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English Doesn't Make Sense, But It Sure Is Funny

Updated on July 15, 2014

© 2009 by Daniel Carter. All rights reserved. Copying or reproducing any portion of this article without permission is illegal and will be prosecuted.

I grew up in the sage brush of Idaho. I guess we are considered a "plain English" area. From what I can tell, it's considered a midwestern or average American sound. There are some little idiomatic things that we do say. My Grandfather used to say "eench" for "inch" but I'm not sure that's an Idaho thing. I think that was just him. Sometimes I hear "warsh" for "wash". And I heard one married couple argue about paint color for the living room. "I'm not puttin' the color of calf scours on those walls, not no way, not no how!" But none of these things is like what I've heard traveling to the southern states and Great Britain.

The UK. Cradle of our mother tongue. The Queen's English is quite a bit different from other dialects that I've heard. I think it's the dialects of the English language that frighten non-English speakers most. That, and picky things like spelling "rough" and "through," and "threw" and "stuff," and a million other things.

An English teacher corrected me in class once after I was confused and said to her, "I don't know what you're talking about."

She replied, "Never end a sentence with a preposition. Say it again, but this time put the word 'about' in its proper place."

I stammered through these words, "I don't know about what you're talking [perplexed pause] about."

Apparently, the rule is that the most unnatural way to say these things is the correct way.

When I was in England in the 70's, I met some wonderful, colorful people from the east end of London. I became temporarily fluent in cockney. One of the first things I learned was, "Woy don't ewe lot speek proppuh inglish loyk wo'eye doz?" Which, translated is simply, "Your English isn't very good."

Cockney is a beautiful poetic dialect. Rhymin' Slang is amazing. It takes a typical, everyday word and gives it a poetic rhyme. Here are a few examples:

"whistle and flute" means "suit"

"apples and pears" means "stairs"

"trouble and strife" means "wife"

But here's the ingenious part: you don't say both words to say the word you mean. You only say the word that doesn't rhyme.

So it comes out something like this: "Co', mait, ow'z yer trouble, 'en?"

Which, tranlsated, means: "Hi, friend, how is your wife?"

Another example: "Oy! Where'd ya get that whistle? Musta' knocked off a Barclay's tuh come up wif enuff quid fer 'at!"

Translated: "What a beautiful suit! It must have cost a lot of money!"

But, I can also think of an example of how we are so consumed by our own language idioms that we can barely fathom those of any other language. Following is an example. It's supposedly a true story. Whether it is or not, it's wickedly funny to me.

My brother was in Thailand about the time I was in England. He tells a story of one young man traveling with him who was asked to stand and say a few words to an audience. Mind you, he just set foot on Thai soil, and his Thai was, well..."shy."

Thai is a tonal language, meaning that any given syllable can be said on a high, mid or low tone, and can have a completely different meaning, depending on which tone is used. The young man stood to speak and meant to say that since his fluency of the language was minimal, he begged for them to excuse him. However, because he used a wrong tone on a wrong syllable, he instead begged them to fart. Instantly the whole place collapsed in laughter in front of the bewildered speaker. But even more bewildering to him was that his address prompted every adolescent (and probably many adults) to break wind for the rest of the meeting.

Speaking of tonal languages, I think southern states dialects are particularly musical. I think the deeper south you go, the more sing-songier they get. (My English teacher would not be proud of my use of adjectives here.)

The ever famous and notorious Elizabeth I
The ever famous and notorious Elizabeth I

I was at a family reunion when I was about 17 years old. The reunion took place in Hydro, Oklahoma, from which my mother's family comes [perplexed pause] from. I was conversing with some cousins. However, my normal manner of speaking changed a little, as my voice became more locally stylized, and included words like "ya'all." My great uncle Cecil took note of this. He called me over as he looked at me with furrowed brow.

"Danny, where ya'all from?" he asked.

"Well, you know, uncle Cecil, from Idaho." I said.

"Do ya'all say 'ya'all' in Idaho?" he continued to ask.

"Uh, no sir, not usually," I said sheepishly.

"Uh huh, I see. Well, ya see it's like this, Danny. I figgered ya'all was from Idaho, but just cain't figger out why all ya'all's fam'ly is sayin' 'ya'all' when you don't say 'ya'all' anyhoo. Do ya folluh?" He inquired.

"Uh...." I stammered as my eyes rolled to the side to try to solve this math story problem in my head.

"Well, let me 'splain some more. In Miss'ippie they send their kids to 'skewl', but in Texez they send their kids to 'skool'. So it's like this: ya'all's got a drawl but it ain't from nowhere. It ain't from Miss'ippie, Loozianna, ner Texez, ner nowhere. It's jist a drawl that don't have a home. Now wouldn't all ya'all rather jist toke Idaho?" he winked and chuckled.

"Um, it's funner to have a drawl, uncle Cecil," I said grinning.

"Then I 'spoze you can be from here, if ya hafta," he said, wryly.

And off I went.

Now some may think that I mock these dialects, but truly I do not. By pedigree I am English/English. And those English ancestors came to the US about the time of the Revolutionary War, fought for the fledgling 13 Colonies, and then eventually settled in the southern states. Another side of the family went further west. I'm simply deeply fascinated by my own heritage, and the colorful ways we manage to communicate and bend basic rules of English so far out into the known universe that speaking the way we do should seem incomprehensible, but yet we still manage to communicate clearly with such relative ease. (That was a run-on sentence. But, see, I made my point!)

Here is another for-instance: take the word "Coke." In most places Coke is a Coke is a Coke. But in the south, a "coke" is just any ole' soft drink. (Note when I capitalize this word. When it's not capitalized, it's the generic "coke" indicating any ole' soft drink. When it is capitalized, it means the actual drink.) So the northern patron orders a "Coke" from the southern waitress who asks the patron "What kind?" To which the northern patron becomes confused. The waitress, seeing the confusion says, "We have Sprite, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and Mr. Pibb. What kind of coke would you like?" The patron responds, "I'll have a Diet." The waitress responds, "What kind of diet? Would you like Sprite, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper or Mr. Pibb?" The patron, still confused, says, "Can I have a Diet Coke?" The waitress, clearly trying to be as absolutely friendly, and helpful as possible responds, "I'm sorry, sir, we don't have Diet Coke. Can I get you a Diet Sprite, Diet Pepsi, Diet Dr. Pepper, or Diet Mr. Pibb?"

I could make this worse and go on, but you get my drift. But I think the point here is that we don't talk in capitalizations, so we can't really tell if it's generic or the real thing. It makes it all the funnier to me to write it out and see what's really going on.

I was in southern Utah once. There is a unique dialect there as well. It's the only place on the planet you can see Luke Skywalker in the movie "Store Wahrs." It's where they have "plars ta cut the wahr" and when the plug won't reach the outlet you need an "extinshun card." Oh, but it just keeps going. No matter where you go, there is a dialect, and no matter where you're from, they will most likely think you talk funny and you will most likely think the same of you. And folks, this is just the English language. Surely it just compounds exponentially from language to language.

There are some sublime confusions, as well. In posh British English, one must keep a "shedjule" as opposed to a "schedule," but we all send our children to "school" instead of "shul," unless of course, we are Jewish. (???)

We all agree about how to pronouce "potato" which is supposed to rhyme with "tomato" (even in British poetry), except in Britain it's pronounced "tomahto."

And of course, there are the spelling nightmares like "pneumonia" and keeping straight the spelling of "tough" and "dough" even though they are pronounced so differently. Imagine saying, "Wow!! He is such a 'toe' guy!" Or, "I like chocolate covered 'duff'-nuts best." I'm thinking "Hooked on Phonics" isn't that helpful.

There are other dialects of the English language as well. Pigeon-English, Ebonix and even made up languages like pig-latin. Not to mention eastern seaboard of the US, Australian, South African and New Zealand. That's not even the complete list, I don't think. And I don't have any legitimate experience with any of the aforementioned dialects except for pig-latin. Oh, but did you know there is such a thing as turkey-latin? Here's a little Mother Goose rhyme for you in that dialect:

Mobberobby hobbad obba lobbittobble lobbamb whobbose flobbeece wobbas whobbite obbas snobbow, Obband obbevobberobby whobbere thobbat Mobberobby wobbent thobbe lobbamb wobbas shobbure tobbo gobbo.

That, my friends, is turkey-latin. Although I have been given to writing nonsense poems and limericks, I've never gone quite as far as all this. You put "obb" in front of every vowel. In the spirit of simple consistency, turkey-latin seems to work very well. Although I'd vote against it as a national language. It would take a day and half to get through initial salutations and gossip so that one could finally make the original point intended.

Maybe if we didn't alter the language any more than just create consistent spelling it might improve things. I'll play devil's advocate and go for losing the letter "F" and just replace it with "PH." Here we go:

"What are you doing that phor?"

Actually, from what I was taught by my English teacher, that's wrong. It should be:

"Phor what are you doing that [perplexed pause] phor?"

After a little consideration, I don't think you can win this consistency/simplicity thing with English. However, I'm glad to have the opportunity to poke fun at the way I speak—and everyone else.

So the next time you or your kids are in fits over a spelling list or syntax or grammar assignments, just know I feel for you. (Now that's a weird phrase for telling someone you feel sympathetic, don't you think?)

Other Articles

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    • profile image

      Brenda Scully 2 years ago

      I teach English and I have to say I do understand...... Got to love it though. All the great English Writers too xxxxxx

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 5 years ago from Western US

      Thanks to all who have stopped by for a read and a chuckle. As you can tell, I'm quite fond of my roots and fascinated with the musicality of my family's dialects.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Daniel - Av aalriddy comment'd like - canny hub!

    • blake4d profile image

      Blake Ford Hall 5 years ago from Now Rising Out of Phoenix Arizona Earthlings

      Very kewel and interesting hub. Keep on Hubbing.Blake4d

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      So cool! I had no idea about, well, any of this. Thanks for putting this together and having such great examples!

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 5 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Wonderful hub, made me chuckle. I am from Texas/Oklahoma, and say y'all and pop. Let's not forget "fix'n to"! I'm fix'n to vote this hub up and funny! Have a great day! :)

    • Angela Brummer profile image

      Angela Brummer 5 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      Great hub! Made me laugh and learn!

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Entertaining, educational and exceptional! Oh and lots of fun!:)

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 5 years ago from Western US

      Thanks for stopping by, onlooker! I continue to twist words around as often as I can. It's rather fun. For me, "Chanel" went from "Channel" to "Canal #5." Ohhhh, the stench! LOL

    • profile image

      onlooker 5 years ago

      Funny and interesting hub! All these crazy accents going on. I was shopping around today, btw I am from Nepal. My cousins and I stopped by this store called "haute couture" my cousin went houtey cowture and I was like, "whaaat?" tiz pronounced aut cooture..she couldn't care less. Such fond memories I have of chanel as channel, lol. Thank you!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US

      @suzettenaples: You know, I feel the same way. I had a couple of English teachers that were so militant about grammar, syntax and such, that it was just unbearable. To this day I CANNOT diagram a sentence properly, but I can destroy about any English dialect there is. LOL But I did have a couple of teachers/profs that really encouraged me to keep writing, whether creatively, journalistically or whatever, and I'm so glad for that.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

      This piece is hysterical! You really get into some great dialects and speech patterns and turn a dull linguistic discourse into a funny, funny piece of writing. I wish my college linguistics professor could read this and laugh. He was always so serious.

      I have always liked southern U.S. accents and I think they are beautiful, especially those from Georgia and Kentucky. For some reason those two states have accents and language patterns that sound so beautiful to me.

      I was a Spanish teacher before retiring and I know how difficult it is for foreigners to learn English. It is not an easy language to learn.

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US

      @cal: MUST make the video and post. That would be FAB!

      @Jools: I love Geordies! Billy Elliot is all about Geordie is it not?

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Hi Daniel, enjoyed this. I am from North East England and speak with a Geordie accent. Did you hear that when you stayed in London? It is also very distinctive. Our most well known phrase is probably 'Howay the Lads' which is shouted at football matches or the more amusing 'Hoy a hamma ower here' (throw a hammer over here).

    • calpol25 profile image

      Callum 6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland, UK (At Home With My Wonderful Partner)

      Hi Daniel I may do a hub with me talking on a video for you to try to pick up the accent :)

      Its a very weird one I will warn you lol ;)

      I bet it was fun when you broke into a southern drawl from cockney :)

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US

      @calpol: I would LOVE to decimate your dialect with a good midwestern, sagebrush attempt!! I guess I've always been fascinated with dialects because they sound so musical to me. I was quite good at my cockney and posh Brit accents, in my day, but there was always a local with furrowed brow who busted me. However, they forgave me promptly when I switched to my southern drawl. Always had them on the floor laughing out loud. We had a good time.

      @Ardie, I've always loved your use of propositions. LOL Thanks for reading!

      @Daisy: Thanks for dropping by. :)

    • Ardie profile image

      Sondra 6 years ago from Neverland

      Ha!! You gave for a run for my money - I had to speak parts of this out loud to hear the intended words :) I am going to share this with a friend. He and I were just talking about the fact that he is from the UK and I am (of course) American and sometimes we laugh at each other's word use. I was dying to hear his accent because I always wanted one myself. Language is so funny. Go ahead - poke fun at my Midwestern use of propositions at the end of my sentences...I love them! (Wait don't I mean prepositions? *wink wink*)

    • calpol25 profile image

      Callum 6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland, UK (At Home With My Wonderful Partner)

      I have enjoyed this hub Daniel, I hope that you will forgive this but its amazing how an american can do cockney I bet you can do the accent as well :)

      I thoroughly enjoyed it, I bet it was hard for you at first trying to understand what the cor blimey cockney's were on about when they were talking to you :)

      With cumbrian our language differs a lot as we some times add y's into things like Cyake - meaning cake or Fyace - meaning face and byat - boat its from the scandinavian in our heritage. Plus our accent is almost impossible to mimic though its fun watching people try - as we have scots, norsk, celtic, and English mixed together we even have like the thai a word that is tonal "eh" and depending how you say it means whether or not you have insulted some one lol :)

      Thanks again this hub was inspirational a huge thumbs up and voted up, funny, awesome and interesting loved it :)

      Thanks Daniel :)

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 6 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)


      You're a grate obsurfer of the Eenglitch langwidge.

      I enjoyed that about which you wrote.

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US

      Eryvay Everclay, Etepay!

      Thobbobbanks fobbor dobboppobbing bobby. ;)

    • profile image

      petefish.132 6 years ago

      Love the article. I am meant to be doing nglisheae omeworkhae utbae iae otgae ookedhae!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 7 years ago from Western US

      No, Jeff, I haven't, but it sounds WAY too good to pass up. I'll check into it. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 7 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Daniel, have you read Ted Geisel's (Dr. Seuss's) "The Tough Coughs as he Ploughs the Dough?"

      If not, you ought to. :)

    • SomewayOuttaHere profile image

      SomewayOuttaHere 7 years ago from TheGreatGigInTheSky

      that was funny....all over Canada too - different ways to speak...some of our east coast dialect can be very hard for me to understand...then there's the french (Quebec) speaking their broken english...etc...the prairies, the cowboys of Alberta and then the west well different ways to talk if you live in a large cente or not; it just goes on and on; makes us all so unique doesn't it - while travelling through the US - I think my favourite is the southern influence; Thanks!

    • Green Lotus profile image

      Hillary 8 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      As an ex-Brooklynite, current Southerner, ongoing student of dialects and wife of an Englishman (who has many ex-pat mates) I applaud your Hub and your style! What a fun! Thumbs up and Thanks!

    • profile image

      poetlorraine 8 years ago

      The english language i love it, love your hubs too

    • wyanjen profile image

      Jen King 8 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

      Hi Daniel! Funny stuff.

      In Michigan we don't say y'all, we say yous guys. I think it is somehow a double plural of "you guy".

      The possessive is, of course, yous guys's.

      When I hear a waitress at a restaurant say, "Can I take yous guys's order?" I know I'm home.

      Michigan: America's High Five



    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks for stopping by, Paradise!

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 8 years ago from Upstate New York

      This was a fun one. Thank you!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks, lorlie! I'm glad we discovered each other! So much fun!

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 8 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Wow am I glad to have found you, Mr. Carter! This hub is written with a certain fond humor that's absolutely charming. It is so sad that William Safire passed so recently, he was writing a book on regional oddities. I believe it will be published posthumously, however.

      Thanks again from a gal raised in LA and got educated in Birmingham, Al. My English is a mess!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks Wendi and Carmen for stopping by! So glad you enjoyed it!

    • Carmen Borthwick profile image

      Carmen Borthwick 8 years ago from Maple Ridge, B.C.

      Howdy Daniel, nice to make your acquaintance... okay I don't really talk that way... Hi Daniel, how the hell are you? Loved the hub, some of the responses are funny as well. My mother used to say 'warsh', drove my dad insane! I catch myself pronouncing car 'cah', don't know where it came from, I don't have any Bostonian relatives. I'm a Canadian, ey! Thanks for the chuckle.

    • Wendi M profile image

      Wendi M 8 years ago from New Hampshire

      I love it! It reminds me so much of my father who passed away in 2004. He was a very sarcastic man with impeccable English, so from the time I learned how to form a sentence, until the day he died, I had my very own "very funny" English Tutor.

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Although I grew up with the cowboys in the west, I so love my southern heritage!! So glad you came by to read and enjoyed it. Thanks for leaving such a nice comment!

    • Ebower profile image

      Erin Bower 8 years ago from Georgia

      haha this is funny but ever so true! Yes, those of us in the South definitely call all sodas cokes....I can't stand it whenever northerners call it soda pop! I love all aspects of the English language and I hope to get my Masters of English some day!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      OMG!! That's one of the funniest things I've ever read! Thanks for the belly laugh, Jessica! Looking forward to reading your hubs as well.

    • Jessica Horn profile image

      Jessica Horn 8 years ago

      Chuckle! Funny hub.

      The silly preposition rule reminds me of Winston Churchill's response to being corrected on a paper he wrote: "This is the sort of language up with which I will not put."

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks for stopping by, habee! Yes, you will have to write some of your southern-speak experiences. Looking forward to seeing them!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 8 years ago from Georgia

      Great hub! I feel your pain. I'm in quite a dilemma - Southern born and bred, but an English teacher. Oh, woe is me!

      I've written several articles on Southern-speak. I guess I should post one on HP.

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks, amigo!!

    • profile image

      ralwus 8 years ago

      Well Dan, this was fun. thanks. CC

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks cosette! I'm looking forward to reading your hubs.

    • profile image

      cosette 8 years ago

      Thobbat wobbas obban obbexcobbellobbent hobbub!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks so much, Haunty. Thanks for dropping by.

    • Haunty profile image

      Haunty 8 years ago from Hungary

      Languages never stop amazing me. Good hub, Daniel. :)

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thank Shalinni!

      So true that every region has its own take on the language. And so much fun with the confusion it creates. LOL

      Always nice to have you stop by.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Delightful! Yet isn't it amazing how English never dies - just changes and adapts to each country - each region too!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Hee, hee!!

      So very true, Windtraveller!!

      Tankhs for spotitng in!

    • Windtraveller profile image

      Ivonne Meeuwsen 8 years ago from The Netherlands

      All slipelng is ooelsbte it semes, as pelope are peetrlfcy cpbalae of rdneiag mxeid up sftuf, as lnog as the frsit and lsat lteetr are in teihr cerocrt pacles.

      garet suftf

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 8 years ago from Western US

      Thanks so much, libra!

    • libra profile image

      libra 8 years ago

      I really enjoyed reading this. I'm joining your fan club!

    • Enelle Lamb profile image

      Enelle Lamb 8 years ago from Canada's 'California'

      What a great hub! I thoroughly enjoyed your waltz through the english language =)

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 8 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Then try teaching English in S. Korea - and explaining the absurd rules. One Korean man lived in Boston and he asked me why do people say 'pahk the cah' instead of 'park the car'- there were people teaching over there from NZ, England, Australia, S Africa, Canada and the US - all different accents and word meanings. Surprisingly, people from the US are the most desired - not because our way of speaking English is necessarily easier to learn and pronounce but thanks to the zillion movies and TV shows that we export it is the most familiar. Then the idioms...

      Well, anyway my English speaking Korean colleagues had things well under control and instead suggested we all hang out more and dance and laugh and sing etc. I did use American songs to help teach the language in context like "I Just Called to Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder. It worked out well. As long as we don't get too pompous about it - we'll all be okay. I think.

      Thanks for this Daniel Carter!

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Daniel, I am enjoying your hubs!

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      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Brilliant and very enjoyable, thanks!

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 8 years ago forgot Indian English...we give our own spin to the Queen's language!

    • profile image

      Joan 8 years ago

      Mahalo nui loa for your akamai article on de kine language!

    • profile image

      GjC - MoM :) 8 years ago

      Another great contribution to 'Hub'. And BTW, you know I have always enjoyed being physically strong & 'toe'....and, could I have another 'duff'-nut? TeeHee, Giggle, Snort. WHOOPS! Didn't mean to snort!

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      Anne Adams 8 years ago

      Loved the Thai story! When I had just gone senior in France, we had a Stake Conference and the Stake President asked me, right before the meeting, whether I could speak French well enough to talk a little about genealogy. I assured him that I could; that I loved genealogy and had done a lot of research into my INCEST, lol! (The words for incest and ancestors are very close). I corrected myself immediately. I have to hand it to him--he was still kind enough and brave enough to let me speak. Language is great fun!

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      Sherry 8 years ago

      This is GREAT!! I could actually follow because of my Newfie/English/Cockney/Idaho confusion about the English language. I have a different interpretation of: "Oy! Where'd ya get that whistle? Musta' knocked off Barclay's tuh come up wif enuff quid fer 'at!" MY TRANSLATION: Nice Suit! Who'd ya beat up and rob blind to get the money for it? Question: How you rob somebody blind? Do you take their eyes out? Ha Ha.... I chuckled my way through this FUN!