Off-the-shelf comparisons in the U.S. and the U.K.

What a country compares things to tells us a lot about its culture.

What does it tell us? Damned if I know, but I do know that communication’s going on and I’ll claim a point or two, if you don’t mind, for getting that much right.

So let’s talk about what people reach for when they need an off-the-shelf point of comparison. If we’re talking about size–and we are, otherwise the conversation will be too baggy to manage–the British start with a double decker bus, then move up to a football pitch, which is, if I’ve got this straight, a football field except that the football in question is what Americans call a soccer ball, not what Americans call a football, and the field may be a slightly different size. Still, it’s close enough for all of us to think, delusional creatures that we are. that we’re talking about the same thing.

After the football pitch, the British upgrade directly to Wales, and after that, they stop. Nothing on the shelf is bigger than Wales. If they want something larger, they have to improvise.

What are the standard comparisons in the U.S.? A barn door. The broad side of a barn. (I may be cheating a bit here. This usually shows up as “couldn’t hit the broad side of a…” which isn’t a comparison. Half a point to me for honesty, then take it away for cheating.)

Completely relevant photo: This dog is smaller than a bus. He is also smaller than Rhode Island. He doesn’t actually have green eyes; that’s a spooky flash effect.

If Americans need a point of comparison bigger than that, we have “the size of Rhode Island,” which I should explain for the sake of non-Americans is our smallest state.

Texas used to be our biggest state, but that was before Alaska joined the union. Now it can only claim to be the biggest in the contiguous 48 states and the most blustiferous in all 50. But the things I remember hearing compared to Texas aren’t things that can be measured in miles. You might say, “She has a student loan the size of Texas,” but I can’t remember bodies of water, other countries, or deserts being compared to it

There’s no reason they shouldn’t be, but something about Texas tempts us into off-the-wall (as opposed to off-the-shelf) comparison. And here I really am saying something about the culture behind the comparisons.

My partner’s from Texas, so I don’t say any of this from ignorance. Or by way of complaint. I admire the florid insanity that Texans (forgive the generalization; I’m going to move on now before anyone gets a chance to complain) tap into so gloriously.

I’m from New York originally. We have our own forms of insanity, but they’re not as much fun, and we lean toward the small, being more likely to say, “My first apartment was the size of your average phone booth.”

For anyone young enough to ask, “What’s a phone booth?” I might as well explain that they were booths. Around phones. One phone to a booth. And back when they existed, all phone booths were the size of your average phone booth. They varied about as much as the old black rotary-dial phone. One size fit all. I could add that some New York apartments were smaller than your average phone booth, so whoever’s apartment was the size of one was was living in luxury.

And again, that does say something about the culture. New York’s a big city in a small space. Unless a person’s insanely rich, the amount of space she or he can lay claim to is limited.

The British are fond of reminding people that they’re a small island, although the people–the they in that sentence–aren’t actually a small island. The place they live is. Still, I seem to have always heard it as “we’re a small island.” 

Does it say something about the culture that the people have themselves confused with a chunk of land?

The small island excludes Northern Ireland, which is the smaller part of a different, smaller island. And that means something too, although I might do well to leave it to someone else to explain what, because I’m not at all sure. Any takers?

Soon after my partner and I first moved to Britain, the Guardian newspaper’s letter writers got into an extended discussion about using Wales as a point of comparison. The conversation started in a column that invites readers to ask and answer questions when someone asked, since it was a standard point of comparison, what size a Wales actually was. The discussion went on for so long that the editors moved it out of the column and onto to the letters page.

It’s hard to summarize an exchange of such intricate and admirable lunacy, but one highlight was the suggestion that we should learn from the metric system and standardize the Wales so that it becomes as reliable as a kilometer.

That led someone else to ask if it would be standardized at high tide or low.

As far as I can remember, no one asked, Why Wales? Northern Ireland’s smaller. Scotland’s bigger. England’s bigger still. What part of the British psyche does Wales occupy that people feel this compulsion to compare things to it?


If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer and editor, it’s that as soon as you state that something has three causes, someone will come along and tell you it has four. If you say it has four, someone will pop up with a fifth. So warm up your keypads, kidlets. I’ve missed a point of comparison. Or I’ve missed thirteen of ’em, and that’s not even starting on their implications. This is your invitation to tear up the floorboards. To shred, fold, and staple. (That’s a reference that only makes sense if you’re over a thousand years old. I am. If you’re nice, I might explain it.) Tell me what I’ve missed and what, if anything, it all means.


Translating British English into American

Americans regularly rampage through the British Isles without translators and end up with the most minimal idea what of they’re hearing. Or saying. They may or may not be aware of the problem.

I’m going to take a reckless guess and claim that the people they meet have almost as much trouble.

Why “almost”? Because American movies are everywhere, leaking Amerispeech into even the most protected ear. Still, they haven’t leaked every possible word, so let’s run through a few differences. Not because they’ll necessarily be helpful to anyone but—as the kids said where I grew up—just because.

The words in boldface are British. The blithering that follows is for the most part American.

Irrelevant and wildly out of season photo: hydrangea

Chocolate box. This has nothing to do with candy, although it used to. It describes something that’s attractive, idealized, and boring, boring, boring. It dates back to the nineteenth century, when the chocolate company Cadbury’s added romanticized pictures to its boxes of chocolates—flowers, children, landscapes. Especially, I suspect, landscapes. It can be used about art but also about villages that are so perfectly English that you wonder if someone put them together just to mess with the tourists.

Fanny. This isn’t a euphemism for your hind end, it’s a euphemism for your vagina. Unless you don’t have one, in which case it’s a euphemism for someone else’s vagina. It’s also, inconveniently, a woman’s name, although for some reasons it’s gone out of style. There was a TV cook named Fanny Cradock, whose husband had a back-up role on the show and—allegedly—ended an episode where she’d made doughnuts by saying, “May all your doughnuts be like Fanny’s.” I won’t claim that he’s responsible for killing any interest the country ever had in donuts, but I can tell you that you don’t see them nearly as often in the U.K. as you do in the U.S. If you travel to Britain with a fanny pack and you have to call it anything at all, call it a bum bag or you’ll upset everyone within hearing distance.

Jam. This is jam, but to keep things from being too simple it’s also jelly, which is what Americans call the stuff they spread on their toast if it has no seeds and is a little more solidified than jam.

Jelly. This is the stuff Americans call Jello—a brand name that’s gone free-range and now describes a dessert made with gelatin.

Spotted dick. This isn’t a medical condition, it’s a dessert. One I’ve never tasted. Sorry. I haven’t been able to get past my preconceptions.

Soldiers. Toast cut into strips so you can dunk them in a soft-boiled egg. I have the impression this is done for kids, to get them to eat, but never having been a kid in this country, or responsible for jollying any into eating things they didn’t really want, I wouldn’t swear to that.

Biscuit. A cookie, but also a cracker. To keep from causing international mayhem, when I make what in the U.S. I called biscuits, I tell people they’re baking powder biscuits. No one knows what I’m talking about, but it keeps them from expecting something else entirely.

Cracker. A cracker, but also a roll of shiny paper and cardboard filled with a small toy no one really wants to play with, a set of bad jokes, and a paper crown that you have to wear if you want your Christmas dinner. No paper crown, no dinner.

Boots. These are things you wear on your feet, but your car also has one. It’s where your trunk would be in the U.S. The first time Wild Thing—who, since I haven’t mentioned her here in a long time I should explain is my partner—and I visited the U.K., we passed sign after sign that said “Boot Sale.” Why only one boot? we wondered. It was all very mysterious. We’d driven a lot of miles and seen a lot of signs before it came together: These were flea markets—people selling stuff out of the boots of their cars. Or more often, we later learned, off tables and blankets set up near the boots of their cars.

Wellies. These are also boots, but they slip on and they’re waterproof, high, and made of something that would once have been rubber and is now (I assume) synthetic. Britain’s a wet country. It loves its wellies. I didn’t understand why until a friend and I shoveled manure (which she called muck) for our gardens. I was wearing slip-on plastic clogs and she had wellies. We weren’t quite ankle deep in manure but a good part of the time we were close. She left with clean socks. I had to take mine off in the front yard and hose myself down.

Garden. That’s a yard, front or back, even if nothing’s growing in it. You could pour cement on it and it’d still be a garden.

Bonnet. This is on the opposite end of your car from the boot. If you’re American, you know it as the hood. In Scotland, a bonnet is also a hat—not of the Sunbonnet Sue variety, but any old hat. On the Isle of Skye, during that first trip, Wild Thing and I stopped at a B&B and the owner offered to show us a cottage we could rent instead of a room, since we were staying several nights. It was mizzling out, so he said something along the lines of, “Just let me get my wee bonnet.” Or maybe it was “ma wee bonnet.” It definitely involved a bonnet, though.

Vest. This is an undershirt, with no sleeves.

Waistcoat. This is a vest—the sort of thing you wear over a shirt.

Gilet. This gets the French pronunciation–something along the lines of zhee-LAY–and is one of those sleeveless vest things you wear for warmth when it’s not cold enough for a jacket. I’m sure we have a word for it in the U.S. but I’ve been away too long and can’t think what it is. A vest? Yeah. I’m almost sure it’s a vest.

Pants. These are underpants. It’s also an all-purpose term of disparagement: “The whole thing was pants.” (Quick, somebody, tell me if I’m using that wrong.)

Trousers. These are pants, but not in the this-is-no-good sense of the word. I still can’t make myself call my jeans trousers, because for me the word calls up those 1940s- and ‘50s-style suit pants, the baggy kind with the turned-up cuffs.

Suspenders. These don’t hold up your pants, or even your trousers, but your stockings. You know stockings: those things nobody wears anymore unless they think they’re sexy. I’m tempted to say that no one who thinks they’re sexy has ever worn them, but I’d be wrong so I’ll keep that thought to myself. One person’s I’m-glad-that-style-died is another person’s sexy. Humans are very odd.

Braces.  These are suspenders—they hold up your pants. Or your trousers, if you prefer. Or they pretend to, since as far as I can tell no one wears them because they need them anymore. They’re a (gak) fashion statement. Or doesn’t anyone say “fashion statement” these days? If they’ve stopped, it will be one small bit of progress in a world that’s falling apart.

Jumper: That’s a sweater. Also someone who jumps up and down. Or sideways—no one gets exercised about the direction.

Knickers: Women’s underpants–not the old-fashioned three-quarter-length pants (or trousers) that men wore and that mercifully went out of style early in the twentieth century.

Rubbers. These are not the things you giggled over when you heard those first misleading explanations about birth control. They’re school supplies: erasers. They rub out the mistakes you made in pencil. Isn’t the world a strange place?

Football. That’s soccer. The other game? It’s American football.

Holiday. A vacation, not a day off, so you go on holiday, not on vacation. A bank holiday has nothing much to do with banks, although they’ll be closed. It’s a public holiday. If that sounds too simple, don’t worry: The bank holidays in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland don’t necessarily match.

And finally, in case you’re not intimidated enough, a friend sent me a translation of upper middle class British phrases. I can’t paste the whole thing in because, hey, copyright matters, but you can find it here. It’s worth a look.

My friend adds, “I think it is even more complicated than this because many of these phrases may be used by the same speaker with different nuances. ‘Interesting’ can indicate the speaker is fascinated, bored or entirely disagrees.”

Which is, um, interesting.

Enjoy your visit. And good luck.

How the U.K. and U.S. differ

Let’s address the important cultural differences between the U.S. and Britain. Because here at Notes we’re passionate about what divides and unites our countries. We’re high minded and think deeply, and if that isn’t enough we’re suckers for strange questions. And yes, I’m arrogant enough to speak for you, dear reader, because I’m alone at my computer and by the time I publish this it’ll be too late for you to stop me.

And that’s how democracy works.

Sorry. I’ve been involved in the latest farcical public consultations. They don’t bring out the best in me.

First, then,Barb Taub asked in a comment, “Why are British fridges tall and narrow? Why are washing machines in kitchens? Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?”

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick mine. The mine tunnels themselves went out under the sea.

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick Mine (look down the cliff, where it meets the water). The mine shafts run under the sea.

Conveniently, reader John Evans answered all three questions, and he did it almost immediately, but in case you missed it I’ll quote him:

“>Why are British fridges tall and narrow?

“To fit in tiny kitchens in small British houses.

“>Why are washing machines in kitchens?

“Because few British houses have basements or outhouses (where Americans put their washing machines).

“>Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?

“Because long ago it was recognised that 240 volt electricity supply and wet hands and bodies in bathrooms do not mix well. (240 volts can easily kill a person, especially a wet one.) Shaver sockets in bathrooms use a special isolating transformer, so they’re safe in wet conditions. Normal household mains sockets don’t have isolating transformers, so they’re not safe in wet conditions.”

All I can add to that is that no American would say “outhouse” when talking about the building where a washing machine lives. In Ameri-speak, an outhouse is an outdoor toilet—the kind with a hole in the ground, no running water, and a distinctive odor. An outbuilding, on the other hand, is a building. Outside the house. Which can be used for any purpose other than to house a no-flush, hole-in-the-ground toilet. Language is a funny thing. It all seems to make sense until you step half an inch outside it and realize how completely random the alignment of words and meanings is.

I’ll also add that if you don’t read the comments here at Notes, you’re missing half the fun. Possibly more.

In another comment, Gilly noted that the British use washing up liquid for the kind of job that makes Americans reach for dish soap. I’d add that the British say “I’ll wash up” when they’re going to make dirty dishes clean. Even after ten years in this country, I half expect them to dash to the bathroom and scrub their armpits. Or at least remove three layers of dirt from their hands. If someone asks, “Have you washed up yet?” my first instinct is to tell them it’s none of their damn business. That was what my mother asked before a meal if she suspected my hands hadn’t been in conversation with clean water since that morning. But even she stopped asking as I approached adulthood. And these people aren’t my mother.

An American would say, “Have you done the dishes?” Or possibly, “Have you washed the dishes?”

Gilly also wrote, “May I suggest you explore knockers next? As in door knocker.”

A brief interruption before we get to the salacious bit: No American (or none that I know, anyway) would introduce that suggestion by saying, “May I?” We can’t manage that level (or form–you notice how I’m hedging my bets here?) of politeness. Or indirectness. Our brains would explode. But I’ll shut up about that and let her continue.

“The diversity of UK English always amazes me. ‘Knockers’ can refer to either the door variety or breasts (if you are an ignorant male of a certain age and socioeconomic class).

“And Debenhams [that’s a department store: e.h.], wow, what a sense of humour they have! There was once a department in the Ipswich Debenhams called Knobs & Knockers (yes REALLY!) where they catered for all your door furniture requirements.”

If you’re not British you need (yes, need—how could you live without this?) to know that “knob” is slang for penis. Or a general term of abuse, roughly interchangeable with “dickhead.”

Again, I’m not sure what I can add to Gilly’s comment, except that I’m glad I wasn’t in the firing line when Debenhams noticed they had a problem on their hands.

Stop that giggling in the back row. That’s not what I meant and you know it.

In a comment on a different post, Penny Hunt wrote, “As the older generation would say in Australia: it’s a bottler! Don’t ask me the origin of the expression; maybe you can find out. Perhaps related to ‘a corker’? We take our drinking quite seriously here, so I suspect they both mean something that is worth drinking and therefore pretty special.”

Well, I know Australia’s not in Britain, and if my memory’s still working it’s not in the U.S. either, which sets it outside of my usual focus, but I was intrigued enough to do some digging. Wordnik defines “corker” as the last word on a topic—something that, like a cork, acts as a stopper. From there—and this is a guess—it’s not a big leap to the meaning I grew up with: something good. It’s listed as British usage, but I can testify that it’s also American, although probably antiquated usage by now.

I’ve gone a bit antiquated myself lately.

But that didn’t help with “bottler”, and here the search got strange. The Urban Dictionary says it’s London working class slang for a coward. Try “bottle,” though, and you find out it means nerve, as in, “Do you have the bottle?”

So a bottler doesn’t have the bottle.

In Cockney rhyming slang, “bottle” means arse.

It what? How does that rhyme?

Bottle and glass go together, and glass rhymes with arse, although you may need to say “glarse” to make it work. Or something along those lines. Don’t ask me. I’m American and live in Cornwall. Cockneys are born in London. I’m out of my depth here. but I can tell you, in case you’re American, that “arse” means ass. Which rhymes very nicely with glass.

If you specify Australian slang when you google “bottler,” it means something good, but we already know that. It’s also used in New Zealand, but then if a Kiwi want to insult you they’re likely to say you’re an egg, which brings me back to how strange language can get. That has nothing to do with our important topic, but I couldn’t let a mention of Kiwis and slang go past without mentioning it.

I never did find the origin of the Australian/New Zealand use of “bottler” and stopped looking after I’d overdosed on websites offering me bottled gas and bottled Coke.


British and American accents: Talking trash to an I-Pad

M. and Wild Thing and I were trying to figure out what time it was in Singapore. You know how sometimes you just need to know that kind of thing? So Wild Thing grabbed the I-Pad she bought last week and said, “Hey, Siri.”

“What?” M. asked.

“She has an imaginary friend,” I said.

“I’m talking to Siri,” Wild Thing said.

My point exactly.

In extended and increasingly colorful ways, M. and I said, “Sure you are.”

Irrelevant photo: Our dog, who's real, even if she looks like a windup toy

Irrelevant photo: Our dog, who’s real, even if she looks like a windup toy

“Siri?” Wild Thing repeated to her I-Pad.

She might as well have been talking to the teapot. So while M. and I discussed the nature and uses of imaginary friends (in increasingly colorful and bizarre ways), Wild Thing—in the bits of air time she managed to snatch from us—explained that she’d set Siri up to have a woman’s voice and an American accent but that she’d reverted to being a British male—and a posh one at that.

Trust Wild Thing to have an imaginary friend with a sex change and an ambiguous national identity.

Because of the new accent, Wild Thing said, Siri couldn’t understand her, and that was why she wasn’t answering.

Unless he wasn’t answering. I don’t want to be insensitive, but this sex change business gets confusing when you’re dealing with invisible friends and virtual beings.

But forget about gender—it’s simple compared to accent. To what extent is an invisible British friend able to understand an American accent? I mean, just how parochial is she or he? And if the American accent’s a problem, is he or she (or, well, whatever) able to understand a working class British accent? Or a Welsh one? Or—well, you get the point: How narrow a range of tolerance are we talking about here? What happens if you have, let’s say, an Iranian accent in your English? Do you have to, and for that matter can you, set up your invisible friend to have her (or his, or whatever’s) very own Iranian accent in English?

I haven’t been impressed with the breadth of understanding demonstrated by virtual voices. We were in New Zealand once, and Wild Thing was on the phone with a computerized system.

“Yes,” she said in response to it doesn’t matter what question.

“I’m sorry,” the computer said, “but I didn’t understand that. Did you say ‘address’?”

“No, I said ‘yes.’”

“Did you say ‘guess’?”

And so forth until Wild Thing pinched her nose and, in her best imitation of a kiwi accent, said, “Yiss.”

“Thank you,” the computer said. (And sent a dress to the wrong address. Not that the address mattered. The last time Wild Thing wore a dress, splinters hadn’t been invented yet. And no, we’re not going to discuss how long it’s been since I wore one. It’s enough to say that I may still remember which end faces the feed.)

But back to that New Zealand virtual voice: What happens if you have a lisp and your yiss sounds like yith? You can’t order 80 kilos of chocolate covered Turkish delight by phone, that’s what, because you can’t confirm your order. You can’t call for a cab. You can’t let the bank know that your credit card just wandered off without you. Because the voice is set to the local accent—one local accent, and if it doesn’t happen to be the one you have, you’re skunked.

Or that’s my, admittedly limited, experience.

Apply this to invisible friends and you have to wonder, How much do they have to be mirror images of ourselves in order to understand us, or in order for us to accept them? If the posh, imaginary British man can’t understand (or be accepted by) the un-posh but entirely real American woman who’s talking into her teapot, what chance do the flesh and blood inhabitants of this planet to have to work out our differences?

M. and Wild Thing and I didn’t have time to explore that question, although no doubt the world would be a better place by now if we had. M. was heading home and we were out of time, not to mention cookies.

Wild Thing had addressed her I-Pad multiple times by then and swore Siri had answered her. Me, though? I didn’t hear a thing. And I’m prepared to speak for M. as well: She didn’t either.

British and American English: The Accent

Two words spoken in an American accent reliably crack up the British: water and butter. It has to do with the difference between English R and the American R, which as far as I can figure out is this: Americans have one and the English have a sort noticeable absence—something you might write as an H, or an apostrophe. WAWtah, as opposed to WAWterrrr.

WAWterrr. Photo by AdriannaNicole

WAWterrr. Photo by AdriannaNicole

I’ve spelled that first syllable the same way but no way does it sound the same. No matter how much I mess around with the spelling, though, I can’t come up with the difference. Put it this way: The English first syllable is well behaved and sits in its chair with a perfectly straight back. The American one slouches and puts its feet on the coffee table.

That may not help. I do understand that.

Okay, I’m writing about English pronunciation as if the English had one single accent. They don’t, but let’s not get into that here. I’m oversimplifying, the same way I’m oversimplifying the American accent, because if I don’t I’ll never write this. I’ll lose myself in complications and sub-points and convolutions so badly that I’ll shut down the computer, go back to bed, and pull the covers over my head. Pretty soon I’ll be joined by two cats and we’ll spend the day there.

They’ll think it’s a day well spent.

Any number of British friends will, in the middle of a conversation involving food or drink, lose all restraint and repeat after us, “BUTTerrrr,” or “WAWterrrr.” They can’t help themselves. It just breaks loose. Even if it was going to fly around the room and break the dishes, they couldn’t keep it in. Sometimes they don’t even wait for us to say it first. I’d love to criticize, but if Wild Thing and I are in the car when the weather comes on and the winds are moderate, we’ll repeat “MAWderit” and laugh as if it was the first time we’d done it. Some jokes just don’t get old.

We’re lucky, though. We have the accent that people think is cool because they’ve grown up watching Hollywood movies. Well, we sort of have it. We have versions of it, with regional flavorings that, from this distance, most people don’t hear. So we don’t get the disapproval that goes with having accents people look down on, or are afraid of. A wave of let’s-all-worry-about-immigrantion is breaking over the country just now, and our accents mark us all. Wild Thing’s and mine get us sorted in the Immigrants We Accept pile. It’s uncomfortable sometimes, but not as uncomfortable as being in the Immigrants We Don’t Accept pile. Still, it’s odd when people react to your accent, even favorably. It’s a bit like having people react to your nose. You’ve been walking around with the thing all your life. You’ve forgotten it’s there and are thinking about something else, but people want to talk to you about it. Over and over.

I’m in the supermarket and the woman at the checkout says, “I love your accent.”

What am I supposed to say? It’s my accent. I’m not responsible for it. When I was a kid, if I’d known I could choose I would have chosen a different variation on the New York accent. Now it’s too late. The glue that holds it in place set long ago.

So I say thanks, just as if she’d said she liked my sweater. Which she’d have called a jumper.

Mrs. Baggit Struggles to Keep Britain Tidy

The first time Wild Thing and I visited the U.K., Maggie Thatcher was the prime minister and whatever ministry was in charge of roadsides had planted them with metal signs saying, “Mrs. Baggit Says, ‘Keep Britain Tidy.’”

That bit of brilliant public relations was finished off with a picture of a tied-off bag with a face—Mrs. Baggit’s, presumably, happily stuffed with garbage. It was impossible not to connect her image with Mrs. Thatcher’s, and some small part of my brain continues to insist, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Thatcher’s real name was Maggie Baggit.

Irrelevant Photo: Rose Behind Bars, by Ida Swearingen

irrelevant Photo: Rose Behind Bars, by Ida Swearingen

We did a lot of driving on that trip, so we spent a lot of time looking at the signs and finding funny voices to quote them in.

“Mrs. Baggit says…”

Mrs. Baggit had a lot to say on that trip, all of it scold-y, although I can’t remember exactly what it was anymore. Except, of course, for “Keep Britain Tidy.”

To understand why that kept us amused, you need to know that tidy sounds different to an American ear than to a British one. To me, tidy is fussy. It’s small. All I have to do is think about it and I want to make bitsy motions with my fingertips, as if I’m cleaning up a dollhouse. As far as I can tell, none of that is true in the U.K. It’s just a word here. It means neat and doesn’t make your fingers do funny things in the empty air, although H. tells me the Mrs. Baggit part sounds fussy.

I should stop here and admit that when I started that last paragraph I was going to speak for an entire nation: For us (us here being all Americans—every last differentiated, argumentative one of us) tidy is fussy. Then some minimal sense of modesty (not to mention accuracy) caught up with me and I thought it might be nice if I didn’t mistake my mind for the mind of an entire, not to mention large and varied, country, even if I did grow up and live most of my life there. So I’ve backed off a bit. But I still hold that it has different overtones to an American ear than to a British one. That much, I think, is fair.

Language is like that. We think of it as a solid, but it’s not. It’s one of those slow liquids, like Silly Putty, that changes shape depending on what holds it, or who.

So how successful was the campaign? I never saw British roadsides before it started, so I can’t make a comparison, but I know this much: If you look for litter here, you’ll find it. And if you don’t look for it, you’ll find it anyway. I’ve seen places with more, but Mrs. Baggit hasn’t stopped the litterbugs mid-throw.

And who in their right mind thought she would?

Measuring Butter in a Cornish Kitchen

I made a pound cake a few years ago and a friend asked for the recipe. I copied it for her, and a day or two later, she called up.

“What’s a stick of butter?” she asked.

I was afraid she understood it as a verb: Stick that butter where? The thought threw me enough that it took a bit of back and forth in my head before I got stick of butter translated.

“A quarter of a pound? Four ounces? Eight tablespoons?”

Irrelevant Photo: Cows.

Irrelevant Photo: Cows. They never heard of a stick of butter.

Butter here isn’t sold by the pound, and no one over a certain age thinks in ounces. But when the U.S.—or what later became the U.S.—was young and impressionable, Britain convinced its population to use a completely batty system of measurements: 8 ounces to a cup, 2 cups to a pint, 2 pints to a quart, 4 quarts to a gallon, but look out because ounces are both a measure of weight and a measure of volume but they’re not interchangeable, you just sort of have to know which one the recipe means. Sixteen ounces in a pound. We’re not going to get into bushels and hogsheads and their even more obscure friends and relatives, and I have no idea how many feet to the mile but, for no apparent reason, there are three to the yard. Then the British gave the system up and adopted the completely logical metric system. (Mostly. Car-related distances and speeds are still measured in miles. Go figure.) There was a predictable backlash from people convinced civilization was coming to an end, but by that’s faded away now, leaving us with no quarter pound and no ounces, although they do still use teaspoons and tablespoons sometimes. (Three teaspoons to a tablespoon, in case anyone asks.)

Even I’ve adapted. I stopped asking for a pound of lunchmeat at the deli counter, because even though they’re theoretically bilingual they always thought I was talking about currency—a pound’s worth. Which these days isn’t much. And since no one says half a kilo, I ask for 500 grams.

And I’m a vegetarian.

What does this have to do with butter? When you buy butter here, it doesn’t come marked into tablespoons because you subdivide it by the gram, which unlike the ounce is a measure of weight and only of weight. The packages are close enough to half a pound that I still think of them that way, but they’re not cut into sticks, the way god also intended, they’re sort of flattish and clunky. Hence my friend’s confusion. No one talks about a stick of butter here because there are no sticks of butter.

Sad, isn’t it?

If you plan to bake over here, you need kitchen scales—not just for butter, but for most ingredients, because they’re measured by weight. Of course, a few gifted cooks just know how much of an ingredient they need without having to measure. I knew a woman like that back in Minnesota. I asked her for her pancake recipe once.

“You start with enough milk for pancakes,” she said.

“Edith,” I said. “Never mind.”

British English and American English

If you browse the expat blogs, you’ll find gleeful posts tracking the dividing line between British and American English. And a wandering line it is. Are pants those things you wear under your jeans or are jeans one kind of pants? Is the fanny pack a bizarre medical procedure or a practical but geeky accessory? When you live your life in a semi-foreign language, all that stuff becomes important.

It also cues the kind of giggles you get when an eight-year-old has a chance to say “fart.”

Irrelevant Photo: Rocks near Minions, eroded by the wind. By Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo: Rocks near Minions, eroded by the wind. By Ida Swearingen

But pants and fanny aren’t even on the real dividing line. Only I know what really divides the Englishes: It’s the use of that and which.

I know: Speaking of geeky. Only someone who’s worked as a copy editor even notices, never mind cares.

I have worked as a copy editor, though, and I do. American publishing follows Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and British publishing doesn’t. The distinction has to do with lawnmowers. You never thought of lawnmowers as a grammatical concept? See what you missed out on? Example A: The lawnmower, which is in the garage, is broken. This means we have one lawnmower. Example B: The lawnmower that is in the garage is broken. This means we have more than one, so use the other. I left it on the dining room table.

British publishing doesn’t care about lawnmowers. This—to a recovering American copy editor—is as shocking as wearing your pants inside your trousers.

It all has to do with restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and is too obscure to bother explaining. Which is lucky, since I don’t trust myself to get it right. And (she said defensively) you can be a perfectly competent copy editor and not be able to explain any of it. All you have to be able to do is apply it. It’s like not being able to explain electricity but knowing how to charge your phone.

Legend has it that Strunk and White introduced the that/which division because they thought it would be useful, if only it could be pounded into millions of recalcitrant little heads. In other words, they weren’t telling us about something that already existed, and so the aforesaid heads resisted the distinction because it wasn’t native to the language. But the owners of those heads still manage to mow their lawns and figure out, when and if it matters, how many lawnmowers they have.

So the that/which distinction is arbitrary and unnecessary, and in the long run the spoken language will always win out against the silly twits who tell us what’s wrong with the way we speak. But having made a career—such as it was—out of knowing this sort of stuff, it’s painful to watch as entire country consign it to the dustbin of irrelevant grammar. Even if it belongs there.

On an emotional and philosophical level, I’m on the side of spoken English, in all its barbaric glory. I’m not impressed with formal writing, for the most part. I believe that the language gains its power from use and that the hair-splitters are fighting a rear-guard action. If you break the rules of grammar idiomatically and well, the force is with you. And, in case you care, so am I.

On the other hand, I’ve read enough tin-eared writing to value the rules of grammar. Not because they keep us from barbarism and illiteracy, but because they keep us from incoherence. So I’m passionately on both sides of this battle, and if it ever turns violent both sides will call on me to shoot myself as a traitor.