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USA and UK, Two Countries Divided by the Same Language

Burberry Purse in USA; Handbag in UK - Dan Smith

While American-English & British-English are similar but different in spellings and shades of meaning, text-speak could render all differences academic.

It seems that nobody agrees who first said that England and America are two countries separated by the same language. The 1951 Treasury of Humorous Quotations quotes Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, as saying it, but not necessarily originating it.

An earlier candidate is Oscar Wilde, who wrote in The Canterville Ghost (1887), ‘We really have everything in common with America now except, of course, language”. Although later, war time Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill is sometimes also cited as the originator.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell, writing in Saturday Evening Post, June 1944, said: ‘It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language’. In a radio talk prepared by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas published in The Listener, April 1954, he said: ‘European writers and scholars in America are up against the barrier of a common language’.

Whoever coined it, it’s probably always been true. During the War, American GIs stationed in Britain were puzzled and took time to adjust to English food, warm beer and strange local expressions. Both versions are living languages, absorbing words, inventing new ones constantly.

Translating American-English to British-English

Today, familiar movies, TV programmes and books mean people can translate as they go along, either side of the Atlantic, making allowances, needing no dictionaries. Spell-checks are a problem in England sometimes, as the majority use American spelling, even if programmed otherwise.

Both sides recognise the following terms, with English equivalents in brackets, if the talk is about motoring: a hood (bonnet) and trunk (boot) on a car with a license plate (number plate) needs gas (petrol) to travel on the overpass (flyover). In a restaurant, a customer may have had French fries (chips) or chips (crisps), wiped fingers on a napkin (serviette) and at the end called for the check (bill), and pays cash in dollar bills (pound notes).

An eraser is a rubber in Britain, while a rubber in the US becomes a condom in the UK. An American purse is an English handbag; a fanny Stateside is a British backside or bum, which becomes American bum (scrounger), while a fanny in English is female genitalia.

A cigarette in some parts of England can be called a fag, which in America means a homosexual, though both sides now use gay. A subway in a US city is the underground or tube in an English one; a pedestrian tunnel is a subway, a pavement is a road surface and a sidewalk is a pavement. The elevator is a lift, an apartment is a flat, pants are trousers.

Most People Know What They Mean

A lawyer is a solicitor, a solicitor is a door-to-door salesperson; an attorney a barrister and a realtor an estate agent. Pants are trousers, suspenders become braces, a garter belt is suspenders, a baby carriage is a pram and a diaper is a nappy.

An argument in America is also a row in Britain; band aid is a plaster, while the bathroom is the loo or WC (water closet, originally) and a bathroom is where the loo may be situated. A can is a tin, chopped beef is mince (which in England is also a sweet concoction of fruit and spices), a cookie is a biscuit and maize is corn. A flashlight is better known as a torch and a guy is usually a chap or bloke, though younger people of either sex nowadays answer to the word guy. In England a guy is also a stuffed dummy burned on a bonfire on 5th November to celebrate a failed coup by Guy Fawkes against King James 1 in 1605.

People stand in line in US, they queue in Britain; a motor home is a caravan and the mail is the post, a movie theater is a cinema, a pharmacist is a chemist, to rent is to hire, to play soccer is to play football (which is something else again in the States), a sweater is a jumper ; a vacation is a holiday and a zipcode is a postcode.

Even when the same word is used by both sides with broadly the same meaning, the spellings can be different for no obvious reasons. Just a few examples reveal some tiny but significant differences, American first, English second: enrollment/enrolment; catalog/catalogue; theater/theatre; recognize/recognise; color/colour; defense/defence; jewelry/jewellery; pajamas/pyjamas; tire/tyre; and program/programme.

There are differences in customs, following on from language. There’s no Thanksgiving in the UK, and until the last decade or so, Trick Or Treat, cheerleading and high school proms were things seen only in American movies and fiction. Now they are everywhere.

Eventually, as text-speak and the brevity of emails/messaging evolve, they’ll have a profound effect on written and spoken language, and the differences will be smoothed out. In the meantime, people can cherish the subtle variations.That’s it, folks (people). Period. (full stop).

First published on Suite 101, 8 April 2010.

Photo: Burberry Purse in USA; Handbag in UK – Dan Smith

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