Monday, November 14, 2011

Clinging On and Letting Go

A throwaway comment to another expat led to some ruminating about words…


I was having a conversation with the blogger Not From Around Here and the word aeroplane came up. (For those who don’t know, it’s aeroplane in the UK, and airplane in the US.) Having been in the US for 21 years, the word aeroplane suddenly strikes me as funny and baby-ish. I’m not sure that I go all out and say airplane – more likely I just swallow the “O” sound in an attempt to avoid merciless piss-taking by the kids.

It’s funny which words I’ve adopted and which I still cling to. While I can now easily pronounce basil the American way (bay’ zil), herb will never be ‘erb and tomato will always have two distinct T’s and a long A. Even though the kids imitate the British version of tomato, they would have even more fun if I came out with tomaydo. There are certain words that Brits just can’t get away with in the States, in much the same way that Americans in the UK should never say bloody. Just wrong.

Some words you have to adopt if communication is your thing: the bonnet of the car becomes the hood, as the boot becomes the trunk. Same with baby paraphernalia – not many Americans know the words dummy and nappy (at least in the baby sense) so pacifier and diaper it is.  School has been like an immersion course in Chinese, with recess instead of playtime or break, semesters and commencements, not to mention having to remember that high school kids go Freshman, Sophomore, Junior then Senior.

Yes, I used to feel a bit strange using a different vocabulary but now I just consider myself bi-lingual!


Bloody?  I say bloody quite a bit, as in “Bloody hell!”  I think I should be allowed this one as I used to say it in the States, long before I moved here.  However, research suggests (i.e. I just asked my wife) that I do sound somewhat foolish saying it.  I also say oy vey a lot, which is equally (so I’m advised) foolish-sounding.  But none of that relates to this post and, furthermore, I have no plans to change.

I have, however, changed other bits of my vocabulary.  While I do not (not, not, not) have any hint of a British accent, so much British English has crept into my way of speaking that my friends in the States tell me I write like a Brit.  I resisted this for a long time, as I really enjoy being the recalcitrant American, but after a while you need to start talking like the natives simply so you can get on with it.

Unlike Toni, I don’t interact with people in situations where misunderstandings could prove critical (I am not, for example, in danger of handing Rescue Annie to a baby who need a pacifier) so I probably get away with using Americanism more than she can rely on Brit-speak, but I have added a fair few, handy Anglo words to my lexicon over the years.

Some words have been completely adopted, such as car park, high street and town centre.  I can’t tell you the last time I referred to a parking lot, or said downtown.  Likewise the use of holiday: I have adopted this so completely it confuses my American friends.  When I asked someone, who was telling my about their new job, how much holiday they got, they began listing off things like Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and the like.  I had to stop them to clarify that I meant vacation time.

Other areas have morphed into a mixture of British and American terms.  For instance, the car still has a hood and a trunk, but I go to a petrol station to put petrol in it.  In the kitchen, though I do the washing up and occasionally refer to the stove as the cooker, it is still, very defiantly, ta-may’-to, bay’-zel, or-egg’-a-no, a-lum’-in-um foil and Saran Wrap (never cling film).

And, strangely, even after all this time here, I still tend to refer to prices using the term dollars instead of pounds.

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  1. Isn't the morphing of language funny? I have five years in the UK, and can't help but have picked up so many of the British terms here. Some I have thought about regularly-shopping and conversations in mother/toddler groups made it natural to use local terms, so nearly all my baby supply words are from here (except for onesie and sometimes binky). Oddly I've realised that I use hood for the front of the car but boot for the rear. The ones that are set are classic expat things-aluminium, oregano, but basil has shifted.

    Oddly, tomato seems to go back and fourth. I've been working in small communities, and I grew weary of waitresses laughing when I asked for tomatoes and making me repeat it several times. I guess my speech is rather confused. :)

  2. Oooh, that's another one that sounds weird coming from an American. Just as weird as the tomaydo version coming out of my mouth!

    I must admit that sometimes when I'm in sandwich places, I just skip the tomato or point, when possible!!

  3. I've been in the UK for 8 years, and haven't picked up a single shred of accent, though certainly lots of new vocabulary and spellings (and I've learned to very carefully avoid ever calling trousers 'pants'.) The only thing I say differently is 'meeting'. My husband has pointed out I emphasise the 't', instead of saying it with a 'd' sound, as Americans do. A Swedish friend does the same thing, so it seems I'm not the only one.

  4. There must be a switch in my head set the wrong way. When I'm in a group of Brits, I tend to use my natural American speak and phrases. I say 'stroller', I say 'crib'...god forbid, I've even said 'chips' when I clearly know that they are 'crisps'.

    Once I'm at home with my husband and son, or even when talking to my family at home via Skype, all the British vernacular starts seeping out. I even called my mom 'mum' the other day!

    I swear all this has something to do with nervousness. I think I have some irrational fear that if I use the British phrase to a Brit, they will jump up and point, "that's OUR word! You can't have it!"

    ...not that Brits do much jumping and pointing, but still.

  5. I've had to avoid asking for yoghurt anywhere, I'm just met with quizzical looks, but just today I used to-may-do and I felt dirty for doing so.


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