“That wazzock dared to gazump me; I’m gobsmacked by this sticky wicket full of codswallop that’s gone pear-shaped!”
That sentence may not sound serious. But the situation it describes is. Translated into standard English, it would be something like “That idiot dared to offer more money for the house after my offer already had been accepted; I’m shocked by this tricky situation full of nonsense that’s gone awry!”
The first sentence sounds so peculiar to certain ears not just because of the mangling of parts of speech. It’s also full of words, with origins ranging from the 1700s to the 1980s, that have two qualities in common: they’re all rather silly-sounding, and they’re all British English.
British English is full of whimsical terms like these. They reflect the UK’s cultural appreciation of wit, a long tradition of literary inventiveness – and Britain’s fluctuating global influence over the centuries.
Whimsical words like these are formed in a number of ways. These include blends of other words (eg ‘Oxbridge’, from Oxford and Cambridge); reduplicatives, which repeat sounds or parts of words (‘higgledy-piggledy’); back-formations, which often remove the suffix of their originating word (like ‘kempt’, from ‘unkempt’); and of course sheer nonsense (like Roald Dahl’s invention ‘gobblefunk’).
These types of coinages aren’t unique to English, let alone British English. But the relative simplicity of English words may lend itself to this kind of play.
Especially characteristic of these formations in British English is the way they reflect a certain kind of humour.
There’s a long tradition in British English of inventing words just for the fun of it. Eminent linguist David Crystal writes in The Story of English in 100 Words that ‘a gaggle of geese’, ‘an unkindness’ of ravens’, and other collective nouns of this ilk were created in the 15th Century. He speculates that this was done deliberately for comic effect, giving rise to ‘a superfluity of nuns’ (pun intended).