Divided by a common language: bloggers’ guide

George Bernard Shaw, so they say, remarked that the British and Americans are two nations divided by a common language.  Now this is normally the time for a lot of tired jokes about "fanny", "fag" and "pants".  (We English think it is very funny when Americans talk about their pants).  But I shall rise above that.  One thing I’ve noticed living in the United States is that there are some words, and some ideas, which mean subtly different things on each side of the Atlantic – nuances you might not notice at first.

  • Holiday
    There doesn’t seem to be a word for this in the US. In Europe people take maybe 6 weeks a year of holiday.  Americans have two weeks of something called "vacation" which means they do their email with a blackberry instead of their PC.
  • Liberal
    An insult to many Americans but never in Europe. In the US, liberal means left wing and is associated with large-government. To Europeans, liberal means someone primarily concerned with freedom and choice, and is often associated with small government (q.v.)
  • Middle class
    When Americans talk about the middle class, they mean the middle class and below. Europeans mean middle class and above.  Europeans aspire to join the middle class; Americans aspire to leave it.
  • Privacy
    When Americans talk about whether the Constitution includes a right to privacy, they mean what Europeans would call freedom. For an American, privacy is whether you can do certain things (eg to have oral sex, anal sex, same-sex relationships, abortion, polygamy) without finding yourself in prison.  For Europeans, it is whether you can do these things without finding yourself in the newspapers.
  • Quite
    To Americans, this means "very". To the English, it means "not very". Which is quite an important distinction.  When Clinton said that Kerry would make "quite a good President", this was a compliment. It sounded to Europeans like an insult.
  • Small Government
      In America, this apparently means a Government small enough to fit in your bedroom.

Other contributions welcome in the comments section.

5 thoughts on “Divided by a common language: bloggers’ guide”

  1. To my ears ‘quite’ can mean either, and it depends more on the context, and especially on the intonation. So, where italics indicates stress,

    “John Kerry would make quite a good President” is a compliment, but

    “John Kerry would make quite a good President” is not.

    Owen replies: Quite so. (!) I meant to signal my recognition of this by saying that it is “quite” an important difference. We English seem to use “quite” to mean two quite (sorry) contradictory things … I think the Americans use it quite differently.

  2. It’s a little bit off topic (I don’t think there’s any difference here between US and UK usage?), but discussion of the contradictory usages of ‘quite’ suggests the following formulations, which I would hate to have to explain to students of English as a foreign language:

    1. Few people turned out to vote.

    2. A few people turned out to vote.

    3. Quite a few people turned out to vote.

    Weird, really.


  3. Me again. Back on topic: there are some nice examples of differing usages as between the two sides of the Atlantic at http://www.hintsandthings.co.uk/library/language2.htm, including the variation in the meaning of ‘pavement’. Most Brits would be horrified to be told to ‘drive on the pavement’. I take it that most Americans would be equally horrified to be told that the pavement is reserved for pedestrians. To your average Brit ‘sidewalk’ sounds like the walking equivalent of side-stroke in the water.

    A Brit visiting American friends for the weekend might be taken aback to be told that he’ll be sleeping in the cot in the children’s room.

    Other man-traps set for the unwary are ‘fag’ (or ‘faggot’, a kind of offal meatball in English) and ‘shag,’which can refer to a kind of carpet: hence ‘shaggy’, as well to a kind of rough pipe tobacco, but generally these days to a quite [sic] different kind of activity. I’m not sure whether it’s also American usage in the latter sense.

    And finally, as the newsreaders say over here at the end of the news bulletin:

    (Of England and America) ‘Two nations separated by a common language.’

    Sometimes the inquirer asks, ‘Was it Wilde or Shaw?’ The answer appears to be: both. In The Canterville Ghost (1887), Wilde wrote: ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’. However, the 1951 Treasury of Humorous Quotations (Esar & Bentley) quotes Shaw as saying: ‘England and America are two countries separated by the same language’, but without giving a source. The quote had earlier been attributed to Shaw in Reader’s Digest (November 1942).

    Much the same idea occurred to Bertrand Russell (Saturday Evening Post, 3 June 1944): ‘It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language’, and in a radio talk prepared by Dylan Thomas shortly before his death (and published after it in The Listener, April 1954) – European writers and scholars in America were, he said, ‘up against the barrier of a common language’.

    Inevitably this sort of dubious attribution has also been seen: ‘Winston Churchill said our two countries were divided by a common language’ (The Times, 26 January 1987; The European, 22 November 1991.)

    I confess that I had always thought it was Churchill. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations actually lists it under ‘Misquotations’, saying it’s attributed to Shaw ‘but not found in his published writings’, and referring also to the Wilde quotation (or ‘quote’?) mentioned above. I must say it sounds more Churchillian than Shavian or Wildean to my ear.


  4. In the North West towns like Preston, Wigan, Blackburn etc.. pants has the same meaning as the Americans use. We shouldn’t mock the Americans too much for bastardising ‘our language’ because on closer inspection we will find that a lot of it derives from 17th century English. It is us who have changed our usage. Bill Bryson goes into further detail about this in his book ‘mother tongue’.

    Owen replies: I certainly didn’t mean to sound as if I was sneering at our American cousins. I was revelling in the diversity, not mocking.

  5. I am a big fan of Bill Bryson but his book on American English is badly researched as well as being less funny than his usual product. Many of the usages he assumes to have developed in the US are to be found in the UK’s regions. A lot of American English can be traced to the poorer regions from which emigrants tended to come. Remaining differences can usually be explained by different usages having become archaic on either side of the Pond. Usages have changed in both countries, but during the long separation before the mass media reunited us, they changed in different ways.

    Having lived in Eastern Europe, I can also detect the influence of speech patterns from Slavic immigrants on certain variants of US English, as in “enough, already”.

    For some reason we seem to abbreviate from different directions, so “soda-pop” became soda in the US and pop in the UK, while “Autocar” became auto in the US and car in the UK. To be honest, I find the US approach to this more natural.

    I have worked with American business-people for years. I thoroughly enjoy all the misunderstandings. Their business jargon is often based on sport – or as they would say, sports – (“full court press”, “ballpark”) which confuses those who don’t work with them constantly. On the other hand, try getting any American to understand the full moral weight of the observation “That’s just not cricket.”

    I enjoyed telling an American client who was fond of accusing others of “not knowing shit from shinola” that, as he couldn’t tell me what “shinola” was, he clearly didn’t know shit from it either. It was a brand of boot-polish, by the way – as he might have guessed if not so flustered.

    The most interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it’s “one way.” We English see Hollywood movies and US TV shows and can take American English in our stride, Most of us really enjoy it. I have one Texan client for whom it’s a joy to work simply because he uses the most colo(u)rful expressions. I don’t know any old buffers who complain about “bastardising” the language. English is a great river with many tributaries and it is much enriched by new usages from all sources, not least Australia (but that’s another story).

    I once rewrote a report in American English at a client’s request and it was presented to the board of a US bank without detection of its alien origins. Our speech, however, leaves many Americans thoroughly confused. Someone commented years ago that Americans give the impression to English people of being deaf, since they answer “Excuse me?” to almost everything we say.

    Since (inexplicably, in my view) Americans find Ricky Gervaise funny, maybe he can open their ears to our provincial English usages?

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