It never ceases to amaze me how England and America share many of the same opinions, but are so different when it comes to speaking the same language. I notice this difference when I travel through England or when my British friends visit me. At some point, one of us inevitably ends up translating words or phrases for the other.
As the result of several visits to England and reading the numerous books and blogs of many British writers, I consider myself reasonably fluent in that foreign language known as “British English.” (Don’t cry, readers from other parts of the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Canada and everywhere else. I still like your languages, too.) Even though I’m fluent, I still come across words that stump me and make me wonder how the heck they originated.
One case in point is the word “flannel.” In the U.S., this would be known as a washcloth, but in England, they call it a flannel. Maybe because the first washcloths were actually made from flannel? Possibly.
Then there’s the word “limey” (Possibly archaic by now? U.K. readers, need a little help here!) to describe a British person. I know this one. It comes from England’s navy — sailors didn’t have access to a lot of fresh fruit or vegetables, so they suffered from scurvy. Eating citrus fruits high in vitamin C, such as lemons and limes, cured that health problem.
There’s also “blokes” where Americans would say “guys,” “lorry” for a large truck, “Blimey!” as an expression of astonishment, “parky” for chilly (as in the weather) “anti-clockwise” for “counter-clockwise” and “skew-wiff” for out of kilter. I have no clue how those British words got going, but I love them anyway.
When they write American characters, most authors get it right and have their characters talk the way an American would talk. Others get it wrong. Scottish author Alistair MacLean, one of my favorite adventure writers, had some American characters in one of his books, Ice Station Zebra. This book has a scene at the beginning involving a British doctor needing to talk his way onto an American sub that is going to rescue people in the Arctic. An American officer and several crew members are assigned to watch the doctor until permission is granted to allow the doctor onboard. But I noticed that the Americans in this scene spoke the way Brits would talk. But apart from this tiny flaw, don’t let that put you off the book — it’s fun to read.
Britain also brings us great slang phrases, such as “a wash and a brush-up.” I love that phrase because there’s something that seems so cozy about it, for some reason I can’t really describe.
Sometimes even words our two countries have in common sound different when they’re spoken in a British accent. (Oh, quit snickering, Brit readers.) I once heard a British TV announcer say the word “controversy” but it stumped me at first because the announcer said it as “con-TRAW-ver-see.” An American says it as “CON-trow-ver-see,” you see.
But even despite the language difficulties (*giggles*), I still enjoy visiting the U.K. as often as possible. You’ve just got to love a country where people chase Gloucester cheese down a steep hill or have competitions where you take apart a cannon, move it over obstacles, fire it, take it apart again and go back to the beginning. What’s not to like?