I just returned from a trip to see family and friends in the land of my birth. Because I had not been back to England for a while, it struck me afresh how, as the great British politician Winston Churchill famously said, our two nations are “divided by a common language.”
When learning a foreign language – French at school in my case, the teachers always said when you start thinking and dreaming in that language, then you are becoming fluent. I wonder if this is the same for speaking “American English?”
I think I am beginning to think in American – I really had to concentrate when given directions in England recently. The friendly lady told me to “take the motorway to junction 29 (a consecutive number), give way at the dual carriageway, drive past the petrol station, turn left at the T-junction and you will see the hamlet just beyond the pub on your right.”
Well, in America, that would be “take the interstate to exit 90 (a mile marker), merge onto the highway, drive past the gas station, turn right at the three-way intersection and you will see the little town just past the bar on your right.”
Of course, these are not the only problems in driving around on the other side of the Atlantic – and I am not a natural or relaxed driver at the best of times.
For example, we have lay-bys and you have pull offs. We have estate cars and we open their boots when we get to a car park, whereas Americans have station wagons and open their trunks in the parking lot.
We are likely to have to overtake lorries, instead of passing trucks like Americans, drive over a fly-over then take the second exit at a roundabout before ending up in a cul-de-sac – well, given my sense of direction, in any event – whereas Americans would go over the overpass, go straight through the traffic circle and finish the journey in a dead end.
And of course, we might ask a Lollipop man or lady, better known here as a crossing guard, for directions, stop for pedestrians at a zebra crossing, aka, cross walk, and then have to slow down for the sleeping policemen, or speed bumps.
Of course, driving around is only one of the things I have had to relearn since moving to the United States. There are the obvious things people find out from watching American TV and movies. (We call them films and we go to the cinema rather than the movie theater.)
For example, I knew I would have to leave the sidewalk, not the British pavement, and enter the apartment building, not the British block of flats, then take an elevator, not a British lift, to get to a higher floor.
Of course, the confusion only begins at that point because in England, we call the first floor the ground floor and the second floor the first floor. Are you confused yet? Try emigrating.
When I first visited American friends of my husband before I lived here, I was jet-lagged, so I announced that I would be going to bed early. I asked my shocked hosts to “knock me up in the morning” if I still was asleep when they got up.
In England, “to be knocked up” traditionally means to be woken up by knocking on the door or window. It originates from the times before alarm clocks were affordable or reliable.
Individuals – often elderly people or policemen trying to earn some extra money – took the job of going down the street in a town and knocking on doors and windows with a stick early in the morning to ensure residents were awake so they could arrive punctually for work at the local factory or mill.
Actually, it is amazing that I ended up married to my American husband, considering some of our language hitches early on.
For example, when we first met, my husband told me several times that he thought I was “quite attractive.” In England, this means “a little bit attractive but nothing special.”
In the end, I asked him to stop mentioning it. I asked that if he did not find my looks particularly attractive, could he please stop embarrassing me by constantly referring to them.
My boyfriend – who at this point looked like a real long shot in becoming my husband someday – looked confused, then embarrassed and then apologetic as he explained that he was trying to compliment me.
Apparently, if you are American, “quite” can mean “very” or “extremely,” rather than “just a little bit.”
There also are other cultural language-related differences: In England, we get very excited if the sun comes out, so we all say to each other, “Isn’t it a lovely day?”
When I try that in Coastal Georgia, people just look at me as if I am crazy for stating the obvious, but that is another column.
God bless America – and that is American English!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.