I’ve had the idea in the back of my head for months to write about the differences in language use between England and South Africa. But I never managed to collect enough of them to make for a full post. And after a while here, the way things are said here becomes ‘normal’, and less notable. Things like using “cheers” as a general “yes”, or “thanks”, or “ok”, rather than the “goodbye” that I’m used to. “Poorly” instead of “ill”. The use of “as you do”.
But today, I ran into one that is worth the telling. It’s pants. In South Africa, you have short pants, long pants, casual pants, and smart pants. Over here, they call them trousers. Pants are underpants. This is David Beckham in his pants. This is him in trousers. You get the idea. Suffice it to say that if you walk into a shop and ask for a pair of black pants, you’ll get taken to the underwear section.
Now, there’s a long-standing joke in SA where Afrikaans people are ripped off about the way that they talk. Here’s the clip from the radio where it all started (it’s probably a good idea to take a break at this point to have a listen). Using “I can like to” or “I are wearing” spread across the country like wildfire, and became a sort of catchphrase. Before too long, you could get a T-shirt proudly blazoning “I are wearing a jean pant”, with an arrow pointing downwards (to the general area of the pant). After having my eye on one of them for years, I was finally given one for Christmas.
Right: scene set.
Without thinking too much about it, I wore this to the office today (casual Friday, in case you’re wondering). But it was only at the end of the day that I realised what I was proclaiming on my chest. Suddenly, the strange looks I’d been getting all day started to make a little bit more sense. They weren’t boggling at the misuse of language – they were trying to picture what a pair of underpants made out of denim would be like.
It’s a good thing that I’m not easily embarrassed, but perhaps an even better thing that I’m on leave for the next week.