Wednesday, 29 August 2012

American Words Versus British Words

The Show Went Down a Bomb!  Photo by Gareth Cameron.

Differences in expressing ourselves can depend on culture and environment and on certain character traits that evolve as part of our national heritage. The influence of culture upon the variations in language used between America and Britain is raised in The Oxford Manual of Style. The (anonymous) author offers the following explanation: “Many Britons feel more at home with botanical than medical terminology, while many Americans feel the reverse, the result being that a Briton might have a “heart attack” while planting “antirrhinums” and an American would, more likely, have a “myocardial infarction” while planting “snapdragons.”

On both sides of the Atlantic, the place where you can safely cross the road can be described as a pedestrian crossing. While Americans also use the word crosswalk, Brits frequently resort to the picturesque term “zebra crossing” signifying the crossing’s black and white stripes, or even “pelican crossing” – the latter stands for “pedestrian light controlled.” Of course, traffic light controlled crossings are everywhere but, to my knowledge, Britain is the only country that uses the term “pelican crossing.”

This use of descriptive matter taken from nature does, in a sense, seem to confirm the British tendency to feel comfortable with botanical terms as claimed in the style manual article. It’s entirely understandable that Americans use the term “alligator clips,” while we in Britain say “crocodile clips.” It is certainly true we have no crocodiles in UK except in zoos, but they are not too far away and are more likely than alligators to have been experienced by former British travellers in West Africa.

Some definitions from nature are equally delightful whether American or British, for example:

•Devil’s paintbrush (American) and orange hawkweed (British)
•Harvestman (American) and daddy-long-legs (British)
•Eggplant (American) and aubergine (British)

“Bomb” as a Noun must be Understood in ContextIf you see a great show in Britain, you might say, “That went down a bomb.” But if you said the same in the US, it would appear you were being extremely scathing about the standard and quality of the show. In Britain, the meaning of the word “bomb” as a noun depends on context – if a play is thought to be a bomb, then it’s a dud, but if it goes down a bomb, that’s high praise indeed. Brits might also complain that something “costs a bomb” meaning a large amount of money.

Placeholder Names
In America, John and Jane Doe are names used to hold the place of a person whose identity is unknown. This name may also be used at the beginning of a form, to show an example of how it should be filled in. John Doe sometimes masquerades as John Q. Public, Joe Public or John Smith, while an unidentified baby might be named Baby Doe. The British equivalent is commonly Joe Bloggs, although less commonly, it’s Fred Bloggs. All these terms can also be used to signify the average American, or the average Briton.

American Indian Languages Shifting Boundaries and Cross-Pollination
Due to the Internet and the explosion in global travel, boundaries of language are constantly shifting and cross-pollinating, and many historical differences have become interchangeable. Some continuing differences are extremely subtle. “Homely” in Britain, means plain, while in the US it means ugly and unattractive. Instead of “homely” to describe a person who is plain, Americans say “homey.” On the other hand, historically, in Britain, the noun “brainstorming” meant a sudden violent outburst, while a good idea was a “brainwave.” Now, Brits also use brainstorming as a verb to describe a lively, intellectual discussion.

Language differences pose many moot points, but it should be explained that, for an American, a moot point is an issue or a thing that has no significance of any kind. In the British sense, which is how it is meant here, it means "something debatable, undecided and open to question." That is how it should be.

Language is a most beautiful thing in all its variety and nuances, as developed in the companion article to this one, and it is evolving, and will continue to evolve, to facilitate our ability to communicate with one another in diverse and meaningful ways.

Source: The Oxford Manual of Style, Edited and Compiled by R.M. Ritter, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Copyright Janet Cameron. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Janet Cameron - MA. Cert.Ed. is a retired university lecturer and author of twelve books, women's short fiction and a magazine column.

Originally published on Suite101: American Words versus British Words – Culture and Confusion | February 10 2011.

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