The Great British-American Divide: Hey Dude, Mind the Gap in Our Common Language

“We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement on the British/American language divide may be more than 100 years old, but it’s still timely. Isn’t that grand? Despite the ever-shrinking size of the pond separating the U.K. and the U.S., there’ll always be an England—and a dustbin. That’s wastebasket to us Yanks. Noah Webster did his best to separate the languages through spelling—no u’s in “color” or “honor” for the upstart American cousins—but he needn’t have worried. There are still plenty of ways by which, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, the two countries are separated by a common language.

When Will and Kate have their new baby, they’ll push their little one in a pram rather than a stroller, and decide whose turn it is to change the nappies (diapers). Americans taking a vacation to England are actually “going on holiday.” If you hire (rent) a car, remember to drive on the wrong—oops! left—side of the dual carriageway (highway) and be ready to give way (yield) entering the roundabouts (rotaries). Also be ready for sticker shock when you see the price of petrol (gas). Remember, it’s in litres, not gallons; do the maths.

If you have car trouble, pop the bonnet if you want to check under the hood. With luck you’ll have a torch (flashlight) in the boot (trunk) if it’s dark. If you really get stuck, flag down a lorry driver, who’ll be in what Americans know as a truck.

Weighty Matters

In his book Flirting with French the American author William Alexander makes fun of his own botched attempt to parle français in a Parisian restaurant, only to have the words tumble out as “I’ll have the ham in newspaper, and my son will have my daughter.” British/American translation doesn’t lend to itself to the same degree of disastrousness (although Americans shouldn’t tell their future English mothers-in-law after a meal that they’re “stuffed”), but it’s still possible to trip up even if you don’t fall. Isn’t that grand?

Consider the stamp—the kind you use to post (mail) a letter in the pillar box (mailbox), if you’re still inclined to practice that quaint custom. If you want to buy a half-dollar’s worth of stamps in the U.S., you’ll get fifty cents’ worth. If you want to buy a half-pound’s worth in the U.K., you’ll get a strange look from the postal clerk. Sorry, luv, but that fifty-pence piece, the monetary equivalent of one-half of one pound sterling, does not translate to half a pound.

Eat Your Jacket
Braces translate to suspenders, anorak to parka, and rucksack to backpack. Yes, you can buy sweaters on both sides of the pond, but you’ll get only guy wear in England unless you ask for jumpers. (Ladies don’t sweat, luv.) And then there are the jackets—as in jacket potatoes, known ever so prosaically by Americans as baked potatoes.

The i’s Have It

The British/American language divide is also one of pronunciation. In England, something breakable is likely to be “fra-jīle,” with a long “i.” And yet there you take your “vĭt-amins,” with a short “i” on the “vit.” Consistency would be so very tiresome.

“La-BOR-a-tory,” say the Brits. Americans, always in a hurry, don’t have time for the five-syllable stretch and so make it “LAB-ratory.” But how, then, to figure the proper British pronunciations of Oxford’s Magdalene College and Cambridge’s Caius College? (“Maudlin” and “keys,” natch.) Invoke Wilde and just enjoy.

Now that Starbucks is on both sides of the pond, let us take care that the lingua franca of its lattes does not succeed in uniting our common divide of a language. Because let’s face it: “Watch your step” just can’t hold a language-lover’s candle to “mind the gap”.

About Mim Harrison

Mim Harrison is the author of three books on the English language, Wicked Good Words, Smart Words (both, Penguin/Perigee) and Words at Work (Walker Publishing). A longtime professional writer and editor, she is also a producer of specialty books that are published in cooperation with leading cultural institutions. Her interest in languages began during her misadventures as a college student abroad.