Inter-Atlantic English: A Tale of Fannies, Bums and Boots.

English Dictionaries

English Dictionaries (Photo credit: jovike)

On my arrival in the States, I really thought that apart from a few minor details, we spoke the same language on either side of the big pond. Yet there I was, battling to make myself understood, in desperate need of an UK English-US English dictionary and an aspirin.

The garage forecourt was littered with huge cars, and our host, a drawling, cigar-puffing man who looked like he’s escaped from a 1970’s episode of Dallas, was attempting to fob off a dented Buick on these wet-behind-the-ears European newcomers. Communication was proving difficult, and my enthusiasm was waning.

“Excuse me, ma’am? You wanna put your what in the what?” The heat of the Florida sun beat down on my confused head, and I ruefully rubbed my back as the inhabitant of my uterus made a brave attempt to do a cart-wheel.  I pointed at the huge airbag tacked to my front, where my inside-out tummy button strained at my t-shirt like a nipple on a Zepplin-sized boob.

“I’m expecting a baby in two weeks. I just want a car with a boot big enough for my pushchair,” I sighed. A huge grin split the car saleman’s face in two, followed by a high-pitched hee-haw of a laugh that strangely mismatched his farm-hand physique.

1954 Plymouth Like My First Car

When is a car not a car? When you’re English and the salesman is American (Photo credit: pabear26)

“Ma’am, you want a vee-hikkel with boots?” He looked at me expectantly, eager to hear the next mistake of his unexpected stand-up comedian.

It was my turn to smile at his pronunciation of the word “vehicle”. “Vee-Hikkel” was as funny as the “Alooooominnum” wheel hubs he’d pointed out earlier. Did we really speak the same language?

The huge difference between British and American English was giving me serious trouble. In the UK, elephants have trunks, not cars. Cars have boots. In the US, bonnets are hoods, windscreens are windshields, gear sticks are gear levers, number plates are tags, petrol is gas, tarmac is pavement and pavements are sidewalks. You don’t turn at the junction, you turn at the intersection, where you may have trucks, but not lorries. Buying baby equipment was also confusing: pushchairs are strollers, nappies are diapers, dummies are pacifiers. It was just the beginning of a complete linguistic meltdown.

As I had an alien life form practicing kick boxing on my bladder, I quickly discovered the American terminology for the toilet. The term “rest room” was amusingly evocative of a room providing armchairs for tired old gents, not bog-standard loos. And whilst we’re on the subject, ladies, the inappropriately named “bathroom” does not necessarily contain a bath.

pondering life

Resting in the rest room (Photo credit: Chimpr)

I  blinked when I was told to come to a picnic wearing pants.  I was surprised my friend could believe that I let it all hang out beneath my clothing-I always wear pants. Clean ones, every day, in case I get run over by a double-decker bus and the world gets an unexpected view of my M&S undies. If you go out wearing just your pants in the UK, you’ll get arrested. And cold, too. So a word of warning to any American setting up shack in Britain: If you ask for pants, you’ll get underwear, and if you ask for trousers, you’ll get pants. Oh, and whilst we’re on the subject of underwear, if an American date tells you that he likes wearing suspenders, there’s no need to run… because American suspenders hold up trousers, not lace-topped stockings.

Food is tricky, too… Uh-oh. Maybe I should change that word to “difficult”. I recently asked lovely blogger Jenn, “How’s tricks?” One highly entertaining exchange later, I discovered that  the word “trick” is associated with prostitution in the States. Luckily for me, Jenn has a great sense of humour-check out her blog, called “Mashed Potatoes” (or potato, as we Brits say).

Anyway, back to food. At the burger bar with PF’s colleagues, I ordered chips… and got crisps with my steak. No wonder they looked at me strangely. But not as strangely as the person who grabbed his cigarette packet and rose from the table, telling us that he’d be back in five minutes. My innocent enquiry raised the roof: “Are you off outside to smoke a fag?” Whilst the word “fag” designates a cigarette in the UK… smoking a fag in the US involves beating up a male homosexual. You live and learn.

Moments to Remember - Jayne Mansfield ... &quo...

A tramp who has just fallen flat on her fanny. What a bummer. (Photo credit: marsmet531)

What really unhinged my jaw with astonishment, however, was when a male friend told me that he had fallen flat on his fanny. In the UK, only women have fannies, and they certainly don’t talk about them at the dinner table. A fanny in the States appears to be what we Brits call your bum. Which, in the States, refers to what the English call a tramp. Which in turn, in US English, refers to an easy woman. As you can see from this interesting linguistic exercise, our languages are just not the same.

Traps were everywhere, and MM happily fell into them one after the other. One memorable event was when I asked the person next to me to lend me his rubber…. I was told with a smirk that he didn’t have one, but if he did, he’d gladly give it, but would not want it returned. A good job he didn’t, too: I’ve never seen anyone rub out a mistake on a form with a condom. Apparently, what I wanted is called an “eraser” on the other side of the pond.

Woman in kitchen, 1939

“And today, ladies, we will be learning how to fit a stick of butter into a cup” (Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives)

Measurements were another problem. Particularly for cooking: making a dessert in the US was anything but a piece of cake. Please can someone American explain why you buy sticks of butter, but measure it in cups? I suspect that this measuring system was an evil idea dreamed up by 1950’s men to keep their wives occupied forcing butter sticks into cups all day. Is there some kind of Holy Grail reference vessel for US culinary purposes? If you use a really small cup, do you get a cup cake? (Unless it’s a “small” cup from Starbucks, of course. I could have swum laps in the first “small” coffee I ordered – it would have made a cake big enough to feed the five thousand.) Or do you have cake cup sizes like for women’s bras: “A” for a cup cake, “B” for a cake to share en amoureux, “C” for a family dessert and “D” for a birthday cake?

I gave up, and made friends with the Pillsbury Doughboy. Whatever the size of a cup, I never worked out how I was supposed to squish a rectangular cuboid of butter into it. As they say on the other side of the pond, go figure….. Whatever that means.

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67 thoughts on “Inter-Atlantic English: A Tale of Fannies, Bums and Boots.

  1. Handy American tip: Just look on the side of the stick – it’ll show you a whole stick = 1 cup, no squishing required 🙂

    My first morning in London, I ordered a biscuit, a scrambled egg, and coffee for breakfast.
    The waitress (I was in college, she was old enough to be my grandmother) said in a disapproving tone
    Waitress: No tea?
    Me: No, ma’am. Just coffee, please. And one scrambled egg with a biscuit.
    Waitress: A biscuit? For breakfast?
    Me: Yes, please. (Internal dialogue – What do they eat over here? Small children?)

    I had just come from a summer in Spain and France where I had much less trouble ordering breakfast than in what was supposed to be a country where we spoke the same language (I sympathize with you on this.)

    The waitress returned with coffee (yay!) a sunny side up egg (ew) and a cookie (?)

    I gave up on breakfast entirely after that.

    • Hello Cynthia! I don’t remember seeing anything written on my stick of butter – it was back in 1999. I am relieved to see that US visitors to Britain have as many hiccups with day-to-day communication. A “biscuit” in the UK is what you call a cookie, and a cookie in the UK is a biscuit with chocolate chips and stuff in it. What is a biscuit in the States? I’m surprised she didn’t give you scrambled eggs – that’s one thing we DO have in common. As for the small children…. Always. On toast (not French), with ketchup.

      • Yowee….. Your biscuits are our scones. We don’t eat them for breakfast though, we eat them for afternoon tea. Now you’re going to tell me that you have scones in the US too, but they are something different…. 😉

  2. being Italian you can imagine MY confusion with all those terms. Thanks to the above explanation, now I even know what a “biscuit” is in the US…. on my one-and-only visit to the USA, I had trouble ordering sparkling water, and asking for the loo….
    LOL great post….

  3. I am an American with an English accent living in the US. That is confusing enough for other people. The fact that I don’t like English chips and American biscuits helps, that and the fact that I still buy my knickers at M & S. You summed our language barrier nicely. Whatever makes me think I could take on French?

    • YOu don’t like biscuits? Now that really takes the biscuit…. or the scone…. If you’ve attained the paradox of an English accent when you’re American, you will be able to deal with French with no problems whatsoever 🙂

      • Hahaha. I’m not so sure about French. And no I don’t want a stodgy old biscuit for breakfast. Now a scone slathered in strawberry jam and clotted cream – another story entirely! I’ve thought of some more words for your dictionary – bucket/pail, tap/faucet and popper/snap! Once I picked up on English words I always had to translate into American for my Dad.

  4. Try having a Costa Rican explain something to you in American english….it’s a lot easier if they stick to spanish.
    And as for measurements – the mind bogggles! Cups for wet and dry ingredients….cups for differing dry ingredients….and then there’s their version of a pint and ours….
    I wouldn’t last two minutes in the U.S. A. without blowing a gasket – and goodness only knows what they call that.

    • I bet that it has excellent entertainment value, though. Kind of “Speedy Gonzalez meets Ronald Reagan” material? I gave up on trying to convert US recipes to European weights: by the time I’d got anyhere near, it was too late to cook it anyway. Now let’s see who knows the term, “to blow a gasket”. 🙂

  5. Roads aren’t paved, they’re bitumenised. I was greatly surprised when I first heard my husband refer to a paved road. I had images of road workers laying concrete pavers all over the nation’s millions of kilometres of roads. I live in hope that he, whose English is Americanised, will see the light and use Australian English. Perhaps living in the UK will sort him out.

  6. I love this – it reminded me of a boyfriend who at the tender age of 17 went on an exchange visit to the US and in his introduction speech to the class explained that he was sorry to miss the first term in the lower sixth in England as he would miss being allocated a personal fag from the first year boys.

    • The poor thing, he must have been mortified 🙂 It’s amazing how very different our language is, yet so many people think that English is the same all over… I will be off to catch up on your blog this weekend, by the way – I’ve been a busy cookie (biscuit?) for the last few weeks.

  7. It even causes confusion in Italy, a country that can confuse itself. I get asked what is the difference between a truck and a lorry. And do the English understand American..

    • I’m sure that Italy is so much happier about being confused now that they have PN to describe it for them. I enjoy it, anyway…. Lorries have stiffer upper lips than trucks. They drink Martini on the rocks, just like James Bond. And no, the English don’t understand American. Hic. Sorry, I’m drinking for Tric, she’s finding out if she won the Irish blog awards. I hope she does.

  8. loved this post

    completely identified with it

    years ago, I emigrated to canada (my first wife was Canadian)

    my 1st realisation that I was going to have language problems came when I had to change flights in Toronto en route to Calgary and I needed a pee

    I could think of a dozen or more different words when asking directions to the loo – but never would I ever have come up with friggin ‘comfort station’ 🙄

    In the end, I was too scared to ask anyone, lest I make a fool of myself, so wandered the airport clutching my ‘bits’ through my trouser pocket until I saw a sign I recognised 😳

    • Laughing my head off here at the idea of a comfort station (ya whaaaat?) and even more at the idea of you clutching your bits at the airport 🙂 Hope yo’re raising your glass and crossing anything you’re not clutching for our Irish blogger, young man 🙂

      • That reminds me of what I meant to say earlier and forgot…in the 60s mother encountered a desperate looking American chap in a hotel lobby who asked her to direct him to the mens powder room.

        That still puzzles me…was he trying not to say the word (whatever it is) in American for fear of bringing a blush to her cheek or do American men really have powder rooms?

  9. The state dance of South Carolina: the shag. When we had English guests, I drove them by the sign that read “free shag lessons” just to see the looks on their faces……………

  10. I must have watched WAY too much American TV in my youth as I’ve never had a problem with the meanings of any American sayings! Although I do remember sniggering at the film SHAG when it came out in the late 80s.

  11. This is just so funny, and I realize how true! And had you traveled across the country you’d have encountered many different terminologies, definitions and idioms that don’t translate well across different regions. we don’t all speak the same American English either. I have on more than one occasion referred to my dictionary while reading a favorite British blog. The first one that really made me chuckle was the difference in “pants” and “trousers.” You’ve given me a good chuckle. I do prefer “loo” to “restroom.” I never rest well in a pubic loo/restroom/bathroom/lavatory/…we could keep going!

    • Hello there! One day I will travel across the States to visit, then I’ll be able to taste biscuits, dance a shag, and fall on my fanny. I saw a dictionary of American English today, published by… OXFORD!

  12. In the UK we keep our money in a purse or wallet and those go into our handbag, plus many other things. As our partners would say,”Everything but the kitchen sink.”
    I’ve never been able to fathom out what a ‘pocketbook’ is!

    • Hello Lyn, and welcome to the madhouse! Good point- I got confused about the purse phenomenon when I was in the States, as the American girls clained to put things in their purse that would never fit into mine (which does indeed contain everything-including the kitchen sink!) A pocketbook? Sounds like a paperback to me…

  13. Haha these are excellent– I know I have definitely struggled a fair amount while traveling in European countries. I remember ordering Fish and Chips at a little place in London and the kid behind the counter kept asking “Stay or Take Away” and I had NO IDEA what he was saying. It was awful. Your story about the car cracked me up.

  14. Howling with laughter here, MM, and pitying my poor niece who now lives and works in California. No wonder they refer to the USA and the UK as two nations divided by a common language. 🙂

  15. Oh my! This is hilarious. I almost died the first time a British friend in Doha asked me if I had a fag to spare! I said “pardon me?” And she answered “I know I shouldn’t, they’re terribly bad for you, but every once in a while when my husband’s not around I like to sneak a quick one in.”
    “Pardon ME????”
    We still laugh about it six years later.
    Loved it! Thanks!

  16. No it was not a trick question 🙂 I wondered if you were published was the gist of my ill phrased question. I saved this to go back and read a second time. Enjoyed it equallly the second go round !

  17. I’m not sure why I didn’t see this post! So funny! I like your rendition of the car salesman and the “vee hickle!” I’m from the South and still live in the South so I am used to hearing southern slang. But no, I do not have a southern accent. My mother is from Philadelphia and my dad is from Florida, so lucky me I do not pronounce vehicle like vee hickle!! woo hoo! 🙂 LOL!!

    • Glad you found it. You were the person who prompted the post, after all! I don’t know if I’d be able to pick up on the different accents in the States; the language differences are enough to keep me busy as it is 🙂

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