Why British English is full of funny words

Why British English is full of silly-sounding words

Lots of people ask me why British English can sometimes sound strange and why there are so many funny words which are hard to understand.

I really enjoy teaching some of these as they can be very useful for strengthening relationships with Brits – especially in Business English situations where it is important for most British businessmen to feel like they are understood by the person they are dealing with.
I had such a case a couple of weeks ago where I taught a client a few real ‘London’ phrases as they were meeting their new business partner from London in Salzburg. In the following week’s lesson they told me they had used the phrases to ‘break the ice’. Thus, both the London partner and they had an easy-going and successful meeting.

This works especially well as, I believe, the British and Austrian humour is very similar – deep, dark and often very ‘cutting’, and this is one of the reasons I love living in Austria.

Check out this great article from the BBC for further insight into the British mindset and humour within the language.


Why British English is full of silly-sounding words

British humour often has a self-deprecating streak “That wazzock dared to gazump me; I’m gobsmacked by this sticky wicket full of codswallop that’s gone pear-shaped!”

That sentence may not sound serious. But the situation it describes is. Translated into standard English, it would be something like “That idiot dared to offer more money for the house after my offer already had been accepted; I’m shocked by this tricky situation full of nonsense that’s gone wrong!”

Shakespeare, this isn’t. The first sentence sounds so peculiar to certain ears not just because of the mangling of parts of speech. It’s also full of words, with origins ranging from the 1700s to the 1980s, that have two qualities in common: they’re all rather silly-sounding, and they’re all British English.

Why British English is full of silly-sounding wordsAs shown in the National Trust’s Silly Walking campaign, British humour often has a self-deprecating streak (Credit: Alamy)

Especially characteristic of these formations in British English is the way they reflect a certain kind of humour. Pop anthropologist Kate Fox has written about the English “ban on earnestness” (an aversion to taking things too seriously) and the pervasiveness of humour in social interaction. This humour is of a particular kind: self-deprecating and given to understatement and irony.

Thanks to the BBC for another great piece on British English and the ‘Island Culture’.