Sunday, January 17, 2010


People are always anxious to know whether my accent has changed—if I’ve “become British.” My accent hasn’t changed, as far as I—or anyone else—can tell. If anything, it’s my syntax and vocabulary. Which makes sense, as there are quagmires of faux pas to be committed if you get your British-English and American-English mixed up.

I would never, for example, in the States say “I’m just going to pop to the loo” (which sounds effeminate in the extreme) and certainly not say “I’m going to the toilet.” That’s considered somewhat offensive, as we call it the bathroom or the restroom (or the washroom, if you’re in Canada). The commode is the toilet. I think maybe this distinction may have come about because in French the room with the bath is the salles de bains, but since a toilet and a bidet used to be kept in a separate room, that was la toilette. At home, we always “did the dishes,” we didn’t “do the washing up.” We cleaned the house, we didn’t “tidy up.” And don’t get me started on “rubbers” and “erasers.”

Another one that puzzles me is diaper and nappy. I have real difficulty calling what a baby wears a nappy; that word makes no sense to me and sounds ridiculous. On the other hand, where the heck does the word “diaper” come from? “Fringe” makes some sense as opposed to “bangs,” but then my mom has suggested that “bangs” might come from banging your forehead. (And mom/mum. I have to snicker at “mummy,” since that makes me think of Egyptian cadavers, to this day. I prefer not to call my mother “Mum” since that’s redolent of chrysanthemums, but I will call other people’s mothers “your mum” to spare them double-takes.)

While on the subject of babies, what we call a stroller is here a pram (I would guess from “baby perambulator”)—both describe what it does. Similarly, a lift does lift and an elevator does elevate. However, a jumper doesn’t jump—you do sweat in a sweater, and I don’t see anyone going around in a jump-shirt as opposed to a sweatshirt. Perhaps you do tap a tap, though I don’t suppose you faucet anything. You can train in “trainers” (I always called them tennis shoes, though they have a multitude of names) but I don’t think you can “plimsoll” anything.

The subject of waste always catches me out (or indeed, trips me up). “Rubbish bin” has always sounded remarkably fey to me, though I employ it more and more; I’ve been known to say “trash can,” though. “Wastepaper basket” is an alternative, though I don’t know of anyone who really says that anymore. It seems in general the British terms are more fanciful. An “ice lolly” is a popsicle (presumably from “ice lollipop”) while a “lollipop man/lady” is a crossing guard! Certainly the latter conjures up more the function of the job! A “lorry” is a bizarre one; at least you could claim that truck “trucks” (as in the verb, unless the verb came after the noun?). “Milk float” is a preposterous but picturesque term for a truck/lorry that delivers milk, supposedly because when it was originally a horse-drawn cart the milk appeared to float? A “mobile” is indeed mobile and a cell phone describes exactly what it is, so I use them both. A “coach” here means a big type of bus, usually for inter-city travel, while people in the States look querulously at me when I say I take the coach rather than the train (“is that a bus?” they ask). You don’t go to the “cinema” in the States, you go to the “movie theater.” You never watch the “telly,” only the TV!

The British are always employing brand names in place of nouns. A biro is a pen (though I sometimes get confused and think stylo, which is the French). I recently confused my mom when I said “hoover” instead of “vacuum.” I completely missed the joke the first time around in Harry Potter with Spell-o-tape (as opposed to Cellotape, which we Americans just call “tape”). One exception is “paracetemol,” which I am always amazed people take the trouble to say—you would have thought by now it would have developed a nickname.

The coup de grace of embarrassing mix ups, though, is the pants/trousers one. I have taken it so far to the extreme that I use “trousers” 100% of the time, even at home, because I really don’t want to get them mixed up. I wonder when and why we stopped calling them trousers, since “pants” comes from “underpants,” which must come from “pantaloons” (though to make it more confusing, it’s pantalons in French for the things that cover your legs, and le slip for underwear).

We could do a whole entry on words without ready American equivalents (“berk,” “naff,” and “twee” come to mind; the Doctor saying “too right” to Rose after she said “I love you” puzzled me for a long time) as well as the barrage of swear words, and I think I’ll leave the regional vocabulary and sayings for another entry, too. I’m sure as soon as I post this I’ll think of a dozen more, but I guess that’s the fun part of it—the languages are constantly evolving, sometimes in totally different directions.

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