Among the many things the UK has in common with the USA, is the English language. Except that, with a huge ocean and many centuries between when the English spoken was pretty much the same and now, subtle, and not so subtle, divergences have given rise to the sentiment conveyed in the title of this post. No one is quite sure who said these famous words. They are often attributed to George Bernard Shaw. But they might be from Oscar Wilde, or Mallory Browne, or Raymond Gram Swing, or the prolific Anon.
Some of the misunderstandings over words and phrases are humorous (to Brits, anyway – the American term ‘fanny’ is a more sexual part of the anatomy in Britain, so not a word to be used in polite society without a titter or a tut). Some are misleading (American pants are British trousers; the American woman’s purse is the British woman’s handbag). Some are annoying (‘have a nice day’ / ‘take care.’ – No, I’ll damn well have a sh***y day, and run out in front of cars, if I want to. But then, as the English novelist, Kingsley Amis, really did say: ‘If you can’t annoy someone with what you write, there’s little point in writing.’ And the same, I suppose, can go for speaking.
As much as the different meaning of words and phrases can cause confusion, is the difference in nuance. The English person’s use of understatement, often puzzles American and other nationalities. Carol Midgley, recently wrote about this in The Times:
“When a man says he’s going ‘for a pint’ he means five, minimum. ‘I’ve felt better,’ means ‘I’m so ill I could die.’ ‘I’ve been a bit silly,’ means I’ve gambled the house away, and got my wife’s sister pregnant.’ …
… When someone is described as a ‘livewire’ it means they are ‘a drunk.’ ‘She’s a bit tricksy’ means ‘she’s a complete bitch.’ …
… ‘You look well,’ means ‘you look fat.’ ‘Help yourself,’ means ‘only take one you greedy pig.’ ‘I might see you later,’ means you definitely won’t, and ‘Right, I must let you get on,’ means ‘I’m bored with this conversation and want to end it now.’ (I’ve used that one a few times.)
Although I have had a number of books published in America (by Solstice Publishing), all my work sells better in the UK. Perhaps this is because, despite knowing about pants and purses, I use more typically British terms and stylistic idiosyncrasies than I realise.
There’s plenty more I could say on this topic. But right now, I’m sure you are busy, so I must let you get on.
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