Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sounding Smart

And now for something completely different:

“I shouldn't be saying this - high treason, really - but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting brilliance that may not really be there.”

Stephen Fry



When it comes to accents its great being a Brit in the States. Although many of us have different British accents, they are usually all very popular with the natives. Having grown up with British-sounding people I never really thought about us coming across as particularly intelligent or sophisticated, apart from the real boffins* that is. Indeed, there are some UK accents that sound positively brainless, even when the individual has a triple digit IQ (not naming any of course.) Americans however, don’t seem to make the same distinction, or at least I’ve never heard a British accent being denigrated.

From my own experience in the States, I have to agree with Fry’s statement. I’m quite often asked to read something out at school parent meetings for example, and when I ask why, I’m told it “will sound better with a British accent”. Personally, I think your average American has such a smooth, confident delivery on anything from the cafeteria menu to international diplomacy, I’d never dream of questioning them, but apparently I’m in the minority.

Not that I have much of a potty mouth these days, (three kids), but we Brits can usually deliver some fairly colo(u)rful language and get away with it over here. Dropping the “F” bomb usually has people in hysterics as they tell you it never sounds quite as good when they say it. And of course, if you use British swear words such as bloody and bugger (excuse me) it delights them. (Unfortunately my favo(u)rite one, “sodding”, is completely unknown here so it has disappeared from my lexicon.)

So yes Brits, if you fancy a quick IQ boost, pop across the Pond and just talk for a while!

(*boffin – seriously intelligent person, usually a scientist).


As an American, I have to agree with both Mr. Fry and Toni. British people just sound smart. I don’t know why, they just do. And beyond sounding smarter, we, as a nation, just love the way they talk.

My wife is forever being asked to “say something British” when she visits the States, while in the seven years I have lived here no one has ever requested me to talk just to listen to my accent. Would that it was so; I’d love the idea that people assumed I was a genius just because I accent the second syllable in “Baton” and leave the superfluous ones out of “Aluminum.”

As it is, I don’t think the Brits regard Americans as particularly smart. And when we try to imitate a British accent, well, that makes us sound particularly stupid.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

What's Thanksgiving like for an American in the UK, and a Brit in the US?


For American expats living in the UK, Thanksgiving is a mixed bag. It can be joyful, nostalgic, sad and frustrating all at once. Certainly, it is not a day most Americans let go by unnoticed. It brings with it the joy of the season, and the bittersweet memories of Thanksgivings past. Then it reminds you of how far away from home you are, and for some of us, for how long. And finally it makes you realize that you are surrounded by people who don’t share your memories of this day, who have no idea what it is about and don’t understand when you try to explain it to them, and who refuse to understand your passion for pumpkin pie.

And then you try to make dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner in the UK is an exercise in futility. You tell yourself, when you are forced to make the first substitution (a real turkey won’t fit in your oven so you buy just a breast), that it won’t make that much of a difference. Then another substitution (this one involving stuffing) forces its way in and before you know it you’re serving up more apologies than meals as you treat your friends and family to a “real” Thanksgiving Dinner.

If you managed to find any, your guests will be looking suspiciously at the creamed corn and struggling to stifle remarks about how it looks like someone already ate it. They will wonder why you are making such a big deal over the missing drumsticks and how having cranberry sauce from Marks and Spencer’s could possibly ruin a meal considering it sounds so much better than the stuff you are describing that comes out of a can.

And then, after the bravest among them have joined you for the pumpkin pie and whipped cream dessert, they will ask, “Is that it?” and you will have to agree that it is, and understand that you are still alone in “getting” it.

So you finish the pumpkin pie on your own and tell yourself that, next year, you’ll just go to Pizza Express for dinner.


It’s a bit weird being an expat in the US at this time of year.
“What are you doing for the holiday weekend?” usually gets a blank stare from me even after almost twenty years here.
“Oh Thanksgiving” (with emphasis on the second syllable, please note). “Not much really”, I reply to looks of disbelief mixed with pity.
When you’re not brought up with Thanksgiving, or anything remotely like it, it’s easy to miss the gravitas that this “holiday” has. Most of the time it completely sneaks up on me and I run around at the last minute, gathering up other expat waifs and strays for a big meal.
For many Americans however, Thanksgiving is more of a family affair than Christmas. Fortunately we have a teeny family here and we’re seeing them at Christmas so the pressure is off. It also helps that my husband travels a lot on business so the last thing he has ever wanted to do was take a flight at THE busiest travel time of the year with three kids in tow. Flight prices are ridiculous, the airports are packed, and of course the weather is usually at its most un-co-operative.
Friends of mine are already fretting about how to make peace with the brother-in-law from hell who got drunk and shouted at everyone last year, or the fact that they are guilted into staying in their parents’ house even though there’s no room for all the kids. Happy families indeed!
This year, for some reason, husband is going berserk and doing the entire meal himself, from scratch. I keep popping my head into the kitchen to see if there’s “anything I can do”, but apparently it’s all under control. He’s made the cornbread and biscuits (more like unsweetened British scones) for the cornbread stuffing (yee-haw), and has identified his chosen method of brining the turkey, which he will pick up on Wednesday. I will probably end up peeling potatoes like Cinderella, but that’s fine by me.

As long as he doesn’t make that bloody awful green bean casserole I’ll be happy.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Smashing Stereotypes

(In the UK that would be an adjective and in the US it’s a verb.) Let’s take a look at a few well known stereotypes and see what we make of them.


Well, they all wear white trainers/sneakers over here so that’s one stereotype I can’t smash but there are a few that just don’t stand up to close inspection.

Stereotype #1: Americans are seen as these crazy, out there, far out people, always into this new fad and that kooky religion. Here in the mid-west at least, Americans are, I would venture to say, more conservative than even us Brits. (Now please note, before anyone has a complete conniption, I’m not saying “reserved” or “uptight”). Anyway, here’s why:

- They back off from really political discussions, even when it’s election time. Obviously town hall meetings and political rallies bring out the passions, but around a dinner table or at a party, you just don’t hear people really getting into it about politics. It’s as if it’s decided that you’ll just agree to disagree and say no more about it in case someone’s feelings get hurt.

- Ditto their personal lives. If you ask someone how they’re doing, you’ll get a very positive answer. This is in part because Americans generally aren’t as misery-prone as us Brits, but it’s also because they’re not going to stop and tell you that their cat just died or they’re sick of their kids. Obviously some will confide in a good friend or close next door neighbor, but not the world and his wife.

Stereotype #2: Americans think this is the greatest place in the world and no other country comes even a close second.

- Yes, most Americans do think this is the greatest country in the world, but most I’ve met are also very curious about other countries, would love to go to a few and some have even traveled a lot.

- And yes, there are the ignorant few who really do think that nothing outside the US could possibly be worth knowing about but aren’t they everywhere? They’re certainly not representative of anyone I’ve ever met in my 20 years here.

Stereotype #3: Americans are party animals

- Most Americans I know go out far less than my British friends and they don’t stay out late. Here in the mid west, if you go out at all during the week, things start winding down about 10pm. I have even been in restaurants where they’ve started closing up shop at that time, ignoring our requests for another bottle of wine and generally indicating that they really would like us to leave. Even events at the weekend (charity fund-raising balls for example) will finish at 11, and midnight at the very latest.

- They don’t even drink that much (or at least not when anyone’s looking.)

- There are large parts of the country that are “dry”, that is, where you can’t buy alcohol at all. In many states you can’t buy booze at supermarkets, and some states such as Utah say that if you have a drink before your meal in a restaurant, you have to finish it before they can begin serving your meal. (Or something like that.) Quite a lot of party-pooping anyway!


Most Americans think the British are a nation of fish-and-chip eating, binge-drinking football-hooligans with bad teeth who talk like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. And they’re all homosexuals. Except for Hugh Grant, and we’re not really sure about him.

I’m happy to report that, after seven years of research, I can dispel all of these (strike that) most of the (no, not that, either) some of those myths (yeah, that's it).

- Bad Teeth: Sorry to let the team down, but Brits, when compared to Americans, are a step or two down on the dental-health ladder. This, however, is a subjective comparison; not everyone wants a picture-perfect, dazzling white, Tom Cruise smile. Well, not everyone over here, anyway.

- Fish-and-Chip Eaters: This, too, is a sort of true stereotype. Fish and Chips are still wildly popular with certain segments of the population (of which I am an enthusiastic member). However, thanks to globalization, I often see a longer lines coming out of KFC and McDonald’s on Friday night. I don’t mind; it makes it easier for me to get my fish-and-chips (with mushy peas).

- Binge Drinkers: Sad to say, there are some Brits who look upon drinking as a competitive sport, but for the most part they are sane and responsible drinkers. The sane and responsible ones don’t make very good footage on the “Cops Without Guns” programs, however, so we hardly ever see them.

- Football Hooligans: This behavior has been a problem in the past but the football clubs have worked hard to eradicate it. The hooliganism is (mostly) gone now, but the stereotype remains.

- They have all met the Queen and/or Paul McCartney: No, they have not.

- They all talk like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins: The only Brits I hear talking like that are ones who are imitating Americans trying to talk like Brits.

- They are all Homosexuals: Well, of course they are. Except maybe Hugh Grant

Are there any stereotypes you would like to dispel?

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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?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Spooktacular (and silly) stories

There have been some funny news stories on both sides of the pond this past week, so we thought we’d share.


This pathetic report comes from Carroll, Ohio, in the US. Two young idiots were reported as attempting to break into an apartment, and described by the caller as having “painted faces”. Given that it was the week before Halloween you’d be forgiven for imagining Joker make-up or perhaps all black make-up. Well sort of... in a very amateur, makeshift kind of way. Can you believe it? When the police chased down their car, they were still wearing their erm, magic marker faces.

Then there’s the story of the homeless man in Florida who stole a ferret from a pet store, stuffed it down his trousers to hide it (does the man have a deathwish?) and then used it as a weapon when confronted. This makes the ferret a “special weapon” under Florida law and he is being charged with battery for dangerously wielding the ferret. And all he wanted was to be Doctor DooLittle for Halloween.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the annual coffin races held in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The ghoulishness of this event is two fold, as not only are they racing in home-made coffins, (which actually look rather more like shopping trolleys/carts to me), but it's in memory of a young (deceased) girl, Emma, who was accidentally exhumed by nature and whose coffin contents came hurtling back down the mountain. You'd better read it for yourselves.


In my quest for Halloween-related news, I discovered that there is a werewolf living in Wrexham (but it's probably just an old hermit hiding in the wood), that Marge Simpson is appearing as the cover girl on Playboy this month(but that is, technically, not about Halloween, nor

does it, technically, take place in Britain) and that "Spotted Dick" can now reclaim its rightful place on the Flintshire menus after the PC Police backed down(but that's only frightening to people who are afraid of becoming too familiar with men named "Richard").

Fortunately, I came upon a true (if you buy into this sort of thing) ghost story involving Aspley House pub in Hampshire and a generous poltergeist that is getting on the nerves of the landlady. Nothing pulls in the punters like a good ghost story, and this one is no different, but no matter how many customers squeeze into the traditional, neighborhood pub, the business can't turn a decent profit because the ghost keeps topping up the pints. That's right, if you buy a pint, drink a bit, then nip off to the loo, when you return you may find an extra inch of beer in your glass.

According to Janice McCormack, it's playing havoc with her inventory because the extra beer is coming out of her pumps. This leads me to believe it must be the spirit of a disgruntled ex-employee bent on getting revenge on the publican. Or it might be a prank played by untimely-departed Victorian girls who knew the establishment as a school. It also could be a haunting by a guilt-ridden counsellor who spent his wretched life bilking his constituents from his office in the erstwhile girls school and soon-to-be-pub and now faces an eternity of trying to make amends. The ghost, nicknamed Reedy, appeared about nine months ago, but Ms McCormack can't wait for him to leave. She is planning on holding a séance and enlisting the aid of an exorcist. Merits watching, especially if it doesn't work; then we can always pop in for a never-ending pint, courtesy of Reedy. If ghosts aren't your thing, you can, at least, be cheered by the news that the gals in Liverpool have the biggest breasts in Britain. Welcome news, indeed, if you happen to be a Scouser.

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