Sunday, March 28, 2010

Widening The Gap

“Two people separated by a common language”

This oft-used quote has been the basis of this blog from the start, and we like to think we have explored the chasm in a number of ways over the past months. The thing is, once you get past the obvious (elevator = lift, bath is pronounced bahth) you think you pretty much have it sussed. But the separation is, in fact, a bottomless pit, and unless you are a Brit living in the US, or a Yank living in the UK, you can't know how true those words really are.

This week, to satisfy a nostalgic whim, we are looking at some of those things that, even after all this time, still catch us out on a regular basis.

Toni (accents):

When I moved to Chicago the mid-west accent took me by surprise at first, and led to some hilarious mistakes on my part.

For some reason, Bocci ball (a type of boules) was the rage amongst our friends. Because of the twangy accent here, I thought they were all saying “Bacci” and pronounced it thus, in my English accent. It must’ve sounded really weird – this Brit with the strong English accent suddenly producing a Chicago vowel sound right in the middle of a sentence. When I discovered my mistake (several years later) I cringed at the memory, although no one commented at the time.

The other vowel clanger was when we came to buy our first house here and everyone was talking about the Plat of Survey (otherwise known as the survey plan). “Ah” I thought, “I won’t be caught out with that funny vowel sound again”, and proceeded to refer to the “Plot” of survey thinking that was what they were really saying. It wasn’t until we were sitting in the final closing meeting (exchanging contracts) and I saw the damn thing in front of me, written out in full, that I realized my mistake. Again though, no one said anything and I can only assume they were thinking something like “Crazy Brit”.

More recently, my 6 year old, aware of my slightly different accent, has started compensating for it. His second cousin Luca, is now referred to as Luker (with heavy emphasis on the American “R” ending) because he thinks that’s what I’m really saying. For a long time he also thought “pizza” was really “pizzer” again, because of the way we English pronounce “er” endings. I wonder if he goes around telling everyone that my real name is “Antoni-er.”

Mike (words):

Almost everyone, even if they don’t know any expats or watch the British version of The Office, can effuse about the basics: “They call an flashlight a ‘torch’! And a car hood is a ‘bonnet’; isn’t that cute?” And if you have not yet learned about the startling dissimilarity between the British and American use of the word ‘Fanny’ then you deserve whatever social faux pas you perpetrate.

But if you're living in a different culture, once you get past the obvious differences and settle down to the minutia that is daily life, you stop noting every little disparity in the interest of getting on with your day. That doesn't mean they aren't there, it simply means I can't be arsed to point them out:

For example: There are no commercials on British TV, they have adverts. My wife and I don’t go to the movies, we go to the cinema. Going to the theatre may mean going to see a play, or it may mean you are going in for an operation; if you are heading to surgery, however, you are just going to visit your doctor, only it would be you GP.

They do not use scotch tape over here, they use Sellotape (and it’s nowhere near as good). If you wash the dishes you are doing the washing up, and don’t forget your marigolds, which is what they call dishwashing gloves. They have cling film instead of saran wrap and they don’t vacuum, they hoover.

Oddly, a bicycle is called a pushbike to distinguish it from a bike, which is a motorcycle, while we in the States seem unconfused by using bike for both.

You don’t put on your blinker or use your turn signal, you indicate. And if the car in front of you is going too slow and you want to get around it, you overtake. And if you are driving a station wagon, be sure to call it an estate car.

The stuff you throw out is rubbish, not garbage and you put it in a dust bin for the bin men to come and collect. If you have a lot of rubbish, you need a dumpster, which they call a skip.

I could, I am afraid, go on, and on, and on, so I’ll wrap up by advising that, no matter how long you live here (or there) and how bilingual you think you’ve become, you can, and will, continue to be bushwhacked by the language.

Care to share your language experiences?

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to:
MHMail55-MT AT
or just pop it into the comment box.


  1. Mere weeks after I moved from Canada to London, a man outside my cubicle commented, "I could really go for a fag, I've been humping boxes all day." And that was my baptism by fire into the world of 'proper' English!

  2. Moving from London to the rarified suburbs of Westchester I was puzzled by the "clicks" that seemed to exist in town - no doubt my neighbours thought I was being impossibly European referring to the 'cliques' I hoped to break into. The fact my day was going 'pear shaped' also caused some confusion. We've now moved to Sydney where the first thing that caught our eye was the signs prominently attached to the litter bins reading "Don't be a Tosser". Currently laughing about the fact that Australian politician has been "white anted" - translation undermined by those in his own party in the manner of termites - and for guys, don't forget to wear your 'budgie smugglers' when heading to the beach.

  3. I did a classic the other day in finnish. Confused miekkailu with meikkailu. So instead of inviting members of my graduate school to come and try fencing (mIEkkailu) I invited them to try make-up (mEIkkailu). I sent the email to 80 of my fellow students...

  4. Being British with a Greek partner leaves much room for lost in translation... Being British and working in the Middle East adds more... A colleague once told me that a guy had been fired for shitting in the bank. After minutes trying to figure out why anyone would shit in the bank I realised she meant cheating :0)

  5. When i first moved here a common phrase amongst my boyfriend and his friends was whether or not one could be 'arsed.' The nice way of saying this is if they could be 'bothered' (to do something or not). I thought they were discussing whether or not they could be 'asked'. I assumed it was just a turn of phrase: 'I coudn't be asked to do that so, no, I didnt do it.'

    Because of my interpretation I used this quite easily with my very proper mother-in-law-to-be, seeing a funny, pained expression on her face every time I said it. I had only a vague idea something might have been wrong about it but I soldiered on, repeating it several more times.

    Then one day--probably a year or so into my life in Britain, I read it somewhere (arsed). Ive never used it again--arsed or asked!

  6. OMG - these are some of the funnist mistakes I've ever heard. I feel a compilation book coming on....

  7. Nothing funny but the other day I realised for the first time that Americans don't use the word 'cross' as in "I am cross about that/with you." A woman here was talking about it as a really quaint English expressiont that her son had picked up from watching Thomas the tank engine.......

    I said that I used it and everyone was amazed! They all say 'mad' - which I pointed out in the UK only means 'insane'........

  8. I've lived in the States for eight or nine years and even now, hardly a days goes by without me being surprised by some American turn of phrase or something like that.

    It's sometimes hard to believe we're actually speaking the same language. In my previous job (working on an Ancient Greek language project), I particularly remember one phone call I had with a customer. Now, I have a pretty standard British English accent and this bloke was from Tennessee. I couldn't understand a word he said. He couldn't understand a word I said!

    After we'd been talking for about 30 minutes I realised we'd been going round in circles because we'd totally failed to pick up half the words the other person was saying. It was at this point I realised we'd probably have been better off speaking Ancient Greek! :)

  9. We had the "pizzerrr" thing too.

    I think the problematic ones are the words that are the same, but used in subtly different ways. For example, if a small child is larking about, here you might say "you're so silly". But in England, you wouldn't say that - it's too strong. You'd probably say "you're being funny", or "you're a clown". The first few times someone told my children they were "silly", I winced a little.

    The word "stupid" seems to work the other way. Here, it seems very strong, even offensive. But in England, I think you can say something is a "stupid idea" or you might say "I felt so stupid" without it being a huge statement. I think the US equivalent would be dumb.

  10. Speaking of language, Toni, who the bloody hell is Joe Soap? He's in your book but I've never in my life (lived almost entirely in Britain) heard anyone mention him until you. Maybe he's a Northern invention?

  11. I am having this in Canada. I tried to ask for some waterproofs and wellies for my daughter.
    It took about 5 minutes to work out what I should have asked for. 'Rain pants' and...I still don't know what wellies are.

    Bloody foreigners. ;-)

  12. The first time I was in England, they thought it was very funny that we referred to everyone as "guys." We also thought it was amusing to refer to a cigarette as a "fag."

  13. Oh, and we were also corrected when walking by people to say "pardon me" not "excuse me," which was considered quite rude.

  14. Mrs Baum - It may have gone out of fashion but I assure you, I had a hundred and fifty million people read chapters of the book before it went to the publishers! I also went out with a young rocker who was in a band called Joe Soap, so I know I didn't dream it up!!!

  15. Joe Soap? Yes, I've heard of him. I think he's the brother of Joe Bloggs, isn't he? Distantly related to John Doe.

  16. That certainly got me thinking!
    Faucets and taps are another strange pair of words.

    Nuts in May

  17. Nah, I still think Mr Soap must be a pretender to the Bloggs throne! I don't like him, whoever he is...

    It's funny how things vary - there were a few examples in your book that I didn't really agree with, but I can't remember what they were now. Although one was something to do with washing machines...

    Like the example that Diane Schubach gave above of being told to say "pardon me" - I would never consider "excuse me" to be rude; it's perfectly polite as far as I know. Maybe it's a class thing, or a different region thing. Or maybe some people are just too fussy!

  18. Mrs Baum - go through it with a red pen and I will give you a big fat credit!! (Unfortunately not a financial one.) It needs to be updated, and although there are things that we may disagree on, there are also things that need to be revisited. Thanks.

  19. I worked with a gentleman named Doug. To me, it sounded like I was pronouncing it 'dug', to my American co-workers it sounded like 'doog'. Now I know being from Liverpool my accent can be quite nasal, but c'mon 'doog', really? To me, they sounded like they were saying 'duurrg'!!!!

  20. Yes, names can be really tricky and when you have family members on both sides of the Pond you have to try to come up with names that sound the same no matter who's saying them. We had a lot of suggestions canned because of that.

  21. Never thought of that before, but now that I do...I have an American niece, Erin...I have an American male co-worker, Aaron. Americans insist on pronouncing his name 'Erin'...I grew up hearing Elvis's middle name quite a bit, as it happens it was also Aaron...I think I'm right on this one. Besides, my co-worker smiles at me and tells me I am the only person he knows who says his name correctly, and he has a very nice smile, so it's all good :)

  22. @Vinogirl - so do you pronounce it 'Arran' or Airr-on'? I've heard both and don't know which is correct. I also thought Americans were saying 'Erin' when I heard it (on 24 - President Palmer's Secret Service agent!)

    @ Expat - you serious? Ok then. Assuming I can find it - think it's somewhere on the bookshelf. I enjoyed it the first time, though there were a few bits where I went "Huh?"!

  23. Sure. although bear in mind that just because you haven't heard of something doesn't mean it's wrong necessarily. I had one American (who'd lived in London for four years) literally tell me I'd made up Morris Dancers, because he'd never seen them.

  24. Mrs. Baum, I would say a good (Aran) cardy from up north!

  25. Expat Mum: To be honest, Morris Dancing does sound like something someone made up to take the piss out of the English ;)

  26. There's a lot of things that sound like they're a complete piss-take though aren't there?

  27. I was taken aback when an American collegue told me he was feeling "Pissed". It was about 9.00am and he seemed completely sober.

    Which he was, of course. He was pissed = angry not pissed/hammered/kale eye/slaughtered/lashed/rat arsed/plastered. Why do we have so many words for being drunk?!

  28. @ Expat - ooh, no, I shall give you my very strong opinions on everything; it's up to you to translate them into something readable! ;-)

    So, Joe Soap's an imposter, Morris Dancing is made up, and something you said to do with a wahing machine was very strange indeed... I'll have fun!

    (must re-read book and find out what on earth the washing machine thing was!)


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