BRITGUIDE---an introduction to Britishisms in the Beatles' Lyrics
Written by Harold Somers, email@example.com
and edited by saki (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
"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)
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.
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
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 - 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
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.
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 ..."
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.
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
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
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.
Bulldog is the symbolic British animal (like American eagle and Russian
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
lemonade - in Br.E. this is a clear fizzy drink like 7-Up.
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!
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
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
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
not too dear - dear = expensive
drop me a line - Am.E. write to me
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".
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