The Swearing Corner: USA vs UK

 by Steve Wetherell

Like much of the world, I grew up on American television, and so was comfortably exposed to a lot of American swear words. (‘Shit’ was the big deal when I was a kid. People always seems to be shouting “Ooooh, shiiiiiit!”)

However, I’ve also always been proud of the wonderful rainbow of swearwords in my own country. I don’t think you’ve really heard ‘wanker’ until you’ve heard it said by an angry cockney, and the sheer dismissive silliness of a northern Englishman calling you a ‘bell-end’ is a whimsical thing indeed.

So, I’ve always considered it a fine thing that I have two pots of foul language to draw from. But, let’s be real here, not all swear words transfer across the Atlantic particularly well. There are some words that just sound better in Americanese, and likewise some that sound better in Original Recipe English. 

Ass versus Arse is a great example. There are some British who seem to think these are interchangeable, and in fairness they both technically mean the same thing. There’s a whole different universe of inflection there, though. Arse is just…well… a bit grimy, and so is suited when a bit of dirtiness is called for. Ass is generally more positive, more action orientated. You’d kick an ass, you’d move an ass, you’d get some ass. Arse, has an insidious drawl to it. If you kick an arse, you might need to disinfect your foot afterwards, and god help the sinister pervert who openly says he wants to get some arse. People will, quite rightly, move away from him on the bus. 

On the other hand, if you call someone an ass, it’s very PG13. Call someone an arse, and it packs more of a punch. This stands up even to the addition of ‘hole’. 

On the flip side, Americans can simply not say ‘twat’ properly. They pronounce if ‘Twodt’ which sounds like a fish course for which you need an acquired taste (I realise there’s a solid innuendo there.) But that softening of the consonant robs it of any veracity. 

The British pronounce twat in two distinct ways. There’s ‘twadt’ with a soft T. This is when you roll your eyes because someone’s being silly. Then there’s ‘twatt’ with the hard T. This is for when the knives come out. 

The final comparison is in the old staple for when you desire personal space; ‘fuck off’. Again, there’s no separate meaning, but it’s all about inflection. American’s tend to emphasise the latter half of the phrase: “Fuck OFF” or even ‘Fuk’OFF’. Shortening the Fuck and elongating the Off. That’s got a real nice aggressive ring to it. Carries a lot of weight in a small package, like a pool ball in a sock. In Britain, it tends to be the opposite; “FUCK off.” A pronunciation particularly prevalent in Scotland. While this pronunciation acts the growl of its American counterpart, it does have an airy dismissiveness to it that can be useful. In short, the American version serves as a warning. It implies consequence. The British version merely scatters your opinion to the wind and then goes off to buy another drink.

Multiculturalism is a wonderful thing…

 

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