Speaking the Queen’s English (Or At Least Her Servant’s Bloody English)

“England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

George Bernard Shaw

If you’ve watched BBC comedies or attempted to look for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a British bookstore, you quickly discover that there are language differences between the two major countries that speak primarily English.  We mostly understand one another – even with thick Brooklyn or Cockney accents – but the words aren’t always the same. 

For instance, you’d better change your search to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone since that is the original title of J.K. Rowling’s first book.   A friend of my mother’s read the British edition with its references to Harry and Ron receiving home-knit jumpers from Mrs. Weasley.   The British “jumper” is the American “sweater.”  There were several word changes made for the American edition to clear up those terms that don’t make a lot of sense to us in the States. 

Here are some other British words with American descriptions: 

A Fish Called Wanda, John Cleese as Barrister

A lorry is a truck.

A pram is a baby carriage or stroller.

A biscuit is a cookie.

A nutter is a crazy person.

A barrister is a lawyer.

A flat is an apartment.

A lift is an elevator.

A bonnet is a car hood.

A chip is a French fry.

A queue is a line.

A bum is a behind.

A holiday is a vacation.

Daft is stupid.

Telly is the television or TV.

The loo is the bathroom. 

But you may have known most or all of those.  How about more obscure ones? 

Ask for a rubber to get an eraser.

Antenatal is prenatal.

Braces are suspenders.

A chemist is a pharmacist.

A dummy is a pacifier.

A wally is a nerd.

A rubber is an eraser.

A spanner is a wrench.

An estate agent is a realtor.

A waistcoat is a vest.

Cheers means thank you.

A mobile is a cell phone.

A torch is a flashlight.

A jumble sale is a yard sale (called garage sale where I live).

Trainers are athletic or tennis shoes.

Pants are underwear (say trousers in the UK instead).

A people carrier is a minivan (sounds right to me).

A banger is a sausage.

A brolly is an umbrella. 


T.R. Wolf has quite a few more examples in his UK vs. US English videos.  The English Club online also has a BritSpeak dictionary with American-British translations. 

The slang of our two countries is even more difficult to decipher!   Hugh Laurie played a game on Ellen Degeneres’s show trying to figure out the particular jargon of the other’s home country.

By the way, I knew absolutely none of the slang – American or British.  

Can you think of any other English words that vary in American and British usage?  What do you think about the differences in our language?  Do you find Brits or Americans had to understand at times?  Do you watch British television shows or movies or read books with word variations?

Wednesday Words: Sesquipedalianism

I love long, descriptive words that hint at their meaning.  Serendipity is surprisingly delightful every time it rolls off my tongue.  The word tentacles seems to reach and encircle me.  Rambunctious has a pop in the middle of the word that seems energetic and ornery at the same time.  Effervescent sounds hissing and bubbly.

But perhaps my favorite example is the word sesquipedalianism – which means the use of long words.  Isn’t that grand?!  I’ve known people who are sesquipedalians (given to the use of long words), including my husband at times.  There is something intriguing about a person who can insert the perfect, arcane four-syllable word whenever a situation calls for it.  Plenty of authors are in favor of peppering their writing with tongue-twisting words of great length.  I’ve read them; haven’t you?

I don’t know when I could possibly interject the word sesquipedalianism into a novel, but I await that golden opportunity.  Maybe I’ll create a character who uses long, esoteric words excessively and have another character quip about his rampant sesquipedalianism.   Perhaps I’ll babble on and on in a novel myself and refer to the narrator’s sesquipedalianism.  Someday, though, somehow, someone in my novels will display sesquipedalism.  (Perhaps I’m doing it already.)

In case you’re wondering about the word’s etymology, “sesqui” means one-and-a-half and “ped,” of course, means “foot.”   Thus, the use of words over a foot-and-a-half long!

In reality, of course, most writing should be far more accessible.  The trick is to make what the narrator and characters say seem natural, effortless.  A well-placed, multisyllabic word can be appropriate.  But C.S. Lewis, replying to a letter from a child, advised, “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long vague one.  Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”  Soon after, he added, “Don’t use words too big for the subject.  Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”(Letters to Children, p. 64.)

I agree.  In fact, it would be awful to talk about serendipity when something is only slightly surprising or nice.  Or to constantly refer to my children as rambunctious when they rarely run that wild.  In fact, I have yet to find a perfect spot for my word sesquipedalianism.  I have opted instead for relatively average words of average length.  I hope that makes my writing more readable.

Still, one of these days, the perfect circumstance will arise, and I will happily type sesquipedalianism on a stark white screen.  Okay, not simply on this blog, but in a book.  Won’t that be serendipitous?

What are some of your favorite one-and-a-half foot words?

Round of Words in 80 Days Update:  1,392 of 5,000 words written, 64 of 186 pages edited, and two sick kids back at school.  Okay, that last one wasn’t a write goal, but now that they are well, I can write even more!