The linguistic confusion of a Brit in America
When you’re a Brit living in the United States, as I am, sooner or later – and it’s usually sooner, even if you’re trying hard to fit in – you’ll end up using a word or phrase that your interlocutor just doesn’t understand. Everyone knows the obvious pitfalls, and they’re constant causes of amusement or starters of conversation, so they’re also easy to remember – elevator instead of lift, sidewalk instead of pavement, fall instead of autumn, restroom or bathroom instead of loo… And even if you do slip up on these, most Americans find them easily ‘translatable’ since the differences are well known. Diverging pronunciations, too, such as those used for schedule or controversy, don’t necessarily stop you getting your point across. But I’ve come to realise that occasionally, my American listeners have simply never heard some of the words I’m using and have no idea what I’m talking about – rather thrilling, really, in such an interconnected age, to find some last bastions of linguistic bafflement. Let me take you through a – perhaps slightly more than averagely – confusing day for this Brit in the US to show you what I mean.
A day in the life of a Brit abroad
First of all, I’ll wake up in my flat, and, if it’s a bit nippy out, I might put on a jumper. Although for Americans, the noun flat chiefly means a flat tyre – as in, “I have a flat” – many are aware that it’s the British term for an apartment. However, I have confused several US friends when declaring the need for a jumper, or an intention to go out and buy one – because over here, such a garment seems to mean a kind of gym slip or smock, chiefly for little girls, in which one would not be seen dead after the age of about five. What I should say, it turns out, is a sweater. As for feeling nippy, Americans might instead say it was a little chilly instead. Incidentally, on the subject of clothing, I have had moments of hilarity over the confusion between the US and British meanings of suspenders – on both sides of the Atlantic they’re used for holding up pants, but whereas in America that means men’s trousers – making them what Brits might in fact call braces – back home, they’re a little racier and involve ladies’ stockings…
On the way out of my flat, I may well look to see if I have any post – while my neighbours – a word I’ll spell complete with its British ‘u’ – will be checking to see if they have any mail. And upon heading out, I’ll be sure to use a brolly if it’s raining – another term that’s flummoxed colleagues before now, who need to be told it means an umbrella.
Stalling over stationery
Once in my office, I may well be met with a barrage of confusion when it comes to asking for or borrowing stationery. ‘Could you lend me a biro?’ may fall on deaf ears, since nobody here knows what one of those might be, and I’ll have to remember to say ballpoint. Seemingly simple objects such as Pritt Stick, Sellotape, and Tippex have little meaning for my American co-workers (as they seem to be referred to here) since those brands aren’t recognised– I’ll need to say glue stick, Scotch tape, and whiteout or liquid paper respectively. As for asking to borrow someone’s rubber – well, let’s just say it’s less embarrassing for everyone if I remember to say eraser instead.
On the subject of brand names, if I cut my finger while using any of this exciting new stationery, I’ll need to remember to ask for a Band Aid – not the British term, a plaster, which in the US means simply the soft stuff you put on walls.
In the meantime, as part of my work as a journalist, I’m likely to need to ring a few people up – or rather, call them up – to sk-edule, not sh-edule, some interviews. That may well involve asking for my interviewee’s Christian name and surname, a request which is usually met with bafflement until I remember to say first name and last name instead.
When it then comes to arranging a time for our appointment, I might well check to see if they are free at half past two– then have to correct myself to say 2.30, since it’s not a phrasing that many people seem to understand, especially if it’s a snatched phone conversation. In addition, the twenty four hour clock isn’t at all widely used here either, so rather than telling a contact that my train would arrive at 13.40, I’ll need to say 1.40pm. As for asking to meet in a fortnight’s time, that could also prove a potential stumbling block – better to say two weeks, which has proved more comprehensible! And if interviewing someone who may be willing to show you some of their work, it’s best not to ask to have a butchers or have a gander – both odd and perhaps slightly sinister sounding phrases that nobody here will understand…
Food for thought
After work if I’m feeling a little peckish – though I’ll have to explain that means hungry – I may head out to eat, and there the menu becomes something of a reverse minefield. What are cilantro and arugula? (Coriander and rocket, respectively.) What about zucchini, eggplant, and garbanzo beans? (Courgette, aubergine, and chickpeas, of course.) Or a po boy or a sub? (both long ‘submarine’ style sandwiches, the former often stuffed with fried oysters or prawns – sorry, shrimp…)
And why are all the main courses labelled as entrees when they come in the middle of the meal? As for ordering a lemonade, what is served under that name in the US – a cloudy, yellow drink whose manufacture most probably involved real lemons at some point – is far superior to what we call lemonade in Britain, but what here would be termed soda. Interestingly, OxfordDictionaries.com picks up on that, giving the British definition as a ‘sweet, colourless carbonated drink containing lemon flavouring’. Appetizing, eh? They should put that on the bottles.
Meanwhile, there’s no point ordering a cider here and expecting to get in any way tipsy, since it simply means one particular kind of unfiltered, unfermented apple juice. If I want the alcoholic kind, I’ll have to remember to ask for hard cider – and if I get pissed, explain to US friends that this doesn’t mean I’m angry, merely inebriated. When it comes to dessert, it’s worth remembering that for Americans, pudding is a very specific kind of custardy, creamy dish, not a general catch-all term for the sweet course, or afters (another term not used here) as it is for Brits.
At the end of the day…
Having finished all my eating and drinking, I’ll head home – and if I’m driving, be careful not to have a prang – known here as a fender bender – or, if there’s something sharp in the blacktop (not tarmac!), a puncture (which here must be called a flat tyre – or tire – if I want the repair man to understand me.) If I’m close to running out of fuel, I’ll have to remember to stop at the gas station – and not say petrol station, words which for some reason always seem to amuse US friends when I say them!
After such an exhausting day trying to make myself understood, I may want to tell someone that I’m knackered or shattered, but neither of those phrases are particularly in use here. Nonetheless, these small, everyday encounters with our divided language usually warm my cockles a little. I’m glad that despite the continued intermingling of our cultures, thanks to things like Harry Potter and Hollywood, we still retain something of an air of mystery for one another in certain things we say, and the way we say them – a small reminder of the divergences, as well as the commonalities, in our shared heritage. Long may it continue! Vive la difference!