What's in a Word | All Blogs

Say what, old chap?

By Debra Dobbins

Reading the comics can be humbling.

I pride myself on understanding British-English, that curious language that periodically surfaces in America even though the last redcoat sailed home centuries ago. BE is actually alive and well, in a dizzying array of dialects, on some islands across the big pond.

Since I correspond with several friends in England, I like to suss out British expressions. Language snob that I am, I say biscuits for cookies and b-o-o-o-t for trunk.

Two recent Get Fuzzy comic strips, however, stymied me. Here’s the first, published June 23 in The Daily Sentinel:

Perhaps you, too, missed the meaning of a word here or there. After checking out peevish.co.uk/slang/n.htm, I came up with a translation of Mac’s dialogue:

Panel One: Hello, boys! (Cheers is also used as a toast, but you knew that, didn't you?)

Panel Two: All right, Bucky….

Panel Four: Nonsense! Are you joking? Don’t be an idiot! Look at your teeth. You are Bucky!

Panel Five: Matter straightened out. Time for a good meal.

Panel Four is where BE gets particularly tricky. How could the clause “have a deek at your Newtons” possibly mean ”look at your teeth”?

The citizens of Manchester know. To them, it’s just a bit of rhyming slang.

This type of slang has been “popular since the mid-nineteenth century,” writes Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue, English and How It Got That Way.

Bryson uses these examples to explain how rhyming slang works: “titfer means “hat”; originally it was tit-for-tat equals hat. Tom means “jewelry.” It’s short for tomfoolery equals jewelry.”

Got the logic? Then the word Newtons makes perfect sense because it is derived from Newton Heath, a district in Manchester, England. Righteo? Or does this usage remain as clear as English tea laden with milk and sugar?

One final tip: Bryson says that the word that rhymes is almost always dropped. Go figure.

Got the hang of it all now? Try deciphering the strip that ran June 24:


How’d ya do? There was no rhyming slang to suss out, but a historical reference instead. Here’s an answer key for Bucky’s dialogue:

Panel One: I’m well pleased, thanks.

Panel Two: There’s nothing wrong with Bucky. I suppose I was just worn out. I mean, I’m fully outfitted for it, aren’t I? Like Mac says, have a look at my teeth.

A cautionary note: Since the word for “worn out” (starts with a k) has an earthy connotation, it is not deemed appropriate for a lady to use.

Panel Three: What are you talking about? Don’t be a fool!


Phew! I’m absolutely knack worn out. After so much work translating just two comic strips, I still must be a BE wannabe. Ah, well. Humility is good for one’s soul.

My only consolation is that others seem to get confused, too. According to the Peevish website, shuft, or shufti, comes from the Arabic sufti, meaning have you seen? Bryson, though, claims that shufti comes from India.

Whatever, as we Yanks like to say. I hope you’ll have a shuft at my next entry, dedicated to a rebellion against our nearly incomprehensible allies across the big pond.


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