Sept. 4 2002 12:00 AM

Navigating the stormy seas of cross-cultural slang

England and America, as George Bernard Shaw once remarked, are two countries separated by the same language, and as an English rose recently uprooted to San Diego soil, I could not agree more. I have had sleepless nights puzzling over the correct response to that quintessentially American greeting “What's up?” And it took me several weeks (and a few mildly mortifying attempts at answering otherwise) to realize that standard etiquette requires merely a casual “not much,” after which one is free to move onto other subjects of conversation.

I suppose this exchange is sort of like opening the fridge when you walk past it and standing in front of it for two minutes when you're not even hungry; an automatic procedure that-after you've done it a few times-you cease to question.

Though it's a pretty safe bet that Shaw himself never had to reply to such a greeting, his remark remains relevant today, for the “What's up?” quandary is, as it turns out, only the tip of the communication iceberg. Talk about there being a bit of a gap between English English and American English; it's a veritable chasm as far as I'm concerned, with coyotes howling at the bottom and vultures circling above.

First of all, there are the trick words. “Fag” is one: slang for a cigarette to me, slang for a homosexual to you. It hardly takes a rocket scientist to see the myriad of potentially embarrassing situations imbued in that one. And then there's “pants.” To you, pants are trousers; to me pants are knickers, which brings us, of course, to the problems that arise with “trousers” and “knickers.”

And on it goes.

Furthermore, I seem to be having something of a problem incorporating American slang into my everyday vocabulary. Try as I might, I cannot say words like “dude” and “awesome” without sounding horrifically pretentious. You know how there was always that kid in your class who would go away on holiday somewhere exciting and come back with a fake accent? Well, that's what I sound like-at least what I sound like when I attempt to say “dude.”

On top of this, I get confused about the actual meanings of slang words. “Sick” is good, and “bad” is good. And “wicked,” though I realize no-one has said it since 1991, is also good apparently. So just as I'm realizing that bad things are actually good things, someone throws “sweet” into the mix, and I'm floundering again.

I'm afraid that I will never understand “hella.” Ditto “da bomb.” And “phat” just seems totally self-defeating; nine times out of 10, to use it without getting beaten up (“Hey, your girlfriend is so phat”), you need to spell it. And this, of course, instantly makes it about as cool as saying “wicked.”

But British slang is probably just as confusing. If you kiss someone, you “pull” them, or “get off with” them. I hear in Ireland you “shift” them and in Australia you “pash” them, so perhaps we didn‘t do too badly. “Pants” comes up again, this time as a slang word used to describe something you don‘t like. So if, for example, someone beat you up because he mistakenly thought you were saying his girlfriend was fat when you were actually saying she was phat, you could legitimately say “that's pants.”

Another good one is “pikey” or, as an alternative, “skiv”; both are used to describe the kind of person who has more food on his shirt than his plate, can't get a firm grip on the basics of grammar and is probably married to his sister. The sister, if she is hideously unattractive, may be called a “mufasa,” or in some cases a “bushpig.”

Nevertheless, all is not lost in the communication game, because there are, it seems, some slang words which are common to both our great nations. My boyfriend and I recently admitted to each other that during the era when I was in love with Bon Jovi and he was wearing fluorescent t-shirts, we both regularly used the word “dudical.” I was, I have to admit, somewhat affronted to discover this, as I had hitherto taken (an admittedly questionable) pride in the fact that I had made the word up.

Despite my struggle with American slang, there are some words I will be taking back to the motherland with me, should I ever get deported. “Ghetto” will be liberally sprinkled throughout my conversation, as will “hoochie mama.” And I shall definitely be calling my male friends “dawg.” But someone needs to explain what the deal is with all these orally-fixated phrases like “it sucks,” “it blows” and “it bites.” A man with a large porn collection and one thing on his mind obviously made these up. With the exception, maybe, of “bites.”

And one more thing: for “dudical,” my spell check came up with “dud cal.” Anyone know what that means? ©


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