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Guest opinion : Brit lost in American English translation

By Harvey Burgess - Tucson Citizen

Brit lost in American English translation

I am a Brit in Tucson, and I am learning American English. I decided to do so after various encounters, including one in an Albertson's supermarket.

Me: Hi. Could you tell me where the trolleys are?

Employee: Excuse me?

Could you tell me where I can find a trolley?

Employee: Excuse me, sir. I'm not getting you.

You know, the things on wheels that we put our food in.

Employee: Oh, gotcha. You mean the carts.

Yes, exactly, the carts.

Employee: You can find them at 19 and the meat counter.

I beg your pardon?

Employee: At 19 and the meat counter.

I'm sorry. I have no idea what you're talking about, and I don't eat meat anyway. Could you show me?

Employee: You bet. Follow me. Here they are, sir. Aisle 19, by the meat counter.

Oh, I see. Aisle 19. That's great. Thanks a lot.

Employee: Did you find everything OK today, sir?

I'm sorry?

Employee: I was asking whether you found everything.

Well, apart from Aisle 19, I couldn't find the courgettes.

Employee: Excuse me?

The courgettes. (I learn later that in the U.S., these vegetables are known as zucchini squash, and aubergines are known as eggplant.)

Employee: Sorry, sir. I don't know those items.

It's OK. Don't worry. I'll do some exploring and hopefully I'll spot them. Oh, by the way, can you point me toward the Gents?

Employee: The gents?

The men's room. I need to have a pee.

Employee: Oh, the restroom. Yes, it's at 12 and diet right.

Twelve and what?

Employee: Diet right.

What is diet right?

Employee: It's our new "diet right" section, sir. We've got, like, loads of pure zero drinks, like Diet Rite cola. There's no calories, carbs, caffeine or sodium.

Some 4,000 words are used differently in our two countries, according to Bill Bryson in his book "The Mother Tongue."

Some are well known; for example, lift/elevator, dustbin/garbage can, biscuit/cookie. But others, such as cot/baby's crib, flyover/vehicle overpass, fruit machine/one-armed bandit and coach/long-distance bus, less so.

Here are some other entries to be included in a new British English-American English dictionary, should anyone decide to compile one:

Leeway: wiggle room

Upgraded: bumped up

That's fine: that works

Upmarket: upscale

Scavenging: Dumpster diving

Pilot: jet jockey

Your account is overdue (or in arrears): Your account is delinquent.

When I was teaching English as a foreign language in Turkey in the early 1990s, I took over a class from an American colleague who originated from Virginia.

The class could not understand a word I said. It was painful. It took a good two weeks for them to become accustomed to the timbre and pitch of my voice, but once they had done so, they seemed to like it.

They asked me whether British English was better than American English. I replied that neither was better. It was simply what you were used to.

I cannot deny that, deep down, there must have been an element of cultural snobbery within me which really believed that the Queen's English was incomparable to anything else.

Indeed, Bryson takes the British to task for their superior attitude to language. He points out that America has introduced many words and expressions to the English language that either never existed in Britain or were in common usage in Elizabethan England but then died out.

Among the first category are words such as commuter, bedrock, snag, striptease, cold spell, gimmick, baby sitter, soggy, telephone, radio, hangover, joyride and notify.

Included within the second, are words such as to quit, to leaf through, maybe, fall (as in autumn), trash (as in rubbish, which was used in that sense by Shakespeare), mayhem, ragamuffin and homespun.

What do I think now after having lived in the States for 18 months? I have to say I am quite enjoying some of the Americanisms, including the eight listed above.

You Americans don't do finesse, but there is definitely something in the "Why use eight words when you only need two to get the message across?" school of thought.

And I do like your punchy alliterative phrases.

There is a serious side to all this though. If I, a native speaker, have difficulty communicating, think how hard it must be for those in America whose mother tongue is not English.

Let us always be patient and make allowances for people who do not know our language.

Harvey Burgess is a refugee legal advocate and writer. He is the author of Political Asylum from the Inside (World View Publications, Oxford 2001).

SOURCE : Citizen Pub. by courtesy of H. Burgess :)



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