It would appear that there are a great many people in the US watching Downton Abbey, if my twitter feed is anything to go by.  This has resulted in many of them using some particularly English language in their posts and tweets.  My dear Imani (of Angry Black Lady fame) has taken to using “brilliant” quite often, to the point that she admits she must curb her use of it. There has been several discussions in the use of the term “clever” which the British use in many different ways other than to label someone “smart”.

This led me, as things invariable do, to a discussion of other utterly British terms that simply cannot be translated into United States English.  One of these is the term “cheeky”.  I discovered the impossibility of translating the term ten years ago when my sister was visiting and she said to one of my American friends “you’re cheeky aren’t you?”  Many hours later, out of the hearing range of my sister, my friend said “what does cheeky mean?”  I sat there and wondered for a while, and wondered a little more, and then had a ponder, and then a little more wondering at which point I shrugged my shoulders and said “I have no way of translating that for you, there is no word in the US that compares”.   This is true seeing as “cheeky” has such an amazing breadth of usage that it has no equal.  Someone suggested to me just the other day that “sassy” was a possible, but again it fell short simply because “sassy” generally has only one usage whereas “cheeky” does not.

For example to quote a scene that was more than likely used in at least three of every four “Carry On” films an elderly gentleman approaches a female and says something similar to “that is a lovely blouse Mrs. Jones, but you would look much better out of it than in” whereby Mrs. Jones responds “you cheeky devil you!”  In other words it is a response to a “risque” or perhaps the more English “saucy” comment.   (And there is no point in explaining “saucy” as there is no translation for that either).

Contrast that example with the other usage.  A person (generally a young child with no manners) will make a remark to an older person to the extent of “you old bag” to which the “old bag” will respond “you cheeky little sod” (sometimes prefaced with “piss off”).  My dim memory seems to recall Vera Duckworth of Coronation Street calling several people a “cheeky sod” on numerous occasions but that could just be the wine.   Nevertheless, we have now got two distinct usages of the term.  Of course the coarser version is “you cheeky little bugger” or I suppose nowadays “you cheeky little f**ker” would be used, (albeit not by me).

As with “sassy” there is the shortened “sass”.  As with “cheeky” there is the shortened “cheek”.  This is used generally by an older person to a younger person in the same way that “sass” is.  “Don’t give me none of your cheek young man”

So then a dilemma, what is the direct translation of “cheeky”?  I would certainly be grateful of any help you can give because my delicate British brain has been trying to figure it out for ten years now and as yet, I have no answers.   Perhaps it is one of those words that simply have no translation, there are certainly others, I would suggest that there is no translation for “gurning” for instance, or for that matter “barmpot”.   The English language is a wonderful thing, and all its variations are a joy to behold.  Perhaps it is best left to its mysteries.


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