Sunday, December 7, 2008

"The Septic's Companion" by Chris Rae

Disclaimer: This post will be of interest mainly to English-speaking North Americans.

Septic? Why ‘septic’?

If you had this fine book, you’d be able to look it up and discover that to some in the UK it means ‘American.’ The origin is from rhyming slang, ‘Yank’* = ‘septic tank.’ Which might be taken as somewhat uncomplimentary, but could be worse, and is certainly preferable to being called ‘Residents of the Great Satan,’ (or, what--‘Great Satanians’?)

The author of this slim volume, Chris Rae, writes, “I'm banking on the cosmopolitan modern American not minding being called ‘Septic’. The wife thinks this is mistaken.”

Chris runs a very useful website that used to be called (and now goes by the name Although the dictionary he has compiled is extensive, it makes no claims of completeness: “I’ve tried to restrict myself to words which are known and understood throughout the whole of the UK. When talking about British language idiosyncrasies some people delight in trotting out phrases that no Brit would ever have heard unless they lived in a particular part of Dorset, in a particular street, and were present at a particular incident in the fourteenth century.”

Chris invited those who found the website useful to express their appreciation by using PayPal to buy him a pint, and then posted pictures of himself drinking the pint in question at various locations around the world. (My pint donation was consumed at the Peppermill Casino in Reno, Nevada.) A few of the pints were consumed by his wife, who, incidentally, looks stunning in a toga (see the pic on the page in question).

So, if the whole dictionary is still on line, why should you shell out for the book? Well, aside from the basic good karma, the first 30-odd pages explaining how the UK works range from nicely put (“Gaelic is a soft, cooing, mellifluous language that sounds as if it were invented mainly for soothing animals”) to a bit more acerbic:

The 2001 survey showed that just over 1% of Scots spoke Gaelic. They were all, without exception, irritating bearded people who want to drone on about heritage and force the government to spend millions of pounds making dual-language road signs that nobody ever reads. The census showed they lived with their mothers, and at home they secretly spoke English.

(The author, of course, is a Scot, so he can get away with this. His bionotes indicate he now lives in Seattle; one has to suppose the rest of the US was too sunny for him.)

This is a perfect gift for any North American headed for the UK, and is a hell of a lot more useful than most tourist guides. Where else can you find a wholly candid guide to going our drinking that not only explains the complex rules of pub etiquette, but also describes in detail the technique for carrying four pints of beer simultaneously?

You can buy this fine book from Amazon, or you can buy it directly from the author. It’s cheaper from Amazon, but if you buy it from the author, he offers not only sign it, but to also draw a picture of anything you request on the inside cover (even Goldsboro Books can't match that). Since he confesses his "artistic skills are inferior to those of an inebriated monkey," this is an offer difficult to turn down.

*I’ve had people in England apologize for using the word ‘Yank’ instead of ‘American.’ For the record, I happen to like ‘Yank.’ The term ‘American’ could logically refer to anyone living between Baffin Island and Tierra del Fuego, and it’s nice to have a have a word of one syllable rather than four (or, in the case of ‘effing Americans,’ six).

‘Yank’ has its drawbacks. To most people in the US, “Yankees’ are the inhabitants of the six states of New England, those itty-bitty ones stuffed into the upper right corner of the country. These states account for less than 5 percent of the US population, and less than 2 percent of the land area, so referring to everybody as ‘Yanks’ is a bit like referring to everybody in the UK as ‘Welsh,’ but the only people likely to take offense are Southerners. (Southerners tend to refer to people from any state that opposed slavery in the Civil War as ‘Yankees,’ with said term often preceded by a colorful adjective. People from the South usually aren’t too keen on being called ‘Yanks,’ but it’s nicer than some of the other things they're called, so I think they ought to smile and leave well enough alone.)


Tim Stretton said...

This sounds entertaining, David.

I have to say that I've never heard of Americans referred to as "septics", and indeed rhyming slang is general is nowhere near as widely used as people outside the UK seem to think.

Few Brits under 40 would know that a wig can be described as a a "syrup" (of figs) and even fewer would use it colloquially.

Do other Brits feel that rhyming slang, today at least, is as dead a language as Latin?

Neil said...

I'm aware of septics, but then I'm a bona fide Cockney by birth. Also, I'm under 40 and my wife--who is also under 40, yes--uses the term syrup more than wig, Tim, me ol' China. Rhyming slang terms are used a lot generally, at least in London and Essex, but for specific terms, rather than as a way of speaking, and new terms pop up regularly.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

The author agrees with you that most rhyming slang isn't widespread:

"Cockney rhyming slang is talked about more often than it is actually used. Some phrases are in fairly common usage countrywide--you're quite likely to hear people saying 'butcher's' to mean 'look,' or 'porkies' to mean 'lies' (pork pies), but you're unlikely to hear anybody talking about putting on their Aristotles. I've tried to put the most widely used ones into the dictionary. Whether I've succeeded or not, I'm not too bothered; you've paid for it now, so I couldn't give two hoots whether it turns out to be useful."

I'd certainly never heard about 'septic' before. But, then, I'd never heard about 'walnut sponge' until I read Aliya and Neil's blog. ('Walnut sponge' makes more sense once you are told that 'sponge' is a sort of cake; it's quite puzzling if you are thinking of the device used for sopping up water.)

David Isaak said...

Heya, Neil--

Now here's a good example of how one's writing voice has a being separate from the physical self. I've read quite a lot of your fiction at this point without once saying, "Hmmm...sounds like he's from the East End."

But, then, I don't suppose my writing sounds like I'm a native (second generation--which is about as far back as history goes in these parts, buckaroo) Southern Californian. I'm like totally, Whoa--I hope not!

The guy who wrote this dictionary says, "Cockneys have a distinctive accent, which other Brits are all convinced they can mimic after a few pints."

"China" isn't in his dictionary. I had to go to the web to find it means "mate."

On the other hand, "mate" is included in his dictionary, and he hastens to assure us outsiders that that it simply means "buddy" and does not imply an intention to copulate or reproduce with.

Neil said...

Dude, you like, totally, like, don't come across as a Californian beach bum, Scoobs, but then a fair few people in Cornwall probably do.

Speech is weird one anyway. I don't consciously modify my voice when I speak depending on who I'm with, but with old school-friends and to an extent my blood relations, I may sound a little more eastendy than is usual. Besides, I live in Surrey now, so am actually officially quite posh. What?

And interesting that it's the English that have responded to a post ostensibly aimed at your colonial brethren.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Don't Americans have sponge, then? Or walnuts?

No wonder the foreign rights on my books are unsellable.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Oh, and I should point out that it's 'coffee and walnut sponge'. You drink tea with it. Or gin. The coffee is already in the sponge, you see. Not served separately.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

I didn't realize you were posh now. I'll have to watch my tone now, lest you wither me by twitching your lip or raising an eyebrow.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

Walnuts we have, both English and native. And occasionally someone will refer to 'sponge cake,' but 'sponge' as a stand-alone word refers to things for the sink or bathtub. Or possibly Sponge-Bob Square-Pants. (Sorry. Sponge-Bob Square-Trousers to you folks.)

Take heart in the fact that they haven't sold the rights to my book over here either, even though I don't think there's a cake in the whole novel.

PS. Coffee flavor goes with gin? I'm dubious.