Tuesday, 18 October 2011

I'll wear pajamas and give up pyjamas

The natural thing, I think, for a Brit (or indeed anyone!) to notice in their first few weeks of moving to a new country is the differences in social behaviours, currency, daily routines, and how to get around in their new home. As a Brit in America, however, I also have the pleasure of the comparison of language as, although both I and the US population mainly speak English, we're separated by a huge ocean, which seems to have resulted in some striking differences in word usage and spelling in particular.

Before I left the UK, I mentioned in my v-log - in response to a question from my friend Ben - that I suspected I would adopt some kind of Brit/Yank accent combination given enough time here. What I didn't expect to happen - and happen within the first week of my arrival - was the vocabulary replacement. I am already saying things like "shopping cart" (trolley), "parking lot" (car park), and "store" (shop), involuntarily. I guess it's a combination of being surrounded by these words, plus the fact that I am learning that people who don't know me so well (or at all, in the case of shop assistants etc.) just look at me, puzzled, and say, "What?" when I use more British terminology. So it's just easier to use the American nouns. The ones I've come across so far (most of which I have now used unconsciously, much to my shock and surprise!) are listed below:

  • (Shopping) trolley - (shopping) cart
  • Car park - parking lot
  • Shop - store
  • Plaster - band aid
  • Hoover - vacuum 
  • Coriander - cilantro ("coriander" in America refers to the seed only, not the leaf)
  • Multi-plug - power strip 
  • Hob - range
  • Cutlery - flatware 
  • Courgette - zucchini 
  • Pavement - sidewalk 
  • Bins - trash
  • Post - mail 
  • Rocket (the leaf used in salads) - arugula
  • Burger - patty 
  • Grill - broil 
  • Mobile (phone) - cell (phone)
  • Germs - cooties 
  • Icing - frosting 
  • Petrol - gas 
  • Tights - pantyhose
  • Cling film - plastic wrap or Saran wrap
  • Toilet/Loo/Bathroom - restroom 
  • Sellotape - Scotch tape
  • Mashed potato - whipped potato
  • Fizzy drink - soda
  • Postcode - ZIP code

Some of these do make sense (so let's not call the whole thing off): the ZIP in ZIP code, for example, stands for Zone Improvement Plan. Potatoes here are whipped, not mashed; power strips are just that; and "cell" is short for "cellular", referring to repeated use of frequencies in the same area to allow many people to access radio bandwidth at once - i.e. how a mobile phone network functions. All the same, I find myself confused by "cilantro", "sidewalk", and "soda" (isn't that just fizzy water?) more often than not, so I think it must be the more intuitive vocabulary that sticks, while the slightly misaligned keeps causing me communication hiccups. 

After some chats with my folks before I moved here, I decided that I would do a "before" and "after" v-log of me reading the same passage or verse; the "before" video to be recorded just after I arrived, and the "after" video of the same piece to be done 6-12 months into my residence in the States (or maybe both). So, before I lose any more of my UK yap, I had better get choosing a piece and do the "before" reading, so that changes can be tracked!

In the mean time, to illustrate other differences, here are two fun, stereotype-promoting joke maps from 'The Ultimate Bigot's Calendar of Europe' by Alphadesigner

Europe according to the UK 
Europe according to the USA


  1. My problem is that my wife uses some of the English words for things around the home when she's talking to me and I sometimes forget that, until I use them outside the home and people look at me all puzzled.

    The nouns are fairly easy though compared to the differences in humour. Some people will take you seriously when you are joking, in my experience. American humor and British humour overlap, but they are a lot of differences.

  2. Yes, Ben does a similar thing to ensure I understand what he's talking about (although I guess a summer in England has somewhat altered his language too, so sometimes it's involuntary), so the change in the "real" world will probably keep surprising me!

    I will look out for American humour; I am told that there are a lot of differences in sarcasm and dry wit particularly. Should be fun!

  3. That was fun to read. I suppose it's a normal process as the purpose is to communicate and not fighting over words, which can get rapidly annoying, and you're in "their" country so it's you who has to make the biggest effort. Sort of. (Except for the accent, of course, please keep it as much as possible. And show them how to spell ;)) I do remember making a lot of conscious effort to switch to the British terminology (and now tend to use spontaneously 95% of the words of the British side of your list!) when I was on the other side of the pond, partly for communication purposes and partly because otherwise I would get laughed at =__= haha. British words that looked like French words were easy to remember for me as they sounded particularly logical to me (e.g. toilet, aubergine, post, biscuit, etc.) I did pick up a lot of words without actually realising they were actually Britsh, even when I sort of knew the Canadian/American equivalent, generally because it was just passive knowledge, so when I use and I am surrounded by the British words, it's the British term that will stick. I couldn't really manage to entirely do the switch with pants/trousers and mobile/cell phone though (although I generally just say phone), I think I was just *too* used to the Canadian terminology with that one. That was my marginally linguistic babbling of the day :)

  4. Hee, thanks Daph - I will try to keep the accent! Any changes will be involuntary on that score. Definitely not going to be fighting over words either; as you say, the purpose is communication, and it's more fun than anything else to compare word use and so on. Spelling will definitely take a little longer, and even then I imagine it will only happen when necessary (i.e. using an American computer).

    I enjoy the babbling! Please do it more/as much as you like. :D


Thanks for taking the time to write! I try to reply to everyone, and I love to read your comments.