Brits “Get Away With It”


David Croad / Wikimedia / CC BY 3.0

I’ve recently been watching Two Fat Ladies, a late-90s cooking show in which two rambunctious women travel the British countryside cooking regional food. One of the program’s perverse joys is its hosts’ sometimes shocking commentary.

Take, for instance, Clarissa Dickson Wright‘s opinion of pheasants:

Don’t let the fluffy bunny brigade every tell you [pheasants] are dear sweet creatures. They’re one of God’s nastiest animals. They come out of the egg trying to peck each other’s eyes out. And they have gang bangs! When all the cocks go round and they jump on this poor little hen pheasant and rape her to death. They are a very nasty bird indeed …

Certainly an easygoing, middle-aged RP-speaker wouldn’t talk about pheasant rape. But Dickson Wright likely means what it sounds like she means. Few would mistake the meaning of “gang bang,” and I doubt her use of “cock” is wholly zoological. Yet we Americans perhaps sometimes assume that Brits and other non-Americans mean something more genteel than their words suggest. Perhaps this is the origin of the observation that “[insert charmingly loutish Brit/Irishman/Australian] gets away with saying anything.” Perhaps I’m unfairly giving Dickson Wright a “fair pass.”

I talk a lot about phonetics and pronunciation here, yet I find the most inscrutable accent easier to comprehend than quirky lexical differences, foreign modes of politeness and cultural in-jokes. I believe most English speakers instinctually understand that different dialects demarcate semantic boundaries in different ways. So it’s not difficult to assume that “rape” and “gang bang” occupy slightly different tracts of lexical real estate than they do in American English. (Doubtful!)

My tendency to forgive seemingly outre statements is exemplified by yet another moment in which Fat Lady #2, Jennifer Patterson, walks into a West Country sausage shop and remarks something along the lines of “I love a good faggot. You never see really good faggots nowadays.”

Of course, the simplest explanation here is that Patterson, being born in the 1920’s, is simply using a British term for sausage a type of traditional meat dish. But this show delights in innuendo, so is it possible that she is trying to deliberately ruffle American feathers by using our pejorative term for “homosexual?” And is she aware of how offensive the term is? Rather than wrap my head around any of this, I just go with the first explanation (that she’s unaware of the American/contemporary term). Patterson’s use of the word probably is completely innocent, but the endless possibilities of what know, what she knows and what is intended have a way of unsettling an American listener.

All this reminds me, in a roundabout way, of an example sentence that linguist Alan Cruse often uses in this books:

The committee is wearing its hat.

Cruse finds this ungrammatical in British English. The more “acceptable” construction would be “The committee were wearing their hats.” But I must confess that I find “the committee is wearing its hat,” while a little odd, not nearly as unacceptable as Cruse does. Why the discrepancy? Is it just me? Is this because of the differences in plural concord between British and American English? Is it something else entirely?

I have no clue. I bring up Cruse’s example because it illustrates how in the dark we tend to be when encountering radically different dialects from our own. This even, in my opinion, extends to aspects of pronunciation. Why do some Americans recoil at a non-rhotic Boston accent but find this same feature the height of suave in an Englishman? Perhaps because our normal sense of what is stigmatized and what is not is thrown out of whack.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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20 Responses to Brits “Get Away With It”

  1. Brett says:

    I think she’s deliberately ruffling feathers. Australians (like me) and Brits think Americans are a bit thin-skinned, and quite like to provoke them like this 🙂

    • Nick says:

      I second Brett’s comment.
      Not that they’re necessarily targeting Americans. The British love innuendo, which they usually see as risqué rather than offensive. As an Australian I think a lot of people who make these sort of jokes, which are not directed at anyone in particular, assume they will only offend pearl-clutching aunts so it’s worth the risk.

  2. Ngamudji says:

    Australians sometimes have a similar problem with American English. Growing up with a constant diet of American TV shows, we seem to understand American English better than Americans understand Australian English. However, a few terms that appear to be innocent or slang in America are impolite, insulting or even profane in Australia.

  3. m434 says:

    It works the other way round too, I find myself as BrE speaker giving Americans the benefit of the doubt when they use works that from a British speaker I would find highly offensive (“spazz” and “paki” are two recent examples I’ve encountered, the first of which Americans seem to throw around really quite a lot). That’s before we even get to swearing where Americans seem to throw around words like “bollocks” and “wanker” like they’re joke words or something. I think that’s probably the case with your “faggot” example, Jennifer Patterson may well have known the literal meaning of “a gay man” but probably not the extent of its offensiveness to Americans.

    Without being exposed to the appropriate cultural contexts, we’re all kind of like 7 year-olds saying “shit” for the first time in front of their parents*, I think. There’s only so much we can learn from hearing a word used by other people, we don’t really understand the offensiveness unless/until we feel the reaction ourselves.

    *Incidentally, the first time I swore in front of my parents and got in trouble for it, the word was “bugger”. I somehow don’t think were my parents American that I would have been sent to my room and had my pocket money taken away for that…

  4. Lynn Wood says:

    Faggots are nothing like sausages, they are not the same thing at all, more like flat meat balls (but they’re not meat balls either). It’s true they are hard to find nowadays. They are common in the Black Country particularly and I became fond of them when I lived there for a few years. Wikipedia explains them very well.
    What other word could she use? Anybody who uses the internet will be aware of the U.S. offensive use of the word, but I have never heard this use in conversation in England.

    • Kevin says:

      I think Jennifer Patterson knew exactly what she was saying when she used the word ‘faggot’. And if she didn’t, the BBC luvvies would have clued her up in next to no time (believe me, they’d know).

      By the way, ‘faggot’ is used here in the UK too – but mostly in the gay community, and in a bitchy, ironic way. Much like the ‘N’ word is acceptable, but only if you’re black. It’s an in word, within a closed community. Outside that, it’s definitely offensive.

  5. Mike Ellwood says:

    Sorry Ben, but I think you are way off on the British usage of the word “faggot”.

    It’s not a sausage. It’s like a kind of round meatball, and was probably developed to use up leftover scraps, and is very tasty, but would be regarded by a lot of people now as unhealthy (me too perhaps, but it wouldn’t stop me eating them as an occasional treat).

    It would have been food that people on low-incomes could afford when they couldn’t afford goods cuts of meat. They went out of fashion, probably because people generally became a bit better off, and proper meat became relatively less expensive. They are now more likely to be bought (occasionally) by the middle classes from Waitrose (a rather up-market supermarket).

    They now tend to be eaten as a kind of “retro treat”, and are probably not used like they used to be – as a cheap substitute for real cuts of meat.

    Faggots might well be sold in a traditional sausage shop, since sausages, at least originally, were another way to dispose of less than top-quality bits of meat (they became notorious during WW2 I believe, and had to work hard to regain some credibility in the post-war years). However, they are not a sausage, and this is obvious when you look at them.

    And the word “faggot” in the gay sense has never really taken off in the UK, in my experience. True, you might find it being used by some trendy people or Guardian writers (who never fail to use an American expression if they can crowbar one in), but it would hardly be ever used unselfconsciously by the man or woman in the street.
    If we wanted to be un-PC, we’d probably use one of the many traditional British un-PC words that have the same connotation. (I will spare you from them).

    While I know about the “2 Fat ladies”, I’m not familiar enough with their oeuvre to know if it was intended as innuendo, but I would rather doubt it.

    On the singular/plural thing: Although as a Briton I instinctively use the plural, I tend to feel that American usage is more correct here, and I sometimes correct myself in writing. I have no idea what British grammarians would say though.

    • Duly corrected! My confusion stems from the meat being wrapped or stuffed in a type of membrane, which I usually associate with sausage. Although I’m hardly an expert on meat, and the definition of “sausage” is rather amorphous.

  6. Tom says:

    Perhaps viewers are meant to see these women as “charmingly backward,” as in many American reality shows I won’t name. In other words, viewers (British or American or whoever) are [i]supposed[/i] to cringe a bit at these indelicate turns of phrase, and are perhaps meant to feel a bit superior.

  7. Hmm. I think Brits do get away with it more in a certain sense – personally I’ve developed the idea that non-North American accents act as intensifiers – and Irish person who is slightly charming will seem more so, someone with an English accent who is rude will seem downright belligerent (for example).

    I think for people who sound approximately like they fit into one’s own cultural group – you’ll evaluate them according to your own cultural norms, but people with different accents won’t give you that same sense of “they’re like me, so they should behave in a way that I think is appropriate”.

    It’s also really just the accent, lots of things are funnier coming from somebody who doesn’t sound like oneself. GenAm, though I am not a GenAm speaker, is like the humour baseline. How funny something is in GenAm is how funny it inherently is. it becomes just slightly funnier when the speaker is from Ontario, slightly funnier still when they’re a Texan, funnier still from Brooklyn, then on to Kiwis, Aussies, Brits, Scots, and the Irish. Never mind foreign language accents – I find Hebrew and Eastern European/Russian accents can make all sorts of things sound humorously menacing.

  8. zpc says:

    With Dickson-Wright it’s a class thing; her crudity is a dead giveaway for her (really rather upper class) background. She can say ‘what she bloody well likes’ – no-one’s going to tell her not to.

    (Patterson I remember less well, I seem to recall she was perpetually pissed by the time they were doing that show, but at the end of the day, that is the name for that particular dish, there is no other name, unless we start calling them ‘bundles’ – which, aside from being sickeningly cutesy and confusing everyone, would probably wind up used as a slur *anyway* as soon as the homophobes caught on).

  9. Ellen K. says:

    Even disregarding the change in tense, I don’t see “The committee is wearing its hat.” as equivalent to “The committee were wearing their hats.”. The first, due to the singular hat, can only mean something metaphorical, where the committee members have one collective hat. If they each have a hat on, it would have to be “The committee is wearing their hats”. Or, if the committee owns the hats, “The committee is wearing its hats”.

    In other words, “hat” has to match the number of hats word, one or multiple.

  10. Nico says:

    I’m a Yank and a long time fan of these two broads. I’m keen of most things culinary especially when the hosts aren’t totally clean cut and goody two shoes, haha. I’m hardly offended by much especially since TV usually intends to ruffle some feathers a bit.

    But I have to admit that as a gay American, I still cringe at hearing fag/faggot on British programs even though I’m well aware of its other meanings across the pond.

  11. Mazzoir says:

    We brits are outstandingly sweary. Think of the opening of Four Weddings and a Funeral. That was very low on the swearing scale for most of us.

    I remember sitting in a cafe in Chicago with a british friend, having the type of conversation we would have at home. We then realised why the father and small daughter were staring at us with such conflicted expressions – we were swearing at our usual british level (we are both in the ballpark of RP) where the f word is interchangeable with “very” and “really”

    We moderated our language, and noted it as a cultural difference.

  12. Alai Mac Erc says:

    I was reminded of this thread when I happened to see a recycled clip of a Keith Floyd bit on said food item. He was clearly playing both ends of the take: being rather posh and old-fashioned in his insistence in his use of it to denote the (alleged) food item, but with a couple of nods to the “other” meaning. (Also had the advantage of this taking part in the past, of course.)

    I’m rather skeptical of the replies insisting it’s not/nothing like a sausage. Surely the skin makes it much more of a “sausage” than a “meatball”. OK, if you go into a butcher’s and ask for “sausage”, these aren’t what you’ll get. But equally, neither will you get blood sausage, Polish sausage, or lorne sausage just from that specification, in the typical case. Indeed, if one defines “sausage” as “cylindrical meat product in a skin or artificial membrane”, it’s not the least qualified of those, sausagewise, unless one rates the shape above all other attributes. Of course, as a Scot, I might be dialectishly and gastronomically biased here towards the “sausageness” of lorne, and away from the inherent distinctiveness of faggots. And there’s no denying what “sausage-shaped” denotes.

  13. Ian says:

    With faggot it obviously depends on the context. In a cooking show of course the food item would be called by it’s name, especially when the meaning of faggot as a food predates it’s use as an insult. If however you added in innuendo it would then actually become offensive, see this article about a supermarket advert that did just that:

  14. Christopher says:

    “Cock” means “male bird” in that context. It doesn’t mean anything else. Birds don’t have penes, they have cloacae. (The colloquial “cock” for “penis” comes from the ancient association of the Greek Priapus with the cock, or rooster.)