Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Common Language

Many have said to me, "At least you don't have to learn a new language. At least you can all understand one another."

Yes -- well, obviously, as I don't speak fluent French or German or any other language you may wish to name that is not English, so this statement is true. However, when two languages are distinct, they use different words to mean the same thing:

e.g. window, in French is fenetre (please excuse the lack of accent); or tree in German is baum.

When American English and English English meet, there are many words that are different, like with different languages. Examples of these are:

sidewalk -- pavement
diaper -- nappy
stroller -- pushchair

I can't be bothered thinking of any more right now, but let me know if you can think of any.

However, sometimes the same word can mean different things. These are some I've thought of just now:

pavement -- in English English, this means a path that goes along the side of a road, whereas in American English it's the stuff a road is made of (tarmac)

pants -- in English English this means underwear (boxer shorts, Y-fronts, knickers), whereas in American English it means trousers

My third example is somewhat ruder and I can't bring myself to sully my blog entry with the word itself, so I allude to it:

f***y -- in English English this is a female private part, whereas in American English it means bum/buttocks

Again, feel free to let me know any more you can think of.

When my daughter was at school, a child said to her, "I like your pants" (use your imagination to put it in a nice, strong, southern American accent). My daughter immediately thought that her knickers were showing.

I heard a story from an American who had visited the UK. (Let me say, before I continue, that the person in question is a nice, upstanding, happily married, family man.) He was sitting on the settee of the English family that he was visiting and was playing with, and getting on quite nicely, with their young daughter. Wanting to see if the child would sit on his lap, he then innocently tapped his thighs and said to the child, "Why don't you come and pop your f***y here?" The parents wasted no time in waiting for an explanation, but did not hesitate to throw our nice American out of their home.

"So," I hear you ask, "what's the moral of this blog entry?" Well, it's simply this -- a common language can be a dangerous thing.

November 23, 2005

I thought I might try to get together a little list of UK-US differences, but I changed my mind, mainly because it's been done before -- ad infinitum. Instead, here's a few websites and books that explore the cultural and language differences between the US and the UK. However, be warned that none of these are likely to fully satisfy you. This is because they've bound to have missed things out or got things wrong; and because there are many regional variations within each country.

Anyway, here's a list:

January 10, 2007

You may also be interested in this blog: Separated by a Common Language


Hill said...

First of all, welcome to the blogosphere! I thought this post (and the purpose of this blog, in fact) particularly amusing, in light of the fact that I am about to make EXACTLY the opposite move in approximately two months. That is, my military husband is being stationed in the UK (we are currently in Florida), and I am both nervous and excited about the "language barriers" and other potential pitfalls in the relocation process. Perhaps we can compare notes or offer suggestions or, if nothing else, laugh at the mishaps of one another, as posted on our respective blogs. Anyway, best of luck to you, and if you stop by my page, be sure to say hello! =)

Viola said...


Although "nothing is easy". I think it's all worth it in the end. Embrace the challenge. The UK is very different to the USA, but I'm sure you'll love it. If you're going to be living on a military base, you'll probably find that you're eased in by the presence of lots of fellow Americans, which should help.

metalepsis said...

Take out - Take away
rent/lease - to let
bathroom/restroom - toilet

Joe Weaks said...

Viola, welcome to blogdom, and a great idea.
The time I've spent in London has often reminded me of the phrase, "Separated by a common language."
Staying with family friends in Bristol, the joke he told about a "Tramp" had an entirely different connotation on account of the different uses of the word between the UK and the US.

Viola said...

Our neighbour's 5 year old daughter is beginning to encounter the joys of the "common language" by speaking to my children. When told that in England "pants" are underwear (a source of continual amusement to my children), she said, "It kinda freaks me out".

Jeff Peterson said...

It's either Churchill or Shaw or Mark Twain who observed that the British and the Americans are two peoples separated by a common language. Your examples reminded me of the sign reported in some British inns: "Please inform desk clerk if you wish to be knocked up in the morning" — which in American terms is more hospitality than we expect from our hotel staff. It's great to see the blog; hi to Emily and Lauren, and here's hoping they don't become completely Americanized!

Viola said...

Actually, I think that getting "knocked up" means the same in both countries to anyone under the age of 100.

Scott said...

You have a fascinating way of articulating your observations and "moral of the story". Welcome to the new self-therapy of Blog. And, much luck in finding a good position in the US working world!

Viola said...

If you're interested, you might want to take a look at The Anglo File, Too: The Linguistic Turn: An Informal Canadian Guide to British English.

Anonymous said...

I'm from the US and have lived in the UK for three years. I still cringe when I hear a school child speak of "rubbers." Oh, dear. . . I will never have the freedom to call an "eraser" a "rubber"!

Isabel said...

Ones we've come across personally:

Fish sticks = fish fingers
Rice Krispies = rice bubbles
apartment = flat
chips = crisps
cookies = biscuits

And one couple put ketchup on their French toast! arguing it was a savoury, not a sweet (in turn, the Swiss were appalled and repelled when we put sugar on our spaetzle and said it tasted like doughnuts)...

We also noticed that those who speak English in other countries, such as South Africa, speak British English rather than American.

Viola said...

One fairly revolting sounding term is "sweat pants" (meaning jogging bottoms).

WilsonD said...

"pop your f***y here" was probably "plop your ..." (plop, i.e., set down - though hearing it as pop would definitely be even more vulgar with the UK definition of that f word). On other words, how about napkin/serviette ... at least that's what I remember learning in Canada.