Divided by a common language? Britspeak vs USspeak

divided by a common language, half and half apple“Divided by a common language” was, I thought, something that Churchill (more from him below) said in relation to the UK and the USA. Checking, I found I was wrong. It was George Bernard Shaw, echoing Oscar Wilde. Never mind who said it. This week, I’ve been finding out how right it is.

It happened like this…

I had submitted a contemporary urban fantasy novel to a New York publisher. The editor came back asking for the full MS. (Cheering in Maitland Manor, natch.) But this publisher specifically asked that all submissions be in US spelling. That made me think.

question markWhat if the US editor doesn’t understand my Brit language? After all, my MS had pavements and lifts instead of sidewalks and elevators. I decided I’d go through the MS and change all the offending words and phrases from British English (BrE) to American (AmE). Wouldn’t take long, I thought.

Er, no.
It took me four solid days of work to get through it. And, in the process, I found just how right GBS was. [For Americans, that would be G.B.S. of course ūüėČ because AmE still uses full stops (AmE periods)¬†for abbreviations like Mr. Mrs. and so on. I had to change those in my MS too.]

Common bits of our common language are really difficult

woman tearing hair at our confusing common languageUntil I started this translation project, I hadn’t realised quite how rich our common/spoken British English is compared to American English. (And I’ll be coming back to quite which can be a classic source of confusion.)

Picture me, the hair-tearing author, coming up against a sentence describing a young man as fit. In BrE, it means sexually attractive or good-looking. In AmE, it doesn’t have that extra meaning. So I had to find a word that fitted (AmE fit !!) in both AmE and BrE.

Cue thesaurus. I looked up attractive in both AmE and BrE versions and found:

common language AmE thesaurus         common language BrE thesaurus

See what I mean? The BrE version is about twice as long as the AmE one. And the AmE version didn’t give me a word I liked for¬†fit because my MS referred to a male. Don’t know about you, but I don’t think¬†foxy¬†can be applied to a bloke. (And AmE doesn’t use¬†bloke either. Argh!)

So I put good-looking into the thesauri instead and got:

common language AmE thesaurus          common language BrE thesaurus

See a pattern emerging here? However, this time I had my answer. The informal options in AmE included hot. So my fit became hot.

Job done. (And I’ll spare you any more side-by-side comparisons of the AmE thesaurus and the BrE one. Saves me fiddling with screenshots, too, so win-win, eh? And BTW win-win means the same on both sides of the pond. Phew!)

It’s the Unknown Unknowns that catch you out

man riding snail to target slowlyAs I went through my MS, I found myself going slower and slower. Why? Because I was checking more and more words and phrases, especially the slangy ones.

I ended up with a list of about 150 words and phrases that I needed to change. But I also had a list of well over 200 that I had checked and discovered were OK in AmE. Some of them surprised me. For example,¬†pissed off (=annoyed) exists in both BrE and AmE. But piss off (=get lost)¬†doesn’t apparently exist in AmE. Nor does¬†pissed (=drunk). Sigh.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I became super-cautious, checking almost everything, because I knew that¬†unknown unknowns could catch me out. They probably still have. No doubt I missed loads. But at least I’ve tried. (Will the US editor be grateful, I wonder?)

Common language : embarrassing or what?

Sometimes, the different usages can even be embarrassing.

I have difficulty getting myself to use the AmE word pants for BrE¬†trousers.¬†To my mind, pants¬†means female knickers or male underpants. And I can’t make myself not visualise that (AmE envision).

It can get worse, though.common language produces puzzlement, embarrassment and worse

Take, for example, the word fanny.
In AmE, it means buttocks.
In BrE, it means female genitals, not the same part of the anatomy at all.
So Americans might carry a fanny pack, for which the British equivalent is a bum bag.

That creates another common language difficulty, because AmE doesn’t use the word¬†bum in the sense of buttocks. In AmE, it would be fanny or perhaps ass. And that’s yet another turn in this downward spiral of confusion. BrE uses¬†arse which my AmE dictionary coyly defines as “British spelling of ass“. Yes, quite. I imagine you’re beginning to see why this project took 4 solid days?

Churchill’s common language : very common at times

I’m indebted to Wikipedia for a fascinating sidelight from Winston Churchill on misunderstandings in our common language. I quote:

As chronicled by Winston Churchill, the opposite meanings of the 
verb to table created a misunderstanding during a meeting of the 
Allied forces;[10] in BrE to table an item on an agenda means to 
open it up for discussion whereas in AmE, it means to remove it 
from discussion, or at times, to suspend or delay discussion; 
e.g. Let's table that topic for later.

The other Churchill story I feel I must share is about KBO. It was Churchill’s habit to end phone conversations with “KBO”. He used it regularly when talking to President Roosevelt. The President didn’t know what it meant and, for a long time, didn’t ask for an explanation. Maybe he thought it was some kind of honour or decoration? The KBO as the King’s British Order? You may be able to suggest other, less polite, expansions. (I could produce a few ideas myself, drawing on the models of OBE = Other Buggers’ Efforts and KCMG = the King Calls Me God.)Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and Cecilienhof, Potsdam

Anyway, the President eventually got round to asking Churchill what KBO meant. “Keep Buggering On,” Churchill replied, to the consternation of Roosevelt, to whom it must have sounded incredibly vulgar. But to Churchill, it was just slang meaning “never give up”. He even wrote it on memos.

As a PS to that story, I note that KBO is now included in an American list of government and military acronyms. So vulgarity becomes slang becomes accepted term? You are allowed to smile. And you may also laugh at the anecdote and KBO lessons related on¬†Michael Brown’s blog here. Definitely worth a read, I’d say.

And finally, let’s be¬†quite common

Red question mark sign against a blue skyI did say I’d be returning to¬†quite. Question: what does this section heading actually mean? Am I saying we should be¬†very common or¬†just a little bit common?

Americans don’t use the word¬†quite very much but, when they do, it’s in the sense of¬†very. In AmE, “I’m quite hungry” is the equivalent of “I’m starving” to a Brit. In BrE, “I’m quite hungry” means “I’m a little bit peckish”, doesn’t it?

Yet, in BrE,¬†quite can also mean very or absolutely, can’t it?¬†Quite right.

In other words, in BrE, the word quite can have two opposite meanings: completely, or just a little bit.

Lesson: don’t use¬†quite when talking to an American. They might get the wrong end of the stick,¬†another wonderfully graphic BrE expression which doesn’t seem to have made it across the pond.

At which point, being quite tired (meaning what???) I shall end this blog and hope that Dame Isadora doesn’t give me a bollocking (BrE only; AmE equivalent: dressing down¬†or getting chewed out)¬†for intruding on her territory ūüėČ

Joanna Maitland author


PS Yes I did also check for got/gotten. In all the places where AmE would have required me to use¬†gotten, I changed the sentence so I didn’t have to.¬†Forget/forgotten are fine by me.¬†Gotten? Not so much, as those across the pond might say.

10 thoughts on “Divided by a common language? Britspeak vs USspeak

  1. Liz Fielding

    While sympathising with the effort involved, Joanna, I thoroughly enjoyed your struggles to make the English language clear to an American audience. The richness of BrE is the gift of a long history and entanglements with other cultures. We are blessed. The really big difference between the British and American reader is that we – mostly – understand the American version, although “quite” and “table” had escaped me, while Americans not only think we can’t spell, but BrE really is a foreign language to them. And thank you for the link to Michael Brown’s blog. A thoroughly entertaining start to the day.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree about the richness of Brit English, Liz. And I must say that some of the differences I found really surprised me.

  2. lesley2cats

    Always something that infuriates me – it’s OUR language, not theirs! Conveniently forgetting its roots, of course. My American daughter-in-law is used to me and merely sighs. But gotten is tricky, isn’t it? Because according to some sources, its origins are Old or Middle English and from the Germanic roots of “our” language. And the arguments roll on…

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, “gotten” is tricky. After all, we happily use “forgotten” don’t we? And it’s exactly the same root. But “gotten” just grates for me and I’m prepared to do a lot of rewriting in order to avoid it. To be fair, I should add that, back in earlier centuries, it was not unusual to say “I have forgot what I intended to say”, so “forgot” and “forgotten” were both used as the past participle back then.

  3. Lorna Read

    As an editor as well as a writer, you’d be surprised how many ‘half and half’ manuscripts I am given to work on, where the writer strikes a middle course between UK and American spellings. So they write ‘neighbour’, but miss out an l in words like ‘travelled’, which becomes ‘traveled’. There are so many pitfalls to watch out for. It sounds as if you have done a magnificent and thorough job with your own book. I hope it does really well for you!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you, Lorna, and welcome. Interestingly, when I was changing the spelling in my MS (which I did by changing the language to US English and running a spell check), Word missed a few, one of which was “travelled” which it left with ll instead of l. I changed it myself when I was going through, later on. So I’ve learned not to rely on Word for US spelling. Not totally, at least.

      But in general, I’d have thought that, if your authors ran a spell check, you wouldn’t get too many half BrE half AmE instances. Maybe they forget to use spell check?

  4. Yvonne Setters

    Once again a very interesting and “quite” funny! Like you when Americans say pants I automatically think of a man in underwear. Crossing the oceans further I have trouble not to laugh when Australians refer to flip-flops as “thongs.”

    1. Joanna Post author

      Your “thongs” made me laugh, Yvonne. Thank you. A similar potentially embarrassing confusion could arise with BrE “rubber” which in AmE means, ahem, “condom” rather than “eraser”.

  5. Elizabeth Bailey

    It’s a minefield. Admire you for taking so much trouble to make the switch. I never do and fortunately my American readers seem to accept the BrE version. Perhaps because all/most of my books are historical so it’s clearly British in origin. Although that doesn’t apply to many American authored historicals, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I suppose (I guess in AmE) it’s unreasonable to expect US authors to be completely accurate when we can’t do it the other way with ease.
    Gotten is definitely an old English word, but it’s fallen out of use here so it grates on me too. Like you, I would change wording to avoid it if it came up in my writing.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Well, I thought I probably should make the effort for a US publisher. But yes, it is a minefield and I’m sure I didn’t catch everything in my “translation”.

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