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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

American v. British English

This subject provides a rich vein of humour/humor and interest. There are hundreds of words that are totally different depending on whch side of the Atlantic you live and a lot of words that have different meanings.
As Winston Churchill said, referring to the USA and the UK: "We are one nation divided by a common language". I recognise/recognize that Canandian, Australian and Indian English all have their own identities.
When I chose this topic in my former blog  (click here)  it was one of the more popular posts so this is really 'part two'.
In case any reader is unaware here are some examples:
USA word/s                    UK word/s
Two weeks                       Fortnight
Truck                               Lorry
Elevator                            Lift
Eggplant                           Aubergine
Liquor store                      Off licence
Desk clerk                        Receptionist
Duplex                             Semi-detached
Line                                 Queue
Public school                    State school
French fries                      Chips
Chips                              Crisps
Realtor                            Estate Agent
Dull (of a blade)                Blunt

This list could be hundreds of words long and we haven't even scratched the surface.
Some expressions have completely different meanings in the other country.
In the UK "My word, you do look queer" although rather old-fashioned means that you look ill.
A friend went to the USA and told a co-worker who was looking sad to "keep your pecker up".
In England this means 'to remain cheerful'. Apparently it means something else in the States!

All of the above doesn't even cover the grammatical differences there are. If you have any good examples of English variations in any country please let me know - it's an endlessly fascinating topic.


klahanie said...

Hi Bazza,
Thanks for this posting. I most certainly can relate to this. I have done a few blogs myself discussing this very subject.
So my angle comes from Canadian v. British English. I would like to share a few more with you. Some of it is just a matter of spelling. North America a rubber 'tire', which of course over here is spelt 'tyre'. The one that got me the most, when I tried a crossword puzzle over here in Britain, was 'kerb' or as I would know it 'curb'.
Walking along the sidewalk (pavement) I tripped on the curb (kerb), slipped on a diaper (nappie), fell into the parking lot (car park), spilt my potato chips (crisps) into a puddle of gasoline (petrol), bumped into a tire (tyre) and nearly broke my cell phone (mobile phone). Of course the preceding sentence was a load of garbage (rubbish), that didn't really happen, but it does illustrate some of the differences in the way the English language is used in North America.
Thanks for the humor (whoops) humour, Bazza.
With respect, Gary

Parlancheq said...

Keep your pecker up - Ha!! That would raise some eyebrows here in the US to be sure.

Another word for your list:
sneakers (US) = trainers (UK)

S Simmonds said...

In case you're interested, the Australian equivalents are:
bottle shop
UK (or US!)
chips (or hot chips)
chips (sometimes potato chips when distinguishing is necessary!)
Real estate agent

sidewalk/pavement is footpath.

Score so far: 4 to 3. Although we retain UK on many others, such as cupboard, tap, car park,...
Spelling tends to UK, slipping into US when careless (eg -ize is often acceptable).

To top it all off, there is regional variation - State-based.

I suspect it's a matter of:
a) gradual divergence from original common language (and in some cases, it's UK that has diverge while we've stayed constant);
b) Received culture - i.e. US media
c) Where some terms were never very common (or didn't exist), they gain a life of their own when seeping into common usage.


bazza said...

Gary: Thanks for the entertaining post. It's certainly a topic with a lot of mileage and I will return to it at some time.

Parlancheq: Yes, my friend was very embarrased when he found out!
Thank you for the addition to the list.

Stephen: Hi. Yes, I am definitely interested! The English language changes constantly wherever it is in a way that reminds me of the way DNA changes when it moves to a new geographic location and/or becomes isolated.
I will do a future post about Stephen Pinker's book The Language Instinct which tells the story beautifully.

Alicia said...

My amusing story in this vein has to do with a British friend who was traveling here in the US and had his luggage stolen.

He reported it to the police who asked what was in it. "Nothing valuable, but it's all my jumpers!"

The police exchanged "knowing" looks.

I understand that in the UK "jumpers" are sweaters; here in the US, a jumper is a particular style of ladies dresses.

My poor friend had to explain that he hadn't lost his transvestite wardrobe, but that he'd lost all his cold-weather clothes.

bazza said...

Alicia: That's just the kind of lovely story I like to hear. You couldn't make it up! (But you could turn it into 'fiction').
In the UK a fag is slang for a cigarette.
Hence:"I'm just going outside for a fag". Oops.

Bob said...

I like Melvyn Bragg's book 'The Adventure of English'. He suggests that the language is like an organism perpetually evolving.

Of course English English is not the world's most used language....that honour belongs to American English....and, if history had turned out differently, the world's language today would have been Spanish.

Lizza said...

I have to find a way to work "keep your pecker up" in conversation. That's just so funny.

US: cigarette
UK: fag

Is that right?

bazza said...

Bob: Language does change organically and continuously. that's what makes it so fascinating.
Are there really more speakers of US English than of Mandarin Chinese?

Lizza: How nice to hear from you again. Are you, like me, going to return to regular blogging? I hope so. I took a three year break.

A cigarette is still a cigarette in the UK but a fag is certainly a commonly used slang word for it.
Perhaps we should revert to saying "keep your chin up"!

joanne said...

oh i love this post and the comments too...

i don't have any entertaining stories, but for some reason when i email with friends it always makes me smile when i see the use of the word "whilst", and also the lack of the use of the word "the" in front of the word "hospital"...

there are so many words that have a sort of coarse sound about them in the US whereas their UK counterparts sound so much more melodic...

p.s. what fun to see a profile photo of you beside your comments :)

bazza said...

Hi Joanne: The reciprocal of what you say is that, to the British, American use of language often seems to be much more relaxed and informal than our own.
Also more crass sometimes!
Strangely some USA idioms are closer to archaic English. For example your word 'sidewalk' is 'pavement' in the UK but sidewalk is a British 17th century term.
As for my picture; I thought it was time to appear!

Hira Animfefte said...

Or what about the variant meanings of 'pissed'?

US: angry/upset, variation: 'pissed off'
UK: drunk

They don't use 'pecker' in that way in the UK? Interesting.

Another interesting difference is the two meanings of 'revise'

US: edit (copyedit/proofread/improve one's writing)
UK: what US usage would refer to as 'study'

US: I'm studying for my exam.
UK: I'm revising for my exam.

I learned (UK: learnt) this by reading the Harry Potter books in their British versions.

Oh, and the two meanings of 'torch.'

US: a stick that is lit with fire at one end
UK: what US usage refers to as 'flashlight'

Found that out reading CS Lewis' _Prince Caspian_.

Also, Americans don't use such charming British insults as 'nob,' 'berk,' and 'git.' "Git" is a regional variation on "get," used colloquially, as in "git over here!" :)

Whatever DOES "nob" mean, anyway? It's a word Terry Pratchett seems pretty fond of....

Hira Animfefte said...

Oh, and I left out another one.

In British English, you'd say, "I go to university" or "I go to uni."

American English never uses the word "uni," or "university" without the article. In American English, you'd say, "I go to college." You use 'college' in this context even if the place you attend is officially called a university.

American English also sometimes abbreviates 'university to U.' as in "I went to Big State U" or "I went to the U of Oregon." Or sometimes you just use the whole abbreviation, such as VCU, UCLA, UNC, etc. If it has "Technical" in the official state name, you end up with [State's name] Tech. For example: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Cal Tech [Cal being short for California].

Then there's the diverging meaning of the word 'pants.' Heh heh.

I do love this stuff.