If an email can emit a bored sigh, the one I got from the brilliant illustrator of this column anticipating my British “untranslatable” word was one long arrgghhh. ‘The ‘two-peoples-separated-by-a-common-language’ bit?” he wrote.
In fact, I know something about this common language. I am British, but have lived in America 30 years. A little late, and driven to outrage by the results of past elections I was unable to vote in, I became an American in March. A passport doesn’t tell you much about a person, however, and now I have two, to confuse even more.
How to address a bishop
I’ve happily endured being British in New York (hardly a hardship). The New York Times columnist Russell Baker once asked me how to address a bishop. Just for the pleasure of hearing my accent people have pleaded with me to repeat “Excuse me, is this seat taken?” Strangers assume I’m clever and that I went to the same media takeover school with every other sharp Brit who lives here. Some loony once asked me, “When will Charles and Diana divorce?” I was stunned and retorted, “Never” (it was 1983). I also, famously, went as a tomato to a party where the invitation stipulated “fancy dress,” because “fancy dress” is British for a costume party. At the movies with my American (now ex-) husband I was always struck how we never quite laughed at the same time at the same jokes.
Back home, I remember to stay in the queue, to say lift instead of elevator and chicory when I mean endive, and to tone down my enthusiasms and dislikes a little. My wwword partner and childhood friend Tamara shares my background and has been in New York maybe even a little longer; we naturally ended up discussing whether a British untranslatable word existed—something no American could possibly understand. In unison we answered our own question: “Mustn’t grumble!”
Don’t get me started
In England, the answer to any number of standard questions—What’s the weather like? How are you? How’s work?—is “Mustn’t grumble”; but, of course, like many things English it means just the opposite. It means, “How long have I got?” It means, “Don’t get me started!” The phrase is a little up-north and slightly working-class, but it’s astonishing how often it’s used by all Brits from all walks of life.
A quick google gives an idea of its many uses and, more commonly, misuses. The Mustn’t Grumble, apparently, is a “relatively” new American group from Boston inspired by a ’70s U.K. rock band of the same name. The addition of the definite article, however, suggests that the new version didn’t get the joke—the “The” makes them sound like a pub or a warship. The brilliant cartoonist and writer Posy Simmonds, who never hits a false note when spearing her own kind—she’s a metaphor for middle-class—titled a collection of her cartoons for the Guardian and the Spectator (the rightish-of-center current affairs weekly) Mustn’t Grumble. The ghastly duo Chas and Dave, all braces (sorry, suspenders) and cloth caps, sang it for us (it’s the kind of song you wish you’d never heard and then you find yourself singing in the shower). In the aftermath of 9/11, the New Statesman, the (leftish-of-center) current affairs and political weekly, headlined a story about global warming and the media “Thousands die: mustn’t grumble!” encapsulating both the joke and the non-joke simultaneously.
How long have I got?
Why do the Engllsh like to complain? How long have I got? Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s because we’re not as rich as Americans used to be, or as chic as the French or the Italians, or as punctual and successful as the Germans. Whatever the reason, you’ll be hearing from us when things go wrong. Mustn’t grumble!
Audio of mustn’t grumble by Josephine Wiggs.