Monday, November 9, 2009

When English isn't

"The Americans are identical to the British in all respects except, of course, language." - Oscar Wilde

When I've completed a novel manuscript one of the last checks I do is to ensure that my spelling and usage conform to the US standard, since my publisher and main market are US. This is because UK English (commonly called 'English') is the standard in the anglophone Caribbean. I spent many years teaching this version of the language and Americanisms, as we called them, were/are considered errors in usage.

Don't start pelting me with rotten fruit, dear US friends. Until relatively recent times not only were these Caribbean territories British colonies, but all our high school examinations were administered by British universities. My high school certificates, for example, were all awarded by the University of Cambridge. These guys mark our papers, we obey their rules. And although I've always been aware that there are differences in the US version of the language, it wasn't until fairly recently that I realized how deeply those differences affect all aspects of the language: spelling, grammar, idiom, punctuation, even formatting of dates and numbers.

Here are a few points of diversion that can result in hilarity or extreme embarrassment to the unwary:

Randy: This is a perfectly reasonable first name to Americans. When these poor guys cross the pond and say "Hi, I'm Randy" to the locals, what they are saying in UK-ese is: "Hello, I'm feeling horny." Then they wonder at all the sniggering and outright guffaws that greet their innocent introductions.

Rubbers: In the UK, and here in the Caribbean, a rubber is an eraser, not a condom. Imagine the mild mannered new Englishman in a US office requesting a rubber from office supplies - and mentioning that he likes to chew on 'em.

Table: In a US boardroom, tabling a motion means postponing it. In the UK, it means the motion has been brought up for discussion. That must make for some entertaining mixups in trans-Atlantic commerce.

Lift: In the US the device used to travel between floors in a building is called an elevator. In the UK it is called a lift. American hitch-hikers should also be warned that it's best to ask for a lift (or a 'drop' in the Caribbean) and not a ride - which is a sexual favour in the UK and the Caribbean.

School: In UK English someone who goes to school is a student between the ages of five and seventeen. In the US, it can also mean an adult enrolled in a place of higher education. We call that university - and look with pity on our middle-aged relatives who reside in the US when they tell us they're going back to school.

Numbers: In the US a billion is a thousand million. In the UK it's a thousand times that amount. Thus a British billionaire is much, much richer than his American counterpart - even without factoring in the exchange rate.

So you thought it was simply a matter of color vs. colour, tap vs. faucet, post vs. mail, pavement vs. sidewalk and trousers vs. pants, huh. When we consider all the differences in usage within the US, UK and the Caribbean, is it any wonder that those of us who go back and forth across the language lines sometimes feel like tearing our hair out?

Liane Spicer


KeVin K. said...

Yep. (or "Indeed.")
Setting the MSWord to British English only adds unnecessary u's and makes the -er ending backwards. It does not clarify idioms or definitions. To make matters worse in my case, I speak and write in southern -- which is not just an annoying accent, it's a different attitude toward communication. We tend to assume everyone understands where the articles would be and order our clauses to suit cadence and flow. (Southern writers immerse you in language while New England writers poke you with sharp objects.) My British editor sent back the first version of my Doctor Who story came back with a note that seemed to inquire as to whether English was my first language.

Phyllis Bourne said...

I watch a lot of BBC cops shows(and Footballer's Wives) and it took me a while to catch on to some of the different words like nappy vs. diaper, druggist vs. pharmacist etc.

Anonymous said...

Hee hee, this reminds me of a time when I was skiing in Colorado with a friend who's from the UK like me. We were on a chair lift and there was an American sitting between us. John, who smokes, says to the American: "Can I bum a fag?"
The poor bloke looked like he wanted to jump off the chair!

Jenny Beattie said...

It brings out the juvenile in me and makes me chuckle. Don't even get me started on vests, garters and suspenders.

Here in Thailand, because of the prevalence of the US forces during Vietnam, the English spoken here is more influenced by American English than UK English. So my children are growing up calling sweets candy and trousers pants. I'm perpetually confused.

Cheryl said...

Great post! One day (many moons ago) back at school we had an English Supply teach who was actually American. He gave us a whole lesson on this subject. I was surprised it could fill a whole lesson but it did and it was so fun! We kept making him repeat the word diaper.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I definitely had the rubber/condoms mix up in front of a class of 9th graders (we call that third form in St. Kitts). I asked someone to hand me a rubber (meaning eraser) and there was a lot of snickering and laughter.

I learned quickly not to use that word casually.

Chris Stovell said...

Thank you for cheering me up on horrid grey (gray?) day when I'm supposed to be doing homework!

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

Fascinating. I didn't know about US and UK billions being different amounts. How strange.

KeVin K. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KeVin K. said...

In the USofA "grey" is like "cheque." It's old school -- as in private schools (which I think are "public schools" in the UK) -- and used only by old guys like me. "Gray" is now standard usage. I get corrected all the time by copy editors who are younger than my car.

I just remembered being corrected on a 90% UK forum for using "practice" as a verb. Apparently all "-ice" words once followed the advice/advise rule and still do over there: "c" for the noun, "s" for the verb. Thus the process of putting ice in your drink would be "ising," as in "ised tea."

Kaz Augustin said...

I remember the "I'll give you a ring" statement, which translates in the US to "I'll give you a call". And I remember once telling someone at work, in response to whether he could do something, "Go for your life", which is an Australianism that means, "Sure! Go ahead!". And I got a look that asked if I was about to inflict some violence on him! LOL

And it's strange how prudish Americans are about cussing. There was another tea-room moment when someone was relating a tale of woe travelling Highway 17 from Santa Cruz in a thunderstorm and got a puncture. "Oh, the poor bastard," I said (in genuine sympathy), and was greeted with shocked silence before a host of nervous, tittering giggles broke out.

And "fortnight", Liane!! I loved to pull that one on my US co-workers. "So, the next meeting will be held a fortnight from last Thursday!" Nyuk nyuk. Ah, happy days, happy days.

Liane Spicer said...

KeVin, LOL! Despite my precautions I think I managed to baffle my US editor a few times there. And it irks me every time I have to change my 'practise' verb to 'practice' after it's been drummed into my head from primary school that's just plain wrong. Where's the logic behind the language, people?

Phyllis, it can get quite entertaining. Between the American soldiers who were based in Trinidad in the 40s, and movies etc., many Americanisms have become the norm here. We never call a truck a lorry, for example. It's a mess. :)

Captain Black, that is hilarious! Poor guy! That's another UK-ism we never use here.

JJ, tell me about it. If there was one thing guaranteed to send my English teachers round the bend it was for us to refer to children as 'kids'. They'd hiss: "Children are not goats!" I still cannot say (or write) it without flinching, but it's the norm for my son's generation.

LilyS, it can fill several lessons, as a matter of fact. Trust me. O_O

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, omg! I know how teenagers jump on things like that - much to the teacher's discomfiture. Don't know if the slang word for penis is 'toti' in St. Kitts as it is here, but every time I used the word 'litote' in the classroom my students shrieked and fell all over the place. :D

ChrisH, you're welcome! I'm sending you some Caribbean sunshine. We're having too much of it, actually. As usual, when there's a hurricane north of us it gets unbearably hot and stifling down here.

Debs, that's one of the weirdest. Can't imagine how it came about.

Kaz, yes! How about 'half past' and 'a quarter past'? Anytime I used those in the US I'd get blank stares, and I'd have to say 'eight thirty' or 'nine fifteen' to be understood. And although the 'f' word is bandied around there a lot I almost never heard 'c**t', which the UKs and Caribbeans use all the time and which we consider the ultimate cuss word.

KeVin K. said...

"Kid" for child -- the age range between infant and youth dates from Middle English. It's from the Norse "kidh" (and the same root as the German "kind"). You'll sometimes find it spelled "kide" or "kidde."
Its use was restricted to child servants. Because these child slaves were often tasked with tending kitchen and hearth fires, the term was also used for a fagot (there's another fun term) of kindling. I don't think you'll find it as early as Chaucer, but it was common usage by the 16th century.
Because "kid" meant a child slave or peasant or in later years working class child it, was never proper to use in reference to nobility or even merchant class children except as an insult. Shakespeare used it in this sense a couple of times.
The prejudice against the use of "kid" to mean "child" of any type dates from the 19th century.
(While I know most of you consider "American English teacher" to be an oxymoron, until I let my credentials lapse, I was certified to teach this stuff.)

Liane Spicer said...

KeVin, fascinating! Wish I'd discovered this back in high school; those snotty teachers thought they knew everything!

Genella deGrey said...

Great post, Liane!

My next release comes from a British-based company. Yesterday we started editing. Interesting spelling edits - 'Z' must not be a popular letter over there!

Liane Spicer said...

Genella, no it isn't! In the UK and the Caribbean we realise, recognise, and specialise! :D

Anonymous said...

I was a "Zed" man until I had to communicate with American engineers a few years ago now I am all Zees. I never understood the need for the spelling "centre" as opposed to the more instinctive "center." The Queens English seems too polished and unnecessarily painful but the American version seems too anti-England at times. I would prefer to adopt the best of both English Worlds but the World doesn't seem to be ready for a hybrid English Language. For now and like Microsoft, we must take a side.

Liane Spicer said...

akalol, I straddle the Zeds and Zees myself. I use the former mostly when speaking to older folks - 'older folks' being anyone who wasn't exposed to the Sesame Street alphabet song while growing up.

A hybrid would be nice. :)

Flowerpot said...

I have this a lot withg my American friend. What really confused her when she started working in a hotel was a round of sandwiches. What the hell are THEY?! She cried!!

Liane Spicer said...

Flowerpot, I thought that one was universal! O_O

Farrah Rochon said...

I'm behind on Novel Spaces, but had to hop on to say how much I enjoyed this. Great post, Liane.

Liane Spicer said...

Thank you, Farrah! I've been trying to do some catching up myself. :)

Lane Mathias said...

Late to the post but thoroughly enjoyed it.
The differences are endlessly fascinating (and amusing) and I've just learnt something from KeVin's comment too. Thanks:-)

Liane Spicer said...

Hi Lane! Thanks for stopping by. This has certainly been fun and the conversation has continued off blog. Right now I'm trying to find out from a UK-Trini Facebook friend what the UK slang 'mickey' means exactly. :)