A guest post from Kate Naylor
Someone either very clever or very annoying once said that the USA and Britain are two nations separated by a common language. But do we really express ourselves so differently? Do language differences cause mayhem, chaos and confusion, or do we manage to muddle along? Do misunderstandings happen over here, over there or in both countries?
Would you venture out in your pants and vest?
Sometimes the difference is crystal clear. Over here in Britain, no self-respecting gentleman would venture out into the streets wearing nothing but pants and a vest. He’d face public ridicule, disgust and fear. If his underwear was disreputable enough he’d be arrested for indecent exposure. But on the other side of the Atlantic, real men with chiselled jaw lines go forth confidently in pants and vest and nobody bats so much as an eyelid, let alone calls the police.
Little and large
The UK’s a tiny place compared to The States. You could fit our nation inside North America several times over with plenty of wriggle room. As such we’re influenced by our US cousins on a daily basis. It’s been going on for decades.
Our tellies have been stuffed full of American TV series’ for ages. Back in the olden days, when I was little, we lapped up The Fonz in Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, Laverne & Shirley and Star Trek. A decade or so ago CSI took us by storm, followed by fantastic series’ like Justified, The Wire, Law & Order and The Sopranos. And Glee is a huge hit with British teens.
Cartoons? We get The Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy, South Park, American Dad, Beavis and Butthead…
Then there’s the music. Pre-Elvis, British fans of eclectic music listened with awe and fascination to jazz, Bluegrass and Cajun music. And we’ve been hooked on US music ever since, from soul to funk to rock to Chicago House and everything in between. But what about the other way round – is there a two-way musical flow?
We’re steeped in US English, pickled in the stuff. But are Americans equally familiar with UK speech and spelling? Because we’re a little island, we tend to spend a lot of time looking outwards across the seas, curious about what’s going on elsewhere in the world. The US is vast. Do Americans have the same outward focus? Or do you naturally look inwards? How many of our TV series’ make it over the Atlantic and how many people actually watch them? I don’t know any of this stuff. But our US readers will.
What about books?
Over here, our bookshelves groan with the considerable weight of American authors’ output. A quick look at mine delivers Wally Lamb, William Wharton, Stephen King, Elizabeth Strout, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Betty Smith, Cynthia Voigt, William Styron, J G Ballard, Irwin Shaw and Homer J Hickam Jnr, as well as a whole host of well-thumbed crime novels and thrillers, from Deaver to Cornwell to Connolly. But what about over there? Do you have the same level of access to British novels? If you’re from across the pond, let us know.
The geographical bit
I know that Boston is in Massachusetts, Maine is in New England and Chicago is in Illinois, through decades of reading and loving US authors’ work and watching their TV. But does the average American know that Brighton is in East Sussex, Newcastle is on Tyneside (not in it) and Leeds is in West Yorkshire? Without the same levels of cultural cross-pollination, perhaps not. Over to you…answers on a postcard (which UK readers will recognise from Blue Peter, the British kids’ TV programme), or better still in the comments box below!
Jugs, jam and jelly
Our deep familiarity with North American culture means we understand that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich doesn’t contain what we call jelly, the wobbly stuff. That would be disgusting. We know jelly means ‘jam’ (that’s preserves to our US readers). We know what a trash can is – we call a dustbin. We know sneakers aren’t sneaky people who sneak around, they’re a type of casual shoe, what we call trainers.
In the UK they’re crisps, in the US they’re fries. Over here we eat biscuits, but in the US biscuits are a bit like bread and they call biscuits ‘cookies’. We say drawing pin, they say thumb tack. We don’t say dirt, we call it soil. And while we use ‘jugs’ to describe highly practical lipped and handled containers for liquids, we appreciate that in the States it usually means ‘tits’.
Then there’s ‘bum’ and ‘fanny’. Both veritable minefields of potential misunderstanding.
Tell us your tall tales
Do you think there’s a profound language divide? If so, is it growing or shrinking? Have you ever found yourself bewildered by a language-related misunderstanding? Wherever you’re from we’d love to hear your opinions, silly stories and tall tales. The taller the better.
I've found this interesting as I'm reading more books by brits: Joel Goldman, Zoe Sharp, to name two. I had to ask what a "chip poke" was on twitter. I enjoy the differences in normal language between us and those across the pond. I appreciate how geography knowledge is lacking on our end, but only large US cites was mentioned in the articles. I imagine a brit might not know much about smaller towns, like Peoria, Dayton, Nogales which mean more to us historically.
No offence meant, John… I was just wondering whether you observe us as closely as we seem to observe you! 😉
Just a quick note … I thought it was as follows:
UK Chips = US Fries, UK Crisps = US Chips.
After living in London for a year and a half, that was what my understanding was.
Thanks, Jen! Can always count on the family!
So, I’ve been searching the net and can’t find an answer to this question: why do/did Americans call the bum a fanny? I was taught that the term ‘fanny’ came about (in English) because Fanny denoted a girl, the same way that Richard denoted a boy, hence the term dick.
While searching for an answer to this question I’ve noticed a lot of people criticising Americans for “not speaking English”, well what do you expect? They’re not English. Just as I, an Australian, don’t speak English. Having lived in England for a couple of years, I can tell you I was ruthlessly ‘taken the piss’ out of.
Anyway, just curious. Anyone out there in Internet land got any ideas?