occasion, "They use so much more of the language than Americans do." 

I believe that's true, and a good example of this is the simple sign posted here. It's slightly verbose, perhaps, but here is the appeal to mutual interests, observations on human nature, and a polite request that we all act for the common good, please, couched within a mildly threatening hypothetical, very civil and articulate but also very clear about intent and consequences. 

Like colloquial British language, British signage may sometimes use more words than necessary, but that seems intended to blunt and tone down any perceived harshness. And harshness seems many times to be studiously avoided in the U.K.


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