| DIVIDED BY A COMMON LANGUAGE
I momentarily saw a partridge and a robin by a hemlock-hedged
Ignoring any ornithological or botanical quibbles, that
sentence is capable of much transatlantic misunderstanding.
Assuming they have a much greater awareness of the natural
world than I possess, my American readers will have conjured
up one picture, and my British readers another.
• In the UK, they think
I saw, for a brief moment, a small game-bird and a
small early-winter songbird by
a body of water, possibly artificial and not all that
much larger than a deep puddle, surrounded by a poisonous
• In the US, they think
that very shortly after setting out, I came upon a
large game-bird and a large
springtime thrush by a body of water, probably natural
and not all that much smaller than a lake, surrounded
by coniferous trees.
The above misunderstanding would
hardly matter – we
would both have the same general view, and any necessary
adjustments to the dimensions of the various things in
that view, and the time spent viewing them, could be
made with little difficulty. Even discovering that the
hemlock was deadly wouldn’t be too much of a jolt,
unless the reader had developed a deep emotional attachment
to the partridge who then went on to eat it. But…
He wore a vest, knickers, stockings
Now we’re in trouble. American readers are seeing
someone who dresses a little eccentrically, but who wouldn’t
get arrested if he went out like that; British readers
are seeing someone quite different, and the adjustment,
either way, would be a bit of a facer (British: a sudden,
often stunning check or obstacle).
• Because, dear Britons,
the Americans are seeing a man wearing braces, a waistcoat,
plus-fours and long
• But, dear Americans,
the British are seeing a man wearing an undershirt,
panties, nylons and a suspender
Or so I’m led to believe by my many dictionaries,
and you can see why some publishers and editors prefer
to ‘translate’. The problem is that there
are about 4000 words used differently in the two countries,
and the most I’ve ever seen in a specialist dictionary
is about 200!
And if you depend on dictionaries,
you can still go wrong, because even with today’s
technology producing them faster than we can wear them
out, they still have
a tendency to lag behind the times. Especially the specialist
American-English/British English dictionaries.
• Some UK dictionaries still insist that ‘billion’ means
a ‘million million’, though I doubt that
anyone in Britain has used it to mean anything other
than a ‘thousand million’ in decades. (That’s
an Americanism – we used to say ‘for decades’,
but now we just don’t care.) But the well-meaning
American-English/British-English dictionaries always
cling to the original British meaning. The truth is that
most people in Britain won’t be aware that ‘billion’ has
or had any meaning other than the ‘American’ meaning
of a thousand million, so an American editor trying to ‘translate’ would
very possibly produce confusion where none existed.
• And they all list sidewalk/pavement,
elevator/lift, diaper/nappy, etc., being the ones that
but they are a lot stingier when it comes to duplex/maisonette
(apartment on two floors), duplex/semi (two houses in
one building), dumpster/skip, etc.
• They will tell you that the British call a truck
a lorry. True, we do, but we also call it a truck. And,
just to confuse things, we often call large lorries ‘HGVs’ (heavy
goods vehicles), or ‘artics’ (articulated
vehicles), and I’ll bet they don’t tell you
that. So an editor’s inclination would be to translate
these abbreviations into standard English, but absolutely
no one would use the full expression in everyday speech.
And not many of these dictionaries
tell you about expressions, where a compliment can
become an insult if you’re
not very careful.
• In Britain, if you say that someone is ‘full
of beans’, you mean that he’s full of energy,
raring to go. In America, you mean that he’s full
of…well, shall we say hot air, to be polite?
• In both America and Britain, the word ‘quite’ can
mean ‘wholly, completely’, as in ‘quite
exquisite’ and ‘not quite finished’.
But in American English it also means ‘to a considerable
extent’, whereas in British English it means ‘to
an insignificant extent’. Therefore ‘quite
good’ in American English is the equivalent of ‘very
good’. But ‘quite good’ in British
English is the equivalent of ‘not very good’.
In fiction these differences
might cause momentary confusion, but the context would
sort it out. In real life, however,
since we aren’t equipped with Star Trek-type universal
translators…well, friendships have foundered on
By sheer coincidence, I’ve just heard someone
on TV say ‘My truck had broken down, and this lorry
smashed into me.’ He was using ‘lorry’ to
describe a large, enclosed vehicle, and ‘truck’ to
describe a small pick-up, because in full we call them
pick-up trucks, just like the Americans do. Maybe we
didn’t always, but we do now. Except that we hyphenate
The American dislike of hyphens
can faze the British reader – pickup’s
all right, but some words can become quite tricky.
• When I read the word ‘prewar’, my
mind pronounces it to rhyme with ‘Dewar’ for
just a moment, before I adjust.
• And ‘miniseries’ always
looks to me like more than one minisery. In fact, the
I came across it, it took me some time before I realised
what it really was!
• Then there’s ‘reelect’, the
first syllable of which seems to be ‘reel’,
leaving the sight-reader floundering.
• And ‘copilot’, which I see as a
French word, pronounced ‘kop-ee-low’.
The Americans don’t have this problem. Putting
the hyphen in doesn’t change one’s perception
of the word. So be grateful for the pedantic British,
all you hyphenless Americans!
Single words instead of two separate
difficult; they just look a little odd to the British
reader, and can give one pause when the meaning is different.
• ‘Anytime’ is gaining ground over
here, but the Concise Oxford Dictionary gives it as ‘adverb,
N. Am. colloquial’, whereas Webster-Merriam seems
to think that it’s standard American English, and
so do my publishers.
• ‘Onto’ is
still resolutely two words here, and shows little sign
of catching on, though I
have seen it used on Teletext.
• In British English, ‘forever’ means
continually or persistently, whereas ‘for ever’ means
for all time. In American English, it is one word regardless
of the meaning. The same goes for ‘some time’ and ‘sometime’.
In British English, the former means ‘at an unspecified
time’, the latter ‘occasional’ or ‘former’.
It can cause momentary confusion.
A Scottish Footnote
I have read many books about the English language and
its evolution, with particular reference to its use
in America. And none of them seem to have noticed that
many of the words they list as being used differently
in ‘Britain’ are used in exactly the same
way in Scotland as they are in America.
• The Scots wade, they don’t
paddle, in water.
• They sew with thread, not cotton.
• Trains, not pedestrians, run in their subways.
To describe someone as ‘homely’ is unflattering.
• They end their sentences with a period, not a full stop.
They call their little finger a ‘pinky’,
a word that doesn’t exist in English English.
A pancake is not a crêpe Suzette (which is capitalised
in British English, but not in American English). It’s
more substantial than that. In Scotland, however, it’s
smaller and thicker than its US counterpart.
• Pudding is boiled or baked soft food, not dessert.
A small town in Scotland has a ‘Main Street’,
not a ‘High Street’.
• It has stores, not shops.
So you see, I had to learn English
English too – and
it’s not all that difficult. Let’s stop ‘translating’,
and leave the flavour of the country, expressed through
its vocabulary, unimpaired. What’s a little confusion