The way Americans really speak English

During our most recent trip to the US we decided to go on a cruise. On the ship, I’d estimate that more than ¾ of the passengers were from the United States which gave me a great opportunity to listen to the way Americans speak English. It is during these visits that I am reminded of how much of what we teach oversees differs from colloquial usage. In fact most of what I hear tends to be colloquial. With this in mind, I started keeping a list of interesting Americanisms I encountered on this cruise. In this contribution, I present such expressions and define them for my German readers.

Now, anyone who has ever been on a cruise will know that there are a lot of people whose main purpose of booking such a trip is to eat. I have watched people eat more food in 1 day than I do in 10! So, it makes sense that I would hear the expression “scarf down” on a regular basis. To” scarf down” refers to eating, but in a quick and complete way. The German expression would be “fressen”. For those of you who don’t speak German, there are two words that translate “to eat”: “essen” and “fressen”. While “essen” is used for people, “fressen” is for animals. Native speakers, imagine what the unsuspecting German interprets when they hear someone say: “Boy, the burgers were scarfed down in no time”. Or, “you better get to the shrimp before it’s all scarfed down”.

I went to a presentation about Geomythology in which Bruce Blackerby, PhD, professor of geology, talked about how old myths such as Jason and the Golden Fleece have their source in explaining geological phenomena. Since we were on our way to Hawaii, Bruce gave a series of talks about volcanos. During his lectures, Bruce used a number of great idiomatic expressions. While telling the story of Jason, he said that this character was actually a “wimp” who relied on the help of Medea, a sorceress, who knew how to deal with the dragon guarding the golden fleece. Like Hollywood films, the two fell in love, but when Jason took Medea back to Greece with him, he turned out to be a “heel”, who “dumped” her for some other “cupcake”. So the wimp is a “Weichei”, or weak and ineffective – not a man. Not only that, he was a “heel”, or insincere in his feelings for Medea because he “dumped her”, or left her. To dump something or someone has the connotation of throwing objects in the rubbish, or as we Americans would say, “trash”. In addition, dumping is rough, as when no caution is shown to how the object lands. Finally, Bruce used the expression “cupcake”, which refers to a pretty, young woman. For the benefit of my German readers, a cupcake is a “muffin”.

The most interesting part of Dr Blackerby’s presentation is how he used language. As a professor, he is used to lecturing in an academic code. This means he uses vocabulary rich in Latin and Greek derivatives, and he explains terms in a clear style. But he also peppered his language with colloquialisms, usually after he made an important point. So, his comment about Jason being a heel and dumping Medea for a Greek cupcake was used to summarize his story: a style used quite often in the US. It is a way to establish a positive relationship between the speaker and audience. These comments are funny and able to show that he, the professor, is “down-to-earth” and not lacking in humor.

Other interesting expressions that were used during this talk were:
Acting up”: behaving in an unexpected and inappropriate manner. Such as when children are not behaving properly. For example: “The children started acting up when the adults left the room”

Keep a watch”: to exclusively watch something and nothing else. For example: “We kept watching for our friends to come through the door” (because we didn’t want to miss them).

Wiped out”: destroyed. For Example: “The volcano eruption wiped out the city of Atlantis and its people”. The explanation relates to the Bruce’s talk, but is should be known that it is an idiomatic   expression used for a variety of meanings, such as when you are very tired as in “Yesterday wiped me out”.

During a ukulele lesson (yes, I learned the rudimentaries of this Hawaiian instrument while on board), I heard a man say “pertinear” and means “pretty near”. He said: “A werkt pertinear 30 years on’er train” (I worked for pretty near to 30 years on a train”)  I haven’t heard that since I was a child visiting my grandparents in Arkansas! This man’s southeastern accent was so strong it fascinated me simply because it is falling out of use. Some suggest that TV is responsible for regional accents to flatten out.

How about this one: “How j’ya like summore?” This is the running together of “How-would-you-like- some-more? Or “Whad’ya gonna do layder?” You can always quickly identify a student who has spent a lot of time with American speakers of English when they write “going to” as “gonna”. Some actually think this is the correct spelling!

After a month spent in the US I feel my American is polished up. One thing is certain: am gonna ‘aveta think’bout howta teach is’stuff n’Germinee.



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7 responses to “The way Americans really speak English

  1. Pops

    @ Dr. Sabrina Mallon-Gerland, Great blog! Couple of suggested changes &/or additions: To eat excessively is to scarf down & not scarf up.
    Wiped out can also mean: excessively tired, under the influence of alcohol or drug, loss of money by divorce or robbery. I am sure, there are multiple additional meanings that I can’t think of at the moment.

    Your blog makes for interesting & enjoyable reading.
    Robert B. Mallon, aka Pops

    • Hi Pops,
      Thank you for the corrections. After 31 years of life away from the US, there seems to be a toll to pay: my English. But seriously, it used to upset me that I couldn’t remember the correct preposition or get an idiomatic expression mixed up. Today it just makes me laugh. Such an exercise shows how lack of daily use can affect the way one speaks or uses a language.

  2. Martin roth

    Well now at last you have an idea what I felt
    Iike when I arrived in Yuma as after 8 years living in Ireland all youse yanks spoke funny!
    I returned to Ireland after 32 years here in the us, the last 19 in south Texas. Ad all my friends theremdd say I was an American again.
    The same goes for my sister who has lived in England since 1971 she speaks REAL English.

    • Thank you for that Martin. When we met in High School you and George did stand out with your Irish clothing and accents. But that also made you interesting! I can really understand how you must have felt when you moved to Arizona. After 31 years of Germany, my family in the US corrects my usage constantly. Yesterday I received a quick note from my Pops that the expression is “scarf down” and not “scarf up”. I had to laugh at myself!

  3. Martin roth

    Trying to remember the English teacher at kofa we had who asked me to,stand up and tell folks a little about ourselves and we stunned the whole class, and when bob Gomez asked what I had said she told him and said that was what real English sounded like!
    Mrs Chatham, I think washer name and she was English.
    When we got here to the us what y’all heard was street English from Dublin, and it like cockney is its own language.

  4. The very heart of your writing whilst sounding agreeable originally, did not settle properly with me after some time. Somewhere within the paragraphs you actually managed to make me a believer unfortunately only for a short while. I nevertheless have got a problem with your leaps in logic and one would do nicely to fill in all those breaks. When you actually can accomplish that, I would undoubtedly end up being amazed.

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