- Britcops
- Divided by a common language

I momentarily saw a partridge and a robin by a hemlock-hedged pond.

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 herb.

• 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 and suspenders…

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 socks.

• But, dear Americans, the British are seeing a man wearing an undershirt, panties, nylons and a suspender belt.

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 everyone knows, 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 less!

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 them.

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 first time 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 words aren’t 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 amongst friends?

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