Musings on "The Queen's English"

by Nadine Bachan

Published at 2010-10-07

Greetings from London, everyone! For the past eleven days I have been having quite a time exploring and learning about this amazing, historical, and culture-rich city. I've been all over, from Hyde Park to Greenwich, from Camden Town to Southbank, and so many places in between. It's been a whirlwind of a trip so far.

All the while, I've been keeping my ears and eyes open for all the intriguing editorial and linguistic differences the people of London use. Suffice it to say, I've got quite a list of gems in my notepad, but I will detail a few of the examples I've found the most interesting.

As most of you know, the people of Britain employ differing phrases and terminology for everyday things. Some of these you might know, and some you might not:

A cinema or movie theatre is called a picture house.

Instead of saying something like "stand in line to get into the museum," you'd most likely hear a Brit tell you to "form an orderly queue."

Speed bumps can be a real nuisance for drivers here. Well, most London motorists would agree with you when it comes to the pelican humps that slow down their travels.

In the same vein of thought, while most North American drivers take the highway on long journeys, English drivers take the motorway. And while we deal with gridlock due to construction, British cars get backed up for miles due to road works. And yes, London still uses miles for distance. The country isn't quite completely metric yet. Not like good old Canada.

Now, a bit of old English for you:

A chipping is another word for market, as in the small market towns that pepper the English countryside. The small communities of Barnsbury, Norton, and the Cotswolds are present-day examples of a very old tradition and livelihood.

Stratford-upon-Avon is just that: a place once called Stratford located near the banks of an "avon." Avon was the word used for "river." Long ago, each town called its respective river an avon. As people were unable to travel long distances to discover other towns and other bodies of water, many believed their respective town and "avon" was the only town and only river that existed. Because of this, there are several rivers named "Avon" in England, which has proven to be very confusing these days.

The name Stonehenge is also quite simple linguistically. Literally, Stone- means "stone" (simple as that) and -henge means "hanging." Many years ago, the word “hanging” was simply another word for vertical. When you think about what the famous Stonehenge looks like, the name seems very obvious. What's more, Stonehenge isn't just the name for that famous formation in west England, it’s a common name for all stone circles. There are hundreds of stonehenges all over the United Kingdom. The Stonehenge millions of visitors flock to each year is simply the most famous one. By the way, the most reasonable theory about Stonehenge (and all stonehenges) is that it is an ancient form of a calendar, a way to remind people of important times in the year (changes of seasons, equinoxes, and solistices) and a marker of time passing.

Have you ever noticed that some English people refer to their British pound as a quid? Well, there's an explanation for that. The pronunciation of the word "quid" is an evolution of people saying "qilt," which is how one would string together and pronounce the abbreviation q.l.t. This is short for "a quarter litre of tobacco." A quarter litre of tobacco used to cost ... you guessed it ... one pound. Isn't that a neat fact?

On a final note, the name Dr. Samuel Johnson ought to ring a few bells for seasoned editors out there. Dr. Johnson was the English scholar who compiled the very first English dictionary. I learned about him from my tour guide on the way to Windsor Castle (which was quite a sight). So, now you know.

There is so much more I can write about the amazing language that is still referred to as "the Queen's English," but I think these tidbits are more than enough to pique your interest and hopefully enough to encourage you to learn more.

Until next time, cheers!