This post is dedicated to cataloging the British slang in J. K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, and translating it for an American audience. If there’s something in the book I didn’t include, just let me know in the comments and I’ll update the post; I’m sure I won’t be able to note every instance on the first try. You can also try typing the word or phrase in question into this website. For some of these that I couldn’t find written definitions for, I consulted with MD, the same native British dialect speaker source that I used for this post.
I’m purposefully leaving out the words that are distinctly British abbreviations, yet obviously intelligible to American English speakers, like prozzie (prostitute), lezzer (lesbian), and choccies (chocolates). The words I did include are pretty much presented in the order in which they appear in the story.
to “get off with“=to make out with
A few weeks previously, Andrew had got off with Niam Fairbrother, one of Barry’s twin daughters…
to “stick two fingers up at“=to flip off. Colin, complaining to Tess about their son Fats’ insolent behavior:
“He’s just sticking two fingers up at me, as usual.”
You can see this insulting gesture demonstrated in the clip below from the comedy Hot Fuzz.
jumper=long sleeve shirt or sweater, (without a zipper. A jacket that zips up is called a coat.) Sukhvinder is described in class as:
She had pulled the left sleeve of her jumper down so that it completely covered her hand, enclosing the cuff to make a wooly fist.
polythene=plastic, short for polyethylene. Used several times, one example being by Gavin before the funeral:
A black suit was hanging in dry cleaner’s polythene in his bedroom, like an unwelcome guest.
dozy=stupid; dim =not smart. Both used by Krystal in the same quotation from the word below.
Paki=offensive term for people of Indian or Pakistani descent. According to MD it is not quite as strong as the n-word, but others might disagree; the sense of how offensive it is depends on context and individual perspective. It’s obviously hurtful to Sukhvinder when directed at her, and completely unacceptable to Barry Fairbrother who chastises Krystal for using it:
And then Krystal, bringing up the rear of the group with Sukhvinder, had called her a silly Paki bitch.
It had come out of nowhere. They had all been messing around with Mr. Fairbrother. Krystal thought she was being funny. She used “fucking” interchangeably with “very,” and seemed to see no difference between them. Now she said “Paki” as she would have said “dozy” or “dim.”
torch=flashlight. Sukhvinder uses one when she surreptitiously self-harms in her room at night.
She got off the bed and groped for the torch on her shelf, and a handful of tissues, then moved into the furthest part of her room, into the little round turret in the corner. Here, she knew, the torch’s light would be confined, and would not show around the edges of the door.
roaches= marijuana cigarette butts. MD said it could also be makeshift joints (marijuana or tobacco) rolled out of any old paper, not necessarily rolling paper made for that purpose. They are found in Andrew and Fats’ cave hide-out:
The floor was covered in their cigarette butts and cardboard roaches.
innit=tag that can mean isn’t it, isn’t he, aren’t we, aren’t I, aren’t they, etc. depending on context. (I talked about this in my previous post on the slang in Attack the Block.) In this book, it appears in a conversation between Fats and Andrew on the meaning of life:
“Yeah,” said Fats. “Fucking and dying. That’s it, innit? Fucking and dying. That’s life.”
wog=non-white person, (highly offensive). Nana Cath casually drops the slur while telling Krystal about her cousins:
“Tha’s my Michael’s little girl, Rhiannon, when she were five. Beau’iful, weren’t she? Bu’ she wen’ an’ married some wog,” said Nana Cath.
lush =hot or sexy, (short for “lucious”). Sam’s daughter uses it to describe one of the boy-band members:
“Mikey’s so lush,” she said, with a carnal groan that took Samantha aback; but the muscular boy was called Jake. Samantha was glad they did not like the same one.
outsize =plus size. Sam’s business, Over the Shoulder Boulder Holders, specializes in plus size underwear.
“She sells outsize bras,” said Miles.
cacking it=shitting oneself. Fats uses this phrase to describe his father’s mental state during his election campaign.
“Cubby’s cacking it already, and he’s only making his pamphlet.”
spliffs=joints. When Fats and Krystal rendezvous in the cemetery:
After another few minutes, Fats asked, “D’you smoke?”
“Wha’, like spliffs? Yeah, I dunnit with Dane.”
“glassed a bloke” =hit with a glass bottle. MD insisted this meant to hit, not cut. Krystal used the phrase to explain, to a curious Fats, why Pikey Pritchard is on probation:
“He glassed a bloke down the Cross Keys.”
surgery =doctor’s office. Parminder is basically a general practice doctor, but her office is referred to as a “surgery.” Elsewhere in the book it’s referred to as “the local surgery.”
She turned and walked back to her surgery, Howard following her.
sod= screw it/leave it (sod off=piss off, stop being a sod=stop being a baby). Gavin, visiting Mary:
“You need a drink,” he told her, in that unfamiliarly strong and commanding voice. “Sod coffee. Where’s the proper stuff?”
grasses=snitches. Simon wants to find out who told about the stolen computer, after he reads the letter from the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother about himself:
When he had finished, he remained quite still, passing for review, in his mind, all the likely grasses.
pudding=dessert. Even if the dish being served isn’t literally “pudding,” like at the dinner Parminder and Vikram host for Tessa and Colin:
Parminder was shoving bowls of cut fruit across the table for pudding.
trackie =top part of a tracksuit, like a jacket. Casual clothing that students might wear when out of school uniform, and that Krystal is dressed in ready to go to Nana Cath’s funeral.
With her fists deep in her trackie pockets, shoulders squared, Krystal tried to decide what to do. She wanted to cry at the thought of not going to the funeral, but her distress was edged with relief that she would not have to face the battery of hostile eyes she had sometimes met at Nana Cath’s.
Rizlas=brand of rolling paper for cigarettes. Colin is outraged to find them, among other things, in Fats’ room:
Colin noticed a large matchbox on Fats’ desk. He slid it open, and saw a mass of twisted cardboard stubs. A packet of Rizlas lay brazenly on the desk beside the computer.
blue murder =bloody murder. Colin, ranting to Tessa about their son Fats:
“Doesn’t it ever occur to you that it’s your constant excuses for him that make him think he can get away with blue murder?”
yob=hooligan, juvenile delinquent (a young troublemaker)
“Trouble is, for every Barry,” said another woman, “you get a load of yobs.”
pissed=drunk. At Howard’s birthday party, when his three employees have been drinking heavily:
“You all right?” Andrew asked. If Fats had not been there, he would have sat down too. “Pissed,” she muttered.
theater= In this context, (at the hospital after Howard’s heart attack) it’s short for “operating theater”, or what Americans would refer to as the O.R. (operating room):
Miles and Samantha were sitting on either side of Shirley, waiting for news from theater.
Another linguistic element in The Casual Vacancy that was distinctly British, besides words and phrases, was the importance of dialects and the diversity in speaking styles between groups, even within close geographical proximity. Of course there is great variety among dialects of American English as well, but it is not such a hugely important factor in identifying or labeling people’s social class, and regional dialects do not divide so sharply and in such small areas as they do in Great Britain. Wikipedia’s article on regional accents of English states, “for example, towns located less than 10 miles (16 km) from the city of Manchester such as Bolton, Oldham and Salford, each have distinct accents, all of which form the Lancashire accent, yet in extreme cases are different enough to be noticed even by a non-local listener.”
Several quotes from the book reference dialect variation, and an understanding of their significance can enhance an American reader’s appreciation for the story.
Parminder’s Birmingham accent was still strong after sixteen years in Pagford.
Parminder might never have been able to successfully shift dialects completely as an adult, but the fact that her accent is still “strong” after so much time in the small community could indicate both that she isn’t viewed as an insider and that she doesn’t herself identify primarily as a Pagford resident. This theory is supported further by Parminder’s rumination later that:
…now that Barry was gone, Tessa was Parminder’s only real friend in Pagford. (She always said “in Pagford” to herself, pretending that somewhere beyond the little town she had a hundred loyal friends…)
There a few references to the speech patterns of Yarvil residents being distinct from those of Pagford, but remember these towns are so close some of the land between them is in dispute, (the Fields), and Samantha’s commute to work is said to be only about 10 minutes.
No part of Pagford’s unwanted burden caused more fury of bitterness than the fact that Fields children now fell inside the catchment area of St. Thomas’s Church of England Primary School. Young Fielders had the right to don the coveted blue and white uniform, to play in the yard beside the foundation stone laid by Lady Charlotte Sweetlove and to deafen the tiny classrooms with their strident Yarvil accents.
Besides marking geographic location, a dialect can indicate social class, especially in England where the poshest of the posh are supposed to speak Received Pronunciation. In the quote below, it sounds like Samantha sometimes tries to present herself as slightly more socially elevated than she is when she’s speaking with her richest and most influential neighbors:
Samantha might jeer at his parents’ thralldom to the Fawleys, but Miles noticed that on those rare occasions when Samantha came face-to-face with either Aubry or Julia, her accent changed subtly and her demeanor became markedly more demure.
Later, Andrew notices that Sam’s daughter Lexie is reflecting the switch to private boarding school in her speech:
Her accent had changed since she had been at St. Anne’s.
I would be interested to hear from anyone with more insight to add to either the slang words or the phenomenon of so many diverse dialects clustered together in England; or, if you’re an American reader and you still have a question about the meaning of a word I didn’t include, just leave me a comment!