Life in the UK: English Lessons

Language:  it can be tricky

I don't think that there are many people left in the world who aren't aware that American English (AmE) and British English (BrE) have some significant differences.  (If you are one of them, just go to Urban Dictionary and type the following words into the search bar:  fanny, rubber, knickers, pants, bonnet.)  

There are plenty of expat blogs written by Americans in the UK who have had to adopt a completely new vocabulary (and vice versa.)  I regularly read this one written by an American linguist who teaches at a British University who specializes in the differences between our two versions of the language (oddly, I started reading it long before we ever moved to England...hmmmmm.)  In fact, before we left Seoul, my sister-in-law even sent me a US/UK dictionary, so, clearly, the information is out there.

In fact, in one of my very first posts written in the UK, I mentioned the word 'lurgy,' which I learned shortly after arriving.  My point is:  the fact that our languages are different should come as a surprise to no one - especially me.

And yet, it continues to surprise me, almost daily, the new words and phrases and uses I run across. Most of those that capture my interest - like, 'lurgy' are not the typical 'you use this word, we use that one' foreign exchange that we think of when we think of the two Englishes. Those are the easy ones:  boot=trunk, courgette=zucchini, post=mail.  But some of them are baffling.  Some are funny. Sometimes, they carry different connotations in each language.  It's these subtle differences that I like to mull over in my free time (let's not get into what that says about how boring my life is at the moment, shall we?)

So...I've decided to blog (occasionally) about the new words and usages I've been running across. Keep in mind, I'm living in Somerset, so I'm sure there's some regional usage involved.  I'll look forward to hearing your impressions, and, without further ado, here are the newest additions to my lexicon:

"Can I stroke your doggie?"  I hear this several times a week from children while I'm out walking Merlot.  An American child would, undoubtedly, ask me if she could 'pet' my doggie.  Mulling this over (we walk at least 3 miles a day - I have ample mulling time, trust me) I've decided that Americans really don't use the word 'stroke' much as a verb - especially not with animals - and, if we do, it would most likely be used with a cat, not a dog.  Why, I do not know.  Or maybe that's just me.

"I'll meet you at half ten."  In AmE, we'd probably just say, "I'll meet you at ten-thirty" or, possibly, "half-past ten."  For me, the waters have been significantly muddied by the fact that, in German, 'half ten' (halb zehn) means 'nine-thirty,' or 'halfway to ten.'  I'd never heard it used in English before, and initially had to ask for clarification.  On the other hand, I have an excuse if I show up places at the wrong time.

"It's so warm, you really don't even need a jumper."  In this context, a jumper (as far as I have been able to deduce) is a garment with long sleeves that you wear on top of another garment (a shirt or blouse or vest ( a vest, fyi, is a tank top or undershirt.)  Where I would probably use the terms sweater, sweatshirt, fleece, pullover (or whatever else came to mind) 'jumper' seems to cover anything with long sleeves - but isn't a jacket (this is still a bit vague, so I'm not sure if jacket is in that category or not. Input much appreciated from BrE readers.)   Whenever we take Merlot out wearing this little hoodie (or is it a jacket? or a fleece?) in England, we always get compliments on her 'smart jumper (aka 'attractive or nice-looking outer garment.)

Merlot in her smart jumper.

"Can I help?"  This is what shop assistants say to you in England when it is your turn for service, for example, if you are waiting in line (in a queue) and it's your turn to approach the register (till) or if you are wandering around the cosmetic section in confusion, looking for a cream that will make you look 10 years younger with a single application (I'm here to tell you, it doesn't exist,) or any other instance in which an American worker would say, "Can I help you?"  It's obvious that they are offering to help you (even if they don't say so) but I find it interesting that, in American English, the phrase, "Can I help?" is something I'd use, for, say, asking permission (I see you're baking cookies.  Can I help?) or offering to assist someone who is clearly in a bit over their heads (I see you're trying to lift that refrigerator alone.  Can I help?) Whereas, in American shops or restaurants, the phrase one usually hears is, "Can I help you?" Why? I don't know.

Note:  It's been a few years since I've spent much time in the US, so maybe these things are not as unusual as I think they are.  Comments, clarifications, questions, or corrections are always welcome! 


BavarianSojourn said…
You can imagine how confusing the half past thing is for me living here! :D We do have some funny language differences don't we? :D
Nellig said…
Hi! I'm loving all this SO much.

It is possible to have a short-sleeved or sleeveless jumper, so Merlot's woolly garment naturally falls into this category.

A jacket is what I think you might call a blazer. There are some cardigans that are styled like jackets, with a hint of tailoring, and the boundaries of this category can get blurry. But a jacket is basically a coat that stops at your hips. You can get very light unlined jackets, so the coat-like aspect does not mean the jacket has to be heavy.

BTW have you read Kate Fox's Watching the English? So funny, and so true. You might enjoy.
MsCaroline said…
Emma - Oh, yes! I have been using the 'half' thing in German (almost)my whole life, so it is exactly the opposite for me!

Nellig - oh, I'm glad! (I think it's all really fascinating, but I often wonder if anyone else agrees!) Thanks for the clarification. I think 'jacket' probably has the same meaning in both AmE and BrE, because your definition matches mine. Would you say, though, it's possible to have a jumper with a zipper, or does a jumper have to be one piece that pulls over the head - something like we might call a 'pullover'? I haven't read 'Watching the English' yet, but it's been recommended to me more than once - I think I need to read it!
Potty Mummy said…
I would use 'jumper' to refer to a knitted garment you pull over the head (cotton or wool). If it's in a similar material but has buttons or a zip, then it's a cardigan. But funnily enough, after 5 years or so surrounded by North Americans, I tend to use the word 'sweater' instead - following a couple of interesting moments when I talked about my jumpers to Americans and they thought I was talking about some kind of all in one garment. Two nations separated by a common language...
MsCaroline said…
Clare - OK, that makes a lot of sense. You can have a knitted short-sleeve/sleeveless knitted garment as well, so that also fits with Nellig's comment. My relatives in Boston refer to anything that pulls over the head and is made of knitted material as a 'jersey' - very similar to 'jumper' - but that is not used anywhere else in the US except New England, I believe. I'll be interested in seeing what sorts of other lingering influence you'll notice after spending 6 years in North American expat circles in Moscow!
Nance said…
Ah, the jumper conundrum. How on earth a garment nowhere near the legs (which actually DO the jumping) got this name, I'll never know.

In my elementary school days, I wore lots of them--those sleeveless dress thingies underneath which one wore blouses. Then, when a visiting teacher from England referred to her sweater as a jumper, I was so surprised.

This same teacher referred to "silverware" as "cutlery." I found that far more sensible. There was no way that school cafeteria forks and spoons and butter knives were even remotely silver.
MsCaroline said…
Nance - the same has happened to me with 'vest' - here, it's an undershirt. But what we would call a vest is a waistcoat - unless it's something else. When I bought a down-filled one in February, the shop assistant referred to it as a 'gilet' (Jill-AY). Learn something new every day.
Oh goodness... living in Hong Kong and Macau (one a former British Colony, the other formerly Portuguese), we got quite fluent in all those British terms. We take a lift to our flat and put our case in the boot while wearing our wellies, etc. But when we moved to Shanghai, which is filled with American expats, we were the ones no one could understand! I confess I've not gone back to taking an elevator to our apartment. It's far too dull... :) Glad you're posting these as they come up, you know very well that there'll come a day when you stop noticing those little quirks! Enjoy!
MsCaroline said…
Heather - yes, you would definitely understand what we're contending with! Actually, we had a good preparation in Seoul - #2 went to school with quite a few British classmates (his school had a British division and all kids took the iGCSEs in high school) and the English text I used at the German school used BrE, so at least it wasn't a complete shock! Nonetheless, it's been interesting being completely immersed in the BrE, which really does creep into your daily language, especially if you spend most of your time with British friends. #2 is picking it all up so fast I'm wondering if anyone will understand him when he heads to the US for Uni in August!
Trish said…
Dougie bought me 'Watching the English' for Christmas and I am working my way through it . Very funny yet informative too. Well worth buying.
MsCaroline said…
Trish - have had that recommended to me by a number of people, and have actually read quite a few excerpts, but I'm not sure if it's a good idea for me to read the whole thing or not! I spend enough time as it is worrying about committing dumb American faux pas; I may end up with some sort of a complex if I start trying to analyze all the subtexts that are occurring in every conversation and wondering if everyone I meet thinks I've been raised by wolves!
Trish said…
Ha! You're probably right. You will end up paranoid and be afraid to go out!! Best just muddle through :-)

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