The late Miles Kington – inventor of the comic hybrid language Franglais – once wrote a list of expressions that all foreigners should learn if they really wanted to master the English idiom. Forget grammar and all that, non-natives will never be able to follow the chat down the pub unless they pick up some homespun phrases like “it’s as broad as it’s long” or “pull the other one”.
This is because ‘Little England’ is a clique which tolerates foreigners but defines itself by its own, culture-bound vernacular. When one bloke standing at the bar motions towards an attractive woman and then says to his mate, “I’m ready for a bit of rumpy pumpy tonight but knowing my
luck she bats for the other side”, any foreigner within earshot will be utterly bamboozled. That’s because language is not only a means of communication, it’s also a way of showing your membership to an exclusive club. If you haven’t grown up in the culture you just won’t get all those in-jokes.
A lot of the these comic exchanges are made up of slang, double-entendres and other assorted idioms. “As the actress said to the bishop” is something you say after inadvertently making a harmless comment which has a sexual connotation. For example, “I only like big ones”. But if you’re a non-native speaker, don’t “get your knickers in a twist”, as I’m about to enlighten you on a few more of those private jokes and oddball phrases. I can’t remember Miles Kington’s examples, so I’ve prepared a few of my own.
Going back to the pub, instead of asking your drinking buddy if he would like a drink, you should say “what’s your poison?”, and then, when you want a drink in return, say “It’s your shout!”. While you’re in the pub you may develop an interest in persons of the opposite sex (or same sex, as the
case may be). Such people should be described as “totty” or “crumpet”. If you feel a strong attraction to someone you can say you “fancy the pants off” her or him. And if you went to the pub with the deliberate intention of looking for sexual partners you are “out on the pull”. When the pub closes and you’ve had too much to drink, you will be “Brahms and Liszt” (Cockney rhyming slang for “pissed”) or “three sheets to to the wind”.
Some phrases are guaranteed to make an English person chuckle. “Brass monkey weather” is one (meaning freezing cold). You can also announce your departure by saying you are “going to see a man about a dog”. And you should start to describe mad people by saying “he hasn’t got all his chairs at home”, or “she is 3 sandwiches short of a picnic”, or “he has lost the plot”. If you accidentally break wind in public, you can always excuse yourself and raise a smile by saying, “More tea, vicar?”. And if you swear in public you should remember to say “Pardon my French!”.
When you suspect that someone is trying to deceive you (or “having you on”), you can tell them to “pull the other one – it’s got bells on”, or if you want to be more abrupt you can use an old Yorkshire favourite, “Don’t come it with me!”. But don’t make the mistake of asking who “Sweet Fanny Adams” is, because she doesn’t exist: it’s used to mean nothing, zilch, and can be shortened to “Sweet FA”.
Many of these expressions are funny because their meaning is vague and often depends on the context; we use them ironically most of the time just to play the game, be part of the gang. So the next time you find yourself in an English village pub and a stranger says something incomprehensible, try your hand by responding with, “Well, it’s as broad as it’s long”. If that doesn’t work switch to “A nod’s as good as a wink…”. If the stranger finishes off the phrase with “…to a blind horse!”, then you will know that you’ve been accepted into the hallowed private club. But be careful: too much codswallop might give you the screaming abdabs!