Separated by a common language

(by Roy Jacobsen*, with kind permission from Elaine Swift’s Word Alchemy blog)

One of best travel tips I can give anyone is to make an effort with the local language; you’ll be amazed at how much it’s appreciated.

As you will see, the US is no exception. This post first appeared in copywriter Elaine Swift’s Word Alchemy blog and looks at the differences in our common language.

As well as bringing a smile to your face this Monday morning, it may help you avoid a potentially embarrassing conversation during your travels to the US!


The first time I ended up on Elaine’s blog, I found myself giggling about her article “A few little words – why straplines matter.” I knew immediately from the context what she was talking about, but for this American reader, straplines are what show up on a woman’s sun-tanned shoulders. So straplines matter here, as well; just not for the same reasons.

England and America are indeed “separated by a common language.”

My first work-related exposure to the differences between American and British English came when I was a technical writer for an accounting software company. Because our product was sold in English-speaking countries worldwide, we had to accommodate spelling differences, such as check vs. cheque, and the -ize vs. -ise words (economize/economise, recognize/recognise).

Those differences can be jarring at first. But, like a pianist, you can learn to “transpose.”

The real fun comes when you encounter concepts that have entirely different words, or words that mean entirely different things, depending on which side of the pond you’re on. I’ve known for years that a car’s hood is a bonnet in England, and our wrenches are your spanners. And thanks to the Harry Potter books I know all about jumpers (sweaters), skiving off (playing hooky), and that delightful verb, snog, which sounds like more fun than making out.

Some of the differences are just confusing, like talking about that scrappy player on the football team. In the U.S., that’s a compliment; in the U.K., not so much. Asking for a sherbet will get you two different things, and suggesting that something be tabled in a meeting has the opposite result, depending on where you say it.

Then there are the words that can lead to embarrassment. We Americans shouldn’t ask for help with our bangs from a British hair stylist (they’re fringes, if you please) just as you shouldn’t tell your American friends that you’ll knock them up in the morning, or ask if you can borrow a rubber.

But despite the potential for confusion, unintentional humor, and downright embarrassment, I wouldn’t want to see our two “languages” become homogenized. Eliminating the differences would make things as dull as dishwater.

Sorry. Make that ditchwater.


* Roy Jacobsen says that everyone can learn to write clearly and powerfully. He’s a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach, and the dictionary is his toy box. Roy blogs at Writing, Clear and Simple


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>