If you are visiting or moving to England, expect to learn a new language. You already have the basics down like “Please” and “Thank you.” But you will never know when one of the natives will give you an utterly blank stare while you feel you are asking a perfectly simple question. For example, you don’t ask for a Band-Aid when you cut your finger. You ask for a “plaster”. You don’t fill your car with “gas”; you fill it with “petrol”. And, if you plan on camping, NEVER ask, “Do you know where I can find some hiking gear?” They just might call The Old Bill on you – that is, in American English, the police.
Gear Means Drugs
If you ask for hiking gear in England, you are asking for illegal street drugs. It’s not the “hiking” part that is the cause for confusion – it’s the “gear” part. The word “gear” has shifted in meaning over the decades in much the same way the word “gay” has shifted far from its original definition. “Gear” is current slang for heroin, but it can also be used for dope, cocaine or even legal prescription tranquilizers (which is often sold illegally on the street).
If you do need hiking gear, as in camping equipment, just say “camping equipment”. England is a nature loving country, where hiking and other outdoor activities are very popular. Not only will the big cities be guaranteed to have camping supply stores, but many smaller towns will have one as well. You can even find a camping or outdoors section in most supermarket chains. So, if you do need hiking gear –that is, camping equipment – you should have no trouble finding a shop.
When Did This Start?
When did gear’s meaning shift in mainstream English slang? Only in the last few decades. This is something that Bill Shakespeare and Chuck Dickens never mentioned, that’s for sure. It also wasn’t the case as recently as World War II, when “gear” meant tools, equipment or paraphernalia. If you grew up reading James Herriot Books (like I did), then whenever “hiking gear” was mentioned, it meant exactly as an American would think it would mean – just hiking gear.
If you are in England and slip up asking for “hiking gear” instead of “hiking equipment” and get a blank stare or a furrowed brow, just smile like the stereotypical American idiot and innocently ask, “What did I just say?” That will usually calm the situation down.