Six rather strange “English” things

Six "English keys", according to the Spanish

It has been awhile since I’ve done a language list. I’ve had this at the back of my mind this list for some time. My father, who teaches French cultural studies at the University of Toronto, often does an exercise at the beginning of his course where he asks students to make a list of all the expressions with French in them (e.g. French toast, French kiss etc) and uses that as a starting point for examining attitudes towards the French in the English language.

For us as English teachers, what does English give us? Here are six “English” things, taken from three different languages that I think are curious.

1 An English rose (from the English language) not the name of a flower, this is an expression used to describe an attractive English woman with “an appearance traditionally thought to be typical of English women”. What could THAT mean? It makes me think of a pale-skinned rather fragile kind of person (maybe a bit like Keira Knightley in Atonement?).

2 An English muffin (from North American English) This is a kind of round, toasted bread thing. A bit like a crumpet, but more doughy. I can’t really explain it. It’s good for breakfast. I have not heard the expression in British English.

3 An English rubber (from French “capote anglaise”) the French slang for a condom. Could also be translated as an English hood or bonnet. Now, what does THAT say about the English from the French point of view?

4 To disappear like the English – (from French “filer à l’anglaise”) a French expression meaning to run away or disappear discreetly without telling anyone. To slope off or sneak off I guess.

5 An English key ( from Spanish llave inglesa) – A wrench. I don’t see what is English about this piece of hardware but there you go.

6 An English letter – (from Spanish letra inglesa) A sort of handwriting, a bit like italics but in a thicker font.

Now, I’m really interested. I speak French and Spanish, but are there any expressions in other languages that contain the word “English” and refer to something that does not necessarily have anything to do with England? Please post a comment and share.

Published in: on May 4, 2010 at 8:58 am  Comments (59)  
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  1. zuppe anglaise? (not sure of spelling “English soup” – but it isn’t English, and it isn’t soup. It’s an Italian dessert…)

    • Perfect. Thanks! This is the kind of thing I’m looking for…

      • hi – zuppa inglese – a kind of trifle

  2. In relation to number 3, in England condoms were often called French Letters… so I guess it’s mutual 🙂

    We do have muffins – McDonalds do a lovely sausage mcMuffin 🙂 Different to crumpets, which are more airy or a pikelet which is a flat crumpet.

    • LOL. I had heard of French letters… interesting when you think about these things. And yes, the McMuffin is an example of what I would call an English muffin. Mmmm!

      • Yeah, we just call those muffins. Confusing as there’s also another type of muffin which is more sweet like a chocolate chip muffin I guess a cupcake. Both have the same name over here.

        Another interesting one (if you like that kind of thing) is for STD’s such as syphilis which is called French Disease, English Disease, Italian Disease, depending on the country and who they happened to be at war with at the time!

  3. Yes the Italian dessert Zuppa Inglese is one (it’s actually what we would call trifle)

    I think in French “pommes anglaise” is mashed potatoes

    In the US (possibly Canada too), when playing pool etc, you can put “English Side” (spin) on the ball. This is often shortened to simply “English”. I have no idea why but like to imagine that in the US no-one had realised that if you hit the cue ball off centre you could get different forms of spin, and some English guy came over and hustled everyone in the country.

    The condom one works both ways by the way – in Br Eng condoms are often referred to as French Letters

  4. Just asked around re: Hungarian possibilities and discovered that “Angolkór” (“English disease”) is rickets.

    • Further Hungarian ‘English’ things: ‘angolspárga’ = (side) splits and of course ‘angol vécé’ = flush toilet of Thomas Crapper fame (no surprises there).

  5. In Russian we also have an expression ‘to leave in English way’ – just like number 4 it means to leave without saying good bye.
    We also say English pin meaning safety pin.
    There’s also English lock – the type that locks without a key when you close the door.
    Less commonly you might hear English suit referred to a tailored suit or black tie type jacket.
    English tea is tea with milk.
    I also was taught at school that English people have porridge for breakfast and have tea at 5 o’clock 🙂

    • This is interesting. In Brazil, we’d say ‘to leave in the French way’ to express that very same idea. 🙂

      • yes and in Spanish too! ‘Despedirse a la francesa’

      • Like in Russian, in Polish we say “to leave like an Englishman” meaning “to leave without saying goodbye” :). And a wrench is actually “French key” in Poland 😉

  6. We have some in Polish too. So there is an “English herb” (ziele angielskie) which is allspice, “leave in an English way” (wyjsc po angielsku) which is similar in meaning to disappear as the English in French, an “English disease / illness” (angielska choroba) which is (or was, as it is an old expression) rickets, “English steak” (befsztyk po angielsku)a steak well fried outside and red inside (would be medium rare? – I’m not a steak expert). And one funny thing, the French have “an English key” for the wrench, and Poles have “a French key” for it.

  7. It’s funny that the French call leaving without saying goodbye “filer à l’anglaise”. We always had it the other way around–if you leave without saying goodbye, you’re making a French exit. I think here in Spain it’s the same, “la despedida francesa”. Typical though, every one accusing everyone else of having bad manners, when we all do the same things.

    According to my dictionary, “Un filete a la inglesa” is a rare steak (though I’ve never heard that before), and apparently in Chile, “pagar a la inglesa” is “to go Dutch” (i.e., share the cost of dinner instead of one person treating the other). Again, we love ascribing negative qualities to other nationalities, don’t we?

  8. Rickets would appear to be commonly referred to as an English disease. I had no idea that we were so famous for it. However, it’s a Vitamin D deficiency and I believe it can result from a lack of sunlight, so I guess it figures.

    • My colleague says she found same reference (rickets as an English disease) in a Russian-English dictionary. It did say though it is outdated. I never heard it being used now.

  9. In England, of course, to leave without saying goodbye is to “take French leave”.

  10. In Brazil they have an expression that roughly translates as “only for the English to see”. It means to do things only for appearances, without dealing with the real issues. Something that I experienced literally when I was getting a residence visa for the country…

  11. La creme anglaise in French is custard. And le vice anglais is, um, flagellation.

    So I’m told.

  12. We also have the same as in Spanish for the English key in French: une clé anglaise.
    We talk about “crème anglaise” as well, which means “English cream”, and which is a bit like custard. But when we eat real English custard, we say “yeaah but that’s not crème anglaise”. (Crazy people :))
    And a last one: we call “ringlets” “des anglaises” – i have no idea why.

    That’s it 🙂 nice list!

  13. In Brazil we also say “sair à francesa”, just like in Spain. We also have the English key – chave inglesa, and the English cake – bolo inglês, which is cake that goes well with coffee. 🙂 Muffins are of American origin and we call them ‘muffins’ but with a Portuguese accent.

    No English rubbers or French letters in Brazil. We say ‘camisinhas’ or ‘preservativos’. And no English or Brazilian disease either. We have other – horrible – names for it. I think it was an English surgeon who named it ‘syphilis’, hence the English name and ‘fame’?!

    Ah, and we say ‘pontualidade britânica’, but of course practising it is another story!

  14. In Turkish they also use “Ingiliz anahtar” for spanner. and indeed most of the words connected automobiles and engines come directly from French – e.g. vites, debriyaj, direksiyon etc. They also translate everything to do with Britain as Ingiliz so you get for example “ingiliz buldog”.

    One I could never understand was “cor anglais”, which as wikipedia tells us “is French for English horn, but the instrument is neither English nor a horn.”

    • Is it what we’d call the French Horn though, I wonder?

  15. A rather strange but funny production of our language is that the ‘eel’ in Hungarian is called ‘angolna.’ It might be a figura etymologica coming from the French ‘anguille,’ or rather from the Latin ‘Anguilliformes’ order. Since ‘English’ in Hungarian is ‘angol,’ I bet nine out of ten people would think that the ‘angolna’ must have some English origin in its blood.

  16. Gosh, I go away from the computer for a couple of hours and already 20 comments about different English things! So as not to clog things up with multiple responses let me just say thanks to all so far here! We have examples now from Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Chilean Spanish and Italian. Great!!!

  17. Should you need bacon for your breakfast, feel free to ask for ‘angolszalonna’ in the Hungarian supermarket. This phrase is reserved for the type of meat for making ‘bacon-and-eggs.’

    • Whereas szalonna (which people tend to translate as bacon) is actually just the fat. Wonder if Angolszalonna is so called because (a) only the English would be so odd as to want meat with their fat, or (b) because having meat with your fat was a sign of wealth and the English were wealthy?

      • And to get back to our host, in the US you get something called “Canadian bacon”. I have no idea what it is and how it’s different from any other kind of bacon

  18. 4 To disappear like the English – the English expression for this is ‘French leave’!

  19. The Greeks also say “English Key” (αγγλικό κλειδί) for spanner.

    They also say “You are English for your appointment/meeting” (Eisai Anglos sto rendevous sou) meaning that you are right on time.

    Funnily enough, while the English say “It’s all Greek to me” when they don’t understand something, the Greeks say “It’s all Chinese to me”.

  20. Like James said above, in Brazil(Portuguese Language) we have the expression “Para Inglês ver.”, or as he translated, “Only for the English to see”, which I believe means something embellished or done just for show, while the reality is completely different (like he said in other words). It is said that this comes from the historical fact that when Brazil was a Portuguese colony, Portugal, after their Royal family were helped by the English Empire during the escape of King D. João VI and his family to Brazil (due to political issues with Napoleon I), wanted them (the English) to believe their colonies were in a better political and administrative situation than they really were.

    Great article, by the way !

    • Great history lesson Sonia! Thanks a lot… and I love the expression too!

      • You’re welcome ! 🙂

    • Thanks for explaining my comment in more detail, Sonia. I always liked the phrase, as it seems to describe both of our cultures fairly well!

      • And I couldn’t agree more ! You’re welcome !

  21. In Portuguese, there’s “soco inglês”, too, which would be a “knuckle duster” in English.

    The alleged origins of “para inglês ver” (=for the English to see) are a great history lesson. It seems that it does have to do with the English.

  22. Un ingles at the back of dodgier Spanish magazines is apparently S and M

    Some TEFL listening claims that in Peru “hora Ingles” means be on time (for once)

    English disease apparently means all of these:

  23. Great discussion.

    As a child digging in the sandpit I can remember adults around me saying ‘Wow – keep digging like that and you’ll get to Australia’
    When I lived in Denmark, I discovered that China was the place that kids get to like this.
    Slightly off topic I know, but where do you get to if you dig very deeply from Brazil, China, Australia etc?


  24. Trying to think if we have any in Portuguese. Will ask my students and get back to you on that one. But did you know that “canadiana” (Canadian) in Portuguese can be a coat, a tent or a crutch.


    • Oh I remember when a colleague broke his leg in Portugal and had to walk around using a pair of canadianas, and I always wondered why they were called that.

      • Andy,

        I bet your colleague was hoping for a pair of real canadianas! 😉

  25. The wrench being an “English key” can’t be a compliment…makes me think of people going around unbolting things and making off with them!

  26. If you’ll excuse the intrusion…ducha escocesa (spanish) is being fired on by a really big hose while standing against a wall at a trendy spa resort (!)…café escoces (also spanish) is black coffee, whisky and vanilla ice cream (!?). Christ knows why.

    • I suppose a cold shower would indeed be Scottish to a Spanish mind, and the whisky would also make that connection (like Irish coffee in the UK).

  27. Actually, Russian language has the same expression as French: “to leave like an Englishman” (means to go away without saying goodbye). I don’t know where it came from. Perhaps, we borrowed it from French?

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  29. In Romanian we also have an expression for “to leave like an Englishman” (without being noticed) : “a sterge-o englezeste”

    Great list 🙂

    • Same in Hungarian! (“angolosan távozni”) – it seems like a lot of languages share this expression…

  30. Alex,

    Yes, in Peru la hora inglesa means punctually.

    If people really want you to arrive on time they say,
    “a las ocho – pero hora inglesa”. (at 8 o c’lock – but English time, ie. arrive punctually.)

    Jamon inglés is pre-cooked ham, sliced very thinly.

    Huevos ingleses are fried eggs that are still rather runny. Unattractive!

  31. Oh this is really interesting Lindsay. One of the things that hit me in the face when I moved from the UK to the US was the adjectival use of the word ‘American’. It’s used in all kind of ways where we wouldn’t use ‘British’ or ‘English’ and it’s a really interesting perspective from which to explore culture. Thank you!

  32. In Mexico they also talk about “puntualidad inglesa” (“English punctuality”) to mean arriving right on time.

    Another expression they have is “la semana inglesa” (“the English week”) to mean Monday to Friday.

  33. Interesting!

    In Colombia we use llave inglesa too, but it refers to an adjustable spanner (wrench).

    There’s also:
    Llave Bristol (Bristol key) – Allen key.
    Hacerse el Gringo (Do the Gringo) – to ignore someone or walk around pretending not to notice anything!
    Then there’s the proliferation of Swiss fried chicken restaurants (maybe one of our Swiss colleagues could confirm if fried chicken is indeed a Swiss speciality!?
    A coffee break in the middle of a presentation can be confirmed as “15 minutos ingleses,” or “15 English minutes” – meaning exactly 15 minutes.
    La ultima maravilla china (the latest chinese marvel) – used to refer to something new and innovative, and sometimes used pejoratively to refer to someone who’s full of him/herself.
    Hablando del rey de roma (talking of the king of Rome) – Speak of the devil.

    I could go on for hours!

  34. I love these games!
    We used to play Chinese Whispers when we were children.
    Russian Roulette is more dangerous.
    In business, there’s a Dutch auction.
    Food: scotch pancakes, welsh rarebit (or rabbit), swiss roll – and what about french fries?

    Patio doors used to be called french windows.
    Shoes can have Cuban heels.

    Private Eye used ‘Ugandan discussions’ as a euphemism.

  35. Indonesians call a wrench a ‘kunci Inggris’ or English key. Worcester sauce is known as saos Inggris – English sauce.

  36. Hi Lindsey,

    If you want to order your steak medium-rare in Germany, you need to ask for it to be done English. That always amuses me as it’s exactly how I like my steak, so need to use it.


  37. When I was an Au-pair girl in London (about 30 years ago) my English family referred to Bermuda shorts as “French shorts” and when I moved from London to Paris, the French family there used to call the same garment “culotte anglaise”.

  38. Just discovered this article and would like to add my tuppenceworth. I am an English teacher in Germany and could never understand why a rare steak is called “englisch” as steaks tended to be a bit overdone in general when I lived in Britain. They also call a monkey wrench an “Engländer” as some other people have commented.

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