Speaking in (Transatlantic) Tongues


I’ve always loved a good word. Accents, dialects and regional language differences* float my boat, too. So imagine my delight when I, a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not only met and married an American, but emigrated to the USA to live with her. What larks!

Things truly went off the charts when I started a job at an American workplace. Real live Americans talking like they do in films – All The Time! People telling me that I have ‘an accent’! Confusing everyone by pronouncing progress and produce so they don’t even know what I’m talking about!

One of my favo(u)rite American exchanges went something like this:

Guy in Walgreens: “I see you have an accent! Where you from?”
Me: “Have a guess.”
Guy in Walgreens: [beat, puzzled] Never heard of that place.

If only I had said ‘take a guess’, I’d have at least given the poor guy/chap a fighting chance. Instead, he thought I was some kind of son of Adam from the land of Avagess, where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe.

Of course, we’ve been confusing and misunderstanding each other since time immemorial. Or at the very least, since the occasion when the Brits threw all the tea into the harbo(u)r in a fit of pique when we realised the Americans were putting the milk in immediately after the hot water BEFORE THE TEA HAD EVEN HAD TIME TO BREW [steep] WHAT ARE YOU THINKING DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND THE BASIC CONCEPT OF THIS DRINK?

Back to the point. Everybody knows the classics – fries/chips/crisps, jam/jelly/jello, yadayadayada/blahblahbah. And let’s not forget everyone’s favo(u)rite: fanny pack and bum bag, who should by rights be a WWE tag team. But living in the US and hearing American English spoken all day, every day, throws up all sorts of little curiosities I’d never come across before, like:

– Americans have ‘last names’, but may be confused by ‘surnames’
– Americans eat using ‘silverware’ (including plastic silverware sometimes), and hardly ever ‘cutlery’
– ‘Quite’ always means ‘very’ in American English – in the UK, ‘quite’ usually means ‘slightly’, e.g. ‘quite good’ = mediocre; unless paired with a superlative, e.g. ‘quite splendid’ means it was truly splendid. OK, no-one really says splendid anymore in the UK, but they should.
– In the UK, ‘tank top’ is an American ‘sweater vest’; an American ‘tank top’ is a ‘vest’ or ‘singlet’ in the UK, and an American ‘vest’ is actually a ‘waistcoat’ in the UK. Got that? Me neither.
– You can’t say ‘in future’ in American English – has to be ‘in the future’, apparently. Who knew?
– Americans ‘cheer for’ or ‘root for’ a sports team – in the UK we ‘support’ them
– Americans can be ‘excited for’ something – this doesn’t happen that often in the UK anyway, but when it does we only get ‘excited about’ it

There are also great moments when pop culture references meet real life! Like the time I realised (yes, with an ‘s’) that the rapper Q Tip was named after ‘cotton buds’, rather than just having some kind of enigmatic initial + monosyllable alias. Or when I really did drive past a Stop & Shop, like Jonathan Richman in the song ‘Roadrunner” (see video below). Or when the Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar, and I was following the river down the highway through the cradle… wait, no. That last one didn’t happen.


Here’s a non-secret. A lot of British people get snotty about American English, and can have a condescending view of the US in general. Not so much Downton Abbey snotty – think more, The Clash’s “I’m So Bored With the USA”. Or maybe a bit of both. So for someone like me, when interacting with mixed groups of Americans and Brits, and wanting to be understood by both, a certain amount of anxiety creeps in.

What if my British friends judge me, and think I’ve turned to the dark side and want to talk like someone from The OC? But what if the Americans have no idea what I’m talking about?

This can lead to me saying things like ‘let’s meet in the caarrr paarrrkkk…ing lot?’ But as I’ve lived here a few years now, and hopefully shaken off some of my own old country prejudices/shoulder-chips about the US and American English, I think of myself as happily bilingual. In fact, there are some contexts where I favo(u)r American words and phrases.

Sometimes it’s because my real life experience of the topic has been exclusively in the States – like being a parent, or owning a house. So I’m much more likely to say “daycare, diaper and stroller” rather than “nursery, nappy and pushchair.” Or “wall anchor and junction box” instead of “rawl plug and fuse box.”

Fun baby vocab tangent: I often accidentally refer to a “pacifier” as a “diaper”. Here’s why: pacifier in the UK is ‘dummy’; my low-power-mode brain scrambles around for American baby-related words that also begin with the letter ‘d’, and comes up with something that’s quite different and, generally speaking, shouldn’t be put in a baby’s mouth.

Other times I default to American English because the version of the word is just better, or meets a linguistic need that British English doesn’t. For example, the phrase ‘all set’ – it took me a while to internalise [sic] that one, but it’s pleasing, efficient and crisp*, and there isn’t really a UK equivalent –good job, America!

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. If you love to geek out over this stuff, I highly recommend checking out @lynneguist’s blog, Separated by a Common Language. All together now: ‘You say potato…’

* Oxford commas consciously omitted

Have you noticed a big difference in the way people use the English language around the world? What are some examples?

2 thoughts on “Speaking in (Transatlantic) Tongues

  1. Mat C

    Welcome to the bean, kehd! You’ll notice locals talk wicked differently than what yah used to. Latah today we can make a packie run and tie one on at some southie bahs. My cousin Sully has a triple deckah ovah on Dot Ave and we can shoot some beruit before goin’ out! Couple-ah Jameo n gingahs with a few doubles of doctor mcgillicuddy will have us pretty tuned up!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. sarah-mei

    I learned so much! And I really, really like “pushchair” — it describes exactly how you move it and what it is! Let’s say that instead of “stroller” from here on out.


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