Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Wait, you speak English?

One of the strangest things I've learned about living in England is that there really is an American English and an English English. And that yes, once in a while you need a translator.

People travel to England because they think, "Well, I could go to France or Italy but I don't have any foreign language skills, so I guess I'll go to England. At least there we speak the same language."

They couldn't be more wrong.

True overall, yes, 90 percent of the language is the same. We conjugate the same (basically). We use the same syntax (again, basically). We even, for the most part, use the same verbs.

But damn, those nouns will get us.

Take, for example, the casual American phrase, "I had to change my pants 'cause I got them dirty while working in the garden." Fairly inauspicious.

Until you remember that "pants" in England means "underwear."

Suddenly, having to change your underwear because you were working a wee bit too hard in the garden takes on a fairly different, slightly nastier tone.

The other day I was wearing a vest. A brown, knitted vest. "Vest" by American standards. And, according the Scotsman I was asking, that would be called a tank top. And the American "tank top?", I asked. "A wife beater?" "That's a vest."

British folk casually throw about words that I think archaic in some cases. Including, in particular, "waistcoat." Waistcoat to me inspires images of Regency-era dandies in brocade fancy vests dancing minuettes. But to my British friend, my exterior-wear down vest would be referred to as a waistcoat. Or, well, another French name that I can't remember. But definitely not a vest.

Vest, tank top, waistcoat.

That's not even getting to the difference between puddings, biscuits, crisps and chips.

Food translation has been one of the hardest ones. Without getting into the grams versus cups issue with cooking, I've found more than once that I don't need "equivalents" for something...I literally need the British name for the ingredient. Any dessert is called a pudding. A cookie is a biscuit but crackers are just crackers. French fries are chips. Potato chips are crisps. Ground beef is minced beef. Cilantro is fresh coriander. Molasses is black treacle. Some reverse translations were needed too. Gammon steak is some sort of thick slice of ham. Not to mention sub-categorizing of food: back bacon vs. middle bacon vs. streaky bacon vs. bacon lardons, for example. They have more versions of regular wheat flour here than I've seen in my life....and what exactly is "strong" flour anyway? Flour fit for superheroes?! And don't even get me started with how many different types of potatoes I can buy in a bag for under a pound. Not a pound in weight. A pound in money.

I will say that I am in love with the dessert called an Eton Mess, but you also could just describe it as berries and whipped cream mixed up with bits of crumbled meringue. In this case, I would say Eton Mess sounds more fun to eat, but only because the nine-year-old in me wants to eat anything with the word "mess" in it.

The funny thing to me is everyone will say, "Oh, you said it our way. Bah-sil, instead of Bay-sil." And if you argue that the "American" way of saying something is correct, it's not just the English who will get on you. Ironically, the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish will all say, "You're not saying it correctly." I try to bite my tongue on that one, but apparently it seems a need for adherence to pronunciation only applies when you're from a different continent. Get a British computer nerd in the same room with an American computer nerd and ask whether the correct pronunciation for a computer relay device is a "roo-ter" or a "row-ter" and you'll be at risk of starting World War III.

Well, maybe World of Warcraft III.

I'm not complaining. But it's been one of the most unexpected and sometimes most intriguing things about living here. Is how much our language has evolved culturally. While most Americans have had fish and chips at some point and understand that fries means chips, we still expect that vest means vest and ground beef is ground beef. Things that are generic and commonplace in our daily vocabulary can still, even in this global landscape, be foreign here in Great Britain. Well, not foreign exactly. But the words have been twisted over time and geography and cultural divides to the point where even if they're recognizable, their meanings are significantly changed.

At least the important things are the same. When I ask for "Cabernet", everyone knows what I mean.

Cabernet Sauvignon.

But I suppose that's 'cause it's French.


  1. You missed one of the biggest ones.

    Corgettes. Or Zucchini as we know it here in the New World.

  2. There were many others, actually. Corgettes. Aubergine (which meant eggplant or also eggplant color). Many, many more....