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.

Do people really say “spiffing”?

A. tells me she wants to be a character in my blog. I didn’t think I had characters in my blog, just people I hide behind initials, but I like to make people happy when I can. So here’s a scene, complete with characters.

I was at the pub recently on singers night, and during the break A. and C. and I were standing around talking. As nearly as I can reconstruct the conversation, C. asked A. (apropos of I have no idea what; possibly nothing), “Are you spiffing?”

A. looked, I think, surprised but said yes, she was spiffing.

Irrelevant photo: Find the walker. Find the beach, for that matter.

Irrelevant photo: Find the walker. Find the beach, for that matter. I love fog, which is lucky since we get a lot of it.

An interruption here: Since I’m turning people into characters, I can abandon my limited point of view and say that A. didn’t just look surprised, she was surprised. She was also amused and ready to go along with a joke.

C. turned to me and asked if I was also spiffing.

And here we get another interruption (what would this blog be without interruptions?), because we’ve got to consider the word spiffing. It made me think I’d fallen into a 1920s English novel. I can’t remember hearing anyone say the word before, ever, so when I started to write this scene I pulled out the small collection of dictionaries that made it across the Atlantic with me or that I’ve bought since I moved here. (Before I retired, I worked as an editor, so it made sense to have more than one dictionary. I miss the ones I left behind.)

My American dictionary doesn’t include any variation on spiffing, and I was ready to declare the word a Britishism, but then I tried my two British dictionaries and they didn’t have it either. None of them are particularly good dictionaries, mind you, but still, that says something about the word, doesn’t it? The only places I found it were: 1, In NTC’s Dictionary of British Slang, which gave me spiffed out (dressed up; polished up nicely), spiffing (excellent), and spiffy (clean and tidy; excellent), but it didn’t say anything about their origin. And 2, in British English A to Zed (what could be more British than a zed?), which gave me spif(f)licate (to knock the hell out of; to destroy). I took that for a word origin, although I still don’t see how you get from there to excellent etc.

Then I went online. The Online Etymology Dictionary says: “1853, of uncertain origin, probably related to spiff ‘well-dressed man.’ Uncertain relationship to spiff (n.) ‘percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock’ (1859), or to spiflicate ‘confound, overcome completely,’ a cant word from 1749 that was ‘common in the 19th century’ [OED], preserved in American English and yielded slang spiflicated ‘drunk,’ first recorded in that sense 1902.”

Preserved in American English? Excuse me, but the only time we’d use the word in the U.S. (and again, remember, I’m omniscient for the duration of this post) is when we want to sound faintly ridiculous. And even then, we’d only use it in one sentence, which we could only say in one of three contexts. It goes as follows: “We’ve got to spiff this place up before

  1. your parents
  2. the landlord, or
  3. the police

get here.”

Or, okay, I’ll contradict myself: We might say something was pretty spiffy. But again, only if we wanted that slight tang of absurdity.

Spiffing, though? Never.

As a point of information, when an online search engine offered to translate spiffy into any of the world’s many languages, I couldn’t resist taking it up on the offer. I chose Spanish first and then French, because I actually speak those.

Almost. To be completely honest, I only speak French if you have some imagination and a flexible definition of the word speak, and even if my Spanish is workable it’s a long way from perfect, but for the purposes of one word that should be close enough. I’d stand a fighting chance of comparing the translation to reality. Or at least to a dictionary.

The search engine translated spiffy as spiffy. In both languages.

Thank you, oh great googlemaster. That was tremendously helpful, but it slowed our scene down, so let’s go back to our conversation. You remember our conversation? A. and C. and me in the pub on singers night?

C. turned to me and asked if I was spiffing. My mind went into that overdrive thing minds sometimes do when they’re asked a question they can’t process. The word spiffing, it said to itself, and to me since I was eavesdropping helplessly, cannot exist outside of 1920s fiction set among aristocratic twits who lounge around holding tennis rackets and drinking martinis. It can therefore only be used by or about people who are English, aristocratic twits, and born around 1900. You are none of these things, therefore you cannot be spiffing.

My mind didn’t stop to notice that C. isn’t any of those things and that A. is only one of them, English, but minds are like that under pressure. Or mine is. It focuses very narrowly and is very, very strange.

Without consulting me (and since we’ve wandered again, I’ll remind you that the question was “Are you spiffing?”), my mouth said, “No, I’m American.”

Which was as true as it was irrelevant.

That pretty well took care of the break. We’d eaten our sandwiches and had our conversation and those of us who’d taken cheese sandwiches had spread the grated cheese that hadn’t made it to our mouths in a nice even pattern on the carpet. That happens every week. We spif(f)licate [knock hell out of] the sandwiches and the next week (or presumably, day) the carpet’s clean again. I have no idea how they get it up. Or why they think carpet’s a good idea.

They could, in theory, slice the cheese instead of grating it, but it would be un-British.

How to pronounce British place names

A handful of British place names are spelled the way they’re pronounced. Britain, for example. Also England, Scotland, Cornwall, and Northern Ireland. Even Wales, although it could just easily be Wails or Wayles. But then Britain could be (and as a last name actually is) spelled Britten. And Cornwall could be Kornwall. It derives from the Cornish word Kernow, so you could make a pretty fair case for it.

I won’t go on. Are there any words in English that can’t be spelled at least one other way?

Never mind. The situation’s complicated enough without me making it worse, because once you brush those few clear place names out of the way, you’re reduced to guesswork.

Irrelevant photo: I'm not sure what these are, but they're in bloom right now.

Irrelevant photo: I’m not sure what these are, but they’re in bloom right now.

It was in response to a post about the British sense of humor that Dan Antion suggested I write about the war between the pronunciation of British place names and their spelling. Who wouldn’t get the connection? The whole island’s having a good laugh at the rest of the world. When no one’s listening, they say things like, “Har har, all those foreigners think Derby is pronounced Derby.”

How do they pronounce Derby? Why Darby, of course.

Why don’t they spell it Darby? Because, as the kids used to say where I grew up, and don’t look for anything as boring as an explanation to follow that because. There is none, and that’s the point. The adult world didn’t make sense and because was as good an explanation as the kids gave. Or got, I suspect. Things were the way they were. If you pushed the kids (and I did once or twice; I was the kind of kid who just had to), they’d escalate to a frustrated “just because,” which was followed by a silent but strongly implied you idiot.

And so it is with English spelling. It’s spelled that way because it’s spelled that way.

As an aside (and I’ll get to our topic eventually), my first Google search on the subject took me to a web site whose headline was, “English spelling is easy.” Sez whoo? (Or hoo. Or even whou.) English spelling not only isn’t easy, it isn’t even marginally sensible. All those kids being taught phonics? When they find out that nothing in English works phonetically, they’ll never trust a human being again.

All that creates enough of a problem when we’re wrestling with words we recognize—you know: tough, though, thought—but with place names the problem’s magnified. Because the country’s always throwing new ones at you, and an outsider doesn’t stand a chance.

Outsider, by the way, means citizens and foreigners alike. As far as pronouncing place names go, you can wave your birth certificate or your naturalization papers all you want, but they won’t help. Once you leave your familiar ground behind, you’re an outsider.

Time for a few examples.

Dan wrote, “In an earlier post of mine, about the doors at Barkhamsted Reservoir, my friend in England commented: ‘Here in the U.K. it would be spelled Berkhampstead (there is such a place!) and still pronounced Barkemstead!’ I’ll never understand. I’m blaming England for the way the people near Boston pronounce Woburn, Massachusetts (woo-burn).“

And in case you think spellings change when names cross the Atlantic while the pronunciation stays the same, you’re wrong: You can’t find consistency even there. The British Birmingham is pronounced Birming-am: the American one is Birming-ham. The spelling stays the same.

In response to Dan’s comment, John Evans wrote, “I used to live in the West Midlands, which includes the county town of Warwick (famous for its castle). This is pronounced Worrick. However, even British people don’t know how to pronounce the names of places that aren’t in their own locality. Thus, one day a truck driver from Lancashire (NW England) on his way to Warwick stopped and asked me ‘Is this the road to War-wick?’ He would have done any American proud—apart from his broad Lancashire accent, that is.

“And Barnoldswick in Lancashire is of course pronounced Barlick!”

Val, from Quiet Season, wrote, “In Shropshire they’re still arguing about whether Shrewsbury is pronounced shroosbury or shrowsbury, and some people still argue over whether a scone is pronounced skone or skon.”

Think she’s exaggerating? In 2015 the BBC staged a debate on how to pronounce Shrewsbury and invited people to vote. I’m sure they had a huge audience and even more sure that everyone went on pronouncing it exactly the way they had before.

Around here, Widemouth Bay is pronounced Widmuth. You hear that and think you see a pattern, don’t you? Silly you. Sandymouth is pronounced Sandymouth. A bit further away, in Devon, you’ll find the town of Teignmouth, pronounced tin-muth. The River Teign and its valley, though, from which the town took its name, are pronounced teen. The local authority (that’s the government) is teenbridge. I’d have sworn there was a third pronunciation, tane, but D., who told me about this to begin with, swears there are only two. Sad, isn’t it? I so wanted three, but what can you do?

Instead of going on to give you a list of absurd spellings, I’ll give you a few links, because the work’s been done for me. Several times over. For starters, you can look at BBC America and Anglotopia. If that’s not enough, google “pronunciation British place names.” Have fun.

In the meantime, let’s go in a different direction and talk about the spelling system that led to this mayhem. A few thousand years ago, when I was younger, someone explained it to me by saying that English pronunciation was still a liquid when its spelling was turned into a solid, and it’s the mismatch that did all the damage: The spellings stayed fixed while the pronunciations flowed away from them. As liquids will.

Or at least, abandoning my metaphor, the spellings changed more slowly than the pronunciations.

In the interest of minimal honesty, the explanation I actually got didn’t include the metaphor and may have been clearer that way, but it was less fun. According to what I now read, however, the process wasn’t that simple. The English Spelling Society has a fascinating web site on the history of English spelling and traces our current spelling back to Geoffrey Chaucer (who died in 1400, in case you don’t have that date fixed in your brain). Before then, everything that mattered in the country was written in French. Chaucer wasn’t responsible for the shift to English but he was around to give it a good hard shove. Thanks, Jeff.

Or Geoff. This is English. Who’s to say?

Chaucer’s English isn’t an easy read for—well, me for one, and let’s pretend briefly that I’m typical of something: the modern English-speaking reader in this case. But the Spelling Society seems to think his version was better than what followed. The scribes and clerks of the day were used to writing French, so they imported French spellings—double, table, and centre, for example. And if that didn’t make things murky enough, when the first English printing press was imported, printers came over from Belgium to run it, and since English wasn’t their first language they added some spelling errors, including, the article says, spelling a word pronounced eny as any. Plus they were paid by the line (and sometimes, more altruistically, wanted to lengthen a line to make the margins look better), so they might spell hed head, or fondnes fondnesse, and so forth.

(An interruption here: The article said they made spelling errors, but since no particular spelling was either right or wrong at the time, just more or less readable, I suspect they’re importing a modern concept to the discussion.)

The article goes on from there—read it on the web site; it’s not long and it is fascinating—until by the time the first Elizabeth was on the throne people were spelling words pretty much any way they wanted to. Which eliminates the need for spelling tests but slows down a person’s reading speed until they feel like a driver in a very thick traffic jam.

(They as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, by the way, isn’t something new. It was in common use until sometime in the nineteenth century. You needed to hear that today, didn’t you?)

We’ll skip a few important steps and jump ahead to Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking dictionary of 1755, in which he struggled heroically to standardize the mess he’d been handed and—well, folks, here we are. I doubt most of us would have done any better, given what he had to work with, but Derby is still pronounced Darby.

Why? Just because.

It’s all tickety boo

You want the American stereotype of British English? The phrase tickety boo comes as close as anything I can think of. It sounds like something that escaped from a 1920s comedy involving a butler who wears a bowler hat to hide his brains and a dim-witted aristocrat who needs a top hat to accommodate his sense of entitlement. Oh, and there’d be a lot of alcohol—martinis, probably—and women (strictly secondary characters) in what were then scandalously short skirts and are now scandalously modest.

Strangely, though, tickety boo is something people still say. Right now, in—what year is this anyway? Twenty something or other. And not clueless aristocrats either. Ordinary hatless, butlerless people who I know.

Or whom I know if you insist.

moose 005

Oh, and did I mention that we got a puppy? He’s the one of the right: nine weeks old and named (what else?) Moose.

So shut up, Ellen, and tell the good people what tickety boo means. It means is okay. or everything’s fine. It has an every little thing’s in place sound to it, although none of the definitions I found in my extensive five-minute Google search mention this. Still, my ear insists on it, and puts the emphasis on little.

It’s informal, as you might have guessed from the sound.

The Urban Dictionary says the origin may be Scottish, but along with the Oxford Dictionary it traces the origins, tentatively to Hindi, although the two dictionaries quote different versions of a Hindi phrase—or (let’s be skeptical) an allegedly Hindi phrase. If I had to bet on one version, I’d put my money on the Oxford one, but let’s not pretend I know anything about this. Oxford sounds impressive and its phrase sounds less like something an ear tuned exclusively to English might have mangled .

How a phrase originates in Scotland and India I don’t know, but to demonstrate the phrase’s Scottish roots, the Urban Dictionary refers to Danny Kaye singing “Everything is Tickety Boo” in a film I never heard of, Merry Andrew. Convincing stuff, right? Kaye was an American actor—the New York-born son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants whose original name was Kaminsky, which I’m reasonably sure isn’t Scottish or Hindi.

Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, so maybe we can make some sort of backing for the theory there.

Do you begin to get the sense that everything isn’t quite tickety boo about all this? That maybe some of the sources you find through Google aren’t perfectly researched? Maybe even that guesswork is involved in tracing word origins?

The Collins Dictionary, playing it safe, says the origin is obscure. Several sources say the phrase is outdated, even archaic. Which would imply that my friends are archaic. Sorry, but we’re not having any of that.

The Oxford Dictionary adds, helpfully, that tickety boo rhymes with buckaroo, poo-poo, shih tzu, Waterloo, and many, many other words that wouldn’t spring to mind if you were going for logical connection instead of pure sound. If anyone would like to use those in a rhymed, metered poem and submit it to the Comments section, I will shoot myself. Although not necessarily with a gun.


In Tuesday’s post I left some of you with unanswered questions—which bless your tickety little hearts, you asked—about why I’m cutting back my posting schedule. I didn’t mean to be cryptic or to worry anyone. Here’s what’s happening:

Ever since Wild Thing was diagnosed with macular degeneration and had to quit driving, I’ve been thinking about posting less often. Not necessarily forever, but for now. The changes in our lives haven’t been easy to get used to, either emotionally or practically, and one result is that I haven’t been keeping up with the details of my life lately.

While I was arguing with myself over whether or not to cut back, I got a bad cold, which came close on the heels of a miserable flu, and on Monday night I realized I had nothing at all to say for Tuesday’s post. The only thought in my head was, Do we have enough cold pills? So that tipped me over the edge. If I’d a bit more room in my head for thoughts, I might have said all this in Tuesday’s post but I didn’t and so I couldn’t.

I’m pulling back from some other commitments as well and hoping all this will leave me time to moult—you know, drop old feathers, grow new ones, maybe some listen to music more often, do more baking, spend more time with Wild Thing, and do more work on the book I’m theoretically writing. Maybe even shovel out the house a bit more often.

But you’re not rid of me yet. I’ll be around on Fridays. And already I’m missing my old schedule.

Adaptation and pig headedness

Wild Thing and I need to renew our American passports. To do that, we each have to send in two passport photos measuring two inches by two inches. British passport photos measure something else by something else, as do driver’s license and everything else photos, so we can’t just plonk ourselves in that little booth in the supermarket entrance, looking our worst, plug some money into the slot, and walk away with photos. And for all I know, an inch in the U.K. isn’t the same as an inch in the U.S. Why should it be when a cup, a pint, and yea, even a breath of air all change size as they cross the Atlantic?

But don’t let me sulk about that. I have and it didn’t help. The U.S. embassy is very clear about what it wants. Send us the wrong size photo, it warns, and we’ll send them back.

And put us on a watch list so we’ll never be allowed to fly again. Because the wrong size passport photo? It’s an indicator of political unreliability and who knows where it could lead.

Irrelevant photo: The beach in a storm. The wind was high enough that I had  stop walking during the gusts.

Irrelevant photo: The beach in a storm. The wind was high enough that I had stop walking during the gusts.

So we went to a local photography studio. We walked in looking our worst and came away with two two-by-two photos each. In the process, we got to know the photographer’s two dogs (sorry—I’m not making up the numbers; there really are that many twos involved) and their histories and friendships and enemyships. (Did I mention that if you ask about a dog around here, you’ll find out about the dog?) A neighbor stopped by with a chew stick for each of them, as she does every working day. We discussed dogs a bit more, then moved on to being Cornish (“you have to have four generations in the ground here before you’re Cornish,” the neighbor said).

Wild Thing said we had dual citizenship. I can’t remember why that came up, but it made sense at the time. The neighbor said that if we were British we had to say—and I may well get this wrong but I’ll do my best—“dyual.” Or maybe I should spell that DYOO-wel, as opposed to the American DOO-wel.

The photographer agreed.

The hell we do, I thought and didn’t bother to say. It’s not something I need to argue since I have no intention of doing it.

But Wild Thing’s an accent adaptor. She repeated “dyual.” I don’t know how close she was but close enough that they accepted it for at least the effort.

I tell you this story because when I asked what people wanted to know about either Britain or the U.S, bethbyrnes wrote, “My family is from England and I grew up with a lot of rules. When I go back to the UK, I get the impression that the Brits (my family included) see Americans as naughty children and treat us accordingly. I so love England and thought of moving there eventually but I feel I might resent being seen in such a negative light. What do you think? Am I imagining this? I hope this isn’t too rude to ask!”

That isn’t even bordering on rude. But then, I’m an American, and not one with an ear for subtle rudeness.

I suspect the answer depends in part on how seriously you take dual/dyual comments. I heard the conversation as good-humored bullshit—the kind of thing you say to someone so that you have something to say to someone. In other words, teasing. Which has an ugly side, a side that not only hurts people’s feelings but also enforces conformity, but it also a we-all-agree-not-to-take-this-seriously side. What people really mean is often a matter of guesswork, and I tend to hear that second side more often than the first. I won’t argue that I’m right, only that I tend to hear it that way.

Wild Thing, I think, takes these comments more seriously than I do. When—as often happens—people talk about some TV show or comic that they find hysterically funny and we say it leaves us cold, someone’s bound to say, “Oh, well, you’re not British.” Wild Thing hears an element of pity in it. I hear a simple statement of fact. I don’t know who’s reading the signs more accurately.

I can’t remember ever thinking that we were being treated as naughty children, although we’d be an easy target for that. J. did once say that now that we were British we had to start eating dessert with a dessert spoon (which I’d have called a soup spoon) instead of a fork, but again I heard it as good-humored teasing and kept right on using my fork. I do set out dessert spoons for our friends, but you’ll find forks right beside them. Choose your weapon. This comes up often since we’re part of a small group devoted to eating dessert, discussing politics, and occasionally taking action. Not to mention trading the odd bit of gossip. The group meets at our house. So setting out spoons? I don’t expect my friends to change the way they eat any more than I expect to change the way I do. But I’m hard headed. I can take a fair bit of criticism, comment, and teasing, as long as it’s well meant, without feeling like I’m under attack.

And when a comment is meant seriously? When people genuinely do think I should eat differently, talk differently, or turn myself into their idea of what a person should be? I don’t spend much time with people like that and they don’t go out of their way to spend time with me, oddly enough. They’re welcome to their opinion and much good may it do them.

So yes, people like that are out there. But another group seems to think of Americans as free spirits and envy us our lack of inhibition. But Wild Thing, who was a family therapist before she retired, makes an interesting distinction between being uninhibited and being emotionally free. Americans, she says, are indeed less inhibited, but not necessarily emotionally free. I had to think about that for a while, but I’ve come around to her way of seeing it.

Even if it’s not true that Americans are free spirits, though, the belief’s a great counter-balance to the you’re-doing-it-wrong group.

Both responses, I think, stem from the number of rules the British grow up with. As does teasing people about differences. People learn not to call attention to themselves in public. Say you’re out in public and you trip and people rush to help you up. Huge embarrassment. Sat people you know wave their arms to get your attention from a distance.  Ditto, apparently. And so on. Not everyone abides by the rules to the same extent, and there are patterned ways to break them, but the rules exist.

Whether as an American you’re treasured or criticized because you break them will depend on who you hang out with. And whether the comments you hear bother you will depend on how deeply you take these things in.

Talking about the weather—a lot

Britain really does get a lot of rain. Almost as much as people think it does. Enough that the vocabulary for rain is extensive and specialized. It’s raining stair rods. Or pitch forks. It’s chucking it down, or pissing down, or bucketing down, or mizzling—a lighter, mistier version of drizzling and a word I use sometimes for the pure pleasure of hearing it. In the U.S., it rains or drizzles or rains cats and dogs, but that’s about it. Once in a while, I guess, it mists enough to turn mist from a noun to a verb. But if it does anything else I can’t think what it is. We have words for different kinds of storms, from a shower to a hurricane, but for the rain itself? We haven’t been driven by the sheer indoor boredom of being stuck in the house on 356 consecutive rainy days to come up with new words and phrases.

Or maybe the words came from being out in the rain before the invention of anything that even semi-reliably kept a person dry. Naming the damned stuff could keep your mind off your misery. Or at least keep you busy while you were miserable.

A rare relevant photo: digging clams on a foggy day. Marazion.

A rare relevant photo: digging clams on a foggy day in Marazion.

Once you have a vocabulary, you have to say something with it, which is how we get to attitude. It rains enough here that people grow a kind of fatalism about the weather. I say “grow” because it creeps over them the way mold grows on damp walls. Sometimes it comes out as a wry fatalism and sometimes as plain old moaning. (When I lived in the U.S., a moan was nothing more than a sound. Here it’s transformed into an entire attitude, a form of not-gonna-do-anything complaint. A way of life, in fact.)

The content of wry fatalism and moaning is almost the same. It’s the attitude that makes them different.

“I guess we’ve had our summer,” a neighbor said on a gray day that followed some warm, sunny weather.

I knew enough to say, “Yes, and it was a beautiful day.”

He laughed and I congratulated myself: I’d played my hand in the game of wry fatalism. Not bad for a furriner.

On a different day—a sunny one—another neighbor said, “It won’t last.”

Same thought but pure moan. I wasn’t sure how to contribute. Maybe all I needed to do was shake my head mournfully and agree but I didn’t. What help can you expect of a furriner anyway?

Free of either fatalism or moaning (I think) is weather news. People trade bits of this the way American boys once traded baseball cards. A storm’s working its way across the Atlantic. An arctic front’s moving down from Iceland. A warm front’s bringing rain from Spain (really—no plains anywhere to be found but the rain falls anyway). You name it, we tell each other about it, especially if it’s bad weather. We listen to the weather on the TV. We check online. We get updates on our phones. Okay, I don’t. My phone is nothing but a phone, and I’ve given up on the evening news since I read the paper and enough already, how much weather (not to mention news) does one person need? So I’m using we loosely here. But every other single person in the country does all of those things, and every last one of them tells me about it. And as a result I can tell more people, who already know it and have already told me some version of it but it’s okay, this isn’t really about the information, it’s about talking to each other. We’re trading baseball cards. Baseball cards have no intrinsic value. They exist only to be traded.

No one’s weather news quite matches anyone else’s, but if it did what would we have to talk about?

Comparative medical bureaucracies

Of all the phrases the divide British and American English, the one I dread hearing is leave it with me. It’s not a phrase I ever heard in the U.S., and now that I live in Britain I know life is about to spin out of my control when someone says it.

And yes, I do know life’s always out of our control, but we all like to believe, don’t we? We live for the comfort of that illusion. Even when we know we’re full of shit. Maybe especially when we know.

Or some of us like to believe. I like to believe.

Irrelevant photo: The causeway to St. Michael's Mount, emerging as the tide drops. There's a castle out there, hidden in the fog.

Irrelevant photo: The causeway to St. Michael’s Mount, emerging as the tide drops. There’s a castle out there, hidden in the fog.

Suppose I need a referral from my GP to a specialist and I was supposed to be given an appointment by Wednesday and here it is the Tuesday after that Wednesday and I still don’t have the letter telling me when the appointment is. So I call to ask what happened. I’ve worked out an approach for this kind of situation. I’m polite and I’m relentless. I don’t demand, I don’t insult, and I don’t go away. This is easier to pull off when I’m advocating for someone else, but I can manage it for myself if I have to.

The receptionist says, “Leave it with me.”

Which means one of two things: 1. I will fix this so fast that whoever screwed it up will be dizzy for a week, or 2. I will make a note of this, bury it under a stack of paper, and forget you ever called, because your referral’s still a bunch of electronic blips in my computer but I don’t remember which file it’s in, or which computer, or what electronic means. Furthermore, I have worse problems than you. Don’t call back.

And I’m never sure which. Except for the don’t call back bit. I’m sure what that means.

I’ve learned to ask, “When will I hear from you?” so at least we’ve agreed on a date after which I’m free to make a pest of myself again, but until then I’m helpless. All my polite don’t-go-awayedness? It’s paralyzed by the leave-it-with-me beam of bureaucracy.

In the abstract, I could probably say, “No, sorry, I can’t leave it with you. Gimme my problem back,” but you know that bureaucracy beam? It’s like kryptonite. It keeps me from forming those words.

I did dodge the beam once, when a neighbor was having a medical crisis and D., who’s been a nurse, armed me with a magic phrase: That’s not acceptable. I listened to myself say it and wondered who I’d turned into, but in fact waiting wasn’t acceptable—it was a crisis—and since the phrase was magic it worked.

But you have to be careful with magic phrases. You can’t just spew that’s not acceptable in all directions and under less pressing conditions.

The leave-it-with-me problem stems, I think, from the British medical system’s paternalistic streak. The U.S. system is also paternalistic, but in a different way and—oh, you know how it is: When you’re not used to something, you notice it. The things you’re used to? They’re invisible. And the way they handle medical appointments here? I notice. If you need one, it will all be done for you and you’ll be told when to appear.

What if you can’t make it? You know, if you have to be in court that day or they’ll issue a bench warrant or you have some similar whim you might want to follow? At that point you get to step in and change the date or the time, but you have to wait to be given the wrong date and time before you can step in. And unless your condition’s a crisis, it’ll come by letter.

As far as I can figure out, this is true of both the National Health Service and private-sector medicine. Because that’s how it’s always been done and why change now just because the telephone’s been invented? And that other, even more modern thing, the inter-whateverit’scalled.

In the U.S., I can remember two systems for making specialist appointments. In one, I was given the name of a doctor and clinic (or a list of several) to call and I made my own appointment. In another, I stood at a desk while someone who worked for the clinic that was referring me made the appointment and could talk with me about whether I expected to be under arrest or in court at any given date and time.

In other ways, the NHS is more egalitarian than the U.S. medical system. I just read a nurse’s comment that “everyone is equal in the NHS; I find that amazing. In India, you can’t challenge a doctor, even if he is wrong. Here, a nurse can tell them straight away.” Unless things have changed since I last heard (and it’s not a topic I keep up on), challenges from nurses aren’t welcome in the U.S. yet.

But patients don’t seem to have claimed their power from the system, even if nurses have. So listen up, bureaucracy: I’m registering my complaint. Can I leave it with you?

Putting the Kettle On

M. has my oven wired. When I bake, an alarm goes off in her house and she appears, as if by magic, at our door.

“Want a cup of tea?” either Wild Thing or I ask.

“Is the pope Catholic?”

She used to answer, “Is the pope a Nazi?” but that was before Francis. She was raised Catholic, so she gets to say stuff like that. I wasn’t raised Catholic so I don’t, but I will claim the right to quote her.

Irrelevant photo: flowers. As if you couldn't have figured that out.

Irrelevant photo: flowers. As if you couldn’t have figured that out.

I make a pot of tea and set out whatever I just finished baking. If I’m still getting it out of the pan, she asks, “Shall I put the kettle on?” Because you don’t want to stand between M. and a cup of tea, not even if you’re producing baked goods.

She never says, “You want me to I make the tea?” That’s what I’d say. With her, it’s all about the kettle. And while we’re at it, I don’t think I’ve ever said “shall I,” although M. says it as if it were a normal part of speech. And she doesn’t have what people here call a posh accent. She just, you know, uses it like language—ordinary, everyday language.

It’s this kind of thing that makes me doubt I’ll never write British (as opposed to American) dialogue. Oh, I can put together a line or two—enough to keep the blog fed—but if I wanted to write a full scene, never mind a full novel, in it? In no time at all I’d have one of my characters saying, “Want me to make the tea?” instead of, “Shall I put the kettle on?” Only it would be the equivalent on some subject where I haven’t noticed—or maybe even heard—the difference.

I know someone whose mind catalogs these small differences. Talking to her is like reaching into a grab bag: You (or more accurately, she) could pull out almost any sort of accent, along with any region’s phrasebook. It all lives in her head, organized into separate drawers (I know, I know, I’ve jumped metaphors; go ahead and shoot me), each neatly labeled, and none of it escapes to mix itself with her own accent—the accent she uses when she’s being herself. It’s an amazing, fascinating gift.

Me, though? I assimilate languages by steeping myself in them, and once I do I’ve taken on the new flavor. In other words, if I pick up a new accent or phrasebook in English, I’ll lose my clarity on the last one—the one I think is my own. Or more than that—is me. If I weren’t a writer, I wouldn’t have any problem with that. As a writer, though, I’m terrified that I’ll make such a cut-and-paste mess out of my accent that I won’t be able to write in any region’s English.

Serving Texas hamburgers in Cornwall

Texas ran head-on into Britain last weekend and—. I was going to say that I’m not sure who won but it wasn’t a contest so maybe no one had to. Let’s say that both sides learned something.


Our village hall held a fundraising barbecue, and Wild Thing volunteered to make and grill Texas hamburgers.

Irrelevant photo. Four people. Evening. The cliffs.

Irrelevant photo. Four people. Evening. The cliffs.

The first thing you have to understand is that barbecue is one of those words that look like they’d mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic but don’t. In Britain it means cooked outside, on a grill. In the U.S., it has to do with sauce, fire, secret rites and recipes. It’s close to being a religion. Maybe it is a religion. I’m a vegetarian and originally a New Yorker, so you shouldn’t take my word on the subject.

The second thing you have to understand is that hamburger’s another of those words. In the U.S., it’s both the raw meat and the cooked thing that you eat. It’s made with ground beef and nothing else. In Britain it means only the thing you eat. The meat it’s made from is called mince, and to make it into a hamburger you add stuff and then cook it. Not just stuff, though, all kinds of stuff. Onion, egg, bread, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, garlic, sweet chili sauce, cumin, coriander, tomato puree, breadcrumbs, bicycle tires. Not all in the same recipe, I admit, but one recipe I found tossed thirteen ingredients into the meat.

It’s enough to drive a Texan to tears. Or drive her to say she’ll make the burgers and everyone else should stand back.

The number of ingredients explains why so many people here buy their hamburgers ready made. Because it never occurs to them that they can just divide up the meat and flatten it. They have to empty the contents of their kitchen cupboards into a bowl and mix it all up before they have—as folks here would say—a proper hamburger.

I don’t suppose I can go any further without mentioning that there were some scandals here a couple of years ago about horsemeat working its way into the food chain and showing up in, yes, preformed hamburger patties. They’re a perfect host, since they have enough extraneous ingredients to hide anything that doesn’t belong there. You could probably slip in a screwdriver and call it chopped onion, only onion’s cheaper so why would you bother?

If you’re from a culture that doesn’t eat horsemeat, finding that you just chowed down on it is shocking. More serious, though, is what its appearance in the burger patties says about how much any of us knows what we’re eating. Is someone selling not just the wrong animals but diseased animals? You can see the problem.

Anybody want to bet that the funding for food inspection has been cut?

Enough with the politics, though. We’re talking burgers.

So Wild Thing bought the beef and shaped the patties. She had some help, but if anyone had been tempted to add anything but beef she was right there to fight them off. Then she stood by the grill, flipping the meat and promoting the politics of the Texas hamburger. When meat’s involved, she does tend to, as J. puts it, open a can of Texas.

So how did the hamburgers go over?

A lot of people liked them enough to ask what was in them.


Yes, but what’s in them.

Beef. You don’t add anything.

A. stopped by yesterday to say they were the best hamburgers he’d ever eaten, but he had trouble believing they wouldn’t need something to bind them together. No egg?

Just beef.

So that was one group of people.

Then there was the other group. They brought theirs back and asked if Wild Thing would put them on the grill for another few minutes. Or another twenty. Two or three brought them back again because they could still see pink. If a trace of juice landed on the bun, it wasn’t done.

A couple of the re-grillers volunteered that they liked their steak rare but couldn’t eat hamburger that way. No matter how much Wild Thing begged them to close their eyes and try.

So Wild Thing put them back on the grill. She’s not given to tears, but if she was she’d have wept to do that to good beef.

Who learned what? It’s hard to say. Wild Thing thinks she’s learned that she won’t get to grill the hamburgers next year, although it’s too early to know if she’s right. A few people learned how to make an American burger. If anyone learned to eat their hamburgers rare, I haven’t heard about it.

Does my vocabulary look too British in this?

The differences between British and American English are an endless source of—well, pretty much anything you can name: confusion, fascination, amusement, bad temper, accusations (subtle and otherwise) of either ignorance or stuffiness, depending on which side of the Atlantic taught you your rash assumptions.

I’ve written about the differences between British and American English before, which means I’m supposed to slip in a link or ten to tempt newcomers deeper into the blog. That sounds ominous—step deeper into the dark and trackless blog, my dears. But I have to do it anyway. Who am I to defy the rules of the blogosphere? (Note: I already do with my irrelevant photos, and I’m not likely to stop, but once in a while I should behave like a serious blogger.) So here’s the link: This will connect you to a whole category of posts. You can pick through and see what interests you. Or not. I’ll never know.

Semi-relevant photo: What's more English than morris dancing? I like this shot because the guy on the right looks like he's about to brain the guy on the left. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Semi-relevant photo: What’s more English than morris dancing? I like this shot because the big guy on the right looks like he’s about to haul off and brain the guy on the left. If you squint, the whole thing begins to look like a brawl. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Where was I? I’m returning to the topic because Karen wrote to say my writing sounded British to her. I asked what specifically struck her that way and she said what “sounds to my American ears not-so-American” were the phrases “‘he wasn’t being immensely clever” and “trying to conduct a bit of business.” 

I’m probably the last person who’d know if those are not-so-American. When I talk, I still sound American enough to get asked if I’m enjoying my stay (well yes, although it seems like I’ve been here for years), but Britishisms have crept into my brain and my speech. I’d like to think I notice them and build walls around them—you know: the kind with turnstiles, so I have to sacrifice a coin before I can get at them—but I’m not sure the system’s working.

In the first phrase, I wonder if what struck Karen isn’t the word immensely, which is formal—a tone I fall into a lot when I’m kidding around, although I’m never sure if it works. On the other hand, clever may be more common in Britain than in the U.S.  Emphasis on may. I’m not sure. But I can call up the sound of an English accent saying “you clever girl” or “clever clogs” (one is a compliment; the other probably isn’t), but I can’t come up with anything like it in an American accent.

What about the second phrase, trying to conduct a bit of business? Bit shows up a lot in British English. Bits and bobs. Or Zadie Smith’s wonderful phrase about nudity in a movie, the dangly bits. Do we use bits much in American? Ask someone if they’re tired and “a bit” wouldn’t be a strange answer, although “a little” might be a bit more common.

Did the bit in that last phrase jump out and sound British?

Conduct again has a formal tone, and although I’d guess it’s used equally in both versions of the language, we (the we here being Americans) do tend to think British English wears a corset (or at least a top hat) while American English slouches on the couch with its feet on the coffee table. That’s because we think everyone in Britain is belongs to the aristocracy. Even when we know better. We know the laws of physics decree that you can’t have an aristocracy without a whole lot of peasants to keep them fed and et cetera’d, but somewhere underneath whatever our good sense we have we still believe the British are all aristocrats.

We (again meaning Americans) are both right and wrong about the formality of British English. It can be more formal. It also can be gloriously rough and informal—like, I’d guess, any language or national version of a language.

Karen went on to write, “Isn’t this a problem writers encounter all the time when they create characters who are ‘other’? How does a woman writer ‘sound’ male? How does a thirty-something author ‘sound’ like a teenager? How does an American ‘sound’ British?”

The answer is that at their best, writers listen, deeply and actively, and learn their limits. I don’t hesitate to write dialog in a man’s voice, or to write from a man’s point of view. We’re not as different as the world tells us we are, and even if we were I’ve lived around men I don’t live with one, but I know what they sound like.

I wrote from man’s perspective in parts of Open Line (and here we go with the links again) and felt that I knew the character well and did him justice. He wasn’t an admirable person, but I ended up liking him. I’d lived inside his head.

Writing the male characters in The Divorce Diet was different. I only got to see them through my central character’s eyes, and if she was fed up with them, so was I. They’re not as fully realized because of the point of view I chose. You can’t tell every story from every perspective. But their dialog? It didn’t feel like a stretch.

But I know my limits and I stay well away from the edges. I’ve watched writers write dialog that goes past theirs. At its best it embarrasses me as a reader and makes them look ignorant. At its worst it comes off as racist. For myself, the rule is this: If you haven’t lived with it, don’t write it. If you don’t know the accent and vocabulary and attitude and life first hand, don’t write it. That doesn’t mean limit yourself to characters who are replicas of yourself. It means know your limits, and if they form too tight a circle, learn more. Live more widely.

Sorry: I’ve expanded the issue beyond vocabulary, but dialog isn’t just about word choice, it’s about the character. And writing about someone from a different demographic group isn’t just about finding the right words. If you don’t know the reality of another person’s life, you won’t write it with any depth or power. Or respect, no matter how good your intentions are.

Maybe that’s why so many male writers have written paper-thin women: They couldn’t see beyond what they wanted from women, or how women affected them, so they couldn’t create any depth in the women they wrote. You can plug other categories of writer and character into that sentence in whatever combination you like, but I have an English degree and ended up reading a dismal lot of paper-thin women. My patience wore thin and it doesn’t seem to be one of those things that repair themselves with time.

But let’s come back to the original question about words. It worries me when Britishisms creep into my brain. Picture me as an auto mechanic and someone’s slipped metric wrenches my toolbox, which would be fine except I work on American cars and nothing but American cars. They’re fine wrenches, but they don’t fit anything in the shop.

I’d love to work on both kinds of car, but I’m just the kind of maniac who couldn’t keep my wrenches apart.

I’ve tried keeping British words out of my head and it’s not possible. My brain loves words, and it vacuums them up wherever it finds them. And as I typed that, a voice in my head supplied the phrase hoovered them up. Because vacuuming’s a brand-name verb here, based on the Hoover vacuum. Like the American word band-aid, which in British is the generic (if, to me, bizarre sounding) sticking plaster.

Some words get planted more deeply because I use them, however hesitantly. There’s no point in asking where the band-aids are if no one knows what I’m talking about. Others plant themselves deeply because they sound good. People here have such a way of leaning into the word bloody that it makes me want to say it myself. If I find myself in the right time and place, cells in my brain jump up and down like popcorn in the microwave, begging, Can we say that? Please can we say that?

The wall-and-turnstile approach to keeping my vocabularies separate hasn’t been a screaming success. I might have more luck if I think of myself as having two toolboxes (or if I run those pesky foreign cars out of my garage), but I doubt it. It’s a problem I haven’t solved.

Any comments on what I sound like to you are welcome. Or on anything else that comes to mind. This should be interesting.