Who said, “The U.S. and Great Britain are two nations divided by a common language”? This oft-repeated and unquestionably true saying has been variously attributed to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Winston Churchill. In truth, they may all have said it at one time or another, though who said it FIRST, who ORIGINATED the saying, is an entirely different question. It is, however, one we need not answer here. (For my readers who are left wondering, it couldn’t have been Churchill; Wilde and Shaw preceded him considerably. But let us get back to the thrust of this blogpost.)
Indeed we are separated by our not—altogether-common language. In discourse with a Brit, an American can become befuddled by a word or expression. And for a writer or editor (of which I am both), the language definitely can be even more troubling. If a Brit submits a manuscript to an American editor, the editor may inadvertently change the writer’s meaning in editing—or confuse the readers by leaving the word as it was written, when the British writer meant something entirely different from what the American readers will understand.
Suppose a Brit writer writes, “I put my dress in the cupboard.” If the editor doesn’t change it, the American readers will be left wondering why the Brit put her dress in with the sugar and salt and cereals and canned goods, or the plates and cups and saucers. To the Brits, a “cupboard” is a closet.
Of course, it’s a two-way street; we Yanks can confuse our Brit friends, too. We might write, “I pulled on my pants and hurried out of the house.” A Brit reading that might wonder why the writer rushed out of the house in his underwear. To the Brits, “pants” are underwear; what we call “pants,” they call “trousers.”
Or take this, from a Brit: “He was wearing his favorite braces.” An American might wonder how many sets of braces the writer’s orthodonist had made, not knowing that in British English, “braces” are suspenders. The language differences have tripped the reader up again.
A “telly” isn’t a telephone; it’s a TV, while a “nappy” isn’t a napkin; it’s a diaper.
You probably already know that spelling of some words is different from one country to the other, such as “color” (American) vs. “colour” (British). But here are two words that plenty of Americans misspell in a way that is perfectly correct in Britain but wrong in America: “judgement”; “acknowledgement.” As an editor, I have had to correct too many book acknowledgments that that erroneous “e” crept into. Indeed it looks right—but it’s wrong, at least on this side of the pond.
Here are just a few other British terms that might befuddle you.
number plate (license plate)
off-licence (liquor store)
full stop (period, in punctuation)
public school (private school)
shopping trolley (shopping cart)
hundreds and thousands (sprinkles, for ice cream)
drawing pin (thumbtack)
noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe)
And that’s far from a complete list. I once owned an entire book devoted to these terms—sort of a British/American dictionary, if you will. Someone borrowed it and never returned it.
I wonder if the Brits have a word for that?!