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Why British English refuses to take itself seriously


CC Public Domain

Zelda Caldwell - published on 06/26/17

Silly terms like gobsmacked, codswallop, and balderdash reflect the British people's sense of humor.

When British comedian James Corden began hosting his late-night television show in the United States, he reportedly had to watch his words – his producers told him that  American audiences would be baffled by expressions like “knackered” (tired and exhausted”) or “dodgy” (dishonest).

These Britishisms, along with words and expressions like gobsmacked, codswallop, balderdash, sticky wicket, and gazump, seem like nonsense to the speaker of “standard” English. What’s with all silly talk, one might ask?

In a wonderful article for, Christine Ro explains why “British English is full of silly-sounding words.” It’s because it’s meant to be. Whimsically playful words and expressions reflect a national “ban on earnestness” or “an aversion to taking things to seriously,” Ro writes. And silly words are an outward expression of the British people’s cast-iron defense against earnestness: its sense of humor, “a sense of humor of a particular kind: given to irony and understatement.”

A playful inventiveness runs strong among British writers, and has for centuries. Shakespeare himself loved to make up words (he gave us bedazzled, gloomy, sanctimonious and gossip). Ro writes that after the Bard of Avon, “British writers from Charles Dickens (‘whiz-bang’) and Lewis Carroll (‘mimsy’) to JK Rowling (‘muggle’) have continued to enliven English vocabulary.”

Read more:

But to call these words “silly” may sell the British short. Ro explains that there is a method to the barminess:

“Whimsical words like these are formed in a number of ways. These include blends of other words (eg ‘Oxbridge’, from Oxford and Cambridge); reduplicatives, which repeat sounds or parts of words (‘higgledy-piggledy’); back-formations, which often remove the suffix of their originating word (like ‘kempt’, from ‘unkempt’); and of course sheer nonsense (like Roald Dahl’s invention ‘gobblefunk’).”

Read the entire article here. It really is the bee’s knees. Bob’s your uncle.

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