“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.
What 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.
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 😉 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
Until 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:
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:
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
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).
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; 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.)
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
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 😉
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.