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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