“Oy,” “Bollocks” and Other Trick Words

In an episode of HBO’s The NewsroomEmily Mortimer’s character addresses coworkers with a frustrated “oy!” Mortimer does not play a Brooklyn grandmother; “oy[or "oi"] is a British term roughly similar to American English “hey!”* I would assume the show’s American writer, Aaron Sorkin, added the word to give Mortimer’s dialogue a more authentically “British” flair.

To be honest, though, when American screenwriters or playwrights or novelists use “oy,” I wince. The word joins a class of terms–including blokemate, and bollocks–that make up a writerly box of tricks to indicate Britishness without delving into the deeper structural differences between British and American English. It’s possible Mortimer’s character might indeed say “oi!” while addressing staff (she’s a television executive), but I don’t know that I’d be comfortable as an American writer putting the word in a character’s mouth.

I had a similar reaction while recently re-watching the 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, written by Americans Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz and Peter Hedges:

Now, I enjoyed this film tremendously and think its writers are far better at capturing non-American dialogue than your average Hollywood screenwriter (it possibly helps that Chris Weitz attended secondary school and university in England). It also features some wonderful transatlantic humor, as when a stodgy, RP-accented schoolmaster at a talent show cheerily announces a dance troupe named “Def Penalty Kru with Murder Fo’ Life.”

But I still found the film’s “density of Englishness” occasionally distracting. I’ll illustrate this observation by comparing some stereotypically British terms as they appear in Hornby’s novel versus the film (via my GooglePlay copy of the book and a possibly dodgy–but accurate–internet transcription of the movie):

Word Movie Book
Bloody 9 13
Shag 4 0
Mate 13 5
Bloke 4 9
Crap (Adj.) 5 5
Bollocks 2 1
Cheers 2 0
Rubbish 3 7

In some cases, the screenwriters added slang not present in the original; Hornby never used “shag” or “cheers.” Other words, like “bloody” and “bloke” appear more often in the book, but have a decent frequencies in the film given that it’s only 101 minutes.

Tellingly, though, “mate” is where the two works differ most. The word pops up frequently in the film (it’s in the trailer) but rarely occurs in the novel. It’s consistent with my observation that writers focus on tags like “mate” or borderline extralinguistic utterances like “oy” more than anything else. It strikes one as overcompensation, like a 13-year-old’s nervous “likes” and “umms” during a classroom presentation.

I don’t mean to pick on these writers especially; writing in a dialect other than your own is a very tricky feat to pull off. There are so many things you can screw up that it’s going to be nerve-racking. Nor is it entirely fair to pick on Americans; I could write an entirely different post about Zadie Smith’s treatment of American English in the otherwise excellent On Beauty**.

But while packing dialogue with dialect terms seems like an easy way to create “authenticity,” such words bear semantic complexities trickier to master, in some ways, than syntax and morphology. In other words, I think it lends more authenticity if your British character says “got” instead of “gotten” than to load his speech with plenty of “mates” and “bollockses.”

*On the other hand, “hey” straddles the border between “what?” and “you know?” in some varieties of British English.

**That’s a trickier case, perhaps, because Smith was writing about a family headed by a British father and American mother. 

Share

About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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.
This entry was posted in British English and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to “Oy,” “Bollocks” and Other Trick Words

  1. SueA says:

    I’m not sure I agree with you on the ‘oy’ or the ‘mate’ thing. I’m a British woman of approximately Emily Mortimer’s age and I’d say ‘Oy’ if I was trying to get someone’s attention in a situation where I didn’t really mind how polite I was (and does she need more authenticity since she IS a British woman?).

    And also, Hugh Grant was a little older than Nick Hornby’s book character, and using the word “mate” is quite idiosyncratic of a man in his 40s trying to be cool ten years + ago. I’d be interested to hear which word Hornby used instead of ‘shag’ in his book? I wonder if they used ‘shag’ to be more PC than using the ‘f’ word, for example.

    So I kind of understand it all, but most of all hope that a British actor would speak up if they were given some dialogue that was horribly inappropriate. But then again, who would question Aaron Sorkin? Not me. Speaking as someone who has been here for a few years, it’s MUCH better than it used to be. At least they choose actors with better accents now :)

    • Good point about Hornby’s use of the “f-word.” The film was rated PG-13, and the writers may have eschewed hard-core profanity to nab the right MPAA classification. Hence “shag.”

      I’ll admit my reaction to “oi!” on The Newsroom was something a gut one. I’m familiar enough with Sorkin’s writing style that it felt a bit like a familiar movie star putting on a new accent (even if Julia Robers mastered an Australian drawl, I would find it terribly distracting to watch him play an Aussie in a film).

  2. Re:
    “I could write an entirely different post about Zadie Smith’s treatment of American English in the otherwise excellent On Beauty**.”

    Please do!

  3. Mike Ellwood says:

    I think you are right to be wary of “mate”, when used in the vocative (as it were), although this usage has undergone changes over my lifetime in England. It’s also fairly regional … still used more perhaps in parts of the north, and in Cockney speech in London (but probably not as much as in the stereotype). If a very RP speaker (like Cameron) uses it in this way, it sounds completely false.

    Interestingly, while it might once have been seen as working-class word, it seems to have been universally adopted by the middle classes when used in the 3rd person, mostly by parents referring to their children’s school friends – “their mates”, and this can apply to girls as well as boys, which sounds odd to me. Of course, no one says “pals” or “chums” anymore, except humorously. Less often used in work situations (work)-mates.

    “Oy”, I would say definitely comes over as quite rude these days, and again, this may have changed over time. It depends on context and tone of voice. We might use “hey” in the same (rude) way, but most people don’t really use it in the “hello” sense, unless they are affecting to sound like Americans (IMO and IME) – for that, we still mostly say “hi”, which once sounded American, but has become so common that it no longer does, at least to my ears. “Hiya” would be a more casual alternative.

    “Bollocks” is a nice word ~(because of the clash of consonants I suppose) with several uses, but needs to be used sparingly to preserve its effect.

    • Mike Ellwood says:

      *On the other hand, “hey” straddles the border between “what?” and “you know?” in some varieties of British English.

      I didn’t notice this bit before: If you are talking about “hey?” with a question mark, meaning “what?”, as in “what did you say?” [did I hear you correctly? what's that rubbish you are talking?], then, for me anyway, it’s more likely to be “eh?”, than “hey?” – Two quite different words to me, although usage may overlap a little.

      (I’ll pass over the “you know?” usage – no one should be saying that. :-) )

    • AW says:

      “Pal” is still pretty common in the north, you hear it more often than “mate”.

    • Ed says:

      I don’t think that the word “pal” is extinct. However, I associate it as a male word. I can’t imagine a woman talking about her “pals”, even though the dictionaries don’t put any gender on the definition.

  4. Joe Clark says:

    oy: Yiddish
    oi: British

    i.e., your post is misspelled all the way through.

  5. Red says:

    I agree with Mike, ”Oi!” is considered quite a rude way of attracting someone’s attention, and rarely used as a greeting. I don’t hear it too much these days in South Wales, though a variant is often used: ”oh!”.

    I very much enjoyed reading this post though, Ben. Bears some similarities with some research I’m currently carrying out on dialect representation in fiction.

    • SueA says:

      Just to provide context, in The Newsroom, when Emily Mortimer’s character said “OI!”, she was in fact trying to get a lot of people’s attention. It wasn’t a greeting. More of an “everyone, SHUT UP!” :)

  6. Stephen Scott says:

    I too was going to call attention to “oy” in Yiddish-influenced English. It’s also an interjection in (perhaps) Gullah-influenced English in the Low Country of South Carolina. I remember being quite startled as my young daughter picked it up from friends. Many African-Americans in New York have roots in that area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>