Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love early in the new millennium, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Lovely, Actually: Embracing Britain’s Cuddliest Expression

lovelypicIt was the afternoon of Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s nuptials and royal wedding-obsessed folks all over Britain, indeed the world, were bunched around TV screens, hankies at the ready, to watch the blessed event. But not me and my partner. We had skipped the live airing to hunt for discounted summer attire in Portsmouth’s scruffy city centre shopping district. (Though of course we caught the two-hour BBC recap later that evening. We’re not monsters.) Well into our leisurely stroll from our flat to the shops, we overheard a cheerful male voice approaching from behind. “Hello, Nan, it’s your favourite grandson!” the voice crooned in that pleasantly sing-song way in which many Brits speak. Being a world-class sleuth, I quickly deduced that he was talking to his grandmother via mobile phone. “What’s that, Nan?” the voice continued. “No, I’m not watching it. Don’t really have any interest. You? Ah, lovely. I’m sure it is a beautiful dress. Well, I was just calling to wish Auntie Gail a happy birthday. Is she around? Lovely! Ta, Nan!”

The source of the voice then caught up with us and passed, phone pressed to his ear as he waited to deliver his birthday wishes. From the well-mannered words he had just uttered, I assumed he would be a gentleman of some refinement, if not an aristocrat in a top hat and spats, then at least a clean-cut type in a tweed jacket, button-down shirt and pressed khakis. Instead the figure that loped into view was straight out of teenage ragamuffin central casting. Baggy sweatpants, scuffed trainers—that’s British for sneakers—slack  jaw, greasy, stringy hair, and a faded hoodie that hung halfheartedly from of his gangly frame as if it might give up and drop to the ground at any moment. From my angle I couldn’t see what he was wearing beneath the hoodie, but I have no doubt it was a rank, food-flecked t-shirt emblazoned with some heavy metal band logo. (My money’s on Avenged Sevenfold.) He was accompanied by another thuglet, this one squat and ginger-haired, and the two of them looked like they were out for a day of shoplifting, smoking pot, and spitting on pedestrians from an overpass, in no particular order.

A startling clash of aural expectation and visual reality, to be sure, and nothing sounded more discordant to my American ears than the word “lovely” twice tripping lightly off of this guttersnipe’s tongue. To a non-Brit, it seems like an exceptionally genteel expression, something murmured by a dowager countess in between sips of tepid tea. But I’ve come to learn that everyone says “lovely” here. Well, at least a great many of the people that I’ve encountered. I have yet to visit every nook and cranny of the UK, so I’ve no idea whether Yorkshire sheep farmers or Cornish fishermen pepper their patter with “lovely,” but I’d bet you a pound or two that they do. I’ve heard it from brawny customs agents and hard-faced train conductors, from bearded bartenders and dentally challenged cab drivers, from grizzled market stall vendors and, now, from teen tearaways. A few days after our surreal street urchin experience, I was walking past the local Tesco food market. A hulking, bald bruiser with a tattoo of a straight razor adorning his right temple lurked outside the entrance, smoking and scowling. He looked as if he’d been in approximately 67 pub fights and had won a good two-thirds of them. When his female companion exited the market, he asked her if she remembered to buy him cigarettes. She produced them from the Tesco shopping bag. Can you guess Mr. Razor Temple’s dainty, delighted response?

It is a grace note in virtually all of the dealings I have with British merchants and service industry workers. If I’m giving my order at a restaurant, I’ll get a “lovely” from the waiter. If I’m paying for something with exact change at a shop, I’ll for sure earn a “lovely” from the clerk. But even if I’m being an asshat and buying a 50p pack of gum with a £20 note, more often than not I’ll get a “lovely” then too, just possibly delivered with a smidge less enthusiasm. Occasionally I’m treated to the bedazzled variation “lovely jubbly.” For example:

ME TO THE BUTCHER: May I have four Cumberland sausages and two steak pies please?
THE BUTCHER TO ME: Lovely jubbly!

In my opinion, this takes the quaint Britishness of our transaction a step too far. It’s like if I asked a New York hot dog vendor for extra mustard and relish and he responded with “Fuhgeddaboudit! I’m walkin’ heah!”

When we Yanks want to express pleasure or approval, we usually opt for over-caffeinated interjections like “awesome” or “super.” (Or if you’re Charles Montgomery Burns, a purred “excellent” will suffice. Pausing for a moment to steeple my fingers.) The Brits, as is their wont, have gone for something more charming; “lovely” is the equivalent of a verbal hug, as warm and welcoming as another omnipresent British exclamation, “cheers,” which is used in place of “thanks.” (Or in addition to, as in “Cheers, thanks!”) Though for me, “lovely” is just a wee bit cuddlier because it sounds so musical when said aloud. Not that I can bring myself to say it. In a previous post, I chronicled my anxieties about speaking as the Brits do and not coming off like a phony. This is definitely one of those instances. I fear that easing it into my repartee repertoire is going to be a glacial process. As of now, I’m only confident enough to cautiously slip it into a few texts and Facebook posts, and even when I do that I leave myself open to serious razzing from my pals stateside. “What, ya think you’re some fancy-schmancy Brit now, do ya?” they’ll taunt. “Go soak yer head, ya dope!” (Yes, my American friends are all schoolyard bullies from old black-and-white sitcoms.)  Hopefully someday I’ll be able muster the nerve to return some of the conversational kindnesses that my gracious British neighbours send my way every day.

Now wouldn’t that be—oh, what’s the word I’m looking for?

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6 thoughts on “Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

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