Sunday, November 8, 2009

It’s only words…

This week we're delighted to have Nappy Valley Girl as our guest blogger discussing UK/UK vocabulary with Mike:

Nappy Valley Girl:

Last week, my four year old son looked up at the leaves floating down from the trees. “Mummy,” he said. “It’s Fahl.”
It took me a couple of moments to understand what he meant. Then I realised; he was talking about Fall (which they’ve been learning about ad nauseam at preschool). “Yes, that means it’s autumn,” I told him, almost automatically.
We’ve been in the US five months now, and while there are some American words I’ve picked up pretty quickly, there are some words I still can’t bring myself to say. Fall is one of them. OK, I’m happy to talk about the ‘fall foliage’ or ‘fall colours’ we’ve just been to see in New England, because that seems, appropriate for here. But to me, this season is autumn and I refuse to stop saying so. (And what by the way, is the American for Autumnal? Fall-ish? )
I can’t bring myself, either, to ask my new friends what good new ‘movies’ they’ve seen recently, or, even worse, describe a trip to the ‘movie theatre’ with the boys. It’s cinema, OK, and a film? And filling the car up at a gas station? Sorry. I just can’t stop myself saying ‘the petrol station’, no matter what weird looks I get from people.
There are some American terms I am quite happy to use when asking Americans about something, but can somehow never apply to myself. I will ask people how their ‘vacation’ was but will always talk about ourselves as ‘going on holiday’. And my boys are still going out in the ‘garden’ to play, never the ‘backyard’.
There are, admittedly, some words which sound better over here. For example, it seemed far more appropriate to go trick or treating in our suburban American street for Halloween candy. I don’t even like the word ‘sweets’. (Although it still seems odd to be referring to something like a KitKat as candy; surely that’s a chocolate bar?) And I’ve come round slowly, after initial resistance, to cookies versus biscuits. After all, in the land of Cookie Monster, what else should we be eating? And you just can’t ask for anything other than fries in an American restaurant (although the boys still try to order ‘chips and ketchup’, much to waiters’ bemusement).
But there are some words I’ve been forced to adopt: for example, I’ve had to drop my use of the very British verb ‘to queue’. This is particularly irksome because queuing has been a major feature of our first months here: at the Social Security Office, the Department for Motor Vehicles, and so forth, so it comes up quite a lot in conversation. The first couple of times I used it, on a neighbour, she looked at me as if I was completely mad. “Oh,” it dawned on her eventually. “You mean standing in line?”
And I’m trying desperately to exchange ‘pavement’ for ‘sidewalk’, or I’ll be thought of as a really bad mother. Because here, when I tell the boys to ‘get back on the pavement,” I’m actually telling them to stand on the road……….


When I first moved to the UK, I resolved to keep talking in my native language, if only to annoy people. Seven years on, I speak so much like a native that many people, when meeting me for the first time, don’t immediately cotton on to the fact that I am American. This is not, I hasten to add, because of a change in my accent; it is due to my vocabulary.

Sorted, knackered, blimey, chuffed—I embrace them all; I've even been known to stop at a petrol station from time to time. But there remain a few Americanism that, along with my New York accent, continue to give me away:

- The automobile, to me, has always had and always will have a trunk and a hood. I’ll refer to “car boot sales” but the wares are sold out of the car’s trunk.

- Oddly, even though I don’t mean to, I tend to revert to “dollars and cents” when discussing prices. Except, of course, if I’m referring to prices in the US, then I say “pounds and pence.” I put it down to an age thing.

- Portable heaters use kerosene, not paraffin. Paraffin is what you make candles out of.

- In my view, we have a “checking” account at our bank, even though my wife insists it is a “current” account.

- Let’s keep it simple; it is LAST and FIRST names. Whenever I’m asked for my surname I’m always tempted to say, “Galahad!”

And, like Nappy Valley Girl, the sidewalk/pavement issue continues to baffle me.

Anyone have any they’d like to add?


  1. Nappy Valley Girl:

    The American for "autumnal" would be "autumnal". I don't think fallish has quite the same ring, do you?

    A question about backyard/garden, though one that might be more suited to "separated by a common language". During my long period of unemployment I took to watching Location, Location, Location when I ran out of episodes of House Hunters. I noticed that they would refer to ground level non grassy outdoor spaces (what I'd probably call a patio) as yards. Is that long standing standard terminology or is it something more recent that's influenced by American English?


    For me it isn't an issue of major dialectal changes but I have your same dollar/pounds issue with local names of public transit systems. I'm still apt to call the El the T or the Metro, the Metra the Commuter Rail and the other way around. Since I'm guessing I'm much closer to your children's age than yours you probably don't have to worry about early onset senioritis.

  2. Elizabeth: "...Since I'm guessing I'm much closer to your children's age than yours..."

    Ouch! ;)

  3. My sons still wear trousers and pants, rather than pants and underpants, at least when I'm at home. If I'm talking to a local, I have to use American terminology to avoid misunderstanding.

    I was annoyed with myself at the doctor's, as I am usually quite good these days on medical terms, but I had a lapse and said "I felt sick" instead of "I felt nauseous". I do much prefer going to the Doctor's Office instead of the Doctor's Surgery which really makes no sense - how confusing that must be for Americans in Britain.

    As I wrote that last paragraph, I realised that I no longer use the word 'cross', as in 'I was cross with myself'. But I don't know what the American equivalent would be. 'Mad' is too strong. That would equate to 'angry'. Is 'annoyed' the best we can do here?

    Good post NVG. I think gas and movies will creep up on you over time.

  4. I'm reading all these comments thinking I have given up completely, although my children were born here so didn't have to learn anything. They do say "a bit" to describe things, ie. "I was a bit annoyed" etc. which tickles their friends. When people immitate the Little Guy (6) they try to do an American accent but since he says "butt" and "fart" I fear I have lost him.

    Re the Yard/garden question (to butt in before NP Girl), it's not so much a language thing as a subtle class thing. "Yards" referred to the brick area in the back of Victorian terraced housing( never called a a patio - that had to have an area of lawn too). Later on in England, in the suburbs (where people moved when they got a bit of money) people had "back gardens" because they had a lawn, even though sometimes they were the same size as the older back yards. The big difference was there wasn't a back alley running in between the yards/gardens. Instead, the suburban back gardens backed up against each other and there was/is no access to these houses from the rear.

    Now, in many large English cities, such as Newcastle, it has become fashionable to move back into the inner city and inhabit the large Victorian dwellings that were non gratis a few decades ago. Since the backyards are no longer used for outside loo's and coal sheds, there's plenty of room to make them into patio's and terraces. What goes around, comes around.

  5. My husband moved to the US from the UK 5 years ago and I find that I generally try to speak his language when we are at home, just to avoid confusion. Im not sure if this has made him less inclined to use the American terms. He still says trousers, pants, garden, holiday.. he "puts" the heating on rather than turns the heat on and a truck is still a lory. Every once in a while he will come up with something I havnt heard before. A splinter is a spelk. His mother was chuffed to get the flowers I sent her. He retains his own words for things, but is very rapidly losing his accent!

  6. oh, and somebody mentioned going to the doctors surgery instead of the office, that was confusing to me when I lived in England. Also being "wheeled into theatre".. took me a while to twig that one.

  7. I can't believe I left out "Surgery"! What an odd thing to say. The first time I heard someone say, "I'm going to the doctor's surgery this afternoon," I thought they were telling me they were about to have an operation.

    And the pants/trousers issue still gets me. I can't bring myself to say "Trousers" even though I know, when I say "pants" people think I'm referring to my underware.

  8. I spent 3 years in the states as a child. You can't tell from my accent now but I cannot rid myself of the tendency to talk about sneakers rather than trainers.

    The other divided by a common language is the way in which everyone uses pissed. I was most surprised to hear an American friend say she had been so pissed at work (meaning she was angry) as I took it to mean they were drunk...

  9. Sidewalk vs. Pavement? Confuse people completely and use the New Zealand term - "Footpath"!

  10. Agree with Expat Mum, backyard in UK usually means a small paved area (although we had one of these in London and I still called it the garden. Clearly I have delusions of grandeur!)

    Iota, my sons have started saying they are 'mad' instead of cross. It sounds quite sweet, actually, but I suppose I'll have to train them out of it when we go back. But I'll have to teach them about pants and trousers soon, or it'll be very embarrassing when they start school here.

  11. Well I just had another classic 'John Thomas' moment tonight, see blog!

  12. I just had a baby and being American, I can't bring myself to say "Nappy," people are just going to have to deal with me saying "diaper". I also can't get used to the fact that I had a c-section in the theatre of a hospital.

  13. Love it! I've been in the US for 13 years and still say back garden, MIne is lovely, full of flowers, and by no means a "yard"!

    I still say "pissed" to mean drunk, not angry (often a cause of confusion!), and "knickers" for underpants. And my kids call me Mummy, nor Mommy (for now, though I expect that will change ) but I have succumbed to most other Americanisms for the convenience of being understood!

    I like "gas" for "petrol" it is much more versatile, as in "step on the gas" for "speed up", what would we even say in the UK that would be equivalent? "Push the accelerator?"

  14. Bullajabbar, I can explain "theatre" - in the early days of surgery, an operating theatre was just that: a tiered amphitheatre full of spectators, who watched the procedure.
    The Old Operating Theatre in Southwark is a good example:

    In those days, there was no anaesthetic either...

  15. Brits, keep using your British English vocabulary, if you're more comfortable with it. Why should you change just because you now live in the US? Besides, it's fun to hear "exotic" English being spoken. If an occasional clueless American doesn't understand, tell 'em to shape up! (^_^)

    We love using Britishisms when in the UK though. In fact, we bring lots of them home with us. We always say we're going on holiday, car boot, bits and bobs, knickers, etc.

    We especially put on the push when we're actually in the UK, hopefully not to an obnoxious level!

    It's fair to say that lots of these "Britishisms" are also used in the US, just not as much. Can't understand the American who didn't know "queue"--sheesh! For one thing, queue is used all over the place where "standing in line" is required, banks, DMV, post office, etc. and for another it's the absolute best Scrabble word.

  16. geekymummy - 'put your foot down' for 'step on the gas'?

    My children have also started saying "I'm done," instead of 'I'm finished" which is annoying....

  17. @Mickle
    I'm pretty sure that wouldn't confuse much of everyone as the meaning is completely transparent. That's probably for the best though.

    Thanks. One never really knows about real estate terminology.

  18. >> 'put your foot down' for 'step on the gas'?\
    My husband always says "Give it some welly"!

  19. 'Give it some welly'? Translation please, someone?

  20. Glad to - "Welly" being the shortened form of Wellington Boot, (also known as galoshes and gumboots) the almost knee high, practical rubber boot that most English people have, or at least have worn at some point in their lives. Essentially a water-proof boot that doesn't have to be as insulated like some North American winter footwwear, as it usually doesn't have to withstand much below 40 degrees farenheit. ;-)
    When I first moved to the States, the name and the item were not very well known and certainly couldn't be found in shops. This season however, they are a fashion de rigeur, meaning that I am styling, for about the first time in my life.

  21. Part 2 - so, to say "Give it some welly" means to apply the Wellington Booted foot to the accelerator. As in "floor it".

  22. Actually "put your foot down" already has a meaning and it has nothing to do with hitting the accelerator in a car.

    It means "stand firm" or "hold your ground" ie. "My mother put her foot down and wouldn't let me go out with him", so using that phrase in the context of driving wouldn't really make sense.

    Give it some wellie is the best I've heard! Love my wellies, btw, and today's they perfect day for them, third day of relentless rain here in the mid-Atlantic.

  23. Talking of "mid Atlantic" it took me quite a while to learn that this didn't mean you were living on a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic, but in fact somewhere on the eastern side of the country!!

  24. Ha! That reminds me of the sign we saw in Sussex: "England's Sunshine Coast"!!! Ever hopeful.

    It always amazes me that many Brits are so unaware of the British origins of and influences on America.

    Many many place and region names in the states that were the original British colonies were established in the Colonial period by Brits themselves, "mid-Atlantic" being one of them.

    As you know, it's short for states bordering the mid-Atlantic COAST. We just don't need to say "coast" all the time.

    Colonies were referred to as northern, southern and mid-Atlantic colonies, each region had marked differences.

    A good book on how settlement from the regions of Britain influenced the regional patterns of America is "Albion's Seed - Four British Folkways in America" by David Fischer.

  25. Sussex is the "Sunshine Coast"?!? You should have seen it yesterday ;)

  26. Oh the langiuage is a minefield. When we first moved to US (4 yrs ago) I couldn't get used to some words - diaper forinstance. I refused to use it and it was nappy all the way. same with pacifier/binky. I rejected most baby terminology. Then reality hit and I began letting American words creep into my vocab, purely to make myself understood at the Mom & Tot meetings or wherever I was striving to make frindships.
    Four years on, I speak English at home and American outside. This seems to work. I've noticed my oldest son has kind of adopted this too, seeings as he says "war-ter" to me and "war-der" to his teacher and friends....
    But NVG - "Fall" is still a season I will always call autumn.....! Some habits cannot be broken.

  27. I suppose someone has to lower the tone.....

    My (American) wife leaned this very early on after one slighly embarrassing moment, but we have to remind visiting family that in the UK "Fanny" has an entirely different meaning to what they understand.

    Paula (Wife) is now much more comfortable with British expressions and has even been known to use Loo or knickers on occasion, but generally still uses her American expressions - however, there is one term she still carries on using which still raises schoolgirlish giggles from any British people hearing her say it for the first time. When she says she needs to "Go Potty" - now to Brits this either means to go slightly mentally unhinged, or more likely potty being the expression for the plastic training pot used to toilet train toddlers (hence the giggles).

    She still sometimes says Dollars when she means Pounds, but equally says Pounds when she means Dollars.


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