(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 6.)
George Bernard Shaw famously described England and America as two countries divided by a common language. It’s only when you spend time in the United States that you realise how true that is.It soon becomes apparent that while Americans use the same words as we do, they can mean quite different things.
I have to remind myself of this every time I go there. It’s a bit like having to remember that in America, the driver’s seat is on the left-hand side of the car (my wife always spends the first few days going to the wrong side, out of habit) and to look left, rather than right, when you’re about to cross the street.New Zealanders are brought up to speak the version of English used by the British. And although that’s gradually changing as we succumb to the increasing American influence on popular culture worldwide, linguistic differences can still create misunderstandings – or at the very least, provoke blank looks.
Take a simple word like “holiday”. We talk about going away for the holidays or enjoying a holiday – meaning a few days or longer – at the beach. But to an American, “holiday” refers to a specific day of celebration such as July 4 or Thanksgiving. What we call a holiday, they call a vacation. When you think about it, it’s a sensible distinction.Ask an American if you can borrow a torch, and they’ll wonder why on earth you’d want to wrap flammable cloth around a piece of wood and set it alight. To them, a torch is something associated with Ku Klux Klan rallies or the Statue of Liberty. What you want is actually a flashlight.
Cars are a prime source of confusion. Ask for directions to a petrol station and you’ll cause bewilderment. In America, you fill up with gas.You don’t put things in the boot; you put them in the trunk. And the engine isn’t under the bonnet; it’s under the hood (which is in front of the windshield).
When I tell American friends that we own a caravan, I have to remember to call it a travel trailer. To them, the word caravan is likely to conjure up romantic images of a camel train wending its way through the desert toward Samarkand.Our six-month old American granddaughter doesn’t wear nappies; she wears diapers. Her parents keep their clothes in a closet, not a wardrobe, and they get their water from a faucet. And so on.
Of course, none of these differences should be too problematical. But things can get tricky, for those unfamiliar with the vagaries of American English, when you come to order a meal in a restaurant.Here it pays to understand the nomenclature. First, don’t request tomato sauce to go with your chips. In America, tomato sauce is what spaghetti and other pasta dishes are served with. We’d call it pasta sauce. (In Mafia movies, there’s always a huge pot of it cooking on the stove.) What you want is ketchup – a word that can be traced back to the Chinese ke-tsiap, which was a spicy condiment made from pickled fish.
Chips, meanwhile, are always referred to in America as fries, or French fries. Order chips and you’ll be given what we call chippies, or what the English call crisps.And don’t make the mistake of asking for a white coffee, because Americans don’t recognise the term; ask for coffee with milk. (And don’t confuse them by trying to order a flat white or a latte, because most of America hasn’t succumbed to coffee culture as we know it. In a Starbucks café they might know what you’re talking about, but even there you’d be taking a punt.)
Most perplexing of all is the American habit of referring to the main course as the entrée, which can create real confusion for people unfamiliar with American menus.Americans proceed from appetiser to entrée to dessert. It doesn’t make sense, but there it is; it’s their country, and their right to use whatever terminology they choose.
At worst, these linguistic differences might cause mild embarrassment or temporary puzzlement, on one or both sides. Fortunately, scope for a potentially serious social faux-pas is limited – but it does exist.An example is the verb to “hook up”, which in New Zealand is usually regarded as meaning to make contact with someone or spend time with them. In America the phrase has an overtly sexual connotation – so an innocent suggestion that you hook up with someone could lead to quite the wrong impression.
Conversely, “fanny” is a word that causes no offence in America. Americans talk about patting someone on the fanny, which would have an altogether different meaning here.
What Americans call the fanny we call the bum, which simply compounds the confusion. In America a bum is a hobo or a no-hoper; the good old Kiwi phrase “a kick in the bum” would make no sense at all.So Shaw was right. Nominally we speak the same language, but there are enough points of difference to create plenty of scope for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
And that’s without even beginning to consider the additional complications posed by accents, which range from the lazy Southern drawl of Louisiana and Texas to the “Valley Girl” babble that originated in the Los Angeles suburbs but now seems common among young American women everywhere. Factor these into the mix and you have a formula for mutual incomprehension.At a service station (sorry, gas station) in a small Mississippi Delta town a couple of years ago, I asked for directions to a local point of interest. The woman serving me said she’d never heard of the place, but an elderly black gentleman sitting nearby pricked up his ears. He knew where it was and went to some lengths to explain exactly how I could find my way there.
I was grateful for his help and listened intently, nodding as he carefully gave me the directions. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t understand a single word.