I was warned. Before I married my Englishman, my boss – who was, conveniently, an Englishman living in America – told me that the little differences between the two countries would jar me at first. He was right, and I found that no where more true than with language.
I knew that the Brits and Yanks employed different terms, especially for things like cars: bonnets were quaint headpieces adorning Jane Austen’s characters; a boot was just that, something to wear on your foot, especially when living out West; and that thing hanging off the back of the car? I had no clue. In my first year in the UK when I tried to explain that a woman’s muffler was falling off her Range Rover, I stuttered and stammered (but actually no, I didn’t stammer, because I didn’t know that word either), knowing I wasn’t saying the correct word (and being slightly uncomfortable anyway, thinking I was probably breaking social convention to speak to a stranger). Finally I took her back to her car and pointed, and she exclaimed, “Ah, the exhaust!”
And I knew that pronunciation would be different, as I outlined last week. Although imagine my surprise when one of Nicholas’s theological college (US: seminary) students invited us to lunch, and they asked me to say the name of a certain spice. One that starts with an o and ends with an o. Got it? Yes, I naively said, “Oregano,” (oh REG ah no) to which the party erupted in laughter. My host explained that Brits tend to pronounce each syllable of a word, which is why they would say, “oh rey gahn no.”
So I knew I’d struggle with dustbin carts and, back then, the name for a pay phone (call box? pay box?), trousers and pants, chips and crisps and biscuits and crackers, but what I didn’t know was the hidden meaning of language. Yes, what Brits really mean behind their polite words or ironic remarks. You may have seen the graph that has been widely circulated on social media sites, reportedly developed by a Dutch company trying to do business in the UK. The one that has a column for what the British say, “That’s not bad”; a column for what the British mean, “That’s good”; and a column for what foreigners understand the British to mean, “That’s poor.” No wonder we foreigners get our knickers in a twist (US: can you figure it out?).
I didn’t have the luxury of such a graph when I first moved here, so learned by making mistakes. My husband and I soon differentiated between a British “nice” and an American one – how nice was that person or meal or gift really? (We don’t often use that term anymore, which is just as well when there are far superior descriptors.) But it took a bolshey (US: in-your-face) literary agent to inform me, when I was a commissioning (US: acquisitions) editor at HarperCollins, that Brits and Americans mean different things when I said that I thought her client’s proposal was “quite good.” (She dropped any social niceties when she educated me, and no, I didn’t progress that proposal.) At least my boss didn’t expect me to pronounce schedule in the British way, and he did helpfully point out that the handwritten PS at the bottom of the letter, which I would most likely disregard, was actually the most important thing to the author.
So tell me, British friends and family, what is behind this lack of saying it like it is? Does it all come down to class – not offending those above or below? A natural reticence? Social custom based on…? I’d love to hear what you think, and any experiences you’ve had of saying something and being completely misunderstood. And what you think of those colonists who prefer to speak unvarnished (Just to mix things up, I now work for an Australian company!).