Divided By a Common Language


It was likely George Bernard Shaw who, sometime in the early 1940s, first coined that phrase about Britain and America being divided by a common language. (I actually thought it was Winston Churchill until I looked it up.)

Whoever said it first, it’s impossible to write a blog about being a Brit in America without saying something about language differences. In fact, you could probably do an entire blog on nothing but the differences between English English and American English.

Chips, Pants and Bandaids

We all know the obvious differences: crisps are chips, and chips are french fries. Pants are underwear, and trousers are pants. The pavement is the thing you drive on, not the thing you walk on (that’s the sidewalk.) Biscuits are cookies, and an American biscuit has no translation (it’s sort of a cross between a savory scone and a bread roll, served smothered in gravy).

But there’s a dictionary’s worth of less-common word differences: an aubergine is an eggplant, and a courgette is a zucchini (and knowing that makes some recipes a lot easier to interpret). If you’re shopping for towels and such, don’t ask the sales person where you can find the flannels — she’ll wonder why you’re in the bathroom section of the store when clearly you’re looking for brushed-cotton shirts; the word for flannel is washcloth.

An English relative was recently volunteering at a concert here in the States, handing out badges. The Americans working with her quickly told her “no, they’re called buttons.” “Oh? so what’s that doing up your shirt then?” “Oh, that’s also a button.”

If your kid is playing at a friend’s house and scrapes his knee, don’t ask the friend’s mother for a plaster. The kid could bleed to death before you both figure out that what you actually need is called a band-aid. And no, the children do not need torches to see when they go out trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en — unless you actually do intend to send them door-to-door waving a long pole with a burning chunk of pitch-soaked cloth at the end — what they need is a flashlight.

For some reason, I still forget which word I’m supposed to use in this country to describe the storage space at the back of the car. “Hello love, just throw your bag in the…er…” By the time I’ve figured out it’s called the trunk, not the boot, the college kid I just picked up at the train station has his bag stowed and is already settling into the passenger seat of the car, giving me the “are you OK?” look.

Incidentally, that same kid had a great time on a visit to the UK a few years ago, bonding with his English cousins over swear words. “Do you guys say…?” “What’s the worst thing to call…” He was gleefully planning to tell one of his teachers to “sod off” once we got back home, until I pointed out that if she had any familiarity with British swear words, he’d spend the rest of the year in detention.

Spelling surprises

Again, we all know that American English leaves out some letters: labor not labour; color not colour. Spell-check will automatically substitute the letter Z in words like realize (see, it did it just there…). And while I think of it, don’t forget, it’s pronounced Zee not Zed. The creature at the zoo is called ZEE-brah not a zeh-brah; but don’t worry about how to pronounce zebra-crossing, they don’t exist over here.

The spelling changes can make for a subtle shift in pronunciation: the English “jewellery” gets shortened to jewelry and loses a syllable (and yes, the only way I could get spell-check to accept the English spelling was to put “jewellery” in quote marks). Sometimes the pronunciation shift is not so subtle: the American aluminum (al-LOO-mi-num) sounds much uglier, I think, than the English aluminium with its extra syllable (al-lew-MIN-ee-um).

And while we’re at it, even the rules of punctuation are different here in the States. I’m not going to do a grammar-nerd rant, but here’s just one example: this “.” is called a period, not a full stop, and if you end a sentence with a quote, that period goes INSIDE the quote marks, even if it wasn’t part of the original quote. So now you know.

What does THAT mean?

After three decades here I forget sometimes that the American words I’m using are meaningless — or mean something very different — to a Brit. If you’re in the States, sitting in the bleachers is fun (the cheap stands at a sports stadium); a fanny pack is just a nerdy bag you clip around your waist to hold keys and cash; and it’s not gross to call someone spunky (it means lively or perky).

And then there’s the words I just can’t bring myself to say, not without shuddering. Every time I’m forced to say “pantyhose” instead of “tights” I feel queasy. Don’t know why, I just loath the word “pantyhose.” You can ask for tights in a shop, but you’ll end up with something thick and opaque in an odd color that works if you’re a kid or a cool twenty-something, but definitely doesn’t look right with a professional skirt-suit.

And this thing hanging from my shoulder? It’s called a handbag — not, as the Americans like to say, a pocket-book. In general, the American word is simpler and more direct than its English counterpart. This is one of the exceptions — ‘handbag’ is a straightforward piece of description. I have no idea where ‘pocket-book’ came from. Americans do use the word handbag, but usually they say purse or pocketbook — if you say handbag you’ll very quickly get sucked into the dreaded “oooh, where are you from?” conversation.

Of course, it goes both ways. One of my English nieces recently posted something on Facebook about going conkering. I had to translate for her American cousin: no, she’s not planning to invade somewhere, she’s looking for conkers, that’s horse chestnuts. Then I started to explain what horse chestnuts are; but as soon as I launched into a discourse on the fine art of playing conkers he gave me the “what planet are you from?” look and changed the subject.

Even after all this time, I still get surprised. Giving directions to my youngest recently, I told him to turn anti-clockwise. There was a long pause. “Mom, what the hell does that mean?” “You know, anti-clockwise? The opposite of clockwise?” To my surprise, he burst out laughing. “You mean COUNTER-clockwise? Who says ANTI-clockwise?!” Sheesh. Next time I’ll say widdershins and really confuse him.

About abroadintheusa

An expat Brit who's lived and worked in the USA for more than three decades.
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4 Responses to Divided By a Common Language

  1. alexmarklew says:

    Not to mention the fact that you may be about to elect as president a man whose name is a synonym for “fart”.


  2. Gareth says:

    I remember causing great amusement in a bank when I visited you in Chicago, and was trying to change some travellers cheques. I made the mistake of asking for it in “notes”. Hilarity then ensued as I tried to work out why they were trying to give me a bill…


  3. Lisa Jo Rudy says:

    I read exclusively British novels as a child, and couldn’t understand why everyone stared at me when I used expressions like “that’s daft,” or “brilliant!”


  4. Pingback: Teenage Language | Abroad in the USA

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