The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

English Humour

Category: Culture

“When I use a word,’’ said Humpty Dumpty,* “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’’ It is to be expected that a literary country like England should excel in verbal wit.* It is verbal buffoonery, a juggling with the sound and sense of words, a peculiarly English delight in mytification, secret meanings, and the appreciation of sound without sense for its own sake.

Puns are as good currency today as when Lewis Carroll wrote “Alice in Wonderland’’ Spoonerisms* are still savoured like good cognac, passed round, and added to. The well-meaning Vicar who announced the hymn* “Kinkering Kongs’’ instead of “Conquering Kings Their Title Take’’ still pleases us.

Scholarly books are still being written on such unpolished English words as wollop (meaning “mild beer’’), clip (embrace), tosy (snug), fubsy (squat and stout). And the cockney goes on producing his verbal fantasies in the form of rhyming slang faster than the collector can collect them. They are for him a form of spontaneous poetry open to all to have.a bash. Pride and joy (a boy), Harvey Nicholas (pickles), almond rocks (socks), / suppose (nose); and intentionally mystifying abbreviations of rhyming slang such. as titfe (tit for tat, meaning “hat’’) and loaf (loaf of bread, meaning “head’’). Of some interest are Currant Bun for The Sun (newspaper), Daily Wail for Daily Mail, and Daily Distress for Daily Express.

The last war produced a rich crop of new words, some of which are still being used: to fiddle (circumvent authority gainfully), to liberate (to acquire loot), to be browned off (bored with waiting), bangers (sausages). Slang is indeed so rich and flourishing acropin England that it grows and changes from district to district and from day to day.

The children add their own slang to the grown-up children’s language, and immediately this, too, becomes part of adult vocabulary. Afters means children’s pudding. Greens means a second vegetable served at dinner. Children’s secret languages often persist in England into adult life. It may simply be a system of adding a silly ending to every word such as -ickle, or it may be a completely original set of noises. Expressions meaning something else are always Current in England at all levels. Saturday night and Sunday morning have a clear message for those whose everyday working hours don’t give them any other time for dalliance. Schoolboy howlers are a continual source of joy. Ma sceur @ raison, mon frére a tort, translated as My sister has a raisin, MY brother has a tart, seems excruciatingly funny in England, to the teachers, the headmaster, the pupils and everyone else.

Tongue-twisters like the one below are another source of amusement:

A canner exceedingly canny

One morning remarked to his grannie:

“A canner can can anything that he calls

But a canner can’t can a can, can’e?”

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