Cockney to Canadian: The Perils of a New Patois

(Graphic by Helen Jane Hearn/

Some epiphanies hit you gently, and some are starkly exposed, like the time a drunk girl on the bus shouted that my eyebrows were “so on fleek” and I had to quickly text my sister for a definition.

Did it mean that my eyebrows were so offensive due to my overplucking? Or so on point? (Which, in fact, is what it does mean.) But in asking my Gen Y sister what this word meant, I realized what a relic I had already become. It didn’t help that the moment was memorialized when she Instagrammed it with the hashtags #YouOldAsHell and #Duffer.

It wasn’t always like this — I had prided myself on my unusual accent and slang when I moved from London to Vancouver. I was popular for that fleeting first week where new kids are novelties, especially ones with a built in repertoire of British words. I was asked to say “rubbish” almost eleven times at recess while my new friends copied my pronunciation like a wobbly Gwyneth Paltrow in any English film.

I turned British slang into my calling card when I hit high school since it made me unique and perhaps a bit alluring to boys. The accent was sure to make North Americans marvel, but it was the words themselves that made them shriek with laughter:

“Can you pass the rubber, please?” made one boy almost drop to the floor with laughter. Rubber, as I learnt that day, was not an eraser but a condom. Sometimes I’d get ahead of myself and really lean hard on dropping my slang words in every sentence, like the time I worked up the nerve to ask out my crush. “You know, like, I really fancy the pants off you, so um…I know it’s really naff but you reckon you want to go to the dance with me, mate?” What was a charming Hugh Grant-esque bumble of a confession in my head didn’t work on my crush, who stood there confused until he pieced together that he’d rather not take this nutter to the dance.

“You know, like, I really fancy the pants off you, so um…I know it’s really naff but you reckon you want to go to the dance with me, mate?”

I used slang as a way to retain my Englishness, and clung tightly to the words and phrases that made me feel different. Yet whenever I would go back to Cranford or Birmingham to visit relatives and cousins, I was reminded of the new words I’d picked up that made me more “Canadian” to them. Every sentence was peppered with “like” and I’d roll my r’s or drawl my words out, aping the girls I watched on MTV’s reality television every week. Whenever cousins would needle me for saying “that’s hot” or “Hey girl,” I’d hate myself for betraying my English roots. I resolved to buy myself a British slang book to read on a tearful flight home so I was armed and ready with Cockney slang to enchant friends and crushes with for the new school year.

“Would you Adam and Eve it that Angie had a basin of gravy?” would fly over the heads of my nodding and bemused friends. When they didn’t get the joke that “Adam and Eve” meant “believe” and “basin of gravy” meant “baby,” I grew frustrated that, although my slang was impressive and reaffirmed my difference from my Canadian friends, it felt disingenuous coming from me. Cockney slang is much harder to say when you’ve not been steeped in the East End culture it originates from. As a West Londoner, the slang is a more multicultural patois of English, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and whatever mother tongues you mix in.

British novels reinforced this gulf even further. I desperately wanted to use the ludicrous slang I read in YA literature like “nuddy pants” or abbreviate every second word like the characters did, but nobody in the real world ever really talked like that. Neither did all South Asian men speak like the young Indian gangsters of Gautam Malkani’s novel Londonstani, which was set in my neighbourhood of Hounslow and written entirely in text-speak and slang. Malkani’s gangsters greet each other with “bruv” or “bredren” and mix Punjabi and English throughout its text. When I read these novels, I felt closer to home because they reflected how youth culture and location shaped the lexicon. Here was my area and its slang brought to the mainstream, so like a typical teenage poseur I started dropping “bruv” or “innit” at the end of my sentences. Despite growing up there, using that slang sounded ridiculous in my mish-mashed accent and earned confused looks from my friends.

I grew out of this posturing soon after because it was a bit tiresome to keep up the facade of being the vocabularian of the group. Language changes so fast in our age that it’s almost impossible to keep up with the new words my sister’s generation has coined. It doesn’t matter that I stick to words that make me sound like Ron Weasley in the earlier Harry Potter films, with his perennial “Bloody hell!” or “That’s wicked.” I occasionally slip in an “innit bruv?” to make my younger cousins roll their eyes to the heavens and wonder how out of touch I am.

The melange of global slang has started to become my own without feeling inauthentic. Some words roll off my tongue naturally, like exclaiming “Bollocks!” when I forget something or “Hailaah!” during an embarrassing situation. Whether I’ve picked them up from novels, Instagram hashtags or Bollywood films, my lexicon changes all the time but it’s uniquely mine. I don’t mind accepting old coot status because whatever the kids say these days, I’ll just find what sticks and add that to my repertoire.

So would you Adam and Eve it that when I’m Scotch mist I take on fleek selfies?

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.