The Guardian has excerpts from the correspondence between Scarlett Thomas, author of Going Out (in which “twentysomethings languish in the suburban wastelands of Essex, engaging the world primarily through e-mail, the Internet, and American sitcoms and movies”) and her Russian translator, Den(n)is Borisov. I would have preferred it if they’d cut out most of the chitchat (“My dog is called Dreamer”) and focused on the translation questions, but there are enough of the latter to make it an interesting read; I learned almost as much as Borisov:

Yes, a Cortina is a Ford. Now the context. Essex is known in the UK as being a place where working-class people live, often people who have moved out of the slummier areas of London. Essex Girl jokes started in the 80s, and specifically focused on young working-class girls. In that sense, “Essex girl” really means “working-class girl”. At the time the jokes started, the Cortina was the kind of car that people in Essex would have. Kind of trashy and cheap but maybe aspirational for people in Romford or Southend. In the UK, as everywhere else, I guess, different cars have different meanings. So a Cortina is a working-class” sort of car, the Volvo is the “sensible” family car, often associated with people who don’t like taking risks. The old-style BMWs are drug-dealers’ cars. The Porsche is the stockbroker’s car. The Mondeo is the travelling salesman’s car.

(Via Naked Translations.)


  1. Volvos are for persons which do not like taking their own risks – Volvos are famously safe, except for persons in other, lesser vehicles who happen to share a road with them. (I speak from much bitter experience, here.)
    And the canonical rep’s car has been a Vauxhaul in the UK for the last ten years or so; you are learning, here, the vehicular semiotics of the 198-s. The reason Fords (all Fords) were basically naff is that they were built like shit and rusted away in no time – my sisters had three betweeen them (but not Cortinas), all elderly, all crap, all died lingering rusty deaths.
    3-series BMWs were still the drug-dealeur’s motor of choice when I moved to Bristol, though, and I think they’re holding their own.

  2. Ah, good. I read this in the dead tree edition, and looked for it online to refer to you, but I couldn’t find it.

  3. The Ford Probe was allegedly killed off in the UK after its association with TV comic Steve Coogan’s alter ego, the hideous young sales rep Gareth Cheeseman (who would psyche himself up for business by looking in the mirror and screaming: “You are a tiger! RAAAAAA!!!!”).

  4. Two days ago, reading from Colin Dexter’s “Morse’s Greatest Mystery”, I was tickled to find the following passage, part of a description of a one-legged con:
    “Sixteen years ago the accident had been, in Newry- when he’d crashed a stolen car at 96.5 mph (according to police evidence). Somehow a piece of glass had cut a neat slice from the top of his left ear; and the paramedics had had little option but to leave his right leg behind in the concertina’ed Cortina.”
    It stuck in my mind at the time because I wondered if there was any solution to that awkwardly-spelled past tense (which, anyhow, gave a nice alliterative tang to the passage).

  5. I think chav is the new, unisex, term for Essex girl/man.
    Another motoring identifier other than the Cortina which has entered the language, and at least one dictionary, is white van man.
    Drug dealers round my way seem split between beemers and suvs.

  6. “I am a young executive, No cuffs than mine are cleaner, I own a slim-line briefcase And I drive the firm’s Cortina” — John Betjeman, late 60s / early 70s, when the Cortina was still a middle-class car, before it began its gradual slide down the social scale.

  7. ‘Chav’ as I saw somebody say earlier in a comment, is, infact, not the new unisex term for an essex girl or boy (i am an essex girl by the way, although, not at all a stereotypical one after spending a large part of my life in boarding schools) It just means a particular type of working-class person that comes from any part of the country. They are defined by clothes and behaviour, not where they come from and are dotted all over England unfortunately.
    Also you missed one of the main points that makes an Essex girl the butt of many jokes: promiscuity. Think trailer trash without the incest.

  8. Also the term ‘chav’ is rumoured to have originated from Chatham in Kent.

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