A Clash of Words: Keeping My Vocabulary Pure

What does it take to keep my American vocabulary pristine here in the U.K.? Well, let me tell you a tale.

I was working on a post about those thingies people keep in their cars to tell them how to get where they want to go.

You’ll notice that I’m using technical language here: thingies. They’re called sat-navs here, and since I’m hell bent to maintain the purity of my American vocabulary, I wanted to know what they’re called in the U.S. so I could slip the word casually into my post.

Now, I admit that in the Wasting Your Time Sweepstakes, keeping a language or culture pure runs neck and neck with keeping white jeans clean. And for the record, I also admit that the belief that you can keep dirt off white jeans has done a lot less damage in the world than the notion of cultural purity. But I’m not claiming that any one set of words is better than any other, it’s just that I’m a writer and I need a matching set of words.

Irrelevant Photo: Stannon Stone Circle, by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo: Stannon Stone Circle, by Ida Swearingen

But we were talking about directional thingies. I seemed to remember that they’re called GPSes in the States, but I didn’t own one when I lived there, so I never called them anything. Who needed to? When you don’t talk about something, you don’t need a word for it.

But as I’m sure I need to remind you, we live in the age of the Internet, so I googled a bunch of terms that seemed vaguely relevant, and Google, in its wisdom, sent me to U.K. sites, even when I added U.S. to my search terms.

It’s great to have a browser that knows what I want better than I do. I remember reading an essay arguing that this is one reason the U.S. is so politically and culturally polarized: You can go online and never encounter a single opinion that you don’t already hold, because search engines only show you what they think you want to know. I won’t go as far as calling that a cause, but I doubt it’s helping much.

After getting diverted one too many times, I gave up and emailed T.—a virtual colleague from my days as a freelance copy editor—because only a fellow copy editor would understand why I cared.

She wrote back, “I usually refer to it as a GPS unit–but I’m low-tech when it comes to finding addresses and will often use a paper map in the car as our portable GPS is usually collecting dust in my husband’s office.”

I sympathized.

She also went online and checked the Best Buy website, which, just to be helpful used both names, but what I really trust is what she instinctively calls it: a GPS unit.

And with that, I can pretend my vocabulary hasn’t budged one inch in the eight plus years that I’ve lived here, when in fact it’s floating in the New York harbor and drifting west.