If you’re a Brit, the title of this piece will have a completely different meaning than it does for an American. To an American, "I’m mad about my flat," means, "I’m very annoyed about the puncture to my car tyre." (Or should that be ‘car tire’?) To a Brit, on the other hand, it translates as, "I’m very excited about my apartment."
And then there are all the other phrases that are ripe for misunderstanding. If a Brit says somebody’s ‘pissed’, he or she means they’re very drunk. To be annoyed is to be ‘pissed off’.
On this side of the Atlantic, a ‘sorry ass’ is a donkey that’s feeling under the weather, a ‘fag’ is a cigarette, and I’d be extremely careful before you remark on the pertness of a young lady’s ‘fanny’, as you’re liable to get a proper smack in the mouth.
If someone ‘jacks’ your car over here, they’ve lifted it off its wheels rather than stolen it, although if you’ve had your wallet ‘lifted’ that does mean stolen. If a person is ‘lifting’, however, you might want to stay firmly upwind of them.
Confused? You will be.
Whoever said we are two people separated by a common language got that dead right – and I’m not just talking about the way words are spelt – or should that be spelled?
UK English is a real hotchpotch, a melting pot of words misheard and garbled over centuries, or just plain mugged from other languages. The English slang for a lavatory is ‘loo’, which apparently dates back to Elizabethan times. With no indoor plumbing, people kept a chamber pot under their bed for use during the night. To empty it, they’d simply open an upstairs window and fling the contents out into the street below, with a warning cry of severely mangled French "Gardez l’eau!" (Mind the water) to anyone unfortunate enough to be passing at the time. I blame the Norman Conquest meself.
US words and phrases have slipped under the radar into common usage. I’m more likely to say ‘guy’ than ‘chap’ or ‘bloke’, which might be considered altogether more English. But I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that an Englishman cannot open his mouth without another Englishman despising him. Thus, the subtle indicators of class signalled by the use of ‘what?’ or ‘pardon?’, ‘may I? instead of ‘can I?’, and ‘who’ rather than ‘whom’ can be real giveaways to social position and background.
Of course, today’s influence of US TV and film has caused a certain hybridisation of the language on this side of the Atlantic. It seems to me that if a US series is successful, we get it verbatim over here. But if a UK series is a big hit here, the idea is exported and the show tends to be remade for an American audience. Hence US versions of ‘Men Behaving Badly’ and ‘The Office’. Steve Carell may be very talented, but what was wrong with Ricky Gervais?
Not having watched these shows side by side, I’m not entirely sure why this was done. I get the impression that some people either think the whole of the UK is something out of ‘Jeeves and Wooster’, or alternatively it’s just like ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’, and there seems to be very little in between. We’re an uneasy mix of twee thatched cottages and inner city lager-lout mayhem. Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones might have done their bit to bring something of a genuine Cockney accent to a wider audience, but then you hear Don Cheadle’s frankly bizarre attempts in ‘Ocean’s 11/12/13’, and we’re straight back to Dick van Dyke’s cheerful Cock-er-ney chappie in ‘Mary Poppins’.
I’ve travelled a good deal in the US, and not just the usual tourist destinations. And more than the difference in language, I’ve found it’s speed and delivery that seems to cause the most problem. I had to learn to ask a question with a rising inflection in my voice, otherwise it would not be recognised as a question. And to speak a LOT slower. A friend once said that when she was tired we sounded just like the Peanuts parents from the Snoopy cartoons. And last time we were in the US we saw an interview on CNN with the baggage handler from Glasgow Airport who’d helped foil a terrorist attack. His Scottish accent was deemed so thick that they actually subtitled him.
Regional UK accents can cause problems all by themselves, and it’s not hard to see why utter confusion can arise. Take something simple like an endearment, for instance. In the East End of London, I’d be ‘dar-lin’ or ‘awright mate?’ In the West Country, ‘moy luvur’. In Liverpool, ‘laa’. In the Northeast, ‘pet’. In Scotland, ‘hen’. In the East Midlands, ‘me duck’. Whereas in parts of Lancashire it’s not unusual to hear two blokes call each other, ‘love’. And I haven’t even scratched the surface there, although I did discover a long time ago that the best way to disarm a Regimental Sergeant Major was to call him ‘petal’.
Setting a book outside your home territory is one of the biggest challenges for a writer, I feel. Not just in terms of geography, but of character and mind set. Writing convincing characters outside your home culture is a skill all by itself, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. The decision to move my main character to work mainly in the US was not taken lightly. But I wasn’t trying to write an entire book from inside the mind of a foreigner. Charlie’s a Brit and she remains resolutely so in her sense of humour, thought patterns, outlook and speech. The tricky part is always trying to get the US characters’ dialogue to ring true.
There are so many little subtleties in the use of language between us. In the US, someone would be ‘in the hospital’, would ask you to ‘write me’ or ‘call me’, might invite you to ‘go see a movie’, would learn about something ‘in school’. In the UK, you’d be ‘in hospital’, asked to ‘write to me’, or ‘give me a ring’, be invited to ‘go and see a film’, and would learn a subject ‘at school’. Dates are usually recorded day, month, year in the UK, not month, day, year (although I do mine like that, just to be awkward) and the first floor of a building is at ground level.
OK, now are you confused?
I was asked recently if I wrote differently for the US or UK markets, and as I’m doing my series for both at the same time, it has to be something I bear in mind. Mainly, though, I just use the words that spring to (Charlie’s) mind, and wait to have them queried. ‘Liquorice’ was one of the more surprising ones in THIRD STRIKE that I was asked to find an alternative for, I seem to remember. And ‘nip and tuck’ was suggested to mean a close result, which is a phrase that’s only familiar in the UK because of the US-import cosmetic surgery series of the same name. I’m fascinated to know if you’ve come across words that aren’t familiar, or been asked to find substitutes for ones that you thought would be self-explanatory.
One last thing, though. If you’re a Brit invited to someone’s home for a meal in the States, don’t ever offer to ‘lay the table’. It really doesn’t mean the same thing at all over there …
This week’s Word of the Week is hijack. Although it’s come to be associated mainly with airliners, the origins come from old English highwaymen, who would rob horse-drawn coaches at gun point, and of whom Dick Turpin was the most famous example. The traditional opening gambit to the occupants was a shout to "Hold ‘em high, Jack!" meaning everyone on board should stick their hands in the air while the robber took control.
PS This whole train of thought arrived when fellow ‘Rati, JT Ellison asked me if I wouldn’t mind reading through some of the dialogue for a UK character in her next book, EDGE OF BLACK. Having done so, I have one piece of advice – pre-order it NOW! It’s a terrific read and I can’t wait to get my hands on the finished version.