BRITGUIDE---an introduction to Britishisms in the Beatles' Lyrics

Written by Harold Somers, harold@ccl.umist.ac.uk
and edited by saki (saki@evolution.bchs.uh.edu)
Copyright 1992, 1993---no unauthorized use permitted

Last Update: July 1, 1993
----
When you consider how many songs the Beatles wrote, it's astonishing
that most of their lyrics are so decidedly non-British! Especially in
their early period of composition, Lennon & McCartney hardly seem to write
in any perceivable British style. Some singers in England made a mint
from exploiting or emphasizing their heritage: Lonnie Donegan's popular
skiffle songs (most of which were actually reworked or adapted American
blues songs!) often incorporated popular British music hall themes ("My
Old Man's A Dustman", "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour..."), and
Joe Brown---and later Herman's Hermits---used an exaggerated cockney
voice to create novelty hits ("I'm Henry the Eight, I Am").

But the Fabs seemed to not only be influenced by the rhythms of American
popular music, they seemed affected by its vernacular as well---or perhaps
by a universal, non-specific dialect. Writing hit songs has never really
allowed much nationalistic focus; the key is to appeal to the widest
possible audience. The Beatles seemed to have fulfilled this goal admirably.

But occasionally, especially toward the end of their active songwriting
era, the Beatles embedded references to British locations and customs, or
used language patterns that seem a little strange to Americans. This list
explores some of those curiosities.

This is not a complete list, by any means! If you notice something
undecipherable in a Beatles song, please bring it to our attention at
once, and we'll add it to the list.

Songs are arranged in alphabetical order.
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"Across the Universe"

letter-box - American is "mailbox."
----
"A Day in the Life"

John said he was inspired by the "Far and Wide" column of the Daily Mail,
		one of the national daily newspapers. During the '65-67
		period, John spent much of his free time reading newspapers
		and watching televsision; "A Day in the Life" is a prime
		example of his ability to weave everyday events into
		musical poetry; cf. "Good Morning Good Morning."

House of Lords - the upper chamber of the Houses of Parliament, occupied
		mostly by honorary peers and by only a tiny number of real
		(hereditary) aristocrats. The (un)lucky man in the car crash
		has been identified by keen Beatle scholars as Tara Browne,
		Guiness heir (beer, presumably?).

I saw a film - the film (movie) in question may be "How I Won The War".

made the bus - caught the bus.

found my way upstairs - a double decker, where smoking is allowed only
		on the upper level.

4000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire - this was the clue that pointed
		to the precise news story, and the holes were merely
		potholes in the street. Blackburn has no special
		significance other than being the site of the holes.

Albert Hall - a classical music concert hall in London.
----
"All Together Now"

The words are patterned in the style of a "skipping rhyme", used by
children to keep time while skipping rope.

Can I bring my friend to tea? - Tea in northern lower-middle class
		vernacular is a light but *hot* meal served
		at about 5.30, consisting of things like baked
		beans on toast, or fried egg and chips, i.e.,
		French Fries. If there was some special reason for
		the tea, there might be some fancy desert such as
		ice cream and jelly (jello). In the North---the
		Beatles' milieu---"tea" is definitely *not*
		sandwiches, cakes and tea as served in Claridges.
		A Northerner might drink tea with his/her "tea"
		(with, not after), though a child would be
		more likely to prefer lemonade (that's something
		like 7-up), squash (a uniquely British abomination)
		or milk.

Black white green red, Can I take my friend to bed?/
Pink, brown, yellow, orange and blue....

		The second line of course makes it less like a child's
		skipping song. The colours mentioned are (with the
		exception of orange) those for the balls that make
		up a snooker set: white is the cue ball, there are seven
		reds, one each of yellow, brown, green, blue, pink, black,
		increasing in value in that order. The connection may
		be a coincidence.
----
"Baby You're a Rich Man"

tuned to a natural E - a musical term; a simple chord to learn.
----
"Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite"

hoops and garters - (obsolete) "hoops" are probably the staves used to
		reinforce a hogshead (see next item) or barrel; used
		in this sense, "garter" may also be a circlet of some
		material through which a performer jumps.

hogshead - Now obsolete in general language; a large cask or beer barrel
		(holding 54 gallons (imperial)). One presumes that,
		lit aflame, it must have been quite spectacular.

ten to six - Five fifty pm (5.50 UK/5:50 US)

somersets - (obsolete) somersaults
----
"Back in the USSR"

Flew in from Miami Beach, BOAC - British Overseas Air Corporation. The
	       national carrier had two branches in those days, BOAC
	       handling trans-continental flights, while European (and
	       internal) flights were  carried by BEA---British European
	       Airways---as seen on the helicopter at the end of
	       "A Hard Days Night" (BEA+TLES).
----
"Ballad of John & Yoko"

The man in the mac said you've got to go back - a mac is a raincoat.
		The man in the mac is presumably the immigration officer
		at some port or other.
----
"Come Together"

Toe-jam football - a nonsense phrase; it could refer to either American
		football or British (soccer). "Toe-jam" may refer to an
		injury but it could be one of Lennon's famous "portmanteau"
		words...and remember that "jam" in Br.E. means what "jelly"
		means in Am.E. (in Br.E, "jelly" is American "jello".)

Wonky finger - more nonsense, but "wonky" in Br.E. means "off center" or
		"not functioning properly" as in "The TV's gone wonky".

Walrus gumboot - Walrus probably refers to the famous Lennon song, but
		 gumboots were a standard British term in the thirties
		 for rubber boots such as "wellingtons" or more popularly
		 "wellies".

Ono sideboard - a sideboard is a piece of furniture placed in a dining room,
		and sideboards/"sidies" are Br.E. for sideburns.

Spinal cracker - "cracker" could mean any of the following:
		(1) something which cracks
		(2) an unsweetened biscuit for cheese (a.k.a. cream cracker)
		(3) a Xmas cracker---a cardboard tube wrapped in fancy
		paper, with a gift and a motto inside. Two people hold
		either end and pull it. It usually has a small device that
		that cracks when the cracker is pulled open. Common in
		Britain but unknown in the States.
		(4) a good-looking woman
		(5) a good joke.

Mojo filter - possibly a use of the voodoo word for magic, but in
		England a "mojo" was a candy ("sweet") sold at 4 for a
		penny. Also perhaps a reference to the many blues songs
		using the word "mojo" ("I Got My Mojo Working", etc.)
----
"Cry Baby Cry"

The local Bird and Bee - a typical-sounding name (The Bird and Bee) for
		a local pub, in this case an imaginary one to fit the
		imaginary kingdom about which Lennon writes. It's also
		common to use the term "the local" for same, as in
		"I'm just off down the local for a quick half"
		( = half-pint of beer, lager, bitter, etc.).
----
"Day Tripper"

day tripper - someone going on a "day trip", i.e. a one-day excursion,
		a brief vacation (often to the seaside)---probably nothing
		to do with drugs

she's a big teaser - this line could possibly suggest the (vulgar) slang
		"prick teaser"---a woman who acts like she's more
		willing than she really is

she took me half the way there - to "go all the way" is to have sex
		with someone

Sunday driver - someone who only takes the car out on Sundays, hence
		a second rate driver, too slow, someone who annoys you
		on the road.
----
"Dr Robert"

Ring my friend - call (phone) in Am.E. In Br.E., it is often customary
		to leave out the period (full stop) at the end of
		abbreviations like Dr or Mrs, whereas in American usage
		this would be in bad form.

National Health - the national socialized medical plan in the UK.
		Certain types of drugs or treatment are not available
		"on the National Health" (e.g. cosmetic surgery); but if
		Dr Robert *is* on the NHS that would explain the advice in
		the lyric, "Don't pay money just to see yourself with ..."
----
"Eleanor Rigby"

Wearing the face that she keeps in the jar by the door - obscure imagery,
		not strictly Br.E., but probably refers to cosmetics jar.
		In Br.E. there is the use of "I can't go out without my
		face on", so "wearing the face" may be related to that.
----
"Glass Onion"

Looking through the bent-backed tulips/To see how the other half lives -
		The "other half" is the upper classes, if spoken by someone
		in the working class...as Lennon fancied himself. Difficult
		to know what he meant by "bent-back tulips"---maybe just a
		vivid image.

Trying to make a dove-tail joint - this would seem to be a carpenter's
		image---a dove-tailed joint is one that fits tightly
		together; but in Br.E., as in Am.E., "joint" can also
		mean marijuana cigarette.
----
"Good Morning Good Morning"

time for tea - for working class people the evening *meal* is "tea" (dinner
		is at mid-day), and is eaten as soon as you get home from
		work - usually 5.30 because you probably don't live very far
		from your workplace; this is certainly not "high tea"
		enjoyed by the upper classes.

meet the wife - at the time of writing there was a very popular sitcom on
		TV at tea-time, called "Meet the Wife" (with Freddie Frinton
		and Thora Hird): the plot, more or less, was that they were
		both working class and she was a snob but he wasn't.

		John has also admitted that this song was inspired by a
		TV commercial for Corn Flakes; the Hunter Davies biography,
		written about this time, suggests that he didn't do much
		besides sit around and watch TV at this period.
----
"Happiness Is A Warm Gun"

A soap impression...he ate and donated to the National Trust - The National
		Trust is a government funded body that looks after
		monuments including parks, old buildings, stately
		homes, and other antiques. Of course, the joke is
		that having eaten it, it would be difficult to donate to
		anyone.
----
"Helter Skelter"

		A helter skelter is a long slide which spirals round
		a central tower. You climb up the steps inside the tower,
		collect a straw mat at the top (to sit on) and then just
		slide down. It's a fun ride because it's difficult to
		keep your balance (because you're going down in circles)
		and because you can't see how far it is to the bottom.

		Of course, here McCartney is using the term as a metaphor,
		or illustration, of a sensual high.
----
"Hey Bulldog"

Bulldog is the symbolic British animal (like American eagle and Russian
bear).

Wigwam frightened of the dark - Lennon's use of the American word suggests
		that he doesn't know its meaning (a specialized
		type of Indian hut) or is deliberately twisting
		its meaning, as he was wont to do.
----
"I Am The Walrus"

Many of the images in this song, although mostly nonsense, are very
evocative for a British reader of childhood taunts, rhymes and games.
In particular, the metre of the whole song is exactly that of a
school playground skipping rhyme or joke poem; hence probably the
choice of "corporation", the "yellow matter" rhyme, "semolina", etc.

waiting for the van - van = truck suitable for passengers such as a prison
		van or hospital van (ambulance): the image is one of waiting
		to be taken off to (mental) hospital . Hunter Davies says
		that John originally had "man", but that Davies misheard it
		as "van", which John liked better.

corporation T-shirt - it doesn't mean anything, but the Corporation is the
		municipal government, hence "Corporation bus", "Corporation
		library", etc.

yellow matter custard... - the first line of a children's rhyme:
		Yellow matter custard, green snot pie,
		All mixed up with a dead dog's eye,
		Slap it on some toast, nice and thick,
		Wash it all down with a cold cup of sick.
		[note `sick' is Br.E. for vomit]

crabalocker - just a made-up word

let your knickers down - "knickers" is Br.E. for panties, not breeches
		like baseball players wear, nor the American
		"knickerbockers". This line was sufficient to get the song
		banned by the BBC.

snied - "snied" is a made-up word, but "snide" is Br.E. colloq. meaning
		"sneering", as in "a snide remark".

semolina - quite commonly served (and universally unpopular) as a
		dessert, made into a milk pudding in "school dinners",
		meals served in a refectory at school. In John's youth, and
		until the 70s, it was usual for schoolchildren to eat meals
		at school rather than bring a lunchbox from home.

pilchard - again evocative of food chosen for economy more than taste:
		canned or dried fish, like sardines.

penguin - apart from the bird, it is also the name of the biggest
		paperback book publisher in Britain; and the name of a type
		of chocolate biscuit (Am.E "cookie").
----
"I Dig a Pony"

I pick a moondog - probably reference to Johnny and the Moondogs (reputed
		to be an early, if brief, Beatles' monniker.)

Oh now I roll a stoney - not a British reference; possibly the Rolling
		Stones?

Oh now I roll a lorry - American calls it a truck rather than a lorry.
----
"I'm So Tired"

And curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get - in Br.E., "get" is
		the same as "git", both of which are insulting terms,
		analogous to "bastard". Sir Walter Raleigh was a stupid
		get for introducing tobacco into Europe.
----
"Lovely Rita"

meter maid - actually this is an Americanism: Br.E. would say "traffic
		warden", but maybe "Gorgeous Gordon, traffic warden" didn't
		sound so good!

got the bill - Am.E. got the check.
----
"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"

plasticine - play-doh or children's modelling clay.
----
"Magical Mystery Tour"

Mystery Tours were quite common in the 50s and 60s: train and bus
companies would run such trips on public holidays and at weekends,
taking passengers to an undisclosed destination, usually the seaside or
country. It's not clear why people should prefer a Mystery Tour to a
planned outing to a known destination, except that they were probably
cheaper than regular fares (and probably took the day trippers
to resorts which were otherwise less popular).
----
"Maxwell's Silver Hammer"

Pataphysical science - "Intricate and whimsical nonsense intended
		as a parody of science" (Websters).

Can I take you out to the pictures, Joan? - to the movies.
----
"Mean Mr Mustard"

Keeps a ten-bob note up his nose - "Ten bob note" is a bank note worth ten
		shillings i.e. half a pound. "Bob" was widely-used slang
		for "shilling", now of course in demise.
----
"Norwegian Wood"

And crawled off to sleep in the bath - the bathtub. Note that the size
		of British bathrooms (which *always* include a bathtub,
		otherwise they're not called bathrooms, but toilets) would
		suggest that he actually sleep IN the bathtub, not e.g. on
		the floor in the bathroom.
----
"O Bla Di, O Bla Da"

Desmond takes a trolley to the jewelry store - trolley bus, i.e. an
		electric bus vs. a rail bus. Could also be a small
		shopping cart.

Buys a twenty-karat golden ring - in Am.E., gold rings are usually
		ten, fourteen or eighteen karat, not twenty karat
		( = percentage of alloy to gold). *C*arat in Am.E. is for
		weighing diamonds and other precious stones. This is
		probably *k*arat, therefore. But other British sources
		also report 22-K gold rings, so the percentage of gold may
		be higher in British rings.
----
"Old Brown Shoe"

For your sweet top lip I'm in the queue - most computer-literate people
		know now what a queue is, though it's a bit jarring
		in the American sense to see it used with people. In Am.E.,
		people stand in line, not in the queue.
----
"Only a Northern Song"

When you're listening late at night/You may think the band are
not quite right - British terminology uses "band" as a plural
		collective, hence "band are" rather than "band
		is". To American ears this sounds strange.
----
"Paperback Writer"

Sir or Madam - the standard opening to a letter addressed to someone
		whom you don't know

a man named Lear - Edward, presumably no special significance, but could
		be a reference to Edward Lear, a 19th century nonsense-
		verse writer, or even by analogy, Lennon ("L"), the only
		one of the Beatles with literary pretensions.

Daily Mail - a middle-class national newspaper in England
---
"Penny Lane"

		A street/shopping district near where John and Paul grew up.
		Nearby, on Menlove Ave, John lived with his aunt Mimi, but
		often came to Newcastle Rd to visit Julia and his
		half-sisters. Dovedale Rd Primary School (John's first
		school) are both nearby, as is Allerton, Paul's district,
		and Forthlin Rd., his home street. Since the song is about
		childhood reminiscences, there are several Britishisms.

a barber showing photographs - Gents' hairdressers were, and probably
		still are, known as "barbers", even though you probably
		can't get a shave there any more. The shop window generally
		has photographs of the hairstyles the barber is supposed
		to create. Paul extended this to the theory that the
		photos were instead of "every head he's had the pleasure to
		know..."

mac - macintosh, a raincoat

a portrait of the queen - a promotional film made at the time by one of the
		TV companies illustrated the lyrics; at this line in the
		song, they showed the fireman with a postage stamp in
		his hand. Of course a portrait of the queen is customarily
		displayed in national and regional official buildings.

four of fish - a portion of (fried) fish costing fourpence, as bought
		from the fish-and-chip shop, perhaps on the way home from
		the pictures (cinema). Actually, the phrase as commonly
		know would be "a four of chips" (meaning french fries). That
		might have been the price in the late 50s, early 60s.

finger pie - stimulation of the female private parts with one's finger---
		something else one might do on the way home from the
		pictures.

shelter in the middle of the roundabout - a bus shelter. A roundabout is
		a traffic island, where roads meet and circle about a
		central "island" though the one at Penny Lane is actually
		much larger than a normal roundabout, and serves as a bus
		terminus. Buses from the Pier Head have "Penny Lane" writ
		large above the driver's seat, much to the delight of Beatle
		tourists in Liverpool.

selling poppies from a tray - poppies are used as a symbol of memorial on
		Armistice day in Britain (the Sunday nearest November 11th,
		the day World War I ended). For a few days leading up to
		paper poppies are sold (to wear on the lapel) for
		charities, especially perhaps war veterans' hospitals, hence
		a nurse selling them. The tray in question would be a
		cardboard tray worn round the neck.
----
"Polythene Pam"

Br. E. polythene = Am.E. polyethylene; also in the American sense of
		"vinyl." At the time the song was written, polythene
		clothing was quite fashionable (cheap imitation leather),
		so Polythene Pam might be someone who overdid the
		"polythene look."

She's the kind of a girl that makes the `News of the World'" - A tabloid,
		gossip rag called The News of the World, like the American
		National Enquirer.
----
"Rain"

lemonade - in Br.E. this is a clear fizzy drink like 7-Up.
----
"Savoy Truffle"

Good News was the name of a candy assortment made by Rowntrees - and the
		the song virtually lists the assortment. They included
		creme tangerine, montelimart, ginger sling, pineapple
		treat (not "heart"), coffee dessert, savoy truffle. Other
		candy names were apparently fanciful. George was making
		fun of friend Eric Clapton's sweet tooth.
----
"Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"

lonely hearts club - An idea that has gone out of fashion in the States,
		but a sort of singles club for people in their twenties and
		older, for dancing and socializing.
----
"She's leaving home"

dressing gown - bathrobe

a man from the motor trade - just that, a car salesman!
----
"Taxman"

One for you nineteen for me - shillings, i.e. a tax rate of 95% since
		twenty shillings make a pound. Thus, in the next verse,
		"Should 5% appear too small", i.e. 5% of earnings left over
		after tax.

Mr Wilson - Harold Wilson, the (Labour) Prime Minister at that time. It
		was he who awarded the MBEs.

Mr Heath - the (Conservative) Opposition Leader, later to become Prime
		Minister.

Declare the pennies on your eyes - this not specifically Br.E., but
		presumably a reference to the custom of putting coins over
		the eyes of a corpse (to keep them shut). Bear in mind that
		British old-style pennies were much bigger than American
		pennies---maybe as much as 1.25in in diameter.
----
"When I'm 64"

64 was the retirement age (for men) at the time the song was released.

Doing the garden - in Am.E. it's "gardening". A garden in Br.E. can
		also be analogous to the Am.E. back yard, not just a
		specific garden within the back yard.

Isle of Wight - an island off the south coast of England popular with
		retired people (also the venue of a famous Pop Festival
		about the same time as Woodstock, which is after this song
		was written!)

not too dear - dear = expensive

drop me a line - Am.E. write to me
----
"Yellow Submarine"

Full speed ahead, Mr. Boatswain, full speed ahead - Lennon obviously
		didn't know that it's not the boatswain who
		operates the engine. The Boatswain (pronounced
		"bosun") is a subordinate officer in charge of
		the ship's hull.
----
"You Never Give Me Your Money"

There's a minor question about what's being sung here:

Any jobber got the sack - a jobber in Br.E. is a fellow working for the
		stock exchange who's in business for himself, not for
		anyone else. Also heard as "Any job - got the sack"---
		obviously someone who can't hold a job very long.

Got the sack - fired

Monday morning turning back/Yellow lorry slow, nowhere to go - what this
		means is anyone's guess; a lorry is Br.E. for Am.E. "truck".
----
"You Won't See Me"

When I call you up, your line's engaged - Am.E., your line's busy.
		Interesting that in Br.E. it would be more natural
		to say "phone" or "ring" rather than "call".
----
Any additions, questions, corrections? Please send them to
saki (saki@evolution.bcsh.uh.edu).
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