Tomayto, Tomahto

(Note:  MsCaroline is well aware that it's been four months a while since she posted anything on her blog, and maybe someday when she's old and retired eventually she'll get around to catching up, but for now, she's just jumping in where she is. Suffice it to say that the 1-year anniversary of the move to England is fast approaching, a certain amount of acclimatization has been accomplished, and time is storming by at its usual breakneck pace.)

Even before MsCaroline moved to the UK, she was a fan of a number of British blogs, including a couple written by British and American expats, so she was well aware that a certain amount of linguistic confusion awaited her on the Other Side of The Pond.  As a moderate Anglophile who had had more than a few dealings with speakers of BE (British English) during the course of her lifetime, she really did feel (wrongly, as it turns out) that she was as well-prepared (as well as anyone could be) for her move to the UK - at least with regard to the language. And, she reasoned, she was still farther along than she'd been in Korea, where her conversation was limited to a stockpile of approximately 25 words and phrases.

MsCaroline already knew about spelling differences and things like cash register being called a till and shopping carts being called trolleys.  She knew about car things:  bonnet and boot instead of hood and trunk;  and she knew that underwear was knickers but that underwear was also pants and that it would result in an embarrassing faux pas if she referred to her pants when she really meant to discuss her trousers (although she did not know until her arrival that pants could also be a British English term of derision as in The film was pants. But she digresses.)

So it was, in this state of blissful ignorance optimism that she moved to the UK not anticipating too many communication issues whatsoever.  And, naturally (as always seems to be the case) she was soon to learn just how wrong she was.

Knowing that at least some of her readers would be keen to enjoy a laugh at her expense learn something new, she decided that an occasional post highlighting a few differences between AE (American English) and BE (British English) might be worthwhile.

Let MsC emphasize that what she is sharing with you is only the merest tip of the linguistic iceberg, but one must start somewhere, mustn't one?

Let's start with a few phrases:

Poor little sausage/dumpling = poor little thing.  Example, "Well, she really is a poor little sausage, isn't she?"  Used by our vet to refer to our dog, miserable due to a back injury.  Highly accurate. Also adorable.

Fit as the butcher's dog = in extremely good shape or physically very attractive, not necessarily to do with actual fitness.  ('Fit' on its own is often used in the same context where an American would say 'hot' or 'good-looking' or even the old-fashioned 'fine' as in, "Oh, wow, (S)He's fit!") A direct quote from a Cornish bartender in regard to a tour group of Russians staying in the hotel shortly before we arrived:  "Every one of 'em had a wife that was as fit as the butcher's dog."  Hmmm.  Right then.

Touch wood:  =  knock on wood.  Close enough.

Other words:

fancy= to like, as in, 'Do you fancy kebabs for dinner?' or 'Do you think he fancies her?' This is surprisingly insidious, is used all the time by everyone, and when it pops out of one's American mouth for the first time, it sounds ridiculous. The feeling quickly passes, though.  In the same vein, we have the word

keen= a) to enjoy or like, or b) to be interested in or passionate about, as in, "We were really keen to see the new James Bond film."  Or, "My husband is a keen cyclist."  This is, if anything, even more insidious than 'fancy' and worms its way into one's vocabulary very quickly as well, and one suddenly finds oneself saying it without meaning to. 

Surname=  family name, last name, as opposed to first name.  Most N.Americans are aware of this word, but rarely (if ever) use it, in contrast to England, where it is used regularly.  Being asked, 'What's your surname?' often takes people like me who aren't expecting itAmericans by surprise and results in a slight processing delay.  Since this inquiry is accompanied by an unfamiliar pronunciation, the puzzled listener may have no idea what is being asked.  The fact that, as an expat, you are constantly signing up for things (utilities, clubs, dentists, warranties) means that you run across the question 'What's your surname?' all the time, and it take some getting used to.
Moral of story:  'Surname'= 'last name';  'Christian name' = first name.  (UK readers:  Most N.Americans would use 'Last name' and 'First name' in those situations)

Stone=  a unit of measurement equalling 14lbs and how people often refer to their weight.  "I weigh 10 stone" = "I weigh 140lbs."  "I weigh 10st 2"= "I weigh 142 lbs."  MsCaroline has nothing against measuring weight in stones vs pounds, especially since stones are smaller numbers.  However, any reasonable person will realize that most stone weights require the non-British listener to do at least
some calculating, which is not always MsCaroline's strong point. Naturally, if you have grown up in the UK and someone tells you they weigh '9 stone,' you have an immediate innate general understanding of what that looks like (126 pounds) but if you are MsCaroline, you have to do the math(s). Fortunately, this is not an issue that crops up too frequently, since the British women I've met seem no less eager to share their weight than women from anywhere else.  

Greengages and damsons and blackcurrants, oh my:  As in so many aspects of daily life, England is full of words that are vaguely - but not actually - familiar, and nowhere does one notice this as much as in the supermarket.  The produce section is full of beetroot (not beets), peppers (not bell peppers), rocket (not arugula), courgettes (not zucchini), chillies (not habanero or serrano peppers),  satsumas (not clementines) and swedes (turnips or rutabagas.) Flour is not just flour, but strong flour or plain flour (and yes, they are different!) Jelly is jam or marmalade, and and jello is jelly.  And there is no grape jam or marmalade. At least, not anywhere I've seen.  But you will find ginger rhubarb conserve, lemon curd, and chutneys in spades.  Also, the best preserves you will ever taste  

During the summer when I mostly stopped blogging due to busyness and sloth but we won't mention that now and spoil this nice time, shall we? when I was walking the dog several miles each day through fields and meadows, I noticed huge swaths of what looked like blackberry bushes and which turned out to be what my English friends all assured me were 'brambles.'  (I would have to see a 'bramble' and a 'blackberry' side-by-side in order to convince myself they were, in fact, different things, but I'm not one to quibble. Tomayto, tomahto.)  The bramble, of course, must not be confused with the blackcurrant, which is something different -but not that different- from the redcurrant, which is pretty much the only kind of currant that Americans recognize and rarely use anyway.   Blackcurrants are used to make slightly tangy jams, preserves, and marmalades as well as a popular juice drink called 'Ribena' which seems to be a favorite with children.  MsC is not a fan, but that probably has to do with not growing up drinking it.  

All this confusion extends to the garden as well:

Actual exchange between myself and neighbor man last spring when the trees were in bloom:
Neighbor Man= That tree is covered with blossoms.  You'll get quite a bit of fruit in October.
Me= Oh, I hope so.  Do you happen to know what sort of a tree it is? We thought it might be a crabapple, but it's a little different from what we have in the USA.  Any ideas?
NM (inspecting a branch closely) No question, they're damsons or greengages, of course.

Me= (racking brain frantically for vocabulary list) Oh. yes.  of course.  I should have realized.  Thank you so much! (note:  damsons and greengages are types of plums.  I learned this from Googling, which I did immediately after this conversation. You're welcome.)

And the list just goes on and on.  Looking for toilet paper or paper towels? You'll be looking for toilet roll and kitchen roll.  Ladies, you'll be looking for sanitary towels, not napkins - although if you're looking for diapers for your baby, you will, in fact, want napkins, or nappies.  Crisps are chips (and chips, of course, are french fries) and biscuits are cookies, except when they're crackers; then, they get to be called savoury biscuits.  

So, yes, it's been a bit of an eye-opener or, as we say in the US, a learning curve.

The best one, though, has been the sign we ran across at the beach a couple of months ago.

We'd gone to a beach which didn't allow dogs off-lead (off-leash), but another dog-walker had told us that, if we walked away from the car park towards the end of the beach that was very sparsely populated, we could let her run with impunity.  Accordingly, we set off for the end of the beach.  As we left the crowds behind us, we passed a sign which stated that 'beyond this point, Naturists may be seen.'  Hmmm, I thought to myself, why are they telling us that? Envisioning a phalanx of safari-hat-wearing birdwatchers in practical shoes tiptoeing through the dunes looking for the nest of the rare green-throated Nuthatch, I mused that it was possible that a really serious naturist might be annoyed or interrupted by loud beachgoers or barking dogs and resolved to keep my voice low and my movements smooth and nonthreatening.

 My, I thought, they really take the whole nature-watching thing seriously here in England.  MrL and I trudged on down the beach, and the crowd continued to thin until the only other person we could see was just a spot in the distance.  Unleashing the dog, we let her frolic in the surf and continued on our way down the beach toward the spot, who, as he came closer, we were able to recognize as a man wearing a sun hat and - based on the amount of bared skin we could see from a distance - a very small, light-colored bathing suit.  Of course, I thought to myself, European men and their little bikini bathing suits.  It's only the Americans who insist on wearing those big swimming trunks all the time.

As you have undoubtedly guessed by now, by the time we approached each other, it became abundantly clear that what we had perceived to be a small, flesh-colored bathing suit was, in fact, no suit at all.  As we learned via awkward experience, the British word naturist is the equivalent of the American English nudist.  

Tomayto, tomahto.


Stacy Rushton said…
What a great post! It reminds me of the story an American friend told years ago when they enrolled their small son in a local school near Gatwick. He was in a flood of tears the very first day because the teacher had scolded him for not throwing his rubbish in the bin and he simply didn't have a clue what she meant by either of those words. Then she offered him a biscuit to console him and he didn't like biscuits. He would have liked one of the cookies she kept on her desk though, please. Like our favorite blog, Separated by a Common Language! We just think we all speak English.
MsCaroline said…
Yes, I have thought of her blog many times since moving here! I am constantly amazed at how often these things still pop up, even 10 months down the road. Interestingly, I've learned many things from my students in the evening class I'm teaching. Even something as simple as vocabulary for the items in the house had us going from German to BE to AE (hob=cooktop; pen=Biro; and so on.) It's certainly been more complicated than I expected, although I'm functioning well on a daily basis, so I suppose that's what matters, right? ;)

Expat mum said…
Hilarious. My (American) kids often make fun of my apparent over use of the word "keen".
Trish said…
Oh I have laughed like a loon at this post. So funny. It really hadn't occurred to me that you wouldn't know words like till and naturist. Fascinating stuff.
Sophie said…
Brilliant! I loved reading these. Once in my student days I went to view a potential house share, someone had a support naturists poster in the window, and I knew in that moment that I wouldn't be moving in!

Though I dont think anyone is calling a clementine a samosa (fried Asian pastry), they might call it a satsuma :) although technically, they're 2 different varieties of fruit
Potty Mummy said…
Fabulous! Although *whispers* I suspect that in your paragraph on supermarket shopping you meant to say 'satsumas', not 'samosas'.... ;)
MsCaroline said…
EM- It's actually a really useful way to describe an interest in a number of ways. I adopted 'keen' and 'fancy' very quickly, although it took me a bit before I could use them without feeling like some sort of 'unauthorized user alarm' was about to go off every time I did it.

Trish - yes, some of them are pretty self-evident, but in my defense, the term 'naturist' doesn't come up all that often in conversation. At least with my particular group of friends. ; )

Sophie and Clare - Thank you for the correction! But you see, this just proves my point - I don't even know all these words! (rushes quickly to edit post and avoid further embarrassment.)
MsCaroline said…
EM- It's actually a really useful way to describe an interest in a number of ways. I adopted 'keen' and 'fancy' very quickly, although it took me a bit before I could use them without feeling like some sort of 'unauthorized user alarm' was about to go off every time I did it.

Trish - yes, some of them are pretty self-evident, but in my defense, the term 'naturist' doesn't come up all that often in conversation. At least with my particular group of friends. ; )

Sophie and Clare - Thank you for the correction! But you see, this just proves my point - I don't even know all these words! (rushes quickly to edit post and avoid further embarrassment.)
Hahahahaha! Oh goodness, I love this so much. In China, last name is Family Name and I swear to you that I always pause at that and wonder if they expect us to give our family a name like "The Incredibles" or "Team Awesome" before I realize what they mean. And then I pause again because my legal last name is Rose-Chase but the rest of my family is just Chase, so then I wonder if they are actually asking for MY last name or the last name of my family... I swear, this is our fourth Christmas here but it STILL stops me cold every time... No naturists here, just full body suits including those weird face masks that look like Nacho Libre wrestling masks here. My boys saw an American friend's teenage daughter at the pool in a string bikini and they flipped out at how underdressed she was, saying, "nobody should be exposing that much flesh outside of a private shower. Someone give her a towel to cover up." Whew, one good thing about raising teen boys in China I suppose... Less "eye candy"? *sigh* Thanks for sharing!
MsCaroline said…
I'm sure the Chinese wouldn't appreciate it, but it *would* be pretty interesting to see what kind of reaction you'd get to a Family Name like 'The Incredibles.' I totally understand about the covering up bit - if you went to a pool or beach in Korea, you were totally underdressed in a bathing suit or even a rashguard. When I walked the dog in the summer, (sweating buckets in tank top and shorts) every woman I passed would be wearing a hat with visor and face mask, long sleeves and GLOVES, something around the neck, and long pants. Granted, they all had flawless skins and I look like tanned leather, so maybe it's a style worth emulating. It will be interesting to see what happens when the boys get back to the state for University and hear their impressions after so long in Chinese culture.
We are really divided by a common language aren't we?

I never knew before I moved to the US that you didn't have stones, or surnames.

And I never knew that about "keen" -- so when would you use it?
Love this Caroline! And it reminds me all over again of how much I'd love to meet you too. Just a long shot - I'm in bath on Monday 23rd November with a couple of hours free in the afternoon. Any chance of meeting up for a coffee? Not really expecting this to work at such short notice but you never know, the Stars might be aligned.
MsCaroline said…
NVG - do you mean, when would we use it in the USA? The only time we use it in the US is usually in adjective/adverb form, like 'He has a keen eye for a bargain," or "She looked at me keenly, trying to decide whether or not I was lying." And even then, it's really not commonly used (at least, I don't think it is - I've been out of the loop for a while.) Most of the time I think it's used as in 'intelligent' or 'sharp-witted' if it's used at all. But I don't ever remember hearing anyone use it in the UK aspect of 'avid' the way I hear it all the time here.
MsCaroline said…
Oh, Elizabeth, I'd love to, and yes, the stars must be aligning, because I am, indeed, free! Just let me know when you think you'll be arriving. If you'll be somewhere specific, I can meet you at your convenience. This is so exciting!
Fab fab fab! I will email you xx
At least I would if I could find your address! Send me a friend request on Facebook perhaps and we can take it from there?
MsCaroline said…
Done! Sent you a friend request and also a message with my email and mobile number. So looking forward to it!
Nance said…
Oh, how I love love love blackcurrant anything. I prowl around any imported foods sections of the stores here (like World Market) and buy blackcurrant jam/preserves even though I rarely eat it. BUT WHEN I DO...! I got very spoiled by an Irish friend from NYC who made frequent trips to Ireland and brought back jars as gifts.

I was overjoyed to find my favourite brand in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, in a teensy shop called The Wee Scottish Loft. (Right next to Greaves, the marmalade people.) All set now!

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