Wednesday, 3 December 2008

American English

As a child, I wondered why Americans couldn’t spell. I thought to myself “Surely Americans should be able to spell basic words – after all, don’t they have spelling competitions?”

I couldn’t understand why Americans couldn’t spell words like colour (color), favourite (favorite), honour (honor), analyse (analyze), analogue (analog), encyclopaedia (encyclopedia), manoeuvre (maneuvre), cheque (check), defence (defense), through (thru) and plough (plow).

Eventually somebody pointed out to me that Americans spell some of their words differently.

“No!” I said with more than a hint of incredulity.

And then somebody told me that Americans use different words for everyday objects.

“NO!!!” I said.
I was young and naïve – and stupid!

The good news is that over the years we have been exposed to America via music, films etc. and now most British people are fully aware of the subtle differences between our tongues.

I’ve travelled to America several times and had to smile at some of the differences, even though I’ve understood what was meant. Occasionally I have said something to an American who has stared at me as if I have just crawled out of a primeval soup, simply because I have used British words rather than their American equivalents.

For example, I was in a café (diner) in New York and, having finished my meal, I called the waitress over and said

“Can I have the bill please?”

She stared at me for a second and said “The what?”

Thankfully I recalled the correct term.

“Can I have the check, please?”

I have been caught off guard myself though.

For example, I was walking around the French Quarter in New Orleans, enjoying the ambience of the place when a gentleman walked up to me and said

“I like your sneakers.”

“My what?” I said.

It was only when he pointed at my feet that I realised he meant trainers.

Here are some other examples:

Bonnet (car)Hood
Car ParkParking Lot
ChemistDrug Store
CV (curriculum vitae)Resume
Exhaust PipeTail Pipe
Estate AgentRealtor
Fairy CakeCup Cake
Ice LollyPopsicle
I’m tiredI’m beat
Mucking AroundGoofing Off
Off-LicenseLiquor Store
Post CodeZip Code
Semi-Detached HouseDuplex
Take AwayTake Out

In some cases, the words used could lead to utter confusion. For example in America the equivalent of the British First Floor is the Ground Floor so the British First Floor is the American Second Floor. This has caused trauma in hotels where I've found myself trying to get into the wrong room.

Here are some more examples:

A British scone is an American biscuit and a British biscuit is an American cookie.
British crisps are American chips and British chips are American fries.
British jam is American jelly and British jelly is American jell-o
American soccer is British football and American football is a poor version of British rugby. Only kidding - my problem is I just don't understand American Football.
Some American words annoy me a little because to me they just don't sound right. Take for example math. As far as I am concerned, it really should be maths because maths is short for mathematics. Call me pedantic if you like but whenever I hear it on an American TV show, I find myself yelling "MATHS! IT'S MATHS!!!!!" at the screen.
Another one is aluminum. In Britain, the element is called aluminium. "IT'S ALUMINIUM, NOT BLOODY ALUMINUM!" I scream. My TV does bear the brunt of my rants sometimes. And the final one is already. Now this word of course is used by British people but Americans use it in a really bizarre and irritating way. For example - "Tidy your room already" and "Shut up already". What does that mean?
Apart from that, I can cope with the other variations - in fact I prefer some American words, like goofing off and garbage.
There is one final word, commonly used in British and American English that could lead to major confusion and possibly violence. Next time I see a woman in America who happens to own a small but magnificent horse-like beast that brays I shall choose my words very carefully if I want to complement her on having such a splendid creature. I wouldn't want to have my butt kicked.


roadgurl5 said...

Well now this is very helpful so thank you! I sometimes wondered about a few of these, but usually figured them out..example: "boot" and "trunk." Personally, I might start using "ice lolly"...I like that!

p.s. PM, I think you meant to switch (or is it exchange?) maths and math! :o)

The Plastic Mancunian said...

I can't bring myself to say "math" or "aluminum" - they just don't sound right to me.

I tell you what, Holly, why don't you start calling men "blokes"? It has caused much amusement in the States whenever I have visited.




roadgurl5 said...

Holy cow, I think my "p.s." was confusing...I meant "I think you meant to switch maths and math in your British & American columns!" Take a look... :o)

The Plastic Mancunian said...

Ah - I see. Many thanks Holly, I shall correct that.



Anonymous said...

Howdy two cents worth? Your British/American conversion table is invaluable! Thanks buddy.

I was on vacation in downtown London England once and tried to buy a fanny pack in a drugstore. Yada-yada-yada..., I thought the "old bill" was going to "nick me". So can y'all add that to the list to save your US brothers further embarrassment? Laters dude.

L from Toledo.

The Plastic Mancunian said...


Yes, it was tempting to mention the word "fanny". The meaning in Britain is, shall we say, rather different from the American meaning.

Discretion is advised.




bingkee said...

It's true that most Americans cannot spell. Why? Because phonetics vary from one word to another. It is not consistent. Unlike other languages, phonics remain consistent in all words. Tagalog, our national language and all our other languages have the same phonics---when you say a, every word that has the "a" is read as "a". English does not follow that way. "A" can be "ey" --the "a" in apple is different from the "a" in the word "bank" . The "e" can be read as "i" or "i". So, it's really confusing to them to spell the word because certain phonics do not have the same sounds.

The Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Bingkee,

I once heard that English was one of the most difficult languages to speak because of the way certain words are pronounced and spelt. It is also true in Britain that a lot of peole struggle to spell words correctly. I know a guy who is as clever as a room full of professors but his spelling is absolutely dreadful.



virgomonkey said...

Very interesting.

The same thing happens in Japan. There are different words and dialect spoken throughout the country, and some of my friends told me that when they travel as far North as Yamagata, they get to the point where they have a lot of trouble understanding what the same Japanese are saying. And this is within the mainland. If you travel to Okinawa, the language is entirely different (off the mainland).

Mexicans are often berated by other Hispanics for their butchering of the Spanish language.

And then the French Canadians are ALSO mocked for not speaking proper French by the REAL French, themselves.

And if that's not enough, language is always evolving. When I came back from Japan after having lived there for over 6 years, there were a lot of new slang terms out that I was completely lost sometimes when the youth spoke.

Language is very curious. The differences are mentally stimulating for me.

The Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Virgomonkey,

Your comments about Japan are also true of the UK itself. Regional dialects in England can be so strong that people from London strugle to understand people from Newcastle for example - and tey use different words. What's more if you go further north to Scotland, you have a whole new vocabulary and accent.

Of course, English is spoken throughout the world and places like Australia and South Africa mutate it further.

You're right - it is stimulating.