I got in trouble the first time when I accidentally asked the young woman at the hair salon for sexual favours. “What are we doing today, then?” she said. This was shortly after I’d arrived in London, eight years ago, and I still harboured dreams that the magic of a stylist’s scissors would transform me into Chrissie Hynde.
“Just a shag,” I said, indicating rough layers of the hairstyle once favoured by chain-smoking teenagers and Keith Richards. “I usually get a shag.”
Her narrowed eyes should have been a giveaway, or perhaps the fact that her scissors inched closer to my throat. She hissed, “Are you having a laugh?”
I learned a few important things in that moment. First, that the phrase “Are you having a laugh,” when uttered by a British person, is usually a prelude to violence; that 22-year-olds don’t know who Chrissie Hynde is; and that you should never ask for a shag when you mean haircut, unless you want to end up either dead or sharing a flat with somebody who’s handy with scissors.
When I arrived in London, I had to learn an entirely new language: English, as spoken by the English. It was a language not only dizzy with joy and inventiveness (neurotics are “mad as a box of frogs” or “off their spinner”) but also utterly incomprehensible.
Any romantic notions about our shared linguistic background vanished and I wandered around in a daze, thinking people were actually inviting me to their houses when they said, “Why don’t you come round for drinks some time?” They were not; they were just trying to escape, without actually chewing off their own legs.
The first and most crucial lesson I learned was this: Whatever an English person says, assume he means the opposite. Crucially, he expects you to understand this rule as well.
Every time I put my foot in it – complimenting a stranger’s “pants,” for example, which is the equivalent of yelling “nice undies” in public – I tried to remember what W. Somerset Maugham wrote in The Razor’s Edge: “It is very difficult to know people and I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen.”
Now I have moved back in Canada, to my own countrymen. While trying to remember how to speak Canadian, the least I can do for future visitors to Britain is pass on my Rosetta Stone, a token translation of some key phrases of English English.
“Mustn’t grumble”: A phrase that invariably follows a half-hour of grumbling, either about the rain, the transport system, the prime minister (current or past). The length of the grumble will depend on whether it is merely “tipping it down” (raining hard) or “chucking it down” (raining cats and dogs.)
“Are you having a laugh?” (See above.) Not, in fact, an inquiry about your state of mirth. It is a rhetorical question, usually delivered by a bald-headed man on the forecourt of a petrol station in the driving rain somewhere north of Sheffield. There is no suitable rejoinder. Run.
“It’s heaving in here, fancy coming round to mine?” Translation: “This establishment is rather crowded, would you prefer to visit my apartment, where I shall employ my best bumbling Hugh Grant impersonation until you remove your clothing in exasperation?” If this happens to you while on holiday in Britain, congratulations! You have “pulled.”
“What, this? I got it in Oxfam.” Under-complimenting is a war that no British woman wants to lose, and at which they’re as skilled as Montgomery and Rommel combined. If someone compliments your dress, you must say, “This? It cost five pence in the charity shop, and it’s woven from beagle hair. Dead beagle hair.” The anthropologist Kate Fox, in her invaluable book Watching the English, calls this phenomenon “one-downmanship.” You must fight valiantly for the bottom.
“Yawrite?” The greeting your neighbour will call to you in the morning, which means: “Are you all right?” Never, ever, tell her how you actually are. She does not want to know. The only appropriate response is, “yawrite?”
“Innit/Is it.” The rhetorical condiments of English English, to be sprinkled in a sentence for flavour, and with complete disregard for meaning. “I got my hair done this morning,” a shop assistant might say, provoking her friend to answer “Is it?” If one’s bus is stuck in traffic, it’s permissible to scream at the conductor, “Drive the bus, innit!” Only to be attempted by professional speakers of English English under the age of 25.
“Phwoar” When you see this written in a newspaper, you might worry the writer has had a stroke and died suddenly at the keyboard, but not to worry: It’s merely the acceptable way of expressing sexual desire on the page. Under-25s prefer, “ur well fit innit.”
“Fancy a quick pint?” This will never end well. There is no such thing as one pint, and it is never quick. You will wake up five days later in a Skegness lay-by, or in the back of a truck (sorry, “lorry”) bound for Albania.
Not that that ever happened to me, of course. Instead, I got to spend eight years in an extraordinary country, learning an extraordinary language, and I didn’t even get fired once. I won’t say goodbye to Britain, I’ll just say till we meet again.