So, the other day, I’m leaving after a long day at work, and there’s a group of teenage girls on the sidewalk. They asked me for a light. I thought briefly about asking how old they were, then I realized that was ridiculous. I’m not their parent or guardian, and they aren’t asking me for a cigarette, just a light. I lend them my lighter, and it takes two of them to light this Black and Mild type cigarillo they’ve gotten their hands on. It’s obvious that they have no idea what they are doing, and just as obvious that they are teens playing around at doing something they think is naughty and grown up. Teens have been doing this since the beginning of time, and the world hasn’t ended yet. Before you light up the comment section with how irresponsible I was lending them a lighter, I’ll mention that I have zero regret about this. If trying to puff on a filtered blunt is the worst trouble these girls get up to while they are attempting to figure out what it means to be an adult, then they are doing just fine, in my opinion.
While girl number two is trying to get the thing lit, girl number one tells me that she likes the color of my hair. It is pretty awesome; all platinum with pink stripes at the moment. I say, “Why, thank you.”
Apparently, this is all it takes. One short sentence. Girl number two stops trying to light the cigarillo to ask a question I’ve been asked so many times that I could not even guess at a number.
“Are you British?”
In my snarky way, I turn to her and say, “I am SO not,” and she looks at me with a sort of genteel disgust, as if to say “Look at Nanny 911 trying to get all jiggy with the slang.”
I get asked this question with enough frequency that it has become a constant puzzle to me. One woman in a vet office kept asking me questions because she loved hearing me talk, and thought I was from England. I’m not British. I’m SO not. There is not an expat among us that would hear me speak and think that I was from their side of the pond. So, why does it happen?
I don’t think that it is necessarily from my dialect, which has developed into a mismatched chimera of American accents as well as things I pick up, unawares, from anyone I’m in close contact with. I’m a bit of an audio sponge. My accent started out pure Hoosier, but going to college fairly erased the “gits” and “warshes” from my speech. A year in Houston and a couple of decades in Louisville added “You all” but “y’all” only when I think it’s funny. A few years in upstate New York certainly had an influence, as did summers in Utah and Wisconsin. I think my accent has become sort of an everyman, as it’s absorbed bits and dabs from all over the country. I’ve taken a couple of those “We can tell where you are from” quizzes, and they always come up West Coast, a place I haven’t actually lived.
One thing my nomadic life has not done is make me sound British.
Why? Why is it? I don’t think it is because my speech is especially proper. While my writing is conversational in tone, it comes off more fancy than how I express myself day-to-day. I certainly could speak with more flair than I do, but I made a decision long ago that I did not want to sound like an encyclopedia, and come off as if I were some sort of pompous smartyboots. Even so, my best guess as to why I get The Question is a matter of vocabulary. Despite my goal not to use quarter words when a ten cent word will do, my vocabulary still seems fancier than many people I run into, as I meander through my life in my non-British way.
I was speaking to coworkers once, and I used what seemed to me to be an everyday word, and was shocked when they both asked me what it meant. I think the word was “lurk.” These were educated people, and they were flummoxed by the word lurk. An evocative word, yes. A word with strong, precise flavor, certainly. Hardly a twenty-five cent word, and consisting of one simple syllable. Lurk is a fantabulous word. So much meaning crammed into such a simple sound.
The rabid wombat lurked in the shadows of the fallen oak, desperately hoping that the exhausted hikers would tarry there, and become an aperitif to slake its gnawing thirst for blood.
Wonderful word, lurk. Not, in my opinion, a smartyboots word at all. Why would any American not know this word? Why has our collective vocabulary become so narrow that such a word might stump us? Why do I get asked time and time again if I’m British, when my vocabulary is only passable, not stellar?
I think I’ll blame the arts for this one. I work in the arts, so I feel free to settle the lion’s share of the blame there. Hey, arts people, stop writing stupid sentences, and get some better words. People only go to school for so long, then they get most of their words from the arts. Screenwriters, stop filling scripts with oversimplified language. People are smarter than you think. No one will have a cow if you throw a “lurk” or two into the mix. Songwriters, we don’t need any more lyrics along the lines of “I’m gonna hit it then quit it.” Buy a thesaurus. Into each song you write, toss in one interesting synonym for the word “booty.” The world will not end, I assure you. If we get together on this, maybe one day I’ll realize that no one has accused me of being British in a long, long time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends are British.