Dearest Meghan, Congrats! I know you have a lot on your plate today. You don’t want to make a dog’s breakfast of this royal photo shoot this afternoon, hence I’m sure you are quite quite busy! However, if and when you’ve got a few minutes, here are some helpful tips for adjusting to life in the UK. Transplanted from the US myself for 7 years, and being married to a Brit for nearly 17 years, I thought I could be of some help. So if you need any, just get on the dog (cockney rhyming slang that Harry may or may not use (?). Translation: dog and bone = phone) and we can talk.
- Learn the difference between the geopolitical terms U.K, Great Britain and England. Most Americans don’t know what separates one from the other. Do the Brits? It’s so confusing! And where do Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland fall? Learn all these! Be very careful what you call the Scottish (they’d be offended if you said they were British, even though the Welsh and the Scots come under the “British” heading technically). There is no better video to untangle all this than this excellent explainer that I used to show my American university students studying here in the U.K.
- When wearing a skirt at a garden party and it’s rather chilly, do not say to The Queen “I should have worn pants today”. This will be taken to mean you have decided to forego all undergarments and are going commando. Pants = Underwear. Trousers = Pants. Likewise, if anyone asks you at the wedding “How’s yer father?”, they are NOT inquiring as to the health or status of your Dad, in any way, shape or form. And do not ask anyone else about their father. In this strange context, it is euphemistically referring to sexual intercourse and your sex life.
- BARKSHIRE (or as the Brits say BAHKSHER) and BERKSHIRE are NOT two different counties outside of London. They are, in fact, the same county! Similarly, with DARBYSHIRE and DERBYSHIRE, BARCLAY Square is Berkeley Square, etc. The vowels are what really mess us up here. And the R’s or lack of them. And just when we think we’ll be the same (i.e. Pall Mall, we Americans say it with long A’s. Surely they will too?), they go and do a reverse switch on us (and use short A’s: Pal Mal)! And then there’s just the weird pronunciations like Leicester is Lester, and Cockburn is Coburn and Chiswick is Chissick.
- Forget the word VERY and replace it with QUITE. “Very good polo-playing, Harry!” becomes “Quite good polo-playing”. In fact, remove ALL hyperbole from your lexicon and replace it with very subdued tones. “That was a super awesome ballet we saw!” Becomes “It was really rather good.” Or “You did such a great job on that speech! You nailed it!” becomes “Not bad. Well done.” I’ve already posted, but there’s an excellent explainer of what the British mean and say here. It’s a mine-field!
- You can fancy a pizza or fancy going to a movie, but do NOT fancy anyone other than Harry. Fancy can be used for many things but for people, it’s your Significant Other.
- Rent the Railway Children. It’s actually not a very good movie, and totally dated, but these crazy Brits absolutely LOVE it. They can quote from it, remember every actor in it (Jenny Agutter gets particular mention from men), and you offend their national pride if you say you don’t like it.
- The Importance of Tea: I’ve written about this before, but it’s a cultural staple that runs the generations. It’s in every office, home, school and very likely, the palace. If there is EVER a break in any conversation, some Brit will likely use tea as a way of dealing with awkward silences. If you are sitting with Charles and Camilla and running out of things to say, throw in “Fancy a cuppa?” and then signal for the butler to bring you all some tea. It’s also their go-to at trying moments. There’s a wonderful comedy skit where a family is gathered round the radio listening to Neville Chamberlin make the sobering announcement that Britain has entered into war with Germany (World War II) after which there is a silence and then the Grandad says “Cuppa tea, anyone?”. It’s brill.
- Land of Backwards Doors: It takes some getting used to. After the Cocoanut Grove Fire in Boston in 1942, major changes were made to building codes all across the US to make sure that all doors in public spaces opened outwards. This means office buildings, coffee shops, sports centers, grocery stores, houses, gas stations, etc. Here, there are no such codes and therefore you often go SLAMMING into doors because your mind is telling you they will go one way and they go the other. Don’t know the palace set up, but just be aware!
- Vernacular/Lingo: So much to learn!! Brill for brilliant. Dog’s breakfast, cock up, toad in the hole, spend a penny, blimey, crikey, etc. Likewise, they have no idea what “khakis” are – never heard of the word. And Fall means when someone actually takes a tumble. It does not mean a season of the year. Autumn is what we are in right now. And, Will and Kate might giggle when you say “Guys, up ahead past the median, near that private school and past the grocery store, can we pull over so I can hop out on the sidewalk and then you can pop the trunk please? Gotta get my umbrella.” Translation: “Mates, once past the central reservation, near that public school and past the supermarket, could we please pull up so I can step out onto the pavement and open the boot? I would like to get my brelly.” Two nations definitely separated by a common language, as George Bernard Shaw said. By the way, they say BERNerd, not Bern-ARD.
- Pantomime: A lot like the Railway Children. It’s a cultural thing that is sorta lost on Americans but a huge part of Christmas, so you may be seeing one soon with the family. I’ve tried to explain it to Americans for years and it never comes out right: OK, it’s this play where they take a children’s fairy tale and sorta tart it up and mix it up. The lead female characters are always played by men, and vise-versa. “So it’s for kids?” Well, yes and no. Also for adults as there is some nuanced humour that goes over the heads of the kids. “So it’s a comedy?” Yes, but not like you think. It’s usually really bad jokes and slapstick. And lots of talking back and forth to the audience in a very silly way. Actor: Oh, yes I did!! Audience: Oh, no you didn’t! and that goes on for a while. It really doesn’t translate well, and Americans go in with all the wrong expectations, but it’s actually crackin’ good fun!
So, there you have it! Just a beginning cheat sheet for you. And yay for another royal wedding! I think we Americans love the royals way more than Brits do. So we are all rooting for you to settle in nicely. It’s a lovely lovely place, this little island, and I’m absolutely chuffed you are coming over. Gobsmacked, in fact. Fabulous news. I truly hope the Brits will welcome you as I do. And congratulations again! Many secretly say they think Harry is the best royal, so well done, you!