"Spend a penny? I had no idea."
When Damhnait Monaghan's moved from Canada to the UK she knew there would be challenges, but she didn't think that language would be one of them. In this charming and comic piece she tells of her life as a linguistic double agent and how it might come in handy. Do they say that here?
Damhnait Monaghan is a Canadian now living in the UK. A former teacher and lawyer, her stories are published in places like Ellipsis Zine, The Fiction Pool, Flash Frontiers and Spelk Fiction. Her children like to make fun of the way she talks.
When I first moved from Canada to the United Kingdom I knew there would be challenges. But I didn’t think language would be one of them. Both countries spoke English after all.
Well, after seventeen years over here I’ve adopted my fair share of vocabulary and expressions that wouldn’t cut it back home. For eleven months of the year I proudly carry the torch for knickers and take the lift in Marks and Spencer. But as soon as I hit Customs in Toronto, I’m all about flashlights and elevators. And I’m wearing underwear under there.
My life as a linguistic double agent has been labelled way too stressful by one of my Toronto friends, but to me it’s a no-brainer. Wait, do you say that here? I guess I’m trying to say it’s easy peasy. Although I make the vocabulary fit the geography, it happens almost unconsciously. I guess I’m just a cultural chameleon.
But it isn’t always straightforward. When it comes to ‘down there’ as a British doctor once described the general area, I now live in the land of the euphemism. When I first moved over a GP once said to me, “Does it hurt when you spend a penny?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I was completely in the dark and only after repeated questioning did the penny drop. Although I hasten to add that I did not spend it in his office.
Sometimes I accidentally say a British word that I’ve already decided I can’t pull off. It just spurts out in a sort of cross-cultural Tourette’s syndrome moment of madness. And I’ll be looking around and thinking “Was that me? Did I just say that?”
It happened recently at my daughter’s netball match. One of her teammates scored an incredible goal. Her mum was standing beside me and I blurted, “Cracking goal!” And then I flinched. Cracking? Not that there’s anything wrong with it. In fact, I rather like it, it’s a cracking word. But in these situations, I find myself wondering…was it okay, did I use it in the proper context? can I get away with it with this Canadian drawl? (as one of my British friends describes my accent.)
But the mum beamed at me and said, “Wasn’t it just.”
So, I’m officially adding cracking to the list of British words I can use with authority.
But no matter how long I live in the UK there are certain words I will never use in their uniquely British context. Toilet, for starters. As in:
He’s in the toilet.
I always find myself hoping James is not in the toilet because to my Canadian ears that will forever mean the thing you flush and not the entire ensuite. But just because I don’t say it doesn’t mean a character in one of my stories can’t, provided she’s British of course.
I heard Tessa Hadley speak a few years ago and she said that the New Yorker had asked her to Americanise some vocabulary in a short story. But she was adamant that the London couple in her story couldn’t possibly buy diapers or a stroller for their baby. It had to be nappies and a pushchair.
And as a reader and a writer I agree. Otherwise it just doesn’t ring true. So, you never know. When that fictional British character of mine is in the toilet, maybe she’ll even spend a penny.